Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Villager by Tom Cox

The cover of Villager features an illustration in vivid greens and black of a small village nestled at the base of a hill
Image Description: The cover of Villager features an illustration in vivid greens and black of a small village nestled at the base of a hill

There’s so much to know. It will never end, I suspect, even when it does. So much in all these lives, so many stories, even in this small place.

Villages are full of tales: some are forgotten while others become a part of local folklore. But the fortunes of one West Country village are watched over and irreversibly etched into its history as an omniscient, somewhat crabby, presence keeps track of village life.

In the late sixties a Californian musician blows through Underhill where he writes a set of haunting folk songs that will earn him a group of obsessive fans and a cult following. Two decades later, a couple of teenagers disturb a body on the local golf course. In 2019, a pair of lodgers discover a one-eyed rag doll hidden in the walls of their crumbling and neglected home. Connections are forged and broken across generations, but only the landscape itself can link them together. A landscape threatened by property development and superfast train corridors and speckled by the pylons whose feet have been buried across the moor.

Tom Cox first came to my attention with his warm and amusing non-fiction books about life with his cats (Under the Paw; Talk to the Tail; The Good, the Bad, and The Furry; and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind). His subsequent moves, firstly into a form of nature writing that blended observations of the natural world with folklore, ghost stories, and amusing interludes from his dad (21st-Century Yokel, Ring the Hill and Notebook) and, later, into short fiction (Help the Witch), demonstrated both his range and his skill as a writer whose work defies easy categorisation.

Villager – Cox’s first novel – appears, on the surface at least, to comprise of a similar miscellany of interests, with the story ranging from the the early parts of the twentieth century through to the not-too-distant future, taking in Cox’s passions for music, nature, and folklore along the way. As a result the novel can, in the early portions at least, feel somewhat disjointed: closer to an interconnected short story collection than a cohesive narrative.

Stick with it, however, and Cox’s tale of a moor, a village, and several generations of its inhabitants, takes its reader on a kaleidoscopic and psychedelic but ultimately rewarding journey that reveals the subtle connections between a landscape and the people who inhabit it, and hints at the consequences that come about as a result of our increasing disconnect with the countryside that we inhabit.

Whilst the narrative structure requires readers to do a little legwork to draw out the connections, the individual voices within the chapters resonate with Cox’s trademark warmth and dry humour. Interspersed with the voice of ‘Me (Now)’, the novels moves between people and time periods to trace the overlapping and interweaving lives of the village of Underhill and its inhabitants, with a central thread following the arrival and impact of a washed-up Californian musician and the folk songs he leaves behind him.

Juxtaposing comedic observations of the mundane and wry pen portraits of village life with moments of insight into everything from human motivation to environmental impact, Cox’s writing is as layered as his narrative and I often found myself moving between laughter one moment and an uneasy melancholy in the next. Whilst some characters resonated with me more than others – I particularly liked the golf-obsessed teenager and the narrative of ‘Me (Now)’ – Villager offers such a varied plethora of voices that the narrative, although reflective and lyrical, never felt bogged down or meandering. Instead, the choral nature helped me to become more immersed into the novel as each new voice gradually reveals a segment of the wider narrative.

Villager is definitely not going to be a novel for everyone. The narrative structure and lyrical writing require some effort on the part of the reader, whilst the gentle pacing – especially at the novel’s start – requires some patience. Those new to Cox’s writing may prefer to start with his (excellent) short story collection, Help the Witch, or with some of the non-fiction writing on his (also excellent) blog to get a feel for his style prior to diving in. For fans of Cox’s work – and readers who enjoy lyrical, genre-defying fiction by writers such as Alan Garner – Villager is an ambitious, unique, and ultimately rewarding read.

Villager by Tom Cox is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery, as well as direct from the Unbound website.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

I supported Villager’s publication via Unbound however my thanks go to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 08 June 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Back from the Backlist · Reviews

BACK FROM THE BACKLIST!! The Corset by Laura Purcell

Image Description: The cover of The Corset is a dark blue with an embroidered peacock feather and a needle picked out in gold. In the centre of the peacock feather eye is the silhouette of a women in Victorian dress.

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Having read, reviewed and enjoyed all three of Laura Purcell’s other novels (The Silent Companions, Bone China, and The Shape of Darkness) I can only assume that I’ve been holding off on The Corset for fear of having no more of her deliciously dark Gothic goodness to read!

The Corset, Purcell’s second novel, alternates between the narratives of Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy philanthropist with a fascination in phrenology; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage seamstress sentenced to death for the brutal and calculated murder of her employer. Fixated on testing her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes, Dorothea at first is dismissive of Ruth’s own belief that her sewing needles hold a deadly power beyond her control. But as Ruth’s story unfolds – and it becomes apparent that this young woman may have more than one death on her hands – Dorothea begins to suspect that there may be more to Ruth’s plight than meets the eye.

Laura Purcell is so brilliant at capturing atmosphere in her work. From the refined confines of Dorothea’s family home to the sparsity of Ruth’s prison cell, the sense of both time and place drips from the page. Purcell’s writing is rich in description without ever becoming overblown, drawing the reader into the world of the characters.

And what a grim and dark world that is! Although Dorothea spends her days in a world of privilege and relative independence, her experience is sharply contrasted by that of Ruth. Coming from a background of genteel poverty, Ruth has known little but hardship in her short life. A natural seamstress, she is forced into labouring as an apprentice for the tyrannical dressmaker Mrs Metcalfe after a series of family tragedies. A seeming escape from penury, Ruth’s time at Mrs Metcalfe’s soon turns into a horrifying ordeal: one that may require use of her strange and disturbing powers to escape from.

To say any more about the plot of The Corset would be to spoil some of the shocking twists and thrilling turns of the narrative. Content warnings, however, for forced labour, forced confinement, imprisonment, child abuse, and murder.

I have to say that I was more drawn towards Ruth narrative – brutal though it is in places – and, at times, felt that some aspects of Dorothea’s story were a distraction rather than an addition to the central narrative thread. Dorothea’s interest in phrenology, for example, wasn’t explored as much as I had expected – although it did make a brilliant comeback towards the end! I also felt that the ending, although satisfyingly surprising, was a little rushed in terms of the way that it connected the two narratives together. In particular, Dorothea’s narrative strand took a sudden and somewhat unexpected turn that I felt could have been introduced and set up earlier on.

Ruth’s ‘power’ – an ability to transmit her feelings and intentions through her stitches – incorporates magical realist elements into the novel and I enjoyed the contrast between Ruth’s honest and fearful belief in this supernatural ability and Dorothea’s rational and scientific scepticism. I also found the supporting cast to be vividly drawn: Mrs Metcalf, in particular, is a a truly disturbing creation and it was easy to empathise with Ruth’s hatred of her. I also loved the way in which Laura Purcell uses narrative perspective to manipulate the reader into seeing characters through a particular lens, only for us to see them differently when viewed at a different angle. In a tale in which belief is central, it was interesting to have my beliefs and perceptions of several characters inverted at times!

Although not my favourite of her novels (I think The Silent Companions is still my number one), The Corset is another accomplished and page-turning gothic tale from Laura Purcell. Combining elegant and rich prose with a compelling narrative, it offers readers a creepily satisfying tale of murder, revenge, and the supernatural that enthrals right through to the very last page!

The Corset by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Requiem in La Rossa by Tom Benjamin

Image Description: The cover of Requiem in La Rossa features an image of Bologna with the sun streaming through the arches of a neoclassical building

In the sweltering heat of a Bologna summer, a murderer plans their pièce de résistance…

Only in Bologna reads the headline in the Carlino after a professor of music is apparently murdered leaving the opera. But what looks like an open-and-shut case begins to fall apart when English detective Daniel Leicester is tasked with getting the accused man off, and a trail that begins among Bologna’s close-knit classical music community leads him to suspect there may be a serial killer at large in the oldest university in the world.

And as Bologna trembles with aftershocks following a recent earthquake, the city begins to give up her secrets.

Confession Time: when I agreed to be part of the blog tour for Tom Benjamin’s Requiem in La Rossa, I didn’t realise that the novel was the third in a series. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up as I always like to begin a series of books with the first in the series. How glad I am, therefore, that I did not realise this as I’d have missed out on a fantastic crime novel that combines a skilfully crafted plot with a highly relatable protagonist and a fantastic sense of place.

Requiem in La Rossa is, it turns out, the third outing for Tom Benjamin’s English-born but Bologna-based private detective, Daniel Leicester, following on from A Quiet Death in Italy and The Hunting Season (both of which will, on the strength of this book, be going on to my TBR). Newcomers to the series need not worry, however, as the novel features an entirely standalone investigation focusing upon the sudden and unexpected death of a professor of music. But when Daniel is tasked with proving the accused man’s innocence, what appears to be an open-and-shut case of a mugging-gone-wrong soon leads him to suspect that a serial killer may be lurking in the midst of the city’s close-knit classical music community.

The author’s bio tells me that Tom Benjamin is himself a British ex-pat now living in Bologna and his familiarity with – and love for – his adopted city comes across on every page. Reading Requiem in La Rossa on a rainy May afternoon was akin to being transported into the heat of an Italian summer, listening to the bells of San Procolo whilst il vento della sera provides respite to the city’s overheated residents.

Which isn’t to say that Benjamin writes his novel as a tourist brochure: the darker side of the city is well-represented as Daniel’s investigation unveils accusations of professors taking bustarella (a bribe) in exchange for sought after conservatory places, and encounters some of the drug-addicts who mingle alongside the students and tourists at the edges of the Piazza Verdi. Whether describing Bologna’s sun-soaked beauty or it’s darker elements, Requiem in La Rossa has a fantastic sense of place that, for me, utterly immersed me in Daniel’s world.

I also really warmed to Daniel as a protagonist. I sometimes find myself bouncing off crime novels – and private detective novels in particular – because of clichéd ‘noir’ protagonists who, faced with challenging family or work circumstances, seek solace in drink, drugs, and/or violence. It was refreshing, therefore, to spend time with a detective who, despite the death of his wife, is surrounded by supportive family and friends, has a warm and loving relationship with his well-adjusted teenage daughter and, when he does encounter personal setbacks, deals with these in the manner of a reasonable – albeit fallible -adult human.

Whilst some of the elements of Daniel’s personal life and relationships are clearly hangovers from – or references to – earlier novels in the series, the details provided and ongoing interpersonal storylines made me intrigued to read the earlier books rather than feeling as if I was missing something crucial. Occasional scenes at the Faidate family home – particularly those featuring Daniel’s father-in-law and boss, The Commandante – made for a welcome break in the action and, at times, provided some light comic relief amidst all the murder.

Combing a stylishly written and well-plotted mystery with an engaging protagonist and an immersive sense of place, Requiem in La Rossa is a classic detective novel in the vein of P D James, Colin Dexter, and Donna Leon. Fans of detective fiction should definitely take this opportunity to jet off to sunny Italy and explore the streets of Bologna, whilst those who have already discovered the series are sure to enjoy this latest instalment.

Requiem in La Rossa by Tom Benjamin is published by Constable and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 18th May 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge

Image Description: The cover of The Carnival of Ash features the spires and towers of a Renaissance city set against a night sky. Flecks of ash and flame are in the air and the city is surrounded by coloured banners on which the title is written.

Cadenza is the City of Words, a city run by poets, its skyline dominated by the steepled towers of its libraries, its heart beating to the stamp and thrum of the printing presses in the Printing Quarter.

Carlo Mazzoni, a young wordsmith arrives at the city gates intent on making his name as the bells ring out with the news of the death of the city’s poet-leader. Instead, he finds himself embroiled with the intrigues of a city in turmoil, the looming prospect of war with their rival Venice ever-present.

A war that threatens not only to destroy Cadenza but remove it from history altogether…

Cadenza is the City of Words. Its Renaissance splendour comes from the spiralling towers of its many libraries whilst its taverns and streets sing with the lyrical offering of poets and thrum to the beat of the Printing Quarter’s presses. Even its shadows are filled with the scandalous offerings of the Ink Maids. revered and reviled in equal measure. Picking up Tom Beckerlegge’s adult debut, The Carnival of Ash, is to be drawn into this enthralling world, although I have to admit that, what I found when I arrived there wasn’t quite what I expected going in!

From the blurb, I was expecting a historical fantasy novel that followed young wordsmith Carlo Mazzoni as he becomes embroiled in the intrigues of Cadenza. The Carnival of Ash is, however, a more layered affair than the blurb would suggest. Divided into twelve cantos, each of which is told from the perspective of a different character, the world of Cadenza is instead gradually unveiled to the reader and, in the second half of the novel, the stories and characters begin to weave together to reveal a wider portrait of a city which threatens to destroy itself from within.

To be honest, this style threw me when I first began reading. The first half of the novel does, at times, feel like reading connected short stories more than a single coherent narrative and I did spend some time wondering when the wider plot would begin to emerge. And whilst I really liked the way in which the novel developed as an alternative history, filled with political intrigue, social nuance, and some light fantastical elements, I think anyone going into this book and expecting a fantasy along the lines of Caraval will be disappointed. Instead, The Carnival of Ash is more akin to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or The Night Circus, with its blend of history and magical realism, and its focus upon layered storytelling rather than pacy plot.

The Carnival of Ash is also a much darker book than I expected. The opening canto features a character who expresses suicide ideation at times whilst another early section contained some dubious sexual consent and emotional manipulation that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. Readers should also be aware that the book does feature some scenes of sexual and physical violence, references to torture, rape, blood, and murder, and some medical content. There are also several abusive families in the book and some of the characters express or demonstrate ableism, sexism, misogyny, and fatphobia. This really is a late medieval/Renaissance world portrayed in all its messy and problematic glory.

Personally, I didn’t mind the dark tone but I did have some issues with the way in which the female characters were described and treated at times. As a scholar of the Early Modern period, I am all too aware of the patriarchal structures of many Western medieval and Renaissance societies however, as an alternative history, it would have been nice to see revisions to this view. Whilst I loved the concept of the Ink Maids – literary courtesans who, for a fee, will write letters that fulfil a client’s wildest desires – I found the section told from the perspective of one of them, Hypatia, quite uncomfortable. Despite holding a position of prominence and power, Hypatia is portrayed as frail and delicate and she continues to be objectified by those around her. A woman being the target of both desire and violence is, unfortunately, far from unusual – and is a theme often explored in fiction – but I felt that the ‘short story’ aspect of the narrative worked against a full and nuanced exploration of these themes. As a reader, I didn’t get to stay with Hypatia long enough to feel that she became anything more than a symbolic object.

All of that said, I am glad I stuck with The Carnival of Ash. The writing, although dense, is undoubtedly beautiful and the way in which the city is portrayed really is enthralling. Tom Beckerlegge has created a marvellous alterative world and has peopled it with interesting characters who, as the book goes on, are revealed to have complex motivations and emotions. It also has some whip-smart dialogue and a fine line in gallows humour, especially from the character of the gravedigger, Ercole. Many of the uncomfortable elements are also revealed to be part of wider corruption within the city, and I do feel the author is deliberately exploring themes of power and depravity by highlighting these.

Ultimately, The Carnival of Ash was a bit of a marmite book for me. The premise, world-building, and writing is fantastic but the narrative structure of the ‘cantos’ made the first half of the novel feel disjointed and it did take some perseverance to make it through to the second half which, for me, was when the story really began to take flight. Whilst characters do gain dimensions as the book progresses, I also felt that in the early cantos some characters featured more as cyphers than as rounded and relatable people.

Readers who head into this book expecting a traditional SFF are likely to be disappointed as that isn’t what The Carnival of Ash offers. Fans of alternative historical fiction and literary magical realism, however, will find much to enjoy in this lush literary tale about a city of poets that never was.

The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge is published by Solaris/Rebellion Publishing and is available now from all good bookseller and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to The Write Reads for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour! There are lots of other reviews and spotlights on the tour so follow the hashtags #TheCarnivalOfAsh #TheWriteReads and #BlogTour.

Reviews and features on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! Other People Manage by Ellen Hawley

Image Description: The cover of Other People Manage features a residential street. A telegraph pole, with many wires coming from it, is a central feature.

It’s Minneapolis in the 1970s, and two women meet in the Women’s Coffeehouse. Marge is a bus driver, and Peg is training to be a psychotherapist.

Over the next twenty years, they stay together, through the challenges any couple faces and some that no one expects. Then one day things change, and Marge has to work out what she’s left with – and if she still belongs to the family she’s adopted as her own.

Other People Manage is a novel about hard-earned but everyday love. It’s about family and it’s about loss. It’s the kind of novel that only someone who has lived enough of life could write – frequently funny, at times almost unbearably moving, but above all extraordinarily wise.

Some novels resonate with you long after turning the final page. Other People Manage, the first novel by Ellen Hawley to be published in the UK, is definitely one such book, packing in far more emotional heft than might be expected within a relatively slender 199 pages.

Other People Manage follows the lives of Marge, a bus driver, and Peg, a therapist, as they negotiate love, work, family, and the other travails of everyday life. Opening when Marge and Peg first meet in the late 1970s, the novel follows them through the next twenty years as they face the challenges that any couple faces as well as the ones that no one expects. From the ex who threatens to destroy their relationship before it even gets started through to Peg’s flighty sister who walks out one day and abandons her children, Other People Manage is a novel about two people trying to do their best with what they’ve got.

As such, this is what I would term a ‘quiet’ novel. Although dramatic and significant events do happen, it’s a book that is focused primarily on the small moments of everyday life: the gestures that make meaning, the words we speak, and the feelings that drive them.

Other People Manage is told from Marge’s perspective and she makes for an unusual narrator who, although clearly emotionally fragile, relates her narrative with both dry and disinterest. This detachment was, initially, quite jarring – the novel reads, at times, as if looking through a window or watching actors on a stage – but it makes complete sense as this touching story of loss and loss unfolds.

This is not to say that Other People Manage is in any way badly written. Indeed, although the Marge’s narrative voice is detached – even bored at times – the writing remains lyrical and compelling. Small observations and minute gestures are noted and examined: held up to the light until they sparkle and shimmer before the reader. And there’s an tactility and tautness to the emotions portrayed; as I read I felt as if I was handling delicate and fragile things, capable of fracturing any moment.

Putting the experience of reading Other People Manage is challenging because it’s hard not to fall back on hyperbole: exquisite writing, delicate characterisation, devastating emotion. All I can say is that, for me, it’s a book I experienced as much read. I laughed when Marge and Peg laughed, cried when they cried, and experienced the gentle ups and steep declines of life alongside them. It won’t be a book for everyone but, if you have read and enjoyed Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These or J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, you’ll find a similar level of unassuming richness in the pages of Other People Manage.

Other People Manage by Ellen Hawley is published by Swift Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to Rebecca Gray for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Attic Child by Lola Jaye

Image Description: The cover of The Attic Child features a child’s head in profile against an orange backdrop. Inside the image is a house, in shades of purple, with the profile of another child in the attic window. Around the neck of the central child is a bone necklace.

Two children trapped in the same attic, almost a century apart, bound by a shared secret.

Early 1900s London: Taken from his homeland, twelve-year-old Celestine spends most of the time locked away in the attic of a large house by the sea. The only time Celestine isn’t bound by confines of the small space is when he is acting as an unpaid servant to English explorer Sir Richard Babbington, As the years pass, he desperately clings on to memories of his family in Africa, even as he struggles to remember his mother’s face, and sometimes his real name . . .

1974: Lowra, a young orphan girl born into wealth and privilege whose fortunes have now changed, finds herself trapped in the same attic. Searching for a ray of light in the darkness of the attic, Lowra finds under the floorboards an old-fashioned pen, a porcelain doll, a beaded necklace, and a message carved on the wall, written in an unidentifiable language. Providing comfort for her when all hope is lost, these clues will lead her to uncover the secrets of the attic.

Although I’ve read a number of novels that explore the varied legacies of Britain’s more recent history, I’m very aware that large gaps remain in my knowledge of my country’s colonial past. Based upon photographs of Ndugu M’Hali – a young African boy taken from his homeland against his will to be a ‘companion’ to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley – Lola Jaye’s The Attic Child uses the duel narratives of Dikembe and Lowra to tell a remarkable and heart-rending story of trauma and displacement that illuminates an oft-overlooked legacy of colonialism.

Alternating between the early 1900s and the mid-1990s, The Attic Child follows the interconnected stories of Dikembe – renamed Celestine by his British ‘benefactor’, Sir Richard Babbington – and Lowra, a young woman who has come into an unexpected – and unwanted – inheritance following the death of her estranged stepmother. What unites them is a house: 109 Ranklin Road. Or, more specifically, the attic room of 109 Ranklin Road where, under different but equally traumatic circumstances, Lowra and Dikembe find themselves spending much of their time.

Uncovering the connections between these two characters takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey across both continents and time, moving from the Belgium occupation of the so-called ‘Congo Free State’ (in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo) – and the ruthless exploitation of native peoples that followed – to the museums of contemporary Britain: and to the legacies of occupation and mistreatment that the objects within them all-too-frequently represent.

Saying any more about the plot of The Attic Child would be to spoil the gradual unfolding of the tangled connections that link Dikembe and Lowra however, amidst what is often a challenging and brutal tale of survival and loss, Lola Jaye has also managed to weave a remarkable story of hope. Though The Attic Child is unflinching in its depictions of what its protagonists have to endure (content warnings for death of a parent, death of siblings, murder, child loss, child abuse, sexual abuse, racial stereotyping/slurs, and racism), it is also a powerful story of identity, belonging, love, and family.

Combining a deeply emotive story with evocative descriptions of time and place, The Attic Child is a powerful read that demands the attention of its reader. I was fascinated – and, due to the nature of the experiences Dikembe undergoes, also horrified – to learn that Dikembe is inspired by a real child, Ndugu M’Hali, who became a ‘companion’ to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. The novel also illuminates a grim period of Congolese history by examining the brutality of life under the regime of King Leopold II of Belgium. Finally, the book speaks powerfully to current debates about the commemoration and interpretation of the national past and, in particular, the colonial and imperial past.

As you can probably tell, The Attic Child is packing a lot into its narrative and, even at 464 pages, there were times – especially towards the end of the book – where I felt as if I wanted a little more detail. On occasion, the narrative jumps several months or even years, before moving into sections where events are described in more detail and slowly. This meant that, for me, the pacing was a little uneven although the narrative held my interest in spite of this and, despite it being a relatively chunky book, I finished The Attic Child in just over a week.

An unflinching and emotive read, The Attic Child is a movingly told and emotive story about the personal legacies of colonialism. Set against a fascinating backdrop and with two interesting lead characters, the novel is sure to appeal to fans dual-narrative historical fiction as well as to anyone interested in knowing more about Britain’s hidden histories and colonial connections.

The Attic Child by Lola Jaye is published by Pan Macmillan and is available to purchase now from all good bookstores and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 18th May 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle

Image Description: The cover of A Fatal Crossing has the gold outline of a ship against a rough sea. The cover has Art Deco-style edging and the tag line ‘A ship full of suspects. Two Detectives. One Killer.’

November 1924.

The Endeavour sets sail from Southampton carrying 2,000 passengers and crew on a week-long voyage to New York.

When an elderly gentleman is found dead at the foot of a staircase, ship’s officer Timothy Birch is ready to declare it a tragic accident. But James Temple, a strong-minded Scotland Yard inspector, is certain there is more to this misfortune than meets the eye.

Birch agrees to investigate, and the trail quickly leads to the theft of a priceless painting. Its very existence is known only to its owner . . . and the dead man.

With just days remaining until they reach New York, and even Temple’s purpose on board the Endeavour proving increasingly suspicious, Birch’s search for the culprit is fraught with danger.

And all the while, the passengers continue to roam the ship with a killer in their midst . . .

With it’s 1920s setting and closed-community premise, there’s more than a whiff of Agatha Christie about A Fatal Crossing, the debut crime novel from Tom Hindle. However, whilst the stylings may be classic crime fiction, this transatlantic mystery soon ventures into thriller territory with a shady detective, a dash of mob violence, and a final twist that will leave reader’s gasping!

When the crumpled and rain-soaked body of an elderly man is found dead at the bottom of a companionway after a stormy night, the majority of the passengers and crew aboard the steamship Endeavour believe it to be a tragic accident. Certainly the ship’s captain, McCrory – two days into his retirement voyage and only four days out of New York – is all too happy to set the matter aside as swiftly as possible. So when obstinate Scotland Yard detective James Temple is insistent upon investigating the death, McCrory demands that ship’s officer Timothy Birch accompany him.

Taciturn, reclusive, and largely ostracised from the rest of the crew, Birch makes for an unusual companion for the brash and fiery Temple and, sure enough, it isn’t long before the two butt heads over Temple’s confrontational investigative style. However, when it emerges that the elderly gentleman was an art dealer travelling under a false name – and that a rare painting was stolen on the night of his death – Birch has to reluctantly admit that Temple might be onto something. As the investigation progresses and another death occurs, Birch and Temple must work together to catch a deadly killer. But with both detectives keeping secrets of their own and the Endeavour steaming across the Atlantic towards New York, can they complete their investigation before time – and their tempers – run out?

Personally, I found both Birch and Temple to be quite challenging characters to spend time in the company of. Both men are keeping secrets that, over the course of the novel, gradually emerge to become part of the wider story and that do, eventually, make them slightly more sympathetic but I have to admit that, even after these revelations, I struggled to warm to either of them. Temple, in particular, felt a little two-dimensional and both men were capable of rapid and irrational mood swings that, at times, felt as if they were serving the plot rather than ensuring well-rounded characterisation.

I also found the writing somewhat awkward at times, with Birch in particular obsessing over – and repeating – certain facts. As an example, once he realises that character possesses a revolver – and begins to worry about what might be done with it – it gets mentioned three times in the space of two pages and several more times over the course of subsequent chapters. Although this is a relatively minor niggle in the grand scheme of things, it was something that, once noticed, I couldn’t un-notice!

This was a great shame as the plotting really doesn’t need this heavy-handed signposting. Indeed, the intriguing plot and the eclectic cast of side characters is what kept me reading and preventing A Fatal Crossing from becoming a DNF. There’s some brilliant misdirection, plenty of subtle red herrings and, as I mentioned at the start of my review, a fantastic twist in the tale that I definitely didn’t see coming!

I also really enjoyed the sense of time and place that Hindle conveys. From the quiet luxury of the first-class cabins to the hubbub of the third-class common areas and the sparse utility of the officer’s quarters, A Fatal Crossing conveys a real sense of life on-board a luxury liner, and hints at the wider political and social concerns in 1920s Britain and America.

Although not every aspect of this novel landed with me, I’m glad that I stuck with A Fatal Crossing – and I’d definitely read more by Tom Hindle in the future. Although the characters didn’t quite gel for me, the impressive plotting and regular twists and turns kept me reading and the ending, although definitely pushing at the boundaries of plausibility, was certainly unexpected! Fans of historical mysteries are sure to find a lot to enjoy here, especially if they don’t mind exploring the darker side of human nature and enjoy their Golden Age crime with a thrilling twist.

A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle is published by Century and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher, to NetGalleyUK, and to the Motherload Book Club for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Spotlight

BLOG TOUR SPOTLIGHT!!! May Day by Josie Jaffrey

Today I’m on The Write Reads Blog Tour for Josie Jaffrey’s May Day, the first in her ‘Seekers’ series of urban fantasy novels set in Oxford and the WINNER of the Book Bloggers Novel of the Year Award (BBNYA) 2021!!

Image Description: The cover of May Day depicts a young woman looking at a castellated tower. The cover is an eerie red.

About the Book

If the murderer you’re tracking is a vampire, then you want a vampire detective.

Just maybe not this one.

It’s not that Jack Valentine is bad at her job. The youngest member of Oxford’s Seekers has an impressive track record, but she also has an impressive grudge against the local baron, Killian Drake.

When a human turns up dead on May Morning, she’s determined to pin the murder on Drake. The problem is that none of the evidence points to him. Instead, it leads Jack into a web of conspiracy involving the most powerful people in the country, people to whom Jack has no access. But she knows someone who does.

To get to the truth, Jack will have to partner up with her worst enemy. As long as she can keep her cool, Drake will point her to the ringleaders, she’ll find the murderer and no one else will have to die.

Body bags on standby.

About the Author

Josie is a fantasy and historical fiction author who writes about lost worlds, dystopian societies and paranormal monsters (vampires are her favourite). She has published multiple novels and short stories. Most of those are set in the Silverse, an apocalyptic world filled with vampires and zombies.

She’s currently working on vampire murder mysteries (the Seekers series) and a YA series centred around Atlantis and the lost civilisations of the Mediterranean (the Deluge series). Researching the latter is the first time she’s used her Classics degree since university.

​Josie lives in Oxford with her husband and two cats (Sparky and Gussie), who graciously permit human cohabitation in return for regular feeding and cuddles. The resulting cat fluff makes it difficult for Josie to wear black, which is largely why she gave up being a goth. Although the cats are definitely worth it, she still misses her old wardrobe.

To learn more about Josie and her work you can visit her website at https://www.josiejaffrey.com. In addition to information about both backlist and forthcoming books, you can read a FREE story, become a member of Josie’s readers club, and sign up to join Josie’s reviewers list!

Find Out More!

May Day won the Book Bloggers Novel of the Year Award 2021, an indie book award that is solely judged by a diverse panel of book bloggers. BBNYA aims is to give under appreciated authors a chance to get the recognition they deserve without being overshadowed by the big names – and May Day proved to be a big hit with 2021’s panel!

Over on Goodreads, blogger and book reviewer V L Book Reviews praised it as ‘a highly recommendable read’ that offers ‘an intriguing slew of characters, compelling groundwork, incriminating intrigue with an operative fit to smite the status quo’ (see the full review), whilst Ellie from Read to Ramble said she was ‘hooked’ as soon as she started (see the full review)!

I was lucky enough to read an extract of May Day during BBNYA and, although fantasy isn’t my usual go-to genre, I loved the premise of a vampire murder mystery series. With so many excellent reviews from readers – and the second book in the Seekers series, Judgement Day also now available – I’m seriously contemplating get this on my TBR!

You can also find out more about Josie’s work by following her on Twitter.

May Day by Josie Jaffrey is published by Silver Sun Books and is available both as an ebook and a paperback from Amazon. Signed copies can also be purchased direct from Josie via her website.

My thanks go to The Write Reads for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour! There are lots of other reviews and spotlights on the tour so follow the hashtags #MayDay #TheWriteReads and #BlogTour.

Reviews and features on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Mr Bunting at War by Robert Greenwood

Image Description: The cover of Mr Bunting at War has an illustration of an older gentleman, dressed for work in a suit and bowler hat and holding a briefcase. He is standing in front of a bomb-damaged suburban house.

George Bunting, businessman, husband and father, lives a quiet life at home in Laburnam Villa in Essex, reading about the progress of the war in his trusty Siren newspaper and heading to work every day at same the warehouse where he has been employed for his entire adult life. Viewed with an air of slight amusement by his three children, Mr Bunting’s war efforts comprise mainly of digging for victory and reluctantly erecting a dugout in the garden. But as the Second World War continues into the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain rages in the skies and the bombs begin to reign down on London, this bumbling ‘everyman’ is forced to confront the true realities of the conflict. He does so with a remarkable stoicism, imbuing him with a quiet dignity.

This reprint of a 1941 classic includes an introduction from IWM putting the work in historical context and shedding a light on the wartime experiences of the quiet ‘everyman’ and his family on the British Home Front: He was not brilliant, nor heroic, but there was one thing he could do – endure. He could stick it out right to the end. It was the one thing he was good at, and it happened to be almost his sole duty. 

Having read and very much enjoyed several of the British Library Crime Classics series, I was intrigued to discover the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics. Originally released to considerable acclaim, the novels in this series were all written either during or just after the Second World War and, prior to re-publication by the Imperial War Museum, were out of print. Each novel is written directly from the author’s own experience of the Second World War and the series therefore aims to showcase books that take the reader right into the heart of the conflict.

As Alan Jeffreys says in his enlightening introduction to Robert Greenwood’s Mr Bunting at War, the latest classic to be reissued in the series, we frequently read or study the literary legacies of the First World War. The poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon is on many a syllabus whilst Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is considered a modern classic. Yet the novels of the Second World War are, in comparison, often forgotten.

Mr Bunting at War, first published in 1941, is a sequel to Robert Greenwood’s earlier novel Mr Bunting (1940), which introduced us to George Bunting, his wife Mary, and their three children: Chris, Ernest, and Julie. Having not read the earlier novel, which depicts the Bunting family’s life in the 1930s, I was worried that I might struggle to engage with the sequel but Mr Bunting at War operates perfectly successfully as a standalone novel.

At the beginning of the book Mr Bunting has, owing to wartime staff shortages, returned to his former work as a manager in the ironmongery section of Brockleys in London, leaving his wife Mary to look after the family home. Sons Chris and Ernest are, initially, involved in running small businesses although both are contemplating whether, as young men of fighting age, they have a duty to enlist and support the war effort in more overt ways. Daughter Julie, meanwhile, is looking for employment after her previous boss enlisted to fight.

Thus we have a depiction of the quintessential nuclear family for whom, at the start of the novel, the war is but a minor inconvenience in their more significant life plans. As the novel progresses, however, and the German forces advance rapidly through the Netherlands, Belgium and France, the sound of air raid sirens shatter the silence of suburban Kilworth and the war steps ever closer to the Bunting family’s previously quiet existence within Laburnam Villa.

Mr Bunting at War is what you might call a ‘quiet’ novel, telling the story of an ordinary suburban family in a similar vein to R C Sheriff’s The Fortnight in September. There are few showy set pieces or sudden dramatic turns and, for the most part, the focus remains on the everyday activities and conversations of Mr Bunting, stoically keeping calm and carrying on. Over the course of the novel, however, I came to like and admire the Bunting family and their stoicism, and the novel gave me cause to reflect on the harsh realities of everyday life on the Home Front.

Mr Bunting, in particular, moves from being a faintly ridiculous figure – pottering around cleaning the family gas masks and seeking his neighbour’s advise on how to make his garden soil ‘friable’ so he can Dig for Victory – to being a quietly dignified father, friend, colleague and neighbour who, in his own quiet way, is determined to do what he can for the war effort.

Alan Jeffrey’s introduction to this new edition of Mr Bunting at War provides some useful historical context for the novel’s timeline although, readers beware, it does also contain a fairly major plot spoiler about the fate of one of the central characters.

As you might expect of a novel published in wartime, there are elements of popular jingoism in Mr Bunting at War, with its depiction of an ordinary man keeping calm and carrying on even whilst the first bombs of the London Blitz begin to fall around him. However the novel does not romanticise Home Front life. The economic deprivations of the Second World War are made abundantly apparent from the outset and, as the novel progresses, the Bunting family and their circle of friends will not be immune to casualties.

When I agreed to be part of this blog tour I was slightly worried that, not being a huge fan of ‘military’ books, Mr Bunting at War wouldn’t be for me. However, with its focus on a relatable everyday family caught up in extraordinary times, I found it to be a compelling and emotional read that offered a slice of life in Home Front Britain. Anyone who has enjoyed modern Home Front novels – such as Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch – would, I feel, find this contemporary description of wartime life interesting whilst lovers of classics such as The Fortnight in September will also find much to enjoy in this quietly rewarding tale.

Mr Bunting at War by Robert Greenwood is published by Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. You can also support the work of the Imperial War Museum by ordering direct from their website.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 21st April 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Dread Wood by Jennifer Killick

Image Description: The cover of Dread Wood has four young people silhouetted against a backdrop of a school and its playing fields. The school is surrounded by woodland. In the foreground, some rather large spiders are creeping closer…

Turn the lights out. Lock the door. Things are about to get SERIOUSLY SCARY!

It’s basically the worst school detention ever. When classmates (but not mate-mates) Hallie, Angelo, Gustav and Naira are forced to come to school on a SATURDAY, they think things can’t get much worse. But they’re wrong. Things are about to get seriously scary.

What has dragged their teacher underground? Why do the creepy caretakers keeping humming the tune to Itsy Bitsy Spider? And what horrors lurk in the shadows, getting stronger and meaner every minute . . .? Cut off from help and in danger each time they touch the ground, the gang’s only hope is to work together. But it’s no coincidence that they’re all there on detention. Someone has been watching and plotting and is out for revenge . . .

Since entering the sunny uplands of (ostensible) adulthood, I haven’t read either a ton of Middle Grade fiction or a great deal of horror. Which is somewhat surprising because, when I was kid, I loved scaring myself witless with a good Goosebumps book and, as a teenager, Point Horror books were my jam. Reading Dread Wood, Jennifer Killick’s latest Middle Grade horror novel, brought these tween and teenage scares crashing straight through my pretence at adulthood and reminded me that, no matter how old you are, there’s nothing like things that go bump in the night (or, in this case, go skittering around in the dark) for keeping the pages turning!

The last thing Angelo, Naira, Gus, and Hallie want to be doing on a Saturday morning is spending time with their oh-so-cheery teacher Mr Canton at a ‘back on track’ detention. But given that they all played a part in the great Dread Wood cafeteria riot, they don’t have much of a choice. When their teacher is apparently ‘eaten’ by a hole in the ground, however, it soon becomes apparent that this detention just might turn out to be deadly. Before long, the quartet are forced to become unlikely allies as they confront creepy caretakers, secret passageways, and subterranean horrors.

I was drawn into Dread Wood within just a few pages thanks to Jennifer Killick’s perfect balance between sinister foreboding, creepy mystery, and genuinely witty humour. The sparky dialogue and verbal quips exchanged between Angelo, Naira, Gus, and Hallie had me laughing out loud at many points, as did the attempts of their hapless teacher, Mr Canton, to be ‘down with the kids’. Combined with the development of a genuine friendship between the unlikely quartet, the jokes helped to take the edge off what is otherwise a genuinely creepy story of ‘monster’ proportions.

Without giving too much away (and nothing that can’t be inferred from a close examination of the cover), Dread Wood offers plentiful scares of the eight-legged variety. However, as a self-confessed arachnophobe, I can testify to Dread Wood‘s horror elements providing a healthy dose of scares without too much accompanying trauma. In fact, I learnt a number of very interesting facts about my eight-legged nemeses and came out of the book with a newfound and healthy respect for such remarkable creatures (albeit not a respect that extends to allowing them to live in my house).

Erring on the side of gripping and creepy rather than outright horror, Dread Wood has plenty of twists and turns – as well as lots of cliff-hanger chapter endings – to keep up the pace whilst the ending, although both reassuring and rewarding, hints at further adventures to come for Angelo and Co.

Offsetting the scares with a good dose of humour, this lively story of one very deadly detention is packed full of unlikely friendship and formidable foes. Offering a page-turning plot that doesn’t shy away from the scares, Dread Wood is a perfect read for 9-12 year olds looking for a fun but creepy mystery – or big kids looking to re-live those Goosebumps vibes!

Dread Wood by Jennifer Killick is published by HarperCollins Farshore and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to The Write Reads for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 20th April 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!