Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Image Description: The cover of Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice features a fox with a ‘burglar’-style mask over its eyes

It’s the following Thursday.

Elizabeth has received a letter from an old colleague, a man with whom she has a long history. He’s made a big mistake, and he needs her help. His story involves stolen diamonds, a violent mobster, and a very real threat to his life.

As bodies start piling up, Elizabeth enlists Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron in the hunt for a ruthless murderer. And if they find the diamonds too? Well, wouldn’t that be a bonus?

But this time they are up against an enemy who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off four septuagenarians. Can The Thursday Murder Club find the killer (and the diamonds) before the killer finds them?

Having had a ton of fun reading Richard Osman’s quintessentially-British crime caper The Thursday Murder Club last year, I pre-ordered The Man Who Died Twice, eager to see what Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim got up to next.

Picking up on the following Thursday, The Man Who Died Twice sees the Thursday Murder Club gang rapidly embroiled in yet another mystery when former spy Elizabeth receives a letter from her charming but feckless ex-husband Douglas. MI5 operative, womaniser, and possible diamond thief, Douglas’s life is now under threat from the New York mafia, deadly international money launderer, Martin Lomax, and shadowy operatives from within the security services themselves.

Add in a vicious mugging that leaves one of the TMC gang in hospital, a local drug dealer keen to get into the international market, and the unwarranted attention of Douglas’s MI5 handlers, and the four friends are soon embroiled in yet another offbeat adventure of epic proportions – one that has plenty of gentle nods to the spy-thriller genre.

As was the case with its predecessor, The Man Who Died Twice manages a perfect balance between charming comedic adventures, head-scratching mysteries, and gently poignant reflections on aging, loneliness, friendship, death, and regret. The violent attack on one of the TMC’s own is particularly well executed, managing to convey the devastating mental and physical impact of the incident upon the victim whilst also showing the deep love and friendship that has developed between the key characters – and the extremes they will go to in order to ensure that the perpetrator doesn’t get away with his crime!

So much of the appeal of this series is in Osman’s tone, which perfectly captures the warmth and wit of the characters whilst being unafraid to confront the realities of aging. From Elizabeth’s fears for her husband Stephen, now suffering with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, to DCI Chris Hudson’s struggles with weight and fitness and his colleague PC Donna De Freitas’s loneliness, The Man Who Died Twice deals with all of them head on without ever losing the lightness of touch and warmth that categorises the book as a whole.

The other major appeal of this series is the characters. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim are an absolute delight but Osman has also created an appealing supporting cast, many of whom make return appearances from The Thursday Murder Club. The ever-reliable jack-of-all-trades Bogdan remains one of my favourite characters (and gets some scene-stealing lines and moments in this book), whilst Donna’s mum Patrice – who is now dating Donna’s boss, Chris – and Ron’s precocious grandson Kendrick make welcome additions to the growing cast of characters at Coopers Chase Retirement Community.

It was also nice to get a little more background into the members of the TMC themselves. Ron and Ibrahim are both given a little more to do in this second outing, whilst some of Elizabeth’s sharp edges are smoothed out as the shadows of her past come into the light. And Joyce? Well, Joyce continues to be Joyce – which is definitely no bad thing given how much fun she is!

Whilst I’d strongly recommend starting with The Thursday Murder Club if you’re new to the series (mainly because it is great but also because it’s a perfect introduction to the characters), The Man Who Died Twice is a standalone mystery that is sure to delight both new and returning fans, and definitely proves that The Thursday Murder Club was more than just a flash-in-the-pan hit. Osman has confidently built upon the solid foundations of the first book to develop his returning characters whilst offering readers another head-scratching mystery with the same page-turning propulsion of the original. I’m already eagerly awaiting the next outing for his septuagenarian sleuths!

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is published by Penguin Viking and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, 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

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 Lighthouse Witches by C. J. Cooke

Image Description: The cover of The Lighthouse Witches has a red and gold lighthouse against a black backdrop. Wave-like foiled detailing swirls all around the lighthouse. Above it, the moon glows against the darkness.

Upon the cliffs of a remote Scottish island, Lòn Haven, stands a lighthouse.

A lighthouse that has weathered more than storms.

Mysterious and terrible events have happened on this island. It started with a witch hunt. Now, centuries later, islanders are vanishing without explanation.

Coincidence? Or curse?

Liv Stay flees to the island with her three daughters, in search of a home. She doesn’t believe in witches, or dark omens, or hauntings. But within months, her daughter Luna will be the only one of them left.

Twenty years later, Luna is drawn back to the place her family vanished. As the last sister left, it’s up to her to find out the truth . . .

But what really happened at the lighthouse all those years ago?

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll probably have realised that my reading taste is heavily skewed in favour of the Gothic, especially during the autumn and winter seasons. So when the blog tour invite for C. J. Cooke’s The Lighthouse Witches landed in my inbox – with its isolated setting, spooky setting (The Longing – was there ever a better name for a creepy abandoned lighthouse?), and promise of historical witchy mystery – I sensed Shelf of Unread catnip and signed on up!

When struggling single mother Liv is commissioned to paint a mural in The Longing, a 100-year-old lighthouse on the remote Scottish island of Lòn Haven, she sees it as an opportunity for a fresh start for her and her three daughters – fifteen-year-old Sapphire, nine-year-old Luna, and seven-year-old Clover. But all is not as it seems on Lòn Haven. Local legend says The Longing is built above a cave used to imprison and torture local women accused of witchcraft, and there are tales of Wildlings – supernatural creatures mimicking human children – wandering the local woodland.

Twenty-two years later, Luna is the only member of the Stay family still left. Now pregnant with her own child, she is left haunted by her time on Lòn Haven. All Luna knows is that she was found, apparently abandoned, in the woods near The Longing. Her sisters and mother have been missing ever since. So when Luna gets a call to say that Clover has been found, she is overjoyed at the thought of reuniting with her sister and discovering what happened on Lòn Haven all those years ago. Indeed, Clover is exactly the sister Luna remembers: she is, in fact, still the seven-year-old girl who vanished into the night all those years ago. How can Clover have been missing for so long yet not aged a day? Could there be more to the tales of Wildlings and witches’ curses than Luna believes? One thing is certain: Luna will have to return to Lòn Haven – and to The Longing – to find out.

I really loved the way that history and folklore is woven through every strand of this book. Like all good folk tales, there are a number of elements (such as the re-emergence of a still-seven-year-old Clover) that require you to suspend your disbelief and just roll with the story, but it is the premise for a brilliant mystery that is founded upon the (very real) history of the Scottish witch trials and the appalling fate of many of the the Scottish ‘witches’. C. J. Cooke has very cleverly woven this folklore into a tale of contemporary life – of mother/daughter tension, teenage rebellion, the bond between sisters, and the fraught paths that young women navigate as they move from childhood to adolescence and beyond.

Whilst I did initially find the structure a little confusing – the book switches between Luna in the present day, the perspectives of Liv and Sapphire in 1998, and a third, older perspective with some characters appearing across multiple timelines – perseverance paid off and I became thoroughly engrossed in the mystery of Lòn Haven and in discovering exactly what had happened to Liv, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover all those years ago.

C. J. Cooke perfectly realises the isolated loneliness of The Longing and infuses even the smallest of gestures and symbols with a creeping atmosphere of suspicion and claustrophobia – which makes for an intense and page-turning reading experience! Characters are also really well conveyed – from Liv’s watchful desperation to the haughty resentment and anxiety of teenager Sapphire, I really felt as if I was in their shoes when reading. And whilst many of the characters make what can be termed ‘poor life choices’, I felt really sympathy for the predicaments that they found themselves within – and for their inadvertent entanglement with forces beyond their control.

I did have a couple of issues with the logic of The Lighthouse Witches at times. I find it quite hard to believe that any police force or social services team would release a seven-year-old child so soon after her rediscovery – especially since this little girl has been missing for two decades, can’t explain where she’s been, and apparently hasn’t aged a day. At times like this, the magical elements of the story don’t quite line up with the realism of the situation and, for a moment or two, it jolted me out of the world of the novel. This is, I admit, logical nit-picking – as I said at the start of this review, folk tales often require you to suspend your disbelief and, as this novel uses folklore for much of its base, its unsurprising to find that the book requires the occasional leap of faith from its readers. But if you do like all your plotlines wrapped up with logical explanations, consider yourself forewarned.

Overall, however, I found The Lighthouse Witches to be a compelling, unsettling, and enchanting read. C. J. Cooke has expertly woven folklore and history into her contemporary tale to create a modern thriller suffused with the claustrophobic and chilling atmosphere of a classic Gothic novel. With its wonderfully evocative setting and relatable, flawed characters, The Lighthouse Witches provided a page-turning and atmospheric read that is sure to delight fans of Cooke’s previous work – and to garner her plenty of new ones too.

The Lighthouse Witches by C. J. Cooke is published by HarperCollins 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 21 October 2021 so 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!

Extracts · Guest Post

GUEST POST!! How I Write Fiction by poet & novelist Laura Stamps

I have something a little different to share with you on The Shelf today – a guest post from poet, short story writer, and novelist Laura Stamps in which she shares her process for writing fiction, as well as sharing an extract from her latest novella!

Laura is the author of novels, novellas, flash fiction collections, and poetry books. Nothing makes her happier than playing with words and creating new forms of fiction.

Her latest novella It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania (Alien Buddha Press) just came out (September 2021). Laura is the winner of the Muses Prize, as well as the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize nomination and 7 Pushcart Prize nominations. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in over a thousand literary magazines worldwide. She is the mom of five cats and has been in feral cat rescue for over forty years. You can find Laura every day on Twitter at @LauraStamps16, and via her website: www.laurastampspoetry.blogspot.com 

How I Write Fiction

Believe it or not, my writing day begins the minute I wake up in the morning. I’m a runner, and running is fantastic for writing. I think Joyce Carol Oates, who is also a runner, would agree. Running gives you the time and space to flesh out new stories, create outlines, and fix troublesome endings. And that’s exactly what I do first thing every morning while I run. In fact, I’ve never finished a run without coming up with the solution I needed that day for a story or novel chapter.

Image Description: Laura’s zippered canvas writing notebook – complete with pockets for pens, memo pad, and current manuscript!

I keep everything I’m currently working on in my writing notebook, which is a zippered, black canvas, 5.5 x 8.5 Rite in Rain Weatherproof Cordura Fabric Notebook Cover that I bought years ago on Amazon. With plenty of pockets for pens, notes, a memo pad, and my current manuscript, it’s my “portable office” and provides whatever I need to edit and compose first drafts.

Most novelists and fiction writers schedule certain times of the day for writing. Some write early in the morning before the sun rises. Others write late at night while everyone is asleep. Because my fulltime job is hectic, I work on my novels, novellas, and stories while I eat breakfast, lunch, and a snack before bed.

You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in three 30-minute writing sessions every day. Seriously! I’ve worked this way for decades. In the process, I’ve published 64 books with numerous publishers in the last 33 years, and over a thousand of my short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines worldwide.  

Anything can inspire a new novel, novella, or short story collection. Sometimes it’s just an image, or someone I’ve seen during my day. Sometimes it’s a theme I’d like to explore. Other times all I have is the first sentence or the last sentence. But it’s always something that intrigues me. Something that won’t let me go until I write about it to satisfy my curiosity.

First drafts are written by hand in a little 3×5 spiral-bound memo pad, typed on computer, printed out, and tucked in my writing notebook until I can edit it at my next meal. And so it goes. Several days are spent editing by hand at meals and typing up those edits until the chapter or story is finished. Then I start on the next chapter or story, using the same process, until the entire novel or short story collection is complete.

Image Description: Laura’s writing space

Fiction is a messy business. Nothing arrives in an orderly fashion. Bits and pieces of a story or chapter can come to me at anytime and anywhere: the post office, the shower, the car, at the sink while washing dishes, you name it. That’s why one pocket in my writing notebook is reserved for notes scribbled on scraps of paper (or whatever is handy at the moment). Some of these notes are plot or character details. Some are ideas for new stories or novel chapters.

When it’s time to write the first draft of a story or chapter, I spread these scraps of paper on the table around my meal. Then I arrange them in the order I wish them to appear in the story. This stack of notes on scrap pieces of paper is my “outline.” Then it’s just a matter of going through these notes and writing the first draft, which I can usually complete in one sitting.

Each story or novel chapter goes through at least 15-20 edits before it’s finished. Then, when the entire book is complete, I edit it another two or three times for continuity and flow. After that, the book is ready to be entered in a competition or sent to a publisher.

I never take a break after I finish a book. I just keep writing and start on my next novel or short story collection. By then I’ve accumulated enough notes on scraps of paper in my notebook to compose the first draft of the first chapter or the first story in the new book.

There’s no need to take a break anyway. It’s too much fun to create new stories and characters. Plus, I love pushing the traditional boundaries of fiction to find new formats better suited to my novels and novellas.

My latest novella, It’s All About the Ride: Cat Mania, is the perfect example. This novella is about a neurotic cat rescue lady. Because she considers herself a magnet for bad-news men, she decides to heal her chronic PTSD with self-help books and YouTube videos. Her thoughts become a roller coaster ride, traveling at top speed, as the story races from one hilarious therapy and cat adventure to another.

Since her thoughts move so fast, I had to create a special format for this novella. She’s the kind of person who says what most of us think, things we would never say out loud. But she has no filter, so she says them. As you can imagine, this novella is a fast read. Because of that, it needed a different kind of structure to free the pace of the plot and allow it to flow smoothly.

Eventually, I created an unusual structure of 132 short chapters. This format gave her the freedom to tell her story in her own fast, humorous, wacky way. See for yourself in the excerpt below!

Image Description: The cover of It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania has a psychedelic cat on it in shades of blue, green, and hot pink!

An Excerpt from It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania

(2021, Alien Buddha Press)

1.

Here I am at PetSmart. Me and my empty cart, looking at all the things you’ll need if you adopt a dog, because my best friend adopted a dog. She loves that dog. She said I need a dog. She said if I come to PetSmart, see all the cute dog products, I’ll fall in love with the idea of adopting a dog, too. Except, I’m a cat person. I’ve always been a cat person, and that will never change, so why am I here?

2.

I’m still at PetSmart, wandering down one aisle after another, looking at dog products to make my best friend happy. The friend who wants me to adopt a dog, who forgot I grew up with cats. I’ve always had cats. I have cats now. I love my cats. I need to tell my dog-loving best friend this isn’t going to work. It isn’t. Just. Not. Working. 

3.

Although tiny Chihuahuas are cute. You have to admit. In their little dog outfits. But I don’t need to adopt a dog. I just need to leave. I am leaving. I’m leaving this empty cart behind. And walking out. I’m walking out of PetSmart without any dog supplies. I’m walking out without adopting a dog. I’m a cat person. Cats make me happy. Happy is good. I don’t need a dog. I just need to leave. I’m a cat person. And I always will be.   

4.

Happy is good. I’m trying. Trying. Trying to be happy. I am.

5.

Coming back from the grocery store on a Sunday morning, my husband driving, me in the passenger seat, talking about something, I can’t remember what, we reach the top of Harbison bridge when I see a feral kitten, just six or seven weeks old, dart like a flash of tabby out of the bushes into heavy traffic, into the wheel of an SUV, bounce off, terrified, and begin to drag its injured body toward the other side of the bridge, while I scream for my husband to “STOP THE CAR!” while I leap out, while I dodge traffic, while cars screech to a halt until I reach the kitten (finally!), scoop it up in my arms, dash back to the car, jump in, cuddling the frightened kitten to my chest, while my husband yells, “What should we do!” and I shout, “Take me to the Emergency Vet!” since it’s Sunday, and my vet is closed, but even though I spread a fabric grocery bag on my lap to make a soft bed for it, and even though I shower it with love and assurances of a long life, the little tabby passes away before we reach the end of the street, so we turn around and drive home, where I hold a beautiful funeral for this sweet babycat to let it know without a doubt in those last moments and in death it was loved, it was loved, it was loved by me, and always will be.

6.

It’s not easy being in feral cat rescue. But I’m a cat person. I want them all. I love them all. I can’t have them all. Well, I could if I lived in the country. On a farm. But I’m not a farm person. Horses? Cows? Pigs? Chickens? HORRORS! Not happening. I’m not a farm person. I’m a forest person. Give me green. Give me trees. Lots of trees. Green and trees. That’s me.

7.

Fact: My husband would divorce me if I lived on a farm with a hundred cats. He tells me that whenever I show him a photo of a cat. Like I’ve forgotten. Like I could. With him reminding me every day. Right.

8.

Fact: Can’t irritate the husband. He’s a good one. Took too long to find him. Had to throw a few bad-news boyfriends back in the pond first. Okay, they threw me back in the pond. First. Just tossed me away. All of them. Back then. Back in the dark days. But who’s counting? Besides, it happens to everyone, every woman, doesn’t it? Of course, it does.

9.

But. But. We cope. And keep moving forward. Move. Forward. I’m trying. Keep. Trying. 

My thanks go to Laura for taking the time to write a guest post and for sharing an extract of the book. It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania by Laura Stamps is published by Alien Buddha Press and is available to purchase now from Amazon.

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 · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings: A Medieval Ghost Story by Dan Jones

Image Description: The cover of The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings features the silhouettes of a horse and a crow against a wooded backdrop. Bright red blood on two of the trees and three red crowns stand out against the dark green background.

One winter, in the dark days of King Richard II, a tailor was riding home on the road from Gilling to Ampleforth. It was dank, wet and gloomy; he couldn’t wait to get home and sit in front of a blazing fire.

Then, out of nowhere, the tailor is knocked off his horse by a raven, who then transforms into a hideous dog, his mouth writhing with its own innards. The dog issues the tailor with a warning: he must go to a priest and ask for absolution and return to the road, or else there will be consequences…

First recorded in the early fifteenth century by an unknown monk, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings was transcribed from the Latin by the great medievalist M.R. James in 1922. Building on that tradition, now bestselling historian Dan Jones retells this medieval ghost story in crisp and creepy prose.

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings, a medieval ghost story that has been retold in a lively fashion by historian Dan Jones, made for an interesting, albeit curious, addition to my Spooky Season reading this year.

First recorded by a monk at Byland Abbey in the early fifteenth century, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings tells the story of Snowball, a tailor from Ampleforth. One winter’s night, Snowball is riding home from a job in nearby Gilling when he is confronted by a hideous spectre in the shape of a dog.

The ‘dog’, it transpires, is a recently deceased member of the community who, owing to the sins he committed in life, was buried without absolution and is cursed to wander the road until he can find it. Tasking Snowball with seeking absolution from a priest on his behalf, the dog warns the petrified tailor that two other wretched spirits haunt the road – and that failure to return to absolve them may have terrible consequences.

Although transcribed by that great teller of ghostly tales, M. R. James, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings is a uniquely medieval tale. Whilst there is something very Jamesian in the sense of menace conjured by the lonely road – and in the horrifying appearance of the spectres that appear to poor Snowball – the story is preoccupied by the religious concerns of the early 1400s, and by the very real fear of confronting death without having received absolution for one’s sins.

The story is also wonderfully localised – often naming specific geographic locations across North Yorkshire – and there is a real sense of the community of people that lived and told this tale. There are also some oddly comic moments – such as the intrusion by a nosy but affluent neighbour – and a real sense of time and place, with the story greatly embellished by dialogue and description despite its relative simplicity. Dan Jones’s translation has added a few more details – he has given Snowball’s horse a name, for example – but retains the spirit of the original, as well as of James’s transcription.

The tale itself is very slender – much of the book is taken up with Dan Jones’s lively introduction to Byland Abbey and its curious collection of ghost stories, and with M R James’s own Latin transcription, taken from the original MS (which is now held in the British Library). Whilst James’s transcription is likely to be of interest only to Latin scholars, his notes make for very interesting reading, demonstrating James’s solid scholarship and providing useful glosses to some of the more uniquely medieval aspects of the tale which, I felt, were not wholly explained by Jones in his introduction.

As a scholar of medievalism in my day job, I am reasonably well-versed in the literature and culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries so found much to enjoy in The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings. Although more entertaining than exemplary, they reminded me in spirit of some of the medieval mystery plays I’ve read, and of the curious (and often amusing) asides that can occasionally be found in some chronicles.

For the general reader, there were one or two elements that might have benefitted from more explanation, such as the fact that ‘king’ here doesn’t necessarily mean ‘monarch’ but is instead likely to be one of the three ‘dead’: deceased members of the community pictured on the rood screen in the village church, who were often depicted as ‘kings’ in this period. James’s footnotes and glosses to his Latin transcription make this clear but I’m not sure how many readers – especially those not versed in Latin – would discover them, so it would have been helpful to have some additional religious and social context included in the introduction.

The history of the Byland Abbey ghost stories is, for anyone interested in medieval literature, absolutely fascinating and a good annotated edition of all twelve tales would, I feel, be a welcome addition to scholarship on the period. For now, there is an excellent (and free) online resource from the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project which contains both Latin and English transcriptions of all twelve tales, along with short introductions to the project and the manuscript – highly recommended reading if you enjoy this little tale!

For the general reader of ghost stories, Dan Jones’s retelling offers an accessible introduction to a uniquely medieval style of ghost story. Although I read this as an eBook, I imagine the smart hardback will make for a lovely gift over the Halloween and Christmas periods – the perfect story to curl up and escape with with for an hour or two by a roaring fire after family festivities are done.

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings by Dan Jones is published by Head of Zeus 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!!! A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford

Image Description: The cover of A Woman Made of Snow has a sailing ship against the backdrop of Arctic mountains and a sunset.

Scotland, 1949: Caroline Gillan and her new husband Alasdair have moved back to Kelly Castle, his dilapidated family estate in the middle of nowhere. Stuck caring for their tiny baby, and trying to find her way with an opinionated mother-in-law, Caroline feels adrift, alone and unwelcome.

But when she is tasked with sorting out the family archives, Caroline discovers a century-old mystery that sparks her back to life. There is one Gillan bride who is completely unknown – no photos exist, no records have been kept – the only thing that is certain is that she had a legitimate child. Alasdair’s grandmother.

As Caroline uncovers a strange story that stretches as far as the Arctic circle, her desire to find the truth turns obsessive. And when a body is found in the grounds of the castle, her hunt becomes more than just a case of curiosity. What happened all those years ago? Who was the bride? And who is the body…?

Part love story, part mystery, and part historical drama, Elisabeth Gifford’s latest novel, A Woman Made of Snow, is certainly endeavouring to tick a lot of boxes – many of them pure Shelf of Unread catnip! And with a side order of Victorian arctic exploration thrown into that heady mix, I was delighted to have the opportunity to be on the blog tour for this captivating novel.

Switching between two timelines, A Woman Made of Snow is the story of several generations of Gillan women. The latest Gillan wife, Caro, is struggling to find her place amidst new husband Alasdair’s ancestral home, Kelly Castle. As one of the first women to graduate from her college at Cambridge, Caro had expected to spend her life researching and lecturing. Instead she finds herself struggling with new motherhood under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law, Martha.

When Martha unexpectedly offers Caro the opportunity to research the history of Kelly Castle, she jumps at the opportunity to claw back a few hours of her old life. Her investigations turn up a curious gap in the archives: a previous Gillan bride – Alasdair’s great-grandmother – who appears to have been erased from the family history. When building work uncovers a woman’s body in the grounds of the castle, Caro cannot help but wonder whether there is any connection with her missing Gillan wife. And when she uncovers the long-lost diary of Oliver Gillan’s voyage to the Arctic in 1882, it soon becomes clear that the Gillan’s family history – and Kelly Castle – may be hiding a murderous secret.

There were so many points when A Woman Made of Snow reminded me of To the Bright Edge of the World, Eowyn Ivey’s captivating novel about the exploration of Alaska that I read and reviewed earlier this year. Elisabeth Gifford has the same ability as Ivey to perfectly capture a sense of wonder involved in exploration and the sense of grandeur within the Arctic landscape – and has also written a poignant and touching love story at the beating heart of her book.

Some elements of this novel were, for me, less successful however. For a relatively slender novel (287 pages), A Woman Made of Snow packs in a LOT of plot. Whilst this is definitely not a bad thing per se – it definitely kept the pages turning! – there are several key characters within both the timelines, as well as several subplots that I felt some were in need of more room to breath. One subplot, which revolves around a potential rival for Alasdair’s affections, seemed full of dramatic potential but, sadly, seemed to have dwindled out to serve very little purpose by the end of the novel.

I also felt that the tension between Caro and Martha – and the attempts made to liken this to events within the past timeline – was a little forced at times. Both Caro and Martha are very likeable characters and, to me at least, seemed to act in a perfectly friendly and respectful manner to each other throughout. Whilst I understand that Elisabeth Gifford was trying to convey the uneasy but barely perceptible tensions that can sometimes arise between new wife and mother-in-law, I felt that this was sometimes made into a bigger plot element than their relatively minor disagreements really warranted.

That said, Caro’s frustration at her own loss of identity is brilliantly conveyed and I really empathised with the way she is torn between her love for her new family – and her new role as wife and mother – and her frustration at the postponement of her academic career, and the abandonment of her independent life with Alasdair in London.

Saying to much about Oliver’s plotline would be to risk spoilers – and given that there is a really compelling mystery plot running throughout the book, that would be a great shame – however I will say that I found the sections set aboard the whaling ship Narwhal to be amongst the most compelling sections of the novel. Elisabeth Gifford has clearly done her research into both the place and the period and I felt that the Narwhal and her crew really came alive on the page – as did the lives and customs of the Inuit people they encounter on their journey.

I also found Oliver’s mother, Sylvia, to be a really arresting character – albeit a truly awful one. Again, I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers but I can safely say that I think Sylvia is one of the most reprehensible characters I’ve met on the page in recent years! Despite this, Gifford has made her a woman I almost loved to hate, fleshing out her background and mental state so that I could understand some of the reasoning behind her abhorrent behaviour – even if I didn’t empathise with that reasoning in any way.

Overall, A Woman Made of Snow made for a dynamic, emotive, and propulsive read that was packed full of family drama. With a touching love story and some well-drawn characters, it was a quick and compelling novel that, despite some minor niggles, kept me reading right through to the end! With its immersive period detail, dual timeline mystery, and heartfelt, poignant storyline, A Woman Made of Snow is sure to appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah, Hazel Gaynor, Kate Morton, and Rachel Hore.

A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford is published by Corvus/Atlantic 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 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 22 October 2021 so 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 · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! The Whistling by Rebecca Netley

Image Description: The cover of The Whistling has a woman’s silhouette trapped within the flame of an old-fashioned glass-covered candle holder.

Alone in the world, Elspeth Swansome takes the position of nanny to a family on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea.

Her charge, Mary, hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin, William – just days after their former nanny disappeared.

No one will speak of what happened to William. Just as no one can explain the hypnotic lullabies sung in empty corridors. Nor the strange dolls that appear in abandoned rooms. Nor the faint whistling that comes in the night . . .

As winter draws in and passage to the mainland becomes impossible, Elspeth finds herself trapped.

But is this house haunted by the ghosts of the past? Or the secrets of the living?

Yes, I am back in full Spooky Season mode for this week’s post! Rebecca Netley’s The Whistling has been getting all of the accolades over on bookish Twitter and was definitely on my ‘most anticipated spooky reads’ list for 2021 – so as soon as the nights started to draw in and Spooky Season could be said to have officially started, I took the opportunity to get reading!

Scotland, 1860, and young nanny Elspeth Swansome arrives on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea to take care of nine-year-old Mary, who hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin brother, William. Having recently experienced her own personal tragedy, Elspeth is determined to save the little girl from the asylum – a fate that her hard-hearted aunt, Violet Gillies, seems to be planning for her.

Convinced that with some much-needed love and attention she can encourage the little girl to speak again, Elspeth tries to discover more about William – and about Hettie, her predecessor as the children’s nanny who apparently left her employment without warning just a few days before William’s death. But no one on Skelthsea will talk about what happened to William – or about the dark rumours that surface whenever Hettie’s name is mentioned.

When Elspeth begins to find strange dolls in long-abandoned rooms, and to hear the shrill pierce of a whistle cutting through the dead of night, she starts to realise that the cause of Mary’s muteness may lie in more than just neglect. What is Mary so afraid of that she refuses to speak? As Elspeth investigates further, the secrets and superstitions of Skelthsea begin to emerge, putting both her and her charge in danger.

The Whistling is an impressive debut that draws on all of the tropes of the classic ghost story, combining them with folkloric elements and a stunningly atmospheric setting to create a brilliantly eerie and otherworldly read. Lovers of the classic ghostly tales of M R James and the gothic eeriness of Wilkie Collins will feel instantly at home on Skelthsea, whilst readers of more modern takes on the genre will find the claustrophobia of Skelthsea – and, in particular, of Elspeth and Mary’s ‘home’ on the island, Iskar – offers the same creeping chills as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or Daphne Du Maurier’s Manderley.

For me, the atmosphere of the novel was definitely one of its major strengths. The faded glory and crumbling chill of Iskar seeps off the page and I could practically feel the icy sea frets that roll into the bay at night. Rebecca Netley has also perfectly captured the feel of being an outsider in a small community and she uses this to great affect to make Elspeth – and by turn, the reader – uncertain of how to distinguish between superstition, rumour, and hidden truths.

The drawing out of the island’s secrets takes time and, if I had one criticism of The Whistling, it’s that the pacing can be a bit uneven. I raced through the first half of the novel, keen to discover whether the sinister dolls and strange noises were the work of human or supernatural entities, but then found the pace lulling in the mid-section, when the plot seemed to pivot towards more domestic dramas and personal backstories. Whilst these were interesting, they were quite a distinct change from the supernatural shenanigans of the opening half and, briefly, appeared to take the novel in quite a different direction. The pace picks up again towards the end of the book – and the supernatural plot moves back into gear with a vengeance – but, after a period of relative calm, I was left feeling like the dramatic reveal at the end was a little rushed.

The evocative atmosphere and story twists kept me reading though the slower sections and I’m glad I pushed onwards because, overall, The Whistling is one of those slow-burn ghost stories that creeps into your mind and lives there rent-free until you suddenly find yourself jumping at shadows and sleeping with the lights on. With it’s isolated setting and dour atmosphere, there are definite shades of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black here and, just as in that novel, the spooks come from gradually dawning realisation and slowly built horror rather than dramatic jump scares.

I also found myself wholly rooting for Elspeth in her relentless pursuit of the truth. Her determination to help and protect Mary is touching – as is Mary’s own growing affection for her new nanny. I was particularly impressed by how much of Mary’s personality and character Rebecca Netley has conveyed through gestures, small interactions, and subtle movements – proof, if it were needed, that characters don’t need to speak to make themselves heard on the page.

The Whistling is a fine addition to the resurgent tradition of autumnal ghost stories. It is clear from reading it that Rebecca Netley both knows and loves the genre and her novel pays homage to all of the classics. Look closely and you’ll see the reverberations of everything from James’ The Turn of the Screw to Sarah Waters’ more recent The Little Stranger. Yet The Whistling is also a ghost story all of its own – a brilliantly evocative novel that will reward patient readers with that spine-tingling feeling.

The Whistling by Rebecca Netley is published by Penguin Michael Joseph on 14 October 2021 and is available to pre-order 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 · Giveaway

BLOG TOUR GIVEAWAY!!! The Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen

Image Description: The cover of The Rabbit Factor is bright yellow-orange and has the image of a man standing in front of a large-eyed, cartoon-style, one-eared rabbit

I have something a little different on the blog today because I am hosting my very first GIVEAWAY!! Details of how to enter can be found at the bottom of this post but, before you do that, let me tell you a little bit about the book in question!

About the Book

Award-winning author Antti Tuomainen launches his first series with The Rabbit Factor, an energetic black comedy, currently being adapted for the screen by Amazon/Mandeville Films with Steve Carell to star, and Antti executive producing.

What makes life perfect? Insurance mathematician Henri Koskinen knows the answer because he calculates everything down to the very last decimal.

And then, for the first time, Henri is faced with the incalculable. After suddenly losing his job, Henri inherits an adventure park from his brother – its peculiar employees and troubling financial problems included. The worst of the financial issues appear to originate from big loans taken from criminal quarters … and some dangerous men are very keen to get their money back.

But what Henri really can’t compute is love. In the adventure park, Henri crosses paths with Laura, an artist with a chequered past, and a joie de vivre and erratic lifestyle that bewilders him. As the criminals go to extreme lengths to collect their debts and as Henri’s relationship with Laura deepens, he finds himself faced with situations and emotions that simply cannot be pinned down on his spreadsheets…

About the Author

Image Description: Author Antti Tuomainen

Antti Tuomainen was an award-winning copywriter when he made his literary debut in 2007 as a suspense author in 2013, the Finnish press crowned Tuomainen the ‘King of Helsinki Noir’ when Dark as My Heart was published.

With a piercing and evocative style, Tuomainen was one of the first to challenge the Scandinavian crime genre formula, and his poignant, dark and hilarious The Man Who Died became an international bestseller, shortlisting for the Petrona and Last Laugh Awards. A TV adaptation is in the works, and Jussi Vatanen (Man In Room 301) has just been announced as a leading role. Palm Beach Finland was an immense success, with Marcel Berlins (The Times) calling Tuomainen ‘the funniest writer in Europe’.

His latest thriller, Little Siberia, was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger, the Amazon Publishing/Capital Crime Awards and the CrimeFest Last Laugh Award, and won the Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.

In total, Antti Tuomainen has been short- and longlisted for 12 UK awards.

You can follow Antti on Twitter at @antti_tuomainen.

About the Translator

David Hackston is a British translator of Finnish and Swedish literature and drama. He graduated from University College London in 1999 with a degree in Scandinavian Studies and now lives in Helsinki where he works as a freelance translator.

Notable recent publications include the Anna Fekete trilogy by Kati Hiekkapelto, Katja Kettu’s wartime epic The Midwife, Pajtim Statovci’s enigmatic debut My Cat Yugoslavia, two novels by Helsinki noir author Antti Tuomainen, and Maria Peura’s coming-of-age novel At the Edge of Light. His drama translations include three plays by Heini Junkkaala, most recently Play it, Billy! (2012) about the life and times of jazz pianist Billy Tipton. David is also a regular contributor to Books from Finland. In 2007 he was awarded the Finnish State Prize for Translation.

David is also a professional countertenor and has studied early music and performance practice in Helsinki and Portugal. He is a founding member of the English Vocal Consort of Helsinki.

You can follow David on Twitter @countertenorist.

Praise for The Rabbit Factor

Novelist Martyn Waites has said that, ‘Antti Tuomainen turns the clichéd idea of dour, humourless Scandi noir upside down with The Rabbit Factor. Dark, gripping and hilarious […] Tuomainen is the Carl Hiaasen of the fjords’, whilst early readers on Goodreads have called the book ‘fun’ and ‘quirky’, and have praised Antti’s deft handling of both the farcical elements and the darker, drier humour within the novel.

You can also read more reviews as part of the Blog Tour for the novel, which is running until 20 October 2021! Just follow the hashtag #TheRabbitFactor, as well as publisher @OrendaBooks and @RandomTTours!

GIVEAWAY!!!

Thanks to Antti Tuomainen, publisher Orenda Books, and Anne at Random Things Tours I have ONE PRINT COPY of The Rabbit Factor to giveaway to a lucky UK reader!

All you need to do to win is to follow me (@shelfofunread) on Twitter and retweet the pinne tweet that links to this post! The giveaway is open from 9.00am on 04 October 2021 and closes at midnight on 11 October 2021. There is one winner. Terms & conditions apply (see below).

TERMS & CONDITIONS: UK only. The winner will be selected at random via Tweetdraw from all valid entries and will be notified by Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then I reserve the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over.  Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will passed to the giveaway organiser and used only for fulfilment of the prize. I am not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize.

Good Luck!!

The Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston) is published by Orenda Books on 28 October 2021 (ebook/hardback) and is available to pre-order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, Wordery, and direct from publisher Orenda.

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 Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto this blog tour and providing the opportunity to run a giveaway for the book.

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

BLOG TOUR SPOTLIGHT!!! The Chronicles of Iona: Exile by Paula De Fougerolles

Image Description: The cover of The Chronicles of Iona: Exile has an excerpt from a map showing Iona and the surrounding area

Today I’m on The Write Reads blog tour for Paula de Fougerolles’s historical novel, The Chronicles of Iona: Exile; the first in her award-winning Chronicles of Iona series.

About the Book

The Chronicles of Iona: Exile tells the story of the Irish monk and Scottish warrior, Saint Columba and Aedan mac Gabran, who would band together to lay the foundation of the nation of Scotland.  They were a real-life 6th-century Merlin and King Arthur and their story has never been told.

The book begins in 563 A.D.  The Roman Empire is long gone, freeing the region of Scotland from the threat of imperial rule but opening it to chaos from warring tribes vying for control. Columba, a powerful abbot-prince, is exiled from Ireland to the pagan colony of Dal Riata on Scotland’s west coast for an act of violence. There he encounters Aedan, the down-and-out second son of the colony’s former king, slain by the Picts.

Together, this unlikely pair travels the breadth of a divided realm, each in search of his own kind of unity.  Their path is fraught with blood feuds, lost love, treachery, dark gods and monsters, but also with miracles and valour.  Beset on all sides, their only hope is to become allies—and to forge a daring alliance with the pagan Picts.

How Columba overcame exile and a crisis of faith to found the famous monastery of Iona (one of the greatest centres of learning in Dark Age Europe) and, from it, the Celtic Church in the British Isles; and how Aedan avenged his father’s death and became, against all odds, the progenitor of Scottish kings and the greatest warlord of his age, begins here.

For both, what begins as a personal imperative becomes a series of events that lead to the foundation of Iona and the kingdom of Scotland—events that literally change the world.

About the Author

Paula de Fougerolles has a doctorate from the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, and has taught and published in the field. She has lived and travelled extensively throughout Scotland and Ireland, including a prestigious year-long Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in which she criss-crossed Europe in search of the physical remains of the so-called Dark Age – research which ultimately led to this award-winning historical fiction series.

To learn more, visit www.pauladefougerolles.com.

Find Out More!

The Chronicles of Iona: Exile was named to “Kirkus Reviews'” Best of 2012 and a Silver Prize Winner in the 2012 “ForeWord Clarion” Book of the Year Awards, Historical Fiction. Readers on Goodreads have praised it as ‘a book that has everything you could want’ and ‘a MUST-READ for every history-loving reader’. Although I’m spotlighting the book today, this is a series that is definitely going on my To Be Read list – it sounds right up my historical-fiction-loving street and is set during a fascinating period of history.

The book is on tour with The Write Reads from today until 06 October 2021 so follow the hashtags #TheWriteReads #BlogTour and #TheChroniclesOfIona to follow along for more reviews and features!

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

The Chronicles of Iona: Exile by Paula de Fougerelles is available to purchase in paperback and Kindle edition from Amazon. You can also read an extract from the book on Paula’s website, as well as find out more about the series and the inspiration, history, and research behind it.

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 #TheChroniclesOfIona #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!! on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese

In his second collection, on a distant ridgeline, Sam Reese creates twelve vivid and tenderly drawn tales with moments and memories that linger just out of reach.

Between the past and present and potential reconciliations—and with a keen eye on the subtle balance of human connection—relationships and their fractured qualities are central to this new gathering of stories.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that short stories rarely feature in my reviews. This isn’t because I don’t read them, although I do read considerably fewer short stories than novels in the average year. But although I very much enjoy reading the stories featured in my copy of Mslexia magazine, or in The New Yorker, I find the process of reading, digesting, and then ‘ reviewing’ a short story to be quite tricky. Although short in format, the literary short story usually gives you a lot to digest.

This is certainly the case with Sam Reese’s second collection, on a distant ridgeline, which features twelve beautifully constructed stories that, though not lengthy in their word count (the whole collection is a slender 180 pages), certainly provide plenty for the reader to mull over and consider.

From a tale of two brothers finding their feet in a new environment to a sinister story of a young girl, her mother, and the compulsions that bind them, on a distant ridgeline is a wide-ranging collection and each of the stories can, at first, seem somewhat disparate from those around them. Read the whole collection however and you’ll begin to pick out strands of connection – tiny moments and fragments from each tale that resonate with wider ideas about human intimacy, tenderness, and the almost insignificant moments upon which momentous decisions can hang.

As with many literary short stories, much of the pleasure to be had from on a distant ridgeline is in the language, the imagery, and experience of reading. This is a collection best savoured slowly, allowing for each story to sink in before moving on to the next. Whilst there are certainly moments of tension, drama, and character-propelled action, what the stories often gave me was a sense of a snapshot – a fragmentary and fleeting glimpse into a moment, or a relationship, or a person.

If you’re not already a fan of the literary short story, I don’t think on a distant ridgeline is likely to convert you. The collection contains many of the hallmarks of the genre; from the understated yet measured observations of small details to the wider expansiveness of connecting themes and concepts, it’s a collection that does make the reader do some work to join the dots and tease out a sense of meaning. For those who enjoy stories that offer quiet power and elegant prose, however, on a distant ridgeline is cleverly constructed, lyrically rendered, and resonates after the final page has been turned.

About the Author

“Short stories are at their most interesting, I think, when they avoid just a single meaning. This is why I direct my own writing out towards the darkness and the shadows—why my characters obsess over, dream of, are haunted by feeling and memories that they do not completely understand.”

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an insatiable traveller and award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. A widely respected literary and music critic, his study of The Short Story in Midcentury America won the 2018 Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize. Currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University, Sam formerly taught at the University of Sydney, where his inspirational teaching was recognised with an Excellence award. More details can be found on Sam’s website: https://svhreese.com/stories and by following him on Twitter: @svhreese

on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese is published by Platypus Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, 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 Isabelle Kenyon for providing an 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!

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward

Image Description: The cover of The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward has golden ivy leaves against a grey backdrop of faded brickwork

When well-to-do Hester learns of her sister Mercy’s death at a Nottinghamshire workhouse, she travels to Southwell to find out how her sister ended up at such a place.

Haunted by her sister’s ghost, Hester sets out to uncover the truth, when the official story reported by the workhouse master proves to be untrue. Mercy was pregnant – both her and the baby are said to be dead of cholera, but the workhouse hasn’t had an outbreak for years.


Hester discovers a strange trend in the workhouse of children going missing. One woman tells her about the Pale Lady, a ghostly figure that steals babies in the night. Is this lady a myth or is something more sinister afoot at the Southwell poorhouse?


As Hester investigates, she uncovers a conspiracy, one that someone is determined to keep a secret, no matter the cost…

With the onset of Autumn and the turning of the leaves, my reading taste has once more turned to all things historical and spooky. Yes, I’m back in my Gothic reading comfort zone – and Rhiannon Ward’s second dose of historical spookiness, The Shadowing, proved to be the perfect fit for my autumnal reading mood!

The Shadowing follows Hester, the youngest daughter of a well-to-do family of Bristol Quakers. When the family learn that Hester’s elder sister Mercy has died at a Nottinghamshire workhouse, Hester is sent north to Southwell to find out exactly how her sister ended up in such a place, why she had not felt she could draw on the support of her fellow Friends in the area, and whether she has received the burial rites due to her as a Quaker.

As Hester journeys north, she is aware of a presence travelling with her. Beset by traumatic dreams and ghostly visions – ‘shadowings’ – since childhood, Hester knows it is Mercy who travels alongside her. And when she reaches Southwell Workhouse, she soon discovers why. Mercy was pregnant when she died – and although the Master and Mistress of the Workhouse claim both she and the child were taken by cholera, Hester soon discovers that there hasn’t been an outbreak for years.

With the reluctant aid of local innkeeper Matthew and his serving maid Joan, Hester sets about investigating what is really going on at Southwell Workhouse. Why are her new Friends – fellow Quakers Dorothea and Caroline – so reluctant for her to visit the place? Why does the young town doctor take such an interest in her visits there? And who exactly is the ghostly Pale Lady who terrifies the women and apparently steals babies in the depths of night?

As with her previous historical novel, The Quickening, Rhiannon Ward has provided a compelling and atmospheric blend of historical mystery and ghost story in The Shadowing. I was fascinated by the historical detail – from Hester’s Quaker background to the realities of life in the Workhouse, there’s a real sense of both time and place in the novel, and you can tell that the author has done her research – although it is lightly worn and woven expertly into the story.

The novel doesn’t shy away from portraying the grim realities of Workhouse life – especially for those deemed the ‘undeserving’ poor. I felt great compassion for the women (and, sadly, they were primarily women) forced to rely on the ‘charity’ of the parish due to abandonment or widowhood – and the novel does a great job of showing just how easy it would be for a young woman deemed ‘respectable’ and well-to-do like Hester to end up in a situation where her life – and her fate – is taken wholly out of her control.

Hester herself is a spirited main character. Although somewhat naïve – a result of her sheltered and strict upbringing – she is determined to get to the bottom of the unexplained deaths and disappearance at the Workhouse. I really liked the way in which Hester’s Quaker beliefs were woven into the plot, and the way in which they often ran counter to the more common ethos about who was ‘deserving’ of charity and the chance of redemption. Hester’s relationship with Matthew – the somewhat gruff and forthright publican at Southwell’s coaching in – is also really well done, moving from antagonistic to grudgingly respectful as the story progresses despite their very different upbringings and outlooks.

Although the supernatural element is stronger in The Shadowing than in The Quickening, Hester’s supernatural visitations and psychic senses are woven into the plot in a way that is wholly believable, and that adds an ever present sense of unease to the novel. Although Hester’s ‘shadowings’ are ghostly apparitions, the whole novel is imbued with an atmosphere of shadowiness (and some brilliant moments of foreshadowing), with Southwell itself quickly becoming a place of secrets and shadows, ready to leap at Hester from every corner.

Anyone who enjoyed The Quickening is sure to find The Shadowing a worthy follow-up, packed with the same level of historical detail and a brilliantly eerie atmosphere, and headed up by another strong and determined female lead. With its blend of historical mystery and supernatural happenings, The Shadowing is also the perfect fit for fans of Laura Purcell and Anita Frank, and an excellent addition to the popular genre of Modern Gothic.

The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward is published by Trapeze (Orion) 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 ecopy 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!