Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Things to Do Before the End of the World by Emily Barr

One minute you’re walking in the park, hiding from a party. Then you discover that the next nine months will probably be your last. Everyone’s last. You realise that you happen to be alive at the time when your species becomes extinct.

You have to decide whether to go with it meekly like you usually do, or to do something brave, to live your last months with all the energy and bravery you can muster, to rage against the dying of the light.

Olivia struggles to live her real life as fully as she wants to. She plans out conversations and events in her head but actually doing them and interacting with other people is hard. When the news breaks that humans have done such damage to the earth that there’s only nine months of safe air left everybody makes bucket lists and starts living their best lives – everyone, that is, but Olivia who is still struggling to figure out who she wants to be.

Then out of the blue comes contact from a long-lost cousin Olivia didn’t even know existed. Natasha is everything Olivia wants to be and more. And as the girls meet up for their last summer on earth Olivia finds Natasha’s ease and self-confidence having a effect on her. But what if Natasha isn’t everything she first appears to be . . . ?

Part eco-thriller, part mystery and part coming-of-age tale, Emily Barr’s Things to Do Before the End of the World is an odd book to categorise but, in spite of that, a compelling one to read.

As the title suggests, Things to Do Before the End of the World takes place in a near future setting where humanity’s negligence has resulted in potentially irreversible environmental catastrophe. Melting polar ice caps and the subsequent rise in carbon dioxide levels is going to wipe out the majority of life on earth and, as the novel opens, its main character Olivia is having to come to terms with the fact that not only will the world most likely end but, more specifically, it is going to do so in precisely nine month’s time. Which rather puts her inability to socialise with her classmates at the school dance and her worries about her exams into perspective.

Olivia – or Libby as she tends to be called – is shy, awkward and suffers from almost crippling social anxiety. Adept at planning out conversations and dreams in her head, she struggles to enact these in real life. Hence why despite her eloquently composed emails to the girl of her dreams, they’re going to sit unread in her drafts for what will quite possibly be the rest of Libby’s life.

Until, that is, Natasha turns up. Confident, easy-going, and extroverted, Libby’s long-lost cousin is everything that Libby isn’t – and everything she wants to be. So when Natasha proposes an all-out ‘end of the world’ road trip, Libby decides to throw caution to the wind and go out to explore the world she feels like she’s been hiding from her whole life. But is Natasha everything she claims to be? Or are there secrets to be discovered before the end of the world?

There is quite a lot going on in Things to Do Before the End of the World – possibly a little too much at times if I’m honest. Starting out with the imminent threat of ‘The Creep’ (as the rising levels of carbon dioxide come to be called), the book takes a turn into more comfortably YA ‘coming-of-age’ territory with an increasing focus on Libby’s insecurities and her budding romance, then switches modes into a Pretty Little Liars-style thriller/mystery as Libby’s doubts about Natasha develop, before ending back as a ‘coming-of-age’ story as Libby discovers the truth behind all the mysteries.

Whilst all of these strands are interesting in and of themselves, the sudden lurches in tone were occasionally jarring and I did feel that some of the most interesting elements of the premise – most notably the threat of the ‘The Creep’ – were side-lined as the story continued in favour of more well-worn tropes such as the thriller and romance elements.

That isn’t to say that Things to Do Before the End of the World isn’t an enjoyable read however. I rattled through it over the course of a couple of evenings and very much enjoyed my time with it. Libby makes for a likeable and interesting protagonist and the development of her unease about Natasha and her motives adds a creeping sense of unease to the proceedings that ensured the pages kept turning. But the ending did feel a tad rushed – with such a lot going on, there was a lot to wrap up – and whilst the ‘end of the world’ premise added a unique and interesting backdrop, I felt that element – emphasised quite heavily in the blurb and at the beginning of the novel – was underutilised in the rest of the story.

That said, the ending does manage to be both heart-warming and poignant – no mean feat given the many layers and complexities of the plot – and I did really enjoy seeing the way in which Libby develops as a character over the course of the book.

Offering plenty of drama and suspense and with a premise that, whilst not wholly realised for me, added an additional layer of complication to the well-trodden YA ‘coming-of-age’ narrative, Things to Do Before the End of the World makes for an interesting and unique addition to the YA thriller genre – and a fantastic way to while away some summer evenings or a sunny weekend!

Things to Do Before the End of the World by Emily Barr is published by Penguin on 13 May 2021. It 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 Netgalley UK for providing an e-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 16 May 2021 so do follow the hashtags to 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!!! Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

As Princesses of Crete and daughters of the fearsome King Minos, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra grow up hearing the hoofbeats and bellows of the Minotaur echo from the Labyrinth beneath the palace. The Minotaur – Minos’s greatest shame and Ariadne’s brother – demands blood every year.

When Theseus, Prince of Athens, arrives in Crete as a sacrifice to the beast, Ariadne falls in love with him. But helping Theseus kill the monster means betraying her family and country, and Ariadne knows only too well that in a world ruled by mercurial gods – drawing their attention can cost you everything.

In a world where women are nothing more than the pawns of powerful men, will Ariadne’s decision to betray Crete for Theseus ensure her happy ending? Or will she find herself sacrificed for her lover’s ambition?

I have to admit to being a little nervous when I picked up Ariadne. Jennifer Saint’s much vaunted debut has been spoken about with ALL OF THE PRAISE by book bloggers, booktubers, and booksellers and has been compared to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. High praise indeed but, for me, I always get nervous that maybe I just won’t ‘get’ the book that everyone is talking about, or that the hype will mean I enter a book with unrealistic expectations.

Fortunately, I need not have been concerned about Ariadne. It is as compulsively readable and compellingly affective as everyone has been saying and I now find myself in the position of adding yet another voice to the vase torrent of bookish love for this Jennifer Saint’s brilliant debut.

Following in the footsteps of Miller, Barker, and, perhaps most relevantly, Natalie Haynes, Ariadne is a feminist literary retelling of Greek mythology that places Ariadne, Princess of Crete, firmly back into the centre of her story. Beginning with her childhood on Crete, we feel her pain and anger as the whims of gods and men result in her beloved mother’s shame and madness, and follow her as she encounters the Athenian hero Theseus and helps him escape his fate – or possibly, to fulfil his destiny – within the depths of her father’s labyrinth.

Ariadne is a smart, intelligent narrator of her story, combining a naiveté that wishes to see the good in everyone with an awareness that she inhabits a world where women – even strong, courageous, intelligent women – suffer because of the capriciousness of both men and gods. Bought to life in lyrical prose, Ariadne’s world is enthralling combination of the mythological and the human and her life – and that of her beloved sister Phaedra – is equally affected by both the divine games being played upon Olympus and the more petty machinations of kings and city-states.

Although Ariadne is probably best known for her role in Theseus’s story, the novel whips through this part of her life with relative speed, moving to focus upon the woman Ariadne becomes as a result of her encounter with Theseus. I won’t spoil the story for anyone unfamiliar with the myth but it’s definitely fair to say that Ariadne’s tale only BEGINS with Theseus – and that her famous encounter with him is far from the most interesting part of her story.

Whilst I enjoyed re-treading the more famous aspects of the myth, for me Ariadne really came alive once the novel entered the less familiar territory of her marriage. As the book developed, I really enjoyed seeing the different threads of Ariadne’s life being woven together into a compelling – and emotionally affecting – ending that places Ariadne firmly back at the centre of her own story, even when the control of her fate is being wrested from her by petulant gods and treacherous men alike.

Beautifully written whilst remaining accessible for those less familiar with classical mythology, Ariadne continues a fine recent tradition of recent myth re-tellings that consider the supressed and forgotten voices that lie behind many of the ‘great’ deeds of bravery and heroics that form the heart of such stories.

As a lover of all things myth and legend, Ariadne was always going to be right up my street. But with its accessible style and focus upon the all-too-familiar challenges that a young women encounters when forging her own path in life, I think it’s an immensely relatable novel that speaks to problems we still face today. In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint has created a heroine with a humanity that provides an emotional compulsion to her tale despite its temperamental gods and mystical monsters – and that makes this a novel that is sure to appeal to any lover of a good story and not just to myth aficionados.

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint is published by Wildfire 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 Netgalley UK for providing an e-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 12 May 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

A bold and uncompromising feminist manifesto that shows women and girls how to defy, disrupt, and destroy the patriarchy by embracing the qualities they’ve been trained to avoid.

Seizing upon the energy of the #MeToo movement, feminist activist Mona Eltahawy advocates a muscular, out-loud approach to teaching women and girls to harness their power through what she calls the “seven necessary sins” that women and girls are not supposed to commit: to be angry, ambitious, profane, violent, attention-seeking, lustful, and powerful. All the necessary “sins” that women and girls require to erupt.

Eltahawy knows that the patriarchy is alive and well, and she is fed up: Sexually assaulted during hajj at the age of fifteen. Groped on the dance floor of a night club in Montreal at fifty. Countless other injustices in the years between. Illuminating her call to action are stories of activists and ordinary women around the world—from South Africa to China, Nigeria to India, Bosnia to Egypt—who are tapping into their inner fury and crossing the lines of race, class, faith, and gender that make it so hard for marginalized women to be heard. Rather than teaching women and girls to survive the poisonous system they have found themselves in, Eltahawy arms them to dismantle it.

Brilliant, bold, and energetic, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a manifesto for all feminists in the fight against patriarchy.

From the very first page, Mona Eltahawy demostrates that she is pulling no punches. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls was written ‘with enough rage to fuel a rocket’ and calls for a feminism that is not only universal but that ‘should terrify the patriarchy’ and ‘put patriarchy on notice that we demand nothing short of its destruction’.

Moving between memoir and manifesto, Eltahawy has written a rally cry for feminism centred around what she terms her seven ‘sins’. Anger. Attention. Profanity. Ambition. Power. Violence. Lust. Traits that women and girls are taught to actively avoid but that, Eltahawy argues, should be embraced and utilised to their fullest. Only by doing so, can feminism respond to the global challenges posed by the #MeToo movement, by Black Lives Matter, by the growing chorus of long-unheard LGBTQI+ voices, and by the fallout from the Arab Spring.

Although I had not heard of Mona Eltahawy before, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls appealed because it draws not only on her only experiences as an LGBTQI+ woman of Egyptian descent with dual American-Egyptian citizenship, but because it draws on the work and experiences of intersectional activists from around the world, including those within some of the larger global movements such as #MeToo. With issues as interconnected as those faced by the global feminist movement – often divided within itself about the best forms of representation, or who it is really designed to represent – it can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to getting more involved. And whilst I’ve read a number of feminist essays and memoirs, many of those have been written by straight cisgender white women based in the UK or the US – useful and important, of course, but only part of a much larger picture, especially in the wake of some of the global movements mentioned above.

Eltahawy’s ‘manifesto’ offers to unpick this, recognising the complexity of global intersectional movements – and the individuality of women’s experiences – whilst arguing that feminism, in all its forms, must recollect its goal of disrupting – nay, of destroying – the patriarchy. And what the patriarchy wants is compliance. Not anger, or attention. Or profanity or ambition. Or power or violence or lust. But these ‘undesirable’ traits are exactly what are needed and, Eltahawy argues, must be embraced in order to dismantle and reclaim the societal structures that impose them.

It’s a powerful argument and – at times – a shocking one. Eltahawy is unafraid of making bold statements and of offering challenges as much to herself and her readers as to the patriarchy she opposes. She is unapologetic in her rage and her engagingly persuasive in her argument. Reading The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls there were times when I was uncomfortable because I realised just how much I had internalised – how complicit I can be in systems designed to oppress, if not me, then women like me and, especially, women without the opportunities from which I benefit.

This isn’t to say that I agreed with every one of Eltahawy’s arguments but I felt that everything raised and discussed in this book merited attention, recognition, and debate – and I admired not only the breadth of the experiences that Eltahawy uses to illustrate her points, but her careful consideration of intersectionality and her recognition that some women face double – or even triple – oppression simply because of where they were born, or what they look like, how they identify themselves, or who they choose to love. Many of the experiences she recounts – backed always by data and ‘hard’ evidence in addition to anecdotal experiences – added to my own understanding of this intersectionality, as well as to my own anger towards the oppression women face simply because they are women trapped within male-dominated societies and systems.

Each of the essays within The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is quite lengthy and, although there was the occasional moment when I felt that Eltahawy was repeating herself, for the most part, each one provokes, engages and offers plenty of food for thought. I found myself needing to take some time after each chapter/essay to mull over the issues Eltahawy raises, and the solutions she proposes.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a powerful and timely book that poses a fierce yet eloquent argument. For anyone already engaged with feminist discourse and activism, it is surely a must read – and it deserves to be read much more widely as a manifesto for meaningful structural change.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy is published by Tramp 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 for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Helen Richardson for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 29 April 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

Two boys venture from their village to hunt in a nearby forest, where they shoot down bats with glee, and cook their prey over an open fire.

Within a month, they are dead, bodies ravaged by an insidious disease that neither the local healer’s potions nor the medical team’s treatments could cure.

Compounding the family’s grief, experts warn against touching the sick.

But this caution comes too late: the virus spreads rapidly, and the boys’ father is barely able to send his eldest daughter away for a chance at survival.

Made up of a series of linked vignettes, this meditative novel charts the course of the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Beginning with two boys whose hunt for bushmeat results in the sickness arriving their village, this short but powerful novella follows healthcare workers, grave diggers, foreign NGO volunteers, grieving families and Ebola survivors to tell a story of human hubris, weaving the story of the virus’s decimation of humanity into a profound fable about the devastation caused to the natural world by human endeavours.

Given the subject matter, this isn’t exactly a book that I ‘enjoyed’ per se. Beneath the lyrical prose, there are some incredibly difficult scenes and the author does not shy away from portraying the terror and heartbreak of the crisis, and the humanitarian issues that followed in its wakes. The sparse but evocative language adds to the depth of the writing, resulting in a powerfully moving tale that packs a punch that belies the novella’s slender length.

I found the way in which Véronique Tadjo wove in chapters told from the perspective of the baobab tree, the bat, and even ebola itself fascinating although I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely convinced that the connection between the environmental destruction caused by humans and the spreading of the virus always came across clearly.

Whilst I found these chapters beautifully written and interesting, I felt the book was at its strongest when showing the range of human responses to the virus, from the compassion of the healthcare workers and the practical concerns of the gravediggers to the fear, pain, anger, and denial faced by the population affected by the virus.

Written with wisdom and compassion, In the Company of Men is a powerfully affecting book that, whilst it won’t be for everyone, offers a beautifully written and evocative tale about humanity’s capacity for destruction, hope, renewal, and resilience.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo is published by Hope Road 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 26 April 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!! Together by Luke Adam Hawker

‘Dark clouds were looming in the distance. We watched them gather, and we wondered… When will it come? How long will it last?’

A monumental storm brings huge and sudden change. We follow a man and his dog through the uncertainty that it brings to their lives.

Through their eyes, we see the difficulties of being apart, the rollercoaster of emotions that we can all relate to, and the realisation that by pulling together we can move through difficult times with new perspective, hope and an appreciation of what matters most in life.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Together when I signed up to this blog tour. Whilst I enjoy reading the occasional graphic novel (I wrote a post about some of my favourites that you can find here), this sounded more like an illustrated fable akin to Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. And whilst those sort of books are undoubtedly beautiful, they can sometimes risk being a little twee.

Like The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse however, Hawker’s Together avoids being either twee or moralistic despite the importance and scope of its subject matter. Instead, as we follow one man and his dog through the uncertainty bought into their lives by a sudden and monumental storm, the book provides a thoughtful and meditative reflection upon the changes that the Covid-19 bought into our lives during 2020.

Marianne Laidlaw has provided sparse yet philosophical words to accompany Hawker’s rich and detailed black and white drawings, and the two combine together to provide a beautiful and meaningful reflection on the ways we find togetherness, even if we’re forced to be physically apart.

As you can see from the above page example, this isn’t a lengthy book or one filled with dense prose – you can read the whole thing in about 10 minutes. But reading the book from cover to cover once isn’t, I think, really the point of Together.

Sure you can do that and you’ll probably think it’s a sweet story with some lovely art. But it’s a book that invites you to return to certain lines or certain illustrations and to reflect. On what life was like ‘before’, how it has been ‘during’, and what it might be like ‘after’. On what things you want to let go of and what you want to keep. Of connections made – and those that need to be given more attention.

Hawker dedicates the book to his grandfather, who he credits with being the inspiration for his main character, and Together reminded me of my own much-missed grandfather, and all the ways in which I am thankful for his influence in my life – as well as for the family, friends, neighbours, tutors and colleagues who have been there to support me throughout this last year. That might seem a little glib – it’s difficult to translate a feeling into words – but it’s what I ended up reflecting on after putting down Hawker’s book.

Together won’t be for everyone – I suspect that many bookshops will place it firmly in the ‘gift book’ category and indeed the stunningly produced hardback would make a beautiful gift for a loved on in your life. Like The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse however, this is a quiet but powerful book that provides a way of reflecting on both the strange and unusual times we have recently found ourselves in, and of provoking conversations about both the losses and gains we may have seen during that time.

Together by Luke Adam Hawker (words by Marianne Laidlaw) is published by Kyle Books and is available 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 24 April 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

Perhaps everyone’s childhood memories are the same: part truth, part fantasy.

But this house turned our imagination into a melting pot, a forge. A cauldron.

I can trust nothing that came out of it.

No. 36 Westeryk Road, an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A house of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?

Now in her thirties, Cat receives the shocking news that her sister has disappeared. Forced to return to Edinburgh, Cat finds herself irresistibly drawn back into Mirrorland. Because El has a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets…

I used to read and review a lot of thrillers but, if I’m honest, it’s been a while since a ‘thriller’ really thrilled me in any way. Until, that is, Mirrorland came along and kept me on the edge of my seat and up turning the pages long after I should probably have turned out the light.

Mirrorland is the story of mirror twins Cat and El, and of the imposing Edinburgh townhouse they grow up in at 36 Westeryk Road. Behind it’s seemingly ordinary façade, 36 Westeryk Road is home to Mirrorland, a vivid make-believe world of populated by pirates, cowboys, and jailbirds- Bluebeard and Blackbeard, the brave and handsome Captain Henry, and the aptly named Mouse. It is also an occasional home to Ross, Cat and El’s next-door neighbour, honorary crewmate, first crush, and secret friend. Mirrorland is a place of magic – and a place of escape. But escape from what? Or from who?

When El goes missing, Cat is forced to return to Westeryk Road, to Ross, and to Mirrorland. Because while everyone else might think El is dead, Cat knows she’s alive – and that she has a plan. Someone is emailing Cat with clues: a treasure hunt that will lead her straight back to Mirrorland – and back into childhood memories that she has buried deep within herself.

Mirrorland is a novel suffused with unease and tension. From the very beginning, the reader is thrown into a confusing world of Clown Cafes and Princess Towers, and it is unclear which characters are real and who has been plucked from the fragments of Cat’s childhood imagination. And it is clear from the first page that beneath the imaginative magic of Mirrorland, something very dark is hiding.

Whilst I don’t want to give any spoilers, I do want to provide some trigger warnings because the novel confronts issues of child abuse, rape and sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse, mental trauma, coercive control, gaslighting, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. Although never gratuitous or overly graphic, the truth behind Mirrorland is very dark indeed and the novel is a testament to the power of the imagination and the many and varied ways that the body – and the mind – will try to protect itself from trauma.

Although a somewhat unreliable protagonist, I became utterly drawn into Cat’s world – and into the world of Mirrorland – very quickly. Although occasionally difficult to sympathise with, I could understand Cat’s resentment of El, her fascination with Ross, and her wish to leave the past firmly in the past. The relationship between sisters Cat and El is definitely at the heart of Mirrorland. As an only child, I find novels about the intricate mix of love and jealousy that occurs between siblings fascinating – and Carole Johnstone coveys the tangled web of affection. loyalty, and resentment between Cat and El fabulously.

I was slightly less taken by the relationship between the two sisters and Ross which did, sadly, conform to a lot of the tropes of the genre. Unfortunately this meant that, for me, some aspects of the ending descended into cliché, which was a huge shame given how fresh and original the rest of the plot felt. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the ending of Mirrorland – it packs a real punch and there are some very dark revelations that I didn’t see coming – but, for me, the final third of the book was less compelling.

For me, Mirrorland is at its best when it is operating as a mystery. I was compelled by Cat’s struggle to mine the fragments of her memories, and by the contrasting landscape of Cat and El’s make-believe world with the gradually revealed realities of their childhood. The magical yet oppressive neo-Gothic atmosphere of Mirrorland is vividly conveyed on the page and, for me, the writing was definitely at its best when exploring this brilliantly realised world of imagination.

As I said at the start of this review, it is a long time since a thriller thrilled me. But whilst some aspects of the ending didn’t quite land with me, Mirrorland definitely succeeded in keeping me reading – and in making for a thrilling read. Combining a well-crafted mystery, a unique premise, and the compulsive readability of a thriller, Mirrorland is an impressive debut that is sure to appeal to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware, Erin Kelly and Sarah Pinborough.

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone is published by Borough 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 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 01 May 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Plague Letters by V. L. Valentine

WHO WOULD MURDER THE DYING…

London, 1665. Hidden within the growing pile of corpses in his churchyard, Rector Symon Patrick discovers a victim of the pestilence unlike any he has seen before: a young woman with a shorn head, covered in burns, and with pieces of twine delicately tied around each wrist and ankle.

Desperate to discover the culprit, Symon joins a society of eccentric medical men who have gathered to find a cure for the plague. Someone is performing terrible experiments upon the dying, hiding their bodies amongst the hundreds that fill the death carts.

Only Penelope – a new and mysterious addition to Symon’s household – may have the skill to find the killer. Far more than what she appears, she is already on the hunt. But the dark presence that enters the houses of the sick will not stop, and has no mercy…

V. L Valentine’s The Plague Letters opens with the Reverend Symon Patrick, newly returned to London by order of his patron and regretting both his enforced return and his separation from the vivacious Elizabeth. Symon returns to a city filled with fear and a household in uproar – during his absence, bubonic plague has arrived and Londoners are fleeing to the country if they can. And in the midst of the chaos, one of Symon’s maids has gone missing.

When the missing maid turns up dead, no one – least of all Symon – is surprised. The body shows unusual signs – a shaved head, strange inked markings, signs of restraint – but London is full of superstition, quacks, and dubious medicines. But when another young woman arrives in the same condition, Penelope – a new and quick-witted addition to Symons household – forces the reluctant reverend to take notice of the possibility of a killer in their midst. Someone, it seems, is attempting a series of misguided experiments in an attempt to rid London of the plague – and they’re more than happy to trial their ‘medicine’ on human subjects.

Desperate for answers, Symon is forced into an unlikely alliance. A group of medical ‘professionals’ – an eminent physician, a well-known surgeon, a charismatic ‘healer’, and a pioneering apothacary – have formed The Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague. Despite their differences – and their personal eccentricities – these men seek to end London’s suffering. But is a killer hiding in their midst?

There were times, especially early on, when I wasn’t quite sure what sort of book I was reading with The Plague Letters. By turns gorily vivid in its descriptions of the deprivations bought about by the London plague, the next page might see a farcical comedy play out as the filthy surgeon Mincey starts a fistfight with drunken apothecary Boghurst, or court favourite Valentine Greatrakes flounces into the room with a knowing smile and a witty retort. Turn the page again and you’re in the midde of a romantic drama, as Symon continues his illicit correspondance with the flirtateous – and very much married – Elizabeth. It’s as if V. L. Valentine has reached into 1665 and pulled out a slice of London life, upending it onto the page in all of its chaotic, messy, and gruesome glory.

Get used to the sudden lurches in tone however, and The Plague Letters offers a rich and rewarding mystery enveloped alongside deeply evocative depiction of plague-ridden London. The characters, whilst not always especially likeable, leap off the page, pulling the reader into their messy lives – and into their hunt for an increasingly unhinged killer. V. L. Valentine has a real eye – and ear – for the strange and the absurd, brilliantly capturing both the dark humour and the grit of the bodily experiences evoked on the page.

Symon makes for an interesting – and occasionally infuriating – main narrator. Suffering from melancholy and increasingly embroiled in relationships he neither fully understands nor fully appreciates, he is a man whose inner demons constantly wrestle with his better angels. Once paired with clever, mysterious Penelope however, Symon soon begins to untangle his knotty mess of life choices and I enjoyed seeing the pair’s relationship develop from antagonistic tolerance to trust over the course of the novel. Although the ending leaves many of the personal mysteries within the characters lives opaque or unresolved, I still felt as if I had got to know – and even to like – these flawed and changeable people by the of the book.

The eccentricity of style – that alignment of the grim and the grimly funny – may put some people off The Plague Letters but settle into this novel and you’ll find a cleverly-plotted mystery, some fantastially realised characters, and a deeply evocative depiction of seventeenth-century London. It’s as if Imogen Hermes Gowar’s sublimely eccentric The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock had been combined with the tension of Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of London and the mystery of Antonia Hodgson’s A Devil in the Marshalsea. Fans of historical crime will find much to delight in – as will anyone who enjoys being dragged in to a book and taken along for a wild and unpredictable ride!

The Plague Letters by V. L. Valentine is published by Viper Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to the publisher for inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 12 April so check out the other stops on Twitter and Instagram for more reviews and content!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Drowned City by K. J. Maitland

1606. A year to the day that men were executed for conspiring to blow up Parliament, a towering wave devastates the Bristol Channel. Some proclaim God’s vengeance. Others seek to take advantage.

In London, Daniel Pursglove lies in prison waiting to die. But Charles FitzAlan, close adviser to King James I, has a job in mind that will free a man of Daniel’s skill from the horrors of Newgate. If he succeeds.

For Bristol is a hotbed of Catholic spies, and where better for the lone conspirator who evaded arrest, one Spero Pettingar, to gather allies than in the chaos of a drowned city? Daniel journeys there to investigate FitzAlan’s lead, but soon finds himself at the heart of a dark Jesuit conspiracy – and in pursuit of a killer.

Fans of historical fiction may recognise the name Karen Maitland from her standalone titles such as Company of Liars and The Owl Killers. The Drowned City, written under the name K. J. Maitland, is the first of a promised series to feature secretary-turned-conjurer-turned-agent Daniel Pursglove and sees a slight shift in both era and tone from Maitland’s previous work.

Set in 1606, with England and Scotland both still reeling from the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot and James I’s promises of religious toleration looking increasingly untenable in the wake of renewed Catholic conspiracies, The Drowned City opens with Daniel languishing in the rat-infested depths of Newgate on trumped-up charges of witchcraft. As a man with powerful and well-connected enemies, it will take the favour of the King himself to grant Daniel his freedom – which is precisely what he is offered when the mysterious Charles FitzAlan tasks him with uncovering a network of Jesuit spies – and of investigating allegations that they may have recruited witches to their cause.

On his arrival in Bristol, Daniel finds a city in ruins. A devastating wave has left the city shattered – and its remaining people suspicious of both outsiders and those who survived unscathed. Restless mobs roam the streets and gangs of vicious looters operate under the shadowy protection of the castle. Finding refuge at the Salt Cat Inn, it isn’t long before Daniel realises his task may be impossible. Bristol is a hotbed of conspiracy – and then amidst the whispers, bodies start to be unearthed.

As you can hopefully tell from that brief description, The Drowned City is a fast-paced and thrilling adventure that quickly sees Daniel become embroiled in a series of local murders that may have much wider implications for both court and country.

Whilst more action-orientated that Maitland’s previous novels, The Drowned City is no less impressive in its historical research or realism – one of the things that I enjoyed most about the novel was how vividly Maitland depicts the world in which Daniel lives. From the crowded and horrific squalor of Newgate’s dark depths to the mud-encrusted remnants of wave-damaged Bristol’s streets, I felt as if I was walking alongside Daniel every step of the way. I also enjoyed the occasional snapshots that are given of court life, and the way in which Daniel’s investigations are shown to relate to national concerns that have implications for the court – and for the life of King James himself.

Daniel himself is an interesting protagonist – although I suspect there are secrets hidden in his background that have been left for readers to discover in later books! Having been raised alongside – and worked for – gentlemen, he is well placed to understand the intricacies and dangers of the court – and to appreciate the dangers that lie in continuing to follow the old faith. However his more recent career as a conjurer – as well as his mysterious past – gives Daniel a street-sense and a roguishness that serves him well in his adventure – and allows the reader to ponder where his loyalties and morals may truly lie.

It is difficult to say much more about The Drowned City without spoiling the enjoyment of reading it. Packed full of intrigue and set within a dark and dangerous world, it is an enthralling novel that is sure to appeal to fans of C. J. Sansom and Andrew Taylor, as well as to anyone who has previously enjoyed Maitland’s work. Jacobean England is brought vividly to life and the plot whips along with the crackle and spark of the magic that Pursglove is sent to investigate. A thoroughly enjoyable and diverting read – I am already looking forward to seeing where Daniel Pursglove ends up next!

The Drowned City by K. J. Maitland is published by Headline and is available now from all good bookshops 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 12 April 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Shadow in the Glass by J J A Harwood

Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.

Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.

One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must to decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay it.

Offering a dark take on Cinderella, J J A Harwood’s debut novel The Shadow in the Glass provides a compulsive and twisted fable that underlines the message ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Seventeen-year-old Ella used to be ‘Miss Eleanor’, adopted daughter of the beloved Mrs Pembroke. With her benefactor’s death however, she is forced below stairs – reduced to being the lowly ‘Ella’ and at risk from both the lecherous attentions of her former stepfather and the cruel bitterness of Head Housemaid Lizzie.

Ella’s escape from her new life of drudgery and servitude is the library. In stolen moments late at night, she locks herself away and disappears into books. But when she picks up The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, a visitor appears. A black-eyed woman who promises that she patch together Ella’ tattered dreams and grant her seven wishes – for a price. Entering into a Faustian pact, Ella soon discovers that the power of the black-eyed woman is all too real – and that there are consequences to making your wishes come true.

Combining elements of Marlowe’s Faustus with the folk tale of Cinderella and then setting them against the backdrop of Victorian London, The Shadow in the Glass is a darkly sinister tale with a complex protagonist. Whilst I sympathised with Ella and her situation, I struggled to warm to her – although I found her story no less compelling because of this. That J J A Harwood has managed to retain this interest in the fate of a character who is, in many ways, unlikeable (and, for me, became more so as the novel progressed) is a testament to the pull of the plot, which sees Ella being increasingly forced to enact her Faustian bargain – and increasingly tormented by the consequences of having made it.

The novel is a little slow to start – Harwood takes time establishing Ella’s situation and introducing the household she is living within, as well as her background and her former life above stairs. But once the pact has been made and the black-eyed woman introduced, the pace picks up rapidly as Ella finds herself making a wish, only to suffer the unintended consequences and be forced into calling on her black-eyed ‘fairy godmother’ to try and overcome these. By the end of the novel, the action is relentless, with Ella increasingly finding the events she has wrought spiralling away from her – and the reader left wondering if she will ever be able to regain control over her own narrative. There’s also a punchy and sinister twist to the tale that reminded me of Laura Purcell’s Bone China, and made me really question the story that had preceded it.

I did find a few elements of The Shadow in the Glass slightly predictable. The romance – and its consequences – were of little surprise, and some of the moments where Ella’s situation goes from bad to worse did feel like they’d come straight out of a Dickens novel. This is, however, unsurprising given the way in which the novel pays homage to so many genres and, to be fair, the twists that Harwood provides give a unique spin to the more cliché elements of Ella’s story. I particularly enjoyed the way in which each incident is used to examine the overarching theme of power – who holds it, what they do with it, and the consequences of using it maliciously or unthinkingly.

The Shadow in the Glass is a compelling take on an old tale and brilliantly combines elements of fairy tale and folk narrative with the atmosphere of the Victorian Gothic to provide a contemporary twist on a classic story. Although I had one or two minor niggles, the ending provided a brilliantly biting sting and the narrative became more compelling as the novel progressed. Fans of Laura Purcell’s modern gothic novels are sure to find much to enjoy and The Shadow in the Glass marks J J A Harwood out as an author to watch for.

The Shadow in the Glass by J J A Harwood is published by Harper Voyager UK and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, and Waterstones.

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 28 March 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zöe Wheddon

All fans of Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Through this heart-warming examination of an important and often overlooked person in Jane’s world, we uncover the life changing force of their friendship.

Each chapter details the fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. Within these pages we will relive their shared interests, the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

As an avid reader of Jane Austen’s work, I have often felt myself wishing I could get that little bit closer to this somewhat enigmatic author. The lively wit that rises from each page of Austen’s novels and letters often seems wildly at odds with the modest woman depicted in many of the biographies we have of her, and in the image of the retiring ‘Aunt Jane’ that her family were so keen to promote after her death. It is easy to wonder what Jane Austen was really like – and what it would be like to take a turn about the room with her or have her as a dinner party guest.

Zöe Wheddon is equally captivated by this and, in Jane Austen’s Best Friend, has turned to an overlooked figure in Jane’s life to help bring us closer to the author and her world. Martha Lloyd was Jane’s lifelong friend and who, Wheddon argues, may have known the writer as well as – and in some ways better than – Jane’s sister Cassandra, her more acknowledged confidant. Starting with Martha and Jane’s childhood, Wheddon moves through the lives of these two women, using surviving correspondence, diaries, and other archival records to depict a lasting and deeply important friendship that had a lasting and meaningful impact on both parties involved in it.

It is clear that Wheddon has done her research and, despite the occasional lack of concrete evidence (not all of Martha and Jane’s letters have survived), she examines what is there in almost forensic detail, connecting the small, seemingly trivial, moments of Jane and Martha’s lives into the wider picture of their life and times, including the impact and influence that this may have had upon Jane’s beloved novels. Wheddon’s enthusiasm for her subject really comes across in the book which is, for the most part, told in a lively and accessible way despite the wealth of both time and material covered.

Despite reading several biographies of Austen, I’d never really heard much about Martha Lloyd before. The role of friendship is often overlooked in biographies – especially of pioneering female writers – and Jane Austen is often portrayed as a writer bereft of friends, immersed wholly in the life of her family and a few close family acquaintances. It was therefore both heartening and interesting to see this reframed and to discover the impact that a close and long-lasting female friendship had upon the lives of these two women.

In fact if I had one quibble about the book it was that the focus was, at times, too much on Jane and not enough on Martha. Martha Lloyd appears to have been a lively and fascinating woman in her own right and I sometimes felt that this was explored only in so much as it accounted for development or influence in Jane’s life or writing. I understand that many readers will be attracted to this book because of the Austen connection but, for me, I’d have liked more chapters like the final one, which examines Martha’s life after Jane’s death. I also found some of the connections Wheddon makes between Martha and specific elements or incidents within Jane’s writing slightly tentative although I found her overall argument in favour of Martha’s influence to be a strong and compelling one.

Because of the Austen focus, it’s unlikely that this biography will appeal to those not already interested in Austen herself. And I’d probably recommend reading a biography of Austen (my preference is for Lucy Worsley’s excellent Jane Austen at Home, but there are many others) in order to get the most out of this book. For Austen aficionados however, Jane Austen’s Best Friend offers an interesting new way of navigating well-trodden territory, spotlights an overlooked figure within Jane’s life (and an interesting woman in her right!) and convincingly argues that we should consider the lasting influence of such a significant friendship when we read and appreciate Jane Austen’s work.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zöe Wheddon is published by Pen & Sword and is available 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 an copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Rachel from Rachel’s Random Resources for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 06 March 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!