Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Demon by Matt Wesolowski (Six Stories #6)

Scott King’s podcast investigates the 1995 cold case of a demon possession in a rural Yorkshire village, where a 12-year-old boy was murdered in cold blood by two children. Book six in the chilling, award-winning Six Stories series.

In 1995, the picture-perfect village of Ussalthwaite was the site of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, in a case that shocked the world. Twelve-year-old Sidney Parsons was savagely murdered by two boys his own age. No reason was ever given for this terrible crime, and the ‘Demonic Duo’ who killed him were imprisoned until their release in 2002, when they were given new identities and lifetime anonymity.

Elusive online journalist Scott King investigates the lead-up and aftermath of the killing, uncovering dark and fanciful stories of demonic possession, and encountering a village torn apart by this unspeakable act.

And, as episodes of his Six Stories podcast begin to air, King himself becomes a target, with dreadful secrets from his own past dredged up and threats escalating to a terrifying level. It becomes clear that whatever drove those two boys to kill is still there, lurking, and the campaign of horror has just begun…

It’s no secret that I have long been a fan of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series. Every single book in the series to date has been a 5-star read for me, with their page-turning combination of true crime podcast and supernatural folkloric chills.

Demon, the latest outing for podcaster Scott King, was, for me, a slightly different reading experience to previous entries in the series. I usually race through a Six Stories book over the course of a day or a weekend. Demon took me longer to read – not because it was any less brilliant (because let me tell you know, it is a FANTASTIC read) but because the tone and subject required, for me anyway, a more meditative pace of consumption. Instead of tearing breathlessly through the pages, I read the book almost like I would listen to a podcast: consuming an episode at a time, waiting a few days to digest that, and then consuming the next one. As a means of reading, it worked very well – especially for this particular topic.

For Scott King’s sixth outing, he’s investigating the brutal killing of twelve-year-old Sidney Parsons, brutally murdered by two boys his own age. No reason was ever given for their terrible crime but, in the small village of Ussalthwaite, dark rumours of an ancient evil circle around the tragedy. Could demonic possession account for this horrific crime? Familial and societal neglect? Or are some people just born evil?

Make no mistake, Demon is dark read in parts. The book comes prefaced with a trigger warning for fictional violence against children and animals and, in parts, the scenes and scenarios described are upsetting. There’s also discussion of suicide and attempted suicide. That said, I didn’t feel that these elements were used in any way that was gratuitous. Instead it is used to ask quite serious – and at times difficult – questions about personal choice, societal behaviour, and social responsibility in the social media age.

As with previous Six Stories novels, Demon combines a slightly supernatural element with the true crime podcast format and, as in previous novels, this adds a level of spooky tension to the story without ever becoming cliched or overblown. The balance between the folklore and the ‘true’ crime elements is particularly well done here, demonstrating the way in which deviations from societal norms remain insidious even in supposedly ‘modern’ times.

With its ambiguous conclusion, Demon isn’t a book that provides easy answers but it is one that provides a captivating and compulsive reading experience. For fans of the Six Stories series, it is a worthy – and much awaited – addition to the series whilst newcomers will get a darkly compulsive introduction to Six Stories’ fantastically readable blend of crime thriller and supernatural horror.

Demon (Six Stories #6) by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Orenda Books store, 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 31 January 2022 so 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!!! Wahala by Nikki May

Ronke, Simi, Boo are three mixed-race friends living in London. They have the gift of two cultures, Nigerian and English. Not all of them choose to see it that way.

Everyday racism has never held them back, but now in their thirties, they question their future. Ronke wants a husband (he must be Nigerian); Boo enjoys (correction: endures) stay-at-home motherhood; while Simi, full of fashion career dreams, rolls her eyes as her boss refers to her urban vibe yet again.

When Isobel, a lethally glamorous friend from their past arrives in town, she is determined to fix their futures for them.

Cracks in their friendship begin to appear, and it is soon obvious Isobel is not sorting but wrecking. When she is driven to a terrible act, the women are forced to reckon with a crime in their past that may just have repeated itself.

Billed as Sex and the City meets My Sister, the Serial Killer, Nikki May’s debut novel Wahala is certainly bursting onto 2022’s bookish scene with a bang – I mean, just look at that striking cover for starters!!

Fortunately the contents more than live up to the hype – although I’d agree with a number of other reviewers in saying that Wahala‘s vibe is more Big Little Lies than Sex in the City. The book focuses upon the friendship between three Anglo-Nigerian women in their thirties: Simi, Ronke, and Boo, and examines what happens when a fourth woman, Isobel, upsets the balance of their carefully curated lives and seemingly solid friendship group.

From the moment she steps onto the page, it is clear that Isobel is wahala (which means ‘trouble’ in Nigerian) and that her ‘friendship’ can bring nothing but chaos into Simi, Ronke, and Boo’s lives. But do their lives need a little chaos? After all, Simi is concealing the fact she’s not sure about having children from husband Martin, Boo feels overlooked and unappreciated by her husband Didier and their daughter Sophia, and Ronke can’t get boyfriend Kayode to keep his commitments. Maybe they need a bit of wahala in their lives? But who is Isobel really? And what are her motives for trying to fix their futures?

Wahala is a brilliant portrayal of the complexity of female relationships and female friendship. Ronke, Boo, and Simi come alive on the page and I felt drawn into the evocative details of their lives – from catching up over jollof rice and pounded yam at Buka, to clicking ‘buy’ on a Net-a-Porter order that really shouldn’t be added to the credit card, each of them is relatably fallible and sympathetic, even if they’re not always wholly likeable.

Despite being long-time friends, each of the women has very different personalities and I suspect different readers will warm to different members of the group. I really like honest and reliable homebody Ronke, with her passion for food, and her penchant for unreliable men. Others may prefer career-girl Simi, who suffers with a severe case of imposter syndrome beneath her picture-perfect lifestyle, or put-upon mum Boo, struggling to find herself underneath the labels of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’.

Indeed, the only person it was hard to warm to in any way was Isobel – glamorously lethal and oozing toxicity from the moment she appears on the page. At times, I did wonder why Simi, Boo, and Ronke – all seemingly intelligent and independent women – ‘buy into’ Isobel despite the (many) warning signs. Then I realised that they’re all seeking something in their lives – something that Isobel, however dangerous, seems to be able to provide. As a study in womanhood, Wahala doesn’t always do its characters any favours but, as a study in fractured psychologies and the reasons why competent women make poor life choices, it’s a work of genius.

Without giving away any of the plot, I did find the ‘twist’ at the end to be a bit of a disappointment – a sudden veer into thriller territory in a novel that, up to that point, had relied on psychological nuance and human relationships as its primary appeal. It was also a very sharp turn into tragedy in a novel that, for the most part, never took itself too seriously and sprinkled plenty of humour (albeit quite dark humour) amidst the angst.

The ending is, however, a very minor quibble amidst an otherwise brilliantly evocative and engaging read. Wahala had me hooked from the off! I particularly loved the way that Anglo-Nigerian culture is depicted in the novel (which frequently makes use of Nigerian words and phrases as well as centring many conversations around delicious and evocative depictions of food) and the way that the three women’s identities are informed – but never defined – by their mixed heritage. Having finished the book, I’ll definitely be giving the included recipes for Ronke’s jollof rice and chicken stew a go – as well as Aunty K’s moin-moin. Nikki May has also curated a Spotify playlist so you can listen to songs that inspired the book whilst you read!

Overall Wahala is an unputdownable tale of female life and friendship, told with verve and humour. More of a contemporary drama than a thriller, it’s sure to appeal to fans of Liane Moriarty and gave me similar vibes to Anna Hope’s Expectation. With it’s sharply observed humour and evocative depiction of contemporary life, friendships, and relationships, its the perfect riveting read for blowing away the January blues – or for picking up and making a start on your summer reading pile for 2022!

Wahala by Nikki May is published by Penguin Doubleday 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 19 January 2022 so check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

Image Description: The cover of The Key in the Lock has a floorplan of a house in gold against a dark blue-green floral background. The title, with the image of a key in gold, is in the centre.

I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unfurling out of an upper window and a hectic orange light cascading across the terrace.”

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.

Set over two timelines, Beth Underdown’s The Key in the Lock is a gloriously gothic mystery with shades of a psychological thriller and a setting reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The year is 1918 and Ivy Boscawen is grieving, both for the loss of her son Tim in the trenches – and for the loss of the life she was meant to have. Both losses seem, to Ivy, like retribution for another death: that of young William Tremain, killed in a fire at Polneath House thirty years previously. Ivy’s belief in that the boy was murdered – and her attempts to prove it – led to events that, years later, continue to haunt Ivy. And only by discovering the truth of what really happened will she be able to lay the ghosts of both the past and the present to rest.

Beth Underdown has written a haunting and evocative novel effectively told across two timelines, each of which provides a compulsive storyline populated with a host of believably fallible characters.

Although the novel takes a while to hit its stride, unravelling the mysteries of Polneath and making the connections between Ivy’s past and present kept me really engaged with both storylines – and, as more secrets are revealed, the tension really ramps up. By the end, I was eagerly turning the pages to make the final connections and work out what really happened at Polneath all those years ago – and what ramifications that has for Ivy as she processes her son’s death.

Ivy’s grief was sensitively handled, and her heartbreak really came across through the pages. I also felt that the relationship between Ivy and her husband, Richard, was brilliantly portrayed and bittersweet. The conflict that Ivy feels when Edward, the man Ivy fell in love with back at Polneath all those years ago, comes back into her life is also really well handled. Indeed, Ivy is a wonderfully flawed protagonist – determined, brave, and intelligent, albeit a little misguided and, when we meet her in 1888, blissfully naïve.

I did have one or two minor quibbles – a couple of the characters felt a little too obviously ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and, sure enough, it turns out that appearances can be deceptive. I also found some of Ivy’s decisions a little hard to fathom at times – although, admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as besotted as Ivy is!

Overall, however, The Key in the Lock is an atmospheric and compulsively readable historical mystery that will keep you guessing right up until the end. It made for a fantastic start to my reading year and is sure to appeal to fans of Diane Setterfield, Elizabeth Macneal, and Stacey Halls.

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown is published by Penguin Viking on 13 January 2022 and is available to pre-order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

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

If you decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting 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!

Reviews

FAVOURITE FICTION BOOK REVIEWS!! Piranesi by Susanna Clarke & Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Has everyone made their way out of the fog of cheese and turkey sandwiches yet? Yes, Christmas Day is over for another year and, as we haul our slightly rounder selves towards the light of the New Year, I wanted to share two more of my favourite books from 2021 that, for some reason, I’ve just not yet got around to reviewing. This time I have two fabulous fiction books to share with you, starting with…

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite”. Thus are we drawn into the world of Piranesi and of the House, a colossal structure of seemingly infinite halls ruled by the changeable tides. Piranesi has always lived in the house – or has he? When his sole visitor, a man called The Other, accidentally indicates that there may be a third person with access to the House, the carefully bordered world that Piranesi has always known begins to fracture at the seams.

To say any more about Susanna Clarke’s masterful novel would be to spoil the magic. Because this novel really is magic. There’s something spellbinding about the intricate simplicity of the story and the gentleness of Piranesi himself that absolutely transported me.

I’ve written before about having magical realism and fantasy being genres that either really work for me or just fall completely flat so, I’ll be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up had it not won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. Reading Piranesi has, however, opened my eyes to the variety available within these genres and the transportative possibilities of fantastical fiction. I’ll definitely be giving Susanna’s first novel, Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell another go, and have started taking in the sci-fi and fantasy shelves with fresh eyes when making my visits to the bookshop and the library.

Beautifully and lyrically written, Piranesi is storytelling at its very best. Like the mysterious House itself, the novel twists and turns, opening into labyrinthine halls and revealing more of its wonders with every turn of the page. There’s also, at its heart, a very human story of envy, greed, ambition, kindness, loss, and connectivity. Long after I turned the final page, I’ve found myself revisiting Piranesi, his House, its immeasurable Beauty and its infinite Kindness.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother.

When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.

But the more she investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen herself, her husband Howard – with his dry wit and gentle disposition – and her charming daughter Margaret.

But they are the subject of the story Jean is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness.

But there will be a price to pay – and it will be unbearable.

Unlike Piranesi, which is a seemingly simple tale that becomes increasingly fantastical, Small Pleasures begins with a fantastical tale that, once you dig beneath the surface, is a relatively simple story of love, longing, and – yes – the titular small pleasures.

The novel opens with feature writer Jean volunteering to speak with Gretchen, a young housewife who is convinced that her daughter Margaret is a virgin birth. Ten-year-old Margaret, Gretchen claims, was conceived whilst she was hospitalised in a a convalescence home run by nuns, in a ward surrounded by and overseen only by women.

As excited academics run their tests on Gretchen and Margaret, Jean is gradually drawn into the life of the Tilbury family – and towards Gretchen’s quiet and unassuming husband, Howard. Because underneath the gleaming surface of this happy family home lie many secrets that Jean will, for better or worse, be the catalyst for uncovering.

Saying any more about the novel would be to spoil the plot and deny any future readers the joy of reading this wryly observed and brilliantly written novel. The prose is sublime and the characters vividly and realistically drawn – this is not a novel of good guys and bad guys but of real and fallible people in all their messy glory. As the title suggests, its also a story of the small pleasures that life brings, and of the trials and tribulations of the everyday. Although set in the late 1950s, many of Jean’s experiences will resonate today – from her struggle to make herself heard in her workplace, to the stresses of being the sole carer for an elderly relative, and the difficulty of choosing between your own happiness and the happiness of others.

If you look at reviews of this novel (and I’d advise you don’t – this is definitely a novel better experienced without prior expectation), you’ll see some reviewers have a real issue with the ending. It’s certainly a wallop at the end of an otherwise relatively sedate novel but, for me, it underscored the novel’s central premise and brought together so many of the threads that Clare Chambers had woven throughout. I can see how it gave some readers the rage but don’t let it put you off – in fact, I’d urge you to read the novel and decide for yourself!!

So, those are two fabulous fiction recommendations! Do let me know whether you decide to pick either of them up or, if you’ve read them yourself, what you thought of them! I’ll be back soon with my Best Books of the Year list but, in the meantime, enjoy the remainder of the festive season!

If you do decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting 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!

Reviews

THREE MINI REVIEWS: Brilliant Non-Fiction Books

It’s getting to that time of year when I look back and realise how many brilliant books I’ve read but not yet got around to reviewing. So for today’s post, I want to play catch-up and tell you about three brilliant non-fiction titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in 2021.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

The Greek myths are one of the most important cultural foundation-stones of the modern world.

Stories of gods and monsters are the mainstay of epic poetry and Greek tragedy, from Homer to Virgil to from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides. And still, today, a wealth of novels, plays and films draw their inspiration from stories first told almost three thousand years ago. But modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men, and have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s stories.

Now, in Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Greek creation myths as her starting point and then retelling the four great mythic sagas: the Trojan War, the Royal House of Thebes, Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles, she puts the female characters on equal footing with their menfolk. The result is a vivid and powerful account of the deeds – and misdeeds – of Hera, Aphrodite, Athene and Circe. And away from the goddesses of Mount Olympus it is Helen, Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Antigone and Medea who sing from these pages, not Paris, Agamemnon, Orestes or Jason.

I’ve been a fan of Natalie Haynes’ fiction ever since her debut novel, The Amber Fury, and have also greatly enjoyed her amusingly informative podcast, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myth utilises both Natalie’s extensive knowledge of classical myth, legend, and literature with her ready wit to look beneath the surface of what we know – or often assume – about the women of Greek mythology. Was Pandora really to blame for the release of all the evils of the world? And did she even have a box from which to release them? Was Medea really the evil mother of legend? Did Helen of Troy really choose to leave her husband and run away to Troy with Paris?

The answers to these questions, as Haynes ably demonstrates in this lively and knowledgeable book, are far more complicated than popular culture might lead us to believe. Indeed, many of these women whose stories we think we know so well have been, Hayne argues, viciously maligned by – you guessed it – predominantly male writers in the ages since.

Thoroughly researched but told in with humour and insight, Pandora’s Jar is a fascinating foray into Greek mythology, a call to arms for the reconsideration of maligned women in mythology, and a timely reminder of the importance of female voices in classical literature.

Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials by Professor Alice Roberts

This book is about belonging: about walking in ancient places, in the footsteps of the ancestors. It’s about reaching back in time, to find ourselves, and our place in the world.

We often think of Britain springing from nowhere with the arrival of the Romans. But in Ancestors, pre-eminent archaeologist, broadcaster and academic Professor Alice Roberts explores what we can learn about the very earliest Britons – from their burial sites. Although we have very little evidence of what life was like in prehistorical times, here their stories are told through the bones and funerary offerings left behind, preserved in the ground for thousands of years.

Told through seven fascinating burial sites, this groundbreaking prehistory of Britain teaches us more about ourselves and our history: how people came and went; how we came to be on this island.

I love history but my own studies have been woefully lacking on anything that can be classed as ‘prehistory’. As a kid, I always preferred knights in shining armour to dinosaurs and ‘cavemen’ and, as I’ve got older, the closest I’ve got to studying early civilisations is watching Ice Age.

Professor Alice Roberts’s fascinating book Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials changed all that, however. Combining archaeology, anthropology and, scientific enquiry into early DNA, Roberts tells the story of the earliest ages of humankind through seven remarkable prehistoric burials. What emerges is a picture of surprisingly complex – and deeply human – societies that reacted to changing food sources, social patterns, weather conditions, and climate.

Each chapter focuses on a specific burial – from the famous Amesbury Archer to the Paviland ‘Red Lady’ (who might, it turns out, not be a lady at all) – and examines not only what these burials might tell us about pre-historic Britain and its people, but also how scientific enquiry and excavation techniques have developed to allow us greater insight into these early peoples and their societies. As with Haynes, Roberts busts more than a few myths about pre-history during the course of her book and explains with ease the often complex science behind various theories and reasonings.

An informative yet accessible guide to a fascinating period of history through the examination of bones, pots, early weapons, and fragmentary remains, Ancestors made for a riveting read.

Ask a Historian: 50 Surprising Answers to Things You Always Wanted to Know by Greg Jenner

Why is Italy called Italy? How old is curry? Which people from history would best pull off a casino heist? Who was the richest person of all time? When was the first Monday? What were history’s weirdest medical procedures that actually worked? How much horse manure was splattered on the streets of Tudor London? How fast was the medieval Chinese postal system? What did the Flintstones get right about the Stone Age? Who gets to name historical eras, and what will ours be called in 100 years’ time? How do we know how people sounded in the past? How old is sign language?

In Ask a Historian the author, BBC podcaster, and public historian Greg Jenner provides answers to things you always wondered about, but didn’t know who to ask. Responding to 50 genuine questions from the public, Greg whisks you off on an entertaining tour through the ages, revealing the best and most surprising stories, facts, and historical characters from the past. Bouncing through a wide range of subjects – from ancient jokebooks, African empires, and bizarre tales of medicinal cannibalism, to the invention of meringues, mirrors, and menstrual pads – Ask A Historian spans the Stone Age to the Swinging Sixties, and offers up a deliciously amusing and informative smorgasbord of historical curiosities, devoured one morsel at a time.

As with Haynes’s work, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Greg Jenner’s previous books, as well as his fantastic podcast You’re Dead to Me. Ask a Historian is another triumphant mix of interesting yet esoteric history, cheerfully irreverent storytelling, and bum jokes.

I listened to the audiobook of this one – read by Jenner himself and featuring some additional content – and it was an absolute hoot. Not only did I learn a lot but I also laughed out loud on more than one occasion. It’s also an audiobook I can see me re-listening to – always a bonus in my book!

Given the nature of the book – 50 questions that bounce across ages and continents – Ask a Historian made the perfect read to listen to whilst out for a walk or commuting to work. The book would also be a perfect read for dipping into and out of alongside other reading – and would make a great gift for a history-loving friend or relative this festive season.

So those are three brilliant non-fiction titles I’ve read in 2021 and wanted to share with you. Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or intend to pick any of them up!

If you do decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting 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!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! Matrix by Lauren Groff

Image Description: The cover of Matrix is cream and features medieval-style illustrations of nuns in blue set against a backdrop of gold/gilt leaves.

Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, 17-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.

At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.

Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?

You know that feeling when you pick up a book, read the first page, and are just instantly transported? Well, that’s how I felt when I started reading Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Matrix. From the moment I started the novel, I was instantly transported into the life – and mind – of the extraordinary Marie de France: a woman who, in reality, historians know remarkably little about.

From Marie’s literary legacy – much of it still tentatively attributed – of remarkable lais, translations, and religious writings, Lauren Groff has created a complex, vivacious, and remarkable depiction of 12th century womanhood as, in Matrix, we follow her from resentful teenager, cast out from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, to visionary abbess of one of the most powerful abbeys in Angleterre.

As the illegitimate daughter of a powerful man and a strident, unconventional mother, Groff’s Marie is a woman too large for the times in which she lives – both in terms of her tall, broad stature, and the fiery cast of her brilliant mind. Her family tree is filled with ‘difficult’ women: crusading aunts, a fiercely intelligent grandmother, and, far back in the legendary past, the fairy woman, Melusine. To Eleanor of Aquitaine – herself a woman no stranger to power, intelligence, and latent cunning – Marie has a potential that, whilst admirable, poses a threat to the crown that must be contained. But, in casting her out, Eleanor provides Marie with the perfect arena on which to imprint her powerful personality.

Groff has evocatively depicted the rhythms of life in an English nunnery during the twelfth century. From the lean years of starvation, with their ever-present threat of deadly illness, to the serenity of a well-fed, well-tended community of women, bound together by their promises to both their faith and to each other, every page felt like being pulled into the past. And, by the end of the novel, these women – Infirmatrix Nest, Sub-Prioress Goda, Baliff Wulfhild – felt like beloved friends and relatives; their tribulations, woes, and joys my own.

The word ‘matrix’ has multiple meanings and Groff plays with all of them deftly. From the community of women that Marie builds around her to the idea of the ‘mat-rix’: the mother as leader, Groff has clearly delighted in playing with the ideas generated by the word, and in showing how Marie herself encompasses its multiple meanings throughout her life.

In addition to being a novel of female community, Matrix is also a novel of female love. At the centre of this is Marie’s relationship with Eleanor; whom she both loves and loathes from afar and whose life, in many ways, mirrors Marie’s own. Theirs is a love story of unconventional expression but, for Groff, a love story nonetheless. There is also physical love in the form of relationships with Marie’s fellow nuns – whether in the form of sexual gratification or familial bonding – and the spiritual love between Marie and her religious namesake, the Virgin Mary.

It is hard to encapsulate just what I found so enthralling about Matrix – the books I love the most are, often, the ones I find the hardest to write about – but I hope I’ve conveyed the incredibly layered nature of this rich and complex novel. Though slight in length, Groff has created a masterpiece in miniature in Matrix: a richly detailed and compelling story of the multiplicity of female experience that has continued to resonate long after I turned the final page.

Matrix by Lauren Groff is published by Cornerstone 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

ULTIMATE BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! You’ll Be The Death of Me by Karen M. McManus

Image Description: The cover of You’ll Be The Death of Me has the title in bold purple font with the silhouettes of three teenagers above. The tagline is ‘Three friends with secrets to hide; One shocking murder; Will the truth come out?’

Ivy, Mateo and Cal used to be close – best friends back in middle school.

Now all they have in common is a bad day. So for old time’s sake they skip school together – one last time.

But when the trio spot Brian ‘Boney’ Mahoney ditching class too, they follow him – right into a murder scene.

They all have a connection to the victim. And they’re ALL hiding something.

When their day of freedom turns deadly, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out . . .

If you’ve followed The Shelf for a while, you’ll know I became a convert of YA mystery/thrillers last year thanks, in no small part, to Karen M. McManus’ The Cousins. I therefore jumped at the chance to be part of the Blog Tour for her latest standalone novel, You’ll Be The Death of Me.

As in The Cousins, You’ll Be The Death of Me features three protagonists: A-grade student Ivy has just lost the student council election to the class clown despite years of organising school initiatives; girl-crazy Cal has just been stood up by his latest crush; and hard-working Mateo just needs a break – he’s been burned out working two jobs ever since his Mom got sick and the family business went under.

So when the three former best friends bump into each other, they decide to stage a repeat of their Middle School escapade – the ‘Best Day Ever’ – and skip school together for one last time. When a fellow student is murdered, however, the ‘Best Day Ever’ soon turns into a nightmare. Ivy, Cal, and Mateo all have their reasons for disliking Brian ‘Boney’ Mahoney – and, as they day turns ever more deadly – all three have secrets to hide that might just be the death of them.

Whilst You’ll Be The Death of Me doesn’t deviate too far from McManus’s trademark formula: teen angst, deadly secrets, and a dash of budding romance; there is a strong element of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ here. McManus does what she does SO well that fans of her previous books are sure to adore You’ll be The Death of Me with the same fervour.

Whilst I initially didn’t like Ivy, Cal, and Mateo all that much, I gradually warmed to the three teens as the book went on. Yes, each of them is a bundle of teenage angst but, to be fair, each of them has challenges to deal with. Ivy is trying to find her place amidst her high-achieving family, Mateo wants to help his Mom, and Cal just wants to fit in. Their vulnerabilities and anxieties are woven throughout the story and provide a strong emotional pull to the narrative.

The ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with murders’ premise is utterly genius and McManus makes the most of its potential here, offering up plenty of suspects and a wider, all-encompassing plot that kept me guessing until the final pages. The ending also has a real sting in the tail – and possibly sets up events for a continuation – and, whilst not exactly ‘happily every after’ had a realistic feel that suited the story well. There’s also some poignant reflections on growing up and moving on that will resonate with readers of any age.

Whilst I didn’t love the characters or the high school setting quite as much as the atmospheric island of The Cousins, You’ll Be The Death of Me soon drew me in with its brilliant premise, page-turning plot, and regular twists and turns. Fans of McManus will find her latest novel just as compelling as her last, whilst those new to her work could do far worse than starting with this solid YA thriller.

You’ll Be The Death of Me by Karen M. McManus is published by Penguin 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 The Write Reads for organising an inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 12 December so follow #TheWriteReads and #UltimateBlogTour 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 Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable

Image Description: The cover of The Bookseller’s Secret features a woman in a 1940s-style blue dress at the door of a bookshop.

In 1942, London, Nancy Mitford is worried about more than air raids and German spies. Still recovering from a devastating loss, the once sparkling Bright Young Thing is estranged from her husband, her allowance has been cut, and she’s given up her writing career. On top of this, her five beautiful but infamous sisters continue making headlines with their controversial politics.

Eager for distraction and desperate for income, Nancy jumps at the chance to manage the Heywood Hill bookshop while the owner is away at war. Between the shop’s brisk business and the literary salons she hosts for her eccentric friends, Nancy’s life seems on the upswing. But when a mysterious French officer insists that she has a story to tell, Nancy must decide if picking up the pen again and revealing all is worth the price she might be forced to pay.

Eighty years later, Heywood Hill is abuzz with the hunt for a lost wartime manuscript written by Nancy Mitford. For one woman desperately in need of a change, the search will reveal not only a new side to Nancy, but an even more surprising link between the past and present…

Alternating between present-day London and the Blitz-ravaged city in 1942, The Bookseller’s Secret draws parallels between the lives of two women: newly-single Katie Cabot is the author of a romantic New York Times bestseller – and two failed historical follow-ups – whilst once sparkling ‘Bright Young Thing’ Nancy Mitford is the author of three failed novels, estranged from her husband, and utterly broke. For both women, the eccentric Haywood Hill bookshop seems an unlikely saviour – but when Nancy takes up the offer of a job at the shop, it leads her on a journey that, eighty years later, send Katie off on a hunt for a missing Mitford manuscript.

Michelle Gable’s latest novel has the perfect premise for book-loving romantics and deftly combines a lesser-known period in the famous novelist’s life with breezy romance, period high-jinks, and a dash of literary mystery. Although I did find both Katie and Nancy quite annoying as protagonists at times, I was fascinated to learn about Nancy’s time at Heywood Hill, and about the wartime experiences of the famous (and infamous) Mitford siblings.

Both wartime and contemporary London have been vividly recreated on the page – albeit with a slightly unbelievable rosiness at times. There were also one or two points where the world of the book pushed the boundaries of believability and, temporarily, threw me out of the otherwise immersive story – as a Brit, I found it hard to believe Katie’s novelist friend and her husband, however successful in their respective industries, could afford an enormous townhouse in London’s Mayfair with a concierge service, live-in staff, and a chauffeur, for example. But, for the most part, it was clear that Michelle Gable had done her research – especially on the Mitford family and on Nancy Mitford’s life in wartime London.

Combining bright and breezy romance with a wartime setting, writer’s block, and a literary treasure hunt could easily have led to a somewhat contrasting tone but, in Gable’s hands, the novel’s different modes merge easily into a compelling read that, whilst remaining light and easy to read, never sacrifices depth or historical reality. The bookshop setting suits the action of the novel perfectly, with the magic of a really good bookshop being bought across perfectly on the page.

Although I found it challenging to connect with the characters at times, the premise and the lightness of the author’s touch – kept me reading and I finished The Bookseller’s Secret in just a couple of days despite it’s 350+ page length. The book has also encouraged me to find out more about Nancy Mitford – The Pursuit of Love is now very much on my TBR and I’m keen to read more about the Mitford siblings – and, for anyone looking for a charming yet immersive read, The Bookseller’s Secret has a perfect combination of romance, mystery, and charm to while away a weekend or winter’s evening with.

The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable is published by HarperCollins/Harlequin and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, 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

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 03 December 2021 so 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 Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris

One morning in November 1856 George Little, the chief cashier of the Broadstone railway terminus in Dublin, was found dead, lying in a pool of blood beneath his desk. His head had been almost severed; a knife lay nearby, but strangely the office door was locked, apparently from the inside. This was a deed of almost unheard-of brutality for the peaceful Irish capital: while violent crime was commonplace in Victorian London, the courts of Dublin had not convicted a single murderer in more than thirty years.

From the first day of the police investigation it was apparent that this was no ordinary case. Detectives struggled to understand how the killer could have entered and then escaped from a locked room, and why thousands of pounds in gold and silver had been left untouched at the scene of the crime.

Three of Scotland Yard’s most celebrated sleuths were summoned to assist the enquiry, but all returned to London baffled. It was left to Superintendent Augustus Guy, the head of Ireland’s first detective force, to unravel the mystery.

Five suspects were arrested and released, with every step of the salacious case followed by the press, clamouring for answers. Under intense public scrutiny, Superintendent Guy found himself blocked at almost every turn. But then a local woman came forward, claiming to know the murderer….

Writer and historian Thomas Morris’ latest book, The Dublin Railway Murder, takes the reader back to Victorian Dublin, and into the offices of the West Midland Railway Company. The year is 1856 and, on a cold November morning, Chief Cashier George Little has been round brutally murdered within an apparently sealed room at the company’s Broadstone terminus.

The investigation into the mild-mannered and diligent cashier’s death will take several months, involve five arrests, baffle detectives from two police forces, and grip both the city’s populace and its press. When a local woman comes forward with crucial evidence, the case takes a sharp and unexpected turn – but her own relationship to the murderer may prove to be the investigation’s undoing.

The Dublin Railway Murder is a fascinating account of a perplexing police investigation that has been meticulously researched by Thomas Morris. Told in a narrative style that will be familiar to fans of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Kate Colquhoun’s Mr Briggs’ Hat, Morris’ account contains all of the detail one might expect from a history but with the pace and drive of fiction. The extraordinarily detailed archive of governmental documents that Morris has worked from has allowed him to recreate conversations, court appearances, interviews, and witness statements, and to paint a detailed picture of the Broadstone terminus – and of Dublin society – as it appeared in 1856.

Such attention to detail may frustrate some readers – especially as the narrative follows the police investigation down various dead-ends before really gearing up with the discovery of a revelatory witness and the discovery of items taken from the crime scene – but, personally, I loved the way that the small details of the investigation provided a picture of the imperfect art of detection. Various flaws in the investigation combine with legal complications to show the evolution of policing methodology, whilst the relationship between the police, the press, and the public immediately invites comparisons with the modern reportage of crime today; opening up questions about how both victims and suspects are represented, as well as about the role of the press both in garnering information and spreading unsubstantiated yet salacious rumour.

The investigation also touches, albeit quiet briefly, upon the epidemic of corporate fraud and embezzlement that seemed to be taking place in the 1850s – and how new technologies and vast, networked companies such as the railway firms were at particular risk of this. Morris also examines the tensions between the Dublin police force, seen by many Irish people as representatives of – and spies for – a repressive British state, and the working populace of the city, tying the investigation into many of the wider political and social contexts of the period.

In a final twist, the aftermath of the investigation and subsequent trial also sees the involvement of a popular branch of Victorian ‘science’, with the arrival of phrenologist Frederick Bridges – a man who theorised that murderers could be identified by the shape of their skull. This final section, although quite distinct from the relatively procedural narrative of murder/investigation/trial that comes before it, makes for a strange yet fascinating conclusion to an already perplexing narrative – and demonstrates the extent to which new ‘science’ was beginning, for both better and worse, to influence both policing, legal methodology, and political thought during this period.

Meticulously researched whilst remaining eminently readable, The Dublin Railway Murder is a must read for all fans of historical true crime – fans of Summerscale and Colquhoun’s books should definitely get this one on their Christmas lists, whilst fans of fictional police procedurals looking to make the leap into true crime are also sure to find that the detail of this fascinating yet flawed historical investigation makes for a compelling and thrilling read.

The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris is published by Vintage 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 24 November 2021 so 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 Retreat by Alison Moore

Image Description: The cover of Alison Moore’s The Retreat shows the faint outline of an island against a dark sea and sky

Since childhood, Sandra Peters has been fascinated by the small, private island of Lieloh, home to the reclusive silent-film star Valerie Swanson.

Having dreamed of going to art college, Sandra is now in her forties and working as a receptionist, but she still harbours artistic ambitions.

When she sees an advert for a two-week artists’ retreat on Lieloh, Sandra sets out on what might be a life-changing journey.

She anticipates a friendly and supportive little community but does not get quite what she was hoping for.

Alison Moore’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut novel, The Lighthouse, is one of those books that I’ve heard great things about, has been on my TBR forever but that I’ve never quite got around to reading. Having now sampled The Retreat, Moore’s fifth – and latest – novel, I know I definitely want to read more of her work.

The Retreat is what many people would probably call a ‘quiet’ novel but it packs a powerful punch within its slender 156 pages. Aspiring artist Sandra has always been fascinated by Lieloh, the small, private island that was once the home of a reclusive silent-film star. When the opportunity arises to go to Lieloh for a two-week artists’ retreat, Sandra sets out to try and realise her artistic ambitions. But the supportive artistic community she envisages is not quite the reality she encounters when she arrives at Lieloh. Aspiring author Carol, meanwhile, just needs peace and quiet to write her book. When a friend offers her use of a private, island retreat, she heads off into isolation to dig out the words out of her. But when she arrives in her idyll, Carol begins to feel she may not be as alone as she appears.

To say any more about the plot of The Retreat would be to spoil both the story and the atmosphere of this quietly devastating study of modern alienation and artistic temperament. Not that the novel is particularly plot-heavy, as such – in fact, The Retreat is definitely a book powered by character, and by the tiny interactions of the everyday that become layered with meaning and interwoven into a wider pattern.

Small incidents – the eating of eggs, a refusal to play a game or partake in a picnic, the choice of an evening meal – become weighted with significance as Sandra attempts, unsuccessfully, to navigate group dynamics on Lieloh. Her fellow retreat residents, whilst never outright vicious, are frequently petty, selfish, and domineering whilst Sandra herself is similarly self-absorbed and narrow-minded. They make for a thoroughly unlikeable bunch – a possible issue if you don’t enjoy reading books with few, if any, sympathetic characters – but a fascinating one all the same.

Whilst most of The Retreat is given over to Sandra, personally I found Carol’s narrative to be the most compelling. Alison Moore has perfectly captured the unsettling feeling of isolation, combining this with a delightful sense of the weird to create a not-quite ghost story that revels in its atmosphere. As the novel progresses, Carol’s narrative also begins to shed new light upon Sandra’s predicament, creating a compelling yet uneasy narrative that left me feeling somewhat unsettled by the time I turned the final page.

The Retreat is not going to be a book for everyone. Those looking for continual action or sympathetic characters will not find either here. But if you’re the sort of reader who revels in atmosphere, language, and the minutiae of human interaction, The Retreat will provide a short, sharp treat to curl up with on a winter’s evening.

The Retreat by Alison Moore is published by Salt 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 23 November 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!