Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Vicious Circle by Katherine St. John

The cover of The Vicious Circle features a luxury villa amidst dense tropical forest.
Image Description: The cover of The Vicious Circle features a luxury villa amidst dense tropical forest.

A perfect paradise? Or a perfect nightmare?

On a river deep in the Mexican jungle stands the colossal villa Xanadu, a wellness center that’s home to The Mandala, an ardent spiritual group devoted to self-help guru Paul Bentzen and his enigmatic wife Kali. But when, mysteriously, Paul suddenly dies, his entire estate–including Xanadu–is left to his estranged niece Sveta, a former model living in New York City.

Shocked and confused, Sveta travels to Mexico to pay her respects. At first, Xanadu seems like a secluded paradise with its tumbling gardens, beautiful people, transcendent vibe, and mesmerizing de-facto leader Kali. But soon the mystical façade wears thin, revealing a group of brainwashed members drunk on false promises of an impossible utopia and a disturbing, dangerous belief system–and leader–guiding them.

As the sinister forces surrounding Sveta become apparent, she realizes, too late, she can’t escape. Frantic and terrified, she discovers her only hope for survival is to put her confidence in the very person she trusts the least.

Young, beautiful, and engaged to a handsome and wealthy fiancé, Sveta – the protagonist of Katherine St. John’s latest novel The Vicious Circle – should be on top of the world and living her best life. But with her prospective in-laws trying to end her marriage before it’s even started, and her modelling career on hold, Sveta can’t help feeling that something is missing from her apparently gilded life.

When Sveta receives that her estranged uncle, the wellness guru Paul Bentzen, has passed away – and that he has left her his entire fortune – she decides that attending his funeral might provide the space and perspective she needs on her life, and help explain the estrangement between Paul and the rest of his family. But when Sveta arrives at Xanadu – the wellness retreat and commune deep in the Mexican jungle that Paul ran with his wife Kali – she begins to suspect that she’s inherited a poisoned chalice. For all Kali’s effusive gestures, something isn’t right about Xanadu or its inhabitants. There’s trouble in paradise…and Sveta has found herself right in the middle of it.

Katherine St. John certainly knows how to keep the pages turning, with a combination of short chapters and plenty of cliff-hangers keeping the plot moving and the narrative tension high. Despite not being the brightest of sparks, Sveta makes for an engaging and relatable narrator, and I enjoyed the tension between her Lucas, her old flame and her uncle’s lawyer.

The remaining characters are an interesting bunch, albeit somewhat lightly sketched out in terms of their individual personalities and character development. Kali makes for an excellent over-the-top antagonist and, whilst the plot primarily focuses upon Sveta’s inheritance and the reasoning behind it, there’s plenty of sinister rituals, mysterious ceremonies, and general ‘this wellness retreat is actually a cult, right’ weirdness going on to make for a highly entertaining read.

Whilst all the thriller tropes are present and correct in The Vicious Circle, Katherine St. John’s writing – and in particular her sharp observations of her various characters – and her tight control of the plot makes this a gripping read that manages to be escapist without becoming overly soapy. Whilst Sveta’s wide-eyed naivete and Kali’s over-the-top dramatics did have me rolling my eyes at times, it’s a testament to the power of the plotting that the mystery kept me engaged and interested to the very end, even when some of the plot twists became apparent.

With an exotic and isolated setting, some disturbing cult shenanigans, and some page-turning plot twists, The Vicious Circle is the perfect read for thriller fans looking to escape this winter.

The Vicious Circle by Katherine St. John is published by Harper360 UK and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 25 November 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Deception of Harriet Fleet by Helen Scarlett

The cover of The Deception of Harriet Fleet features a woman in Victorian dress walking towards a desolate house across misty fields.
Image Description: The cover of The Deception of Harriet Fleet features a woman in Victorian dress walking towards a desolate house across misty fields.

1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.

Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour – to spy on her.

Worn down by Eleanor’s unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor’s obsession – the Wainwright’s dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet’s own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story.

For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths.

As the nights draw in and autumn turns to winter, my reading life tends to head for the cosy comfort blanket that is historical fiction. I love curling up with something historical and gothic during the winter months, especially if it has a crime, mystery and/or supernatural element. With its isolated setting and Jane Eyre vibes, Helen Scarlett’s The Deception of Harriet Fleet, thus had ‘winter reading vibes’ written all over it.

Billed as an ‘atmospheric Victorian chiller’, The Deception of Harriet Fleet follows the eponymous Harriet as she takes up the post of governess at the brooding and isolated Teesbank Hall, home of the prominent Wainright family. Entrusted with the charge of Eleanor, the daughter of the house and of a similar age to Harriet, it is soon apparent to the new governess that all is not well with her charge. Prone to outbursts of sudden violence and watched night and day, Eleanor is feared by the staff and despised by almost all her relations. But is there some method behind the young woman’s apparent madness? As Harriet learns more about her charge – and about the tragic history of the Wainwright family – she begins to think that not only might Eleanor have unearthed a dangerous family secret, but to fear that the ghosts from her own past will be revealed.

With a dark and brooding house, an isolated and chilly family, and a protagonist with secrets of her own to hide, The Deception of Harriet Fleet certainly ticks all of the ‘Victorian Gothic’ boxes! Helen Scarlett does an excellent job of conveying the sinister atmosphere of Teesbank Hall and the intimidating authority that the various members of the Wainwright family hold over Harriet and her future. Teasing the reader with the promise of secrets both within Teesbank Hall and within Harriet’s own past, Scarlett also does an excellent job of introducing and maintaining an uneasy tension right up until the novel’s dramatic final act.

Key to this tension is the combative relationship between Harriet and her charge. By turns manipulative, cruel, deceitful, frustrated, maligned, neglected, and brilliant, Eleanor is a complicated figure, whose intellectual curiosity and fierce ambition are being repressed by old-fashioned notions of female duty and societal position. Harriet, meanwhile, tells us from the outset that she has committed a great deceit herself: running away from home and assuming a new identity to escape unspeakable horrors. As the two women realise that they are both victims of society’s lack of respect for women, an uneasy accord grows between them that is both fascinating and nerve-wracking to witness.

This unlikely alliance – and the tension that arises as a result – was the driving force of the novel for me, with Eleanor and Harriet both unwittingly (and often unwillingly) assisting each other in uncovering the secrets of Teesbank Hall. I also enjoyed the way in which their discoveries tied into the ‘age of discovery and progress’, with forays into the dark fringes of the scientific world. It should be noted, however, that some of Eleanor and Harriet’s investigations lead to traumatic discoveries so trigger warnings for mentions of or discussion of child death, mental illness, confinement, forced institutionalisation, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, infidelity, and pregnancy.

There are some glimmers of hope for Harriet amidst all the gloom. A burgeoning friendship with Eleanor’s brother Henry provides some moments of levity, although I have to say that personally I found the relationship that eventually develops between them to be somewhat lacking in meat on the bones and, as a result, one of the weaker elements of the novel. Another friendship with a fellow servant was more successful, and featured a twist that had me reeling at the novel’s end!

With its absorbing story of family secrets, revenge, jealousy, betrayal, and forbidden love, The Deception of Harriet Fleet definitely meets the criteria for a haunting gothic read. Fans of historical mysteries are sure to enjoy discovering the many macabre secrets of Teesbank Hall, as will anyone who is looking to fill a Bronte-shaped hole in their reading lives!

The Deception of Harriet Fleet by Helen Scarlett is published by Quercus and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The People Before by Charlotte Northedge

The cover of The People Before features a remote cottage set against a backdrop of gloomy pines. A light is on in an upstairs window.
Image Description: The cover of The People Before features a remote cottage set against a backdrop of gloomy pines. A light is on in an upstairs window.

What if your dream house became your worst nightmare?

Jess and her husband need a new start. So when the chance to buy a rambling old house in the Suffolk countryside comes up, they leap at it.

But not everyone in Suffolk is welcoming. The locals know a secret about the Maple House, and soon, Jess realises they’ve made a huge mistake.

Something bad happened in that house. Something nobody wants to talk about.

Desperate to make a new start and leave London behind them, Jess and Pete are inexorably drawn to Maple House despite its isolated location, dire state of repair, and knotweed-infested garden. Sure, the renovation work seems daunting now but, once the work is done, it will be the perfect family home: a rural idyll in which Archie and Rose can grow up and Jess and Pete can leave behind the shadows and secrets of their past.

But Maple House, it turns out, has its own shadows and its own secrets. Stuck in her tumbledown new home with the children, Jess soon realises that the locals don’t like to talk about Maple House. There’s something they know. Something about The People Before…

The People Before, the second psychological thriller from Charlotte Northedge, has page-turning compulsion in abundance. Set back into the trees, Maple House is the perfect location for this creepy tale of sinister secrets and shocking twists, and Charlotte Northedge does a fantastic job of developing a brooding atmosphere of fear, suffocation, and foreboding right from the very first page.

The first third of the novel makes the most of this to develop a slow-burning tension, as it becomes apparent that Jess and Pete’s dream move to the country is anything but. Far from the rural idyll depicted on her Instagram feed, Jess’s life has become a stifling round of school runs, temper tantrums, marital discord, and thwarted ambition. When, in the second third, the novel shifts POV to Eve – a local woman who has befriended Jess and is helping her with her plans to restore Maple House – and we suddenly realise why Jess has been having such a hard time settling into her new home, the tension – and the pace – really ramp up a notch. And, in the final third of the book, it’s a page-turning race to the final page as all the lies and secrets upon which Jess and Pete’s carefully constructed new life is built come tumbling down around their ears!

Whilst I can’t say I warmed to any of the characters, North also does a reasonable job of making their (often very poor) life choices understandable. That said, the characters were – for me – the element of the book that I struggled most with. Although clearly traumatised and isolated, I found Jess to be a rather neurotic and self-absorbed narrator and, as such, couldn’t really bring myself to care about her difficulties fitting into her new home. Whilst I totally understand that good domestic suspense relies upon certain tropes, I also felt that the characters occasionally devolved into clichés: the neurotic suburban mother, the secretive husband, the creepy neighbour, the ‘so-nice-she’s-suspicious’ friend, the ‘unfriendly-villagers-who-hate-outsiders’ etc. As the novel progressed, I did find myself wanting Jess to act on her misgivings about her new life and make a better one for herself and her children but, without giving away any major spoilers for the ending, this never really comes to fruition which I found a little disappointing.

That said, I absolutely cannot fault the way in which the reader is drawn into the perspective of Jess and Eve, and the way that Charlotte Northedge controls the viewpoints to layer the interweaving strands of the story and build up the suspense whilst also leaving the major revelations for the very final chapters. Whilst the characters didn’t invite my empathy, I was still drawn into their respective stories and stayed with them to the end, which is testament to a tale well told!

Whilst there weren’t really any surprises in The People Before, therefore, it is a well-constructed thriller, especially in terms of pace and atmosphere. Charlotte Northedge has done an excellent job of developing tension in the novel’s opening act, ratcheting that up in the mid-section as we realise the extent of the danger that Jess and her family are in, and then releasing it all in an explosive final act. Whilst I personally felt that there were a few too many skeletons in Jess and Pete’s family closet – and that this sometimes detracted from the mystery about ‘the people before’ – North also does an excellent job of tying up the various interwoven strands of the plot by the novel’s end.

The People Before by Charlotte Northedge is published by HarperCollins and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Murder Most Royal by S J Bennett

The cover of Murder Most Royal features a Christmas turkey and trimmings with a knife stuck into the turkey!
Image Description: The cover of Murder Most Royal features a Christmas turkey and trimmings with a knife stuck into the turkey!

Christmas at Sandringham is going to be murder . . .

A human hand and a bag of drugs are found washed up on a beach next to the Queen’s estate at Sandringham

The Queen identifies the 70-year-old victim, Edward St Cyr, from his signet ring. But the search for his killer is not so straightforward. Suspects include the Queen’s horse groom, a shady land agent, an aristocrat neighbour, as well as the victim’s many cousins and relations.

The investigation leads the Queen – and her trusted assistant, Rozie – to a local pigeon racing club, back to London, and to the ancient, moated Godwick Hall. But how do the seemingly disparate pieces of the puzzle fit together? And who is the next victim?

I’m going to level with you and confess that, when I first heard that there was a series in which Queen Elizabeth II turned criminal investigator, I thought it sounded a bit…twee. I love a cosy crime novel but the idea of HRH wandering around Sherlock Holmes fashion seemed faintly ridiculous.

Well, more fool me because when I finally picked up The Windsor Knot, the first in the series, I absolutely loved it, have since devoured A Three-Dog Problem, and eagerly signed up to review the latest in the series, Murder Most Royal. Many thanks to my mum – an early adopter and huge fan of S J Bennett’s Her Majesty The Queen Investigates series – for showing me the error of my ways!

As fans of the series will know, whilst The Queen does use her unique insight and her knack for solving crimes to great effect in Bennett’s series, she is ably assisted by her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi. With Rozie taking care of the arrangements and doing much of the day-to-day legwork, Her Majesty takes on a ‘Miss Marple’-like role: using her unique position, her experience, and her decades of insight into the human condition to connect the seemingly disparate dots that lead to a solution. It’s a relationship that works well and one that, to my great surprise, allow The Queen to continue to feel, sound, and act like The Queen even though she’s embroiled in the middle of a murder mystery!

Rozie is a fantastic character and it’s been a joy to see her relationship with Her Majesty develop over the course of the series, as well as to learn more about Rozie and her family. I also really love the inclusion in each book of Prince Phillip, The Duke of Edinburgh and the inevitably amusing conversations that occur between husband and wife.

For Murder Most Royal, Her Majesty is faced with what might be her toughest case yet: the discovery of a severed hand found washed up on a beach next to her estate at Sandringham. When it transpires that the hand belonged to Edward St Cyr – an unconventional and controversial local landowner – The Queen and Rozie are soon embroiled in the secrets that lie behind the seemingly quiet facade of rural North Norfolk.

Set over the Christmas festivities at Sandringham, Murder Most Royal combines the clever plotting and gentle humour of the first two books in the series with an insight into the festive traditions of the Royal Family. In a series already well-known for portraying the very ‘human’ aspects of The Queen’s character, this book really stands out: transforming the late monarch into a lady who, whilst very much The Queen of England, was happiest when walking her dogs out in the fresh air or engaging in traditional games and entertainments with her family. Reading the book in the wake of the Queen’s passing was an emotive experience at times but, if anything, the anecdotes and stories about Queen Elizabeth that have emerged since have only served to demonstrate the capacity for warmth and quick wit that S J Bennett portrays.

Fans of previous books in the series will find this latest outing, complete with festive trimmings, as gentle, warm, and intricately plotted as they will have come to expect from Bennett’s work. With plenty of returning characters, the book is definitely geared towards existing fans but, as the plot is completely standalone, it can also be read and enjoyed by new readers looking for a Christmas mystery with a twist!

Murder Most Royal by S J Bennett is published by Zaffre Books on 10 November 2022 and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The tour continues on Twitter and Instagram until 18 November 2022 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 Poison Machine by Robert J Lloyd

The cover of The Poison Machine depicts a historic city map in a pale green with a royal seal across the front of it.
The cover of The Poison Machine depicts a historic city map in a pale green with a royal seal across the front of it.

1679. A year has passed since the sensational attempt to murder King Charles II. London is still inflamed by fears of Catholic plots. Harry Hunt—estranged from his mentor Robert Hooke and no longer employed by the Royal Society—meets Sir Jonas Moore, the King’s Surveyor-General of the Board of Ordnance, in the remote and windswept marshes of Norfolk. There, workers draining the fenland have uncovered a skeleton.

Accompanied by his friend Colonel Fields, an old soldier for Parliament, and Hooke’s niece, Grace, Harry confirms Sir Jonas’s suspicion: the body is that of a dwarf, Captain Jeffrey Hudson, once famously given to Queen Henrietta Maria in a pie. During the Civil Wars, Hudson accompanied the Queen to France to sell the Royal Jewels to fund her husband’s army. He was sent home in disgrace after shooting a man in a duel.

But nobody knew Hudson was dead. Another man, working as a spy, has lived as him since his murder. Now, this impostor has disappeared, taking vital information with him. Sir Jonas orders Harry to find him.

With the help of clues left in a book, a flying man, and a crossdressing swordswoman, Harry’s search takes him to Paris, another city bedeviled by conspiracies and intrigues. He navigates its salons and libraries, and learns of a terrible plot against the current Queen of England, Catherine of Bragança, and her gathering of Catholics in London. Assassins plan to poison them all.

Harry Hunt and Robert Hooke are back in The Poison Machine, Robert J Lloyd’s sequel to last year’s The Bloodless Boy.

Although a year has passed since the sensational events of The Bloodless Boy, Londoners still live in fear of Catholic plots. For Harry Hunt, no longer in the employ of the Royal Society and estranged from his friend and mentor Robert Hooke, the chance to investigate a skeleton found in Norfolk’s windswept fenland offers the opportunity to leave the events of the previous year behind him – and to get himself into the good graces of Sir Jonas Moore, the King’s Surveyor-General of the Board of Ordnance.

However confirmation that the body is that of the famous Captain Jeffrey Hudson – who accompanied Queen Henrietta Maria to France in order to help her fund her husband’s army – serves only to inflame tensions. Hudson, after all, isn’t supposed to be dead. Another man has lived as him since his murder, spying on the court. When the imposter vanishes, taking vital information with him, Hunt and his friends are tasked with tracking him down.

Their search will soon lead them to a Paris beset by conspiracy and intrigue. And, in the salons and libraries of the great and the good, Hunt will soon be chasing a terrible plot being planned against the Queen of England herself.

As with last year’s The Bloodless Boy, The Poison Machine brings the political and religious tensions of the late seventeenth century vividly to life on the page. Whether walking the darkened streets of London’s old city, or strolling into a fashionable Parisian salon, Robert J Lloyd has impressively captured the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of the seventeenth-century world.

As with the first book in the series, The Poison Machine effortlessly blends together fact and fiction, combining real events and real people with fictionalised and imagined scenarios, with Lloyd using his knowledge of Robert Hooke’s diary, the paper of the Royal Society, and his knowledge of the period (gained whilst studying for an MA in the History of Ideas) to create a detailed, complex, and evolving world that draws the reader in to the period and its many tensions. Those with knowledge of the period will be delighted by cameos from some illustrious figures, including Sir Issac Newton and Denis Papin, as well as references to the key scientific and philosophical debates of the period.

This does mean that the novel features a lot of characters – and some fairly complex political and religious plotting – however, having read The Bloodless Boy, I found distinguishing who’s who to be much easier, as there are a number of returning characters from that novel. Whilst The Poison Machine is a standalone story, the continuance of plot strands introduced in the first novel – and the development of characters first met in The Bloodless Boy – mean that I would recommend reading the series in order. The Bloodless Boy is a similarly involved read, so it’s definitely worth checking out if you like the sound of this novel (you can read my full review of it here)!

On the subject of evolution, The Poison Machine also evidences Lloyd’s own evolution as a writer. Whilst The Bloodless Boy was an impressively detailed debut, the characterisation and plotting of its sequel show a greater confidence and familiarity with the world and its characters. Moving swiftly from London’s bustling streets to the Norfolk fens and the libraries of Paris, the novel tells its tale with verve and pace, keeping the pages turning whilst also relishing in the particularised detail of character and setting.

With its detailed historical setting, intricate plotting, and developing characters, The Poison Machine is a worthy successor that is sure to delight fans of The Bloodless Boy, and establishes Lloyd’s Hunt & Hooke series as a must-read for all historical fiction aficionados. Anyone who enjoyed Frances Quinn’s The Smallest Man will also find The Poison Machine‘s take on the life and times of Jeffrey Hudson extremely interesting.

The Poison Machine by Robert J Lloyd is published by Melville House Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

My thanks go to Nikki Griffiths at Melville House Press for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and for inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The tour continues until 18 November 2022 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!!! 50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective by Eric Karl Anderson

Image Description: The cover of 50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective is a dark blue with an illustration of a moustache and monocle picked out in light blue

The perfect gift for book-loving friends and family, 50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective will provide lots of inspiration for fans of cosy crime to discover lesser-known books and revisit forgotten classics.

Whether you’re a Richard Osman fan or a Sherlock Holmes devotee, bibliophile and book blogger Eric Karl Anderson will introduce you to some new and unexpected novels.

The book includes an interactive element with space for star ratings, lists of favourite reads, thoughts and dates for beginning and finishing books. The 50 recommendations encompass a range of authors and books, from classic to contemporary and from across the globe so as to offer the lucky reader plenty of scope.

This is the start of a new series of gift books celebrating books and reading, so if cosy crime isn’t your thing, don’t worry!

Some books do exactly what they say on the tin and are all the better for it. 50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective, the first in a new series of gift books that celebrate reading, is one such book.

Edited by avid reader and book blogger Eric Karl Anderson, aka Lonesome Reader, 50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective is a pocket-sized guide to the world of crime fiction, and features a wide range of both classic and contemporary titles.

As an aficionado of crime novels, I expected to be familiar with many of the titles featured so was pleasantly surprised to encounter a number of entirely unfamiliar works. Whilst the foundational classics of the genre are well represented – Christie, Sayers & Co are all present and correct – Anderson has included several lesser-known titles. His selection encompasses settings from across the globe, presenting a wide diversity of characters and sub-genres. So whether you like your crime to come in classic format, with a side of wry humour, with a literary bent, or with a shiver of the supernatural, you’ll be well served here!

Smartly presented in a cute pocket-size, 50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective also has an interactive element. Each selection features a succinct summary of the novel in question – and Anderson’s thoughts on why it is deserving of inclusion – alongside space for readers to add the date read and a star rating. There’s also a few pages towards the end of the book for noting favourite reads, your TBR, and further thoughts. Accompanying illustrations and graphics give each page a clean but lively design, making this the perfect stocking filler for crime fans this Christmas season.

Whilst 50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective isn’t going to take more than a couple of hours to read in and of itself, it offers the potential to introduce armchair detectives young and old to many hours of pleasurable reading. Whether you’re a veteran of many cases or have only just dipped your toe into the genre’s vast waters, 50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective is sure to provide you with some new investigations to keep you on your toes!

50 Books to Read If You’re an Armchair Detective by Eric Karl Anderson is published by Murdoch Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org and Wordery.

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

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 October 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Parlour Game by Jennifer Renshaw

The cover of The Parlour Game features an image of a  corvid, wings outstretched next to a black inkpot and pen. Dark blue leaves surround the image.
Image Description: The cover of The Parlour Game features an image of a corvid, wings outstretched next to a black inkpot and pen. Dark blue leaves surround the image.

London, 1873.

Ivy Granger, an amateur botanist, is plagued by disturbing dreams and faceless whispers. Misunderstood by her father, she fears for her sanity – threatened with the asylum or worse, the hands of the man she loathes.

But a stranger at her mother’s funeral reveals Ivy’s world has been a lie, and she could have a different life, for she is capable of so much more…

Miss Earnshaw, London’s most renowned spiritualist, is Ivy’s only hope of revealing what secrets her mother took to the grave and discovering her true purpose.

Ivy’s journey for knowledge takes her to Blackham House, a building haunted by a terrible past – full of macabre artefacts and ancient studies of the supernatural. But behind closed doors, the Blackhams collect more than relics alone, and Ivy will soon find herself at the centre of a conspiracy spanning generations, and a hidden evil waiting to be unleashed.

Can Ivy survive in a world where women must play their part or risk being silenced?

When Ivy Granger meets an enigmatic stranger at her mother’s funeral, she is drawn into a dangerous world of secrets, lies, and the supernatural. Working undercover at the gothic and isolated Blackham House, Ivy soon learns that there was far more to her mother – and her own talents – than meets the eye. But Blackham House is home to far more than macabre artifacts. Sinister secrets and hidden evils lie at the centre of the Blackham family and Ivy may be the key to unlocking them.

The Parlour Game, the debut novel from independent author Jennifer Renshaw, is the first in what promises to be a series of ‘Corvidae Hauntings’: supernatural gothic horrors with Corvidae (the family of birds that features crows, blackbirds, ravens, rooks, and jackdaws) at their heart. Quite how each novel will connect together I’m not sure but, on the basis of The Parlour Game, there are plenty of mysteries left to be uncovered!

Indeed, this is not a novel to read if you like your endings neat and tidy. Whilst the ending has plenty of suspense – and some fantastically unexpected twists – it leaves several questions unanswered and, arguably, felt somewhat rushed in comparison to the considerably more sedate pace of the novel’s opening act.

Minor quibbles with pacing aside, however, Jennifer Renshaw does a brilliant job of developing a sense of foreboding. From the stifling and oppressive confines of Ivy’s family home to the fading gothic grandeur of Blackham House, the novel oozes atmosphere from every page. There’s also plenty of intrigue, with several plot strands that don’t come together until novel’s denouement and keep the pages turning.

Ivy makes for an interesting and empathetic protagonist. Intelligent and determined but shy and retiring, she’s underappreciated by her family and often underestimated by those around her. Given its prominence in the opening act, I was a little disappointed that Ivy’s interest in botany wasn’t fully utilised later in the novel, but I enjoyed seeing her grow and develop as a character, nonetheless. I’m also enjoyed learning about the novel’s antagonists and the generational conspiracy that lies at the heart of their sinister machinations.

On the basis of The Parlour Game, it’s clear that Jennifer Renshaw knows her gothic horror and can spin an enjoyable yarn. Whilst there is a lot going on – not all of which ends up being immediately relevant to Ivy’s story or fully resolved by the end of the novel – it’s important to remember that this is the first novel in a series. As such, it’s an intriguing foundation to what promises to be a spooky supernatural journey into the dark heart of nineteenth century London.

The Parlour Game by Jennifer Renshaw is available now from Amazon in both eBook and paperback formats.

My thanks go to the author 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 October 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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

Reviews

REVIEW!!! Walking the Invisible: Following in the Brontës’ Footsteps by Michael Stewart

The cover of Walking the Invisible features an illustration of the landscape and skies of the Yorkshire moors. In the foreground, a woman sits reading under a windswept tree.
Image Description: The cover of Walking the Invisible features an illustration of the landscape and skies of the Yorkshire moors. In the foreground, a woman sits reading under a windswept tree.

Michael Stewart has been captivated by the Brontës since he was a child, and has travelled all over the north of England in search of their lives and landscapes. Now, he’d like to invite you into the world as they would have seen it.

Following in the footsteps of the Brontës across meadow and moor, through village and town, award-winning writer Michael Stewart takes a series of inspirational walks through the lives and landscapes of the Brontë family, investigating the geographical and social features that shaped their work.

This is a literary study of both the social and natural history that has inspired writers and walkers, and the writings of a family that have touched readers for generations. Finally we get to understand the ‘wild, windy moors’ that Kate Bush sang about in ‘Wuthering Heights’, see the imposing halls that may have inspired Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre, and learn about Bramwell’s affair with a real life Mrs Robinson while treading the same landscapes. As well as describing in vivid detail the natural beauty of the moors and their surroundings, Walking the Invisible also encompasses the history of the north and the changing lives of those that have lived there.

If I’m being honest, I wasn’t sure about Walking the Invisible when it first landed on the doormat. Whilst I have a passing interest in literary lives, I wasn’t sure how much a part-memoir, part-biography, part-walking guide of the live of the Brontë family would resonate with someone who can only claim to have set foot in Yorkshire a handful of times and generally prefers my walking to be by way of a good tea room.

I completely did not expect, then, to be utterly immersed by Michael Stewart’s blend of literary biography, meditative nature writing, walking tour, and northern history. As co-creator of the Brontë Stones project – which saw poems about each Brontë sibling carved onto stones and set into the landscape in and around Thornton and Haworth – Stewart knows the landscape around the Brontë family’s homes intimately, and shares their passion for its wild majesty.

As a working-class lad educated at a run-down comprehensive in Salford, however, he is also keenly aware of the differences between the imagined ‘North’ that is so often romanticised by Brontë aficionados – and sought out by literary tourists from across the globe – and the often harsh realities of life in the industrialised towns and isolated villages around which the Brontë siblings lived and worked. His walking accounts frequently juxtapose the breath-taking beauty of the landscape and the generosity of its people with the lived realities of run-down farms, fly-tipping, rural poverty, and cold, unrelenting rain.

Nor does Stewart romanticise the lives of the Brontë family themselves. As he follows the siblings from Thornton and Haworth into Derbyshire, across to Cumbria, and up to Scarborough, he vividly imagines both the triumphs and the tragedies of their lives. From Bramwell’s doomed love for a married woman, to Emily’s tenure as a school mistress and Anne’s final visit to her beloved Scarborough, each member of the family is conjured onto the page through their imagined interactions with the landscape around them.

At the end of the book Stewart includes several walks inspired by each of the siblings. Ranging from an easy 4-mile loop around Thornton to a bracingly strenuous 14.5 mile romp across the moors, there’s something for everyone and come complete with well-illustrated maps and clear step-by-step instructions. The majority of the walks take in at least one of the Brontë Stones, as well as many of the other places said to have inspired the family’s writings.

Walking the Invisible is not an easy book to categorise but its an absorbing one to read. Stewart’s love for and knowledge of the Brontë family, and of the landscapes that inspired them, comes across on the page and the blend of literary history, contemporary travelogue, and meditative reflection, although unusual, makes for an intelligently written and evocative read. I’m currently in the process of working my way through the Brontë family’s oeuvre and am hoping to rectify my ignorance of ‘Brontë Country’ in the not-too-distant future. When I do, I will be taking Walking the Invisible as my own guide for following the footsteps of this remarkable literary family.

Walking the Invisible by Michael Stewart is published by HQ 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 me with a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

Reviews

REVIEW!!! Marple: Twelve New Stories

Image Description: The cover of Marple is cream with the title, in a tartan pattern, spelt vertically down the centre of the page.

Miss Marple was first introduced to readers in a story Christie wrote for The Royal Magazine in 1927 and made her first appearance in a full-length novel in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage.

It has been 45 years since Agatha Christie’s last Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, was published posthumously in 1976, and this collection of ingenious new stories by twelve Christie devotees will be a timely reminder why Jane Marple remains the most famous fictional female detective of all time.

Whilst I very much enjoy stories featuring Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, I have to admit that my personal favourites of her books are those in which English spinster Miss Jane Marple tales the starring role.

White-haired and usually to be found in the vicinity of a ball of wool and a pair of knitting needles, Miss Marple is, on the surface, the quintessential English grandmother. Yet as Mrs Dane Calthrop says in The Moving Finger, Miss Marple “knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known”.

As a Miss Marple fan, it’s been an absolute delight to read twelve new stories featuring Christie’s much-loved detective, all of which breathe new life into an old favourite. From Lucy Foley’s ‘Evil in Small Places’, which sees Miss Marple in classic English country village territory to solve the murder of a choir mistress, to Alyssa Cole’s ‘Miss Marple Takes Manhattan’, which involves a theatrical murder during her nephew Raymond West’s first US theatre production, the twelve contemporary writers who have contributed to Marple: Twelve New Stories have done a fantastic job of paying homage to their source material without falling into pastiche or attempting emulation.

Joining Foley and Cole in paying tribute to Miss Marple are Val McDermid, Natalie Haynes, Ruth Ware, Naomi Alderman, Jean Kwok, Dreda Say Mitchell, Elly Griffiths, Karen M McManus, Kate Moss and Leigh Bardugo. Each brings their own unique style to Miss Marple’s adventures, with Karen M McManus using her YA background to excellent effect when she introduces us to Raymond’s granddaughter, Nicola West, and Elly Griffiths offering a spirited riff on the problem of crime-writers block in her tale, ‘Murder at the Villa Rosa’.

Fans of Miss Marple’s previous adventures will also be delighted to find returning other returning characters. In addition to Miss Marple’s nephew and his wife Jean, Miss Bella from A Caribbean Mystery acts as co-detective in Dreda Say Mitchell’s ‘A Deadly Wedding Day’, whilst Dolly Bantry makes an appearance in both Ruth Ware’s ‘Miss Marple’s Christmas’ and Leigh Bardugo’s ‘The Disappearance’. Miss Marple’s live-in companion Cherry also features in several of the stories, as does retired Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering.

Several of the stories see Miss Marple confronting the changing post-war world, with Kate Mosse’s ‘The Mystery of the Acid Soil’ one of several stories that gently confront the challenges of aging and find our heroine and her friend reflecting on earlier times. Contemporary concerns are also addressed, with Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Open Mind’ featuring a #MeToo-style scenario in an Oxford college (and doing a wonderful job of sending up academic pomposity in the process) and Jean Kwok’s ‘The Jade Empress’ confronting racial prejudice on board a luxury cruise liner bound for Hong Kong. Natalie Haynes’s ‘The Unravelling’, meanwhile, is one of several stories to gently examine the after-effects of war upon the Home Front.

As with most short story collections, I felt some stories were more successful than others, both in terms of capturing Miss Marple’s unique character and in providing a satisfyingly realised mystery within a relatively short space. Val McDermid’s ‘The Second Murder at the Vicarage’ is, as the title might suggest, probably the most classically Marple of the stories featured but I admired the way that writers utilising very different settings and styles managed to convey Christie’s spark – and Miss Marple’s unique appeal – whilst retaining their own unique voices.

Fans of Miss Marple are sure to be delighted to have twelve new stories featuring the sharp-eyed spinster to enjoy whilst, for those new to the character, it is to be hoped that this might act as an introduction to Christie’s lesser-known – but no less ingenious – sleuth.

Marple: Twelve New Stories is published by HarperCollins and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Butcher and the Wren by Alaina Urquhart

The cover of The Butcher and the Wren is black with a design of pale blue feathers superimposed on the backdrop. The title and tag line are in a vivid yellow.
Image Description: The cover of The Butcher and the Wren is black with a design of pale blue feathers superimposed on the backdrop. The title and tag line are in a vivid yellow.

Something dark is lurking in the Louisiana bayou. A methodical killer with a taste for medical experimentation is hard at work completing his most harrowing crime yet, while the authorities desperately try to catch up.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Wren Muller is the best there is. Armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of historical crimes, and years of experience working in the Medical Examiner’s office, she’s never encountered a case she couldn’t solve.

Until now.

As case after case is piles up on Wren’s examination table, she is sucked into an all-consuming cat-and-mouse chase – led by a brutal murderer, who is getting more brazen by the day…

Whilst I’ve never listened to Morbid, the true crime podcast co-hosted by Alaina Urquhart, I was intrigued by the concept of her debut novel, The Butcher and the Wren, featuring forensic pathologist Dr. Wren Muller.

When not hosting Morbid, Urquhart’s day job is as an autopsy technician so, at the very least, I figured there would be a high degree of technical accuracy in her descriptions of Wren’s day job. And indeed, The Butcher and the Wren shines brightest when it is drawing upon Urquhart’s extensive experience in the autopsy suite.

This isn’t to say that the rest of the novel isn’t convincing, however. The plot – which revolves around an increasingly sinister cat-and-mouse game between New Orleans medical examiner Wren and the macabre serial killer christened the Bayou Butcher – is tightly constructed and genuinely twisty, with a particularly startling revelation emerging from left-field about two-thirds of the way in that wholly changed my perspective on the narrative.

Wren’s chapters are, undoubtedly, the novel’s high point however, as she brings empathy, compassion, and a fierce intelligence to her attempts to discover any clues left by the Butcher whist restoring humanity to his victims. Alternate chapters, narrated by the Bayou Butcher himself, were, for me, less successful. Although Urquhart does an impressive job of getting into the head of a serial killer, they were just a little too creepy and sadistic for me and, at times, I found myself flicking over some of the more gruesome descriptions.

Despite giving an insight into the mindset and actions of the killer, The Butcher and the Wren does an excellent job of keeping the suspense high, the twists coming, and the pace page-turning. That said, I did find one of the final revelations stretching my suspension of disbelief somewhat and, without giving any spoilers, I will say that this is not going to provide those who like a neat and tidy resolution with a satisfying conclusion to the tale. Here’s hoping there’s more to come for Dr Wren Muller so that the loose ends can be tidied up.

Urquhart also does an excellent job of describing setting in this novel. From the grim confines of the Butcher’s basement to the swamps of the bayou and the clinical harshness of Wren’s autopsy suite, I was wholly transported to New Orleans and its surroundings whilst I was reading. I also really enjoyed the largely supportive relationships between Wren, her family, and her colleagues in the New Orleans PD and hope that, in future novels, we might get to find out more about some of these characters.

Overall, The Butcher and the Wren is the perfect read for fans of Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritson and shows such as CSI and Silent Witness. If you don’t mind your crime fiction with a side order of gruesome, the realistic details and page-turning plot is sure to draw you in, whilst Urquhart’s work on Morbid has allowed her to realise a terrifying sinister serial killer who will leave you with a serious case of the chills.

The Butcher and the Wren by Alaina Urquhart is published by Michael Joseph 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 Sriya Varadharajan from Penguin Random House UK for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 31 October 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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