Reviews

REVIEW!! The Guest House by Robin Morgan-Bentley

Image Description: The cover of The Guest House features a large stone cottage in front of a river, set against the backdrop of woods and a mountain at night. A single light burns in one of the windows.
Image Description: The cover of The Guest House features a large stone cottage in front of a river, set against the backdrop of woods and a mountain at night. A single light burns in one of the windows.

The baby is coming. There’s no way to call for help. And there’s no way out.

With a few weeks to go until their first baby is due, Jamie and Victoria head off for a weekend break in a small countryside guesthouse.

The next morning, Jamie and Victoria awake to find the guesthouse has been emptied. Both their mobile phones and their car keys have disappeared, the owners are nowhere to be seen, and all the doors are locked. Even though it’s a few weeks early, Victoria knows the contractions are starting. And there’s no way out…

I’ve read a lot of psychological thrillers so now I consider myself fairly adept at spotting plot twists. So it was a pleasant surprise when I did not see any of the revelations in Robin Morgan-Bentley’s new novel The Guest House coming!

Seeking one last break before their baby arrives, Jamie and Victoria check in to Chorister’s Lodge, a small luxury guesthouse in a remote part of the North Pennines. Upon arrival, they are greeted warmly by Barry and Fiona, who cook them dinner and show them to their room. When Jamie and Victoria wake up the next morning, however, Chorister’s Lodge is deserted. Barry and Fiona are nowhere to be seen, the rooms are locked up, and Jamie and Victoria’s phones and car keys have been taken. And, despite being weeks early, Victoria knows that her contractions have started and the baby is on its way.

I’m going to be honest and say right from the off that the premise of The Guest House is…somewhat far-fetched. Leaving aside any major spoilers for later plot revelations, it was somewhat unbelievable to me that a couple who had struggled to get pregnant (Jamie and Victoria, it transpires, have been having IVF) would risk going to a remote guesthouse miles from the nearest hospital only a few weeks before their baby was due. And, as the plot reveals, it only moves further beyond the bounds of probability.

BUT (and this is important), I ended up not really caring that the premise was beyond belief because the twists are just so good and the writing had me hooked!! I genuinely didn’t see most of the revelations coming and the final twist, when it arrived, was really unexpected! Which is, for me anyway, the signs of a very enjoyable thriller indeed.

Robin Morgan-Bentley has also conveyed a really chilling scenario with just the right amount of fear and malice. This is a thriller that, at times, borders on horror territory because some of what happens to Jamie and Victoria in Chorister’s Lodge is seriously sinister! Indeed, readers of a sensitive disposition should be aware of some relatively graphic medical/childbirth content, as well as (**mild spoilers ahead**) a plotline involving kidnapping/abandonment, infidelity, fertility issues/IVF, and child death. And this tension doesn’t let up until right at the end of the book, making The Guest House a page-turning read!

Morgan-Bentley has also done a really good job of conveying the characters. Although Barry and Fiona are very VERY creepy, once you realise why they are doing what they’re doing to Jamie and Victoria, you do begin to understand their warped psychology. Revelations about Jamie and Victoria also change our perceptions of them and their relationship as the book develops. Whilst many of the characters are not, by the end of the book, especially sympathetic, it is clear why they act the way that they do and I did buy into the reasoning for their decisions and actions, even if I didn’t sympathise with the decisions themselves.

Overall, The Guest House is what I would call a riot of a novel. By which I mean that it’s probably not the most realistic premise you’ll read this year but, if you’re happy to ignore that, it is a wild ride of a book that offers a huge amount of entertainment value for thriller lovers. Fans of Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley will definitely want to check this one out.

The Guest House by Robin Morgan-Bentley is published by Orion and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher and author 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Gone & the Forgotten by Clare Whitfield

Image Description: The cover of The Gone and the Forgotten is a pale purple and has illustrations of various plants and also of a young girl with windswept hair.
Image Description: The cover of The Gone and the Forgotten is a pale purple and has illustrations of various plants and also of a young girl with windswept hair.

Summer, 1993. In the aftermath of her mother’s suicide attempt, 16-year-old Prue must spend the summer holidays on a remote island in the Shetlands with her favourite Aunt Ruth and Uncle Archie, a man she’s barely met since her aunt married him. Prue hopes to re-establish the relationship, and that her aunt might help her understand some of the parts of the past she has been forbidden to discuss by her mother – including the identity of her father.

Prue soon finds out her uncle was the only suspect in the disappearance of a local girl some twenty years ago. As she grows closer to him, she learns there are different views on how the beguiling Evelyn O’Hara disappeared, but is he innocent?

A single version of the truth seems impossible to lock down, and the truth is something Prue has a fractured relationship with.

Clare Whitfield’s second novel, The Gone and the Forgotten, is billed as part psychological thriller, part coming-of-age novel. I’d add to that by saying that it’s also part Gothic-inspired mystery, part family drama, and, in its entirety, a creepy and compelling read with some seriously dark psychological undertones.

Set on the remote island of Noost, The Gone and the Forgotten follows 16-year-old Prue as she endeavours to find out the truths behind the many silences that lie at the heart of her damaged and fractured family. Instead of a long-overdue chat with her Aunt Ruth, however, Prue is confronted with more forbidden pasts and long-held secrets on Noost, including the sudden disappearance of a local girl twenty years previously. And as the mysteries of Prue’s own past combine with those that lie beneath the historic disappearance of the beguiling Evelyn O’Hara, it isn’t long before Prue comes to realise that unravelling the past might be more of a curse than a blessing.

Prue makes for an interesting – if not entirely empathetic – narrator who comes complete with more than the requisite amount of angst and drama. Her voice reminded me, in many ways, of the protagonist of Emma Cline’s The Girls and, if you enjoyed that book’s fraught examination of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age, then I think The Gone and the Forgotten will appeal also. As with that protagonist, Prue doesn’t always make the smartest of decisions but, crucially, they always felt authentic, especially once the trauma of Prue’s past is fully revealed.

Because this is a book that comes chocked full of family drama and traumatic secrets. Whilst I don’t want to give away any spoilers, readers should be aware that the novel deals with suicide (and features a flashback to a suicide attempt), pregnancy, toxic relationships, gaslighting, child sexual abuse, child death, and murder. It also features scenes containing drug use and sexual content (including one scene that borders on rape/coercion), and the majority of the characters would benefit from several sessions with a very well-qualified therapist.

With revelations coming thick and fast, The Gone and the Forgotten is definitely a book that kept the pages turning. I did find myself guessing one of two of the plot beats and twists but Clare Whitfield manages to pack so much emotion into the pages that, for the most part, I was too absorbed in the plot to care about the occasional cliché. The novel really manages to capture both what it is like to be a frustrated, isolated, and confused 16-year-old – angry at the secrets being kept from her, and desperate to make sense of herself, the world around her, and her own place within it – and the ways in which that emotional melting pot makes Prue very vulnerable.

The novel also practically oozes atmosphere especially when it comes to the descriptions of Dynrost House – Prue’s ‘home’ on Noost – and the island landscape surrounding it. A real sense of desolation and isolation leaps off the page and there were several times when I wanted to reach into the book, grab Prue, and get her running for the Mainland ferry as fast as her legs could carry her! Some of the character writing felt a little more stilted in places – there were a couple of characters who just screamed ‘wrong ‘un’ to me the moment they arrived on the page – but, for the most part, I could suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the complex tangle of damaging secrets and dangerous lies that lay behind the facades of MacArthur and Anderson families. I was also impressed by the way that Clare Whitfield managed to maintain a hold on several complex plot strands and to tie them together in a fitting way at the end.

The Gone and the Forgotten made for a quick and compelling read. Packing plenty of emotional punch and featuring an evocative setting, the unfolding dramas and unsettling revelations soon had me wholly immersed in the psychological darkness of Prue’s world.

The Gone & the Forgotten by Clare Whitfield is published by Head of Zeus and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 01 July 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!!! Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda (translated by Alison Watts)

The cover of Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight features a photograph of koi carp swimming against a black backdrop
Image Description: The cover of Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight features a photograph of koi carp swimming against a black backdrop

Set in a Tokyo flat over the course of one night, Aki and Hiro have decided to be together one last time in their shared flat before parting. Their relationship has broken down after a mountain trek during which their guide died inexplicably.

Now each believes the other to be a murderer and is determined to extract a confession before the night is over. Who is the murderer and what really happened on the mountain?

In a battle of wills between them, the chain of events leading up to this night are gradually revealed in this gripping psychological thriller that keeps the reader in suspense to the very end.

Having read and enjoyed The Aosawa Murders, I was pleased to learn that Bitter Lemon Press had arranged for a second of Riku Onda’s novels to be translated into English. And, as with its predecessor, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is somewhat unconventional in its structure and premise.

Told over the course of one night, the novel follows Aki and Hiro, who have decided to spend one last night together in their shared flat before going their separate ways. Over the course of a shared meal and some drinks, they confront each other about the tragic death of their mountain guide during a trekking holiday the year before. Each person is convinced that the other must have murdered the guide. But how did they do it? And why? As the night grows longer, Aki and Hiro become involved in a battle of wills that gradually reveals a series of shocking – and unexpected – truths.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is a very difficult book to review because to say anything further about the plot or the characters is to risk venturing into spoiler territory. And given the skill with which Riku Onda casually drops revelatory bombshells into this novel, that would be a great shame. What I can say is that the narrative, despite being told in a languid prose style, had me absolutely hooked and took several unexpected but satisfying turns along the way to its resolution.

Alternating between the perspectives of Aki and Hiro, the reader is gradually absorbed into the story of these two individuals, the connections between them, and the mystery about what happened on that ill-fated walking holiday. Along the way, the couple must both confront long-buried secrets, difficult truths, and suppressed desires: about themselves, about each other, and about the relationship between them.

Although told in languid, dream-like manner, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight does not shy away from confronting the darker aspects of human psychology and readers should be aware that the novel makes mention of or reference to suicidal thoughts, suicide, child death, and the death of a parent. The central relationship is also one of unhealthy dependence and obsession that gives the entire novel an unsettling air of menace and oppression that contrasts sharply with the poetry of Alison Watts’ translation.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is billed as a psychological thriller and, although I can see why it has been assigned that label, for me it’s a novel that resists such easy categorisation. Whilst the novel’s primary concern is the psychology of it’s protagonists – and the battle of wills between them is, at times, thrilling – the book is more than the sum of its parts. The central mystery of what happened to the mountain guide is, over the course of the novel, supplemented with several other mysteries about the exact nature of the relationship between Aki and Hiro, as well as about the accuracy (or otherwise) of their shared memories of the past.

As with The Aosawa Murders, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight probably won’t be for everyone. It requires a little more effort than the average thriller and, as with its predecessor, refuses to tie up all of its threads into a neat and tidy bow. For those prepared to expend a little more effort, however, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight a suspenseful, unsettling and satisfying psychological read.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda and translated by Alison Watts is published by Bitter Lemon Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 01 July 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!!! Tasting Sunlight by Ewald Arenz (translated by Rachel Ward)

Image Description: The cover of Tasting Sunlight features a printed leaf pattern against a gradated orange and yellow background.

Teenager Sally has just run away from a clinic where she to be treated for anorexia. She’s furious with everything and everyone, and wants to be left in peace.

Liss is in her forties, living alone on a large farm that she runs single-handedly. She has little contact with the outside world, and no need for other people.

From their first meeting, Sally realises that Liss isn’t like other adults; she expects nothing of Sally and simply accepts who she is, offering her a bed for the night with no questions asked.

That night becomes weeks and then months, as an unlikely friendship develops and these two damaged women slowly open up – connecting to each other, reconnecting with themselves, and facing the darkness in their pasts through their shared work on the land.

For the first 50-pages or so of Ewald Arenz’s debut novel, Tasting Sunlight, I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of the book. I didn’t particularly like either of the central characters and I hadn’t yet found anything that could be called a ‘plot’. Yet despite this – or perhaps because of it – I could not stop reading the book! Something about the unusual friendship that develops between two clearly damaged women utterly captivated me and, before I knew it, I was at the end of a strangely uplifting story of love, acceptance, healing, transformation, and the power of nature.

Arenz – and translator Rachel Ward – has done a wonderful job of conveying his characters: from teenager Sally’s righteous fury at the perceived injustices of her world to the emotive outbursts that periodically disrupt forty-something farmer Liss’s aura of quiet calm and worldly acceptance. Neither woman is exactly likeable but I wholly believed in them as people, warts and all.

As the novel progresses, it also becomes apparent that deep-rooted trauma lies at the centre of each women. I won’t give spoilers but, although never graphic or gory, readers should be aware that the novel deals with anorexia and disordered eating, physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, forced confinement, self-harm, and domestic violence. Arenz’s handling of these topics – and his focus upon the way in which both human and natural connections can, gradually, offer healing – is both considered and sensitive, and the result is a powerfully moving novel of connection and transformation.

Tasting Sunlight is a slow and meditative read and, as such, won’t be for everyone. Although there most certainly is a ‘plot’, it is Sally and Liss – and the connections that are gradually built and drawn between them – that lie at the heart of this novel. It is a novel about the small interactions and almost imperceptible alterations in outlook that impact upon our everyday lives, and the small moments in each day that shift something within us. Arenz writes beautifully about the natural world and the solace to be found within interactions with it and, as the novel progresses, labouring on the land becomes a way for both Sally and Liss to come to terms with their pasts and confront their futures.

Overall, Tasting Sunlight was that rare and precious thing: a novel that surprised me. For the first 50 pages, I genuinely think I would enjoy it. Then, to my surprise, I had finished it. And, even more surprising, I couldn’t stop thinking about it! Wonderfully atmospheric, empathetic, and thoughtful, Tasting Sunlight is a powerful and emotional read that resonates long after you’ve turned the final page.

Tasting Sunlight by Ewald Arenz (translated by Rachel Ward) is published by Orenda Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. You can also purchase directly from the Orenda Books website.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 30 June 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

The cover of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies features a ripe peach against a vivid pastel pink backdrop
Image Description: The cover of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies features a ripe peach against a vivid pastel pink backdrop

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good.

There is fourteen-year-old Jael, who nurses a crush on the preacher’s wife; the mother who bakes a sublime peach cobbler every Monday for her date with the married Pastor; and Eula and Caroletta, single childhood friends who seek solace in each other’s arms every New Year’s Eve.

With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.

Although not a huge reader of short story collections, the pre-publication waves being made about Deesha Philyaw’s debut collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, have been hard to ignore: everyone who has read this collection seems to have loved it and the collection has garnered early praise for its frank and funny portrayal of the lives and lived experiences of Black women and girls.

From the woman who just wants to be allowed to love her best friend to the daughter of a dying woman who seeks relief and recognition with a stranger in the hospice parking lot, the nine stories that make up The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the complex realities that lie behind the appearances of good church ladies.

Although the collection treads somewhat familiar territory in terms of themes – mother/daughter relationships are explored in several stories, whilst lust and guilt feature in several more – The Secret Lives of Church Ladies retains a freshness thanks both the the author’s eye for rich detail and luscious, evocative language, and for the sharp critique of the societal standards that women – and Black women in particular – are expected to uphold.

Told with both humour and tenderness, Deesha Philyaw examines the secret passions, long-maintained lies, and lived realities of her protagonists’ lives, examining the nuances that make up a life without either reserve or judgement. With her fine eye for detail and graceful command of language, she fully inhabits each of her characters: drawing the reader into their lives, their feelings, and their many complications.

Although often short and pacy, the stories that make up The Secret Lives of Church Ladies are beautifully layered: each one a little gift for the reader to unwrap and unpack. ‘Snowfall’, for example, features a young lesbian couple who have moved to the American Midwest from Florida and are now, begrudgingly, shovelling snow together. Although ostensibly a tender examination of love, the story also touches upon mother/daughter relationships by confronting the spectre of parental abandonment and the shadow that it leaves behind. As with many of the stories in the collection, the protagonists of ‘Snowfall’ also grapple with their sexual identities: torn between the acceptance and occupation of their desires and the disapproval – often implied – of family, friends, or wider social institutions.

In another story, ‘Not-Daniel’ – one of my favourites in the collection – a woman finds solace amidst sorrow by starting an illicit relationship with a married stranger in the hospice parking lot. In Philyaw’s hands, however, this seemingly simple story of infidelity becomes a subtle exploration of guilt, loss, and familial pressure, served up with a slice of wry humour on the side.

As expected in a short story collection, some stories and voices resonated with me more than others. On the whole, however, the collection was – for me – a short, sharp and perfectly-formed breath of narrative fresh air. Although poignant and often shot through with heartache, the wry humour and tender, positive LGBTQ++ rep made The Secret Lives of Church Ladies a fierce and feminist debut collection told with a fresh, bold authorial voice.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw is published by Pushkin Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing an e-copy of the book and to Tara McAvoy for inviting me to take part in this blog tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The tour continues until 13 June 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!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Paper Chase: The Printer, The Spymaster & the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers by Joseph Hone

The cover of The Paper Chase features an image of a woman in an elegant dress with a black hood and a black vizard mask covering her face. Manuscript pages and ink blots are scattered over the central image.
Image Description: The cover of The Paper Chase features an image of a woman in an elegant dress with a black hood and a black vizard mask covering her face. Manuscript pages and ink blots are scattered over the central image.

In the summer of 1705, a masked woman knocked on the door of David Edwards’s London workshop. She did not leave her name, only a package and a coded means of identifying her courier.

Edwards was a Welsh printer working in the dark confines of Nevill’s Alley, outside the city walls. The package was an illegal, anonymous pamphlet: The Memorial of the Church of England. The argument it proposed threatened to topple the government, but sedition sold well in the coffeehouses of Fleet Street and the woman promised protection. Edwards swiftly set about printing and surreptitiously distributing the pamphlet.

Parliament was soon in turmoil and government minister Robert Harley launched a hunt for all those involved. When Edwards was nowhere to be found, his wife was imprisoned and the pamphlet was burnt in his place. The printer was not the only villain, though, and Harley had to find the unknown writers who wished to bring the government down.

The intricacies of eighteenth-century printing might not, on the surface of it, sound like the most thrilling of topics but, as Dr Joseph Hone proves in The Paper Chase, publications that came out of the printer’s workshops had the potential to send men to the gallows, bring down governments, alter national policy, impact on the course of a war, and to threaten the security of the nation’s most revered institutions.

The Paper Chase follows the hunt for one particular anonymous pamphlet: a polemic entitled The Memorial of the Church of England. Printed by David Edwards – a Welsh printer with Jacobite sympathies and an established ‘radical’ press in Nevill’s Alley – the pamphlet was a High Church attack on the Godolphin administration and its policy of ‘moderation’. It implied that, by tolerating and working with Protestant dissenters, Queen Anne’s government – and, by implication, Anne herself – were not acting in the best interests of the Church of England.

The pamphlet, unsurprisingly, caused an outcry: Queen Anne was deeply upset by it, Parliament was outraged and, from the spires of Oxford to the streets of London, people were talking about the Memorial and trying to work out who its anonymous author(s) might be. Chief amongst these people was Robert Harley. A natural politician and prominent proponent of moderation, Harley started following the paper trail that led out of Nevill’s Alley, coaxing out the book’s secret’s and untangling the web of connections that would see his fate entwined with that of David Edwards in unexpected ways.

Given that my PhD is in eighteenth-century literature, many of the political intrigues and prominent figures in The Paper Chase were familiar to me. The politics of the period – especially in the earlier part of the century – are endlessly fascinating but, without a crash course in its terminology and structures (Whig, Tory, Churchmen, Toleration, Moderation etc), it can be overwhelmingly confusing for the general reader. It is to Hone’s credit, therefore, that he conveys a complex political environment – one that encompasses religious, political, and literary figures and factions – in a succinct yet through manner, guiding the reader into the knotty world of Harley, the Memorial, and the tangled connections that existed between press and Parliament.

Written with an academic’s eye for detail and told with vigour, The Paper Chase offers a blend of scholarship and detection that is sure to appeal to fans of narrative non-fiction in the vein of Kate Summerscale. That said, The Paper Chase is, in essence, a book about printing and pamphleteering: readers heading into it expecting a detective-style chase across London will be left sorely disappointed. Harley’s investigation into the Memorial was painstaking and thorough and the book follows the fates and fortunes of its central protagonists over several years. Whilst it has its thrilling moments – including night time raids on coffee houses and the hunt for a mysterious masked woman – the pleasure of The Paper Chase is in Hone’s gradual untangling of connections and his patient explanations of the wider implications of seemingly minor events.

Offering an insight into a period of history that remains under-represented in the arena of ‘popular’ print, The Paper Chase is an insightful and immersive tale of eighteenth-century politics and printing that is perfectly pitched for both general and academic readers alike. Combining scholarly precision with an engaging and accessible style, it’s a highly recommended read for fans of unusual mysteries, narrative non-fiction, and all things bookish.

The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone is published by Vintage and is now available in paperback 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. I also purchased a paperback copy from Berts Books, which came beautifully wrapped with a very pretty ribbon!

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!!! Villager by Tom Cox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back from the Backlist · Reviews

BACK FROM THE BACKLIST!! The Corset by Laura Purcell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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