Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!! Sunburn by Laura Lippman

35288850Creating unlikeable but sympathetic characters is a skill that I hugely appreciate as a reader because I find it genuinely difficult to finish a book populated by them. So many novels fall flat on their faces for me because they don’t quite walk that fine line between relatable yet difficult, and downright irritating. Not so Laura Lippman’s Sunburn which creates a compelling cast and narrative in spite of the essential selfishness of its protagonists.

Sunburn asks one important question: what kind of woman walks out on her family? One with nothing to lose and everything to hide as it turns out. One like Polly Costello. Or Pauline Hansen. Or whoever she decides to be when she next needs to move on with her life. Gregg picked up ‘Pauline’ in a bar three years ago because she had a restless, wildcat energy. But now she’s vanished – at least from the life that he and their daughter Jani will live. But he can follow her. To a new town, a new job and to a new ‘friend’, Adam Bosk, who thinks he has her figured out. But who is ‘Polly’ really and how many times has she disappeared before? And who are all the shadowy figures so interested in her whereabouts?

As you can probably tell, this is a novel that plays with ideas with identity, examining the pasts we create for ourselves, the futures we envisage and the baggage that gets thrown out the window on our way through life. Everyone in this book is hiding their real selves, creating new lives and obscuring unpleasant truths in an effort to create more promising futures for themselves.  It should make them all hideously unpleasant so it’s a testament to Laura Lippman’s writing that they’re so compelling and relatable instead.

Polly herself is the mainstay of the novel. Complex and difficult, she’s an unforgettable heroine who really drives the book forwards. Friendly one minute, cool the next; soft and open but with sharp edges that will cut anyone who gets too close, Polly feels like a living, breathing human being. She’s difficult, selfish and shallow in many ways but also loyal, intelligent and caring in others. And, as you uncover more about her troubled past, she becomes a character made by her experiences. She’s definitely the centre of the book, the sun around which all the other characters revolve and the human mystery that kept me turning the pages.

And everyone, I mean everyone, has their own agenda in this novel. From the private detective who definitely shouldn’t be getting involved with his mark; to the insurance broker trying to cover up his partnership with a corrupt cop, everyone is out for themselves and what they can get. Even the waitress at the dead-end diner that Polly rolls into is playing the hand she’s been dealt as best she can – even if that means resorting to blackmail. Selfish, shallow, self-absorbed – Lippman’s characters are all of these things but they’re also deeply, fatally human. Whether it’s loneliness, poverty, desperation or love, everyone in Sunburn has a driving force and a motivation that feels real. It’s a real accomplishment and it really sets the novel apart from many of the other noirish thrillers that I’ve read.

The plot itself is a meander more than a race. At just under 300 pages long, Sunburn isn’t a substantial read in terms of length but it feels weighty and there’s a deliberate steadiness in the pacing, a slow burn of tension that into a wildfire of actions and consequences towards the end. It’s not quite as page-turnery as other thrillers I’ve read but the pace suits the novel – this is a thriller that’s in tune with the steady, compelling narratives of classic noir and, as such, it rewards patient reading.

Filled with psychological complexity and narrative tension, Sunburn is an homage to the classic psychological noir of James M Cain but with dashes of Gillian Flynn and S J Watson, and is a worthy edition to any suspense thriller fans TBR pile.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman is published by Faber & Faber and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW! Conviction by Julia Dahl

ConvictionAs a village girl born and raised in leafy rural England, I’ve been to New York only once – for three sleep-deprived days at the end of a long summer camp season back in 2007. As a lone female traveller on a flying visit, I stuck pretty firmly to the tourist trail in Manhattan and got only the briefest of glimpses at the beat of the city’s heart beneath the tourist glitter.

Thanks to Julia Dahl’s latest novel Conviction however, I now feel as if I’ve had a peek beneath that surface and into the heart of a neighbourhood few tourists are likely to have explored.

Conviction, Julia’s third novel but her first to be published here in the UK, finds journalist Rebekah Roberts working of at New York’s sleaziest tabloid but dreaming of bigger things. When she receives a letter from a convicted murdered claiming his innocence, she sees a chance and, with a little investigation, uncovers a story she can’t ignore.

Twenty-two years earlier, in the wake of the notorious Crown Heights riots, when tensions ran high between the black and Jewish communities in Brooklyn, teenager DeShawn Perkins was convicted of the brutal murder of his adoptive family. No one wants to talk about that grim, violent time in New York City – not even Saul Katz, a former NYPD copy and Rebekah’s inside source. But are old wounds the only reason for the silence? As Rebekah investigates, she uncovers a tangled web of corruption, power and denial that may have dangerous implications for more people than just DeShawn.

I knew absolutely nothing about the history of Brooklyn and it’s complex cultural makeup before reading Conviction but Julia Dahl evokes it so well. Writing deftly about race, religion and local politics, she revealed a world that is as gritty and culturally complex as you would expect a melting pot like New York to be, and sheds light on some of New York’s closed communities.

Rebekah Roberts is a heroine made for just such a setting. Complex and nuanced but without falling into the trap of being a ‘strong female lead with issues’, you can’t help but root for her as she digs deeper into DeShawn’s case. By turns funny, sarcastic, morally righteous and world weary, I really felt for Rebekah when, towards the end of the book, she’s caught in a moral quandary between what is right and what is easy, torn between her loyalty to her family and the truth. Backed up by a supporting cast of equally nuanced characters and set amidst a realistic, living version of New York, Conviction is a novel that feels alive from the first page to the last and is highly recommended for anyone seeking a murder mystery for our turbulent times.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that this is Julia Dahl’s third novel but her first to be published in the UK. Although not obviously a sequel when reading, Conviction is the third outing for Rebekah Roberts and the events of Invisible City and Run You Down are alluded to briefly in Conviction.

On the strength of Conviction, I very much hope that Faber & Faber will publish Dahl’s first two books here in the UK also as I want to know more about Rebekah, her tense relationship with her mother Aviva and the community of Hasidic Jews that they come from. If they have the same compulsive page-turning quality, intelligent social commentary and sharp eye for detail as this book, I’ll probably devour those in two days as well!

Conviction by Julia Dahl is published by Faber & Faber and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good bookseller and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones & Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 






REVIEW: The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn

32312859It must be exceptionally hard to be a debut thriller author at the moment. The current glut of psychological thrillers filling bookstore tables and supermarket shelves makes it a crowded marketplace and readers would be forgiven for getting a bit of fatigue when it comes to yet another ‘Girl’ or ‘Woman’ title in bold type against a moody backdrop. So it’s definitely worth noting when something genuinely gripping comes along and, for me anyway, A. J. Finn’s debut The Woman in the Window, certainly offered that.

Set almost entirely within one New York house, the novel’s protagonist is child psychologist Dr Anna Fox. Suffering from acute agoraphobia, Anna hasn’t set foot outside her house for the last ten months and she lives her life through a combination of the internet and her study window, self-medicating through her days on a dangerous combination of prescription drugs and alcohol. When new neighbours Alistair, Jane and Ethan Russell move in across the square, Anna is instantly drawn to them. Their picture-perfect family of three is an echo of the life that was once hers. But one evening a frenzied scream rips across the street and Anna witnesses something that no one was supposed to see. Now she must uncover the truth about what really happened. But even if she does, will anyone believe her? And can she even trust herself?

So far, so psychological thriller right? And indeed, the tropes are all present and correct in The Woman in the Window. There’s an unreliable female narrator with a hidden past, a sinister and controlling husband, an upper middle class domestic setting – heck there’s even a sexy handyman with a dark secret for that added frisson of romantic tension! So why have I chosen to review this specific thriller as opposed to any of the others currently gracing the shelves?

Mostly because I actually finished this one – and in 24 hours no less! I do really enjoy a good psychological thriller but some of the tropes of the genre have unfortunately started to become cliche.  As a result, a lot of the thrillers I’ve read recently have been perfectly serviceable but just not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Nothing wrong with that – if it isn’t broken, why fix it after all – but for a genre that relies on keeping the reader guessing, I have found myself a few chapters ahead of the characters on more than one occasion and there’s nothing quite as frustrating as mentally screaming “It’s him, he CLEARLY did it!” at your protagonist as she falls into bed with the serial killer.

And I’m not saying that doesn’t occasionally happen in The Woman in the Window – I don’t do spoilers in reviews but I’d figured out the root of Anna’s past trauma before it was revealed on the page (which doesn’t make it any less tragic by the way, she’s got justifiable baggage and the reveal is heart-breaking) and the subplot involving the sexy handyman doesn’t take much guessing either. But, for the most part, the main plot of this novel is deeply satisfying and with all the twists, turns and sinister goings on that you need to keep you turning the pages and guessing right up until the end.

Anna herself is also more than just your standard messed up psychological thriller heroine – yes, she has the traumatic past and the now fairly par-for-the-course alcohol issues (seriously, what is it with women in this genre and wine?) – but her former job as a psychologist is really important to the plot and adds more than just gloss to her character. Plus it’s really nice to see a woman in this genre who has (or at least had) a successful professional life that is an important part of her character development and psychological makeup. And Anna knows that she’s messed up – her inner monologue is definitely one of the best things about the book because, in her head at least, she’s sharp and funny and deeply intelligent and that really comes across on the page – if you met her in real life, you’d definitely want to sit down and chat to her over a coffee. It’s just that to the rest of the world, she’s become a crazy recluse who drinks wine like a fish and mixes her meds. And that comes across on the page too – when Anna doubts herself, we as readers doubt her and we understand why other characters doubt her too. Her voice is very well done and serious credit to the author for writing such a great female lead.

The supporting cast are also really well done. Yes there’s a few stereotypes in there (we’re back to to that sexy handyman again!) but the author is aware of and plays with these in interesting ways to really turn the plot on its head at the end of the book. Put it this way – that controlling husband? Bit of a surprise character in the end is all that I’m saying.

The book is also a fantastic homage to film noir – most people will probably have got the connection between the plot and the famous 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window (if you haven’t seen it, do – it’s brilliant) – and Anna herself if a big fan of black and white movies so there’s more than a few nods to the genre in the novel itself. But the Hitchcockian tone of isolation and intrigue created by Anna’s unique situation combined with a twenty-first century spin really does work and, just like Hitchcock’s famous film, it grips from the off and doesn’t let up until the finale.

Overall then this was definitely a riveting read that combines a taut and compelling narrative with a fantastic lead character. It’s not reinventing the wheel but The Woman in the Window is a polished and elegant example of the thriller genre that you can gulp down in one sitting and will keep you guessing right up until the end.

The Woman in the Window by A J Finn is published by HarperCollins and is available now in hardback, audio and ebook from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR! The Meal of Fortune by Phillip Brady

thumbnail_The Meal of Fortune CoverGuns, Gangsters and…..Gourmets? Well colour me intrigued because one of those things doesn’t fit with the others!

As anyone who has followed The Shelf for a while will probably have realised, I’m more Murder at the Vicarage than The Sopranos in my reading tastes – give me tea and cake with the vicar (and a body in the library) over bloodthirsty mafia dons any day. So when the chance to take part in the blog tour for The Meal of Fortune arose, I’ll admit that was initially prepared to give it a miss. But Gourmets? Now that is different! What the heck has cooking got to do with gangsters?

Well, quite a lot in this novel as it turns out! Failing celebrity agent Dermot Jack has one client – lecherous daytime TV chef Marcus Diesel. But Dermot’s luck might just have turned when Marcus’ number one fan, a mysterious Russian oligarch, hires him to represent his wannabe pop star daughter. Disaffected MI5 officer Anna Preston  is just as happy to be handed the chance to resurrect her own career, even if it means crossing paths with Dermot seventeen years after he definitely didn’t break her heart. Add in a diminutive mafia enforcer who definitely has his own agenda, a very impatient loan shark who ‘just wants his money back’ and a pony called Nugget (who, in many ways, could be said to have started the whole thing), and one thing’s for sure. There’ll be winners and losers when the Meal of Fortune finally stops spinning. Oh, and another thing. Anna and Dermot are absolutely NOT about to fall in love again. OK?

As you can probably tell from the above, this is a gangster novel with it’s tongue firmly in its cheek throughout. With a cast of larger than life characters, a series of ever more ludicrous situations and a serious clash between celebrity culture and the mafia intrigue, it’s one of those novels that really just shouldn’t work. But it does and the results are very funny indeed, with just a hint of menace behind the smile the novel wears.

Dermot Jack is, in all honesty, a bit of a louse. Embittered and down on his luck when the novel starts, he’s a man who seems destined to forever make the wrong choices – even if they are sometimes for the right reasons. Anna Preston is a maverick consigned to a desk job because of one little mistake. All of the characters in this novel are, in their own special way, a little bit messed up. And life isn’t going quite how it should for any of them. Throw them all together and it’s a recipe for disaster – and comedic value! On an individual level it’s difficult to warm to the individual characters at times but as an ensemble cast they really work well together and the dialogue is cracking – fast, sharp and with just the right amount of acid to add some sarcasm to proceedings.

The same goes for the plot. From the surprisingly cutthroat world of daytime TV to backstage at Eurovision, via car chases, tracking devices and a short trip to a Russian mafia holding cell, it’s non-stop from the off and with just the right level of genuine menace to stop the caper from becoming a farce. The characters may be crazy but they all have their motivations and it’s the clever interweaving and revealing of these that makes the 350 pages fly.

In summary, The Meal of Fortune reminded me a lot of the film ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’ with it’s black humour, multiple plot strands and ever increasing daftness. But, like ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’, it all hangs together seamlessly. The result is a darkly humorous comic novel in the vein of Christopher Brookmyre (One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night springs to mind) or John Niven(The Sunshine Cruise Company) but with it’s own unique flavour. Fans of comic novels should definitely check this out, as should anyone who enjoys their gangsters with just a dash of gourmet style!

The Meal of Fortune by Phil Brady is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers including Unbound, Hive, Waterstones and AmazonMy thanks go to Anne Cater for organising the blog tour and to the author for providing an advance copy of the book in return for a honest and unbiased feature. 

The blog tour continues through to 10 March so please check out the other stops below:

meal of fortune tour poster

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR! Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

Hydra final jacket imageI am so excited to be part of today’s blog tour! If you’ve read my Best Books of 2017 post you’ll know that I was a big fan of Matt Wesolowski’s debut thriller, Six Stories. So when I was asked to be part of the blog tour for Matt’s second Six Stories novel, Hydra, my reaction was very much ‘where do I sign?!’

Told using the same podcast/interview format as Six Stories, Hydra is actually a prequel of sorts, set before the events of Six Stories and, as such, the two books can be read entirely independently of each other.

This time elusive investigative journalist Scott King is examining the case of Arla Macleod, a young woman who bludgeoned her mother, stepfather and younger sister to death with a hammer one cold November night in 2014. The events would become known as the Macleod Massacre and would lead to Arla being incarcerated in a medium-security mental-health institution for the remainder of her life. As he interviews five key witnesses to Arla’s life, and Arla herself, King becomes embroiled in a complex question: what made Arla do it and was her responsibility really as diminished as her legal team made out? Unpicking the tangled web of narrative and speculation, King is thrust into a world of dangerous internet games, online trolls and the mysterious black-eyed kids – which brings him to the attention of someone very dangerous indeed.

There’s always a worry when reading a second book that’s part of series you love – the difficult second novel is only a cliche because it happens so often following promising debuts. There’s definitely no reason for Six Stories fans to be worried though, Hydra more than lives up to it’s predecessor and is packed with the same page-turning quality that had Six Stories readers gripped from beginning to end.

Expertly plotted, this is a taut and atmospheric thriller that has the narrative compulsion of podcasts such as Serial. Each ‘episode’ builds the tension, pulling the threads that bind tangled Arla’s story together that little bit tighter each time before lobbing a plot grenade in right at the end of each chapter for that ‘can’t stop reading’ momentum. I genuinely couldn’t put this book down so don’t make the mistake of starting it late at night or you’ll be bleary-eyed for work in the morning (which definitely didn’t happen if you’re reading this boss)!

Set in a rundown northern town, there’s an ominous atmosphere that lends definite horror element to proceedings and will send a shiver up your spine at times. Yes, this is a thriller but, as with Six Stories, there’s a hint of something nasty in the woodshed hiding just around the corner. The sinister black-eyed kids and the dark world of supernatural internet games lends a spooky undertone to a twisted tale of real-world failings, a miserable home life, social disconnection, teenage rebellion,friendships gone wrong, internet trolls; all of which contribute to the tragic events of the Macleod Massacre.

And the ending? Oh the ending! As with all the best thrillers, you’ll need to wait until the very last page for the true story to unfold and, when it does, it’s a plot twist and a half!

Showing that there’s still plenty of life left in the mystery/thriller genre, Hydra is another slice of Matt Wesolowski’s page-turning, original and genre-blending style and it’s a treat for anyone who loved his first book. Definitely deserving of wider readership, this is a dark and mysterious treat for fans of page-turning literary thrillers. Prepare to be engrossed – and while you’re at it, pick up Six Stories too and see how Scott King’s story really ends!

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books and is available now from all good bookshops. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater for arranging the blog tour. Check out the rest of the stops!


Hydra blog poster 2018 FINAL





Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR! City Without Stars by Tim Baker

City Without StarsReading a book that’s outside of your comfort zone can be scary – you don’t get that warm blanket of instant familiarity and have to fight against the bit of your reading brain that says you won’t enjoy it. But getting away from your reading comfort blanket can be extremely rewarding too – the books challenge and engage, providing different input and exposure to new scenarios, new characters and new writing style.

This, in a nutshell, was my experience reading City Without Stars, which I am delighted to welcome to The Shelf today. Anyone who’s followed The Shelf for a while knows I’m a mystery/crime/thriller fan but I do err towards the cosy end of the spectrum, which is definitely not City Without Stars’ territory.

The novel, the second from highly praised novelist Tim Baker (who was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger for his debut, Fever City), is a gritty urban thriller set in Ciudad Real, Mexico. Amidst a deadly war between rival cartels, hundreds of sweatshop workers are being murdered. Union activist Pilar, increasingly frustrated by the lack of official interest in the lives of these women, takes social justice into her own hands by organising illegal strikes in protest.  Meanwhile newly assigned homicide detective Fuente, frustrated by his superiors shutting down his investigation into the deaths, suspects that most of his colleagues are on the payroll of drug kingpin El Santo. In desperation, these two unlikely allies come together to investigate. But when the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan-rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps surfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise the immensity of the forces aligned against them.

This is a novel that keeps good company with the likes of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. It’s not afraid to show the gritty reality of life and the descriptions of Ciudad Real, from the slick offices of the wealthy to the slums and sweatshops that house so many people, are evocatively described. The world in which Pilar and Fuentes operates is a living and breathing one, even if it’s not particularly pleasant.

The characters, similarly, feel real. These are not nice people – there are no heroes in this novel – but they are people, real and flawed and with a range of complex emotions and reasoning behind what they do.

This combines to create a fantastically taut atmosphere, tense and claustrophobic with a growing sense of the net tightening as the story progresses. It’s extremely compelling and definitely has that page-turning quality. Even the violence, which is frequent and bloody, and the language, with an f-bomb on every page, didn’t feel unnecessary – yes, it’s unpalatable but that’s because it’s meant to be. There are no off-page deaths here – if it happens, the reader experiences it because the characters experience it and it feels frighteningly real.

As I said at the start of the review, this was a real step outside of my comfort zone but a welcome one. Whilst I wouldn’t say it’s converted me to a reading diet of gritty underworld crime, it was a novel that broadened my horizons – the Latin American setting was a new one to me and I found the challenges faced by Pilar and Fuentes to investigate amidst the drugs war and the internal corruption to well-conceived and though-provoking. It’s not a novel for the faint-hearted but fans of hard-boiled detective novels and urban thrillers will definitely find a page-turning, compelling read in City Without Stars.

City Without Stars by Tim Baker is published by Faber & Faber and is available now from all good book retailers in trade paperback and ebook. My thanks go to the publisher for an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.


REVIEW: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three ThingsSecond novels can be tricky things to read and, I’m sure, even more tricky to write. How to make good on the promise of an excellent debut – especially when that debut became a bestseller, a Richard &Judy pick and a lead fiction title for the publisher like Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep did?

Fortunately Cannon hasn’t been phased by the limelight – or if she has she’s done a very good job of hiding it – because her second novel, Three Things About Elsie, is a brilliantly accomplished novel about ageing, memory, friendship and humanity that left me with ALL OF THE FEELS.

84-year-old Florence lies alone on the floor of her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be found, she looks back on her life and her long friendship with Elsie. Best friends since school, Elsie and Florence have done everything together, including keeping a terrible secret. But what does this have to do with the charming new resident Gabriel Price? Why is Florence so afraid of him? And why does he look like a man who died sixty years ago? As Florence is about to discover, there is so much more to anyone than the worst thing they have ever done.

One of the things I loved about Cannon’s first novel was her grasp of character. She’s worked as a doctor and specialised in psychiatry which really comes across in her books as her grasp of personality quirks is nuanced and rounded. None of her characters are perfect but all of them are wonderfully, painfully, heart-breakingly real. I particularly warmed to Jack, a former military man and one of Florence’s fellow inmates at Cherry Tree who takes it upon himself to befriend her and help work out the mystery of her past. I also liked Handy Simon, Cherry Tree’s handyman who, nearing his forties, is still trying to figure out his role in life and will discover that he has hidden talents and depths. And Florence herself, struggling with the slips between present and past, is wonderfully complex – at times difficult and argumentative, others perceptive and kind, she serves as a reminder that the elderly people around us are more than as we see them – they have lived, loved and lost throughout full and varied lives.

In tone, the novel reminded me of Emma Healy’s Elizabeth is Missing, another novel with an elderly and confused narrator carrying a deep secret at it’s heart – and fans of that book should definitely give Three Things About Elsie a read – but, at it’s heart this is a novel less about what happened in the Florence’s past and more about how the ripples of that have affected her present and led her to where and who she is now. It’s also a novel about the deep and abiding love found within deep friendship – Florence and Elsie’s relationship is beautifully and movingly portrayed and, when Jack becomes involved too, fantastically wry and amusing as well. Some moments had me laughing out loud, others with wet cheeks and red eyes.

To say too much about the plot would be to give far too much of the novel away but it’s both a heart-warming and heart-breaking story, filled with everyday reality, bittersweet memory, moments of joy and others of deep regret. Most of all though, it’s filled with humanity. Humanity practically oozes off every page – the fine threads that connect us all together, the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves, the small lives that leave loud echoes and, most importantly of all, the long seconds that give us chance to make choices that define who we want to be. I could have underlined so many sentences and paragraphs that resonated with quiet wisdom – it’s one of those books that I just know will gestate inside me for a while, turning over in my brain. The sort of book that stays with you long after you finish the final page.

As I said earlier, all of the feels. Go and read it, go and read it now. Just have a packet of tissues handy and prepare to devour it in one sitting.

Three Things About Elsie is published by The Borough Press in hardback and ebook on 11 January 2018. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing an advance e-proof in return for an honest and unbiased review. I also read and reviewed Joanna’s first novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, here.




REVIEW: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Silent CompanionsI always feel that the first book you choose to read in a year is, somehow, a reflection of what that reading year will be like. A silly superstition I’m sure but we all have our quirks and picking my first book of a new year is one of mine.

Last year I started with The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which ended up being one of my favourite books of 2017 – so my first read of 2018 had big shoes to fill! Fortunately The Silent Companions, which had been lingering on my TBR far too long, turned out to be a great choice to kick of 2018 – spooky, atmospheric and spine-tingling, it had me turning the pages whilst curled up under the duvet and checking the shadows for sinister beings!

Set in both the 1800s and 1600s, the novel recounts the sinister string of events that have let to Mrs Elsie Bainbridge being examined in a psychiatric hospital on suspicion of arson and murder. Mute and traumatised,Elsie is gradually forced to recollect the events of the previous year which started with her new husband Rupert’s death and her journey; accompanied by Rupert’s cousin Sarah, to his ancestral home, The Bridge. Gothic and crumbling, The Bridge is an eerie place, made all the more unsettling by the hissing noise emanating from the locked garret. Yet when Elsie and Sarah force their way into the dusty attic space, all they find is a Silent Companion: a wooden figure, carefully carved and painted to fool the eye into thinking they are real. But is there more to the Silent Companion than meets the eye? Why does it bear a striking resemblance to Elsie herself? And why did Robert’s ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who lived at The Bridge back in the 1600s fear them so dreadfully?

There is a strong psychological element to this ghost story. Elsie, confused and traumatised by the events of the previous year, is a fantastically unreliable narrator and, as the only surviving witness to her version of events, it becomes impossible for the reader to decide on the true narrative. Is Elsie really the victim of sinister supernatural forces that haunt The Bridge? Or is she a psychotic murderess whose own dark past has finally led her to commit terrible deeds? Even at the end of the book, it’s far from clear what the true course of events actually is – as with all the best ghost stories, it’s left to the reader to decide how much you really believe in the tale being spun.

The supernatural elements themselves are handled really well and I completely bought into the Companions as objects of terror. Whether you see them as objects of Elsie’s tortured imagination or as the inanimate hosts of an unspeakable evil, they’re sinister, creepy and guaranteed to leave you with the shivers.

There’s also a fantastically charged and controlled atmosphere throughout the book. Every page oozes with tension and there’s a creeping sense of horror and dread as you turn the pages. Seemingly innocuous conversations, objects and events become charged with meaning as you switch between Anne Bainbridge’s diary, Elsie’s recollections of The Bridge and her present life in the psychiatric hospital.

And the horror isn’t just supernatural but social. I felt that there was an underlying narrative within the book about the roles and perceptions of women. Whether it’s suspicious whispers about witchcraft in the 1600s or the fear of female madness and hysteria in Victorian England, the events of the novel cleverly illustrate the myriad ways in which fear of the strange and supernatural has often been tied into the control and subjugation of women. It makes the book genuinely frightening, both in term of the supernatural agencies that might be at work and the real world fears of societal exclusion and condemnation faced by Elsie and Anne.

With it’s creeping sense of dread and shades of Gothic horror, this novel reminded me very much of the works of Susan Hill combined with elements of Wilkie Collins and M R James. Utterly terrifying (but in a good way!), I’m definitely up for more of Laura Purcell’s particular brand of spooky in the future so was delighted to read that she has another Gothic thriller due to be published in 2018. In the meantime, if you don’t mind your reading year starting with the spooks, definitely add The Silent Companions to your TBR!

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books (Bloomsbury) and is available now in hardcover and ebook from all good bookshops. 

Books of the Year · Reviews

My Best Books of 2017

2017 has been a very up and down year on the reading front. I started strong, slumped massively in the middle and then re-discovered my reading (and blogging) mojo towards the end of the year. Despite that, I have read some cracking books this year and, whilst it’s not been as challenging a task to narrow down my Best Books this year as in previous years, the quality of what is here is definitely not diminished in any way – in my opinion all of the following are brilliant, brilliant books and I would urge you to read them if you haven’t already.

The Essex SerpentEssex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A gorgeously written treat of a book, this historical novel contains multitudes within it’s pages. Sarah Perry has skillfully captured life with her pen, weaving a web of human interactions around the strange fable of a legendary serpent said to haunt the Essex coastline. Packed with characters you’ll feel like you’re friends with and luscious prose that brings Victorian England vividly to life, this is a vibrant riot of a book and perfect for anyone who has The Miniaturist cravings following the BBC adaptation! My full review of the book appeared earlier this year on the blog and can be found here.

Days Without EndDays Without End by Sebastian Barry

If you’d have told me that a literary novel about two gay men set during the American Civil War would be my bag, I’d have been a mite dubious. But Sebastian Barry has created a miniature epic in Days Without End. A beautiful love story, a sweeping historical saga, a tense description of war, a tender portrayal of family – it’s all in here and surrounded in some of the best prose I’ve read all year. The voice in this novel is so unique and so profound at times – it gave me all the feels and I’d urge anyone to go and read it so that they can have them too. Again, a full review appeared earlier this year here.

The Dark CircleThe Dark Circle by Linda Grant

Again, a novel about twins set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-war England didn’t, at first, sound my cup of tea but, thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I picked up and loved Linda Grant’s novel. As with the Essex Serpent, this is a novel about characters more than plot as twins Lenny and Millie meet a range of residents from across the social spectrum within the enclosed microcosm of the sanatorium walls. Combined with an interesting period of social change and some insight into the early years of the NHS, this is a meditative, layered novel that rewards patient reading.

Six StoriesSix Stories by Matt Wesolowski

I’m a huge fan of the podcast Serial so when I heard that there was a novel that purported to be Serial in book form, you’d better believe I was straight on it! Constructed around six podcasts in which an investigative journalist outlines the circumstances surrounding the death of a teenage boy at an outward-bound centre and interviews witnesses and suspects, this is a compelling page-turner with a chilling edge. With a twisty narrative and some dark psychological insights, this novel is what I’d like all thrillers to be – a page turning read with an ending that packs a punch!

Killers of the Flower MoonKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Narrative non-fiction is always a tricky thing to pull off – too much narrative and it feels like a story, too much fact and you’ve got yourself a history book. David Grann gets the balance just right in Killers of the Flower Moon, an investigation into the systematic murders of large numbers of Osage Indians in the 1920s and 30s. Subtitled Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, the book is a fascinating account of an overlooked piece of recent American history that retains it’s relevance and still resonates today.

The White RoadThe White Road by Sarah Lotz

Another twisty psychological thriller that gave me the chills in 2017 – although this time the setting might have had something to do with it! Set largely on Everest, this part thriller, part ghost story is gripping from the off and features one of the best unlikeable narrators I’ve ever come across. Simon Newman is the worst kind of journalist – dishonest and self-serving, he and his friend Thierry are willing to go to extremes to get their click-bait website off the ground, even if that means filming the bodies of Everest’s long dead. Taut and chilling, this is a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist, made all the better for the amazing sense of place. I posted a full review of the book earlier this year here.

The Good People by Hannah Kent / Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Get me being cheeky and sneaking in two recommendations for the price of one! In all seriousness though I couldn’t choose between Hannah Kent’s two novels, both of which I read in 2017. They’re both fantastic pieces of well-realised, cleverly crafted historical fiction. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir, the last women to be executed in Iceland- perfect for anyone who has read (or watched) and adored Alias Grace. It’s dark, compelling and richly told. The Good People is a very different novel, centered around three women in early nineteenth century Ireland and their struggle to come to terms with the care of an unusual child. As with Burial Rites, the novel is based on real events but is quite different in tone and takes in a larger examination of societal attitudes and the uneasy truce between religion and folklore, modernity and tradition. I reviewed The Good People in full here and, on the basis of these two novels, I can’t wait to see what Kent produces next.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions this year have to go to:

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, which came along at just the right time and made me snort my tea due to laughing so much. It also made me realise that maybe being a bookseller wouldn’t be the best career for someone who prefers books to people most of the time!

Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, wonderfully narrated on audio by Stephen Fry, which is a perfect alternative to A Christmas Carol and deserves to be read by adults everywhere (especially if they happen to be reading it to children). Gave me the real festive feels and has a vital message about importance of being kind.

Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a stunning graphic novel about loneliness, ghosts and a mysterious girl next door. Visually captivating, it tells it’s tale in alternating sections of narrative and pictures.

Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is an exploration of the way in which books shape and impact our lives and an insight into why and how we read. A must for any book lovers (as is his first book, The End of Your Life Book Club).

Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, the third in her series of ‘Derbyshire Noir’ police procedurals. I went on blog tour with this book earlier in the year and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the whole series to crime fiction lovers.

As always, I’d love to know if you’ve read any of my books of the year and what you thought of them – or if you have any of them on your TBR pile for 2018. Do leave me a comment down below or say hello over on Twitter – if you’ve done your own Books of the Year post I’d love to read it! In the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and here’s to a bookish 2018!

Happy Reading x


REVIEW: An English Murder by Cyril Hare

34210917December! Snow on the ground, presents under the tree, mince pies stacked in every cupboard, a body in the library. Sorry, what? That’s right – for me nothing says Christmas like a little festive murder mystery! Honestly, I realise that it makes absolutely no sense to be reading about such dastardly deeds over such a joyful holiday but I do love me a Christmas murder mystery to curl up with once the presents are all wrapped and the cat has been wrangled out of the tree for the seventeenth time. So imagine my delight when the lovely folk at Faber & Faber offered to send me ‘An English Murder‘, a golden age classic by Cyril Hare that’s set in a snowed-in country house on Christmas Eve.

With the snow thick on the ground outside and a roaring fire in the grate, Warbeck Hall should be the perfect place to celebrate Christmas. But as the bells chime midnight, a murder takes place and, with the phone line down, no one is getting in or out. Who is responsible? The scorned lover? The cousin passed over for inheritance? The long-serving family butler? The social climber? The history professor? And, more importantly, will any of them survive long enough to tell the tale?

First published in 1951, the novel is a classic golden age mystery of the very best kind and all the standard tropes are present and correct: country house setting, limited number of suspects, cuttingly acidic conversation, strained English politeness, cyanide in the drinks cabinet etc etc. So far, so Agatha Christie. Hare, however, is playing with these well-known stock characters and situations to create a mystery that, when you really start to think about it, has a little more nuance than your average Christie pastiche.

For a start, this is not a mystery in which the detective comes along, interviews the suspects and then grandly unmasks the murderer in the middle of the parlour. That honour goes instead to Dr Bottwink, a Czech history professor with a dry sense of humour and an outsider’s ability to accurately assess the nuances and undertones of an English social gathering. Bottwink is a fantastic character – on the surface an addled history professor, more interested in books than people, but in reality a witty and observant man who swiftly realises that the past may have a significant bearing on the present.

Also unusually for a golden age novel, Hare tackles politics head on – one character is a founding member of a fascist organisation and another (Bottwink) a Jewish refugee who fled the continent during WWII. Hare uses the other characters’ reactions and responses to this to take swipes at the posturing of the various post-war political factions and at general attitudes towards the English sense of national identity – much of which seems worryingly familiar in our own charged political climate. I won’t give away the clever twist at the end of the novel but, suffice to say, I don’t think it’s coincidental that Hare has his only non-English character be the only person with enough knowledge of English constitutional history to be able to solve the murder.

There’s also a few gentle pokes in the direction of the English class system, the conventions of the traditional country house mystery and at Christmas traditions themselves (“It’s Christmas, let’s gather together 8 people who’ll hate each other and force them to make merry, it’ll be fine!”). The mystery itself is sufficiently absorbing and the clues are present without being obvious. The limited cast of characters doesn’t make the guessing of the murderer too difficult and, in truth, there isn’t a huge amount of meat on the bones of the central premise but the dry wit and incisive social commentary more than make up for the slightly shallow characterisation and occasionally thin plotting.

So a clever festive mystery with a golden age skin but something a little more developed going on under the surface. Definitely one of the better festive re-issues I’ve read over recent years, I would certainly recommend ‘An English Murder’ to classic crime fans over this Christmas season.

‘An English Murder’ by Cyril Hare, published by Faber & Faber, is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.