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,, 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!

Back from the Backlist · Reviews

BACK FROM THE BACKLIST!!! The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Image Description: The cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo has a woman in a 1950s-style green evening gown, with pearls around her neck. Her face is partially obscured.

Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

Although the current advertising campaign for this novel is that ‘TikTok made me buy it’, I can honestly say that TikTok had nothing to do with my purchase of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Instead, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s now-phenomenally-popular novel has been languishing on my shelf since before TikTok started taking the world by storm. Indeed, my copy – a US import – gives an indication that it was probably purchased soon after the book’s launch in 2017, and most likely as a result of a recommendation on either the What Should I Read Next or All the Books podcasts.

The fact that a book that clearly intrigued me enough to get it imported from the US has languished unread for at least 5 years gives you some insight into the current state of my backlist TBR. And, having now read the The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, it makes me wonder what other absolute gems are languishing on my backlist. Because let me tell you, I LOVED this book and would not be at all surprised if it doesn’t crop up again on my ‘Best Books of the Year’ list come December.

Combining old-school Hollywood glamour and LGBTQ romance, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a gossipy tell-all tale with a fierce socio-political edge. Beginning in 1950s Hollywood, Evelyn is not only a woman in a man’s world but also a Cuban woman in an overwhelmingly white world and (SPOILERS) a bisexual woman in a world that demonises female sexuality and views same-sex relationships with disgust.

That Evelyn’s life is told through her relationships with her seven husbands – some good, some bad, some fleeting, some possessive – is a brilliant way of exploring not only the way in which the female experience has, so often, been defined by and through men but also how the LGBTQ experience has been hidden behind, or defined by, heteronormative ideology. Indeed, readers should be aware that the novel does not shy away from the realities of Evelyn’s life and content warnings should be noted for sexual abuse, domestic violence, homophobia, biphobia, racism, death/grief, cancer, abortion, and suicide.

Although Evelyn herself is, by her own admission, not a good person – and often makes choices that are morally dubious, selfish, or downright malicious – you can’t fail to be captivated by her story, or to be moved by the fact that she is constantly being forced to choose between her true love and her ambition; between what Hollywood needs her to be and between what she wants to be.

Indeed, although the novel is titled The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, it’s really Evelyn at the heart of it. Manipulative, glamorous, captivating, tragic, loveable, complicated Evelyn. By the end of the novel, Monique doesn’t know what she feels about Evelyn – and neither does the reader. Indeed, there’s a revelation a couple of chapters before the end that is so shocking, it changed my whole feelings about both Evelyn as a character and the story she’d been telling – and that fully puts into perspective her choices and her regrets.

Capturing love, sex, and intimacy in all it’s messy glory, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is also one of the most heart-rending explorations of human relationships that I’ve read. I say ‘human relationships’ rather than ‘romance’ because, although sexual love and desire is frequently explored in the novel, so is deep and loving friendship and the love that comes with finding – and creating – a family. Indeed, with the exception of her great love affair, some of Evelyn’s most poignant and memorable relationships in the novel were, for me, the deep and abiding friendship she has with a Hollywood producer and, later, her genuine love for her daughter.

As you can probably tell, this novel had me absolutely hooked from start to finish. Like Monique, I was quickly captivated by Evelyn Hugo and, as the story progressed, desperate to find out the connection between these two women. Reading this book was, at times, like going on an emotional rollercoaster – it has all the highs and lows you’d expect from the story of a life lived in the spotlight – but it had a depth of character and experience that, for me, set it above the average page-turner.

Complete with deeply flawed but sympathetic characters, a compelling narrative, and a surprising level of depth, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a compulsive readable tale of love, loss, secrets, regrets, and redemption that deserves a place on your TBR!!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is published by Simon & Schuster and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive,, 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

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 · Discussion Time · Random Bookish Things · Spotlight

6 Books That Were Not For Me…BUT They Could Be For You!

Although my blog is very much my hobby – and I have absolutely no expectation of it being anything more than that – I have to admit that, aside from being able to share the book love with lots of lovely like-minded folk, one of the very nice things about being a book blogger is being sent the occasional book by publishers or authors for review.

In my case, most of these books come because I’m on Blog Tours but, every so often, I request a book because I like the sound of it from the blurb and the buzz surrounding it. 90% of the time these books then go on to be read and reviewed on this blog (although let’s not talk about my NetGalley backlog – that’s a whole different post) but, every so often, the book isn’t quite what I was expecting and doesn’t quite float my bookish boat in the way I hoped it would.

Because I don’t review books that I don’t finish on the blog, that left me in a bit of a quandary about what to do with these ‘not for me’ books. Part of what I love about book blogging is being able to help authors and publishers spread the book love, and to share books with potential readers. And I’m especially keen to acknowledge anyone kind enough to send a proof or finished copy my way.

So rather than have the ‘not for me’ books sitting on my shelf accusingly, I decided to put together this post to spotlight them and share them with you. Because just because a book wasn’t for me doesn’t mean that it won’t be for you! I’ve given Goodreads links to all of the books, along with the blurb and publisher information as well as a link to a full review from another lovely blogger!

The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson

Publisher: Head of Zeus, 398 pages

Blurb: Branna ‘Birdie’ Quinn had no good reason to be by the river that morning, but she did not kill the man. She’d seen him first the day before, desperate to give her a message she refused to hear. And now the Filth will see her hang for his murder, just like her father.

To save her life, Birdie must trace the dead man’s footsteps. Back onto the ship that carried him to his death, back to cold isles of Orkney that sheltered him, and up to the far north, a harsh and lawless land which holds more answers than she looks to find…

Review: Check out this full review from Nicola over at Short Books and Scribes – she found it “intriguing, so full of depth and the writing is beautifully descriptive” and perfect for fans of historical fiction and mysteries!

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipeiger

Publisher: Doubleday, 308 pages

Blurb: Three extraordinary lives intertwine across oceans and centuries.

On the banks of the River Seine in 1899, a heartbroken young woman takes her final breath before plunging into the icy water. Although she does not know it, her decision will set in motion an astonishing chain of events. It will lead to 1950s Norway, where a grieving toymaker is on the cusp of a transformative invention, all the way to present-day Canada, where a journalist battling a terrible disease, drowning in her own lungs, risks everything for one last chance to live.

Moving effortlessly across time and space and taking inspiration from an incredible true story, Coming Up for Air is a bold, richly imagined novel about love, loss, and the immeasurable impact of every human life.

Review: Amanda over at Bookish Chat loved this one – her review said that “Sarah Leipciger’s writing is captivating and sharp and all historical and medical elements were very well researched and portrayed” and felt that “Coming Up For For Air is one of those books which stays with you long after you’ve finished it”. High praise indeed!

From the Wreck by Jane Rawson

Publisher: Picador, 272 pages

Blurb: When George Hills was pulled from the wreck of the steamship Admella, he carried with him memories of a disaster that claimed the lives of almost every other soul on board. Almost every other soul. Because as he clung onto the wreck, George wasn’t alone: someone else—or something else—kept George warm and bound him to life. Why didn’t he die, as so many others did, half-submerged in the freezing Southern Ocean? And what happened to his fellow survivor, the woman who seemed to vanish into thin air?

George will live out the rest of his life obsessed with finding the answers to these questions. He will marry, father children, but never quite let go of the feeling that something else came out of the ocean that day, something that has been watching him ever since. The question of what this creature might want from him—his life? His first-born? To simply return home?—will pursue him, and call him back to the ocean again.

Review: Simon Savidge absolutely ADORED this book – it was one of his books of 2018, before it had even been published in the UK! His blog review said that the book has “originality, wonderful writing, a brilliant twisting plot, fantastic characters and some themes within it that you can really get your teeth into, should you want to” and he’s also featured the book on Youtube.

Theft by Luke Brown

Publisher: And Other Stories

Blurb: What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context. This was London, 2016 . . .

Bohemia is history. Paul has awoken to the fact that he will always be better known for reviewing haircuts than for his literary journalism. He is about to be kicked out of his cheap flat in east London and his sister has gone missing after an argument about what to do with the house where they grew up. Now that their mother is dead this is the last link they have to the declining town on the north-west coast where they grew up.

Enter Emily Nardini, a cult author, who – after granting Paul a rare interview – receives him into her surprisingly grand home. Paul is immediately intrigued: by Emily and her fictions, by her vexingly famous and successful partner Andrew (too old for her by half), and later by Andrew’s daughter Sophie, a journalist whose sexed-up vision of the revolution has gone viral. Increasingly obsessed, relationships under strain, Paul travels up and down, north and south, torn between the town he thought he had escaped and the city that threatens to chew him up.

Review: Lucy over at What Lucy Wrote thought that Theft was “a compelling and colourful reflection on division and truth – both within individuals and a country” with some brilliant characterisation. You can read her review here.

Beyond the Moon by Catherine Taylor

Publisher: The Cameo Press, 483 pages

Blurb: A strange twist of fate connects a British soldier fighting in the First World War in 1916 with a young woman living in modern-day England a century later, in this haunting literary time travel novel.

Two people, two battles: one against the invading Germans on the battlefields of 1916 France, the other against a substandard, uncaring mental health facility in modern-day England. Part war story, part timeslip, part love story – and at the same time a meditation on the themes of war, mental illness, identity and art, Beyond The Moon is an intelligent, captivating debut novel, perfect for book clubs.

In 1916 1st Lieutenant Robert Lovett is a patient at Coldbrook Hall military hospital in Sussex, England. A gifted artist, he’s been wounded fighting in the Great War. Shell shocked and suffering from hysterical blindness he can no longer see his own face, let alone paint, and life seems increasingly hopeless.

A century later in 2017, medical student Louisa Casson has just lost her beloved grandmother – her only family. Heartbroken, she drowns her sorrows in alcohol on the South Downs cliffs – only to fall accidentally part-way down. Doctors fear she may have attempted suicide, and Louisa finds herself involuntarily admitted to Coldbrook Hall – now a psychiatric hospital, an unfriendly and chaotic place.

Then one day, while secretly exploring the old Victorian hospital’s ruined, abandoned wing, Louisa hears a voice calling for help, and stumbles across a dark, old-fashioned hospital room. Inside, lying on the floor, is a mysterious, sightless young man, who tells her he was hurt at the Battle of the Somme, a WW1 battle a century ago. And that his name is Lieutenant Robert Lovett…

Review: Writing for NB Magazine, Nicola from Short Books and Scribes said that Beyond the Moon “is a fascinating read, both in terms of the detail and the well-plotted storyline” and that she “closed the book with a sense of satisfaction and pleasure that I had read it”. You can read her full review here.

When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray

Publisher: Hutchinson, 326 pages

Blurb: Emma is beginning to wonder whether relationships, like mortgages, should be conducted in five-year increments. She might laugh if Chris had bought a motorbike or started dyeing his hair. Instead he’s buying off-label medicines and stockpiling food.

Chris finds Emma’s relentless optimism exasperating. A tot of dread, a nip of horror, a shot of anger – he isn’t asking much. If she would only join him in a measure of something.

The family’s precarious eco-system is further disrupted by torrential rains, power cuts and the unexpected arrival of Chris’s mother. Emma longs to lower a rope and winch Chris from the pit of his worries. But he doesn’t want to be rescued or reassured – he wants to pull her in after him.

Review: Another review from Amanda over at Bookish Chat! She thought that ” the gentle humour and real moments of tender interplay between family members is so heartwarming” and that Carys Bray has an “innate ability to write about the ordinary family dynamic against the backdrop of extraordinary circumstances”.

My thanks go to all of the authors and publishers who sent me copies of these books. Unfortunately they weren’t quite my cup of tea but, as the reviews I have chosen shown, these might just be the perfect books for a different reader!

Are there are books here that you’ve taken a fancy to? Please do let me know if you pick up any of the books mentioned in today’s post!

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

Reviews & 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!

Back from the Backlist · Reviews

Back from the Backlist!! Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

Working as a paid companion to a bitter elderly lady, the timid heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Life is bleak until, on a trip to the South of France, she falls in love with Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower whose proposal takes her by surprise.

Whisked from Monte Carlo to Manderley, Maxim’s isolated Cornish estate, the friendless young bride begins to realise she barely knows her husband at all. And in every corner of every room is the phantom of his beautiful first wife, Rebecca.

Rebecca has been on my TBR for a VERY long time. It’s one of those books that I’ve attempted to read on several occasions but just never quite gelled with, despite being told by many of my fellow readers that it’s their favourite of Du Maurier’s novels. I struggled to get past the opening section and got annoyed by the insipid main character. Friends assured me that it got better once I got to Manderley – and that the shock of the ending along made the book worth reading – but I just couldn’t give myself the push to continue.

So when the chance came to take part in a readalong of Rebecca with some members of the lovely gang over at The Write Reads, I joined in without hesitation. Reading with others is a fantastic way to tackle a book that you might otherwise struggle with. I recently read James Joyce’s doorstop modernist novel Ulysses with some friends at university this way and, whilst I can’t claim to have loved (or even fully understood) the novel, our discussions of it certainly allowed me to appreciate it – plus we had a great deal of fun!

And my verdict having now finished Rebecca. It’s…okay?

Surprisingly, I found myself quite enjoying the opening sections in Monte Carlo this time around. I got a real sense of the era but, more importantly, these early chapters gave me an insight into the unnamed narrator. Barely out of school and wholly lacking in confidence, she is utterly unsuited to life in a glamourous resort – or as mistress of a large country house. There is almost no pretence about her about all and, in her honest naivety, she came across as a schoolgirl acting a part – an impression that lingers even after she has married the brooding Maxim de Winter and found herself mistress of his imposing estate, Manderley, and learned of the tragic death of his first wife, the titular Rebecca.

As the famous opening line suggests, Manderley is a character as much as a place within this novel. It lies at the heart of everything that happens in the novel, lingering in the background to each conversation and casting its shadow over the choices of the characters. Whilst is is, in one sense, a beautiful place – described in lush prose and quite clearly based on Du Maurier’s own much-loved Cornish home Menabilly – there is something quite forbidding about Manderley and it is this mixture of the seemingly ordinary with the sinister that I found particularly impressive about the novel.

Du Maurier is a master of suspense and foreboding and this atmosphere casts a pall over the whole novel. I found it particularly impressive that the most vivid character in the book was Rebecca, a woman who is dead before the first page. Rebecca haunts the novel – and the reader – as she haunts Maxim and his second wife. Rebecca is a ghost story, even though the ghost never actually appears.

Whilst all this makes Rebecca an intensely atmospheric novel there was, for me anyway, just something missing. Whilst I love the way in which Rebecca herself is evoked, I felt this came at the expense of characterisation elsewhere. The narrator, for example, never really seems to escape the dreamy world of the schoolgirl, diving off into fantasies and gloomy premonitions and second-guessing everything that anyone ever does. Even after the revelation in the closing chapters (my friends were right – it IS a great twist), she still felt like a character wholly disconnected from the events going on around her and, at times, from reality itself.

The infamous Mrs Danvers is, of course, an utter delight to read. Deliciously malevolent, her presence at Manderley was always going to be a catalyst for sinister happenings. Maxim de Winter, on the other hand, came across as a frightful bore – brooding and quick to anger, he had few redeeming features and I genuinely couldn’t see the appeal, even after you learn about his true history. Other characters felt fleeting – sketches more than fully rounded people – and, often, I felt they were there to serve the plot or provide a convenient deus ex machina. This was particularly true of the ending which, though shocking, did feel somewhat contrived.

This probably makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy Rebecca and that isn’t true. There is a lot that I liked about the novel and I certainly had an excellent time reading it and then debating it with my The Write Reads friends! But, alas, I didn’t love it. I can see why others adore it – and it really does have a killer twist – but it for me, it’s not up there with my favourites. I am very glad to have finally read it though so thank you to The Write Reads gang for keeping me going and providing some fun conversation along the way!

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is published by Virago and is available from all good bookshops and online retailers. 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

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: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie MurdersCrime writer Alan Conway has been a bestselling author for years. Readers live his detective, Atticus Pünd, a celebrated solver of crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s.

But Conway’s latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder. 

The worst thing about my latest Back from the Backlist is that I always knew that Magpie Murders would be a book that I would really enjoy. A literary mystery that centres around the world of writing and publishing, features an author who has created a pastiche of the Golden Age, and contains a novel-within-a-novel – clearly this was always going to tick all my boxes.

I can only assume it has taken me this long to read it (my paperback edition tells me I picked the book up in 2017. Yes, really) because I was worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my expectations. As is usually the case, this fear was unfounded and Magpie Murders proved to be as delightful a read as I had hoped when I bought it.

Describing Magpie Murders is a bit of a challenge because this is one of those novels that has a novel-within-a-novel. For much of the book you will be reading Magpie Murders: An Atticus Pünd Mystery by Alan Conway, which sees consulting detective Atticus Pünd travelling to the sleepy English village of Saxby-on-Avon following the death of, firstly, the housekeeper at Pye Hall and, shortly thereafter, the lord of the manor himself. Book-ending Conway’s novel is the story of Susan Ryland, Conway’s editor at Cloverleaf Books. Susan has been looking forward to reading Magpie Murders and opens it with relish, little realising that the book – and its author – are going to drag her into a mystery that will change her life forever.

Saying any more about the plot would be to spoil Magpie Murders. In order to maximise your enjoyment of the ingenious twists and turns, I’d strongly urge you to go in knowing as little as possible if you’re thinking of picking this one up (do read to the end of this post though – no spoilers, I promise!). Amidst a wry pastiche of the classic English mystery novel are some brilliant cliffhangers and head-scratching puzzles that cleverly subvert your expectations, and the way in which the two plots eventually combine makes for a highly enjoyable twist ending.

I had one or two small reservations about the book in terms of characterisation. Given that there are essentially two plots in Magpie Murders it’s probably not surprising that some of the minor characters end up being little more than pen portraits, especially in Susan’s narrative. There were, however, some characters that I felt could have doubled up – or been dropped altogether – so slight was their part. And, whilst it’s vitally important to have diversity in books – certainly not something that is easy when you’re attempting to pay homage to ‘classic’ crime – Horowitz’s depiction of diverse characters felt more like tokenism than representation to me.

I hasten to add, however, that these are relatively minor niggles. The characters who are fleshed out are a delicious blend of the pleasant, the quirky, the underhand, and the utterly horrid (what’s a good crime novel if there isn’t at least one person who’s deplorable), and the setting – both in sleepy Saxby-on-Avon and in Susan’s literary London – is wonderfully evocative. I raced through the book despite it’s length (a fairly chunky 464 pages) and am now eagerly anticipating the sequel, Moonflower Murders, released later this year.

All in all, Magpie Murders does require a bit of patience to stick with the two plots and glue the whole thing together – I imagine some readers might find the central premise to be a bit too clever for its own good – but for anyone looking for a modern novel that can rival Agatha Christie in terms of fiendish plotting, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Fans of classic crime fiction would be missing out on a treat if they failed to pick this one up!

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is published by Orion and is available now from all good booksellers. 

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 Booksellers, Book-ish, and Berts Books

The book is also available from online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Book Depository

Back from the Backlist · Reviews

Back From The Backlist: The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman

The Reading PartyIt is the 1970s and Oxford’s male institutions are finally opening their doors to women…

Sarah Addleshaw – young, spirited and keen to prove her worth – begins term as the first female academic at her college. She is, in fact, its only female ‘Fellow’.

Impulsive love affairs – with people, places and the ideas in her head – beset Sarah throughout her first exhilarating year as a don, but it is the Reading Party that has the most dramatic impact.

Asked to accompany the first mixed group of students on the annual college trip to Cornwall, Sarah finds herself illicitly drawn to the suave American Tyler. Torn between professional integrity and personal feelings, she faces her biggest challenge yet.

Technically Fenella Gentleman’s The Reading Party doesn’t count as a backlisted title. Published in 2018, it is both the author’s debut and also her most recent book. But Back from the Backlist is named after MY personal backlist and, sadly, The Reading Party has languished on my shelves for far too long.

Set in the Oxford of 1976, The Reading Party charts a year in the life of historian Sarah Addleshaw. Young and spirited, Sarah has risen through the academic hierarchy to become the first female ‘Fellow’ of her Oxford college, and is keen to prove that she is up to the title in a world still suffused with the stuffy atmosphere and patriarchal structure that comes with centuries of tradition.

Following Sarah from the Michaelmas term through to Trinity, the novel centres itself around The Reading Party, a week-long retreat for an eclectic mix of gifted and noteworthy students that Sarah finds herself drafted to accompany. Organised for many years by the forbidding Dr Loxton, the Reading Party is, for the first time, welcoming a mixed group of students – and the faculty are watching eagerly to see if the event will continue to be a success.

Split between the dreaming spires of Oxford’s colleges and the solitude of the Cornish coast, The Reading Party is a novel that oozes atmosphere, and has a real grasp of its sense of both time and place. I really empathised with Sarah’s struggles to navigate a path between her own knowledge of her self-worth and the imposter syndrome that she feels when confronted with age-old traditions and coded rules that are implied as opposed to explained.

As an academic myself, I loved reading about the politics of life in an Oxford college but it is with the beginning of the Reading Party, and the movement of the action to Cornwall, that the novel really takes flight. Placing a group of people in a contained space for an extended period of time is always going to result in drama. What I really enjoyed about The Reading Party, however, is that this doesn’t take any of the traditional or predicatable forms.

There’s no massive bust-up or illicit love affair. Instead there’s a group of people forming connections, testing boundaries, and shifting their understanding of themselves and of each other. This makes The Reading Party a rather quiet novel but it’s certainly no less interesting for it – I found it compelling to watch as the characters navigated their sense of themselves, their world and each other.

For Sarah, this navigation involves re-assessing her own assumptions about her colleague Loxton, accepting the realities of academic life, and negotiating her illicit feelings for charismatic American student Tyler. Being present in her head as she does this allowed me to really relate to Sarah as a character, even when I didn’t agree with her choices and decisions. Her complexity and depth is refreshing, and she certainly felt like a real person to me, as did her fellow Reading Party attendees.

As I said above, The Reading Party is a quiet novel in many respects. Gentle in its pacing, and beautifully written, this is an immersive and satisfying tale that deserves wider recognition. Whilst it’s certainly not the page-turner that some readers will be looking for, anyone seeking a pensive yet engaging read that reflects on issues of gender equality, history, prejudice, and perception will be richly rewarded.

The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman is published by Muswell Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

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


Back from the Backlist · Reviews

Back from the Backlist!! Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

Owing to the onset of the PhD, I’ve been taking on fewer blog tours and cutting down on some of my reviewing commitments.

One of the upsides of this has been allowing me more time in my reading schedule to read backlist titles – books that have been on my shelf or on my radar for a while but that the constant need to review and feature newly released titles has led me to neglect. 

So, what better excuse for a new feature on the blog? Thus I bring you Back from the Backlist, an occasional review slot that I will be using to feature some favourite backlist titles. Titles that are in paperback, and are likely to be available from your library or nearest second-hand retailer, but that are just as deserving of your time and readerly attention as the shiniest of new releases!

So, without further ado, let’s get to that backlist!

TamburlaineIt is 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge.

Tamburlaine Must Die is the story of the last days of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a man who dares to defy both God and state – and discovers that there are worse fates than damnation...

Louise Welsh was one of those authors who was frequently recommended to me but who, for some reason, I’d just never gotten around to reading.

So when I saw a copy of her novella, Tamburlaine Must Die, whilst browsing the second-hand section of a local bookshop, I decided it was high time to rectify that and picked up a copy. And I have to say I am SO glad I did because I think Tamburlaine Must Die might just be one of the best books I’ve read in 2019.

Set over the last few days of Christopher Marlowe’s life, this short sharp punch of a novella follows the doomed playwright as he attempts to find out who has been writing seditious pamphlets in his name, bringing him to the attention of dangerous enemies in an England bought to the edge of chaos by plague, war, and the ever-present danger of civil unrest.

Seamlessly blending known fact and hypothesised fiction, Welsh creates a compelling narrative. Her Marlowe is a fascinating character – furiously angry, forever doubting, endlessly witty, and dangerously brilliant. As a reader, you know that he is doomed from the beginning but his voice is so compelling, and his personality so seductive, that you’re with him no matter how complicit he is in his own destruction. Having read a number of Marlowe’s plays, I could hear his voice in Welsh’s portrayal – that furious genius that first beguiled me when I read Dr Faustus as an undergraduate. It’s a masterful study in the creation of a uniquely powerful voice.

Welsh also excels at her portrayal of the historical moment in Tamburlaine Must Die. Elizabethan England comes alive on the page. Her portrait of Marlowe’s London is a visual, vibrant, visceral delight. Every sight, sound, and smell is made immediate for the reader, from the hawkers plying their wares in the street, to the rotting stench of the heads lined up on Tower Bridge.

For a novella that comes in just shy of 150 pages, Tamburlaine Must Die packs a real punch to the gut. Visceral in its detail, this is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Seedy and saucy by turns, it doesn’t shy away from the violent undercarriage of the world it portrays.

But for those readers who are prepared to be swept up into Welsh’s Elizabethan metropolis, Tamburlaine Must Die offers a tantalising mix of passion and treachery, corruption and mistrust.

Masterfully written, with a taut, tense narrative, and a voice that you won’t soon forget, Tamburlaine Must Die is a must for anyone looking for a riveting slice of historical fiction that will grab you tight and won’t let go until the final turn of the page.

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh is published by Canongate and is available from all good bookshops and online retailers, including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon