Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! The Fell by Sarah Moss

Image Description: The cover of Sarah Moss’ The Fell has a painted image of an isolated fell against a stormy sky.

At dusk on a November evening in 2020 a woman slips out of her garden gate and turns up the hill. Kate is in the middle of a two week quarantine period, but she just can’t take it anymore – the closeness of the air in her small house, the confinement. And anyway, the moor will be deserted at this time. Nobody need ever know.

But Kate’s neighbour Alice sees her leaving and Matt, Kate’s son, soon realizes she’s missing. And Kate, who planned only a quick solitary walk – a breath of open air – falls and badly injures herself.

What began as a furtive walk has turned into a mountain rescue operation . . .

Having adored Summerwater and been intrigued by Ghost Wall, I was interested to learn that Sarah Moss was turning her piercing authorial gaze upon the pandemic. Although it is somewhat inevitable that ‘pandemic fiction’ will be come a thing, Moss’s previous novels demonstrate both a perceptiveness of human nature, and a pervasive sense of menace that suit the subject matter. If anyone can convey the strangeness of lockdown, it is Moss.

And sure enough, The Fell is a wryly observed study of blame-shifting and governmental edicts and, at the same time, a deeply humane examination of isolation, guilt, and gratitude. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Kate, a furloughed café worker whose covert mid-quarantine stroll results in a mountain rescue operation; Kate’s son Matt, whose schooling and social life have both been forced online; Alice, Kate’s retired next door neighbour, trapped indoors thanks to shielding; and Rob, the mountain rescue worker pulled from a long-awaited weekend with his daughter to go and find Kate.

As the narrative progresses, we find out attitudes towards these characters, and our attribution of the ‘blame’ – a dynamic that, Moss argues, was as much a part of the UK’s first lockdown as isolation – shifting. As in Summerwater and Ghost Wall, Moss is exceptionally good at nailing the impetus behind each character, and using this to examine wider societal concerns. Alice berates herself for feeling lonely and frightened because she’s still breathing: still alive when so many others aren’t. Matt is uncertain about calling the emergency services when Kate doesn’t return because he knows how stretched they are in the pandemic. Rob’s teenage daughter, Ellie, can’t understand why her Dad forgoes time with her to rescue strangers who have put themselves in danger. Guilt, fear, doubt, and conflict – all are examined and, through examination, all of them turn a sharp and piercing eye upon governmental decisions that created the situation these characters find themselves in.

Questioning – both of the characters and of the reader – is a key component of The Fell. Kate breaks quarantine and heads out for a walk because she can no longer breath within the four walls of her home. Her confinement has become stifling – as have the worries about how she will keep a roof over her son’s head and food in the cupboard without her full income. As she wanders up the lane towards the titular fell, she is convinced her walk is ‘essential’ to stop her from going mad. This question of what is ‘essential’ – for stopping the pandemic, for preserving humanity in the midst of a crisis, for keeping the self sane – is asked constantly. Yes, Kate is breaking the rules and yes, Alice has seen her do so, but Alice isn’t about to shop her to the police for it – despite what her judgemental daughter would say – because Kate and Matt are also the only people checking in on Alice, and making sure their shielding neighbour has food and other necessities. And besides, Alice feels guilty for asking them to pick up ‘non-essential’ items such as Hula Hoops from the shop for her.

As in Summerwater, these small moments of everyday crisis stand within a wider pervasive sense of menace. Moss is brilliant at writing novels that, whilst seemingly ‘quiet’, carry with them a constant whisper: something is coming. The tension that builds as a result brilliantly conveys the feelings of that first lockdown, with the beautifully painted but ominous landscape of the Peak District providing the perfect backdrop to the suspenseful action.

The Fell both is and isn’t a ‘lockdown book’. As a piece of pandemic fiction, it brilliantly captures the tumult of the first UK lockdown, from the rightwing impetus behind the government’s rhetoric, to the tensions that arose within individual communities and households as a result. Nor is it an ‘anti-lockdown’ book, per se. Although it presents a human story behind Kate’s illegal action, the inclusion of Rob and Alice’s perspectives allow us to see the people who both risk their lives and those who are put at risk by such actions.

What The Fell does so brilliantly is spark a conversation – filling in the gaps of our individual lockdown experiences by encouraging us to consider and question the experiences and attitudes of others, as well as the motivations behind wider governmental and societal decisions and edicts. What it is, above all else, is a piercing and insightful examination of human nature and human experience that is fully deserving of all the accolades I am sure will come its way upon publication.

The Fell by Sarah Moss is published by Picador on 11 November 2021 and is available to order 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 Camilla Elworthy at Macmillan for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

“What was it like? Living in that house?” 

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling Victorian estate in the Vermont woods. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a non-fiction book called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon, rivaling The Amityville Horror in popularity – and skepticism.

Today, Maggie is a restorer of old homes and too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she also doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist. When Maggie inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death, she returns to renovate the place to prepare it for sale.

But her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the past, chronicled in House of Horrors, lurk in the shadows. And locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous thanks to Maggie’s father. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself – a place filled with relics from another era that hint at a history of dark deeds. As Maggie experiences strange occurrences straight out of her father’s book, she starts to believe that what he wrote was more fact than fiction.

Do I have the book to share with you this Halloween! Riley Sager’s latest novel, Home Before Dark; now out in paperback, is the perfect mix of genuine scares, horror stylings, and thrilling contemporary mystery that will have you turning the pages and sleeping with the lights on this spooky season!

Having previously read and enjoyed The Last Time I Lied, I was excited to see that Riley Sager’s latest thriller came with some additional spooky stylings. The former novel was packed with growing tension and page-turning plot beats so I was keen to see what the addition of some trademark horror tropes would do to that mix. The answer, it turns out, is to make it even more page-turning – and to provide more than a few ‘sleeping with the lights on’ moments!

Maggie Holt’s life has been defined by The Book – the tell-all memoir that her father Ewan wrote after her family’s fateful stay at Baneberry Hall. According to The Book, the vengeful ghosts of Baneberry Hall drove Ewan, Jess, and five-year-old Maggie away from their dream home, never to return. But after her father’s death, Maggie discovers that her parents never sold Baneberry Hall. Despite being warned to never go back there, Maggie is determined to make the most of her unexpected inheritance – she’s going to renovate and sell her family’s cursed legacy; but not before she gets to the bottom of why her family really fled all those years ago.

When the body of a missing teenager falls out of her kitchen ceiling, however, Maggie gets far more than she bargained for at Baneberry Hall. Could her parents really have been involved in a murder? Or are the strange noises and fleeting shadows of Baneberry Hall really signs of the supernatural? As Maggie starts to delve into the history of her father’s House of Horrors, she finds herself wondering if he was telling the truth about Baneberry Hall all along.

Whilst Home Before Dark continues to showcase Sager’s command of pacing and plotting, it serves up some genuinely spooky and atmospheric moments alongside the more familiar mystery-thriller territory of its main storyline. If you love ghost stories and ‘true life’ tales of the paranormal, you’re sure to love Home Before Dark which alternates between excerpts from Ewan’s Amityville Horror-style memoir and Maggie’s own investigations in the present day.

There are a fair few plot strands to Home Before Dark and, whilst none of them are especially complex in and of themselves, Sager weaves them together in a deeply satisfying way whilst keeping the tension up throughout. There is the occasional cliché – and I can’t say I was wholly surprised by all of the twists and turns – but the relentless pacing kept my disbelief suspended and, on the whole, I found the ending provided a satisfying conclusion to the various mysteries – both real and supernatural – that were contained within the walls of Baneberry Hall.

Probably the best recommendation I can give Home Before Dark is that I was supposed to be reading this as an October readalong with some of the gang from The Write Reads. I say ‘supposed to be’ because, having picked it up one rainy weekend, I found myself unable to put the book down and raced through it in a matter of days – well ahead of our set reading schedule! Whilst it’s not a book that’s likely to linger in my memory, I had a ton of fun reading this and was wholly gripped by the spooky shenanigans of Baneberry Hall.

Offering a tense mystery-thriller plot alongside a side serving of mainstream horror, Home Before Dark is sure to appeal to fans of Sager’s previous thrillers whilst also delighting fans of page-turning contemporary ghost stories and things that go bump in the night! If you haven’t read any of Riley Sager’s work before, this would be an ideal place to start – especially if you’re looking for a spooky seasonal read this Halloween. And for fans of Sager, what are you waiting for?!

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available now in paperback and ebook 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

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 · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings: A Medieval Ghost Story by Dan Jones

Image Description: The cover of The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings features the silhouettes of a horse and a crow against a wooded backdrop. Bright red blood on two of the trees and three red crowns stand out against the dark green background.

One winter, in the dark days of King Richard II, a tailor was riding home on the road from Gilling to Ampleforth. It was dank, wet and gloomy; he couldn’t wait to get home and sit in front of a blazing fire.

Then, out of nowhere, the tailor is knocked off his horse by a raven, who then transforms into a hideous dog, his mouth writhing with its own innards. The dog issues the tailor with a warning: he must go to a priest and ask for absolution and return to the road, or else there will be consequences…

First recorded in the early fifteenth century by an unknown monk, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings was transcribed from the Latin by the great medievalist M.R. James in 1922. Building on that tradition, now bestselling historian Dan Jones retells this medieval ghost story in crisp and creepy prose.

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings, a medieval ghost story that has been retold in a lively fashion by historian Dan Jones, made for an interesting, albeit curious, addition to my Spooky Season reading this year.

First recorded by a monk at Byland Abbey in the early fifteenth century, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings tells the story of Snowball, a tailor from Ampleforth. One winter’s night, Snowball is riding home from a job in nearby Gilling when he is confronted by a hideous spectre in the shape of a dog.

The ‘dog’, it transpires, is a recently deceased member of the community who, owing to the sins he committed in life, was buried without absolution and is cursed to wander the road until he can find it. Tasking Snowball with seeking absolution from a priest on his behalf, the dog warns the petrified tailor that two other wretched spirits haunt the road – and that failure to return to absolve them may have terrible consequences.

Although transcribed by that great teller of ghostly tales, M. R. James, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings is a uniquely medieval tale. Whilst there is something very Jamesian in the sense of menace conjured by the lonely road – and in the horrifying appearance of the spectres that appear to poor Snowball – the story is preoccupied by the religious concerns of the early 1400s, and by the very real fear of confronting death without having received absolution for one’s sins.

The story is also wonderfully localised – often naming specific geographic locations across North Yorkshire – and there is a real sense of the community of people that lived and told this tale. There are also some oddly comic moments – such as the intrusion by a nosy but affluent neighbour – and a real sense of time and place, with the story greatly embellished by dialogue and description despite its relative simplicity. Dan Jones’s translation has added a few more details – he has given Snowball’s horse a name, for example – but retains the spirit of the original, as well as of James’s transcription.

The tale itself is very slender – much of the book is taken up with Dan Jones’s lively introduction to Byland Abbey and its curious collection of ghost stories, and with M R James’s own Latin transcription, taken from the original MS (which is now held in the British Library). Whilst James’s transcription is likely to be of interest only to Latin scholars, his notes make for very interesting reading, demonstrating James’s solid scholarship and providing useful glosses to some of the more uniquely medieval aspects of the tale which, I felt, were not wholly explained by Jones in his introduction.

As a scholar of medievalism in my day job, I am reasonably well-versed in the literature and culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries so found much to enjoy in The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings. Although more entertaining than exemplary, they reminded me in spirit of some of the medieval mystery plays I’ve read, and of the curious (and often amusing) asides that can occasionally be found in some chronicles.

For the general reader, there were one or two elements that might have benefitted from more explanation, such as the fact that ‘king’ here doesn’t necessarily mean ‘monarch’ but is instead likely to be one of the three ‘dead’: deceased members of the community pictured on the rood screen in the village church, who were often depicted as ‘kings’ in this period. James’s footnotes and glosses to his Latin transcription make this clear but I’m not sure how many readers – especially those not versed in Latin – would discover them, so it would have been helpful to have some additional religious and social context included in the introduction.

The history of the Byland Abbey ghost stories is, for anyone interested in medieval literature, absolutely fascinating and a good annotated edition of all twelve tales would, I feel, be a welcome addition to scholarship on the period. For now, there is an excellent (and free) online resource from the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project which contains both Latin and English transcriptions of all twelve tales, along with short introductions to the project and the manuscript – highly recommended reading if you enjoy this little tale!

For the general reader of ghost stories, Dan Jones’s retelling offers an accessible introduction to a uniquely medieval style of ghost story. Although I read this as an eBook, I imagine the smart hardback will make for a lovely gift over the Halloween and Christmas periods – the perfect story to curl up and escape with with for an hour or two by a roaring fire after family festivities are done.

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings by Dan Jones 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 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!

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! The Whistling by Rebecca Netley

Image Description: The cover of The Whistling has a woman’s silhouette trapped within the flame of an old-fashioned glass-covered candle holder.

Alone in the world, Elspeth Swansome takes the position of nanny to a family on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea.

Her charge, Mary, hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin, William – just days after their former nanny disappeared.

No one will speak of what happened to William. Just as no one can explain the hypnotic lullabies sung in empty corridors. Nor the strange dolls that appear in abandoned rooms. Nor the faint whistling that comes in the night . . .

As winter draws in and passage to the mainland becomes impossible, Elspeth finds herself trapped.

But is this house haunted by the ghosts of the past? Or the secrets of the living?

Yes, I am back in full Spooky Season mode for this week’s post! Rebecca Netley’s The Whistling has been getting all of the accolades over on bookish Twitter and was definitely on my ‘most anticipated spooky reads’ list for 2021 – so as soon as the nights started to draw in and Spooky Season could be said to have officially started, I took the opportunity to get reading!

Scotland, 1860, and young nanny Elspeth Swansome arrives on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea to take care of nine-year-old Mary, who hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin brother, William. Having recently experienced her own personal tragedy, Elspeth is determined to save the little girl from the asylum – a fate that her hard-hearted aunt, Violet Gillies, seems to be planning for her.

Convinced that with some much-needed love and attention she can encourage the little girl to speak again, Elspeth tries to discover more about William – and about Hettie, her predecessor as the children’s nanny who apparently left her employment without warning just a few days before William’s death. But no one on Skelthsea will talk about what happened to William – or about the dark rumours that surface whenever Hettie’s name is mentioned.

When Elspeth begins to find strange dolls in long-abandoned rooms, and to hear the shrill pierce of a whistle cutting through the dead of night, she starts to realise that the cause of Mary’s muteness may lie in more than just neglect. What is Mary so afraid of that she refuses to speak? As Elspeth investigates further, the secrets and superstitions of Skelthsea begin to emerge, putting both her and her charge in danger.

The Whistling is an impressive debut that draws on all of the tropes of the classic ghost story, combining them with folkloric elements and a stunningly atmospheric setting to create a brilliantly eerie and otherworldly read. Lovers of the classic ghostly tales of M R James and the gothic eeriness of Wilkie Collins will feel instantly at home on Skelthsea, whilst readers of more modern takes on the genre will find the claustrophobia of Skelthsea – and, in particular, of Elspeth and Mary’s ‘home’ on the island, Iskar – offers the same creeping chills as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or Daphne Du Maurier’s Manderley.

For me, the atmosphere of the novel was definitely one of its major strengths. The faded glory and crumbling chill of Iskar seeps off the page and I could practically feel the icy sea frets that roll into the bay at night. Rebecca Netley has also perfectly captured the feel of being an outsider in a small community and she uses this to great affect to make Elspeth – and by turn, the reader – uncertain of how to distinguish between superstition, rumour, and hidden truths.

The drawing out of the island’s secrets takes time and, if I had one criticism of The Whistling, it’s that the pacing can be a bit uneven. I raced through the first half of the novel, keen to discover whether the sinister dolls and strange noises were the work of human or supernatural entities, but then found the pace lulling in the mid-section, when the plot seemed to pivot towards more domestic dramas and personal backstories. Whilst these were interesting, they were quite a distinct change from the supernatural shenanigans of the opening half and, briefly, appeared to take the novel in quite a different direction. The pace picks up again towards the end of the book – and the supernatural plot moves back into gear with a vengeance – but, after a period of relative calm, I was left feeling like the dramatic reveal at the end was a little rushed.

The evocative atmosphere and story twists kept me reading though the slower sections and I’m glad I pushed onwards because, overall, The Whistling is one of those slow-burn ghost stories that creeps into your mind and lives there rent-free until you suddenly find yourself jumping at shadows and sleeping with the lights on. With it’s isolated setting and dour atmosphere, there are definite shades of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black here and, just as in that novel, the spooks come from gradually dawning realisation and slowly built horror rather than dramatic jump scares.

I also found myself wholly rooting for Elspeth in her relentless pursuit of the truth. Her determination to help and protect Mary is touching – as is Mary’s own growing affection for her new nanny. I was particularly impressed by how much of Mary’s personality and character Rebecca Netley has conveyed through gestures, small interactions, and subtle movements – proof, if it were needed, that characters don’t need to speak to make themselves heard on the page.

The Whistling is a fine addition to the resurgent tradition of autumnal ghost stories. It is clear from reading it that Rebecca Netley both knows and loves the genre and her novel pays homage to all of the classics. Look closely and you’ll see the reverberations of everything from James’ The Turn of the Screw to Sarah Waters’ more recent The Little Stranger. Yet The Whistling is also a ghost story all of its own – a brilliantly evocative novel that will reward patient readers with that spine-tingling feeling.

The Whistling by Rebecca Netley is published by Penguin Michael Joseph on 14 October 2021 and is available to pre-order 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!

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward

Image Description: The cover of The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward has golden ivy leaves against a grey backdrop of faded brickwork

When well-to-do Hester learns of her sister Mercy’s death at a Nottinghamshire workhouse, she travels to Southwell to find out how her sister ended up at such a place.

Haunted by her sister’s ghost, Hester sets out to uncover the truth, when the official story reported by the workhouse master proves to be untrue. Mercy was pregnant – both her and the baby are said to be dead of cholera, but the workhouse hasn’t had an outbreak for years.


Hester discovers a strange trend in the workhouse of children going missing. One woman tells her about the Pale Lady, a ghostly figure that steals babies in the night. Is this lady a myth or is something more sinister afoot at the Southwell poorhouse?


As Hester investigates, she uncovers a conspiracy, one that someone is determined to keep a secret, no matter the cost…

With the onset of Autumn and the turning of the leaves, my reading taste has once more turned to all things historical and spooky. Yes, I’m back in my Gothic reading comfort zone – and Rhiannon Ward’s second dose of historical spookiness, The Shadowing, proved to be the perfect fit for my autumnal reading mood!

The Shadowing follows Hester, the youngest daughter of a well-to-do family of Bristol Quakers. When the family learn that Hester’s elder sister Mercy has died at a Nottinghamshire workhouse, Hester is sent north to Southwell to find out exactly how her sister ended up in such a place, why she had not felt she could draw on the support of her fellow Friends in the area, and whether she has received the burial rites due to her as a Quaker.

As Hester journeys north, she is aware of a presence travelling with her. Beset by traumatic dreams and ghostly visions – ‘shadowings’ – since childhood, Hester knows it is Mercy who travels alongside her. And when she reaches Southwell Workhouse, she soon discovers why. Mercy was pregnant when she died – and although the Master and Mistress of the Workhouse claim both she and the child were taken by cholera, Hester soon discovers that there hasn’t been an outbreak for years.

With the reluctant aid of local innkeeper Matthew and his serving maid Joan, Hester sets about investigating what is really going on at Southwell Workhouse. Why are her new Friends – fellow Quakers Dorothea and Caroline – so reluctant for her to visit the place? Why does the young town doctor take such an interest in her visits there? And who exactly is the ghostly Pale Lady who terrifies the women and apparently steals babies in the depths of night?

As with her previous historical novel, The Quickening, Rhiannon Ward has provided a compelling and atmospheric blend of historical mystery and ghost story in The Shadowing. I was fascinated by the historical detail – from Hester’s Quaker background to the realities of life in the Workhouse, there’s a real sense of both time and place in the novel, and you can tell that the author has done her research – although it is lightly worn and woven expertly into the story.

The novel doesn’t shy away from portraying the grim realities of Workhouse life – especially for those deemed the ‘undeserving’ poor. I felt great compassion for the women (and, sadly, they were primarily women) forced to rely on the ‘charity’ of the parish due to abandonment or widowhood – and the novel does a great job of showing just how easy it would be for a young woman deemed ‘respectable’ and well-to-do like Hester to end up in a situation where her life – and her fate – is taken wholly out of her control.

Hester herself is a spirited main character. Although somewhat naïve – a result of her sheltered and strict upbringing – she is determined to get to the bottom of the unexplained deaths and disappearance at the Workhouse. I really liked the way in which Hester’s Quaker beliefs were woven into the plot, and the way in which they often ran counter to the more common ethos about who was ‘deserving’ of charity and the chance of redemption. Hester’s relationship with Matthew – the somewhat gruff and forthright publican at Southwell’s coaching in – is also really well done, moving from antagonistic to grudgingly respectful as the story progresses despite their very different upbringings and outlooks.

Although the supernatural element is stronger in The Shadowing than in The Quickening, Hester’s supernatural visitations and psychic senses are woven into the plot in a way that is wholly believable, and that adds an ever present sense of unease to the novel. Although Hester’s ‘shadowings’ are ghostly apparitions, the whole novel is imbued with an atmosphere of shadowiness (and some brilliant moments of foreshadowing), with Southwell itself quickly becoming a place of secrets and shadows, ready to leap at Hester from every corner.

Anyone who enjoyed The Quickening is sure to find The Shadowing a worthy follow-up, packed with the same level of historical detail and a brilliantly eerie atmosphere, and headed up by another strong and determined female lead. With its blend of historical mystery and supernatural happenings, The Shadowing is also the perfect fit for fans of Laura Purcell and Anita Frank, and an excellent addition to the popular genre of Modern Gothic.

The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward is published by Trapeze (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 to Netgalley UK for providing an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

Image Description: The cover of The Lost Ones shows the figure of a woman atop a grand staircase silhouetted against a blue background. Bronze and white leaves surround the image.

Some houses are never at peace.

England, 1917

Reeling from the death of her fiancé, Stella Marcham welcomes the opportunity to stay with her pregnant sister, Madeleine, at her imposing country mansion, Greyswick – but she arrives to discover a house of unease and her sister gripped by fear and suspicion.

Before long, strange incidents begin to trouble Stella – sobbing in the night, little footsteps on the stairs – and as events escalate, she finds herself drawn to the tragic history of the house.

Aided by a wounded war veteran, Stella sets about uncovering Greyswick’s dark and terrible secrets – secrets the dead whisper from the other side…

Some books definitely need to be read in certain seasons and, with its promise of ghostly goings on and creepy country houses, Anita Frank’s The Lost Ones practically screamed ‘autumn’ to me. So despite having this on my Netgalley TBR for FAR too long, I waited until a time that could reasonably be classed as spooky season (yes, I know it’s only September but as far as I’m concerned that counts) to dive in.

Opening in 1917, and with the First World War drawing to a close, The Lost Ones follows Stella Marcham, a young woman left reeling by the death of her fiancé Gerald in the trenches. Consumed by grief, forced to leave her role as a nurse with the VAD, and now left listless and forlorn at her childhood home, Stella has tried to take her own life – an act that, whilst unsuccessful, has left her at risk of an enforced ‘rest’ in a sanitorium. Given the opportunity to stay with her beloved younger sister whilst she awaits the birth of her first child, Stella sets out for the imposing country manor of Greyswick – only to find a house beset with more unease and suspicion than the one she left behind.

Aided by Madeline, whose own fears about Greyswick Stella is determined to allay, and by her unusual ladies maid Annie, a young woman with very particular hidden gifts, Stella sets out to discover just what – or who – is disturbing the peace and tranquillity of Greywick. The women’s investigations will bring them into conflict with Greywick’s inhabitants, especially the imposing housekeeper Mrs Henge, but will also bring them an unusual ally in the form of wounded war veteran and psychic investigator Tristan Sheers. But as Stella and her companions attempt to lay the ghosts of Greywick to rest, dark forces are moving amongst the living – and they have Stella in their sights.

Packed with unsettling noises and things that go bump in the night, The Lost Ones is the perfect blend of light horror, spooky goings on and sinister family secrets, but also provides a moving and reflective exploration of grief and mental trauma. It packs a lot into its 450 pages and, whilst I don’t want to give any spoilers, touches on a number of issues including a suicide attempt and suicidal thoughts, depression, grief, child death, fire/fire injury, physical trauma, the loss of a limb, infidelity, rape/sexual assault, miscarriage and forced institutionalisation. Whilst all of these issues are handled very sensitively, they are integral to the plot and this makes the novel a reflective – and at times quite tragic – read in spite of the page-turning quality of its mystery plot.

Stella makes for an emotionally engaging and complex protagonist. Capable and strong-willed, her experiences at The Front have made her fiercely independent but her all consuming grief means that, at times, she makes for an unreliable narrator. Whilst I desperately wanted to believe Stella, there were times when I had to question whether her pursuit of a supernatural explanation was a result of her own desperation to be reunited with her beloved Gerald again. The novel does a fantastic job of keeping this balance between the ‘real’ and the supernatural and the inclusion of a sceptical researcher – Tristram Sheers – provided an engaging counterpoint to Stella, especially once the reasons behind his scepticism become clear.

I also really liked Annie, Stella’s maid, who is gifted with the ability to communicate with the dead – although it is not always a ‘gift’ she enjoys possessing. Initially dismissive of Annie, seeing the relationship between the two young women develop over the course of the novel was one of the highlights of the book for me. The sinister housekeeper Mrs Henge, meanwhile, can give Mrs Danvers a run for her money in the ‘creepy family retainer’ department – always popping up from the shadows when least expected and clearly hiding a multitude of secrets!

With atmosphere and intrigue packed into every page, The Lost Ones was the perfect read to kick off my autumnal reading season. With some genuinely frightening moments, its an eerie historical ghost story that is sure to appeal to fans of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, whilst the focus upon female friendships and the traumas suffered by women reminded me of Stacey Halls’ The Familiars. Gripping in its pace and plotting, The Lost Ones is also a sensitive portrayal of grief, loss, and the trauma of war and is an impressive debut that kept me enthralled from first page to last. I look forward to reading whatever Anita Frank writes next!

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank is published by HQ (HarperCollins) and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher and 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 · Festive · Reviews · Seasonal Reads

BLOG TOUR!!! How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond

RARELY HAS THE POWER OF CINEMA BEEN FELT BY SO MANY, IN SUCH OPPOSING WAYS…

“Love Actually dulls the critical senses, making those susceptible to its hallucinogenic powers think they’ve seen a funny, warm-hearted, romantic film about the many complex manifestations of love. Colourful Narcotics. A perfect description of a bafflingly popular film.”

By any reasonable measurement, Love Actually is a bad movie. There are plenty of bad movies out there, but what gets under Gary Raymond’s skin here is that it seems to have tricked so many people into thinking it’s a good movie.

In this hilarious, scene-by-scene analysis of the Christmas monolith that is Love Actually, Gary Raymond takes us through a suffocating quagmire of badly drawn characters, nonsensical plotlines, and open bigotry, to a climax of ill-conceived schmaltz. How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) is the definitive case against a terrible movie.

Okay, confession time.

I KNOW that Richard Curtis’ Love Actually is a terrible movie.

I knew it was a terrible movie the first time I watched it – long before Lindy West’s infamous (and hilarious) take down of it for Jezebel, and long before I was old enough to truly appreciate the sheer depth of the misogyny, fat-shaming, and sheer smugness of it. And that’s before we even get onto the dodgy timeline, the numerous plot holes, and the fact that some of the actors were mostly definitely phoning it in for this one. I know all of this.

And yet, come Christmas, will I watch Love Actually? Will I crack a smile at Hugh Grant dancing around Downing Street to the sound of Girls Aloud?

Almost certainly.

I mean, look at that CAST! The fabulous soundtrack! All of the FEELS!!

This inexplainable appeal is at the heart of Gary Raymond’s How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics). Raymond, a presenter on the BBC Radio Wales’s The Review Show and editor for Wales Arts Review, likens Love Actually to being under the effect of some kind of narcotic substance. We know it’s bad for us, but we’re addicted to it anyway because of the feels.

His scene-by-scene account of the film is both thought-provoking and hilarious, mixing the astute eye of a film critic (Raymond really does make you realise how incredibly skewed the timeline is – Liam Neeson’s character goes from his wife’s funeral to dating Claudia Schiffer in the space of about 10 weeks), with a laugh-inducing blend of wry observation, cynical commentary, and downright frustration. His skewering of Curtis’ terrible characterisation and schmaltzy dialogue stays on the right side of witty, whilst his frustration with the film’s tone-deaf messaging is something that I share.

For me, Raymond’s dissection of Love Actually really comes into its own when he’s examining the motivations of the characters. Because you really do start to realise that none of the tropes that the movie wants you to invest in – that Andrew Lincoln’s Mark is a nice guy, that Alan Rickman’s Harry is a heartless husband and Emma Thompson’s Karen a long-suffering wife, and that Kris Marshall’s Colin is hilarious – really work the moment that you think about them for more than two seconds.

He also blows apart the notion that Love Actually is a Christmas movie by pointing out, quite correctly, that the central idea that you ‘have to tell the truth at Christmas’ is, at best, a misnomer and, at worse, an excuse to be particularly selfish at a time that really should be about others. Which, I have to admit, did come as a bitter pill to swallow for me. The one thing I thought I could say about Love Actually was that it fulfilled the requirements of being a Christmas film – the entire thing is, after all, overflowing with tinsel – but, alas, Raymond shows that not even a nativity play full of octopuses can give this film Christmas spirit.

So, having read Raymond’s brutal (and brutally funny) takedown of Love Actually, will I be watching it this Christmas? Well, never say never. Rowan Atkinson’s cameo as the over-attentive salesperson will always make me smile. And Emma Thompson remains a delight despite how little she gets to work with. But it’ll probably be further down the list than it has on previous years – well below A Muppet Christmas Carol and Arthur Christmas. And if I do watch it, it’ll be with the knowledge in the back of my mind that it really IS a terrible movie.

How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond is published by Parthian and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, 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 for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Emma from DampPebbles Blog Tours for organising and inviting me onto this tour. The tour continues until 5th December 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 · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

London, 1938.

In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap.

Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems.

By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed.

With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.

In The Haunting of Alma Fielding, Kate Summerscale moves away from the hidden secrets of Victorian drawing rooms and into the middle-class suburbs of 1930s London.

The peace of a quiet family home has been shattered – crockery has started flying off the shelves, objects throw themselves at the husband of the house, and wardrobes appear to move on their own. At the centre of it all is suburban housewife Alma Fielding, an apparently quiet and unassuming woman who is both confused and terrified by the strange goings on in her home. Desperate to find some rationale behind the apparent hauntings, she calls on the local press and they, in turn, attract the attention of Nandor Fodor, chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research.

Starting with a bang (quite literally given the amount of broken china that Fodor finds in the Fielding’s home), Summerscale’s latest work of narrative non-fiction follows Fodor’s investigation of Alma as he moves from observing incidences in her home to asking her to sit for seances at the Institute. As the investigation continues, Alma’s powers seem to increase – she manifests live animals, speaks in strange voices, and begins to develop physical scratches on her body. But is Alma really being haunted? And if so, is it by a ghost or by something much darker, hidden deep within her past?

As you would expect with Kate Summerscale, this is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive account of an unusual and little-known tale. Despite having read a number of books about the research activities of twentieth-century ‘ghost hunters’ such as Harry Price, I’d never heard of Nandor Fodor or of the International Institute, and I was fascinated by the fine balance they had to maintain between being open-minded towards their subjects and scientific in their pursuit of proof of the supernatural.

Summerscale does an excellent job of conveying both the popularity of spiritualism and psychical research at the time and the reasons behind this and, despite some of the Institute’s practices seeming far from ‘scientific’ by today’s standards, I was fascinated by how their thinking about psychic abilities and the supernatural paved the way for modern psychological thinking and techniques – especially in the field of parapsychology – today. Fodor certainly seemed to be a man ahead of him time in many ways, although his treatment of Alma is, at times, quite disturbing and the latter part of the book really does get you thinking about the ethics of treating a real person – and their past traumas – as a scientific subject.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is also quite dense in places. For the most part Summerscale wears her research lightly but, in parts, she packs in huge amounts of detail – some of which felt extraneous, or seemed to relate to some side-character or event that wasn’t directly connected with Fodor, Alma or the investigation. Sometimes it felt as if this information was being repeated and, at times, the pace of the book seemed to slow to a crawl as a result. After a brisk and exciting start, I found myself really struggling to stay interested during the middle section before the book picked back up for the end.

If you’re expecting a true life ghost story similar to Harry Price’s account of the haunting at Borley Rectory, or the memoirs of various ‘ghost hunters’ then you’ll probably find The Haunting of Alma Fielding a little disappointing. For all the supernatural phenomena that is centred on Alma, there is very little that goes bump in the night here. However if you’re looking for a thorough and well-researched examination of the early days of para-psychological investigations, and of the fluid boundaries between science, the self, and the supernatural, Summerscale’s latest is sure to prove an enlightening read.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale is published by Bloomsbury 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 allowing me to read an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon A RiverIt was the longest night of the year, when the strangest of things happened…

In an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open and in steps and injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.

Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle? Is it magic?

And who does the little girl belong to? 

Before I get into the body of this review, can we just take a moment to appreciate the GORGEOUS cover for Once Upon A River? I mean seriously, just LOOK at it! The beautiful illustration (by artist Sarah Whittaker) is even prettier on the physical paperback, with the orange and green really standing out against the black background. I was lucky enough to get an e-proof of this novel from Netgalley UK but I’ve still been out and bought a copy of this – it’s just one of those books that, for me, just begs to be read in physical format.

Right, now that the important matter of showing the cover some love is out of the way, I’ll get on with raving about the book itself. Because I absolutely ADORED Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon A River, a magical and moving novel about family, folklore and the power of stories. Definitely an early contender for the books of the year list!

I’ve loved Diane’s writing ever since picking up her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, on a whim some years ago. It was a genre-crossing tale that took a family drama and imbued it with a healthy dose of the Gothic, a dash of mystery, and more than a little tragedy. The result was a spellbindingly gripping tale. Once Upon a River, her third (and latest) novel, has the spellbinding quality of The Thirteenth Tale but the book itself is a very different beast. Where her debut was darkly sinister, Once Upon a River, whilst touching on some dark and difficult subject matter, is filled to brimming with warmth and comfort.

Opening in The Swan at Radcot, an inn on the River Thames famed for its storytelling, the novel follows the aftermath of one winter’s night when a injured man and an apparently drowned child arrive at the inn. When it becomes apparent that the little girl is not only alive but also not the child of the man who bought her to the inn, the question of who she belongs to becomes paramount. Mr and Mrs Vaughan, a wealthy couple whose young daughter was kidnapped some years before, believe the girl to be their beloved Amelia. Robin Armstrong, a young man with both tragedy and secrets in his past, claims she is his bonny Alice. And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, is convinced that the child is her missing sister Ann. As Henry Daunt, the photographer who bought the child to the inn, and Rita Sunday, the nurse who tended to her, attempt to find who the child really belongs to, the stories of all involved start to twist and turn like the river itself, merging together like tributaries before being carried forwards in the rising tide.

This is a multi-layered novel brimming with characters but meticulous crafting of the tale meant that I never became confused as to who was who or which strand of the story I was following. The opening, although full of drama, is slow to develop as Setterfield takes time to introduce her cast and set her scene. The pay off is a a set of characters that, over the course of the story, become as familiar as friends (or, in the case of a couple of them, old and bitter enemies) and whose trials and tribulations left me racing to the end, desperate to know if the good got their rewards and if the bad faced the justice they deserved.

Filled to brimming with folklore, this is novel that revels in the art of storytelling, weaving stories within stories and ensuring every strand of the tale has real emotional resonance. As well as providing a thickly characterised narrative, Setterfield’s prose is filled with lush descriptions of the river. Victorian Oxford and the surrounding villages lived and breathed on the page and, in her evocative descriptions of the churning water, I could easily imagine myself sat on the deck of Collodion with Henry Daunt, or tying up a punt at the jetty belonging to Buscot Lodge.

Richly atmospheric and with more than a hint of magic, Once Upon a River is the perfect tale to curl up with on a cold winter’s night. As I said at the start of this review, the novel is filled with heart and warmth, and the extremely satisfying ending left me with all the warm fuzzies. A bewitching tale, dazzlingly told, this is a real treat of a book that is perfect for curling up with and devouring over a weekend – a real cure for those January blues!

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield is published by Transworld (Black Swan) and is available in paperback and ebook now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Wakenhyrst“Something has been let loose…”

In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father.

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll probably get a sense that I love me a good historical novel. I also love ghost stories, folklore, and a good dose of the gothic. Michelle Paver’s latest novel, Wakenhyrst, ticks all of these boxes and, needless to say, I adored it.

With a narrative that spans over five centuries, taking in 14th-century superstitions, a chilling Edwardian crime, and a 1960’s-set reckoning, it would be easy for Wakenhyrst to become a sprawl of a novel. But the narrative is kept tight by keeping the central character, Maud, at its heart.

Curious and intelligent, Maud is constrained by her life at Wake’s End, and by the many rules that her father – and society – place on what a young lady should be and do. When we first meet Maud, she is an anxious child. Growing up without a mother, she is both entranced and repulsed by her cold yet brilliant father, a historian whose obsession with a 14th-century mystic called Alice Pyatt will soon prove dangerous for them all.

The narrative is alive with folklore and superstition. Salt is sprinkled in doorways, a wise woman sells love potions to young women, the New Year is let in the front door as the old one is whisked out the back. You really get a sense of the community, the time and the place. Wakes End seems to live and breathe on the page, and I could picture the small community of Wakenhyrst in my mind’s eye as I read.

And, at the centre of it all, is the fen. Drawn to the fen, Maud is entranced by its ever-shifting nature. She loves the starlings that circle overhead, the creatures that make it their home, and the sound of the wind through the reeds.

Her father, in contrast, is terrified by it. All windows facing the fen are shuttered, and he forbids the household from entering. But what terrible secret lies at the heart of the fen? And what does it have to do with Edmund Sterne’s research into Alice Pyatt? Or the uncovering of a long-lost Doom in the local church?

To say any more would be to spoil the twists and turns of this gorgeously intricate novel. But, as the various threads weave together, the fen is always at their heart. This is a novel about permanence. About love and lies and loss. About angels and demons and old, old tales. And about the things that we must face in order for us to be free.

Beautifully told, this is the perfect novel for curling up with by the fireside on a cold winter’s night. Maud is an engaging, intelligent narrator and her narrative, contrasted with that of her father’s, makes for compelling reading that will have you staying up long into the night.

Wonderfully atmospheric, Wakenhyrst is modern gothic at its best and deserves a place on the TBR of anyone who already enjoys the tales of Neil Gaiman, Laura Purcell, and Sarah Perry.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver is published by Head of Zeus and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

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