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. 

 

Festive · Seasonal Reads

All I Want for Christmas is Books!

A festive welcome to The Shelf today! Yes, it’s that time of the year again – the season of goodwill and books to all men. As Mariah Carey should have sung, All I Want for Christmas is Books so, in the spirit of the season, I thought this week I’d share a few of my festive favourites, as well as some details about what I’ll be reading this Christmas.

18048390The Christmas Tradition Read

Whether that’s mince pies by the fire, singing carols around the crib, or getting grandma tiddled on sherry by 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we all have our favourite Christmas traditions. One of mine is starting my regular re-read of my favourite book, J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There’s something about the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring that I find really festive – the party, the lights, the copious amounts of food and merriment. It gives me all the festive feels. I’m lucky enough to have some gorgeous softcover editions to curl up with and, this year, I’m hoping I might persuade my husband to start reading and finally attend Bilbo’s long-expected party with me.

The Classic Christmas Crime Novel

31900372It seems so odd to choose to read crime at Christmastime but it has become something of a thing for me. That said, I’m not a fan of the dark and gritty at this time of year. As the nights go crisper and the sound of jingle bells fills the air, I turn instead to classic crime. The British Library Crime Classics have been producing some brilliant re-issues of neglected crime classics for some years now, including several festive titles. This year I’m planning to finally pick up their Christmas bestseller, Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon, a classic country house murder mystery featuring a trainload full of strangers, a deserted country manor and, you guessed it, a murderer amongst them.

I’ll also be dipping into P D James’ short story collection The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories. I love James’ writing – she balances the ingenious plotting and classic scenarios of the golden age with a keenly observed psychological drama – and she is a real master of the short story form, so I’ve been saving this festive collection of four of her stories to read at the most appropriate time of year.

The Festive Ghost Story

39098246A Christmas Carol is, of course, the grandfather of festive ghost stories and is, I feel, what probably puts us in mind of spooky happenings at this time of year. I’m not a huge fan of Dickens’ writing but I make an exception for the tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit (although I’ll admit to still preferring the Muppet version every time).

This year however I’m hoping to get to some more modern ghost stories. Laura Purcell’s The Corset has been on my TBR for far too long now. Having read and loved her debut, The Silent Companions, I’m hoping that this second novel, which focuses on a young seamstress who believes she can kill with a supernatural power imbued within in her needle and thread, demonstrates the same ability to send shivers creeping gradually up your spine.

And although not strictly a ghost story, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, a tale of a mysterious dark-robed figure that haunts the complicit and the cowardly, promises gothic vibes in abundance. I adored Perry’s The Essex Serpent and have almost been avoiding this follow-up in case it don’t love it quite as much. Now however might be time to face my fears and dive in.

The Book I’m Giving. And the One I Want to Receive!

SevenDeathsI’m urging everyone I know to read Stuart Turton’s fantastic genre-bending crime novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – it’s a brilliant blend of Agatha Christie and Quantum Leap with a dash of Groundhog Day thrown in. Quite how he managed to plot the whole thing I have no idea but it’s an absolute marvel and will definitely be making my Books of 2018 list. So that might be appearing in a few stockings with my name on the tag!

As for what I’d like to receive, I do like a humour book at Christmas. They’re the sort of books I’d never buy myself but that I enjoy chuckling over whilst I polish off the last of the cheese board on Christmas Day. As I’m currently up to my eyeballs in work for my MA, the thought of reading Academia Obscura: The Hidden Silly Side of Higher Education appeals, so that’s gone on my list to Santa. And although it might raise a few eyebrows on Christmas morning, I love the idea of New Erotica for Feminists: Get What You Deserve, Again and Again and Again, which features the brilliant line ‘He calls me into his office and closes the door . . . to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.’ I need no other reason for wishing to read it.

I also want to take this opportunity to mention the annual Booktrust Christmas Appeal. For a donation of £10.00, Booktrust will send out book parcels to children who are vulnerable or in care this Christmas. The parcels include an age-appropriate book, a letter (this year it’s been written by Jacqueline Wilson) and a festive postcard. Many of the children get no other post or may have no books of their own so the campaign is an opportunity to spread the joy of reading this festive season. Please do consider making a donation if you can.

So that is it for my Christmas reading this year. What will you be hoping to get to? And what books will you be giving this year, or asking Santa to bring? Do let me know in the comments, or come and say hi on Twitter (@shelfofunread).

Wishing all of you a Merry Christmas – do eat, drink and be merry and I’ll be back again after the festivities for my Best Books of 2018 list. And until then…

Happy Reading! x

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NB: I’ve previously done quite a few other festive posts, including Bookish Christmas Gift Guides and reviews of seasonal crime classics. I’ve linked the blog posts down below for anyone who wants more festive reading picks, so please do check them out!

Bookish Christmas Gift Guide 2017

Bookish Christmas Gift Guide 2016

Christmas Reads 2016

Feeling Festive Tag

Review: The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin (Faber Christmas Crime 2018)

Review: A Very English Murder by Cyril Hare (Faber Christmas Crime 2017)

 

 

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! Help the Witch by Tom Cox

40799510As night draws through country lanes, and darkness sweeps across the hills and hedgerows, shadows appear where figures are not; things do not remain in their places; a new home is punctured by abandoned objects; a watering hole conceals depths greater than its swimmers can fathom.

Inspired by our native landscapes and traversing boundaries of the past and the future, this collection is Tom Cox’s first foray into fiction.

I’m not a huge reader of short stories as a general rule but I do make an exception for ghost stories. There’s something sublime in reading a snippet of the strange and uncanny, like getting a little shot of the shivers straight into your spine. So I was thrilled when I discovered that Tom Cox was planning his first foray into fiction with Help the Witch, a collection of ghost stories, inspired in part by a very cold, dark winter spent living in a possibly haunted house in a remote part of the Peak District.

I’ve been a fan of Cox’s writing for a while, having been introduced to it through the medium of Twitter and the account of the much-missed @mysadcat, otherwise known as The Bear. Cox has written four humorous, wry and observant books about The Bear, his other feline companions Shipley, Roscoe, and Ralph, and the indefinable way that cats have of upending your life whilst still managing to make themselves one of the most adorable things in it. Those books, in turn, led me to Cox’s website/blog, with its fantastic posts about everything from walks in the countryside to conversations with his (VERY LOUD AND EXCITABLE) Dad, via cat anecdotes, 1970s folk music, love letters to the beach and, of course, the occasional ghost story.

Cox’s writing has a fantastic richness of language, something he showcased to great effect in his non-fiction nature/memoir/essay collection, 21st Century Yokel, and which is on display in Help The Witch. In just a few words, he conjures spirits out of hill fogs, and talismans from tree branches. The collection is filled with the shadows that lurk behind doors and live forever at the corners of your vision. It’s fabulously atmospheric writing, couched in a real sense of landscape and place.

As with all short story collections, I had my favourites. The title story, Help the Witch, is the probably the most traditional ‘ghost story’ in the collection, featuring an isolated house, a long, dark winter, and more than a few bumps in the night. I particularly enjoyed the subtle observations within the story, told in diary form, of everyday encounters, twisted here into loaded encounters imbued with possibly sinister meanings. As with many of the best ghost stories, Help the Witch finds madness lurking just beneath the realm of the everyday.

As a former estate agent, the story Listings provided some amusement, being made up of a number of advertisements for a property with a very unique selling point. And Just Good Friends provided a fantastic slice of sinister, showing how the supernatural can creep into our everyday existence through memory, wish-fulfilment and longing.

This is a collection influenced by folk tales, with their strange, twisting narratives and sharp, sinister finality. This is most evident in Folk Tales of the Twenty-Third Century, a brilliant collection of shorts that encompasses a fabulously dark Rumplestiltskin re-telling and a cautionary tale about a banjo player and the perils of fame. However, it’s also imbued with Cox’s warmth and his wryly observant humour. Seance, for example, features a medium channelling an embittered cyclist who doesn’t realise he’s dead, a life coach called Adrianne (“Adrianne is actually quite boring”), and a fox, much to the disappointment of a client expecting a rather more personalised encounter with the spirit realm.

By turns spookily sinister and wryly amusing, this is an eclectic and quirky collection written with a light but controlled touch. Beautifully evocative of the eerieness inherent in nature, Cox has an eye for the unusual and a real skill for conveying this. Gorgeously produced, with artwork by Tom’s talented artist mum Jo throughout, and a stunning front cover by Joe McLaren, Help the Witch would make a fantastic gift for yourself or a loved one this festive season – it’s the perfect collection for curling up by the fire with on a dark winter’s night!

Help the Witch by Tom Cox is published by Unbound and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Unbound, Waterstones, and Amazon

 

Blog Tours · Reviews · Seasonal Reads

BLOG TOUR!! The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin

Long ShadowJolted from sleep by the ringing of the telephone, Imogen stumbles through the dark, empty house to answer it. At first, she can’t quite understand the man on the other end of the line. Surely he can’t honestly be accusing her of killing her husband, Ivor, who died in a car crash barely two months ago.

As the nights draw in, Imogen finds her home filling up with unexpected Christmas guests, who may be looking for more than simple festive cheer. Has someone been rifling through Ivor’s papers? Who left the half-drunk whiskey bottle beside his favourite chair? And why won’t that man stop phoning, insisting he can prove Imogen’s guilt?

As the nights draw in and cosying up in front of the fire with a book and a blanket once again becomes a socially acceptable way to spend an entire evening, I do love reading a good mystery. There’s something about settling down with a puzzle that fits with the season so I’ve been a big fan of recent efforts by a number of publishers to track down and reissue seasonally appropriate titles.

Celia Fremlin’s The Long Shadow is the latest in Faber & Faber’s re-discovery of the Edgar Award-winning novelist, following on from their 2017 edition of her debut, The Hours Before Dawn. Fremlin, heralded as a talented writer of domestic suspense in her day, seems to have been largely forgotten following her death in 2009 and, on the evidence of The Long Shadow, certainly deserves a larger readership upon the reissuing of her works.

Although there is nothing particularly innovative about the mystery element of The Long Shadow, the tone is something quite unique. Fremlin has given her main character, the newly widowed Imogen, a sharp, wry tone completely at odds with her role of the grieving widow. It’s the source of a great deal of dark humour within the book, as in this scene, where Imogen and her widowed neighbour, Edith, discuss the new year:

“‘Not a happy New Year, Imogen, because we both know hat cannot be,’ Edith was saying, her lined, indoor face haggard and hungry-looking in the silvery winter sunshine. ‘Not a happy, but a peaceful year, that’s what I shall wish for you, my dear: I pray that you may discover what I discovered: that even though happiness is at an end, you may still win through to a kind of peace….’

I won’t. If they try to palm me off with peace, I’ll throw it at them. Happiness is where I’m going and I shan’t stop till I get there. If Peace comes and gets in the way, I shall kick it.

‘Thank you, Edith, and the same to you,’ was what she said aloud: and five minutes later, found herself wondering whether Peace hadn’t, after all, something to be said for it.”

Brilliant isn’t it?! So sharp yet without acid. To me, Fremlin perfectly captures the exact thoughts that often go through our heads during a polite conversation, but which we would never dare to say out loud! It makes Imogen a very different kind of narrator and gives the tone of the book a feel of Patricia Highsmith, filled with sharp observations on human nature and character.

This isn’t to say that the plot is in any way lacking, however. There is a well-crafted mystery here, with plenty of subtle clues that require astute reading to unravel. I feel though that Fremlin is more interested in the psychological aspects of crime that the method and means. Her focus in The Long Shadow is what makes her characters tick – the nuances of human behaviour and personal circumstance that might lead someone to do something desperate. In pursuit of this, she succeeds in crafting a tense and suspenseful domestic setting, filled with acutely observed characters with plenty of secrets to hide.

The Christmas link is, if I’m honest, a little tenuous. Although Christmas is the occasion that results in the deceased Ivor’s eclectic friends and family descending on Imogen, only part of the action takes place over the festive season and I think if you were seeking a specifically festive flavour complete with oodles of mince pies and snow at every corner, you might be a tad disappointed here. That said, I can’t blame Faber for seeing the marketing opportunity and if it brings more readers to this excellent writer, then I think we should forgive the slight over-emphasis on the holiday that the cover suggests.

Astute, well-observed, and cleverly crafted, The Long Shadow is a clever and compelling mystery with a side order of domestic noir. It’s clearly the product of a writer with a talent for observation and a wry, dark sense of humour. I can certainly recommend it to fans of Patricia Highsmith, as well as those who enjoyed more recent domestic chillers such as Kate Muray Browne’s The Upstairs Room. Well done to Faber for reissuing Fremlin’s work and helping her work enjoy the readership that it surely deserves.

The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin and published by Faber & Faber is available now as a paperback and ebook in all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher, Faber & Faber, for providing me with a copy of the book and inviting me to take part in this tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The blog tour continues until 24 November 2018 so please do go and check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Long_Shadow_blog

 

Seasonal Reads

Spooky Reading Recommendations

The leaves are changing, the nights are drawing in, and it’s time to drag that favourite  jumper out of the closet. Is any more of an excuse needed to settle down with a mug of tea, curl up under your favourite blanket and pick up a book? And, for me personally, if that book has a touch of the sinister about it – something that’ll send a slight chill down my spine despite all that cosiness – then even better! So without further ado here are five of my favourite chilling reads, plus a few choices that I’m hoping to get to during 2018’s season of spookiness.

584843I can’t talk about spooky books without mentioning The Woman in Black. Susan Hill has written a number of ghost stories but this, without a doubt, remains my favourite. Possibly this is because I first read the book one dark All Hallows Eve, curled up in a caravan on the wet and wild Welsh coast whilst the rain lashed on the roof and the wind howled outside. Talk about pathetic fallacy! Having re-read the book many times in considerably finer weather since however, I can attest to it being an extremely fine ghost story with just the right level of menace. Arthur Kipps’ visit to desolate Eel Marsh House and his glimpses of the vengeful woman in black remain utterly terrifying on even the brightest of days.

8350864More readily known for her young adult series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Michelle Paver has also written two chilling ghost stories after the Gothic mould. My favourite of the two, Dark Matter, is set during an ill-fated expedition to Arctic and brilliantly adds chilling events to an even colder location. Her second, Thin Air, takes place during a similarly doomed mountaineering expedition. Both books play with ideas of repression and psychology, cleverly weaving the characters’ fears into the narrative so that the reader begins to doubt the veracity of their narratives. Paver is also excellent at using the stark yet dangerous beauty of the natural environment to great effect when creating her sinister tales.

36434359Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions, which I reviewed at the start of the year, is an unsettling gothic chiller that will leave you curled up under the covers and peering into the shadows. Part ghost story, part psychological mystery, the book uses interweaving narratives from the 1600s and 1800s to unravel the unhappy tale of the wooden companions that haunt crumbling country estate The Bridge, with possibly sinister intent.  Plus it has a really creepy child in it and nothing says dark and disturbing quite as much as childish innocence gone bad.

10692Moving away from ghost stories for a moment, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a brilliant romp which combines the gothic horror of Dracula with the country-hoping adventure of a Dan Brown thriller. Late one night when exploring her father’s study, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters ominously addressed ‘To my dear and unfortunate successor’. When her father goes missing, our unnamed narrator is forced into an epic cross-continental quest that takes her into the heart of Romania, uncovering the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s disappearance, and constantly coming up against the name of one Vlad Ţepeş. As you can probably tell from the synopsis, The Historian is a bit of a romp but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one written in a high gothic style and with plenty of literary and historical references for Dracula fans.

6550482For those who like their horror to come with a more literary flavour, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger combines Waters masterful prose with a dash of the supernatural. Set in the crumbling Hundred Hall, the novel follows the provincial, middle-class Dr Faraday as he gradually integrates himself into the life of the once wealthy Ayres family. Struggling to keep up with a changing society, the Ayreses are haunted by past glories. But are they also being haunted by something more sinister than their dying way of life? Combining a thoughtful meditation on class in post-war Britain with a creeping sense of dread and a fantastically creepy atmosphere, this is a slow, understated chill of a novel with a fantastic twist in its tale.

So what is on The Shelf’s spooky TBR for this season? Having still not got around to Laura Purcell’s latest chiller, The Corset, I’m eager to pick that up. Sarah Perry’s latest slice of gothic, Melmoth, is also on the pile – I loved The Essex Serpent so much that I’m almost afraid to read it! I’m taking part in the blog tour for SJI Holliday’s psychological ghost story The Lingering in November so am also very much looking forward to reading that, especially given all the high praise it has been getting from fellow bloggers. Finally Katherine Clements’ The Coffin Path picked up a lot of praise on its release last year but remains unread so I’m hoping to get to that now that the season is appropriate again.

As always, I would love to know if you’ve read any of my recommendations – or any of my TBR books. I do love a good ghost or supernatural story so if you’ve got any chilling recommendations for me then do also drop me a line in the comments, or come say hi over on Twitter (@amyinstaffs), and let me know about them!

Happy Reading!!