Book Tags

New Year New Books Tag

I saw this tag on Simon Savidge’s YouTube channel, although I believe it originated with the lovely Lucy the Reader in a video with Penguin Platform. I really enjoyed watching Simon and Lucy’s videos and, as Simon issued an open invitation to take part in the tag, here I am!

First Read of 2018?

My first read of 2018 was the marvelous The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. I did a full review of this deliciously spooky novel so you can read my full thoughts on it here. It was a great start to the 2018 reading year!

Which books did you read in 2017 that you want to share with everyone in 2018?

Definitely Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski – this was a fantastic debut thriller with supernatural overtones all told in a Serial-like podcast style. It was definitely the book that gripped me the most in 2017 and I really think it deserves a higher profile. Matt’s next book in the Six Stories series, Hydra, has been recently released so watch this space for a full review of that coming later this week as part of the blog tour!

I’d also like more people to read and discover Sarah Lotz’s chilling psychological thriller The White Road, which has an amazing sense of place. Set on Everest, it’s a fantastically twisty novel which leaves many questions and doubts in the reader’s mind.

You can read about both these books, and some more of my favourites from last year, in my Best Books of 2017 post.

What is your reading goal for 2018?

I don’t have one! My goal for 2018 is to stop setting myself goals. I want to take time to discover the enjoyment of reading and re-discover my tastes as a reader. I also want to have a year of reading without pressure and according to whim. I’ve set my Goodreads goal to a manageable 52 books but, beyond that, I am just going to see where my bookshelves take me.

Which new author, book or genre would you like to try this year?

I really want to read some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie this year – I have all three of her novels and her short story collection on my shelves and I haven’t read any of them! I think I’ll start with Americanah because I’ve heard really good things – a friend recommended it on audio so possibly I’ll read it that way.

Which reading habits would you like to change?

Simon Savidge says he suffers from ‘magpie syndrome’ – getting distracted by other books before finishing the one you are reading – and this really struck a cord with me because I do it all the time! So I definitely want to stop that and just enjoy what I’m reading instead of always thinking about the next book. I also want to give myself permission to give up on books that I’m not enjoying and just move on.  Most importantly though, I want to get back into the habit of allowing myself a good bit of reading time before bed – as opposed to playing on my phone until it’s time for lights out.

Finally, what’s your most anticipated release this year?

This is a difficult one because there’s soooo many books coming out this year that sound fantastic! I’m really excited for The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, a mystery novel which is due in February and sounds as if it was written for me! And I’m looking forward to reading This is How it Ends by Eva Dolan, another mystery thriller which sounds right up my street and is released later this month.

What are your New Year, New Books? Please feel free to join in with the tag and spread the bookish love on your own blogs and channels – or by popping some comments down below with your answers to the questions! And, until next time, as always…

Happy Reading! x


REVIEW: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




REVIEW: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Tags · Random Bookish Things

New Year Book Tag

Hello 2018!! I hope all you fellow book lovers had a fabulous Christmas and New Year and that you received lots of books, bookish gifts and book vouchers in your stockings!

I’ve decided not to start 2018 with a Reading Resolutions post. Weirdly, I think setting myself yearly reading goals has negatively impacted my reading in the last couple of years as opposed to renewing it – I’ve felt hemmed in having to read to my goals and ended up with some lengthy trips to Slumpsville as a result. Instead, I saw this fun tag on Katherine’s blog, Bibliomaniac that looks more loosely at reading plans for the upcoming year.

How many books are you planning to read in 2018?

I managed to reach my Goodreads target of 60 books in 2017 but only just and, towards the end of the year, it really felt like I was choosing short books just to try and reach my goal. For that reason, I’ve decided to lower my 2018 target to 52 books – one a week. I’m certainly hoping that I’ll read more than that but I think that’s a manageable number that allows for periods when I don’t feel like reading as much.

Name five books you didn’t get to read in 2017 but want to make a priority this year?

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The Dry by Jane Harper
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Name a genre you want to read more of?

I’d really like to read some good fantasy and science fiction in 2018 – I used to really enjoy these genres but haven’t read any for a while. Other than that, I’m happy with my book diet of crime, historical fiction and literary fiction!

Three non-related book goals for 2018?

– Think less about stuff and just do it
– Spend less time on social media and my phone
– Get into the great outdoors more often

What’s a book you’ve had forever and you still need to read?

Definitely Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood! My Mum bought me my copy for Christmas 2003 when I was in college – I’d just read The Handmaid’s Tale and was desperate to read more Atwood so she bought me Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride and Alias Grace. I’ve read Cat’s Eye (loved it) and The Blind Assassin (meh) but still have The Robber Bride and Alias Grace to read. Really do want to read it this year as I’m desperate to watch the Netflix adaptation!

One word you’re hoping 2018 will be?


Tag a friend….

All of you! I’d love if any one wants to have a go at this tag!

So that’s my start to 2018 and a few loose goals for the year in terms of reading. I hope your reading year has started well – do tell me what you’ve chosen as your first book of the year and if you have any reading aims for 2018. And, in the meantime…

Happy Reading x


Books of the Year · Reviews

My Best Books of 2017

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

The Essex SerpentEssex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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

Days Without EndDays Without End by Sebastian Barry

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

The Dark CircleThe Dark Circle by Linda Grant

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

Six StoriesSix Stories by Matt Wesolowski

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

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

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

The White RoadThe White Road by Sarah Lotz

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

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

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

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions this year have to go to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Reading x

Book Tags · Festive · Random Bookish Things

Feeling Festive Tag

Happy Christmas Eve book lovers!

I hope you’re all fully geared up and prepared for the festive season. I’ve been prepping for the big day tomorrow (I’m hosting) by doing plenty of  baking, drinking a couple of glasses of mulled wine and eating my own body weight in treat sized chocolate.

Having got pretty much there by way of preparations, I thought it would be nice to share a festive tag with you all. I first saw this as a video on Simon Savidge’s channel but it originates with Liv over at The Book Nook and it sounded like a lot of fun so, without further ado, settle down, grab a cuppa and lets get festive!

1. Favourite Christmas movie?

The Muppet Christmas Carol, hands down. I’ll be watching it later. I’ve also got a soft spot for Arthur Christmas and no festive season is complete without a re-watch of Die Hard.

2. Favourite Christmas song?

Fairytale of New York by The Pogues. Most depressing Christmas song ever but proof that, if you throw enough folk music and accordions at something, it instantly cheers everyone up.

3. Favourite Christmas television? 

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. As Edmund Blackadder would say, “I trust Christmas brings to you its traditional mix of good food and violent stomach cramp.”

4. Favourite Christmas book?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien. Yes, I know there’s nothing Christmassy about it but I usually start my annual re-read of The Lord of the Rings around Christmas so now I associate the first book with the festive season. Plus it starts with a massive party, lots of food and much merriment which does seem seasonally appropriate.

5. Favourite Christmas season snack?

Mince pies. Especially the Salted Caramel ones from Aldi. They’re delicious.

6. Favourite Christmas Day food?

I adore sage and onion stuffing. No roast dinner is complete without it.

7. Favourite Christmas Decoration?

It’s hard to pick one as I’ve got some lovely memories on my tree. If I had to choose, it would be the one my grandparents bought me when for my first Christmas that says ‘Nothing like a granddaughter to light the world at Christmas’ and is dated 1985 – it reminds me of my family and, especially, of my wonderful and much missed Granddad.

8. What is your favourite part of Christmas?

Having some time off to spend with my nearest and dearest – it’s a season when everyone seems to remember how important it is to make time for those around them.

9. Tell us about your favourite Christmas tradition that you or your family have.

Stocking presents! We open our presents after breakfast but the day always starts with opening a present from Santa in your stocking (which is, of course, at the foot of the bed) and the present is usually something relatively small and fun – like a puzzle or novelty book. Then it’s downstairs for tea and bagels before we commence the rest of the unwrapping.

10. Any new traditions you’d like to start?

I’ve gotten into the habit of hosting a fish pie supper on Christmas Eve for my mum, my husband and I before heading to the First Communion of Christmas – which is very much a thing of recent years as opposed to something I’ve done since childhood. I’m currently trying to persuade the long-suffering husband to partake in the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, or Yule Book Flood, where you give books on Christmas Eve and spend the evening reading them – he is yet to be convinced.

11. What’s the most memorable gift you’ve been given? 

Probably the beautifully illustrated copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that my Mum bought me. She also got me a gorgeous hardback illustrated The Velveteen Rabbit, which is very special too. And my husband bought me a Folio edition of Pride and Prejudice last year. I treasure all of them as they remind me of Christmas and my loved ones when I read them.

12. Have you ever re-gifted something at Christmas?

Yes, but only because I thought it would be perfect for the person in question and completely wasted on me.

13. Do you prefer lots of little presents or one big one?

Lots of little presents most definitely. Especially if they are book-shaped.

14. What are you most excited about for Christmas this year?

Having a few days to put my feet up and chill out with family and friends – and a few good books, of course!

Before I sign off for the festive season, I did also want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has followed or supported the blog in 2017.  However you’re celebrating and wherever you are, I hope you all have a wonderful bookish Christmas. I’ll be back before New Year with my Books of the Year list but, until then…

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!



Festive · Readathons

Christmas #CosyReadingNight TBR

The lovely Lauren over at Lauren and the Books is hosting another Cosy Reading Night on Wednesday (20 December) – just in time for Christmas! You can watch Lauren’s announcement video over on her channel here. As with her previous Cosy Reading Nights, it kicks off at 7pm UK time and runs until 10pm and the aim is simply to enjoy an evening snuggled up in your PJs with some favourite snacks and a good book or two by your side.

So what are my plans for the evening? Well, I’ll be catering for one as the long-suffering husband is out at his work Christmas meal that evening. I’m going to keep it simple for dinner with a mushroom risotto – a meal that I love to cook (as well as to eat). Plus it requires white wine to make which, conveniently, leaves a glass or two left over for sipping with my book! Snacks are also sorted – my current reading snack of choice is a Thornton’s Caramel Cheesecake Block, one of which I just so happen to have in an unopened ready for a special occasion. I’m generally not too nibbly of an evening but, because it’s Christmas, I might treat myself to some dry roasted peanuts to graze on as well. Plus tea, of course. There will always be tea.

32861730And as for the books? I’m currently reading Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicholl Morgan, a reissue of a 1947 crime novel which takes place in the suitably festive-sounding manor house of Wintery Wold. At three chapters in I’ve been pleased to find all the festive golden age tropes present and correct: a snowbound manor house in a desolate location, a collection of mismatched guests with secrets to hide and, of course, a murderer in their midst. I’m not expecting the book to reinvent the wheel but, for what it is, I’m enjoying it and it has ‘cosy winter reading’ written all over it – perfect for Cosy Reading Night.

Hydra final jacket imageI’ve also received an exciting piece of book post today – an advance copy of Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, kindly sent by Orenda Books in advance of the blog tour I’m taking part in in January. I absolutely loved Matt’s first thriller, Six Stories, which I read earlier this year, so I’m itching to get started on Hydra straight away. Told in a Serial like format, the novel follows six episodes of a podcast looking into the Macleod Massacre, the horrific murder of her family that was apparently carried out by 21-year-old Arla Macleod. The book’s been calling to me since it arrived in the post this morning so I imagine I will be reading that too at some point during the evening!

I’m really looking forward to having a night snuggled up on the sofa amidst all the preparing for Christmas craziness going on at the moment. If you’re joining in with #cosyreadingnight, come say hi over on Twitter throughout the evening and let me know what you’re reading. All being well, I’ll be posting a short wrap up of the evening before Christmas. Keep an eye on Lauren’s channel for her Cosy Reading Night videos and, if you’re taking part, have a great night! x



REVIEW: An English Murder by Cyril Hare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Festive · Random Bookish Things

The Shelf of Unread Books Bookish Christmas Gift Guide!!

Yes, I’m aware that it’s not yet December but the Festive season certainly seems to be upon us – mince pies on every aisle end, novelty jumpers in every clothes shop and, if you’re anything like me, a vague sense of panic that you haven’t even started your Christmas shopping yet. Fear not though because The Shelf is here to help with a selection of book-related gifts to give your nearest and dearest this festive season.

Beautiful, Beautiful Books

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetBook lovers, unsurprisingly, love books. But buying a book for your bookworm is not always the easiest thing to do. Bookworms, by their very nature, buy and/or borrow a lot of books. So how to get something they’ll love and treasure? Simple – buy a beautiful edition of an old favourite. There’s some absolutely stunning series of classics out there at the moment from the every-expanding Penguin Clothbound Classics to Vintage’s oh so pretty Russian Classics series (pictured) released earlier this year. There’s also the latest in the Harry Potter illustrated editions – Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them and A History of Magic – or, if you prefer your children’s books a little more classic, some lovely new hardbacks of Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll books. On the contemporary novel front, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been released in a stunning black covered hardback with red sprayed edges by Vintage whilst Alias Grace has been given a gorgeous orange hardback from Bloomsbury. Chances are, if your bookworm has a favourite classic, children’s classic or contemporary classic, there will be a beautiful edition out there with their name on it.

Bookish Jewellery

il_570xN.453330071_h8lfI’ve mentioned Scribbelicious jewellery in a previous gift guide but they’ve expanded their range to include a wider selection of classic and contemporary titles, more styles and even homeware such as mugs and magnets. Also worth a mention is Coryographies, an Etsy store that features beautiful earrings, necklaces and bookmarks shaped like bookshelves and stacks of books, such as the Jane Austen Bookcase necklace (pictured right). Eclectic Eccentricity don’t specialise in literary jewellery but their gorgeous range features plenty of pieces suitable for matching up to books such as the Ursa Major Bear Necklace which always reminds me of Iorek from Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy.

Literary Gifts

2173.0_1024x1024The Literary Gift Company stock gifts suitable for all tastes and wallets ranging from pin badges to jigsaws via socks, mugs and stationary – it’s like a one stop shop of book related presents. My personal favourites include the Bodleian High Jinks Jigsaw (pictured) – perfect for keeping your bookworm occupied over the festive season – and the Personal Library Kit which allows book lovers to fulfill all their childhood librarian dreams. They also do a lovely range of clothing including T-shirts, scarves and socks, as well as homewares such as cushions, mugs, tote bags and book pouches. Speaking of book pouches, Book Buddle gives your book a hug with lovely padded book sleeves for paperbacks, hardbacks and e-readers in a variety of pretty fabric. The stock changes regularly so keep checking back for new items – or you can request a custom order. Also on Etsy are MyBookmark with a fun and eclectic range of handmade bookmarks.

Subscription Services

AAAABook subscription services are starting to gain more traction here in the UK  so, whilst we still don’t have access to the US’s Book of the Month club, there are some great UK based alternatives out there. Book & a Brew is a monthly subscription service that sends a hardback book and a lovely box/tin of specially chosen tea to complement that month’s title. Book selections are across a wide range of genres and gift subscriptions and one off boxes are also available. For a real adventure into the unknown, how about The Random Book Club?  Run from the famous Wigtown bookshop (the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland), the titles are hand-picked, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction and sure to contain an element of suprise – great for anyone who wants to leave their literary comfort zone behind in 2018. If a book subscription is slightly beyond budget, why not consider a magazine subscription instead? Offering both print and digital subscriptions, NewBooks Magazine (pictured) is a quarterly filled with reviews, extracts, features and author interviews tailored to readers and reading groups. Featured titles in the magazine are available for only the cost of postage and packaging and there’s an exclusive offer for Christmas to include two free books with your gift subscription. I’ve been a subscriber for a few years now and can genuinely say I look forward to each issue landing on the doormat.

Charitable Gifts

Finally I wanted to mention a wonderful campaign being run by BookTrust, the reading charity. Their £10.00 book gift campaign aims to provide books to 9,700 children in care this Christmas time. A donation, either from you or on behalf of someone you love, could help make a real difference so please do consider giving if you can.

Hopefully that little lot will provide a few ideas for bookish gifts to give to your loved ones this season – or possibly some things you want to add to your own letter to Santa! If you’ve got any other Christmas gift suggestions, I’d love to hear them so please drop me a comment down below or say hi over on Twitter. What will you be buying this Christmas? And what are you hoping to receive by way of bookish goodies? Do let me know and, until next time…

Happy Reading x


REVIEW: The Good People by Hannah Kent

“You know what they say, woman? The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
“And the road to Heaven is well signposted, Father…” Nance smiled. “But badly lit at night.”

35702191This, for me, sums up the essence of Hannah Kent’s latest novel, ‘The Good People‘. It’s a novel about three women, all with the best of intentions, who will end up questioning everything they have ever known as they become embroiled in a changing world caught between folklore and faith.

County Kerry, Ireland, 1825. Nóra Leahy, bereft after the sudden death of her husband, finds herself struggling alone with the care of her young grandson Micheál. Once a thriving, happy boy, Micheál cannot now walk or speak. As her neighbours begin to whisper of ill-fortune and the cows cease their milk, talk turns to the Good People – the faerie folk – and rumours of Micheál’s true nature abound. Confused and desperate, Nóra turns to two women – young Mary Clifford, who will act as nurse to Micheál, and elderly Nance Roche, the local doctress who understands that there is magic in the old ways. But trying to help Micheál will lead the women on a dangerous path and into conflict with the world both inside and outside the valley.

This is a work of fiction, although it is based on real life events and is clearly impeccably researched. As with Kent’s previous novel, ‘Burial Rites‘ (which is brilliant by the way), there’s a real sense of immediacy in her depiction of rural village life and of the inherent beliefs and assumptions that make up local culture, belief and custom. And, more so than in Burial Rites, this is a novel that really focuses on belief. There are, without a doubt, two belief systems in the novel – that of the Church and an older, more naturalistic belief that includes herbal medicine, blessings, curses and the faerie folk. Both are strongly felt in Nóra’s community and the balancing of the two in daily life was an aspect of the novel that I found absolutely fascinating.

As with ‘Burial Rites’, Kent also manages to make very difficult characters sympathetic and engaging. Nóra is a challenging woman – lonesome, prone to melancholy and often bitter about her situation – but the reader is never left in any doubt that she is grieving profoundly for her husband, her daughter and, in her own way, for Micheál. Nance could so easily be portrayed as a predatory vagrant, preying on people’s desperation however she’s also shown to be wise in herb lore and the only genuine option available when the priest won’t help and the doctor is a luxury that the villagers are unable to afford. Mary, although less vivid, is an ideal way in for the reader and we share in her confusion, her anger and her angst over the nature of Micheál’s ailment and the best course of action needed to help him.

Because, ultimately, this is a novel with a terrible and tragic outcome. I don’t want to give away the central premise completely but I will say that there are trigger warnings here for child abuse. That said,  the treatment of Micheál in the novel only ever serves to raise important questions and is never used gratuitously. I was shocked by the callous attitude of the supposedly ‘educated’ doctor and priest, who identify Micheál’s condition as an illness but fail to provide Nóra with any sense of how she can help her grandson other than to tell her it is the will of God and must be endured. It is no wonder that, desperate and confused and surrounded by whisperings in the village, she turns to Nance and ever more extreme measures to cure the boy and see him restored to her.  These measures are, in themselves, horrendous but Kent’s skill lies in her ability to encourage the reader to see why her character’s make these decisions and choices. We might not sympathise but it is certainly possibly to empathise with Nóra’s plight.

As one of my ‘5 Star TBR Predictions‘ from back in October, I’m pleased to say this more than lived up to expectations. Combining a compelling narrative with complex characterisation and social commentary, this is an emotional and taught novel. It isn’t the fastest paced but there’s undoubted quality in the writing and a meticulous replication of a time and place now vanished.

The Good People‘ by Hannah Kent is published by Picador and is available in paperback, ebook and audio from all good book retailers.