Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane

A literary obsession. An angry young man with a gun. And one woman trying to foil his deadly plan.

When Helen Oddfellow starts work as a lecturer in English literature, she’s hoping for a quiet life after the trauma and loss of her recent past. But trouble knows where to find her.

There’s something wrong with her new students. Their unhappiness seems to be linked to their flamboyant former tutor, Professor Petrarch Greenwood, who holds decadent parties in his beautiful Bloomsbury apartment.

When Helen is asked to take over his course on the Romantic poet William Blake, life and art start to show uncomfortable parallels. Disturbing poison pen letters lead down dark paths, until Helen is the only person standing between a lone gunman and a massacre.

As Helen knows only too well, even dead poets can be dangerous.

I was very excited to be invited to be part of the blog tour for The Peacock Room, Anna Sayburn Lane’s follow up to 2018’s Unlawful Things. The first Helen Oddfellow mystery was a surprising hit for me – one of those books that you know you’ll enjoy but don’t expect to like quite as much as you do!

The combination of taut literary mystery and edge-of-your-seat thriller gave me all the thrills of The Da Vinci Code but with the pleasure of more rounded characterisation and a considerably better prose style. Unlawful Things ended up being one of my honorable mentions in my Best Books of 2019 and I have been eagerly awaiting the follow-up ever since.

There’s always a worry when you’ve been anticipating a book that the reality won’t live up to the expectation. Fortunately The Peacock Room is a more than worthy successor to Unlawful Things, offering the same combination of intriguing literary mystery and contemporary conspiracy whilst developing the returning characters nicely.

The mystery this time centres around the philosophical poet William Blake. Returning heroine Helen Oddfellow, still raw from the events of Unlawful Things, is wrenched out of her sixteenth-century comfort zone when she’s asked to take over a first-year class on the Romantic poets at short notice. Turning to an old tour-guiding friend, Barbara Jackson, Helen is soon drawn into the close-knit artistic circles of Blake’s world – and into Barbara’s search for proof that Catherine Blake may have helped in the writing of her husband’s famous poems. But someone else is interested in William Blake – and is using his poetic imagery to justify a violent online misogyny that is threatening to spill over into the real world.

As Helen and Barbara’s investigations progress, the mysteries keep on piling up. What do some missing manuscript pages have to do with an online comic featuring one of Blake’s monstrous creations? How is a centuries old academic puzzle connected to the investigation of online hatred being conducted by Helen’s journalist friend Nick? And what does any of it have to do with Helen’s uhappy poetry students and the flamboyent Professor Greenwood?

Whilst it takes a little while to draw together and develop the various strands of the plot, Anna Sayburn Lane manages to keep the pace high and the twists and revelations coming throughout The Peacock Room. After some scene-setting and introductions at the beginning (ideal for introducing new readers – meaning The Peacock Room can be read perfectly well as a standalone mystery), the slow build of the first third of the book rapidly increases and I rattled through the final 200 pages or so in the space of a few hours!

As with Unlawful Things, some of the plot elements do push the boundaries of plausability – I can attest to the fact that academic life isn’t nearly as thrilling (or, thankfully, as sordid) as this book makes out – there is little that is impossible here (although several that are improbable – if only hidden manuscripts and undiscovered MSS were as easy to find in real life!) and, if realism is sacrificed at times, it is done so in the name of an engaging and enjoyable story.

The Peacock Room does engage with some difficult topics – trigger warnings here for discussions of gaslighting, rape, sexual coersion, sexual violence, grooming, and misogyny – but they are handled sensitively and are always kept relevant to the plot. That there are dark corners of the internet hiding such violent and unsettling interpretations of literature is, sadly, all too true. There were once or two plot strands that I felt wandered a little too close to cliche – guessing Professor Greenwood’s secret wasn’t especially difficult and, whilst I’m sure such things do occur, any modern university would crack down on such behaviour with considerably more force than depicted here however illustrious the academic in question.

These minor niggles aside however, The Peacock Room is a fascinating literary thrill that successfully combines contemporary debates with the thrill of a centuries old mystery to produce an engaging, enjoyable, and edge-of-your-seat read. Deserving of a much wider readership, The Peacock Room is a worthy successor to Unlawful Things – existing fans are sure to enjoy it and I hope it brings many new readers to Anna Sayburn Lane’s action-packed series.

The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane 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 author, Anna Sayburn Lane, for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The blog tour continues until 17 October 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!

Books of the Year

Best Books of 2019

Wow. 2019, huh? Certainly quite the year – and definitely one that I would rather celebrate through books.

Because, despite everything, 2019 has been a pretty good year for me reading-wise. Overall, I read 79 books in 2019 – beating my Goodreads Challenge goal of 52 by some way, although not quite making last year’s total of 84 books read.

There were definitely slumpy moments – I hit my traditional summer reading slump right on cue and the commencement of my PhD has definitely impacted on the amount of personal reading time I get to enjoy but, as I prepare to ring in 2020 and look back over my year in books, I got to read some fantastic titles this year.

As always, this round-up is of the books I read in 2019 – so there will be a mix of older and new titles in there. There’s no doubt 2019 has seen some fabulous new books released but you gotta give that backlist some love too, you know?

So, without further ado and in no particular order, I present to you my Best Books of 2019!

The FiveThe Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

Strangely I never got around to writing a full review of this one. This is probably because Hallie Rubenhold’s exceptionally researched and devastatingly heart-breaking biography of Mary Anne Nichols, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Annie Chapman, Mary Jane Kelly punched me in the gut when I read it back in April.

Hallie keeps her focus entirely on these women, moving the spotlight away from the violence that marked their ends and shining it instead on the tragedy, loss, perseverance, and determination that marked their lives. She gives these five women back their stories and, in doing so, presents a raw and insightful glimpse into the inequality and prejudice at the heart of the traditional Ripper narrative.

A masterful book, powerfully told, this one made me feel sorrow and anger in equal measure – and stayed with me long after I turned the final page.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John CarreyrouBad Blood

Another non-fiction read (or rather listen, as I read this one on audio) that I didn’t get around to writing up a full review for! Which is somewhat unbelievable as this is definitely a contender for most gripping book of the year!

Carryrou’s investigation of Theranos, the multbillion-dollar Silicon Valley biotech startup founded by brilliant young entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes is a compelling and comprehensive account of corporate fraud and accountability.

Combining the thorough research of investigative journalism with the twists of a crime thriller – and with shades of a dystopian novel thrown in at times – this one had me hooked from the moment I began listening. A re-read of the paperback is on my ‘To Do’ list for 2020.

The Lost Man CoverThe Lost Man by Jane Harper

I’ve enjoyed all of Jane Harper’s crime novels to date but, in my humble opinion, The Lost Man is her best yet.

A standalone story that centres of the secrets and lies within a family of remote outback ranchers, The Lost Man is a powerful tale of brotherhood, revenge, recrimination and redemption.

You can read my full review here but, needless to say, this is one crime novel that you should definitely make it a mission to pick up in 2020 if you haven’t already done so!

The Library Book by Susan Orlean43217645

I read a fair bit of non-fiction at the start of the year and The Library Book, Susan Orlean’s account of the 1985 fire that all but destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library, was definitely one of the highlights.

Ranging between providing an account of the fire and its aftermath, complete with some devastating interviews with library workers who were present on the day, Orlean also recounts the history of the library service in Los Angeles in a meditative and powerful reflection upon the power of literature.

In a time when library services continue to be under threat both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world, The Library Book is a reminder of the importance of these well-loved but underappreciated public spaces.

You can read my full review here.

Way of All Flesh CoverThe Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Anyone who has followed the blog for a while will probably know that I love both historical fiction and crime fiction. Combining the two together, therefore, is a surefire way to get my interest.

Ambrose Parry (the pen name for writer Christopher Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman) hasn’t necessarily done anything new in The Way of All Flesh, the first in a potential series set in Victorian Edinburgh and centring on medical student Will Raven, housemaid Sarah Fisher, and their employer, the brilliant and pioneering Dr Simpson. But everything that is done is done exceptionally well. The plot is intriguing and well-crafted, the historical setting lives and breathes, and the characters come complete with both flaws and foibles. It all makes for an incredibly deep and satisfying read, which has more than earned its place on this list.

You can read my full review here.

The Red Word by Sarah HenstraThe Red Word Cover

I had never heard of this book until I agreed to take part in the blog tour for it but my gosh was it a revelation when I read it!

An intelligent, open-eyed and disturbing look at rape culture and the extremes of ideology, The Red Word is a campus novel that takes no prisoners in its depiction of sorority and fraternity life, radical feminism, and the terrible price that comes from being made to choose between two competing ideologies.

This is definitely no a novel for the faint-hearted but, in the wake of the Me Too movement, it’s a timely and powerful reminder of the ongoing debates that surround consent in modern-day culture.

You can read my full review here.

TamburlaineTamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

A masterful historical novella that recounts the fictional last days of the life of Elizabethan playwright and all-round bad boy Christopher Marlowe.

It’s the voice that really got me in this one. Louise Welsh brings Marlowe and his world vividly to life on the page, capturing the sights, sounds, and smells of Elizabethan London with brilliant precision. And, at the heart of it all, is Marlowe. Angry, dissolute, cunning, and brilliant, Marlowe lives within these pages.

You can read my full review here.

Fuck Yeah, Video Games: The Life and Extra Lives of a Professional Nerd by Daniel Fuck Yeah CoverHardcastle

So, this one is pretty niche. I freely admit that if you’re not a fan of video games, you’re unlikely to see the appeal of Daniel Hardman’s love letter to the medium.

But if, like me, you love to curl up and travel through Skyrim’s frozen wastes, relished the day you could beat your cousin’s Pokemon into dust, or spent hours attempting that bloody Water Temple in Ocarina of Time, then let me assure you that you’ll love this book.

Dan speaks the language of nerd with ease and his account of his favourite games and the way in which they have shaped his life are both hilariously funny and extremely relatable. Plus the book contains some brilliant illustrations by Rebecca Maughan – the one for the Animal Crossing entry has me chuckling just thinking about it.

You can read my full review here.

ErebusErebus: The Story of a Ship by Michael Palin

I must be really bad at reviewing non-fiction because this is yet another one that I read, loved, and failed to write up.

Michael Palin has that brilliant way of making anything seem interesting. So the fact that I already find historic polar exploration fascinating made this one an easy sell for me.

Erebus tells the story of the ship Erebus, from its construction to its fatal final voyage as part of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition. Along the way, Palin writes about the men and women whose lives were marked in some way by the ship, telling the tale of great voyages of discovery, scientific innovations, and crushed dreams. It’s a fascinating tale, engagingly told.

The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective: Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Maud West CoverCrime by Susannah Stapleton

If you want non-fiction that reads like a novel then look no further than Susannah Stapleton’s The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective.

Maud West, a real-life Lady Detective, ran her agency in London for more than thirty years, have begun her sleuthing in 1905. But the real mystery soon becomes Maud’s own life. Because who really was Maud West? And were any of the tall tales she told about her exploits even remotely true?

As always, the truth turns out to be stranger than fiction in this compelling account of a unique life.

You can read my full review here.

BeastBeast by Matt Wesolowski

This one is a late entry as I finished it yesterday – but its no less brilliant for being a recent read!

I’ve read and adored every single one of Matt’s Six Stories novels and the latest, Beast, is no exception. Combining a compulsive podcast-style narrative with a tale of poverty, social media, desperation and modern-day vampires, Beast has the page-turning, edge-of-your-seat quality that made the previous Six Stories books so gripping.

I’ll be writing up a full review of this one shortly but, in the meantime, if you’ve not read any of Matt’s other Six Stories books, you can find me raving about them here, here and here!

Looking back, I have definitely read some fabulous books in 2019. Reviewing the year to write this post, it’s actually been a better one that I remembered. Getting this list down to a reasonable length was really difficult and I definitely want to leave a bit of room for the following honourable mentions (with links to full reviews/features where available):

A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman (author), Rafael Albuquerque (author, illustrator), Rafael Scavone, and Dave Stewart (illustrator)

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane

Many thanks to everyone who has read, liked, shared and supported the blog this year – every single retweet, share, like and comment has been much appreciated and I do love interacting with fellow bookish types on Twitter and here on WordPress.

Thanks also to all of the publicists and tour organisers who have invited me to take part in some fantastic blog tours this year – I really wouldn’t have discovered some of these reads if it weren’t for you.

And finally to the authors, thank you for writing such brilliant books. The pleasure of a good book never grows old but I’m sure that easy reading makes for hard writing. So thank you for your efforts.

Wishing you all a very happy and bookish New Year. I shall leave you with a toast from one of my favourite writers, Neil Gaiman:

OldGods

See you in 2020 and, until the next time, happy reading! x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane

Unlawful Things Front CoverA hidden masterpiece. A deadly secret buried for 500 years. And one woman determined to uncover the truth.

When Helen Oddfellow meets a historian on the trail of a lost manuscript, she’s intrigued by the mystery – and the man. But what starts as a literary puzzle quickly becomes a quest with deadly consequences. 

A man runs through a Deptford churchyard, blood pouring between his fingers. Collapsing into a nearby pub, he manages to whisper a few final words: “Cut is the branch…”

And with that dramatic opening, Anna Sayburn Lane’s debut thriller Unlawful Things grabbed me by the hand and didn’t let up until I’d turned the final page a mere 24 breathless reading hours later!

Combining a literary historical mystery with the pacing of a contemporary thriller, Unlawful Things sees PhD student and Christopher Marlowe expert Helen Oddfellow team up with historian Richard Watson and local newspaper reporter Nick Wilson to unravel a 500-year-old mystery.

As Helen and Richard work together to uncover the links between a lost Marlowe play, Sir Thomas Becket and a distant Cobham ancestor, Nick is investigating a group of far-right white nationalists hellbent on destroying a local mosque. But why is their leader so interested in Helen and Richard’s research? Whatever secrets are hiding amongst the papers of Cobham Hall, someone is desperate to keep them hidden – and is prepared to kill to make sure of it. Soon, Helen, Richard and Nick are running for their lives, determined to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and solve the mystery behind Marlowe’s last, lost play.

The plot is undoubtedly similar to that of The Da Vinci Code and The Shakespeare Secret but I have to say that I enjoyed the journey offered by Unlawful Things considerably more. The literary mystery elements are really well-handled, with a trail of tantalising breadcrumbs drip-fed through the plot to make a neat intellectual puzzle that is clearly the result of substantial research into Marlowe, Becket and the fraught political scene of Elizabethan England. This historical mystery is then confidently embedded into a twenty-first-century narrative that is packed with intrigue, danger and edge-of-your-seat intensity.

The characters are well-rounded and interesting, although I have to admit to getting frustrated with Helen at times. For an intelligent woman, it was frustrating to see her fall into some obvious cliches (such as continually failing to tell anyone where she’s going, even when the danger is ever-present), or making irrational emotional decisions (such as contaminating an active crime scene). She is by no means an unpleasant lead – for the most part, she’s witty, clever and extremely determined – but this only made her occasional naivety seem more unlikely to me.

The villains, on the other hand, are brilliantly, terrifyingly realised. From the insane religious mania of one character to the out and out torture inflicted by another, Sayburn Lane doesn’t shy away from violence when necessary and there are a few difficult scenes in Unlawful Things. This never felt unnecessary, however, and the sometimes brutal nature of the violence felt completely in-keeping with the characterisation of the villains.

Overall, Unlawful Things was a really enjoyable reading experience. With its fast pace and complex, interweaving investigations, it really does deserve to be called a page-turner! This is definitely a thriller that has some meat on its bones – Sayburn Lane’s clear yet crafted writing really brings each action-packed scene to life, whilst the densely plotted historical mystery means there’s plenty packed into the pages. Perfect for thriller fans looking to move away from domestic noir, Unlawful Things is a book filled with shocking twists, elegant turns and plenty of memorable moments.

Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane is available now in paperback and ebook from Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the author for providing me with a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this blog tour. The blog tour continues until 13 March 2019 so please do check out the other stops along the way for further reviews, extracts and more! 

Unlawful Things Poster

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