Reviews

REVIEW!! Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews

Celebrated, bestselling, elusive…who is Maud Dixon?

Florence Darrow wants to be a writer. Correction: Florence Darrow IS going to be a writer. Fired from her first job in publishing, she jumps at the chance to be assistant to the celebrated Maud Dixon, the anonymous bestselling novelist. The arrangement comes with conditions – high secrecy, living in an isolated house in the countryside . Before long, the two of them are on a research trip to Morocco, to inspire the much-promised second novel. Beach walks, red sunsets and long, whisky-filled evening discussions…win-win, surely? Until Florence wakes up in a hospital, having narrowly survived a car crash.

How did it happen – and where is Maud Dixon, who was in the car with her? Florence feels she may have been played, but wait, if Maud is no longer around, maybe Florence can make her mark as a writer after all… 

One of the best things about book blogging is discovering books that you might otherwise have missed through other lovely bloggers. If it hadn’t been for the lovely Clare over at Years of Reading, I might have missed out on Who is Maud Dixon? and, let me tell you, that would have been my loss because this book is an absolute corker!

Who is Maud Dixon?, the debut novel from Alexandra Andrews, is a literary mystery reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith at her most chilling but with a pinch of Elena Ferrante’s carefully observed female relationships and Harriet Lane’s unreliable narrators thrown in for good measure.

The novel follows Florence, a young and somewhat awkward young woman living in New York and dreaming of literary success. Unfortunately Florence lacks the experience to put her dreams into words. Surrounded by the glamour of New York’s literary intelligentsia, her writing has dried up and, as she watches her colleagues achieve successes that she can only dream of, Florence begins to lose herself amidst a dangerous mixture of ennui and bitterness.

After a series of poor decisions result in her losing her publishing job, Florence is overjoyed to be approached by elusive novelist Maud Dixon. Maud Dixon or, as it turns out, Helen Wilcox’s wildly successful debut novel, Mississippi Foxtrot, set the literary world on fire and now she needs an assistant to help her whilst she concentrates on her second book. Cue Florence’s entry into the world of Maud Dixon/Helen Wilcox. But is there more to Maud/Helen than meets the eye? Florence may wish to emulate Helen’s success but who really IS Maud Dixon?

Saying anything more about the plot of Who Is Maud Dixon? would spoil the book. In fact I’d actually argue that this is one instance in which the blurb potentially gives a little too much away – the less you know about this book going in, the more satisfying I think you’ll find the experience of reading it. Suffice to say that there really is more to Maud/Helen than there first appears – and more to Florence too – and the novel unfolds into an intimate portrayal of these two women and the lengths that they will go to in order to both forge and protect their literary identities.

Florence makes for an interesting – if not always likeable – protagonist. By turns naïve and scheming, she is a young women entirely unsure of who she really is. Dominated by an overbearing mother throughout her childhood, Florence has escaped to New York in the expectation that simply by moving she will become everything she is meant to be. Her failure to recognise that some effort on her part may be required in order to achieve her literary dreams did frustrate me at times but, as events unfolded and Florence becomes more entangled with Helen/Maud’s life, I began to be more sympathetic towards someone who is clearly out of their depth and wildly unprepared for the challenges she faces.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there are strong Highsmith vibes in Who is Maud Dixon and the plot turns on issues of identity. How do we know who we truly are? What processes do we go through to become that person? And what lengths will we go to in order to protect that? Finding the answers to these questions will, for Florence, entrap her in a haze almost as suffocating as that created by the Moroccan heat she finds herself living in.

Who is Maud Dixon? has that enviable page-turning quality that makes it a perfect holiday read. With its glamorous depiction of the literary scene and its heady descriptions of the Moroccan heat, I was transported by its pages and ended staying up well past my bedtime to finish it! Packed with well crafted twists, hazardous situations, complex characters, and a series of poor life choices (ingredients that make for the BEST revelations!), it would make for the perfect summer read for anyone who loves a good literary mystery.

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews is published by Tinder Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Plague Letters by V. L. Valentine

WHO WOULD MURDER THE DYING…

London, 1665. Hidden within the growing pile of corpses in his churchyard, Rector Symon Patrick discovers a victim of the pestilence unlike any he has seen before: a young woman with a shorn head, covered in burns, and with pieces of twine delicately tied around each wrist and ankle.

Desperate to discover the culprit, Symon joins a society of eccentric medical men who have gathered to find a cure for the plague. Someone is performing terrible experiments upon the dying, hiding their bodies amongst the hundreds that fill the death carts.

Only Penelope – a new and mysterious addition to Symon’s household – may have the skill to find the killer. Far more than what she appears, she is already on the hunt. But the dark presence that enters the houses of the sick will not stop, and has no mercy…

V. L Valentine’s The Plague Letters opens with the Reverend Symon Patrick, newly returned to London by order of his patron and regretting both his enforced return and his separation from the vivacious Elizabeth. Symon returns to a city filled with fear and a household in uproar – during his absence, bubonic plague has arrived and Londoners are fleeing to the country if they can. And in the midst of the chaos, one of Symon’s maids has gone missing.

When the missing maid turns up dead, no one – least of all Symon – is surprised. The body shows unusual signs – a shaved head, strange inked markings, signs of restraint – but London is full of superstition, quacks, and dubious medicines. But when another young woman arrives in the same condition, Penelope – a new and quick-witted addition to Symons household – forces the reluctant reverend to take notice of the possibility of a killer in their midst. Someone, it seems, is attempting a series of misguided experiments in an attempt to rid London of the plague – and they’re more than happy to trial their ‘medicine’ on human subjects.

Desperate for answers, Symon is forced into an unlikely alliance. A group of medical ‘professionals’ – an eminent physician, a well-known surgeon, a charismatic ‘healer’, and a pioneering apothacary – have formed The Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague. Despite their differences – and their personal eccentricities – these men seek to end London’s suffering. But is a killer hiding in their midst?

There were times, especially early on, when I wasn’t quite sure what sort of book I was reading with The Plague Letters. By turns gorily vivid in its descriptions of the deprivations bought about by the London plague, the next page might see a farcical comedy play out as the filthy surgeon Mincey starts a fistfight with drunken apothecary Boghurst, or court favourite Valentine Greatrakes flounces into the room with a knowing smile and a witty retort. Turn the page again and you’re in the midde of a romantic drama, as Symon continues his illicit correspondance with the flirtateous – and very much married – Elizabeth. It’s as if V. L. Valentine has reached into 1665 and pulled out a slice of London life, upending it onto the page in all of its chaotic, messy, and gruesome glory.

Get used to the sudden lurches in tone however, and The Plague Letters offers a rich and rewarding mystery enveloped alongside deeply evocative depiction of plague-ridden London. The characters, whilst not always especially likeable, leap off the page, pulling the reader into their messy lives – and into their hunt for an increasingly unhinged killer. V. L. Valentine has a real eye – and ear – for the strange and the absurd, brilliantly capturing both the dark humour and the grit of the bodily experiences evoked on the page.

Symon makes for an interesting – and occasionally infuriating – main narrator. Suffering from melancholy and increasingly embroiled in relationships he neither fully understands nor fully appreciates, he is a man whose inner demons constantly wrestle with his better angels. Once paired with clever, mysterious Penelope however, Symon soon begins to untangle his knotty mess of life choices and I enjoyed seeing the pair’s relationship develop from antagonistic tolerance to trust over the course of the novel. Although the ending leaves many of the personal mysteries within the characters lives opaque or unresolved, I still felt as if I had got to know – and even to like – these flawed and changeable people by the of the book.

The eccentricity of style – that alignment of the grim and the grimly funny – may put some people off The Plague Letters but settle into this novel and you’ll find a cleverly-plotted mystery, some fantastially realised characters, and a deeply evocative depiction of seventeenth-century London. It’s as if Imogen Hermes Gowar’s sublimely eccentric The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock had been combined with the tension of Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of London and the mystery of Antonia Hodgson’s A Devil in the Marshalsea. Fans of historical crime will find much to delight in – as will anyone who enjoys being dragged in to a book and taken along for a wild and unpredictable ride!

The Plague Letters by V. L. Valentine is published by Viper Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to the publisher for inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 12 April so check out the other stops on Twitter and Instagram for more reviews and content!

Reviews

REVIEW!! The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji, translated by Ho-Ling Wong

The Japanese cult classic mystery

The lonely, rockbound island of Tsunojima is notorious as the site of a series of bloody unsolved murders. Some even say it’s haunted. One thing’s for sure: it’s the perfect destination for the K-University Mystery Club’s annual trip.

But when the first club member turns up dead, the remaining amateur sleuths realise they will need all of their murder-mystery expertise to get off the island alive.

As the party are picked off one by one, the survivors grow desperate and paranoid, turning on each other. Will anyone be able to untangle the murderer’s fiendish plan before it’s too late?

Originally published in 1987, Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders is considered a cult classic in its native Japan and is credited with reviving interest in the traditional puzzle mystery format, inspiring a new generation of Japanese crime writers.

Now re-issued by Pushkin Vertigo with a translation by Ho-Ling Wong, the novel pays homage to several Golden Age crime classics, most notably Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Despite some misgivings, several of the most prominant members of the K-University Mystery Club head to the now deserted island of Tsunojima in an attempt to solve the myterious triple murder that happened there six months previously. Setting up camp in The Decagon House – the only remamining part of eccentric architect Nakamura Seiji’s Blue Mansion complex – it isn’t long before the group begin to suspect that they may not be as alone on the island as they thought.

Meanwhile, back on the mainland, former club member Kawaminami Taka’aki receives a sinister note signed by Nakamura Seiji – “My daughter Chiori was murdered by you all”. But Nakamura Seiji was one of the Tsunojima victims, and has been dead for six months.

Alternating between Kawaminami’s investigations on the mainland and the increasingly sinister events taking place on the island, The Decagon House Murders offers an homage to Christie’s original whilst creating a uniquely twisty and cleverly plotted mystery all of its own. Replete with references to Christie’s classic – and to the detectives and writers of the wider Golden Age milieu – the novel still manages to innovate and there are a number of intricate twists on well-worn formulas.

I particualrly loved the way that the novel wears its antecedants and inspiration on its sleeve – the writing is incredibly self-aware and delights in being knowingly referential without this ever feeling like a distraction from the plot. Readers familiar with Golden Age crime will delight in picking up on references as much as they’ll enjoy the fiendishly clever mystery that has been created with the bones of the crime fiction it pays homage too.

Because for all its referential playfulness, The Decagon House Murders is a twisty and enjoyable mystery in its own right. With its contained setting and cast, dual narrative and dual timeline, there’s plenty of space for red herrings, plot twists and sudden revelations. Although I did guess the ‘who’, I have to admit the ‘how’ still surprised me – and there was an enjoyable twist at the novel’s close that I did not see coming!

I also really enjoyed getting to know the characters – especially Kawaminami and his fellow ‘detective’ Shimada – and was impressed by how well drawn each of the detective club members felt, despite some of them only being in the story for quite a brief period of time.

If you don’t enjoy classic or ‘Golden Age’ crime, The Decagon House Murders probably isn’t going to convert you – it honours the genre and conforms to many of its tropes, albeit in a knowingly playful way. Fans of the classics of crime fiction will, however, find much to enjoy here and the book makes for a fantastic introduction to Japanese crime fiction, or to crime fiction in translation. As a fan of the genre, I really enjoyed The Decagon House Murders and look forward to reading more of Pushkin’s translated Japanese crime classics very soon!

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji is published by Pushkin Vertigo and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. 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.

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

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

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper

Yesterday, I kissed my husband for the last time . . .

It’s the summer of 1959, and the well-trimmed lawns of Sunnylakes, California, wilt under the sun. At some point during the long, long afternoon, Joyce Haney, wife, mother, vanishes from her home, leaving behind two terrified children and a bloodstain on the kitchen floor.

While the Haney’s neighbours get busy organising search parties, it is Ruby Wright, the family’s ‘help’, who may hold the key to this unsettling mystery. Ruby knows more about the secrets behind Sunnylakes’ starched curtains than anyone, and it isn’t long before the detective in charge of the case wants her help. But what might it cost her to get involved?

In these long hot summer afternoons, simmering with lies, mistrust and prejudice, it could only take one spark for this whole ‘perfect’ world to set alight . . .

Despite being permeated with the sultry heat of a long summer afternoon, The Long, Long Afternoon did not take a long, long time to read. Instead journalist and editor Inga Vesper’s debut novel whips along with a page-turning quality that belies the suffocating atmosphere radiating from its pages.

Beginning on hot summer afternoon in 1959, the novel opens with housewife Joyce Haney standing in her picture perfect suburban garden , contemplating whether or not she should water the pots on her patio. A few pages later and Joyce is missing, the only remnant of her existence a bloodstain on the kitchen floor and two terrified children. Joyce’s distraught husband can think of no reason why anyone would wish to harm his wife. And her neighbours in the manicured suburb of Sunnylakes say that any disappearance would be very out of character. But behind the respectability of their coffee mornings and art classes, the women of the Sunnylakes Women’s Improvement Committee might no more about Joyce Haney than they’re letting on. And as the investigation continues, the Haney family’s ‘help’, Ruby Wright, quickly realises that something terrible may have happened to her mistress…

The characters in this suburban thriller are all brilliantly drawn and I loved finding out all the secrets hidden behind the respectable facades and well-trimmed lawns of Sunnylakes. I particularly liked the character of Ruby Wright, the Haney family’s ‘help’. Overlooked because of the colour of her skin, Ruby’s position as an outsider in the Sunnylakes community confers on her distinct advantages when it comes to investigating what happened to Joyce. After all, no one checks their conversations if it’s only the help listening in do they? And I really felt for Ruby as she has to choose between keeping her head down (and keeping her job) and pursuing her suspicions that someone in Sunnylakes may have deliberately harmed her employer.

Whilst Joyce’s disappearance remains the focus of the book, Inga Vesper has done a fantastic job of weaving in the racial tensions and politics of suburban America in the late 1950s, and I got a real sense of the varying constraints placed on different members of the community. From the daily prejudices Ruby faces as a black woman who refuses to let her intelligence be dismissed, to the stifling constraints required of a suburban housewife, the novel deftly weaves discussions of race, class and gender together to create a multi-layered mystery packed with atmosphere and period detail.

Whilst I didn’t find the ‘whodunnit’ especially surprising, The Long, Long Afternoon did keep me hooked right up until the end. Alternating between the perspectives of Joyce (in the past), Ruth, and investigating detective Mick, the story offers plenty of unexpected twists to throw the reader’s initial suspicions off course. And even though I did guess who lay behind Joyce’s disappearance, the explosive ending offered last minute twists and turns worthy of a thriller!

The Long, Long Afternoon combines the vivid atmosphere and lush writing of literary fiction with the pace and twists of a thriller to create a rich and compelling read that is perfect for whiling away your own afternoon with! With its suburban setting and noir-ish feel, fans of classic hard-boiled fiction will find a worthy modern take on the genre here (and one that comes with a delightfully feminist twist), whilst historical and literary fiction lovers will relish the well-told mystery and precise sense of place.

The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper is published by Manilla Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Dark Truths by A. J. Cross

When a headless body is discovered on a popular jogging trail, Detective Inspector Bernard Watts and his team are plunged headlong into a baffling murder investigation. Why would someone stab to death a young woman on her daily run – and take her head?

When a close examination of the crime scene results in a shocking discovery linking the present murder to a past crime, criminologist Will Traynor is brought in to assist the police. Aware of Traynor’s troubled past and already having to deal with inexperienced rookie PC Chloe Judd on his team, Watts is sceptical that Traynor will bring anything useful to the investigation.

He’s about to be proved very wrong …

Dark Truths – billed as a ‘forensic mystery’ – is the first in a new series featuring criminologist Dr Will Traynor. Those familiar with A. J. Cross’s previous Kate Hanson series will encounter some familiar faces – despite being a Will Traynor mystery, the majority of Dark Truths is told from the perspective of DI Bernard Watts, formerly of the same Cold Case unit as Hanson – but, for those (like me) new to Cross’s writing, Dark Truths provides a perfect jumping off point in the form of a solidly crafted police procedural with an interesting focus upon the forensic aspects of police work.

Opening with the disturbing murder of a young woman on a popular Birmingham jogging trail, DI Watts and his team are plunged into the investigation of a possible serial killer when further body parts are found nearby. Suddenly finding themselves with a recently killed headless corpse and a killing field of historic skulls, Watts reluctantly seeks the assistance of forensic psychologist Dr Will Traynor. Traynor has a well-deserved reputation for brilliance – but the tragic murder of his wife ten years prior has also left him lacking in focus, difficult to work with and, on occasion, entirely unfocused on the matter at hand. Adding to Watt’s problems is rookie PC Chloe Judd. Keen, clever and overly quick to jump to conclusions, Judd’s constant questions and outspoken personality make her a challenging partner for the observational and somewhat stoic Watts. Aiding Watts and his team are pathologist Dr Connie Chong, head of forensics Adam Jenner and geoscientist Jake Petrie – supporting characters that, along with Traynor, help add the forensic element to this forensic mystery.

Cross combines a largely likeable and interesting mix of personalities with a skilfully plotted drama that offers plenty of revelations and twists. I enjoyed the focus on the day-to-day aspects of police work, from the manning of tip lines and organising of public appeals to the painstaking fingertip searches of fields and hedgerows. It was refreshing to read a book in which an investigation is depicted in real-time – forensic evidence can take days, even weeks to process, and the post-mortem results are not instantaneously available to the investigating team – as well as one where the pressures of man-power, office politics, and budgetary constraints limit the action that can be taken at any one time. This realism is well-handled however and is never allowed to slow the plot down – instead it gives characters an opportunity to interview key witnesses, or allows a moment during which their backstories or personal interactions can be developed.

I did have one minor niggle with Dark Truths – PC Chloe Judd was, for me anyway, an annoyance every time she stepped onto the page, especially at the beginning of the book. Whilst she mellowed by the end, it was frustrating to see a determined and career-focused female character somewhat stereotypically depicted as abrasive, difficult and, at times, downright unprofessional. She also seemed somewhat inconsistent – veering between making some good analytical points and jumping to increasingly rapid and wild conclusions – and it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that I began to feel as if her character was there to be anything more than either a sparring partner for Watts or a way of integrating exposition of the finer points of forensic police investigation. I hasten to add that Judd’s portrayal by the end of the book is much better – she mellows as a character and develops as an investigator to the extent that I’d like to see her return in future books in the series – but I’d be lying if I said that her initial characterisation did make getting into the initial chapters of Dark Truths more difficult for me.

The forensic aspects of Dark Truth might not be for everyone – those who enjoy their crime with a heavy thriller twist might find the action a tad slow in places – but personally I found the depiction of these aspects one of the most fascinating aspects of the book. A. J. Cross is an experienced forensic psychologist herself and her experience in the field really comes across in this novel – although, crucially, she never lets the story become bogged down in detail, instead adding just enough to add depth whilst also moving the plot along. I also really enjoyed the ‘cold case’ aspects of the book and the way the present-day murder added to the discovery of more historic crimes – and increased the complexity of the case that Watts and his team are handling. Having read Dark Truths, I’m keen to go back and read Cross’s earlier mysteries which, I believe, focus more on this cold case aspect.

Overall Dark Truths is a solidly constructed and skilfully written police procedural with an interesting focus on the forensic aspect of police work. It introduces a largely likeable team of investigators who, by the end of the novel, have begun to work together in a way that bodes well for future instalments in the series – and with one of two mysteries within the character’s personal backstories remaining tantalisingly unsolved. Fans of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, Ellie Griffith’s Ruth Galloway books – and of TV shows such as Criminal Minds – will find much to enjoy in Dark Truth‘s intelligent blend of forensic mystery, psychology, and police procedural, and I for one am looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Will Traynor, DI Watts, and their colleagues.

Dark Truths by A. J. Cross is published by Blackthorn Books 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 for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Emma Welton from Damppebbles Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 27 February 2021 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Deity (Six Stories #5) by Matt Wesolowski

Online investigative journalist Scott King investigates the death of a pop megastar, the subject of multiple accusations of sexual abuse and murder before his untimely demise in a fire … another episode of the startlingly original, award-winning Six Stories series.

When pop megastar Zach Crystal dies in a fire at his remote mansion, his mysterious demise rips open the bitter divide between those who adored his music and his endless charity work, and those who viewed him as a despicable predator, who manipulated and abused young and vulnerable girls.

Online journalist Scott King, whose ‘Six Stories’ podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the accusations of sexual abuse and murder that were levelled at Crystal before he died.

But as Scott begins to ask questions and rakes over old graves, some startling inconsistencies emerge: Was the fire at Crystal’s remote home really an accident? Whose remains – still unidentified – were found in the ashes? Why was he never officially charged?

Anyone who has followed The Shelf for a while will know that I am a HUGE fan of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series. The previous novels – Six Stories, Hydra, Changeling and Beast – have all been five-star reads for me and have consistently appeared on my Best Books of the Year lists. I love the podcast format in which the books are written as well as Matt’s subtle inclusion of supernatural and horror elements into the central mystery – so of course I jumped at the opportunity to be part of the tour for Matt’s latest in the series, Deity.

As with previous titles in the series, Deity sees online journalist Scott King investigating a specific case over the course of six episodes, speaking with six different people to gain six alternative perspectives on a series of events. In this instance, Scott is looking into the life of recently deceased pop megastar Zach Crystal. Wildly popular and with a devoted, almost cult-like fandom around him, Zach Crystal seemed untouchable. But dark rumours about Zach’s private life – and about the visits he hosted for teenage fans at his remote mansion in the Cairngorms – have begun to swirl around his legacy. As Scott delves into Zach Crystal’s life – and his death – questions arise about the nature of fame, the cult of celebrity, and the dark blurring between fantasy and reality.

Like all of Matt’s previous Six Stories novels, Deity combines the page-turning pace of a thriller with though-provoking and topical content. The series has never shied away from covering controversial or topical subjects but Deity is probably the darkest yet. Even a passing knowledge of recent pop culture will suffice to see that there are some chilling similarities between the behaviour of the fictional Zach Crystal and some of the events that have been bought to life in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as well as following the deaths of some of pop and rock’s biggest stars. As such, the novel provides thought provoking content on the nature of hero worship and celebrity culture, examining the extent to which the pedestals we place people on protect their behaviour from prying eyes.

Each ‘episode’ of Deity provides another perspective on the life of Zach Crystal, slowly peeling back the layers to reveal the truth of the man that lies behind the manufactured pop star myth. Complicating this are rumours of a supernatural entity that lurks in the forest surrounding Zach’s Scottish mansion. Could it be that this dark creature is responsible for the tragic deaths of two young fans? Or even for the death of Zach Crystal himself, killed at his home in a devastating fire? And what exactly has happened to Zach’s sister and niece, fellow residents of Crystal Forest and apparently his closest allies? Finding the truth will take Scott King on one of his darkest journeys yet.

Matt Wesolowski has done another fantastic job of really ramping up the atmosphere in this novel. There’s some fantastically oppressive and brooding passages and you get a real sense of the fear and uncertainty that some of the characters face, as well as the resignation, anger and frustration felt by others. The use of multiple perspectives means that long shadows – some supernatural and some all too real – are cast over other narratives and there are several moments when you think you might have arrived at the truth before being whisked down an alternative path or made to see testimony in a new light. It makes for a spectacularly wild ride and a page turning read – I devoured the book in the course of a weekend before turning right back to the start for a more measured re-read to take it all in.

Another fantastic addition to the Six Stories series, Deity is a fantastically dark and atmospheric novel that will chill and delight in equal measure. For those new to the series, it makes a brilliant jumping off point (although I’d urge you to go back and start from the beginning – all the books are fantastic) whilst fans will be delighted to have another story from this master storyteller.

Deity by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books and is available now in ebook and will be published in paperback on 18 February 2021 with pre-orders available 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 for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 28 February 2021 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Keeper by Jessica Moor

He’s been looking in the windows again. Messing with cameras. Leaving notes.
Supposed to be a refuge. But death got inside.

When Katie Straw’s body is pulled from the waters of the local suicide spot, the police decide it’s an open-and-shut case. A standard-issue female suicide.

But the residents of Widringham women’s refuge where Katie worked don’t agree. They say it’s murder.

Will you listen to them?

There were so many moments reading Jessica Moor’s Keeper when I had to remind myself that this is a debut novel. Compelling and powerful, this is a novel that reads like the work of an assured novelist, effortlessly combining the page-turning quality of a thriller with stylistic literary touches and a spare yet layered tone.

Before I go any further with my review of Keeper, a word on trigger warnings. The novel does not shy away from the grim realities of domestic abuse and systematic misogyny. Whilst never voyeuristic or unnecessary, the novel contains scenes that recount incidents of domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, gas-lighting, and coercive control. There are also mentions of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, drug addiction, prostitution, internet abuse/trolling, and systematic misogyny. In telling its powerful and sadly all too relevant story, Keeper puts on the page what many novels only imply. This makes for an intensely vivid and compelling story but also a disturbing and deeply chilling one.

Alternating between two timelines, the novel opens with the body of Katie Straw being pulled from a known suicide spot. Katie worked at the local women’s refuge, a controversial space within the small town of Widringham. According to Katie’s boss Val, the refuge has been receiving abuse on Twitter. The women who reside there speak of a man hanging around, a car idling nearby, and a locked gate left open. Coincidence? The police would like to think so. DS Daniel Whitworth is on the cusp of retirement. Whilst he knows he has a job to do, Katie’s history of depression and the manner of her death point to suicide. But the more he digs into Katie Straw’s life, the more there seems to be that would suggest her death is anything but straightforward.

Intervening into the details of the investigation into Katie’s death are sections entitled ‘Then’. Told from Katie’s perspective, these look back on her relationship with Jamie who effortlessly inserts himself into her life before slowly isolating her from her friends and family and even from her own self. These chapters were, for me, the most unsettling within the novel as they show how easy it is for an accomplished manipulator such as Jamie to take control of Katie’s thought patterns and for their relationship to shift into firstly emotional and then, later, physical and sexual, abuse.

Other chapters are told from the perspective of the women within the refuge where Katie worked, as well as from the point of view of DS Whitworth. Whitworth is an interesting character because, although he is old-fashioned and jaded in his attitudes, he does seem to be in some way aware of his own failings. On some level, he knows that he doesn’t really understand Katie or the women in the refuge who knew her and so he’s content to leave much of the talking to his trainee, DS Brookes, whose easy charm and placating manner eases nerves and opens doors. This makes for an interesting dynamic that plays with the reader’s perceptions, expectations and sympathies – and makes for a truly fantastic twist in the tale!

The voices of the women within the refuge, as well as that of Katie herself, are really well captured and their respective circumstances show that, despite what the media might have us believe, there is no such thing as an ‘average’ domestic violence victim. From the motherly Angie, who has spent over 40 years married to her abusive husband, to formerly well-off housewife Lynne, struggling to adjust to the life she has apparently chosen for her and her daughter, each of the women has a distinct yet realistic story – and each is wrestling with the reality of what has happened to them, and what they are going to do next. The sheer complexity and variety of their stories – and the way in which their narratives are interwoven with wider issues of societal and systematic misogynies – is heartbreakingly realistic and made me both extremely sad and extremely angry.

Keeper is not for the faint-hearted then. Brutally immersive and unflinching in its depictions of the issues it touches upon, it is a hard-hitting and insightful debut that offers pace and page-turning compulsion with some clever and stylistic literary twists. Emotionally devastating and viscerally told, this incisive debut is not exactly a pleasant read but it is a deeply important one and I look forward to seeing what Jessica Moor writes next.

Keeper by Jessica Moor is published by Penguin Viking and is available now in ebook and paperback from all good bookshops 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 for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Georgia Taylor from Penguin for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 01 February 2020 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

REVIEW!! The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

An imposing, isolated hotel, high up in the Swiss Alps, is the last place Elin Warner wants to be. But she’s taken time off from her job as a detective, so when she receives an invitation out of the blue to celebrate her estranged brother’s recent engagement, she has no choice but to accept.

Arriving in the midst of a threatening storm, Elin immediately feels on edge. Though it’s beautiful, something about the hotel, recently converted from an abandoned sanatorium, makes her nervous – as does her brother, Isaac.

And when they wake the following morning to discover his fiancée Laure has vanished without a trace, Elin’s unease grows. With the storm cutting off access to and from the hotel, the longer Laure stays missing, the more the remaining guests start to panic.

But no-one has realized yet that another woman has gone missing. And she’s the only one who could have warned them just how much danger they’re all in . . .

Having heard so much buzz about The Sanatorium on Book Twitter, I was absolutely thrilled to be approved to read this debut by Netgalley UK – with it’s isolated setting, cold winter vibes, and chilling location, it sounded right up my street!

As the novel opens, police detective Elin Warner is reluctantly making her way to Le Sommet, a recently opened and exclusive luxury hotel high in the Swiss Alps that has been controversially converted from an abandoned sanatorium. With her architect boyfriend Will in tow, Elin is hoping to reconnect with her estranged brother Issac and his fiancée, her childhood friend Laure.

Suffering from PTSD as a result of her last case, Elin is hoping that meeting Issac again will allow her to put the ghosts of the past – and of some long-held childhood trauma – to rest. Will, meanwhile, is hoping the break will allow Elin to focus on her future, rather than being stuck in her past. But when the hotel is cut off by a snowstorm and Laure goes missing, it isn’t long before Elin and Will find themselves embroiled in the many mysteries that surround Le Sommet‘s past. And then the first body is found…

Intriguing isn’t it? As you can probably tell, there’s quite a bit going on in The Sanatorium, with the novel mixing together elements of the traditional ‘country house’ mystery – isolated location, limited number of suspects, EVERYONE has something to hide – with those of a psychological thriller.

Elin makes for a fantastic narrator in this respect as, owing to her PTSD and the emotional toll that repressing her childhood trauma is taking on her, she makes for an unreliable and deeply fallible main character. Admittedly there were times when I did get somewhat frustrated by Elin – she has a tendency to switch from coolly efficient to emotionally incapable rather rapidly at times – but, for the most part, I found her to be a sympathetic character with understandable motivations and fears.

The Sanitorium also drips atmosphere. There are some fantastic descriptions that really allowed me to imagine the cold minimalism of Le Sommet‘s interiors and the glacial isolation of the snowy surroundings. Sarah Pearse is also excellent at building dramatic tension and, whilst the book doesn’t quite manage to avoid some of the clichés of the thriller genre, all of the set pieces are pulled off with great aplomb and the novel definitely has that page-turning, can’t-stop-reading quality!

Whilst Elin makes for an excellent narrator, I did have issues with the way some of the other characters and relationships are portrayed in The Sanatorium. Will in particular is clearly meant to be the ‘nice guy’ but I found his behaviour – and his lack of patience and respect for Elin’s trauma – to be really problematic. He has his redeeming moments but, on the whole, I didn’t feel that the subplot involving the state of Elin and Will’s relationship worked alongside the rest of the novel and I was disappointed that one of the key events later in the story seemed designed to guilt Elin into appreciating Will’s role in her life.

I also found the character of Issac – Elin’s estranged brother – to be very difficult. Aggressive, demanding and manipulative, Issac spends much of the novel high on the suspect list and I found it difficult to believe in the redemption he is given at the novel’s conclusions. Whilst the subplot involving Elin, Issac and their shared childhood trauma was interesting, the conclusion to it felt somewhat tacked on and, again, like an excuse for Elin to revaluate Issac and excuse his poor behaviour.

Given that Elin is such an interesting character, I would have liked to have seen her work through her PTSD and trauma on her own – and for her own reasons – rather than doing so through these relationships with the male figures in her life. This was particularly disappointing to me because the main mystery of the novel centres around male degradation and abuse of women, with an interesting (and sadly all too believable) examination of the way in which ‘troublesome’ women were confined to sanatoria for often made-up reasons. Given this element of the novel, there are trigger warnings for some graphic depictions of violence/bodily mutilation, mentions of sexual violence/rape, and discussions of psychosis/delusional psychosis, as well as significant representation of PTSD.

This maybe makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy The Sanatorium but that’s definitely not the case. I enjoyed it for what it was – a pacy, atmospheric thriller that I raced through in a couple of evenings and had a good time with. But as with many thrillers, you do have to suspend your disbelief a little to really immerse yourself in the story. There’s definitely the occasional ‘that wouldn’t really happen’ moment, plus some slightly dodgy light-touch characterisation in places but if you just go along with the ride then this is an enjoyably atmospheric debut that takes place in a fantastic setting, poses an interesting mystery, and has that all important page-turning quality.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse is published by Transworld and is available to pre-order now (pub date 18 February 2020) from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

Edinburgh, 1849.

Hordes of patients are dying all across the city, with doctors finding their remedies powerless. And a whispering campaign seeks to paint Dr James Simpson, pioneer of medical chloroform, as a murderer.

Determined to clear Simpson’s name, his protégé Will Raven and former housemaid Sarah Fisher must plunge into Edinburgh’s deadliest streets and find out who or what is behind the deaths. Soon they discover that the cause of the deaths has evaded detection purely because it is so unthinkable.

Having thoroughly enjoyed The Way of All Flesh, the first of Ambrose Parry’s historical mysteries to feature Will Raven and Sarah Fisher, I jumped at the chance to be part of the blog tour for the paperback release of the follow-up, intriguingly entitled The Art of Dying.

Set two years after the conclusion of The Way of all Flesh, The Art of Dying sees Will Raven, now a fully qualified doctor, returning to 52 Queen Street and to the employ of the brilliant yet eccentric Dr James Simpson. He finds a household that is both the same yet different in small but crucial ways. One of Dr Simpson’s previous employees has levelled a dreadful accusation of medical negligence against him. There is a new assistant whose skulking and watchful eyes seem to keep the whole household under surveillance. And former housemaid Sarah Fisher is now not only elevated into the role of doctor’s assistant but, more importantly for Raven, now Mrs Sarah Banks.

As new relationships are forged and old acquaintances – both welcome and unwelcome – are renewed, Raven and Sarah once again join forces in an effort to clear the name of their friend and mentor. But in doing so, they inadvertently stumble upon a dangerous murderer. One who may have hidden undetected for years. And who, upon discovery, is more than prepared to kill again.

As with The Way of All Flesh, The Art of Dying does a fantastic job of conjuring the world of nineteenth-century Edinburgh in all it’s messy glory. From the refined elegance of the New Town townhouses to the darkened alleyways of the historic Old Town closes, the city and its people leap off the page.

For newcomers to the series, The Art of Dying does an excellent job of reintroducing the characters and their relative situations without spoiling the conclusion of the first novel. Whilst I would certainly recommend starting with The Way of all Flesh (a cracking mystery in its own right), there is certainly nothing to stop readers diving in to Will and Sarah’s world with The Art of Dying.

Indeed, the two years between the two novels have given time for the characters to grow and develop. The subtle but noticeable changes in the characters of Sarah and Will are fascinating to see and I really enjoyed the way in which their relationship changes and develops over the course of the novel. There are also some pleasing reintroductions to some familiar characters, including the eccentric yet brilliant James Simpson (a real life Professor of Midwifery, and a pioneer of the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic) and Raven’s wonderfully menacing ‘friends in low places’.

As with the previous book in the series, I really enjoyed the ways in which the plot is used to examine wider societal issues, such as female education. Intelligent and open-minded, Sarah is desperate to use her newly gained medical knowledge to qualify as a doctor but – in Edinburgh at least – her gender precludes her from ever realising her dreams. Raven, meanwhile, is struggling to come to terms with the psychology of his own inner nature, as well as with decisions made two years previously on the basis of class and societal pressures.

The series also gives a fascinating insight into the early days of obstetric medicine, including arguments for and against the use of anaesthetic and the difficulties in performing caesarean sections. This does, of course, mean that the book reflects the medical practices and attitudes of the time – trigger warnings for some slightly gruesome depictions of early medical procedures, as well as for mentions of drug-taking, cancer, miscarriage and stillbirth.

Despite the occasionally grim atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Art of Dying. The central mystery is brilliantly woven into the historical reality that grounds the novel. The various plot strands, at first seemingly disparate, are masterfully woven together and, whilst it wears its learning lightly, it is clear that the novel is a well-researched and immersive examination of the attitudes and realities of the era.

I also really enjoyed re-acquainting myself with Raven and Sarah. For all his faults (and he has quite a few), Raven is an endearing young man and it is easy to empathise with his quest to better himself both educationally and psychologically. Sarah, meanwhile, has lost none of the spark, vivacity, or compassion that made her such an engaging character in The Way of All Flesh, and it was wonderful – if occasionally heart-breaking – to see the developments in her character and confidence over the course of the novel.

The Art of Dying is both a worthy successor to The Way of All Flesh and, for those new to the series, a brilliant jumping off point for entry into the murky, complicated world of nineteenth-century Edinburgh that Ambrose Parry has conjured with their pen. I’m already awaiting Raven and Sarah’s next outing with great anticipation.

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry is published by Blackthorn and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, 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 Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 19 January 2021 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

REVIEW!! The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam, where he is facing trial and execution for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent, while also on board are Sara Wessel, a noble woman with a secret, and her husband, the governor general of Batavia.

But no sooner is their ship out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A strange symbol appears on the sail. A dead leper stalks the decks. Livestock are slaughtered in the night. And then the passengers hear a terrible voice whispering to them in the darkness, promising them three unholy miracles. First: an impossible pursuit. Second: an impossible theft. Third: an impossible murder. Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?

With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent and Sara can solve a mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board…

Having read and ADORED Stuart Turton’s debut novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I added The Devil and the Dark Water to my Most Anticipated Reads list as soon as it was announced. Owing to the joys of Pandemic PhD life, it has taken me a few more months than I expected to set aside the time to really sink in and devour this one (Seven Deaths was definitely a book you just wanted to sit and gobble up over the course of a long weekend) but, thanks again to the lovely book club crew at The Write Reads, I was finally got chance to cosy with this 548 page chunkster and can confirm that it did not disappoint!

As with Seven Deaths, The Devil and the Dark Water is a novel that defies genre expectations. It’s set in 1634 so technically it’s a historical novel. As Stuart Turton points out in his afterward though, the history cedes to the story so those coming to the novel expecting a wholly accurate depiction of historical life a la Hilary Mantel or Patrick O’Brien will be disappointed.

There is more than one murder (plus at least one theft) and there’s a detective so is it a crime novel then?

Again…sort of? But the detective is locked up on charges unknown for most of the book, and the murders might be the work of a demonic supernatural entity.

So…horror novel?

Not quite. Whilst there are horrific acts a plenty, this isn’t simply a tale of things that go bump in the night . The devil might be on board the Saardam but it takes human agency to commit the acts of violence being inflicted upon the increasingly terrified passengers and crew.

The best I can come up with is that The Devil and the Dark Water is a cross between Assassins Creed: Black Flag (age of sail shipboard shenanigans), Murder on the Orient Express (enclosed murder mystery with limited suspects and a brilliant, eccentric detective) and Jaws (terrifying horror stalks everyone on board and you are DEFINITELY going to need a bigger boat). See what I mean about genre-defying?

The end result is, however, utterly brilliant. Turton once again weaves seemingly disparate plot strands and characters into an intricate and tightly bound web to create an elaborate and mind-bending puzzle that kept me guessing right up until the final pages.

In the characters of Arent Hayes and Sara Wessel, Turton has created two fantastic and likeable protagonists who, by the time the novel was over, felt like old friends and comrades. Sara is strong, compassionate, determined, inquisitive, and intelligent – everything a nobleman’s wife shouldn’t be. She quickly became one of my favourite characters – as did Arent, whose imposing frame and bloody history belies a fiercely loyal and gentle heart. The supporting cast are equally well-realised – from the cocksure genius Samuel Pipps to lively, flirtatious Creesjie Jens and silent, watchful Cornelius Vos, I could envisage them all in my head and frequently felt as if I had been picked up and placed next to them when reading.

The vivid characterisation really helps during the (infrequent) moments when the plot starts to lag a little, and also allowed me to forgive the (in my opinion) slightly rushed ending. Saying to much about either of those points would be to spoil the novel but, for me, the chapters following a major late-book dramatic incident aboard the Saardam felt didn’t have quite the same energy, and I felt as if some of the decisions taken at the end of the novel didn’t fit with the established morality of the characters involved. This certainly didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the book however and many other readers may feel very differently about the ending!

Although there were the occasional moments where the pace dropped, The Devil and the Dark Water was – for me at least – a page-turning read. There were definitely times when I had to use all my willpower to stay in-line with our Write Reads book club schedule – it was so tempting to read ahead! Because of the contained setting and the number of characters, this is a novel that you have to settle in to a bit – I’d definitely urge anyone struggling with the pace at the beginning to stick with the book for about 70-100 pages, when the action really begins to surge ahead at speed!

I also really loved the way that the supernatural was used in this novel. Again, I don’t want to say too much because of the risk of spoilers but the novel does a great job at examining the way in which fear and superstition can be utilised to justify prejudice, greed and other uniquely human follies. The Saardam is a ship full of sinners – everyone has a secret, everyone is out to get something, and nearly everyone will betray the man, woman, or child next to them to do it – and Turton has done a fabulous job of making this largely dishonest, cutthroat, and untrustworthy collection of characters both intriguing and, in many cases, relatable. As such, The Devil and the Dark Water works well as both a damning morality tale and an observant commentary on societal hierarchies – in addition to being a highly entertaining novel, of course!

Superbly written and with an intricate yet tightly controlled plot, The Devil and the Dark Water is a worthy successor to Seven Deaths and marks Stuart Turton out as a writer unafraid to blur the lines between genres and defy the expectations of what a particular type of novel should be. Packed full of relatable and vivid characters – in all their messy and selfish glory – and with a richly imagined setting, this is sure to delight fans of Turton’s previous novel – and will hopefully entice many new readers to discover his work.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton is published by Bloomsbury Raven and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. 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.

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

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