Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings by Dan Jones is published by Head of Zeus and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

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

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! The Whistling by Rebecca Netley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whistling by Rebecca Netley is published by Penguin Michael Joseph on 14 October 2021 and is available to pre-order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

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

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward is published by Trapeze (Orion) and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

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

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

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

Some houses are never at peace.

England, 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Wicked Little Deeds by Kat Ellis

Image Description: The cover for Wicked Little Deeds shows a young woman in silhouette running away from the camera down a corridor.

The rumours don’t add up, but the bodies are starting to…

From its creepy town mascot to the story of its cursed waterfall, Burden Falls is a small town dripping with superstition. Ava Thorn knows this well – since the horrific accident she witnessed a year ago, she’s been plagued by nightmares.

But when her school nemesis is brutally murdered and Ava is the primary suspect, she starts to wonder if the legends surrounding the town are more fact than fiction.

Whatever secrets Burden Falls is hiding, there’s a killer on the loose, and they have a vendetta against the Thorns…

Regular readers of The Shelf may know that I’ve been enjoying the occasional YA thriller recently. I read and LOVED both The Cousins and The Inheritance Games last year and, since then, have added considerably to my TBR by seeking our more writers in the YA mystery/thriller genre.

What I hadn’t considered was that I could also add another of my favourite genres into that already delightful mix – the ghost story. So imagine my delight when Kat Ellis’s Wicked Little Deeds landed on my doormat described as (to quote Mina and the Undead author Amy McCaw) “Riverdale meets The Haunting of Hill House“. Sold already? Because I certainly was! But before you race off to the nearest book shop or your favoured web retailer of choice, let me tell you a little more about Wicked Little Deeds and why it’s so good (because yes, I loved it – it contains all the ingredients that make for Shelf of Unread catnip so what did you expect?!).

Ava Thorn’s family have lived in the small town of Burden Falls for generations. The Bloody Thorns of Thorn Manor are as well known as the legend of Dead-Eyed Sadie, the town’s most famous ghostly legend – as is the fact that a sighting of Sadie is supposed to portend tragedy for any Thorn unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of her. Following a horrific accident that killed her parents, Ava is reluctantly leaving Thorn Manor – and its ghosts – behind her.

But when pretty and popular Freya Miller – Ava’s school nemesis and the daughter of the man who ruined her life – is found brutally murdered, Ava begins to wonder if the creepy stories that surround her family might be true after all. Reluctantly teaming up with Freya’s brother Dominic, Ava begins investigating the truth behind Dead-Eyed Sadie. Who was she – and why does every tragedy in town seem to lead back to a Thorn? As secrets are uncovered and old truths are laid bare, Ava and Dominic must confront both the past, and the killer who is waiting for them in the present.

Combining the compulsive suspense of a thriller with the sinister chills of a ghost story, Wicked Little Deeds (published as Burden Falls in the US) is the perfect page-turner to pick up as the nights begin to draw in! I was rapidly drawn into the story and, with the cliff-hanger chapter endings and constant stream of mysteries and revelations, I read the book in just a couple of sittings.

Ava is, if not always a likeable character, a very sympathetic one. Grieving for her parents and the loss of her family home, she’s angry and resentful but also determined, driven, and brave. I liked her very much – even when she was being horrid to her friends or lashing out at easy targets like the Miller family – and I really liked how resilient and resourceful she was. Kat Ellis has done a fantastic job of capturing what its like to be a teenager – all high drama and shifting emotions that, sometimes, you barely understand yourself. And that applies equally well to the other characters too – from queen bee Freya and Ava’s preppy best friend Ford to Freya’s quieter, more reflective (and unbearably handsome) brother Dominic, all of the characters came across as real people with real, messed-up emotions and shifting, complex motivations.

The novel blends the mystery/thriller and horror/supernatural elements of the story together really well, although I’d say the focus does stay on the mystery throughout as Ava and Dominic work to stop the spate of murders and uncover the truth behind the old Thorn family legends. That said, things do go towards the horrific in places – there are some fairly gory moments when the bodies are discovered, and some of the descriptions tend towards the gruesome so readers of a sensitive disposition should be forewarned. Trigger warnings also for bereavement, a road traffic collision, mentions of alcohol abuse/alcoholism, mentions of depression, psychological abuse, and drug abuse. Taking the edge off all those dark themes, there are also some fantastic friendships, cutting humour, and a gentle, nicely interwoven romance.

Saying any more about the plot would be to risk spoilers but I will say that this was definitely an edge-of-your-seat, can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough read for me! Once the story got going, I was so eager to get back to my book and get to the next chapter – definitely one of those reads where I wanted to put life on hold for a bit! Perfect for anyone looking who loves dark and creepy mysteries or YA thrillers with a horror twist, Wicked Little Deeds might have been my first novel by Kat Ellis, but it certainly won’t be my last!

Wicked Little Deeds by Kat Ellis (published as Burden Falls in the US) is published by Penguin 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 The Write Reads for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 20 August 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content by following #UltimateBlogTour and #TheWriteReads on Twitter and Instagram.

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 Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

Wicked deeds require the cover of darkness…

A struggling silhouette artist in Victorian Bath seeks out a renowned child spirit medium in order to speak to the dead – and to try and identify their killers – in this beguiling new tale from Laura Purcell.

Silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another…

Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them. But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back…

What secrets lie hidden in the darkness?

Having read and very much enjoyed both The Silent Companions and Bone China, I was absolutely thrilled to be part of the blog tour for Laura Purcell’s latest gothic delight, The Shape of Darkness.

Set in Victorian Bath, the novel alternates between the perspectives of struggling silhouette artist Agnes and child spirit medium Pearl as they unite to try and discover the identity of a sinister killer who appears to be targeting Agnes’ clients. But as they use Pearl’s powers to connect with the spirits of the victims, dark secrets from both of their pasts begin to emerge – and forces that they may not be able to control seek to take control.

Laura Purcell has brilliantly evoked the gloomy atmosphere of Victorian Bath, effortlessly transporting the reader to the dark streets that lie behind the elegant facades of the famous Crescent. From the very first page, she succeeds in creating a dark and oppressive atmosphere, taking the reader from the shabby gentility of Agnes’s house to the dank and gloomy interior of Pearl’s makeshift parlour. This oppressiveness only grows over the course of the book, as the sinister forces that Agnes and Pearl seem to have evoked loom large across the page.

As in her previous novels, Purcell has also created some complicated and captivating characters in Agnes and Pearl. Both had distinct voices and, because of their circumstances, provide a unique perspective on the world.

I really liked how Agnes provided the perspective of an older woman – a character often overlooked in Gothic fiction. Living with her elderly mother and her beloved nephew Cedric, Agnes’s life has been beset by hardships including the loss of her beloved Montague, a tragic accident, and a recent bout of pneumonia that has left her physically weak and struggling to work. She is also a woman out of time. As photography becomes the popular medium of choice, Agnes’s profession as a silhouette artist is becoming increasingly irrelevant – leaving Agnes feeling almost like a ghost from a by-gone era herself. This sense of Agnes as a woman haunted by her mysterious past is effectively combined with the atmosphere to really ratchet up the tension – and helps to create some explosive and completely unexpected twists towards the novel’s close!

Pearl is another fascinating character. Aged only 11, her narrative combines a childlike innocence with the knowledge gained from her ability to communicate with a world beyond our own. Struggling with both her own new-found abilities and with the expectations placed upon her by her mesmerist sister Myrtle and her sick father, Pearl is a deeply sympathetic character whose tragic life only gets more complicated with the arrival of Agnes.

Purcell is a master of evoking gothic tropes to craft sinister and richly described mysteries and The Shape of Darkness is no exception to this – for me, it’s probably her darkest book yet, with the story going to some disturbing places that leave the reader questioning what is real and what is imagined. This does mean that the novel is not the fastest of reads – the slow build up of atmosphere is designed to be savoured not devoured – but, if you stick with the sedate pacing, you’ll be rewarded with some fantastic twists and a truly shocking, edge-of-your-seat ending.

Fans of Purcell’s work are sure to be delighted by The Shape of Darkness, which offers the perfect combination of chilling gothic vibes and evocative historical setting that made her previous novels such an enjoyable read. Whilst detractors are unlikely to be converted, for those new to Purcell’s writing, The Shape of Darkness makes the perfect jumping off point for her work with its combination of a chilling murder mystery and a haunting ghost story.

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell is published by Bloomsbury Raven 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 Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour.

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

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

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

London, 1938.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale is published by Bloomsbury and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for allowing me to read an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! I Am Dust by Louise Beech

I Am Dust JacketThe Dean Wilson Theatre is believed to be haunted by a long-dead actress, singing her last song, waiting for her final cue, looking for her killer…

Now Dust, the iconic musical, is returning after twenty years. But who will be brave enough to take on the role of ghostly goddess Esme Black, last played by Morgan Miller, who was murdered in her dressing room?

Theatre usher Chloe Dee is caught up in the spectacle. As the new actors arrive, including an unexpected face from her past, everything changes. Are the eerie sounds and sightings backstage real or just her imagination? Is someone playing games?

Is the role of Esme Black cursed? Could witchcraft be at the heart of the tragedy? And are dark deeds from Chloe’s past about to catch up with her?

Not all the drama takes place onstage. Sometimes murder, magic, obsession and the biggest of betrayals are real life. When you’re in the theatre shadows, you see everything.

And Chloe has been watching… 

Louise Beech is fast developing a reputation as a purveyor of finely crafted and emotionally taut psychological thrillers. Her last novel, Call Me Star Girl, was acclaimed by readers for its dark atmosphere and her latest, I Am Dust, is a more than worthy follow up.

Part mystery, part psychological thriller, and part ghost story, I Am Dust follows theatre usher Chloe as she gets caught up in the return of the infamous musical Dust. Famed, or maybe cursed, following to the murder of its lead actress Morgan Miller during its original run, the revival of Dust brings ghosts of a different kind back to the Dean Wilson Theatre. The new lead is Ginger Swanson, an old friend of Chloe’s, and her return brings with it old memories of teenage misadventures, lost love, and a deadly curse. As preparations for the show begin, Chloe is caught between the past and the present, and the worlds of the living and the dead.

I Am Dust is absolutely dripping with atmosphere. From the eerie emptiness of a nighttime theatre to the glitz and glamour of curtain up, I was utterly absorbed into Chloe’s hauntingly evocative world.

Chloe herself is a complicated character. Emotionally scarred, she’s an unreliable narrator by circumstance rather than by choice. Teenage trauma has shuttered off her memories, which are gradually drip-fed to the reader in the form of flashback chapters to Chloe’s youth when she, Ginger, and a boy called Ryan played games with the occult that have dangerous consequences for the trio.

I really felt for Chloe as the book progressed. Traumatised and uncertain, her chronic lack of self-belief prevents her from seeing her own talent and charm. The supporting cast are also well-defined and believable. From the enigmatic Ginger, on the verge of stardom and with her own haunted past, to cheeky co-worker Chester, desperate to avail himself into the latest Dust gossip no matter the consequences, each of them like rounded human beings, each with their own foibles.

Without giving away any of the plot, I will say that readers are in for an atmospheric and haunting experience filled with twists, turns and unexpected reveals. I was absolutely hooked from page one and raced through the book over the course of a couple of days. Beech really knows how to keep the pace up, alternating deftly between the past and the present and weaving the tragic tale of Morgan Miller and Chloe’s tattered memories into the present-day story of Dust’s revival.

I Am Dust is a brilliantly executed tale of love, jealousy, and self-belief wrapped up in a satisfying mystery. Add in a dash of the supernatural and you’ve got yourself a precisely crafted, poignant, and emotionally layered tale that is sure to leave you with shivers up the spine.

I Am Dust by Louise Beech is published by Orenda Books and is available now from all good booksellers (while physical bookshops may be closed, don’t forget that many indies are still selling online and via phone/email!) and online retailers including the Orenda store, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

My thanks go to the publisher 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 inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The tour continues until 30 April so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content! 

I Am Dust BT Poster

Reviews

REVIEW!! Bone China by Laura Purcell

Bone ChinaConsumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family, leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken.

But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed, he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the same disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home.

While he devotes himself to his controversial medical trials, Louise finds herself increasingly discomfited by the strange tales her new maid tells of the fairies that hunt the land, searching for those they can steal away to their realm.

Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last.

I deliberately waited until the nights started to draw in before picking up Laura Purcell’s latest novel Bone China. Having read and loved her brilliantly spooky debut The Silent Companions, I knew Purcell excels at providing her readers with a healthy slice of the Gothic, some sinister happenings, and atmosphere that you can cut through with a knife. And in this respect, Bone China absolutely did not disappoint.

Offering shades of Daphne Du Maurier, Bone China centres on the occupants of the forlorn Morvoren House. Isolated and gloomy, Morvoren sits high on the Cornish cliffs, watching over the caves that lie beneath it. When Hester Why arrives at Morvoren to nurse the elderly Louise Pinecroft, she is taken aback by her new mistress’s isolation – and by the superstitious household staff with their tales of fairies and their numerous rituals. Morvoren House is, it seems, a house of secrets. And Hester herself if not everything she appears to be…

From the dark and oppressive shadows of Morvoren House, with its dank caves and chill winds, to the refined confines of an elegant London townhouse, every one of Purcell’s settings drips atmosphere. I was fascinated by the world that these characters inhabited, filled with hidden codes of conduct and constantly treading a balance between science and superstitions.

Sadly I was less captivated with the lives of the characters themselves. I raced through the first portion of the book, which sees the enigmatic Hester arrive at Morvoren House. From the off, it is clear that Hester has suffered a fall from grace. Increasingly reliant on the contents of her hip-flask just to make it through the day, she is a far cry from the competent and reliant ladies maid she was in London.

Yet just as I was drawn into Hester’s story – and the tragic reasons behind her sudden alteration in character and circumstances – the narrative moves back forty years and switches to the viewpoint of Louise Pinecroft, Hester’s new mistress. Whilst Louise’s story is a tragic and compelling one in and of itself, the sudden shift left me feeling disconnected from Hester.

And, whilst the strands of the two narratives do come together as the novel progresses, I never felt like I quite got the grasp of either of them. There was, if I’m honest, a little too much going on: Hester’s terrible secret, Louise’s haunted past, the sinister nursemaid Creeda with her spells and rituals, and the mysterious Rosewyn who seems to be being kept at Morvoren against her will. Add in a secondary plot involving a theoretical treatment for consumption (now better known as TB), and the third strand about fairy superstitions, and it was sometimes hard to keep all the dots joined together in my head.

Which is such a shame because, when Bone China works, it really works. I was genuinely fascinated by Hester’s story and backstory. And Louise’s tale, especially all the information about TB and the early attempts at finding a cure, was clearly very well researched and made for a compelling read. Either of these would have made, I felt, a brilliant novel in their own right. But I wasn’t sure that the two stories fit together particularly well, or that the third strand about fairies added anything to either of them.

All of this makes it sound like I really didn’t enjoy Bone China, which certainly isn’t the case. I don’t review books I don’t finish and I don’t finish books that I don’t enjoy – so Bone China did compel me enough to finish it. It’s a solidly good book. Good but, for me, not brilliant.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the atmosphere is spot on and the story has a compulsion that did leave me wanting to know how everything fitted together. I suppose I just felt that, ultimately, the novel was a little disjointed and that the ending, when it came, raised more questions than I felt it answered.

Bone China by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books and is available now from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing me with an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.