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

REVIEW!! Mrs England by Stacey Halls

West Yorkshire, 1904.

When newly graduated nurse Ruby May takes a position looking after the children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners, she hopes it will be the fresh start she needs.

But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, it becomes clear there’s something not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious Mrs England.

Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby is forced to confront her own demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there’s no such thing as the perfect family – and she should know.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Stacey Hall’s debut, The Familiars, I was thrilled to win a proof copy of her third novel, Mrs England, which offers a portrait of an Edwardian marriage from the unusual perspective of the family nursemaid.

Ruby May is a newly qualified Norland nursemaid and, as the book opens, is happily settled in her first placement. When her placement family decide to emigrate to America however, Ruby is forced to return to The Norland Institute to seek another position – she is unable to leave England for personal reasons of her own. Desperate to prove herself, Ruby accepts a position as nursemaid to the four children of Charles and Lillian England, wealthy mill owners.

Transported to the mill towns and moors of rural Yorkshire, and thrown into a busy but neglected nursery, Ruby is soon a world away from her comfort zone. Mrs England seems to take little interest in her children and, ostracised by the other servants in the household, Ruby is soon acting as surrogate mother, teacher, maid, and nurse all rolled into one. Yet beneath the cold exterior of the Mistress, Ruby cannot help but feel that there is something more to Mrs England. And that beneath the charming exterior of the Master and the cheery façade of the England family, there is something terribly wrong.

As with The Familiars, Stacey Hall’s has created a fantastic female protagonist in Ruby May. Smart, caring, practical, and yet with a hint of naivety, Ruby is an immensely likeable and relatable narrator. A scholarship girl at the prestigious Norland Institute, she is determined to prove herself as a capable professional nursemaid – and to escape the dark shadows of her own family’s past.

I really empathised with Ruby’s desire to prove herself professionally, as well as to protect and care for the children in her charge. Although incredibly naïve at times, Ruby’s determination to focus upon her role as nursemaid and to not go prying into Mr & Mrs England’s secrets felt believable given her tentative position within the household and what we come to learn about her own family and background. I also found the contrast between Ruby’s Norland-educated sense of propriety and the more relaxed attitudes of the inhabitants of Yorkshire to be quite amusing at times!

Although a bit of a slow-burn, Mrs England is packed to brimming with an underlying sense of menace. Like Ruby, the reader is aware from the off that something is not quite right at Hardcastle House. But, like Ruby, working out exactly what – and who – is wrong, proves tricky – and there are a good few unexpected turns along the way before the truth is revealed. There were a couple of plot strands that I wish had been developed further – some of the ‘romantic’ elements felt a little forced, and Ruby’s own background and its relationship to the main plot doesn’t really begin to develop until the last third of the novel, but the characters and the atmosphere kept me engaged even at moments where I felt the plot was a little thin.

As a portrait of Edwardian society, Mrs England is wonderfully evocative of the era. You get a real sense of a society in flux – caught between the constraints of the Victorian era and the possibilities of a new century. The novel is also a portrait of an Edwardian marriage – and a fascinating insight into the role of the nursemaid. I found the sections in the book that provided some of the history and rationale of the Norland Institute really compelling, and the novel made me realise just how Norland nursemaids were changing the expectations of what it was to be a ‘nanny’ within upper class Edwardian society.

Told in a lively, engaging style and with a well-realised sense of time and place, Mrs England is sure to delight fans of Stacey Hall’s previous novels – and deserves to bring her in a whole host of new readers! Anyone who loves a good historical novel is sure to find much to enjoy in this pacy, engaging read that has an intriguing marital mystery at its core.

Mrs England by Stacey Halls is published by Manilla Press (Zaffre 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 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!!! The Shadow in the Glass by J J A Harwood

Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.

Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.

One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must to decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay it.

Offering a dark take on Cinderella, J J A Harwood’s debut novel The Shadow in the Glass provides a compulsive and twisted fable that underlines the message ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Seventeen-year-old Ella used to be ‘Miss Eleanor’, adopted daughter of the beloved Mrs Pembroke. With her benefactor’s death however, she is forced below stairs – reduced to being the lowly ‘Ella’ and at risk from both the lecherous attentions of her former stepfather and the cruel bitterness of Head Housemaid Lizzie.

Ella’s escape from her new life of drudgery and servitude is the library. In stolen moments late at night, she locks herself away and disappears into books. But when she picks up The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, a visitor appears. A black-eyed woman who promises that she patch together Ella’ tattered dreams and grant her seven wishes – for a price. Entering into a Faustian pact, Ella soon discovers that the power of the black-eyed woman is all too real – and that there are consequences to making your wishes come true.

Combining elements of Marlowe’s Faustus with the folk tale of Cinderella and then setting them against the backdrop of Victorian London, The Shadow in the Glass is a darkly sinister tale with a complex protagonist. Whilst I sympathised with Ella and her situation, I struggled to warm to her – although I found her story no less compelling because of this. That J J A Harwood has managed to retain this interest in the fate of a character who is, in many ways, unlikeable (and, for me, became more so as the novel progressed) is a testament to the pull of the plot, which sees Ella being increasingly forced to enact her Faustian bargain – and increasingly tormented by the consequences of having made it.

The novel is a little slow to start – Harwood takes time establishing Ella’s situation and introducing the household she is living within, as well as her background and her former life above stairs. But once the pact has been made and the black-eyed woman introduced, the pace picks up rapidly as Ella finds herself making a wish, only to suffer the unintended consequences and be forced into calling on her black-eyed ‘fairy godmother’ to try and overcome these. By the end of the novel, the action is relentless, with Ella increasingly finding the events she has wrought spiralling away from her – and the reader left wondering if she will ever be able to regain control over her own narrative. There’s also a punchy and sinister twist to the tale that reminded me of Laura Purcell’s Bone China, and made me really question the story that had preceded it.

I did find a few elements of The Shadow in the Glass slightly predictable. The romance – and its consequences – were of little surprise, and some of the moments where Ella’s situation goes from bad to worse did feel like they’d come straight out of a Dickens novel. This is, however, unsurprising given the way in which the novel pays homage to so many genres and, to be fair, the twists that Harwood provides give a unique spin to the more cliché elements of Ella’s story. I particularly enjoyed the way in which each incident is used to examine the overarching theme of power – who holds it, what they do with it, and the consequences of using it maliciously or unthinkingly.

The Shadow in the Glass is a compelling take on an old tale and brilliantly combines elements of fairy tale and folk narrative with the atmosphere of the Victorian Gothic to provide a contemporary twist on a classic story. Although I had one or two minor niggles, the ending provided a brilliantly biting sting and the narrative became more compelling as the novel progressed. Fans of Laura Purcell’s modern gothic novels are sure to find much to enjoy and The Shadow in the Glass marks J J A Harwood out as an author to watch for.

The Shadow in the Glass by J J A Harwood is published by Harper Voyager UK and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, and Waterstones.

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 March 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!! 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

REVIEW!! The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

The QuickeningAn infamous seance. A house burdened by grief. A secret that can no longer stay buried.

England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex to photograph the contents of the house for auction. Desperate for money after falling on hard times, she accepts the commission.

On arrival, she learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, the consequences of which still haunt the family thirty years later. Before the Clewer’s leave England for good, the lady of the house has asked those who attended the original to come together to recreate the evening. Louisa soon becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house, unravelling the longheld secrets of what happened the night of the séance… and discovers her own fate is entwined with Clewer Hall’s.

Those who have followed the blog for a while will know that I love a well-turned mystery, have a fondness for historical fiction, and delight in the spine-tinging chill of a gothic ghost story. Combine the three together and add in one of my favourite authors and you’re well on your way to a winner with me!

Rhiannon Ward may be a new name but you’ll probably recognise Sarah Ward. I’ve featured her accomplished police procedural series, set in modern-day Derbyshire, on the blog a few times before and she’s definitely one of my favourite modern crime-fiction authors. Rhiannon Ward is a pseudonym for launching The Quickeningher first foray into historical fiction, although fans of Sarah’s previous novels will be pleased to find another well-turned mystery, albeit one filled with the gothic and supernatural, at the heart of this latest work.

Set in the afternmath of the First World War, The Quickening is a novel suffused with grief and its aftermath. Having lost her husband in the trenches, and her two sons from Spanish Flu soon after, Louisa Drew has resigned herself to be thankful for a life of dutiful wifehood – and a second chance at motherhood – with her staid and emotionally repressed second husband Edwin. But when her former employer offers her a lucrative commission amidst the faded glory of Clewer Hall, Louisa can’t resist one last chance to live the life she thought she’d lost.

Packing her camera equipment, she heads for Clewer Hall, another house in mourning for people and opportunities lost. But are the Clewer family all that they seem? Why does no one talk about the child seen in the garden? Or the piano that Louise can hear playing within long-deserted room? What happened during that infamous seance and why does it haunt the house still? And, most importantly, what does it want with Louisa and her unborn child?

The Quickening is packed to the rafters with so much atmosphere that it lifts off the page, enveloping the reader in it’s grasp. I could immediately envisage the faded glamour of Clewer Hall – from the remnants of the wisteria clinging to crumbling brickwork through to the sadness of a long-unused nursery with its broken chairs and barred windows, reading the book had me walking alongside Louisa as she gradually uncovered more and more of the house’s secrets.

Ward absoutely nails the atmosphere too. Clewer Hall, with its greatly reduced serving staff and impoverished family both still sticking rigourously to pre-War notions of social hierarchy, feels as if it is stuck in a time-warp, forever trapped on the evening of the seance in 1896. It lends a gothic tone to a novel that has a distinctly modern protagonist – Louise is forthright, determined, and has a refreshing lack of propriety that carries through Clewer Hall like a breath of fresh air.

Despite this modernity, Louisa doesn’t feel out of time or place. Having developed a successful career during the war, it makes sense for Louisa to yearn to retain this freedom, whilst also hoping to regain some of the stability she has lost with the death of her husband and sons. I really got a sense of the period as a time of change through Louisa – caught between the possibilities now afforded to her as an educated and capable woman in a world where war has upset traditional hierarchies, and Victorian attitudes that still demand a level of respectability and conformity from her, even at the expense of her own happiness. It’s fair to say that, as the book went on, I definitely became as invested in Louisa’s own personal dilemmas as I was in the resolution of Clewer Hall’s many mysteries, so much did I come to identify and empathise with her!

Without giving away any of the plot, which unravels with the skill and elegance demonstrated so ably in Ward’s previous novels, I will say that The Quickening infuses a very human tale of personal folly and family tragedy with a chilling slice of the supernatural. The spooky elements aren’t overplayed but, in the manner of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions or Sarah Waters The Little Stranger, something haunts the narrative and the characters, causing both them and the reader to question their sanity and actions. It’s brilliantly done and I raced through the book, desperate to know what happened back in 1896, and what would happen to Louisa and the Clewer family as a result.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved The Quickening. Combining a country house mystery with a classic ghost story was always going to be a winner for me, especially when its as well-written and atmospherically evocative as this. Fans of Laura Purcell and Stacey Halls will enjoy the lush atmosphere, supernatural happenings and chilling gothic overtones, whilst fans of Ward’s modern day procedurals will find a novel that retains Ward’s knack for strong characters and precision plotting whist transposing them onto a new era and genre.

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward is published by Trapeze Books on 20 August 2020 and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon.

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

 

 

 

Reviews

REVIEW!! The Binding by Bridget Collins

The BindingEmmett Farmer is a binder’s apprentice.

His job is to hand-craft beautiful books and, within each, to capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory.

If you have something you want to forget, or a secret to hide, he can bind it – and you will never have to remember the pain it caused.

In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books – and secret – are meticulously stored and recorded.

Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of the volumes has his name on it. 

There are some books that I find I really want to love. Not loving them feels like I’ve let yourself down or failed to meet my own reading expectations. But there’s something not quite right. And, for some indefinable reason, I just don’t love the book.

The Binding is one such book and believe me when I say that I am SO frustrated that I don’t adore it! Everyone else LOVES this book. Well-loved and respected friends with similar reading tastes to my own have urged me to read it. My book club thought it was fantastic. The lovely lady at my local library said she loved it. It’s historical. It’s Gothic. It has fantasy elements. And a forbidden love story. It’s about BOOKS, for crying out loud! To all intents and purposes, The Binding should be EXACTLY the sort of book that I adore.

So why didn’t I?

Well, it’s not that I didn’t like the book. If you take even a cursory glance at my review policy you’ll know that I don’t review books that I don’t finish and I don’t finish books I don’t like.

And there’s a lot that I LIKED about The Binding. The premise – that books can be bound to contain painful memories – is absolutely ingenious and is perfectly incorporated into a rich pseudo-historical setting (the era is never made 100% clear but, if I had to guess, I’d hazard late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century).

Into this vibrant world Collins drops a series of well-crafted characters including the naive apprentice binder Emmett Farmer, the charismatic and mysterious Lucian Darnay, the sinister De Havilland, and the enigmatic Seredith. The interplay between them is complex, with truths being gradually revealed as the plot progresses and a beautiful forbidden love story emerges from behind the shadows of the bindings.

My problem was one of pacing versus payoff. I can cope with a meditative tale – some stories should be savoured not devoured and, arguably, The Binding is one of them. But if I’m going to read a book where information is drip-fed and teased out across several hundred pages, or where the relationship has the slowest of burns, I want the eventual payoff in the finale to be worth the wait. And, for me anyway, The Binding just didn’t quite achieve that.

Without giving away any spoilers, there’s a change of perspective in the middle of the book that, I felt, took away some of the narrative imperative. I was also able to take a fairly accurate guess at the events that were to come as a result of this switch. Given that the book has a somewhat slow start, it was disappointing, for me anyway, that the major reveals were exactly what I expected them to be and that the ending, though explosive in its own way, felt as if it left a number of plot strands somewhat unresolved.

I also found the pace to be frustratingly slow at times. It takes a good while before the concept of ‘binding’ is really explained and, owing to the groundwork required to set the scene, a good 100 pages for the plot to really get going. I have to admit that I didn’t quite believe Emmett, even given how ill he is when the book opens, would be quite so patient about not being told anything about the profession to which he has been apprenticed! I think it’s probably for this reason that, although I found that The Binding absorbed me whilst I was reading it, I just didn’t have that pull to return to it when I put it down.

As I hope you can tell I really wanted to love The Binding. I certainly liked a great deal about it – the atmosphere, the premise, the characters – and I know a great many people who have adored the book. I’m sure I’ll get over my frustration at not immediately wanting to place this on my ‘Keeping Forever’ shelf – definitely one of those cases of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ as far as this bookish relationship goes. But I’ll certainly keep my eye out for whatever Bridget Collins writes next.

So although The Binding it didn’t quite hit the spot for me in terms of being a book that I adored, it’s definitely one I would recommend if you love Gothic or historical reads, or are looking for something a little bit different.

The Binding by Bridget Collins is published by The Borough Press and is available now from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

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

 

 

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. 

 

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Wakenhyrst“Something has been let loose…”

In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father.

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll probably get a sense that I love me a good historical novel. I also love ghost stories, folklore, and a good dose of the gothic. Michelle Paver’s latest novel, Wakenhyrst, ticks all of these boxes and, needless to say, I adored it.

With a narrative that spans over five centuries, taking in 14th-century superstitions, a chilling Edwardian crime, and a 1960’s-set reckoning, it would be easy for Wakenhyrst to become a sprawl of a novel. But the narrative is kept tight by keeping the central character, Maud, at its heart.

Curious and intelligent, Maud is constrained by her life at Wake’s End, and by the many rules that her father – and society – place on what a young lady should be and do. When we first meet Maud, she is an anxious child. Growing up without a mother, she is both entranced and repulsed by her cold yet brilliant father, a historian whose obsession with a 14th-century mystic called Alice Pyatt will soon prove dangerous for them all.

The narrative is alive with folklore and superstition. Salt is sprinkled in doorways, a wise woman sells love potions to young women, the New Year is let in the front door as the old one is whisked out the back. You really get a sense of the community, the time and the place. Wakes End seems to live and breathe on the page, and I could picture the small community of Wakenhyrst in my mind’s eye as I read.

And, at the centre of it all, is the fen. Drawn to the fen, Maud is entranced by its ever-shifting nature. She loves the starlings that circle overhead, the creatures that make it their home, and the sound of the wind through the reeds.

Her father, in contrast, is terrified by it. All windows facing the fen are shuttered, and he forbids the household from entering. But what terrible secret lies at the heart of the fen? And what does it have to do with Edmund Sterne’s research into Alice Pyatt? Or the uncovering of a long-lost Doom in the local church?

To say any more would be to spoil the twists and turns of this gorgeously intricate novel. But, as the various threads weave together, the fen is always at their heart. This is a novel about permanence. About love and lies and loss. About angels and demons and old, old tales. And about the things that we must face in order for us to be free.

Beautifully told, this is the perfect novel for curling up with by the fireside on a cold winter’s night. Maud is an engaging, intelligent narrator and her narrative, contrasted with that of her father’s, makes for compelling reading that will have you staying up long into the night.

Wonderfully atmospheric, Wakenhyrst is modern gothic at its best and deserves a place on the TBR of anyone who already enjoys the tales of Neil Gaiman, Laura Purcell, and Sarah Perry.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver is published by Head of Zeus and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

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