Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Paper Chase: The Printer, The Spymaster & the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers by Joseph Hone

The cover of The Paper Chase features an image of a woman in an elegant dress with a black hood and a black vizard mask covering her face. Manuscript pages and ink blots are scattered over the central image.
Image Description: The cover of The Paper Chase features an image of a woman in an elegant dress with a black hood and a black vizard mask covering her face. Manuscript pages and ink blots are scattered over the central image.

In the summer of 1705, a masked woman knocked on the door of David Edwards’s London workshop. She did not leave her name, only a package and a coded means of identifying her courier.

Edwards was a Welsh printer working in the dark confines of Nevill’s Alley, outside the city walls. The package was an illegal, anonymous pamphlet: The Memorial of the Church of England. The argument it proposed threatened to topple the government, but sedition sold well in the coffeehouses of Fleet Street and the woman promised protection. Edwards swiftly set about printing and surreptitiously distributing the pamphlet.

Parliament was soon in turmoil and government minister Robert Harley launched a hunt for all those involved. When Edwards was nowhere to be found, his wife was imprisoned and the pamphlet was burnt in his place. The printer was not the only villain, though, and Harley had to find the unknown writers who wished to bring the government down.

The intricacies of eighteenth-century printing might not, on the surface of it, sound like the most thrilling of topics but, as Dr Joseph Hone proves in The Paper Chase, publications that came out of the printer’s workshops had the potential to send men to the gallows, bring down governments, alter national policy, impact on the course of a war, and to threaten the security of the nation’s most revered institutions.

The Paper Chase follows the hunt for one particular anonymous pamphlet: a polemic entitled The Memorial of the Church of England. Printed by David Edwards – a Welsh printer with Jacobite sympathies and an established ‘radical’ press in Nevill’s Alley – the pamphlet was a High Church attack on the Godolphin administration and its policy of ‘moderation’. It implied that, by tolerating and working with Protestant dissenters, Queen Anne’s government – and, by implication, Anne herself – were not acting in the best interests of the Church of England.

The pamphlet, unsurprisingly, caused an outcry: Queen Anne was deeply upset by it, Parliament was outraged and, from the spires of Oxford to the streets of London, people were talking about the Memorial and trying to work out who its anonymous author(s) might be. Chief amongst these people was Robert Harley. A natural politician and prominent proponent of moderation, Harley started following the paper trail that led out of Nevill’s Alley, coaxing out the book’s secret’s and untangling the web of connections that would see his fate entwined with that of David Edwards in unexpected ways.

Given that my PhD is in eighteenth-century literature, many of the political intrigues and prominent figures in The Paper Chase were familiar to me. The politics of the period – especially in the earlier part of the century – are endlessly fascinating but, without a crash course in its terminology and structures (Whig, Tory, Churchmen, Toleration, Moderation etc), it can be overwhelmingly confusing for the general reader. It is to Hone’s credit, therefore, that he conveys a complex political environment – one that encompasses religious, political, and literary figures and factions – in a succinct yet through manner, guiding the reader into the knotty world of Harley, the Memorial, and the tangled connections that existed between press and Parliament.

Written with an academic’s eye for detail and told with vigour, The Paper Chase offers a blend of scholarship and detection that is sure to appeal to fans of narrative non-fiction in the vein of Kate Summerscale. That said, The Paper Chase is, in essence, a book about printing and pamphleteering: readers heading into it expecting a detective-style chase across London will be left sorely disappointed. Harley’s investigation into the Memorial was painstaking and thorough and the book follows the fates and fortunes of its central protagonists over several years. Whilst it has its thrilling moments – including night time raids on coffee houses and the hunt for a mysterious masked woman – the pleasure of The Paper Chase is in Hone’s gradual untangling of connections and his patient explanations of the wider implications of seemingly minor events.

Offering an insight into a period of history that remains under-represented in the arena of ‘popular’ print, The Paper Chase is an insightful and immersive tale of eighteenth-century politics and printing that is perfectly pitched for both general and academic readers alike. Combining scholarly precision with an engaging and accessible style, it’s a highly recommended read for fans of unusual mysteries, narrative non-fiction, and all things bookish.

The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone is published by Vintage and is now available in paperback 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. I also purchased a paperback copy from Berts Books, which came beautifully wrapped with a very pretty ribbon!

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge

Image Description: The cover of The Carnival of Ash features the spires and towers of a Renaissance city set against a night sky. Flecks of ash and flame are in the air and the city is surrounded by coloured banners on which the title is written.

Cadenza is the City of Words, a city run by poets, its skyline dominated by the steepled towers of its libraries, its heart beating to the stamp and thrum of the printing presses in the Printing Quarter.

Carlo Mazzoni, a young wordsmith arrives at the city gates intent on making his name as the bells ring out with the news of the death of the city’s poet-leader. Instead, he finds himself embroiled with the intrigues of a city in turmoil, the looming prospect of war with their rival Venice ever-present.

A war that threatens not only to destroy Cadenza but remove it from history altogether…

Cadenza is the City of Words. Its Renaissance splendour comes from the spiralling towers of its many libraries whilst its taverns and streets sing with the lyrical offering of poets and thrum to the beat of the Printing Quarter’s presses. Even its shadows are filled with the scandalous offerings of the Ink Maids. revered and reviled in equal measure. Picking up Tom Beckerlegge’s adult debut, The Carnival of Ash, is to be drawn into this enthralling world, although I have to admit that, what I found when I arrived there wasn’t quite what I expected going in!

From the blurb, I was expecting a historical fantasy novel that followed young wordsmith Carlo Mazzoni as he becomes embroiled in the intrigues of Cadenza. The Carnival of Ash is, however, a more layered affair than the blurb would suggest. Divided into twelve cantos, each of which is told from the perspective of a different character, the world of Cadenza is instead gradually unveiled to the reader and, in the second half of the novel, the stories and characters begin to weave together to reveal a wider portrait of a city which threatens to destroy itself from within.

To be honest, this style threw me when I first began reading. The first half of the novel does, at times, feel like reading connected short stories more than a single coherent narrative and I did spend some time wondering when the wider plot would begin to emerge. And whilst I really liked the way in which the novel developed as an alternative history, filled with political intrigue, social nuance, and some light fantastical elements, I think anyone going into this book and expecting a fantasy along the lines of Caraval will be disappointed. Instead, The Carnival of Ash is more akin to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or The Night Circus, with its blend of history and magical realism, and its focus upon layered storytelling rather than pacy plot.

The Carnival of Ash is also a much darker book than I expected. The opening canto features a character who expresses suicide ideation at times whilst another early section contained some dubious sexual consent and emotional manipulation that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. Readers should also be aware that the book does feature some scenes of sexual and physical violence, references to torture, rape, blood, and murder, and some medical content. There are also several abusive families in the book and some of the characters express or demonstrate ableism, sexism, misogyny, and fatphobia. This really is a late medieval/Renaissance world portrayed in all its messy and problematic glory.

Personally, I didn’t mind the dark tone but I did have some issues with the way in which the female characters were described and treated at times. As a scholar of the Early Modern period, I am all too aware of the patriarchal structures of many Western medieval and Renaissance societies however, as an alternative history, it would have been nice to see revisions to this view. Whilst I loved the concept of the Ink Maids – literary courtesans who, for a fee, will write letters that fulfil a client’s wildest desires – I found the section told from the perspective of one of them, Hypatia, quite uncomfortable. Despite holding a position of prominence and power, Hypatia is portrayed as frail and delicate and she continues to be objectified by those around her. A woman being the target of both desire and violence is, unfortunately, far from unusual – and is a theme often explored in fiction – but I felt that the ‘short story’ aspect of the narrative worked against a full and nuanced exploration of these themes. As a reader, I didn’t get to stay with Hypatia long enough to feel that she became anything more than a symbolic object.

All of that said, I am glad I stuck with The Carnival of Ash. The writing, although dense, is undoubtedly beautiful and the way in which the city is portrayed really is enthralling. Tom Beckerlegge has created a marvellous alterative world and has peopled it with interesting characters who, as the book goes on, are revealed to have complex motivations and emotions. It also has some whip-smart dialogue and a fine line in gallows humour, especially from the character of the gravedigger, Ercole. Many of the uncomfortable elements are also revealed to be part of wider corruption within the city, and I do feel the author is deliberately exploring themes of power and depravity by highlighting these.

Ultimately, The Carnival of Ash was a bit of a marmite book for me. The premise, world-building, and writing is fantastic but the narrative structure of the ‘cantos’ made the first half of the novel feel disjointed and it did take some perseverance to make it through to the second half which, for me, was when the story really began to take flight. Whilst characters do gain dimensions as the book progresses, I also felt that in the early cantos some characters featured more as cyphers than as rounded and relatable people.

Readers who head into this book expecting a traditional SFF are likely to be disappointed as that isn’t what The Carnival of Ash offers. Fans of alternative historical fiction and literary magical realism, however, will find much to enjoy in this lush literary tale about a city of poets that never was.

The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge is published by Solaris/Rebellion Publishing and is available now from all good bookseller 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! There are lots of other reviews and spotlights on the tour so follow the hashtags #TheCarnivalOfAsh #TheWriteReads and #BlogTour.

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Attic Child by Lola Jaye

Image Description: The cover of The Attic Child features a child’s head in profile against an orange backdrop. Inside the image is a house, in shades of purple, with the profile of another child in the attic window. Around the neck of the central child is a bone necklace.

Two children trapped in the same attic, almost a century apart, bound by a shared secret.

Early 1900s London: Taken from his homeland, twelve-year-old Celestine spends most of the time locked away in the attic of a large house by the sea. The only time Celestine isn’t bound by confines of the small space is when he is acting as an unpaid servant to English explorer Sir Richard Babbington, As the years pass, he desperately clings on to memories of his family in Africa, even as he struggles to remember his mother’s face, and sometimes his real name . . .

1974: Lowra, a young orphan girl born into wealth and privilege whose fortunes have now changed, finds herself trapped in the same attic. Searching for a ray of light in the darkness of the attic, Lowra finds under the floorboards an old-fashioned pen, a porcelain doll, a beaded necklace, and a message carved on the wall, written in an unidentifiable language. Providing comfort for her when all hope is lost, these clues will lead her to uncover the secrets of the attic.

Although I’ve read a number of novels that explore the varied legacies of Britain’s more recent history, I’m very aware that large gaps remain in my knowledge of my country’s colonial past. Based upon photographs of Ndugu M’Hali – a young African boy taken from his homeland against his will to be a ‘companion’ to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley – Lola Jaye’s The Attic Child uses the duel narratives of Dikembe and Lowra to tell a remarkable and heart-rending story of trauma and displacement that illuminates an oft-overlooked legacy of colonialism.

Alternating between the early 1900s and the mid-1990s, The Attic Child follows the interconnected stories of Dikembe – renamed Celestine by his British ‘benefactor’, Sir Richard Babbington – and Lowra, a young woman who has come into an unexpected – and unwanted – inheritance following the death of her estranged stepmother. What unites them is a house: 109 Ranklin Road. Or, more specifically, the attic room of 109 Ranklin Road where, under different but equally traumatic circumstances, Lowra and Dikembe find themselves spending much of their time.

Uncovering the connections between these two characters takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey across both continents and time, moving from the Belgium occupation of the so-called ‘Congo Free State’ (in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo) – and the ruthless exploitation of native peoples that followed – to the museums of contemporary Britain: and to the legacies of occupation and mistreatment that the objects within them all-too-frequently represent.

Saying any more about the plot of The Attic Child would be to spoil the gradual unfolding of the tangled connections that link Dikembe and Lowra however, amidst what is often a challenging and brutal tale of survival and loss, Lola Jaye has also managed to weave a remarkable story of hope. Though The Attic Child is unflinching in its depictions of what its protagonists have to endure (content warnings for death of a parent, death of siblings, murder, child loss, child abuse, sexual abuse, racial stereotyping/slurs, and racism), it is also a powerful story of identity, belonging, love, and family.

Combining a deeply emotive story with evocative descriptions of time and place, The Attic Child is a powerful read that demands the attention of its reader. I was fascinated – and, due to the nature of the experiences Dikembe undergoes, also horrified – to learn that Dikembe is inspired by a real child, Ndugu M’Hali, who became a ‘companion’ to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. The novel also illuminates a grim period of Congolese history by examining the brutality of life under the regime of King Leopold II of Belgium. Finally, the book speaks powerfully to current debates about the commemoration and interpretation of the national past and, in particular, the colonial and imperial past.

As you can probably tell, The Attic Child is packing a lot into its narrative and, even at 464 pages, there were times – especially towards the end of the book – where I felt as if I wanted a little more detail. On occasion, the narrative jumps several months or even years, before moving into sections where events are described in more detail and slowly. This meant that, for me, the pacing was a little uneven although the narrative held my interest in spite of this and, despite it being a relatively chunky book, I finished The Attic Child in just over a week.

An unflinching and emotive read, The Attic Child is a movingly told and emotive story about the personal legacies of colonialism. Set against a fascinating backdrop and with two interesting lead characters, the novel is sure to appeal to fans dual-narrative historical fiction as well as to anyone interested in knowing more about Britain’s hidden histories and colonial connections.

The Attic Child by Lola Jaye is published by Pan Macmillan and is available to purchase now from all good bookstores and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 18th May 2022 so please do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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

Reviews

REVIEW!!! A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle

Image Description: The cover of A Fatal Crossing has the gold outline of a ship against a rough sea. The cover has Art Deco-style edging and the tag line ‘A ship full of suspects. Two Detectives. One Killer.’

November 1924.

The Endeavour sets sail from Southampton carrying 2,000 passengers and crew on a week-long voyage to New York.

When an elderly gentleman is found dead at the foot of a staircase, ship’s officer Timothy Birch is ready to declare it a tragic accident. But James Temple, a strong-minded Scotland Yard inspector, is certain there is more to this misfortune than meets the eye.

Birch agrees to investigate, and the trail quickly leads to the theft of a priceless painting. Its very existence is known only to its owner . . . and the dead man.

With just days remaining until they reach New York, and even Temple’s purpose on board the Endeavour proving increasingly suspicious, Birch’s search for the culprit is fraught with danger.

And all the while, the passengers continue to roam the ship with a killer in their midst . . .

With it’s 1920s setting and closed-community premise, there’s more than a whiff of Agatha Christie about A Fatal Crossing, the debut crime novel from Tom Hindle. However, whilst the stylings may be classic crime fiction, this transatlantic mystery soon ventures into thriller territory with a shady detective, a dash of mob violence, and a final twist that will leave reader’s gasping!

When the crumpled and rain-soaked body of an elderly man is found dead at the bottom of a companionway after a stormy night, the majority of the passengers and crew aboard the steamship Endeavour believe it to be a tragic accident. Certainly the ship’s captain, McCrory – two days into his retirement voyage and only four days out of New York – is all too happy to set the matter aside as swiftly as possible. So when obstinate Scotland Yard detective James Temple is insistent upon investigating the death, McCrory demands that ship’s officer Timothy Birch accompany him.

Taciturn, reclusive, and largely ostracised from the rest of the crew, Birch makes for an unusual companion for the brash and fiery Temple and, sure enough, it isn’t long before the two butt heads over Temple’s confrontational investigative style. However, when it emerges that the elderly gentleman was an art dealer travelling under a false name – and that a rare painting was stolen on the night of his death – Birch has to reluctantly admit that Temple might be onto something. As the investigation progresses and another death occurs, Birch and Temple must work together to catch a deadly killer. But with both detectives keeping secrets of their own and the Endeavour steaming across the Atlantic towards New York, can they complete their investigation before time – and their tempers – run out?

Personally, I found both Birch and Temple to be quite challenging characters to spend time in the company of. Both men are keeping secrets that, over the course of the novel, gradually emerge to become part of the wider story and that do, eventually, make them slightly more sympathetic but I have to admit that, even after these revelations, I struggled to warm to either of them. Temple, in particular, felt a little two-dimensional and both men were capable of rapid and irrational mood swings that, at times, felt as if they were serving the plot rather than ensuring well-rounded characterisation.

I also found the writing somewhat awkward at times, with Birch in particular obsessing over – and repeating – certain facts. As an example, once he realises that character possesses a revolver – and begins to worry about what might be done with it – it gets mentioned three times in the space of two pages and several more times over the course of subsequent chapters. Although this is a relatively minor niggle in the grand scheme of things, it was something that, once noticed, I couldn’t un-notice!

This was a great shame as the plotting really doesn’t need this heavy-handed signposting. Indeed, the intriguing plot and the eclectic cast of side characters is what kept me reading and preventing A Fatal Crossing from becoming a DNF. There’s some brilliant misdirection, plenty of subtle red herrings and, as I mentioned at the start of my review, a fantastic twist in the tale that I definitely didn’t see coming!

I also really enjoyed the sense of time and place that Hindle conveys. From the quiet luxury of the first-class cabins to the hubbub of the third-class common areas and the sparse utility of the officer’s quarters, A Fatal Crossing conveys a real sense of life on-board a luxury liner, and hints at the wider political and social concerns in 1920s Britain and America.

Although not every aspect of this novel landed with me, I’m glad that I stuck with A Fatal Crossing – and I’d definitely read more by Tom Hindle in the future. Although the characters didn’t quite gel for me, the impressive plotting and regular twists and turns kept me reading and the ending, although definitely pushing at the boundaries of plausibility, was certainly unexpected! Fans of historical mysteries are sure to find a lot to enjoy here, especially if they don’t mind exploring the darker side of human nature and enjoy their Golden Age crime with a thrilling twist.

A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle is published by Century 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, to NetGalleyUK, and to the Motherload Book Club for providing a 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 REVIEW!!! The Flames by Sophie Haydock

Image Description: The cover of The Flames is dark blue and features orange portraits of four women, painted by Egon Schiele. The portraits of the women are surrounded by gold frames.

Every painting tells a story, but what if the women on the canvas could talk

Vienna, at the beginning of the 20th century, is an exhilarating social whirl, a city of ideas, of music, of ground-breaking art, lead by Gustav Klimt until the arrival of his scandalous protegee, Egon Schiele. Into this world come four women, each with their own story to tell:

ADELE: passionate, fierce, obstinate. The daughter of a bourgeois family, she rails against the strictures of her class and harbours her own wild fantasies.

GERTRUDE: spirited, single-minded, possessive. The sister to budding artist Egon Schiele, she longs for an exciting life away from their tempestuous family home.

VALLY: determined, independent, proud. A model for celebrated artist Gustav Klimt, she has carved her way out of poverty and is now forging a brave new path for herself.

EDITH: quiet, conventional, loyal. Or is she? Younger sister to Adele, Edith is overlooked and wonders if there is another version of the woman she might become.

Four flames, four wild, blazing hearts, longing to be known. In an elegant bohemian city like Vienna, everything seems possible – until an act of betrayal changes everything. For just as a flame has the power to mesmerize, it can also destroy everything in its path . . .

Offering a well-researched blend of fact and fiction, Sophie Haydock’s debut novel The Flames instantly transported me to early twentieth-century Vienna and into the lives of four extraordinary women, all of whom have influenced the life – and work – of scandalous, innovative artist Egon Schiele.

Flame-haired and fiery-tempered, Adele Harms knows that she is destined to be more than just another society wife. From the moment she sees the young artist who has moved in across the street, she knows that their fates will be intertwined. Gertrude Schiele, meanwhile, longs to follow in her brother’s footsteps and escape the confines of their small town existence. For Vally Neuzil, already a model for the famous Gustav Klimt, Egon is just another artist who wants to paint her: a means to an end that becomes something more. For Edith Harms, Adele’s sister, he is the man who will become her husband.

All four of these women are connected by Egon Schiele: inveterate artist and Klimt protégé, whose defiant, provocative nudes scandalise polite society and earn him a reputation as a pornographer. Yet, as Sophie Haydock displays, these women might be connected to Schiele but their lives are not – and should not – be solely defined by him.

In this captivating novel, Haydock imagines the lives of four women who, although their faces shine out at us from the walls of art galleries and collections across the globe, have had their voices lost amidst the admiring chatter of the art world. In doing so, she explores not only the relationship between artist and model, but explores the inner lives and personal circumstances of four women whose provocative poses set the artist, the art world, and polite society, aflame.

With an evocative sense of both time and place, Haydock expertly re-creates the heady and sensual world of Egon Schiele, capturing both the allure that he might have offered whilst being unafraid to consider the problematic ways in which the women who made his name might have been treated. I say ‘might’ because, as Sophie Haydock makes clear in an illuminating author’s note, very little tangible evidence – beyond, of course, Egon’s captivating portraits of them – has survived about the lives of Egon’s muses. What Haydock imagines, however, is not only convincing but offers a tantalising glimpse into the vivid, complicated lives that surely lay behind these images.

I became utterly absorbed in the lives of Adele, Gertrude, Vally, Edith, and the way in which their lives intersected, spiralling around the complex and often challenging figure of Egon himself. Rich in historical detail and thick with the allure of imagined possibilities, The Flames is an impressive debut that is vividly bought to life the lives of one of the twentieth-centuries most provocative artists, and the women who lay behind so many of his famous works.

The Flames by Sophie Haydock is published by Penguin Doubleday and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 29th March 2022 so please 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 REVIEW!!! Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook

Image Description: The cover of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter has nature and sea images in an iridescent pearl with overlaid images of guns, ropes, keys and diving helmets in black.

1886, BANNIN BAY, AUSTRALIA.

The Brightwell family has sailed from England to make their new home in Western Australia. Ten-year-old Eliza knows little of what awaits them on these shores beyond shining pearls and shells like soup plates – the things her father has promised will make their fortune.

Ten years later and Charles Brightwell, now the bay’s most prolific pearler, goes missing from his ship while out at sea. Whispers from the townsfolk suggest mutiny and murder, but headstrong Eliza, convinced there is more to the story, refuses to believe her father is dead.

It falls to her to ask the questions no one else dares consider. But in a town teeming with corruption, prejudice and blackmail, Eliza soon learns that the truth can cost more than pearls, and she must decide just how much she is willing to pay – and how far she is willing to go – to find it . . . 

Compelling historical fiction featuring a brave and determined female protagonist, a quest to find a missing father, and some dark family secrets? It’s safe to say that the premise of Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, Lizzie Pook’s debut novel, checks all my bookish boxes – and I’m pleased to report that the book itself did not disappoint!

Set in the fictional Australian town of Bannin Bay, a pearling hub that is home to Eliza Brightwell and her family. When Eliza’s beloved father – the town’s most successful pearler – goes missing during a voyage, it doesn’t take long for rumours to begin to fly across the small settlement, or for long-simmering tensions between the various native and immigrant populations to boil over. Refusing to believe in either the official explanation for her father’s ‘murder’ or her brother’s suspiciously swift attempts to move on from it, Eliza becomes determined to get to the truth. Teaming up with Axel, a newly-arrived itinerant entrepreneur, Eliza determines to ask the questions that no one else will and find her father – no matter what the cost.

So begins an investigation that will take Eliza, Axel and the reader beneath the glamorous veneer of Bannin Bay and into the sweltering decay and rampant corruption that lies beneath the surface of south sea pearls. Like Sarah Waters and Elizabeth Macneal, Lizzie Pook is unafraid of portraying the seedy side of history and Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter confronts the often brutal inequalities and prejudices of the period, including the displacement and persecution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the use and mistreatment of Chinese and Malaysian labourers, and the challenges faced by women within patriarchal colonial power-structures.

Although Bannin Bay is fictional, Pook has modelled the geography on parts of the north-west Kimberley coastline and on historical pearling hubs. In an extremely interesting historical and cultural note at the end of the novel, she acknowledges the First Peoples of the land in which the story takes place and explains the complex and difficult history of Australia’s pearl industry, as well as the peoples and events that inspired the novel. As a UK reader with shockingly little knowledge of Australia’s early history, it was fascinating – and shocking -to learn more about this history, both through the novel and via Pook’s concluding essay. Although Eliza’s search for her father – and the mystery of what happened to him – remains the driving force of the novel, I was impressed with the way in which Pook weaves the structural and social inequalities of the period – and the inherent colonialism of settler society – into the novel, and to accurately reflect such a complex social milieu.

I also really enjoyed getting to know Eliza, who makes for a strong-willed and determined protagonist who, despite her forthright demeanour, never felt ‘out of time’ in the way some protagonists do. Indeed, Eliza remains very aware throughout the novel of the vulnerabilities of her position and teaming up with Axel is, in part, a way for her to gain access to otherwise male-dominated spaces, and to pursue lines of investigation that might otherwise be closed to her. This practicality and pragmatism – which is also portrayed through the decisions of other characters, such as Eliza’s friend Min – really conveys the realities of life in an outback settlement, where the social order and societal norms frequently blur and fray at the edges.

I also found the mystery of what happened to Eliza’s father – and how this ties into wider life within Bannin Bay – to be compelling. Although rich with historical detail and relatively slow in terms of pacing, I found myself eagerly turning the pages as the wider conspiracy unfolded. The first few chapters were, admittedly, a little slow for me – the plot doesn’t really get going until about 50 pages in – but I enjoyed the establishment of character and setting so much that I didn’t mind the relatively sedate start. And once the plot does kick in, I was fully engaged with Eliza and her quest.

Overall, Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is a richly realised and compelling slice of historical fiction that is perfect for fans of Elizabeth Macneal, Hannah Kent, and Sarah Waters. Replete with tiny details that create a real sense of time and place, the novel combines a dark family mystery with a vivid depiction of life in an Australian pearling settlement, making it the perfect read for historical fiction fans wanting to broaden their geographical horizons!

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook is published by Mantle Books and is published TODAY so 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 inviting me onto this blog tour. The blog tour begins today and runs until 18 March so check out the other stops along the way 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 · Giveaway · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW & GIVEAWAY!!! The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield

Image Description: The cover of The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield is a dark blue with a stylised floral pattern picked out in gold, blues, and pearl effects. The gold silhouettes of two female profiles look at each other across the cover.

1768. Charlotte arrives in Naples to marry a man she has never met. Two years later, her sister Antoine is sent to France to marry another stranger. In the mirrored corridors of Versailles, they rename her Marie Antoinette.

But the sisters are not powerless. When they were only children, Charlotte and Antoine discovered a book of spells – spells that seem to work, with dark and unpredictable consequences.

In a world of vicious court politics, of discovery and dizzying change, Charlotte and Antoine use their secret skills to redefine their lives, becoming the most influential women of the age.

But every spell requires a sacrifice. As love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they will send Europe spiralling into revolution.

When The Embroidered Book landed on my doormat, the thump was so big I heard it from my office upstairs! At 658 pages, the hardback of Kate Heartfield’s latest novel is a slightly intimidating, albeit beautifully presented read (seriously, just LOOK at that cover!).

This initial impression was not erased by the four pages of ‘dramatis personae’ which opens the book and, sure enough, the sheer amount of characters was initially a little overwhelming. Within a few chapters, however, I was so caught up in the richly textured world of the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine – and in the stories of sisters Charlotte and Antoine – that such concerns faded into the background. Despite the story rapidly spiralling out across three countries and several dynasties, characters soon distinguished themselves and, with the central focus remaining on Charlotte and Antoine, it became surprisingly easy to follow the tangled web of court connections despite the massive scope of the novel.

Alternating between the perspectives of Charlotte, married off to the indolent King Ferdinand of Naples, and Antoine, married to the Dauphin of France and later known as Marie Antoinette, The Embroidered Book presents readers with an alternative history of the power struggles, conflicts, and revolutions that took place across eighteenth-century Europe. For Charlotte and Antoine, in addition to being daughters of the formidable Hapsburg empress Marie Theresa and Queens in their own right, are also magisters: keepers and users of secret – and dangerous – magical knowledge.

I have to admit that, whilst I found the magic in The Embroidered Book to be very well woven into the history, it was, for me, the least interesting part of the novel. To be fair, I’m not a huge reader of fantasy because, for me, real lives and histories are interesting enough on their own. So whilst Charlotte and Antoine’s use of magic – and the lengths they have to go to in order to conceal their use of it – is a unique premise, I have to admit I was more interested in the political intrigues and court politics than the spellcasting. The idea of these women having a secret power that allowed them to control empires was interesting but, I have to admit, I would probably have been more engaged if, as in the real history, it was their sheer force of will and determination – rather than their magical gifts – that enabled them to do this.

That said, the magical elements of the novel do allow Kate Heartfield to explore the prejudices against female power in this period in an accessible and engaging way. Even with their spells, Charlotte and Antoine are shown as often having to act through the men around them – by using charm, manipulation, threats, bribery, and coercion – to achieve their aims. It also provided a unique way of exploring the bond between two sisters and the way in which this strains and stretches as each pursues their goals within their respective nations.

As for this history, it’s clear that Kate Heartfield has done her research and The Embroidered Book provides an evocative glimpse into the heart of eighteenth-century Europe and the powerful factions that vied for control of it. Everything from political manoeuvring to the court fashion is richly depicted on the page, making for an engrossing and unflinching read. Despite it’s length, there’s absolutely no ‘filler’ in this novel and, although each page is replete with texture and detail, the story moves along and the characters develop and evolve at every stage.

As mentioned above, I’m probably not the ideal reader for The Embroidered Book however, even with some reservations about the magical elements, I ended up becoming engrossed in this richly textured and evocative read. Fans of historical fantasy are sure to adore this novel but I’d encourage even fantasy sceptics like myself to give it a go. If you’re interested in a richly imagined historical novel and prepared to try something a little bit different, The Embroidered Book may offer just what you’re looking for.

GIVEAWAY!!!

Thanks to Kate Heartfield, publisher Harper Voyager, and Anne at Random Things Tours I have ONE PRINT COPY of The Embroidered Book to giveaway to a lucky UK reader!

All you need to do to win is to follow me (@shelfofunread) on Twitter and retweet the pinned tweet that links to this post! The giveaway is open from 9.00am on 28 February 2022 and closes at midnight on 06 March 2022. There is one winner. Terms & conditions apply (see below).

TERMS & CONDITIONS: UK only. The winner will be selected at random via Tweetdraw from all valid entries and will be notified by Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then I reserve the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over.  Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will be used only for fulfilment of the prize. The prize will be despatched by second class recorded delivery with Royal Mail. I am not responsible for delivery of the prize.

The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield is published by Harper Voyager 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 inviting me onto this blog tour and providing the opportunity to run a giveaway for the book.

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

Image Description: The cover of The Language of Food features a delft-style blue and white floral pattern interwoven with images of two women (one wealthy, the other a servant) and cooking/food items.

England 1835. Eliza Acton is a poet who dreams of seeing her words in print. But when she takes her new manuscript to a publisher, she’s told that ‘poetry is not the business of a lady’. Instead, they want her to write a cookery book. That’s what readers really want from women. England is awash with exciting new ingredients, from spices to exotic fruits. But no one knows how to use them.

Eliza leaves the offices appalled. But when her father is forced to flee the country for bankruptcy, she has no choice but to consider the proposal. Never having cooked before, she is determined to learn and to discover, if she can, the poetry in recipe writing. To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the impoverished daughter of a war-crippled father and a mother with dementia.

Over the course of ten years, Eliza and Ann developed an unusual friendship – one that crossed social classes and divides – and, together, they broke the mould of traditional cookbooks and changed the course of cookery writing forever.

My mother’s copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was gifted to her on her wedding day. A traditional gift that, despite its increasing lack of relevance to modern housewives (to my mum’s dismay, as a 1980s suburban housewife, she really wasn’t going to need all the advice about how to hire a good maid-of-all-work or ensure the butler got a proper shine off the family silver), remained the ‘go-to’ guide for all things household for generations of women.

Yet before Isabella Beeton there was Eliza Acton, whose Modern Cookery for Private Families revolutionised domestic cooking on its publication in 1845. Despite it since coming to light that many of Mrs Beeton’s recipes were liberally ‘borrowed’ from Eliza’s book, Acton remains a much more marginal figure, known primarily only to food writers and food historians. Hopefully, with the publication of The Language of FoodAnnabel Abbs’s lively and engaging novel about her life and writing – she will become much better known.

We first meet Eliza as a hopeful young poet, attending a long-awaited meeting with publisher Thomas Longman. Following a well-received private publication of her emotional first collection, Eliza has spent ten years working on her latest poems and dares to hope they might even meet the lofty standards being set by her own favourite female poets: Mrs Felicia Hemens and Miss Letitia Elizabeth Landon. When Mr Longman dismisses her efforts by telling her that, not only is poetry no business for a lady but it also doesn’t sell, Eliza is heartbroken. And when he suggests she goes away and writes him a neat and elegant cookery book instead, she is insulted.

But when a cruel twist of fate leaves her family on the verge of penury and ruin, Eliza begins to realise that the women of England need a good cookbook: one with specific measurements and cooking times, that embraces the vast array of new ingredients coming into the country, and the new methods of cooking being advocated on the Continent. Along with Ann Kirby – the family’s seventeen-year-old kitchen maid – Eliza begins to cook and, over the course of the next ten years, the two women will change the course of cookery writing – and each others lives – forever.

Told in alternating chapters, The Language of Food is both a remarkable story of the history of English cooking and an intimate portrait of female friendship and Victorian domestic life. As Annabel Abbs notes at the end of the novel, although Eliza’s life is relatively well-documented, numerous gaps in the publicly available record remain. Ann’s life, meanwhile, is almost entirely undocumented. Into these historical voids, Abbs has created two incredibly vivid characters who, despite their very different social standings, inspire one another to persevere and develop professionally even as societal expectations try to hold them back.

I loved the vivid descriptions of the food and enjoyed reading about some of the more unusual recipes and ingredients (smoked haunch of badger, anyone?), as well as the way in which Eliza was unafraid to innovate by taking inspiration from other cuisines and cultures, and by learning from those around her. Real people and places are incorporated into the narrative with ease and Abbs has provided extensive notes at the end of the book – as well as some sample recipes – for those keen to know some of the history behind the story.

I also found the lives of Eliza and Anne to be deeply compelling. Eliza’s frustration with her lot – and her desperation to make a living through her writing – resonated through the pages. I really sympathised with her, trying to make the best of reduced circumstances whilst being constantly pressured to marry for the good of the family by her over-bearing mother. Anne, meanwhile, desperately wants to embrace this opportunity to escape her life of poverty, but feels guilty for leaving her alcoholic father and dementia-stricken mother behind her. Anne’s story also highlights the huge gulfs in wealth that existed in Victorian society, and highlights the way in which the poor and dispossessed were so left with few safe avenues with which to turn.

The Language of Food isn’t a fast-paced read but, for any historical fiction fan who enjoys their fiction with a side of reality, it’s a beautifully-told and engaging story that sheds light on the life of a woman who deserves much greater recognition. Steeped in research and with a real sense of both time and place, The Language of Food was a pleasurable and engaging read that swept me back into the past and to straight into the heat of the Victorian kitchen.

The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs is published by Simon & Schuster and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour finishes today but you can go back and 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 REVIEW!!! The City of Tears by Kate Mosse (The Burning Chambers #2)

Image Description: The cover of City of Tears is orange with a map of a medieval city as the the backdrop and a crown in the foreground centre. The tagline is ‘Courage will be their greatest weapon’.

August 1572: Minou Joubert and her family are in Paris for a Royal Wedding, an alliance between the Catholic Crown and the Huguenot King of Navarre intended to bring peace to France after a decade of religious wars.

So too is their oldest enemy, Vidal, still in pursuit of a relic that will change the course of history.

But within days of the marriage, thousands will lie dead in the streets and Minou’s beloved family will be scattered to the four winds . . .

Given my love for historical fiction, you’d think I’d have read everything Kate Mosse has ever written. Mosse is, after all, arguably best-known for her sprawling and immersive ‘Languedoc’ trilogy, comprising of Labyrinth, Sepulchre, and Citadel. Surprisingly however, I’ve only previously read Mosse’s shorter fiction: namely her short story collection, The Mistletoe Bride and her standalone novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter. I enjoyed both immensely but just never got around to her longer novels – probably because a) there were three of them and b) none of them could be called short!

Having read The City of Tears, I shall definitely be rectifying that, however – and have already picked up and started the first book in this series, The Burning Chambers, to fill in the start of Minou Joubert’s story.

Because yes, The City of Tears is the second part of a planned sequence of novels set against the backdrop of 300 years of history that spans from sixteenth-century France to nineteenth-century Southern Africa. It can, however, easily be read as a standalone. As mentioned above, I read The City of Tears before picking up The Burning Chambers and didn’t feel lost at all, and the story – although featuring returning characters and themes from The Burning Chambers – is set a decade after the events of its predecessor and, as such, felt relatively self-contained.

Mosse’s reputation for creating immersive and evocative historical settings appears to be well founded – the setting and period really leapt off the page as I read, the streets of sixteenth-century Paris and Amsterdam coming alive around me as I read. I was also fascinated to find out more about a dark and complex period of French history – and the history of Huguenot refugees in Europe – that, previously, I knew very little about.

Despite the wealth of historical research and knowledge that has clearly gone into the novel however, Mosse never overburdens her story with detail. Her storytelling remains compelling and character-driven, even as you are immersed into the history and setting. Minou and her family make for relatable protagonists – a family torn apart by the religious wars fracturing France – whilst Vidal is a brilliantly-crafted Machiavellian protagonist, turning his religious fervour into a quest for personal power and vengeance.

At over 500 pages, The City of Tears is a chunky book – especially as its predecessor in the series has a similar page count. In addition, there are quite a lot of characters and I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers felt a little daunted by the two-page list of ‘principals’ at the front of the book! Dive in, however, and you’ll soon be swept up into a compelling narrative that rattles along at a pace that belies the book’s length. It does take a few chapters to navigate your way into the novel but, with short chapters keeping the pace up, I was soon immersed into the story rather than worrying about who was who and how they were all related.

The City of Tears is a powerful and compelling tale of one family and their fight to stay together and survive amidst the turbulent and devastating tides of history. Substantial but immersive, it’s the perfect read for historical fiction fans looking to be swept away from twenty-first-century troubles and into the secrets and conspiracies of another era.

The City of Tears by Kate Mosse is published by Pan Macmillan and is available in paperback 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. The tour continues until 10 February 2022 so check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

Image Description: The cover of The Key in the Lock has a floorplan of a house in gold against a dark blue-green floral background. The title, with the image of a key in gold, is in the centre.

I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unfurling out of an upper window and a hectic orange light cascading across the terrace.”

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.

Set over two timelines, Beth Underdown’s The Key in the Lock is a gloriously gothic mystery with shades of a psychological thriller and a setting reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The year is 1918 and Ivy Boscawen is grieving, both for the loss of her son Tim in the trenches – and for the loss of the life she was meant to have. Both losses seem, to Ivy, like retribution for another death: that of young William Tremain, killed in a fire at Polneath House thirty years previously. Ivy’s belief in that the boy was murdered – and her attempts to prove it – led to events that, years later, continue to haunt Ivy. And only by discovering the truth of what really happened will she be able to lay the ghosts of both the past and the present to rest.

Beth Underdown has written a haunting and evocative novel effectively told across two timelines, each of which provides a compulsive storyline populated with a host of believably fallible characters.

Although the novel takes a while to hit its stride, unravelling the mysteries of Polneath and making the connections between Ivy’s past and present kept me really engaged with both storylines – and, as more secrets are revealed, the tension really ramps up. By the end, I was eagerly turning the pages to make the final connections and work out what really happened at Polneath all those years ago – and what ramifications that has for Ivy as she processes her son’s death.

Ivy’s grief was sensitively handled, and her heartbreak really came across through the pages. I also felt that the relationship between Ivy and her husband, Richard, was brilliantly portrayed and bittersweet. The conflict that Ivy feels when Edward, the man Ivy fell in love with back at Polneath all those years ago, comes back into her life is also really well handled. Indeed, Ivy is a wonderfully flawed protagonist – determined, brave, and intelligent, albeit a little misguided and, when we meet her in 1888, blissfully naïve.

I did have one or two minor quibbles – a couple of the characters felt a little too obviously ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and, sure enough, it turns out that appearances can be deceptive. I also found some of Ivy’s decisions a little hard to fathom at times – although, admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as besotted as Ivy is!

Overall, however, The Key in the Lock is an atmospheric and compulsively readable historical mystery that will keep you guessing right up until the end. It made for a fantastic start to my reading year and is sure to appeal to fans of Diane Setterfield, Elizabeth Macneal, and Stacey Halls.

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown is published by Penguin Viking on 13 January 2022 and is available to pre-order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

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.

If you decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting 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!