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!! 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. 

 

Seasonal Reads

Spooky Reading Recommendations

The leaves are changing, the nights are drawing in, and it’s time to drag that favourite  jumper out of the closet. Is any more of an excuse needed to settle down with a mug of tea, curl up under your favourite blanket and pick up a book? And, for me personally, if that book has a touch of the sinister about it – something that’ll send a slight chill down my spine despite all that cosiness – then even better! So without further ado here are five of my favourite chilling reads, plus a few choices that I’m hoping to get to during 2018’s season of spookiness.

584843I can’t talk about spooky books without mentioning The Woman in Black. Susan Hill has written a number of ghost stories but this, without a doubt, remains my favourite. Possibly this is because I first read the book one dark All Hallows Eve, curled up in a caravan on the wet and wild Welsh coast whilst the rain lashed on the roof and the wind howled outside. Talk about pathetic fallacy! Having re-read the book many times in considerably finer weather since however, I can attest to it being an extremely fine ghost story with just the right level of menace. Arthur Kipps’ visit to desolate Eel Marsh House and his glimpses of the vengeful woman in black remain utterly terrifying on even the brightest of days.

8350864More readily known for her young adult series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Michelle Paver has also written two chilling ghost stories after the Gothic mould. My favourite of the two, Dark Matter, is set during an ill-fated expedition to Arctic and brilliantly adds chilling events to an even colder location. Her second, Thin Air, takes place during a similarly doomed mountaineering expedition. Both books play with ideas of repression and psychology, cleverly weaving the characters’ fears into the narrative so that the reader begins to doubt the veracity of their narratives. Paver is also excellent at using the stark yet dangerous beauty of the natural environment to great effect when creating her sinister tales.

36434359Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions, which I reviewed at the start of the year, is an unsettling gothic chiller that will leave you curled up under the covers and peering into the shadows. Part ghost story, part psychological mystery, the book uses interweaving narratives from the 1600s and 1800s to unravel the unhappy tale of the wooden companions that haunt crumbling country estate The Bridge, with possibly sinister intent.  Plus it has a really creepy child in it and nothing says dark and disturbing quite as much as childish innocence gone bad.

10692Moving away from ghost stories for a moment, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a brilliant romp which combines the gothic horror of Dracula with the country-hoping adventure of a Dan Brown thriller. Late one night when exploring her father’s study, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters ominously addressed ‘To my dear and unfortunate successor’. When her father goes missing, our unnamed narrator is forced into an epic cross-continental quest that takes her into the heart of Romania, uncovering the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s disappearance, and constantly coming up against the name of one Vlad Ţepeş. As you can probably tell from the synopsis, The Historian is a bit of a romp but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one written in a high gothic style and with plenty of literary and historical references for Dracula fans.

6550482For those who like their horror to come with a more literary flavour, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger combines Waters masterful prose with a dash of the supernatural. Set in the crumbling Hundred Hall, the novel follows the provincial, middle-class Dr Faraday as he gradually integrates himself into the life of the once wealthy Ayres family. Struggling to keep up with a changing society, the Ayreses are haunted by past glories. But are they also being haunted by something more sinister than their dying way of life? Combining a thoughtful meditation on class in post-war Britain with a creeping sense of dread and a fantastically creepy atmosphere, this is a slow, understated chill of a novel with a fantastic twist in its tale.

So what is on The Shelf’s spooky TBR for this season? Having still not got around to Laura Purcell’s latest chiller, The Corset, I’m eager to pick that up. Sarah Perry’s latest slice of gothic, Melmoth, is also on the pile – I loved The Essex Serpent so much that I’m almost afraid to read it! I’m taking part in the blog tour for SJI Holliday’s psychological ghost story The Lingering in November so am also very much looking forward to reading that, especially given all the high praise it has been getting from fellow bloggers. Finally Katherine Clements’ The Coffin Path picked up a lot of praise on its release last year but remains unread so I’m hoping to get to that now that the season is appropriate again.

As always, I would love to know if you’ve read any of my recommendations – or any of my TBR books. I do love a good ghost or supernatural story so if you’ve got any chilling recommendations for me then do also drop me a line in the comments, or come say hi over on Twitter (@amyinstaffs), and let me know about them!

Happy Reading!!

 

Reviews

REVIEW: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Silent CompanionsI always feel that the first book you choose to read in a year is, somehow, a reflection of what that reading year will be like. A silly superstition I’m sure but we all have our quirks and picking my first book of a new year is one of mine.

Last year I started with The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which ended up being one of my favourite books of 2017 – so my first read of 2018 had big shoes to fill! Fortunately The Silent Companions, which had been lingering on my TBR far too long, turned out to be a great choice to kick of 2018 – spooky, atmospheric and spine-tingling, it had me turning the pages whilst curled up under the duvet and checking the shadows for sinister beings!

Set in both the 1800s and 1600s, the novel recounts the sinister string of events that have led to Mrs Elsie Bainbridge being examined in a psychiatric hospital on suspicion of arson and murder. Mute and traumatised, Elsie is gradually forced to recollect the events of the previous year which started with her new husband Rupert’s death and her journey; accompanied by Rupert’s cousin Sarah, to his ancestral home, The Bridge. Gothic and crumbling, The Bridge is an eerie place, made all the more unsettling by the hissing noise emanating from the locked garret. Yet when Elsie and Sarah force their way into the dusty attic space, all they find is a Silent Companion: a wooden figure, carefully carved and painted to fool the eye into thinking they are real. But is there more to the Silent Companion than meets the eye? Why does it bear a striking resemblance to Elsie herself? And why did Robert’s ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who lived at The Bridge back in the 1600s fear them so dreadfully?

There is a strong psychological element to this ghost story. Elsie, confused and traumatised by the events of the previous year, is a fantastically unreliable narrator and, as the only surviving witness to her version of events, it becomes impossible for the reader to decide on the true narrative. Is Elsie really the victim of sinister supernatural forces that haunt The Bridge? Or is she a psychotic murderess whose own dark past has finally led her to commit terrible deeds? Even at the end of the book, it’s far from clear what the true course of events actually is – as with all the best ghost stories, it’s left to the reader to decide how much you really believe in the tale being spun.

The supernatural elements themselves are handled really well and I completely bought into the Companions as objects of terror. Whether you see them as objects of Elsie’s tortured imagination or as the inanimate hosts of an unspeakable evil, they’re sinister, creepy and guaranteed to leave you with the shivers.

There’s also a fantastically charged and controlled atmosphere throughout the book. Every page oozes with tension and there’s a creeping sense of horror and dread as you turn the pages. Seemingly innocuous conversations, objects and events become charged with meaning as you switch between Anne Bainbridge’s diary, Elsie’s recollections of The Bridge and her present life in the psychiatric hospital.

And the horror isn’t just supernatural but social. I felt that there was an underlying narrative within the book about the roles and perceptions of women. Whether it’s suspicious whispers about witchcraft in the 1600s or the fear of female madness and hysteria in Victorian England, the events of the novel cleverly illustrate the myriad ways in which fear of the strange and supernatural has often been tied into the control and subjugation of women. It makes the book genuinely frightening, both in term of the supernatural agencies that might be at work and the real world fears of societal exclusion and condemnation faced by Elsie and Anne.

With it’s creeping sense of dread and shades of Gothic horror, this novel reminded me very much of the works of Susan Hill combined with elements of Wilkie Collins and M R James. Utterly terrifying (but in a good way!), I’m definitely up for more of Laura Purcell’s particular brand of spooky in the future so was delighted to read that she has another Gothic thriller due to be published in 2018. In the meantime, if you don’t mind your reading year starting with the spooks, definitely add The Silent Companions to your TBR!

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books (Bloomsbury) and is available now in hardcover and ebook from all good bookshops. 

Readathons

Autumn Readathon TBR

As you may have already realised from recent posts, I love Autumn. As the nights draw in, the thought of curling up next to the fire in a cosy jumper with a good book and a large mug of tea is a welcome solace after a long day at work. So when Mercedes over at Mercy’s Bookish Musings announced she was going to run an Autumn Readathon, my immediate reaction was ‘where do I sign’?!

The readathon runs from 22 – 28 October and is fairly chilled by way of challenges to allow for readers of all speeds and intentions (which I love – not all of us have the ability to read 7 books in a week!) with 4 prompts and 2 optional prompts to attempt. You can watch Mercedes’ announcement video here as well as her TBR and recommendations here but I thought it might be fun to do a post about my own TBR and reading goals for the week as well.

Prompt One: Read a Gothic/Spooky Book

I started on Laura Purcell’s ‘The Silent Companions‘ during Lauren’s Autumn Cosy Reading Night on Friday and, fortunately for me, it doubles up nicely for this prompt. Set in a crumbling country mansion, this gothic ghost story that promises unsettling psychological horror in the vein of Susan Hill, Shirley Jackson and Henry James. I’m less than 50 pages in at the moment but I’m already loving the setting and the brooding sense of malice and unease that has been infused into the most innocuous of interactions and settings.

Prompt Two: Read an Autumnal Non-Fiction Book

Mercedes has classed this as nature writing or autumnal travel-writing but I’ve just gone with something a bit gothic again because I’m currently reading ‘Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England‘ by Sarah Wise which is a fascinating insight into the history of insanity in the nineteenth-century. Looking at both the rise of the ‘mad-doctor’ profession and public fears about sane individuals being locked away in private asylums, Sarah Wise examines twelve real-life cases that could have come straight from the pages of Wilkie Collins or Dickens.

Prompt Three: Read a Novel Set in a Cold Location
Prompt Four: Read a Historical Fiction Novel

Eowyn Ivey’s ‘To The Bright Edge of the World‘ gets to do double duty for this one. I already mentioned in my 5 Star TBR Predictions post that I wanted to get to this novel soon and, with it being both set in a cold location (Alaska) and in the past (1885), it fits the bill perfectly for this prompt. At over 400 pages, it’s unlikely I’ll finish this during the readathon week but, if I can get started, I’ll be happy.

Bonus Prompt Five: Read a Short Story Collection

I recently collected ‘Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories‘ from the library and am intending to dip in and out of it through the week. Featuring spooky stories inspired by English Heritage sites across the UK, the collection features stories by some of my favourite writers including Sarah Perry and Mark Haddon. It’ll also be ideal reading for the run up to All Hallows Eve.

Bonus Prompt Six: Read an Adult Novel with a Young Female Protagonist

I get that you could argue that Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials‘ could reasonably classed as Young Adult but I’m counting ‘The Amber Spyglass’, which I want to finally get around to reading so that I can start the recently released ‘The Book of Dust’, as my choice for this one. Again, I’m not sure I’ll get around to finishing this during the week but I am keen to get it started if I can.

So that is my Autumn Readathon TBR. Are any of you participating in the readathon? If so, what are you reading for it? Have you read any of my choices and what did you think? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter. You can also follow Mercedes at @mercysmusings and join in with the readathon chat using the hashtag #autumnreadathon. So here’s to a successful readathon week and, until next time…

Happy Reading! x