Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! We Need to Talk by Jonathan Crane

It’s 2019 in Sudleigh, a market town not far from the south coast.

It’s not a bad place to live, provided the new housing development doesn’t ruin it, but most residents are too caught up in their own disappointments, grudges, and sores to notice.

Former lounge musician Frank wants to pass his carpet business to his nephew Joe, killing the boy’s dream to become a chef. Sharp-elbowed phone-sex operator Heather will stop at nothing to become the manager of the golf club. Gap-year Tom is cleaning toilets but finding unexpected solace in his Chinese house-share. Miss Bennett keeps putting her house on the market when she doesn’t want to move.

Do they all know how their lives are linked? Meticulously observed, We Need to Talk offers a jigsaw puzzle of unwitting connections for the reader to assemble. The finished picture is a hyper-real, unflinchingly honest portrait of multi-jobbing, gig-economy Middle England on the eve of Covid, confirming some preconceptions while gently upsetting others.

I usually read books to escape from the often grim day to day realities of the news cycle – especially in the last couple of years. But every so often, a book catches my eye that promises an unique assessment of the ‘state of the nation’, and a glimpse into the hidden depths of our everyday existence – and We Need to Talk is definitely one such book.

Set in 2019, We Need to Talk provides a perfectly poised and intricately observed snapshot of a small English market town post-Brexit and pre-pandemic. Not far from the south coast, Sudleigh is an encapsulation of Middle England – and its residents have all the petty gripes and first-world problems that you’d expect (as well as some actual problems, which you possibly wouldn’t).

Martin has been reluctantly pressed into service to oppose the proposed housing development – much to the dissatisfaction of his wife, district councillor Bridget. Eighteen-year-old Tom has been forced to leave home by his mother’s malicious new boyfriend – and is making ends meet through cleaning jobs whilst he saves for university. Former lounge musician Frank wants to retire – and is disappointed that his nephew Josh seems less than keen to talk on the family carpet business. Newly widowed George is throwing himself into the garden that his beloved wife never got to create – much to the concern of his daughter Emma. Sheila is under pressure to put her house on the market – even though she doesn’t want to move. And Tony, creative writer and pressured academic, is finding it tough to get anyone to appreciate his latest avant-garde work, The Jazz Cats – least of all his girlfriend Lydia.

Chapter by chapter and person by person, We Need to Talk provides a meticulously observed and wickedly funny depiction of small town life in Middle England today. From the perils of the gig-economy, to the small nuances of neighbourhood life, and the deeper interpersonal connections that we make – or fail to make – with those around us. From nuisance neighbours and terrible parents, to worried daughters and spiteful colleagues, We Need to Talk has it all – and treats it all with the same wry and unflinching gaze.

Although We Need to Talk is a novel, its a novel as jigsaw puzzle and, for me, each chapter felt like a little short story all on its own. Characters do flit between chapters – it’s quite fun seeing them flitting in and out of each others lives as the book progresses – and there are some characters that we return to more than once as the book progresses, but this is really a multi-layered portrait of a community and the people within it than a novel with a singular narrative drive or character.

As such, it won’t be for everyone – the pull comes from being interested in the community, and in musing over the various ways the characters drift together and apart and what this might say about modern life in the UK today. At times, I have to admit, I did find some elements of it quite distressing – and depressing – because Jonathan Crane has done such an excellent job of capturing the petty squabbles and gossipy grudges that so often distract from the real issues that many people face. What kept me reading was the meticulous observation, the focus on individuals as part of a wider picture – and the regular moments of wicked and wry humour which punctuates the book.

Gossipy, perceptive, and darkly funny, We Need to Talk is a picture of small town life in an increasingly divided nation. Readers of Jonathan Coe’s Middle England and John Lanchester’s Capital will surely enjoy the book, as will those seeking a short, sharp ‘state of the nation’ read.

We Need to Talk by Jonathan Crane is published by Lightning Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Emma Welton from DampPebbles Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 14 July 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

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

Reviews

REVIEW!! The Readers Room by Antoine Laurain

When the manuscript of a debut crime novel arrives at a Parisian publishing house, everyone in the readers’ room is convinced it’s something special. And the committee for France’s highest literary honour, the Prix Goncourt, agrees.

But when the shortlist is announced, there’s a problem for editor Violaine Lepage: she has no idea of the author’s identity. As the police begin to investigate a series of murders strangely reminiscent of those recounted in the book, Violaine is not the only one looking for answers. And, suffering memory blanks following an aeroplane accident, she’s beginning to wonder what role she might play in the story …

Every so often a book comes along that, for want of any better word, is utterly charming. Not necessarily the most memorable or original or well written or thrilling but, quite simply, a captivating and delightful slice of readerly delight. The Reader’s Room, the latest novel from Parisian author Antoine Laurain, is one such book.

Set around the reader’s room of a Parisian publishing house, The Reader’s Room is part whodunnit, part character study, and part irreverent send-up of the publishing industry. When renowned editor Violaine Lepage opts to publish Camille Désencres Sugar Flowers, she is only mildly concerned its elusive author cannot attend the office to sign the contract and is contactable only be email. When the novel gets nominated for the Prix Goncourt however, finding its author becomes a priority. And when a police detective investigating three murders that bear a striking similarity to those described in the book arrives in Violaine’s office, learning Camille’s true identity becomes an imperative.

Unfortunately for Violaine, she herself is struggling to understand who she is. Following a freak accident, she is left with huge gaps in her memory. Why does her office smell of smoke when she cannot stand cigarettes? How did several dresses end up in her closet when she does not remember buying them? Exactly who is Violaine Lepage? And how is she involved with Camille Désencres?

Given that The Reader’s Room can be read over the course of an afternoon (it comes in at a relatively slender 182 pages), it packs in plenty of story. In addition to the question of whether the author of Sugar Flowers might be a cold-blooded killer, there are the various mysteries of Violaine’s own life, the police investigation into the killings, and an insight into the inner workings of the reader’s room and the awarding of the Prix Goncourt. All elements that should not blend together in any reasonable way but that, in the hands of Antoine Laurain, somehow do.

Although there were moments when I had to seriously suspend my disbelief in order to stay with the plot, The Reader’s Room made for such an enjoyable slice of Parisian delight that I didn’t really mind the more outlandish moments or the character’s somewhat eccentric natures. The book had the quality of a modern-day fairy-tale – think to hard about it and the magic goes away so best just to sit back and enjoy the story – and, for that reason, I very much suspect that it will not appeal to everybody. There will almost certainly be some readers who feel that the book veers too much into whimsy whereas others (like myself) will point to the languidly beautiful writing and the wryly observed vignettes and proclaim them to be enchanting and charming.

Because whilst I’m not sure the extent to which The Reader’s Room will stay with me, I very much enjoyed the time I spent with the book. I whiled away a delightful afternoon with Laurain’s simple yet elegant prose (which has been rendered beautifully by translators Emily Boyce, Jane Aitkin, and Polly Mackintosh) and was captivated by the gradual unravelling of the connections between Violaine, Sugar Flowers, and the ongoing murder investigation. And whilst there were some moments that required me to firmly set logic and probability to one side, the easy charm and wry comedy of the book allowed me to easily forgive its more unlikely plot twists.

Fans of Laurain’s previous work will, I’m sure, adore The Reader’s Room – it very much seems to have the hallmarks of his style. As someone new to his work, The Reader’s Room provided an enjoyable introduction – and a very pleasant afternoon’s reading – so I shall certainly look out for some of his other books in the future.

The Reader’s Room by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce, Jane Aitkin and Polly Mackintosh, is published in paperback by Gallic Books on 17 June 2021 and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

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

Reviews

REVIEW!!! Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling

Andy believes that she has left her past far behind her. But when she gets a call from Peter’s mother to say he’s gone missing, she finds herself pulled into a search for answers.

Bored and restless after their final school exams, Andy, Peter, Em and Marcus broke into a ruined manor house nearby and quickly became friends with the boy living there. Blond, charming and on the run, David’s presence was as dangerous as it was exciting.

The story of a diamond necklace, stolen from the house fifty years earlier and perhaps still lost somewhere in the grounds inspired the group to buy a replica and play at hiding it, hoping to turn up the real thing along the way. But the game grew to encompass decades of resentment, lies and a terrible betrayal.

Now, Andy’s search for Peter will unearth unimaginable secrets – and take her back to the people who still keep them.

Comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Elizabeth Day’s The Party, and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child meant that Victoria Gosling’s debut Before the Ruins immediately caught my eye. Those are fairly big shoes to fill and, whilst for me Before the Ruins didn’t quite steal The Secret History‘s crown, fans of those novels are sure to find a huge amount to enjoy in this beguiling coming-of-age tale.

Switching between the present day and the summer of 1996, Before the Ruins follow Andy, a successful London professional whose stylish clothes, designer handbags, and high-flying city job belie the rural poverty of her childhood and the neglect and abuse received at the hands of an alcoholic mother and abusive ‘step-father’ (trigger warnings for substance abuse, physical abuse and domestic violence). Fortunately for Andy, she had Peter. Clever but awkward, Peter is almost the exact opposite of brash, brazen Andy. But the two are inseparable – much to the disappointment of Andy’s sometime boyfriend Marcus, and her artistic friend Em.

What then, resulted in Andy and Peter drifting apart? Now, both city professionals in glittering careers, they meet only at parties and they never discuss the past. Marcus and Em are gone – as is David, the charming fugitive they met one long ago summer in the grounds of an abandoned mansion and with whom they invented a dangerous game of missing diamonds. When Peter’s mother rings Andy to say that Peter has gone missing, the truth behind their separation – and behind the tragic events of that long ago summer – must be confronted, and the long-buried secrets of the past bought into the light.

Before the Ruins is a novel about people making very bad choices for a very long time. And, in all honesty, it’s about not very nice people making very bad choices for a very long time. Andy and her friends are difficult characters to like but no less compelling for that. Andy’s sharp edges and her self-involvement made her, for me, all the more interesting – this is a character that neither wants nor needs a reader’s pity, however much the circumstances of her life might merit it. As the subtleties of Andy’s interactions with Peter, Em, Marcus, and David are revealed, the reader is gradually allowed to connect the dots between the seemingly disconnected lives of Andy and Peter in the present, and the intoxicating, almost suffocating, closeness of the long ago summer in which things began to fall apart.

Talking too much about the plot of Before the Ruins would absolutely spoil the story – this is definitely a book to head for if you like the sound of the vibe rather than because the plot itself compels you. Because whilst the plot is compelling, it’s the gradual uncovering of secrets and making of connections that provides the real pull here and the tiny steps that the characters make towards what you know will be a revelatory moment for Andy – and for the book. Like the hunt for the ‘diamonds’ around which the teenage Andy and her friends play their games, the novel is essentially one long scavenger hunt for the truth of Andy’s life, with each new recollection dropping another clue as to the whole into the story.

One area where Before the Ruins definitely gave me The Secret History vibes is in atmosphere. Gosling brilliantly conjures up the oppressive moodiness of a long and languid teenage summer, replete with the stolen moments, sidelong glances, and bubbling tension that can only be created by a group of listless, hormonal young people caught between the securities of childhood and the promise of new opportunities and adventures. The decaying decadence acting of the crumbling manor house and its overgrown gardens provide the perfect backdrop for this coming-of-age tale, providing the perfect undertow of menace to the seemingly innocent ‘games’ being played within its walls.

Whilst there were moments when the pace of Before the Ruins did lag a little, I found myself carried along by the richly evocative prose and the compelling – if difficult and self-absorbed – characters. Those looking for thrilling revelations and dramatic reveals might be disappointed, but for readers who enjoy a slow build of bubbling tension, and a novel propelled by subtle glances and half-said truths, Before the Ruins should prove to be a captivating and atmospheric debut that is well worth picking up.

Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling is published by Serpents Tail and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

Two boys venture from their village to hunt in a nearby forest, where they shoot down bats with glee, and cook their prey over an open fire.

Within a month, they are dead, bodies ravaged by an insidious disease that neither the local healer’s potions nor the medical team’s treatments could cure.

Compounding the family’s grief, experts warn against touching the sick.

But this caution comes too late: the virus spreads rapidly, and the boys’ father is barely able to send his eldest daughter away for a chance at survival.

Made up of a series of linked vignettes, this meditative novel charts the course of the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Beginning with two boys whose hunt for bushmeat results in the sickness arriving their village, this short but powerful novella follows healthcare workers, grave diggers, foreign NGO volunteers, grieving families and Ebola survivors to tell a story of human hubris, weaving the story of the virus’s decimation of humanity into a profound fable about the devastation caused to the natural world by human endeavours.

Given the subject matter, this isn’t exactly a book that I ‘enjoyed’ per se. Beneath the lyrical prose, there are some incredibly difficult scenes and the author does not shy away from portraying the terror and heartbreak of the crisis, and the humanitarian issues that followed in its wakes. The sparse but evocative language adds to the depth of the writing, resulting in a powerfully moving tale that packs a punch that belies the novella’s slender length.

I found the way in which Véronique Tadjo wove in chapters told from the perspective of the baobab tree, the bat, and even ebola itself fascinating although I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely convinced that the connection between the environmental destruction caused by humans and the spreading of the virus always came across clearly.

Whilst I found these chapters beautifully written and interesting, I felt the book was at its strongest when showing the range of human responses to the virus, from the compassion of the healthcare workers and the practical concerns of the gravediggers to the fear, pain, anger, and denial faced by the population affected by the virus.

Written with wisdom and compassion, In the Company of Men is a powerfully affecting book that, whilst it won’t be for everyone, offers a beautifully written and evocative tale about humanity’s capacity for destruction, hope, renewal, and resilience.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo is published by Hope Road 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. The tour continues until 26 April 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!

Back from the Backlist · Discussion Time · Random Bookish Things · Spotlight

6 Books That Were Not For Me…BUT They Could Be For You!

Although my blog is very much my hobby – and I have absolutely no expectation of it being anything more than that – I have to admit that, aside from being able to share the book love with lots of lovely like-minded folk, one of the very nice things about being a book blogger is being sent the occasional book by publishers or authors for review.

In my case, most of these books come because I’m on Blog Tours but, every so often, I request a book because I like the sound of it from the blurb and the buzz surrounding it. 90% of the time these books then go on to be read and reviewed on this blog (although let’s not talk about my NetGalley backlog – that’s a whole different post) but, every so often, the book isn’t quite what I was expecting and doesn’t quite float my bookish boat in the way I hoped it would.

Because I don’t review books that I don’t finish on the blog, that left me in a bit of a quandary about what to do with these ‘not for me’ books. Part of what I love about book blogging is being able to help authors and publishers spread the book love, and to share books with potential readers. And I’m especially keen to acknowledge anyone kind enough to send a proof or finished copy my way.

So rather than have the ‘not for me’ books sitting on my shelf accusingly, I decided to put together this post to spotlight them and share them with you. Because just because a book wasn’t for me doesn’t mean that it won’t be for you! I’ve given Goodreads links to all of the books, along with the blurb and publisher information as well as a link to a full review from another lovely blogger!

The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson

Publisher: Head of Zeus, 398 pages

Blurb: Branna ‘Birdie’ Quinn had no good reason to be by the river that morning, but she did not kill the man. She’d seen him first the day before, desperate to give her a message she refused to hear. And now the Filth will see her hang for his murder, just like her father.

To save her life, Birdie must trace the dead man’s footsteps. Back onto the ship that carried him to his death, back to cold isles of Orkney that sheltered him, and up to the far north, a harsh and lawless land which holds more answers than she looks to find…

Review: Check out this full review from Nicola over at Short Books and Scribes – she found it “intriguing, so full of depth and the writing is beautifully descriptive” and perfect for fans of historical fiction and mysteries!

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipeiger

Publisher: Doubleday, 308 pages

Blurb: Three extraordinary lives intertwine across oceans and centuries.

On the banks of the River Seine in 1899, a heartbroken young woman takes her final breath before plunging into the icy water. Although she does not know it, her decision will set in motion an astonishing chain of events. It will lead to 1950s Norway, where a grieving toymaker is on the cusp of a transformative invention, all the way to present-day Canada, where a journalist battling a terrible disease, drowning in her own lungs, risks everything for one last chance to live.

Moving effortlessly across time and space and taking inspiration from an incredible true story, Coming Up for Air is a bold, richly imagined novel about love, loss, and the immeasurable impact of every human life.

Review: Amanda over at Bookish Chat loved this one – her review said that “Sarah Leipciger’s writing is captivating and sharp and all historical and medical elements were very well researched and portrayed” and felt that “Coming Up For For Air is one of those books which stays with you long after you’ve finished it”. High praise indeed!

From the Wreck by Jane Rawson

Publisher: Picador, 272 pages

Blurb: When George Hills was pulled from the wreck of the steamship Admella, he carried with him memories of a disaster that claimed the lives of almost every other soul on board. Almost every other soul. Because as he clung onto the wreck, George wasn’t alone: someone else—or something else—kept George warm and bound him to life. Why didn’t he die, as so many others did, half-submerged in the freezing Southern Ocean? And what happened to his fellow survivor, the woman who seemed to vanish into thin air?

George will live out the rest of his life obsessed with finding the answers to these questions. He will marry, father children, but never quite let go of the feeling that something else came out of the ocean that day, something that has been watching him ever since. The question of what this creature might want from him—his life? His first-born? To simply return home?—will pursue him, and call him back to the ocean again.

Review: Simon Savidge absolutely ADORED this book – it was one of his books of 2018, before it had even been published in the UK! His blog review said that the book has “originality, wonderful writing, a brilliant twisting plot, fantastic characters and some themes within it that you can really get your teeth into, should you want to” and he’s also featured the book on Youtube.

Theft by Luke Brown

Publisher: And Other Stories

Blurb: What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context. This was London, 2016 . . .

Bohemia is history. Paul has awoken to the fact that he will always be better known for reviewing haircuts than for his literary journalism. He is about to be kicked out of his cheap flat in east London and his sister has gone missing after an argument about what to do with the house where they grew up. Now that their mother is dead this is the last link they have to the declining town on the north-west coast where they grew up.

Enter Emily Nardini, a cult author, who – after granting Paul a rare interview – receives him into her surprisingly grand home. Paul is immediately intrigued: by Emily and her fictions, by her vexingly famous and successful partner Andrew (too old for her by half), and later by Andrew’s daughter Sophie, a journalist whose sexed-up vision of the revolution has gone viral. Increasingly obsessed, relationships under strain, Paul travels up and down, north and south, torn between the town he thought he had escaped and the city that threatens to chew him up.

Review: Lucy over at What Lucy Wrote thought that Theft was “a compelling and colourful reflection on division and truth – both within individuals and a country” with some brilliant characterisation. You can read her review here.

Beyond the Moon by Catherine Taylor

Publisher: The Cameo Press, 483 pages

Blurb: A strange twist of fate connects a British soldier fighting in the First World War in 1916 with a young woman living in modern-day England a century later, in this haunting literary time travel novel.

Two people, two battles: one against the invading Germans on the battlefields of 1916 France, the other against a substandard, uncaring mental health facility in modern-day England. Part war story, part timeslip, part love story – and at the same time a meditation on the themes of war, mental illness, identity and art, Beyond The Moon is an intelligent, captivating debut novel, perfect for book clubs.

In 1916 1st Lieutenant Robert Lovett is a patient at Coldbrook Hall military hospital in Sussex, England. A gifted artist, he’s been wounded fighting in the Great War. Shell shocked and suffering from hysterical blindness he can no longer see his own face, let alone paint, and life seems increasingly hopeless.

A century later in 2017, medical student Louisa Casson has just lost her beloved grandmother – her only family. Heartbroken, she drowns her sorrows in alcohol on the South Downs cliffs – only to fall accidentally part-way down. Doctors fear she may have attempted suicide, and Louisa finds herself involuntarily admitted to Coldbrook Hall – now a psychiatric hospital, an unfriendly and chaotic place.

Then one day, while secretly exploring the old Victorian hospital’s ruined, abandoned wing, Louisa hears a voice calling for help, and stumbles across a dark, old-fashioned hospital room. Inside, lying on the floor, is a mysterious, sightless young man, who tells her he was hurt at the Battle of the Somme, a WW1 battle a century ago. And that his name is Lieutenant Robert Lovett…

Review: Writing for NB Magazine, Nicola from Short Books and Scribes said that Beyond the Moon “is a fascinating read, both in terms of the detail and the well-plotted storyline” and that she “closed the book with a sense of satisfaction and pleasure that I had read it”. You can read her full review here.

When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray

Publisher: Hutchinson, 326 pages

Blurb: Emma is beginning to wonder whether relationships, like mortgages, should be conducted in five-year increments. She might laugh if Chris had bought a motorbike or started dyeing his hair. Instead he’s buying off-label medicines and stockpiling food.

Chris finds Emma’s relentless optimism exasperating. A tot of dread, a nip of horror, a shot of anger – he isn’t asking much. If she would only join him in a measure of something.

The family’s precarious eco-system is further disrupted by torrential rains, power cuts and the unexpected arrival of Chris’s mother. Emma longs to lower a rope and winch Chris from the pit of his worries. But he doesn’t want to be rescued or reassured – he wants to pull her in after him.

Review: Another review from Amanda over at Bookish Chat! She thought that ” the gentle humour and real moments of tender interplay between family members is so heartwarming” and that Carys Bray has an “innate ability to write about the ordinary family dynamic against the backdrop of extraordinary circumstances”.

My thanks go to all of the authors and publishers who sent me copies of these books. Unfortunately they weren’t quite my cup of tea but, as the reviews I have chosen shown, these might just be the perfect books for a different reader!

Are there are books here that you’ve taken a fancy to? Please do let me know if you pick up any of the books mentioned in today’s post!

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 & 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!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

They say we’ll never know what happened to those men.

They say the sea keeps its secrets…

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?

Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .

Inspired by true events, Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters is a mystery, a ghost story, a folk tale, and a lusciously written literary love story all rolled into one compulsively readable package.

Alternating between 1972 and 1992, the novel tells the story of three lighthouse keepers and their families. Principal Keeper Arthur has spent most of his life on the lights, although his warmth and efficiency hide a personal tragedy that is threatening his seemingly idyllic marriage to Helen. Assistant Keeper Bill has never felt settled either at home or at sea – although his wife Jenny adores their coastal lifestyle and busy family home. Vince headed to the lights to escape from his dark past – although he worries that despite his fresh start and his new girlfriend Michelle, it may still catch up with him.

All three men are stationed on The Maiden – an isolated rock lighthouse surrounded by nothing but the sea, the wind, and the things that whisper in the night – and all three go missing one seemingly ordinary day in 1972. The women in their lives – Helen, Jenny, and Michelle – are left with no explanation for their vanishing. Was it an accident? A murder? Or something more sinister and beyond the realms of the ordinary? When a writer approaches them to seek their stories, they are forced to confront the secrets of their own lives – as well as the darkness that may have lain within the hearts of the men they loved.

Emma Stonex has deftly weaved several voices, timelines, and interconnecting plot strands together in The Lamplighters, skilfully controlling each one to maintain tension whilst never leaving the reader feeling lost or disconnected. Instead, the novel is compulsively readable – grabbing hold on the first page and pulling you in like the sea pulls on the rocks around The Maiden itself.

Each characters is written with depth and realism, their voices jumping from the page. I adored gentle, erudite Arthur – a man lost in his past and unsure of his future in a world where lighthouse keepers are a dying breed – and empathised with his brisk and practical wife Helen, unsure of how to connect to a man who seems to love the sea more than he loves her. Jenny and Bill were more difficult characters – both prickly in their way – but Stonex allowed me to empathise with them for all their sharp edges and to share in their hopes, dreams, and frustrations. And I really felt for Vince and Michelle – two young people just trying to leave the mistakes of the past behind and begin anew. By the end of the novel, I felt like I had got to know all of them – and the ending, when it came, felt like saying goodbye to old friends.

I also felt as if I got to know The Maiden. Lonely and forbidding, the rock lighthouse on which Arthur, Bill and Vinnie are stationed is a much a character as the men and women whose lives revolve around it. Stonex perfectly captures the pull and allure of lighthouses, as well as the dark compulsion of the wild seascape that surrounds them. Alternating between wonder and dread, the novel is thick with atmosphere throughout, and interspersed with lush, vivid descriptions of the sea in all of its wild and terrible beauty.

As you can probably tell, I ADORED The Lamplighters – it’s definitely an early contender for my Books of the Year list and is a definite 5-star read for me. Although based on the story of Eilean Mor on the Flannen Isles – from which three keepers vanished in 1900 – Emma Stonex has crafted a novel that is uniquely her own and that resonates with a powerful sense of love, loss, and humanity. Her deft handling of the supernatural elements of her tale mean that the human stories resonate without being undermined, creating a story that is both compellingly suspenseful but also heart-breakingly moving. A must read and a 5-star recommendation from me.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is published by Picador and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for an advanced e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

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

Reviews

REVIEW!! The River Within by Karen Powell

It is the summer of 1955. Alexander, Tom and his sister Lennie, discover the body of their childhood friend Danny Masters in the river that runs through Starome, a village on the Richmond estate in North Yorkshire. His death is a mystery. Did he jump, or was it just an accident?

Lady Venetia Richmond has no time to dwell on the death. Newly widowed, she is busy trying to keep the estate together, while struggling with death duties and crippling taxation. Alexander, her son and sole heir to Richmond Hall, is of little help. Just when she most needs him, he grows elusive, his behavior becoming increasingly erratic.

Lennie Fairweather, ‘child of nature’ and daughter of the late Sir Angus’s private secretary, has other things on her mind too. In love with Alexander, she longs to escape life with her over-protective father and domineering brother. Alexander is unpredictable though, hard to pin down. Can she be sure of his true feelings towards her?

In the weeks that follow the tragic drowning, the river begins to give up its secrets. As the truth about Danny’s death emerges, other stories come to the surface that threaten to destroy everyone’s plans for future and, ultimately, their very way of life.

As someone who primarily reads novels for character and motivation, it is very rare for me to get drawn into a book where the main lure is the quality of the prose. It happens on occasion – Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is one example, Ray Robinson’s The Mating Habits of Stags another.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like or appreciate well-written or lyrical fiction. Just that there usually there has to be a compelling plot, motivation or character to go alongside it. And it also isn’t to say that The River Within doesn’t have an interesting plot, motivation or characters. Just that, for me, it was – unusually – the gorgeous prose that pulled me into the book and dragged me under, much like the rushing waters of the Stride does to the unfortunate Danny Masters. Take this, for example, from the opening paragraph:

Danny Masters came home one afternoon at the beginning of August. Something stirred beneath the surface of the water, at a point where the river at last quietened and opened out into a wide pool, bottle-green beneath the canopy of trees. His movement was slow at first, so that a passer-by might look twice, thinking it the shadow of a bird or a swaying branch above. A billowing next, deep, growing, blurred at the edges, and then up he bobbed as jauntily as a buoy, his one remaining eye widened at the shock of release.”

Similar passages can be found throughout the novel – sentences and paragraphs that you just want to dive into thanks to all their lushly evocative detail. One of the pull quotes for the novel – by the author Preti Taneja – said that the prose “was as alive as Millais’ painting of Ophelia, singing as the river and reeds claim her” and, for once, I don’t feel that’s an exaggeration. There really is something of a painting in this book – fine precise brushstrokes that come together to make a compelling portrait of a family and a community on the precipice of change.

The Ophelia comparison is well-founded because The River Within loosely takes Hamlet as its source material. If you know the play, you’ll quickly realise the roles into which Venetia Richmond, her son Alexander, and the dreamy Lennie Fairweather have been cast. Follow on from that, and it won’t take much to work out that The River Within is, at its heart, a five-act tragedy.

What makes The River Within so evocative, however, is the way in which Karen Powell has put meat onto the structural bones of Shakespeare’s original. Whilst characters and events can be loosely mapped onto Hamlet, the novel explores the added complications of class and societal hierarchies with its careful examination of a country house estate struggling to weather the changed world that has emerged after the Second World War. There are also tender and compassionate examinations of mental health, grief, love, longing, and desire, as Powell turns her piercing gaze upon the inhabitants of Starome to expose the inner workings of their souls.

To say any more about The River Within would, I feel, be superfluous – and would also risk spoiling the reading of this beautifully evocative book. Needless to say, if you’re looking for a moving and meditative read to see in 2021, The River Within should definitely be on your radar.

The River Within by Karen Powell is published by Europa Editions 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 Daniela Petracco at Europa Editions 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!

Reviews

REVIEW!! Summerwater by Sarah Moss

On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.

A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others.

Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.

Whilst I had my reservations about Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall, it was a haunting novella and it’s lush prose lingered in my memory long enough to make me want to pick up her latest novella, Summerwater on release. Considered a spiritual successor to Ghost Wall, Summerwater shares both its dark lyricism and oppressive tone with its predecessor but, for me, conveys the airlessness and suffocation of its characters and location much more successfully.

Set over the course of a single day, Summerwater is set in an isolated holiday park in The Trossachs. With the rain lashing down and no sign of sun on the horizon, the inhabitants of the cabins are forced into contemplation, both of each other and of themselves.

In a series of finely crafted pen portraits, we enter each cabin in turn and peer into the heads of twelve very different narrators. From the unhappily married mother of two who runs without realising what she’s fleeing from, to the retired doctor refusing to recognise his wife’s increasing frailty, Sarah Moss has captured a cacophony of voices and situations, each layered upon each other to create a picture of a community thrown together in isolation.

Thrown into the middle of this ‘community’ is a household without a voice – an Eastern European woman and her child whose cabin transforms at night into a place of loud music and raucous voices. The voicelessness of this mother and daughter pairing – and the reflections of the other characters upon them – provide a subtle commentary upon our divided times, and on our capacity for both building and destroying the communities around us.

Moss’ writing is beautifully lyrical whether revelling in glorious descriptions of the Scottish landscape, or in exploring the interior landscapes of the human mind. This makes the rare moments of intense anger and cruelty felt by many of the characters even starker. There was one particular moment, during a seemingly harmless children’s game, that hit me like a punch in the gut and provided an unpleasant reminder of both how much children can absorb from the adults around them. These seemingly random explosions of feeling within each narrative made the devastating ending all the more poignant for me. It’s as if the all the tension in the book finally finds its release.

This makes Summerwater sound like an unremittingly bleak book but it really isn’t. The novella might be infused with the grey drizzle of one Scottish summer but it is also a testament to the human condition in all its forms. The characters are, above all else, human. Whether eating, drinking, walking, kayaking, washing the dishes, or having sex, they are almost mundane in their ordinariness. Any of these characters could be us and I’d be surprised if readers didn’t find themselves resonating with aspects of nearly all of them, whether it’s the tired mother who squanders her precious hour off by fretting about how to spend it, or the teenager who only realises the security offered by home once he’s floating in the middle of the lake with a fierce wind threatening to capsize him.

There are also regular flashes of a wry humour and some laugh out loud moments. Having been a teenage girl myself, I laughed at the hormonal rage of a daughter being made to do the washing up, distraught at being torn from her friends back home. And it was impossible not to chuckle at the interior monologue of a bride-to-be, thoughts spiralling around colonialism, the environmental crisis, and the best colour for the flagstones in her new house, whilst her partner attempts to pleasure her. From the sublime to the ridiculous in the space of a few sentences, the writing here is so thoroughly imagined and of the moment that it’s impossible not to be drawn along with it.

Summerwater is a brief fable but no less accomplished for its brevity. In the space of just a few pages, Moss has conjured a tale brimming with life that offers a delicate and dark reflection on our times.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss is published by Picador and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

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!!! Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

Sea Wife CoverWhen Michael informs his wife Juliet that he is leaving his job and buying a sailboat, she is taken aback. And when he proposes they and their two young children take a year-long voyage, she is deeply apprehensive.

But Michael is persuasive, and eventually she agrees to his plan. The family set off for Panama, where their sailboat awaits them – a boat that Michael has named the ‘Juliet’.

Initially, the experience is transformative: their marriage is given a gust of energy, and each of them is affected by the beauty and wilderness of the sea.

But slowly, the voyage begins to unravel. 

I first heard about Sea Wife because it was a Modern Mrs Darcy Summer Reading Guide pick for 2020. Sea Wife – described by Anne as being ‘a harrowing portrait of a boat in peril and a marriage in crisis’ – sounded deeply intriguing so I jumped at the chance to be part of the Blog Tour for the book.

Sea Wife tells the story of Michael and Juliet, their two children George and Sybil, and their journey into the unknown as they set sail about the sailboat ‘Juliet’ for a life of freedom, adventure and renewal. Alternating between Juliet’s present-day perspective – in which it is clear that something has gone horribly wrong on the voyage – and Michael’s log of their time afloat, the novel is slow but exquisitely written account of their journey and its consequences.

Sea Wife is a meditative novel. The book moves gracefully and often focuses on the minutiae of Michael and Juliet’s lives. Small details are bought into glaring focus and, especially in Juliet’s sections, turned over and examined with care and attention. Despite this (or maybe because of it), the story has a gripping quality.

From the opening pages, it is clear that something has gone wrong with their adventure. Sitting on the floor in the safety of her tiny closet, Juliet is clearly alone and struggling. Her This contrasts sharply with Michael’s exuberant log entries – his joy at finding the boat, his hopes that this journey into the unknown might rescue his ailing marriage and help his depressed wife rediscover her joy. This disparity gives the novel the tautness of a thriller, a quality that belies the stately flow of Gaige’s lyrical prose.

Sea Wife also offers an intimate portrait of a marriage in crisis. As one character tells Juliet early on in the novel, ‘ Marriages have failure points, just like boats […] if you would rather not know the failure points, […] do not go sailing’. Sailing into the unknown brings Michael, Juliet and their children closer together but it also reveals the tiny splinters in their family unit and, as their journey progresses, these splinters become fractures that threaten to tear the family apart.

What was interesting about reading Sea Wife is that whilst I didn’t especially like either Michael or Juliet, I was compelled to read about them nonetheless. Unlikable characters are usually a hard pass for me but Michael and Juliet, for all their flaws (and they do, both of them, have many) were relatable. Their very ordinariness – the mundane nature of their flaws – makes them compelling, and allowed me to develop sympathy for them both in spite of their mistakes. Juliet, in particular, really grew on me as the novel developed – by the end, I was desperate for her to forgive herself for past errors and head into the future with the confidence that she deserved.

Sea Wife was not quite the fast-paced slice of domestic noir that I was expecting when I picked it up however it is stronger for it. The lyricism and attention to detail make the novel stand out amidst the veritable sea of domestic thrillers, whilst the setting provides a unique way of examining both personal isolation and marital/familial tension. Sea Wife may be slightly too sedate for some readers but for those who are prepared to wallow in the detail, this is a smart and sophisticated summer read.

Sea Wife by Amity Gaige is published by Fleet and is available now from all good bookseller and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository

f 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 Grace Vincent from Little Brown for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. 

SeaWife BT Poster

Book Prizes · Reviews

REVIEW!! Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

HamnetOn a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?

Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London.

Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief.

It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written. 

Oh my gosh, this book. This book. 

So that’s not the greatest opening to a blog post but seriously, you’re lucky to be getting more than just a succession of random letters typed onto the screen. It’s taken a good week since finishing Maggie O’Farrell’s reimagining of the life of Shakespeare’s son for me to be able to form even vaguely coherent sentences about it.

Hamnet is one of those books that lingers in the mind both during and after the process of reading it. It is simultaneously lyrical imagining of life in sixteenth-century Stratford and a profoundly moving depiction of a family being built, torn apart, and rebuilt from within.

I was blown away by Maggie O’Farrell’s vivid depictions of the life and characters that populate Agnes, Judith, and Hamnet’s world. The streets of both Stratford and London are teeming with life, the world vividly recreated and leaping from the pages. From the first few pages, in which the reader follows young Hamnet as he desperately searches for help for the ailing Judith, to the closing scenes amidst the crowds of Shakespeare’s famous Globe, I was utterly absorbed into the sights and sounds of the world that O’Farrell has created.

I was also completely drawn in by the characters themselves. Hamnet himself is a mixture of child-like innocence and precocious intelligence, a picture of a boy moving from childhood to adolescence. But, for me at least, the real star of the show is Hamnet’s mother Agnes. Perceptive and unconventional, the sheer force of Agnes’ personality leapt off the page. Possessing an emotional intelligence that belies her lack of formal education, Agnes’ determination to forge a family for herself, her desperate struggle to keep both her twins alive and her grief at her failure to do so, is the driving force of the novel.

One of my favourite things about the book (because, as you can probably tell already, I utterly adored it) is the way in which O’Farrell has captured the web of complex intrigues that lie beneath the surface of every family. The reason why a son tenses when his father walks into a room, the ways in which a quiet influence can be exerted on household decisions, the undercurrents of family life that spin around all of us. By the end of the novel, I felt as if I’d been allowed to step through time and into this one household to stand by, observing, as daily life played out around me.

This absorption means that Hamnet is a quiet novel. It relies upon the stark contrast between the small interactions that make up life’s daily rhythms and the sudden, devastating ways in which these can be ripped apart without a moment’s notice for its impact. It is a drama played out in small doses, where a decision made one year has repercussions several months or even years further down the line. I imagine some readers may find the pace a little too sedate but, for me, the gentle recreation of family life in the first two-thirds of the novel is what makes the sudden dive into all-consuming, furious grief in the latter third so powerfully affecting.

This might be the first of Maggie O’Farrell’s books that I’ve read but, on the basis of this powerfully imagined novel, it certainly won’t be the last. Hamnet is a beautifully imagined exploration of family, a tender examination of a life cut tragically short, and a profound testimony to the healing power of love and creativity. It’s a well-deserved contender for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and, if you haven’t already read it, I would highly recommend picking it up.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

Don’t forget that although your local bookshop might be closed at the moment, you can also support your local indie bookshops by ordering from them online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop (where I got my gorgeous indie-exclusive signed copy of Hamnet from) The Big Green BookshopSam Read Booksellers, and Berts Books

Hamnet is one of a number of fantastic titles shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. You can find out more about the prize, and about all of the shortlisted titles, on the Women’s Prize website