Reviews

REVIEW!! on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese

In his second collection, on a distant ridgeline, Sam Reese creates twelve vivid and tenderly drawn tales with moments and memories that linger just out of reach.

Between the past and present and potential reconciliations—and with a keen eye on the subtle balance of human connection—relationships and their fractured qualities are central to this new gathering of stories.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that short stories rarely feature in my reviews. This isn’t because I don’t read them, although I do read considerably fewer short stories than novels in the average year. But although I very much enjoy reading the stories featured in my copy of Mslexia magazine, or in The New Yorker, I find the process of reading, digesting, and then ‘ reviewing’ a short story to be quite tricky. Although short in format, the literary short story usually gives you a lot to digest.

This is certainly the case with Sam Reese’s second collection, on a distant ridgeline, which features twelve beautifully constructed stories that, though not lengthy in their word count (the whole collection is a slender 180 pages), certainly provide plenty for the reader to mull over and consider.

From a tale of two brothers finding their feet in a new environment to a sinister story of a young girl, her mother, and the compulsions that bind them, on a distant ridgeline is a wide-ranging collection and each of the stories can, at first, seem somewhat disparate from those around them. Read the whole collection however and you’ll begin to pick out strands of connection – tiny moments and fragments from each tale that resonate with wider ideas about human intimacy, tenderness, and the almost insignificant moments upon which momentous decisions can hang.

As with many literary short stories, much of the pleasure to be had from on a distant ridgeline is in the language, the imagery, and experience of reading. This is a collection best savoured slowly, allowing for each story to sink in before moving on to the next. Whilst there are certainly moments of tension, drama, and character-propelled action, what the stories often gave me was a sense of a snapshot – a fragmentary and fleeting glimpse into a moment, or a relationship, or a person.

If you’re not already a fan of the literary short story, I don’t think on a distant ridgeline is likely to convert you. The collection contains many of the hallmarks of the genre; from the understated yet measured observations of small details to the wider expansiveness of connecting themes and concepts, it’s a collection that does make the reader do some work to join the dots and tease out a sense of meaning. For those who enjoy stories that offer quiet power and elegant prose, however, on a distant ridgeline is cleverly constructed, lyrically rendered, and resonates after the final page has been turned.

About the Author

“Short stories are at their most interesting, I think, when they avoid just a single meaning. This is why I direct my own writing out towards the darkness and the shadows—why my characters obsess over, dream of, are haunted by feeling and memories that they do not completely understand.”

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an insatiable traveller and award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. A widely respected literary and music critic, his study of The Short Story in Midcentury America won the 2018 Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize. Currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University, Sam formerly taught at the University of Sydney, where his inspirational teaching was recognised with an Excellence award. More details can be found on Sam’s website: https://svhreese.com/stories and by following him on Twitter: @svhreese

on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese is published by Platypus Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher and to Isabelle Kenyon for providing an 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!!! Mrs March by Virginia Feito

Image Description: The cover of Mrs March depicting a woman in a green 1950s style dress against an orange background. A cockroach crawls up the bottom of the dress.

George March’s latest novel is a smash hit. None could be prouder than Mrs. March, his dutiful wife, who revels in his accolades and relishes the lifestyle and status his success brings.

A creature of routine and decorum, Mrs. March lives an exquisitely controlled existence on the Upper East Side. Every morning begins the same way, with a visit to her favourite patisserie to buy a loaf of olive bread, but her latest trip proves to be her last when she suffers an indignity from which she may never recover: an assumption by the shopkeeper that the protagonist in George March’s new book – a pathetic sex worker, more a figure of derision than desire – is based on Mrs. March.

One casual remark robs Mrs. March not only of her beloved olive bread but of the belief that she knew everything about her husband – and herself – sending her on an increasingly paranoid journey, one that starts within the pages of a book but may very well uncover both a killer and the long-buried secrets of Mrs. March’s past.

It has been a long time since a book both captivated and unsettled me as much as Mrs March. Virginia Feito’s accomplished debut is a poised, elegant, and delightfully disturbing portrait of a woman in crisis that had me utterly gripped from the very first page!

The novel opens with Mrs March, wife of fêted literary novelist George, buying her usual olive bread from her usual patisserie. Everything about Mrs March is usual. With her mint green gloves, coiffed hair, Upper East Side apartment, and practical loafers she is, to be quite honest, boringly respectable. So when the patisserie owner praises Mrs March on the success of George’s latest novel, Mrs March is ready to smile graciously and exchange platitudes about her talented husband and, by extension, her successful and elegant life. What she is not expecting is for the woman to think that the protagonist Johanna – a sex worker whose patrons continue to use her services from pity rather than desire – is based on Mrs March.

This seemingly small incident begins a gradual unravelling of Mrs March’s seemingly conventional life, causing her to reconsider the narratives she has constructed around her lifestyle, her marriage – and even her very existence. And as her carefully constructed world shifts and tilts around her, the secrets of Mrs March’s past begin to leak into her present – and the possibility that George may be far more dangerous than she could ever have imagined begins to prey upon her mind.

As Mrs March becomes every more unmoored, the reader is sucked into a suspenseful and sinister portrait of a woman forced to grapple with the cracks that have appeared in both her inner and outer life. Small, seemingly incidental, moments – a cockroach on a bathroom floor, a stolen cigarette case – take on meanings and symbolism of their own as Mrs March navigates her now fractured sense of self and re-evaluates the choices that have led her into this existence.

As you might expected, this does not necessarily make for ‘easy’ reading. Mrs March is, in many ways, a deeply unsettling novel and there were a few occasions when I had to put the book down and take a break to escape the suffocation of Mrs March’s claustrophobic interior life. This all-pervading sense of paranoia is a testament to the quiet brilliance of Virginia Feito’s writing which combines detailed observation of the minutiae of Mrs March’s life with pared back yet absorbing style.

Whilst the era in which the novel is set is never made completely clear, we’re in an era of ‘the help’, of smoking at cocktail parties in other people’s homes, of being served in department stores by elegant assistants at individual counters – and of ‘respectable’ women’s lives being strictly curtailed and regulated by societal expectations of marriage and motherhood. As such, the novel is a commentary upon social complicity in the vein of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (with which it shares definite themes), and it caused me to think not only about what sort of society creates a woman like Mrs March but also the extent to which she is invested as an agent of her own downfall.

With shades of Patricia Highsmith’s suspenseful menace and Shirley Jackson’s unsettling paranoia, Mrs March is a slow-burning but effective portrait of a woman that raises questions about the line between sanity and insanity, and the role of society, childhood, and those we love in creating our inner selves. With its bleak yet razor sharp humour, fans of My Sister, the Serial Killer will find Mrs March to be another compelling read that focuses on the darker side of female existence – and another debut writer to watch.

Mrs March by Virginia Feito is published by 4th Estate and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including HiveBookshop.org, Wordery, and Waterstones.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and for inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 15 August 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR 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!