Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Crimson Tide by Anna Sayburn Lane

When Helen Oddfellow goes to Canterbury for the opening of an Elizabethan play unseen for 400 years, she is expecting an exciting night. But the performance is disrupted by protests, then a gruesome discovery in the cathedral crypt draws her into a desperate hunt for a murderer.

Is the play cursed? The actors think so, but Helen doesn’t believe in curses. As friends go missing and Helen herself is threatened, she pursues the clues through the ornate tombs of the cathedral and the alleyways of the ancient city.

Mysteries from the distant and not-so-distant past are exposed.

Can Helen find the killer – before he kills again?

Having thoroughly enjoyed Anna Sayburn Lane’s previous two Helen Oddfellow mysteries, Unlawful Things and The Peacock Room, I was delighted to receive a copy of the third book in the series, The Crimson Thread, and to find out what literary mystery Helen has found herself embroiled in this time.

The time has finally come for the lost Elizabethan play that Helen and her investigative partner Richard found in Unlawful Things to be performed. The play is not without controversy – depicting Sir Thomas Becket (also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury) as an anti-hero, its discovery has rocked some of the more extreme parts of the religious and literary worlds, and the play’s performance has attracted protests.

Going to the opening night performance in Canterbury – the site of Becket’s murder – Helen is expecting to have to defend the play but she is wholly unprepared to stumble upon a corpse in the cathedral crypt, and even less prepared when the body turns out to be connected to an old ally of Helen and Richard’s. Someone, it seems, is determined to stop the performance of the lost play – and to continue to hide Thomas Becket’s last secret. And it soon becomes apparent that they will stop at nothing in pursuit of their aims.

As with Anna Sayburn Lane’s previous Helen Oddfellow mysteries, The Crimson Thread provides a page-turning literary mystery complete with a satisfying and intriguing intellectual puzzle and a trail of literary breadcrumbs for readers to follow as the mystery is revealed.

There are probably more thriller elements in this book than the previous titles – Helen finds herself up against a truly vicious villain who is capable of both psychological and physical violence – meaning that, with The Crimson Thread being a tad shorter than its predecessors (a slender 211 pages), the pace really rattles along, making for a page-turning and compulsive read. I finished it over the course of an afternoon because once I was absorbed in the mystery, I just didn’t want to stop reading!

Helen continues to mature as a character – she’s more sure of herself in this book, and more aware of the risks that she is taking. Whilst it was lovely to see some returning characters, it was also great to be introduced to some new faces – a determined and organised police detective, and a handsome actor (and possible love interest for Helen) being two of my favourites. I wasn’t quite as taken with the subplot of this book – the young choir boy who occasionally acts as a viewpoint character didn’t quite make up for the absence of newspaper reporter Nick Wilson for me – but I appreciated the change of location and the opportunity for Helen to meet new people, revisit old connections, and tie up loose ends from Unlawful Things.

As in Unlawful Things, the antagonists of the novel are brilliantly realised – one of them really made my skin crawl, being a blend of manipulative, deceitful, and outright violent. As I mentioned above, there are some scenes of both psychological and physical abuse in the novel – Sayburn Lane doesn’t shy away from depicting violence on the page when necessary – but, as in her previous books, this felt in-keeping with the characterisation of her villains.

Unlike its predecessor The Peacock Room, The Crimson Thread is a more direct sequel to Unlawful Things, picking up on a number of strands from the first book in the series and with the return of a number of characters from that novel. Whilst the mystery itself is, as with the others in the series, a standalone, I do feel that you’d get more enjoyment out of The Crimson Thread if you read Unlawful Things first – the central mystery of that novel is fairly key to this one, and a number of events and characters are referenced.

Fans of The Da Vinci Code and The Shakespeare Secret who have not yet discovered Helen Oddfellow should definitely be jumping on this series, as should any thriller fan seeking a change of pace from domestic noir. Lovers of literature will also find much to enjoy here – Anna Sayburn Lane has clearly done her research and her clear yet crafted writing really brings her characters and settings to life. Packed with twists, turns, action, and adventure, The Crimson Thread is another thrilling outing for Helen Oddfellow and I can’t wait to see what she might get up to next!

The Crimson Thread by Anna Sayburn Lane is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive 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 author 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!! Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews

Celebrated, bestselling, elusive…who is Maud Dixon?

Florence Darrow wants to be a writer. Correction: Florence Darrow IS going to be a writer. Fired from her first job in publishing, she jumps at the chance to be assistant to the celebrated Maud Dixon, the anonymous bestselling novelist. The arrangement comes with conditions – high secrecy, living in an isolated house in the countryside . Before long, the two of them are on a research trip to Morocco, to inspire the much-promised second novel. Beach walks, red sunsets and long, whisky-filled evening discussions…win-win, surely? Until Florence wakes up in a hospital, having narrowly survived a car crash.

How did it happen – and where is Maud Dixon, who was in the car with her? Florence feels she may have been played, but wait, if Maud is no longer around, maybe Florence can make her mark as a writer after all… 

One of the best things about book blogging is discovering books that you might otherwise have missed through other lovely bloggers. If it hadn’t been for the lovely Clare over at Years of Reading, I might have missed out on Who is Maud Dixon? and, let me tell you, that would have been my loss because this book is an absolute corker!

Who is Maud Dixon?, the debut novel from Alexandra Andrews, is a literary mystery reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith at her most chilling but with a pinch of Elena Ferrante’s carefully observed female relationships and Harriet Lane’s unreliable narrators thrown in for good measure.

The novel follows Florence, a young and somewhat awkward young woman living in New York and dreaming of literary success. Unfortunately Florence lacks the experience to put her dreams into words. Surrounded by the glamour of New York’s literary intelligentsia, her writing has dried up and, as she watches her colleagues achieve successes that she can only dream of, Florence begins to lose herself amidst a dangerous mixture of ennui and bitterness.

After a series of poor decisions result in her losing her publishing job, Florence is overjoyed to be approached by elusive novelist Maud Dixon. Maud Dixon or, as it turns out, Helen Wilcox’s wildly successful debut novel, Mississippi Foxtrot, set the literary world on fire and now she needs an assistant to help her whilst she concentrates on her second book. Cue Florence’s entry into the world of Maud Dixon/Helen Wilcox. But is there more to Maud/Helen than meets the eye? Florence may wish to emulate Helen’s success but who really IS Maud Dixon?

Saying anything more about the plot of Who Is Maud Dixon? would spoil the book. In fact I’d actually argue that this is one instance in which the blurb potentially gives a little too much away – the less you know about this book going in, the more satisfying I think you’ll find the experience of reading it. Suffice to say that there really is more to Maud/Helen than there first appears – and more to Florence too – and the novel unfolds into an intimate portrayal of these two women and the lengths that they will go to in order to both forge and protect their literary identities.

Florence makes for an interesting – if not always likeable – protagonist. By turns naïve and scheming, she is a young women entirely unsure of who she really is. Dominated by an overbearing mother throughout her childhood, Florence has escaped to New York in the expectation that simply by moving she will become everything she is meant to be. Her failure to recognise that some effort on her part may be required in order to achieve her literary dreams did frustrate me at times but, as events unfolded and Florence becomes more entangled with Helen/Maud’s life, I began to be more sympathetic towards someone who is clearly out of their depth and wildly unprepared for the challenges she faces.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there are strong Highsmith vibes in Who is Maud Dixon and the plot turns on issues of identity. How do we know who we truly are? What processes do we go through to become that person? And what lengths will we go to in order to protect that? Finding the answers to these questions will, for Florence, entrap her in a haze almost as suffocating as that created by the Moroccan heat she finds herself living in.

Who is Maud Dixon? has that enviable page-turning quality that makes it a perfect holiday read. With its glamorous depiction of the literary scene and its heady descriptions of the Moroccan heat, I was transported by its pages and ended staying up well past my bedtime to finish it! Packed with well crafted twists, hazardous situations, complex characters, and a series of poor life choices (ingredients that make for the BEST revelations!), it would make for the perfect summer read for anyone who loves a good literary mystery.

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews is published by Tinder Press 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!!! Keeper by Jessica Moor

He’s been looking in the windows again. Messing with cameras. Leaving notes.
Supposed to be a refuge. But death got inside.

When Katie Straw’s body is pulled from the waters of the local suicide spot, the police decide it’s an open-and-shut case. A standard-issue female suicide.

But the residents of Widringham women’s refuge where Katie worked don’t agree. They say it’s murder.

Will you listen to them?

There were so many moments reading Jessica Moor’s Keeper when I had to remind myself that this is a debut novel. Compelling and powerful, this is a novel that reads like the work of an assured novelist, effortlessly combining the page-turning quality of a thriller with stylistic literary touches and a spare yet layered tone.

Before I go any further with my review of Keeper, a word on trigger warnings. The novel does not shy away from the grim realities of domestic abuse and systematic misogyny. Whilst never voyeuristic or unnecessary, the novel contains scenes that recount incidents of domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, gas-lighting, and coercive control. There are also mentions of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, drug addiction, prostitution, internet abuse/trolling, and systematic misogyny. In telling its powerful and sadly all too relevant story, Keeper puts on the page what many novels only imply. This makes for an intensely vivid and compelling story but also a disturbing and deeply chilling one.

Alternating between two timelines, the novel opens with the body of Katie Straw being pulled from a known suicide spot. Katie worked at the local women’s refuge, a controversial space within the small town of Widringham. According to Katie’s boss Val, the refuge has been receiving abuse on Twitter. The women who reside there speak of a man hanging around, a car idling nearby, and a locked gate left open. Coincidence? The police would like to think so. DS Daniel Whitworth is on the cusp of retirement. Whilst he knows he has a job to do, Katie’s history of depression and the manner of her death point to suicide. But the more he digs into Katie Straw’s life, the more there seems to be that would suggest her death is anything but straightforward.

Intervening into the details of the investigation into Katie’s death are sections entitled ‘Then’. Told from Katie’s perspective, these look back on her relationship with Jamie who effortlessly inserts himself into her life before slowly isolating her from her friends and family and even from her own self. These chapters were, for me, the most unsettling within the novel as they show how easy it is for an accomplished manipulator such as Jamie to take control of Katie’s thought patterns and for their relationship to shift into firstly emotional and then, later, physical and sexual, abuse.

Other chapters are told from the perspective of the women within the refuge where Katie worked, as well as from the point of view of DS Whitworth. Whitworth is an interesting character because, although he is old-fashioned and jaded in his attitudes, he does seem to be in some way aware of his own failings. On some level, he knows that he doesn’t really understand Katie or the women in the refuge who knew her and so he’s content to leave much of the talking to his trainee, DS Brookes, whose easy charm and placating manner eases nerves and opens doors. This makes for an interesting dynamic that plays with the reader’s perceptions, expectations and sympathies – and makes for a truly fantastic twist in the tale!

The voices of the women within the refuge, as well as that of Katie herself, are really well captured and their respective circumstances show that, despite what the media might have us believe, there is no such thing as an ‘average’ domestic violence victim. From the motherly Angie, who has spent over 40 years married to her abusive husband, to formerly well-off housewife Lynne, struggling to adjust to the life she has apparently chosen for her and her daughter, each of the women has a distinct yet realistic story – and each is wrestling with the reality of what has happened to them, and what they are going to do next. The sheer complexity and variety of their stories – and the way in which their narratives are interwoven with wider issues of societal and systematic misogynies – is heartbreakingly realistic and made me both extremely sad and extremely angry.

Keeper is not for the faint-hearted then. Brutally immersive and unflinching in its depictions of the issues it touches upon, it is a hard-hitting and insightful debut that offers pace and page-turning compulsion with some clever and stylistic literary twists. Emotionally devastating and viscerally told, this incisive debut is not exactly a pleasant read but it is a deeply important one and I look forward to seeing what Jessica Moor writes next.

Keeper by Jessica Moor is published by Penguin Viking and is available now in ebook and paperback from all good bookshops 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 Georgia Taylor from Penguin for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 01 February 2020 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!