Reviews

REVIEW!!! The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

PS: thanks for the murders.

The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should absolutely not be suspicious. DS Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing to concern her in carer Natalka’s account of Peggy Smith’s death.

But when Natalka reveals that Peggy lied about her heart condition and that she had been sure someone was following her…

And that Peggy Smith had been a ‘murder consultant’ who plotted deaths for authors, and knew more about murder than anyone has any right to…


And when clearing out Peggy’s flat ends in Natalka being held at gunpoint by a masked figure…

Well then DS Harbinder Kaur thinks that maybe there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death after all.

Having really enjoyed Elly Griffith’s previous standalone mystery The Stranger Diaries back in 2019, I was keen to read more of her work. Unfortunately however her more established Dr Ruth Galloway series didn’t quite gel with me, so I was delighted by the announcement of The Postscript Murders, Elly’s second standalone mystery.

I say ‘standalone’ but Goodreads has this listed as the second in the DS Harbinder Kaur ‘series’. This is possibly a tad misleading. Whilst DS Kaur did appear as one of the investigating officers in The Stranger Diaries, she wasn’t the protagonist and the two novels can be enjoyed entirely separately – the mystery in The Postscript Murders is entirely standalone and DS Kaur now takes centre stage as one of the viewpoint characters, alongside an eclectic cast of amateur sleuths. There are some nods back to The Stranger Diaries – references to Harbinder’s friend Clare, the protagonist of the previous books – but nothing that requires you to have read that novel in order to enjoy this one.

The Postscript Murders sees DS Kaur and her colleagues investigating the death of a 90 year old lady called Peggy Smith. Peggy had a heart condition so, at first glance, there seems to be nothing unusual about her demise. When her carer Natalka and ex-monk friend Benedict are held up at gunpoint in Peggy’s apartment – and when the gunman steals an obscure golden age crime novel – it does begin to look as if there may have been more to Peggy’s death than meets the eye. When it becomes apparent that Peggy acted as a ‘murder consultant’ for various well-known crime novelists – and when one of those novelists ends up with a bullet to the head – Harbinder realises she’s got a rapidly evolving and complex case on her hands. One that she could do really without Natalka, Benedict, and Peggy’s elderly neighbour Edwin getting wrapped up in.

Combining the ‘cosy’ amateur sleuthing of Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club with the literary mystery of Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, The Postscript Murders is a wholly engaging read that alternates between Harbinder Kaur’s official investigation and the amateur sleuthing of Natalka, Benedict, and Edwin.

Harbinder really comes to life in this book and makes for an enjoyably cynical narrator and I really liked finding out more about her family and personal life in this book. Living at home with her elderly parents Bibi and Deepak (both of whom are an absolute delight to read about on the page), Harbinder finds it challenging to balance her job with her role as a daughter in a close-knit Sikh household – especially when Bibi falls over the family dog and requires additional care. Harbinder is also hiding the fact that she is gay from her family – and is doubting whether a thirty-something woman with a successful career should really still be living at home and spending her evenings playing Panda Pop. Watching her puzzle through both personal and professional dilemmas was one of the highpoints of the book for me – and I loved that, whilst Harbinder has both family and professional problems, Elly Griffiths didn’t turn her into the traditional ‘detective with issues’. Instead we get a portrait of a warm, loving family, and a respectful – if occasionally frustrating – professional environment – and of a woman working through where exactly she fits into it.

Natalka, Benedict, and Edwin, meanwhile, are a delightfully eclectic set of amateur sleuths. Carer Natalka is witty, confident, and captivating – but is running from painful memories and dangerous enemies back in her native Ukraine. Ex-monk turned barista Benedict, meanwhile, knows he’s fallen out of love with seminary life – but can’t quite find his place within the secular world. And former TV producer Edwin – stuck living at Seaview ‘Preview’ Court – faces a lonely existence without his friend Peggy. As this unlikely trio begin investigating Peggy’s death, they form friendships and bonds that are really lovely to read about. And again, whilst each of the trio have ‘baggage’, this is dealt with in a reasonable and realistic way.

I also really liked the way the plot centred around the literary world and, in particular, the world of crime fiction. There is a knowing and witty portrayal of the bookish community in The Postscript Murders that is sure to delight many readers – even us bloggers get a mention! And whilst there are several deaths in the course of the novel, there isn’t anything especially gory or violent – for the most part, the book stays firmly in the realm of ‘cosy’ crime in a similar way to the Golden Age mysteries to which it pays some homage. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of unexpected twists and turns along the way to finding out ‘whodunnit’!

Overall, The Postscript Murders is a charming and engaging mystery bought to life by a cast of vivid and endearing characters. Combining a well-plotted and page-turning mystery with plenty of warmth, wit, and humour, it is the perfect read for fans of The Thursday Murder Club or Magpie Murders, as well as anyone seeking a contemporary mystery that has all the hallmarks and charm of the Golden Age.

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths is published by Quercus and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an ecopy 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!!! The Lost Girls by Heather Young

In the summer of 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans vanishes from her family’s vacation home on a remote Minnesota lake. Her disappearance destroys her mother, who spends the rest of her life at the lake house, hoping in vain that her favourite daughter will walk out of the woods. Emily’s two older sisters stay, too, each keeping her own private, decades-long vigil for the lost child.

Sixty years later Lucy, the quiet and watchful middle sister, lives in the lake house alone. Before she dies, she writes the story of that devastating summer in a notebook that she leaves, along with the house, to the only person to whom it might matter: her grandniece, Justine.

For Justine, the lake house offers a chance to escape her manipulative boyfriend and give her daughters the stable home she never had. But it’s not the sanctuary she hoped for. The long Minnesota winter has begun. The house is cold and dilapidated, the frozen lake is silent and forbidding, and her only neighbour is a strange old man who seems to know more than he’s telling about the summer of 1935.

Soon Justine’s troubled oldest daughter becomes obsessed with Emily’s disappearance, her mother arrives with designs on her inheritance, and the man she left behind launches a dangerous plan to get her back. In a house steeped in the sorrows of the women who came before her, Justine must overcome their tragic legacy if she hopes to save herself and her children.

As soon as I heard about The Lost Girls, I jumped at the chance to request it from NetGalley. Dual timeline? Historical mystery? Woman discovering herself whilst finding out long-buried family secrets? It all sounded like Unread Books catnip!

In the summer of 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans vanishes from her family’s remote lake house. Her distraught mother refuses to leave, staying at the family’s summer home in the hope that, one day, her lost daughter will return. Emily’s two older sisters, eleven-year-old Lucy and thirteen-year-old Lilith, also stay behind. Years later, Lilith’s granddaughter Justine receives word that her great-aunt Lucy has died – and left her the Lake House and all of its contents.

Stuck in a stifling relationship and with two small daughters to provide for, Justine jumps at the chance for a fresh start. But the Lake House is far from welcoming. The long Minnesota winter is just beginning and the house is more dilapidated than Justine remembers. Her only neighbours – a pair of quiet and reclusive elderly men – are cautiously friendly, but seem to know more about Justine’s family than they are letting on. With the arrival of her erratic and unreliable mother and controlling ex-boyfriend, Justine’s new start is soon in danger of repeating old history. And then her troubled eldest daughter starts asking questions about a long ago summer in 1935…

As you can hopefully tell from that brief synopsis, The Lost Girls is a page-turning and compelling mystery set over dual timelines. Alternating between Justine herself in the present day, an elderly Lucy writing down her recollections of that long ago summer, the mystery of what happened to Emily gradually unravels alongside Justine’s present day woes and conflicts to create a complete picture of a family haunted by long-buried secrets and betrayals.

Although compelling, the plot is relatively sedate for the first half of the book. There’s quite a lot of setup to establish the characters and the setting, which really helps to build the tension for what ended up being a pacy and explosive second act! I really loved the sense of place that Heather Young manages to convey. She captures both the nostalgia of Lucy’s childhood summers by the lake – all sunlit evenings and rising emotions stifled by the heat – and the cold isolation of the modern day Lake House, frozen in time just as much as it is frozen within the wintery Minnesota landscape.

The characters were, for me, a little harder to like. Although I could sympathise with Justine, I sometimes struggled to empathise with her inability to cut her ties and make a new life for herself and her girls. Although I don’t want to give any spoilers, there are a couple of characters in her life that I would have given the heave-ho much sooner – and before events turned dramatic!

Lucy was, for me, the more compelling voice in the narrative. Although often irrational and petulant, she comes across as a typical eleven-year-old girl, caught somewhere between childhood and her teenage years – and aware that her older sister Lilith is growing up and leaving her behind. The revelations about Lucy’s life and family are also utterly devastating – and really put into perspective some of the events that have come beforehand in the book, as well as some of the ripples that feed through to the present day narrative.

Although primarily a mystery, The Lost Girls does also deal with family dynamics and family secrets. Although it tackles the subjects with sensitivity, trigger warnings should be noted for sexual abuse, child abuse, gaslighting, and coercive control.

Overall, The Lost Girls is a captivating story of loss, guilt, hope, redemption, and escape. Its dual narratives are handled with great skill to make for an enthralling mystery of one family’s secrets and lies over the space of 64 years. Haunting and intriguing, The Lost Girls is sure to appeal to fans of Rachel Hore and Kate Morton, as well as to anyone seeking a compulsive and compelling read.

The Lost Girls by Heather Young is published by Verve Books and is available now as an ebook and to pre-order in paperback from all good booksellers 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

My thanks go to the publisher and NetGalley UK 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 09 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! A Murder at Rosings by Annette Purdey Pugh

When Mr Collins is found stabbed to death in Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s garden, simmering tensions are revealed beneath the elegant Regency surface of the Rosings estate.

The prime suspect is Mr Bennet, who was overheard arguing with Mr Collins over the entail of Longbourn in the days before the murder was committed, and who stands to benefit more than anyone from the Rector’s death.

His daughter Mary uncovers a scandalous secret that holds the key to the murder. Can she prove her father’s innocence in time to save him from the gallows?

As a lover of all things Austen, I have eagerly devoured several Austen-adjacent novels and ‘sequels’ over the years. Most have centered on Elizabeth Bennet: she’s fought zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and solved a murder (Death Comes to Pemberley) but, more recently, other characters have come to the fore. From servants (Longbourn) to Charlotte Lucas (Charlotte), to Mary Bennet (The Other Bennet Sister), Austen’s most famous novel seems to invite infinite re-tellings.

Annette Purdey Pugh’s debut novel, A Murder at Rosings, is an imaginative addition to this contemporary tradition, moving the action away from Longbourn and Pemberley to Rosings, the home of the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr Collins, one-time suitor to Elizabeth Bennet and heir to the Longbourn estate, has been found stabbed to death in Lady Catherine’s garden.

The pompous vicar was overheard arguing with Mr Bennet in the days before his death – and it appears Mr Bennet may be the only person who benefits from the Rector’s death. It is left to Mary Bennet, with the support of her new friend Anne de Bourgh, to try and uncover the key to the murder. As the official investigation gathers pace, Mary uncovers a scandalous secret that could change Rosings forever.

Offering an interesting perspective on some of Austen’s well-known characters, A Murder at Rosings is an entertaining ‘cosy’ mystery (although there is mention of and allusion to sexual assault and sexual coersion, albeit without any graphic language or content) with plenty of twists and turns, as well as an insight into the ‘below stairs’ life of a great house such as Rosings.

Whilst characters remained true to Austen’s depictions of them, Annette Purdey Pugh has fleshed out ‘incidental’ characters such as Mary Bennet and Anne de Bourgh with nuance, developing character traits from Austen’s novel to create fully rounded and believable characters that have additional depth. Lady Catherine, for example, remains aloof and opinionated but is shown to also be a genuinely caring mother and a reasonable employer.

In addition, Purdey Pugh has created some interesting original characters – the local magistrate, Sir John Bright, acts as a reasoned and reasonable principle investigator into the crime and is ably – if naively – assisted by local constable Robert Archer. There are also plenty of red herrings to detract from the main plot – a pair of suspicious stable boys, a frightened young orphan – that keep the pages turning and the mind whirring!

My only quibble is that, despite the blurb, Mary doesn’t really do much ‘investigating’ – this is not like Elizabeth in Death Comes to Pemberley, placing herself at the forefront of the investigation. She does discover a crucial piece of evidence but if you’re looking for a Bennet centered book, Murder at Rosings isn’t it. Sir John and Archer lead the investigations and Murder at Rosings is, on the whole, an ensemble affair featuring a range of Austen’s characters – such as Mary – in ‘walk-on’ parts. Still interesting, but arguably not ‘as advertised’ in the blurb.

Imaginative and interesting, this was a light and engaging mystery that ably expands on Austen’s original whilst remaining true to the spirit, character, and style of her works. Pacy and page-turning, the central mystery has some intriguing twists that will keep you guessing, whilst Austen fans are sure to enjoy revisting some of her beloved characters in a new setting.

A Murder at Rosings by Annette Purdery Pugh is published by Honno and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

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 Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 30 June 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!! Mrs England by Stacey Halls

West Yorkshire, 1904.

When newly graduated nurse Ruby May takes a position looking after the children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners, she hopes it will be the fresh start she needs.

But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, it becomes clear there’s something not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious Mrs England.

Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby is forced to confront her own demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there’s no such thing as the perfect family – and she should know.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Stacey Hall’s debut, The Familiars, I was thrilled to win a proof copy of her third novel, Mrs England, which offers a portrait of an Edwardian marriage from the unusual perspective of the family nursemaid.

Ruby May is a newly qualified Norland nursemaid and, as the book opens, is happily settled in her first placement. When her placement family decide to emigrate to America however, Ruby is forced to return to The Norland Institute to seek another position – she is unable to leave England for personal reasons of her own. Desperate to prove herself, Ruby accepts a position as nursemaid to the four children of Charles and Lillian England, wealthy mill owners.

Transported to the mill towns and moors of rural Yorkshire, and thrown into a busy but neglected nursery, Ruby is soon a world away from her comfort zone. Mrs England seems to take little interest in her children and, ostracised by the other servants in the household, Ruby is soon acting as surrogate mother, teacher, maid, and nurse all rolled into one. Yet beneath the cold exterior of the Mistress, Ruby cannot help but feel that there is something more to Mrs England. And that beneath the charming exterior of the Master and the cheery façade of the England family, there is something terribly wrong.

As with The Familiars, Stacey Hall’s has created a fantastic female protagonist in Ruby May. Smart, caring, practical, and yet with a hint of naivety, Ruby is an immensely likeable and relatable narrator. A scholarship girl at the prestigious Norland Institute, she is determined to prove herself as a capable professional nursemaid – and to escape the dark shadows of her own family’s past.

I really empathised with Ruby’s desire to prove herself professionally, as well as to protect and care for the children in her charge. Although incredibly naïve at times, Ruby’s determination to focus upon her role as nursemaid and to not go prying into Mr & Mrs England’s secrets felt believable given her tentative position within the household and what we come to learn about her own family and background. I also found the contrast between Ruby’s Norland-educated sense of propriety and the more relaxed attitudes of the inhabitants of Yorkshire to be quite amusing at times!

Although a bit of a slow-burn, Mrs England is packed to brimming with an underlying sense of menace. Like Ruby, the reader is aware from the off that something is not quite right at Hardcastle House. But, like Ruby, working out exactly what – and who – is wrong, proves tricky – and there are a good few unexpected turns along the way before the truth is revealed. There were a couple of plot strands that I wish had been developed further – some of the ‘romantic’ elements felt a little forced, and Ruby’s own background and its relationship to the main plot doesn’t really begin to develop until the last third of the novel, but the characters and the atmosphere kept me engaged even at moments where I felt the plot was a little thin.

As a portrait of Edwardian society, Mrs England is wonderfully evocative of the era. You get a real sense of a society in flux – caught between the constraints of the Victorian era and the possibilities of a new century. The novel is also a portrait of an Edwardian marriage – and a fascinating insight into the role of the nursemaid. I found the sections in the book that provided some of the history and rationale of the Norland Institute really compelling, and the novel made me realise just how Norland nursemaids were changing the expectations of what it was to be a ‘nanny’ within upper class Edwardian society.

Told in a lively, engaging style and with a well-realised sense of time and place, Mrs England is sure to delight fans of Stacey Hall’s previous novels – and deserves to bring her in a whole host of new readers! Anyone who loves a good historical novel is sure to find much to enjoy in this pacy, engaging read that has an intriguing marital mystery at its core.

Mrs England by Stacey Halls is published by Manilla Press (Zaffre Books) 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!

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!

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 REVIEW!!! Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

Perhaps everyone’s childhood memories are the same: part truth, part fantasy.

But this house turned our imagination into a melting pot, a forge. A cauldron.

I can trust nothing that came out of it.

No. 36 Westeryk Road, an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A house of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?

Now in her thirties, Cat receives the shocking news that her sister has disappeared. Forced to return to Edinburgh, Cat finds herself irresistibly drawn back into Mirrorland. Because El has a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets…

I used to read and review a lot of thrillers but, if I’m honest, it’s been a while since a ‘thriller’ really thrilled me in any way. Until, that is, Mirrorland came along and kept me on the edge of my seat and up turning the pages long after I should probably have turned out the light.

Mirrorland is the story of mirror twins Cat and El, and of the imposing Edinburgh townhouse they grow up in at 36 Westeryk Road. Behind it’s seemingly ordinary façade, 36 Westeryk Road is home to Mirrorland, a vivid make-believe world of populated by pirates, cowboys, and jailbirds- Bluebeard and Blackbeard, the brave and handsome Captain Henry, and the aptly named Mouse. It is also an occasional home to Ross, Cat and El’s next-door neighbour, honorary crewmate, first crush, and secret friend. Mirrorland is a place of magic – and a place of escape. But escape from what? Or from who?

When El goes missing, Cat is forced to return to Westeryk Road, to Ross, and to Mirrorland. Because while everyone else might think El is dead, Cat knows she’s alive – and that she has a plan. Someone is emailing Cat with clues: a treasure hunt that will lead her straight back to Mirrorland – and back into childhood memories that she has buried deep within herself.

Mirrorland is a novel suffused with unease and tension. From the very beginning, the reader is thrown into a confusing world of Clown Cafes and Princess Towers, and it is unclear which characters are real and who has been plucked from the fragments of Cat’s childhood imagination. And it is clear from the first page that beneath the imaginative magic of Mirrorland, something very dark is hiding.

Whilst I don’t want to give any spoilers, I do want to provide some trigger warnings because the novel confronts issues of child abuse, rape and sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse, mental trauma, coercive control, gaslighting, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. Although never gratuitous or overly graphic, the truth behind Mirrorland is very dark indeed and the novel is a testament to the power of the imagination and the many and varied ways that the body – and the mind – will try to protect itself from trauma.

Although a somewhat unreliable protagonist, I became utterly drawn into Cat’s world – and into the world of Mirrorland – very quickly. Although occasionally difficult to sympathise with, I could understand Cat’s resentment of El, her fascination with Ross, and her wish to leave the past firmly in the past. The relationship between sisters Cat and El is definitely at the heart of Mirrorland. As an only child, I find novels about the intricate mix of love and jealousy that occurs between siblings fascinating – and Carole Johnstone coveys the tangled web of affection. loyalty, and resentment between Cat and El fabulously.

I was slightly less taken by the relationship between the two sisters and Ross which did, sadly, conform to a lot of the tropes of the genre. Unfortunately this meant that, for me, some aspects of the ending descended into cliché, which was a huge shame given how fresh and original the rest of the plot felt. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the ending of Mirrorland – it packs a real punch and there are some very dark revelations that I didn’t see coming – but, for me, the final third of the book was less compelling.

For me, Mirrorland is at its best when it is operating as a mystery. I was compelled by Cat’s struggle to mine the fragments of her memories, and by the contrasting landscape of Cat and El’s make-believe world with the gradually revealed realities of their childhood. The magical yet oppressive neo-Gothic atmosphere of Mirrorland is vividly conveyed on the page and, for me, the writing was definitely at its best when exploring this brilliantly realised world of imagination.

As I said at the start of this review, it is a long time since a thriller thrilled me. But whilst some aspects of the ending didn’t quite land with me, Mirrorland definitely succeeded in keeping me reading – and in making for a thrilling read. Combining a well-crafted mystery, a unique premise, and the compulsive readability of a thriller, Mirrorland is an impressive debut that is sure to appeal to fans of Tana French, Ruth Ware, Erin Kelly and Sarah Pinborough.

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone is published by Borough Press 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 01 May 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 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 Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper

Yesterday, I kissed my husband for the last time . . .

It’s the summer of 1959, and the well-trimmed lawns of Sunnylakes, California, wilt under the sun. At some point during the long, long afternoon, Joyce Haney, wife, mother, vanishes from her home, leaving behind two terrified children and a bloodstain on the kitchen floor.

While the Haney’s neighbours get busy organising search parties, it is Ruby Wright, the family’s ‘help’, who may hold the key to this unsettling mystery. Ruby knows more about the secrets behind Sunnylakes’ starched curtains than anyone, and it isn’t long before the detective in charge of the case wants her help. But what might it cost her to get involved?

In these long hot summer afternoons, simmering with lies, mistrust and prejudice, it could only take one spark for this whole ‘perfect’ world to set alight . . .

Despite being permeated with the sultry heat of a long summer afternoon, The Long, Long Afternoon did not take a long, long time to read. Instead journalist and editor Inga Vesper’s debut novel whips along with a page-turning quality that belies the suffocating atmosphere radiating from its pages.

Beginning on hot summer afternoon in 1959, the novel opens with housewife Joyce Haney standing in her picture perfect suburban garden , contemplating whether or not she should water the pots on her patio. A few pages later and Joyce is missing, the only remnant of her existence a bloodstain on the kitchen floor and two terrified children. Joyce’s distraught husband can think of no reason why anyone would wish to harm his wife. And her neighbours in the manicured suburb of Sunnylakes say that any disappearance would be very out of character. But behind the respectability of their coffee mornings and art classes, the women of the Sunnylakes Women’s Improvement Committee might no more about Joyce Haney than they’re letting on. And as the investigation continues, the Haney family’s ‘help’, Ruby Wright, quickly realises that something terrible may have happened to her mistress…

The characters in this suburban thriller are all brilliantly drawn and I loved finding out all the secrets hidden behind the respectable facades and well-trimmed lawns of Sunnylakes. I particularly liked the character of Ruby Wright, the Haney family’s ‘help’. Overlooked because of the colour of her skin, Ruby’s position as an outsider in the Sunnylakes community confers on her distinct advantages when it comes to investigating what happened to Joyce. After all, no one checks their conversations if it’s only the help listening in do they? And I really felt for Ruby as she has to choose between keeping her head down (and keeping her job) and pursuing her suspicions that someone in Sunnylakes may have deliberately harmed her employer.

Whilst Joyce’s disappearance remains the focus of the book, Inga Vesper has done a fantastic job of weaving in the racial tensions and politics of suburban America in the late 1950s, and I got a real sense of the varying constraints placed on different members of the community. From the daily prejudices Ruby faces as a black woman who refuses to let her intelligence be dismissed, to the stifling constraints required of a suburban housewife, the novel deftly weaves discussions of race, class and gender together to create a multi-layered mystery packed with atmosphere and period detail.

Whilst I didn’t find the ‘whodunnit’ especially surprising, The Long, Long Afternoon did keep me hooked right up until the end. Alternating between the perspectives of Joyce (in the past), Ruth, and investigating detective Mick, the story offers plenty of unexpected twists to throw the reader’s initial suspicions off course. And even though I did guess who lay behind Joyce’s disappearance, the explosive ending offered last minute twists and turns worthy of a thriller!

The Long, Long Afternoon combines the vivid atmosphere and lush writing of literary fiction with the pace and twists of a thriller to create a rich and compelling read that is perfect for whiling away your own afternoon with! With its suburban setting and noir-ish feel, fans of classic hard-boiled fiction will find a worthy modern take on the genre here (and one that comes with a delightfully feminist twist), whilst historical and literary fiction lovers will relish the well-told mystery and precise sense of place.

The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper is published by Manilla Press and is available now 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!