Reviews

REVIEW!! The Guest House by Robin Morgan-Bentley

Image Description: The cover of The Guest House features a large stone cottage in front of a river, set against the backdrop of woods and a mountain at night. A single light burns in one of the windows.
Image Description: The cover of The Guest House features a large stone cottage in front of a river, set against the backdrop of woods and a mountain at night. A single light burns in one of the windows.

The baby is coming. There’s no way to call for help. And there’s no way out.

With a few weeks to go until their first baby is due, Jamie and Victoria head off for a weekend break in a small countryside guesthouse.

The next morning, Jamie and Victoria awake to find the guesthouse has been emptied. Both their mobile phones and their car keys have disappeared, the owners are nowhere to be seen, and all the doors are locked. Even though it’s a few weeks early, Victoria knows the contractions are starting. And there’s no way out…

I’ve read a lot of psychological thrillers so now I consider myself fairly adept at spotting plot twists. So it was a pleasant surprise when I did not see any of the revelations in Robin Morgan-Bentley’s new novel The Guest House coming!

Seeking one last break before their baby arrives, Jamie and Victoria check in to Chorister’s Lodge, a small luxury guesthouse in a remote part of the North Pennines. Upon arrival, they are greeted warmly by Barry and Fiona, who cook them dinner and show them to their room. When Jamie and Victoria wake up the next morning, however, Chorister’s Lodge is deserted. Barry and Fiona are nowhere to be seen, the rooms are locked up, and Jamie and Victoria’s phones and car keys have been taken. And, despite being weeks early, Victoria knows that her contractions have started and the baby is on its way.

I’m going to be honest and say right from the off that the premise of The Guest House is…somewhat far-fetched. Leaving aside any major spoilers for later plot revelations, it was somewhat unbelievable to me that a couple who had struggled to get pregnant (Jamie and Victoria, it transpires, have been having IVF) would risk going to a remote guesthouse miles from the nearest hospital only a few weeks before their baby was due. And, as the plot reveals, it only moves further beyond the bounds of probability.

BUT (and this is important), I ended up not really caring that the premise was beyond belief because the twists are just so good and the writing had me hooked!! I genuinely didn’t see most of the revelations coming and the final twist, when it arrived, was really unexpected! Which is, for me anyway, the signs of a very enjoyable thriller indeed.

Robin Morgan-Bentley has also conveyed a really chilling scenario with just the right amount of fear and malice. This is a thriller that, at times, borders on horror territory because some of what happens to Jamie and Victoria in Chorister’s Lodge is seriously sinister! Indeed, readers of a sensitive disposition should be aware of some relatively graphic medical/childbirth content, as well as (**mild spoilers ahead**) a plotline involving kidnapping/abandonment, infidelity, fertility issues/IVF, and child death. And this tension doesn’t let up until right at the end of the book, making The Guest House a page-turning read!

Morgan-Bentley has also done a really good job of conveying the characters. Although Barry and Fiona are very VERY creepy, once you realise why they are doing what they’re doing to Jamie and Victoria, you do begin to understand their warped psychology. Revelations about Jamie and Victoria also change our perceptions of them and their relationship as the book develops. Whilst many of the characters are not, by the end of the book, especially sympathetic, it is clear why they act the way that they do and I did buy into the reasoning for their decisions and actions, even if I didn’t sympathise with the decisions themselves.

Overall, The Guest House is what I would call a riot of a novel. By which I mean that it’s probably not the most realistic premise you’ll read this year but, if you’re happy to ignore that, it is a wild ride of a book that offers a huge amount of entertainment value for thriller lovers. Fans of Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley will definitely want to check this one out.

The Guest House by Robin Morgan-Bentley is published by Orion 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 and author for providing me with 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Gone & the Forgotten by Clare Whitfield

Image Description: The cover of The Gone and the Forgotten is a pale purple and has illustrations of various plants and also of a young girl with windswept hair.
Image Description: The cover of The Gone and the Forgotten is a pale purple and has illustrations of various plants and also of a young girl with windswept hair.

Summer, 1993. In the aftermath of her mother’s suicide attempt, 16-year-old Prue must spend the summer holidays on a remote island in the Shetlands with her favourite Aunt Ruth and Uncle Archie, a man she’s barely met since her aunt married him. Prue hopes to re-establish the relationship, and that her aunt might help her understand some of the parts of the past she has been forbidden to discuss by her mother – including the identity of her father.

Prue soon finds out her uncle was the only suspect in the disappearance of a local girl some twenty years ago. As she grows closer to him, she learns there are different views on how the beguiling Evelyn O’Hara disappeared, but is he innocent?

A single version of the truth seems impossible to lock down, and the truth is something Prue has a fractured relationship with.

Clare Whitfield’s second novel, The Gone and the Forgotten, is billed as part psychological thriller, part coming-of-age novel. I’d add to that by saying that it’s also part Gothic-inspired mystery, part family drama, and, in its entirety, a creepy and compelling read with some seriously dark psychological undertones.

Set on the remote island of Noost, The Gone and the Forgotten follows 16-year-old Prue as she endeavours to find out the truths behind the many silences that lie at the heart of her damaged and fractured family. Instead of a long-overdue chat with her Aunt Ruth, however, Prue is confronted with more forbidden pasts and long-held secrets on Noost, including the sudden disappearance of a local girl twenty years previously. And as the mysteries of Prue’s own past combine with those that lie beneath the historic disappearance of the beguiling Evelyn O’Hara, it isn’t long before Prue comes to realise that unravelling the past might be more of a curse than a blessing.

Prue makes for an interesting – if not entirely empathetic – narrator who comes complete with more than the requisite amount of angst and drama. Her voice reminded me, in many ways, of the protagonist of Emma Cline’s The Girls and, if you enjoyed that book’s fraught examination of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age, then I think The Gone and the Forgotten will appeal also. As with that protagonist, Prue doesn’t always make the smartest of decisions but, crucially, they always felt authentic, especially once the trauma of Prue’s past is fully revealed.

Because this is a book that comes chocked full of family drama and traumatic secrets. Whilst I don’t want to give away any spoilers, readers should be aware that the novel deals with suicide (and features a flashback to a suicide attempt), pregnancy, toxic relationships, gaslighting, child sexual abuse, child death, and murder. It also features scenes containing drug use and sexual content (including one scene that borders on rape/coercion), and the majority of the characters would benefit from several sessions with a very well-qualified therapist.

With revelations coming thick and fast, The Gone and the Forgotten is definitely a book that kept the pages turning. I did find myself guessing one of two of the plot beats and twists but Clare Whitfield manages to pack so much emotion into the pages that, for the most part, I was too absorbed in the plot to care about the occasional cliché. The novel really manages to capture both what it is like to be a frustrated, isolated, and confused 16-year-old – angry at the secrets being kept from her, and desperate to make sense of herself, the world around her, and her own place within it – and the ways in which that emotional melting pot makes Prue very vulnerable.

The novel also practically oozes atmosphere especially when it comes to the descriptions of Dynrost House – Prue’s ‘home’ on Noost – and the island landscape surrounding it. A real sense of desolation and isolation leaps off the page and there were several times when I wanted to reach into the book, grab Prue, and get her running for the Mainland ferry as fast as her legs could carry her! Some of the character writing felt a little more stilted in places – there were a couple of characters who just screamed ‘wrong ‘un’ to me the moment they arrived on the page – but, for the most part, I could suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the complex tangle of damaging secrets and dangerous lies that lay behind the facades of MacArthur and Anderson families. I was also impressed by the way that Clare Whitfield managed to maintain a hold on several complex plot strands and to tie them together in a fitting way at the end.

The Gone and the Forgotten made for a quick and compelling read. Packing plenty of emotional punch and featuring an evocative setting, the unfolding dramas and unsettling revelations soon had me wholly immersed in the psychological darkness of Prue’s world.

The Gone & the Forgotten by Clare Whitfield is published by Head of Zeus 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 July 2022 so please 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!!! Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda (translated by Alison Watts)

The cover of Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight features a photograph of koi carp swimming against a black backdrop
Image Description: The cover of Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight features a photograph of koi carp swimming against a black backdrop

Set in a Tokyo flat over the course of one night, Aki and Hiro have decided to be together one last time in their shared flat before parting. Their relationship has broken down after a mountain trek during which their guide died inexplicably.

Now each believes the other to be a murderer and is determined to extract a confession before the night is over. Who is the murderer and what really happened on the mountain?

In a battle of wills between them, the chain of events leading up to this night are gradually revealed in this gripping psychological thriller that keeps the reader in suspense to the very end.

Having read and enjoyed The Aosawa Murders, I was pleased to learn that Bitter Lemon Press had arranged for a second of Riku Onda’s novels to be translated into English. And, as with its predecessor, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is somewhat unconventional in its structure and premise.

Told over the course of one night, the novel follows Aki and Hiro, who have decided to spend one last night together in their shared flat before going their separate ways. Over the course of a shared meal and some drinks, they confront each other about the tragic death of their mountain guide during a trekking holiday the year before. Each person is convinced that the other must have murdered the guide. But how did they do it? And why? As the night grows longer, Aki and Hiro become involved in a battle of wills that gradually reveals a series of shocking – and unexpected – truths.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is a very difficult book to review because to say anything further about the plot or the characters is to risk venturing into spoiler territory. And given the skill with which Riku Onda casually drops revelatory bombshells into this novel, that would be a great shame. What I can say is that the narrative, despite being told in a languid prose style, had me absolutely hooked and took several unexpected but satisfying turns along the way to its resolution.

Alternating between the perspectives of Aki and Hiro, the reader is gradually absorbed into the story of these two individuals, the connections between them, and the mystery about what happened on that ill-fated walking holiday. Along the way, the couple must both confront long-buried secrets, difficult truths, and suppressed desires: about themselves, about each other, and about the relationship between them.

Although told in languid, dream-like manner, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight does not shy away from confronting the darker aspects of human psychology and readers should be aware that the novel makes mention of or reference to suicidal thoughts, suicide, child death, and the death of a parent. The central relationship is also one of unhealthy dependence and obsession that gives the entire novel an unsettling air of menace and oppression that contrasts sharply with the poetry of Alison Watts’ translation.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight is billed as a psychological thriller and, although I can see why it has been assigned that label, for me it’s a novel that resists such easy categorisation. Whilst the novel’s primary concern is the psychology of it’s protagonists – and the battle of wills between them is, at times, thrilling – the book is more than the sum of its parts. The central mystery of what happened to the mountain guide is, over the course of the novel, supplemented with several other mysteries about the exact nature of the relationship between Aki and Hiro, as well as about the accuracy (or otherwise) of their shared memories of the past.

As with The Aosawa Murders, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight probably won’t be for everyone. It requires a little more effort than the average thriller and, as with its predecessor, refuses to tie up all of its threads into a neat and tidy bow. For those prepared to expend a little more effort, however, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight a suspenseful, unsettling and satisfying psychological read.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda and translated by Alison Watts is published by Bitter Lemon 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 July 2022 so please 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 Paper Chase: The Printer, The Spymaster & the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers by Joseph Hone

The cover of The Paper Chase features an image of a woman in an elegant dress with a black hood and a black vizard mask covering her face. Manuscript pages and ink blots are scattered over the central image.
Image Description: The cover of The Paper Chase features an image of a woman in an elegant dress with a black hood and a black vizard mask covering her face. Manuscript pages and ink blots are scattered over the central image.

In the summer of 1705, a masked woman knocked on the door of David Edwards’s London workshop. She did not leave her name, only a package and a coded means of identifying her courier.

Edwards was a Welsh printer working in the dark confines of Nevill’s Alley, outside the city walls. The package was an illegal, anonymous pamphlet: The Memorial of the Church of England. The argument it proposed threatened to topple the government, but sedition sold well in the coffeehouses of Fleet Street and the woman promised protection. Edwards swiftly set about printing and surreptitiously distributing the pamphlet.

Parliament was soon in turmoil and government minister Robert Harley launched a hunt for all those involved. When Edwards was nowhere to be found, his wife was imprisoned and the pamphlet was burnt in his place. The printer was not the only villain, though, and Harley had to find the unknown writers who wished to bring the government down.

The intricacies of eighteenth-century printing might not, on the surface of it, sound like the most thrilling of topics but, as Dr Joseph Hone proves in The Paper Chase, publications that came out of the printer’s workshops had the potential to send men to the gallows, bring down governments, alter national policy, impact on the course of a war, and to threaten the security of the nation’s most revered institutions.

The Paper Chase follows the hunt for one particular anonymous pamphlet: a polemic entitled The Memorial of the Church of England. Printed by David Edwards – a Welsh printer with Jacobite sympathies and an established ‘radical’ press in Nevill’s Alley – the pamphlet was a High Church attack on the Godolphin administration and its policy of ‘moderation’. It implied that, by tolerating and working with Protestant dissenters, Queen Anne’s government – and, by implication, Anne herself – were not acting in the best interests of the Church of England.

The pamphlet, unsurprisingly, caused an outcry: Queen Anne was deeply upset by it, Parliament was outraged and, from the spires of Oxford to the streets of London, people were talking about the Memorial and trying to work out who its anonymous author(s) might be. Chief amongst these people was Robert Harley. A natural politician and prominent proponent of moderation, Harley started following the paper trail that led out of Nevill’s Alley, coaxing out the book’s secret’s and untangling the web of connections that would see his fate entwined with that of David Edwards in unexpected ways.

Given that my PhD is in eighteenth-century literature, many of the political intrigues and prominent figures in The Paper Chase were familiar to me. The politics of the period – especially in the earlier part of the century – are endlessly fascinating but, without a crash course in its terminology and structures (Whig, Tory, Churchmen, Toleration, Moderation etc), it can be overwhelmingly confusing for the general reader. It is to Hone’s credit, therefore, that he conveys a complex political environment – one that encompasses religious, political, and literary figures and factions – in a succinct yet through manner, guiding the reader into the knotty world of Harley, the Memorial, and the tangled connections that existed between press and Parliament.

Written with an academic’s eye for detail and told with vigour, The Paper Chase offers a blend of scholarship and detection that is sure to appeal to fans of narrative non-fiction in the vein of Kate Summerscale. That said, The Paper Chase is, in essence, a book about printing and pamphleteering: readers heading into it expecting a detective-style chase across London will be left sorely disappointed. Harley’s investigation into the Memorial was painstaking and thorough and the book follows the fates and fortunes of its central protagonists over several years. Whilst it has its thrilling moments – including night time raids on coffee houses and the hunt for a mysterious masked woman – the pleasure of The Paper Chase is in Hone’s gradual untangling of connections and his patient explanations of the wider implications of seemingly minor events.

Offering an insight into a period of history that remains under-represented in the arena of ‘popular’ print, The Paper Chase is an insightful and immersive tale of eighteenth-century politics and printing that is perfectly pitched for both general and academic readers alike. Combining scholarly precision with an engaging and accessible style, it’s a highly recommended read for fans of unusual mysteries, narrative non-fiction, and all things bookish.

The Paper Chase by Joseph Hone is published by Vintage and is now available in paperback 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 and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. I also purchased a paperback copy from Berts Books, which came beautifully wrapped with a very pretty ribbon!

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 · Reviews

BACK FROM THE BACKLIST!! The Corset by Laura Purcell

Image Description: The cover of The Corset is a dark blue with an embroidered peacock feather and a needle picked out in gold. In the centre of the peacock feather eye is the silhouette of a women in Victorian dress.

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Having read, reviewed and enjoyed all three of Laura Purcell’s other novels (The Silent Companions, Bone China, and The Shape of Darkness) I can only assume that I’ve been holding off on The Corset for fear of having no more of her deliciously dark Gothic goodness to read!

The Corset, Purcell’s second novel, alternates between the narratives of Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy philanthropist with a fascination in phrenology; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage seamstress sentenced to death for the brutal and calculated murder of her employer. Fixated on testing her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes, Dorothea at first is dismissive of Ruth’s own belief that her sewing needles hold a deadly power beyond her control. But as Ruth’s story unfolds – and it becomes apparent that this young woman may have more than one death on her hands – Dorothea begins to suspect that there may be more to Ruth’s plight than meets the eye.

Laura Purcell is so brilliant at capturing atmosphere in her work. From the refined confines of Dorothea’s family home to the sparsity of Ruth’s prison cell, the sense of both time and place drips from the page. Purcell’s writing is rich in description without ever becoming overblown, drawing the reader into the world of the characters.

And what a grim and dark world that is! Although Dorothea spends her days in a world of privilege and relative independence, her experience is sharply contrasted by that of Ruth. Coming from a background of genteel poverty, Ruth has known little but hardship in her short life. A natural seamstress, she is forced into labouring as an apprentice for the tyrannical dressmaker Mrs Metcalfe after a series of family tragedies. A seeming escape from penury, Ruth’s time at Mrs Metcalfe’s soon turns into a horrifying ordeal: one that may require use of her strange and disturbing powers to escape from.

To say any more about the plot of The Corset would be to spoil some of the shocking twists and thrilling turns of the narrative. Content warnings, however, for forced labour, forced confinement, imprisonment, child abuse, and murder.

I have to say that I was more drawn towards Ruth narrative – brutal though it is in places – and, at times, felt that some aspects of Dorothea’s story were a distraction rather than an addition to the central narrative thread. Dorothea’s interest in phrenology, for example, wasn’t explored as much as I had expected – although it did make a brilliant comeback towards the end! I also felt that the ending, although satisfyingly surprising, was a little rushed in terms of the way that it connected the two narratives together. In particular, Dorothea’s narrative strand took a sudden and somewhat unexpected turn that I felt could have been introduced and set up earlier on.

Ruth’s ‘power’ – an ability to transmit her feelings and intentions through her stitches – incorporates magical realist elements into the novel and I enjoyed the contrast between Ruth’s honest and fearful belief in this supernatural ability and Dorothea’s rational and scientific scepticism. I also found the supporting cast to be vividly drawn: Mrs Metcalf, in particular, is a a truly disturbing creation and it was easy to empathise with Ruth’s hatred of her. I also loved the way in which Laura Purcell uses narrative perspective to manipulate the reader into seeing characters through a particular lens, only for us to see them differently when viewed at a different angle. In a tale in which belief is central, it was interesting to have my beliefs and perceptions of several characters inverted at times!

Although not my favourite of her novels (I think The Silent Companions is still my number one), The Corset is another accomplished and page-turning gothic tale from Laura Purcell. Combining elegant and rich prose with a compelling narrative, it offers readers a creepily satisfying tale of murder, revenge, and the supernatural that enthrals right through to the very last page!

The Corset by Laura Purcell is published by Raven 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 and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-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 REVIEW!!! The Maid by Nita Prose

Image Description: The cover of The Maid is a deep emerald green with the title in gold. A sign hangs from a stylised gold door handle. On the sign, there is the image of a grand hotel, picked out in white and gold.

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanour has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

Nita Prose’s lively debut, The Maid, which nods towards both to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, introduces readers to twenty-five-year-old Molly the Maid. Molly adores her job at The Regency Grand Hotel: not only does she take take great pride in returning guest rooms to a state of perfection but, more importantly, her role allows her to pass as invisible to the majority of people she meets.

This suits Molly down to the ground because she knows that doesn’t really ‘get’ people. Her beloved gran – from whom Molly inherited her love of order and cleanliness- used to help her interpret social clues and, ever since her passing, Molly has been left adrift; struggling to navigate both the world around her and her place within it.

Molly’s world only gets more complicated when she finds a wealthy hotel guest – Mr Charles Black – dead in his luxury suite. Before she’s even processed what has happened, Molly’s unusual demeanour has bought her to the attention of investigating police and, with no one to turn to for help, Molly soon finds herself caught in a mess that may be too much for even her to clean up.

Molly is an endearing protagonist who, despite having exceptional powers of observation and an attention to detail that could rival Hercule Poirot, is unable to fully interpret what she sees and hears. Yet her neurodivergence – so long a source of frustration, marginalisation, and ridicule – turns out to be exactly what is needed as she delves into the sinister goings-on that lie behind the perfect façade of The Regency Grand.

Indeed, although The Maid is, primarily, a ‘whodunnit’, it’s also a heart-warming story of personal growth and development. I loved seeing Molly’s confidence in herself and her unique worldview increase as the novel progressed, and cheered for her as she overcame her social isolation and the prejudices of those around her through sheer force of will and determination. She’s a fantastic lead character and her voice really elevates the novel.

That said, the remaining cast – and the plot itself – certainly do their bit too! For those who enjoy a good old-fashioned ‘cosy’ style whodunnit, The Maid has serious Agatha Christie vibes. From the cheery doorman who greets Molly on her arrival every day, to the flighty and impetuous widow, Mrs Black, the cast of ‘stock’ characters are all present and correct – although Nita Prose does an brilliant job of using these archetypes to play with expectations at times.

With plenty of twists and turns along the way, Molly’s investigations into the death of Mr Black – and her fight to prove herself innocent of the crime – become increasingly tangled, and begin to highlight other nefarious deeds going on at The Regency Grand.

The novel also does a great job at balancing the puzzle-solving with a slice of deliciously dark humour. I frequently found myself laughing out loud at Molly’s unique turns of phrase, and I had a serious case of the warm fuzzies by the time I turned the final page. Smart plotting, darkly comic, and with a nice dash of heart-warming goodness? What more could a mystery reader want?!

Indeed, readers who love a good ‘cosy’ mystery will undoubtedly find plenty to hold their interest with The Maid: a unique, witty, and interesting narrative perspective, a cast of well-conceived characters that often play against expectations, and a twisty-turny old-school mystery packed to brimming with clues and red herrings. It’s perfect for brushing off the January blues and, for those who think it sounds like their kind of bookish pick-me-up, available now from all good booksellers!

The Maid by Nita Prose is published by HarperCollins 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 08 February 2022 so 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 Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Image Description: The cover of The Twyford Code has a stylised image of a koi-style fish in black with blue symbols (including a gun, a cat, a diamond, gold bars, a phone) on its fins. A splash of blood can be seen on the LHS of the cover. The tagline is ‘It’s Time to Solve the Murder of the Century…’

It’s time to solve the murder of the century…

Forty years ago, Steven Smith found a copy of a famous children’s book, its margins full of strange markings and annotations. He took it to his remedial English teacher, Miss Isles, who became convinced it was the key to solving a puzzle. That a message in secret code ran through all Edith Twyford’s novels. Then Miss Isles disappeared on a class field trip, and Steven’s memory won’t allow him to remember what happened.

Now, out of prison after a long stretch, Steven decides to investigate the mystery that has haunted him for decades. Was Miss Isles murdered? Was she deluded? Or was she right about the code? And is it still in use today? Desperate to recover his memories and find out what really happened to Miss Isles, Steven revisits the people and places of his childhood.

But it soon becomes clear that Edith Twyford wasn’t just a writer of forgotten children’s stories. The Twyford Code has great power, and he isn’t the only one trying to solve it…

If you read my Best Books of 2021 post, you’ll know that I absolutely loved Janice Hallett’s debut novel, The Appeal. With its clever modern take on the epistolary format, relatable small-town setting (complete with all-too-realistic petty squabbles of the main characters), and compelling murder mystery, it combined a ‘cosy’ style with witty social observation and some devilishly difficult puzzles to provide a compulsive page-turner for armchair sleuths everywhere. After finishing The Appeal in a matter of days, Janice’s second book – The Twyford Code – quickly made its way to the top of my most anticipated reads for 2022 and, I’m pleased to say, doesn’t disappoint!

Although foregoing the epistolary style of its predecessor, The Twyford Code is similarly inventive in the way it tells its story, with the majority of the book comprising of transcripts of 200 audio files, retrieved from the iPhone 4 of missing ex-con Stephen Smith, AKA ‘Little Smithy’. Recently released following a lengthy sentence, estranged from the son he never really knew, and adrift in a world that has moved on while he’s been inside, Stephen is drawn to investigate the disappearance of his former Remedial English teacher, Miss Iles, who vanished on an impromptu class field trip many years earlier.

At the time of her disappearance, Miss Iles was seemingly obsessed with a secret code that, she claimed, ran through the books of disgraced children’s author Edith Twyford (a brilliant pastiche of Enid Blyton). For Stephen, who has learnt to read in prison, the idea of a secret code hidden within a series of innocent children’s books. But as he starts to pull together the fractured memories of his own past – and reconnects with friends and classmates from his schooldays – it becomes clear that Miss Iles might have been onto something. The Twyford Code could lead to a great discovery – and Stephen soon realises that he isn’t the only one trying to solve it.

Quite how Janice Hallett manages to weave together such intricate plots utterly baffles me! As in The Appeal, The Twyford Code as enough twists, turns, and revelations to rival Agatha Christie at her best. Seemingly random encounters and insignificant conversations become, by the end of the novel, a vital part of the mystery – and plotlines that seem to have no meaningful connection become intimately entangled as the novel progresses.

As with Christie, you do have to take a few of Hallett’s plot twists in the spirit with which they are intended. There were a couple of moments in The Twyford Code that stretched my suspension of disbelief and, for me, wandered into the realms of the far-fetched. Unlike Poirot or Miss Marple, however, Stephen is a deliberately unreliable narrator and, as the novel progresses, you begin to realise that the more fantastical elements of his narrative may be being included for an entirely different reason – and for a very specific audience.

I also loved the way that Hallett uses the device of audio transcription to render her characters. The transcription software inaccurately transcribes names and colloquialisms – ‘Miss Iles’ becomes ‘missiles’, ‘cos’ becomes ‘Kos’ – and omits expletives from Stephen’s speech with often hilarious effect: ensuring that when, for example, the s[EXPLICIT]t hits the fan, readers can fully appreciate what a lucky f[EXPLICIT]g escape Stephen has had! The software also renders pauses, breaths, shouting, and whispers meaning that, once you’ve got your eye in, you really feel as if the characters are ‘talking’ on the page.

That said, the transcription format is harder to read on the page. Despite the compulsive plot I found the digital proof of The Twyford Code hard going (although, admittedly, I find reading digitally difficult at the best of times due to some ongoing issues with my eyes) and opted to wait for my physical pre-order to arrive before finishing the book. I mentioned ‘getting your eye in’ with the style and, sure enough, once I’d settled down with the hardback, it was much easier for me to follow the format. I’ll also be really interested to see how the audiobook of The Twyford Code is rendered. You’d think it would be easy given the nature of the narrative – but, as becomes clear towards the end of the book, there’s a reason you’re reading transcripts and not ‘listening’ to the audio itself!

The Twyford Code is both an ambitious and accomplished follow-up to Hallett’s best-selling debut. Although quite different in tone and style to The Appeal, fans of that novel will be delighted to find that Hallett’s flare for ingenious plotting has carried over to her second novel – as has her ability to challenge the reader with deliciously devious puzzles! Once I had my physical copy, I stormed through The Twyford Code – and I already can’t wait to see what twists, intrigues, and puzzles Hallett’s next novel has in store for us!

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett is published by Viper 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 and to NetGalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

If you decide to pick up a copy of the book, please consider supporting 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 Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

Image Description: The cover of The Key in the Lock has a floorplan of a house in gold against a dark blue-green floral background. The title, with the image of a key in gold, is in the centre.

I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unfurling out of an upper window and a hectic orange light cascading across the terrace.”

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.

Set over two timelines, Beth Underdown’s The Key in the Lock is a gloriously gothic mystery with shades of a psychological thriller and a setting reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The year is 1918 and Ivy Boscawen is grieving, both for the loss of her son Tim in the trenches – and for the loss of the life she was meant to have. Both losses seem, to Ivy, like retribution for another death: that of young William Tremain, killed in a fire at Polneath House thirty years previously. Ivy’s belief in that the boy was murdered – and her attempts to prove it – led to events that, years later, continue to haunt Ivy. And only by discovering the truth of what really happened will she be able to lay the ghosts of both the past and the present to rest.

Beth Underdown has written a haunting and evocative novel effectively told across two timelines, each of which provides a compulsive storyline populated with a host of believably fallible characters.

Although the novel takes a while to hit its stride, unravelling the mysteries of Polneath and making the connections between Ivy’s past and present kept me really engaged with both storylines – and, as more secrets are revealed, the tension really ramps up. By the end, I was eagerly turning the pages to make the final connections and work out what really happened at Polneath all those years ago – and what ramifications that has for Ivy as she processes her son’s death.

Ivy’s grief was sensitively handled, and her heartbreak really came across through the pages. I also felt that the relationship between Ivy and her husband, Richard, was brilliantly portrayed and bittersweet. The conflict that Ivy feels when Edward, the man Ivy fell in love with back at Polneath all those years ago, comes back into her life is also really well handled. Indeed, Ivy is a wonderfully flawed protagonist – determined, brave, and intelligent, albeit a little misguided and, when we meet her in 1888, blissfully naïve.

I did have one or two minor quibbles – a couple of the characters felt a little too obviously ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and, sure enough, it turns out that appearances can be deceptive. I also found some of Ivy’s decisions a little hard to fathom at times – although, admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as besotted as Ivy is!

Overall, however, The Key in the Lock is an atmospheric and compulsively readable historical mystery that will keep you guessing right up until the end. It made for a fantastic start to my reading year and is sure to appeal to fans of Diane Setterfield, Elizabeth Macneal, and Stacey Halls.

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown is published by Penguin Viking on 13 January 2022 and is available to pre-order now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

If you decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting 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 · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

“What was it like? Living in that house?” 

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling Victorian estate in the Vermont woods. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a non-fiction book called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon, rivaling The Amityville Horror in popularity – and skepticism.

Today, Maggie is a restorer of old homes and too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she also doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist. When Maggie inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death, she returns to renovate the place to prepare it for sale.

But her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the past, chronicled in House of Horrors, lurk in the shadows. And locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous thanks to Maggie’s father. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself – a place filled with relics from another era that hint at a history of dark deeds. As Maggie experiences strange occurrences straight out of her father’s book, she starts to believe that what he wrote was more fact than fiction.

Do I have the book to share with you this Halloween! Riley Sager’s latest novel, Home Before Dark; now out in paperback, is the perfect mix of genuine scares, horror stylings, and thrilling contemporary mystery that will have you turning the pages and sleeping with the lights on this spooky season!

Having previously read and enjoyed The Last Time I Lied, I was excited to see that Riley Sager’s latest thriller came with some additional spooky stylings. The former novel was packed with growing tension and page-turning plot beats so I was keen to see what the addition of some trademark horror tropes would do to that mix. The answer, it turns out, is to make it even more page-turning – and to provide more than a few ‘sleeping with the lights on’ moments!

Maggie Holt’s life has been defined by The Book – the tell-all memoir that her father Ewan wrote after her family’s fateful stay at Baneberry Hall. According to The Book, the vengeful ghosts of Baneberry Hall drove Ewan, Jess, and five-year-old Maggie away from their dream home, never to return. But after her father’s death, Maggie discovers that her parents never sold Baneberry Hall. Despite being warned to never go back there, Maggie is determined to make the most of her unexpected inheritance – she’s going to renovate and sell her family’s cursed legacy; but not before she gets to the bottom of why her family really fled all those years ago.

When the body of a missing teenager falls out of her kitchen ceiling, however, Maggie gets far more than she bargained for at Baneberry Hall. Could her parents really have been involved in a murder? Or are the strange noises and fleeting shadows of Baneberry Hall really signs of the supernatural? As Maggie starts to delve into the history of her father’s House of Horrors, she finds herself wondering if he was telling the truth about Baneberry Hall all along.

Whilst Home Before Dark continues to showcase Sager’s command of pacing and plotting, it serves up some genuinely spooky and atmospheric moments alongside the more familiar mystery-thriller territory of its main storyline. If you love ghost stories and ‘true life’ tales of the paranormal, you’re sure to love Home Before Dark which alternates between excerpts from Ewan’s Amityville Horror-style memoir and Maggie’s own investigations in the present day.

There are a fair few plot strands to Home Before Dark and, whilst none of them are especially complex in and of themselves, Sager weaves them together in a deeply satisfying way whilst keeping the tension up throughout. There is the occasional cliché – and I can’t say I was wholly surprised by all of the twists and turns – but the relentless pacing kept my disbelief suspended and, on the whole, I found the ending provided a satisfying conclusion to the various mysteries – both real and supernatural – that were contained within the walls of Baneberry Hall.

Probably the best recommendation I can give Home Before Dark is that I was supposed to be reading this as an October readalong with some of the gang from The Write Reads. I say ‘supposed to be’ because, having picked it up one rainy weekend, I found myself unable to put the book down and raced through it in a matter of days – well ahead of our set reading schedule! Whilst it’s not a book that’s likely to linger in my memory, I had a ton of fun reading this and was wholly gripped by the spooky shenanigans of Baneberry Hall.

Offering a tense mystery-thriller plot alongside a side serving of mainstream horror, Home Before Dark is sure to appeal to fans of Sager’s previous thrillers whilst also delighting fans of page-turning contemporary ghost stories and things that go bump in the night! If you haven’t read any of Riley Sager’s work before, this would be an ideal place to start – especially if you’re looking for a spooky seasonal read this Halloween. And for fans of Sager, what are you waiting for?!

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available now in paperback and ebook 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

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 Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Image Description: The cover of Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice features a fox with a ‘burglar’-style mask over its eyes

It’s the following Thursday.

Elizabeth has received a letter from an old colleague, a man with whom she has a long history. He’s made a big mistake, and he needs her help. His story involves stolen diamonds, a violent mobster, and a very real threat to his life.

As bodies start piling up, Elizabeth enlists Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron in the hunt for a ruthless murderer. And if they find the diamonds too? Well, wouldn’t that be a bonus?

But this time they are up against an enemy who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off four septuagenarians. Can The Thursday Murder Club find the killer (and the diamonds) before the killer finds them?

Having had a ton of fun reading Richard Osman’s quintessentially-British crime caper The Thursday Murder Club last year, I pre-ordered The Man Who Died Twice, eager to see what Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim got up to next.

Picking up on the following Thursday, The Man Who Died Twice sees the Thursday Murder Club gang rapidly embroiled in yet another mystery when former spy Elizabeth receives a letter from her charming but feckless ex-husband Douglas. MI5 operative, womaniser, and possible diamond thief, Douglas’s life is now under threat from the New York mafia, deadly international money launderer, Martin Lomax, and shadowy operatives from within the security services themselves.

Add in a vicious mugging that leaves one of the TMC gang in hospital, a local drug dealer keen to get into the international market, and the unwarranted attention of Douglas’s MI5 handlers, and the four friends are soon embroiled in yet another offbeat adventure of epic proportions – one that has plenty of gentle nods to the spy-thriller genre.

As was the case with its predecessor, The Man Who Died Twice manages a perfect balance between charming comedic adventures, head-scratching mysteries, and gently poignant reflections on aging, loneliness, friendship, death, and regret. The violent attack on one of the TMC’s own is particularly well executed, managing to convey the devastating mental and physical impact of the incident upon the victim whilst also showing the deep love and friendship that has developed between the key characters – and the extremes they will go to in order to ensure that the perpetrator doesn’t get away with his crime!

So much of the appeal of this series is in Osman’s tone, which perfectly captures the warmth and wit of the characters whilst being unafraid to confront the realities of aging. From Elizabeth’s fears for her husband Stephen, now suffering with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, to DCI Chris Hudson’s struggles with weight and fitness and his colleague PC Donna De Freitas’s loneliness, The Man Who Died Twice deals with all of them head on without ever losing the lightness of touch and warmth that categorises the book as a whole.

The other major appeal of this series is the characters. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim are an absolute delight but Osman has also created an appealing supporting cast, many of whom make return appearances from The Thursday Murder Club. The ever-reliable jack-of-all-trades Bogdan remains one of my favourite characters (and gets some scene-stealing lines and moments in this book), whilst Donna’s mum Patrice – who is now dating Donna’s boss, Chris – and Ron’s precocious grandson Kendrick make welcome additions to the growing cast of characters at Coopers Chase Retirement Community.

It was also nice to get a little more background into the members of the TMC themselves. Ron and Ibrahim are both given a little more to do in this second outing, whilst some of Elizabeth’s sharp edges are smoothed out as the shadows of her past come into the light. And Joyce? Well, Joyce continues to be Joyce – which is definitely no bad thing given how much fun she is!

Whilst I’d strongly recommend starting with The Thursday Murder Club if you’re new to the series (mainly because it is great but also because it’s a perfect introduction to the characters), The Man Who Died Twice is a standalone mystery that is sure to delight both new and returning fans, and definitely proves that The Thursday Murder Club was more than just a flash-in-the-pan hit. Osman has confidently built upon the solid foundations of the first book to develop his returning characters whilst offering readers another head-scratching mystery with the same page-turning propulsion of the original. I’m already eagerly awaiting the next outing for his septuagenarian sleuths!

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is published by Penguin Viking and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, 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

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!