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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Deity (Six Stories #5) by Matt Wesolowski

Online investigative journalist Scott King investigates the death of a pop megastar, the subject of multiple accusations of sexual abuse and murder before his untimely demise in a fire … another episode of the startlingly original, award-winning Six Stories series.

When pop megastar Zach Crystal dies in a fire at his remote mansion, his mysterious demise rips open the bitter divide between those who adored his music and his endless charity work, and those who viewed him as a despicable predator, who manipulated and abused young and vulnerable girls.

Online journalist Scott King, whose ‘Six Stories’ podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the accusations of sexual abuse and murder that were levelled at Crystal before he died.

But as Scott begins to ask questions and rakes over old graves, some startling inconsistencies emerge: Was the fire at Crystal’s remote home really an accident? Whose remains – still unidentified – were found in the ashes? Why was he never officially charged?

Anyone who has followed The Shelf for a while will know that I am a HUGE fan of Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series. The previous novels – Six Stories, Hydra, Changeling and Beast – have all been five-star reads for me and have consistently appeared on my Best Books of the Year lists. I love the podcast format in which the books are written as well as Matt’s subtle inclusion of supernatural and horror elements into the central mystery – so of course I jumped at the opportunity to be part of the tour for Matt’s latest in the series, Deity.

As with previous titles in the series, Deity sees online journalist Scott King investigating a specific case over the course of six episodes, speaking with six different people to gain six alternative perspectives on a series of events. In this instance, Scott is looking into the life of recently deceased pop megastar Zach Crystal. Wildly popular and with a devoted, almost cult-like fandom around him, Zach Crystal seemed untouchable. But dark rumours about Zach’s private life – and about the visits he hosted for teenage fans at his remote mansion in the Cairngorms – have begun to swirl around his legacy. As Scott delves into Zach Crystal’s life – and his death – questions arise about the nature of fame, the cult of celebrity, and the dark blurring between fantasy and reality.

Like all of Matt’s previous Six Stories novels, Deity combines the page-turning pace of a thriller with though-provoking and topical content. The series has never shied away from covering controversial or topical subjects but Deity is probably the darkest yet. Even a passing knowledge of recent pop culture will suffice to see that there are some chilling similarities between the behaviour of the fictional Zach Crystal and some of the events that have been bought to life in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as well as following the deaths of some of pop and rock’s biggest stars. As such, the novel provides thought provoking content on the nature of hero worship and celebrity culture, examining the extent to which the pedestals we place people on protect their behaviour from prying eyes.

Each ‘episode’ of Deity provides another perspective on the life of Zach Crystal, slowly peeling back the layers to reveal the truth of the man that lies behind the manufactured pop star myth. Complicating this are rumours of a supernatural entity that lurks in the forest surrounding Zach’s Scottish mansion. Could it be that this dark creature is responsible for the tragic deaths of two young fans? Or even for the death of Zach Crystal himself, killed at his home in a devastating fire? And what exactly has happened to Zach’s sister and niece, fellow residents of Crystal Forest and apparently his closest allies? Finding the truth will take Scott King on one of his darkest journeys yet.

Matt Wesolowski has done another fantastic job of really ramping up the atmosphere in this novel. There’s some fantastically oppressive and brooding passages and you get a real sense of the fear and uncertainty that some of the characters face, as well as the resignation, anger and frustration felt by others. The use of multiple perspectives means that long shadows – some supernatural and some all too real – are cast over other narratives and there are several moments when you think you might have arrived at the truth before being whisked down an alternative path or made to see testimony in a new light. It makes for a spectacularly wild ride and a page turning read – I devoured the book in the course of a weekend before turning right back to the start for a more measured re-read to take it all in.

Another fantastic addition to the Six Stories series, Deity is a fantastically dark and atmospheric novel that will chill and delight in equal measure. For those new to the series, it makes a brilliant jumping off point (although I’d urge you to go back and start from the beginning – all the books are fantastic) whilst fans will be delighted to have another story from this master storyteller.

Deity by Matt Wesolowski is published by Orenda Books and is available now in ebook and will be published in paperback on 18 February 2021 with pre-orders available 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 28 February 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!! The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

Wicked deeds require the cover of darkness…

A struggling silhouette artist in Victorian Bath seeks out a renowned child spirit medium in order to speak to the dead – and to try and identify their killers – in this beguiling new tale from Laura Purcell.

Silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Still recovering from a serious illness herself, making enough money to support her elderly mother and her orphaned nephew Cedric has never been easy, but then one of her clients is murdered shortly after sitting for Agnes, and then another, and another…

Desperately seeking an answer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath with her older half-sister and her ailing father, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them. But Agnes and Pearl quickly discover that instead they may have opened the door to something that they can never put back…

What secrets lie hidden in the darkness?

Having read and very much enjoyed both The Silent Companions and Bone China, I was absolutely thrilled to be part of the blog tour for Laura Purcell’s latest gothic delight, The Shape of Darkness.

Set in Victorian Bath, the novel alternates between the perspectives of struggling silhouette artist Agnes and child spirit medium Pearl as they unite to try and discover the identity of a sinister killer who appears to be targeting Agnes’ clients. But as they use Pearl’s powers to connect with the spirits of the victims, dark secrets from both of their pasts begin to emerge – and forces that they may not be able to control seek to take control.

Laura Purcell has brilliantly evoked the gloomy atmosphere of Victorian Bath, effortlessly transporting the reader to the dark streets that lie behind the elegant facades of the famous Crescent. From the very first page, she succeeds in creating a dark and oppressive atmosphere, taking the reader from the shabby gentility of Agnes’s house to the dank and gloomy interior of Pearl’s makeshift parlour. This oppressiveness only grows over the course of the book, as the sinister forces that Agnes and Pearl seem to have evoked loom large across the page.

As in her previous novels, Purcell has also created some complicated and captivating characters in Agnes and Pearl. Both had distinct voices and, because of their circumstances, provide a unique perspective on the world.

I really liked how Agnes provided the perspective of an older woman – a character often overlooked in Gothic fiction. Living with her elderly mother and her beloved nephew Cedric, Agnes’s life has been beset by hardships including the loss of her beloved Montague, a tragic accident, and a recent bout of pneumonia that has left her physically weak and struggling to work. She is also a woman out of time. As photography becomes the popular medium of choice, Agnes’s profession as a silhouette artist is becoming increasingly irrelevant – leaving Agnes feeling almost like a ghost from a by-gone era herself. This sense of Agnes as a woman haunted by her mysterious past is effectively combined with the atmosphere to really ratchet up the tension – and helps to create some explosive and completely unexpected twists towards the novel’s close!

Pearl is another fascinating character. Aged only 11, her narrative combines a childlike innocence with the knowledge gained from her ability to communicate with a world beyond our own. Struggling with both her own new-found abilities and with the expectations placed upon her by her mesmerist sister Myrtle and her sick father, Pearl is a deeply sympathetic character whose tragic life only gets more complicated with the arrival of Agnes.

Purcell is a master of evoking gothic tropes to craft sinister and richly described mysteries and The Shape of Darkness is no exception to this – for me, it’s probably her darkest book yet, with the story going to some disturbing places that leave the reader questioning what is real and what is imagined. This does mean that the novel is not the fastest of reads – the slow build up of atmosphere is designed to be savoured not devoured – but, if you stick with the sedate pacing, you’ll be rewarded with some fantastic twists and a truly shocking, edge-of-your-seat ending.

Fans of Purcell’s work are sure to be delighted by The Shape of Darkness, which offers the perfect combination of chilling gothic vibes and evocative historical setting that made her previous novels such an enjoyable read. Whilst detractors are unlikely to be converted, for those new to Purcell’s writing, The Shape of Darkness makes the perfect jumping off point for her work with its combination of a chilling murder mystery and a haunting ghost story.

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell is published by Bloomsbury Raven 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.

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 Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam, where he is facing trial and execution for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent, while also on board are Sara Wessel, a noble woman with a secret, and her husband, the governor general of Batavia.

But no sooner is their ship out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A strange symbol appears on the sail. A dead leper stalks the decks. Livestock are slaughtered in the night. And then the passengers hear a terrible voice whispering to them in the darkness, promising them three unholy miracles. First: an impossible pursuit. Second: an impossible theft. Third: an impossible murder. Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?

With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent and Sara can solve a mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board…

Having read and ADORED Stuart Turton’s debut novel The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I added The Devil and the Dark Water to my Most Anticipated Reads list as soon as it was announced. Owing to the joys of Pandemic PhD life, it has taken me a few more months than I expected to set aside the time to really sink in and devour this one (Seven Deaths was definitely a book you just wanted to sit and gobble up over the course of a long weekend) but, thanks again to the lovely book club crew at The Write Reads, I was finally got chance to cosy with this 548 page chunkster and can confirm that it did not disappoint!

As with Seven Deaths, The Devil and the Dark Water is a novel that defies genre expectations. It’s set in 1634 so technically it’s a historical novel. As Stuart Turton points out in his afterward though, the history cedes to the story so those coming to the novel expecting a wholly accurate depiction of historical life a la Hilary Mantel or Patrick O’Brien will be disappointed.

There is more than one murder (plus at least one theft) and there’s a detective so is it a crime novel then?

Again…sort of? But the detective is locked up on charges unknown for most of the book, and the murders might be the work of a demonic supernatural entity.

So…horror novel?

Not quite. Whilst there are horrific acts a plenty, this isn’t simply a tale of things that go bump in the night . The devil might be on board the Saardam but it takes human agency to commit the acts of violence being inflicted upon the increasingly terrified passengers and crew.

The best I can come up with is that The Devil and the Dark Water is a cross between Assassins Creed: Black Flag (age of sail shipboard shenanigans), Murder on the Orient Express (enclosed murder mystery with limited suspects and a brilliant, eccentric detective) and Jaws (terrifying horror stalks everyone on board and you are DEFINITELY going to need a bigger boat). See what I mean about genre-defying?

The end result is, however, utterly brilliant. Turton once again weaves seemingly disparate plot strands and characters into an intricate and tightly bound web to create an elaborate and mind-bending puzzle that kept me guessing right up until the final pages.

In the characters of Arent Hayes and Sara Wessel, Turton has created two fantastic and likeable protagonists who, by the time the novel was over, felt like old friends and comrades. Sara is strong, compassionate, determined, inquisitive, and intelligent – everything a nobleman’s wife shouldn’t be. She quickly became one of my favourite characters – as did Arent, whose imposing frame and bloody history belies a fiercely loyal and gentle heart. The supporting cast are equally well-realised – from the cocksure genius Samuel Pipps to lively, flirtatious Creesjie Jens and silent, watchful Cornelius Vos, I could envisage them all in my head and frequently felt as if I had been picked up and placed next to them when reading.

The vivid characterisation really helps during the (infrequent) moments when the plot starts to lag a little, and also allowed me to forgive the (in my opinion) slightly rushed ending. Saying to much about either of those points would be to spoil the novel but, for me, the chapters following a major late-book dramatic incident aboard the Saardam felt didn’t have quite the same energy, and I felt as if some of the decisions taken at the end of the novel didn’t fit with the established morality of the characters involved. This certainly didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the book however and many other readers may feel very differently about the ending!

Although there were the occasional moments where the pace dropped, The Devil and the Dark Water was – for me at least – a page-turning read. There were definitely times when I had to use all my willpower to stay in-line with our Write Reads book club schedule – it was so tempting to read ahead! Because of the contained setting and the number of characters, this is a novel that you have to settle in to a bit – I’d definitely urge anyone struggling with the pace at the beginning to stick with the book for about 70-100 pages, when the action really begins to surge ahead at speed!

I also really loved the way that the supernatural was used in this novel. Again, I don’t want to say too much because of the risk of spoilers but the novel does a great job at examining the way in which fear and superstition can be utilised to justify prejudice, greed and other uniquely human follies. The Saardam is a ship full of sinners – everyone has a secret, everyone is out to get something, and nearly everyone will betray the man, woman, or child next to them to do it – and Turton has done a fabulous job of making this largely dishonest, cutthroat, and untrustworthy collection of characters both intriguing and, in many cases, relatable. As such, The Devil and the Dark Water works well as both a damning morality tale and an observant commentary on societal hierarchies – in addition to being a highly entertaining novel, of course!

Superbly written and with an intricate yet tightly controlled plot, The Devil and the Dark Water is a worthy successor to Seven Deaths and marks Stuart Turton out as a writer unafraid to blur the lines between genres and defy the expectations of what a particular type of novel should be. Packed full of relatable and vivid characters – in all their messy and selfish glory – and with a richly imagined setting, this is sure to delight fans of Turton’s previous novel – and will hopefully entice many new readers to discover his work.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton is published by Bloomsbury Raven 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 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!

Back from the Backlist · Reviews

Back from the Backlist!! Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

Working as a paid companion to a bitter elderly lady, the timid heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Life is bleak until, on a trip to the South of France, she falls in love with Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower whose proposal takes her by surprise.

Whisked from Monte Carlo to Manderley, Maxim’s isolated Cornish estate, the friendless young bride begins to realise she barely knows her husband at all. And in every corner of every room is the phantom of his beautiful first wife, Rebecca.

Rebecca has been on my TBR for a VERY long time. It’s one of those books that I’ve attempted to read on several occasions but just never quite gelled with, despite being told by many of my fellow readers that it’s their favourite of Du Maurier’s novels. I struggled to get past the opening section and got annoyed by the insipid main character. Friends assured me that it got better once I got to Manderley – and that the shock of the ending along made the book worth reading – but I just couldn’t give myself the push to continue.

So when the chance came to take part in a readalong of Rebecca with some members of the lovely gang over at The Write Reads, I joined in without hesitation. Reading with others is a fantastic way to tackle a book that you might otherwise struggle with. I recently read James Joyce’s doorstop modernist novel Ulysses with some friends at university this way and, whilst I can’t claim to have loved (or even fully understood) the novel, our discussions of it certainly allowed me to appreciate it – plus we had a great deal of fun!

And my verdict having now finished Rebecca. It’s…okay?

Surprisingly, I found myself quite enjoying the opening sections in Monte Carlo this time around. I got a real sense of the era but, more importantly, these early chapters gave me an insight into the unnamed narrator. Barely out of school and wholly lacking in confidence, she is utterly unsuited to life in a glamourous resort – or as mistress of a large country house. There is almost no pretence about her about all and, in her honest naivety, she came across as a schoolgirl acting a part – an impression that lingers even after she has married the brooding Maxim de Winter and found herself mistress of his imposing estate, Manderley, and learned of the tragic death of his first wife, the titular Rebecca.

As the famous opening line suggests, Manderley is a character as much as a place within this novel. It lies at the heart of everything that happens in the novel, lingering in the background to each conversation and casting its shadow over the choices of the characters. Whilst is is, in one sense, a beautiful place – described in lush prose and quite clearly based on Du Maurier’s own much-loved Cornish home Menabilly – there is something quite forbidding about Manderley and it is this mixture of the seemingly ordinary with the sinister that I found particularly impressive about the novel.

Du Maurier is a master of suspense and foreboding and this atmosphere casts a pall over the whole novel. I found it particularly impressive that the most vivid character in the book was Rebecca, a woman who is dead before the first page. Rebecca haunts the novel – and the reader – as she haunts Maxim and his second wife. Rebecca is a ghost story, even though the ghost never actually appears.

Whilst all this makes Rebecca an intensely atmospheric novel there was, for me anyway, just something missing. Whilst I love the way in which Rebecca herself is evoked, I felt this came at the expense of characterisation elsewhere. The narrator, for example, never really seems to escape the dreamy world of the schoolgirl, diving off into fantasies and gloomy premonitions and second-guessing everything that anyone ever does. Even after the revelation in the closing chapters (my friends were right – it IS a great twist), she still felt like a character wholly disconnected from the events going on around her and, at times, from reality itself.

The infamous Mrs Danvers is, of course, an utter delight to read. Deliciously malevolent, her presence at Manderley was always going to be a catalyst for sinister happenings. Maxim de Winter, on the other hand, came across as a frightful bore – brooding and quick to anger, he had few redeeming features and I genuinely couldn’t see the appeal, even after you learn about his true history. Other characters felt fleeting – sketches more than fully rounded people – and, often, I felt they were there to serve the plot or provide a convenient deus ex machina. This was particularly true of the ending which, though shocking, did feel somewhat contrived.

This probably makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy Rebecca and that isn’t true. There is a lot that I liked about the novel and I certainly had an excellent time reading it and then debating it with my The Write Reads friends! But, alas, I didn’t love it. I can see why others adore it – and it really does have a killer twist – but it for me, it’s not up there with my favourites. I am very glad to have finally read it though so thank you to The Write Reads gang for keeping me going and providing some fun conversation along the way!

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is published by Virago and is available from all good bookshops and online retailers. 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!!! The Cousins by Karen M. McManus

The Storys are the envy of their neighbours: owners of the largest property on their East Coast island, they are rich, beautiful, and close. Until it all falls apart. The four children are suddenly dropped by their mother with a single sentence:

You know what you did.

They never hear from her again.

Years later, when 18-year-old cousins Aubrey, Milly and Jonah Story receive a mysterious invitation to spend the summer at their grandmother’s resort, they have no choice but to follow their curiosity and meet the woman who’s been such an enigma their entire lives.

This entire family is built on secrets, right? It’s the Story legacy.

This summer, the teenagers are determined to discover the truth at the heart of their family. But some secrets are better left alone.

Having really enjoyed the fast-paced page-turning action of YA mystery-thriller The Inheritance Games a couple of months ago, I leapt at the opportunity to be part of The Write Reads Ultimate Blog Tour for Karen M McManus’s The Cousins.

I’ve heard excellent things about McManus’s previous books and, since rediscovering my love for YA thrillers, have had my eye on One of Us is Lying for a while, although the high school setting does make me slightly wary – I wasn’t especially fond of secondary school and have little desire to relive those agonies through fiction in my adult years! The Cousins, with its more contained family-drama vibes, appealed more – although on the basis of reading this, I’ll be throwing caution to the wind and catching up with McManus’s other series very soon!

The Cousins centres, unsurprisingly, on three cousins – Milly, Aubrey and Jonah. They’ve never met but all of them are well aware of the glamour and mystery surrounding their family. Their respective parents were the Story siblings – rich, beautiful, and privileged. Until, one day, they weren’t. Cut off without any explanation by family matriarch Mildred Story, the four Story siblings have spent their adult lives resentful, confused, or absent. So when letters arrive out of the blue inviting Milly, Aubrey and Jonah to meet their reclusive grandmother, their parents make sure that they accept – whether the teenagers themselves like it or not.

Alternating between the perspectives of the three cousins – all of whom come with an appropriate amount of teenage baggage – The Cousins is a page-turning family mystery, with plenty of dark revelations and emotional highs and lows. Because, of course, there is a reason behind the Story siblings banishment from their beautiful childhood home – one founded in the secrets and lies of a summer spent there many years ago. More than that however, it appears Mildred Story herself may have more secrets to hide.

Despite occasional frustrations with the sheer teenagery-ness of the protagonists (Milly in particular knows how to throw an A-grade teen girl strop), I really enjoyed spending time in the company of Milly, Aubrey and Jonah. Each of the protagonists is sufficiently different to offer a unique perspective on both the events of the present, and the secrets and revelations coming out about their family’s past. They’re also lively, funny, and smart – quite a surprise given that, for the most part, they have at least one truly awful parent a piece (no spoilers but the elder Storys are, on the whole, not the nicest bunch of people around).

The plot itself canters along from the off. The alternating perspectives – plus the occasional switch back into the past, and the fateful summer when the Story dream came to a close – keep the tension high and the cliffhangers coming. The contained resort setting also helps to control the cast – there’s always a risk with family dramas that the cast list will begin to run away and become confusing, especially when everyone has the same name and is related to each other – and the book had, for me, the feel of one of Agatha Christie’s enclosed Country House mysteries. McManus is also perfectly capable of a Christie-worthy twist – more than one revelation in The Cousins saw my jaw drop and my eyebrows reach for my hairline!

All in all The Cousins made for a fantastic pacy read – despite its length (just over 300 pages), I devoured it over the course of an evening – that combines an edge-of-your-seat mystery with oodles of family drama, a dollop of teen romance, and some smart, sassy protagonists. Fans of McManus’s previous books are sure to flock to this one whilst anyone looking to introduce themselves to her work has a fantastic place to start!

The Cousins by Karen M McManus is published by Penguin on 03 December 2020 and is available for pre-order from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to publisher and Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to The Write Reads for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 16 December so follow @WriteReadsTours or the hashtag #UltimateBlogTour 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!!! The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus by Jamie Jo Wright

1928
The Bonaventure Circus is a refuge for many, but Pippa Ripley was rejected from its inner circle as a baby. When she receives mysterious messages from someone called the “Watchman,” she is determined to find him and the connection to her birth. As Pippa’s search leads her to a man seeking justice for his murdered sister and evidence that a serial killer has been haunting the circus train, she must decide if uncovering her roots is worth putting herself directly in the path of the killer.

Present Day
The old circus train depot will either be torn down or preserved for historical importance, and its future rests on real estate project manager Chandler Faulk’s shoulders. As she dives deep into the depot’s history, she’s also balancing a newly diagnosed autoimmune disease and the pressures of single motherhood. When she discovers clues to the unsolved murders of the past, Chandler is pulled into a story far darker and more haunting than even an abandoned train depot could portend.

I have a soft-spot for timeslip novels and enjoy a good supernatural story so when the chance to read The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus came my way, I jumped at the chance to be part of the blog tour!

The book isn’t quite what I initially expected – there’s a relatively heavy Christian Fiction element that isn’t really indicated in the blurb and, whilst I consider myself to be a Christian (albeit probably one with a small ‘c’), some of the messaging was a little heavy-handed for my liking. However the mystery and historical elements – as well as well-realised and fascinating circus setting – made up for my misgivings in this respect.

The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus follows the stories of two women who, despite living nearly a century apart, are both fighting against the constraints of the various expectations placed upon them. As the adopted daughter of the Bonaventure Circus’s owner, Pippa is expected to marry well and stay quiet – but her fascination with the circus and her determination to find out who her true parents are means she can’t stay away. In the present day, meanwhile, single parent Chandler is trying to juggle being a devoted mother and high-flying project manager with the demands of a newly diagnosed chronic illness.

Jaime Jo Wright navigates the seemingly disparate worlds of these two women in a very engaging and readable way and, whilst there were times when I didn’t particularly like the characters, I always found their struggles and perspectives justified. Pippa, for example, oscillates between small acts of rebellion and intense self-recrimination – an infuriating trait but one that perfectly encapsulates the thinking of the period, in which women of her position were struggling to balance new found freedoms such as the vote with societal expectations that were barely changed since the previous century. Similarly, whilst I found Chandler borderline neurotic at times, I could appreciate that a single mother with her experiences would potentially be overly protective of her child – and suspicious about the consequences of letting anyone into her life.

I really enjoyed the descriptions of circus life and it’s clear that Jaime Jo Wright has done her research here – the hustle and bustle of the circus is perfectly captured, and she does a great job of showing you the often precarious and impoverished reality that lay behind the glamour of the big top. The novel also gives an excellent depiction of rural small town life, with both the benefits and challenges that brings, and I warmed to the supporting cast of characters that surrounded both Pippa and Chandler.

There is an awful lot going on in The Haunting of Bonaventure Circus and, at times, I worried that the author was losing control of the narrative. There are a lot of characters and, at times, some of the plot strands felt as if they had been forgotten about. To Jaime Jo Wright’s credit however, everything is wrapped up satisfactorily at the end of the book – although I did feel that the supernatural element was left a little vague. That said, this probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if the title, blurb, and opening chapters hadn’t stressed this aspect so much – as a result I was expecting the book to focus more on the ‘haunting’ element than it did whereas, at its heart, this is really a mystery novel.

What you get with The Haunting of Bonaventure Circus is a well put-together mystery with historical elements, some light supernatural shenanigans, a dash of wholesome romance, and a noticeable but slight Christian subtext. It’s an unusual blend but, on the whole, it works well and makes for a light and pacy read that’s perfect for whiling away a couple of evenings with, especially if the circus setting intrigues you or you’re a fan of historical mysteries.

The Haunting of Bonaventure Circus by Jaime Jo Wright is published by Bethany House and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Love Books Group for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until the 26 November 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!! One by One by Ruth Ware

Snow is falling in the exclusive alpine ski resort of Saint Antoine, as the shareholders and directors of Snoop, the hottest new music app, gather for a make or break corporate retreat to decide the future of the company. At stake is a billion-dollar dot com buyout that could make them all millionaires, or leave some of them out in the cold.

The clock is ticking on the offer, and with the group irrevocably split, tensions are running high. When an avalanche cuts the chalet off from help, and one board member goes missing in the snow, the group is forced to ask – would someone resort to murder, to get what they want?

Ruth Ware has long been hailed as a modern day Agatha Christie and in her latest mystery-thriller, One by One, she shows herself to be more than worthy of the accolade! Set in a luxury chalet in the exclusive alpine ski resort of Saint Antoine, One by One is a story of corporate greed, personal betrayal, and good old fashioned sleuthing worthy of the Queen of Crime herself.

British tech start-up Snoop is the hottest music app around. Faced with the prospect of a make or break corporate buyout, company directors Topher and Eva decide to take the key stakeholders to a luxury alpine chalet for a weekend of crisis talks and R&R. Reluctantly accompanying them is Liz, former PA to the company and a minor shareholder owing to a chance offer made to Topher and Eva long ago. Looking after the group are chalet host Erin and chef Danny, both experts in catering for even the fussiest of guests and more the prepared to handle the whims of Snoop’s somewhat eclectic senior team. As the buyout talks commence, tensions rise and the weather worsens. And then the avalanche hits and the first body is found…

Ruth Ware is an absolute genius at building tension. As I said in my review of The Death of Mrs Westaway, twists and turns are her forte and there were more than a few unexpected surprises in One by One that had me turning the pages frantically!

Unlike in Mrs Westaway however, I didn’t feel that this complexity of plotting came at the expense of characterisation. Despite their being a relatively large cast, I really got a sense of who each of the characters were and what made them tick. The Snoopers are, for the most part, the kind of characters that you absolutely love to hate – wrapped up in their million-dollar world of private-school networks, old-boy investors, corporate lunches and executive dinners, they have little understanding of the realities of life. As soon as I read that one of the Snoop job titles was ‘Head of Cool’, I knew that I’d have a kind of grim satisfaction in watching their privileged worlds fall apart once the avalanche hit and reality came to bite.

Contrasting with these largely unlikable tech types are narrators Erin and Liz. Chalet girl Erin and her friend Danny, the chalet’s chef, are down-to-earth and practical, although Erin is hiding a dark secret behind her cheery facade. Former Snoop PA Liz has always felt like a fish out of water. Educated at the local comp and with a wardrobe more Primarni than Armani, Liz knows she’s only been invited to the chalet as a pawn in the corporate battle of wills taking place between Snoop founders Eva and Topher. But as with Erin, there’s more to shy and mousey Liz than meets the eye!

Ruth Ware takes time to establish her cast and to set up the premise of Snoop and the corporate buyout, as well as to hint at some of the complexities behind the relationships of the key cast. These framing chapters can sometimes be tedious in a thriller but Ware does an excellent job of balancing the need for exposition with a mounting sense of unease and tension, using small incidents to develop the characters and show that all is not well beneath the glossy exterior of Snoop.

When the avalanche hits, the tension really ramps up a notch, with the characters suddenly thrown into an extreme situation made only more dangerous by the bodies that suddenly start appearing. As with Christie’s And Then There Were None, it becomes clear that someone in the chalet is a murderer. The guests seem to be being picked off one by one, with deliberate care and menace. But why? Answering that question, and discovering the identity of the murderer, will require the remaining chalet guests, along with Erin and Danny, to break out of their comfort zones, trust each other, and face some dark realities about their pasts.

As you can hopefully tell from my review, I really enjoyed One by One. Combining a good old-fashioned murder mystery (remote location, limited number of suspects, everyone has something to hide) with some thrilling set-pieces and an exceptional explosion of an ending, One by One shows Ruth Ware to be at the top of her game and is sure to delight both mystery and thriller fans this winter. If you’re looking for a page-turning read to curl up with on a cold evening, you’d do a lot worse than picking this one up!

One by One by Ruth Ware is published by Harvill Secker and is available now from all good bookstores 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 to NetGalley UK for providing an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.