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!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! An English Library Journey by John Bevis

Image Description: The cover of An English Library Journey has a signpost with ‘library’ written on all four directional arrows. The signpost is set against a backdrop of an English countryside scene and blue sky with the silhouette of a town in the distance.

John Bevis is a writer and book-lover on an eccentric quest: to obtain a membership card from every library authority in England.

In a ten-year mission criss-crossing the country – from Solihull to Slough, from Cleveland to Cornwall – he enrols at libraries of all shapes and sizes: monuments to Art Deco or Brutalism; a converted corset factory; one even shaped like a pork pie.

With the architectural eye of Pevsner and the eavesdropping ear of Bill Bryson, he engages us at every step with anecdotes and aperçus about the role of the public library in our national life, while ruing its decline in the age of austerity.

As interested in the people he finds as he is in the buildings and their history, he is a humane, witty and erudite guide. The result is a book to be treasured by anyone who has ever used a library.

Just in case I haven’t mentioned it before, I love libraries. In addition to being one of the few places left on the average high street that isn’t actively trying to sell me something, libraries provide a vital community service that extends far beyond the loaning of books. In addition to the loaning of books, ebooks, and audio books, for example, my local branch offers a community coffee morning, several craft sessions, a mother-and-baby rhyme time, and free access to internet-connected computers, alongside printing and copying services. It also doubles up as the local information centre. It remains, in essence, the beating heart of the local community – despite funding for its many services having taken a beating in the age of austerity.

John Bevis is clearly a man after my own heart. In An English Library Journey (with detours to Wales and Northern Ireland), Bevis extols the virtues of libraries and library services whilst cataloguing the challenges they must face as austerity bites.

Whilst taking a short break from his day job, Bevis finds himself working from several local libraries and discovers, quite unexpectedly, that, in many places, he is able to request a library card despite not being a permeant resident of that locale. Thus begins an eccentric quest: to obtain a membership card from every library authority in England.

Bevis’s quest comes with some unexpected complications. Some libraries, it transpires, have reciprocal arrangements that allow their cards to be used in neighbouring authorities. Others require evidence of long-term residence. Some have separate cards for visiting users. As Bevis travels around the country, the vagaries of unitary authorities and county borders become clear to him, as does the sheer variety of libraries and the scope of their services. From Brutalist modern structures to Art Deco Carnegie libraries, Bevis’s ten-year-tour takes in libraries of all shapes and sizes, and charts their role in public life across a turbulent decade.

Although occasionally whimsical, Bevis never veers away from confronting the challenges faced by libraries. He observes, for example, that many Carnegie libraries, although beautiful, are often expensive to run and challenging to adapt for the multiple purposes that libraries now serve within their communities. He also reflects on the way in which a library building has become more than a silent reading space. Instead, libraries have been transformed into community hubs and, depending on time of day and location, quiet is no longer a given within one!

Witty, humane, and erudite, Bevis makes for an engaging narrator and his quest – which eventually strays beyond the borders of England to take in Wales and parts of Northern Ireland – allows him to reflect upon both libraries and their users. Chapters range from musings on the structure of libraries to observational anecdotes about encounters with fellow library users, or conversations overhead between librarians.

Fans of Bill Bryson’s relaxed yet engaging narrative style are sure to enjoy Bevis’s work – his style has the same combination of fine observation and humane wit. Indeed, for anyone who loves their local library, Bevis’s gentle travelogue makes for a relaxing way to while away the hours until your next library visit.

An English Library Journey by John Bevis is published by Eye Books on 22 March 2022 and is available to pre-order from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! After Agatha by Sally Cline

Image Description: The cover of After Agatha has a black and white portrait of Agatha Christie, covered with post-it notes that have the signatures of modern female crime authors on them.

Spanning the 1930s to present day, ‘After Agatha’ charts the explosion in women’s crime writing and examines key developments on both sides of the Atlantic: from the women writers at the helm of the UK Golden Age and their American and Canadian counterparts fighting to be heard, to the 1980s experimental trio, Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, who created the first female PIs, and the more recent emergence of forensic crime writing and domestic noir thrillers such as ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Apple Tree Yard’.

After Agatha examines the diversification of crime writing and highlights landmark
women’s novels which featured the marginalised in society as centralised characters. Cline also explores why women readers are drawn to the genre and seek out justice in crime fiction, in a world where violent crimes against women rarely have such resolution.

The book includes interviews with dozens of contemporary authors such as Ann Cleeves, Sophie Hannah, Tess Gerritsen and Kathy Reichs and features the work of hundreds of women crime and mystery writers.

If you’ve followed The Shelf for a while, you’ll probably be able to guess that I’m a keen reader of both classic and contemporary crime fiction. Whilst I’ve definitely started to reach saturation point with some of its subgenres (yes, I’m looking at you psychological thrillers and domestic noir), I continue to find the genre endlessly fascinating – and it appears I’m not alone.

As Sally Cline observes in After Agatha: Women Write Crime, women are, increasingly, both the main producers and the main consumers of crime fiction: a somewhat surprising fact when you consider that many crime novels involve violent acts being conducted to and against female victims. So what exactly is it that draws so many women to produce and consume crime fiction?

To answer this question, Cline has spoken with an impressive number of female crime writers who came ‘after Agatha’, including well-known US, UK and Canadian names such as Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Sophie Hannah, and Ann Cleeves. In doing so, she charts the production and consumption of crime fiction from its genesis in the ‘golden age’ right up to the genre’s present-day popularity, examining the trends – and tribulations – it has experienced along the way.

As you might expect from a book based primarily around interviews, After Agatha has a lively, anecdotal style. This works well, for the most part, although there were moments when I wanted Cline – who has clearly conducted extensive research for the book – to take a little more time to critically analyse what was being said. Whilst I loved reading about why some of my favourite authors read and enjoyed crime fiction – and why they chose to write it – I didn’t always feel that the larger question of why women produced and consumed so much crime fiction was being answered.

I was also a little disappointed that novels featuring black and disabled protagonists were thrown together into one chapter/category, and that the increasing diversity of crime fiction – both in terms of protagonists, writers, and readers – was not more widely reflected. Whilst I understand that Cline cannot include – indeed, cannot have read – everything, it felt as if there was more to be said about the specific and individualised marginalisation of both black writers/protagonists and disabled writers/protagonists and, specifically, about the way in which publishing has, until very recently, limited opportunities for writers wishing to tell these particular stories.

That said, I was otherwise impressed by the range of UK, US, and Canadian crime writing that is covered in After Agatha. Other chapters discuss female private detectives, serial-killer novels, domestic noir, and the rise of women in forensic science. And although Cline has to occasionally generalise and adopt the stance of the ‘everywoman’, I felt she did a good job of distinguishing the many and varied reasons why women might wish to write and read crime fiction.

Crime fiction aficionados may not agree with all of Cline’s assertions and findings – indeed, I myself sometimes thought some of the arguments were a little stretched (for example, whilst it is true that Robert Galbraith’s books sold considerably more once their author was revealed to be J.K Rowling, I suspect this was less to do with Rowling’s gender and more to do with Harry Potter mega-fans reading anything she wrote, regardless of gender or genre) – but that does not detract from the enjoyment they’ll get from reading and engaging in the debates Cline opens up.

For those new to the genre, After Agatha offers an excellent – and reasonably extensive – overview of the variety and breadth of UK, US and Canadian crime fiction written by women, and would operate well as a ‘reading list’ for those seeking to expand their reading. The writer interviews are fascinating and Cline has an accessible yet intelligent writing style.

Sally Cline clearly has a deep passion for – and knowledge of – her subject matter and, in After Agatha, she has written a lively and interesting exploration of the genre, suitable for both avid crime fiction readers and for those seeking to increase their knowledge and expand their reading list. It would make a fantastic read for a crime fiction book club to discuss – and provides a detailed overview for anyone seeking to know more about the women who write, and read, crime.

After Agatha: Women Write Crime by Sally Cline is published by Oldcastle Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour finishes today but you can go back and 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

THREE MINI REVIEWS: Brilliant Non-Fiction Books

It’s getting to that time of year when I look back and realise how many brilliant books I’ve read but not yet got around to reviewing. So for today’s post, I want to play catch-up and tell you about three brilliant non-fiction titles that I’ve read and enjoyed in 2021.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

The Greek myths are one of the most important cultural foundation-stones of the modern world.

Stories of gods and monsters are the mainstay of epic poetry and Greek tragedy, from Homer to Virgil to from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides. And still, today, a wealth of novels, plays and films draw their inspiration from stories first told almost three thousand years ago. But modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men, and have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s stories.

Now, in Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Greek creation myths as her starting point and then retelling the four great mythic sagas: the Trojan War, the Royal House of Thebes, Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles, she puts the female characters on equal footing with their menfolk. The result is a vivid and powerful account of the deeds – and misdeeds – of Hera, Aphrodite, Athene and Circe. And away from the goddesses of Mount Olympus it is Helen, Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Antigone and Medea who sing from these pages, not Paris, Agamemnon, Orestes or Jason.

I’ve been a fan of Natalie Haynes’ fiction ever since her debut novel, The Amber Fury, and have also greatly enjoyed her amusingly informative podcast, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myth utilises both Natalie’s extensive knowledge of classical myth, legend, and literature with her ready wit to look beneath the surface of what we know – or often assume – about the women of Greek mythology. Was Pandora really to blame for the release of all the evils of the world? And did she even have a box from which to release them? Was Medea really the evil mother of legend? Did Helen of Troy really choose to leave her husband and run away to Troy with Paris?

The answers to these questions, as Haynes ably demonstrates in this lively and knowledgeable book, are far more complicated than popular culture might lead us to believe. Indeed, many of these women whose stories we think we know so well have been, Hayne argues, viciously maligned by – you guessed it – predominantly male writers in the ages since.

Thoroughly researched but told in with humour and insight, Pandora’s Jar is a fascinating foray into Greek mythology, a call to arms for the reconsideration of maligned women in mythology, and a timely reminder of the importance of female voices in classical literature.

Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials by Professor Alice Roberts

This book is about belonging: about walking in ancient places, in the footsteps of the ancestors. It’s about reaching back in time, to find ourselves, and our place in the world.

We often think of Britain springing from nowhere with the arrival of the Romans. But in Ancestors, pre-eminent archaeologist, broadcaster and academic Professor Alice Roberts explores what we can learn about the very earliest Britons – from their burial sites. Although we have very little evidence of what life was like in prehistorical times, here their stories are told through the bones and funerary offerings left behind, preserved in the ground for thousands of years.

Told through seven fascinating burial sites, this groundbreaking prehistory of Britain teaches us more about ourselves and our history: how people came and went; how we came to be on this island.

I love history but my own studies have been woefully lacking on anything that can be classed as ‘prehistory’. As a kid, I always preferred knights in shining armour to dinosaurs and ‘cavemen’ and, as I’ve got older, the closest I’ve got to studying early civilisations is watching Ice Age.

Professor Alice Roberts’s fascinating book Ancestors: The Pre-History of Britain in Seven Burials changed all that, however. Combining archaeology, anthropology and, scientific enquiry into early DNA, Roberts tells the story of the earliest ages of humankind through seven remarkable prehistoric burials. What emerges is a picture of surprisingly complex – and deeply human – societies that reacted to changing food sources, social patterns, weather conditions, and climate.

Each chapter focuses on a specific burial – from the famous Amesbury Archer to the Paviland ‘Red Lady’ (who might, it turns out, not be a lady at all) – and examines not only what these burials might tell us about pre-historic Britain and its people, but also how scientific enquiry and excavation techniques have developed to allow us greater insight into these early peoples and their societies. As with Haynes, Roberts busts more than a few myths about pre-history during the course of her book and explains with ease the often complex science behind various theories and reasonings.

An informative yet accessible guide to a fascinating period of history through the examination of bones, pots, early weapons, and fragmentary remains, Ancestors made for a riveting read.

Ask a Historian: 50 Surprising Answers to Things You Always Wanted to Know by Greg Jenner

Why is Italy called Italy? How old is curry? Which people from history would best pull off a casino heist? Who was the richest person of all time? When was the first Monday? What were history’s weirdest medical procedures that actually worked? How much horse manure was splattered on the streets of Tudor London? How fast was the medieval Chinese postal system? What did the Flintstones get right about the Stone Age? Who gets to name historical eras, and what will ours be called in 100 years’ time? How do we know how people sounded in the past? How old is sign language?

In Ask a Historian the author, BBC podcaster, and public historian Greg Jenner provides answers to things you always wondered about, but didn’t know who to ask. Responding to 50 genuine questions from the public, Greg whisks you off on an entertaining tour through the ages, revealing the best and most surprising stories, facts, and historical characters from the past. Bouncing through a wide range of subjects – from ancient jokebooks, African empires, and bizarre tales of medicinal cannibalism, to the invention of meringues, mirrors, and menstrual pads – Ask A Historian spans the Stone Age to the Swinging Sixties, and offers up a deliciously amusing and informative smorgasbord of historical curiosities, devoured one morsel at a time.

As with Haynes’s work, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Greg Jenner’s previous books, as well as his fantastic podcast You’re Dead to Me. Ask a Historian is another triumphant mix of interesting yet esoteric history, cheerfully irreverent storytelling, and bum jokes.

I listened to the audiobook of this one – read by Jenner himself and featuring some additional content – and it was an absolute hoot. Not only did I learn a lot but I also laughed out loud on more than one occasion. It’s also an audiobook I can see me re-listening to – always a bonus in my book!

Given the nature of the book – 50 questions that bounce across ages and continents – Ask a Historian made the perfect read to listen to whilst out for a walk or commuting to work. The book would also be a perfect read for dipping into and out of alongside other reading – and would make a great gift for a history-loving friend or relative this festive season.

So those are three brilliant non-fiction titles I’ve read in 2021 and wanted to share with you. Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or intend to pick any of them up!

If you do 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris

One morning in November 1856 George Little, the chief cashier of the Broadstone railway terminus in Dublin, was found dead, lying in a pool of blood beneath his desk. His head had been almost severed; a knife lay nearby, but strangely the office door was locked, apparently from the inside. This was a deed of almost unheard-of brutality for the peaceful Irish capital: while violent crime was commonplace in Victorian London, the courts of Dublin had not convicted a single murderer in more than thirty years.

From the first day of the police investigation it was apparent that this was no ordinary case. Detectives struggled to understand how the killer could have entered and then escaped from a locked room, and why thousands of pounds in gold and silver had been left untouched at the scene of the crime.

Three of Scotland Yard’s most celebrated sleuths were summoned to assist the enquiry, but all returned to London baffled. It was left to Superintendent Augustus Guy, the head of Ireland’s first detective force, to unravel the mystery.

Five suspects were arrested and released, with every step of the salacious case followed by the press, clamouring for answers. Under intense public scrutiny, Superintendent Guy found himself blocked at almost every turn. But then a local woman came forward, claiming to know the murderer….

Writer and historian Thomas Morris’ latest book, The Dublin Railway Murder, takes the reader back to Victorian Dublin, and into the offices of the West Midland Railway Company. The year is 1856 and, on a cold November morning, Chief Cashier George Little has been round brutally murdered within an apparently sealed room at the company’s Broadstone terminus.

The investigation into the mild-mannered and diligent cashier’s death will take several months, involve five arrests, baffle detectives from two police forces, and grip both the city’s populace and its press. When a local woman comes forward with crucial evidence, the case takes a sharp and unexpected turn – but her own relationship to the murderer may prove to be the investigation’s undoing.

The Dublin Railway Murder is a fascinating account of a perplexing police investigation that has been meticulously researched by Thomas Morris. Told in a narrative style that will be familiar to fans of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Kate Colquhoun’s Mr Briggs’ Hat, Morris’ account contains all of the detail one might expect from a history but with the pace and drive of fiction. The extraordinarily detailed archive of governmental documents that Morris has worked from has allowed him to recreate conversations, court appearances, interviews, and witness statements, and to paint a detailed picture of the Broadstone terminus – and of Dublin society – as it appeared in 1856.

Such attention to detail may frustrate some readers – especially as the narrative follows the police investigation down various dead-ends before really gearing up with the discovery of a revelatory witness and the discovery of items taken from the crime scene – but, personally, I loved the way that the small details of the investigation provided a picture of the imperfect art of detection. Various flaws in the investigation combine with legal complications to show the evolution of policing methodology, whilst the relationship between the police, the press, and the public immediately invites comparisons with the modern reportage of crime today; opening up questions about how both victims and suspects are represented, as well as about the role of the press both in garnering information and spreading unsubstantiated yet salacious rumour.

The investigation also touches, albeit quiet briefly, upon the epidemic of corporate fraud and embezzlement that seemed to be taking place in the 1850s – and how new technologies and vast, networked companies such as the railway firms were at particular risk of this. Morris also examines the tensions between the Dublin police force, seen by many Irish people as representatives of – and spies for – a repressive British state, and the working populace of the city, tying the investigation into many of the wider political and social contexts of the period.

In a final twist, the aftermath of the investigation and subsequent trial also sees the involvement of a popular branch of Victorian ‘science’, with the arrival of phrenologist Frederick Bridges – a man who theorised that murderers could be identified by the shape of their skull. This final section, although quite distinct from the relatively procedural narrative of murder/investigation/trial that comes before it, makes for a strange yet fascinating conclusion to an already perplexing narrative – and demonstrates the extent to which new ‘science’ was beginning, for both better and worse, to influence both policing, legal methodology, and political thought during this period.

Meticulously researched whilst remaining eminently readable, The Dublin Railway Murder is a must read for all fans of historical true crime – fans of Summerscale and Colquhoun’s books should definitely get this one on their Christmas lists, whilst fans of fictional police procedurals looking to make the leap into true crime are also sure to find that the detail of this fascinating yet flawed historical investigation makes for a compelling and thrilling read.

The Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris is published by Vintage 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 24 November 2021 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!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle

Image description: the cover of Nicholas Royle’s White Spines showing blurred white-spined Picador classics on a bookshelf shelf, covered by orange, black and white title text and blurb

A mix of memoir and narrative non-fiction, White Spines is a book about Nicholas Royle’s passion for Picador’s fiction and non-fiction publishing from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s.

It explores the bookshops and charity shops, the books themselves, and the way a unique collection grew and became a literary obsession.

Above all a love song to books, writers and writing.

Like most book bloggers, I love a book about books – and I’ve reviewed a few on this blog since its inception, with Cathy Rentzenbrink’s Dear Reader being a recent favourite. So when a bookish memoir blurbed by Cathy (she “didn’t want it to end and would like a gargantuan infinite edition”) crossed my blogging doorstep, I wasn’t going to say no to giving it a read!

White Spines is, as its subtitle suggests, about books and book collecting. A mix of part-memoir and part narrative non-fiction – with occasional detours into bookshop conversations and various surreal dreamscapes – the book details Nicholas Royle’s love of (obsession with?) his collection of white-spined Picador fiction and non-fiction. Like all good books about books, however, White Spines is more than the sum of its apparent parts. Whilst Royle’s passion for Picadors and love of book collecting provides the backbone of the book, White Spines is also a love letter to literature more widely, and to the power of books to captivate, enthrall, and transform.

Royle talks with wit, charm and intelligence about the joy of discovering a good secondhand bookshop, or the exhilaration that the bookworm feels at discovering a pristine edition on a charity shop shelf. He also captures perfectly that bookish obsession with presentation – the frustration of a publisher changing cover design mid-series, the horror of the TV tie-in cover, and the desire to curate shelves of matching, beautiful spines. In his conversations with author and publishing friends, he brings across the inherent exuberance of conversations about books, from the discovery of new authors to the joyful dissection of a shared read.

Anyone who has ever lost themselves having a rummage through a second hand bookshop, accidentally fallen into a charity shop for a ‘quick look’, or contemplated how to fit several new purchases onto already bulging shelves, will find themselves in White Spines. Although my own reading taste is quite different to Royle’s, I found myself nodding along or smiling in agreement with so many of the incidents and experiences that he recounts.

White Spines also provides some insight into the business of publishing. Royle talks to a number of former and current Picador authors, illustrators, and staff to consider how the ‘white spine’ paperback list was built, how the covers were chosen, and why the list (which includes an impressive collection of both authors and titles) became the cultural force that it did during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

That said, the book is not a ‘publishing memoir’, nor is it a documented history of Picador or an account of all of their titles. It is, as I said at the start, a love letter to books and, more specifically, to book collecting. To the physicality of books – to the desire to hold a physical object in your hand before putting it on your carefully curated shelf with its fellows, or the intrigue that comes with finding a letter or note left in a book by a previous reader.

White Spines is a book that spoke to the part of me that loves seeing the stripy spines of my Penguin English Library editions next to each other on the shelf, as well as the part that’s a sucker for a beautiful cover or stunning endpapers. It made me think about the times I’ve found receipts or train tickets in books and wondered about the people who put them there – and about the times I’ve given books with my name or ephemera in away and wondered what will become of them. It is, in short, an ode to the book and a journey of delight through the pleasures of being a bookworm.

White Spines by Nicholas Royle is published by Salt and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. You can also support the publisher by buying from them directly on their website.

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 Helen Richardson for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 20 July 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

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

Image description: blog tour banner for the White Spines blog tour showing the book cover (described above), tour dates/stops, and publisher information. Tour dates run from 15-20 July with one blogger posting per day. Tour posts can be found and followed using the #WhiteSpines.

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

A bold and uncompromising feminist manifesto that shows women and girls how to defy, disrupt, and destroy the patriarchy by embracing the qualities they’ve been trained to avoid.

Seizing upon the energy of the #MeToo movement, feminist activist Mona Eltahawy advocates a muscular, out-loud approach to teaching women and girls to harness their power through what she calls the “seven necessary sins” that women and girls are not supposed to commit: to be angry, ambitious, profane, violent, attention-seeking, lustful, and powerful. All the necessary “sins” that women and girls require to erupt.

Eltahawy knows that the patriarchy is alive and well, and she is fed up: Sexually assaulted during hajj at the age of fifteen. Groped on the dance floor of a night club in Montreal at fifty. Countless other injustices in the years between. Illuminating her call to action are stories of activists and ordinary women around the world—from South Africa to China, Nigeria to India, Bosnia to Egypt—who are tapping into their inner fury and crossing the lines of race, class, faith, and gender that make it so hard for marginalized women to be heard. Rather than teaching women and girls to survive the poisonous system they have found themselves in, Eltahawy arms them to dismantle it.

Brilliant, bold, and energetic, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a manifesto for all feminists in the fight against patriarchy.

From the very first page, Mona Eltahawy demostrates that she is pulling no punches. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls was written ‘with enough rage to fuel a rocket’ and calls for a feminism that is not only universal but that ‘should terrify the patriarchy’ and ‘put patriarchy on notice that we demand nothing short of its destruction’.

Moving between memoir and manifesto, Eltahawy has written a rally cry for feminism centred around what she terms her seven ‘sins’. Anger. Attention. Profanity. Ambition. Power. Violence. Lust. Traits that women and girls are taught to actively avoid but that, Eltahawy argues, should be embraced and utilised to their fullest. Only by doing so, can feminism respond to the global challenges posed by the #MeToo movement, by Black Lives Matter, by the growing chorus of long-unheard LGBTQI+ voices, and by the fallout from the Arab Spring.

Although I had not heard of Mona Eltahawy before, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls appealed because it draws not only on her only experiences as an LGBTQI+ woman of Egyptian descent with dual American-Egyptian citizenship, but because it draws on the work and experiences of intersectional activists from around the world, including those within some of the larger global movements such as #MeToo. With issues as interconnected as those faced by the global feminist movement – often divided within itself about the best forms of representation, or who it is really designed to represent – it can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to getting more involved. And whilst I’ve read a number of feminist essays and memoirs, many of those have been written by straight cisgender white women based in the UK or the US – useful and important, of course, but only part of a much larger picture, especially in the wake of some of the global movements mentioned above.

Eltahawy’s ‘manifesto’ offers to unpick this, recognising the complexity of global intersectional movements – and the individuality of women’s experiences – whilst arguing that feminism, in all its forms, must recollect its goal of disrupting – nay, of destroying – the patriarchy. And what the patriarchy wants is compliance. Not anger, or attention. Or profanity or ambition. Or power or violence or lust. But these ‘undesirable’ traits are exactly what are needed and, Eltahawy argues, must be embraced in order to dismantle and reclaim the societal structures that impose them.

It’s a powerful argument and – at times – a shocking one. Eltahawy is unafraid of making bold statements and of offering challenges as much to herself and her readers as to the patriarchy she opposes. She is unapologetic in her rage and her engagingly persuasive in her argument. Reading The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls there were times when I was uncomfortable because I realised just how much I had internalised – how complicit I can be in systems designed to oppress, if not me, then women like me and, especially, women without the opportunities from which I benefit.

This isn’t to say that I agreed with every one of Eltahawy’s arguments but I felt that everything raised and discussed in this book merited attention, recognition, and debate – and I admired not only the breadth of the experiences that Eltahawy uses to illustrate her points, but her careful consideration of intersectionality and her recognition that some women face double – or even triple – oppression simply because of where they were born, or what they look like, how they identify themselves, or who they choose to love. Many of the experiences she recounts – backed always by data and ‘hard’ evidence in addition to anecdotal experiences – added to my own understanding of this intersectionality, as well as to my own anger towards the oppression women face simply because they are women trapped within male-dominated societies and systems.

Each of the essays within The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is quite lengthy and, although there was the occasional moment when I felt that Eltahawy was repeating herself, for the most part, each one provokes, engages and offers plenty of food for thought. I found myself needing to take some time after each chapter/essay to mull over the issues Eltahawy raises, and the solutions she proposes.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a powerful and timely book that poses a fierce yet eloquent argument. For anyone already engaged with feminist discourse and activism, it is surely a must read – and it deserves to be read much more widely as a manifesto for meaningful structural change.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy is published by Tramp 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 Helen Richardson for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 29 April 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zöe Wheddon

All fans of Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Through this heart-warming examination of an important and often overlooked person in Jane’s world, we uncover the life changing force of their friendship.

Each chapter details the fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. Within these pages we will relive their shared interests, the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

As an avid reader of Jane Austen’s work, I have often felt myself wishing I could get that little bit closer to this somewhat enigmatic author. The lively wit that rises from each page of Austen’s novels and letters often seems wildly at odds with the modest woman depicted in many of the biographies we have of her, and in the image of the retiring ‘Aunt Jane’ that her family were so keen to promote after her death. It is easy to wonder what Jane Austen was really like – and what it would be like to take a turn about the room with her or have her as a dinner party guest.

Zöe Wheddon is equally captivated by this and, in Jane Austen’s Best Friend, has turned to an overlooked figure in Jane’s life to help bring us closer to the author and her world. Martha Lloyd was Jane’s lifelong friend and who, Wheddon argues, may have known the writer as well as – and in some ways better than – Jane’s sister Cassandra, her more acknowledged confidant. Starting with Martha and Jane’s childhood, Wheddon moves through the lives of these two women, using surviving correspondence, diaries, and other archival records to depict a lasting and deeply important friendship that had a lasting and meaningful impact on both parties involved in it.

It is clear that Wheddon has done her research and, despite the occasional lack of concrete evidence (not all of Martha and Jane’s letters have survived), she examines what is there in almost forensic detail, connecting the small, seemingly trivial, moments of Jane and Martha’s lives into the wider picture of their life and times, including the impact and influence that this may have had upon Jane’s beloved novels. Wheddon’s enthusiasm for her subject really comes across in the book which is, for the most part, told in a lively and accessible way despite the wealth of both time and material covered.

Despite reading several biographies of Austen, I’d never really heard much about Martha Lloyd before. The role of friendship is often overlooked in biographies – especially of pioneering female writers – and Jane Austen is often portrayed as a writer bereft of friends, immersed wholly in the life of her family and a few close family acquaintances. It was therefore both heartening and interesting to see this reframed and to discover the impact that a close and long-lasting female friendship had upon the lives of these two women.

In fact if I had one quibble about the book it was that the focus was, at times, too much on Jane and not enough on Martha. Martha Lloyd appears to have been a lively and fascinating woman in her own right and I sometimes felt that this was explored only in so much as it accounted for development or influence in Jane’s life or writing. I understand that many readers will be attracted to this book because of the Austen connection but, for me, I’d have liked more chapters like the final one, which examines Martha’s life after Jane’s death. I also found some of the connections Wheddon makes between Martha and specific elements or incidents within Jane’s writing slightly tentative although I found her overall argument in favour of Martha’s influence to be a strong and compelling one.

Because of the Austen focus, it’s unlikely that this biography will appeal to those not already interested in Austen herself. And I’d probably recommend reading a biography of Austen (my preference is for Lucy Worsley’s excellent Jane Austen at Home, but there are many others) in order to get the most out of this book. For Austen aficionados however, Jane Austen’s Best Friend offers an interesting new way of navigating well-trodden territory, spotlights an overlooked figure within Jane’s life (and an interesting woman in her right!) and convincingly argues that we should consider the lasting influence of such a significant friendship when we read and appreciate Jane Austen’s work.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zöe Wheddon is published by Pen & Sword and is 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 an copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Rachel from Rachel’s Random Resources for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 06 March 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 · Festive · Reviews · Seasonal Reads

BLOG TOUR!!! How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond

RARELY HAS THE POWER OF CINEMA BEEN FELT BY SO MANY, IN SUCH OPPOSING WAYS…

“Love Actually dulls the critical senses, making those susceptible to its hallucinogenic powers think they’ve seen a funny, warm-hearted, romantic film about the many complex manifestations of love. Colourful Narcotics. A perfect description of a bafflingly popular film.”

By any reasonable measurement, Love Actually is a bad movie. There are plenty of bad movies out there, but what gets under Gary Raymond’s skin here is that it seems to have tricked so many people into thinking it’s a good movie.

In this hilarious, scene-by-scene analysis of the Christmas monolith that is Love Actually, Gary Raymond takes us through a suffocating quagmire of badly drawn characters, nonsensical plotlines, and open bigotry, to a climax of ill-conceived schmaltz. How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) is the definitive case against a terrible movie.

Okay, confession time.

I KNOW that Richard Curtis’ Love Actually is a terrible movie.

I knew it was a terrible movie the first time I watched it – long before Lindy West’s infamous (and hilarious) take down of it for Jezebel, and long before I was old enough to truly appreciate the sheer depth of the misogyny, fat-shaming, and sheer smugness of it. And that’s before we even get onto the dodgy timeline, the numerous plot holes, and the fact that some of the actors were mostly definitely phoning it in for this one. I know all of this.

And yet, come Christmas, will I watch Love Actually? Will I crack a smile at Hugh Grant dancing around Downing Street to the sound of Girls Aloud?

Almost certainly.

I mean, look at that CAST! The fabulous soundtrack! All of the FEELS!!

This inexplainable appeal is at the heart of Gary Raymond’s How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics). Raymond, a presenter on the BBC Radio Wales’s The Review Show and editor for Wales Arts Review, likens Love Actually to being under the effect of some kind of narcotic substance. We know it’s bad for us, but we’re addicted to it anyway because of the feels.

His scene-by-scene account of the film is both thought-provoking and hilarious, mixing the astute eye of a film critic (Raymond really does make you realise how incredibly skewed the timeline is – Liam Neeson’s character goes from his wife’s funeral to dating Claudia Schiffer in the space of about 10 weeks), with a laugh-inducing blend of wry observation, cynical commentary, and downright frustration. His skewering of Curtis’ terrible characterisation and schmaltzy dialogue stays on the right side of witty, whilst his frustration with the film’s tone-deaf messaging is something that I share.

For me, Raymond’s dissection of Love Actually really comes into its own when he’s examining the motivations of the characters. Because you really do start to realise that none of the tropes that the movie wants you to invest in – that Andrew Lincoln’s Mark is a nice guy, that Alan Rickman’s Harry is a heartless husband and Emma Thompson’s Karen a long-suffering wife, and that Kris Marshall’s Colin is hilarious – really work the moment that you think about them for more than two seconds.

He also blows apart the notion that Love Actually is a Christmas movie by pointing out, quite correctly, that the central idea that you ‘have to tell the truth at Christmas’ is, at best, a misnomer and, at worse, an excuse to be particularly selfish at a time that really should be about others. Which, I have to admit, did come as a bitter pill to swallow for me. The one thing I thought I could say about Love Actually was that it fulfilled the requirements of being a Christmas film – the entire thing is, after all, overflowing with tinsel – but, alas, Raymond shows that not even a nativity play full of octopuses can give this film Christmas spirit.

So, having read Raymond’s brutal (and brutally funny) takedown of Love Actually, will I be watching it this Christmas? Well, never say never. Rowan Atkinson’s cameo as the over-attentive salesperson will always make me smile. And Emma Thompson remains a delight despite how little she gets to work with. But it’ll probably be further down the list than it has on previous years – well below A Muppet Christmas Carol and Arthur Christmas. And if I do watch it, it’ll be with the knowledge in the back of my mind that it really IS a terrible movie.

How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond is published by Parthian 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 Emma from DampPebbles Blog Tours for organising and inviting me onto this tour. The tour continues until 5th December 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 · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

London, 1938.

In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap.

Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems.

By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed.

With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.

In The Haunting of Alma Fielding, Kate Summerscale moves away from the hidden secrets of Victorian drawing rooms and into the middle-class suburbs of 1930s London.

The peace of a quiet family home has been shattered – crockery has started flying off the shelves, objects throw themselves at the husband of the house, and wardrobes appear to move on their own. At the centre of it all is suburban housewife Alma Fielding, an apparently quiet and unassuming woman who is both confused and terrified by the strange goings on in her home. Desperate to find some rationale behind the apparent hauntings, she calls on the local press and they, in turn, attract the attention of Nandor Fodor, chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research.

Starting with a bang (quite literally given the amount of broken china that Fodor finds in the Fielding’s home), Summerscale’s latest work of narrative non-fiction follows Fodor’s investigation of Alma as he moves from observing incidences in her home to asking her to sit for seances at the Institute. As the investigation continues, Alma’s powers seem to increase – she manifests live animals, speaks in strange voices, and begins to develop physical scratches on her body. But is Alma really being haunted? And if so, is it by a ghost or by something much darker, hidden deep within her past?

As you would expect with Kate Summerscale, this is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive account of an unusual and little-known tale. Despite having read a number of books about the research activities of twentieth-century ‘ghost hunters’ such as Harry Price, I’d never heard of Nandor Fodor or of the International Institute, and I was fascinated by the fine balance they had to maintain between being open-minded towards their subjects and scientific in their pursuit of proof of the supernatural.

Summerscale does an excellent job of conveying both the popularity of spiritualism and psychical research at the time and the reasons behind this and, despite some of the Institute’s practices seeming far from ‘scientific’ by today’s standards, I was fascinated by how their thinking about psychic abilities and the supernatural paved the way for modern psychological thinking and techniques – especially in the field of parapsychology – today. Fodor certainly seemed to be a man ahead of him time in many ways, although his treatment of Alma is, at times, quite disturbing and the latter part of the book really does get you thinking about the ethics of treating a real person – and their past traumas – as a scientific subject.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is also quite dense in places. For the most part Summerscale wears her research lightly but, in parts, she packs in huge amounts of detail – some of which felt extraneous, or seemed to relate to some side-character or event that wasn’t directly connected with Fodor, Alma or the investigation. Sometimes it felt as if this information was being repeated and, at times, the pace of the book seemed to slow to a crawl as a result. After a brisk and exciting start, I found myself really struggling to stay interested during the middle section before the book picked back up for the end.

If you’re expecting a true life ghost story similar to Harry Price’s account of the haunting at Borley Rectory, or the memoirs of various ‘ghost hunters’ then you’ll probably find The Haunting of Alma Fielding a little disappointing. For all the supernatural phenomena that is centred on Alma, there is very little that goes bump in the night here. However if you’re looking for a thorough and well-researched examination of the early days of para-psychological investigations, and of the fluid boundaries between science, the self, and the supernatural, Summerscale’s latest is sure to prove an enlightening read.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale is published by Bloomsbury and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for allowing me to read an ecopy 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!