Books of the Year · Reviews

My Books of the Year 2020

Yes, it is that time of year again. As I prepare to kick 2020 firmly out of the door (and good riddance to it indeed), the time has come to look back on my reading year and think about the books that really stood out as highlights for me.

And, on the reading front at least, 2020 really has been an excellent year! Being stuck at home has at least given me more time to read. And, for me anyway, books have provided a solace and support in this otherwise trying and difficult year – you are, after all, never alone with a good book. In a year that has required staying local (and often staying indoors), books have also allowed me to travel vicariously through their pages.

As a result, I’ve had my best reading year for a while – a total of 104 books read! I’ve also found myself much less slumpy this year – possibly as a result of giving myself more freedom to read by whim and allowing more time to savour and enjoy my reading, and almost certainly because of all the lovely book chats that I’ve got involved with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook! Lockdown might be rubbish but it’s been so nice to be part of the book community during it and to get involved in online book clubs and reading challenges with fellow book lovers.

Continuing in this spirit of freedom – and in an effort to continue spreading the book love far and wide – I’ve therefore decided not to limit my Books of the Year to an arbitrary number. So instead of my usual ’round up’ post of my top 5/6 books, I wanted to share with you ALL of my favourite and recommended reads of 2020, along with a few words about why they’re brilliant and a link to my full review.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, let’s go!!

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

A magical historical romp featuring a child returned from the dead, a photographer, a pub, and – of course – a river. With the story beginning at New Year, this was one of my first books of 2020 – and definitely one of the highlights of the year for me! Full review available here.

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore

A devastating novel of forbidden love and social hierarchy, the world of the eighteenth-century is bought vividly to life in this sexy, dangerous romp of a novel. With one of the most memorable ending paragraphs I think I’ve ever read, there was no way that Mr Lavelle wasn’t making it onto this list! Full review available here.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

A book that combines fascinating figures and scholarly rigour with Greg Jenner’s trademark humour, this is the perfect read for anyone interested in celebrity, fandom, and the eighteenth-century. Shelf of Unread catnip essentially! Full review available here.

A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister

Another fascinating non-fiction read, this time looking at the history of sex and sexuality. Kate Lister brings scholarly rigour and deft social commentary to bear on her topic, whilst retaining the wry humour that has made her @WhoresOfYore Twitter account such a joy.

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

Crime writer Sarah Ward’s first foray into historical fiction provided a page-tuning country house mystery with a pinch of the gothic and supernatural. More Shelf of Unread catnip and a joy to read from first page to last. Full review available here.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

A historical detective novel with a difference, Things in Jars features a mysterious – and possibly magical – child, a pipe-smoking female detective, and the ghost of a dead boxer. Defying genre expectations and revelling in the playfulness of its prose, this was an absolute treat of a novel and perfect for devouring over a long weekend. Full review available here.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A powerfully imagined exploration of family, love, motherhood and grief, Hamnet is one of the few novels to have made me both laugh and cry in 2020. Just as magnificent as everyone says it is. Full review available here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Honestly the only reason I haven’t reviewed this yet is because I am still trying to find the words for it. A magnificent intergenerational story told from twelve perspectives. Fully deserving of every one of the accolades given to it.

A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross

A surprise hit on audio, this book about graves and graveyards manages to talk about very sad things without ever feeling sad. Instead the book is poignant, touching, and deeply hopeful. Perfect 2020 reading.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

A slice of everyday life encapsulated within pitch-perfect and elegant prose, Sarah Moss’s masterful novella – set in a series of isolated cabins on the edge of a Scottish loch – provided the perfect allegory for lockdown life whilst exploring the tensions and fractures that lie underneath society’s surface. Full review available here.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Smart, witty, and immensely pleasurable, Richard Osman’s first foray into fiction provided the perfect mix of mystery, comedy, poignancy, and compassion. Full review available here.

The Booksellers Tale by Martin Latham

Written by a bookseller, Martin Latham’s exploration of our love affair with books covers an eclectic list of topics. From marginalia to comfort reading, street bookstalls to fantastical collectors, if you love books and bookshops then you’re sure to find this a fascinating and comforting read.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Another genre-bending romp from the author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Mixing history, mystery, supernatural horror, and suspense, Stuart Turton once again keeps the pages turning as a mysterious voyage goes badly wrong. Full review appearing on The Shelf shortly!

Deity by Matt Wesolowski

The latest in Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series isn’t out in paperback until 2021 (although it’s out now as an ebook) but I managed to get hold of a copy in preparation for the blog tour and let me tell you that it does not disappoint! I devoured this one in about 24 hours – a page-turning mixture of top-notch plotting, compelling mystery, and chilling events. Full review appearing on The Shelf soon!

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

By turns poignant and passionate, joyful and comforting, Dear Reader is an ode to books and book lovers. Combining memoir with reading recommendations, this was the perfect book about books for 2020. Full review available here.

Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A pair of riveting mysteries with twists to rival Agatha Christie and a unique ‘novel in a novel’ structure, both of these were diverting and engaging reads. Full reviews available here and here.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The book that got me back into YA! With a gripping plot, a clever mystery, a little light romance, and some fabulous characters, this was a page-turning and entertaining read. I can’t wait for the sequel in 2021! Full review available here.

The Cousins by Karen M McManus

More YA, this time involving a hideously wealthy family, a small airport’s worth of emotional baggage, and an exclusive island home hiding a multitude of dark secrets. Fun, entertaining, and suspenseful, this has made me want to read more of McManus’ work. Full review available here.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

There’s nothing like a good sensation novel to curl up with as the nights draw in and Lady Audley’s Secret has it all – secrets, danger, illicit romance, possible murder, madness, arson! An absolute romp of a book, this classic is perfect for fans of Wilkie Collins.

On The Red Hill by Mike Parker

A beautiful combination of social history and personal memoir, Mike Parker’s On The Red Hill tells the tale of Rhiw Goch (‘the Red Hill’) and its inhabitants: Mike and his partner Preds and, before them, George and Reg. It’s also the tale of a remarkable rural community, and the lush prose and vivid descriptions took me straight back to the Welsh mountains and reminded me of the importance of home.

And we’re done!! Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or if you have them on your TBR! Here’s to having another excellent reading year in 2021 – and to leaving some of the less pleasant aspects of 2020 far behind us. Thank you for sticking with me and with The Shelf through 2020. Wishing all of you a safe, peaceful and happy new year – see you on the other side!

If you’re tempted to treat yourself after reading this post, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

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

Reviews

REVIEW!! The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

The QuickeningAn infamous seance. A house burdened by grief. A secret that can no longer stay buried.

England, 1925. Louisa Drew lost her husband in the First World War and her six-year-old twin sons in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Newly re-married and seven months pregnant, Louisa is asked by her employer to travel to Clewer Hall in Sussex to photograph the contents of the house for auction. Desperate for money after falling on hard times, she accepts the commission.

On arrival, she learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, the consequences of which still haunt the family thirty years later. Before the Clewer’s leave England for good, the lady of the house has asked those who attended the original to come together to recreate the evening. Louisa soon becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house, unravelling the longheld secrets of what happened the night of the séance… and discovers her own fate is entwined with Clewer Hall’s.

Those who have followed the blog for a while will know that I love a well-turned mystery, have a fondness for historical fiction, and delight in the spine-tinging chill of a gothic ghost story. Combine the three together and add in one of my favourite authors and you’re well on your way to a winner with me!

Rhiannon Ward may be a new name but you’ll probably recognise Sarah Ward. I’ve featured her accomplished police procedural series, set in modern-day Derbyshire, on the blog a few times before and she’s definitely one of my favourite modern crime-fiction authors. Rhiannon Ward is a pseudonym for launching The Quickeningher first foray into historical fiction, although fans of Sarah’s previous novels will be pleased to find another well-turned mystery, albeit one filled with the gothic and supernatural, at the heart of this latest work.

Set in the afternmath of the First World War, The Quickening is a novel suffused with grief and its aftermath. Having lost her husband in the trenches, and her two sons from Spanish Flu soon after, Louisa Drew has resigned herself to be thankful for a life of dutiful wifehood – and a second chance at motherhood – with her staid and emotionally repressed second husband Edwin. But when her former employer offers her a lucrative commission amidst the faded glory of Clewer Hall, Louisa can’t resist one last chance to live the life she thought she’d lost.

Packing her camera equipment, she heads for Clewer Hall, another house in mourning for people and opportunities lost. But are the Clewer family all that they seem? Why does no one talk about the child seen in the garden? Or the piano that Louise can hear playing within long-deserted room? What happened during that infamous seance and why does it haunt the house still? And, most importantly, what does it want with Louisa and her unborn child?

The Quickening is packed to the rafters with so much atmosphere that it lifts off the page, enveloping the reader in it’s grasp. I could immediately envisage the faded glamour of Clewer Hall – from the remnants of the wisteria clinging to crumbling brickwork through to the sadness of a long-unused nursery with its broken chairs and barred windows, reading the book had me walking alongside Louisa as she gradually uncovered more and more of the house’s secrets.

Ward absoutely nails the atmosphere too. Clewer Hall, with its greatly reduced serving staff and impoverished family both still sticking rigourously to pre-War notions of social hierarchy, feels as if it is stuck in a time-warp, forever trapped on the evening of the seance in 1896. It lends a gothic tone to a novel that has a distinctly modern protagonist – Louise is forthright, determined, and has a refreshing lack of propriety that carries through Clewer Hall like a breath of fresh air.

Despite this modernity, Louisa doesn’t feel out of time or place. Having developed a successful career during the war, it makes sense for Louisa to yearn to retain this freedom, whilst also hoping to regain some of the stability she has lost with the death of her husband and sons. I really got a sense of the period as a time of change through Louisa – caught between the possibilities now afforded to her as an educated and capable woman in a world where war has upset traditional hierarchies, and Victorian attitudes that still demand a level of respectability and conformity from her, even at the expense of her own happiness. It’s fair to say that, as the book went on, I definitely became as invested in Louisa’s own personal dilemmas as I was in the resolution of Clewer Hall’s many mysteries, so much did I come to identify and empathise with her!

Without giving away any of the plot, which unravels with the skill and elegance demonstrated so ably in Ward’s previous novels, I will say that The Quickening infuses a very human tale of personal folly and family tragedy with a chilling slice of the supernatural. The spooky elements aren’t overplayed but, in the manner of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions or Sarah Waters The Little Stranger, something haunts the narrative and the characters, causing both them and the reader to question their sanity and actions. It’s brilliantly done and I raced through the book, desperate to know what happened back in 1896, and what would happen to Louisa and the Clewer family as a result.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely loved The Quickening. Combining a country house mystery with a classic ghost story was always going to be a winner for me, especially when its as well-written and atmospherically evocative as this. Fans of Laura Purcell and Stacey Halls will enjoy the lush atmosphere, supernatural happenings and chilling gothic overtones, whilst fans of Ward’s modern day procedurals will find a novel that retains Ward’s knack for strong characters and precision plotting whist transposing them onto a new era and genre.

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward is published by Trapeze Books on 20 August 2020 and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon.

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

 

 

 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Shrouded Path by Sarah Ward

36991831November, 1957. Six teenage girls walk in the churning Derbyshire mists, the first chills of winter in the air. Their voices carrying across the fields, they follow the old train tracks into the dark tunnel of the Cutting. Only five reappear on the other side.

October, 2017. Feverishly fixated on a childhood friend, Mina’s dying mother makes a plea: ‘Find Valerie’.

DC Connie Childs – off balance after her last big case – is partnered with a new arrival to Bampton, DC Peter Dahl. Following up on what seems like a routine death by natural causes, DC Childs’ old instincts kick in, pointing her right back to once cold evening in 1957. As Connie starts to broaden her enquiries, the investigation begins to move increasingly close to home. 

Waiting for the next book in a favourite series is always a nerve-wracking experience for me –  a mixture of heady anticipation and concern that there’s a slim chance this next one just won’t be quite as good as the last. Where Sarah Ward is concerned however, I never have any such worries – her DC Connie Child’s series has gone from strength to strength with each new title and, I’m pleased to report, her latest novel, The Shrouded Path, continues this tradition.

Picking up not long after the last novel (A Patient Fury) finished off, The Shrouded Path sees DC Connie Childs and her colleagues grappling with a series of possibly routine deaths amongst Bampton’s older population. The ‘victims’ – three apparently unconnected women who just happen to be of similar age – all had terminal or chronic illnesses. So is it just random chance that they have all passed away recently, or is something more sinister at work in Bampton’s quiet suburbs?

As always with Sarah’s novels, the tangled web of interconnections and red herrings is expertly weaved together into a pacy, cohesive narrative that will have you tearing through the pages and eagerly trying to fit the jigsaw of clues together. Sarah also does an expert job of handling dual timelines, cleverly linking the events of 1957 with the narrative of present day events in a way that never feels forced or coincidental but only serves to heighten the tension and develop the mystery.

Sarah’s regular characters are, by now, well-established but for long time readers of the series, it’s really nice to see subtle changes to old faces such as the deepening trust and friendship between Connie and her boss, Francis Sadler. New team member DC Peter Dahl is a nice addition as well, balancing out the team nicely following the departure of DS Palmer in A Patient Fury.

That said, one of the joys of Sarah’s books for new readers is that each can be read as a complete standalone – other than the continuing detective characters and the occasional, spoiler-free nod to previous novels, the central story in The Shrouded Path is complete and self-contained. As someone who enjoys a series with continuing characters but likes each book’s plot to be wrapped up, this is a huge bonus – I’m definitely one of those readers that doesn’t like waiting 12 months or more on a cliffhanger ending!

After the darker tone and subject matter of A Patient Fury, The Shrouded Path returns in a softer attitude but successfully does so without losing any of its impact. There’s no visceral descriptions of murder here but the series is far from being a ‘cosy’ and one of the things that I most admire about Sarah’s writing is the way she manages to convey an underlying sense of the sinister and macabre without ever resorting to gory detail. This is done through a fantastic sense of atmosphere and a feel for place, with some wonderful depictions of both the cool beauty and the chilling isolation that can be found in the Derbyshire landscape.

As you can probably already tell, I’ve really enjoyed all of Sarah’s DC Child’s novels (and you can find links to my previous features on her books at the end of this review) however I have to say that The Shrouded Path really is the best one yet. Perfect for fans of Val McDermid and PD James, the series is going from strength to strength with each addition. Fans of Sarah’s previous books will find her latest to have all the compulsion of previous novels with an increased intricacy of plot and confidence in character; whilst newcomers will get to discover a fantastic writer whose powers only seem to increase with each book! Compulsive and readable, with a powerful atmosphere and a hint of the macabre, The Shrouded Path is a fantastic addition to a series that is only increasing in strength.

The Shrouded Path by Sarah Ward, published by Faber & Faber, is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher and the author  for providing me with a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

You can find my reviews of Sarah’s previous DC Child’s novels, as well as a Q&A with Sarah, by clicking on the book titles below. And please do check out the rest of the blog tour stops, which continue until 18 September 2018!

In Bitter Chill
A Deadly Thaw
A Patient Fury

SP_BLOG_TOUR (2)

 

 

 

 

Discussion Time

DISCUSSION TIME! Literary And/Or Commercial Fiction

Hello! It’s been a while so how have you all been? Firstly, apologies for the lack of recent posts – after a busy March on the book/blog front, April has been busy on the real life/adulting front (no prizes for guessing which one was more fun…) so neither much blogging nor, indeed, much reading has been going on in my household for a few weeks.

In lieu therefore of any book reviews, I’ve thought a discussion post might be interesting and, prompted by this excellent video from Simon over at Savidge Reads, wanted to examine the literary vs commercial fiction debate that seems to be have risen it’s little head again in some corners of the book world. So, what defines a literary novel? What makes a book commercial? And, most importantly, does it matter anyway?

The short answer to that question is, of course, no.

But for some reason, every time there’s a book prize shortlist announcement or when a Writer of Great Literature announces that their new novel is set on an alien planet and could therefore be considered as sci-fi (*gasp!*), the literary vs commercial debate starts up again.

Take, for example, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, a novel about Lizzie Borden. The Guardian’s favourable review called it ‘an outstanding debut novel about love, death and the lifelong repercussions of unresolved grief’ but, crucially, did not categorise it as a crime novel. And it most definitely IS a crime novel – it’s about a woman who may have stoved her parents’ heads in with an axe after all. Why then is it considered somehow different to Sarah Ward’s most recent novel A Patient Fury, in which a woman may or may not have murdered her entire family? That was also favourably reviewed in The Guardian but, interesting, was described as a ‘classic police procedural’ – clearly labelling it as crime fiction. Now I’m not saying that Schmidt and Ward write in the same way – or that the two books are identical – but, given that they have similar themes and ideas, I do find it interesting that one is considered ‘literary’ whereas the other seems to be treated as more ‘commercial’.

It was the same when Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Buried Giant. With elements of myth including dragons and ogres, the book could be – shock horror – considered a fantasy novel. Literary critics at the time of publication took great pleasure in debating whether a ‘literary’ author should be involving himself with the stuff of such a commercial genre and, most literary types agreed, it was a departure from the norm for the writer. Really? Isn’t Never Let Me Go science-fiction? Or dystopian? The Remains of the Day could most definitely be classed as historical fiction couldn’t it? And couldn’t you say that When We Were Orphans is a crime novel? Ishiguro’s been cherry-picking from genre fiction for years – it’s one of the things that, for me anyway, makes him such an interesting writer.

So is it about ‘literary merit’ then? The lasting quality of the works, the allure of the writing, the use of inventive structure and experimental form? For me, this suggests that commercial and genre fiction doesn’t have the same resonance or impact as literary fiction and I just don’t think that’s the case. I recently read and reviewed Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie, longlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction and considered by some to be one of the more ‘commercial’ titles on the list. I found it to be a deeply affecting and highly intelligent novel about friendship, loss, memory and old age and I’m currently forcing copies into the hands of my family and friends at every opportunity.

Plus the ‘literary merit’ argument completely ignores the fact that many of our now beloved classic authors – Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to name but a few – were most definitely writing commercial fiction back in the day. Dickens’ and Collins were both paid per instalment so deliberately wrote as lengthily as possible – and anyone who claims that Austen didn’t have her eyes on the prize has clearly never read any of her letters. And all three were highly successful authors in their day so it’s not about popularity or commercial success either.

Personally I think the terms ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ aren’t all that helpful for the majority of readers. For publishing types, they’re a useful way of distinguishing an author’s potential market and choosing how to promote that particular book. For academics and reviewers, they’re catch-all terms that can distinguish certain types of writing and style. But for readers? Well, they’re something for us to argue about I suppose!

Going back to the start of this post, I’m with Simon all the way when he says about books being accessible to everyone and that it wouldn’t do for us all to like the same things. So what if the only books you read last year were by E L James? The fact that I think Fifty Shades is suitable only for using as kindling in no way diminishes the enjoyment that many others may have gotten from the trilogy. One of my favourite contemporary novels is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History yet my Mum thought it was pretentious twaddle about a privileged elite. My best friend adores The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but I found it so saccharine that I swear that I lost three teeth just picking it up. Having a choice in what we read and how we engage with that is one of the primary joys of being a reader. What does it matter what label a book comes with if it brings you joy?

So there you have it – literary, commercial – they’re just labels and, personally, I don’t think they should be used to define, praise or belittle anyone’s reading. Read what you want, share the book love and let me know in the comments what you think about literary and commercial fiction. I’m also thinking of making Discussion Time a more regular feature on the blog so if you enjoyed the post (or didn’t!), or if you have any bookish topics you think would be good to discuss, do let me know. And, as always, until the next time…

Happy Reading!!

Books of the Year · Reviews

My Best Books of 2017

2017 has been a very up and down year on the reading front. I started strong, slumped massively in the middle and then re-discovered my reading (and blogging) mojo towards the end of the year. Despite that, I have read some cracking books this year and, whilst it’s not been as challenging a task to narrow down my Best Books this year as in previous years, the quality of what is here is definitely not diminished in any way – in my opinion all of the following are brilliant, brilliant books and I would urge you to read them if you haven’t already.

The Essex SerpentEssex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A gorgeously written treat of a book, this historical novel contains multitudes within it’s pages. Sarah Perry has skillfully captured life with her pen, weaving a web of human interactions around the strange fable of a legendary serpent said to haunt the Essex coastline. Packed with characters you’ll feel like you’re friends with and luscious prose that brings Victorian England vividly to life, this is a vibrant riot of a book and perfect for anyone who has The Miniaturist cravings following the BBC adaptation! My full review of the book appeared earlier this year on the blog and can be found here.

Days Without EndDays Without End by Sebastian Barry

If you’d have told me that a literary novel about two gay men set during the American Civil War would be my bag, I’d have been a mite dubious. But Sebastian Barry has created a miniature epic in Days Without End. A beautiful love story, a sweeping historical saga, a tense description of war, a tender portrayal of family – it’s all in here and surrounded in some of the best prose I’ve read all year. The voice in this novel is so unique and so profound at times – it gave me all the feels and I’d urge anyone to go and read it so that they can have them too. Again, a full review appeared earlier this year here.

The Dark CircleThe Dark Circle by Linda Grant

Again, a novel about twins set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-war England didn’t, at first, sound my cup of tea but, thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I picked up and loved Linda Grant’s novel. As with the Essex Serpent, this is a novel about characters more than plot as twins Lenny and Millie meet a range of residents from across the social spectrum within the enclosed microcosm of the sanatorium walls. Combined with an interesting period of social change and some insight into the early years of the NHS, this is a meditative, layered novel that rewards patient reading.

Six StoriesSix Stories by Matt Wesolowski

I’m a huge fan of the podcast Serial so when I heard that there was a novel that purported to be Serial in book form, you’d better believe I was straight on it! Constructed around six podcasts in which an investigative journalist outlines the circumstances surrounding the death of a teenage boy at an outward-bound centre and interviews witnesses and suspects, this is a compelling page-turner with a chilling edge. With a twisty narrative and some dark psychological insights, this novel is what I’d like all thrillers to be – a page turning read with an ending that packs a punch!

Killers of the Flower MoonKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Narrative non-fiction is always a tricky thing to pull off – too much narrative and it feels like a story, too much fact and you’ve got yourself a history book. David Grann gets the balance just right in Killers of the Flower Moon, an investigation into the systematic murders of large numbers of Osage Indians in the 1920s and 30s. Subtitled Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, the book is a fascinating account of an overlooked piece of recent American history that retains it’s relevance and still resonates today.

The White RoadThe White Road by Sarah Lotz

Another twisty psychological thriller that gave me the chills in 2017 – although this time the setting might have had something to do with it! Set largely on Everest, this part thriller, part ghost story is gripping from the off and features one of the best unlikeable narrators I’ve ever come across. Simon Newman is the worst kind of journalist – dishonest and self-serving, he and his friend Thierry are willing to go to extremes to get their click-bait website off the ground, even if that means filming the bodies of Everest’s long dead. Taut and chilling, this is a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist, made all the better for the amazing sense of place. I posted a full review of the book earlier this year here.

The Good People by Hannah Kent / Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Get me being cheeky and sneaking in two recommendations for the price of one! In all seriousness though I couldn’t choose between Hannah Kent’s two novels, both of which I read in 2017. They’re both fantastic pieces of well-realised, cleverly crafted historical fiction. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdóttir, the last women to be executed in Iceland- perfect for anyone who has read (or watched) and adored Alias Grace. It’s dark, compelling and richly told. The Good People is a very different novel, centered around three women in early nineteenth century Ireland and their struggle to come to terms with the care of an unusual child. As with Burial Rites, the novel is based on real events but is quite different in tone and takes in a larger examination of societal attitudes and the uneasy truce between religion and folklore, modernity and tradition. I reviewed The Good People in full here and, on the basis of these two novels, I can’t wait to see what Kent produces next.

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions this year have to go to:

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, which came along at just the right time and made me snort my tea due to laughing so much. It also made me realise that maybe being a bookseller wouldn’t be the best career for someone who prefers books to people most of the time!

Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, wonderfully narrated on audio by Stephen Fry, which is a perfect alternative to A Christmas Carol and deserves to be read by adults everywhere (especially if they happen to be reading it to children). Gave me the real festive feels and has a vital message about importance of being kind.

Pam Smy’s Thornhill is a stunning graphic novel about loneliness, ghosts and a mysterious girl next door. Visually captivating, it tells it’s tale in alternating sections of narrative and pictures.

Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is an exploration of the way in which books shape and impact our lives and an insight into why and how we read. A must for any book lovers (as is his first book, The End of Your Life Book Club).

Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, the third in her series of ‘Derbyshire Noir’ police procedurals. I went on blog tour with this book earlier in the year and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the whole series to crime fiction lovers.

As always, I’d love to know if you’ve read any of my books of the year and what you thought of them – or if you have any of them on your TBR pile for 2018. Do leave me a comment down below or say hello over on Twitter – if you’ve done your own Books of the Year post I’d love to read it! In the meantime, I’d like to wish you all a very Happy New Year and here’s to a bookish 2018!

Happy Reading x

Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR! A Patient Fury by Sarah Ward

DC Connie Childs is back! Long time readers of The Shelf will know that I’m a big fan of Sarah Ward’s Derbyshire based crime series that began with In Bitter Chill and continued last year with A Deadly Thaw. Set in and around the fictional market town of Bampton, the series focuses on DC Connie Childs and her boss DI Francis Sadler as they investigate present day crimes that often have a link to past misdeeds and cold cases.

33876124A Patient Fury, the third book in the series, sees Connie and Sadler investigating their darkest case yet – a devastating fire that leaves three dead and a mother suspected of murdering her family. Despite the evidence all pointing in one direction, Connie can’t buy into the matricide theory and, with the aid of the family’s surviving daughter Julia, sets out to investigate the past and a link to another missing woman. As the investigation deepens, Connie’s determination to uncover the truth behind the tragedy leads her to put everything on the line – and this time it could even cost her her career.

Once again Sarah has given her readers a relentless narrative that grips from the start and doesn’t let up. Her focus on the intricacies of familial relationships and the tangled webs that humans weave makes for a suspenseful read. She is particularly good at getting the minor details – the little oddities of character or phrase that set you on edge and make you aware something isn’t quite right – down onto the page and at making even the innocuous seem eerie. It really keeps the reader guessing until the very last page.

Connie and Sadler also become a real focus in this book. Connie feels refreshingly well-rounded; brilliant at her job but also obsessive, non-conformist and stubborn. Unlike traditional loose cannons in detective fiction however, she operates within a world of police procedures and, without giving away spoilers, it was refreshing to see her having to balance her determination with reality and find evidence to back up her intuition. Sadler, more mature and level-headed but headstrong in his own way, provides an excellent counterpoint to the impetuous Connie and their relationship – veering between admiration and antagonism – is one of the highlights of the book.

Previous knowledge of In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw aren’t necessary to enjoy A Patient Fury (although I would highly recommend checking both books out as they’re page-turning reads) but long time fans of the series will notice a slight shift in tone and focus. A Patient Fury definitely feels a lot more like Connie’s story. Whilst chapters continue to alternate as in previous books (some are told from Sadler’s perspective andsome from outside of the police investigation), the reader spends the majority of time in A Patient Fury inside Connie’s head.

This, I feel, is no bad thing. Whilst it narrows the viewpoint slightly, I felt it gave greater momentum to the narrative. As a reader, you’re along for the ride with Connie – you share her curiosity, her triumphs, her frustrations and her disappointment. For me, multiple narrators can feel like head-hopping, with too many voices preventing identification with any one narrative strand. Connie, more than ever before, provides the central thread in the book and binds the various threads of the narrative together.

Sarah’s writing has always been strong – one look at her blog, Crimepieces, and you’ll see she’s a lady who knows her crime fiction onions – but, in A Patient Fury, it’s stronger than ever, building on the first two books to forge a tighter, tauter narrative that’s sure to be a hit with fans and will hopefully lead to many more readers discovering her work. Providing a page-turning blend of police procedural and domestic thriller, A Patient Fury is an atmospheric, engrossing read that’s perfect for crime fans to snuggle up with as the nights draw in.

A Patient Fury, published by Faber & Faber, is available now in hardback and ebook from all good book retailers. My thanks go to Sarah Ward and to Faber & Faber for providing an advance copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

 

Blog Tours · Upcoming Books

Autumn Reading

Ah September, the beginning of autumn. The leaves begin to turn, the nights start to darken and book lovers everywhere prepare to turn on the fire, find their cosiest PJs and hibernate with a pile of books and a supply of comforting hot drinks under their favourite blanket. As thoughts turn towards Christmas, the stars of the publishing world unveil their heavy hitters and there’s a veritable feast of literature to look forward to over the coming months so, in this post, I thought I’d talk about some of the books that I’m hoping to curl up with this autumn.

29758006First up, and the book I’ve just started reading, is Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World, now out in paperback. I adored Ivey’s debut, The Snow Child, and her second book returns to the wild beauty of Alaska in the Winter of 1885 as Lieutenant Colonel Allan Forrester attempts to navigate the Wolverine River and map the inner portions of the Alaskan frontier. Alternating between Allan’s journals and the diaries of his young, heavily pregnant wife Sophie left behind in the fort, I’m hoping for more of Ivey’s vivid descriptions of the natural world and her meticulous portraits of human relationships.

35508160Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017, has been garnering praise from across the literary world. Loosely based on Sophocles’ Antigone and set in contemporary London, Home Fire is the story of two British Muslim families and examines familial love, political ideology and what happens when the two collide. Isma is finally free, studying in the US after years spent raising her twin siblings. But she can’t stop worrying about headstrong, beautiful Aneeka, left back in London, and Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of their father’s dark jihadist legacy. When handsome, privileged Eamonn enters their lives, two families fates becomes inextricably intertwined in what promises to be a compelling story of family and loyalty that feels completely relevant to the world we live in today. I’ve got my reservation in at the library for this one and I’m looking forward to its arrival.

Arriving in October, Phillip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage is the first part 9307699of his much anticipated The Book of Dust and sequel to the acclaimed Northern Lights trilogy. I’ve stayed deliberately ignorant of any plot details for this because I want it to be a complete surprise on reading but I do know that it’s a prequel to the events of Northern Lights set when Lyra is just a baby. In preparation for its release, I intend to finally read the last part of the Northern Lights trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. Quite why I’ve never got around to reading the final part is a mystery even to me – I think maybe I just didn’t ever want the book to end so deliberately deferred reading the final portion. Now that I know more Pullman set in the same universe is on the way, I can read without fear!

34913762Joanne M Harris’ forthcoming A Pocketful of Crows, also due in October, promises to be a modern fairytale with a nameless wild girl at its heart. Again, I know very little about the premise but you only need to say Joanne Harris and fairytale to colour me interested. Plus I’m booked to an event with the author at the wonderful Booka Bookshop at which I look forward to hearing Joanne speak and debating whether my starstruck self is brave enough to ask a question at the end.

33876124Last, but by no means least, I’m taking part in three blog tours this autumn for upcoming titles that I’m happy to sing the praises of. The first, for Sarah Ward’s A Patient Fury, is taking place on Saturday 09 September to tie in with the launch of the third book in her extremely enjoyable DC Connie Childs series of Derbyshire-based crime novels. Combining police procedural with domestic thriller and with a dash of nordic noir, there’s still time to check out Sarah’s first two books – In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw – before picking up the third.

35079533Next up will be the second collection of the late, great P D James’ short fiction, Sleep No More. Published in early October as a companion volume to last year’s The Mistletoe Murder, the collection offers six more tales of murder from a master of the crime short story, all with the dark motive of revenge at their heart.

The Shelf will also be visited by Christopher Fowler, author of the popular Bryant & May series of crime novels, when he releases his intriguing non-fiction foray into the back catalogues and backstories of authors that were once hugely popular but have now disappeared from the shelves of most readers. The Book of Forgotten Authors promises to be an entertaining guide to 34100964some forgotten gems from an enthusiastic and enlightening guide and a real treat for any book lover who enjoys books about books!

Those are just a few of the titles that I hope will be gracing my shelves this autumn. What are you looking forward to in the upcoming months? Do let me know in the comments or by dropping me a line over on Twitter or Goodreads.

Uncategorized

Summer #CosyReadingNight Wrap Up

Just a quick post today to follow on from my #CosyReadingNight TBR yesterday to let you know how the evening went and what reading I got done.

When the evening kicked off at 7pm I was still in the kitchen cooking tea – Toad in the Hole with mash and baked beans on the side. For those non-Brits who maybe don’t know what Toad in the Hole is (it’s one of those curiously British dishes that doesn’t seem to have migrated from our shores), it’s essentially sausages in a delicious Yorkshire pudding batter and is pure comfort food – perfect for a cosy night in! There’s a super easy recipe here for anyone wanting to try it out.

Being in the kitchen didn’t put me off reading though and, with the Toad in the oven and a glass of rioja at my side, I kicked off hour one with Sarah Ward’s ‘A Patient Fury‘, the forthcoming third book in her DC Connie Childs series. I’m going to be part of Sarah’s blog tour (details below) in September so I won’t say too much here about the plot but this is definitely shaping up to be Sarah’s strongest book to date and it kept me gripped throughout the first hour.

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Having scoffed a substantial portion of Toad in the Hole and poured myself a large cup of tea, I settled down onto the sofa to head into hour two with a short story from the forthcoming P D James’ collection ‘Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales‘. Again, I’m part of a blog tour later in the year for the collection so I won’t go into specifics but the two tales that I read had James’ trademark psychological insight and packed a punch in the shorter form.

Having been joined by my cat Lexi, I headed into the final hour of cosy reading night with a dip into Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind‘. In hindsight, I possibly should have started with this one as my increasingly relaxed and sleepy brain did struggle to keep up with all the scientific insights and I made slow progress. I hasten to add that this isn’t because the book isn’t good – it’s fascinating – but because the combination of being full of food and tea, a warm cat, a cosy sofa and a very relaxed brain meant that I was nodding off and kept having to re-read paragraphs!

Overall, #CosyReadingNight was a real success. I read about 50 pages of ‘A Patient Fury’, two short stories from ‘Sleep No More’ and a chapter of ‘Sapiens’ but, more importantly, I had a much needed evening of self-care and relaxation. Lauren has already said she’ll be back in the Autumn with another #CosyReadingNight so do go subscribe to her channel on Youtube to get notified when this happening and make sure you can join in!

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Summer #CosyReadingNight TBR

Tonight is summer #cosyreadingnight, as created and hosted by Lauren over at Lauren and the Books. What is a cosy reading night? Well, it’s exactly what it says on the tin – a night dedicated to getting some snacks in, getting your PJs on, shutting the world away and snuggling up with a good book. Lauren has done a great video introducing the video which you can watch here, as well as another with her personal TBR for the night. It starts at 7pm British Summer Time and runs for three hours until 10pm. I’ll be tweeting throughout the evening over @amyinstaffs but, before it starts, I thought I’d pop a quick TBR up so you can see what I’ll be reading over the course of the evening.

I’m currently preparing to take part in two blog tours that I’m super excited about. The first is for Sarah Ward’s upcoming ‘A Patient Fury‘ (published 07 September) which is the third in her DC Connie Childs’ series set in Derbyshire. I’m about 150 pages in to the book and it’s certainly shaping up to be the twistiest and darkest yet so I’m going to crack on with that for at least part of the night.

I’m also taking part in the blog tour for the upcoming second collection of P D James’ short stories, ‘Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales‘ (published 05 October). A companion to last year’s successful collection ‘The Mistletoe Murder: And Other Stories‘, this latest collection features six more stories with revenge at their heart. I’ve always enjoyed James’ Adam Dalgleish series of crime novels – I can highly recommend them on audio in particular – so I’m looking forward to diving in to some of her shorter fiction and hope to read the first story this evening.

Finally, I have ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind‘ by Yuval Noah Harari to dip into as a change of pace from the fiction. I’ve had this on my shelf for an absolute age but the sheer density of it (just shy of 500 pages of anthropological study) has been a bit daunting. Having started it a couple of evenings ago though, it’s proving to be both fascinating and very accessible.

So that is my #cosyreadingnight TBR. And for snacks and drinks? Well, I currently have a Toad in the Hole cooking in the oven to devour with mash and baked beans. If there’s any room left after that, I’ve got some NOMNOM Honeycomb chocolate leftover from my recent foray back to Wales. For drinks, I have a glass of rioja (my favourite) on the go then I’ll stick to that British favourite, a nice cup of tea. Perfect for snuggling up in the PJs on a Saturday night!

If you’re joining in with #cosyreadingnight, come say hi over on Twitter throughout the evening and let me know what you’re reading. All being well, I’ll be posting a short wrap up of the evening on here tomorrow. Keep an eye on Lauren’s channel for future Cosy Reading Night announcements and, if you’re taking part, have a great night! x

 

 

 

Blog Tours · Uncategorized

BLOG TOUR!! A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward

A Deadly ThawAs a long-time fan of the British crime novel, I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Ward’s debut novel ‘In Bitter Chill’, which I reviewed on the blog last year alongside a Q&A with Sarah herself. Sarah’s was an exciting new voice in British crime fiction, having used her experiences as a crime reader and blogger to shape a cleverly plotted, well-realised debut that bridged the gap between psychological thriller and police procedural and provided realism without too much gore – basically, the perfect formula for the sort of crime novel I enjoy!
When I did the Q&A I was excited to learn that Sarah planned to continue her series, set in the fictional Derbyshire town of Bampton, and to bring back her trio of detectives; DCI Francis Sadler, DS Damian Palmer and DC Connie Childs for a further novel, with the possibility of extending the series beyond this. I was therefore thrilled to receive an advance copy of her second novel, ‘A Deadly Thaw’, which takes place in the early spring, following on from the events of ‘In Bitter Chill’ by a couple of months. I really like the idea of using the seasons as a way of advancing the series and, in ‘A Deadly Thaw,’ Sarah continues to ensure that the weather and the overall sense of the season adds to the overall tone and atmosphere of the novel.
‘A Deadly Thaw’ opens with the discovery of Andrew Fisher in the long abandoned Hale’s End Mortuary with a bullet through his chest. Unfortunately for DS Sadler and his team, Fisher was supposedly killed back in 2004, when his wife Lena was arrested, tried and convicted for suffocating him with a pillow. So who exactly did Lena kill and why would she lie about his identity? When Lena disappears, it’s up to the team, along with Lena’s sister Kat, to follow a trail of clues that leads back into the past but has dangerous implications for the present day.
As with ‘In Bitter Chill’, the novel is narrated in alternating chapters from the viewpoint of the police investigative team and the amateur investigation; in this case that of Kat, Lena’s sister. This works well as it allows the reader to get clues from both sides of the investigation, which heightens the tension as each strand discovers new information that isn’t always privy to the other side. It also results in a lot of cliff-hangers; which Sarah is an absolute master of – there were times I could have screamed at her for leaving off a chapter where she did!
The plot is also very cleverly weaved together, with multiple strands and plenty of red herrings thrown into the mix to distract the characters – and the reader – and keep you guessing right until the very end. It wasn’t until the closing stages that I began to get a sense of whodunit and why, which is how I like my crime books to be – there’s nothing worse than a thriller where you guess the twist halfway through! The plot is denser than in Sarah’s debut however and I have to admit to getting a little lost a couple of times – the pace is so fast that I occasionally missed key information and had to double back to check who someone was or what they’d revealed when last interviewed but, for the most part, Sarah handles the multiple story threads very well and keeps them from getting too tangled whilst maintaining the mystery and tension.
Sarah also does a great job of fleshing out her detectives, adding meat to the bones of the characters she created in ‘In Bitter Chill’, and throwing in some further complications to their personal lives – which has left me waiting with anticipation for the next book! The great thing with this series however is that you can read each novel as a standalone. ‘A Deadly Thaw’ works equally well in isolation, with the case wrapped up fully at the end of the novel and the characters fully introduced at the start for new readers. And, for those crime fans who don’t like detectives that come with more baggage than the average airport (like me!), Sarah keeps the focus on the crime and crime-solving, with the personal stories ticking away in the background and only occasionally coming to the fore.
Overall, I really enjoyed ‘A Deadly Thaw’ and it is a worthy successor to ‘In Bitter Chill’ and marks Sarah out as an author to watch on the British crime scene. The dual structure, clever central mystery and tightly woven plot gives the book real pace and dynamism making this a fast, thrilling read which ratchets up the tension without resorting to brutal violence or overt amounts of blood and gore. Definitely one for crime fans to put on their autumn TBR pile or their Christmas list – my only problem now is that I have to wait for Sarah to write book three!
A Deadly Thaw’, published by Faber & Faber, is available now in hardback and ebook from all good book retailers. My thanks go to the author and the publisher for providing an advance copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.