Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

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

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

I can trust nothing that came out of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone is published by Borough Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 01 May 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

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

Reviews

REVIEW!! The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

An imposing, isolated hotel, high up in the Swiss Alps, is the last place Elin Warner wants to be. But she’s taken time off from her job as a detective, so when she receives an invitation out of the blue to celebrate her estranged brother’s recent engagement, she has no choice but to accept.

Arriving in the midst of a threatening storm, Elin immediately feels on edge. Though it’s beautiful, something about the hotel, recently converted from an abandoned sanatorium, makes her nervous – as does her brother, Isaac.

And when they wake the following morning to discover his fiancée Laure has vanished without a trace, Elin’s unease grows. With the storm cutting off access to and from the hotel, the longer Laure stays missing, the more the remaining guests start to panic.

But no-one has realized yet that another woman has gone missing. And she’s the only one who could have warned them just how much danger they’re all in . . .

Having heard so much buzz about The Sanatorium on Book Twitter, I was absolutely thrilled to be approved to read this debut by Netgalley UK – with it’s isolated setting, cold winter vibes, and chilling location, it sounded right up my street!

As the novel opens, police detective Elin Warner is reluctantly making her way to Le Sommet, a recently opened and exclusive luxury hotel high in the Swiss Alps that has been controversially converted from an abandoned sanatorium. With her architect boyfriend Will in tow, Elin is hoping to reconnect with her estranged brother Issac and his fiancée, her childhood friend Laure.

Suffering from PTSD as a result of her last case, Elin is hoping that meeting Issac again will allow her to put the ghosts of the past – and of some long-held childhood trauma – to rest. Will, meanwhile, is hoping the break will allow Elin to focus on her future, rather than being stuck in her past. But when the hotel is cut off by a snowstorm and Laure goes missing, it isn’t long before Elin and Will find themselves embroiled in the many mysteries that surround Le Sommet‘s past. And then the first body is found…

Intriguing isn’t it? As you can probably tell, there’s quite a bit going on in The Sanatorium, with the novel mixing together elements of the traditional ‘country house’ mystery – isolated location, limited number of suspects, EVERYONE has something to hide – with those of a psychological thriller.

Elin makes for a fantastic narrator in this respect as, owing to her PTSD and the emotional toll that repressing her childhood trauma is taking on her, she makes for an unreliable and deeply fallible main character. Admittedly there were times when I did get somewhat frustrated by Elin – she has a tendency to switch from coolly efficient to emotionally incapable rather rapidly at times – but, for the most part, I found her to be a sympathetic character with understandable motivations and fears.

The Sanitorium also drips atmosphere. There are some fantastic descriptions that really allowed me to imagine the cold minimalism of Le Sommet‘s interiors and the glacial isolation of the snowy surroundings. Sarah Pearse is also excellent at building dramatic tension and, whilst the book doesn’t quite manage to avoid some of the clichés of the thriller genre, all of the set pieces are pulled off with great aplomb and the novel definitely has that page-turning, can’t-stop-reading quality!

Whilst Elin makes for an excellent narrator, I did have issues with the way some of the other characters and relationships are portrayed in The Sanatorium. Will in particular is clearly meant to be the ‘nice guy’ but I found his behaviour – and his lack of patience and respect for Elin’s trauma – to be really problematic. He has his redeeming moments but, on the whole, I didn’t feel that the subplot involving the state of Elin and Will’s relationship worked alongside the rest of the novel and I was disappointed that one of the key events later in the story seemed designed to guilt Elin into appreciating Will’s role in her life.

I also found the character of Issac – Elin’s estranged brother – to be very difficult. Aggressive, demanding and manipulative, Issac spends much of the novel high on the suspect list and I found it difficult to believe in the redemption he is given at the novel’s conclusions. Whilst the subplot involving Elin, Issac and their shared childhood trauma was interesting, the conclusion to it felt somewhat tacked on and, again, like an excuse for Elin to revaluate Issac and excuse his poor behaviour.

Given that Elin is such an interesting character, I would have liked to have seen her work through her PTSD and trauma on her own – and for her own reasons – rather than doing so through these relationships with the male figures in her life. This was particularly disappointing to me because the main mystery of the novel centres around male degradation and abuse of women, with an interesting (and sadly all too believable) examination of the way in which ‘troublesome’ women were confined to sanatoria for often made-up reasons. Given this element of the novel, there are trigger warnings for some graphic depictions of violence/bodily mutilation, mentions of sexual violence/rape, and discussions of psychosis/delusional psychosis, as well as significant representation of PTSD.

This maybe makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy The Sanatorium but that’s definitely not the case. I enjoyed it for what it was – a pacy, atmospheric thriller that I raced through in a couple of evenings and had a good time with. But as with many thrillers, you do have to suspend your disbelief a little to really immerse yourself in the story. There’s definitely the occasional ‘that wouldn’t really happen’ moment, plus some slightly dodgy light-touch characterisation in places but if you just go along with the ride then this is an enjoyably atmospheric debut that takes place in a fantastic setting, poses an interesting mystery, and has that all important page-turning quality.

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse is published by Transworld and is available to pre-order now (pub date 18 February 2020) from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Chalet by Catherine Cooper

Four friends. One luxury getaway. The perfect murder.

French Alps, 1998

Two young men ski into a blizzard… but only one returns.

20 years later

Four people connected to the missing man find themselves in that same resort. Each has a secret. Two may have blood on their hands. One is a killer-in-waiting.

Someone knows what really happened that day.

And somebody will pay.

Having recently read and LOVED Ruth Ware’s One by One I was eager to return to the Alps for more mystery so jumped at the opportunity to dive into Catherine Cooper’s The Chalet.

Set in the atmospheric resort of La Madiere in the French Alps, the novel alternates between 1998, when two brothers go missing whilst on a guided off-piste run, and 2018, when two couples arrive at a luxurious ski chalet for a few days of soft powder and après-ski networking. Wealthy businessman Hugo desperately needs to get boorish Simon to invest in his travel company – even if that means a week of schmoozing on the slopes. Hugo’s wife Ria, meanwhile, is questioning the wisdom of her marriage – and of choosing La Madiere, a place with too many echoes of a past she’d rather forget.

Along with Simon’s wife Cass, chalet girl Milly and manager Matt, and chalet owner Cameron, Hugo, Simon and Ria’s plans are thrown into disarray when a body is pulled from the snow – a body that may well be connected to the high-profile tragedy of the Cassiobury brothers twenty years before. It swiftly becomes apparent that there may be those amongst Hugo & Ria’s group who know more about the Cassiobury disappearance than they are letting on – and it isn’t long before further bodies start piling up.

As with One by One, the claustrophobic atmosphere of isolated mountains is used to great effect in The Chalet as the isolation of luxury ski lodge becomes a threat to the characters seeking shelter within it. Catherine Cooper has perfectly captured both the beauty and the danger of the mountains, and of the way that softly powdered snowfall can rapidly develop into a whirling blizzard. It’s wonderfully ominous and really helps set the tone for the action that follows.

I did struggle to associate with the characters in The Chalet. With the exception of baby Inigo, they’re a fairly horrible bunch with few redeeming features. Hugo, whilst shy and reserved, was unpleasantly misogynistic at some points whilst his wife Ria came across as shallow and self-absorbed – spending time in their heads was quite tough at times. Personally I do tend to prefer a novel where at least one of the characters is, if not nice, at least easier to empathise with – and I did find that almost impossible here. However, the blistering pace of events and the grim satisfaction that came with seeing some of these unpleasant people get their much-needed comeuppance did help to offset this disconnect!

And the pace really is blistering once the main premise and characters have been established. Cooper utilises the dual timeline to great effect to keep the plot moving forwards and the pages turning and, after a slightly slow start, the tension just keeps building until the explosive conclusions when all the secrets are revealed and the connections between the two groups of skiers becomes apparent.

Overall The Chalet is a fast-paced page-turner ideal for fans of Ruth Ware, B. Louise Candlish, and J P Delaney. It’s a pacy, atmospheric and thrilling read that, if you’re okay with unlikeable characters, makes for a great book to curl up with during these cold, dark nights!

The Chalet by Catherine Cooper is published by Harper Collins 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 and Netgalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 27 November so do take a look at the other stops for more reviews and content!

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Cousins by Karen M. McManus

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

You know what you did.

They never hear from her again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews

REVIEW!! One by One by Ruth Ware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One by One by Ruth Ware is published by Harvill Secker and is available now from all good bookstores and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Book Depository.

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

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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane

A literary obsession. An angry young man with a gun. And one woman trying to foil his deadly plan.

When Helen Oddfellow starts work as a lecturer in English literature, she’s hoping for a quiet life after the trauma and loss of her recent past. But trouble knows where to find her.

There’s something wrong with her new students. Their unhappiness seems to be linked to their flamboyant former tutor, Professor Petrarch Greenwood, who holds decadent parties in his beautiful Bloomsbury apartment.

When Helen is asked to take over his course on the Romantic poet William Blake, life and art start to show uncomfortable parallels. Disturbing poison pen letters lead down dark paths, until Helen is the only person standing between a lone gunman and a massacre.

As Helen knows only too well, even dead poets can be dangerous.

I was very excited to be invited to be part of the blog tour for The Peacock Room, Anna Sayburn Lane’s follow up to 2018’s Unlawful Things. The first Helen Oddfellow mystery was a surprising hit for me – one of those books that you know you’ll enjoy but don’t expect to like quite as much as you do!

The combination of taut literary mystery and edge-of-your-seat thriller gave me all the thrills of The Da Vinci Code but with the pleasure of more rounded characterisation and a considerably better prose style. Unlawful Things ended up being one of my honorable mentions in my Best Books of 2019 and I have been eagerly awaiting the follow-up ever since.

There’s always a worry when you’ve been anticipating a book that the reality won’t live up to the expectation. Fortunately The Peacock Room is a more than worthy successor to Unlawful Things, offering the same combination of intriguing literary mystery and contemporary conspiracy whilst developing the returning characters nicely.

The mystery this time centres around the philosophical poet William Blake. Returning heroine Helen Oddfellow, still raw from the events of Unlawful Things, is wrenched out of her sixteenth-century comfort zone when she’s asked to take over a first-year class on the Romantic poets at short notice. Turning to an old tour-guiding friend, Barbara Jackson, Helen is soon drawn into the close-knit artistic circles of Blake’s world – and into Barbara’s search for proof that Catherine Blake may have helped in the writing of her husband’s famous poems. But someone else is interested in William Blake – and is using his poetic imagery to justify a violent online misogyny that is threatening to spill over into the real world.

As Helen and Barbara’s investigations progress, the mysteries keep on piling up. What do some missing manuscript pages have to do with an online comic featuring one of Blake’s monstrous creations? How is a centuries old academic puzzle connected to the investigation of online hatred being conducted by Helen’s journalist friend Nick? And what does any of it have to do with Helen’s uhappy poetry students and the flamboyent Professor Greenwood?

Whilst it takes a little while to draw together and develop the various strands of the plot, Anna Sayburn Lane manages to keep the pace high and the twists and revelations coming throughout The Peacock Room. After some scene-setting and introductions at the beginning (ideal for introducing new readers – meaning The Peacock Room can be read perfectly well as a standalone mystery), the slow build of the first third of the book rapidly increases and I rattled through the final 200 pages or so in the space of a few hours!

As with Unlawful Things, some of the plot elements do push the boundaries of plausability – I can attest to the fact that academic life isn’t nearly as thrilling (or, thankfully, as sordid) as this book makes out – there is little that is impossible here (although several that are improbable – if only hidden manuscripts and undiscovered MSS were as easy to find in real life!) and, if realism is sacrificed at times, it is done so in the name of an engaging and enjoyable story.

The Peacock Room does engage with some difficult topics – trigger warnings here for discussions of gaslighting, rape, sexual coersion, sexual violence, grooming, and misogyny – but they are handled sensitively and are always kept relevant to the plot. That there are dark corners of the internet hiding such violent and unsettling interpretations of literature is, sadly, all too true. There were once or two plot strands that I felt wandered a little too close to cliche – guessing Professor Greenwood’s secret wasn’t especially difficult and, whilst I’m sure such things do occur, any modern university would crack down on such behaviour with considerably more force than depicted here however illustrious the academic in question.

These minor niggles aside however, The Peacock Room is a fascinating literary thrill that successfully combines contemporary debates with the thrill of a centuries old mystery to produce an engaging, enjoyable, and edge-of-your-seat read. Deserving of a much wider readership, The Peacock Room is a worthy successor to Unlawful Things – existing fans are sure to enjoy it and I hope it brings many new readers to Anna Sayburn Lane’s action-packed series.

The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane 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 author, Anna Sayburn Lane, for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The blog tour continues until 17 October 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!!! Sight Unseen by Sandra Ireland

Sight Unseen (high res) (4)1648. Alie Gowdie marries Richard Webster during a turbulent time in Scotland’s history. Charles I is about to lose his head, and little does Alie know that she too will meet a grisly end within the year.

2019. Sarah Sutherland is struggling to cope with the demands of her day job, caring for her elderly father and keeping tabs on her backpacking daughter. She wanted to be an archaeologist, but now in her forties, she is divorced, alone, and there seems to be no respite, no glimmer of excitement on the horizon. However, she does have a special affinity with the Kilgour Witch, Alie Gowdie, who lived in Sarah’s cottage until her execution in 1648, and Sarah likes nothing better than to retreat into a world of sorcery, spells and religious fanaticism.

Her stories delight tourists as she leads them along the cobbled streets of her home town, but what really lies behind the tale of Alie Gowdie, the Kilgour Witch? Can Sarah uncover the truth in order to right a centuries-old wrong? And what else might modern-day Kilgour be hiding, just out of sight?

I love a book that draws parallels between the past and the modern day and Sandra Ireland’s Sight Unseen does not disappoint!

Set in the small Scottish town of Kilgour, the novel follows Sarah Sutherland. Long-suffering supermarket manager by day, Sarah indulges in her passion for history at night by running storytelling walks for Kilgour’s tourists, telling them tales of Alie Gowdie, the Kilgour Witch. With her marriage long ended, her daughter off travelling the world, and her aging father becoming increasingly dependant on her, Sarah worries that it might be too late to turn her passion into anything more than a side-hustle.

But when she gets asked to  help transcribe the newly unearthed diaries of the Rev. Wilkie, Alie’s principle accuser, Sarah uncovers some dark secrets hiding behind the story of the Kilgour Witch. Could these long-buried truths provide Sarah with a way out of her humdrum existence? And might they be related to the ‘figures’ her father keeps seeing out of the corner of his eye? In both the past and the present, it seems Kilgour has more than a few things that some people might prefer stayed hidden.

Whilst I’m not entirely sure that ‘thriller’ is the best categorisation for Sight Unseen, I really enjoyed the pacy mystery at the heart of the book and the way the various plot strands interconnected. Without giving any of the plot away, there are some really interesting and unexpected connections between the story of Alie Gowdie and the plight of several women in Kilgour in the present day, as well as between Sarah’s investigations and her father’s ‘figures’.

Sandra Ireland has done such a good job of weaving all of the seemingly disperate strands of the plot together, and drawing parallels between the past and present. I was fascinated by the history around which the novel is based and the novel really captures the magic of archival research – that tenative hope that you might discover long-buried secrets hidden away amidst the crabbed scrawl of country parson, or the official records of a workhouse.

I found main character Sarah to be a compelling and likeable lead. Juggling the stresses of the day job with the pains of an empty nest, the regrets for roads not taken, and the strain of looking after an aging father, Sarah is fantastically relatable. Whether it’s fretting over the morality of her budding romance with a much younger man, or sinking a double gin and tonic at the end of a long day dealing with customer complaints about missing chicken legs, Sarah comes across as gloriously flawed and human. As Sight Unseen promises to be part of a series, I’m looking forward to seeing what Sarah does next given how much she develops over the course of the novel.

Sarah’s father John, the other character whose point of view we get to see, provides an interesting alternate perspective and a sympathetic portrayal of aging that is so rarely seen in books. Whilst deterioriating physically and increasingly dependant on Sarah, John is sharp, knowledgeable and determined, and I enjoyed seeing his perspective on events also described by Sarah, as well as his insights into her life and character.

As I said earlier, I’m not entirely sure I’d class the novel as a ‘thriller’. Whilst the plot is richly layered and there are plenty of secrets to be uncovered, for me the book is more of a mystery, albeit one with a page-turning pace, a compelling female protagonist, and some very contemporary themes. This suited me down to the ground but contemporary or domestic thriller fans seeking high-octane twists and turns might be disappointed if they go in expecting that from Sight Unseen, which instead offers a blend of carefully uncovered historical secrets, present-day problem-solving, and gradual character development. Fans of mystery-thrillers are, however, sure to find much to enjoy and I for one am looking forward to seeing what’s in store for Sarah in the next book!

Sight Unseen by Sandra Ireland is published by Polygon and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

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

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Love Books Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour! The tour continues until 18 August 2020 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content. 

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Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

Hinton Hollow Death Trip CoverHinton Hollow. Population 5,120.

Little Henry Wallace was eight years old and one hundred miles from home before anyone talked to him. His mother placed him on a train with a label around his neck, asking for him to be kept safe for a week, kept away from Hinton Hollow.

Because something was coming.

Narrated by Evil itself, Hinton Hollow Death Trip recounts five days in the history of this small rural town, when darkness paid a visit and infect it’s residents.

Making them cheat. Making them steal. Making them kill.

Detective Sergeant Pace has returned to his childhood home. To escape the things he had done in the city. To go back to something simple.

But he was not alone. Evil had a plan. 

Long-time readers of the shelf may recall that I struggled somewhat to put Will Carver’s last book, Nothing Important Happened Today, into words. It was so unique, so dark but so brilliant, so very, very unusual – and so very easy to spoil if you gave away too much.

Well, surprise surprise, I’m equally stumped as to how I’m going to review Hinton Hollow Death Trip, Carver’s follow-up to Nothing Important and the third in his Detective Sergeant Pace series. Because Carver has only gone and written ANOTHER uniquely dark and disturbing thriller with a dash of pitch-black humour and so many twists it’ll leave your head spinning.

But, before we go any further, time to talk triggers. Make no mistake, Hinton Hollow Death Trip is a DARK book. It pulls no punches in its depictions of alcohol abuse, suicide, animal cruelty, child murder, and family breakdown. I’m not usually put off by dark themes but even I found some of the incidents in Hinton Hollow extremely disturbing so if you are a reader of a sensitive disposition, or any of these topics are triggering for you, then Hinton Hollow Death Trip is not going to be the book for you.

That said, as with Nothing Important, what kept me reading through even the darkest chapters was that Carver doesn’t make his violence gratuitous. It’s not there simply to shock the reader, or to cause them to recoil in horror. Every incident, however violent, is designed to develop a character, to advance the plot, or to further make Evil’s very simple point: people have the power to destroy everything.

Yes, Hinton Hollow Death Trip is narrated by Evil. And Evil has it’s eyes on Detective Sergeant Pace. Following the events of Nothing Important Happened Today, Pace has retreated to his hometown of Hinton Hollow. But Evil has followed him. It is infecting the town, taking the petty jealousies and latent fears of the townspeople and turning them against themselves. It starts with the shocking murder of a child. Or maybe it starts with a little boy, alone on a train and far from home. Or with the elderly lady who has become the beating heart of the town. Or with the young couple, soon to be married. Or with the mothers.

I’m not going to tell you any more about Hinton Hollow Death Trip‘s plot. Unravelling it will make your brain ache by the end of the book but it’s a wild and unexpected ride, with shocking revelations coming thick and fast as the novel progresses. Trust me when I say you’re going to need a breather after this book – with it’s short, sharp chapters and direct prose it’s not complicated in a ‘difficult to read’ sense but I still needed a good few days to process the way in which the various plot strands came together, and the wider implications of the novel’s dark themes.

I worry that I’ve made Hinton Hollow Death Trip sound like a terminally depressing book. It really isn’t – in fact, there’s a strand of pitch-black humour running amidst the destruction that Evil leaves in its wake. As with Death in Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Carver’s Evil  is a wryly observer of the human condition, and their interventions and observations provide both poignancy and humour.

This unusual perspective does an excellent job of making you really think about the events taking place in Hinton Hollow, and how they reflect the reality of human nature. More than once during the novel, I found myself wondering what I would do in that situation, or jolted into the realisation that I was judging the characters in exactly the way that Evil was expecting them to be judged. It’s definitely a novel that will leave you wondering about morality, and that encourages you to think about the extent to which nature and nurture impact upon a person’s moral compass.

Hinton Hollow Death Trip is, arguably, one of the most unrepentantly dark books I’ve ever read, and one of the most brilliant. It’s dark, complex, original, memorable, disturbing, and mesmerising. It’s definitely not a book for everyone but, if you can handle the sinister content, you’ll discover one of the most unique books of the year.

Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver is published by Orenda Books and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Orenda e-bookstore, Hive, and Waterstones. You can also get an exclusive first edition from independent bookseller Goldsboro Books

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 inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The continue continues until 14 August so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content. 

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Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Don’t Turn Around by Jessica Barry

Don't Turn Around Cover322 miles of road. 6 hours. 2 strangers. 1 killer. Too many secrets.

Midnight. Cait Monaghan and Rebecca McRae are on a desolate road that slices through the New Mexican desert. They’ve never met before tonight. Both have secrets to protect. Both of their lives are in danger.

When a truck pulls up fast behind them, they assume it’s punk teenagers or run-of-the-mill road rage, but it soon becomes clear that whoever is driving the truck is hunting them for sport—and they are out to draw blood.

As the miles unspool and the dangers mount, the pasts they’ve worked so hard to keep buried have come back to haunt them. Someone wants one of them dead. But which one? And given the lives the two women have been leading, that someone could be almost anyone.

If Cait and Rebecca are going to survive, they’ll have to learn to trust one another—and themselves. But trust is a costly business, and they’ve both paid the price before. . . .

Buckle up because Don’t Turn Around, Jessica Barry’s follow-up to her successful debut thriller Freefall, is one wild ride. From the tense opening, in which a battered jeep collects a women from an affluent neighbourhood in the dead of night, right up to the nail-biting climax, this is a novel that keeps the tension high and those pages turning!

Cait and Rebecca have never met and, in many ways, their situations couldn’t be more differnet. Aspiring journalist Cait is stuck working in a sleazy bar, whilst Rebecca is the wife of a rising political star. But the two women have more in common than first meets the eye. Both of them are victims of patriarchal power, judged for having dared to defy powerful and popular men. Both of them are running. And both of them are in terrible danger on the road.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot for fear of spoilers but, once they pick up a tail on the lonely road, the two women have to learn to overcome societal judgement, trust each other, and work together in order to survive.

For me, the developing bond between Rebecca and Cait is the high point of Don’t Turn Around. As the novel progresses, you’re given flashbacks that show how these two very different women ended up going on a 322 mile journey together – and how both of them have fallen foul of conventional society. Both women are really well developed as characters  and I shared in their anger, their despair, and their determination, as well as in their doubts, fears and shame.

Unfortunately I found the supporting characters, the most significant of whom are the respective men in Cait and Rebecca’s, less convincing. Given that the plot revolves around the abuse of patriarchal power over women, I wasn’t expecting to find many likeable guys in Don’t Turn Around but it was still somewhat disappointing to find quite so many unequivocally unapologetic b*stards. If the aim was to make me detest these men, then Barry has certainly succeeded – there really isn’t one redeeming feature amongst the lot of them – but they were so one-dimensional, that they felt like a cardboard line-up of ‘Me Too’ villains.

This is doubly disappointing given how fantastically well-rounded and nuanced Cait and Rebecca are as leads, and it made the hugely important central messaging surrounding Me Too – and the way in which the movement has empowered many women to speak about about oppression – feel somewhat heavy-handed in its delivery.

With that one exception though, I found Don’t Turn Around to be a nail-biting thriller with some fantastic set-pieces that are neatly contasted with sections of slow-burning build-up and tension. Short chapters, alternating perspectives, and flashbacks keep the pace high throughout and I raced through the novel in a matter of days, making this the perfect accompaniment for thriller fans going on vacation (or taking a staycation) this summer.

Don’t Turn Around by Jessica Barry is published by Vintage and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

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

My thanks go to Jasmine Marsh from Vintage for providing a Netgalley widget for the book and for organising and inviting me onto this tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The tour continues until 09 August so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

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Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith

The Waiting Rooms JacketDecades of spiralling drug resistance have unleashed a global antibiotic crisis. Ordinary infections are untreatable: a scratch from a pet can kill. A sacrifice is required to keep the majority safe: no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics. The elderly are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms’… Hospitals where no one ever gets well.

Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, Kate begins a search for her birth mother, armed only with her name and her age. As Kate unearths disturbing facts about her mother’s past, she puts her family in danger and risks losing everything.

Because Kate is not the only secret that her birth mother is hiding. Someone else is looking for her, too.

Reading The Waiting Rooms during the Coronavirus lockdown was, at times, a rather tense experience.

Eve Smith’s debut, set in a near future when increased human resistance to antibiotics has led to widespread death from common infectious diseases, seems disturbingly prescient in the current climate and the tiny details of her imagined near future rang  scarily true in an era when a trip to the shops involves digging our your face mask and a simple handshake has become a gesture imbued with danger.

These unsettling parallels are a testament to how much thought and research has gone into Smith’s ‘what if’ scenario. Antibiotic resistance – as the books epigraphs make clear – is a real and growing threat and Smith’s imagining of the consequences of this on a political, societal and everyday scale is vividly and precisely drawn. From the decrease in pet ownership due to fears of scratches to the health passport flashed by a visitor at the door, Smith brilliantly imagines the tiny ways in which everyday life has been forced to adapt to a newly contagious climate.

On a wider scale, the society of Smith’s world has decreed that the over 70s are no longer eligible for antibiotics. Society avoids them – ‘shielding’ has become a byword for ageism and isolation. If they fall ill, they are taken to ‘The Waiting Rooms’ – hospitals where no one is expected to get well. For many, Peace Rooms have become the preferable option – assisted dying being preferable to an ignoble and sudden end.

Smith is excellent at confronting these emotionally charged subjects – death, euthanasia, ageism, societal segregation, bio-terrorism, the policing of medicine, social inequality – and does so with both sensitivity and tact. One of her characters, Kate, works as a nurse in a Peace Hospital, helping those who choose to end their lives. Having nursed through the antibiotic crisis, Kate is all to aware of the difficult choices that have had to be made in the post-crisis world – she’s having to make one of her own as she contemplates searching for her birth mother.

Another character, Lily, is approaching her 70th birthday. As one of the ‘lucky ones’, Lily has access to carers, medical checks, and a carefully sanitised environment while she waits for the inevitable. But Lily’s luck appears to have run out. Someone is targeting her. Someone who knows all about Lily’s past – and that the events of the antibiotic crisis might not be as they first appear.

The third strand of the novel, told from the perspective of botanist Mary and set in South Africa in the years and months before the antibiotic crisis, connects Kate and Lily’s stories together, bringing the personal lives of these two women into the wider narrative of infection, control, bio-terrorism, and government secrets. Whilst I guessed the connection between the women fairly quickly, the journey they undergo remains a tense and emotional one, leading to shocking revelations for all of them as the secrets of the past are uncovered.

I can’t really say that I ‘enjoyed’ The Waiting Rooms – this is a novel that, particularly at the moment, feels scarily real and worryingly prescient – but I would say that this is a compelling and emotional thriller that forces the reader to consider the realities of an urgent health emergency. Although speculative in nature, The Waiting Rooms is a vividly realised and timely reminder of the need to tackle the wider inequalities surrounding access to healthcare, and to address the crises that may be lurking around the corner before they become a daily reality for millions.

It’s a book that scared me. One that made me think. One that made me appreciate all the small things I have and can do. And although it’s not for the faint-hearted, I would urge anyone to go out and read it.

The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith is published by Orenda Books and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including the Orenda ebookstore, Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ish, Scarthin 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 inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The continue continues until 12 July so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content. 

The Waiting Rooms BT Poster