If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

A decade ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extras.

But in their fourth and final year, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make-believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent. (taken from Amazon)

If We Were Villains is a story of a group of Shakespearean students at an art college who let the line between the real and the pretend blur, and the disastrous events that follow. While it could be seen as a mystery- or even a thriller- what stuck out to me were the relationships. In a case where life imitated art instead of the other way around, already out-of-touch personalities devolved into baser natures and the results were fascinating.

The story is told from the point of view of Oliver, one of a group of seven students. He is reminiscing and filling in the blanks after serving ten years for the murder of another in his group of seven. Did he really do it? Why? The memories have the fascinating quality of real, often-revisited recollections: they were gilded, sharpened to put unconscious emphasis on certain points, made fuzzier with time in others. There was always a small hint of suspicion that maybe Oliver was still playing a part, that he was in truth an unreliable narrator.

The lives of the students reminded me a little bit of the movie Dead Poets Society in that the group was incredibly close and they were fully immersed in their own way of thinking, up to the fact that it even affected their speech. Where in Dead Poets Society, you see the group often quoting poetry, If We Were Villains finds them using the Bard’s verse to speak truths that they otherwise hide. It is enthralling and made me appreciate Shakespeare, something that is new for me (I’ve never been a fan). The author uses the anger, fear, and desperation felt by the characters to bring the quotes into a different context. Or maybe she uses the quotes to bring a new dimension to the characters?

The characters themselves were engrossing. They were both more and less than the parts they played. There’s the fill-ins who find themselves chameleons onstage and in the group dynamic, the villain, the hero, the love interest, the ingénue, and the antihero. The students play their roles so well it left me wondering if they were, in fact, only acting. And that’s half of the brilliance of If We Were Villains.

There’s a microworld that I was drawn into, one that is very much real to the characters despite being centered around a dead writer. The atmosphere is fascinating: like a play, everything is heightened and larger than life. The stakes are higher, the relationships more intense yet brittle. The break, when it happens, is on an epic scale. This small world suddenly feels huge.

It is difficult to pick one particular thing that made me love the book as much as I did. I can’t take the characters separately from the language, the atmosphere, the pacing. It all moved together so well that there wasn’t a single thing that I didn’t love. From the very first sentence to the final curtain, everything was perfect.

I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want it to end. The ending itself, however, was perfect. The story was ended satisfactorily, but with room left to wonder. I continue to find myself thinking about it, questioning my reactions, and moving pieces of the narrative around in my mind.

If We Were Villains is smart and compelling, one of the very best books I’ve read this year. If you’re looking for a book to suck you in and leave you floored, this one is for you.

The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

Belfast, 1914. Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, high society has become obsessed with spiritualism, attending séances in the hope they might reach their departed loved ones.

William Jackson Crawford is a man of science and a sceptic, but one night with everyone sitting around the circle, voices come to him – seemingly from beyond the veil – placing doubt in his heart and a seed of obsession in his mind. Could the spirits truly be communicating with him or is this one of Kathleen’s parlour tricks gone too far?

Based on the true story of Professor William Jackson Crawford and famed medium Kathleen Goligher, and with a cast of characters including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, The Spirit Engineer conjures a haunted, twisted tale of power, paranoia and one ultimate, inescapable truth… (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Spirit Engineer will be available October 7th.

I will be honest: I didn’t know much about William Jackson Crawford going into The Spirit Engineer, so everything written was a surprise to me. That being said, if I had been an expert on his life, I still would have been engrossed. The Spirit Engineer is an engrossing book that delves deep into the subjects of loss, paranoia, belief, and what can happen when a person’s beliefs are questioned.

Professor William Jackson Crawford is a man of science who doesn’t subscribe to paranormal nonsense, thank you very much. He thinks himself too smart to fall for any trickery and is preoccupied with dreams of rising far in his field. However, William learns that his wife has been visiting mediums and takes it upon himself to disprove the idea of communicating with the deceased. Thus, the Spirit Engineer is born.

I don’t usually comment on the characteristics of those that are based on real people, but William is not likeable at all. Nor is he relatable. At most, I could say he’s pitiable, and even that is a stretch. William is condescending and feels he is superior to others. He is a man who desperately wants to be in control of himself, of his work, of others. The more he feels his orderly life slipping away, the more paranoid and desperate he becomes. Things go in unexpected directions when, instead of proving the medium is a fraud, William sees and hears the spirits himself. Is he deceived? Or has he stumbled upon something otherworldly? Of course, I don’t need a character to be likable or relatable to enjoy a book. Instead, he was fascinating, which is much more important to me.

The writing was fantastic. It was smart and engaging. I’m assuming that there was some embellishment, but the author obviously tried to stay close to the sprit (pun intended) of the facts. The story developed well and the pacing was perfect. It didn’t skip over details, but it also didn’t drag. I raced through this book because I just couldn’t put it down.

The Spirit Engineer is a riveting book. While it’s interesting from a historical standpoint, what really drew me in was the exploration of the human psyche because, when it comes right down to it, that’s much more fascinating and mysterious than anything supernatural.

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone- Write Reads Ultimate Blog Tour

Twelve years ago my life began again.
But it was a lie.
With the startling twists of Gone Girl and the haunting emotional power of Room, Mirrorland is the story of twin sisters, the man they both love, and the dark childhood they can’t leave behind.
Cat lives in Los Angeles, about as far away as she can get from her estranged twin sister El and No. 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where they grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.
But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to the grand old house, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. No. 36 Westeryk Road is still full of shadowy, hidden corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues all over the house: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

Thank you to the author and to Dave at The Write Reads for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. I am so excited to be invited onto the book tour! Mirrorland is available now.

Mirrorland is disorienting and unsettling, the sort of book that will keep you up at night. It is a harsh book, but it is also an incredibly interesting look at the secrets and the horror that has hidden itself away in Mirrorland, waiting to be revisited.

The book follows Cat, one half of a set of twins. She’s hasn’t seen her twin sister, El, or her sister’s husband in years. Their relationship has gone from strained to nonexistent and Cat has avoided visiting her childhood home, only returning when she learns that her sister is missing. The police think El is dead, but Cat knows better. She would know if her twin had died, right? Plus, Cat suddenly begins receiving clues- the kind that El would leave- that lead her on a hunt for answers. But Cat might not like what she finds…

Mirrorland was unique in that, while I was sometimes left confused, it was done intentionally by the author. There’s a sense of uncertainty throughout the book that left me off balance and wanting to know more. I felt like I was putting together the clues right along with Cat. It made it hard to put the book down: I needed to know where the trail would lead next! I figured it out just a teensy bit before the big reveal and felt a huge sense of accomplishment when it turned out that my guesses were right. The suspense, though! I loved that the book moved at a breakneck pace, without giving the characters (or the readers) a chance to breathe.

There was a small cast of characters and their personalities were revealed in bits and pieces, left to fit together like a puzzle. I didn’t like Cat, the main character, all that much, but I can’t deny she was interesting. The author painted a picture of an unsure person who was desperate for approval. She waffled between anger, bitterness, and jealousy, which is always an interesting combination in a character. Where this book shines, though, is in its mysteries and how they’re revealed.

I do think I need to give a heads-up: this book is very disturbing. Enthralling, but disturbing. If you can handle a harsher storyline, definitely give this book a read. Mirrorland is a fascinating psychological thriller, one that kept me engrossed from beginning to end.

About the author:

Carole Johnstone is an award-winning writer from Scotland, whose short stories have been published all over the world. Mirrorland, a psychological suspense with a gothic twist, is her debut novel.

Having grown up in Lanarkshire, she now lives in the beautiful Argyll & Bute, and is currently working on her second novel: a very unusual murder-mystery, set in the equally beautiful Outer Hebrides.

Where to find Mirrorland:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08BZXHFR2/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54304146

In the Garden of Spite: A Novel of the Black Widow of La Porte by Camilla Bruce

An audacious novel of feminine rage about one of the most prolific female serial killers in American history–and the men who drove her to it.

They whisper about her in Chicago. Men come to her with their hopes, their dreams–their fortunes. But no one sees them leave. No one sees them at all after they come to call on the Widow of La Porte.

The good people of Indiana may have their suspicions, but if those fools knew what she’d given up, what was taken from her, how she’d suffered, surely they’d understand. Belle Gunness learned a long time ago that a woman has to make her own way in this world. That’s all it is. A bloody means to an end. A glorious enterprise meant to raise her from the bleak, colorless drudgery of her childhood to the life she deserves. After all, vermin always survive.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. In the Garden of Spite is available for purchase now.

Belle Gunness wasn’t always a murderer. Once she was a girl wronged. Once she was a child looking to escape. Once she was a hopeful mother. Maybe. Or maybe she was always vicious, always dangerous, and always hungry for violence. This book combines fact, rumor, and creative license to weave a tale both unsettling and engrossing.

I had honestly not heard of the Widow of La Porte prior to this book. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m the most knowledgeable when it comes to the bloodier side of individuals. I was completely sucked in and spent most of the book wondering how much of this grisly story could possibly be true. It turns out, quite a bit.

Belle was originally named Brynhild and spent her childhood in Norway. The reader joins the story right at what could be viewed as the catalyst to Brynhild’s bloodlust. I have to be honest: I did skip past the opening experience that Brynhild suffered. I was able to infer what happened without reading it, and it is something that I personally choose not to read about in books. I don’t usually give trigger warnings, but please be aware that this book is harsh (it is about a serial killer, after all).

After her first murder, Belle traveled to America to begin a new life. This “new life” led to the deaths of many men, including two husbands. The way the story unfolds is nothing short of enthralling. Author Camilla Bruce had an amazing way of portraying a damaged woman who can hug her children and plan a murder in the same moment. It was disturbing and brilliant in equal measure.

In the Garden of Spite is told from two perspectives: one is Belle’s sister, who is initially unaware of Belle’s tendencies, and the other is Belle herself. It was fascinating to see Belle’s sister, Nellie, as she begins to notice that there are things that are off about Belle. As the story progresses, Nellie wrestles with her desire to protect her sister and her knowledge that she might be keeping secrets for a serial killer. I really felt sorry for her, while at the same time wanting to shake her. Her dream of “saving” her sister from a bad life in Norway left her with feelings of guilt and fear. It also left a hefty body count.

Belle herself was terrifying. She was cold-blooded but was able to mimic the emotions others expected from her. She was smart but rash. She was never overwritten, if that makes sense. Instead, she was incredibly well-developed with many layers. She definitely got under my skin.

I flew through this story and was equally fascinated by the author’s afterward, explaining where facts ended and speculation began. Holy crow, author Camilla Bruce was able to mesh truth and fiction brilliantly! I was left with shivers and the hope that In the Garden of Spite won’t be her only foray into the true crime genre.

BBNYA Blog Tour: The Lore of Prometheus by Graham Austin-King

I received this book to read and review as part of the BBNYA 2020 competition and/or the BBNYA tours organised by the @The_WriteReads tours team. All opinions are my own.

BBNYA (or Book Bloggers Novel of the Year Award) is a yearly competition where book bloggers from all over the world read and score books written by indie authors. I was fortunate to be able to take part as a judge. It was a ton of fun and I was introduced to some fantastic books.

If you are an author and wish to learn more about the 2021 BBNYA competition, you can visit the official website (https://www.bbnya.com/) or our Twitter account, @BBNYA_Official. If you would like to sign-up and enter your book, you can find the BBNYA 2021 AUTHOR SIGN UP FORM HERE. Please make sure to carefully read our terms and conditions before entering. 

If you are a book blogger or reviewer, you can apply to be part of BBNYA 2021 by filling out this form (also remember to read the terms and conditions before signing up)! 


BBNYA is brought to you in association with the Folio Society (featuring gorgeous, drool-worthy books) and the book blogger support group TheWriteReads.

Congratulations to The Lore of Prometheus for its win as the 2020 Book Blogger Novel of the Year!

So, what is The Lore of Prometheus about?

John Carver has three rules: Don’t drink in the daytime, don’t gamble when the luck has gone, and don’t talk to the dead people who come to visit.

It has been almost five years since the incident in Kabul. Since the magic stirred within him and the stories began. Fleeing the army, running from the whispers, the guilt, and the fear he was losing his mind, Carver fell into addiction, dragging himself through life one day at a time.

Desperation has pulled him back to Afghanistan, back to the heat, the dust, and the truth he worked so hard to avoid. But there are others, obsessed with power and forbidden magics, who will stop at nothing to learn the truth of his gifts. Abducted and chained, Carver must break more than his own rules if he is to harness this power and survive. (Amazon blurb)

About the author:

Graham Austin-King was born in the south of England and weaned on broken swords and half-forgotten spells.

A shortage of these forced him to consume fantasy novels at an ever-increasing rate, turning to computers and tabletop gaming between meals.

He experimented with writing at the beginning of an education that meandered through journalism, international relations, and law. To this day he is committed to never allowing those first efforts to reach public eyes.

After spending a decade in Canada learning what ‘cold’ really means, and being horrified by poutine, he settled once again in the UK with a seemingly endless horde of children.

To date he is the author of five novels, drawing on a foundation of literary influences ranging from David Eddings to Clive Barker.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

A murder on the high seas. A remarkable detective duo. A demon who may or may not exist.

It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported to Amsterdam to be executed for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent.

But no sooner are they out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A twice-dead leper stalks the decks. Strange symbols appear on the sails. Livestock is slaughtered. Anyone could be to blame. Even a demon.

And then three passengers are marked for death, including Samuel.

With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent can solve a mystery that connects every passenger. A mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board. (taken from Amazon)

I loved Stuart Turton’s first book so much, that I had ridiculously high expectations for The Devil and the Dark Water. This book didn’t meet my expectations. It far surpassed them. In fact, this might very well be the best mystery I’ve read since The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which was also written by Stuart Turton (we got an extra half death in the U.S., which never ceases to amuse me). The Devil and the Dark Water has everything I want in a book and then some.

To say it is a mystery is to simplify this book almost too much. It’s a mystery. It’s a thriller. It’s a supernatural whodunnit (or is it?), and it’s a genius trip into the evil lurking in the Dark Water.

So, what made this so incredibly engrossing? Well, first I need to start with the setting. Both the time and place were fascinating. It takes place in the early 1600’s aboard the Saardam, a ship bound for Amsterdam. Normally, the expectation would be of a voyage filled with boredom, possible plague, and bad weather. Instead, the Saardam gets violence, mysterious symbols pointing to a possible possession, and danger from someone or something on board the ship. It became a locked-room mystery, with the entire ship being the locked room. It was fascinating, to say the least.

Now for the characters. There is a small cast of characters, and every single one of them is hiding something. First and foremost, I have to mention Sammy Pip. He has the mind of Sherlock Holmes and is quite possibly the only one on the ship who could easily decipher what is going on. Unfortunately, he is a prisoner, locked in a cell. Instead, it falls to Arent, Sammy’s bodyguard and friend, to try to either exorcise a demon, or catch a villain. Arent is a fantastic character. He’s smart, but doubts himself. He’s also gigantic and is used to his brawn being what others need him for. As with everyone on the ship, the reader gets to decide: is he what he seems?

There are several other amazing characters on board, including a cutthroat captain, a Governor General who also happens to be a jerk of epic proportions, his wife Sara, and his mistress. There are other noteworthy characters, but I’ll leave it to the book to introduce them all. Suffice it to say, every single one of them has the potential to be a devil-or maybe summon one.

The story itself was superb! The mysteries had mysteries and every time I thought I had figured something out, the plot would twist again, leaving me delightfully confounded. I spent the entire book attempting to sleuth along with Arent, and had a blast doing so. The book had a kick of an ending, although I would have happily continued reading for another several hundred pages. Stuart Turton’s writing is just that good.

If you only read one book this year, make it The Devil and the Dark Water. It is utterly brilliant.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes- The Write Reads Ultimate Blog Tour

A Cinderella story with deadly stakes and thrilling twists, perfect for fans of One of Us is Lying and Knives Out.

Avery Grambs has a plan for a better future: survive high school, win a scholarship, and get out. But her fortunes change in an instant when billionaire Tobias Hawthorne dies and leaves Avery virtually his entire fortune. The catch? Avery has no idea why–or even who Tobias Hawthorne is.

To receive her inheritance, Avery must move into sprawling, secret passage-filled Hawthorne House, where every room bears the old man’s touch–and his love of puzzles, riddles, and codes. Unfortunately for Avery, Hawthorne House is also occupied by the family that Tobias Hawthorne just dispossessed. This includes the four Hawthorne grandsons: dangerous, magnetic, brilliant boys who grew up with every expectation that one day, they would inherit billions. Heir apparent Grayson Hawthorne is convinced that Avery must be a con-woman, and he’s determined to take her down. His brother, Jameson, views her as their grandfather’s last hurrah: a twisted riddle, a puzzle to be solved. Caught in a world of wealth and privilege, with danger around every turn, Avery will have to play the game herself just to survive. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Dave at the Write Reads for including me in this blog tour. I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This book is available for purchase now.

Riddle me this: what book is full of mystery, puzzles to solve, possible murder attempts, and a plot that keeps you guessing? The answer is obvious! It’s The Inheritance Games, of course!

This book was so much fun! It follows Avery, a wildly intelligent girl who has been struggling to make ends meet. She learns that she has been left a large fortune by Tobias Hawthorne, an obscenely rich tycoon. She would be overjoyed, but she can’t overlook one fact: she’s never even met the deceased man. Question number one? Who is she to him, and why did he leave her his fortune, excluding his relatives?

This book features a cast of unique and not necessarily trustworthy characters. There’s Avery’s older sister who has a connection to a skeezy guy; Skye and Zara, Hawthorne’s daughters; Zara’s husband; and Tobias Hawthorne’s grandsons, who were very close to Tobias and were pretty much a lock-in for the massive inheritance. The grandsons are: Nash, a self-made cowboy who has a thing for saving people; Xander, the youngest who seems less-than-interested in everyone else’s machinations; Jameson, who is incredibly helpful (but who knows why?); and Grayson, who feels that Avery has somehow taken advantage of Tobias Hawthorne. There’s one catch: in order to claim the inheritance, Avery has to live in the late Tobias’ estate with these people of questionable ethics. Everyone in the book has their own motivation, and secrets abound.

There were so many great things about this book! First of all, I loved that the riddles weren’t obvious, and neither was the solution. I was guessing and figuring things out right along with Avery, which was a blast. There was one “reveal” which I figured out early on, but it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book. Instead, I had a major fist pump moment (“Yes! I knew it!”) and every other solved answer was completely out of the blue for me. Another thing that I enjoyed was that, even though it would have been easy to slip into the tried and true mystery tropes, the author neatly avoided falling into that trap.

There was the whole complicated love triangle doomahickey but, seeing as it was part of the game and possibly just a clever redirection, it didn’t really bother me. It was also kept in the background of the story instead of taking priority, which I appreciated. Avery had a good head on her shoulders and was not as easily hoodwinked as I think certain characters were expecting. No spoilers from me, I promise.

I fairly flew through this book of mysterious happenings, and I loved every minute! I’m incredibly happy to know there will be a sequel, since I’m not ready to leave Hawthorne Manor and its inhabitants behind. Do yourself a favor and read this book as soon as humanly possible.