Posted in Netgalley

The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

I’d anticipated this book for a couple of months having been told by my Squad Pod ladies that it was going to be a fantastic read. It certainly was, and even more than that, it was surprising too. Our setting is the city of Belfast, the Titanic sinking is still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s especially fresh at Professor William Crawford’s house since his brother-in-law Arthur was on the ship. Crawford is our narrator and he introduces us to his happy, but chaotic household as the novel opens. He is a man of science, working at an institute both furthering scientific enquiry and teaching the next generation of engineers. He’s a sceptic, so when he finds out that his wife is visiting a medium and has been trying to contact her brother Arthur, he’s shocked and angry. There’s no question that this girl is a fraud, stringing his wife along with a show put on with the help of her shady family. Yet, the couple have lost their son Robert and Crawford’s grief is overwhelming. So when he hears Robert’s voice calling to him alongside an angry, vengeful Arthur who blames Crawford for his death, a small crack grows in his scepticism. What if he were to apply his scientific rigour to to this girl medium’s powers? If he could prove a link exists between this world and the next he could make a name for himself, not just in Ireland but all over the world.

I found the tone of the book quite unique and fresh. We see Crawford’s world through his eyes and this gives us a chance to really know him. I loved that he had the petty work grievances and rivalries that are familiar to us today. His pomposity and stuffiness could get him into scrapes with other people who don’t understand his Edwardian ‘Sheldon Cooper’ tendencies. At home his need for routine and things done a certain way is met with a certain amount of fond irritation. The children tend to break through the veneer of grumpiness and when a mysterious new maid appears, she seems to know him so well and has what he needs ready before he even misses it. I loved comic little scenes like the undignified moving of naked statues at the institute. When chosen for a special job before an important dinner, Crawford’s self-importance starts to show itself. His disgust when he finds out he’s just a removal man is so funny, a situation that’s made worse when family patron Aunt Adelia accuses him of manhandling a naked woman at an upstairs window. Sometimes it’s the author’s description of a character, as seen by Crawford, that raises a smile. Crawford’s colleague Stoupe is described as:

‘Damn it, there was no escape, and no creature on earth moves so quickly as an irritating man. He danced over the tiles towards me, grinning, all arms and sweat, dressed preposterously in a baggy velvet suit, pursing his lips like a kissing pig. He gave a courtly bow before standing far too near, smelling of lavender, whisky and damp, short tufts of blonde hair.’

There are other sections of the book where his privileged position as a white, middle-class man of some scientific standing, gives him so much power he starts to abuse it. One section that I found really disturbing was his insistence that the medium, Miss Goligher, prove her gift is genuine by submitting to different tests and examinations. He forces Rose, their maid, to cavity search the unfortunate girl in an enormous abuse of power. There is also the burning of his son Robert’s comfort blanket which felt particularly cruel. The seance scenes are intense and confusing. At one point attendees are tied up and blindfolded as per Crawford’s instructions, but he still finds it difficult to understand what exactly is going on. In America, a meeting with Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini show the circles he’s starting to travel in. They add authenticity to the period and subject matter, because even though William Crawford’s experiences were documented historically, the book fictionalises them. Similarly both Conan Doyle and Houdini were fascinated with phenomena like mesmerism and mediumship. As an aside, Conan Doyle was famously taken in by two small children who claim to have photographed fairies in their garden, so his eagerness to see proof of mediumship and his note of caution feel consistent with his known experiences. What I loved more than anything was the author’s ability to surprise, because as we neared the end I had no idea how the book and Crawford’s investigations would conclude. The theme of dishonesty is there right from the start, in Arthur’s reasons for being on Titanic, to the hidden note from their old maid who left in a hurry, and Elizabeth’s absence at weekly church meetings. By the end I felt triple bluffed, but couldn’t help smiling at how clever the author had been. As many of our characters find out, when it comes to being dishonest, the person we deceive most often is ourselves.

Published on 7th October 2021 by Duckworth Books

Meet The Author


A.J. West grew up in Buckinghamshire, before studying English Literature in Preston. He worked as an award-winning network television and radio news presenter and reporter before appearing on the legendary reality television programme Big Brother, where he became a household name, though the specific household is yet to be identified. He stumbled upon the troubling case of William Jackson Crawford and his paranormal investigations while working for the BBC in Northern Ireland. He has been spellbound ever since.

Posted in Netgalley

The Madwomen’s Ball by Victoria Mas.

The Salpêtrière asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical, outcasts from society. But the truth is much more complicated – for these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. Once a year a grand ball is held at the hospital. For the Parisian elite, the Mad Women’s Ball is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

There are definitely some interesting women living in the asylum at Saltpiétre, under the care of Dr Charcot. We are introduced to Eugénie first, who lives with her parents, brother and grandmother in Paris. While she seems like an archetypal society young lady, there’s something more to Eugénie. Since she was an adolescent she has been seeing and communicating with dead people. This isn’t something she wanted and she’s been keeping it a secret for many years. Not even her brother Théophile or her grandmother know what’s been happening. She finds herself having strange physical symptoms like her limbs feeling heavy, then someone might come to her. One evening while attending to her grandmother before bed, her grandfather appears and starts to tell her that something precious, thought lost forever, is caught under the drawers of her dressing table. Sure enough, as Eugénie takes the drawers out she finds a sentimental piece of jewellery that her grandmother never imagined she’d see again. She trusts her grandmother, so out pours the story that she can communicate with dead people. Eugénie trusts that her secret is safe and never suspects that she could be betrayed by those she loves the most.

This novel’s strength lies in the portrayal of it’s women and the shocking truth of how easy it is for a man to have a woman placed in an asylum. Even more horrifying for me was how the women became objects: a father’s cold decision to choose his reputation and offload her like a defective belonging; a doctor using the women in his performance as an expert in his field; the grotesque spectacle of dressing up the women in costumes to be paraded around in front of Paris society at the ball. The interesting relationship between Geneviève and Eugénie kept me reading, but there was also a fascinating role for the older woman Therése. She seems to be quietly knitting in the corner, but there’s a lot more going on with this woman and she is vital to the smooth running of the ward. This is a fascinating piece of historical fiction, with a feminist perspective and the added bonus of a supernatural element. It questions what makes us ‘mad’ – is someone who believes in spiritualism any more mentally ill than someone who believes in God and the events of the Bible? I definitely recommend this and have to mention the absolutely stunning cover too.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Accidental Medium Series by Tracey Whitwell.

#The Accidental Medium #TheGinPalace #RandomThingsTours #BlogTour

Synopsis | Tanz is living in London and still grieving her friend Frank, who died in a car crash three years ago. As acting jobs dry up, she has to find a normal job to fund her cocktail habit. When she starts work in a new age shop, Tanz discovers that the voices she’s hearing in her head are possibly real psychic messages, not the first signs of schizophrenia. Alarmed, she confronts her little mam and discovers she is from a long line of psychic mediums. Despite a whole exciting new avenue of life opening up to Tanz, darkness isn’t far away and all too soon there’s murder in the air. In book two, after her fast paced introduction to the world of clairvoyance, Tanz is hiding in bed, having nightmares about a suicidal psychopath, drinking red wine, irritating her cat and waiting to be evicted. Life as she knew it seven months ago has turned on its head and only the prospect of a new TV job in Newcastle and a month with her best friend Milo can help pick her up off the floor. But when she gets home, the Newcastle of more than a century before decides to haunt her bringing all kinds of spooks and horrors with it

Review | Tanz is a cocktail drinking, straight talking, Geordie actress, with a talent for swearing. She is an absolute breath of fresh air. Within pages she felt like my long lost friend and I was mentally inviting her to my fantasy dinner party (alongside Mr. Tumnus, Ruth Galloway, Sugar from The Crimson Petal and the White, Jo March, and Vianne Rocher).

I read both of these short novels in a weekend and have been left longing for more. The story begins as Tanz is working at a new age shop, between acting jobs. She has made friends with one of the ‘readers’ in the shop, but is starting to have an inkling that her own family might have their own gift. Her Mam seems to have prophetic dreams, but doesn’t make a big thing of it even though her grandmother was a Romany. Tanz had started hearing voices, but wondered if it was a symptom of grief following the sudden death of her friend Frank three years before. She even starts to worry if she could he schizophrenic. Luckily she has a great mentor at hand – Sheila is another reader at the shop, an older woman with years of experience in this strange world of mediumship. She describes Tanz as a ‘natural’ and her strong reaction to an odd couple who visit the shop seems to set them on an investigative path. Sheila is vital to Tanz and their friendship grows as the mystery becomes disturbing and dangerous. What are this strange couple hiding and why is Tanz hearing a woman wailing every time they’re near? Despite being terrified Tanz and Sheila let their spirit guides lead them towards the answers and into danger.

The Gin Palace situates Tanz back in her hometown of Gateshead, where she has a role in a TV series after months without work. She would have loved the main role, but is playing the tart with greasy hair, dark circles under the eyes and the shortest skirt. She’s the only one with a genuine Geordie accent. After her introduction to clairvoyance, she was hoping for a quieter time, but it seems the spirits aren’t ready to leave her alone. Tanz finds herself haunted by visions of an 18th Century Gateshead and the tenements down by the docks. On a ghost walk she finds out about the brutal murder of a prostitute, the terrible warehouse fire that razed the tenements to the ground, and the role gin played in the lives of these unfortunate residents. This gives her some background but doesn’t explain the violent man who keeps beating her to death in terrifying dreams. Nor does it explain her visions of a little boy who looks like the Artful Dodger, with the face of a pitiful waif one moment, and eyes that burn like the coals of hell the next. Is she being warned off? Or is there another mystery the spirit world like her to unearth?

I loved both of these books for their characters and the company of Tanz. I loved her Mam and Dad, who are traditional Northerners through and through. They were very like my parents – always half way down a cup of tea, have tea at 5pm and seemingly happy to potter at home together. Tanz’s dad has his shed to tinker in, but her ‘little Mam is always there with some very down to earth and wise advice. I love how Whitwell presents mediumship and it’s effects on the practitioner. Sheila teaches Tanz how to protect herself against certain types of spirits, but there are still times when she is terrified by what transpires in her own mind and in front of her. Her nightmares affect her sleep, she feels unnerved and often wonders if her gift is worth it. It’s great if it helps someone, but otherwise it’s very inconvenient and not making her any money. It made me think of taking a counselling session, it can be exhausting and the counsellor needs a self-care regime in place to replenish their reserves. I enjoyed Tanz’s loyalty, not just to her close friends, but to those people she picks up along the way and even those from the spirit world who need release. Her bravery in confronting the scarier paranormal events, while being absolutely terrified, is endearing. By the second book she is starting to trust her powers a little, to understand the strength of her gift and her guides. These books are fresh, modern and comfortingly Northern. The mix of gothic and supernatural subjects, with this down to earth, 21st Century heroine is different and such great fun. Tanz is a woman you’d like to go for a few cocktails with and the mingling of her familiar worldly worries and her other worldly gift is irresistible.

Biography|Tracy Whitwell was born, brought up and educated in Gateshead in the north east of England. She wrote plays and short stories from an early age, then had her head turned and ran off to London to be an actress. By 1993 she was wearing a wig and an old fashioned dress and pretending to be impoverished on telly in a Catherine Cookson mini-series, whilst going to see every indie/rock band she could afford.

After an interesting number of years messing about in front of the camera and traveling the world though, Tracy discovered she still loved writing and completed her first full length play. A son, many stage-plays, screenplays and two music videos followed until one day she realised she was finally ready to do the thing she’d longed to do since she was six. She wrote her first novel. A crime/horror/comedy tale about an alcohol-soaked, gobby, thrill-seeking actress who talks to ghosts. (Who knows where the inspiration came from, it’s almost like she based it on her own ridiculous life.) Then she wrote a follow up and realised she couldn’t stop writing books.

Now Tracy lives in north London with her son, still travels whenever possible and has written novel number four. Now being edited.

You can read what other bloggers think to Tanz and her world by checking out the other stops on the blog tour.