November 2021 Reading: Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter; Marking Time; Confusion; Casting Off; All Change

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted a barely discernible theme in my November reading. November was not my month – I spent five days in hospital after rupturing my appendix (0/10, would not recommend) and then had a lengthy recovery period. So all bets were off when it came to reading, and I decided to pick up just exactly whatever I was in the mood for. Which turned out to be one absolutely stunning 2022 proof, and the remaining four Cazalet Chronicles novels, which I began rereading earlier this year. I have no regrets – all five of these books were a joy and a balm.

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook (2022)

This book is going to be HUGE next year – it’s like a rawer, grittier Crawdads, with a fantastic protagonist and a story that whizzes along. You can read my full review here – I’ll be raving about this one A LOT, and I’m not even sorry.

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1991)

The second instalment in the Cazalet Chronicles series covers the early years of World War II and is just as beautifully written as the first. The characters we met in The Light Years now find themselves up against new, unforeseen challenges, and the way Howard allows each of them to develop in her slowly unfolding narrative is a masterclass in storytelling.

Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1993)

The third instalment in the series sees the characters in the thick of the long, dreary war years. My favourite relationship in the book, the friendship between Polly and Clary, suffers a blow, but it is so realistic and well done that I’ll allow it! I love the way this book weaves together the fragmented stories of the different characters.

Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1995)

The penultimate book sees the Cazalets entering a brave new world after the end of the war – much of what defined their family is no longer relevant in this more modern age, and it feels very much like an era has come to an end. But there are still plenty of twists and turns for the characters, and it is wonderful to see the ones we met as children becoming adults with full lives of their own.

All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard (2012)

The final book, All Change, is one that I never actually got around to reading the first time round (which I now realise is because I read my Mum’s copies, and it hadn’t come out by the time I left home!) – so I was excited to see how it would all wrap up for these characters I’d come to know so well. On the whole, I thought it was a fitting end to the series, with one or two slight reservations about a couple of plot points. It’s a brilliant achievement, however, to have written five novels about a set of characters that is so engrossing and moving and representative of the time its set – this won’t be my last visit to the Cazalet family.

So there you have it – not hugely varied, but the absolute definition of comfort reading! I have really been reminded this year what a solace reading can be, how important books are to me, and how, from time to time, I need to forget the real world (including the self-imposed deadline pressure of book blogging and ARCs) and just immerse myself in a damn good book.

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Review: Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook (2022)

Blurb

1886, BANNIN BAY, AUSTRALIA.

The Brightwell family has sailed from England to make their new home in Western Australia. Ten-year-old Eliza knows little of what awaits them on these shores beyond shining pearls and shells like soup plates – the things her father has promised will make their fortune.

Ten years later and Charles Brightwell, now the bay’s most prolific pearler, goes missing from his ship while out at sea. Whispers from the townsfolk suggest mutiny and murder, but headstrong Eliza, convinced there is more to the story, refuses to believe her father is dead, and it falls to her to ask the questions no one else dares consider.

But in a town teeming with corruption, prejudice and blackmail, Eliza soon learns that the truth can cost more than pearls, and she must decide just how much she is willing to pay – and how far she is willing to go – to find it . . .

Review

Huge thanks to Mantle for sending me a proof copy of this beautiful book in exchange for an honest review.

Every now and then, a book comes along that ticks every single one of the boxes. Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter is exactly the sort of novel I adore, and I’m afraid this review will pretty much be a love letter to the perfect book! As a reader, it left me with that hugely satisfying feeling of getting everything I wanted. As a writer, it made me swoon with envy as Pook pulls off absolutely everything I’d love to achieve with my own first novel.

The setting is original, immersive and vividly described. Bannin Bay comes to life as a character in its own right, and the story is absolutely infused with its sweltering heat, the salty stink of the sea, the bush glowering behind the town. The sensory detail is almost overwhelming – I could see and feel and smell everything that Pook describes, and pausing during my reading (which I didn’t do often!) felt like waking up from the most vivid of dreams.

Eliza is a wonderful protagonist. I was completely invested in her story, with her every step of the way, admiring her courage, fearing for the dangers her stubbornness would lead her into – she is so fully realised, I did the thing of sometimes warning her out loud: “Not sure that’s a good idea, Eliza!” – but she didn’t listen to me! I want a film version of this book so badly, but I’d also be terrified that it wouldn’t match up to the novel. It is rare for a novel to feel quite so visual, so razor-sharp in its descriptive power – Pook works a special kind of narrative magic here, and it left me in awe.

The story zips along, full of intrigue and twists and turns, but always convincing. There are times when the lens is taken off Eliza, and I enjoyed these moments – they contain some really beautiful writing – although I was always glad to rejoin her on her adventures. The novel builds to an incredibly dramatic crescendo (no spoilers here, don’t worry) and ends in a way that I found completely satisfying. I can’t write intelligently about this book because I had such a strong emotional reaction to it – all I can do is urge you to read it! I’ve pre-ordered the beautiful hardback and can’t wait for it to arrive next year – this book is going on my forever shelf.

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter by Lizzie Pook will be published by Mantle in March 2022, and is available to pre-order here.

Review: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock (2021)

Blurb

Human Terrain. The Army acknowledges, through the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, that human geography is as important as any satellite map.

Human Terrain deals with female voices and working-class existences, ordinary lives transformed by loss and love. There’s the mother working as cutman for her daughter in the boxing ring; the family who find themselves abandoned at the seaside; the gardener digging for love among the grass cuttings and weeds. Characters standing in a classroom, drinking in a pub, working the fryer in a fish and chip shop, or finding love in an ice warehouse, they all inhabit the collection. Stories full of dark humour and deep tenderness that depict the characters’ struggles to understand their place in the world.

Review

I read and reviewed Emily Bullock’s second novel, Inside The Beautiful Inside last year, and it was one of my top reads of 2020, so I was thrilled when the lovely people of Reflex Press offered to send me a copy of her new short story collection in exchange for an honest review. I read this a while ago, and must apologise for the delay in getting my review up – appropriately enough for the theme of this collection, life has been exceptionally complicated recently!

I knew from reading Bullock’s novel that her prose is something special: powerful, muscular, packing a punch (a pun that reminds me I still have her debut novel, set in the world of boxing, on my TBR). While none of that is lost in her shorter fiction, the roaming focus diffuses the intensity and allows for a more widespread examination of what it means to be human in this complex world. There is a hard edge to these stories, an unflinching gaze at the reality of coming to terms with our modern age. At times, there is an almost journalistic sensibility, a feeling that this is a record, a testimony – the global spread of the stories adds to this.

But there are also plenty of more domestic moments, times when the taut, precise prose and quirky incidents described in minute detail reminded me of Raymond Carver: couples who realise in the quietest of ways that something is not right, characters whose tension is released with hints of violence and also humour. It is a cliche to say that a short story collection covers the whole spectrum of human experience, but Bullock certainly approaches this, offering up tightly constructed narratives that feel entirely real, and are varied enough to display her enormous talent with the written word.

Emily Bullock is a writer who has been added to my ‘must read everything they write’ list – I will be picking up her debut in the new year, and keeping a close eye out for what comes next. If you are a fan of sharp, insightful stories that hit hard but are also laced with tenderness, you’d do very well to get hold of this stunning collection.

Human Terrain by Emily Bullock is published by Reflex Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi (2021)

Blurb

A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again.

Ruby gives up talking at a young age. Her mother isn’t always there to notice; she comes and goes and goes and comes, until, one day, she doesn’t. Silence becomes Ruby’s refuge, sheltering her from the weather of her mother’s mental illness and a pressurized suburban atmosphere.

Plangent, deft, and sparkling with wry humour, Somebody Loves You is a moving exploration of how we choose or refuse to tell the stories that shape us.

Review

Huge thanks to And Other Stories for providing me with a proof copy in exchange for an honest review.

There have been three books I’ve read this year which have, for me, wonderfully shattered my expectations of what a novel “should” be, which have blown the possibilities wide open through their sheer dazzling inventiveness and bravery and utter refusal to confine themselves to conventional boundaries. The first is Assembly by Natasha Brown, the second, Salena Godden’s stunning Mrs Death Misses Death. And the third is Mona Arshi’s incredibly powerful debut novel.

Somebody Loves You is, on the surface, deceptively simple: Ruby, a young girl who has given up speech and exists in a quiet world of her own making, shuffles through childhood memories, making beautiful vignettes of piecemeal moments – chapters are often only a page or two long, and the scenes jump back and forth through time. In some ways, this is an intimate story of a family and its struggles, and the relationship between Ruby and her sister is particularly poignantly depicted.

However, like Natasha Brown’s novel, this book is no simple domestic drama. The forces that press down on Ruby and her family are elemental in scope, and there are moments where the universe seems to crack and split and everything at once pours out. The shadows of racism, of mental illness, of suppressed trauma, thicken and swirl around the edges of the story, and it is an immensely powerful piece of work. But there is also quiet beauty, lines of poetic prose which delicately enter the veins, so subtle and true and precise that even though the book is short, I spent a long time on each section, immersing myself in the words.

This is a book that throbs and hums with the power of language. The fact that Ruby, who does not speak, is the one to lead us through it, left me with a really strong sense of both sadness (the ones whose voices are most worth listening to are so often the ones who are unheard) and also hope: powerful words don’t have to be loud and brash, they can be quiet and beautiful and all the more meaningful for that. I can guarantee I will be rereading this book, as I feel I have barely scratched the surface, and that it will have something more to offer on each reading. I can’t recommend it enough.

Somebody Loves You by Mona Arshi is published by And Other Stories and is available to purchase here.

Review: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (2019)

Blurb

‘… I dreamt last night about somebody complaining that he owned a “lesser Cézanne” while I was tearing heartshaped buttons off a shirt, and something about a ferret, the fact that my dreams have become more practical and less expansive, I think, since we got poorer, the fact that I should be swinging wild but instead my dreams are just about tidying the hen coop or unloading the dishwasher, or losing my address book, or I’m cooking noodles for everybody and Leo has a plane to catch in half an hour and there’s no taxi, or I find myself on a bicycle carrying a huge box, the fact that once I dreamt I ate one tiny piece of ham, and that was it, that was the whole dream, the fact that I dream all the wrong stuff and remember all the wrong stuff, what a goofball, “a genuine idiot,” the fact that why do I remember that Amish wool shop and not my mom, …’

LATTICING one cherry pie after another, an Ohio housewife tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless info that is the United States of America. She worries about her children, her dead parents, African elephants, the bedroom rituals of “happy couples”, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and how to hatch an abandoned wood pigeon egg. Is there some trick to surviving survivalists? School shootings? Medical debts? Franks ’n’ beans?

A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster, Ducks, Newburyport  is a heresy, a wonder—and a revolution in the novel.

It’s also very, very funny.

Review

I have wanted to read this for a while, but I knew there was no way I could read it in one go without getting seriously behind on all the other reading I wanted to do this year. It made sense, therefore, to split it into manageable monthly sections, which I have listed below in case anyone wants to take on the challenge in 2022!

Firstly, I can definitely recommend this tactic for tackling those chonksters that you’ve been meaning to get around to – it really works! I was worried that dipping in and out of the book would make it hard to concentrate, or that I’d struggle to get back into it after a break, especially because of Ducks’ notoriously idiosyncratic style. However, it wasn’t a problem at all, and I found a page or two enough to resume my immersion in the protagonist’s mesmerising narration. This book is quite magical – it has a hypnotic effect, and after each section I found myself echoing the thought patterns of the main character (lots of ‘the fact that’!). This is stream-of-consciousness on a level not even Joyce or Woolf could have envisaged – it feels like a mind emptying itself onto the page – and yet it is, I promise, still accessible (and I speak as someone who loves Woolf but can’t do Joyce – sorry!).

The breathless, single-sentence style, filled with lists and asides and quirky in-jokes, belies the fact that (sorry, again) there is a narrative depth, a story, which emerges little by little, and which, by the end, I found myself completely invested in. I don’t know how Ellmann managed to write a 1,000 page novel that somehow feels like a single coherent story, with a gripping finale that I was NOT expecting, but she does, and it is glorious.

If you’ve had this one on your radar for a while and been put off by its size, I urge you to pick it up (carefully – I had several near misses reading this behemoth in bed and almost dropping it on my face) and let its rhythmic, funny, often quite moving sentence unspool around you (it is not all in the same style, there are other delights awaiting you, but The Sentence is the main thing) – you won’t regret it. Thanks also to my Twitter friend and reading buddy Jackie, who was on the end of a message whenever I needed to check in with her about the latest section!

Monthly Sections

January – to page 83

February – to page 167

March – to page 249

April – to page 333

May – to page 415

June – to page 499

July – to page 581

August – to page 665

September – to page 747

October – to page 831

November – to page 913

December – to end

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann is published by Galley Beggars and is available to purchase here.