February 2022 Reading: Black Drop; The Marsh House

February was not a great reading month for me in terms of quantity – and I wasn’t even going to post a wrap-up – but for the sake of continuity, and because I really enjoyed the two books I DID manage to read, here is my February reading!

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass (2021)

A fantastically intricate historical novel, full of intrigue and secrets and lies. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel! You can read my full review of Black Drop here.

The Marsh House by Zoe Somerville (2022)

I was a huge fan of Zoe Somerville’s first novel, The Night of the Flood, and I loved this one just as much! I was honoured to be offered a spot on the blog tour for The Marsh House – you can read my full thoughts on this wonderfully atmospheric story here.

So that was it for February! Short and sweet! Sometimes life gets in the way of reading, and that’s okay. There’s always another month!

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Review: Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass (2021)

Blurb

This is the confession of Laurence Jago. Clerk. Gentleman. Reluctant spy.

July 1794, and the streets of London are filled with rumours of revolution. Political radical Thomas Hardy is to go on trial for treason, the war against the French is not going in Britain’s favour, and negotiations with the independent American colonies are on a knife edge.

Laurence Jago – clerk to the Foreign Office – is ever more reliant on the Black Drop to ease his nightmares. A highly sensitive letter has been leaked to the press, which may lead to the destruction of the British Army, and Laurence is a suspect. Then he discovers the body of a fellow clerk, supposedly a suicide.

Blame for the leak is shifted to the dead man, but even as the body is taken to the anatomists, Laurence is certain both of his friend’s innocence, and that he was murdered. But after years of hiding his own secrets from his powerful employers, and at a time when even the slightest hint of treason can lead to the gallows, how can Laurence find the true culprit without incriminating himself?

A thrilling historical mystery, perfect for readers of C.J. Sansom, Andrew Taylor, Antonia Hodgson and Laura Shepherd-Robinson.

Review

I like to think I have pretty broad tastes when it comes to reading, but in all honesty, historical fiction is where my heart really lies. I picked up Black Drop from Bert’s Books as a Christmas present to myself (that’s totally a thing, right?) and had been looking forward to diving in.

It did not disappoint. As the daughter of a diplomat, I do enjoy a bit of political intrigue, and I was totally engrossed by the Foreign Office setting. There is quite a lot to keep track of, but Leonora Nattrass is such a skilful storyteller that as the web grows more tangled, the tension ramps up, and I found myself racing through the pages. Laurence Jago is a great protagonist – I do like a flawed narrator – and it is a pleasure to follow him on his thrilling adventures through the streets of London.

The sense of threat around every corner, of the real peril in which Jago finds himself, is wonderfully done, and his dependence on the ‘black drop’ heightens the paranoia and feeling of unease. This is a superbly dark and twisty historical thriller, with some fantastic set pieces: I especially enjoyed the scenes at the menagerie. Like Laurence, I found myself unsure who to trust, assessing characters with a suspicious mind, not taking anyone at face value. It’s a tremendously engaging and fun position to be in as a reader.

Black Drop is astonishingly accomplished; an intricate story plotted with incredible attention to detail. And I am very excited that Laurence Jago will return in the sequel, Blue Water, coming later this year – it’s on my list already!

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass is published by Viper Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop translated by Anna Moschovakis (2021)

Blurb

Winner of the International Booker Prize 2021

Alfa and Mademba are two of the many Senegalese soldiers fighting in the Great War. Together they climb dutifully out of their trenches to attack France’s German enemies whenever the whistle blows, until Mademba is wounded, and dies in a shell hole with his belly torn open.

Without his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone and lost amidst the savagery of the conflict. He devotes himself to the war, to violence and death, but soon begins to frighten even his own comrades in arms. How far will Alfa go to make amends to his dead friend?

At Night All Blood is Black is a hypnotic, heartbreaking rendering of a mind hurtling towards madness.

Review

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a little while, and I’m trying to mix up reading arcs with books I’ve actually bought this year, so I picked it up.

At Night All Blood Is Black is an incredibly intense read – short but so powerful; it left me reeling. The prose is so rhythmic, with repeated refrains such as ‘God’s truth’ and ‘I know, I understand’ echoing throughout the pages – it almost feels like reading poetry. This book is not for the faint-hearted: it plunges the reader headlong into the visceral madness of war, blood and guts spilling and atrocities piling up along with the bodies. But as hard as it is to face up to the violence, the story is also about love and friendship, with the relationship between the narrator and his more-than-brother Mademba firmly at its centre.

The style of writing reminded me at times of Cormac McCarthy – there is a terrible beauty in the way horrors are shaped into words by a skilful hand. But it’s also utterly unique – I can’t compare it to another reading experience. Awful and awe-inspiring, Diop’s tale of the so-called Great War stands apart as a fierce, captivating examination of the effects of cumulative violence. It is certainly a novel that will stay with me.

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop translated by Anna Moschovakis is published by Pushkin Press and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Marsh House by Zoe Somerville (2022)

Blurb

Part ghost story, part novel of suspense The Marsh House is the haunting second novel from the author of The Night of the Flood where two women, separated by decades, are drawn together by one, mysterious house on the North Norfolk coast.

December, 1962. Desperate to create a happy Christmas for her young daughter, Franny, after a disastrous year, Malorie rents a remote house on the Norfolk coast. But once there, the strained silence between them feels louder than ever. As Malorie digs for decorations in the attic, she comes across the notebooks of the teenaged Rosemary, who lived in the house thirty years before. Trapped inside by a blizzard, and with long days and nights ahead of her, Malorie begins to read. Though she knows she needs to focus on the present, she finds herself inexorably drawn into the past…

July, 1931. Rosemary lives in the Marsh House with her austere father, surrounded by unspoken truths and rumours. So when the glamorous Lafferty family moves to the village, she succumbs easily to their charm. Dazzled by the beautiful Hilda and her dashing brother, Franklin, Rosemary fails to see the danger that lurks beneath their bright facades…

As Malorie reads Rosemary’s diary, past and present begin to merge in this moving story of mothers and daughters, family obligation and deeply buried secrets.

Review

I was a huge fan of Zoe Somerville’s debut novel, The Night of the Flood, so I was delighted to be asked to join the blog tour for her second book. Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Like her first novel, which is also set in Norfolk, The Marsh House is dripping with atmosphere – the saline stench of the marsh; the encroaching weather that threatens to trap them in the house; a sense of menace folded into the landscape. In this story, the dual timeline adds an extra layer. As Malorie delves into the secrets hidden in the house, parallel lives slide into view, and I found myself captivated by both storylines.

Malorie’s escape from London, from her marriage, is hasty and unplanned, and at times there is a real sense of peril in her and her daughter’s isolation. The house does not feel like a sanctuary; rather, it throbs with a kind of sinister energy that at times seems to echo Malorie’s own unsteady state of mind, and at other times feels more supernatural. The writing reminded me of Rebecca Netley’s excellent novel The Whistling – both books expertly play with gothic conventions and elements of more traditional ghost stories while creating something new. It is writing that fully engages the senses, that holds you tightly in its icy grip.

Rosemary is also a fascinating character, and the chapters from her notebooks gradually reveal an intricate web of betrayals and tragedies. The author is so skilful in pulling back just at the moment of a reveal, leaving the reader as impatient as Malorie to find out what happens next. And, like Muriel in The Night of the Flood, there is a character who seems peripheral, but whose role slowly moves towards the centre: Janey, whose voice functions as a kind of chorus, and whose knowledge of folklore and tradition adds a richness, a sense of something elemental and raw.

This is writing that is both clever and thrilling: a tightly-plotted story that nevertheless leaves room for the reader to breathe, to make their own interpretations. I highly recommend getting your hands on The Marsh House and losing yourself within its richly drawn pages.

The Marsh House by Zoe Somerville is published by Head of Zeus and is available to purchase here.

Zoe’s first novel, The Night of the Flood, is now out in paperback here.

Zoe will be at Waterstone Norwich on Wednesday 23rd March talking with fellow author Polly Crosby – if you’re local, don’t miss it! Details here.

January 2022 Reading: I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness; Great Circle; Sorrow and Bliss; This One Sky Day; Magpie; The Happiness Factory; Wahala; A Net for Small Fishes; The Confessions of Frannie Langton; The Last House on Needless Street; At Night All Blood Is Black

I’ve been on such a roll with reading this month, and have loved every single book I’ve chosen. As usual, I’ve gone for quite a mix, but I’d happily recommend all eleven of these beauties!

I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (2022)

I really enjoyed this bold, original book. A fascinating and courageous exploration of what happens when a woman realises the roles of wife and mother are not ones she can play any longer, I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness is a powerful read. You can see my full review here.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (2021)

This is a stunning, epic novel that I wish I’d read sooner. I was slightly put off by its size, but, appropriately enough, I flew through it. A wonderful story, one that will stay with me. My full review of Great Circle is here.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (2021)

I was initially reluctant to read this because of all the hype, but that was foolish of me. Sorrow and Bliss is an addictive, funny, moving read that I absolutely loved. Read my full review here.

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross (2021)

I had a feeling this book would be right up my street, and it absolutely was. A strange, wonderful novel, full of colour and magic and beauty and human messiness. I adored it. You can read my full review of This One Sky Day here.

Magpie by Elizabeth Day (2021)

This was another gripping read – I devoured it in one sitting. Read my full review here.

The Happiness Factory by Jo McMillan (2022)

Bluemoose Books never disappoints – and The Happiness Factory is no exception. A fresh, original story with a protagonist who captured my heart. My full review is here.

Wahala by Nikki May (2022)

Another book I just couldn’t put down, Wahala is a fantastic debut full of comic touches, female friendship, refreshing insights and unexpected twists. I loved this novel, and I want Ronke to be my best friend. My full review of Wahala is here.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago (2021)

I enjoyed this story of friendship and intrigue in the Jacobean court so much. I was completely immersed in the world that Jago paints, and Anne and Frankie’s relationship is beautifully nuanced and engrossing. My full review is here.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (2019)

This is a brilliant historical fiction novel, and has shot into my top reads of all time! I can’t recommend it highly enough. You can read my full review here.

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward (2021)

I am still undecided as to whether to write a full review of this outstanding novel, as I think my main advice is: “Trust me, just read it!” I feel like the less you know going in, the better – have faith in Ward’s incredible skills and ride the story wave to the very end. One of the cleverest books I’ve ever read.

At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop translated by Anna Moschovakis (2021)

This winner of the International Booker Prize is a lyrical, powerful, strange book that held me in its grip throughout. I’ll try and get a full review up soon, but this was an unforgettable read.

A great reading month has been a wonderful way to kick off 2022, and I’m excited to see what the rest of the year brings! Do let me know if you’ve read any of these, or if you’re planning to!

Happy reading!

Ellie x

Review: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (2019)

Blurb

‘They say I must be put to death for what happened to Madame, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?’

1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.

For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.

But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?

A beautiful and haunting tale about one woman’s fight to tell her story, The Confessions of Frannie Langton leads you through laudanum-laced dressing rooms and dark-as-night back alleys, into the enthralling heart of Georgian London.

Review

I’ve read some fantastic historical fiction recently, confirming that it really is my favourite genre. Lots of people recommended The Confessions of Frannie Langton when I asked what I should read next. They were absolutely right – I LOVED it.

There are so many elements that make this a brilliant read. I love a book where the first person narration has a strong purpose, and here, Frannie is setting down her record not to clear her name, but to tell her story and work out what happened. This means that we’re right alongside her as she pieces together her history and the events that led to the night of the murders, and it’s a thrilling position to be in as a reader. Frannie herself is a compelling protagonist; although at first it seems she is at the (lack of) mercy of her fate, she is far from passive, forging her own path in myriad ways, living and loving fiercely, able to see the world in a much more clear-sighted manner than many of the other characters.

As well as fascinating characters, Frannie Langton has a propulsive plot – Sara Collins is extremely talented at knowing when to withhold and when to reveal key information, balancing the mysteries and the revelations with consummate skill. Like Frannie, Collins is first and foremost a storyteller, and what a story it is. With so many layers of narrative at play, a lesser writer might struggle to balance them all, but here, it works beautifully, the shocks coming with just enough subtle foreshadowing to be completely cohesive and believable.

I could probably wax lyrical about this book for pages – I’ve yet to mention the sharp, vivid prose, full of startling metaphors and similes that feel fresh and new, or the many other engaging characters, such as Madame, Phibbah, and Laddie, who are drawn with multi-faceted complexity – but there’s a danger I’ll bore you all with my enthusiasm, so I’ll stop here. All I’ll say is that if you’re a fan of historical fiction along the lines of Alias Grace or Washington Black, and you haven’t read The Confessions of Frannie Langton yet, you’re missing out. Get on the case – you won’t regret it!

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is published by Penguin and is available to purchase here.

Review: A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago (2021)

Blurb

Based on the true scandal that rocked the court of James I, A Net for Small Fishes is the most gripping novel you’ll read this year: an exhilarating dive into the pitch-dark waters of the Jacobean court.

Frances Howard has beauty and a powerful family – and is the most unhappy creature in the world. Anne Turner has wit and talent – but no stage on which to display them. Little stands between her and the abyss of destitution. When these two very different women meet in the strangest of circumstances, a powerful friendship is sparked. Frankie sweeps Anne into a world of splendour that exceeds all she imagined: a Court whose foreign king is a stranger to his own subjects; where ancient families fight for power, and where the sovereign’s favourite may rise and rise – so long as he remains in favour.

With the marriage of their talents, Anne and Frankie enter this extravagant, savage hunting ground, seeking a little happiness for themselves. But as they gain notice, they also gain enemies; what began as a search for love and safety leads to desperate acts that could cost them everything.

Review

A Net for Small Fishes has everything a good historical fiction novel should have: gloriously rich descriptions, light but impeccable period details, a thrilling plot, and, most importantly, unforgettable characters.

The friendship between Anne and Frankie is what propels this story along, and it is beautifully depicted. At times it seems almost like a love story, as the two women become more and more intertwined, and their similarities and differences become more apparent. I loved the intense focus on these two characters – it adds an intimacy to the sweeping political drama of the Jacobean court, pushing kings and men to the side to zoom in on an intensely personal relationship. It works so well, and I was captivated till the last page.

Anne is a great first person protagonist, standing on the edge between two worlds: the sumptuous excess of life at court and the constant threat of poverty, exacerbated by her changing circumstances as the novel progresses. Through her, we are allowed to see all walks of life – she has a unique insight into society that provides a clear-eyed perspective. She is also capable of seeing her friend’s flaws; even while she is dazzled by the life that Frankie can offer her, she is aware that if Frankie doesn’t play the game right, it could all come crashing down for both of them. There is real peril here, which only increases as the story goes on.

Jago immerses the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of Jacobean England: the fetid stench of the Thames in summer; the ornate furnishings of noble bedchambers; the spectacle of the bear pit – reading this book is such a sensory experience. It’s also incredibly emotionally powerful – I was so invested in the characters, anxious at every fluctuation in their fortunes. This is historical fiction at its finest, and I am definitely going to seek out more work by this author.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago is published by Bloomsbury and is available to purchase here.

Review: Wahala by Nikki May (2022)

Blurb

Ronke, Simi, Boo are three mixed-race friends living in London. They have the gift of two cultures, Nigerian and English. Not all of them choose to see it that way.

Everyday racism has never held them back, but now in their thirties, they question their future. Ronke wants a husband (he must be Nigerian); Boo enjoys (correction: endures) stay-at-home motherhood; while Simi, full of fashion career dreams, rolls her eyes as her boss refers to her urban vibe yet again.

When Isobel, a lethally glamorous friend from their past arrives in town, she is determined to fix their futures for them. Cracks in their friendship begin to appear, and it is soon obvious Isobel is not sorting but wrecking. When she is driven to a terrible act, the women are forced to reckon with a crime in their past that may just have repeated itself.

Explosive, hilarious and wildly entertaining, this razor-sharp tale of love, race and family will have you laughing, crying and gasping in horror. Fearlessly political about class, colourism and clothes, the spellbinding Wahala is for anyone who has ever cherished friendship, in all its forms.

Review

My first pre-order of 2022 – I just couldn’t resist the gorgeous Waterstones special edition – and wow, what a treat! I loved this book – yet another one I just couldn’t put down.

There is so much I enjoyed about Wahala: the complex, realistic portrayals of female friendships; the humour threaded throughout; the rising tension; oh, and the food! This novel made me so hungry, and I was delighted to find some of Ronke’s recipes at the end of the book. I’m looking forward to trying them out.

Speaking of Ronke, while I loved all of the main trio, she was the one who captured my heart. It’s a wonderful, if bittersweet, feeling when a fictional character becomes so real to you that you feel sad you can’t meet her in real life – I wanted nothing more than to linger over a long lunch at Buka talking about life with her. For me, she feels like the emotional centre of the novel, and following her journey was the highlight of Wahala. However, I also really enjoyed the character of Boo, whose struggles with domestic life rang uncomfortably true, and Simi, who stays frustratingly but understandably silent in the face of her husband’s assumptions. I liked the way that the male characters were just as three-dimensional and nuanced as the women – they aren’t caricatures, but real people, and the more I learned about Kayode, Didier and Martin, the more I warmed to them. As for Isobel – well. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

Nikki May does a wonderful job of drawing distinctions between the characters’ relationships with their heritage and their families, blasting the flattening narrative that ‘mixed-race’ is a single type. Lagos is evoked not with exoticism or nostalgia, but as part of the fabric of some of the characters’ lives, and the events that took place there years before gradually come into focus in explosive ways. The deft weaving of the various story strands works really well, and I found myself reading faster and faster as the novel builds to its dramatic conclusion. There is so much to delight in here, and I can’t wait to read more by this talented author. I highly recommend getting your hands on this stunning debut.

Wahala by Nikki May is published by Doubleday and is available to purchase here.

Review: The Happiness Factory by Jo McMillan (2022)

Blurb

Where the skin of the earth shudders into the foothills of the Shunhua mountains, in a clearing above the mist and fringed with frangipani, Mo Moore set up a factory which, to this day, makes happiness.

Actually, it makes sex aids. Her goods sell all around the globe, and her biggest buyer is a British high-street chain. The boxes say simply: Made in China. In fact, they come from the place where Mo made a family and that she still calls home, a place too small for any map – the tiny, teetering village of Pingdi.

China began where Mo’s father ended. It began with a letter addressed to the Night Duty Officer, Eden House Care Home, and said:

Dear Ms Moore…

Review

There is a special thrill in receiving a proof of a new book from indie publisher Bluemoose – they’ve never let me down yet. Huge thanks to Kevin for sending me a copy of The Happiness Factory in exchange for an honest review.

Jo McMillan’s novel is a gem; it’s clear from the premise that we’re in for a quirky ride as we follow Mo from night duty in a care home to making sex aids in a Chinese factory. But what surprised and delighted me most about this novel is that it isn’t just offbeat humour and sex-related puns – there is real heart to this story, both sadness and joy, and characters that leap off the page.

Mo herself is a wonderful creation: she’s not quite like anyone I’ve met in literature before. She’s not naive, and she possesses a self-awareness and a sense of being truly (dreaded word) self-actualised, but she also lets herself be led by more forceful characters such as Dr Long, and she has a kind of laid-back, lets-see-what-happens-here attitude that really charmed me. I loved the idea that in the village of Pingdu she meets her found family, and Mrs Su, the mayor, and Lulu all became precious to me, too, as I read.

Although there is a fanciful element to Mo upping sticks and buying a factory in an unknown land, this isn’t a whimsical, idealistic book. There is also a lot of insight into the Chinese regime, and the way the government controls so many aspects of people’s lives. It’s not done in a heavy-handed way, but it left me feeling like I’d had a glimpse behind the curtain. The sense of actual peril lurking just out of sight behind the slightly absurd scenarios that Mo finds herself in is really cleverly done.

Overall, this is a book that delivers more than it promises, that manages to explore multiple themes with a delicate touch. The writing dances from lyrical description to comic episodes to trauma-related flashbacks, flitting between modes and finding richness in its variety. It’s a fabulous experience, and I highly recommend it to readers looking for something a little out of the ordinary.

The Happiness Factory by Jo McMillan is published by Bluemoose Books and is available to purchase here.

Review: Magpie by Elizabeth Day (2021)

Blurb

The exhilarating new novel from the bestselling author of The Party and How to Fail: a thrilling, stylish and psychologically astute story of jealousy, motherhood and power.

She has almost everything. The rest she’ll take.

Marisa may have only known Jake a few months, but she has never felt this certain about anyone. When he asks her to move in with him and they start trying for a baby, she knows she has finally found the steadfast love and support she has been looking for all her life.

But their relationship is tested when they take in a lodger, Kate, who has little regard for personal boundaries and seems to take an uncomfortable interest in Jake – as well as the baby they are hoping to have.

Why is Kate so obsessed with the couple? And, more worryingly, why doesn’t Jake share Marisa’s concern?

In her determination to find the answers, Marisa risks losing everything she holds dear…

Magpie is a tense, twisting, brilliantly written novel about mothers and children, envy and possession, and the dangers of getting everything you’ve ever dreamed of.

Review

I’m making a bit of a habit of devouring books in one sitting this month – I blame it on the fact that I keep picking up absolute bangers! Magpie is no exception – I stayed up till the early hours because I just had to keep reading.

It’s a tough book to review, because it’s so clever and twisty and it’s really best to go in without knowing too much about the plot. So I’ll keep this brief, and focus on what I CAN tell you. The writing is brilliant – sharp and immersive and tinged with a sense of menace throughout. It pulls you along, each storyline, past and present, equally gripping. It’s always tricky to go into flashbacks when the ‘real time’ plot is so absorbing, but Day is such a skilful storyteller that each carefully plotted section feels just as compelling as the last. And as the book progresses, the tension ramps up to almost unbearable levels – I was definitely holding my breath through certain passages.

I really enjoyed the way the book explores the different sides of each of the characters – and not just the main characters, but people like Jake’s mother, Annabelle – my sympathies towards her waxed and waned, and it felt very like getting to know someone in real life, the layers gradually being pulled back. Marisa is a brilliantly complex protagonist, and the exploration of her inner life is so well done. I definitely recommend Magpie to anyone looking for a pacy, intelligent read that takes nothing for granted and delves far deeper than you initially expect. An excellent book.

Magpie by Elizabeth Day is published by HarperCollins and is available to purchase here.