Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Tasting Sunlight by Ewald Arenz (translated by Rachel Ward)

Image Description: The cover of Tasting Sunlight features a printed leaf pattern against a gradated orange and yellow background.

Teenager Sally has just run away from a clinic where she to be treated for anorexia. She’s furious with everything and everyone, and wants to be left in peace.

Liss is in her forties, living alone on a large farm that she runs single-handedly. She has little contact with the outside world, and no need for other people.

From their first meeting, Sally realises that Liss isn’t like other adults; she expects nothing of Sally and simply accepts who she is, offering her a bed for the night with no questions asked.

That night becomes weeks and then months, as an unlikely friendship develops and these two damaged women slowly open up – connecting to each other, reconnecting with themselves, and facing the darkness in their pasts through their shared work on the land.

For the first 50-pages or so of Ewald Arenz’s debut novel, Tasting Sunlight, I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of the book. I didn’t particularly like either of the central characters and I hadn’t yet found anything that could be called a ‘plot’. Yet despite this – or perhaps because of it – I could not stop reading the book! Something about the unusual friendship that develops between two clearly damaged women utterly captivated me and, before I knew it, I was at the end of a strangely uplifting story of love, acceptance, healing, transformation, and the power of nature.

Arenz – and translator Rachel Ward – has done a wonderful job of conveying his characters: from teenager Sally’s righteous fury at the perceived injustices of her world to the emotive outbursts that periodically disrupt forty-something farmer Liss’s aura of quiet calm and worldly acceptance. Neither woman is exactly likeable but I wholly believed in them as people, warts and all.

As the novel progresses, it also becomes apparent that deep-rooted trauma lies at the centre of each women. I won’t give spoilers but, although never graphic or gory, readers should be aware that the novel deals with anorexia and disordered eating, physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, forced confinement, self-harm, and domestic violence. Arenz’s handling of these topics – and his focus upon the way in which both human and natural connections can, gradually, offer healing – is both considered and sensitive, and the result is a powerfully moving novel of connection and transformation.

Tasting Sunlight is a slow and meditative read and, as such, won’t be for everyone. Although there most certainly is a ‘plot’, it is Sally and Liss – and the connections that are gradually built and drawn between them – that lie at the heart of this novel. It is a novel about the small interactions and almost imperceptible alterations in outlook that impact upon our everyday lives, and the small moments in each day that shift something within us. Arenz writes beautifully about the natural world and the solace to be found within interactions with it and, as the novel progresses, labouring on the land becomes a way for both Sally and Liss to come to terms with their pasts and confront their futures.

Overall, Tasting Sunlight was that rare and precious thing: a novel that surprised me. For the first 50 pages, I genuinely think I would enjoy it. Then, to my surprise, I had finished it. And, even more surprising, I couldn’t stop thinking about it! Wonderfully atmospheric, empathetic, and thoughtful, Tasting Sunlight is a powerful and emotional read that resonates long after you’ve turned the final page.

Tasting Sunlight by Ewald Arenz (translated by Rachel Ward) is published by Orenda Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. You can also purchase directly from the Orenda Books website.

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 30 June 2022 so please 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 REVIEW!!! The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

The cover of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies features a ripe peach against a vivid pastel pink backdrop
Image Description: The cover of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies features a ripe peach against a vivid pastel pink backdrop

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good.

There is fourteen-year-old Jael, who nurses a crush on the preacher’s wife; the mother who bakes a sublime peach cobbler every Monday for her date with the married Pastor; and Eula and Caroletta, single childhood friends who seek solace in each other’s arms every New Year’s Eve.

With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.

Although not a huge reader of short story collections, the pre-publication waves being made about Deesha Philyaw’s debut collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, have been hard to ignore: everyone who has read this collection seems to have loved it and the collection has garnered early praise for its frank and funny portrayal of the lives and lived experiences of Black women and girls.

From the woman who just wants to be allowed to love her best friend to the daughter of a dying woman who seeks relief and recognition with a stranger in the hospice parking lot, the nine stories that make up The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the complex realities that lie behind the appearances of good church ladies.

Although the collection treads somewhat familiar territory in terms of themes – mother/daughter relationships are explored in several stories, whilst lust and guilt feature in several more – The Secret Lives of Church Ladies retains a freshness thanks both the the author’s eye for rich detail and luscious, evocative language, and for the sharp critique of the societal standards that women – and Black women in particular – are expected to uphold.

Told with both humour and tenderness, Deesha Philyaw examines the secret passions, long-maintained lies, and lived realities of her protagonists’ lives, examining the nuances that make up a life without either reserve or judgement. With her fine eye for detail and graceful command of language, she fully inhabits each of her characters: drawing the reader into their lives, their feelings, and their many complications.

Although often short and pacy, the stories that make up The Secret Lives of Church Ladies are beautifully layered: each one a little gift for the reader to unwrap and unpack. ‘Snowfall’, for example, features a young lesbian couple who have moved to the American Midwest from Florida and are now, begrudgingly, shovelling snow together. Although ostensibly a tender examination of love, the story also touches upon mother/daughter relationships by confronting the spectre of parental abandonment and the shadow that it leaves behind. As with many of the stories in the collection, the protagonists of ‘Snowfall’ also grapple with their sexual identities: torn between the acceptance and occupation of their desires and the disapproval – often implied – of family, friends, or wider social institutions.

In another story, ‘Not-Daniel’ – one of my favourites in the collection – a woman finds solace amidst sorrow by starting an illicit relationship with a married stranger in the hospice parking lot. In Philyaw’s hands, however, this seemingly simple story of infidelity becomes a subtle exploration of guilt, loss, and familial pressure, served up with a slice of wry humour on the side.

As expected in a short story collection, some stories and voices resonated with me more than others. On the whole, however, the collection was – for me – a short, sharp and perfectly-formed breath of narrative fresh air. Although poignant and often shot through with heartache, the wry humour and tender, positive LGBTQ++ rep made The Secret Lives of Church Ladies a fierce and feminist debut collection told with a fresh, bold authorial voice.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw is published by Pushkin 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 an e-copy of the book and to Tara McAvoy for inviting me to take part in this blog tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The tour continues until 13 June 2022 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 REVIEW!!! Villager by Tom Cox

The cover of Villager features an illustration in vivid greens and black of a small village nestled at the base of a hill
Image Description: The cover of Villager features an illustration in vivid greens and black of a small village nestled at the base of a hill

There’s so much to know. It will never end, I suspect, even when it does. So much in all these lives, so many stories, even in this small place.

Villages are full of tales: some are forgotten while others become a part of local folklore. But the fortunes of one West Country village are watched over and irreversibly etched into its history as an omniscient, somewhat crabby, presence keeps track of village life.

In the late sixties a Californian musician blows through Underhill where he writes a set of haunting folk songs that will earn him a group of obsessive fans and a cult following. Two decades later, a couple of teenagers disturb a body on the local golf course. In 2019, a pair of lodgers discover a one-eyed rag doll hidden in the walls of their crumbling and neglected home. Connections are forged and broken across generations, but only the landscape itself can link them together. A landscape threatened by property development and superfast train corridors and speckled by the pylons whose feet have been buried across the moor.

Tom Cox first came to my attention with his warm and amusing non-fiction books about life with his cats (Under the Paw; Talk to the Tail; The Good, the Bad, and The Furry; and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind). His subsequent moves, firstly into a form of nature writing that blended observations of the natural world with folklore, ghost stories, and amusing interludes from his dad (21st-Century Yokel, Ring the Hill and Notebook) and, later, into short fiction (Help the Witch), demonstrated both his range and his skill as a writer whose work defies easy categorisation.

Villager – Cox’s first novel – appears, on the surface at least, to comprise of a similar miscellany of interests, with the story ranging from the the early parts of the twentieth century through to the not-too-distant future, taking in Cox’s passions for music, nature, and folklore along the way. As a result the novel can, in the early portions at least, feel somewhat disjointed: closer to an interconnected short story collection than a cohesive narrative.

Stick with it, however, and Cox’s tale of a moor, a village, and several generations of its inhabitants, takes its reader on a kaleidoscopic and psychedelic but ultimately rewarding journey that reveals the subtle connections between a landscape and the people who inhabit it, and hints at the consequences that come about as a result of our increasing disconnect with the countryside that we inhabit.

Whilst the narrative structure requires readers to do a little legwork to draw out the connections, the individual voices within the chapters resonate with Cox’s trademark warmth and dry humour. Interspersed with the voice of ‘Me (Now)’, the novels moves between people and time periods to trace the overlapping and interweaving lives of the village of Underhill and its inhabitants, with a central thread following the arrival and impact of a washed-up Californian musician and the folk songs he leaves behind him.

Juxtaposing comedic observations of the mundane and wry pen portraits of village life with moments of insight into everything from human motivation to environmental impact, Cox’s writing is as layered as his narrative and I often found myself moving between laughter one moment and an uneasy melancholy in the next. Whilst some characters resonated with me more than others – I particularly liked the golf-obsessed teenager and the narrative of ‘Me (Now)’ – Villager offers such a varied plethora of voices that the narrative, although reflective and lyrical, never felt bogged down or meandering. Instead, the choral nature helped me to become more immersed into the novel as each new voice gradually reveals a segment of the wider narrative.

Villager is definitely not going to be a novel for everyone. The narrative structure and lyrical writing require some effort on the part of the reader, whilst the gentle pacing – especially at the novel’s start – requires some patience. Those new to Cox’s writing may prefer to start with his (excellent) short story collection, Help the Witch, or with some of the non-fiction writing on his (also excellent) blog to get a feel for his style prior to diving in. For fans of Cox’s work – and readers who enjoy lyrical, genre-defying fiction by writers such as Alan Garner – Villager is an ambitious, unique, and ultimately rewarding read.

Villager by Tom Cox is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery, as well as direct from the Unbound website.

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

I supported Villager’s publication via Unbound however my thanks go to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 08 June 2022 so please 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 REVIEW!!! The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge

Image Description: The cover of The Carnival of Ash features the spires and towers of a Renaissance city set against a night sky. Flecks of ash and flame are in the air and the city is surrounded by coloured banners on which the title is written.

Cadenza is the City of Words, a city run by poets, its skyline dominated by the steepled towers of its libraries, its heart beating to the stamp and thrum of the printing presses in the Printing Quarter.

Carlo Mazzoni, a young wordsmith arrives at the city gates intent on making his name as the bells ring out with the news of the death of the city’s poet-leader. Instead, he finds himself embroiled with the intrigues of a city in turmoil, the looming prospect of war with their rival Venice ever-present.

A war that threatens not only to destroy Cadenza but remove it from history altogether…

Cadenza is the City of Words. Its Renaissance splendour comes from the spiralling towers of its many libraries whilst its taverns and streets sing with the lyrical offering of poets and thrum to the beat of the Printing Quarter’s presses. Even its shadows are filled with the scandalous offerings of the Ink Maids. revered and reviled in equal measure. Picking up Tom Beckerlegge’s adult debut, The Carnival of Ash, is to be drawn into this enthralling world, although I have to admit that, what I found when I arrived there wasn’t quite what I expected going in!

From the blurb, I was expecting a historical fantasy novel that followed young wordsmith Carlo Mazzoni as he becomes embroiled in the intrigues of Cadenza. The Carnival of Ash is, however, a more layered affair than the blurb would suggest. Divided into twelve cantos, each of which is told from the perspective of a different character, the world of Cadenza is instead gradually unveiled to the reader and, in the second half of the novel, the stories and characters begin to weave together to reveal a wider portrait of a city which threatens to destroy itself from within.

To be honest, this style threw me when I first began reading. The first half of the novel does, at times, feel like reading connected short stories more than a single coherent narrative and I did spend some time wondering when the wider plot would begin to emerge. And whilst I really liked the way in which the novel developed as an alternative history, filled with political intrigue, social nuance, and some light fantastical elements, I think anyone going into this book and expecting a fantasy along the lines of Caraval will be disappointed. Instead, The Carnival of Ash is more akin to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or The Night Circus, with its blend of history and magical realism, and its focus upon layered storytelling rather than pacy plot.

The Carnival of Ash is also a much darker book than I expected. The opening canto features a character who expresses suicide ideation at times whilst another early section contained some dubious sexual consent and emotional manipulation that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. Readers should also be aware that the book does feature some scenes of sexual and physical violence, references to torture, rape, blood, and murder, and some medical content. There are also several abusive families in the book and some of the characters express or demonstrate ableism, sexism, misogyny, and fatphobia. This really is a late medieval/Renaissance world portrayed in all its messy and problematic glory.

Personally, I didn’t mind the dark tone but I did have some issues with the way in which the female characters were described and treated at times. As a scholar of the Early Modern period, I am all too aware of the patriarchal structures of many Western medieval and Renaissance societies however, as an alternative history, it would have been nice to see revisions to this view. Whilst I loved the concept of the Ink Maids – literary courtesans who, for a fee, will write letters that fulfil a client’s wildest desires – I found the section told from the perspective of one of them, Hypatia, quite uncomfortable. Despite holding a position of prominence and power, Hypatia is portrayed as frail and delicate and she continues to be objectified by those around her. A woman being the target of both desire and violence is, unfortunately, far from unusual – and is a theme often explored in fiction – but I felt that the ‘short story’ aspect of the narrative worked against a full and nuanced exploration of these themes. As a reader, I didn’t get to stay with Hypatia long enough to feel that she became anything more than a symbolic object.

All of that said, I am glad I stuck with The Carnival of Ash. The writing, although dense, is undoubtedly beautiful and the way in which the city is portrayed really is enthralling. Tom Beckerlegge has created a marvellous alterative world and has peopled it with interesting characters who, as the book goes on, are revealed to have complex motivations and emotions. It also has some whip-smart dialogue and a fine line in gallows humour, especially from the character of the gravedigger, Ercole. Many of the uncomfortable elements are also revealed to be part of wider corruption within the city, and I do feel the author is deliberately exploring themes of power and depravity by highlighting these.

Ultimately, The Carnival of Ash was a bit of a marmite book for me. The premise, world-building, and writing is fantastic but the narrative structure of the ‘cantos’ made the first half of the novel feel disjointed and it did take some perseverance to make it through to the second half which, for me, was when the story really began to take flight. Whilst characters do gain dimensions as the book progresses, I also felt that in the early cantos some characters featured more as cyphers than as rounded and relatable people.

Readers who head into this book expecting a traditional SFF are likely to be disappointed as that isn’t what The Carnival of Ash offers. Fans of alternative historical fiction and literary magical realism, however, will find much to enjoy in this lush literary tale about a city of poets that never was.

The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge is published by Solaris/Rebellion Publishing and is available now from all good bookseller 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 The Write Reads for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour! There are lots of other reviews and spotlights on the tour so follow the hashtags #TheCarnivalOfAsh #TheWriteReads and #BlogTour.

Reviews and features 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!!! Other People Manage by Ellen Hawley

Image Description: The cover of Other People Manage features a residential street. A telegraph pole, with many wires coming from it, is a central feature.

It’s Minneapolis in the 1970s, and two women meet in the Women’s Coffeehouse. Marge is a bus driver, and Peg is training to be a psychotherapist.

Over the next twenty years, they stay together, through the challenges any couple faces and some that no one expects. Then one day things change, and Marge has to work out what she’s left with – and if she still belongs to the family she’s adopted as her own.

Other People Manage is a novel about hard-earned but everyday love. It’s about family and it’s about loss. It’s the kind of novel that only someone who has lived enough of life could write – frequently funny, at times almost unbearably moving, but above all extraordinarily wise.

Some novels resonate with you long after turning the final page. Other People Manage, the first novel by Ellen Hawley to be published in the UK, is definitely one such book, packing in far more emotional heft than might be expected within a relatively slender 199 pages.

Other People Manage follows the lives of Marge, a bus driver, and Peg, a therapist, as they negotiate love, work, family, and the other travails of everyday life. Opening when Marge and Peg first meet in the late 1970s, the novel follows them through the next twenty years as they face the challenges that any couple faces as well as the ones that no one expects. From the ex who threatens to destroy their relationship before it even gets started through to Peg’s flighty sister who walks out one day and abandons her children, Other People Manage is a novel about two people trying to do their best with what they’ve got.

As such, this is what I would term a ‘quiet’ novel. Although dramatic and significant events do happen, it’s a book that is focused primarily on the small moments of everyday life: the gestures that make meaning, the words we speak, and the feelings that drive them.

Other People Manage is told from Marge’s perspective and she makes for an unusual narrator who, although clearly emotionally fragile, relates her narrative with both dry and disinterest. This detachment was, initially, quite jarring – the novel reads, at times, as if looking through a window or watching actors on a stage – but it makes complete sense as this touching story of loss and loss unfolds.

This is not to say that Other People Manage is in any way badly written. Indeed, although the Marge’s narrative voice is detached – even bored at times – the writing remains lyrical and compelling. Small observations and minute gestures are noted and examined: held up to the light until they sparkle and shimmer before the reader. And there’s an tactility and tautness to the emotions portrayed; as I read I felt as if I was handling delicate and fragile things, capable of fracturing any moment.

Putting the experience of reading Other People Manage is challenging because it’s hard not to fall back on hyperbole: exquisite writing, delicate characterisation, devastating emotion. All I can say is that, for me, it’s a book I experienced as much read. I laughed when Marge and Peg laughed, cried when they cried, and experienced the gentle ups and steep declines of life alongside them. It won’t be a book for everyone but, if you have read and enjoyed Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These or J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, you’ll find a similar level of unassuming richness in the pages of Other People Manage.

Other People Manage by Ellen Hawley is published by Swift 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 and to Rebecca Gray for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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

FAVOURITE FICTION BOOK REVIEWS!! Piranesi by Susanna Clarke & Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Has everyone made their way out of the fog of cheese and turkey sandwiches yet? Yes, Christmas Day is over for another year and, as we haul our slightly rounder selves towards the light of the New Year, I wanted to share two more of my favourite books from 2021 that, for some reason, I’ve just not yet got around to reviewing. This time I have two fabulous fiction books to share with you, starting with…

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite”. Thus are we drawn into the world of Piranesi and of the House, a colossal structure of seemingly infinite halls ruled by the changeable tides. Piranesi has always lived in the house – or has he? When his sole visitor, a man called The Other, accidentally indicates that there may be a third person with access to the House, the carefully bordered world that Piranesi has always known begins to fracture at the seams.

To say any more about Susanna Clarke’s masterful novel would be to spoil the magic. Because this novel really is magic. There’s something spellbinding about the intricate simplicity of the story and the gentleness of Piranesi himself that absolutely transported me.

I’ve written before about having magical realism and fantasy being genres that either really work for me or just fall completely flat so, I’ll be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up had it not won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. Reading Piranesi has, however, opened my eyes to the variety available within these genres and the transportative possibilities of fantastical fiction. I’ll definitely be giving Susanna’s first novel, Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell another go, and have started taking in the sci-fi and fantasy shelves with fresh eyes when making my visits to the bookshop and the library.

Beautifully and lyrically written, Piranesi is storytelling at its very best. Like the mysterious House itself, the novel twists and turns, opening into labyrinthine halls and revealing more of its wonders with every turn of the page. There’s also, at its heart, a very human story of envy, greed, ambition, kindness, loss, and connectivity. Long after I turned the final page, I’ve found myself revisiting Piranesi, his House, its immeasurable Beauty and its infinite Kindness.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother.

When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.

But the more she investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen herself, her husband Howard – with his dry wit and gentle disposition – and her charming daughter Margaret.

But they are the subject of the story Jean is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness.

But there will be a price to pay – and it will be unbearable.

Unlike Piranesi, which is a seemingly simple tale that becomes increasingly fantastical, Small Pleasures begins with a fantastical tale that, once you dig beneath the surface, is a relatively simple story of love, longing, and – yes – the titular small pleasures.

The novel opens with feature writer Jean volunteering to speak with Gretchen, a young housewife who is convinced that her daughter Margaret is a virgin birth. Ten-year-old Margaret, Gretchen claims, was conceived whilst she was hospitalised in a a convalescence home run by nuns, in a ward surrounded by and overseen only by women.

As excited academics run their tests on Gretchen and Margaret, Jean is gradually drawn into the life of the Tilbury family – and towards Gretchen’s quiet and unassuming husband, Howard. Because underneath the gleaming surface of this happy family home lie many secrets that Jean will, for better or worse, be the catalyst for uncovering.

Saying any more about the novel would be to spoil the plot and deny any future readers the joy of reading this wryly observed and brilliantly written novel. The prose is sublime and the characters vividly and realistically drawn – this is not a novel of good guys and bad guys but of real and fallible people in all their messy glory. As the title suggests, its also a story of the small pleasures that life brings, and of the trials and tribulations of the everyday. Although set in the late 1950s, many of Jean’s experiences will resonate today – from her struggle to make herself heard in her workplace, to the stresses of being the sole carer for an elderly relative, and the difficulty of choosing between your own happiness and the happiness of others.

If you look at reviews of this novel (and I’d advise you don’t – this is definitely a novel better experienced without prior expectation), you’ll see some reviewers have a real issue with the ending. It’s certainly a wallop at the end of an otherwise relatively sedate novel but, for me, it underscored the novel’s central premise and brought together so many of the threads that Clare Chambers had woven throughout. I can see how it gave some readers the rage but don’t let it put you off – in fact, I’d urge you to read the novel and decide for yourself!!

So, those are two fabulous fiction recommendations! Do let me know whether you decide to pick either of them up or, if you’ve read them yourself, what you thought of them! I’ll be back soon with my Best Books of the Year list but, in the meantime, enjoy the remainder of the festive season!

If you do decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting 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!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! Matrix by Lauren Groff

Image Description: The cover of Matrix is cream and features medieval-style illustrations of nuns in blue set against a backdrop of gold/gilt leaves.

Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, 17-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.

At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.

Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?

You know that feeling when you pick up a book, read the first page, and are just instantly transported? Well, that’s how I felt when I started reading Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Matrix. From the moment I started the novel, I was instantly transported into the life – and mind – of the extraordinary Marie de France: a woman who, in reality, historians know remarkably little about.

From Marie’s literary legacy – much of it still tentatively attributed – of remarkable lais, translations, and religious writings, Lauren Groff has created a complex, vivacious, and remarkable depiction of 12th century womanhood as, in Matrix, we follow her from resentful teenager, cast out from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, to visionary abbess of one of the most powerful abbeys in Angleterre.

As the illegitimate daughter of a powerful man and a strident, unconventional mother, Groff’s Marie is a woman too large for the times in which she lives – both in terms of her tall, broad stature, and the fiery cast of her brilliant mind. Her family tree is filled with ‘difficult’ women: crusading aunts, a fiercely intelligent grandmother, and, far back in the legendary past, the fairy woman, Melusine. To Eleanor of Aquitaine – herself a woman no stranger to power, intelligence, and latent cunning – Marie has a potential that, whilst admirable, poses a threat to the crown that must be contained. But, in casting her out, Eleanor provides Marie with the perfect arena on which to imprint her powerful personality.

Groff has evocatively depicted the rhythms of life in an English nunnery during the twelfth century. From the lean years of starvation, with their ever-present threat of deadly illness, to the serenity of a well-fed, well-tended community of women, bound together by their promises to both their faith and to each other, every page felt like being pulled into the past. And, by the end of the novel, these women – Infirmatrix Nest, Sub-Prioress Goda, Baliff Wulfhild – felt like beloved friends and relatives; their tribulations, woes, and joys my own.

The word ‘matrix’ has multiple meanings and Groff plays with all of them deftly. From the community of women that Marie builds around her to the idea of the ‘mat-rix’: the mother as leader, Groff has clearly delighted in playing with the ideas generated by the word, and in showing how Marie herself encompasses its multiple meanings throughout her life.

In addition to being a novel of female community, Matrix is also a novel of female love. At the centre of this is Marie’s relationship with Eleanor; whom she both loves and loathes from afar and whose life, in many ways, mirrors Marie’s own. Theirs is a love story of unconventional expression but, for Groff, a love story nonetheless. There is also physical love in the form of relationships with Marie’s fellow nuns – whether in the form of sexual gratification or familial bonding – and the spiritual love between Marie and her religious namesake, the Virgin Mary.

It is hard to encapsulate just what I found so enthralling about Matrix – the books I love the most are, often, the ones I find the hardest to write about – but I hope I’ve conveyed the incredibly layered nature of this rich and complex novel. Though slight in length, Groff has created a masterpiece in miniature in Matrix: a richly detailed and compelling story of the multiplicity of female experience that has continued to resonate long after I turned the final page.

Matrix by Lauren Groff is published by Cornerstone 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 and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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 REVIEW!!! The Retreat by Alison Moore

Image Description: The cover of Alison Moore’s The Retreat shows the faint outline of an island against a dark sea and sky

Since childhood, Sandra Peters has been fascinated by the small, private island of Lieloh, home to the reclusive silent-film star Valerie Swanson.

Having dreamed of going to art college, Sandra is now in her forties and working as a receptionist, but she still harbours artistic ambitions.

When she sees an advert for a two-week artists’ retreat on Lieloh, Sandra sets out on what might be a life-changing journey.

She anticipates a friendly and supportive little community but does not get quite what she was hoping for.

Alison Moore’s Booker Prize shortlisted debut novel, The Lighthouse, is one of those books that I’ve heard great things about, has been on my TBR forever but that I’ve never quite got around to reading. Having now sampled The Retreat, Moore’s fifth – and latest – novel, I know I definitely want to read more of her work.

The Retreat is what many people would probably call a ‘quiet’ novel but it packs a powerful punch within its slender 156 pages. Aspiring artist Sandra has always been fascinated by Lieloh, the small, private island that was once the home of a reclusive silent-film star. When the opportunity arises to go to Lieloh for a two-week artists’ retreat, Sandra sets out to try and realise her artistic ambitions. But the supportive artistic community she envisages is not quite the reality she encounters when she arrives at Lieloh. Aspiring author Carol, meanwhile, just needs peace and quiet to write her book. When a friend offers her use of a private, island retreat, she heads off into isolation to dig out the words out of her. But when she arrives in her idyll, Carol begins to feel she may not be as alone as she appears.

To say any more about the plot of The Retreat would be to spoil both the story and the atmosphere of this quietly devastating study of modern alienation and artistic temperament. Not that the novel is particularly plot-heavy, as such – in fact, The Retreat is definitely a book powered by character, and by the tiny interactions of the everyday that become layered with meaning and interwoven into a wider pattern.

Small incidents – the eating of eggs, a refusal to play a game or partake in a picnic, the choice of an evening meal – become weighted with significance as Sandra attempts, unsuccessfully, to navigate group dynamics on Lieloh. Her fellow retreat residents, whilst never outright vicious, are frequently petty, selfish, and domineering whilst Sandra herself is similarly self-absorbed and narrow-minded. They make for a thoroughly unlikeable bunch – a possible issue if you don’t enjoy reading books with few, if any, sympathetic characters – but a fascinating one all the same.

Whilst most of The Retreat is given over to Sandra, personally I found Carol’s narrative to be the most compelling. Alison Moore has perfectly captured the unsettling feeling of isolation, combining this with a delightful sense of the weird to create a not-quite ghost story that revels in its atmosphere. As the novel progresses, Carol’s narrative also begins to shed new light upon Sandra’s predicament, creating a compelling yet uneasy narrative that left me feeling somewhat unsettled by the time I turned the final page.

The Retreat is not going to be a book for everyone. Those looking for continual action or sympathetic characters will not find either here. But if you’re the sort of reader who revels in atmosphere, language, and the minutiae of human interaction, The Retreat will provide a short, sharp treat to curl up with on a winter’s evening.

The Retreat by Alison Moore is published by Salt 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 Helen Richardson for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 23 November 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 · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!!! The Fell by Sarah Moss

Image Description: The cover of Sarah Moss’ The Fell has a painted image of an isolated fell against a stormy sky.

At dusk on a November evening in 2020 a woman slips out of her garden gate and turns up the hill. Kate is in the middle of a two week quarantine period, but she just can’t take it anymore – the closeness of the air in her small house, the confinement. And anyway, the moor will be deserted at this time. Nobody need ever know.

But Kate’s neighbour Alice sees her leaving and Matt, Kate’s son, soon realizes she’s missing. And Kate, who planned only a quick solitary walk – a breath of open air – falls and badly injures herself.

What began as a furtive walk has turned into a mountain rescue operation . . .

Having adored Summerwater and been intrigued by Ghost Wall, I was interested to learn that Sarah Moss was turning her piercing authorial gaze upon the pandemic. Although it is somewhat inevitable that ‘pandemic fiction’ will be come a thing, Moss’s previous novels demonstrate both a perceptiveness of human nature, and a pervasive sense of menace that suit the subject matter. If anyone can convey the strangeness of lockdown, it is Moss.

And sure enough, The Fell is a wryly observed study of blame-shifting and governmental edicts and, at the same time, a deeply humane examination of isolation, guilt, and gratitude. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Kate, a furloughed café worker whose covert mid-quarantine stroll results in a mountain rescue operation; Kate’s son Matt, whose schooling and social life have both been forced online; Alice, Kate’s retired next door neighbour, trapped indoors thanks to shielding; and Rob, the mountain rescue worker pulled from a long-awaited weekend with his daughter to go and find Kate.

As the narrative progresses, we find out attitudes towards these characters, and our attribution of the ‘blame’ – a dynamic that, Moss argues, was as much a part of the UK’s first lockdown as isolation – shifting. As in Summerwater and Ghost Wall, Moss is exceptionally good at nailing the impetus behind each character, and using this to examine wider societal concerns. Alice berates herself for feeling lonely and frightened because she’s still breathing: still alive when so many others aren’t. Matt is uncertain about calling the emergency services when Kate doesn’t return because he knows how stretched they are in the pandemic. Rob’s teenage daughter, Ellie, can’t understand why her Dad forgoes time with her to rescue strangers who have put themselves in danger. Guilt, fear, doubt, and conflict – all are examined and, through examination, all of them turn a sharp and piercing eye upon governmental decisions that created the situation these characters find themselves in.

Questioning – both of the characters and of the reader – is a key component of The Fell. Kate breaks quarantine and heads out for a walk because she can no longer breath within the four walls of her home. Her confinement has become stifling – as have the worries about how she will keep a roof over her son’s head and food in the cupboard without her full income. As she wanders up the lane towards the titular fell, she is convinced her walk is ‘essential’ to stop her from going mad. This question of what is ‘essential’ – for stopping the pandemic, for preserving humanity in the midst of a crisis, for keeping the self sane – is asked constantly. Yes, Kate is breaking the rules and yes, Alice has seen her do so, but Alice isn’t about to shop her to the police for it – despite what her judgemental daughter would say – because Kate and Matt are also the only people checking in on Alice, and making sure their shielding neighbour has food and other necessities. And besides, Alice feels guilty for asking them to pick up ‘non-essential’ items such as Hula Hoops from the shop for her.

As in Summerwater, these small moments of everyday crisis stand within a wider pervasive sense of menace. Moss is brilliant at writing novels that, whilst seemingly ‘quiet’, carry with them a constant whisper: something is coming. The tension that builds as a result brilliantly conveys the feelings of that first lockdown, with the beautifully painted but ominous landscape of the Peak District providing the perfect backdrop to the suspenseful action.

The Fell both is and isn’t a ‘lockdown book’. As a piece of pandemic fiction, it brilliantly captures the tumult of the first UK lockdown, from the rightwing impetus behind the government’s rhetoric, to the tensions that arose within individual communities and households as a result. Nor is it an ‘anti-lockdown’ book, per se. Although it presents a human story behind Kate’s illegal action, the inclusion of Rob and Alice’s perspectives allow us to see the people who both risk their lives and those who are put at risk by such actions.

What The Fell does so brilliantly is spark a conversation – filling in the gaps of our individual lockdown experiences by encouraging us to consider and question the experiences and attitudes of others, as well as the motivations behind wider governmental and societal decisions and edicts. What it is, above all else, is a piercing and insightful examination of human nature and human experience that is fully deserving of all the accolades I am sure will come its way upon publication.

The Fell by Sarah Moss is published by Picador on 11 November 2021 and is available to order 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 Camilla Elworthy at Macmillan for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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!! on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese

In his second collection, on a distant ridgeline, Sam Reese creates twelve vivid and tenderly drawn tales with moments and memories that linger just out of reach.

Between the past and present and potential reconciliations—and with a keen eye on the subtle balance of human connection—relationships and their fractured qualities are central to this new gathering of stories.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that short stories rarely feature in my reviews. This isn’t because I don’t read them, although I do read considerably fewer short stories than novels in the average year. But although I very much enjoy reading the stories featured in my copy of Mslexia magazine, or in The New Yorker, I find the process of reading, digesting, and then ‘ reviewing’ a short story to be quite tricky. Although short in format, the literary short story usually gives you a lot to digest.

This is certainly the case with Sam Reese’s second collection, on a distant ridgeline, which features twelve beautifully constructed stories that, though not lengthy in their word count (the whole collection is a slender 180 pages), certainly provide plenty for the reader to mull over and consider.

From a tale of two brothers finding their feet in a new environment to a sinister story of a young girl, her mother, and the compulsions that bind them, on a distant ridgeline is a wide-ranging collection and each of the stories can, at first, seem somewhat disparate from those around them. Read the whole collection however and you’ll begin to pick out strands of connection – tiny moments and fragments from each tale that resonate with wider ideas about human intimacy, tenderness, and the almost insignificant moments upon which momentous decisions can hang.

As with many literary short stories, much of the pleasure to be had from on a distant ridgeline is in the language, the imagery, and experience of reading. This is a collection best savoured slowly, allowing for each story to sink in before moving on to the next. Whilst there are certainly moments of tension, drama, and character-propelled action, what the stories often gave me was a sense of a snapshot – a fragmentary and fleeting glimpse into a moment, or a relationship, or a person.

If you’re not already a fan of the literary short story, I don’t think on a distant ridgeline is likely to convert you. The collection contains many of the hallmarks of the genre; from the understated yet measured observations of small details to the wider expansiveness of connecting themes and concepts, it’s a collection that does make the reader do some work to join the dots and tease out a sense of meaning. For those who enjoy stories that offer quiet power and elegant prose, however, on a distant ridgeline is cleverly constructed, lyrically rendered, and resonates after the final page has been turned.

About the Author

“Short stories are at their most interesting, I think, when they avoid just a single meaning. This is why I direct my own writing out towards the darkness and the shadows—why my characters obsess over, dream of, are haunted by feeling and memories that they do not completely understand.”

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam Reese is an insatiable traveller and award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. A widely respected literary and music critic, his study of The Short Story in Midcentury America won the 2018 Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize. Currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at York St John University, Sam formerly taught at the University of Sydney, where his inspirational teaching was recognised with an Excellence award. More details can be found on Sam’s website: https://svhreese.com/stories and by following him on Twitter: @svhreese

on a distant ridgeline by Sam Reese is published by Platypus Press and 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 publisher and to Isabelle Kenyon for providing an copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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!