All Among the Barley – Melissa Harrison

Cover image of All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison
All Among the Barley – Melissa Harrison

This book was mentioned on a booktube and it sounded like something I would like to read. And it was available at my local library.

Here’s the blurb

From the author of Costa-shortlisted and Baileys-longlisted At Hawthorn Time comes a major new novel. Set on a farm in Suffolk just before the Second World War, it introduces a girl on the cusp of adulthood. 

Fourteen-year-old Edie Mather lives with her family at Wych Farm, where the shadow of the Great War still hangs over a community impoverished by the Great Depression. Glamorous outsider Constance FitzAllen arrives from London, determined to make a record of fading rural traditions and beliefs, and to persuade Edie’s family to return to the old ways rather than embrace modernity. She brings with her new political and social ideas – some far more dangerous than others.

For Edie, who has just finished school and must soon decide what to do with her life, Connie appears to be a godsend. But there is more to the older woman than meets the eye. As harvest time approaches and the pressures mount on the entire Mather family, Edie must decide whose version of reality to trust, and how best to save herself from disaster. 

A masterful evocation of the rhythms of the natural world and pastoral life, All Among the Barley is also a powerful and timely novel about influence, the lessons of history and the dangers of nostalgia.

This book spent a lot of time building up to a climax and then quickly finishing. Now, normally I like a novel where not much happens, but this one had so little happening and from the author’s note at the end, it is clear it had big themes it wanted to explore; antisemitism, rural communities, feminism, and the care of the mentally unwell.

To be fair, I did enjoy the portrayal of rural life in England in the 1930s, but I felt the book lacked pacing and, unusually, I thought the final third needed to be longer.

Another review.

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Early Riser – Jasper Fforde

Cover image of 'Early Riser'
Early Riser – Jasper Fforde

I have always enjoyed Mr Fforde’s novels – they’re quirky, clever, witty and fun. We have even read the Dragon Slayer series as a family – we are desperately waiting for the next one.

Here is the blurb …

Every Winter, the human population hibernates. 

During those bitterly cold four months, the nation is a snow-draped landscape of desolate loneliness, and devoid of human activity.

Well, not quite. 

Your name is Charlie Worthing and it’s your first season with the Winter Consuls, the committed but mildly unhinged group of misfits who are responsible for ensuring the hibernatory safe passage of the sleeping masses.

You are investigating an outbreak of viral dreams which you dismiss as nonsense; nothing more than a quirky artefact borne of the sleeping mind.

When the dreams start to kill people, it’s unsettling.

When you get the dreams too, it’s weird.

When they start to come true, you begin to doubt your sanity.

But teasing truth from Winter is never easy: You have to avoid the Villains and their penchant for murder, kidnapping and stamp collecting, ensure you aren’t eaten by Nightwalkers whose thirst for human flesh can only be satisfied by comfort food, and sidestep the increasingly less-than-mythical WinterVolk.

But so long as you remember to wrap up warmly, you’ll be fine.

I did enjoy this although I though it was a tad too long (I am thinking that about a lot of books lately, so it could be me).

This is very quirky – humans hibernate (to avoid the terrible winters) and in order to survive the winter hibernation they need to bulk up (and they get a winter coat of hair/fur). There is a drug they can take to help with the hibernation (and to stop them dreaming, which uses too many calories and they might not make it to spring), but it has risks. Some people become ‘nightwalkers’ (essentially zombies – they even like to eat people). Add in a novice winter consul (our hero), a shady corporation, strange weapons and Wintervolk and you have a swashbuckling adventure story with lots of fun along the way.

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From – this one was great, what I thought, but expressed much more eloquently.


Kirkus Reviews 

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The Year of The Farmer – Rosalie Ham

Cover image of the 'Year of the Farmer' by Rosalie Ham
The Year of the Farmer – Rosalie Ham

I have enjoyed all of Rosalie Ham’s novels. Summer at Mount Hope, There Should be More Dancing and The Dressmaker. 

I reserved it at the library (trying to reduce the enormous number of books in my house) thinking it would take ages to be my turn, but it arrived very swiftly.

It was very good – laugh out loud funny, very Australian  and with something to say about rural living, and water (its scarcity, how it’s used and who gets to use it).

Here’s the blurb…

In a quiet farming town somewhere in country New South Wales, war is brewing.

The last few years have been punishingly dry, especially for the farmers, but otherwise, it’s all Neralie Mackintosh’s fault. If she’d never left town then her ex, the hapless but extremely eligible Mitchell Bishop, would never have fallen into the clutches of the truly awful Mandy, who now lords it over everyone as if she owns the place.

So, now that Neralie has returned to run the local pub, the whole town is determined to reinstate her to her rightful position in the social order. But Mandy Bishop has other ideas. Meanwhile the head of the local water board – Glenys ‘Gravedigger’ Dingle – is looking for a way to line her pockets at the expense of hardworking farmers already up to their eyes in debt. And Mandy and Neralie’s war may be just the chance she was looking for…

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Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Image of the cover of Unsheltered

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

I have had a mixed response to Barbara Kingsolver. Some of her work I have loved – The Poisonwood BibleFlight Behaviour and others (The Lacuna) so much. However, I have never thought any were so bad I couldn’t read her anymore. So I was keen to read this one.

Here’s the blurb …

The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively listenable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.

At first I was compelled. I loved both of the narrative strands. In the middle I got a bit stuck – the stories were sad and seemingly hopeless, but I pushed on and I am glad that I did because it ended strongly and with a hopeful positive feeling.

You can listen to Barbara Kingsolver talking about it on the BBC Radio 4 Books and Authors podcast.

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The Lover – Marguerite Duras

The Lover – Marguerite Duras

This was the last of the classic french novels for my historical fiction study group. I bought the Kindle edition and read it while I was out-and-about; waiting for appointments, or to collect children, so my reading was scattered and very unfocused. This was not helped by the style of the book, which jumped about a bit.

Here’s the blurb …

Saigon, 1930s: a poor young French girl meets the elegant son of a wealthy Chinese family. Soon they are lovers, locked into a private world of passion and intensity that defies all the conventions of their society.

One thing I noticed was that, despite the shortness of the novel (more of a novella), it packed in a lot. And the detail was vivid – the hat, the shoes, the ferry on the Mekong, etc.

This isn’t my favourite classic french novel (that’s Madame Bovary).

More reviews …

On a Pedestal

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The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

I first saw this novel on Mercy’s Musings and then when I saw it at the library I decided I had to read it.

Here’s the blurb …

‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world…’

From the author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White, the first novel from Michel Faber in fourteen years is a wildly original tale of adventure, faith and the ties that might hold two people together when they are worlds apart

Peter Leigh is a husband, a Christian, and now a missionary. As The Book of Strange New Things opens, he is set to embark on a journey that will be the biggest test of his faith yet.

From the moment he says goodbye to his wife, Bea, and boards his flight, he begins a quest that will challenge his religious beliefs, his love and his understanding of the limits of the human body.

This momentous novel is Faber at his expectation-defying best. It is a brilliantly compelling book about love in the face of death, and the search for meaning in an unfathomable universe.

The plot of this novel is quite quirky – a foreign planet with indigenous inhabitants who want to learn more about Jesus. The planet, Oasis, is interesting – strange spiral rain (I think the cover is inspired by the rain), no big flora (there is a mushroom the Oasans use to manufacture all sorts of food for the humans), or fauna (apart from the Oasans, bugs and a strange duck thing).

There is an underlying sense of dread or menace – what happened to the previous minister? what are USIC’s plans for Oasis? that keep you turning the pages. It is beautifully written, full of detail that creates the new world of Oasis, but also show us the decay of the Earth.

It is about faith (and what that means), family and what we owe to each other as a community.

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Lethal White – Robert Galbraith

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith

I read the first of these and thought I would read more, but 2 and 3 passed my by. I enjoyed this one, but it is too long. Too much extraneous information.

Here’s the blurb …

“I seen a kid killed…He strangled it, up by the horse.”

When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott—once his assistant, now a partner in the agency—set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

And during this labyrinthine investigation, Strike’s own life is far from straightforward: his newfound fame as a private eye means he can no longer operate behind the scenes as he once did. Plus, his relationship with his former assistant is more fraught than it ever has been—Robin is now invaluable to Strike in the business, but their personal relationship is much, much trickier than that.

I still like the relationship between Robin and Strike (although it has turned a bit romantic) and I didn’t guess the villain (which in my books is a good thing).

Another review …


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The Paris Seamstress – Natasha Lester

The Paris Seamstress – Natasha Lester

This novel was on sale, and it had a pretty cover, and it was about fashion, so clearly I had to have it.

Here’s the blurb …

How much will a young Parisian seamstress sacrifice to make her mark in the male-dominated world of 1940s New York fashion? From the bestselling author of A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald and Her Mother’s Secret.

1940. Parisian seamstress Estella Bissette is forced to flee France as the Germans advance. She is bound for Manhattan with a few francs, one suitcase, her sewing machine, and a dream: to have her own atelier.

2015. Australian curator Fabienne Bissette journeys to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her beloved grandmother’s work – one of the world’s leading designers of ready-to-wear. But as Fabienne learns more about her grandmother’s past, she uncovers a story of tragedy, heartbreak and secrets – and the sacrifices made for love.

Crossing generations, society’s boundaries and international turmoil, The Paris Seamstress is the beguiling, transporting story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they attempt to heal the heartache of the past.

I went to a session at the Perth writers  festival where Natasha Lester and Amy Stewart were speaking. I must admit to judging Ms Lester’s novels before reading them – it’s the covers (beautiful as they are they do imply a particular type of novel). This novel was well-researched and I found much to admire and enjoy. It is a plot driven romance, which is not my reading cup of tea, but I know it will appeal to a large number of people. So if you like romance, intrigue and beautiful clothes then this is the novel for you.

Another review


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The Narcissist Test – Craig Malkin

The Narcissist Test – Dr Craig Malkin

I was fascinated by this book. It was very accessible – easy language and case studies to illustrate his points.

Here is the blurb …

What exactly is narcissism? An incurable disease set to ruin your future, a habit to be curbed, or a trait to be nurtured? And how can you tell if your partner, child, or even you are a narcissist? Dr Craig Malkin offers a new picture of narcissism, showing us why being called a ‘narcissist’ isn’t necessarily such a bad thing after all.

Narcissism is all around us. We are a selfie-obsessed generation, surviving on a steady diet of watching reality shows that celebrate attention-seeking know-and-do-nothings and posting a whopping 500 million tweets a day to document our every thought and whim. But is narcissism really as bad as we have been led to believe?

In this groundbreaking book, clinical psychologist Dr Craig Malkin offers a radically new picture of narcissism, defining it as a spectrum of self-importance, and explaining that everyone falls somewhere on the scale between utter selflessness and total arrogance. He reveals why it is essential to embrace some level of narcissism in order to maintain a healthy sense of self-worth. Feeling special, to a degree, can make us better lovers and partners, courageous leaders, and intrepid explorers.

As supportive as it is illuminating, The Narcissist Test is the first and only book to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy narcissism, and offers clear, step-by-step guidance on how to promote the healthy kind in your partner, children, and in yourself. From advice tailored to parents, social media users and even schools, this is the definitive text to help you overcome the bad – and embrace the good – about feeling special.

Dr Craig Malkin is a clinical psychologist hailing from Harvard with over two decades of experience helping individuals, couples and families.

Definitely worth a read if you or someone you know (work with) is a narcissist.


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The Givenness Of Things – Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson

I have enjoyed all of Ms Robinson’s novels and enjoyed listening to her on the BBC World Book Club. I was keen to read her essays.

Here is the description from Goodreads …

A profound essay collection from the beloved author of GileadHouskeeping and Lila, now including Marilynne Robinson’s conversation with President Barack Obama.

Robinson has plumbed the depths of the human spirit in her trilogy of novels – Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Orange-Prize winning Home and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Lila – and in her moving essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books.

Now, in The Givenness of Things, she brings a profound sense of awe and an incisive mind to the essential questions of contemporary life and faith. Through fourteen essays of remarkable depth and insight, Robinson explores the dilemmas of our modern predicament. How has our so-called Christian nation strayed from so many of the teachings of Christ? How could the great minds of the past, Calvin and Locke-and Shakespeare-guide our lives? And what might the world look like if we could see the sacredness in each other?

Exquisite and bold, these essays are a necessary call for us to find wisdom and guidance in our cultural treasures, to seek humanity and compassion in each other. The Givenness of Thingsis a reminder of what a marvel our existence is in its grandeur – and its humility.

I will say from the outset that I am not a christian and I think most of the world’s ills are caused by white, christian men, but if anyone could convert me it would be Ms Robinson. And if all christians were christian like her the world would be a better place.

It took me a long time to read this book and I am not sure reading it cover to cover is the best way of reading it. Each essay required focus and concentration and it might be better to dip into it from time to time reading one essay at a time.

It is academic, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

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