Smiling on the Scythe: A review of All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison 

The autumn of that year was the most beautiful I can remember. For weeks after harvest-tide the weather stayed fine, and only slowly that year did summer’s warmth leave the earth. In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes.

All Among the Barley is the second book by Melissa Harrison I have read this year; and the first, At Hawthorn Time, readily prepared me for what was between its pages. I knew I wasn’t going to be reading a happy, uplifting book, but I also knew I was going to be treated to a slice of our natural world – a love and celebration of it, and beautiful detailed descriptions of nature and the changing seasons. It was, for me, a fair trade-off.

Fourteen year old Edith (Edie) finds friendship with journalist Constance FitzAllen when she becomes a regular visitor at the girl’s family farm. She has been commissioned to write a series of articles about upholding the old rural traditions for a magazine. Edie is captivated by her easy and confident personality and impressed by her charm and winning ways with people. But Constance is not all she seems and Edie has her own mounting troubles.

This is a novel with an undertone of disaster and some very dark themes. The personal is political here. Folklore, poverty, debt, mental breakdown, suicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse, intertwine with both traditional and progressive ideas, industrial change and modernisation, class division, patriarchy, nationalism and emerging fascism.

The depiction of British rural life between the World Wars is captured like I’ve never encountered before in a novel, and its sense of realism communicated through it’s vivid detail of how life was lived, would not be out of place in a non-fiction book written at the time. The characters for me seem secondary to the big themes that are going on. But each character is perfectly placed to convey an idea or ideas essential to the storytelling of an exact time and place. At first, everything seems subtle and everyday, but then the realisation hits you that it is exactly this that leads on to the bigger things in life: the change, the fortune, the tragedy, the make or break.

All Among the Barley was an education for me. I learnt the names of plants, birds, words and phrases that I previously wasn’t familiar with, and happily looked them up. I now know what a landrail looks like and what a barley-rick is. I loved this aspect of it. Although not an entirely enjoyable novel, simply because of its subject matters, it has much beauty and depth.  I wholly recommend it’s talented author with her absolutely gorgeous nature writing and hypnotic prose.

Beautiful descriptions of rural England in the 1930s
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All that I have and all I have lost: A review of Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari

‘You come from war?’ The old woman reached out and patted Aisha on the knee, and this time she did not pull away or jump in fear. ‘Seeking refuge? That’s all right.’ She beckoned to Aisha. ‘Come and shelter in old Elder’s wood. Aisha stay here with my wartime spirits.’

I have read many beautiful books; some of them beautiful and powerful; some beautiful and wondrous. While thinking about what makes a beautiful book for me, I conclude, yes, the beauty of the words used, the words together, the types of words. But probably over and above this, it’s the reality of the words. The deep seated human connection it has with its reader, I think, is very important. It’s the core of it all. Anything can be said with pretty words, but it’s the meaning that makes it beautiful.

Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari shines for me. The truth in its pages is dazzling. Books like these reach out and touch the heart of the reader. There is something recognisable or familiar, either an experience or an opinion or a set of values – whatever it is, it clicks it all into place for you. This wonderful YA novel covers the themes of homelessness and seeking refuge after tragedy whether in your own country or another. It is an epic subject, a subject which is often swirling around somewhere among my thoughts. Because isn’t this the ultimate fear? Having something awful happen in your life that separates you from your family and your home and everything that you know? Losing your children, parents, or siblings? Losing all your security and being thrust into the darkness of life?

Aisha is one such child who had everything taken away from her after witnessing the most horrific acts. Everything including her childhood and peace was snatched from her and thrown away. Children should never see what she saw and experience what she had lived. Aisha’s world was destroyed. Coming to the U.K. and finding some sanctuary with her loving foster mother, Liliana, goes a long way in settling her into a stable happy life, but when she is faced with the prospect of having to leave another home and all that she has made familiar, Aisha makes the decision to run away. She finds herself hiding in the ancient city wood not far from her neighbourhood. There, she meets Zak, a boy struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce and Iona, a homeless girl, whose own family life was shattered long ago. Unexpectedly, they find solace in each other and their natural world surroundings, and together with Elder, an old, somewhat mystical, homeless woman, they each try to make sense of their pasts and find a way to make a brighter future for themselves.

This poetic story connects past and present with heartbreaking scenarios; the casualties of war, war orphaned children, parent-child separation, broken homes and homelessness. The loss of something – often everything – precious; and the continuous coping and building, and the searching for equilibrium, even happiness. It is harrowing yet uplifting in its themes and message. The essence of the human spirit, the resilience, the strength as life goes on, despite the horrors some people witness. It is very much a story told from a young person’s viewpoint, and in this way it is a tremendous book for children and teenagers as it seemingly effortlessly encourages compassion and tolerance. It highlights the inequality and discrimination of refugees, and inspires an empathetic response.   

Red Leaves is a book to be read as a youngster and as an adult. I cannot recommend it enough if you are touched by this subject. It is not just a book with a beautiful cover; it is a book with a beautiful spirit and a beautiful core. It encompasses so much of the bare bones of life; what we need and what we, sometimes unknowingly, have to have in order to feel human. It strips it all back. 

How could you have a past like Aisha’s and still want to sing?

An unquestionable 5 stars.

Troubled waters: A review of The Doors of Riverdell by Marianne Rosen

She glanced past Moth to see Riverdell in the background, high-browed and proud in the vibrant grass embankments. Home was this place, this moment. The river running beneath her waiting feet, the meadow stretching away on the other side, the woods hovering above, the lawns like tempting velvet, the house watching it all. Every view was home.

The Doors of Riverdell is the first novel in a four book saga about the Threlfalls, a privileged and dysfunctional family residing in a rather grand old house in the historic English market town of Ludlow. But this is no Downton Abbey – it has a solid contemporary setting with short flashbacks no further in the past than the 1950s. It is author Marianne Rosen’s debut – and what a debut! At well over five hundred pages, it’s an epic and fitting introduction to a somewhat unhappy and unsatisfied family on the brink of change. 

At the start of the novel four girls meet at boarding school and seemingly form a lifelong friendship, bonding over absent parents and their unknown place in the world. Fast forward fifty odd years and we meet their children – all but one, the estranged Threlfall heir, who has been killed in a car accident along with his wife, And so begins the drama of Riverdell…

We follow Elsa: the Threlfall matriarch, trying her hand at a second wave of parenting; Isabelle: her thirty-something niece, freshly back from India; Kit: Isabelle’s pursuer – a lusty workaholic control freak; and Moth: Elsa’s newly orphaned teenage grandson – all knowing, moody, secretive, with a great big chip on his shoulder. The four points of view run through the book, nicely blended after the initial hurdle of getting used to the novel’s tone and pace and multiple timelines. 

For such a big book, The Doors of Riverdell speeds along, sweeping its reader off to the world between its pages – a world of family troubles, conflict, complications and passions. It’s sometimes difficult to relate to the characters as they seem so rich, privileged and spoilt. They can come across as distant, with the exception perhaps, of Kit and Kate, who have much more feistiness than the rest of the players. Moth is a troubled young man that frustrates in his overtly secretive manner, compelling the reader to want to give him a good shake. Isabelle is flaky, and her inconsistency and commitment phobia grates. Elsa is in the shadow of Kate, her ancient BBF, and we wonder what’s going on in the background with her. But, remember, this is a series and character development is ongoing. It’s a sign of a good book where the characters take you on their own personal journey, with its ups and downs, triggering dislike sometimes and admiration at other times. After all, life is like that; people are like that.

The overriding aspect of the novel that stands out for me – and much more than this, made me all warm and tingly when reading – is the sumptuous, the beautiful, the lovingly descriptive, prose. I used to read, read, read, not really knowing why I liked certain books and not others. I used to say it was all about the story – I was a story lover and it was that that did it for me. Yet, it’s only fairly recently that I realised it’s the writing that really ignites my spark – the detailed, descriptive prose. I want to know what the room looks like, I want to know what the weather is, I want to get inside the protagonist’s head, I want to be able to see what the characters see, and picture in my mind every scene. Descriptions are important to me. They enable me to feel an atmosphere unique to that particular book, and add to it my own imagination. Marianne provides this satisfaction for me in Riverdell. The detailed writing does its job of creating a sense of place, of time, of character, so well that I am taken down into its depths, lost in a good book, as they say.

Ludlow is the setting of Riverdell, and I relish a real place setting, especially if I’ve been there and especially if it’s not a widely known place. Who has been to Ludlow? I’m hoping that everyone has had the pleasure, but it’s a fairly small town in rural Shropshire, and if I didn’t have past family connections there, I probably would not have heard of it. Ludlow is magnificent in its historic prettiness and has a lovely feel to it. As I remember, it has bookshops galore, and so it is really worth a visit or two. Marianne’s admiration for the town comes wonderfully across in her narrative, painting a vivid picture of her hometown. It’s a gorgeous tribute to Ludlow.

At the reaches of her flawed vision, the hills were shimmering, trees cavorting shadows across their flanks. She picked out land points, that compressed golf ball of the radio station shining on the Clee, the Mynd a long frown on the northern horizon, the grasses rippling across the meadow flanks of Climbing Jack and tumbling into the deep creases of the valleys, The breeze was firm, blowing across the long valley of the Teme, wafting the country up to her. The richness of the fields, the unctuous fumes of the traffic, the dust from the development of the old petrol station, the teasing odours of bread, coffee, pie. She grabbed her bag, leaving the calm oasis and plunging into the town’s belly, the tune of the vagrant piper following her through the streets.

Old Ludlow postcard

As part of the launch team for The Doors of Riverdell, I loved reading the book with some bookster buddies. It is a great meaty novel for a read-along or with a book club, although as it’s a series, be warned that there are a few loose ends to be tied up in later books. However, don’t let this put you off as I am sure having read this one, you will want to continue with the saga of the Threlfalls and their associates at Riverdell.

This is a book to be savoured and enjoyed over long reading sessions with plenty of hot drinks and sweet treats. It is gorgeous inside as well as out, beautifully constructed and sumptuously written. Marianne Rosen has presented us with a magnificent debut showcasing her wonderful talent for interweaving storytelling and silky rich prose.

I saw your a Face in a Dying Fish: A review of We Are Animals by Tim Ewins

From its title, you may think this book is a retelling of Noah’s Ark, or it may even conjure up images from a certain song by Bloodhound Gang, making you wonder if there’s a naughty  theme in there somewhere – but it’s neither of these. Not really anyway. It’s a love story – a love story of love stories. It has alcohol and sunsets, exotic places and simple pleasures. It’s the best kind of love story – one of friendship and strong bonds.

During their single week on Palolem they visited a spice farm, learnt to ride motorcycles and tried yoga for the first time. One day they climbed over the rocks at the end of the beach and found another beach with rocks at both ends. Over those rocks they’d found yet another beach which they walked down for about an hour, and then, at the other end of this beach, they’d found more rocks. It was a magical week.

The central story is between two Jans, a boy and a girl, who become world travellers, both together and apart. But it is their togetherness that the book yearns for, and which one of the Jans (Manjan) is hoping to encounter again. For, at the opening of the book he is standing on a beach in Goa, waiting for a sighting of the girl (Ladyjan) who stole his heart and his passport in 1970, and whom he now hasn’t seen in thirty-eight years.  As the sixty-four year old Manjan sits, sipping his red wine, a young traveller named Shakey approaches, inviting him to a silent disco, and what follows is a somewhat reluctant recounting of the significant bits of Manjan’s life to a somewhat distracted listener.

We Are Animals is a homage to both the enthusiastic and the weary traveller. It’s about escaping, and searching for something you think you want,  but discovering something else. It’s about finding what you didn’t know you wanted and then losing the only thing that mattered. It’s about holding on and letting go. These themes repeat throughout the book and it’s quite cathartic. It has a certain and poignant truth to it that I found it very life affirming.

The tale of Manjan and Ladyjan is humorously told by its author, Tim Ewins, a part time comedian. You have to be funny to be a comedian and Tim is exactly that. The prose is flawless in its wittiness. Gentle sarcasm, observational humour, and much attention to detail make his debut novel a joy to read. The main story is interspersed with tales – the joys and woes – of different animals along the way. They are all hugely lovable and their individual narratives are quite emotional. It’s such a touching portrait of life – of the ordinary person and the ordinary animal – caressing your feelings of empathy and compassion, while also tickling your insides with merriment. I’m a huge fan of humorous writing and here I’ve found a king. We Are Animals is a book that will break your heart a little, warm your cockles a lot, and have you giggling into your beverage of choice. Five stars.

‘I think I’m glad I’m home,’ Jan said to his mother as he threw his stick-and-bed-sheet bag onto the kitchen table, ‘I wanted to come home when I saw your face in a dying fish.’ Jan’s mother sat down, feeling both offended and loved at the same time.

She Captures the Castle: A review of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it. Such beauty; and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.

Written in 1922, The Enchanted April, not only takes you back in time but it takes you across the seas to a little medieval castle high in the hills of northern Italy. And what more could you want? Not much! But there is a lot more to delight and enthral. For, this novel is completely and absolutely wonderful. It’s a brilliant bit of escapism amidst our times and troubles of viruses, social distancing, self isolation and lockdowns. This will take you far away from all of that, sweeping you along in its romance, in its sunshine and sweet scent of spring. This is a story that is sure of itself; it knows exactly where it is going and it is confident that you’ll be travelling along for the ride too. From the very first page we are introduced to the promise of “Wisteria and Sunshine” on the “shores of the Mediterranean”…

Lotty (Mrs Wilkins) and Rose (Mrs Arbuthnot) are drawn to an advertisement in The Times offering a chance to rent the Italian castle for the entire month of April. Both have unhappy marriages and are captivated by the idea of blissful escape. They recruit a young aristocrat, Lady Caroline and a rich elderly ex socialite, Mrs Fisher, to share the lease with them. And so, what begins as an awkward union full of assumptions and judgements, rapidly and delightfully turns into a euphoric experience for all. 

Wonderful that at home she should have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish. Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy.

This is an entirely delectable story of the bewitching power of beautiful surroundings and heavenly liberation from the dreary everyday. There is so much to be gained from this novel if you are a dreamy romantic and believe a little bit of romance can uplift you whatever your circumstance. Lotty and Rose are both desperate in their own ways; desperate for something more that their present lives offer them. Ruts are hard things to get out of and getting stuck is easy and almost expected when your world seems unchanging and your relationships seem mundane. Disappointment makes itself comfortable in your daily tasks, in your work, in your leisure time, in your home life. But disappointment, even subtle disappointment, takes it toll – and what do you do then? …You go to a little castle in Italy, of course!

The Enchanted April is more than a little bit mischievous, inviting you to join in the fun of observing the guests’ inner thoughts, conversations and, more poignantly, their battles. The characters spend a lot of the time on their own: reflecting and contemplating, considering their positions and their relationships to others. Elizabeth Von Arnim really captures each woman; their desires, their sorrows, their plights, their regrets. It’s very penetrating and touching, but also gorgeously and incredibly witty. I was so charmed at the wisdom the author seemed to have for life. The book gives us a great insight into Elizabeth Von Arnim. She possesses a lovely imagination, yes, but much much more than this. She seems confident and all knowing in the ways of love. Indeed, if you read even a little bit about her life, it becomes clear what a steadfast, strong and determined woman she was. She had two husbands and five children. She lived in several countries and moved house an astonishing amount of times. She had huge literary success in her lifetime and was desired and in demand at parties, sparkling wherever she went. She wrote The Enchanted April while on holiday in Italy, and staying in, wait for it, a small castle. Her books do seem to reflect a lot about herself and her life, but they say you should write about what you know, so perhaps this is partly why she was such a hit. She knew about people, specifically her class of people, and so she wrote engrossing stories about them.

The place she had found was a hidden corner where the sun-naked stones were padded with thyme, and nobody was likely to come. It was out of sight and sound of the house, it was off any path; it was near the end of the promontory. She sat so quiet that presently lizards darted over her feet, and some tiny birds like finches, frightened away at first, came back again and flittered among the bushes round her just as if she hadn’t been there. How beautiful it was. And what was the good of it with no one there, no one who loved being with one, who belonged to one, to whom one could say, ‘Look.’ And wouldn’t one say, ‘Look – dearest?’ Yes, one would say dearest; and the sweet word, just to say it to somebody who loved one, would make one happy.

This magnificent little novel will undoubtedly be in my top favourite reads of the year. It is a perfect book for me; it has so much charm and romance – romance in the best sense of the word, romance of the beauty of life. It is whimsy and dreamy but also all knowing and truthful. It is for the old romantic, the starry eyed, and the idealistic dreamer. It is that old cliche, life affirming. It is adorable.

This was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.”