All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison

A few years ago I read and loved Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorne Timeso I have really been looking forward to this one, which finally came in at my library. Harrison seems to be an author who works a groove, as the themes of this book reminded me of her previous one: life in an English village during a time of change (but when is not a time of change, as she reminds us); a love for and connection to the land; characters who are social outsiders, at least to some extent. All Among the Barley reminds me not just of Harrison’s previous novel, but of books I’ve loved like Reservoir 13 and Ghost WallLike the latter, it is astute about the ways nostalgic nationalism ill serves women, and can be read at least in part as a Brexit novel, as it’s set in 1933 with both echoes of war and a faintly looming political threat. (I don’t think this book is quite as good, though).

The narrator of All Among the Barley is Edith Mather, the 14 year old daughter of an East Anglia farmer. Edie is bright, but she has just left school, as her parents expect; she has little sense of what she wants from life, or even that she can want something. She loves the farm and its landscape, but what future do they offer her, especially under threat from an economic depression?  Continue reading

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Summer Reading Highlights

Back to school time seems like a good time to try to get back to more regular blogging.

The achievement of my summer was (mostly) completing the slow process of swapping my office with my daughter’s bedroom; she wanted to move downstairs and have more privacy get away from her parents. I had a lovely office, but gradually over the last decade it was given over to children and then junk, while I worked from the kitchen or dining room table while supervising the dog, homework, dinner making, etc. I am surprised by how happy I am to have my own space in the house again, and how much I am looking forward to not eating dinner with a pile of ungraded papers staring me down from the end of the table.

I did a big book purge and you can see I still have to drop a lot of boxes off for Friends of the Library. I told my therapist that “My space filled up with junk and now I’m trying to reclaim it and make it nice” seemed like the perfect metaphor for all I’ve been up to this summer.

I did some satisfying reading and even more audiobook listening. Part of the return to audio was being in recovery mode and not having a lot of extra mental energy, and part was seeking comfort and distraction. Here are some highlights of my summer reading and listening: Continue reading

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Insurrecto, by Gina Apostol

Some of the words used to describe Insurrecto: dizzying, labyrinthine, psychedelic, meta-meta. This doesn’t sound like a novel I’d love, but I did love this. The descriptor I’d choose is “kaleidosopic,” and I have always loved kaleidoscopes. The multiple time- and storylines of this novel reflect and refract each other. It’s full of metaphors of frames, lenses, and zooms, a novel peopled by photographers and film-makers. Give it a twist and see its narrative fragments fall into a new pattern.

Apostol was born and grew up in the Philippines and now lives in the US; Insurrecto takes up the fraught history between the two countries. Magsalin, a translator, has come home from New York for a visit, mourning her mother and her husband, working on a mystery novel. She receives an email from Chiara Brasi, a film-maker, demanding her help in a visit to Balangiga, Samar, site of a massacre in the Philippine-American war. When Chiara was a child, her father Ludo filmed his cult movie about the Vietnam War, The Unintended, there. Now Chiara wants to make her own film, prompted by a night with a group of artist friends in the Catskills where they all agreed to write a story based on what they found with a single Google search. The multiple references in this framing–to Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, the night in Switzerland that gave birth to Frankenstein–are typical of Insurrecto, which is full of allusions to cultures high and low.  Continue reading

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TBR Challenge: Once a Ferrara Wife by Sarah Morgan

May’s TBR Challenge theme is “backlist glom (author with more than one book in your TBR).” Wondering how I would fit a TBR read amid my demanding library pile, I chose Sarah Morgan’s Once a Ferrara Wife, a Harlequin Presents set in Sicily. I have read and enjoyed plenty of Morgan’s books in the past, and have plenty more TBR.

I’m going to start with something personal that affected my reading of the book. For a lot of people, romance reading is a comfort in hard times. For me right now, that is not the case. I have been dealing (or let’s be honest, not dealing) with depression for a long time now, and am finally recognizing that that’s part of why I went off romance novels. Emotional response is a big part of the romance-reading experience and I’m not having much. I read a book and think, “I see what you did there; whatever.” Then I feel worse because of my lack of feeling. [I’m not asking for sympathy or advice! I’ve made tackling my depression a priority for this summer and I’ve taken the first step.] I can’t do romance justice right now. I haven’t figured out whether I’ll take a break from this challenge, read non-romance from my TBR, or keep trying. But I’ve reached the point where I feel I can’t write any kind of romance review without acknowledging how my mental health is coloring my response. In general I am less able to/willing to pretend everything is fine. So there you go.

Once a Ferrara Wife–or any Harlequin Presents–was not a good choice for my current reading mood. Presents are all about big emotions and OTT tropes. Part of the fun of reading is seeing how the authors use these to explore real emotional conflicts in a highly dramatized way. But if you’re not going to be swept away by the feelings, the experience isn’t as rewarding. Continue reading

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TBR Challenge: Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “something different,” so I chose Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension: Tangled Axon, which is science fiction with romance between two women, two things I rarely read. I’m drinking from the firehose of end of term work, so I’m amazed I managed to finish it, but I did. Please excuse this review, which is dashed off on my iPad so short and unedited. And I find “ascension” very hard to spell, embarrassing for an English-teaching church lady.

Alana is a “sky surgeon” (engineer) who longs to work in space but ekes out a meagre “dirtheel” existence on planet where, like many places in her universe, the inhabitants are being crowded out by Transliminal Solutions, a corporation/empire/not clear exactly what from another universe that promises to fix all your problems if you only have money. Alana and her aunt have a painful degenerative disease and are trying to save enough for the cure Transliminal offers.

Then the ship Tangled Axon arrives looking for Alana’s sister Nova, a “spirit guide.” (Why they want her and what exactly a spirit guide is remains unclear for quite a while). Alana stows away on the ship and adventures ensue.

Ascension is Koyanagi’s first novel and I think it shows. There are some good things about it, particularly the depiction of living with an illness and the anxieties it creates if you can barely afford to treat it, which rang true. Continue reading

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