Book Review: All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison – a compelling historical novel set in rural England

I’ve heard so much to recommend this novel and the setting of 1930s Suffolk also was appealing. It’s the story of Edith Mather who is fourteen during the summer of 1934 and everything’s gearing up towards harvest time. Her parents are tenant farmers with the help of John, who survived the battlefields of WWI, and Doble, their old farm hand. Edith’s brother Frank helps too and at seventeen is courting a local girl, his future mapped out for him. Older sister Mary is already married and has a baby, so Edith’s future seems set to follow in a similar direction. Alf Rose on a neighbouring farm already has his eye on Edie.

Then Connie FitzAllen arrives on the scene, visiting farms to research the old rural ways, with plans to write a book – her articles appearing in journals as Sketches from English Rural Life. Her fear is that farming traditions might be lost as mechanisation becomes widespread, farmers’ wives buy bread from the bakery instead of making their own and the conveniences of canned goods change the way people prepare meals. Connie takes a shine to Edith, who shows her round the village, and helps the visitor any way she can. To be fair, Connie lends a hand with the harvest, but what is her secret agenda?

Sketches from English Rural Life –

There is surely no better repast than country dishes, innocent of the fashions of the modern age. They may not be refined, but here there is good, wholesome food such as may be found on every English farm where butter is churned by hand, cheese is made, and bread is daily baked.

The story is told through Edith’s eyes and she’s an engaging narrator. She’s intelligent – her old teacher would have liked to see her study further, giving her exercise books to encourage her to write. But Edith’s needed on the farm. There’s all that laundry every Monday, and the chickens to care for as well as all the work to help bring in the harvest. It seems everyone has Edith’s time organised for her, including the incomer, Connie. No wonder she’s getting into a bit of a state.

But then all the characters are interestingly complex. Edith’s father seems to be under pressure – making the farm pay isn’t easy. There’s the depression after all, and he’s one of those typical men of his time who bottles up his feelings, resulting in sudden rages. Edith’s mother suffered as a girl as her mother was considered a bit of a witch. Connie is also complex, with her intense fondness for both Edith and her mother, her ability to charm even the stolid menfolk with her talk of politics and new ideas, though not at the expense of rural traditions, of course.

And then there’s the countryside. Harrison describes it in lush detail that makes you feel you are there, not just the flora and fauna as she sees it, but how it changes with the seasons, or even as day turns to night. She has a very distinctive voice and it doesn’t surprise me that her website describes her both a “novelist and nature writer”.

Our barley was well along now, flaxen from a distance and with the beards tipping over almost as we watched. The wheat, too, was ripening: the stalks were still-blue-green, but the tops of the ears were fading to a greenish-yellow, a tint that would become richer and spread down the ears as they fattened to finally gild the stalks and leaves. Then the sound of the cornfields would alter: dry, they would susurrate, whispering to Father and John that it was nearly time. The glory of the farm then, just before harvest: acres of gold like bullion, strewn with the sapphires of cornflowers and the garnets of corn poppies and watched over from on high by larks.

But in this idyllic setting there are darker dramas afoot, a hint that one war has past leaving its scars on people, while we are aware of another just around the corner. The characters meanwhile have their own more immediate issues creating so much strain that things seem set to boil over. This causes enough tension to sweep the reader along towards an ending you might not quite be prepared for. It’s a great historical read – a combination of characters you can feel for, great writing and a brilliant recreation of time and place. I can see why All Among the Barley has been so well reviewed. I can’t think of anything I didn’t like about so it’s another five star read from me.

Book Review: The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting – the second book in an gripping historical trilogy

It can be tricky reviewing the middle book in a trilogy without giving away key events from the previous book. I read the first book earlier in the year and was captivated by the story of a small town in remote Norway, the ill-fated love-triangle, and the legend of the conjoined twin sisters and the church bells made in their honour.

So when The Reindeer Hunters came out, I was eager to pick up where the story left off. I will do my best not to throw out any spoilers, but if you want to read a spell-binding historical series, ignore this post just in case and get cracking with The Bell in the Lake. (Also, as I might have mentioned before, DO NOT read the publisher’s blurb for The Reindeer Hunters if you haven’t yet read The Bell in the Lake as it contains a jaw-dropping spoiler!)

In The Reindeer Hunters, the story has moved on a couple of decades to 1903 and Pastor Kai Schweigaard has become well attuned to the ways of his parish. He has quite a few regrets over events of the previous book but is a kindly man and wise. He formerly struggled to deal with local superstitions, but of late has been obsessed with finding the Hekne weave. This is a tapestry created by the twin Hekne sisters in the early 1600s, hidden away because of its unpopular Doomsday theme and said to foretell the fate of the last village pastor. It is one thing he can do for the woman he loved and lost, particularly as he has fallen out with her son.

Jehans Hekne lives on a small holding, working the land of his tyrant of an uncle to whom he has promised a reindeer. To do this he must set out on forays in the wilderness with his 1848 chamber charger rifle. He lives a simple life but dreams of a better one, or at least a better gun, when he meets another hunter, Victor Harrison, a well-healed Englishman. The two lay claim to having shot the same reindeer, but good-humouredly strike up a bargain: Victor gets his trophy and Jehans the means to get a new gun. A connection sparks between the two men who are oddly similar in spite of the differences of class and nationality.

The story weaves between the three characters with the legend of the bell in the lake hovering in the background. As the story goes, the bell can only be raised from its watery home by two Hekne brothers with no siblings born between them. But how can such myths still survive at a time when change is coming to this forgotten valley? There’s talk of rail opening up the country, and Jehans, who owes his education to the pastor, can’t help thinking about the possibilities of electricity. Victor is mesmerised by flight.

The Reindeer Hunters is another brilliant read. I thought it might be one of those middle-of-a-trilogy books that languishes from the need to fill in a chunk of plot between the promising beginning of the first book before things crank up to a heart-pounding finale in the third. But if anything, I like this book better than the first. It seems to strike a good balance between big events and the development of its characters.

As the story rolled on towards the end, I couldn’t put it down, quite desperate to know how things would turn out for Kai, Jehans and Victor. If things are going to crank up from here in the last book, I’m definitely going to need a cup of tea and lie down afterwards. If you love historical fiction, this trilogy really is a must-read. The Reindeer Hunters gets a rare five stars from me.

Book Review: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn – an inspiring memoir about the healing power of nature

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but every so often a book comes along that just captures my interest. I’d had this one on my reading list for some time, but what gave me the kick-start I needed was that one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat reading programme asks you to read a biography or memoir.

The Salt Path is the story of a couple in middle age who are at a period in their lives when everything has just turned to custard. They’ve lost their home of twenty years which as a farm and accommodation business was also their income. Around the same time Moth, the author’s husband, is diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness.

With few options and nowhere to live, other than the kind of emergency housing that could be utterly soul destroying, the pair buy a tent on E-bay, load up a couple of backpacks (rucksacks if you’re British) and set off on the Salt Path. This is a six hundred and thirty miles coastal walk around the south west corner of England from Minehead to Pool. You can’t be homeless if you’re hiking, can you?

But from the outset, Moth and Raynor are doing it tough. They have only a few hundred pounds to their name, and by the time they are walking the path, rely on a small dribble of cash turning up in their bank account from welfare. This barely pays for their food, often noodles and chocolate, or tuna and rice when they feel flush. They scrounge hot water at cafés for tea. You would think that the strain of the walk and lack of good nutrition might make Moth sicker, but it doesn’t. In fact he gets fitter and becomes almost pain-free.

In the pink half-light of dawn, the holes were everywhere. Fresh droppings piled up under the flysheet of the tent and as I undid the zip tens of rabbits hopped only feet away. I could have just reached out and taken one to put straight in the pot. Instead we made tea. Moth found a hairy wine gum in his pocket, so we cut that in half.

Raynor Winn chronicles the people they meet: the other walkers, often with much better equipment, but usually friendly; the people who turn up their noses at their unwashed shabbiness; and the other homeless people, not usually walking but eking out an existence in the towns. It’s quite an insightful look at the homeless problem in UK – how easy it is to drop out of the system, the difficulty of finding affordable accommodation, especially in rural communities where holiday lets drive up the rent astronomically.

The other thing Winn does really well is describe the wild environment of the coastal path. Not just the wildlife she encounters, the plants and the sea, but what it’s like to be amongst it all. Her writing is amazing. You’d think she’d been writing all her life but this would seem to be her first book. Winn’s story is heartfelt, immediate and real. Not surprisingly, The Salt Path was short-listed for the Costa Biography Award and a Wainwright Prize.

“It’s touched you, it’s written all over you: you’ve felt the hand of nature. It won’t ever leave you now; you’re salted…”

But more than that, The Salt Path is also the story of a marriage, of a couple’s devotion to each other and their determination to find a way forward. I found it both an emotional read and an inspiring one. Maybe it’s time to dust off the backpack and the hiking boots once more to remind myself why walking in the wilderness, for all the sore feet, the ache of the pack on your shoulders and the slogs uphill on uneven terrain can be so uplifting. Or maybe I’ll just read Winn’s sequel, The Wild Silence. The Salt Path gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey – an atmospheric historical drama and the perfect ‘quiet’ read

I recently came upon a post on Twitter asking readers to name their favourite ‘quiet’ books.. Among the recommendations were lots of my favourites and quite a few more I’d not heard of. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was there, and Barbara Pym, as well as Anne Tyler and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April. And I thought, yes these are the authors that I read again and again. Now I can add The Narrow Land to the list – a book about the small dramas of people thrown together on Cape Cod during the summer of 1950.

Among the cast of characters is Ed Hopper. He’s the much-loved American painter who produced similarly quiet pictures of people and cars and architecture, the most famous of which is probably Nighthawks, showing late-night customers at a city diner. Ed and his wife Jo live in New York with a holiday house at Cape Cod. They make an odd couple, he’s very tall, quiet, solemn even, while she’s short, emotional and talkative. When we meet them they are in their sixties. Ed has the artist’s version of writer’s block; Jo anxiously quizzing him about possible subject matter, while regretting the sacrifice of her own artistic ambitions to further Ed’s career.

We also meet Michael, the ten-year-old German orphan adopted by a kindly New York couple after their own son’s death. He is sent for two weeks’ holiday with the Kaplans, a well-to-do family who support the charity that has rescued orphans like Michael. Mrs Kaplan is a Lady Bountiful type of character who is renting a large house on the cape with her daughter, Katherine, who is ill, and her glamorous daughter-in-law, the widow of Mrs K’s only son. As well as enjoying the benefits of a holiday by the sea, Michael will be company for Mrs K’s grandson, Richie.

Michael has plenty of demons – memories of the horrors of his war, the loss of his nationality, his language, but also the fear that his new parents won’t want him back – they are moving house and expecting another child. Then there’s fitting in with the tony Kaplans, knowing what to say and do. Richie, soon to be despatched to a new boarding school is chatty and excessively well-mannered, but also suffering the loss of his father.

When Jo tries to shoo the Kaplan’s from the beach in front of the Hoppers’ house, what begins as a seemingly awful social gaffe becomes the catalyst that throws the two households together. Everyone’s intrigued to meet Ed, who cringes at the thought of social engagements. But it’s the two lost and lonely boys who seem to connect with the artist and his wife. While Jo tries to make up with the Kaplans for her earlier bad manners, Ed roams around looking at buildings, their windows and doorways, sketching, walking and thinking. There’s a woman too whose image he can’t quite shake and feels he’s seen her somewhere around here before.

The Narrow Land is a slow burn of a read, with chapters named after some of the planets in Holst’s famous suite, a record loved by both Ed and Katherine. Stars are aligning, perhaps. Little by little, we get to know the characters and they are all written with immense sympathy though each have their faults. Against this, the wider story of the middle twentieth century and an America rebuilding after the war, while a new war in Korea is on the horizon. The characters are also battling it out – Ed and Jo bicker and walk out on each other, Michael and Richie don’t get along either. Only Katherine can soothe the troubled waters it seems, but she’s got her own battle on her hands.

In the background you have the Cape Cod summer, the wind riffling through the long grass, the boats on the water, the long, languid evenings. Did I mention this is also the perfect winter read? I particularly enjoyed the insight you get into Ed Hopper’s paintings, his artist’s eye, his struggles to find the right subject matter. Visual images, music and lingering scents of cigarettes and cologne add to the immediacy of the book, often seen through Michael’s point of view, the perfect impressionable young narrator.

The Narrow Land is an accomplished and spell-binding drama, easily a five out of five from me. It’s also the 2020 recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and as such qualifies for one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat winter reading programme: Read a Prize Winning Book. Put this ‘quiet’ novel on your to-read list.

Six New Fiction Picks – put these on the wish-list

I love a trawl through Fantastic Fiction to see what’s new and what’s coming soon. It’s also a good place to check in on favourite authors to see what they’re up to or find out when the next book in a series is set to hit the shops. Here’s a few of the promising new books I discovered on a recent visit, all either just published or coming soon.

This Is the Night They Come for You by Robert Goddard
Goddard has made a name for writing ripping reads over the last decade or three, but hasn’t rested on his laurels, churning out the same old thing. He has diversified into historical thrillers – I heartily recommend the James Maxted trilogy set around the time of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles – while his last book, The Fine Art of Invisible Detection was brilliantly twisty and inventive with a quirky sleuth on the job. The new book is set in Algiers with a troubled policeman working with a secret service agent to uncover a crime hidden in the dark events of Algieria’s struggle for independence. I know I’ll get a brilliant page-turner with some well researched historical background. Can’t wait.

Villager by Tom Cox
Another writer who has diversified hugely is Tom Cox, who tends to find a new genre from time to time and make it his own. You may remember his books about his cats: The Good, the Bad and the Furry, Talk to the Tail and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. Sure, they are books about cats, but they are also a lot about the owner and well, anything Cox writes is hilarious. Recently he has branched into writing about the English countryside, particularly the folklore and half-forgotten corners, a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy, but with more jokes. The latest book, his first novel, probably won’t be like anything you’ve read before, but features a folk musician from the sixties, teenagers finding a body on a golf course, as well as property developers threatening to despoil the landscape. Well worth a try.

The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers
Here’s another author who makes a natural landscape come to life magically in his writing. I reviewed The Offing a year or so ago and loved the story of an unlikely friendship in post-war Yorkshire, the atmospheric setting and gorgeous writing. So Myers’ new book definitely makes this list. The Perfect Golden Circle is about a couple of guys who under the cover of darkness make crop circles in the hot summer of 1989. We’ve another unlikely friendship burgeoning as their handiwork unexpectedly acquires a cult-like following. Some similar themes look set to appear, including the futility of war and the fragility of the English countryside which also has the power to heal.

Amy and Lan by Sadie Jones
Jones’s first book The Outcast won a bunch of book prize nominations, and her second book Small Wars, a story about the family of a British officer on Cyprus in the 1950s, is a moving story I sometimes still think about. She writes intense, character driven dramas and the new book will be well worth picking up I’m sure. Another book set in a rural landscape, Amy and Lan is about two children, dear friends, whose families join another family to try their hand at farming and the ‘good life’. It should be a bucolic dream, with chickens and goats and lots of fresh air, but something is set to shatter the children’s innocence. This one’s out in July.

Twelve Months and a Day by Louisa Young
The blurb says this is Truly Madly Deeply for our times, so yes it’s a story about love cut short by death. We’ve got two couples: Rasmus and Jay; Roisin and Nico, until Rasmus and Roisin are widowed, missing their other halves and trying to get by. But Jay and Nico are somehow still there, powerless to help the newly bereaved. This is quite a different sort of story, playful and contemporary, from Young’s war-themed trio (My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, The Hero’s Welcome and Devotion), which delves into the ongoing effects of World War I on a group of characters, the soldiers and the women left at home to wait. I heartily recommend the earlier books, but Twelve Months and a Day looks a great read too, and it’s newly released, which is even better.

The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley
Pulley is an inventive, original writer and definitely somebody to watch. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street combined mystery with love in Victorian London with a little magical clockwork. I enjoyed the characters as much as the twisty storyline. Her latest book is set in 1963, when a nuclear scientist is taken from merely surviving in a Siberian prison to serve out his sentence in City 40. He’s to study the effects of nuclear radiation on wildlife, and will one day be a free man if the radiation doesn’t get to him first. Based on real events, the blurb touts this as a sweeping adventure, the ebook out later this month, the paperback in July. Definitely one for my list.

More New Books for the Must Read List

A bumper crop of great new books seem to be arriving in bookshops this year. Here’s a few that caught my eye.

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon
Oh, joy! A new book from the author who brought us The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie. ‘There’s something nasty lurking behind the net curtains on Cavendish Lane’. Linda escaped ‘dark events’ of her Welsh childhood, but now life seems a bit tame; married to Terry, fish fingers for tea. Only Terry is often late home, while girls are going missing in the neighbourhood. Should Linda be worried? You can expect Cannon’s trademark dark humour, an original plot plus a twist. I can’t wait. This one’s out in May.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
This is the author who brought us We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which won a Booker Prize nomination and which really tugged at the heartstrings. There is only one person who springs to mind when I hear the name Booth – the John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Fowler’s new novel explores the backstory – the upbringing that lead Booth to make the decision that was to go down in the history books. ‘Booth is a riveting novel, focused on the very things that bind, and break, a family’ – says the blurb. The paperback came out last week.

One Day I Shall Astonish the World by Nina Stibbe
And now for something completely different. Nina Stibbe is the author of the comic Lizzie Vogel trilogy that kicked off with Man at the Helm. Stibbe’s letters home to her sister when she was a nanny became Love, Nina: Dispatches from Family Life and then a charmingly quirky TV series. The new stand-alone novel promises a funny but life-affirming story about friendship and the paths it takes through the course of a lifetime. This book’s due out next month.

I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons
And yes, there is only one Mona Lisa, and this book is about that Mona Lisa. The blurb says it’s a ‘deliciously vivid, compulsive and illuminating story about the lost and forgotten women throughout history’. The story begins with the painting sitting around in Leonardo’s studio and where it ends up in the centuries that follow. Solomons can be relied on to write a compelling story and does her research. The Gallery of Vanished Husbands is another book that takes a look at the art world and which I can highly recommend. I, Mona Lisa was recently released in paperback.

Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman
I loved the simple, honest storytelling of The Gunners, a story about a group of friends who separately feel the burden of guilt for something that happened to them as children. Chorus is a story about a family, the seven Shaw siblings, and two life-altering events, what divides them and what brings them ultimately back to each other. Kauffman has been compared to Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro, and I’m sure Chorus will be worth picking up. The hardcover is already out; the e-book due in July.

The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Matting
If you haven’t read The Bell in the Lake yet, it’s time to get a move on as the second book in the trilogy will now be hitting the shelves. The setting sweeps us back to 1903 and a remote Norwegian community, home to solitary Jehans. Separated from his family he lives off what he can catch. When he kills a massive reindeer he meets an enigmatic hunter. There’s a mysterious tapestry woven by conjoined twins and a Pastor seeking redemption as a new age dawns. The blurb says this is ‘a grand and thrilling novel about what it takes to live in and embrace a new era.’ It’s sure to be a powerful and compelling read from a terrific storyteller.

Book Review: Trio by William Boyd

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I stepped into the world of Boyd’s latest novel, Trio. One thing I might have guessed is that its three main characters will be put to the test. Set in Brighton in 1968, the story centres on the making of a film with a ridiculous title. There’s remarkably little glamour as we’re taken behind the scenes – Brighton isn’t exactly Hollywood. The narrative switches between each of three main characters who are connected with the film.

Talbot Kidd, in his sixties, is the reserved, genial film producer who following the recent law reform decriminalising homosexual relations, is wondering about his own sexuality. But everyone keeps coming to him with their problems – film stock is going missing, the leading actress won’t work with the couple of acting hacks hired to play her mother and father and could it be true that his business partner is fleecing him? And then there’s that blasted song he hears everywhere he goes about the park with the cake left out in the rain, the sweet green icing flowing down … you know the one.

The leading actress, lovely Anny Viklund, is an up-and-coming American star with a poor taste in men. Her current boyfriend is a French freedom-fighter philosopher but before that she was married to an anarchist-terrorist and now the FBI want to talk to her. Luckily her co-star Troy offers easy, uncomplicated sex, and she’s got a stash of uppers and downers to keep her on an even keel. But she can’t help wondering why she has no control over her own life.

The third narrator, Elfrida Wing, is married to Talbot’s director, Reggie Tipton, a serial philanderer suddenly requesting everyone to call him Rodrigo. Elfrida is a famous novelist who hasn’t written a book for ten years, and passes her days as an accomplished secret alcoholic. It doesn’t help that the literary world described her as the new Virginia Woolf, an author she feels she has little in common with. When she comes up with the idea of writing a novel about the last day in Virginia Woolf’s life, she’s suddenly on fire again. But can she get on top of her drinking?

…and she soon stood on the high embankment looking down on the slow-moving stream, wondering if this were perhaps the actual point where Virginia had filled her coat pocket with a heavy stone and then waded in. Where had she learned that fact about the stone? She searched her memory. That’s right: Enid Bagnold had told her at a party years ago.

Boyd explores each of these characters’ flaws, foibles and secrets, yet I found each of them oddly likeable. He captures them at a time of crisis in their lives and keeps pouring on the pressure. This makes the story gallop along together with the lengths each of them go to maintain their secrets. Bubbling underneath is a gentle wry humour, particularly with Talbot and Elfrida, a kind of world-weariness English characters sometimes have, as if they are on the outside of themselves looking in.

Of course, Boyd is happy to throw barbs at the self-important figures that people the film and literary worlds. There’s also the frivolity of life in Britain in 1968 while across the channel the student riots were on the go and political change in the air. Name dropping of well-known writers and entertainers adds to the fun. But there are serious issues that each character has to struggle with, making this an amusing but also a very satisfying novel. But with William Boyd I wouldn’t have expected anything less. A four and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold

Marika Cobbald’s new book On Hampstead Heath is a witty comment on our times, a kind of comedy of errors, with an unlikely heroine at its heart. Thorn Marsh is a news editor, a passionate believer in the role of the news media to uncover the truth and to keep the public well-informed. At forty-four, her career is everything, but when her paper is taken over by a media conglomerate she is shifted from the news desk to the midweek supplement to write The Bright Side. A prickly, curmudgeonly individual, she is the last person to write happy, inspiring stories.

Along with Thorn, there’s a bunch of quirky characters to enjoy. Nancy, Thorn’s mother who never loved but she has her reasons; Mira, Thorn’s new editor, who gives Thorn a good run for her money when it comes to dry one-liners; Lottie, Thorn’s neighbour, a Holocaust survivor and secret dope smoker and who is more like a mother figure than Nancy; Lottie’s niece, Jemima, disapproving and disappointed.

She turned an accusing eye on me. ‘The media have a great deal to answer for in all of this, affording celebrity status to people whose main contribution to society is putting their heads in a tank of maggots. My Year Fives thought Florence Nightingale was a contestant on Love Island.’

‘I only recently found out that a Kardashian isn’t a rifle,’ Lottie said, and finished her gin.

Desperation and alcohol lead Thorn to make up a story using a photo snapped on Hampstead Heath curtesy of her still friendly ex-husband, Nick.  Suddenly the world is sharing and retweeting her story about The Angel of the Heath, a flame haired apparition on the Viaduct Bridge, who had recently turned Thorn’s head rescuing her neighbour’s dog.

Lies pile up on top of lies as Thorn digs a hole from which it seems impossible to extricate herself. She has only herself to blame, and pours out her story to Nick and Lottie. She learns the hard way that getting the best story isn’t the only thing in life.

While there’s a good deal of desperation, Thorn is such a likeably difficult character and a dry, dark humour bubbles through every sentence. Thorn grows from someone who only lived for her job to someone who learns to love not only others but herself. But it’s never treacly or too serious and the ending is superb.

I loved On Hampstead Heath, but then I’ve always really enjoyed Cobbold’s books. But it has been a long stretch between the new book and her last one – ten years in fact. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long for her next novel. On Hampstead Heath gets a four and a half out of five from me.

New Books for the Must-Read Pile

Here are the books I can’t wait to get my hands on in the coming weeks.

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale
One of my favourite authors, Gale is such an empathetic writer who also captures the little details that create such interesting and well-rounded characters. Throw in a decent helping of humour and you’ve got the perfect novel in my book. Here, the mother’s boy of the title is Charles, the son of two people caught up in World War I, a war that ultimately takes his father. The relationship of the boy and mother is a key part of the story. Charles appears to have an exceptionally gifted mind, but that’s not all he has to deal with as another war looms. I loved Gale’s historical novel, A Town Called Winter and this one has already had some glowing reviews..

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett
I really enjoyed The Appeal, an original and beguiling mystery novel which came out last year. Clearly this is an author with a terrific imagination and the new book looks similarly intriguing. We’ve got mysterious annotations in a children’s book by a disgraced author that could be a secret code. There’s a forty-year-old disappearance and the ex-con who connects the two and who is determined to solve the mystery – only there’s something that he can’t quite remember. What can it all mean? Definitely I’ll have to read on to find out.

The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller
Miller writes such a variety of books including historical novels, contemporary fiction, and a huge variety of settings. They don’t come along all that often, but they’re always worth waiting for. Here we’ve got a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild his life in Somerset and in particular his relationship with his daughter. He’s an ex-soldier and his story involves atrocities that happened in Northern Ireland and an enquiry that threatens his future with her. Miller’s last book was At Last We Shall Be Entirely Free, which won the Highland Prize, so I will be keen to read this one when it comes out in March.

The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
It wouldn’t be a reading year without a new Ruth Galloway novel. If you haven’t discovered this series you have treats in store, particularly if you like atmospheric and witty mysteries with a dash of romance. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk and the new book has her chum, DCI Nelson, looking for a killer when a Covid lockdown hits. I enjoy the characters in this series so much – Ruth’s matter-of-fact intelligence and Nelson’s blunt Yorkshire demeanour are always a delight. Throw in an archaeological setting and some twisty plotting and you have the perfect mystery read.

French Braid by Anne Tyler
Mercy Garrett is determined to eliminate clutter from her life, gradually moving into her studio now that her kids are grown up. But the clutter of family life and all the related memories are hard to ignore, particularly one holiday in 1959 that has generated ongoing repercussions for the Garretts. Sounds like we’re in classic Anne Tyler territory here: the people and random events that create a family history, told with humour and kindness. I’m always in my happy place with Tyler and can’t wait to see this one when it comes out in March.

Violeta by Isabel Allende
I so loved Allende’s last book, A Long Petal of the Sea, my first ever Allende, having avoided her for years thinking she only wrote magic realism. Obviously I’ve since had to revise my understanding. Violeta lives through the major events of the twentieth century – kicking off with the Spanish flu, the disastrous effects of the Great Depression, and a world war to name but three. What promises to make the book so appealing is the character of Violeta, who according to the blurb is passionate, determined and blessed with a sense of humour. I’m sure I’m going to love this one.

Book Review: Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – an atmospheric and psychological story set in rural Wiltshire

I’ve had my eye out for this book ever since it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Unsettled Ground is the story of twins, Jeanie and Julius Seeder, who at fifty-one are still living at home with their mother, Dot, when she suddenly dies. All at once they have to figure out what to do, how to manage. Dot obviously took care of the family finances, but the cake tin that stored all their cash, from Julius’s odd jobbing and the women’s piecemeal market gardening, is virtually empty. Their electricity has been disconnected because of unpaid bills, then Jeanie discovers even more debts, to say nothing of the funeral costs.

Unfinished schooling, a basic, almost off-the-grid lifestyle and a lack of real-world experience mean the twins struggle to figure out how to make ends meet or get the help they need. Jeanie is barely literate, while Julius was traumatised when his father was killed in a farming accident, which means he can’t travel by car without motion sickness. Bridget, their mother’s old friend grudgingly drives Jeanie to appointments while pouring out unwanted advice. When their landlord’s wife issues an eviction notice unless arrears in rent of thousands of pounds are paid off, things are desperate indeed.

The plot pulls you in from the start as curve-ball after curve-ball are lobbed the twins’ way. You read on hoping they make a break from the past to find some happiness. Or, at 51, is it too late? Julius has always resented the need to stay, his mother, Dot, using Jeanie’s fragile health to keep him around. Dot had always felt that making music, gardening and living off the land were all that anybody needed, creating a small family sanctuary. But all it does is fill the twins with mistrust towards the agencies that might help them and the bullying they received at school casts a long shadow.

Told from Jeanie and Julius’s point of view, you have immense sympathy for these characters, while getting a taste of what it’s like to live in a small, insular community that isn’t always kind. And at the heart of it all are one or two family secrets that will overturn everyone’s assumptions. It’s an interesting psychological study of maternal love, guilt and fear inspired by ignorance. The setting of rural Wiltshire during a cold snap in spring is an evocative background – you get the sense of nature in all its glory, ready to invade, to rot and overrun.

It’s a bit like there are two sides to everything here – the good and the bad: the good side of mothering and the dark turn it can take; of neighbours, of nature and of love. It’s a powerful story that gives you lots to think about as well as a cracking good read, with more than a hint of the old adage: be careful what you wish for. The saving grace for the twins is music, peppering the story with old folk songs that Dot has passed on to her children. Claire Fuller used a playlist while writing the book which she describes here on her website. This is my first novel by Claire Fuller, and I am sure it won’t be my last. Unsettled Ground earns a four out of five from me.