Books in Brief: The Little White Horse, Neurotribes and The Getting of Wisdom

The Little White Horse Source: Library

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge 

Five words from the blurb: orphan, happiness, scary, valley, magical

I picked up a copy of this book after seeing an interview in which JK Rowling named it as one of her childhood favourites. The story follows Maria, a young girl forced to move onto her uncle’s country estate after being orphaned. The suggestions of enchanted creatures in the woods were intriguing and I initially loved the vivid descriptions, but unfortunately I lost interest as the book progressed. The plot meandered around and I became bored by Maria’s actions. The length of the descriptive passages became overwhelming and I failed to become emotionally invested in the story.

It was interesting to see how some aspects of this book may have inspired the Harry Potter series, but it wasn’t worth reading for this alone.  I think this is a book you need to read as a child as it doesn’t stand up to adult scrutiny.


Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently Source: Library

Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

Five words from the blurb: autism, history, surprising, people, understanding

Neurotribes came to my attention when it won the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize. I am intrigued by all books about autism so immediately requested a copy from my local library.

Neurotribes is a comprehensive investigation into the history of autism. It explains everything from the evidence that several historical figures had the condition, through early research and the first diagnosis, to the present day in which the autism community is able to thrive in the on-line environment.

The book was very easy to read, with sound research backing up each section. My excessive reading on the subject of autism meant that little was new to me, but I admired the way everything was brought together in one volume. This book doesn’t provide any practical advice on helping those with autism, but it is a fascinating insight into how our knowledge has grown in recent times. I especially appreciated the positive themes of neurodiversity that run through this book and recommend Neurotribes to anyone interested in how thoughts on autism have changed over the years.


Getting of Wisdom, The (Text Classics) Source: Library

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry (Ethel) Handel Richardson 

Five words from the blurb: Australian, school, girl, precocious, accepted

The Getting of Wisdom is an Australian classic, first published in 1910. It follows 12-year-old Laura as she heads to boarding school for the first time. The book deals with issues of acceptance and shows the complexities of emotion involved in growing up.

Laura was a fantastic character and I loved her bold enthusiasm. Her laughter was infectious and I admired the realism of the adult-child relationships. Unfortunately the plot was a bit slow/meandering and much of it was predictable. It was fascinating to read this so soon after The Little White Horse, as they had a lot in common.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys reading older books, especially ones involving boarding schools.


Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Home is Burning Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: dying, parents, motor neurone disease, cancer, hilarious

Home is Burning is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. It is a brutally honest description of what it is like to look after someone who is terminally ill. It manages to combine the grief and horror of the situation with humour, showing that love can survive the harshest of trials.

Dan Marshall was only twenty-five when he moved back into his parental home in order to care for his dad, who was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease. His mother had been battling cancer for 15 years, so was unable to cope with the strains of caring for her husband on her own. Dan left his friends and career behind, putting his life on hold to spend as much time as possible with his father. This book describes the roller coaster of emotions as one family try to cope with an incredibly difficult situation.

Home is Burning was shocking in its honesty. I was impressed by the way Dan Marshall included the details of his flawed personality, whilst simultaneously amazed that his family allowed him to reveal their innermost secrets. It is rare to see someone’s true thoughts and feelings, not only about their resentment of being forced into a caring role, but also about their stormy relationship with other family members.

This book won’t appeal to everyone – there was a lot of coarse language, a sprinkling of drug taking, and numerous sexual references. The black comedy was extreme, but the situation faced by the family mirrored this. I found myself laughing out loud almost all the way through this book – a bizarre thing to do when reading about terminal illness.

“Pee” meant he had to urinate. We’d grab the bedside urinal, get his cock out, and he’d have a little piss right there and then. We also kept some Kleenex beside for the wipe up. The urine would be dumped on my sleeping mother. Just kidding. It would go in the toilet with any used Kleenex. We’d flush and wash our hands.

Most memoirs of this kind concentrate on the grief and difficulty of day-to-day life, but this book went further than any I’ve ever read. It gave a complete picture of this entire family, dealing with problems as diverse as autism, drug taking, adoption and homosexuality. It didn’t hesitate to show their personality flaws, or their disagreements with neighbours. I loved seeing how Dan’s siblings interacted with each other – they continually wound each other up and it was fascinating to see how this helped and hindered their situation. 

I must also praise the structure of this book. Memoirs can often lose their power because of their linear nature, but it was skilfully arranged so that key facts were revealed sporadically, maintaining interest throughout. The book also contained a lot of wisdom, and it brought home the harsh reality of our short lives. 

When we’re born, life is really simple. It’s all about keeping stress to a minimum. As we grow into adulthood, we just complicate our lives with junk: kids, mortgages, marriages, cars, insurance, jobs, drugs, stairs. As we head for death it is all about making things simple again. No more stairs. Big, safe, easy-to-drive cars. We only engage in a few simple, mindless activities that relax the brain. No jobs. No sex. No problems.

Overall, I cannot praise this book enough. It was refreshing in its honesty. If you can stomach the sexual innuendos, you’ll find yourself reading one of the most accurate depictions of a modern family ever written. I laughed and I cried, and I will remember this family forever.


News From Nowhere by William Morris

News from Nowhere and Other Writings (Penguin Classics) Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: society, Utopia, Thames, visitor, future

The News From Nowhere was published in 1890 and is a fascinating insight into what Victorians imagined life would be like at the end of the 20th century. The book’s narrator, William Guest, falls asleep in 1890 and wakes up a hundred years later. He is amazed by the differences in society and it was interesting to see which things he predicted successfully, and which he was way off the mark!

The future is depicted as a Utopian society in which everyone works for the benefit of their neighbours: 

It is said that in the early days of our epoch there were a good many people who were hereditary afflicted with a disease called Idleness, because they were the direct descendants of those who in the bad times used to force other people to work for them.

Resources are so plentiful that there is no need for money and every child is educated by their parents. Technology was notable by its absence and it was amusing to see that everyone still travelled around on horseback. 

It wasn’t the easiest text to read, but the reward justified the effort. Much of the writing reminded me oThree Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome, as it had the same light humor and plentiful references to the River Thames. But is also delved into more complex issues, some of which went over my head. 

Unfortunately Morris’ predictions for the future failed to come true. We’re stuck in our viscous cycle of consumerism, but it’s nice to have a glimpse into an alternate version of society. Recommended to anyone looking for something a bit different.


The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts

The Mountain Shadow Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: Bombay, forgery, gangs,friends, violence

Shantaram is one of my favourite books so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. Unfortunately The Mountain Shadow isn’t in the same league and actually highlighted the flaws of its predecessor, making both books appear worse than they really are.

The Mountain Shadow begins where Shantaram left off. It is set almost entirely in Bombay and follows Lin through his underground life, which mainly revolves around forgery and mafia gangs. It has the same cast of wonderfully eclectic characters and it was good to see what had happened to them all, but I occasionally lost track of who some of them were!

The main problem was that the plot wasn’t as interesting as Shantaram’s. There was still the odd adventure, but it didn’t feel as exciting as first time round – I’d read similar stories before and could almost predict their outcome. It also lacked the goodness of the first book. I loved the way Lin’s character could never be defined as evil because he kept doing wonderful things – setting up the medical centre in the slums, for example. This time he appeared more criminal and so I didn’t warm to him as much.

I loved the flowery descriptions contained in Shantaram, but they began to annoy me in The Mountain Shadow. I’m not sure if this is because they were more prevalent, or I didn’t have the gripping plot to distract me. The story seemed to meander all over the place so the lack of narrative drive probably compounded this problem.

Love unlived is a sin against life, and mourning is one of the ways we love. I felt it then, and I let it happen, the longing for him to return. The power in his eyes, and the pride when I did something he admired, and the love in his laugh. The longing: the longing for the lost.

There were some great sections in this book, but on reflection I wish I hadn’t read it. Shantaram is an amazing book, but this one diluted its power. 



September/October Summary and Plans for November

The summer was so busy that I didn’t read much, but things have been a lot quieter since my boys returned to school. This means I’m back to my usual level of reading and am getting through the stacks again. I’ve read a nice selection of books, but my favourite read, by a long margin, was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I think it will be difficult to find a better book this year. In fact I don’t think I’ve read another book with such an intensity of emotion. I highly recommend you give it a try!

Book of the Month:

A Little Life

Books Reviewed in September/October:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler 

The Utopia Experiment by Dylan Evans 

Educating Ruby by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas 

Every Boy Should Have a Man by Preston L Allen 

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg 

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh 

Soil by Jamie Kornegay 

Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks 

The First Bad Man by Miranda July 

Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel 

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas 

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff 

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand 

Plans for November

I’ve recently finished the following books and hope to review them soon:

News from Nowhere by William Morris

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts

I then plan to read most of these:

Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Black Milk by Elif Shafak

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

The Postman by David Brin

I hope you have a wonderful November!

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler

The Mountain and the Valley by Ernest Buckler (Jan 26 2010) Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: boy, family, world, awakening, growth

The Mountain and the Valley is a classic piece of Canadian literature, but is virtually unheard of in the UK. It was brought to my attention by David, a regular commenter on this blog. He persuaded me to give it a try, so I imported a copy from Canada. I can see why it is a treasured piece of Canadian literature (and why it is frequently on their school curriculum) but I fear it may be too depressing for some readers.

The book is a coming-of-age story which follows David as he grows up in a small Nova Scotian village at the beginning of the 20th century. It perfectly captures a child’s changing attitude to the world; showing how the innocence of childhood is lost as the difficulties of adulthood are slowly revealed.

I loved the first half of this book – the characters developed into engaging, but flawed, individuals and I was completely drawn into their difficult lives. It contained wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of life in this isolated community – I especially enjoyed reading about how they hunted, bartered, and supported others in times of hardship.

The writing quality was excellent throughout. Some might complain that the pace is too slow, but I was impressed by the vivid descriptions and the insight into the human psyche:

Each year marks the tree with another ring, the cow’s horn with another wrinkle. But until you were twenty, you were not marked. If one day was lost, the others closed over it so quickly that, looking back, there was a continuous surface. Everything was this side of the future. It was only when you thought back to the way you’d done the same thing you were doing now, in another year, that you could see any change in yourself.

Unfortunately the tone of the book became increasingly dark as it progressed. The unrelenting misery became overwhelming and I longed for the carefree happiness of childhood to return. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I wish the ending had been different.

Overall, this was an impressive book. It deserves a wider audience outside Canada and I hope that my review persuades a few more people to give it a try.