Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: family, camp, behaviour, menacing, changes

The Nobodies Album was my favourite read of 2010, so I jumped at the chance to receive a proof copy of her new novel from the publishers. The fact Harmony deals with the issues faced by families living with autism only added to the appeal, as I have a son with Asperger’s and like to read as many books on the condition as possible.

Harmony is set in a “family camp” where people are encouraged to live away from the distractions of modern life. In natural woodland surroundings, families work through the behavioural problems that their children are experiencing. The book focuses on Tilly, a thirteen year-old girl with autism, and her family. I particularly liked the way the thoughts of her eleven-year-old sister were included, as it is rare to see the impact that autism has on a sibling so accurately portrayed.

Sometimes, I wish I could be inside her head, just to see what it’s like. But I guess that being inside her head would also mean all the other stuff, like forgetting to eat with a fork sometimes and freaking out when you lose a pen, because maybe you’ll never find it, maybe it’s not under the couch or in some other room that you carried it into when you weren’t paying attention. Maybe nothing is the way it’s supposed to be, and maybe the pen is just freaking gone.

Harmony has a much simpler plot than The Nobodies Album, but it maintains her flair for accurately capturing the emotion and the complexity of thought that people experience throughout their everyday lives. The details of living with an autistic child were brutally honest, but never sensationalist. It is one of the most accurate depictions of autism I’ve seen in fiction (other great ones include Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon and Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork).

I also need to point out the amazing epilogue in Harmony. Anyone who has a child who is different from society’s norm needs to read it. It is one of the most beautiful explanations of the beauty present in every child I’ve ever read. I wish it could be reproduced independently, so a greater number of people could read it. I suspect it would go viral.

On top of these realistic descriptions of family life the book also contained darker undercurrents. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing any more, but I loved the unsettling nature of these elements.

Overall I was very impressed by Harmony. It doesn’t quite match The Nobodies Album in depth or cleverness, but it is well worth a read – especially if you have an interest in autism.

 

I’ve moved to Worcestershire!

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Sorry it’s been quiet on the blog for a while – I’ve been busy moving to Worcestershire.

I’ve now got Internet (after a few strangely peaceful weeks without it) and have settled the children into their new schools. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back into reading and have a few reviews here soon.

 

The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy

 Source: Personal Copy

Shortlisted for 2016 Wainwright Prize

Five words from the blurb: nature, world, destroyed, beauty, sustainable

I have now read all the books on the 2016 Wainwright Prize shortlist and I certainly saved the best for last. The Moth Snowstorm is a beautifully written book which explains the crisis facing our planet. I like to think I am well informed about environmental issues, but many of the facts were new to me and some were disturbing in their magnitude.

It is extraordinary: we are wrecking the earth, as burglars will sometimes wantonly wreck a house. It is a strange and terrible moment in history. We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above and the ocean below and the soil at the centre and everything it supports; grabbing it, ripping it, scattering it, tearing at it, torching it, slashing at it, shitting on it

The Moth Snowstorm begins by explaining how the author fell in love with wildlife – particularly river estuaries. His descriptions were filled with passion and I admired the way he conveyed his joy at being surrounded by the natural world. His interest in wading birds enabled him to discover the crisis effecting estuaries around the world. Many are being destroyed for shipping and leisure purposes, but nobody seems to care much about these muddy flat lands. I was shocked to discover that South Korea recently built a sea wall 21 miles long, destroying the migratory feeding ground for 50 million birds.

The book also highlighted the massive reduction in the population numbers of everything from insects to wildflowers. McCarthy interviewed older people who recalled a time when wildlife was abundant. They described events such drivers stopping to clean their windscreen after driving through a cloud of moths. Sadly numbers have dropped so much that this rarely happens now. I especially liked the way that anecdotes like these were backed up with scientific data. This brought meaning to the tables of statistics, showing what large drops in population mean for our experience of the world.

Details of McCarthy’s private life were also included. These were beautifully written and only added to the emotional impact of the text.

The Moth Snowstorm could easily have become a depressing book, but instead it is a joyful one, encouraging us to appreciate the beauty of the nature around us. It is an inspiring call-to-arms and I hope that increased exposure for this book will raise awareness of the natural catastrophes that are happening globally right now. It deserves to win the 2016 Wainwright Prize and I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for it when the winner is revealed at Country File Live on Friday.

 

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

 Source: Library

Shortlisted for 2016 Wainwright’s Prize

Five words from the blurb: Lake District, farming, generations, sheep, land

James Rebanks is a farmer in the Lake District and his family have kept sheep on the fells for generations. This book explains what his life is like and how farming has changed over the centuries.

I lived in the Lake District for several years, so it was fascinating to discover what goes on behind the scenes. The places described were familiar to me and I loved learning more about the skills required to raise sheep successfully. Some people might find the detailed descriptions of sheep too much, but I was impressed by his passion and enthusiasm.

I also liked the more philosophical aspects of this book. Rebanks is a talented writer and he raised many interesting points about the lack of respect society gives to farmers and our attachment to their land:

It is a curious thing to slowly discover that your landscape is loved by other people. It is even more curious, and a little unsettling, when you discover by stages that you as a native are not really part of the story and meaning they attach to that place.

The only problem with the book was that some parts weren’t structured very well. It was fragmented in places, with random paragraphs inserted in unrelated sections. Sometimes they repeated what had already been covered; sometimes they simply threw the reader into a completely different time/place. It was disorientating and frustrating because this book could have been excellent given a bit more editing.

Overall, I recommend The Shepherd’s Life to anyone interested in the British countryside. It is an important book that records a wonderful, but sadly diminishing, way of life.

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The Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman

 Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: Guatemala, orphan, murder, corruption, friends

I bought this book because the title intrigued me and I hadn’t read a book set in Guatemala before. It is a long, slow read, but gives a good insight into the problems faced by those living in this country.

The story begins with us discovering what life is like for Roger, a child raised in Boston by his Guatemalan mother. The differences between the American and Guatemalan cultures were revealed and I discovered many facts I didn’t know:

Houses in Guatemala generally don’t have basements. It’s an earthquake country, so people aren’t going to rest an entire house over an abyss. During the rainy season basements would flood. In Guatemala City’s General Cemetery even the dead are buried aboveground, the rich in mausoleums the poor in long, high walls, coffins slid into them like cabinets, decorated with flowers and wreaths, Indian boys running around with rickety wooden ladders they rent for ten centavos to mourners who need to reach the top rows.

As Roger grows up he bonds with his maid, a Guatemalan orphan. One day she leaves to set up an orphanage in her own country. When Roger hears that she has been murdered he heads straight to the scene of the crime to discover what really happened to her.

The Long Night of White Chickens is a massive book. It took me over two months to complete as it is rich in detail and cannot be rushed. This means it occasionally felt frustratingly slow, but on reaching the end I was impressed by the accomplishment. It is an important book that raises more questions than answers; revealing layers of corruption and violence within a frightened society.

This book isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy detailed, meandering stories and would like to understand what it is really like to live in Guatemala then I think this is a great place to start.

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Walkabout by James Vance Marshall

 Source: Personal Copy

Five words from the blurb: Australia, outback, survival, Aboriginal, cultures

Walkabout is a classic book about two American children who become stranded in the Australian outback after a plane crash. They are rescued by an Aboriginal boy who teaches them how to survive in this difficult climate. It is a short, easy read that is written for children, but I think this powerful book deserves an adult audience too.

Walkabout was first published in 1959. It reads like an Australian classic, but was actually written by an English author who spent time studying the country. The descriptions of the Australian landscape were superb and I was particularly impressed by the details of the Aboriginal culture, many of which were new to me.

I read it to my sons (aged 8 and 10) and they both enjoyed it – particularly the scenes involving the Australian wildlife.

On the topmost branch of a gum tree that overhung the gully, there alighted a bird: a large, grey-backed bird, with tufted poll and outsized beak. Its eyes, swivelling separately, searched the gully for food; but instead of the hoped-for frog or snake sunning itself on the rock, it saw the children. The kookaburra was puzzled. The presence of these strange interlopers, it decided, deserved to be announced. It opened wide its beak, and a continuous flow of grating, melodious notes shattered the calm of the gully.

The overall message of the book is one of tolerance and understanding between different cultures, so it was useful to use this text to explain issues around racism. The only problem was the strength of language. I was quite shocked by some of it and deliberately toned down the racist language when reading this to my boys.

This is an atmospheric little book with a simple, but engaging story. I can see why it is a set text in many schools and recommend it to those who enjoy reading about the natural world.

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