I’m moving to the countryside!

Image Credit: Chris Johnson

Image Credit: Chris Johnson

Sorry for the lack of posts recently – I’m busy planning a move to the countryside!

We’re hoping to move from a busy town in Surrey, to a quiet village in rural Worcestershire. It’s a massive change for us, so we’re spending lots of time researching the area. I’m afraid I haven’t read a single book this year, but will hopefully return with the occasional book review before too long. Wish me luck!

Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis

Death and Mr Pickwick Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: London, homage, Dickensian, history, ideas

Death and Mr Pickwick was the most atmospheric book I read last year. It was an immersive read, capturing life exactly as it was during Dickensian times. It purports to tell the story of the real Mr Pickwick, showing how Dickens changed the truth when writing his famous novel. I haven’t read The Pickwick Papers, and have no idea whether Stephen Jarvis has discovered the real story, but I don’t think this matters. It was a fascinating book that entertained me for many hours.

Death and Mr Pickwick was incredibly well researched. The wealth of information present in this book was outstanding and I discovered many new things about this period of time. The descriptions were vivid throughout and I loved the way that everything was described in detail – enabling the reader to form a complete picture of the surroundings:

Whole sides of pig hung from the hooks on the long sheds, and there was the smell of boiling meat. Stray dogs, driven wild with temptation, befriended the market workers, sniffing their aprons which were soiled green-brown with hay and grass, an animal’s last meal before slaughter. There was the sound of sawing and steel being sharpened. On the tripe stalls, black beetles fought for territory with the flies. At the rear of a shed, a ragged collection of men and women queued to collect a pint of tripe broth, theirs for the flourish of a jug.

It’s realism occasionally became frustrating, as there were meandering diversions to the central story-line. Some were as engaging as the central plot, but a few fell flat and seemed unnecessary. The style isn’t for everyone and those looking for a plot driven novel should stay away. But, if you like a truly immersive novel, one that takes you down numerous side alleys without caring whether or not the loose ends are tied up, then this is for you. 

This book wasn’t a quick read. The period detail and the numerous diversions from the central plot made it feel much longer than the 800 page brick it already was.  It was so rich in detail that I couldn’t read much at once. This meant it took me several months to complete, and I felt a real sense of achievement when I actually did. 

I loved the originality of the premise and the way it seemed to defy all common conventions on novel writing. It felt different from anything else I’ve read recently and so I recommend it to anyone (with patience) who is interested in Victorian England.

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Farm Lane Book Awards 2015

2015 has been a fantastic year for books – especially if you like chunksters as much as I do! All my favourite reads this year have had a massive amount of pages – they may require a big investment of time, but they are worth it.

Here are a selection of my favourites, with award categories invented to ensure I mention all the books I that I enjoyed the most:

Book of the Year: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

This book deserves all the hype it’s received. It is gripping throughout and packed with emotion. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this cast of characters.

Most Underrated Book: I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

I Am Radar

I Am Radar should have been showered with awards. It is one of the most intelligent books I’ve ever read and deserves much more attention than it’s received so far. Hopefully this will change when the paperback is released in March.

Best Memoir: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Home is Burning

Terminal illnesses have never been so funny! If you can cope with the coarse language, this book will give you an incredible insight into how one family coped with a terrible situation.

Most Atmospheric Book: Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis

Death and Mr Pickwick

If you enjoy reading about Dickensian England, this is for you! You can almost smell those dirty London streets.

Most Disappointing Release: The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts

The Mountain Shadow

Shantaram is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Unfortunately the sequel isn’t in the same league and actually makes the original seem worse than it is. I recommend avoiding it!

Funniest scene: Pigs in Clover by Simon Dawson

 Pigs in Clover: Or How I Accidentally Fell in Love with the Good Life

This book is packed with funny anecdotes, but the electric fence/testicle incident had me smiling for days!

Most original premise: Blackass by A Igoni Barrett

Blackass

A black man wakes up to discover that every inch of his skin has turned white, with the exception of his bottom. This satire of race relations in Nigeria makes some very important points, but is also very funny. It deserves more attention that it has received so far.

Special Mention: All Involved by Ryan Gattis

All Involved

Parts of this book were very disturbing, but it does a fantastic job of explaining why people are drawn into violence. It’s one of the most important releases of the year.

Special Author Award: Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami continues to produce excellent books. Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage is one of his more realistic stories, but retains the magic of his observational skills. Especially recommended to those who have lost contact with old friends.

Best New Children’s Character: Squirrel Boy

Squirrel Boy vs the Bogeyman

Fast paced and funny, Squirrel Boy is a fantastic creation. My boys (8 and 10) were captivated by him!

Books Published in Previous Years

It would be a shame to forget books released in previous years, so here are a few of the best from the back catalogue:

Best Audio Book: The Martian by Andy Weir (Audio Book)

The Martian

It combines comedy and science with real tension. One of the best audio books I’ve ever listened to.

Best Survival Story: Into That Forest by Louis Nowra

Into That Forest

This book about children being brought up by Tasmanian tigers is atmospheric and emotional. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about the natural world.

Most Inspiring Book: Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius

Ghost Boy

This is one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever read. If you ever feel that you can’t achieve your dreams, read this and you’ll see that nothing is impossible –  if you want it enough.

Weirdest Book: Strangers by Taichi Yamada 

Strangers 

I love the strangeness of Japanese fiction – you never know exactly what will happen next. This is one of the best example of its genre. Highly recommended!

Have you read any of these books?

Which were you favourite reads in 2015?

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.

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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.

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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.

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