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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The Good Guy by Susan Beale

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: marriage, deception, suburban, New England, intentions

The Good Guy is a fantastic debut. It is packed with passion and emotion; an example of what happens when an author has a personal story that they just have to write about.

The Good Guy is set in 1960s New England and is based on the author’s family history. It shows how Ted, a loving husband, becomes involved with another woman. The way society treated divorcees, single parents, and those who’ve had affairs was examined; giving an impressive insight into the culture of the era.

I loved the period detail. Events, like buying their first colour television set, were fascinating to me. I wasn’t born until the late 70s so it was interesting to discover their attitude to objects that we now take for granted. I suspect that those who did live through this decade will enjoy reminiscing about trying things like fondue for the first time and buying “bold orange and olive-green furnishings”!

I was also impressed by the structure of the novel – especially the way alternate chapters were written from the male and female perspective. This showed how misunderstandings in a relationship occur and allowed the reader to bond with all the characters involved. Many parts of the book reminded me of Night Waking by Sarah Moss, in that they showed the difficulties and isolation of childcare. It was interesting to compare the two books, showing what has (and hasn’t!) changed in the last 50 years.

Mindy scooped water up. Her face was bathe in confusion, as if she couldn’t understand why it dripped away. She tried again and again, pressing her hands together, closing the gaps between her fingers but the water always found its way out. Mindy’s brow furrowed in frustration that Abigail understood perfectly. It was just like her battle with the housework – every day, an endless to-do list of cooking, cleaning, laundry and grocery shopping. She never stopped and yet always, at the end of the day, her hands were empty.

My only problem with the novel was that it was too predictable. It accurately showed the way people reacted, and I admired the way the plot stayed focused, but I’d have liked to see a few additional story elements to complicate things a bit.

Overall this was an impressive piece of fiction. It perfectly captured 1960s suburban life and I look forward to watching this author’s career develop over the coming years.

 

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels by Dimitri Verhulst

   Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Five words from the blurb: Jesus, Belgium, publicity, welcoming, committee

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is a novella that satirises modern society by imaging what would happen if Jesus Christ were to announce his second-coming. It shows the way authorities would panic at the thought of the global media descending, the fights over who would be able to meet Jesus, and the way the public react to this happy news.

I was worried that this book might be overly religious, or offensive in some way. Luckily it was neither – it simply mocked our way of life, particularly the political system.

It was hardly surprising: everyone of any name or fame was dying to be photographed next to a man who shared his DNA with Gold Almighty. Any deeds of nobility that could be conjured up were worthwhile; there was no arse so filthy it wasn’t worth kissing; no pride too small or too big that it couldn’t be pushed aside to clear the way for some craven toadying.

I loved the informal, chatty style of writing and the way the narrator directly addressed the reader. It would probably grate over a longer book, but was perfect for this novella.

My only problem was that some references to the Belgium political system went over my head. I think I got the general gist of these jokes, but suspect that anyone familiar with the country would enjoy it even more.

Christ’s Entry Into Brussels is a short, but entertaining book and I look forward to investigating Dimitri Verhulst’s other books.

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March/April Summary and Plans for May

I got my reading mojo back recently and have read a lot in the last few weeks. This is mainly because we still haven’t sold our house, so we’re in a boring limbo which involves lots of cleaning and sitting around whilst people wander around our house. Hopefully someone will buy it soon so that we can move onto the next stage of our lives.

Books of the Month

There were two stand-out books this month:

I highly recommend reading both of them!

Books reviewed in March/April

It’s All In Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan 

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler  

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot 

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave  

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent 

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins 

Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld, Illustrated by Joe Sumner 

The Villa Rouge by Maggie Ross 

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla 

Shtum by Jem Lester 

His Whole Life by Elizabeth Hay 

Stork Mountain by Mirislav Penkov 

Black Milk by Elif Shafak 

The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant by Pablo Tusset 

When the Floods Came by Clare Morrall 

Plans For May

I’m hoping that I’ll continue to read regularly and plan to read/review most of the following books soon:

Walkabout by James Vance Marshall

Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

The War Of The Worlds by HG Wells

Christ’s Entry into Brussels by Dimitri Verhulst

Marching Powder by Rusty Young

The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

I’ll also pick up a few random books from my shelves. Hopefully I’ll discover a gem or two. Have a wonderful May!