The Castle of Inside Out by David Henry Wilson

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: starving, fumes, selfish, resources, save

The Castle of Inside Out is a children’s book that deals with issues of greed, inequality and pollution. I read it to my two boys (aged 9 and 11) and was impressed by the way it got them to think about the complexity of these issues. It made them realise that some people (and businesses) benefit from creating lots of pollution and it isn’t easy to get them to change their ways.

The book begins with Lorina, a school girl, following a black rabbit into a magical land; where she discovers a population of starving green people. She befriends them and discovers they are used as slaves by the rich society, who live in a large castle nearby. Appalled by the conditions they are forced to live in, she decides to head to the castle in order to negotiate a better life for the green people.

The book lacked the subtlety required for a entertaining adult book. It was packed with heavy metaphors and the character names (His Porkship, The Piggident, and the bureaurat) were often eye-rollingly cringe-worthy, but my boys found them hilarious. The chatty tone engaged them throughout and they loved the vivid imagery of each scene:

“Help them? Help them? Because, my dear little girl,” said the pig, “it’s none of my business. Whether they starve or don’t starve is their concern, not mine. My concern is money. The cashiest, coiniest, notiest concern in the world. Now pass me my bathrabbit, will you?”
He pointed towards the door, and there, hanging on a hook, was a large white rabbit.

The Castle of Inside Out is a very important book and I think it would be especially useful for schools looking for material to discuss climate change. Children probably won’t grasp all the concepts without explanation, so I recommend reading this aloud with them – that way you’ll also benefit from seeing them laugh at the bizarre scenes.

Recommended to children between the ages of 8 and 12.

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Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: truth, friendship, island, murder, memory

Lie With Me is the best thriller I’ve read in years! It was so compelling and clever that I’ll be pushing it into the hands of every friend who asks me for a book recommendation this year.

The story begins with Paul, a struggling author, meeting an old friend in a bookshop. They arrange to meet at a party and Paul decides to re-integrate himself with this successful friendship group in order to gain enough favours to solve his spiralling financial problems. Paul lies about his success to impress everyone at the party, embellishing details about his life. His plan appears to work when he finds himself being invited on a holiday to a small Greek island, but unfortunately everything goes wrong when the group gets caught up in the investigation of a murder that took place on the island many years ago.

Paul was a fantastic character. He was cruel and manipulative, but it was easy to see why he acted in this way. By the end of the book I even had some sympathy for him – I love books that can make me feel that way about such an evil character.

‘It’s hard, isn’t it, living with privilege? She gestured to the flat, the art work, the items of mid-century furniture, the shelves of books. ‘Do you ever feel guilty at how easy it all is, how much people like us have been given on a plate by our parents?’
I felt another tight spasm in my chest, a need to tell her how it wasn’t, what a struggle it had been not to lead the life of my parents, how I had always hated the smallness of their ambition, their willingness to settle with meekness and mediocrity.

The plot was very well structured. It was a bit slow in the beginning, but I was impressed by the layers of detail and way everything escalated. By the last third I was so engrossed I couldn’t put it down, finishing it in one late night sitting.

This book isn’t perfect, but the clever plotting and beautifully flawed characters make up for any deficiencies. I’ll be thinking about the issues raised in this book for a long time.

If you’re after a gripping thriller to read on holiday this year, I highly recommend Lie With Me.

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The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker

 Source: Personal copy

Five words from the blurb: chickens, memoir, Deep South, fruit, experience

The Color Purple is an outstanding book and I currently have an obsession with chickens, so there was no way I could resist buying The Chicken Chronicles when I spotted it in a bookshop. I hadn’t heard of it before, but sadly there is good reason this book is never mentioned. I doubt it would have been published if it hadn’t been written by a literary legend.

The Chicken Chronicles is a slim book in which Alice Walker writes about what happens to her chickens each day. Unfortunately chickens lead a dull life and I was quickly bored by the repetitive descriptions of them walking round her yard looking for food.

I also found the overly sentimental tone annoying. The continual “Mommy loves you” aspect of the text felt weird and managed to turn even the most beautifully written sentence into a cloying sentiment:

Mommy has always thought chickens have a look of erudition; but by now you have a look that is practically professorial. Fleeting, I admit, because usually you are on your way to devouring something: greens, grains, or bugs. But it is there, that look of high intelligence, and Mommy appreciates it.

The additional problem was that Alice Walker’s life during this period of time seemed fascinating, but she left out everything that was interesting. There would be one sentence about returning from visiting the Dalai Lama and then it would go straight back into a description of how shiny corn is. I wanted to know all about her journeys, not how many eggs she ate each day. It’s a shame because she is such an amazing writer and chickens can be entertaining subjects.

I recommend avoiding this one and reading The Color Purple instead.

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I notice that Alice Walker has written a lot of books. Are any of her others worth reading?

 

Mr Eternity by Aaron Thier

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Defoe, climate, change, exploration, absurdities

Mr Eternity is a bizarre book following the life of an immortal Daniel Defoe. It is set in 1560, 2016 and 2500 and shows how climate change destroys life as we know it.

I initially loved this book – its messages on climate change were powerful and having a single person live through these 1000 tumultuous years highlighted the differences/problems with society at each time point. Defoe’s mis-remembering of history also provided many opportunities for amusement and this brought up thought provoking questions about the way we recall past events.

The three eras each had their own specific dialect, which seemed convincing. Some readers may struggle to adapt to the changing tone, but I thought it worked really well. I especially liked the way that the people in the future highlighted how selfishly we treat the Earth’s resources and how good we have it now:

Tell me of New York I said it were a great city once that were plain. He said yes okay well there was Hurricane Devaun and the later the sea come up also there was drought everywhere too many people too many factors everyone in New York starved it were beyond belief. I said he did not understand me I did not mean stories like that but stories of the very good days when every man were a king with air condition Ferrari electronic lights ice cream toothpaste footballs steamy media.

In many ways Mr Eternity reminded me of books by David Mitchell – especially Ghostwritten. They share the same writing quality and insightful observations of humanity. The only real difference is that Thier’s books don’t contain any Japanese influence, concentrating instead on Western mythology.

Unfortunately the book failed to carry it’s impressive power through to the second half. It seemed to repeat itself and it had no plot to pull all the threads together. I longed for something to make me care about Defoe, or any of the other characters. Instead the reader remains a passive observer of the destruction, feeling no emotion at the terrible things happening everywhere.

Overall this book has much to recommend it. I’m sure that many people will love it, especially those who don’t need a strong plot, and I hope that the messages about our current abuse of the world are heard by a wide audience.

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Miss Jane by Brad Watson

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: deformity, isolated, rural, community, acceptance

Miss Jane is a powerful story about a woman growing up in rural Mississippi at the beginning of the 20th century. Jane is born with a genital deformity that causes her to be incontinent. The book shows how this isolates her from society and how she comes to terms with her condition.

It was beautifully written and felt authentically of-it’s time. It reminded me of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a book written during this period (and one of my all-time favourites). The plot was simple and the pace of the book was slow, but this didn’t matter as I was captivated by the atmospheric detail of day-to-day life in this rural community.

Miss Jane captured the coming-of-age experience. It was packed with emotion and I felt I completely understood Jane’s predicament. The nature of her deformity meant that there were some explicit passages in the book, but these were all relevant to the plot, and perfectly captured the difficulty faced by teenagers trying understanding what is normal – especially in a time before the Internet, or even books, were easily available.

Despite Jane’s isolation, she began to be interested in boys. It was a slow. gradual accretion, this new awareness. Of boys as boys, that is, strange creatures, like another species retaining the general physical qualities of her own but with hidden secrets, secret differences.

I particularly liked the way the book forced the reader to think about the important things in life and how much a person’s happiness relies on conforming with society’s “norms”.

Miss Jane was different from anything I’ve read before. Its absorbing, original narrative meant it ended up becoming my favourite novel of 2016. I highly recommend it!

Farm Lane Book Awards 2016

2016 has been a busy year for me, so I haven’t read as much as usual. I did read a few fantastic books, so here are a selection of my favourites – with award categories invented to ensure I mention all the ones I that I enjoyed the most:

Best Novella:

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

This book may be short, but it manages to pack an incredible amount of emotion and detail between its covers. It chronicles the life of one man living in a remote mountain valley, showing how things change with the introduction of paved roads, cars and hotels.

Best Novel:

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

This atmospheric story about a woman growing up with a genital deformity was beautifully written and thought provoking. I’ll write a full review soon!

Best Debut:

The Good Guy by Susan Beale

A simple but, compelling story that plunges you back into the 1960s.

Best Non Fiction:
 

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

Insightful book about psychological illness. This important subject deserves a wider audience.

Best Nature Writing:

The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy

A  joyful book, encouraging us to appreciate the beauty of the nature around us.

Most memorable scene:

Invasion by Luke Rhinehart

I won’t forget the giant hairy beach-balls hacking into the US government!

Best Satire:

Blackass by A Igoni Barrett

Thought provoking look at racial prejudice in Nigeria.

Did you enjoy any of these books?

Which were your favourites in 2016?