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.
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 of Three 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.
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.
Five words from the blurb: India, slum, fugitive, prison, redemption
Shantaram is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is an amazing story and the fact that most of it actually happened makes it even more incredible. It may be long, but every single page is a joy to read and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Mountain Shadow, when it is released in October.
In 1980 Gregory David Roberts escaped from a high security prison in Australia. He travelled to India using a fake passport and hid from authorities in a Mumbai slum. Shantaram chronicles his adventures as he integrates with the local criminal community; learning how to make money and protect himself in this dangerous environment. He commits many crimes, but the most interesting aspects of the book were the good things he did – setting up a health clinic in the slum and going to extreme lengths to help those around him. This book will make you question the boundaries between right and wrong and to admire the strength of the human spirit.
When all the guilt and shame for the bad we have done have run their course, it is the good we did that can save us. But then, when salvation speaks, the secrets we kept, and the motives we concealed, creep from their shadows. They cling to us, those dark motives for our good deeds. Redemption’s climb is steepest if the good we did is soiled with secret shame.
Shantaram contains everything I like to see in a book – fantastic writing, a cast of well-rounded characters, a compelling plot, and thought-provoking moments of deeper contemplation. I was gripped throughout and found myself feeling sympathy for even the most notorious criminals. I loved the way everyone was deeply flawed, but most managed to conquer their problems and live a happy life, even when faced with unimaginable hardship.
This book explained a way of life that was unfamiliar to me, but by the end of the novel I felt as though I understood exactly what it would be like to live in this lawless society. The vivid writing created an atmospheric picture of their unconventional lives. Everything was described in unflinching detail, occasionally making the reader feel uncomfortable, but writing with a honesty that can only be admired.
This is one of those rare books that is almost impossible to criticise. It is a modern classic and should be read by everyone. Highly recommended!
Five words from the blurb: mice, monastery, attack, evil, rats
Redwall is a classic of children’s literature. I didn’t read it as a child, but my husband has fond memories of it and so bought a copy for our boys. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to give it a try and so offered to read it with my oldest son.
Redwall is a typical story of good versus evil. The peaceful mice of Redwall monastery come under attack from the evil rat, Cluny, and his band of followers. A range of other woodland animals are recruited on each side, but size is not relevant as bravery and quick thinking win every time.
This is a lovely story for older children. It has the perfect amount of action to hold their attention, but manages to combine it with vivid descriptions that create a wonderful atmosphere. It also contains many good moral messages, encouraging children to believe that anything is possible given thought and determination.
“This sword is made for only one purpose, to kill. It will only be as good or evil as the one who wields it. I know that you intend to use it only for the good of your Abbey, Matthias; do so, but never allow yourself to be tempted into using it in a careless or idle way. It would inevitably cost you your life, or that of your dear ones. Martin the Warrior used the sword only for right and good. This is why it has become a symbol of power to Redwall. Knowledge is gained through wisdom, my friend. Use the sword wisely.”
The vocabulary is quite complex so I’d only recommend it to a strong reader. It hasn’t dated in the 30 years since it was first published, but many of the words aren’t in frequent use and I had to use a dictionary more than I normally do when reading complex adult literature.
I enjoyed reading Redwall, but I think I’d have appreciated it much more as a child. It probably works best for those between the ages of 10 and 12, but even as an adult I was still able to appreciate its charm. Recommended to anyone looking for a bit of escapism.
Redwall is the first in a series of 22 books. My son is planning to read more, but would I get anything from the rest? I fear they might be too similar to each other to make it worth it?
Have you read Redwall? Did you enjoy the series as an adult?
Five words from the blurb: Florida, swamp, dangerous, life, survival
The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1939. I hadn’t heard of it until I stumbled across a mention of the author in a Florida guidebook, but as I always like to read books set in the places I’m staying I ordered a copy for my holiday. I’m not sure if it is more famous in America, but it certainly deserves more attention than it currently gets.
The Yearling is a vivid portrayal of one family struggling to survive in the wilderness in a time before the luxury of electricity or running water. They are continually at risk of starvation, but they must also battle with the elements and the local wildlife. Rattlesnakes lurk in the undergrowth, wolves try to steal their animals, and bears occasionally come too close for comfort. The story was quite simple, but the adventure of their everyday lives captivated me.
The clearing itself was pleasant if the unweeded rows of young shafts of corn were not before him. The wild bees had found the chinaberry tree by the front gate. They burrowed into the fragile clusters of lavender bloom as greedily as though there were no other flowers in the scrub; as though they had forgotten the yellow jessamine of March; the sweet bay and the magnolias ahead of them in May. It occurred to him that he might follow the swift line of the flight of the black and gold bodies, and so find a bee-tree, full of amber honey. The winter’s cane syrup was gone and most of the jellies. Finding a bee-tree was nobler work than hoeing, and the corn could wait another day.
I loved everything about this book! The descriptions were vivid, bringing the swamps of Florida to life with an incredible accuracy. I may be biased because I read the book as I was visiting places similar to those mentioned, but that is the joy of picking perfect holiday reading material!
The characters were brilliantly drawn – I felt a deep emotional connection to them all and found myself involved in a rollercoaster of emotion as I willed them to survive. I was particularly impressed by the way the different generations were given their own set of values and characteristics. The interactions between them all felt incredibly realistic and I understood why they reacted differently to the situations they were presented with.
The ending was especially good. I won’t spoil anything, but the underlying messages were impressive and I will be thinking about them for a long time to come. The coming-of-age aspects of this book make it particularly good for teenagers and I think this would make a great addition to school reading lists.
There weren’t really any negatives for this book, but some people might find the scenes of hunting and animal butchery disturbing. I found them fascinating and loved the detailed descriptions of this almost-lost way of life.
Overall I can’t fault this book. It was perfectly paced, contained some of the most realistic characters I’ve ever come across and combined these with wonderful descriptions of the natural world. It’s the best book I’ve read so far this year. Highly recommended.
Have you read any books written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings?