2015 Chunkster

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.


2015 Memoirs Recommended books

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. Having to take care of your parents is not easy, check these tips for helping your parents. 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.


2015 Chunkster

The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts

The Mountain Shadow Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: Bombay, forgery, gangs,friends, violence

Shantaram is one of my favourite books so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. Unfortunately The Mountain Shadow isn’t in the same league and actually highlighted the flaws of its predecessor, making both books appear worse than they really are.

The Mountain Shadow begins where Shantaram left off. It is set almost entirely in Bombay and follows Lin through his underground life, which mainly revolves around forgery and mafia gangs. It has the same cast of wonderfully eclectic characters and it was good to see what had happened to them all, but I occasionally lost track of who some of them were!

The main problem was that the plot wasn’t as interesting as Shantaram’s. There was still the odd adventure, but it didn’t feel as exciting as first time round – I’d read similar stories before and could almost predict their outcome. It also lacked the goodness of the first book. I loved the way Lin’s character could never be defined as evil because he kept doing wonderful things – setting up the medical centre in the slums, for example. This time he appeared more criminal and so I didn’t warm to him as much.

I loved the flowery descriptions contained in Shantaram, but they began to annoy me in The Mountain Shadow. I’m not sure if this is because they were more prevalent, or I didn’t have the gripping plot to distract me. The story seemed to meander all over the place so the lack of narrative drive probably compounded this problem.

Love unlived is a sin against life, and mourning is one of the ways we love. I felt it then, and I let it happen, the longing for him to return. The power in his eyes, and the pride when I did something he admired, and the love in his laugh. The longing: the longing for the lost.

There were some great sections in this book, but on reflection I wish I hadn’t read it. Shantaram is an amazing book, but this one diluted its power. 



2015 Other Uncategorized

Books in Brief: The Seed Collectors, Fates and Furies and Soil

The Seed Collectors Source: Free review copy received from publisher

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

Five words from the blurb: woman, love, struggles, seeds, parents

I’ve enjoyed many of Scarlett Thomas’ previous books (especially The End Of Mr. Y) so was looking forward to reading this one. Unfortunately it was a departure from her usual style and I didn’t enjoy it as much.

The blurb and the first page give the impression that this book is a horticultural fantasy novel involving walking trees and poisonous seeds. Unfortunately the truth is much more ordinary. This book is a family saga, charting the changing relationships between generations of one family. There were good sections, but overall I wasn’t impressed. There were too many characters, so I struggled to keep track of who was who, and didn’t care what happened to any of them. There was also a lot of sex, which didn’t seem to add anything to the story.

Overall, this book lacked the passion of her previous ones. I think she enjoys writing about psychology much more than horticulture.


Fates and Furies Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Five words from the blurb: relationships, sides, marriage, envy, friends

I could almost copy and paste my review of The Seed Collectors here too – they share so many of the same problems! I’ve read all of Groff’s previous novels (my favourite is The Monsters of Templeton). She seems to be another of those authors whose skill as a writer is improving all the time, but at the expense of raw emotional passion.

This book is about long-term relationships, but I was so distanced from the characters that I failed to form any attachment to them. The descriptive passages were lovely, but there was no forward momentum and I became bored. I might have enjoyed it more if there had been less meandering, but I prefer Groff when she is writing emotional scenes.


Soil  Source: Library

Soil by Jamie Kornegay

Five words from the blurb: Mississippi, flood, farm, body, ruined

Soil begins with wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of a man finding a corpse on his flooded Mississippi farm. Worried he might be blamed for the death, he attempts to hide the body. This turns out to be harder than expected! Here’s a list of DIY nutrients that can be sourced from dynamic accumulator plants.

The characters were all well-formed and I loved the initial tension. Unfortunately the plot began to flounder at the half-way stage – probably because the book was a bit too long. The emotions were all realistic and I could understand exactly why the characters reacted in their own bizarre ways. It developed into a gentler story of rural life/relationships than I expected, but it was an enjoyable read.

I was impressed by many sections in Soil and will seek out this author again in future.


2015 Memoirs Non Fiction

The Utopia Experiment by Dylan Evans

The Utopia Experiment Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: collapse, civilization, Scottish, community, depressed

I love reading books about the collapse of civilisation* (strange aren’t I?!) and frequently wonder whether I should move to the country and become self-sufficient in preparation for the breakdown of society. So, when I came across this book about a man who decided to practise post-apocalyptic life, I snapped it up.

Dylan Evans thought that society had a high probability of collapse so decided to set up a community in a remote Scottish valley. He quit his job, advertised for volunteers on-line, and began building things from scratch, in order to practise the skills required to survive. This book explains the reasonings behind his decisions and how his thoughts darkened as the experiment progressed. His eventual decline into mental illness was skilfully written and enabled the reader to understand how the gradual encroachment of dark thoughts can lead to mental collapse.

The book was engaging throughout. It was fast-paced and entertaining, but also able to handle serious issues with sensitivity. I admired the honesty of the writing and the way it gave an accurate account of how difficult life without simple things can be:

It’s the little things like toilet paper and toothpaste and soap, things that you hardly notice when you go about your daily life in rich countries, that you don’t think about when you merly imagine what life might be like after the collapse of civilization. It’s only when you start acting it out  – when you start trying to live as if civilization has already collapsed – that these little details intrude. And these details turn out to matter much more than you might think.

I also loved the way it mentioned many other books and films that deal with post-apocalyptic/wilderness living as I am always keen to learn more basic survival skills (as you can see from the photo of me below!) – you’ll probably see a few of these titles reviewed on this blog in the near future.

Learning to make fire!

Overall, this was an entertaining read that has only fuelled my desire to learn more about life without modern luxuries.



*Blindness by José SaramagoThe Death of Grass by John Christopher and The Road by Cormac McCarthy are my favourites

What are your favourite books on post-apocalyptic/wilderness living?

2015 Non Fiction

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

The Underground Girls Of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: hidden, gender, observations, society, secret

The Underground Girls of Kabul is a fascinating investigation into the lives of Afghani girls who are raised as boys. The practice is secretive, but widespread, and occurs for a variety of reasons. Male babies are prized because they protect the family, bring in the majority of income, and are necessary for inheritance reasons. Women who produce only female offspring are seen as failures, so the idea of pretending your newborn is a boy is an appealing way of being accepted by society. From birth these female babies are presented to the world as male. They are known as ‘bacha posh’, which translates as ‘dressed up like a boy’.

Jenny Nordberg is a journalist who spent time interviewing people in Afghanistan. By gaining their trust she managed to get an incredible insight into this hidden world. Her discoveries on gender differences were especially revealing – showing to what extent nature can be overridden by nurture. Nordberg also managed to find adult bacha posh, some who have revealed their true gender and are now living as women, but others who have decided to remain as men throughout their adult lives.

Who would not walk out of the door in disguise – if the alternative was to live as a prisoner or slave? Who would really care about long hair or short, pants or skirt, feminine or masculine, if renouncing one’s gender gave one access to the world?

The book gives details of what everyday life is like in Afghanistan. I’ve read several books on this subject, but this is the first to really get under the skin of normal people. Gender politics within the country were also explained fully and I now feel I have an understanding of the history behind the rules. It was interesting to see how powerful women are trying to change things, but be able to appreciate the immense difficulties they face in trying to do so.

The writing was excellent, but maintained a journalistic distance from the subjects throughout. I’d have preferred to get to know some of the interviewees in more depth, but the book skipped to the next person before the reader had a chance to bond with anyone. This meant a wide range of different families were introduced, but the same topics were occasionally repeated.

Overall this book was fascinating for many different reasons, but an essential read for anyone interested in gender differences.