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?

Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney

  Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Arctic, explorer, women, love, ambition

I enjoyed The Tenderness of Wolves, when I read it many years ago, but I can’t remember much about it now. The only lingering impression I have is the atmospheric feeling of life in a cold environment. Stef Penney perfectly captures this harsh existence, but I suspect that is all I’ll remember of Under a Pole Star in years to come too.

Under a Pole Star is a sprawling novel about polar expeditions at the end of the 19th century. The central character is Flora, a girl who was brought up on a whaling ship after the death of her mother. She grows into a confident young woman, keen to go against tradition and become the first female polar explorer. The book is essentially a love story, but the historical details should be enough to interest those who aren’t fans of the romance genre.

The novel appears to be very well researched, with some fantastic period detail – especially regarding the status of women in Victorian times. The chapters set in the arctic regions were also realistic and I especially loved the tension created during some of the more dangerous moments.

When the blizzard dies down, two days later, plates of ice fall on them, and the valley outside is white and silent – no animal, bird or plant is visible, nor sign that they were ever here. The only thing still moving is the shrunken river, grumbling darkly through a land in which life appears not only wiped out, but inconceivable.

Unfortunately I found the book a bit too meandering for my taste. The plot was too slow in places and I frequently found myself becoming bored with it. I almost abandoned it a few times, but persevered because other scenes were very good.

I must also warn the reader about the explicit content of this book. Graphic sex scenes are scattered throughout and, although I was impressed by their sensual nature, I know they will be too much for some.

Overall, this is a worthwhile read for anyone willing to plough through a 600+ page novel with a few slow sections. Those who make the effort will be rewarded with some beautiful arctic imagery – perfect for this time of year!

 

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: family, camp, behaviour, menacing, changes

The Nobodies Album was my favourite read of 2010, so I jumped at the chance to receive a proof copy of her new novel from the publishers. The fact Harmony deals with the issues faced by families living with autism only added to the appeal, as I have a son with Asperger’s and like to read as many books on the condition as possible.

Harmony is set in a “family camp” where people are encouraged to live away from the distractions of modern life. In natural woodland surroundings, families work through the behavioural problems that their children are experiencing. The book focuses on Tilly, a thirteen year-old girl with autism, and her family. I particularly liked the way the thoughts of her eleven-year-old sister were included, as it is rare to see the impact that autism has on a sibling so accurately portrayed.

Sometimes, I wish I could be inside her head, just to see what it’s like. But I guess that being inside her head would also mean all the other stuff, like forgetting to eat with a fork sometimes and freaking out when you lose a pen, because maybe you’ll never find it, maybe it’s not under the couch or in some other room that you carried it into when you weren’t paying attention. Maybe nothing is the way it’s supposed to be, and maybe the pen is just freaking gone.

Harmony has a much simpler plot than The Nobodies Album, but it maintains her flair for accurately capturing the emotion and the complexity of thought that people experience throughout their everyday lives. The details of living with an autistic child were brutally honest, but never sensationalist. It is one of the most accurate depictions of autism I’ve seen in fiction (other great ones include Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon and Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork).

I also need to point out the amazing epilogue in Harmony. Anyone who has a child who is different from society’s norm needs to read it. It is one of the most beautiful explanations of the beauty present in every child I’ve ever read. I wish it could be reproduced independently, so a greater number of people could read it. I suspect it would go viral.

On top of these realistic descriptions of family life the book also contained darker undercurrents. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing any more, but I loved the unsettling nature of these elements.

Overall I was very impressed by Harmony. It doesn’t quite match The Nobodies Album in depth or cleverness, but it is well worth a read – especially if you have an interest in autism.

 

I’ve moved to Worcestershire!

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Sorry it’s been quiet on the blog for a while – I’ve been busy moving to Worcestershire.

I’ve now got Internet (after a few strangely peaceful weeks without it) and have settled the children into their new schools. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back into reading and have a few reviews here soon.

 

The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy

 Source: Personal Copy

Shortlisted for 2016 Wainwright Prize

Five words from the blurb: nature, world, destroyed, beauty, sustainable

I have now read all the books on the 2016 Wainwright Prize shortlist and I certainly saved the best for last. The Moth Snowstorm is a beautifully written book which explains the crisis facing our planet. I like to think I am well informed about environmental issues, but many of the facts were new to me and some were disturbing in their magnitude.

It is extraordinary: we are wrecking the earth, as burglars will sometimes wantonly wreck a house. It is a strange and terrible moment in history. We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above and the ocean below and the soil at the centre and everything it supports; grabbing it, ripping it, scattering it, tearing at it, torching it, slashing at it, shitting on it

The Moth Snowstorm begins by explaining how the author fell in love with wildlife – particularly river estuaries. His descriptions were filled with passion and I admired the way he conveyed his joy at being surrounded by the natural world. His interest in wading birds enabled him to discover the crisis effecting estuaries around the world. Many are being destroyed for shipping and leisure purposes, but nobody seems to care much about these muddy flat lands. I was shocked to discover that South Korea recently built a sea wall 21 miles long, destroying the migratory feeding ground for 50 million birds.

The book also highlighted the massive reduction in the population numbers of everything from insects to wildflowers. McCarthy interviewed older people who recalled a time when wildlife was abundant. They described events such drivers stopping to clean their windscreen after driving through a cloud of moths. Sadly numbers have dropped so much that this rarely happens now. I especially liked the way that anecdotes like these were backed up with scientific data. This brought meaning to the tables of statistics, showing what large drops in population mean for our experience of the world.

Details of McCarthy’s private life were also included. These were beautifully written and only added to the emotional impact of the text.

The Moth Snowstorm could easily have become a depressing book, but instead it is a joyful one, encouraging us to appreciate the beauty of the nature around us. It is an inspiring call-to-arms and I hope that increased exposure for this book will raise awareness of the natural catastrophes that are happening globally right now. It deserves to win the 2016 Wainwright Prize and I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for it when the winner is revealed at Country File Live on Friday.