2015 Memoirs Non Fiction

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.



The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

The Wolf Border

Five words from the blurb: Lake District, wolves, eccentric, project, family

Haweswater is one of my favourite books so I was looking forward to reading this one. Sarah Hall perfectly captures the atmosphere of the Lake District and this book is no exception – the beauty of the hills and lakes shines through. Unfortunately other details of this book failed to engage me.

The Wolf Border is set in the fictional valley of Annerdale, where an eccentric Earl is plotting to reintroduce the wolf. Rachel Caine has been tracking wolves in Idaho for many years, but is lured back to the Lake District to run the project. 

My main problem with the book was that it appeared to have a feminist agenda. The male characters were all weak, invisible, or poorly rendered. I became frustrated by the lack of balance – not all men are stupid, bumbling idiots and not all women are amazing, talented individuals. There needed to be some blurring of these lines as it didn’t feel realistic.

The book also followed a fictional version of the Scottish Independence referendum. I wasn’t sure whether it was a re-imagining of last year’s referendum (in which case it made the book feel dated) or a possible future one (which didn’t feel right as there was no reference to the last one) but either way it didn’t sit well with the rest of the plot and I was unsure as to why it was included.

On a positive note, the writing was fantastic and I admired many individual passages. The wolves were well researched and the book raised interesting questions about whether they could ever be released in the UK. The problem was that the wolves didn’t have a high enough priority. Their story-line seemed to become sidetracked, just when it was getting interesting. The book tried to deal with too many different issues and I think it would have benefited from focusing on the natural world instead of Rachel and her frustrating family.

He takes a fleece hat out of the rucksack and she puts it on. They continue upward, into the cold, fast-moving currents. The effort is double, with the wind hoving against them. The latter part of the route is incredibly difficult, almost beyond her limit. Rachel’s legs shake; the undersides of her toes burn. The dense sedge grass vibrates all around and blurs her vision. There are no birds, just the occasional ravaged-looking sheep, bleating uselessly in the wind. They push on over the false brow.

Overall The Wolf Border was too fragmented. There were many wonderful sections, but the plot failed to come together as a whole. Go and get a copy of Haweswater instead.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 I’ll be on my soapbox if it isn’t on the Man Booker Prize longlist in the summer. The Writes of Woman

Good start but disappointing in the latter sections, perhaps even preposterous. Alan on Good Reads

 Extraordinary writing and clever storytelling make this undoubtedly a novel that will appear on my best of the year list. Shiny New Books





1930s Crime

The Lake District Murder by John Bude

The Lake District Murder (British Library Crime Classics)

Five words from the blurb: body, garage, puzzle, 1930s, village

I used to live near Cockermouth, Cumbria so when I saw Margaret’s post on The Lake District Murder I immediately reserved a copy from the library. I’m so pleased I did as it contains some wonderful information about what it was like to live in the area in the 1930s.

The book begins with the discovery of a body in the village of Braithwaite. It initially looks like suicide, but the police soon find a number of inconsistences and launch a murder inquiry. It is a quaint, gentle story with none of the action or violence you’d find in a typical crime novel today; instead it shows the simple, methodical way in which crimes were investigated nearly a century ago. 

The slow pace of the story and the lack of any real action would normally be a big problem for me, but this book managed to capture my attention with the period detail. I loved reading about catching a train from Keswick to Cockermouth (the line closed in 1964) and it was interesting to read about the shops present on Cockermouth Main Street back then. If anything these little details weren’t enough – I’d have liked to discover more about what was present in the towns back then.

Shortly after ten he swung right off the Braithwaite road and headed for Bassenthwaite lake.. About a hundred yards beyond the turning which led to Braithwaite station, he drew up at the roadside and consulted his Bartholomew’s map. He reckoned Jenkin Hill to be a little over a mile ahead, at which point the railway line was shown as being some three hundred yards away from the road. This fact was of vital importance to Meredith, as he knew there was a Cockermouth train due in at Braithwaite station at 6.25 on Saturday evening,

I think I’d have found the book boring if I hadn’t such a strong bond with the setting – the solution to the mystery wasn’t that interesting, the characters all seemed so similar that they merged into one, and there wasn’t any real forward momentum. I’d read another of his books if it was set in the same area, but his otherwise his writing style was too gentle for me.


1970s Memoirs

The Shining Levels by John Wyatt

The Shining Levels

Five words from the blurb: Lake District, forest, joys, deer, friendship

The Shining Levels is a beautiful book about the joys of the English countryside. It is an autobiographical account of John Wyatt’s move to a small stone hut in the Lake District, where he lives without many home comforts. He often takes things further by staying in a basic shelter in the woods; eating what he can find around him. His enthusiasm for the flora and fauna is infectious and it makes me want to walk through a wood looking for the wildlife he mentions. Well you can find best quality, economical, long lasting wood briquettes at

Wyatt has a particular passion for trees and he explains everything from what each species tastes like, to the recipe for the perfect fire:

Once one gets the taste for smoking wood it is possible to mix and obtain subtle flavours; and invent recipes. Prepare a fire base of larch kindling, add well-seasoned oak until the logs redden deeply; place one large back-log of holly, and add, from the fire back to the front, one crab-apple log, one well-dried cherry and one of birch. An ideal after-dinner mixture.

There is also a fascinating account of what happens when he agrees to look after a baby roe deer. The relationship that builds between the two is wonderful and I highly recommend this book for that aspect alone.

On top of the detailed, vivid descriptions of wildlife we also glimpse what life was like in 1970s Cumbria. There is a wonderful range of local characters and many amusing anecdotes.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about nature, especially those with a connection to the Lake District.


Many thanks to David, a regular commenter, for recommending this book to me.

2000 - 2007

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall

The Carhullan Army Note: This book is also known as Daughters of the North

Five words from the blurb: escape, repressive, world, women, remote

I loved Haweswater and How to Paint a Dead Man, so have been keen to try some of Sarah Hall’s other books. The Carhullan Army is a dystopian novel, set in the near future. Like her other novels it is set in Cumbria and follows a young women as she decides to leave her home town of Rith (Penrith) and seek out a group of women living outside the controls of the repressive government, on the Lake District Fells.

I loved the beginning of this book. As usual Sarah Hall’s writing was of a very high standard, creating a vivid world packed with oppressive atmosphere.

It was hard to imagine all the people behind the bricks, sleeping two and three to a room, or lying awake, talking softly so as not to disturb the other families. Some of them crying, being comforted or ignored. Some not caring who heard them through the walls, pushing away from a sore body as the hits of cheap ephedrine began to wear off. Each time I had ventured out in preparation, these dawns seemed to have an atmosphere of reduction, as if there had been a cull, not a condensing of the people.

Unfortunately things went downhill as the book progressed. Once the women on the fells had been found the plot died and I lost interest in what was happening. The focus of the book turned to the relationships of the women, but they hadn’t been introduced in enough depth for me to care about them. Some sex scenes (both lesbian and straight) were thrown in, but they added nothing to the plot.

The ending of the book was very strange. Some fantastic plot elements were reduced to a single paragraph when they would have benefited from being developed into entire chapters. It all felt rushed and a bit of an anticlimax after all the build up.

I’m afraid that this book didn’t add any original ideas to the dystopian genre and although it contained a few fantastic scenes I’d recommend reading Sarah Hall’s other novels instead.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

gripping from the beginning to the end. Vishy’s Blog

With a bit of a polish it would make a good TV series. The Marple Leaf

Carhullan Army is a quietly powerful novel that lives long in the mind. Follow the Thread




The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall

The Proof of Love

Five words from the blurb: Lake District, atmospheric, farm, labourer, secrets

I lived in the Lake District for several years so always enjoy reading books based in the area. The Proof of Love provided me with everything I needed to reminisce about life in the Lakes, but I question whether it will appeal to those unfamiliar with the area. 

The book is set in a remote village where people are surprised and faintly amused by the arrival of Spencer, a mathematician from Cambridge University. Spencer agrees to work as a farm labourer and he slowly adjusts to life on the fells. The villagers tend to leave Spencer to his own devices so it is only when a ten-year-old girl called Alice befriends him that he begins feel at home in this lonely place. Their strange friendship leads to the exchange of secrets and some beautifully tender moments.

The descriptions of life in the Lake District are spot-on; the hills and lakes are perfectly described. The dialogue is also authentic and the fact the characters are normally talking to an outsider means that the colloquialisms are toned down enough for most people to understand.

Half a mile along the narrow track was a humpback bridge, arched high above a river. They stood on it, looking down into a dark pool flanked by great hunks of granite rising out of the water.
‘You stand in’t middle, Spence, and jump,’ said Hartley. ‘But get it right, mind. It’s narrow. You wouldn’t want to hit the rocks. You’d smash up your legs.’ He laughed as he saw Spencer’s face grow pale.
‘You’ll be all right. No-one’s done that since Jack Porter in 1963. And he was properly drunk at the time. You haven’t had that much. Nowt to worry about.’

The only problem I had was that the plot was a bit too slow for me. It could almost be described as gentle, but that might mislead you into thinking that this is a happy book. It isn’t. There are many tragic, sometimes disturbing, scenes sprinkled through the text, but woven between them are details of domestic chores, church services and village fetes. These will either charm you, or bore you, depending on your level of interest in the every day life of Cumbrians.

I’d recommend this to anyone with an affinity to the Lake District, but if gentle tales of sheep farming and village gossip aren’t your thing then this probably isn’t for you.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

(An) exceptional novel which will be flying into my top five books of the year….  Savidge Reads

This is not a straightforward case of intellectualism versus physicality; it’s more about showing how the farming lifestyle has taken over the Dodds family. Follow the Thread

 …intense, atmospheric, muted and with a heavy stillness. Cornflower Books