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Reviews Written by
Jackie "farmlanebooks" (UK)

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Home is Burning
Home is Burning
by Dan Marshall
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

5.0 out of 5 stars I laughed and I cried. I will remember this family forever., 20 Nov. 2015
This review is from: Home is Burning (Hardcover)
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. 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.

The Boy Who Fell To Earth
The Boy Who Fell To Earth
by Kathy Lette
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a realistic portrayal of autism today, 12 Mar. 2012
Ten years ago I loved reading Kathy Lette's books, but my reading tastes changed and I didn't think I'd be tempted to try her again. Then I received an email from her publicist in which I was informed that Kathy Lette's new book was a big departure from her previous novels and was written based on her experiences with her twenty one-year-old son who has Asperger's syndrome. Always keen to read books on the subject, I agreed to give it a try.

The Boy who Fell to Earth centres on Lucy and Jeremy, a fictional couple who have an autistic son called Merlin. Unable to cope with the demands of a special needs child Jeremy leaves and Lucy finds herself alone, battling with authorities to achieve the best results for her son.

The first half of the book annoyed me. I know that all parents of special needs children have difficult days and experience a whole range of emotions, but the negativity of the opening chapters was over powering. A lot of the content didn't ring true when compared to my recent experiences of the NHS/local schooling system. I can't decide if this is because Kathy Lette is basing this book on her experiences from twenty years ago or because she is more familiar with the Australian schooling structure (or both!) but I can reassure any parents with children recently diagnosed with autism that things are far better than this book makes out.

There was no mention of the National Autistic Society and the central character made no effort to understand her son's way of thinking. This meant that she spent her whole life tormenting the poor child, who would have probably been easy to look after if she'd made a few small changes in the way she communicated with him.

I was also frustrated by the way the way she continually moaned about mainstream schooling, but then rejected her in-law's offer of £300,000 to privately educate him. She seemed to want sympathy more than solutions and her cycle of negativity drove me mad.

The writing was light and easy to read, but the chatty style and endless punchlines became tiring after a while. Perhaps I'm just too close to the subject matter, but I didn't find some of the jokes very funny.

"One thing I learnt in my three years of disastrous dating is that when Cupid closes one door...he slams another in your face. Who knew that Asperger's was sexually transmittable? But it must be, judging by the way men bolted at the first glimpse of Merlin."

Luckily, things improved as Merlin aged and I found the descriptions of him as a teenager far more enjoyable to read. Their relationship had stabilised and they seemed to have a far better understanding of each other. Lucy continued to do annoying things, but I had a bit more tolerance for her.

The ending almost made up for the earlier sections. It was beautifully written, moving and poignant.

So now I'm torn. I want everyone to read the ending, but I can't recommend the first section. The only solution is for everyone to read this as part of a book group. It will provoke lots of discussion and give people a greater knowledge of autism. Perhaps the excessive negativity will lead to greater sympathy for us parents?

The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master's Son
by Adam Johnson
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Amazing beginning, disappointing ending, 2 Mar. 2012
After reading the outstanding Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea I found myself craving more stories from North Korea. The Orphan Master's Son fitted the bill perfectly and so I dived straight in.

The story revolves around Jun Do, the son of an orphanage manager, who joins the military. Initially he is combat trained in the tunnels of the de-militarised zone between North and South Korea, but he is then sent on secret missions to kidnap Japanese citizens from the beaches of Japan.

These first hundred pages were fantastic. The atmosphere and emotions were perfectly captured in tense, vivid scenes that highlighted the horrible situations that North Koreans have to endure.

Unfortunately everything went downhill after this. Jun Do's transfer to a fishing boat retained the vivid descriptions, but I felt the writing became overly masculine, veering towards that of a spy thriller. The ending of this section pushed the boundaries of believability and introduced an American senator. The American scenes jarred with the rest of the book and I found them very irritating. The continual comparisons between life in America and life in North Korea were unnecessary and I found them patronising.

Things deteriorated further in the second half. This section focused on Commander Ga, a military official, and an actress called Sun Moon. Their lives in Pyongyang were obviously satirical, but I'm afraid I didn't find it amusing. The wonderful realism of the first few chapters were a distant memory as I read stories about Korean citizens that were either obviously untrue, or worse, were acting like Americans dropped in a difficult situation rather than people who had grown up with communism their entire lives.

The more I read, the more annoyed I became. I'm sure other readers will appreciate this section, but I'm not a fan of satire and the way their lives were parodied made me sad. It felt as though the reader was supposed to laugh at various aspects of their lives and I don't think this is right.

I'm sure this book will generate a lot of attention, especially in America, but I'm not sure this is a good thing. I don't think people have a strong enough knowledge of North Korea to know which parts are true and which are fabricated. I wish that this book had been limited to its first half; that way people would just read a fantastic book with a slightly disappointing ending, instead of an overly long book with numerous unrealistic impressions of this mysterious society.

You Deserve Nothing
You Deserve Nothing
by Alexander Maksik
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, thought provoking and emotional, 5 Jan. 2012
This review is from: You Deserve Nothing (Paperback)
I have to admit that the blurb of this book held little appeal. A story about the children of wealthy families attending an international school in Paris didnft sound that exciting, but as we all know, a talented author can transform the dullest premise into something magical and that is what Maksik has done here.

You Deserve Nothing could be seen as a hybrid of three fantastic books:
¡Notes on a Scandal

It uses multiple narrators to question who is to blame when a teacher-pupil relationship occurs and it leaves you feeling sorry for perpetrator of the crime.

It also brings other questions to the table:
¡Should teachers be allowed to encourage children to question their religious beliefs?
¡Should teachers without counselling qualifications be allowed to talk to children about a terrible event theyfve witnessed?
¡What level of friendship/trust is acceptable between a child and a teacher?

On top of these carefully constructed moral dilemmas this well written, tightly plotted book gives an atmospheric portrayal of Paris and what life is like for those living in the insulated bubble of an international school.

The characters are well developed, engaging, but deeply flawed individuals, and the continual switching of viewpoint created a fantastic sense of foreboding.

I used to think, These are my students. I love them. I was often amazed by the closeness I felt, by my desire to protect them, to push them. I wanted to make them proud of me. I wanted never to disappoint them. As much as I loved them in those quiet minutes at the beginning of class, I also wanted them to love me in return.

Literature lovers will enjoy the discussions that take place in the seminars of this international school. Shakespeare, Faulkner and Keats are among the many authors introduced to the students and I ended up longing for an English teacher as passionate.

The ending was perfect and I will be thinking about the issues raised in this book for a very long time.

This is one of my favourite books published in 2011 and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

Highly recommended.

The Art of Fielding
The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Edition: Hardcover

36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You don't need to know anything about baseball to enjoy this book, but I think it helps, 5 Jan. 2012
This review is from: The Art of Fielding (Hardcover)
I hate watching sport, know nothing about baseball and haven't enjoyed a sports themed book before (not that I've read many - I tend to avoid them), but increasing enthusiasm for The Art of Fielding persuaded me to give it a try. I'm pleased that I did as this is a modern classic that will be talked about for years to come.

The first few chapters did their best to put me off - I could see the writing quality, but the endless baseball references did nothing for me.

"Henry played shortstop, only and ever shortstop - the most demanding spot on the diamond. More ground balls were hit to the shortstop than anyone else, and then he had to make the longest throw to first. He also had to turn double-plays, cover second on steals, keep runners on second from taking long leads, make relay throws from the outfield. Every Little League coach Henry had ever had took one look at him and pointed toward right field or second base. Or else coach didn't point anywhere, just shrugged at the fate that had assigned him this pitiable shrimp, this born benchwarmer."

Without the hype I would probably have abandoned this book after the first few pages, but I persevered and at page 50 I was rewarded with chapter 6 which didn't mention baseball at all. Instead it introduced Moby Dick, an English professor and a glimpse of the magical writing Chad Harbach is capable of when he talks about something other than sport.

As the book progressed I became increasingly attached to the characters in the book and completed its 500 pages in a surprisingly quick time, but on reaching the end I found I was quietly impressed rather than bowled over with excitement. I didn't find anything particularly new or interesting in The Art of Fielding. It is simply a well written book about American college life - and I have read a lot of those, although I admit this is one of the best.

I think those who have been through an American college will have a far greater appreciation of this book than I did. I found it very similar to The Marriage Plot in terms of both style and subject matter - with The Art of Fielding being the better book in terms of consistency and message.

I'm also sure that I missed some of the relevant baseball references and their significance on the bigger picture. I'm afraid that those who claim this book will give the reader a passion for baseball are wrong, but I agree that it isn't necessary to enjoy the sport to appreciate this book.

Despite my criticisms I do think this is a very good book. It is a simple story, but one that is very well told. It is hard not to feel compassion for the well developed characters. I just hope that next time Chad Harbach will devote his time to writing a book that doesn't contain any sporting references.

Recommended, especially to American graduates.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 16, 2012 3:41 PM GMT

The Proof of Love
The Proof of Love
by Catherine Hall
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Recommended to anyone with an affinity to the Lake District, 4 Sept. 2011
This review is from: The Proof of Love (Paperback)
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.

A Cupboard Full of Coats
A Cupboard Full of Coats
by Yvvette Edwards
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emotional, engaging and thought-provoking - fantastic!, 4 Sept. 2011
A Cupboard Full of Coats is an emotional book describing the life of Jinx, a woman haunted by the thought that she was partly responsible for the murder of her mother.

Jinx suffered from a violent childhood and finds it hard to connect with her five-year-old son. I found their endless misunderstandings heart-breaking to read:

"I caught up with him he had ripped three or four heads off the crocuses planted along the thin bed that ran the length of the path from the gate to the door.
`Ben, don't do that please,' I said as he started tearing off another. Ignoring me, he yanked it off anyway, adding it to the collection in his other hand.
`Will you bloody stop!' I said.
When he looked at me, those enormous eyes were filled with tears. He held out his hand. His voice was tiny. `These are for you,' he said.
And I looked at the small, fresh, squashed bouquet held out to me, and for a second I could have taken his gift and smiled, then cuddled and whispered to my son, Forgive me. I love you.
But the words that came out of my mouth instead were:
`Great! Why don't you kill every single flower you can see?"

I was gripped by this book from the very first page. I flew through it, desperate to know what part Jinx had played in the murder of her mother and how everything would be resolved.

I found the characters well formed and realistic, and the descriptions of life as a Caribbean in East London were evocative and atmospheric. Details of food preparation were particularly mouth-watering.

The writing isn't perfect and I spotted a few typographical errors (for example, see the first line of the quote) but I was so absorbed in the story that these didn't bother me.

If you enjoyed Chris Cleave's, The Other Hand, then I'm sure you'll love, A Cupboard Full of Coats. I don't think the writing quality is good enough to justify its place on the Booker long list, but it will gain a spot in my list of favourite books published in 2011.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 23, 2012 10:41 PM GMT

The Last Hundred Days
The Last Hundred Days
by Patrick McGuinness
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic period detail, but no emotional connection to characters, 4 Sept. 2011
This review is from: The Last Hundred Days (Paperback)
The Last Hundred Days explains what life was like for Romanians in the final months of Ceausescu's reign. The story is told through the eyes of an English student who arrives in Bucharest after being given a job, despite not turning up for the interview. From the perspective of this outsider we see the destruction of the city, the corruption required to get everything from food to medical supplies, and the violence that regularly occurs.

The book was very well researched, giving a vivid snapshot of life in Bucharest during 1989. The problem was that it read like a non-fiction title. The detail will prove fascinating to anyone interested in researching the city, but is too much for the average reader.

I also found the writing to be quite detached. I couldn't connect to any of the characters and so failed to form an emotional response to any of the scenes in the book, no matter how disturbing the content. The fact that the narrator was from England also added a level of detachment to the plot. As a newcomer to the city he couldn't fully explain the pain that the residents felt seeing their city destroyed and there was always the knowledge that he could leave and return to his normal life at any point.

Unlike the majority of the Booker long list, this book did have a plot. The problem was that I didn't really care about it - things happened, but I had no real interest in the outcome.

Despite these criticisms this book did engage me enough to read to the end. I learnt a lot about life under Ceausescu, including the fact that having a miscarriage was a crime.

The book does a fantastic job of teaching the reader about this period of history, but if you like to form an emotional connection to the characters/plot then it probably isn't for you.

The Nobodies Album
The Nobodies Album
by Carolyn Parkhurst
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever, gripping and thought provoking, 15 April 2011
This review is from: The Nobodies Album (Hardcover)
The Nobodies Album is described as a murder mystery, but it is so much more than that. It is an insightful look into the relationship between a mother and her grown-up child, but it is also a clever piece of meta-fiction - questioning whether a story ever really ends and what rights an author has to a book once it has been published.

The Nobodies Album begins with Octavia Frost, a famous novelist, discovering that her son has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend. She dashes across the country to be with him, despite the fact that they haven't seen each other for years. Scared and emotional she waits to see if she will be accepted back into his life and begins the painful process of discovering whether or not he is guilty of the crime. I thought that the book perfectly captured the emotions of parenthood - covering the nature versus nurture debate as well as the guilt experienced when a child behaves inappropriately. The meta-fictional style made these emotions seem all the more honest and realistic.

"Now that the moment is here, it's not what I expected at all. That's the fundamental flaw in the illusion that writers like to maintain, the idea that we can craft anything approaching truth. No matter how richly we imagine, no matter how vividly we set the scene, we never come close to the unambiguous realness of the moment itself."

Interwoven with the narrative are snippets from Octavia Frost's novels. Life experiences have altered the way she views the world and so she has decided to create a new book in which she rewrites the ending to all her previous novels. The snippets didn't come across as realistic endings as each contained the sort of information that normally begins a novel, but I'm willing to forgive this because each of the stories was so interesting in its own right. I could easily have read full-length versions of most of them - especially the one in which people forget everything that is too traumatic.

It is difficult to explain just how clever this novel is. There is so much going on, but Carolyn Parkhurst's skill as a writer ensures that the reader is never lost. It could easily have felt gimmicky, but the emotional rawness of the text lent an authenticity to it.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in parental responsibilty or how the writing process changes with experience, but also to anyone looking for a gripping narrative with an original, thought provoking style.

The Final Testament
The Final Testament
by James Frey
Edition: Hardcover

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Controversy ruined what could have been an entertaining book, 13 April 2011
This review is from: The Final Testament (Hardcover)
James Frey is clearly courting controversy with this book. The title and Bible-like lay-out of the text will cause offense to some people before they've read a single word. Frey ensures that this outrage is continued by filling the first chapter with an unusually high density swear words - the concentration of which isn't repeated anywhere else in the book.

I had no plans to read this book, but a copy popped through my letter box from the publishers and once I started reading it I couldn't put it down. The basic premise is that the Messiah is alive and living in New York. I found the concept interesting as anyone in our society who claims that they can perform miracles or speak to God is generally not taken very seriously.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of a person who comes into contact with Ben Zion (the supposed son of God). Initially the narrators know little about the man, but as the book progresses we hear from those who are closer to him and so more information is revealed.

I loved the first half of this book - it was fast paced and entertaining. In many ways it reminded me of a Dan Brown book, but with better structure and less historical research.

The text was initially a lot less controversial than I had expected from the cover. Whenever a potentially controversial statement was made it was balanced by another character expressing the opposing view, or by one so charming that few could disagree with it:

"Biblical stories were written decades, and sometimes centuries, after the events they supposedly depict, events for which there is absolutely no historical evidence. There is no such thing as God's word on earth. Or if there is, it is not to be found in books.
Then where is it to be found?
In love. In the laughter of children. In a gift given. In a life saved. In the quiet of morning. In the dead of night. In the sound of the ocean, or the sound of a car. It can be found in anything, anywhere. It is the fabric of our lives, our feelings, the people we live with, things we know to be real."

Unfortunately the book went downhill towards the end. We started to see the ways in which Ben Zion `loved' everyone and I felt that James Frey was just trying to throw as many controversial scenes into the text as possible. It wasn't necessary for him to sleep with everyone (male and female) and I was inwardly groaning as he made a girl pregnant and then took her for an abortion. It wasn't necessary and just undermined what could have been a good book.

I also struggled with the writing style in the last 100 pages - it became overly sentimental and more like something written by Mitch Albom than the faster pace of the first section.

I found much of the book entertaining, but ultimately I was disappointed by the way in which controversial scenes were added to the text for no good reason. This book is guaranteed to start a conversation, but unfortunately it isn't going to be a very intelligent one.

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