Recent Writing for BookBrowse, Shiny New Books and the TLS

A peek at the bylines I’ve had elsewhere so far this year.

BookBrowse

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler: In Fowler’s sixth novel, issues of race and privilege undermine a teen romance and lead to tragedy in a seemingly idyllic North Carolina neighborhood. A Good Neighborhood is an up-to-the-minute story packed with complex issues including celebrity culture, casual racism, sexual exploitation, and environmental degradation. It is narrated in a first-person plural voice, much like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. If you loved Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, this needs to be next on your to-read list. It is a book that will make you think, and a book that will make you angry; I recommend it to socially engaged readers and book clubs alike.

 

Pew by Catherine Lacey: Lacey’s third novel is a mysterious fable about a stranger showing up in a Southern town in the week before an annual ritual. Pew’s narrator, homeless, mute and amnesiac, wakes up one Sunday in the middle of a church service, observing everything like an alien anthropologist. The stranger’s gender, race, and age are entirely unclear, so the Reverend suggests the name “Pew”. The drama over deciphering Pew’s identity plays out against the preparations for the enigmatic Forgiveness Festival and increasing unrest over racially motivated disappearances. Troubling but strangely compelling; recommended to fans of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor. [U.S. publication pushed back to July 21st]

 

Shiny New Books

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones: While nature’s positive effect on human mental health is something we know intuitively and can explain anecdotally, Jones was determined to investigate the scientific mechanism behind it. She set out to make an empirical enquiry and discovered plenty of evidence in the scientific literature, but also attests to the personal benefits that nature has for her and explores the spiritual connection that many have found. Losing Eden is full of both common sense and passion, cramming masses of information into 200 pages yet never losing sight of the big picture. Just as Silent Spring led to real societal change, let’s hope Jones’s work inspires steps in the right direction.

[+ Reviews of 4 more Wainwright Prize (for nature writing) longlistees on the way!]

 

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld: While it ranges across the centuries, the novel always sticks close to the title location. Just as the louring rock is inescapable in the distance if you look out from the Edinburgh hills, there’s no avoiding violence for the women and children of the novel. It’s a sobering theme, certainly, but Wyld convinced me that hers is an accurate vision and a necessary mission. The novel cycles through its three strands in an ebb and flow pattern that seems appropriate to the coastal setting and creates a sense of time’s fluidity. The best 2020 novel I’ve read, memorable for its elegant, time-blending structure as well as its unrelenting course – and set against that perfect backdrop of an indifferent monolith.

 

Times Literary Supplement

I Am an Island by Tamsin Calidas: A record of a demoralizing journey into extreme loneliness on a Scottish island, this offers slivers of hope that mystical connection with the natural world can restore a sense of self. In places the narrative is a litany of tragedies and bad news. The story’s cathartic potential relies on its audience’s willingness to stick with a book that can be – to be blunt –depressing. The writing often tends towards the poetic, but is occasionally marred by platitudes and New Age sentiments. As with Educated, it’s impossible not to marvel at all the author has survived. Admiring Calidas’s toughness, though, doesn’t preclude relief at reaching the final page. (Full review in May 29th issue.)

 

We Swim to the Shark: Overcoming fear one fish at a time by Georgie Codd: Codd’s offbeat debut memoir chronicles her quest to conquer a phobia of sea creatures. Inspired by a friend’s experience of cognitive behavioral therapy to cure arachnophobia, she crafted a program of controlled exposure. She learned to scuba dive before a trip to New Zealand, returning via Thailand with an ultimate challenge in mind: her quarry was the whale shark, a creature even Jacques Cousteau only managed to sight twice. The book has a jolly, self-deprecating tone despite its exploration of danger and dread. A more directionless second half leads to diminished curiosity about whether that elusive whale shark will make an appearance. (Full review in a forthcoming issue.)

 

Dottoressa: An American Doctor in Rome by Susan Levenstein: In the late 1970s, Levenstein moved from New York City to Rome with her Italian husband and set up a private medical practice catering to English-speaking expatriates. Her light-hearted yet trenchant memoir highlights the myriad contrasts between the United States and Italy revealed by their health care systems. Italy has a generous national health service, but it is perennially underfunded and plagued by corruption and inefficiency. The tone is conversational and even-handed. In the pandemic aftermath, though, Italian sloppiness and shortages no longer seem like harmless matters to shake one’s head over. (Full review coming up in June 19th issue.)

 

Do any of these books (all by women, coincidentally) interest you?

27 responses

  1. I was in the minority and didn’t think much of An American Marriage however I do have the Fowler in the TBR stack, on the strength of her previous book Z, which I really enjoyed.

    As much as I like swimming memoirs, I’ll give We Swim to the Shark a miss… as it happens, were it not for COVID, I would have been swimming with the whale sharks in two weeks time (we had a big diving and snorkeling trip planned to Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, to see the whale sharks, whales, and mantra rays). We’ve postponed until next year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved Z as well, but couldn’t get through Fowler’s other historical novel. A Good Neighbourhood is definitely not subtle, so it’s possible you won’t enjoy it. I have been surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention this year, good or bad (amplifying race issues, versus white lady writing about black people — I imagined the American Dirt fiasco happening all over again).

      We Swim to the Shark is not really a swimming memoir, or one for fans of marine life. It’s pleasant enough, but I had a hard time thinking who I would actually recommend it to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Always telling when you can’t think who you’d recommend a book to…

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  2. I’ll leave these three with you, although if I saw Dottoressa in the library, I would pick it up. 🙂

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    1. It wasn’t the strongest set of TLS review books, that’s for sure. The Calidas response has been all over the place and I’ve been surprised to see the sorts of people who have weighed in (e.g. Amy Liptrot and Malachy Tallack from an islander’s perspective). I had to cringe while reading the Levenstein. It came out in 2019 and must have read completely differently before and after Covid. I was reading it right at the start of things.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The first two are already on my radar but I like the sound of Losing Eden. There seem to be several other books out with a similar theme – Emma Mitchell’s Wild Remedy and Isabel Hardman’s The Natural Health Service spring to mind. I’ve definitely felt better about our current predicament when I’ve been out walking through the woods and fields.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, there’s been a whole spate of books on nature and mental health. I proposed a themed essay to the TLS but I was behind the curve and those books were already being covered. I’m encountering some similar information in a couple of other Wainwright Prize longlistees, Wild Child by Patrick Barkham and Wanderland by Jini Reddy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A Good Neighbourhood sounds interesting, but, reading your longer review, I’m concerned by the first-person plural voice – I don’t think I’ve ever seen this actually work, except maybe in The Virgin Suicides.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I generally love the use of first person plural. (Some favourites at the top: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/5875398-rebecca?shelf=first-person-plural&sort=rating). It’s not very intrusive here; you could easily forget it’s not an omniscient narrator until you see ‘we’ at the start or end of some chapters. You’d have to give it a try and see if it got in the way for you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting! I don’t have a problem with small sections of first-person plural (like in The Mothers), although I tend to find them redundant, or chapters that are introduced in first-person plural but then essentially take a more omniscient approach, so the style you describe sounds fine to me.

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    2. I’m loving The Vanishing Half, so would really like to read The Mothers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought The Vanishing Half was a lot better than The Mothers, tbh.

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  5. I wondered about Pew and thought it might be too intentionally quirky for my liking but you’ve sold me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d say more creepy than quirky. And there’s an undercurrent of racism that makes it all too timely.

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      1. Sounds interesting. Thanks!

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  6. Bass Rock and Losing Eden definitely look worth a read. Bass Rock has been much reviewed, and favourably, so plenty of good words being said about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I bought both new from Hungerford Bookshop this year; it’s always pleasing when a book you’ve spent good money on ends up being worth it!

      Yep, I’ve already mentioned The Bass Rock in my last Six Degrees of Separation post, and it will soon feature in my post about the best books from the first half of the year, so you’ll get tired of hearing about it from me. Sorry about that 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No problem. I’m able to forget something I learnt a mere 5 minutes ago.

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  7. I’m interested in A Good Neighborhood of those ones and have added it to my wishlist, but sadly realising I can’t do my usual assumption that I’ll come across it in one of the local charity shops soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d appreciate it: it’s an issues book in the same way as The Hate U Give. Some charity shops are opening tomorrow … you never know what people will donate!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am writhing at the thought of all the juicy books people will be donating having read and had clear-outs during lockdown, however I can’t bring myself to go into any of them. People are not being careful here and I am not feeling very safe out and about – in fact now we’ve got an online delivery slot, we’re going out less than we had been (esp as I want Matthew to be able to visit his elderly parents).

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I can understand that. I haven’t been going out much at all. I send my husband to do the shopping, weekly or less often. We did make an exception last weekend for a BLM protest, but it was in the park, with everyone nicely spread out (200 or so of us!) and most wearing masks. Once the library and free bookshop reopen I will resume my volunteering, but of course with mask, gloves and 72-h quarantine of all returns/donations.

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  8. I loved American Marriage, so now I have to investigate The Fowler book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you’ll like it!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I enjoyed reading your quick reviews of these but I’m not sure I’d rush to add any one of these to my current reading stack. They all sound kinda interesting and maybe if I had copies in my hand I’d be more drawn. Other than the Evie Wyld, which we’ve already discussed somewhere. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of these, Pew is the one I’d most likely send your way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        That would have been my next pick. Added to the proverbial TBR!

        Liked by 1 person

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