Review Book Catch-Up: Gange, Mann, O’Donoghue

The end of the year is fast approaching, and one of my main reading goals is to follow through on all the rest of the review books I’ve received from publishers. I have another handful on the go, including a few holiday- and snow-themed ones I’ll review together.

Today, I have a history-rich travelogue that explores the Atlantic coast of Britain and Ireland, a memoir by an Anglican priest who has transitioned and experienced chronic illness, and a humorous, offbeat novel about finding the real Ireland.


The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (2019)

This was one of the 2020 Wainwright Prize finalists. Having now experienced the entire nature writing shortlist, I stick with my early September pronouncement that it should have won. I was consistently impressed with the intricacy of the interdisciplinary approach. While kayaking down the western coast of the British Isles and Ireland, Gange delved into the folklore, geology, history, local language and wildlife of each region and island group. From the extreme north of Scotland at Muckle Flugga to the southwest tip of Cornwall, he devoted a month to each Atlantic-facing area, often squeezing in expeditions between commitments as a history lecturer at Birmingham.

Gange’s thesis is that the sea has done more to shape Britain and Ireland than we generally recognize, and that to be truly representative history books must ascribe the same importance to coastal communities that they do to major inland cities. Everywhere he goes he meets locals, trawls regional archives and museums, and surveys the art and literature (especially poetry) that a place has produced. Though dense with information, the book is a rollicking travelogue that – in words no less than in the two sections of stunning colour photographs – captures the elation and fear of an intrepid solo journey. He hunkers on snowy cliffs in his sleeping bag and comes face to face with otters, seals and seabirds in his kayak; at the mercy of the weather, he has deep respect for the Atlantic waves’ power.

I enjoyed revisiting places I’ve seen in person (Shetland, the Orkney Islands, Skomer) and getting a taste of others I’ve not been to but would like to go (like the Western Isles and the west coast of Ireland). Gange’s allusive writing reminds me of Tim Dee’s and Adam Nicolson’s, and Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country is a similar read I also loved.

With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.


Dazzling Darkness: Gender, sexuality, illness and God by Rachel Mann (2012; 2020)

I’ve so enjoyed discovering Rev. Rachel Mann’s work: poetry collection A Kingdom of Love, Advent devotional In the Bleak Midwinter, and novel The Gospel of Eve. This is a revised edition of her memoir, which is less an autobiographical blow-by-blow of becoming a trans priest in the Church of England than it is a vibrant theological meditation based around keywords like loneliness, reconciliation and vocation. She reflects on the apparent contradictions of her life: she was a typical boy who loved nothing more than toy guns, and then a young man obsessed with drugs and guitars; as ‘Nick’, she was married to a woman at the time of coming out, but continued to have relationships with women after transitioning and undergoing reassignment surgery, so considers herself a lesbian.

Ambiguities like this make us uncomfortable, Mann notes, but change and loss, and making the best of impossible situations, are all a part of the human condition. I appreciated how she characterizes herself as a perennial beginner: having to face the world anew after the second adolescence of becoming a woman as well as after the end of a long-term relationship and the last in a series of hospitalizations for severe Crohn’s disease.

While I’ve read other trans memoirs (Amateur by Thomas Page McBee and Conundrum by Jan Morris), this is my first from a Christian perspective, apart from the essays in The Book of Queer Prophets. Mann describes her early faith as intense but shallow, like falling in love; later it became deeper but darker as she followed Jesus’s path of suffering. Ministry has been a gift but is not without challenges: At synod meetings she is unsure whether to speak out or remain silent, but at least she bears witness to the presence of trans people in the Church.

With thanks to Wild Goose Publications for the free copy for review.


Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue (2020)

Charlotte “Charlie” Regan is a 29-year-old filmmaker based in London. Her father has had cancer on and off for four years, but he got his ‘survivor’ label in a different way: when he was a child on an island off the western coast of Ireland, his teacher and 18 classmates died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the faulty secondhand oil burner in the schoolhouse; he was the only one left alive. Although her film commemorates this story, Charlie has never actually been to Ireland, so an invitation to Cork Film Festival is the perfect opportunity to see the place before her father dies. Travelling with her is her former best friend and roommate, Laura Shingle. There’s sexual tension between these two: Charlie is a lesbian, but Laura is determined to think of herself as straight even though she and Charlie would occasionally share a bed. To prove herself, Laura goes too far the other way, making homophobic comments about strangers.

If initially Charlie thinks this trip to Ireland will be about shamrock-green nostalgia, she soon snaps out of her idealism as she has to face some tough truths about the film and her family’s history. Charlie is a companionable narrator, but, while I enjoyed the pub scenes and found some of the one-liners very funny (“Everything in our room is a faint brown, as though it were daubed very gently by a child with a teabag” and “He had an X-ray and there’s legumes all over it.” / “Legumes? Do you mean lesions?”), I was underwhelmed overall. My interest peaked at the halfway point and waned thereafter. This is one I might recommend to fans of Caoilinn Hughes.

With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.


Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

20 responses

  1. The Gange is definitely one for me. I wish I knew the Atlantic coast better than I do though.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Such a rich trove of facts and folklore. It will suit your one-book-at-a-time habit! (Whereas it took me four months to read off and on.) I know I will recommend it widely.


  2. I’m hesitating over the O’Donoghue. Basically it’s lesbian/queer female characters yes, possibly another book about millennial women having crises no!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you can give this one a miss 😉 A recent Book Serendipity moment: I’m now reading another novel with a lesbian character named Charlie in (Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m keen to read the O’Donoghue, but like Laura am wondering if the subject matter has been played out…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re probably interested enough in Ireland and Irishness to get on with it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought that Gange’s book was excellent too, equal to Dark Salt, Clear in my opinion

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only had time to skim that one from the library. The Gange is really impressive in its scope.


  5. I have to read the Gange and it’s top of my mental list of things to spend any upcoming book tokens on. You’ve also reminded me I need to read The Book of Queer Prophets. As to getting things read, I’m resigned to just getting a few more off the physical TBR and a couple of NetGalley books – why o why did I buy four light Christmas reads when I have so much else???

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was definitely going to recommend it to you if you didn’t already know of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I would read the Gange based solely on the cover!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? There have been a lot of covers in that swirly woodcut style recently. I expect they’re all by Angela Harding (e.g. The Salt Path, etc.).

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m vaguely, but not passionately, interested in all of them. Do you have a lot of catching up to do, for EOY stuff?


    1. Not that much, surprisingly. Just three more review books, all of which I’m reading now and should finish in time easily.


  8. The Gange novel is going straight on my list. Lucky you that you have visited the Shetlands and Orkney! I have been obsessed since I was little. Have you heard of the seaweed-eating sheep?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds vaguely familiar! I think I had in mind that they were on the Western Isles?


      1. They’re on North Ronaldsay!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue […]


  10. […] a terminal diagnosis. It’s a strangely masculine book (though in some particulars very similar to Scenes of a Graphic Nature) and I found little to latch on to. This was a disappointment as I’d very much enjoyed Hughes’s […]


  11. […] my recommendation, my husband read Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting and The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange, two excellent nonfiction books about Britain’s islands and […]


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