Recent Reviews for Shiny New Books: Poetry, Fiction and Nature Writing

First up was a rundown of my five favorite poetry releases of the year, starting with…

Dearly by Margaret Atwood

Dearly is a treasure trove, twice the length of the average poetry collection and rich with themes of memory, women’s rights, environmental crisis, and bereavement. It is reflective and playful, melancholy and hopeful. I can highly recommend it, even to non-poetry readers, because it is led by its themes; although there are layers to explore, these poems are generally about what they say they’re about, and more material than abstract. Alliteration, repetition, internal and slant rhymes, and neologisms will delight language lovers and make the book one to experience aloud as well as on paper. Atwood’s imagery ranges from the Dutch masters to The Wizard of Oz. Her frame of reference is as wide as the array of fields she’s written in over the course of over half a century.

I’ll let you read the whole article to discover my four runners-up. (They’ll also be appearing in my fiction & poetry best-of post next week.)

Next was one of my most anticipated reads of the second half of 2020. (I was drawn to it by Susan’s review.)

Artifact by Arlene Heyman

Lottie’s story is a case study of the feminist project to reconcile motherhood and career (in this case, scientific research). In the generic more than the scientific meaning of the word, the novel is indeed about artifacts – as in works by Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively and Carol Shields, the goal is to unearth the traces of a woman’s life. The long chapters are almost like discrete short stories. Heyman follows Lottie through years of schooling and menial jobs, through a broken marriage and a period of single parenthood, and into a new relationship. There were aspects of the writing that didn’t work for me and I found the book as a whole more intellectually noteworthy than engaging as a story. A piercing – if not notably subtle – story of women’s choices and limitations in the latter half of the twentieth century. I’d recommend it to fans of Forty Rooms and The Female Persuasion.

Finally, I contributed a dual review of two works of nature writing that would make perfect last-minute Christmas gifts for outdoorsy types and/or would be perfect bedside books for reading along with the English seasons into a new year.

The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison

This collects five and a half years’ worth of Harrison’s monthly Nature Notebook columns for The Times. The book falls into two rough halves, “City” and “Country”: initially based in South London, Harrison moved to the Suffolk countryside in late 2017. In the grand tradition of Gilbert White, she records when she sees her firsts of a year. Often, she need look no further than her own home and garden. I appreciated how hands-on and practical she is: She’s always picking up dead animals to clean up and display the skeletons, and she never misses an opportunity to tell readers about ways they can create habitat for wildlife (e.g. bat and bird nest boxes that can be incorporated into buildings) and get involved in citizen science projects like moth recording.

The book’s final two entries were set during the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020 – a notably fine season. This inspired me to review it alongside…

The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren

A tripartite diary of the coronavirus spring kept by three veteran nature writers based in southern England (all of them familiar to me through their involvement with New Networks for Nature and its annual Nature Matters conferences). The entries, of a similar length to Harrison’s, are grouped into chronological chapters from 21 March to 31 May. While the authors focus in these 10 weeks on their wildlife sightings – red kites, kestrels, bluebells, fungal fairy rings and much more – they also log government advice and death tolls. They achieve an ideal balance between current events and the timelessness of nature, enjoyed all the more in 2020’s unprecedented spring because of a dearth of traffic noise.

19 responses

  1. Thanks for the link. Rebecca. Adding The Consolation of Nature to my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Three top-class authors there. They made me wish I’d kept better track of my lockdown walks and nature sightings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One of the sanity-saving activities during the pandemic has been getting out into the natural world for those of us lucky enough to be able to do that, I think

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, the Atwood poetry might be right up my alley for the broadness of the themes presented–since I oftentimes am not excited by the themes of her (more recent) books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did really like Hag-Seed, but otherwise have been unimpressed by her recent work. Barbara Kingsolver’s 2020 poetry book (which I have a brief paragraph about in the full Shiny article) is also very good and also theme-driven, which I guess makes sense from novelists.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, I didn’t even know Kingsolver wrote poetry!


    2. I think this is only her second collection.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Looking forward to reading Dearly! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I did quite a lot of writing myself as a result of walking so much during Lockdown One. Shouldda got in first with The Consolation of Nature!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They did well to bring it out so quickly. I’ve been impressed by the number of coronavirus diaries I’ve seen at the library already.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. And a huge thank you for all your wonderful reviews for Shiny. We really appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sending great books my way!


  6. How wonderful, and a great variety that’s very “you”!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used to just review lit fic for Shiny, but recently I’ve done mostly nature writing for them (even though you and Peter also cover that!).

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Dearly was a true delight. I wholly enjoyed it. And I’m keen to try Artifact as well…eventually. Those nature collections would be just lovely if one was familiar with the area.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remarked to C the other day on how Anglocentric our knowledge of nature writing is. Apart from some big names like the late Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams, I’m barely familiar with the U.S. nature writing scene, and wouldn’t even know if there is one in Canada and Australia, let alone the non-English-speaking world. I’d happily learn more about other cultures’ nature writing. But there’s also something to be said for bedding down where one actually lives and knowing the flora and fauna (and literature) of that place.


  8. […] I felt that the balance of current events and nature was off, especially compared to books like The Consolation of Nature, and ultimately I was not convinced that this needed to be in verse at all. “Starling,” […]


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