Category Archives: Poetry Reviews

Three on a Theme: Frost Fairs Books

Here in southern England, we’ve just had a couple of weeks of hard frost. The local canal froze over for a time; the other day when I thought it had all thawed, a pair of mallard ducks surprised me by appearing to walk on water. In previous centuries, the entire Thames has been known to freeze through central London. (I’d like to revisit Virginia Woolf’s Orlando for a 17th-century scene of that.) This thematic trio of a children’s book, a historical novel, and a poetry collection came together rather by accident: I already had the poetry collection on my shelf, then saw frost fairs referenced in the blurb of the novel, and later spotted the third book while shelving in the children’s section of the library.

 

A Night at the Frost Fair by Emma Carroll (2021)

Maya’s mum is visiting family in India; Maya and her dad and sister have just settled Gran into a clinical care home. Christmas is coming, and Gran handed out peculiarly mismatched presents: Maya’s older sister got a lovely brooch, while her own present was a weird brick-shaped brown object Gran says belonged to “Edmund”. Now the family is in a taxi home, crossing London Bridge, when Maya notices snow falling faster than seems possible and finds herself on a busy street of horse-drawn carriages, overlooking booths and hordes of people on the frozen river.

A sickly little boy named Eddie is her tour guide to the games, rides and snacks on offer here in 1788, but there’s a man around who wants to keep him from enjoying the fair. Maya hopes to help Eddie, and Gran, all while figuring out what the gift parcel means. A low page count meant this felt pretty thin, with everything wrapped up too soon. The problem, really, was that – believe it or not ­– this isn’t the first middle-grade time-slip historical fantasy novel about frost fairs that I’ve read; the other, Frost by Holly Webb, was better. Sam Usher’s Quentin Blake-like illustrations are a bonus, though. (Public library)

 

The Weather Woman by Sally Gardner (2022)

This has been catalogued as science fiction by my library system, but I’d be more likely to describe it as historical fiction with a touch of magic realism, similar to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock or Things in Jars. I loved the way the action is bookended by the frost fairs of 1789 and 1814. There’s a whiff of the fairy tale in the setup: when we meet Neva, she’s a little girl whose parents operate one of the fair’s attractions, a chess-playing bear. She knows, like no one else seems to, that the ice is shifting and it’s not safe to stay by the Thames. When the predicted tragedy comes, she’s left an orphan and adopted by Victor Friezland, a clockmaker who shares her Russian heritage. He lives in a wonderfully peculiar house made out of ship parts and, between him, Neva, the housekeeper Elise, and other servants, friends and neighbours, they form a delightful makeshift family.

Neva predicts the weather faultlessly, even years ahead. It’s somewhere between synaesthetic and mystical, this ability to hear the ice speaking and see what the clouds hold. While others in their London circle engage in early meteorological prediction, her talent is different. Victor decides to harness it as an attraction, developing “The Weather Woman” as first an automaton and then a magic lantern show, both with Neva behind the scenes giving unerring forecasts. At the same time, Neva brings her childhood imaginary friend to life, dressing in men’s clothing and appearing as Victor’s business partner, Eugene Jonas, in public.

These various disguises are presented as the only way that a woman could be taken seriously in the early 19th century. Gardner is careful to note that Neva does not believe she is, or seek to become, a man; “She thinks she’s been born into the wrong time, not necessarily the wrong sex. As for her mind, that belongs to a different world altogether.” (Whereas there is a trans character and a couple of queer ones; it would also have been interesting for Gardner to take further the male lead’s attraction to Eugene Jonas.) From her early teens on, she’s declared that she doesn’t intend to marry or have children, but in what I suspect is a trope of romance fiction, she changes her tune when she meets the right man. This was slightly disappointing, yet just one of several satisfying matches made over the course of this rollicking story.

London charms here despite its Dickensian (avant la lettre) grime – mudlarks and body snatchers, gambling and trickery, gloomy pubs and shipwrecks, weaselly lawyers and high-society soirees. The plot moves quickly and holds a lot of surprises and diverting secondary characters. While the novel could have done with some trimming – something I’d probably say about the majority of 450-pagers – I remained hooked and found it fun and racy. You’ll want to stick around for a terrific late set-piece on the ice. Gardner had a career in theatre costume design before writing children’s books. I’ll also try her teen novel, I, Coriander. (Public library)

[Two potential anachronisms: “Hold your horses” (p. 202) and calling someone “a card” (p. 209) – both slang uses that more likely date from the 1830s or 1840s.]

 

The Frost Fairs by John McCullough (2010)

I knew McCullough’s name from his superb 2019 collection Reckless Paper Birds, which was shortlisted for a Costa Prize. This was his debut collection, for which he won a Polari Prize. Appropriately, one poem, “Georgie, Belladonna, Sid,” is crammed full of “Polari words” – “the English homosexual and theatrical slang prevalent in the early to mid 20th century.” The book leans heavily on historical scenes and seaside scenery. “The Other Side of Winter” is the source of the title and the cover image:

Overnight the Thames begins to move again.

The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,

merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about

 

On islands given up for lost. They race,

switch places, touch—the printing press nuzzling

the swings—then part, slip quietly under.

I also liked the wordplay of “The Dictionary Man,” the alliteration and English summer setting of “Miss Fothergill Observes a Snail,” and the sibilance versus jarringly violent imagery of “Severance.” However, it was hard to detect links that would create overall cohesion in the book. (Purchased directly from Salt Publishing)

The 2023 Releases I’ve Read So Far

Some reviewers and book bloggers are constantly reading three to six months ahead of what’s out on the shelves, but I tend to get behind on proof copies and read from the library instead. (Who am I kidding? I’m no influencer.)

In any case, I happen to have read a number of pre-release books, generally for paid review for Foreword, Shelf Awareness, etc. Most of my reviews haven’t been published yet; I’ll give very brief excerpts and ratings here to pique the interest.

Early in January I’ll follow up with my 20 Most Anticipated titles of the coming year.

 

My top recommendations so far:

(In alphabetical order)

Shoot the Horses First by Leah Angstman [Feb. 28, Kernpunkt Press]: Sixteen sumptuous historical stories ranging from flash to novella length depict outsiders and pioneers who face disability and prejudice with poise.

 

The House Is on Fire by Rachel Beanland [April 4, Simon & Schuster]: Four characters – two men and two women; two white people and two Black slaves – are caught up in the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811. Painstakingly researched and a propulsive read.

 

Tell the Rest by Lucy Jane Bledsoe [March 7, Akashic Books]: A high school girl’s basketball coach and a Black poet, both survivors of a conversion therapy camp in Oregon, return to the site of their spiritual abuse, looking for redemption.

 

All of Us Together in the End by Matthew Vollmer [April 4, Hub City Press]: A pensive memoir investigates the blinking lights that appeared in his family’s woods soon after his mother’s death from complications of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in 2019.

 

Other 2023 releases I’ve read:

(In publication date order; links to the few reviews that are already available online)

Pusheen the Cat’s Guide to Everything by Claire Belton [Jan. 10, Gallery Books]: Good-natured and whimsical comic scenes delight in the endearing quirks of Pusheen, everyone’s favorite cartoon cat since Garfield. Belton creates a family and pals for her, too.

 

Everything’s Changing by Chelsea Stickle [Jan. 13, Thirty West]: The 20 weird flash fiction stories in this chapbook are like prizes from a claw machine: you never know whether you’ll pluck a drunk raccoon or a red onion the perfect size to replace a broken heart.

 

Decade of the Brain by Janine Joseph [Jan. 17, Alice James Books]: With formal variety and thematic intensity, this second collection by the Philippines-born poet ruminates on her protracted recovery from a traumatic car accident and her journey to U.S. citizenship.

 

For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain by Victoria Mackenzie [Jan. 19, Bloomsbury]: Two female medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, are the twin protagonists of Mackenzie’s debut. She allows each to tell her life story through alternating first-person strands that only braid together very late on.

 

The Faraway World by Patricia Engel [Jan. 24, Simon & Schuster]: These 10 short stories contrast dreams and reality. Money and religion are opposing pulls for Latinx characters as they ponder whether life will be better at home or elsewhere.

 

Your Hearts, Your Scars by Adina Talve-Goodman [Jan. 24, Bellevue Literary Press]: The author grew up a daughter of rabbis in St. Louis and had a heart transplant at age 19. This posthumous collection gathers seven poignant autobiographical essays about living joyfully and looking for love in spite of chronic illness.

 

God’s Ex-Girlfriend: A Memoir About Loving and Leaving the Evangelical Jesus by Gloria Beth Amodeo [Feb. 21, Ig Publishing]: In a candid memoir, Amodeo traces how she was drawn into Evangelical Christianity in college before coming to see it as a “common American cult” involving unhealthy relationship dynamics and repressed sexuality.

 

Zig-Zag Boy: A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood by Tanya Frank [Feb. 28, W. W. Norton]: A wrenching debut memoir ranges between California and England and draws in metaphors of the natural world as it recounts a decade-long search to help her mentally ill son.

 

The Distance from Slaughter County by Steven Moore [March 7, The University of North Carolina Press]: An Iowan now based in Oregon, Moore balances nostalgia and critique to craft nuanced, hypnotic autobiographical essays about growing up in the Midwest. The piece on Shania Twain is a highlight.

 

Currently reading:

(In release date order)

My What If Year: A Memoir by Alisha Fernandez Miranda [Feb. 7, Zibby Books]: “On the cusp of turning forty, Alisha Fernandez Miranda … decides to give herself a break, temporarily pausing her stressful career as the CEO of her own consulting firm … she leaves her home in London to spend one year exploring the dream jobs of her youth.”

Sea Change by Gina Chung [April 11, Vintage]: “With her best friend pulling away to focus on her upcoming wedding, Ro’s only companion is Dolores, a giant Pacific octopus who also happens to be Ro’s last remaining link to her father, a marine biologist who disappeared while on an expedition when Ro was a teenager.”

 

Additional pre-release books on my shelf:

(In release date order)

Will you look out for one or more of these?

Any 2023 reads you can recommend already?

November Releases: Dickens and Prince, Bratwurst Haven, Routes

Here are a few November books I read early for review, or that didn’t quite fit into the month’s other challenges – although, come to think of it, all are technically of novella length! (Come back tomorrow for a roundup of all the random novellas I’ve finished late in the month, and on Thursday for a retrospective of this year’s Novellas in November.)

 

Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby

This exuberant essay, a paean to energy and imagination, draws unexpected connections between two of Hornby’s heroes. Both came from poverty, skyrocketed to fame in their twenties, were astoundingly prolific/workaholic artists, valued performance perhaps more highly than finished products, felt the industry was cheating them, had a weakness for women and died at a similar age. Biographical research shares the page with shrewd cultural commentary and glimpses of Hornby’s writing life. Whether a fan of both subjects, either or none, you’ll surely admire these geniuses’ vitality, too. (Full review forthcoming in the December 30th issue of Shelf Awareness.)

 

Bratwurst Haven: Stories by Rachel King

In a dozen gritty linked short stories, lovable, flawed characters navigate aging, parenthood, and relationships. Set in Colorado in the recent past, the book depicts a gentrifying area where blue-collar workers struggle to afford childcare and health insurance. As Gus, their boss at St. Anthony Sausage, withdraws their benefits and breaks in response to a recession, it’s unclear whether the business will survive. Each story covers the perspective of a different employee. The connections between tales are subtle. Overall, an endearing composite portrait of a working-class community in transition. (See my full review for Foreword.)

 

Routes by Rhiya Pau

Pau’s ancestors were part of the South Asian diaspora in East Africa, and later settled in the UK. Her debut, which won one of this year’s Eric Gregory Awards (from the Society of Authors, for a collection by a British poet under the age of 30), reflects on that stew of cultures and languages. Colours and food make up the lush metaphorical palette.

When I was small, I spoke two languages.

At school: proper English, pruned and prim,

tip of the tongue taps roof of the mouth,

delicate lips, like lace frilling rims of my white

 

cotton socks. At home, a heady brew:

Gujarati Hindi Swahili

swim in my mouth, tie-dye my tongue

with words like bandhani.

Alongside loads of alliteration (my most adored poetic technique)—

My goddess is a mother in marigold garland

—there are delightfully unexpected turns of phrase, almost synaesthetic in their blending of the senses:

right as I worry I have forgotten the scent

of grief, I catch the first blossom of the season

 

and we are back circling the Spring.

~

I am a chandelier of possibility.

Besides family history and Hindu theology, current events and politics are sources of inspiration. For instance, “We Gotta Talk About S/kincare” explores the ironies and nuances of attitudes towards Black and Brown public figures, e.g., lauding Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, but former UK Home Secretary Priti Patel? “our forever – guest of honour / would deport her own mother – if she could.” I also loved the playfulness with structure: “Ode to Corelle” employs a typically solemn form for a celebration of crockery, while the yoga-themed “Salutation” snakes across two pages like a curving spine. This reminded me of poetry I’ve enjoyed by other young Asian women: Romalyn Ante, Cynthia Miller, Nina Mingya Powles and Jenny Xie. A fantastic first book.

With thanks to Arachne Press for the proof copy for review.

 

Any more November releases you can recommend?

Miscellaneous Novellas: Jungle Nama, The Magic Pudding, Tree Glee (#NovNov22)

Here’s a random trio of short books I read earlier and haven’t managed to review until now. Novellas in November is a deliberately wide-ranging challenge, taking in almost any genre you care to read – here I have a retold fable, a bizarre children’s classic, and a self-help work celebrating our connection with trees. I’ll do a couple more of these miscellaneous round-ups before the end of the month.

 

Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sunderban by Amitav Ghosh (2021)

My first from Ghosh. It’s a retelling in verse of a local Indian legend about Dhona, a greedy merchant who arrives in the mangrove swamps to exploit their resources. To gain wealth he is willing to sacrifice his destitute cousin, Dhukey, to placate Dokkhin Rai, a jungle-dwelling demon that takes the form of a man-eating tiger.

However, Dhukey’s mother, distrustful of their cousin, prepared her son for trouble, telling him that if he calls on the goddess Bon Bibi in dwipodi-poyar (rhyming couplets of 24 syllables), she will rescue him. I loved this idea of poetry itself saving the day.

The legend is told, then, in that very Bengali verse style. The insistence on rhyme sometimes necessitates slightly silly word choices, but the text feels very musical. Beyond the fairly obvious messages of forgiveness—

But you must forgive him, rascal though he is;

to hate forever is to fall into an abyss.

—and not grasping for more than you need—

All you need do, is be content with what you’ve got;

to be always craving more, is a demon’s lot.

—I appreciated the idea of ordered verse replicating, or even creating, the order of nature:

Thus did Bon Bibi create a dispensation,

that brought peace to the beings of the Sundarban;

every creature had a place, every want was met,

all needs were balanced, like the lines of a couplet.

With illustrations by Salman Toor. (Public library) [79 pages]

 

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay (1918)

This is one of the stranger books I’ve ever read. I happened to see it on Project Gutenberg and downloaded it pretty much for the title alone, without knowing anything about it. It’s an obscure Australian children’s chapter book peopled largely by talking animals. Bill Barnacle (a human), Bunyip Bluegum (a koala bear) and Sam Sawnoff (a penguin) come into possession of a magical pudding by the name of Albert. Cut into the puddin’ as often as you like for servings of steak and kidney pudding and apple dumpling – or your choice from a limited range of other comforting savoury and sweet dishes – and he simply regenerates.

Naturally, others want to get their hands on this handy source of bounteous food, and the characters have to fend off would-be puddin’-snatchers such as a possum and a wombat and even take their case before a judge. The four chapters are called “Slices,” there are lots of songs reminiscent of Edward Lear, and the dialogue often veers into the farcical:

“‘You can’t wear hats that high, without there’s puddin’s under them,’ said Bill. ‘That’s not puddin’s,’ said the Possum; ‘that’s ventilation. He wears his hat like that to keep his brain cool.’”

I did find it all amusing, but also inane, such that I don’t necessarily think it earns its place as a rediscovered classic. It didn’t help that I then borrowed a copy of the book from the library and found that it was a terribly reproduced “Alpha Editions” version in Comic Sans with distorted illustrations and no line breaks in the songs. (Public library) [169 pages]

 

Tree Glee: How and Why Trees Make Us Feel Better by Cheryl Rickman (2022)

This is a small-format coffee table self-help book for nature lovers. It affirms something that many of us know intuitively: being around trees improves our mood and our health. Rickman looks at this from a psychological and a cultural perspective, and talks about her own love of trees and how it helped her get through difficult times in life such as when she lost her mum when she was a teenager. She includes some practical ideas for how to spend more time in nature and how we can fight to preserve trees. Unfortunately, a lot of the information was very familiar to me from books such as Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones – for a long time, forest bathing was one of the themes that kept recurring across my reading – such that this felt like an unnecessary rehashing, illustrated with stock photographs that are nice enough to look at but don’t add anything. [182 pages]

With thanks to Welbeck for the free copy for review.

Margaret Atwood Reading Month: The Door (#MARM)

It’s my fifth year participating in the annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by indomitable Canadian blogger Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years for this challenge, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips; and reread The Blind Assassin. Today is Atwood’s 83rd birthday, so what better time to show her some love?

Like the Beatles, she’s worked in so many different genres and styles that I don’t see how anyone could say they don’t like her – you just haven’t explored her oeuvre deeply enough. Although she’s best known for her fiction, she started off as a poet, with a whole five collections published in the 1960s before her first novel appeared. I’d previously read her Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965–1995 and Dearly, my top poetry read of 2020.

The Door (2007) was at that point her first poetry release in 12 years and features a number of the same themes that permeate her novels and nonfiction: memory, writing, ageing, travel and politics. I particularly like the early poems where she reinhabits memories of childhood and early adulthood, often through objects. Such artifacts are “pocketed as pure mementoes / of some once indelible day,” she writes in “Year of the Hen.”

These are followed by a trilogy about the death of the family’s pet cat, Blackie. “We get too sentimental / over dead animals. / We turn maudlin,” she acknowledges in “Mourning for Cats,” yet “Blackie in Antarctica” injects some humour as she remembers how her sister kept the cat’s corpse in the freezer until she could come home to bury it. Also on the lighter side is a long “where are they now?” update for the Owl and the Pussycat.

There are also meta reflections on poetry, slightly menacing observations on the weather (an implacable, fate-like force) and the seasons (autumn = hunting), virtual visits to the Arctic, mild complaints about the elderly not being taken seriously, and thoughts on duty.

Four in a row muse about war – the Vietnam War in particular, I think? “The Last Rational Man” is a sinister standout, depicting a figure who is doomed under Caligula’s reign. Whoever she may have had in mind when she wrote this, it’s just as relevant 15 years later.

In the final, title poem, which appears to be modelled on the Seven Ages of Man, a door is a metaphor for life’s transitions and, ultimately, for death.

The door swings open:

O god of hinges,

god of long voyages,

you have kept faith.

It’s dark in there.

You confide yourself to the darkness.

You step in.

The door swings closed.

Apart from a few end rhymes, Atwood relies more on theme than on sonic technique or form. That, I think, makes her poetry accessible to those who are new to or suspicious of verse. Happy birthday, M.A., and thank you for your literary wisdom and innovation! (Little Free Library)

October Poetry Releases: Bergin, Draycott, Lopez, Rizwan, Skoulding

It was a prolific month for poetry. There is so much variety here in form and topic, from the tongue-in-cheek aphorisms of Tara Bergin’s Savage Tales to the maritime and ornithological portrait of Anglesey in Zoë Skoulding’s A Marginal Sea. Something for everyone, I’d like to think, and I hope these capsule reviews and sample poems give you a taste.

 

Savage Tales by Tara Bergin

This is the third collection by the Irish poet; I’d previously read her The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx. Grouped into nine thematic sections, these very short poems take the form of few-sentence aphorisms or riddles, with the titles, printed in the bottom corner, often acting as something of a punchline – especially because I had them on my e-reader and they only appeared after I’d turned the digital ‘page’. Some appear to be autobiographical, about life for a female academic. Others are political (I loved “Tenants and Landlords”), or about wolves or blackbirds. The verse in “Constructions” takes different shapes on the page. Here are “The Subject Field” and “The Actor”:

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

The Kingdom by Jane Draycott

I love the Matisse cut-outs on the cover of Draycott’s fifth collection. The title poem’s archaic spelling (“hyther,” “releyf”) contrast with its picture of a modern woman seeking respite from “the men coming on to you / the taxi drivers saying here jump in no / no you don’t need no money.” Country vs. city, public vs. private, pastoral past and technological future are some of the dichotomies the verse plays with. I enjoyed the alliteration and references to an old English herbarium, Derek Jarman and polar regions. However, it was hard to find overall linking themes to latch onto.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

We Borrowed Gentleness by J. Estanislao Lopez 

Brimming with striking metaphors and theological echoes, the first poetry collection by the Houston-based writer is an elegant record of family life on both sides of the Mexican border. “Laredo Duplex” (below) explains how violence prompted the family’s migration. “The Contract” recalls acting as a go-between for a father who didn’t speak English; in “Diáspora” the speaker is dubious about assimilation: “I am losing my brother to whiteness.” The tone is elevated and philosophical (“You take the knife of epistemology and the elegiac fork”), with ample alliteration. Flora and fauna and the Bible are common sources of unexpected metaphors. Lopez tackles big issues of identity, loss and memory in delicate verse suited to readers of Kaveh Akbar. (My full review is on Shelf Awareness.)

With thanks to Alyson Sinclair PR for the free e-copy for review.

 

Europe, Love Me Back by Rakhshan Rizwan

This debut collection has Rizwan juxtaposing East and West, calling out European countries for the prejudice she has experienced as a Muslim Pakistani in academia. She has also lived in the UK and USA, but mostly reflects on time spent in Germany and the Netherlands, where her imperfect grasp of the language was an additional way of standing out. “Adjunct” is the source of the cover image: she knocks and knocks for admittance, but finds herself shut out still. Rizwan takes extended metaphors from marriage, motherhood and women’s health: in “My house is becoming like my country,” she imagines her husband instituting draconian laws; in “I have found in my breast,” a visit to a doctor about a lump only exposes her own exoticism (“Basically, the Muslims are metastasizing”). In “Paris Proper,” she experiences the city differently from a friend because of the colonial history of the art. (See also Liz’s review.)

Some favourite lines:

“my breasts harden / with milk, that peculiar ache of women’s bodies / which do only half the sin / but carry all the history” (from “Half the Sin”)

With thanks to The Emma Press for the proof copy for review.

 

A Marginal Sea by Zoë Skoulding

Skoulding’s collection is said to be all about Anglesey in Wales, but from that jumping-off point the poems disperse to consider maps, maritime vocabulary, seabirds, islands, tides and much more. There are also translations from the French, various commissions and collaborations, and pieces about the natural vs. the manmade. Some are in paragraph form and there’s a real variety to how lines and stanzas are laid out on the page. I especially liked “Red Squirrels in Coed Cyrnol.” I’ll read more by Skoulding.

 With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

Read any good poetry recently?

September Releases by John Clegg & Tom Gauld (Lots More to Come!)

There aren’t enough hours in the day, or days left in this month, to write up all the terrific September releases I’ve read. The nonfiction fell into two broad thematic camps: books about books (Remainders of the Day by Shaun Bythell and Blurb Your Enthusiasm by Louise Willder still to come), or books about death (What Remains? by Rupert Callender, And Finally by Henry Marsh, and Sinkhole by Juliet Patterson still to come). However, I’ll start off with the two I happen to have written about so far, which are (the odd one out) poetry about science and watery travel, and bookish cartoons. Both:

 

Aliquot by John Clegg

This is the second Carcanet collection by the London bookseller. An aliquot is a sample, a part that represents the whole; a scientific counterpart to synecdoche. It’s a perfect word for what poetry can do: point at larger truths through the pinpricks of meaning found in the everyday. The title poem juxtaposes two moments where the poet muses on the part/whole dichotomy: watching a catering school student and teacher transferring peas from one container to another and spotting two cellists on a tube train. Drawn in by detail, we observe the inevitable movement from separation to togetherness.

A high point is “A Gene Sequence,” about an administrator working behind the scenes at a genomics conference on a Cambridge campus: each poem is named after a different amino acid and the lines (sometimes with the help of extreme enjambment) always begin with the arrangement of A, C, G, and T that encodes them. Here’s an example:

Much of the imagery is maritime, with the occasional reference to a desert (“Language as Sonora”) or settlement (“Dormer Windows” and “Quebec City”). The locations include a science campus and a storm-threatened hotel (“Hurricane Joaquin,” one of my favourites). A proverb is described as being as potent as a raw onion. Here’s a lynx you’ll never see – but she will see you. Like in a Caroline Bird collection, there’s many an absurd or imagined situation. The vocabulary is unusual, sometimes lofty: “their cursory repertoire of query.” Alliteration teems, as in “The High Lama Explains How Items Are Procured for Shangri-La.” Overall, a noteworthy and unique collection that I’d recommend.

A favourite, apropos of nothing stanza from “Lucan – The Waterline”:

There is a kind of crab known to devour human flesh.

There is a shelf five storeys undersea

Where small yachts pile up like bric-a-brac.

There is a town in Maryland called Alibi.

With thanks to Carcanet for the advanced e-copy for review.

 

Revenge of the Librarians by Tom Gauld

You have probably seen Gauld’s cartoons in the Guardian, New Scientist or New Yorker. I’ve saved clippings of my favourite bookish ones over the years. They’re full of literary in-jokes and bibliophile problems, and divided about equally between a writer’s perspective and a reader’s: the struggle for inspiration and novelty on the one hand, and the battle with the TBR and the impulse to read what one feels one should versus what one enjoys on the other. He pokes holes in the pretensions on either side. Jane Austen features frequently.

Gauld’s figures are usually blocky stick figures without complete facial features (or books or ghosts), and he often makes use of multiple choice and choose your own adventure structures. Elsewhere he plays around with book titles and typical plots, or stages mild-mannered arguments between authors and their editors or publicists, who generally have quite different notions of quality and marketability.

Lest you dismiss cartoons as being out of touch, the effect of the pandemic on bookshops, libraries and literary events is mentioned a few times. Librarians are depicted as old-time gangsters peddling books while their buildings are closed: “Overdue books are dealt with swiftly and mercilessly” it reads under a panel of a fedora-wearing, revolver-toting figure warning, “The boss says if you ain’t finished ‘The Mirror and the Light’ by tomorrow, it’s curtains!”

Some more favourite lines:

  • “1903: Henry James writes a sentence so long and circuitous that he becomes lost inside it for three days.”
  • (says one pigeon to another) “I’ve become a psychogeographer. It’s mainly walking around disapproving of gentrification.”
  • “A horrible feeling crept over Elaine that perhaps the problems with her novel couldn’t be overcome by changing the font.”

Two spreads that are too good not to share in full (I feel seen!):

And would you look at this attention to detail on the inside cover!

This is destined for many a book-lover’s Christmas stocking.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

Tempted to read one of these?
What other September releases can you recommend?

Summery Reads from Holly Hopkins, Sarah McCoy, Phil Stamper and Edith Wharton

Every season, I try to choose a few books that feel appropriate for their settings or titles. A few of these I’ve already mentioned briefly, as part of my heat wave reading suggestions. Much as I love autumn, the end of summer tends to coincide with gloomy musings for me. However, it’s farewell to August with four reasonably cheerful books: a poetry collection about England then and now, city and country; an escapist novel set on the Caribbean island of Mustique in the 1970s; the story of four gay friends going their separate ways for a high school summer of adventure; and a less-tragic-than-expected American classic.

The English Summer by Holly Hopkins (2022)

Colour, geology and history are major sources of imagery in this debut full-length collection. Churches and cemeteries, museums and manor houses, versus hospitals and rental flats: this is the stuff of a country that has swapped its illustrious past for the dismal reality of the everyday. The collection closes with “England, Where Did You Go?” which ends, “should I get out in search of you, … / I’d be left wandering down dual carriageways, / looking across bean fields and filthy ditches.” Hopkins imagines a government that decides to address climate change by assigning weekly community service hours – nearly twice as many for women, who always bear the greater burden for domestic work.

It’s mostly alliteration, repetition, and internal or slant rhymes here. I particularly liked the pair “Rows of Differently Coloured Houses,” which contrasts bright seaside facades with the “Lakes of postwar pebbledash / grey on grey on grey on grey” seen from a Megabus, and “Stratigraphy,” about the archaeologist’s work. Not many standouts otherwise, but it was still worth a try. (New purchase – the publisher, Penned in the Margins, lured me with a sale)

Mustique Island by Sarah McCoy (2022)

Mustique is a private island in the St. Vincent archipelago that became a playground of the rich and famous in the 1970s, with Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger regular visitors. In McCoy’s novel – inspired by real events and people, and featuring cameos from the aforementioned celebrities as well as the island’s owners at the time, the baron Colin Tennant and his wife, Lady Anne Glenconner (who, I was amused to spot at the library the other day, has written her own fictional tribute to the island, Murder on Mustique) – Willy May, a Texan with a small fortune at her disposal thanks to her divorce from an English brewing magnate, sails in on a private boat and decides to build her own villa on Mustique. She’s uncomfortable with the way locals, who only have service jobs, are sometimes paraded out for colonial displays of pomp. Her two young adult daughters, Hilly and Joanne, later join her. The one has been a model in Paris, where she became addicted to amphetamines.

Love is on the cards for all three main female characters, but there’s heartache along the way as well. Closer to women’s fiction than I generally choose, this was a frothy indulgence that was fun to read but could be shorter and needn’t have tried so hard to make serious points about motherhood and to evoke the time period, e.g., with a list of what’s on the radio. I have also reviewed McCoy’s Marilla of Green Gables. (Offered by publicist via NetGalley)

Golden Boys by Phil Stamper (2022)

Four gay high schoolers in small-town Ohio look forward to a summer of separate travels for jobs and internships and hope their friendships will stay the course. We have Gabriel, a nature lover off to volunteer for a Boston save-the-trees non-profit; Sal, his friend with benefits, who dreams of bypassing college for a career in politics so interns at his local senator’s office in Washington, DC; Reese, headed to Paris for a fashion design course; and Heath, escaping his parents’ divorce and moving chaos to stay with an aunt and cousin in Florida and work at their beach café. With alternating first-person passages from all four characters, plus transcriptions of their conversation threads, this moves quickly.

Reese has been secretly infatuated with Heath for ages, but three of the four will consider new dating opportunities this summer (the fourth just becomes a workaholic). Secondary characters are pansexual and nonbinary – it’s a whole new world from when I was in high school! Initially, I found the inner monologues too one-note, but I think Stamper’s aim was to recreate the teenage struggle for self-confidence and individuality and has captured that life stage’s inherent anxiety. I also would have trimmed the preparatory stuff; nearly 100 pages before the first of them leaves Ohio is a bit much. This YA novel was a sweet, fun page turner and the perfect replacement to the Heartstopper series as my summer crush. However, I don’t think I was taken enough with the characters to read next year’s projected sequel. (Public library)

 

Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)

Charity Royall was born into poverty but brought down the mountain and adopted by a kindly couple into respectable North Dormer society. Mrs. Royall has died before the action starts, but as a young woman Charity still lives with Lawyer Royall, her guardian, and works at the library. When a stranger, Mr. Harney, arrives in their New England town to survey the local architecture, it’s clear right away that he’ll be a romantic prospect for her. “She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he made it as bright and open as the summer air.” However, shame over her lowly origins – she is so snobbish every time she comes into contact with someone from the mountain – continues to plague her.

Although Harney returns her affections and they set up a little love nest in an abandoned house in the woods, uncertainty lingers as to whether he’ll consider marriage to Charity beneath him. This skirts Tess of the d’Urbervilles territory but doesn’t turn nearly as tragic as Ethan Frome (apparently, Wharton called this a favourite among her works, and referred to it as “the Hot Ethan”). Charity isn’t as vain as another Hardy heroine, Bathsheba Everdene; she’s an endearing blend of innocent and worldly, and her realistic reaction to what fate seems to decree feels like about the best one can expect for her time. Melodrama aside, I truly enjoyed the descriptions of a quintessential American summer with picnics and Fourth of July fireworks. Ethan fan or not, you should definitely read this one. (University library)

20 Books of Summer, 14–16: Barba, Bersweden and Solnit

I’m all about flowers today: American wildflowers in poetry and prose, a year of hunting down the flora of the British Isles, and a discursive account of a famous English author’s life and times through the prism of his rose garden.

 

American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, ed. Susan Barba; illus. Leanne Shapton (2022)

This comes out from Abrams Press in the USA on 8 November and I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness, so I’ll just give a few brief thoughts for now. Barba is a poet and senior editor for New York Review Books. She has collected pieces from a wide range of American literature, including essays, letters and early travel writings as well as poetry, which dominates.

Apart from a closing section on various/anonymous wildflowers, where particular species are named they are grouped into families, which are arranged alphabetically. The Asteraceae section is particularly strong, with poems on dandelions and sunflowers, a typically prophetic Aldo Leopold fragment about the decline of native flora, and “Asters and Goldenrod,” an extract from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (itself one of my 20 Books of Summer – review to come in the week) that I think was also excerpted in This Book Is a Plant.

Sample two-page spread with a Leanne Shapton watercolor and part of an Allen Ginsberg poem.

In general, I engaged more with the poetry than with the prose. Barba has ensured a real variety of styles, with good representation for BIPOC. What draws it all together into a beautiful whole I wish I could see as a physical object is Leanne Shapton’s watercolor illustrations, painted from pressed flowers. “What a gift to stare at flowers—these ephemeral miracles of color and synthesis and botany,” she writes in an opening note. This would be a perfect coffee table book for any gardener or nature lover. (E-review copy)

 

Where the Wildflowers Grow: My Botanical Journey through Britain and Ireland by Leif Bersweden (2022)

A good case of nominative determinism – the author’s name is pronounced “leaf” – and fun connections abound: during the course of his year-long odyssey, he spends time plant-hunting with Jon Dunn and Sophie Pavelle, whose books featured earlier in my flora-themed summer reading: Orchid Summer and Forget Me Not. With Dunn on Unst, Shetland, he sees not only rare flowers but close-up orcas. Like Pavelle, who he meets up with in Cornwall, he has an eye to how species will be affected by climate change and commits to doing his hunting by train and bike; there’s only so much you can see when zooming by in a car. Bersweden makes a case for spending time with plants – after all, they don’t move, so once you’ve found them you can commune in a way you can’t during, say, a fleeting mammal encounter.

He starts 2021 with a New Year Plant Hunt in central London with his mother – more is in bloom in January than ever before, at least in part due to climate warming. Even when the weather is foul on his travels, there is plenty to be seen. Everywhere he goes, he meets up with fellow experts and plant enthusiasts to marvel at bluebell woodlands or ancient pine forests, alpine or bog species. The floral circuit (documented in full on the book’s website through chapter-by-chapter photographs; there are two small sections of colour plates in the hardback) is also a chance to tour the British Isles, from Kent to Cork, coast to mountaintop.

Bersweden has been in love with plants ever since childhood; he believes they have nostalgia value for many people, and can be an easy way into appreciation of nature. “A wildflower growing from a crack in the wall is an everyday miracle.” His casual writing style and clear zeal for his subject – his author photo is of him hugging a tree, and another has such a cute caption: “Being given the opportunity to hold a Greater Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me!” – make this a pleasure even though it’s a bit overlong at points. (Public library)

 

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (2021)

I was fascinated by the concept behind this one. “In the spring of 1936 a writer planted roses” is Solnit’s refrain; from there sprawls a book that’s somehow about everything: botany, geology, history, politics and war – as well as, of course, George Orwell’s life and works (with significant overlap with the graphic novel biography of him that I read last year). On a trip to England with a friend who is a documentary filmmaker, Solnit had the impulse to go find what might be left of Orwell’s garden. When she arrived in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, the current owners of his home kindly showed her round. His fruit trees had long since been cut down, but the rosebushes were still going strong some 80 years later.

This goes down as a skim for me: though I read the first 30%, after that I just browsed to the end. Some side tracks lost me, e.g. Tina Modotti’s presentation of roses in her photographs; Orwell’s interest in mining, which leads Solnit to investigate how coal is formed; much history; and a week spent observing the rose-growing industry in Colombia. I most enjoyed the book when it stayed close to Orwell’s biography and writings, positing gardening as his way of grounding his ideas in the domestic and practical. “Pursuits like that can bring you back to earth from the ether and the abstractions.” I also liked – briefly, at least – thinking about the metaphorical associations of roses, and flowers in general.

If you’ve read Solnit before, you’ll know that her prose is exquisite, but I think this was the stuff of a long article rather than a full book. As it is, it’s a pretty indulgent project. (Kaggsy reviewed this recently and came to somewhat similar conclusions.) (NetGalley)

20 Books of Summer #11, Review Catch-up, and Wainwright Children’s Picks

Comparing my January–April reading totals with my May–July average, I see that my reading is down 57% over the last few months (at least in terms of number of books finished), and I can only blame the stress and time-consuming processes of moving house and DIY. I feel like I’ve slowed to a crawl through my various challenges, including my 20 Books.

With increasingly apocalyptic news filling my feeds, I find that I simultaneously a) want to retreat into books all the more and b) wonder what the point of all this compulsive reading is. For now, I’m taking as back-up Gretchen Rubin’s motto shared on National Book Lovers Day (“Reading is my tree house and my cubicle, my treadmill and my snow day” – what a perfect summary! It’s playtime, escape, mental exercise, indulgence but also, in some cases, work) and the premise of San Diego philosopher Nick Riggle’s upcoming This Beauty, which I’m reading for an early review: the purpose of life is to participate in and replicate beauty.

 

20 Books of Summer, #11

From the hedgerows: A collection of short stories on the wildlife, places and people of Newbury District by Lew Lewis (2008)

The love and appreciation of natural beauty starts at home, and we are lucky here in West Berkshire to have a very good newspaper that still hosts a nature column (currently by beloved local author Nicola Chester). This collection of Newbury Weekly News articles spans 1979 to 1996, with the majority of the pieces from 1990–5. They were contributed by 17 authors, but most are by Lew Lewis (including under a pseudonym).

If you regularly read the Guardian Country Diary feature, you’ll find the format familiar. The general idea is to pick a natural phenomenon that’s seasonal or timely in some way, and write a short essay on it that incorporates context, personal observation, a political conscience and sometimes whimsical or nostalgic musing. Many pieces are about bird sightings; a few are about plants and insects; others celebrate the unique landscapes we have here, like heath and chalk downland. Some are quaint, like an introduction to “ticking” (birders’ list-keeping).

It was faintly depressing to see that we’ve been noting these habitat and species losses and their causes (generally, intensified agriculture) for over 30 years, and haven’t done enough to reverse them. But there are some good news stories, too, like “Return of the Red Kite,” one of our flagship species. This is basically self-published and could have done with some extra proofreading, but the black-and-white illustrations, most by Richard Allen, are charming. I was so pleased to find this on my library reshelving trolley one day. It’s an important artefact of a nature-lover’s heritage. There should be a follow-up volume or two! (Public library)

 

Review Book Catch-up

Rookie: Selected Poems by Caroline Bird (2022)

I discovered Caroline Bird early last year through In These Days of Prohibition and her latest collection, The Air Year, was one of my favourite reads of 2021. Part of the joy of working my way through this chronological volume was finding the traces of Bird’s later surrealism. Her first collection, Looking through Letterboxes, was written when she was just 14 and published when she was 16, but you’d never guess that from reading these poems of family, fairy tales and unspecified longing. I particularly liked the first stanza of “Passing the Time”:

Thirty paperclip statues on every table in the house

and things are slightly boring without you.

I’ve knitted a multi-coloured jacket for every woodlouse

in the park. But what can you do?

Trouble Came to the Turnip has some cheeky and randy fare, with the title poem offering a beleaguered couple various dubious means of escape. Watering Can pits monogamy and marriage against divorce and the death of love, via some twisted myths and fairy tales (e.g., Narcissus and Red Riding Hood). “Last Tuesday” is a stand-out. The Hat-Stand Union has more of what I most associate with Bird’s verse: dreams and the surreal. “How the Wild Horse Stopped Me” was a favourite. Mostly, I’m glad I own this so I can have access to the material from her two latest collections, but it was also fun to encounter her earlier style. In an afterword, she writes: “I chose poetry because it let me hide and, once hidden, I could be brave, roll my heart in sequins and chuck it out, glittering, into the street.”

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

Getting through It: My Year of Cancer during Covid by Helen Epstein (2022)

Given my love of medical memoirs and my recent obsession with Covid chronicles, this was always going to appeal to me. Epstein, an arts journalist and nonfiction author born in Prague and based in Massachusetts, was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in June 2020. She documents the next year or so in a matter-of-fact diary format, never shying away from the details of symptoms, medical procedures and side effects. Her husband Patrick’s e-mail updates sent out to friends and family, and occasional medical reports, fill in the parts she was less clear on due to fatigue and brain fog – including two small strokes she suffered. Surgery was followed by chemo and then the fraught decision of whether to decline brachytherapy (internal radiation). And, of course, all this was happening at a time when people were less able to see loved ones and rely on their regular diversions. The apt cover conjures up the outdoor chaise longue where Epstein would hold court and receive visitors.

In my mind, cancer patients fall into two camps: those who want to read everything they can about their illness so they know what to expect, and those who avoid thinking about it at all costs. For those in the former group, a no-nonsense book like this will be invaluable. I particularly appreciated Epstein’s attention to her husband’s experience, which she had to dig a little deeper to understand, and her realization that having female cancer brought back memories of childhood sexual molestation. She is also candid about how other people’s emotional demands (e.g., recounting a family member’s illness, or expecting effusive gratitude for small thoughtful acts) weighed on her. A forthright Everywoman’s narrative.

With thanks to the author for the free e-copy for review. Full disclosure: We are acquaintances through a Facebook group for book reviewers.

 

Wainwright Children’s Prize shortlist

I’ve now read 4 of 7 books on the Wainwright Prize’s Children’s Nature and Conservation Writing shortlist. I’m unlikely to have a chance to read the other three before the winner is announced unless my library system acquires them quickly. Any of the ones I’ve read would make a deserving winner, but the two I review below really grabbed me by the heartstrings and I would be particularly delighted to see one or the other take this inaugural award.

 

One World: 24 Hours on Planet Earth by Nicola Davies, illus. Jenni Desmond (2022)

It’s one minute to midnight in London. Two Brown sisters are awake and looking at the moon. A journey of the imagination takes them through the time zones to see the natural spectacles the world has to offer: polar bears hunting at the Arctic Circle, baby turtles scrambling for the sea on an Indian beach, humpback whales breaching in Hawaii, and much more. Each spread has no more than two short paragraphs of text to introduce the landscape and fauna and explain the threats each ecosystem faces due to human influence. As the girls return to London and the clock chimes to welcome in 22 April, Earth Day, the author invites us to feel kinship with the creatures pictured: “They’re part of us, and every breath we take. Our world is fragile and threatened – but still lovely. And now it’s the start of a new day: a day when I’ll speak about these wonders, shout them out”.

A lot of research went into ensuring accuracy, and the environmentalist message is clear but not overstated. Fantastic! (Public library)

 

Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, illus. Tom de Freston (2021)

I could never have predicted when I read The Way Past Winter that Hargrave would become one of my favourite contemporary writers. Julia and her parents (and not forgetting the cat, Noodle) are off on an island adventure to Unst, in the north of Shetland, where her father will keep the lighthouse for a summer and her mother, a marine biologist, will search for the Greenland shark, a notably long-lived species she’s researching in hopes of discovering clues to human longevity – a cause close to her heart after her own mother’s death with dementia. Julia makes friends with Kin, a South Asian boy whose family run the island laundromat-cum-library. They watch stars and try to evade local bullies together. But one thing Julia can’t escape is her mother’s mental health struggle (late on named as bipolar: “Mum sometimes bounced around like Tigger, and other times she was mopey like Eeyore”). Julia thinks that if she can find the shark, it might fix her mother.

Hargrave treats the shark as both a real creature and a metaphor for all that lurks – all that we fear and don’t understand. It and murmurations of starlings are visual motifs throughout the book, which has a yellow and black colour scheme. Like One World, it’s as beautifully illustrated as it is profound in its messages. Julia is no annoyingly precocious child narrator, just a believable one who shows us her struggling family and the love and magic that get them through. I could see this becoming a modern children’s classic. (Public library)