February 5, 2016
Hardback, Canongate, £14.99, out now
A young woman flies back into Orkney with her newborn baby – pausing at the airport to introduce the baby to her husband, who is being flown out, in a straitjacket, to a psychiatric hospital. Amy Liptrot, the author of this engaging addition to the nature/memoir selection, was the baby in question.
The rest of the book is as candid and compelling as the opening. Liptrot is open and graphic about her alcoholism, which becomes particularly brutal while she is working in London in her twenties. Her account of her recovery, from several failed attempts at rehab to a successful intense course and a return to Orkney, is illuminating. This isn’t a ‘nature as healer’ book, and it is resolutely unsentimental about island life. It interleaves the events of Liptrot’s life with beautiful passages of nature writing.
Her account of searching for the rare corncrake at 3am in the ‘simmer dim’ half light of an Orkney summer night is vivid, and I found I picked up lots of unexpected information about the life and wildlife of the islands. It is pleasing to learn that an Orkney wild swimming club is called the ‘Polar Bears’, and that until 1977 sheep were individually winched on and off a particular rock on one of the islands. Her unexpected joy in the natural world is well expressed: “There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy”. This was a pleasure to read, despite its sometimes bleak subject matter, and I recommend it.
Review by Bethan
August 1, 2015
Bloomsbury Circus, out now
Katharine Norbury was abandoned as a baby in a Liverpool convent, raised by caring adoptive parents, and then had a family of her own. The book opens as she starts a series of British nature journeys with her young daughter, prompted by bereavement following a miscarriage.
In this nature memoir, Norbury describes her life and her relationship with nature with candour and flair. She is compelled to trace her biological mother, and takes us to the end of this difficult journey.
She heads off alone to remote spots: as a woman who often walks out alone, it pleased me to have another woman walker describe her own experiences so effectively. “The more space I put between myself and the wakeful inhabitants of the mainland, the better I felt. The sea shone pearl-grey, opaque, and the sky lightened above it with a bloom as soft as a plum”.
Mixed in are stories from Celtic mythology, and thoughts about adoptive families (and non-adoptive ones). The theme of those who are grieving finding some solace, distraction or balm from the natural world has been covered in much recent writing, perhaps most famously in H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. If you liked that, this will appeal. But it is also very readable for anyone thinking about what family means, how marriages can work, and how nature can be a part of our everyday lives.
May 24, 2015
Imagine Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, turned into a novel. British nature features in At Hawthorn Time as a character, as London does for Dickens. Disappearing and forgotten paths weave through the book, and those who remember or sense them often seem to be out of time. Opening with the aftermath of a terrible car crash on a country lane, At Hawthorn Time braids several narratives that give us space to think about the countryside and the natural world. How do we see our countryside now? What is it, and what might it be?
Jack wishes “just to be able to go where I like… Just to live how I see fit. I don’t do any harm, God knows…”. Repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy and other things, we join him walking out of London, away from his hostel, and towards the village of Lodeshill where he hopes to find farm work. Howard and Kitty, retirees from London following Kitty’s dream of countryside life, are recent incomers to Lodeshill. The difference in their views of the countryside is just one of their problems. Their young neighbour Jamie has his own difficulties, with an ailing grandfather, and his unsatisfactory job as a picker and packer at a giant warehouse.
Each chapter starts with brief nature notes from Jack’s journal. We may admire or envy his total attunement to nature, as the current popularity of nature writing and television shows suggests. But this does not translate into society tolerating his unconventional way of living. Increasing legislation and surveillance restrict his choices, and his situation makes us wonder what we might be prepared to do to regain the freedoms we have lost. At a time when street homelessness seems to be everywhere – I have people living in my local park – it is worth thinking about who is allowed to be where, and when, and who enforces this. A timely and compelling read.
Review by Bethan
June 6, 2013
Paperback now available – £9.99
Nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is lyrical nature writing that draws deep on literature, myth and memory. It’s a book for walkers or indeed anyone who’s felt their imagination stir as they put one foot in front of the other on an ancient path. Macfarlane is intensely curious about the places and people he encounters – and himself. If you can read it outdoors with a majestic landscape as your companion then all the better. It’s also a book that does a fine job of reviving interest in the early 20th century poet Edward Thomas, who was heavily influenced by the English countryside. His collected poems are also available at the Riverside.
For fans of Robert Macfarlane, there’s also the intriguing Holloway about the author’s exploration of a sunken path in south Dorset. It’s a slender, exquisite volume illustrated by Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood.
October 6, 2012
The six titles up for the UK’s leading non-fiction prize include some popular and much admired books here at the Riverside Bookshop. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane, is lyrical nature writing that draws deep on literature, myth and memory; a book for walkers or indeed anyone who’s felt their imagination stir as they put one foot in front of the other.
The other nominees are:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity by Steven Pinker
The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston
Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux
The winner will be announced on 12 November.