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One From the Archive: ‘A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France’ by Miranda Richmond Mouillot ****

First published in February 2015.

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France has been hailed both ‘a rich and evocative portrait of Mouillot’s family spanning three generations’, and ‘a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents’.  In her debut work, Mouillot ‘seeks to confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past, which is at once sharply present and maddeningly vague’.

9780804140669A Fifty-Year Silence presents an ‘honest account’ of her grandparents’ separation, and the consequent problems which their offspring and only grandchild, Miranda, were caused.  Anna and Armand purchased an old stone house in the south of France after surviving the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.  Five years after they had moved, Anna left, ‘taking the typewriter and their children.  They never met again’.

In her author’s note, Mouillot tells us that this ‘is a true story, but it is a work of memory, not a work of history’.  The whole has been based, for the most part, upon letters, diaries, and conversations had with her grandparents, as well as her own memories of them.  Mouillot is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, ‘with a lot of bad memories to cope with’.  These feelings were passed down to her; she tells us: ‘I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead’, and ‘the unspoken question that nettled me was not whether such a thing [as losing a house] could happen but how many houses you could lose in a lifetime’.

A Fifty-Year Silence begins in a manner which immediately gives us a feel for Mouillot’s grandparents: ‘When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye.  She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me’.  She then goes on to say: ‘My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency.  She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself’.  Her seeming incompatibility with her stubborn, set-in-his-ways grandfather, is discussed at length. Mouillot believed that her grandparents were ‘more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection’.

From the first, Mouillot’s narrative is engaging, and she presents her voyage of self- and familial-discovery marvellously.  The flashbacks of her grandparents’ comments, and musings about their early lives have been woven along with her own youth.  She weaves in the tale of how she herself fell in love with La Roche, the decrepit, crumbling house two miles away from the nearest village, and an hour north of Avignon, whilst visiting as a teenager, and how she has now made the region her home.  A Fifty-Year Silence is incredibly interesting, and it has been so lovingly written that it truly is a treat to settle down with.

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‘Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage’ by Kathleen Winter ****

As is so often the case, I had had my eye on Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage for an age before I purchased it. I first read Winter years ago, when her novel, Annabel, was selected as the first choice for the in-real-life book club that I was a member of. I got a great deal from it; many others did not. Boundless is certainly a very different book, but for me, it was just as enjoyable, and just as memorable.

In 2010, Winter – who lived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now resides in Montreal – took ‘a journey across the legendary Northwest Passage’ in a Russian icebreaker. She travelled from the southwest coast of Greenland to the largest island in Canada, Baffin Island. On her extended trip, on which she was invited at the last minute to make up the journalist contingent, she encountered a great deal of things, many of which were troubling. She saw, firsthand, the effects of climate change on small and isolated communities, and also the difficulties between balancing the traditional cultural elements of Inuit populations with the advances of the modern world.

When she embarked on this journey, Winter had just turned fifty. At the point at which she is invited on the trip by a writer friend, who cannot make it after all, she reflects: ‘I thought of my own British childhood, steeped in stories of sea travel. I thought of Edward Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. I thought… of the longing and romance with which my father had decided to immigrate to Canada. I thought of all the books I’d read on polar exploration, on white men’s and white women’s attempts to travel the Canadian Far North.’ She goes on: ‘For a writer, loneliness is magnetic. The very names on the map excited me… I knew that to go to these places would activate something inside me that had long lain dreaming.’

People from all walks of life are passengers on the ship. The majority of those on board are men, many of whom sport ‘explorer-type beards’. However, alongside Winter, there is a Canadian Inuk woman, and a Greenlandic-Canadian, both of whom are set upon cultivating interest in their communities. Winter writes that to these two women ‘fell the task of teaching us about the North from the perspectives of Inuit women who have lived there all their lives – women who have come to know its animals, plants, and people, both indigenous and visiting, through long experience.’ I found the portions where she writes about these women quite fascinating.

Whilst much of the ship is rather luxurious, her own accommodation arguably leaves something to be desired: ‘Higher up, through open doors, I had seen passengers’ deluxe cabins with big windows looking out over Baffin Bay. By the time I descended to my own little cabin, there were tiny portholes, and when I pressed my nose to the glass, there lay the sea surface at the level of my rib cage.’ However, she quite wonderfully sees everything as an adventure; she reasons that she will only be sleeping in her little cabin, and will largely be exploring, or talking to others on deck.

I admired the commentary which Winter gives; in it, she captures a great deal. When they first reach Greenland by plane, she comments: ‘Our bus had rounded a corner in the crags of Kangerlussuaq [a small town in the west of the country], and there in the bay was our ship, floating so crisp and blue and white it looked as if someone had ironed and starched it into one of those three-dimensional pop-up picture books that had enchanted me when I was a child.’

The descriptions which Winter gives of her surroundings are highly visceral. She writes, for example: ‘As we sailed into Disko Bay, ice floated in silence, quiet green-greys leading to whites and back to blues. There was no sign of any human, only reflections of ice and sky and northern sea, and the light held a low frequency that lent ice and sky and water a glow both incandescent and restrained.’ Later, she tells us: ‘The fjord acted as an orchestral chamber, magnifying the sounds of these ice monoliths as they crushed and worked. It sounded like a vast construction site. There was a gunshot crack, then a thump and another avalanche; layered under these were the lapping of water, the echoing roar of wind around the moonscape mountains, and other, more distant collisions of ice echoing down the fjord.’

Winter translates the awe which she feels regarding the landscapes around her with a great deal of care, and makes us so aware of the physical landscape. She describes the way in which: ‘We floated by Zodiac to icebergs gathering at the fjord mouth: caves, pillars, monumental and illumined with blue light, and darkness in the deep recesses – so enigmatic and imposing I said nothing for hours.’ Sometimes, in fact, she finds words quite redundant. She comments: ‘I was finding, in the North, that words are a secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.’

The Northwest Passage is a fascinating, and still relatively unexplored, region. Winter comments: ‘It would later be revealed that even our captain’s navigational charts did not tell the complete truth about what lay ahead of us, since much of the Arctic remains uncharted and the land, wind, and ocean themselves are forever in flux’. The original plan for the trip was to follow Roald Amuldsen’s first successful route through the Northwest Passage, but this did not quite go to plan.

The very name of the passage is problematic; it was given the moniker by colonisers, and is known as other things entirely to those who live alongside it. I appreciated the time which Winter gave to discussing this fact. She draws attention to the vast differences between explorers, who see a region briefly and seem to think they then have dominion over it, and those who have called it their home for centuries. Often, in the communities which Winter and the other passengers visit, dogs outnumber humans. Despite this, there is still such a strong sense of history, and of shared experience.

I liked the way in which Winter wrote about her voyage as both physical, and one of self-discovery. She searches, throughout, for her own belonging. As an English transplant to Newfoundland in her youth, she tells another passenger that she feels ‘”sort of at home on the ship, here, between homelands.”‘ She writes with a great deal of insight about selfhood, and the loss of her first home. It is clear, from very early on in the narrative, that this journey had a profound impact upon the author, something which she comes back to throughout.

Boundless is Winter’s first work of non-fiction, and I am really hoping that it isn’t the last. Her prose is excellent, and balances more informative passages with her own musings with a great deal of skill. Winter’s tone is incredibly engaging, and I loved exploring the Northwest Passage through her lens. She is a continually thoughtful guide to the Arctic region. I long to do a journey like this one sometime in the future, but for now, I can only thank Winter for allowing me to take part in her own travels, and for being so open and honest about everything she encountered. Boundless is a thorough, and quite excellent, piece of travel writing, which I read with a great deal of interest from cover to cover.

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‘Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ by Jean Sprackland ****

One of my favourite places to be is on the beach, and I have been lucky enough to visit them all over the world; from Australia’s Bondi Beach on a very breezy December day, to hidden turquoise coves in Croatia and Montenegro, and the sand-swept, dune-filled coasts of Northern France and Belgium. Unfortunately, at present, I live in a landlocked English county and, like so many others across the world, was long separated from the beach by numerous lockdowns and travel bans.

One piece of solace which I found during this time was in Jean Sprackland’s first nature book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, which won the Portico Prize in 2012. Here, Sprackland has penned ‘a series of meditations prompted by walking on the wild estuarial beaches of Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool’, which she recorded over a single calendar year. She explores, primarily, ‘what is lost and buried and then discovered… about flotsam and jetsam, about mutability and transformation – about sea-change.’

Strands has been split into corresponding seasons, which is one of my favourite structures in which to present a nature book. I love to see how one place can differ so much from one season to the next; even from one month to the next. This is one of the main elements of focus for Sprackland; she is aware of every small change, and of what to expect as one month passes into the next. For her, this ‘stretch of coast has an entirely different spirit. It’s all about change, shift, ambiguity. It reinvents itself. It has a talent for concealment and revelation. Things turn up here; things go missing.’

In her preface, Sprackland immediately sets out that she has been walking along this particular beach for twenty years. For her, writing Strands is a bittersweet experience, as she is about to leave her home for London, and a new marriage. She knows that this is the last time in which she will be able to travel to Ainsdale Sands so often, and wished to record this process. She writes that over those two decades ‘… our relationship has grown complex and intimate. It has become, as places can, an inner as well as an outer landscape, one I carry around in my head and explore in my imagination even when I’m far from here.’ She goes on to say: ‘The version I carry in my head is endlessly flexible, but of course the external place does not obey me at all. It remains stubbornly unknowable.’

Sprackland is also a poet, and she writes her prose using careful, memorable, and even sometimes sharp, vocabulary choices. She sees her beach with a poet’s eyes. It is, for her, ‘a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.’ She goes on to say that ‘This characteristic of the beach – its capacity to surprise and mystify – is what brings me back here, day after day, month after month.’

Alongside the usual items which plague coasts all over the world – primarily plastic and litter – there are some surprises in store for Sprackland. In the first chapter, which occurs in spring, for example, she comes across ‘three wrecked ships lying on the surface’ of the sand. These, she has never seen before. She realises that she must have ‘cycled over them, oblivious’ when they had previously been buried under the sand. These boats, she finds out after conversing with a friend, that these ships show themselves for a few weeks at a time before being reburied, sometimes for years at a time. She later says: ‘I’ve often noticed a kind of “rule of recurrence”: I find something unusual – something I’ve never seen here before – and almost immediately I find another the same, and then another. And certain kinds of objects come and go; they’re numerous when I visit one week, and have vanished by the next.’

Sprackland goes on to find so many different things during her wanderings – mermaid’s purses, which hold the eggs of sharks, skates, and rays; samphire; ‘a bicycle saddle, a knitting needle, a large bleached knuckle bone, a light bulb’; a swarm of ladybirds; even a ‘blister pack of Prozac’, and a message in a bottle. She describes the way in which the ‘detritus of our lives is washed, softened and given back to us cleansed of its dirt and shame. That’s the work of the sea. It comes in faithfully, on schedule, like an old-time religion, and washes away our sins.’ She also nods to the myriad places in which these items she finds start their journey, ‘from so many different sources and directions: from the hands of walkers and picnickers; from the air; from underneath the sand; and of course from the sea. In an age where science has unlocked so many of Earth’s secrets, and almost the entire planet has been mapped and imaged, our oceans and shores remain relatively unexplored. Each new discovery presents questions and mysteries.’

Alongside the physical landscape of her particular beach, Sprackland has written about the crushing changes which climate change is already bringing to the species which are found just off the coast. She also wishes to raise an awareness of just how much one single person can see them changing. She urges: ‘Those of us with beaches to walk on should be learning the language of the things we find there. We should be reading the signs.’ She writes with a great deal of insight, stating: ‘If in the course of opening our eyes to environmental realities we have lost some of our simple pleasures and amazements, we have replaced them with passionate collective attachments to a few powerful symbols of what is previous and threatened: the polar bear, the tiger, the wildflower meadow, and so on. Our losses are not so often focused on the mucous, the smelly and the commonplace.’

I thoroughly enjoyed Sprackland’s second nature book, These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards; indeed, I think about it often. Here, too, there is so much to consider, and to appreciate. Sprackland’s prose is often quite profound; she makes one stop and think throughout, with sentences such as the following: ‘It’s dizzying, the realisation that we spend our lives moving precariously on the outer skin of the planet, and that same skin contains all the stuff of history.’ She is a considerate and quite meditative author. Her prose is beautiful and attentive; there is a haunting appeal to it. As with These Silent Mansions, Strands is highly detailed, and so well researched; there is also such a visceral sense of place within it.

I love the way in which Sprackland blends her own observations with scientific facts, and the way in which she includes quotes from other writers, particularly poets. Strands is relatively introspective, and deals with such a comparatively small stretch of coastline, but Sprackland manages to discuss so much within its pages. It is an unusual nature book in its focus, and one which I would highly recommend.

If you are interested, you can read my review of Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions here.

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Ten Underrated Authors

I always feel mildly surprised when I read a book which I love, but which barely anyone else seems to have picked up. Of course, there are so many books in the world, and thousands of new ones being published every year, that we can sadly never get around to picking up everything which interests us. There is a real shame though, in enjoying an author’s voice so much, and realising that others, who would surely love it too, haven’t discovered it yet.

I find examples of this often; there are so many authors who make my favourites list that draw a blank with the readers in my life. This spurred me on to create a list of ten authors, all of whom I think are underrated, and all of whom I would urge you to read. I have chosen what I feel would be a great starting point for each author, and really hope that I can persuade you, dear reader, to pick up something new.

Harriet Scott Chessman

Start with: Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (2001)

I picked up Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper in a secondhand bookshop. I hadn’t heard anything about it before, but was captivated by its blurb. I took it home and, intrigued, began to read it the same day. I found myself pulled into the visually beautiful world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. Her sister, Lydia, posed for five of her most famous paintings, and the novella follows her primarily. Scott Chessman writes with such sensitivity about Lydia’s Bright’s Disease, which attacks her kidneys, and how she deals with the knowledge of her inevitable early death. Despite this, there is so much beauty in the book, and I still think about it often.

Julia Stuart

Start with: The Matchmaker of Périgord (2007)

I can’t remember when I first discovered Julia Stuart, but I have read each of her four novels to date with a great deal of delight. Although I would recommend all of them – and they are all rather different in what they set out to achieve – my absolute favourite has been The Matchmaker of Périgord. I am always drawn to novels about France, as any readers of this blog will surely know, and this novel, set in a southwestern corner of France, is just lovely. A barber, named Guillaume Ladoucette, is losing business, and decides instead to branch out into matchmaking. Along the way, he helps a great deal of unusual and quirky characters, and instills a great joy into his small village. I loved this amusing novel, and cannot wait to reread it.

Alice Jolly

Start with: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns (2015)

I spotted this in my local library whilst I still lived in my hometown, and was drawn in by the book’s title. After reading the blurb, I added it to the staggering pile of tomes already in my arms, and took it home with me. What I found in the book’s pages was a great deal of sadness balanced with hope, all revealed in the most beautiful prose. The main events of this self-published memoir revolve around the stillbirth of Jolly’s second baby, and her consequent difficulties in conceiving, as well as a surrogacy journey. It will be relatable to a lot of people, and although it is quite often difficult to read, I savoured every word, and greatly admired Jolly’s bravery in telling her own story.

Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Start with: Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1959)

I must admit that Miss Plum and Miss Penny is the only book of Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s which I have read to date, but I feel that she will be an author whose work I adore. This novel, which tells of Miss Alison Penny, is amusing, a little silly, and rather charming. On the morning of her fortieth birthday, ‘spinster’ Miss Penny, who lives in a picturesque village, saves another woman – Miss Ada Plum – from drowning in the local duckpond. What follows took me by surprise at points, and kept my attention throughout. I must thank Dean Street Press and Furrowed Middlebrow for reprinting this one, as it may have passed me by otherwise!

Jo Baker

Start with: The Body Lies (2019)

I must admit that my absolute favourite of Jo Baker’s books is the beautiful historical novel The Picture Book, but The Body Lies is the first which I read, and one which I would highly recommend beginning with. I received a copy of the novel on Netgalley, and did not quite know what to expect, but what I found was a compelling and clever literary thriller. A writer moves to the countryside of the north of England, along with her young child, to work at a university; this is supposed to be a fresh start for her. Baker writes with such intelligence about sexual politics, and has created a deeply unsettling, and highly satisfying novel.

Joanna Cannan

Start with: Princes in the Land (1938)

The Persephone fans among you have probably heard of Joanna Cannan, a rather prolific writer who published over many different genres, from crime fiction to pony stories, and sister of the quite wonderful poet May Wedderburn Cannan. I was pulled into her novella, Princes in the Land, from the very first. We follow Patricia, who is lamenting about her children growing up and leaving home, and wondering where it leaves her in the world. Other reviewers have called this depressing, and I suppose it is to an extent, given its focus, but I thought it was beautifully written, and a very thoughtful piece.

Jesse Ball

Start with: Census (2018)

I try, as best I can, to keep up with contemporary American literature; I love it so much. It is often difficult to pick out authors whom I want to read immediately, but something about Jesse Ball caused me to scour my local library catalogues, and even to contemplate whether it would be worth ordering some of his books from the States, as they are often quite difficult to procure in the UK. I have been lucky enough to find a couple of his novels to date, and admire them for their unusualness. I would highly recommend starting, as I did, with the incredibly beautiful Census, which charts a relationship between a father and his son in a strange, changing world. You can read my full review here if you would like to.

Vendela Vida

Start with: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (2007)

I have been lucky enough to read all of Vendela Vida’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. She writes about highly believable characters in such beautiful language. One of the real strengths of her books is the way in which she sets the scene; she is like a painter, unfolding what she sees in front of the reader. This particular novel follows Clarissa, a twenty eight-year-old woman, who finds out after her father’s death that he was not really her father at all. This leads her on a journey to Lapland, to discover her origins. There is so much to love in this story, and love it I did.

Jessie Greengrass

Start with: Sight (2018)

Jessie Greengrass has released two novels and a short story collection to date, and all of them have really appealed to me. She focuses on different things, and each of her books is really very different, but Greengrass’ writing is something which has kept me coming back. Her first novel, Sight, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, revolves around three females from the same family, and their relationships with one another. There are moments of such beauty and clarity here, and it is definitely a novel which I will reread in future. You can find my full review of Sight here.

Kathleen Jamie

Start with: Findings (2005)

Kathleen Jamie is both a poet and nature writer, but it is through the latter that I first discovered her work. Published by the excellent Sort Of Books, one of my favourite houses, Jamie spends her time in Findings ‘simply stepping out to look’ at what is around her. There is much about the beautiful countryside of Scotland, a country which I lived in for three years, and the nature which she is lucky enough to see here. Findings is filled with exquisite prose, and it really gives one a feel for the main themes in her work, and her way with words.

Please let me know if you’re going to pick up any books by these authors, and also which your favourite underrated authors are!

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‘Dark Skies: A Journey Into the Wild Night’ by Tiffany Francis ***

I very much enjoyed Sigri Sandberg’s An Ode to Darkness (review here) when I read it back in 2020, and have been on the lookout for similar books since. When I spotted Tiffany Francis’ Dark Skies: A Journey Into the Wild Night, I was suitably intrigued, and reserved a copy from my local library. In this, her second book, Francis ‘explores the nocturnal landscapes of Britain and Europe and investigates how our experiences of the night-time world have permeated human history, art and folklore.’

Dark Skies has been marketed as Francis’ account of travelling around ‘different nightscapes’, from witnessing 24-hour daylight in the Gulf of Finland, to the Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle amidst three months of constant darkness. Francis aims to delve into the history of ‘ancient rituals and seasonal festivals that for thousands of years humans have linked with the light and dark halves of our year.’ At the outset, she writes about the reasoning behind her exploration, and also poses quite poignant questions: ‘Everything we do depends on the sun rising every day, but half of our lives are spent in darkness. How much energy continues to burst from the landscape after the sun goes down? And by giving in to sleep when the world grows dark, how much of life are we missing out on?’

Throughout history, our lives have been shaped, to quite an extent, by darkness. Our ancestors often relied upon constellations to guide them, and tended to rise with the sun, and go to bed as soon as it became dark. They underwent a quite natural process called ‘second sleep’, in which they would wake for an hour or two around midnight, work on projects or simply relax, and go to sleep again afterwards. This has largely stopped in the modern world, partly due to our more structured days, and also because of the steep levels of artificial light which surround us at all times. It is becoming increasingly difficult, in the 2020s, to find somewhere which is completely dark.

Francis begins her journey in late September, just after her relationship with the often-mentioned “Dave” has ended. She writes: ‘… the thought of lingering on in Hampshire was enough to send me instead to Norfolk, to temporary distraction from the loneliness that had started to creep into my body.’ She travels relatively far from her home, largely throughout the United Kingdom, but also within some other European countries.

Francis undoubtedly captures some really nice moments throughout. In Tromsø, in Norway’s Arctic Circle, she sees the Northern Lights, and describes them thus: ‘A single ribbon of light had appeared from nowhere in the sky above the lake… It was barely visible at first, a flickering serpent waking from sleep… As the light inched across the sky in wandering, waving movements, a sliver of blue and green seemingly without purpose or direction… And so the ribbon widened, it seemed to harvest colours from all over the world, reflecting the cerulean waters of the Caribbean sea, the lime greens of sphagnum moss, the electric blue of a cobalt crust fungus, the pearlescent aperture inside a seashell. In that moment, the entire universe seemed to be captured, drifting through the sky before me in a glass thread.’

I enjoyed some of Francis’ writing, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the nature around her. Some of her sentences though do feel a bit overdone, and too romanticised, at times. I found some of the comparisons which she makes a little strange, I must admit; for instance, she describes herself as akin to ‘a wasp on a yoga ball’. This is something which I have never heard before, and I really have no idea what it is supposed to mean, as even in the context it wasn’t particularly clear. There are also touches of melodrama here, which I did not appreciate; she writes, for example, that a forest she was walking through ‘was so creepy I half-imagined we might be strangled by some devil-possessed ivy vines and dragged into the trees, a midnight feast for a gang of carnivorous plants lurching in the dark…’. Considering that Dark Skies is supposed to be a piece of nature writing, this felt highly unnecessary.

There are some glaringly obvious mistakes which have been included here too. The author claims, wrongly, that Mount Snowdon in Wales, at 1,085 metres above sea level, is the highest point in the British Isles. In actuality, Ben Nevis in Scotland is almost 300 metres taller, standing at 1,345 metres. I have no idea how such errors would have got past an editor. A lot of the book, indeed, could have done with some clearer editing, and this would, I am sure, have made it far more readable, and a bit less frustrating in places.

There is a slightly disjointed feel to the narrative throughout. Francis tends to begin a paragraph with one theme, and then moves to writing either about something completely different, or more often than not about herself and Dave, before circling back to something mentioned pages and pages beforehand. A lot of tangents are taken, and it sometimes makes this rather a jumbled, and largely unfocused, read. She also poses a lot of questions in her narrative, but never makes a single attempt to provide answers, or even to muse at length about what she has asked.

Dark Skies has received very mixed reviews since its 2019 publication. Many readers – and I do agree with them – have said that the book has been poorly marketed. Rather than an exploration of the night, and of darkness, Dark Skies focuses far more upon the memoir side of things than anything else. There is actually comparatively little about the ‘dark skies’ of the book’s title, particularly when one considers how much is written about her on-again, off-again relationship with the aforementioned Dave. I wish that many of the personal details here had been left out. Francis appears almost worryingly eager to share every single detail about herself, and about her relationship, to a reading public consisting largely of strangers. Oddly, for a twenty-first century woman who describes herself as a naturalist, I also did not feel as though she is always entirely respectful of the landscapes around her; she says, for instance, that it is ‘weirdly fun to pull off’ lichen from tree trunks – something which I would never personally dream of doing.

Dark Skies is not at all what I was expecting, and it does feel as though its marketing is quite misleading. It meanders here and there, and has very little structure to it on the whole. I also do not feel as though Francis really met her own brief here. She does do some things in the dark, like visiting an outdoor spa in Germany’s Black Forest, but her exploration of such occurrences, and of the darkness itself, does not go anywhere near far enough. Even when Francis writes of being in the dark, she is thinking of other things; there is no complete focus given to the darkness.

I had difficulty rating this title. It is largely for her lovely and quite informative chapters on Scandinavia – which were well written and executed, and actually set out to explore the darkness on some level – that I have rated this book as a 3-star read; without them, I could not have given it more than 2 stars. Dark Skies really did not match my expectations of what a book about night skies and darkness should include, and I found myself so disinterested in the very long portions written about her relationship, which served to overshadow the rest of the narrative. So much could have been explored and achieved here; it feels like a missed opportunity in a lot of ways.

Whilst I do not feel as though Dark Skies at all meets what it promises, Francis seems like a lovely person, with a great deal of talent. She and I have a lot of hobbies in common, from history and archaeology to Moomins and knitting, and I found myself relating to quite a lot of what she wrote. I would be so interested to read her other work in future, as I feel she has a lot to offer as both an author and an environmentalist.

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Quarterly Picks (Q1, 2022)

Late last year, I started a new full-time job, and I’ve now had to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have as much time to write reviews as I would like. I’m conscious that I want all of the books which I’ve particularly enjoyed to receive attention on the blog, but I haven’t had the chance to write down all of my thoughts about them.

I therefore thought that for the timebeing, I would adopt a new strategy, named Quarterly Picks. At the end of each quarter, I intend to collect together around ten books which I have relished during the last three months, which I want to draw attention to. For each, I will be sharing the official blurbs, and adding a little extra information here and there.

  1. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui (non-fiction; exercise; the great outdoors)

‘An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behavior itself.
 
We swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha-infested rivers to test our limits. We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world.

Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets in Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what about water—despite its dangers—seduces us and why we come back to it again and again.’

2. Teeth in the Back of My Neck by Monika Radojevic (poetry; powerful; hard-hitting; social commentary)

‘Written with profound depth and insight, the poems in Teeth in the Back of My Neck explore the joys, the confusions and the moments of sadness behind having one’s history scattered around the globe ­- and the way in which your identity is always worn on your skin, whether you like it or not.

Bristling with tension and beautifully realised, Monika Radojevic’s impressive debut collection is an introduction to one of the most exciting and impressive poets of her generation.’

3. My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel Deloache Williams (non-fiction, memoir; true crime; scandal)

‘Vanity Fair photo editor Rachel DeLoache Williams’s new friend Anna Delvey, a self-proclaimed German heiress, was worldly and ambitious. She was also generous. When Anna proposed an all-expenses-paid trip to Marrakech, Rachel jumped at the chance. But when Anna’s credit cards mysteriously stopped working, the dream vacation quickly took a dark turn. Anna asked Rachel to begin fronting costs—first for flights, then meals and shopping, and, finally, for their $7,500-per-night private villa. Before Rachel knew it, more than $62,000 had been charged to her credit cards. Anna swore she would reimburse Rachel the moment they returned to New York.

Back in Manhattan, the repayment never materialized, and a shocking pattern of deception emerged. Rachel learned that Anna had left a trail of deceit—and unpaid bills—wherever she’d been. Mortified, Rachel contacted the district attorney, and in a stunning turn of events, found herself helping to bring down one of the city’s most notorious con artists.’

4. Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking by Catherine McCormack (non-fiction, criticism; art; feminism; )

‘Women’s identity has long been stifled by a limited set of archetypes, found everywhere in pictures from art history’s classics to advertising, while women artists have been overlooked and held back from shaping more empowering roles.

In this impassioned book, art historian Catherine McCormack asks us to look again at what these images have told us to value, opening up our most loved images – from those of Titian and Botticelli to Picasso and the Pre-Raphaelites. She also shows us how women artists – from Berthe Morisot to Beyoncé, Judy Chicago to Kara Walker – have offered us new ways of thinking about women’s identity, sexuality, race and power. 

Women in the Picture gives us new ways of seeing the art of the past and the familiar images of today so that we might free women from these restrictive roles and embrace the breadth of women’s vision.’

5. A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier (historical fiction; embroidery; strong women)

‘1932. After the Great War took both her beloved brother and her fiancé, Violet Speedwell has become a “surplus woman,” one of a generation doomed to a life of spinsterhood after the war killed so many young men. Yet Violet cannot reconcile herself to a life spent caring for her grieving, embittered mother. After countless meals of boiled eggs and dry toast, she saves enough to move out of her mother’s place and into the town of Winchester, home to one of England’s grandest cathedrals. There, Violet is drawn into a society of broderers–women who embroider kneelers for the Cathedral, carrying on a centuries-long tradition of bringing comfort to worshippers.

Violet finds support and community in the group, fulfillment in the work they create, and even a growing friendship with the vivacious Gilda. But when forces threaten her new independence and another war appears on the horizon, Violet must fight to put down roots in a place where women aren’t expected to grow. Told in Chevalier’s glorious prose, A Single Thread is a timeless story of friendship, love, and a woman crafting her own life.’

6. Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence (non-fiction; investigative; eye-opening)

‘In 2004 Felicity Lawrence published her ground-breaking book, Not on the Label, where, in a series of undercover investigations she provided a shocking account of what really goes into the food we eat. She discovered why beef waste ends up in chicken, why a single lettuce might be sprayed six times with chemicals before it ends up in our salad, why bread is full of water. And she showed how obesity, the appalling conditions of migrant workers, ravaged fields in Europe and the supermarket on our high street are all intimately connected. Her discoveries would change the way we thought about the UK food industry for ever. And, when the horsemeat scandal hit the headlines in 2013, her book seemed extraordinarily prescient once again. Now, in this new edition of her seminal work, Felicity Lawrence delves deeply into that scandal and uncovers how the great British public ended up eating horses.’

7. Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel (non-fiction, memoir; race; womanhood; creativity)

‘In this sensational agenda-setting début, Michaela Coel, BAFTA-winning actor and writer of breakout series I May Destroy You and Chewing Gum, makes a compelling case for radical honesty.

Drawing on her unflinching Edinburgh Festival MacTaggart lecture, Misfits recounts deeply personal anecdotes from Coel’s life and work to argue for greater transparency. With insight and wit, it lays bare her journey to reclaiming her creativity and power, inviting readers to reflect on theirs.

Advocating for ‘misfits’ everywhere, this timely, necessary book is a rousing and bold case against fitting in.’

8. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol (graphic novel, memoir; Russian culture in the United States; relationships)

‘A gripping and hilarious middle-grade summer camp memoir from the author of Anya’s Ghost.

All Vera wants to do is fit in—but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there’s one summer camp in her price range—Russian summer camp.

Vera is sure she’s found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the “cool girl” drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!

Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier, Cece Bell, and Victoria Jamieson, Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared is a funny and relatable middle-grade graphic novel about navigating your own culture, struggling to belong, and cherishing true friendship.’

9. The Gaps by Leanne Hall (fiction, mystery; race; class)

‘When sixteen-year-old Yin Mitchell is abducted, the news reverberates through the whole Year Ten class at Balmoral Ladies College. As the hours tick by, the girls know the chance of Yin being found alive is becoming smaller and smaller.

Police suspect the abduction is the work of a serial offender, with none in the community safe from suspicion. Everyone is affected by Yin’s disappearance—even scholarship student Chloe, who usually stays out of Balmoral drama, is drawn into the maelstrom. And when she begins to form an uneasy alliance with the queen of Year Ten, Natalia, things get even more complicated.

Looking over their shoulders at every turn, Chloe and Natalia must come together to cope with their fear and grief as best they can. A tribute to friendship in all its guises, The Gaps is a moving examination of vulnerability and strength, safety and danger, and the particular uncertainty of being a young woman in the world.’

10. Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield (fiction; magical realism; relationships)

‘Miri thinks she has got her wife back, when Leah finally returns after a deep-sea mission that ended in catastrophe. It soon becomes clear, though, that Leah is not the same. Whatever happened in that vessel, whatever it was they were supposed to be studying before they were stranded on the ocean floor, Leah has brought part of it back with her, onto dry land and into their home.

Moving through something that only resembles normal life, Miri comes to realize that the life that they had before might be gone. Though Leah is still there, Miri can feel the woman she loves slipping from her grasp.

Our Wives Under The Sea is the debut novel from Julia Armfield, the critically acclaimed author of salt slow. It’s a story of falling in love, loss, grief, and what life there is in the deep deep sea.’

Have you read any of these books? Which are your top picks from the last quarter?

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‘Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra’ by Laura Galloway ***

I am constantly drawn to cold places and remote settings. When these elements combine in a book, it is invariably added to the top of my to-read pile. Laura Galloway’s memoir, Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra, was no exception. I was particularly interested in this volume, as I found out relatively recently that a great deal of my maternal heritage is Scandinavian. I liked the parallels to the author; Galloway embarked upon her Arctic adventure when she discovered from an ancestry test that she shared DNA with the Sámi people, an indigenous group who call the Arctic tundra their home.

Her discovery ‘tapped into Laura Galloway’s wanderlust’, and a subsequent relationship with a Sámi reindeer herder led her to leave her home in New York City for a tiny Norwegian Arctic reindeer-herding town named Kautokeino, which sits upon the Finnmark Plateau. Its population is less than three thousand people. Even after her relationship dissolved soon afterwards, she decided to stay in Norway for six years, living with her animals, and coming to terms with life on a new continent. Dálvi reflects upon her time here, ‘as she struggled to learn the language and make her way in a remote community for which there were no guidebooks or manuals for how to fit in.’

Galloway’s time in this new place ‘opened her to a new world… [and] brought something else as well: reconciliation and peace with the traumatic events that had previously defined her’, including her mother’s sudden death when she was just three years old, a difficult relationship with her unfeeling stepmother, and a ‘lifelong search for connection and a sense of home’. In her author’s note, Galloway makes clear that Dálvi is a very personal and particular piece of writing, ‘singularly a product of my urban, outsider lens and experiences in this particular culture, rather than an insider’s view or perspective.’

From the very beginning, this is a searingly honest recollection. In her first chapter, Galloway reminisces about how difficult her life in New York had become: ‘I was breaking open and falling apart, and to reveal this weakness and vulnerability to anyone might have caused me to die of shame. But the universe seemed to have plans for me, ones that would take me outside of everything I knew… This is a place where you have to be with yourself because there are no distractions. Only work and nature and time.’ From this point onward, Galloway gives a lot of detail about her background, and the contributing factors which led her to make such a big move.

Her life begins to change when she visits northern Norway for a traditional wedding; here, she meets a Sámi reindeer herder named Áilu. She recalls: ‘I was drawn to him, and he to me. Our conversations were simple and honest. We were both searching for something we hadn’t found in the worlds we inhabited. Which couldn’t be more different. Maybe this is what makes for a successful relationship, having nothing in common at the start, to be moved purely by feeling rather than intellect… We were both learning completely new worlds, and that seemed enough.’ When she goes back to New York, the two correspond regularly on the Internet. She makes the snap decision to move to his hometown, and soon learns that there will be long periods of separation between the couple: ‘… this is what matters here. This is what it means to be with a reindeer herder; you are not just with the person, but the life and culture that come with it.’

The descriptions in the memoir are the highlight of Dálvi. Galloway writes, in quite gorgeous prose, of the endless, empty scenes around her: ‘The land is vast, with sloping hills and great plains dotted with low papery silver birch and loamy tundra… It looks prehistoric, as if this was the way things might have been millions of years ago… In the summer, the landscape explodes with colour, made even more vibrant by the contrasts: brilliant blue skies, voluminous and low white clouds, and fields over fields of wildly growing stalks of purple horbma, the Sámi word for fireweed, and perky tansy flowers, their perfect yellow buttons saluting the sun. The land is resplendent and alive.’ Of a trip to a local lake with Áilu, she writes: ‘Other than the noises we have brought, the world is totally silent, vast and pristine. I feel the shell of city life slowly, slowly beginning to crack and loosen, giving way to the smallest glimmer of wonder and possibility, things that have been missing from my life longer than I had realized…’.

At first, I found the narrative of Dálvi engaging, but I did not enjoy the many chapters which were rooted in Galloway’s childhood, or her early career. Some of the sections in which she writes about her early media career feel too long, and border on rambling. There is far less structure given to recollections of her past; they do not seem to follow a chronology for the mostpart, and sometimes feel muddled. Whilst it was, of course, important to learn where she came from, and what had caused her to make such a big change in her life, I felt that these sections were quite overdone. The writing, as well as the things which she recollects, is repetitive, and definitely detract from the whole. I do not feel as if Dálvi has been marketed quite as well as it could have been; I was expecting a memoir which focused almost solely upon life in the Arctic, and that is not what I feel I received.

I did find Dálvi interesting to read on the whole, particularly given Galloway’s perspective on being in a very different community as an ‘outsider’. The process of assimilation which she imparts, and which rarely goes smoothly, is fascinating. As one would expect, there is a lot of cultural information about the Sámi people throughout, as well as reflections about how they interact with one another, and with others. I also enjoyed the thoughtful commentary about the difficulties facing the Sámi people in the modern world – primarily climate change, but also the use of natural habitats to the likes of mines and wind farms, the threat of a new railway line bisecting the Arctic, and the involvement of the Norwegian government which is seen as rather strict, and ‘dictates how many reindeer each owner can have in a herd’. There was not quite enough of this, though. Despite the positives, I do not feel as though this memoir is as successful as it could have been, and I did not enjoy it anywhere near as much as I expected I would.

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‘What Language Do I Dream In?’ by Elena Lappin ****

I have always been incredibly interested in both languages, and one’s sense of identity and belonging. These elements come together in Elena Lappin’s memoir, What Language Do I Dream In?. Diana Athill calls the book ‘captivating’, and Kirkus Reviews write that Lappin has created a ‘meditation on family secrets, loss, and personal belonging… [which] reveals how… language can become the “shelter” and home that nurtures selfhood and identity’.

Lappin, who currently lives in the United Kingdom, was born in Moscow, and grew up in Prague and Hamburg. She has also lived in Israel, Canada, and the United States; in the book’s blurb, she is described as a ‘multiple emigré’. Her eventual decision to write in English was the ‘result of many wanderings’, and much language learning. What Language Do I Dream In? reflects upon the many tongues which she has spoken in, as well as many rather revealing reflections about her family as they carved their own space in the world.

In the first chapter, Lappin reflects that at the age of forty-seven, she was told a “secret” by a relative she did not know about; that the man who raised her was not her biological father, and that her “real” father lived in New York, after emigrating from the Soviet Union in 1973. She comments that when she found out, ‘No one except my brother seemed to be concerned about how this bombshell was affecting me. My parents were the core, I was the periphery. Whose story was this, really? And what was the story?’ When she first discovers this shattering fact about herself, and makes the quite difficult decision to write this book, she comments: ‘My father’s resistance to my need to know the truth about who I was, and indirectly about who my parents were, and to write about it, was a serious obstacle for me initially. I had been conditioned, or had conditioned myself, to think of my parents as the people to whom I was not allowed to cause any pain. Their happiness was my responsibility. My happiness was more than my own feeling about my life: it was a way of making theirs easier.’ Despite its gravity, this discovery is not the central thread of the book.

Lappin then moves in time, back to her childhood. She left Moscow, and her beloved grandparents, as a young girl, moving first to Prague, and then to Hamburg, following the Soviet invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968. Of this time, she reflects: ‘When we emigrated to Germany I watched my parents start all over again, at the age of forty, without knowing a word of their new language.’ She goes on to say that she and her family ‘were all émigrés, in staggered stages. Russian was the first casualty of all our wanderings.’

What follows in Lappin’s book is a series of interlinked memories, one leading into another. What Language Do I Dream In? is arranged like a jigsaw; different reflections and spaces in time slot into place, and the whole gains further context as it goes on. Although I generally like a linear structure in memoirs, I found this construction highly effective in Lappin’s memoir. She writes with such clarity that leaps from one period to another never feel confusing.

I found the musings offered throughout about what it was like to grow up in such different places incredibly valuable, and quite enlightening. Living in Czechoslovakia offered the young Elena far more freedom than she would have had in Russia; much of this freedom was bestowed on her by her parents, who allowed her to roam the streets by herself from an early age. She was a ‘Young Pioneer’, which was mandatory for children in Czechoslovakia. Of this, she writes: ‘At a very young age all this was fun rather than a chore I felt forced into. From my point of view as an adult, it’s almost embarrassing to realise just how irrelevant the crippling ideology behind these activities was to me as a child.’

Lappin was present at some of history’s most pivotal moments – the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the ensuing Prague Spring, to name but two. This is described by Lappin as ‘a sudden explosion of freedom and reform from within the core of the Czechoslovak Communist Party itself… the borders with the West opened up; censorship was abolished… The world was watching Czechoslovakia with amazement and admiration… Unfortunately, the Soviet leadership was watching as well; the heady days of the new, democratic Czechoslovakia were numbered, and would be over by August.’ When she and her family move to Hamburg, she is made to confront her Jewish roots ‘in addition to my Czech and Russian ones’.

What Language Do I Dream In? is a full, and quite fascinating, portrait of a life which has been lived across continents. As well as learning about the author, a lot is – perhaps inevitably – revealed about her family too. What Language Do I Dream In? is a really interesting exploration of history and language, and the way in which they both feed into one another. I really enjoyed Lappin’s writing style; she adds a lot of colour to everything, particularly from an historical and sociological perspective. Her exposure to so many languages, and different ways of expressing herself, is quite fascinating to read about. As a piece of social history, What Language Do I Dream In? is invaluable, and it is a memoir which I highly recommend.

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Two Nature Memoirs: ‘The Dun Cow Rib’ and ‘The Grassling’

The Dun Cow Rib by John Lister-Kaye ***

John Lister-Kaye was a new-to-me author when I picked up The Dun Cow Rib, a memoir of his English childhood, which was spent ‘scrambling through hedges… keeping pigeons in the loft and tracking foxes around the edge of the garden.’ In his foreword, Lister-Kaye writes about his present life in the Scottish Highlands, in which a self-built hut has become ‘a treasured centre of separateness, a place to muse, an escape.’ He embarked upon the writing of this book in the hope that he could discover what first gave him such an enduring interest in the natural world.

His 1950s childhood sounds rather lonely, although he insists it was not. During the holidays, he would go and stay with his grandparents in the Manor House in rural Warwickshire, his father’s country pile ‘to which we always gravitated as surely as bees return to their hive, however far afield the capricious winds of fortune had wafted us.’ Here, he remembers spending a lot of time by himself in the garden, with its ‘rampant, inexhaustible verdure’. This was a privileged existence; the house had many rooms to explore, and a full retinue of servants.

The prose is very descriptive, and rather lyrical, but it does verge upon sickly at times. The structure, however, is where the book is let down. The narrative jumps around a lot from one idea to another, or from one time period to the next, and then back again. The motifs and images tend to become rather repetitive too. I would have definitely enjoyed this memoir more had it focused more upon his childhood – and perhaps less upon the many boarding school japes – and had it a chronological narrative. The Dun Cow Rib is also not exclusively a memoir of childhood, which I feel is a little misleading; Lister-Kaye writes about the lives of his parents, and moving to the Highlands to work with Gavin Maxwell, for instance. There are also whole chapters to be found here which fail to mention the natural world at all.

I did not know what to expect from Lister-Kaye’s writing, but I was hoping that I might enjoy it more than I did. On the whole, this was pleasant enough, but it is not overly relatable, given the privilege of his upbringing. In the past, I have been blown away by a lot of the nature writers I have discovered, but I cannot say the same for this fellow. Perhaps this is not the best of his books to begin with, but I do not feel overly compelled to reach for any others.

The Grassling: A Geographical Memoir by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett ****

I had heard nothing about Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s nature memoir, The Grassling: A Geographical Memoir, before stumbling across it on an Instagram post. I was intrigued enough by its blurb to request a copy from the library, and I am so pleased that I took the chance. Burnett, who has previously published poetry collections, was ‘spurred on’ to write The Grassling by the declining health of her father. Her intention here is to permeate ‘layers of memory, language and natural history to tell a powerful story of how the land shapes us and speaks to us.’

The book is entirely set around the countryside in Devon, which Burnett grew up within. She writes at length about the changing seasons, and , whilst also weaving in bigger questions about her identity and belonging. As a half-Kenyan woman, she finds herself Othered at times, not at home in the place which she spent so much of her young life. She writes, early on, ‘I turn back to the earth. The magnetism of the land, not just where I was birthed, but where my father was; his father and his; pulls me to it, as if by knowing it, I should know them.’

From the outset, it is clear that The Grassling has been written by a poet. Burnett’s grasp of vocabulary is rich, and has such a striking beauty to it. Her writing is visceral, and incredibly visual; it heightens all of the senses. The opening paragraph begins: ‘On the shortest day, the light never ends. Conifers buffer deep gusts of air, animals cry. The sky stings of a metal or an ore, iron wool rolled flat from moon to field. No stars. Clouds ripple the darkening grey. It must be darker because colours are, but the feeling is still of light. The body and the air.’

I recognise that The Grassling will not appeal to everyone, but I found it beautiful and reflective. Burnett is candid throughout, constantly reasserting what she is seeking out. She is admirably in touch with her surroundings, and I found a real reverence toward the landscape within the piece. I loved her approach, in which she blends together a series of different narrative techniques. The Grassling is an unusual and original book in many ways, and whilst it is not entirely straightforward at points, it is well worth seeking out. Burnett is capable of making us see the things around us with fresh eyes, and that is a real gift.

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Rural Memoirs

I am happiest when exploring, and I have always been enraptured by the countryside, no matter which region I am visiting. In my reading life, I am drawn to rural memoirs, and have made my way through quite a few of them in the past. However, a lot of these are recent publications, or volumes which my library has on its nature shelves. I wanted to try and marry my love of forgotten books, with the rather niche genre of rural memoirs. After stumbling across a wonderful shelf on Goodreads, I have created a list of ten lesser known books which I very much want to get to, and soon.

1. Speak to the Earth: Pages from a Farmwife’s Journal by Rachel Peden (1974)

‘A farmwife for 45 years, Rachel Peden believed that the family farm’s best crop is a “harvest of the spirit.” In Speak to the Earth, she looks at life — domestic and wild, human and critter — through the eyes of someone who witnesses nine seasons of the year rather than the typical four. Peden views the farm as “a place of opportunity simultaneous with obligation, an immaculate fitting-together of plant and animal life.” Each year yields an abundance of small, priceless observations, and through her writings, Peden encourages readers to appreciate both the simple pleasures in life as well as the more profound qualities embodied in family and neighbors, mallards and ladybugs, possums and pigs, and the irresistible characteristics of old houses, local history, and changing times.’

2. When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journey of Staying Put by Vivian Swift (2008)

‘Following a lifetime of trekking across the globe, Vivian Swift, a freelance designer who racked up 23 temporary addresses in 20 years, finally dropped her well-worn futon mattress and rucksack in a small town on the edge of the Long Island Sound. She spent the next decade quietly taking stock of her life, her immediate surroundings, and, finally, what it means to call a place a home.

The result is When Wanderers Cease to Roam. Filled with watercolors of beautiful local landscapes, seasonal activities, and small, overlooked pleasures of easy living, each chapter chronicles the perks of remaining at home, including recipes, hobbies, and prized possessions of the small town lifestyle. At once gorgeously rendered and wholly original, this delightful and masterfully observed year of staying put conjures everything from youthful yearnings and romantic travels to lumpy, homemade sweaters and the gradations of March mud.’

3. The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet (1961)

‘This is a biography and astonishing adventure story of a woman who, left a widow in 1927, packed her five children onto a 25-foot boat and cruised the coastal waters of British Columbia, summer after summer.Muriel Wylie Blanchet acted single-handedly as skipper, navigator, engineer and, of course, mum, as she saw her crew through encounters with tides, fog, storms, rapids, cougars and bears. She sharpened in her children a special interest in Haida culture and in nature itself. In this book, she left us with a sensitive and compelling account of their journeys.’

4. The Happy Season by Mireille Burnand Cooper (1952)

‘From Kirkus Reviews: “A childhood summer in Sepey, Switzerland, has a mild, gentle recall of sunny time and comfortable family life. Papa, an artist, and Mama, the six sons and the two girls, make their return to the house that is the center of a three family reunion and this is the blissfully remembered record of the small incidents that loomed large in young Mireille’s life as she and her twin, Rita, struggled for recognition in the face of competition from Franz, Marcel, Rene, Tony and the boy twins, David and Daniel. There were relatives and visitors, godparents, games, the rats’ room (and polecats), storms and bathing parties, local celebrations and Sunday customs; there were expeditions to a neighboring castle, to a nearby farm and in the adult world, a bit of romance, a glimpse of death, and the comforting security of a safe home life. Relaxed and relaxing, this is pastel tinted nostalgia.”‘

5. The Shape of a Year by Jean Hersey (1967)

‘Month by month chronicle of a woman’s life in Connecticut. Nature observations.

The shape of a year is written for those who enjoy gardening. You are allowed to glimpse daily moments in Jean Hersey’s life. Recipes are given. Grape juice is made, forsythias are forced and patchwork pillows are sewn. How to make maple peppermint tea, what to do with boiled day lilies and how you should winterize your perennials is included in this personal cycle of life.’

6. A Tuscan Childhood by Kinta Beevor (1993)

‘The sparkling memoir of an idyllic, bohemian childhood in an enchanted Tuscan castle between the wars.

When Kinta Beevor was five, her father, the painter Aubrey Waterfield, bought the sixteenth-century Fortezza della Brunella in the Tuscan village of Aulla. There her parents were part of a vibrant artistic community that included Aldous Huxley, Bernard Berenson, and D. H. Lawrence. Meanwhile, Kinta and her brother explored the glorious countryside, participated in the region’s many seasonal rites and rituals, and came to know and love the charming, resilient Italian people. With the coming of World War II the family had to leave Aulla; years later, though, Kinta would return to witness the courage and skill of the Tuscan people as they rebuilt their lives. Lyrical and witty, A Tuscan Childhood is alive with the timeless splendour of Italy.’

7. Long Ago When I Was Young by E. Nesbit (1966)

‘An autobiographical account by the author of “The Railway Children” and other children’s books, in which she describes a childhood spent sometimes within the security of her family and sometimes apart from them in schools she detested.’

8. On Island Time by Hilary Stewart (1998)

‘This book is for anyone who dreams of living on an island. Writer and artist Hilary Stewart recounts the tale of buying property on Quadra Island, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, and her determined search for the ideal house design. Through drawings and anecdotes, she shares her delight in discovering the small wonders of the natural world while exploring the nearby beaches, forests, and lakes, gathering seaweeds, mushrooms, plants and berries. Hilary Stewart also offers glimpses of some of the people and events that make up island life: learning local ways and history, attending Native peoples’ ceremonies, observing the water dowser, helping to discover unknown petroglyphs, circumnavigating Quadra Island on a boat, canoeing quiet lakes, coping with wild winter storms, taking part in the annual eagle count – and drumming up the full moon around a fire near the beach.’

9. A Croft in the Hills by Katharine Stewart (1996)

A Croft in the Hills captures life on a Scottish hill croft 50 years ago. A couple and their young daughter, fresh from life in the town, struggle to get the work done and make ends meet in an environment that is, at times, hard and unforgiving.’

10. The Outermost House by Henry Beston (1928)

‘A chronicle of a solitary year spent on a Cape Cod beach, The Outermost House has long been recognized as a classic of American nature writing. Henry Beston had originally planned to spend just two weeks in a seaside cottage, but was so possessed by the mysterious beauty of his surroundings that he found he “could not go.”

Instead, he sat down to try and capture in words the wonders of the magical landscape he found himself in thrall to: the migrations of seabirds, the rhythms of the tide, the windblown dunes, and the scatter of stars in the changing sky. Beston argued that, “The world today is sick to its thin blood for the lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” Seventy-five years after they were first published, Beston’s words are more true than ever.’

Are you a fan of the rural memoir? Have you read any of these books?