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Midge Raymond – My Last Continent

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Some have check-lists. Others just a particular passion.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 306
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-35548-2
First Published: 21st June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2016
Rating: 4/5

Deb works as a naturalist. She’s rarely at home, instead spending most of her time studying penguins and teaching tourists, travelling to Antarctica and spending nights there. On one such trip she met Keller, an ex-lawyer who had signed up as a dishwasher in a bid to get to the coldest continent; he had persuaded her to let him tag along on explorations. Speaking now of the past, Deb interweaves these stories with the one in which a cruise ship has veered too close to the ice – a ship Keller happened to be on at the time.

My Last Continent is an oft-epic tale of Antarctic exploration, the damage of tourism to that environment and the effects of very real dangers, complimented by an at times very moving love story.

Dealing with the storytelling first, the story jumps this way and that way in time – the only constant is that you know you’ll be heading back to the story of the ship wreck and that that story will command the end section of the book. The structure means you know a disaster will happen – the ‘present day’ chapters, for want of a better term, are labelled in terms of days before the tragedy and the rest of the chapters move about on a very flexible time scale, any when from ‘six months until shipwreck’ to ‘twenty years before shipwreck’. This means that it’s difficult to get a sense of where exactly you are in time because the structure is so jumpy, but it’s not a loss overall. Yes, you may be confused by, for example, Deb mentioning Dennis in a particular chapter when you’d thought he’d not arrived in her life by that time, but as the main event is that shipwreck, it’s not much to worry about.

As you know how the book will end (you know what’s happened to Deb and Keller before Keller is introduced in person) this book’s romantic element is focused more on the journey than any result. This works in Raymond’s favour; whilst you as the reader may feel you can pull back somewhat from being enveloped, knowing how it will end and that you’re reading of Keller in the past also means that Raymond can throw caution to the wind. Would Deb and Keller’s story sound, yes, sad, but also too… mushy… in another book? Perhaps. But here it works. That’s not to say we’ve Titanic – Jack and Rose – levels of romance, because we haven’t. Raymond’s dedication to the research element of her story, and her non-tourist characters’ dedication to their work, has a very grounding affect on the romance.

Let’s look at Raymond’s dedication to the facts – in My Last Continent we have a book that sports a lot of info-dumping, but in this case the result can be considered a unicorn, that word now used as much to describe things that are miraculously unique as much as it describes a mythical animal. When you consider fiction normally, info-dumping is bad because it tells us things we could work out on our own – just tell us the basic details, we can add the dining room and picket fence all on our own. We know how people eat, sleep, bathe. But as Raymond is talking about Antarctica all bets are off – how many readers have been to Antarctica? It’s a case of knowing Raymond has info-dumped but truly being able to gloss over it because it’s interesting. We need the world building. (This said there are a couple of conversations that push it a bit too far, conversations that are obvious devices, that could have done with a rewrite.)

The information serves a second purpose. Beyond helping you form a not-so-stereotypical image in your head, Raymond is concerned about conservation and the impact human exploration has on the wildlife and climate of Antarctica. She doesn’t preach – what she does most is to show the effects. Her story, which effectively casts you, the reader, as a passenger on the journey along with the fictional tourists who will come to be aware of the problems. Sometimes you’ll know about the problems because Deb’s talked about them, other times your ever-expanding knowledge will clue you in itself. So this means that you are reading a work that sits on the fence between fact and fiction and is obviously heavily tuned towards teaching, but this lesson doesn’t over-burden. And that’s all down to Raymond’s crafting of the romance.

Raymond doesn’t draw too many lines. Whilst she points out that tourism is a problem, her tourist characters are mostly people who want to help, through their discovery of the problems en route. Many characters are there to show how dangerous the continent can be. As much as tourism is a problem, she says in subtext, these explorers are here and whilst they’re studying they aren’t immune from that label themselves.

In reading My Last Continent you’re signing up for a romance in snow that’s anything but a winter wonderland. You’re signing up to a book that’s not quite fiction. You’re signing up for a book that’s not a relaxing read. You’re here to learn. But for all that you get an excellent introduction to Antarctica, a fast-paced story, a good romance, and knowledge you can take with you beyond the last pages.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Amy Liptrot – The Outrun

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Running to rather than from.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 278
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-11547-2
First Published: 31st December 2015
Date Reviewed: 25th April 2016
Rating: 4/5

Understanding she has become dependent on alcohol and that despite earlier thoughts it’s not making her feel better, rather it’s making her feel worse, Amy Liptrot enrolls at a treatment centre and then decides to move back home to Orkney from London to see if bettering her location can help her recover from her addiction. In moving back she becomes in tune with nature, enjoying all the things she’d left, helping her father on the farm, taking long coastal walks, and helping the RSPB in their research.

The Outrun is part memoir, part nature book, that Liptrot wrote whilst back in Orkney. It’s got a lovely atmosphere to it and it’s full of information both historical and natural, about addiction and the journey to sobriety with all its struggles.

The first thing you notice is that Liptrot can really write. Whilst writing was therapeutic for her in her time of upheaval, in its publication it could be said to have become therapeutic for the reader too. There’s nothing particular about it – one can’t say she uses big or small words or the work is peppered with such and such – it’s more the general feel of it. The book’s written atmosphere is shaped in part by its theme – flocks of birds, windy but beautiful days, talk of old stones and cliffs and everything of the sort the Brontës would have championed, which of course play a big role – as it is by Liptrot’s sheer raw talent. The text ebbs and flows, never gaining a momentum it could lose, and at many points you’d think you were reading an award-winning novel.

This said there’s a great deal of repetition in the book. Writing for herself, it makes sense that there would be rambling and repetition, but as a publication the book could’ve done with being a bit shorter, more linear (it’s very easy to become confused as to where you are in time). The self-absorbed feel to the book is more a case of this repetition than Liptrot’s feelings, or at least it certainly seems that way. (Some self-absorption is of course par for the course.) For this repetition the book can be easy to put down and difficult to resume.

To the subjects, then, and as said, the nature writing is lovely. In many ways this book seems more about the nature and history of Orkney than Liptrot’s addiction which, given what I’ve said about self-absorption, works in its favour, though by no means does the recovery take a back seat. Liptrot is adept at blending her personal life with the nature of Orkney; they become one and the same when she can find a way to speak in metaphors, but equally there are times when it all just seems so natural to blend them together. Liptrot’s focus is on the wildlife of the islands, specifically the birds – there is less on farming than you might expect though she does talk at length about methods and the journey from bog-standard farming to organic. (Any lamb you happen to buy from the north of Britain may well have come from Liptrot’s family farm.)

The hill is studded with craters from when it was used by the Royal Navy for target practice in the Second World War and test shells were fired from ships onto the island. The holes are filled with rainwater in the winter and range from the size of a paddling pool to that of a jacuzzi. It is said that one bomb came further south than intended and just missed a farmer’s wife but killed her cow. After the war, a sailor from one of the launch ships
could not believe their target island had been inhabited.

In focus, too, is astronomy. Perhaps inevitably given the location, Liptrot becomes a connoisseur of the night sky, speaking of stars, the planets, and also cloud formations and the Northern Lights. And then there’s the Neolithic history all over the isles: Skara Brae, a settlement of stone-built homes under the earth to protect from the harsh weather, ancient tombs, standing stones. Tragedies at sea, wherein ships crash against the cliffs, result in their own historic stories and findings. There is so much to this book, something for most people, and because of Liptrot’s determination to make her book as informative as it is personal, you learn a lot.

Lately I’ve noticed a gradual reprogramming. In the past when I was under stress, my first impulse was to drink, to get into the pub or the off-license. A house-moving day years ago once ended a month-long attempt at sobriety. Now, sometimes, I’m not just fighting against these urges but have developed new ones. Even back in the summer, set free after a frustrating day in the RSPB office, my first thought was sometimes not a pint but ‘Get in the sea’. Swimming shakes out my tension and provides refreshment and change. I am finding new priorities and pleasures for my free time. I’ve known this was possible but it takes a while for emotions to catch up with intellect. I am getting stronger.

I wanted to focus on the wider aspects before dealing with the alcohol side of the book. Liptrot details her time as an alcoholic with a fierce openness; she discusses parties and a break-up that haunts her for years, and also an attack, sexual encounters, and other incredibly personal details. There’s a picking apart of right and wrong, missteps, but never any self-pity beyond a few what ifs. This isn’t to say that any other way of speaking is wrong, it isn’t, but Liptrot’s manner means her book may interest people who might not be otherwise interested. The recovery is spoken of in detail, too, so this could be considered both a self-help aid without the negative associations often levied on self-help books, and a book with a wealth of information for those who want to know what it’s like. The book may well aid another’s recovery as well as help a person who knows someone with addiction develop more empathy and an understanding to help them assist and show support.

The Outrun is an impressive work in many ways for many reasons, its beauty slipping out from every crevice. It may lose its way textually at times but never errs in its wonder.

I received this book at the Wellcome Book Prize blogger’s brunch.

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