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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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Lisa Hilton – Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince

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Just don’t tell this monarch she’s a strong female character…

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 342
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-544-57784-8
First Published: 9th October 2014
Date Reviewed: 26th November 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Hilton looks at Elizabeth I and her court, aiming to show how the queen was more of a prince than a princess (in keeping with the monarch’s own view).

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is a fairly good read that examines much of the period but has a tendency to follow forks in the road rather than remain focused on the Queen herself.

Let’s start with the writing style. Hilton writes in a way that is both highly academic and very colloquial. ‘Big’ words join phrases such as ‘he gave out that’, making for a book that suggests authority whilst remaining easy enough to read. Sometimes the text can be very dry – the prologue, laborious, in particular shouldn’t be considered an example of the book as a whole – but the fun episodes slotted in throughout keep it from becoming too much.

The vast majority of statements are backed up in some way, be it by primary or secondary sources. Hilton does tend to favour the research of others rather than her own, which can seem as though she needs to rely on other people’s thoughts when what she’s saying is sound, but it does add up the points in her favour so far as evidence is concerned. Sometimes the evidence is sketchy, for example her use of Bernard to make a point – Bernard’s the man who bases books on hunches – and, as another example, her use of what Anne Boleyn said in the tower in her last days as proof of what Anne believed (which again follows Bernard and, as I mentioned in my review of his book, one can’t really take as fact words said in times of trial). The author sometimes neglects other evidence or mainstream opinion without re-enforcing it, such as her statement that Anne Boleyn was not an active reformer and her talk of the gospel to Henry VIII was but part of courtly love (most historians see it as a subtle way of influencing the easily-influenced king’s mind, possibly on behalf of her family).

However when Hilton gets it right, she really gets it right. She is very biased against certain people others favour but relates stories in such a way that show why she is right to be biased – she may call Katherine Parr’s ‘collusion’ with Seymour during the tickling incidents ‘nasty’ but she makes plain the reason why without resorting to name-calling or manipulating the narrative of the event. She points out that, okay, perhaps Anne could have been a reformer but that there is no evidence of her individual involvement, for example, in ‘promoting sympathetic clerics to bishoprics’.

As a book on the whole it’s good; the problem comes with the title and stated focus: this book is not so much a biography of Elizabeth as it is a book about Elizabeth and her courtiers. So much time is spent detailing other people instead of looking at what the queen was doing and thinking, which is almost inevitable when we’ve no diaries and so forth, but does weaken the argument being made. The assertion of princeliness is compelling and believable but beyond a couple of quotations and repetitions of ‘Machiavellian’, the proposal isn’t strong enough to warrant a whole book about it, as shown by the amount of time devoted to other subjects. Instead, unfortunately, we have a book in which a queen does come across as more of a man but there is so much planning and law-making by the actual men, often away from the queen, that it can look like an afterthought.

Away from this believable but hard to show statement of manliness is a competent non-fiction that whilst it needs to be read with the knowledge it’s one person’s work – as most history books are – succeeds in being informative and a good choice for those looking to learn more about the Queen and the upper classes. Hilton’s background in television gives her book an edge others lack, making it, as suggested, both academic and commercial, and the amount of research undertaken practically oozes from it.

Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince is one to look for once you have a good grasp of the basics (the opinions mean you’ll appreciate it more if you’ve read the mainstream views first) and a good reminder for those who’ve been away from the history for a while. Granted, not all that much is new, but the handling of the information and the presentation of it is on the whole excellent; reading this book is a bit of an experience in itself.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Sarah Howe – Loop Of Jade

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Figuring out the past. Concerning the present.

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
Pages: 60
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-701-18869-6
First Published: 7th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 21st November 2015
Rating: 5/5

I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry before, never reviewed a poem at all. As you may know I’m not a big reader of them – technically I like them a lot, the words, phrasing, beauty – but they often confuse me.

I’m giving it a go this time; Howe’s poetry is on the short-list for the Young Writer Of The Year award and having heard the poet read one of them herself, being able to hear her voice in my head and knowing when to pause, helped me a lot.

So, then, Howe’s collection is about her mother’s early life in China as an unwanted and later adopted girl. It’s about Howe’s own experiences as a young child in Hong Kong before the family moved to Britain. It’s a bit about politics, a bit about history, and a bit about Howe’s relationship with her husband. Many of the poems are also based around the divisions of animals as proposed by Dr Franz Kuhn. (The descriptions are included before the poetry begins.)

And whilst some of it flew over my head, I can still say it’s incredible. Howe makes use of various styles. She writes in one-word lines, she writes in a sort of way that echoes prose more than poetry, she uses long sentences, short ones, indented lines. The style that’s most compelling is the one used in the title poem. This is a poem wherein she’s listening to her mother talk about her life and near the end she writes as her mother speaks, using white space between words and phrases to show where her mother is pausing. You get a really good sense of how this conversation played out in reality.

Howe’s written voice moves through perspectives. She often writes from a distance, the third person. Sometimes she writes in the first; but the best times are when she questions the audience directly, or questions herself, or speaks in a particularly intimate way that defies description. It’s really lovely and makes you feel as though you’re privy to something special.

One of the standouts is Tame – hard-hitting, excellent. This is a poem in which Howe uses a quotation about how it’s better to raise geese than a girl as her base and works a fairy tale from it, dark, brutal ending and all. She wraps around the subject, coming full circle. Another is Innumerable wherein Howe remembers going on a day out around the time of Tiananmen; she contrasts the two and brings them together to show how things can be swept under the literal rug but not really.

About half the poems are stories, the other half tiny glimpses. The glimpses work well, you need to keep your wits about you to discover their true meaning.

The writing is quite flowery as you would expect, and very, very literary. Howe’s writing may require you to use a dictionary and you do have to pause sometimes, more than you usually would, to really make sense of what she’s saying – sort of the first step in the discovery program.

It’s a brilliant collection which I can confidently rate top marks even though I didn’t get it all.

I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.

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Suzannah Lipscomb – A Visitor’s Companion To Tudor England

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History and the roofs under which it occurred.

Publisher: Ebury Press (Random House)
Pages: 281
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-091-94484-1
First Published: 15th March 2012
Date Reviewed: 12th November 2014
Rating: 4/5

In a work that is a combination of reference book and good old straightforward non-fiction, Lipscomb focuses on 50 different locations with a background either exclusively Tudor or worthy of a visit by those interested in the popular history.

There are two ways to read A Visitor’s Companion To Tudor England. Lipscomb herself introduces it as a guide for the general reader, bereft of footnotes and too much information so that it’s accessible to all. This makes the first way of reading that of the previously uninformed. The second way is obviously one that is more natural to myself and quite likely many who read this review – as yet another book that will enable you to spend even more time on something you already enjoy learning about.

Lipscomb’s introduction sets out all you might have wanted to know about the selection of these houses, castles, tombs, and ruins, which is important to read because no matter your prior knowledge you’ll likely say ‘but what about such and such a place?’. Lipscomb tells us why some prominent places did not make the cut, why less well-known places did, and whether or not you agree with her choices you get to see all the planning involved.

However the book does not entirely live up to its promise and this is because of the criteria. The specific criteria listed in the introduction means that some places are of only minor interest overall (perhaps more interest if you’ve had time to visit all the major places before) and this is compounded by the fact that the approach to the chapters vary. Some focus on describing what you will see, others leave that out in favour of writing about the occupants, and there will be times you’ll likely wish another slice of the history had been focused on instead of the one chosen, the abode of a person of more interest written of instead. This means that the book as a ‘handbook’ is less useful unless you’re using it as a quick reference when deciding where to go on your next day trip.

There is a lot of well-known history included, but also a lot of lesser-known facts. In this way both those with prior knowledge and those without are catered for – for every fact you may know, there is a new one, and for the new learner it’s fair to say this gets you up to speed. Whilst there are no footnotes (another decision discussed in the introduction) Lipscomb includes various views from primary sources as well as her own and those from her peers; much as in her work for television, views are discussed before thoughts are given as to her own, so you also get a good taste for the study of history here, too.

What doesn’t work so well are the suppositions. There are many ‘probablys’ in this book, and this is of course more problematic given the lack of footnotes, as there are ‘probablys’ without reasoning behind them. This may work for new learners but means that you won’t learn as many facts as you might think. The cross-references to other chapters are a few too many and there is a lot of repetition – though this is to aid the reader who wants only to dip in to one or two chapters. There are also sections about Tudor life included in chapters that aren’t related to the subject at hand wherein you might wish more had been written about the location.

A Visitor’s Companion To Tudor England is good, but (necessarily) brief. It sports enough to please all readers but is most likely to satisfy the new reader. The inclusions of lesser-known places, however, make it a worthwhile quick read for all.

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Anya Von Bremzen – Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking

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Rations versus cuisine.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 294 (324 including recipes)
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-88681-1
First Published: 12th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th September 2013
Rating: 4/5

Von Bremzen chronicles the culinary history of Russia from the 1910s to the present day, interspersing it with political and social history as well as her own.

Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is an intriguing book that blends to a smooth mixture memoir, history and, of course, food. Set up as a project between the author and her mother to visit each decade of Russia’s history via a meal, the book soon devolves into an overall look at the way food was used and consumed in the USSR.

There is a lot of general Russian history in the book, and it will ‘work’ best for the reader if they approach it already familiar with the beginnings of the Soviet Union. Whilst Von Bremzen explains a lot of the reasons for various choices and so forth, she does not introduce the initial change itself. Beyond this, the history is very well described and the reader will come away with a good amount of knowledge about the role of food in Russia.

Well described, too, is the food itself. Due to the limits present in writing about meals (in other words you are of course only reading about the food without tasting or picturing it) it may not be as memorable as the rest of the content, but Von Bremzen’s success is necessarily in the way she links food to the regime itself. For example she explains how the regular person ate, and then details what those who said ‘everyone is equal’ ate.

It is hard not to become fond of Von Bremzen’s family. As the author’s mother played a part in the creation of the book, this is whom you are likely to be most fond of, especially as Larissa comes across as the sort of person you wish would grace more books. Von Bremzen’s mother saw the reality in situations at a young age, so in her daughter’s story you get to see both versions of the history – what it looked like and what it was, and you get this from day one rather than in hindsight. Von Bremzen’s childhood antics are fun, but it is undoubtedly Larissa who steals the show.

The recipes described are contained at the back of the book, and due to their placement the not-quite-concluded final narrative chapter feels strangely fine. In any other book the lack of a conclusion would be a negative, but it really doesn’t matter here and just goes to show that history is still in the making. Indeed if Von Bremzen had left it just a few more years, a whole other decade would have had to have been included.

The one potential downside is the writing style. Von Bremzen has chosen an extremely colloquial language that on many occasions can be difficult to understand. (This is separate to her use of Russian words which is of course a completely different matter – and everything is translated.) In some ways the text reads as though it were a casual speech rather than a book. Slang words and phrases are used, such as ‘cheapo’ (‘cheap’ is never used), aka, and ‘egg thingies’.

The writing has the potential to be a drawback, as does the amount of political history if the reader is expecting food all the time, but overall Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is an informative book with a fascinating cast of real characters. The recipes are introduced well with enough prior information on them for anyone intrigued to want to give them a go, and there is a fair amount of humour and personality in the book.

A good introduction to Russian food history, Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is likely to appeal to anyone who likes the idea of a meal and memoir mix.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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