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1 March 2023

From Sophie Mackintosh to Stephen Moss: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Brutes by Dizz Tate and The Turning Tide by Jon Gower.

By Michael Prodger, Pippa Bailey, Anna Leszkiewicz and India Bourke

The Turning Tide: A Biography of the Irish Sea by Jon Gower
HarperCollins, 336pp, £20

In his “biography of the Irish Sea”, Jon Gower delves into history and nature, art and reportage. He relates how the ports along its Irish coast sent economic migrants to England and famine victims to America. We also learn how, in 1797, Fishguard on the Pembrokeshire coast was chosen by French Revolutionary forces as the launching place for an invasion of Great Britain, a campaign that lasted just two days. He casts his net over walrus sightings and shipwrecks, rare geese and James Joyce’s invocation of “the sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotum-tightening sea”, as well as the shipyards of Belfast, and the Quaker whalers from Nantucket who moved to Milford Haven in Wales.

Gower has a winning style and easy manner that make for an engaging catch-all book. It is filled with the tales and folklore he collects as he walks or cycles along each coast and recounts the experiences gleaned from the inhabitants who work on or by the water. It is in the nature of separating waterways to accrue a rich cultural history, but in Gower’s telling the Irish Sea has depths that are richer and more varied than most.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Eleanor Catton and the problem with “literary thrillers”]

Brutes by Dizz Tate
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £14.99

In Fall’s Landing, Florida, a fictional town where run-down apartment buildings are separated from a walled-off development by a forbidden, swampy lake, six 13-year-olds watch through a pair of binoculars. An older girl with whom the six have something of an obsession, Sammy, the daughter of a TV preacher who travels the world “doing revivals”, is missing. This is about as much of a plot as the book has; far more interesting are its unerring and textured observations of teenage life. Girls’ lips are “all the same brown from removing and reapplying a dozen shades of colour”, and a boy’s “nipples are two perfect stickers. We want to peel them off and stick them on our school planners.” Brutes by Dizz Tate, who grew up in Florida and now lives in London, makes clever use of the collective “we” to explore the hivemind of friendship.

The problem with Brutes is that it transparently knows its market – the press blurb describes it as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project” and “a coming-of-age story about the crucible of girlhood”. It could just as well say “for fans of The Girls and Girls on Fire” – and is pitched for this space so unwaveringly that you are always aware of just how hard it is trying.
By Pippa Bailey

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[See also: Best books of the year]

Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh
Hamish Hamilton, 192pp, £16.99

“Sometimes,” a character says quietly in Sophie Mackintosh’s Cursed Bread, “reality peels back like the skin of an orange.” Mackintosh’s novel is inspired by true events, but we are not informed of that until we reach the three-line afterword on the final page. Instead, she peels away the surface of reality and offers us something stranger and more vivid. Two glamorous, authoritative newcomers – the ambassador and his wife, Violet – arrive in a small town. Here, women wash their clothes by hand once a week in the lavoir and buy their daily bread each morning at the bakery where our narrator, Elodie, works with her husband, the baker. Elodie is transfixed by the couple, and soon senses a darkness in their relationship. Glimpsing them through a doorway, does she see his hands around her throat? Was it a gesture of desire, or violence?

As in her previous novels, the Booker-longlisted The Water Cure, and Blue Ticket, Mackintosh’s prose is eerie but minimalist – dreamlike yet grounded. Her style elevates plot to the status of fable or allegory without resorting to straightforward metaphor. This a story shrouded in mist, thick with meaning.
By Anna Leszkiewicz

Ten Birds That Changed the World by Stephen Moss
Guardian Faber, 416pp, £16.99

Flying is the aspect of birds’ lives we envy most, writes Stephen Moss in the opening to Ten Birds That Changed the World. The prolific nature writer and Springwatch producer cannot join his feathered subjects in the skies, but he shares their ability to create shifts of perspective – in this case by making familiar creatures surprising once again. From our mythological identifications with ravens to the far right’s adoption of the bald eagle, Moss details how humans’ often misconstrued interactions with ten species have shaped history.

But while birds have enriched our lives, imaginatively and sometimes economically, the same is not true in return. Moss documents how human ignorance and exploitation have claimed countless avian lives, be it the tree sparrows during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward campaign or the damage caused by pesticides. Roughly one in seven of the world’s birds species are now at risk, and in ending with the emperor penguin’s front-line exposure to climate change, Moss’s melodious book becomes a clarion call: reminding us that although these cherished creatures have changed our world, we may be about to end many of theirs forever.
By India Bourke

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[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission