The Bailey’s Book Prize: Rush! Oh! by Shirley Barrett

I don’t know if you know, guys, but whales are amazing. I have quite a few books on the life history and biology of cetaceans of various species, and even have a whatsapp group with two of my other whale obsessed pals. So you’d naturally be surprised at me saying I recently read a novel about the whale hunting industry that decimated global populations and loved it (the book not the hunting obvs). I mean, I was surprised too.

Rush! Oh! is the first novel by Shirley Barrett, screenwriter and director, and its a pretty excellent debut, tackling a lesser known piece of history.

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Did you know that in New South Wales the whale hunters used to use other whales to act as sheepdogs to help bring down the target whales?! Orcas, yes the same magnificent beasts as poor old Tilikum,  cooperated in a symbiotic/mutualistic relationship with the human whale hunters to bring down whales, which they would share the bounty of – the orcas would get the tongue and lips, and the humans would get the blubber to render into oil. It’s absolutely fascinating, and apparently Eden has a small museum about it.

Not only that but the orcas could distinguish between the boats used and so wouldn’t hunt with competitors. Loyal sheepdog orcas. You got it.

And not only that, but they had a distinct method of communicating with the whale hunters that they were trailing a target whale, through flop-tail, upon seeing the whale hunters would head towards the orcas ready to spear.Rush! Oh! itself is the call to action upon seeing a whale or seeing Tom’s flop-tail signals.

I must admit I fell down an internet hole reading about it when I initially finished the book and while writing this review, probably why its taken me 9 weeks to write it (admittedly still not as bad as my 80for80 output). Also I realise that I’m talking more and more about the history and less about the actual book, so I’ll get back to it. But really, the history is fascinating grim stuff.

Mary Davidson, the eldest daughter of the fictionalised Davidson clan (the Davidsons were real but Barrett has developed her own version of the family), decides to chronicle the difficult year of 1908, a year where the weather and whales were transient. Amidst all this arrives John Beck, mysterious and completely alluring to young Mary. Thus alongside the horrors of subsistence whaling forms a gentle romance, creating the most bizarre but realistic juxtaposition. Mary is strong and wilful, caring, and determined. I really liked her, probably more than her sister Louisa who is wonderfully flighty.

This is a really historically rich novel. Alongside the whaling industry, there is alludes to racism the white people direct towards aboriginal people, many of whom make up the Davidson’s whaling crew – important to remember that they still face oppression to this day, of course.

I really enjoyed Rush! Oh! and loved the beautiful illustrations of the whales and characters that pepper the text.

Why should it win?

Barrett combines a lesser known fascinating bit of grim history with a light story of family, first loves and community, creating a book both light and dark at once. Very enjoyable.

What to read next:

I was kindly sent postcards of some of the illustrations from Virago and Little Brown Book Company along with a review copy – thanks guys!

The Bailey’s Book Reviews: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

My favourite type of video games are those I can really get stuck into and build a story of my own. In 2014, I finally splurged on all three Mass Effect titles and thoroughly enjoyed following my own female ginger-haired Shepherd through the trials of being a certified badass, throwing jemble upon jemble at the walls in a flick of a hand. But aside from the ever-so-satisfying combat (particularly in the first game where you literally could walk into a room and lift everyone in it straight away), what really got me hooked was the multi-species crew, their back-stories and their future with you.

Especially Liara. Oh Liara.

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Love me? Of course I will!

The characters come in shades of grey moral wise, and depending on your choices throughout the adventure will also depend on who you grow closest to. If you haven’t played Mass Effect you should. If you lack a suitable device to play it on, then I recommend watching many of the cut together “Mass Effect movies” on Youtube. So the reason I bring up Mass Effect is that The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is basically a book of Mass Effect character quests.

I realise this comparison will mean absolutely nothing to a lot of you, so I’ll try another.

It’s like watching a multi-species crew pilot Serenity on a long mission in the short-lived show Firefly, instead of everyone speaking Chinese from being part of an integrated society yet being almost totally Caucasian but that’s a gripe for another day. The book has the fun bounciness and quick wit that Joss Whedon gives to all his characters, though very much feel like Chambers’ own creation, rather than an homage to anything specific.

Okay, so comparisons aside, this book is really great. Rosemary Harper joins the Wayfarer as a new administrator, and serves as our narrator that guides us through the lives of the crew. It is a classic space opera, reminiscent of Star Trek (oh alright one more comparison), that is absolutely joyous to read.

The Long Way originally started out life as a successfully funded Kickstarter project, as Chambers’ debut novel, that was then picked up by Hodder Books to be published in the UK and USA.

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Characterisation is the focus -really the story is not about the journey they make to a dangerous bit of space; it’s about who is making the journey and how they work together to complete it. Each voice is heard clearly, and none of the characters feel underwritten (I do think Kizzy could have been fleshed out more, but that is possibly because I felt she was probably an aspie and wanted to know more about her).

In fact, Chambers’ construction of non-human races is dramatically detailed, as well as the history of human expansion into the galaxy. The descriptions of deep-space mining is practically mind boggling, but also thrilling. The care and attention to detail for the galaxy inhabited by the Wayfarer is incredibly impressive and cohesive.

Some of the most touching moments came from Sissix’s storylines. A pilot and only resident Aandrisk, Sissix’s family life and culture is explored through its inclusiveness but also its willingness to exclude those who are different. In a small passage where Sissix comforts a lone Aandrisk, she later tells of how some of her people cannot communicate in the same way, and are often cast out, made to be loners. I basically bawled my eyes out at this (as does Rosemary, so I wasn’t alone). I absolutely love Sissix and hope desperately for more to be written about her.

Another heartwrenching storyline is the crew member who is in love with the ship’s AI; it can’t all end happily, can it?

The underlying moral of the story is ultimately that we may not always understand each other completely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t care for each other. It’s a pretty good message to live by. Alongside that, it’s really fun. It’s silly and funny and ridiculous, and is full of heart.

Why should it win?

The Long Way combines zany space opera fun with thorough character focussed storylines, harmonising to create a fun, memorable adventure through space. Accessible community-focussed sci-fi for all!

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thanks again to Hodder Books for providing me with a review copy, though admittedly I’d already broken and bought a copy by the time it arrived. Grateful colleagues have been devouring it since.

The Bailey’s Book Reviews: At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

I firmly believe that we are currently living in a real boom for nature writing. At work I’ve made displays specifically to show off the plethora of recently published hardbacks celebrating nature, specifically that of Britain. For a small island, we have a lot to talk about, whether it be in form of memoir or purely historical count of the land.

I’ve known of Melissa Harrison through her nature writing, and from repeatedly being at the same talks as each other on the topic – and also from that time myself and a few friends gegged along on her evening chatting with Helen McDonald in a bar under a theatre in Soho (sorry about that Melissa!).

Because of this, I really didn’t know what to expect, having not read her previous offering Clay, but the first thing that became clear to me is how much the genes of nature writing are expressed in her fiction. The prose is suffused with rich descriptions of the countryside around Lodeshill, regularly to a level of detail you don’t usually see in other fiction writers. This isn’t a criticism however, this attention to detail serves to build up a rich real landscape, and a realisation that the setting of the novel is living as much as the characters who reside in it.

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At Hawthorn Time is a quietly paced novel that begins with a (future) bang, and builds up to this throughout the month long story. It predominantly follows four characters – married ex-Londoners Harold and Kitty, both finding themselves stuck and unable to move forward; young Jamie, desperate to finish his beloved Corsa and escape the village; vagrant farmhand Jack, whose jottings on the wildlife act as a header for every chapter.

The gentle melancholy of the characters and the book itself reminds me so much of Stoner by John Williams or even A Whole Life, a recently translated German novel by Robert Seethaler.

Jamie reminds me of many of the people I went to school with and a desire to escape the country I saw in myself – the irony being that now I’d love to live back in the countryside, feeling stifled by hot polluted bustle of the city-lifestyle I’d always coveted. Maybe I’ve become Kitty?

I genuinely enjoyed At Hawthorn Time and it thoroughly deserves its place on the longlist.

Why should it win?

At Hawthorn Time a humble, melancholy novel with a living landscape, populated by complex characters whose stories gripped me. Harrison deftly combines and contrasts a narrative of paused lives with the never-stopping persistence of nature.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to Hannah from Bloomsbury Books for sending me over a copy to read.