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What we’re reading: November 2016

The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack delves into our collective imagination, to uncover those isles that have only existed in myth and fanciful maps

What we’re reading: November 2016

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Products of imagination and human error, the 20 islands featured in this elegantly illustrated book are places of rumour and poetry, myth and legend. Historically organised, they act as stepping stones through time, revealing how our attitudes to islands have changed over the centuries. There is the familiar, such as Atlantis, of course, but also places such as Kibu, where the souls of Torres Strait islanders’ dead were said to travel to; and the island of Brasil… just off the west coast of Ireland. This is a fairytale atlas, fittingly illustrated with full-colour drawings by Katie Scott (known for Animalium, a recent museum-like book of illustrated animals).

It’s a joy to island-hop through — with the giant tentacles of a ruby-red octopus reaching across two pages, here, and a horned narwhal and scaly sea serpent swimming across a page, there. After wowing the world with Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home last year, Tallack’s second book is shaped by the same clear, sharp prose and keen curiosity.

In spirit, it feels delightfully childlike but it’s anything but childish, packed full of intelligent musings on everything from religion to astronomy, alchemy to the occult. The Un-Discovered Islands also does a wry job of revealing the hubris of early exploration, the epitome of which has to be Frisland, an Atlantic island claimed for the crown by one Dr John Dee, courtier to Queen Elizabeth I.

The fact that the place only existed in tales from Venetian sailors meant little to Dee. The good doctor claimed Frisland, along with the entire Atlantic region, should be ruled by Britain. For it was believed that that Welsh prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd, had made it to America three centuries before Columbus’s journey of 1492. You couldn’t map it up. But they did — Frisland was a common presence in cartography until well into the 17th century.

The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack is published by Polygon Books (RRP: £14.99).

The natural reader…

The Man Who Ate the Zoo, by Richard Girling
A rollicking biography of Frank Buckland, a predecessor of Darwin. Buckland was a renegade scientist, journalist and unofficial zookeeper. His house a menagerie, his drawing room a vet’s practice and his dining room… well, let’s just say it was a surreal Victorian scene from which few got out alive. Chatto & Windus (RRP: £17.99).

The January Man, by Christopher Somerville
This is one of the most elaborate walkers’ diaries yet. A meditative homage to landscapes present and past, Somerville (walking correspondent for The Times), tramps a calendar through the British Isles, observing seasonal changes, topical peculiarities and creatures great and small, following some 140,000 miles of footpaths. Doubleday (RRP: £14.99).

Colder, by Ranulph Fiennes
An illustrated account of the great explorer’s chillier expeditions, this edition of Ranulph Fiennes’ memoirs comes complete with personal photographs, maps and diary notes of his Arctic and Antarctic adventures. This is a vivid window not only into the polar explorer’s numerous achievements but also into parts of the natural world most of us have never experienced. Simon & Schuster (RRP: £25.00).

Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)