Tarka the otter

Tarka the otter, Henry Williamson, 1927

“He was called Tarka, which eas the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor.  It means little water wanderer, or, wandering as water.”

This is one of the books I’ve been reading this month and I love it.  I read it as a child but rereading it has been a beautiful experience.  I have a physical paperback copy which means I have to read it slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, because of my hand pain. And this is extending the deliciousness of the language and the writing.

Williamson did not write Tarka as a children’s book but it became popular with children and hence it is marketed that way today. I know some people are put off and don’t read children’s books, or only do it with adult covers but this really is a book for all of us.

It is a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful and brutal.  Williamson makes an excellent use of language and it contains a number of regional specific words which enhance the imagery.

“Iggiwick, the vuz-peg – his coat was like furze and his face like a pig’s”

We have words like ragrowster, aerymouse (a bat), dimity (twilight), yinny-yikker (noisily aggressive) and yikkering.  These tug at my heart in a way that alternatives might not.

We hear the animals calling in wonderfully onomatopoeia:

Hu-ee-ic…. Skirr-rr… cur-lee-eek… aa-aa…

This is not an anthropomorphic tale, it is an otter’s eye view of the landscape and the characters within it.  And yet, we feel we know the animals that weave in and out of Tarka’s life.  Part of this is the marvellous names that the creatures are given.  There is Old Nog, the white owl, and Halcyon the kingfisher.  There is Deadlock, the otter hound and the old dog otter Marland Jimmy.  There are degrees of anthropomorphism but it is not heavy handed and the animals don’t speak.  Because of this, it is imbued with a strong sense of reality and is a great example of writing from the senses.

Williamson wrote a nature journal from his childhood so it is perhaps no surprise that Tarka is so real.  He also sought out hunting experts for advice and to ensure accuracy and rewrote the manuscript 17 times.

“Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and old nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.”

As well as conveying a strong connection with nature, Tarka also reveals to the reader Williamson’s close relationship with the landscape.  He moved to Devon in 1921 and his intimacy with this place comes through in his writing.  For context, otters were hunted as vermin at this time and their population wouldn’t decline until the 1950s.  This means that the text is not one about the danger to the otter population and is not intended to influence this practice.  But he did have a strong influence, inspiring writers such as Rachel Carson, Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin and Kenneth Allsop.

This book is a treasure and if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it for a long time, please do!


Link roundup

I’m not especially intending to make these link posts regular but I keep reading some interesting stuff!

Reading with hand pain

It’s come up a few times over the last few months so I thought I’d share what I have learnt about reading with hand pain.

This is just my experience so if anyone can add any other ideas that’d be great!

  • Get a kindle – it took me a long time to accept the idea of not being able to hold a book in my hands and enjoy the physicality of it but once I got my kindle my reading life vastly improved!  Mine is an old one, it was second hand and I got it to see if I’d get on with it.  Amazon do sell refurbished kindles and obviously there are other e-readers available!  Look at the weight of them and if possible, hold one before you buy it.  Mine is a very no frills version.  It literally just does books but it means that it’s a lot lighter than some options.  Also think about how you turn the pages – is it a button or a touch sensitive screen, different things will work better for different people but it’s definitely something to factor in.
  • If you’re going with Amazon then look into whispersync. If an audio version is available, you can buy it cheaper when you have the ebook.  This means you can flick between reading and listening. I struggled to get into audiobooks but found this combined approach really helped.  You can flick through the ebook to find your place if you fall asleep which makes a huge difference to me!
  • Audiobooks themselves are another option.
  • Check if your local library offers ebooks and audiobooks.  These can be downloaded from sites such as overdrive and are great if you can’t get to the library.  Note, last time I checked this doesn’t work on kindles but is great on tablets and probably on smart phones.  There are other electronic lending libraries for disabled people eg Listening Books and Calibre.
  • Not really a reading tip but Kindle and Audible both do deals of the day and there are numerous websites where you can download classics for free.
  • If you want to read a physical book (and some books are still not available as ebooks), then a few things you might want to consider are:
    • break the spine – I know some people find this really difficult but it does mean the book stays open more easily
    • prop the book open – I use my phone to hold the pages open, you can get gadgets which do this but my phone seems to work ok for me!
    • try and stick with paperbacks – they are lighter and you can break the spine
    • thinner books are easier to hold as are smaller books
    • don’t hold the book up, lay it on a table, tray or your knee.  I always used to read laying down on my side holding the book but I’ve not been able to do that for years.  If you do want to lay on your side and read, maybe find a way to prop the book up using a pillow or a teddy or a book stand!  Be careful about your posture when you’re reading, especially if you have pain elsewhere eg I can’t put my book on my lap because it then triggers shoulder and neck pain.
    • flick between reading something physical and something electronic.  I always have numerous books on the go and that means I can choose what is best for my hands, or what is possible, when I’m wanting to read
    • think about what time of day you’re trying to read – for me, nighttime is harder so if I’m reading a physical book, it has to be during the day
    • adopt slow reading – I can only read a couple of pages of physical books at a time which, as an avid and fairly fast reader, I used to find really frustrating.  I’ve since made my peace with this (which is one reason I always have an ebook on the go as well) and I savour the books I’m reading instead of devouring them.  I also only read fiction on my kindle as otherwise I overdo it because I’m caught up in the story.
    • as hard as it might be, limit how long you read a physical book for.  Set a timer if you need to.  If you’re not familiar with pacing, look into it.  It’s essentially the idea that you do a little bit of something, take a little break, then go back to it rather than pushing through, overdoing it and ending up in agony.  That small break makes a lot of difference.

What I’m reading 

The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon

A five book series plus a prequel, these tell the story of a servant girl who discovers there is more to her past than she knew.  It’s hard to explain what this series is about without spoiling things… Needless to say it has a strong female character and is set in a different, magical world.

Angel of Storms series by Trudi Canavan

I’ve just started the second in this series.  I would have leapt into it sooner but the kindle version was still £9.99 for the ebook when I finished the first book.  A bit of impatient waiting and it went down to £4.99 plus an affordable audio version.

This series spans numerous magical worlds and includes a person who was made into a book.  Once a young sorcerer-bookbinder, Vella was transformed into a book to be used as a powerful tool by one of the greatest sorcerers of history. Since then she has been collecting information from everyone who touches her.  Whilst there are numerous interesting human characters, I do think Vella remains my favourite!

Scapegoat by Katharine Quamby

wp-1473151983019.jpgI know I mentioned this before but I’d only just started it then and it definetly deserves a second mention.  It details a brief history of attitudes towards disabled people and then looks at the situation today.  Quamby looks at the ineffective, and rather late to the game, disabilty hate crime legislation as well as detailing horrific cases.  Whilst she inevitabily focuses on the most extreme hate crimes, the sheer volume of cases paints a painful picture of how some people view disability.  It was published in 2011 so remains a fairly current portrayal of the UK today.
Read with something else on the go.  Look after yourself as you read it.  It’s a hardhitting shocking book but one which must be read.

Independent lives by Jenny Morris 


Although this was published in 1993, it has helped me to understand more about the history of independent living and the move away from institutionalisation in the UK.  Unfortunately a lot of the issues around care which are raised in the book are still present today.

In order to create and develop a successful, empowering care system, we must look at the past and reflect on successes and failures.

78 Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack

This, I think, is the only tarot book I’ve read (apart from deck specific guides).  It was orginially published as two books, one looking at the major arcana and one at the minor.  This is obvious when you start on the second section as it does repeat some of the first.  However, Pollack provides detailed information about each card including symbology, mythology and application for readings.  It’s been described as the bible of tarot and is regularly featured on must read tarot book lists.  Compared to other tarot books I’ve flicked through, she seems to go into more depth and provides the reader with a deeper understanding of the symbology which will inevitably deepen their reading of tarot.

Mark Hearld’s Workbook

This is not so much reading as admiring.  I love Hearld’s work and his Workbook provides a great balance of information and imagery.  If you happen to be in York, do check out the Lumber Room at York Art Gallery.  It was curated by Hearld and features some of his work as well as interesting and intriguing objects and artwork.

Magazine wise

Alongside a few books, I always have a magazine on the go.  At the moment I’m enjoying bitch, flow, oh comely, national geographic and mslexia.  What can I say, I have diverse interests!


Some light relief

Things have been getting a bit intense on here lately so I thought I’d offer something a bit gentler to balance it out a bit in the form of a post about books.  Note, not book review.  I’ve always been very bad at book reviews…

So, in no particular order, here are some books, authors and series (I really want to write serieses but apparently that’s not correct…) that I’ve been loving recently…

A collection of books from my days of being able to regularly read paper books (they look prettier than an ebook…)*

Robin Hobb.  I absolutely absolutely love all of her books.  I’ve devoured most of them through a mix of kindle and audiobooks.  They are fantasy books, set in other worlds, with strong characters including some fantastic female leads.

If you’re new to Hobb then this is the recommended order to read her series in:

  1. The Farseer Trilogy; Assassin’s Apprentice, Roayl Assassin, Assassin’s Quest
  2. The Liveship Traders; Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny
  3. The Tawny Man Trilogy; Fool’s Errand, The Golden Fool Fool’s Fate (def read the Farseer Trilogy first as it’s the same characters)
  4. The Rain Wild Chronicles; Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven, City of Dragons, Blood of Dragons
  5. Fitz and the Fool; Fool’s Assassin, Fool’s Quest, Assassins Fate (not yet released)

The series all work if you read them alone but reading all of them adds to the experience.  She also has a standalone series; The Soldier’s Son trilogy and also writes under the name Megan Lindholm.

Mercades Lackey. Sorry if you don’t like fantasy, it seems to be my prevalent genre right now.  You can find an epic list of her writing on her website.  I’ve been limited cos not everything is available as an ebook as far as I can find.  However I really enjoyed all of the Collegium Chronicles and the Herald Spy Books

I am currently reading the Elemental Masters series.  I’m a third of the way through the second.  I was describing them to someone the other day and the best I could find was historical fiction with magic.

Again, Lackey has great characters with strong women which always endears a book to me.  She’s also done a lot of collaborative writing with some great authors.

The Evermen Saga. I can’t remember why I got the first of these books by James Maxwell but I do know I wasn’t really expecting much.  I found the first part of the first book ok but not gripping but from there on, things picked up and I rapidly read all of the four books.  I’ve not read anything else by Maxwell but I would recommend this series.

The Hangman’s Daughter Tales. A series of five books by Oliver Potzsch, these books are set it German in the 1660s and follow the lives of a hangman and his daughter (really? I know, shocking!).  The daughter is a strong willed, arguably stubborn woman who finds herself in the middle of a number of bizarre and mysterious situations.  The stories unfold at a time when memories of war and the persecution of witchcraft are still raw.  The exclusion that the hangman and his family provide an unusual viewpoint for the events which unfold.

Interesting side note, apparent Potzsch is descended from hangmen, a profession which passed from father to son.

The Thief Taker and The Fire Catcher by C.S.Quinn were at one point £1 each on kindle and looked interesting.  Set in the 1600s, this time in London during the plague and the great fire, they tell the tale of Charlie Tuesday.  Charlie was an orphan who now works as a thief taker, that is, he finds stolen items.  In the Thief Taker, he is approached by a woman who asks him to find her sisters killer.  Underlying this is the mysterious key that Charlie wears around his neck.  He was given it as a child and has no idea what it opens.  As the story progresses, he unlocks some of his own history as well as clues to the murder.

The Fire Catcher is a sequel set a year later during the great fire of London.  Charlie is still looking for answers about who he is as the city burns around him, possibly destroying the very information he is searching for.  Whilst this is a sequel and does carry on from The Thief Taker, I think you could easily read it alone.

The Paper Magician Series.  Written by Charlie N. Holmberg, these books are set in a magical London in the early 1900s.  They’re interesting stories, there’s a stubborn female lead who I periodically found to be dislikeable but the books are very readable.  Compared to the likes of Hobb and Lackey, I found the two I’ve read so far to be much lighter – think takeaway pizza instead of a Sunday roast.  They are free to borrow if you subscribe to kindle unlimited and there’s an audio version as well.

Pride Against Prejudice was published in 1991 and was written by Jenny Morris, a disabled feminist.  Although this dates from the early nineties, a lot of the content is sadly still very relevant today. This well written, easy to read book looks at a few key areas of disability prejudice including abortion and disability, disabled lives being not worth living, euthanasia, disability in western culture, institutionalisation and feminist research around community care.

“We all experience oppression as a result of the denial of our reality.  If our reality is not reflected in the general culture, how can we assert our rights?  If non-disabled people would rather not recognise disability, or only recognise specific forms, how can they recognise our experience of our bodies?  If we do not ‘appear’ as real people, with the need for love, affection, friendship, and the right to a good quality of life, how can non-disabled people give any meaning to our lives?” – Jenny Morris

My copy of this (actual physical book) is now filled with post-it notes as she makes so many great points and phrases things well.  A readable book which is littered with personal experiences as well as the facts and research you would expect from an academic writer.

“To continue to live as best we can, keeping faith with who we know ourselves to be, in the face of what society has decided we are, does take courage.” – Pam Evans, quoted in Pride Against Prejudice

Scapegoat, Why we are failing disabled people. Katharine Quarmby investigates how disabled people are treated today (the book was first published in 2011).  From the back cover:

  • 80% of children with learning difficulties are bullied at school
  • Nearly 50% of disabled people have recently experienced or witnessed physical abuse
  • 90% of the population have never invited a disabled person into their home [knowingly… I assume?]
  • The number of disability hate crimes reported has risen by 75% in one year alone

This book covers some of the history which brings us to where we are today in terms of disability as well as personal stories from disabled people and their families.  The book opens with the horrific details of Kevin Davies’ death.  He was a young man who had epilepsy and was tortured and killed by his supposed friends in 2006 after being imprisoned in a garden shed.  This is not an enjoyable read however it is well written and provides an update to Jenny Morris’s book.

*Those more observant of you will notice two copies of The Midwich Cuckoos in the picture. I love John Wyndham and was happily reading my copy only to get to the centre and find ten pages missing. The book was from a charity shop but looked like it had never been read. The pages weren’t torn out, it looked like they’d been missed out during printing…  So I had to wait until my lunch break the next day so I could rush to the library, read the missing pages and then return to my copy.