The Spinster Club Series

I picked up these books as a three pack recently and they seemed perfect reading for the recent hot weather we’ve had here in the UK recently. For all I love ebooks, they aren’t ideal for intensely sunny days!

The books can be read separately but there’s a lot to be gained from reading them in order, with Am I Normal Yet? first, then How Hard Can Love Be? and finally What’s A Girl Gotta Do?.

These books gave me so much hope for young adults today, and also sad for my days as a mentally ill, feminist teenager who would have loved these books. They would have helped me feel less alone at a time when I felt awful.

They focus on three friends who are going to college and – no spoilers here – decide to form the Spinster Club. It’s their way of a) reclaiming the word spinster and b) coming together to learn about feminism.

The first book is told by Evie who has Generalised Anxiety Disorder and OCD, actual OCD not just wanting her pencils straight:

“…now people use the phrase OCD to describe minor personality quirks .

“Oooh, I like my pens in a line, I’m so OCD.

Oh my God, I was so nervous about that presentation. I literally had a panic attack.

I’m so hormonal today. I just feel totally bipolar.

– Am I Normal Yet?

It tells of her struggle with her mental health whilst in college and her overwhelming mission to be normal, to be like everyone else. It also tackles the issue of whether or not to tell your friends about your mental health and this hit me hard as it was such a big thing for me in high school. By the end of 6th form, only one person knew anything about my mental health, and what he knew was only a fragment. None of my so called close friends knew anything.

One review I saw made a comment about how a character in the book mocked mental health and how that undermined the praise the book got for tackling mental health. I wanted to add a note about this. I appreciate that it upset the reader but for me, it helped put Evie’s decision about telling her friends or not about her own diagnosis in context. People do still mock mental illness and make flippant comments and I suspect this is still very much the case in colleges and 6th forms. It certainly was back in my day and was part of the tapestry against which I had to cope with my mental ill health and was one of many factors which stopped me from telling anyone.

The second book looks at family dynamics and how a parent with alcoholism can affect this. There are also themes of gaslighting, step families and feeling invisible in this instalment of the Spinster Club series.

In the third, but not final*, book we see Lottie taking on the patriarchy, whilst also trying to follow her parents dream of her going to Cambridge and fast tracking it to become Prime Minister. The book opens with her being harassed on her way to college and how it weighs on her throughout the day; both the harassment and the fact she didn’t do anything when it happened. Something I’m sure many women can relate to.

*They return in …And A Happy New Year? which I haven’t got yet

Throughout the books, the mental health and feminism forms the background for the general teenage drama of relationships, romance and friendships. They are funny and moving and gripping. Difficult topics are approached sensitively and the feminism is delivered as an aid to the story, rather than shoe horned in.

I really liked that they were aware of feminism and feminist ideas and yet were still struggling with being teenage girls, full of hormones and emotions. They were girls talking about boys, talking about dates and so on but they were also self aware. I felt this made them realistic and relatable. No one is a ‘perfect’ feminist, especially not teenage girls!

Nature writing

At the moment, I am finding it hard to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I have many fragments of writing, notes scribbled on scraps of paper but I find myself unable to connect them cohesively. I know this will pass but in the meantime I thought an easy to write post would be a list of nature writing books and articles.

What are you reading and enjoying at the moment?

Edited to add… if that’s not enough reading for you, check out Katherine Hauswirths list

A year in books

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll likely know I’ve been photographing the books I’ve read since Boxing Day 2018. This has been alongside #ayearinbooks and has been a fun way of thinking about what I read and how much I read.

The following images cover most of the 130 odd books I’ve read.

A recent tweet made me wonder, of this vast array, what was my favourite, what would I recommend and what would I really not suggest people read… of course these are incredibly difficult decisions to make and I’d like to add the disclaimer that I retain the right to change my mind at any time…!

I would highly recommend both of Shane Burcaw’s books – Laughing at my Nightmare and Strangers Assume My Girlfriend Is My Nurse. They are funny biographies which talk about his life with a disability.

“On the surface, these essays are about day-to-day life as a wheelchair user with a degenerative disease, but they are actually about family, love, and coming of age. “
– Amazon

The books are well written, easy to read and offer a great insight into life with a disability and being in an interabled relationship. Don’t expect self pity or inspiration porn, expect wit and sarcasm and to very literally, laugh out loud!

Another book that has to be on my recommendation list is The Prison Doctor which I read in a day. This book provides an eye opening insight into the prison system, through the eyes of a doctor – did the title give this away?! At times your heart will be warmed, at other times you’ll want to scream with frustration at the limitations of the prison system and you will definitely feel Dr Brown’s compassion coming through the pages.

Also vaguely health related were It’s All in Your Head: Stories from the Frontline of Psychosomatic Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan which talks in depth about psychosomatic illnesses in a respectful way. These are genuine illnesses despite them ‘being all in the head’, because the brain is an incredibly powerful organ. This is echoed in the intriguing The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes* by Frank Bures.

*Full title essential to include!

All of the offerings from Reaktion Books have been incredible. They have a fantastic series about animals and as well as telling you about the species, they look at how humans and animals have interacted over the years. These books are key for my animal blog posts and this year they’ve had two 50% off sales which has been fantastic! If you find that sort of stuff interesting, I really suggest getting your paws on one of their books.

This year I got a library card for the university library so this year’s reading has happily included a number of academic texts. Perhaps the best, although it’s a tough choice, was possibly Animals and Society by Margo de Mello.

Poetry wise, Hannnah Hodgson’s Dear Body was very inspiring and I’ve loved unpicking The Amputee’s Guide to Sex by Jillian Weise. On a non disability note, Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore has provided well crafted, thought filled poems. Other poets I’ve loved this year include Hollie McNish, Nikita Gill and Amanda Lovelace.

It turned out I can’t label any book as not to be recommended. Partly because I don’t bother finishing books I’m not enjoying – I know several people who will persevere but for me at least, life is too short and I can’t be bothered. I read because I enjoy reading and because I enjoy learning. A bad book gives me neither of those joys.

Over to you! What have been some of your reading highlights over the past year?

My bedside table…

Each issue of Mslexia ends with an interview with a writer, journalist, poet etc. The prompts take a standard format and I thought it would be interesting to ponder my own answers…

The Table

An awful metal and plastic trolley that screams disability. Chosen because it can be moved easily, it can be easily reached without having to stretch and it does have a lot of space on it. Books also litter my bed.  And everywhere in my flat, you can stretch you arm out and grab a book.  I find it very comforting to be surrounded by books.

The Costume

Comfy pjs. Soft, stretchy bottoms and a t shirt. Preferably enough like lounge wear that I can get away with wearing when I leave the house.

The Method

Because of my disability, I read most of my books on my tablet and like to have both the audio and kindle versions so I can move between them as my health dictates. I have a foam triangle covered in non-slip netting that I use to prop up my tablet or book so I don’t have to bend my neck too much. In the past I’d have been laying on my side, propping up the book on a bear.

The Books…

Right now. I always have many books on the go… The main fiction book right now is Owlknight by Mercades Lackey, the last of a trilogy which makes me sad as I really like the characters. That said, there are other books set in the same world so I have more to move onto. There’s also Lady Killers by Tori Telfer and Stiff by Mary Roach.

Couldn’t put down. Pretty much anything by Robin Hobb definitely applies here. I also devoured Lucy Cookes’ Unexpected Truth About Animals over the summer. As a child, everything in my local library was unputdownable and included sweet valley books, Enid Blyton, Helen Forrester, E. B. Nesbitt and so many other books… Reaktion books are really interesting as well.

Gathering dust. I have so many books that many are literally gathering dust. Metaphorically, if I’m struggling with a book, I’ll leave it a while and return to it when I’m in a different mood. If I try this a few times and get nowhere, I’ll give it to a charity shop. Life is too short for bad books. My disability already reduces how much I can read so I’m not inclined to waste that on books I’m not enjoying…

Changed my life. This is a really tough question! I’d probably have to say all of them, but especially the books I read as a child and teenager. They gave me a way to escape, they showed me what was possible, they gave me friends and they inspired me. The Tamora Pierce books were very memorable and stood up to being read as an adult. They are an interesting take on gender and a recent twitter thread highlighted them as one of few books that mentioned periods…  And on that note, there were also the Judy Blume books…

Related posts:

Books I’ve been reading


I love it when I read a book that it so brilliant that I want to tell everyone about it and I just happen to have read a few of those recently. This is why, whilst I don’t tend to do that many random books I’ve read posts, I am today. In no particular order, these are the books I really want everyone to read:

  • The Unexpected Truth About Animals by Lucy Cooke I’ve been desperately waiting for this to come out in paperback and finally grabbed a copy from Waterstones to bring with me on my three week rehab programme. It’s easy to read and filled with fascinating information about 13 different animals. There have been so many bits and pieces that I’ve read out loud to whichever long suffering carer has been with me. I’d highly recommend reading this even if you don’t think of yourself as a nature or animal person.
  • This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel One of my carers recommended this book to me and when I looked it up I bought it straight away. It is a really well told story of a family and a small boy who feels he is a girl. It’s about how the different family members react and adapt and how society reacts. Interestingly, and I didn’t know until after reading the book, Frankel has first hand experience of being a parent with a transgender child although she does stress that this is not her story, that this is fiction.


  • The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell I devoured this book and promptly told everyone I know about it and I wish I could send copies to all my friends.  This is a true story which sees Tom as a young man heading off to Argentina to take up a teaching post.  At some point in his travels he rescues a penguin but when he goes to release it, the penguin has other ideas and keeps returning to his side.  Not sure what else to do, Tom and the penguin head back to the school, venturing through customs, and in very little time at all the penguin is a much loved fixture at the school.  All of this is going on at an interesting time in Argentinian politics and Tom has got the right balance of penguin and politics.  I defy you not to fall in love with Juan Salvador, penguin extraordinaire!



  • The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth – a saunter through some of the interesting bits of English.  Where did words come from and how did phrases come about.  I struggled to put it down!


a page from The Unexpected Truth About Animals 

The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating

“The velocity of the ill, however, is like that of the snail.”
– Emily Dickinson

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a beautifully written book interweaving her experience with chronic illness with her life co-habiting with a snail. Perhaps my own chronic illness gave the book a certain poignancy but I couldn’t put it down.


The book had been on my wish list for so long that I had forgotten what it was about until a post over on Bimblings reminded me. Read the book but also read the post, both are excellent, high quality pieces of writing.

Back to Wild Snails… Each chapter is snail sized, perfect for those of us with brain fog or hands which don’t like to hold books. It is scattered with quotes from others as well as quotable phrases from Bailey.

“When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive… Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties.”
– Bailey

Unable to get out of bed, a friend brings her some flowers and a snail from nearby woods, something I’ve recommended before as a way of connecting with nature when you can’t leave your house. Friends have come bearing gifts of conkers, acorns, interesting looking leaves but so far no animals!


“The tiny, intimate sound of the snails eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”
– Bailey

I suspect that anyone who has been unable to leave their bed or house for long periods of time knows the feeling of loneliness, of enforced solitary confinement and for Bailey, the snail would alleviate some of this additional pain. But more than that, the snail would teach her and guide her like a mentor. Watching the snail “provided a sort of meditation; [her] often frantic and frustrated thoughts would gradually settle down to match its calm, smooth pace.”


In between her reflections on the snail and her own life, are interesting facts, for example her particular snail possessed around 2,640 teeth in it’s tiny mouth. And a snail’s world is painted predominately by smell, taste and touch. In learning about the snail, she sees herself:

“I learned that snails are extremely sensitive to the ingestion of toxic substances from pollution and to changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature, moisture, wind and vibration. I could relate to this, as my dysfunctional autonomic nervous system made me sensitive to these things as well.”

To see ourselves in a mirror, and to see others experiencing similar feelings, is incredibly helpful in coming to terms with our illnesses and our new way of being in the world. I think, to some extent, my animal spirit posts have given me something of this. They are vessels for self reflection but they are also companions in facing shared difficulties, alone but together.

““I am going to withdraw from the world; nothing that happens there is any concern of mine.” And the snail went into his house and puttied up the entrance.”
– Hans Christian Anderson

I devoured The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating in much the same way as Bailey’s snail ate it’s way through letters and envelopes. It is a short, small book, filled with poetic observations and for me, is the type of nature writing I aspire to. There is an ordinariness in it. She is not exploring remote, far flung places. She is not at a microscope. She is someone who could easily be me, or you. But through the snail, she found herself a way of coping in a challenging situation.

“In a March 2009 article in the New Yorker, Atul Gawande wrote, “All human beings experience isolation as torture.” Illness isolates; the isolated become invisible; the invisible become forgotten. But the snail… the snail kept my spirit from evaporating.”

By the end of the book, her health has improved but she remains ill, keeping the snails teachings with her; “lots to do at whatever pace I can go. I must remember the snail.”

Climb Mount Fuji
O snail
but slowly, slowly
– Kobayashi Issa

Otter Country

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington is a tale of her quest to see otters in the wild.  It weaves her journey with facts as well as drawing in reflections and experiences of other otter writers, in particular Gavin Maxwell.  She visits the site of his home as part of her search and, it seems, to pay homage to an author who’s ottery writings had a huge impact on her.

Have just read about imagery in nature writing, I chose two pages at random and picked out the similes and metaphors:

The land is ribboned with water… surfaces glossy with wet… web of lines that link ditches… a lattice of hazel… clouds loosed… wind bashes reeds and bends them into a whistling chorus… a frog shimmering as if varnished with water pings away and becomes a wet leaf among other wet leaves… I creak inside… a world slick with water… a rainbow seeps in… release my binoculars… a slab of grey water… moorhens bicker… mallard mischoreograph landings… rain on the roof is a thousand pattering fingers… a ragged battalion of cormorants… sagging skeleton of a drowned tree… the water surface is zinc… starlings begin their pouring flight… they are a flickering brown stream…

Within these two pages we also find an evocative description of the water that our narrator is looking out onto:

“The water changes from moment to moment.  It is grey, it is ruffled, it is polished pewter or a mirror holding the sky and bouncing light in every direction.  I am mesmerised as it furs with the lightest shower of rain, ripples beneath coots or bends under the weigh of a swan.”

Despite only being 52 words, we are filled with a detailed sense of the scene and the characteristics of the water.  Water as a changeable entity is something we find a lot in poetic writings about lakes and rivers.  It is endlessly the same and yet always changing.

The description of the water as a mirror holding the sky is such a beautiful image, I’m envious of her ability to describe the world she sees and the action within it.  The idea of the frog pinging away and becoming one with the wet leaves, the starlings with their pouring flight, echoing the water below them as they stream through the sky.  Even without the allure of the otter, I think Darlington could easily draw readers in with her captivating imagery.  That said, otters were the reason I picked up the book in the first place…

And that is because otters are amazing!  And as far as creature specific nature writing goes, we find them in Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, The Wind in the Willows and the internet phenomenon, I Am Otter.  Turning to poetry, we have Ted Hughes’ An Otter and Dog Otter by Kevin Saving amongst many others.

As a bit of an aside, the otters that pop up in memes and cute videos are most often sea otters whereas the kind we have in the UK are Eurasian Otters.  Instead of living in the sea, they move between land and fresh water, without which they would become dehydrated.  They also need fresh water to clean their fur and maintain its waterproofing.

Whilst the otter rock stars of the internet appear cute and cuddly, they are actually quite ferocious, they are serious predators, they are after all wild animals who need to survive.  They were one of the earliest mammalian carnivores to evolve and have a powerful bite.

To search for otters in the UK is quite a challenge.  Whilst numbers are on the rise, they got close to extinction in the 20th century.  But it is not necessarily population size which makes them tricky to find.  They are one with their world, they slip between water and earth with graceful ease, without impact and without notice.  They appear and disappear as if by magic, slipping away unseen.  This can, at times, make the book a little frustrating.  After all, I chose a book about otters with the hope of actually finding one lurking between the pages.

When reviewing the book, John Lister-Kay said:

“You don’t have to be an otter fanatic to love Darlington’s book… Otter Country is proper nature writing, revealing as much about the writer’s obsession with otters as of the animal itself and leaving us in awe of both”

Who isn’t an otter fanatic?!  As nature writing, Otter Country is a great piece of work.  She provides beautiful imagery, an interesting reflection on the watery landscapes she finds herself in as well as considering the otter in literature.  My only criticism is that it is titled Otter Country and whilst she is writing well about the home of the otter, I wanted more actual otters…  The nature of the otters means they are elusive and this is reflected in the book but I think the title sets the reader up for something that they aren’t going to get.

Nature Writing Dissected: The Doe’s Song

I think it was a few months before starting my nature and writing project that I read The Doe’s Song by Leath Tonino and it nearly moved me to tears – quite a feat.  It stuck with me and remained powerful when reread.

When I started to read Writing About Nature: A Creative Guide, I found suggestions for exercise which included looking at other people’s nature writing.  I thought of The Doe’s Song and handily rediscovered my printed copy when I was tidying up.  Whilst the guide suggests well known essays by well known authors to turn to for the exercises, I wanted to stick to something which had resonated so strongly.  I knew this could only be The Doe’s Song or some of Rachel Carson’s work, and I had already peered intently at the writing of the latter.

I am halfway through the creative guide and so far I have been steered through journals, essays, writing process, openings and closings and word pictures.  So it is through the lens of these aspects that I inspect and dissect The Doe’s Song.

The essay opens with a striking image – a deer being hit by a car.  From this, we know right away that this is likely to be an article about people, cars and deer.  All of this is revealed in the first four words.  It is an in media res opening, that is, it starts in the middle of the action.

Like much of the essay, the opening paragraph involves a lot of repetition.  The deer is referred to as “the deer” (as opposed to he/she/it) throughout, the phrase totals seven uses in five sentences.  In the second paragraph we discover “she was a doe, not sure how old.”  Still in the first paragraph, we find “fell back down to the pavement” used twice to end the first two sentences which emphasises this point.  Following these two sentences, we start to find more descriptive language with a simile comparing the deer’s broken leg to a scarf.  As the author notes, “the whole thing took maybe thirty seconds, a minute tops” and so it’s appropriate that we find here a short first paragraph.

The second paragraph introduces us to the author and in some ways, the structure echoes that of the first paragraph. The first two sentences include a lot of repetition: “when she slammed the brakes we slammed the brakes.  We saw the deer try to stand and we saw the deer fall and we saw the deer rise and run.”  This architecture is found elsewhere in the essay, both in terms of the repetition and the use of and where one could have chosen to use commas instead.

In contrast to this scene of a car accident and the injured doe, we are it was a “soft evening” when a deer was “struck with the force of rockfall and lightening”, and these phrases repeat as the essay continues.  We find this contradicting image repeated and the tension between the suburbia and the wild enhanced because of it.  We hear of spots of blood in the same sentence as children laughing and playing.  The death of the deer is part of this everyday life where homework and fine houses co-exist with pain and suffering.

The third paragraph is where we see another construct that the author repeats.  It, almost ironically, is the repeated use of “I will repeat that” as a way to emphasise key points.

“It was the kind of place where deer are hit every day.  I will repeat that: every day… I looked inside the chipmunk.  I will repeat that: I looked inside.”

“Do you think it will be okay? Do you think it will live?” are another couple of sentences which are woven throughout the essay.  It is a version of these which form the first narrative and go on to form most of the narrative.

Towards the start of the essay, we are introduce to the idea of a song for the deer and it continues to weave it’s way through, from our narrator standing over the injured doe to the American Indians thanking the deer for their gift to the final song.

The author has chosen a non linear timeline which allows him to incorporate memories from different times in his life as well as the anecdotes of others.  This adds flesh to the opening incident and allows the author to expand on themes and ideas whilst remaining within the twenty four hours between opening and closing.  This keeps the initial incident fresh but provides space for discussion of bigger ideas.

Like in most nature writing, we find specifics which make the words come to life.  Instead of a bland list of roadkill, we are told of:

“the early dow in the Adirondacks, the second with her neck snapped back, the skunk whose white stripe was red, the mash of porcupine…”

Part way through, we return to Jennifer on the same day as the accident.  We are shown a domestic, everyday scene but, with the words “nobody mentioned the deer”, we are reminded that the doe hangs over these characters, a ghostly presence, unspoken but unforgettable.

For me, the most important diversion from the doe of the title is the recollection of rescue work in the wilderness.  The heavy realisation that sometimes you can’t save people, sometimes you can’t help them.  This is a difficult concept to accept and one that requires you to process things.  The whole essay feels, to me, like the author processing the opening incident.  A way of clearing things up for himself, a way of accepting that there was nothing he could do for that deer.  Throughout the essay we are offered coping and processing techniques.  There is the cataloguing of pain through the list of road kill.  Getting on with the everyday such as preparing food and watching TV.  Facing things head on: “Often I’ve sat on the ground and forced myself to be still, to inhale, to look hard and long.”  With the wilderness anecdote we are shown the importance of discussion in processing things.  Another story shows the beauty of ritual and honouring the dead – the Navajos sing to the deer as it is dying and apologise through ritual.

“The most we can do is pause, pray, give thanks, apologize, make ceremonies, make them a part of the very life that kills other lives.”

The detour into dissection provides another way of coming to terms with death.  Through careful investigation, “the dead animal [brings] to life what can be so much jargon , so many diagrams on the page.”  Here the deer, whilst dead, still has a purpose, still offers something to the world.  And by unpicking layer after layer, we get to know a creature.  Over time, the dissected animal begins to decompose, in a similar way, over time, to how we hope our own pain will decompose, will become fertile and will give life to something.  In this case, the result of the trauma, over time, becomes this essay.

After the detour into dissection, the author circles out the idea of the accidental death, calling it slaughter and summoning up a more brutal version of the incident.  Here he asks us to consider “What if the doe is not a deer?  What if it doe is an aquifer, an ocean, the night’s very darkness?”  In doing so, he is pulling us into bigger world issues, into discussion of how man affects the world and what the consequences of this are.  This feels like it could, itself, be the ending.  An ending of rhetorical questions and philosophical ponderings.

But instead we return for the final time to Jennifer and her question: “Do you think that deer is going to die?”.  This potentially bleak ending transforms as we find our characters are able to laugh and make coffee.  The deer is not ok, but they will be.  There is hope.  The author sings “that gentle tune, the tune for the doe, the song of goodbye, which I still remember today, years later.”  And it is with this that we find ourselves left with an image which haunts both reader and writer.  There is a finality to the incident here, and a farewell.  We are not left with the heartache and pain of the deer, instead we are left with the reminder that life goes on.  We cannot help everyone.

March Resources



  • Blue Planet and Blue Planet II
  • Finding Nemo (of course!)
  • Chasing Coral
  • Free Willy





The River Singers

I’m going to start moving away from the sea and into other bodies of water but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to return to the oceans as I take this meander. I’m, appropriately, letting the waters guide me, going with the flow and seeing where I end up!

“It reminded me of Watership Down because it’s a poetic story about a family of animals in danger who are looking for safety”
– Charlie, Age 9


The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse is a compelling tale, and whilst it’s aimed at children, it warmed my heart as a 31 year old adult. It centres on a family of voles who live alongside the Great River and what I really enjoyed was the creation of the river as a character.

When our hero, Sylvan, first encounters the river he is exhilarated:

“She filled him with her vastness, her movement, her song. He felt the stirrings of hunger, the desire to dive, to twist, to flow with her.”

During this initial meeting between vole and water, Sylvan’s mother passes on words from her mother:

“Well, young ones, beyond this point lies Sinethis, the Great River. We are River Singers, Water Folk, children of Sinethis. We live by her ways. She takes our old and gives us young. She stirs our hunger, feeds us with grasses. She shelters us in her waters and burrows. She rises and dashes us. She sings with us a song as soft as thistles, hard as roots, deep as shadows, old as stones. We sing with her a song as quick as thinking, sweet as apples, brief as day. We are River Singers, and we are hers.”

What I love about this is that in a short paragraph we find water as life giving and life sustaining, water as death and water as eternal. These are themes that you can see at play elsewhere in the book and which weave together the wider river ecosystem.

There is some beautifully poetic prose in this novel and the interplay between Sylvan the voles and Sinethis the river is evocative:

“She is as old as stones and our song with her is brief as summer.”
– Sylan

“Flow with me. Be as I am. Be yielding but strong, swift and implacable. Flow with me. You will need to swim, to fight. But flow with me. This is my way.”
– Sinethis

“She sang in him [Sylvan], louder than she had ever been, her melodies twining deeply through his heart. She sang a song of savagery and peace, of raging torrents and burbling trickles, cataracts and calm. She sang of life, a strident tune, its notes strong, bright and gleaming. She sang of death, the notes muted, dissolving and mingling with the others, lost in the eternal whole.”

The river is truly, undoubtably, a character in her own right, an ever present semi-god.

“I loved the lyrical, spiritual relationship of the voles with the river, and somehow the very sad and dangerous parts of the voles’ lives was held in perfect balance with this, so that the book was accurate about life and death, but never gratuitously cruel or, on the other hand, unrealistically sentimental.”
– A. Booth, an amazon review

I think it’s useful to know that Moorhouse is an ecologist at Oxford University’s Zoology Department and completed his DPhil on water vole conservation ecology in 2003, as such this is a fairly good representation of this life of voles. Except of course it’s fiction and the voles talk. But you know what I mean!

“Once water voles were an everyday part of experiencing our countryside. Seeking them is a way of connecting with our past.”
– Tom Moorhouse

Water voles used to be a common sight along rivers in the UK, plopping into the water whilst fishermen sat on the banks. But things aren’t so good for them anymore. They are the fastest declining wild mammal in Britain and have disappeared from many parts of the country. Habitat loss is one reason for this but the introduction of the American Mink has had a huge impact on numbers as mink eat voles, something Sylvan and his siblings know only too well… Between 1989 and 1998, the population fell by almost 90 per cent. The populations which still remain are becoming increasingly disjointed and disconnected which leads to a loss of genetic variation.

But things might be improving for the voles. According to an article from summer 2017, numbers are on the up. And thankfully, for the species as a whole, they are not picky eaters and have been recorded eating 227 different types of plant in Britain. This means that they are less vulnerable to changes in flora but they do need to eat 80% of their body weight every day. I suspect a lot of live as a vole is about finding yummy food!

They have amazing, cute and expressive little faces and despite all the dangers around them, all the predators looking to eat them (we encounter a few in the book), they look relaxed and calm as they nibble away on the riverside vegetation. Just don’t expect this level of zen when you read the adventure of this vole family!