Book Review of “Turning” by Jessica J. Lee

I haven’t had a lot of practice writing book reviews, but I thought I’d try. Here’s one I’ve written recently:

I am drawn to water and freshwater in particular. Inspired by Roger Deakin’s “Waterlog”, I was keen to read “Turning”, a swimming memoir by Jessica J. Lee – and really enjoyed it.

The author, a Canadian with British-Chinese parents, is living temporarily in Berlin to write up a thesis. Feeling depressed she turns to swimming in the hope that she’ll heal a broken heart. She decides to set herself the challenge of swimming in 52 lakes around Berlin over the course of a year. With just her bicycle and packed lunch she sets off during breaks in her writing to swim in a lake every week, sometimes using the train and often alone. Swimming in all weathers, she likes winter the best and occasionally has to break lake ice with a hammer. Her relationship with the lakes grows as the environment subtly changes with the seasons.

Turning by Jessica J. Lee

Turning by Jessica J. Lee

Swimming becomes a way for her to find a sense of belonging in a new city. She hopes to find solace and gain an understanding of herself by literally immersing herself in the landscape. The book works well in various ways. For example, the author’s experiences, memories and feelings are reflected in the landscape and water with the use of simple similes and metaphors,

“I’ve been angry with myself for losing my equilibrium, for confusing swimming with love. I’ve been furious at myself for sinking… Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.”

When she swims, the language is sensual and lyrical but hints at her deep hurt,

“…The lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet, more like cut glass.”

She has a keen eye for the details of the natural world, illustrated when her current situation as a newcomer to the region is accentuated by some wildflowers she notices,

“I’m struck by a tiny flash of pale pink in the green. Himalayan balsam… They are aliens here.”

During her explorations she encounters the ghosts of Berlin’s past as well as her own. Musings by writers such as Theodor Fontaine and the research of water scientists interweave with the author’s story.

Water permeates the book; cities, countries and continents are linked by their lakes and the author’s history. Relationships ebb and flow, sometimes serving as anchors, sometimes causing grief. Her present story shifts to her past and back again until we are acquainted with her life – like the stratified layers of a lake.

In the last chapter Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing”, is mentioned, an influential book for the author. Perhaps this could have been introduced earlier in the book.

Like Roger Deakin in “Waterlog”, Jessica J. Lee successfully gets “under the skin of things”. But her story is markedly different. “Turning” is beautiful book about lake swimming, loss, resilience, solitude and finding a sense of belonging.

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The Curlew Literary Journal

I’m just writing a brief post to spread the word about a new literary journal, The Curlew, in which I have an essay and some artwork.

I was very pleased to have my essay accepted. It’s about a bat survey I took part in at Ebernoe Common woods in the summer. My image, Echoing Swans and a pen and ink illustration of a dark wood also feature.

The Curlew

The Curlew literary journal.

The Curlew

My essay about bats in The Curlew.

The Curlew

Echoing Swans in The Curlew

The Curlew donates to wildlife charities such as Cheetah Conservation Fund and The Born Free Foundation and is looking for contributions of creative non-fiction, poetry, artwork and photography. It’s also keen to involve young people with a special section called “Sanderlings”.

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Summer and Autumn Anthologies

I am very pleased to have pieces of writing in the Spring, Summer and Autumn anthologies published by Elliott and Thompson and The Wildlife Trusts. Spring and Summer are on sale now and Autumn will be out on the 25th August. I feel honoured to have writing alongside writers such as Gilbert White, Melissa Harrison, Helen MacDonald and Amy Liptrot.

Summer and Autumn Anthologies

Summer and Autumn Anthologies

Autumn Anthology Inside

The beginning of my piece about badgers.

My piece in Summer was about the hares on Havergate Island, an island I’ve mentioned before here. Below is an extract:


“…Evening, and the moon over Orford Ness is round and full, a warm, butter moon. Below, in its light, I can make out the dark shapes of fishermen casting into the rippling Narrows. The hares will be out feeding on grasses and herbs now. At night I sleep and dream reed-lined, silt-laden dreams, drifting channels in my skiff, hugging the shallows, calm and sheltered from a ravaging sea beyond. I wake and the winds are playing havoc with the wind turbine again.”

Butter Moon

Butter Moon over Orford Ness

For Autumn, I wrote about a badger encounter I’d had with my partner in Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire. I find myself often drawn to nocturnal wildlife:

“Nocturnal wildlife has a special fascination; it usually lives out of sight beneath the radar of our everyday, human lives…”

(As I am writing about my writing, back in February, I wrote a piece about seeing Manx shearwaters and storm petrels on the island of Skokholm, birds of the night. You can read it on the Caught By The River website.)

As my Autumn piece is about badgers, I thought I’d show my latest altered book, Badger Family. I was given a tatty old Observer’s guide to Wild Animals, beautiful in a wabi sabi sort of way. I’ve transformed the book’s interior into a woodland scene with badgers.

Badger Family Altered Book

Badger Family Altered Book

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Spring Anthology

Writing is as much a part of me now as making visual art of some sort. They are two channels in the river bed of my life, sometimes intersecting, other times flowing in parallel, two parts of myself getting to know each other. Perhaps one day they’ll blend. Writing my journal is something I’ve always done – and treasured – I’m excited now that my other types of writing are becoming just as important.

As part of the prize for winning the Creative Future Literary Award for fiction last year, I’ve been having mentoring with Amy Liptrot whose memoir, The Outrun, has just come out. I’m reading her book at the moment, enjoying the beautiful, clear writing; the contrasting phases of her life, the interesting steps she takes in her recovery from alcohol and her accounts of living and visiting remote Orcadian islands. I find myself wanting to gaze at the sky, watch the sea – even get in! I need to find myself an island. It’s a recommended read :)

Spring Anthology

So far with the mentoring I’ve concentrated on creative non-fiction, “nature writing” mainly, which leads me on to Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, in which I have a piece of writing. I have only just opened the book and read a little of the introduction by Melissa Harrison:

It is a moment of quickening, of rebirth. the old, lovely story: life surging back, despite everything, once again. However spring finds you – birdsong, blossom or spawn – it is a signal: the earth turning its ancient face back to the sun.

Beautiful! – I’m already looking forward to reading the whole thing. The book comes out 18th February and is published by Elliott and Thompson and The Wildlife Trusts.

In the book my piece is about seeing a stoat at Newtimber Hill on the South Downs. The Newtimber Estate is an SSSI. Newtimber Wood on the north side of the hill is one of my favourite local haunts and where I filmed part of Touching the Earth. It is also a bluebell wood. Here is a photo I took a few years ago in March.

Newtimber Wood crossing the bostal

Path in Newtimber Wood crossing the ‘bostal’.

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The Ghost Faced Sheep

For the Year of the Sheep – The Ghost Faced Sheep.

I climb up the western edge, the disused quarry falling away into a swathe of shadow to my left. The sun spills over the crest ahead of me, its brightness blinding my eyes. The ground falls away steeply into a chaotic muddle of hillocks, hollows, dips and clumps steeped in shadow within a cool pocket scooped out of the hillside. I pause to take in this uneven landscape quiet beneath its worn duffle coat of short turf, the work of an army of rabbits. A solitary magpie strutts and frets on a sunlit mound, a performer uttering a soliliquy in a giant amphitheatre. He hops on to the path that snakes between the mounds then takes off with a clatter to alight in a nearby tree, a hawthorn, winter- stripped and dusted green with lichen.

I turn back to the sun and stomp uphill trampling last year’s crumpled hawthorn leaves in the squish of chalky mud underfoot. At the top bright sunshine and the full force of the wind. I find the gate and notice the gorse is still speckled yellow with flowers. The view opens out on to the golf course which descends to a mousy scrubland mix of hawthorn and elder furring the valley like a mould. I circle the broad hollow towards the shadow.

I hear blackbirds scuffling deep within the skeleton of a hedge and glimpse the silhouette of a robin. I look about for birds of prey; I’ve seen kestrels here before, a pair, circling and hovering before collapsing into a bank of trees, scattering pigeons in all directions. They look disproportionally large when hunched on a tree top; distance can be so deceptive.

Just then, I happen to look through a gap in the hedge and am taken aback by the ashen face of a lone sheep standing there like a shocked ghost. The field of mauve shadow with its mist of white grasses contrasts starkly with the sunlit trees beside me. To get a better view I wade through ivy, feathery tufts of yarrow, and ash saplings with their hooflike buds pointing skyward. The sheep stares vacantly in my direction with an air of unease before returning back to graze; a ghost in the lee of a hill that the sun never sees.

Ghost Faced Sheep

Oh sheep sheep
Do not look so wide-eyed and lost!

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