20 Books of Summer, #14–15: Mary Lawson and Stephen Moss

Approaching the home straight with these two: another novel that happens to have an animal in the title, and a pleasant work of modern nature writing set in an English village. My rating for both:



Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (2002)

I’ve meant to read more by Lawson ever since I reviewed her latest book, Road Ends, for Nudge in May 2015. All three of her novels draw on the same fictional setting: Struan, Ontario. Lawson grew up in a similar Canadian farming community before moving to England in the late 1960s. After an invitation arrives for her nephew’s birthday party, narrator Kate Morrison looks 20 years into the past to remember the climactic events of the year that she was seven. When she and her siblings were suddenly orphaned, her teenage brothers, Luke and Matt, had to cobble together local employment that allowed them to look after their little sisters at home. With the help of relatives and neighbors, they kept their family of four together. All along, though, their lives were becoming increasingly entwined with those of the Pyes, a troubled local farming family.

Matt inspired Kate’s love of pond life – she’s now an assistant professor of invertebrate ecology – but never got to go to college himself. Theirs was a family that prized schooling above all else (legend has it that Great-Grandmother installed a book rest on her spinning wheel so she could read while her hands were busy*) and eschewed emotion. “It was the Eleventh Commandment,” Kate recalls: “Thou Shalt Not Emote.”

This is a slow burner for sure, but it’s a winning picture of a family that stuck together despite the odds, as well as an appeal to recognize that emotional intelligence is just as important as book learning. The novel reminded me a lot of Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and The Girls by Lori Lansens, and I’d also recommend it to readers of Elizabeth Hay and Jane Urquhart.

*Delightfully, this detail was autobiographical for Lawson.


Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village by Stephen Moss (2011)

England doesn’t have any hummingbirds, but it does have hummingbird hawkmoths, which explains the title. In the tradition of Gilbert White, Moss writes a month-by-month tribute to what he regularly sees on his home turf of Mark, Somerset. As I did with Mark Cocker’s Claxton, I picked up the book partway – at the month in which I started reading it – and when I reached the end, returned to the beginning and read up to my starting point. Controversial, I know, but that July to June timeline worked fine: it gave me familiar glimpses of what’s going on with English nature now, followed by an accelerated preview of what I have to look forward to in the coming months.

Moss is primarily a birder, so he focuses on bird life, but also notes what’s happening with weather, trees, fungi, and so on. In the central and probably best chapter, on June, he maximizes wildlife-watching opportunities: going eel fishing, running a moth trap, listening for bats, and looking out for unfamiliar plants. My minor annoyances with the book were the too-frequent references to “the parish,” which makes the book’s concerns seem parochial rather than microcosmic, and the common use of semicolons where commas and dashes would be preferable. But if you’re fond of modern nature writing, and have some familiarity with (or at least interest in) the English countryside, I highly recommend this as a peaceful, observant read. Plus, Harry Brockway’s black-and-white engravings heading each chapter are exquisite.

Favorite lines:

“Being in one place is also the best way to understand the passing of the seasons: not the great shifts between winter and spring, summer and autumn, which we all notice; but the tiny, subtle changes that occur almost imperceptibly, from week to week, and day to day, throughout the year.”

“For me, one of the greatest pleasures of living in the English countryside is the way we ourselves become part of the natural cycle of the seasons.”


22 responses

  1. I enjoyed the Moss very much – Bath’s not too far from the area where he lives which made it very easy to ‘see’ the scenes he writes about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been to Somerset a couple of times but don’t know it particularly well. I could picture all the scenes, too, but my mental map was probably completely off!

      I was sheepish that this was my first book by Moss — he was my husband’s mentor through the A Focus On Nature programme (back when my husband was considered a youth!) and we see him most years at the New Networks for Nature conference. This was one of my husband’s welcome gifts from AFON.


      1. Oh, that’s interesting. He lives in ‘tick’ country and having only recently had to deal with one of those I’m not keen to go back for a while.


    2. We had a horrific experience with swarms of ticks on Cape May earlier this year. It was the last strike against the place for me!


      1. Ugh! Three weeks of antibiotics for me as a result of a bite. Best steer well clear.


    3. We must have stepped on a ‘nest’ or something: we had dozens of tiny ones crawling up our shoes and trousers. Miraculously, neither of us had one attach.

      My brother-in-law and father-in-law have both had to take precautionary medication for bites in the last year or so. It’s better to be safe than sorry in these cases, as you hear such awful things about the effects of long-term Lyme disease.


      1. How horrible, but also incredibly lucky to escape them latching on. One of my partner’s colleagues had an episode of Lyme disease, fortunately caught very early thanks to his medic. wife. Took him six months to get over it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember Crow Lake being very well reviewed when it was first published. I didn’t get round to it then, but certainly intend to now. Great Grandma and I are kindred spirits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought the same — if I had to do lots of manual labour, I would find a way to incorporate reading into it (I guess that’s what audiobooks are for nowadays). Lawson is well worth reading. I’m sad I only have one more of her books to look forward to.


  3. I remember enjoying Crow Lake some years ago. I have always enjoyed Stephen Moss’ writing in the Guardian, so I’ll look out for that. I wasn’t aware we had hummingbird hawkmoths in this country. They were our constant companions when we lived in France, but I’ve never seen one here. Perhaps we’re too far north?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He calls them “a wanderer from the south,” so perhaps they are rare sightings. I’m pretty sure we’ve had elephant hawkmoths in the garden, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Apparently they’ve even been seen in Scotland. Just avoiding Yorkshire.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The Moss sounds great – Somerset/Dorset is my ancestral home so I ought to read that! And I thought I’d read Crow Lake but maybe before I started my original LiveJournal blog but no, here it is in 2006! https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2006/09/03/mary-lawson-crow-lake/ (I did pass it on).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy Moss’s writing, especially since you know that part of the world.

      I like your early mini-reviews! There are two more Lawson novels set in the same small town should you wish to revisit it. I have had a lot of good luck with Canadian literature recently.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read at least one of them in 2009! That was one of the better ones – some are so mini. I did like this book and it was good. Ha!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s been so long since I read Crow Lake it was nice to have a reminder of it. So cool about her great-grandmother. Now I want to know what books she read.

    I didn’t know England doesn’t have Hummingbirds!


    1. I grew up seeing the occasional ruby-throated hummingbird in the States (which I guess you’d also see in Canada), but I think that’s the only type I’ve seen.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love your idea of reading this book starting with the month you were in! Usually I wouldn’t read a book out of order, but it seems like reading about what you’re actually seeing and what’s coming up would make the book feel much more relevant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only done this twice, and both times it was for nature books that were divided up into monthly chapters. Maybe I would also do it for a memoir or journal that was categorized by seasons?


  7. I loved reading the book by Stephen Moss. My Nan lived not far from the village mentioned in the book so I recognised some of the places

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the […]


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