Category Archives: nature

Review of KINDLE Ebook The Tropic of Serpents – Book 2 of The Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

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I started this delightful series last year – see my review of A Natural History of Dragons – and have left it far too long to dive back into Lady Trent goodness.

Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career. Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics. The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

Lady Trent, now an elderly lady and a well-known authority on dragons, is writing her own memoirs, partly as companion pieces to the scholarly tomes she has produced on her beloved dragons – and partly to set the record straight, as she has been the object of much censure and gossip throughout her life. This is her account of the eventful second expedition she undertook. As the blurb already mentions, the jungle where the swamp-wyrms live is a political hotspot.

This is, if anything, even better than the first book. I love the first person narrator – Lady Trent is a feisty, unconventional woman driven by an insatiable scientific curiosity and a real concern that dragons will shortly be driven to extinction. Brennan has effectively captured the persona of a number of intrepid Victorian ladies who sallied forth to some of the most inhospitable places in the world – like Marianne North, the noted artist, who has provided us with a record of beautiful oil paintings of rare and unusual plants in their natural habitat, for instance.

Brennan paints such a vivid picture of this world, there were times I had to remind myself it is entirely fictitious. The privations the expedition endure in the jungle are utterly engrossing and just as I thought I knew what was coming next – or settled into the rhythm of the daily routine, the plot would suddenly take off in a completely different direction. The pages seemed to turn themselves as I read waaay late into the night, unable to put this one down. I held my breath as she attempts a death-defying leap and felt suitably indignant when she turns up at the gates of a colonial outpost, underweight and wearing the rags of her former clothes – and is dismissed with derision.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way Brennan wraps this one up – and I completed the book with a sigh of satisfaction and a firm promise to myself that it won’t be so long before I revisit this world and track down The Voyage of the Basilisk.
9/10

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*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Less Than a Treason – Book 21 of the Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow

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Himself is a solid fan of this series and I’ve also enjoyed dipping in and out of them – see my review of A Cold Day for Murder. He pre-ordered this offering a while ago, but I forgot all about it until this week, when I found it lurking in my TBR pile.

KATE SHUGAK is a native Aleut working as a private investigator in Alaska. She’s 5 foot 1 inch tall, carries a scar that runs from ear to ear across her throat and owns a half-wolf, half-husky dog named Mutt. Resourceful, strong-willed, defiant, Kate is tougher than your average heroine – and she needs to be to survive the worst the Alaskan wilds can throw at her. Two thousand people go missing in Alaska every year. They vanish in the middle of mountain footraces, on fishing boats in the Bering Sea, on small planes in the Bush. Now a geologist known for going walkabout with his rock hammer has disappeared from the Suulutaq Mine in the Park. Was it deliberate? An accident? Foul play? Kate Shugak may be the only person who can find out. But for the fact that Kate, too, is now among the missing…

I loved this one. Stabenow effectively takes us back to the dramatic events at the end of the previous book, Bad Blood, and then resumes the narrative as we witness the fallout after the shocking events that left the book on a major cliffhanger. Once the immediate danger is past, Kate does what she always does when confronted with a major setback – she retreats to the wilderness to lick her wounds and heal. It doesn’t help that her constant companion, Mutt, has gone missing. I very much like Kate’s character – her laconic manner belies the impact she makes whenever she walks into a room. Stabenow is very effective at depicting a protagonist who doesn’t say a lot, yet clearly engenders a strong response – for good or bad – on those around her.

Meanwhile we also follow Jim, Kate’s significant other, who was right in the middle of the drama and pain of the event that found Kate hospitalised, fighting for her life. After she disappears, he keeps waiting for her to get back in touch and in this dual narrative, we also discover what he does while waiting for her.

And in this almost incidental manner, Kate’s next case starts with a missing man as a dead body also turns up near her cabin. Meanwhile, Jim is increasingly concerned about another member of the Shugak family who goes missing – Martin, one of Kate’s cousins. Not that anyone is overly surprised if Martin comes to a sticky end, given some of the company he keeps. Though it is no longer Jim’s job, he starts to ask around for Martin, as well as trying to quietly discover where Kate has got to.

I loved the way that Stabenow dripfeeds all the small details that build up to this murder mystery, while giving us a ringside seat as to how Jim and Kate go about rebuilding their lives after a major trauma. In addition, we also get a real insight into how to live in a part of the world that is intrinsically hostile. Stabenow’s experience of being raised in Alaska plays a major part in the excellent worldbuilding that defines this series. I was particularly struck at how global warming is playing out in this fragile corner of the globe.

If you are looking for a murder mystery series with a difference, then you can jump right into the middle of this one without too much floundering – although you’ll miss a massive backstory. But this is one of my favourite murder mysteries of the year so far and comes very highly recommended.
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook Return to the Secret Garden by Holly Webb

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This children’s book is a direct sequel to Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s famous novel The Secret Garden which was a favourite of mine, after my grandmother read it to me way back in 1963. So would I enjoy revisiting this world by another author over a generation later?

returntothesecretgardenIt’s 1939, and the occupants of the Craven Home for Orphaned Children have been evacuated to Misselthwaite Hall, a fancy manor in the English countryside, to escape the Blitz. Emmie would hardly call the orphanage “home,” but her heart breaks knowing that leaving Craven means leaving her beloved cat, Lucy. Away from everything she’s ever known and trapped in imposing Misselthwaite, Emmie finds herself more miserable than ever. But soon she starts discovering the secrets of the house-a boy who cries in the night, a diary written by a girl named Mary, and a garden. A very secret garden…

Emmie is certainly a worthy successor to poor, spoilt Mary Lennox. She has edges that have nothing to do with being unduly pampered – quite the opposite in fact. While the adults around her are quite tough with her, I did like the fact that the people running the orphanage aren’t depicted as evilly intent on crushing the spirit of their charges. While their form of punishment may jar with modern norms, at the time it wasn’t uncommon for children to be regularly slapped or beaten with a slipper or strap for transgressions. I could see the adults were all feeling frayed and coping with the practicalities of moving twenty orphans to the other end of the country must have been a daunting task, given that half the staff were off ‘doing their bit’.

Any grizzles? Well I do have a problem with the cover, which is rather cute and girly and gives the impression that this is lighthearted, fluffy read when its nothing of the sort.

Given the book’s relationship with the original story, several characters feature in this sequel that had major parts in the first book. I very much enjoyed seeing Webb’s take on how they went on to develop after original The Secret Garden ended. However, this book is far more than merely an additional riff of that story. Webb deals with all sorts of gnarly issues in this well written, nuanced novel that covers an interesting time in our history. What happened to hundreds and thousands of pets all over the country in towns, for instance – which directly impacted on the adults’ attitude towards one small stray cat. There is also a sudden death, which winded me. I kept expecting the character, who had played a crucial role in Emmie’s happiness, to pop up at the end of the book, declaring that his reported death had been a muddle and it was all going to end happily ever after. It didn’t. I admire Webb enormously for not sugar-coating the bleak fact that during that time lots of men were killed – and kind, caring responsible fathers, sons and brothers were swallowed up by the mincing machine that was WWII never to return. Through Emmie’s shocked eyes, we get a ringside seat into how those left behind coped with such a grievous loss and put their lives back together again.

This is a well-written, though provoking story on dealing with loss – a major theme in Return to The Secret Garden – and Webb does an excellent job of showing the consequences of war in an unsentimental, entertaining way.
9/10

Sunday Post – 12th June

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Sunday Post

This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Book Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

My editing marathon is grinding inexorably onward. I’m now line editing Breathing Space before letting it loose on my long-suffering beta-readers. Debbie has completed reading through Dying for Space for me and has handed it onto Sarah.

This week hasn’t been quite so frenetic. It was lovely to resume my Creative Writing classes on Monday and Tuesday and catch up with everyone after the half-term break. On Wednesday evening our writing group met up and discussed each others’ work amid tea and laughter. During Thursday evening I attended the monthly West Sussex Writers’ meeting to hear Jane Lythell, who has written the successful psychological thrillers The Lie of You and After the Storm. She talked to eve-of-war-sample-2-639x1024the group about her journey to being published and also discussed characterisation and how she crafted her protagonists. It is always fascinating to hear how different authors approach their work and Jane was a fluent, articulate speaker with plenty to say – including some intriguing details about her upcoming new release, Woman of the House, which is more of a contemporary novel about a woman coping with a demanding job and increasing commitments at home.

 

I’ve also now received a copy of the cover for the anthology Eve of War, in which my short story ‘Miranda’s Tempest’ will appear. Isn’t it gorgeous? The release date is 20th June.

 

As regards reading – I’m coming to the end of a hefty tome that almost stopped me in my tracks…

The Passage – Book 1 of The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin
Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she’s the most important person in thepassagethe whole world.
She is.
Anthony Carter doesn’t think he could ever be in a worse place than Death Row.
He’s wrong.
FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming.
It is.
THE PASSAGE.
And there you have the blurb of this apocalyptic, science fiction vampire book that runs to 766 pages. The first section, where it all goes to hell in a handcart, was something of a slog – not because there was anything wrong with the book, indeed, the writing is remarkable and engrossing. However, I hadn’t appreciated that it starts in our world before it all slides away, which I always find a bit of a problem. Fortunately, just as I was on the verge of giving up, the section ended and we were plunged into the future, post-apocalyptic world. I will be reviewing it sometime in the next week.

My posts last week:
Sunday Post – 5th June

* NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Cursed – Book 2 of The Soulseer Chronicles by Sue Tingey

Teaser Tuesday – The Passage – Book 1 of The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

* NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of The Annihiliation Score – Book 6 of The Laundry Files by Charles Stross

Friday Faceoff – All That is Gold Does Not Glitter featuring Empire of Black and Gold – Book 1 of The Shadow of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky

2016 Discovery Challenge – May Roundup

Other interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

Juliet E. McKenna’s interesting article on the similarities between aikido and writing when breaking new ground – http://www.julietemckenna.com/?p=2172

Which Zodiac Sign Fits Your Protagonist Best? This is a really nifty getting-to-know your main character exercise by Sara Letourneau. https://saraletourneauwriter.com/2016/06/09/zodiac-signs-and-character-traits/

This is a lovely slice of photo journaling through India. The Road Goes Ever On… – https://indigodrift.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/the-road-goes-ever-on/

How realistic do you want injuries to be in books? Kristen Burns writes about this in her excellent article. http://blog.kristenburns.com/realism-in-books-injuries/

Lovely examples of space art, brought to us by Steph P. Bianchini – http://earthianhivemind.net/2016/06/08/space-art-nasa/

100_4927The weather has finally woken up to the fact it is nearly mid-June and we’ve had a lovely week of warm days and nights, so that suddenly everything in the garden is going mad. It’s frankly something of a jungle, but amongst the weeds and mayhem, my echium spires are taller than ever, this year, thanks to the mild winter. I’ve enclosed the pic to show the scale – those canes I’m holding are 6 ft long.

These foamy white bracts of flowers are on a spiky-leaved plant 100_4943I’ve owned for about a decade – and this is only the second time it’s flowered. The garden is full of the lily-like smell and it is crawling with bees – dozens of them. If I leave the back door open, the scent suffuses the kitchen, leaving me light-headed and happy. Summer… at last!
Once more, many thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog and I hope you can find the time and, maybe, a sunny nook where you can get lost in a book. Happy reading, everyone!

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Kindle EBOOK of The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen

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In a year that so far has been characterised by a long run of fantastic reads – here is another outstanding offering…

manyselvesofkatherineKit has been projecting into other species for seven years. Longer than anyone else at ShenCorp. Longer than any of the scientists thought possible. But lately she has the feeling that when she jumps she isn’t alone… Since she was twelve, Kit has been a phenomenaut, her consciousness projected into the bodies of lab-grown animals for the purpose of research. Kit experiences a multitude of other lives – fighting and fleeing, predator and prey – always hoping, but never quite believing, that her work will help humans better understand the other species living alongside them. But after a jump as an urban fox ends in disaster, Kit begins to suspect that those she has trusted for her entire working life may be out to cause her harm. And, as she delves deeper into the events of that night, her world begins to shift in ways she had never thought possible.

Geen’s writing is amazing as she immerses us in Kit’s projections into a variety of animals in the beautifully depicted first person viewpoint. This is firmly in the realm of science fiction, so we have a ringside seat as Kit struggles to acclimatise to the new body – there is even a plausible-sounding name for the sensation overload – Sperlman’s syndrome – as her human sensibilities have to adapt to the new sensory input produced by different bodies. Geen’s prose gives us a masterclass in sensory writing at its best.

The trauma of the accident leads to a series of events that takes us right inside Kit’s life and we learn exactly what it means to be a phenomenaut at ShenCorp, as she struggles to work out her own identity. We also get an insight into her homelife – and why spending chunks of her existence as a wild animal, completely removed from Katherine North, might be such an attractive option for her.

Any niggles? While I’m aware NetGalley arcs often have the odd formatting/editing glitch, the formatting on this edition was misery to read, with words split in all sorts of random places and the scene break symbols scattered amongst the text. If it hadn’t been clear right at the beginning of the book that it was something special, I probably would have done my aching eyes a favour and not bothered to continue reading it.

As it was, I was immersed in her world, as the story pulled me right into the heart of what is meant to be a girl who spent her days living in the wild. And her shock and dismay, when she learns exactly what ShenCorp has planned for her… I stayed up far later than I should, reading to discover what happens. So did the ending deliver? Yes… I think it did – though it wasn’t what I was expecting. But after I put the book down, I thought long and hard about the whole story arc and it makes absolute sense. I highly recommend this one – you won’t have read anything else quite like it…

The ebook arc copy of The Many Selves of Katherine North was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook The Last Gasp by Trevor Hoyle

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This book has an interesting history. It was first published in 1983, when it was treated as straight science fiction with emphasis on the fiction. However, as some of the predictions made by Hoyle have now become frighteningly accurate, given the grim finale, Quercus are now republishing it.

thelastgaspMANKIND IS KILLING THE AIR WE BREATHE. Scientists have been warning for decades that we are poisoning the Earth. Now their prophecy is coming true. The oceans have become polluted, destroying a crucial link in the planet’s life-support system. Instead of joining in friendship to meet this deadly future, corrupt superpowers are plotting to secure the last remaining clean air for the privileged few. This is the terrifying 21st-century prophecy of what we are doing to our home in space. Once it was just a scary bedtime story. Now it has become horrifyingly real.
TIME IS SHORT.
THE AIR IS RUNNING OUT.

I wasn’t aware of this book’s longevity when I was reading it, but it didn’t surprise me on discovering it. The sections of scientific information occur at regular intervals in blocks, that to be honest, is a hard science fiction habit I could do without as it tends to crash through the narrative in omniscient viewpoint. However, I’m aware there are fans of the genre who love this convention so I’m not going to mark down the book on those grounds, though it did mean I struggled with the storyline more than I would have liked.

Hoyle is clearly on a mission to alert his readers to the danger we pose to ourselves as there is a relentless quality to this novel, while the antagonists embark on a mad scheme to use the environment as a weapon of mass destruction. Initially I thought it was too far-fetched, until I considered the insane stupidity of the nuclear missile programme.

However, I did find it difficult to bond with the main characters, as they are all fairly superficial and mostly wheeled on to serve the driving force of this book, the narrative arc. This rolled forward inexorably, spanning several decades into the near future when climate change and diseases overtake the population. It made for depressing reading. The penultimate scene in the hotel takes on the feel of an out and out horror movie – and I thought I knew how this book was going to end – until I reached it. And this is where it completely lets itself down in an unrealistic conclusion that simply doesn’t work for me. A shame, as it undercuts the cumulative effect of the strong warning through the rest of the book. That said, it is a thought-provoking, disturbing read with a strong warning our politicians and law-makers would do well to heed.

The ebook arc copy of The Last Gasp was provided by NetGalley in return for an honest opinion of the book
7/10

* NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* KINDLE ebook – Review of Gold, Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

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This is a much-anticipated debut novel from a writer who got a lot of attention for her short story collection Battleborn, published in 2012.

GoldfamecitrusDesert sands have laid waste to the south-west of America. Las Vegas is buried. California – and anyone still there – is stranded. Any way out is severely restricted. But Luz and Ray are not leaving. They survive on water rations, black market fruit and each other’s need. Luz needs Ray, and Ray must be needed. But then they cross paths with a mysterious child, and the thirst for a better future begins. It’s said there’s a man on the edge of the Dune Sea. He leads a camp of believers. He can find water. Venturing into this dry heart of darkness, Luz thinks she has found their saviour. For the will to survive taps hidden powers; and the needed, and the needy, will exploit it.

This literary apocalyptic, near-future scenario is of a broken, desiccated California and two people struggling to fit into the tatters of civilisation. Ray and Luz are drifting through the remnants of other lives as they squat in the mansion of a former starlet, using her belongings as they see fit. That Watkins can write is apparent from the first line. Her prose is extraordinary and she has the capability to push boundaries and take her readers with her to a heightened vision of this desert world.

While the people flail around, trying to fit into this brutal new environment, the main protagonist in this book is the setting. The huge, super-dune called the Amargosa that is sprawling out of the Mojave Desert and swallowing everything in its way has a forest of stories, legends and conspiracy theories sprouting up around it. When Watkins gets it right – such as Ray’s trek with heat-seared eyes, the writing is poetic, apt and astonishing. During a chilly January night, I felt and tasted the sweat, gritty dust and sweltering heat.

But, there is an unevenness throughout that prevents this thought-provoking book from becoming a great novel. While the literary genre does allow for a slower pace and more experimentation with story structure, all too often, the descriptions are a page or two too long; minor characters suddenly take centre stage, distorting the narrative arc; and character viewpoint goes completely haywire, as in the runup to Ray’s beating. Technical flaws such as these graunched, given how much is triumphantly successful about this offering.

Watkins gives us a mesmerising insight of Ray and Luz’s relationship, which kept me caring about both of them, even as they lurched from one self inflicted crisis to another – and I certainly didn’t see the ending coming. I’m still undecided whether I think it works or not. However, while I’m not sure I enjoyed Gold, Fame, Citrus, I’m very glad I read it and if your tastes run to apocalyptic scenarios, then track this one down. I’ll guarantee you’ll remember it.

My ARC ebook was supplied by Netgalley via the publisher, in return for an honest review.
7/10

POEM – Bindweed

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I wrote this poem when my children were in the throes of teenage angst. Now those days are now behind us, I’m relieved to report that ongoing gritted battle between us is history.

Blood- stained stems spiral
with sappy springtime love.
Heart-shaped leaves frondle
over sticks and stones –
billowing in green pillows
across the garden. Clasping
strong young growth in a
snugly lethal grasp.

Madonna-white bells nod
sweetly as I tear through
massed tangles of stems
and blanketing leaves, to
reveal the maggot-pale,
mangled plants beneath.

My teen-smart offspring with
wary eyes, and sharp replies
rip through my pillowing love –
blood-warm and snugly tight –
the bindweed in my children’s lives.

Monday, 16 September 2002

POEM – Strandlined

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Tight-knit knots in my neck uncurl
at the shingled-muttering surf-roar.
Crimped kinks in my mind unfurl
at the tingled-fluttering wind-soar.

Nose pricks at the clean, reaming stenches
of brine-braided weed, stone, broken shells.
Eyes flick over the gleaming, keen trenches
of charging crests, spray, cone-caught swells.

My soul sings with the ceaseless rocking,
diamond-sharp, sparks of sun-slit light.
My heart springs with wildness, shocking
water-weighted fury, anger-frothed fight.

But in the night-wells of a fear-fouled dream
while seized in the roiling hold of a wave,
I am squeezed in the coils of a liquid grave
as gurgling water floods my scream.

Stormy seas @ L'ton (2)

The Bee and Me…

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It was one of those horrible, avoidable accidents that happen when you’re not paying sufficient attention to the little things in your life… This week-end, I’ve been messing around in my garden shed, getting it cleared out and ready to sow this year’s crop of flowers and veg. And because it’s also where the children’s outdoor toys are stored and they were staying for the week-end, the door was secured open. Despite having scooped out a stray bee who’d wandered into the shed and kept battering herself against the window the day before – I still hadn’t got around to cleaning out the spider webs silting up the corners.

I was getting the washing in when I heard it – manic buzzing coming from the shed. I dropped the basket and ran towards the sound. There she was, a large bumble bee thrashing around, unable to escape. Feeling sick, I grabbed one of the pots and tried to lever her away from the tangling trap of old webs. But in the end I needed to use my hands and even then it was a struggle to extricate her without pulling her apart. And she was covered in a thick matt of spider silk – wickedly sticky… Still emitting a screaming buzz as she fought, spinning in my hand.

100_3866If she’d been smaller honeybee, or a fly, I’d have immediately dropped her to the ground and stepped on her to put her out of her misery. But she was so big I thought there’d be a chance – and I am very fond of bumble bees. I try to ensure I have flowers blooming in my garden all through the year for the likes of these remarkable insects. Watching them always leaves me awestruck and happy… and here was one in a horrible mess because a particular chore got missed off the list. By me.

I carried her over to my workbench in the garden and tried to free her from the white mess mummifying her. It was blowy and she was still panicking, but I managed to free her two front feet. I took her indoors. Rebecca suggested I put her in a bowl, but it was too smooth and she couldn’t keep her footing, causing her to flip onto her back which she hated. So I scooped her up in my hand.
I’d been babbling all sorts of nonsense to her… more as a comfort for me, really. And as I picked her up once more, she stopped buzzing in circles and instead kept crawling and crawling across my hand, while trying to free herself. I kept picking away at the threads encasing her wings and her lower body, but it was slow work. There was a miserable moment when I’d nearly freed one wing and she slipped over onto her back and the stray webbing wrapped itself around her two back legs I’d only recently managed to release.

I nearly gave up then. But she didn’t. She was still battling to free herself, so I took a deep breath and kept going, working at the kitchen table. I used a tiny screwdriver to tease the strands away from her wings. It was very ticklish work… she never stayed still and with one slip I’d have shredded her wings and possibly killed her. It took nearly an hour and in the end Himself man100_3868aged to cut away the last ball of webbing hanging off her back left leg with a modeller’s blade. She was still crawling across my hand, although her wings were now free. So I gently guided her onto the cutting board surface and we carried her outside. John gave it a flick, while I got ready to catch her, not convinced after her ordeal that she’d be able to fly. She launched herself into the air and we watched her fly once around the garden, before soaring over the fence.

And tomorrow morning first thing, I’m clearing out those bloody spiders’ webs.