OSS Winter Books 2023

Seven books to challenge and inspire this Christmas

Anton Nazaretian

SEA POOLS by Chris Romer-Lee

Chris Romer-Lee is an architect who specialises in developing new public spaces to swim. Here he teams up with authors and architects from the UK, Australia and South Africa to shine a light on the history and design of sea pools around the world.

Sea Pools is not only a very beautiful object, with vivid photos and archive material, it is also the kind of resource which you’ll return to again and again over a lifetime of swimming – whether you’re looking for inspiration in the depths of winter or planning a summer escape. Read our full feature here.

Sea Pools: 66 Saltwater Sanctuaries From Around The World by Chris-Romer Lee, Batsford

PEARL by Siân Hughes

This debut novel from Welsh poet Siân Hughes became a summer hit after being long-listed for the Booker Prize 2023. Pearl is a modern adaptation of the medieval Pearl poem which explores the complexity of water – familiar to many wild swimmers – as a source of beauty and consolation but also danger and loss.

The original Pearl is a 14th-Century poem which describes the mystical encounter between a bereaved father and his daughter who are separated from each other by a stream. The poem therefore provides a fascinating insight into the cultural and religious significance of water and rivers in medieval Britain. Simon Armitage published a translation in 2016.

Siân Hughes reimagines the poem as a novel about Marianne who struggles to make sense of her mother’s disappearance. The beautiful stream becomes a ‘row of dark ugly ponds’, haunted by a ‘beautiful girl’ who drowned in tragic circumstances. You don’t have to be familiar with the Pearl poem to enjoy this adaptation, but the puzzle of their uncanny resemblance adds texture and mystery to the experience.

Pearl by Siân Hughes, The Indigo Press

THE SEASIDE by Madeleine Bunting

Madeleine Bunting returns with another heartfelt investigation into the political frontiers of modern Britain. This time – the seaside.

Much like her previous book, Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care (2020), Bunting looks for the positive in what she describes as England’s ‘love affair’ with these seaside towns, but readers will soon realise this is an attempt to understand recent decades of decline.

At the heart of The Seaside is the question of why coastal communities left behind by globalisation and austerity are still so drawn to nationalism. Bunting’s travelogue avoids well-heeled resorts like Southwold, Salcombe and St. Ives, in favour of Scarborough, Margate and Butlin’s where these divides are strongest. As you might expect, there is page after page of terrible statistics about education, unemployment and mental health, but there are also personal reflections, such as the flamboyant Christians Bunting met as a girl in Brighton, and fascinating snippets of history and culture, such as Coco Chanel landing her plane on Morecambe Sands!

The Seaside: England’s Love Affair by Madeleine Bunting, Granta

IN ASCENSION by Martin MacInnes

What connects a mysterious deep-sea vent in the Atlantic, the development of life-sustaining algae and a secret space mission to the Oort Cloud?

In Ascension is the third novel from Scottish writer Martin MacInnes – also long-listed for the Booker Prize 2023 – which sets out an epic vision of connection and symbiosis as we descend into an age of climate breakdown and ecological destruction. Nature writing meets science fiction as MacInnes responds to the unfolding environmental crisis with an evolutionary take on our attraction to water: ‘The cell is basically an ocean capsule,’ we are told. ‘A preserved primordial capsule, holding the original marine environment inside.’

In Ascension by Martin MacInnes, Atlantic Books

MOVING MOUNTAINS edited by Louise Kenward

Moving Mountains is a much-needed anthology of stories, poems and essays which seek to challenge our ideas about the natural world and change the course of nature writing to better include the 26% of people who live with disabilities and chronic pain.

Moving Mountains is divided into six sections – Water, Air, Weather, Trees, Moorland and Earth.

Water opens with ‘Field Notes’ where Sally Bean explores similarities between creatures she finds washed up on the beach and her own experience of chronic pain.

Isobel Anderson tackles ‘the privilege of healing’ – a message at the heart of this collection – and reflects on years of prejudice, both from men in bars who used to draw sexualised cartoons of her on the back of coasters but also the doctors who kept telling her that everything is fine.

There is a fragmentary poem from Jane Hartshorn called ‘Sequences of the Body’ which describes an ever-present sense of alienation, even with her own body – ‘as strange to me as another animal’.

Then Victoria Bennett reflects on the decision to move her young family to Orkney – ‘a small island in the middle of two seas’ – where she ponders the resemblance between her own unpredictable body and the unpredictable storms which restrict island life.

Moving Mountains: Writing Nature Through Illness And Disability, edited by Louise Kenward, Footnote Press

CHLORINE by Jade Song

‘Forget what you know about mermaids’, we are told at the start of Jade Song’s fearless debut novel about transition and transformation – from girl to woman, migrant to citizen and human to mermaid.

Chlorine is a coming-of-age story which follows Ren Yu, a competitive high-school swimmer and the daughter of Chinese American migrants, as she endeavours to win a prestigious scholarship against a backdrop of adolescence, emerging sexuality and multiculturalism. As a young girl, Ren finds herself drawn to mermaids as violent and rebellious creatures who challenge outdated ideas about what it means to be a woman, but in a gruesome and surreal twist, Ren decides to unleash this violence on herself – the literary equivalent of watching from behind a cushion!

Chlorine by Jade Song, Footnote Press

THE FLOW by Amy-Jane Beer

The Flow starts out with a tribute to Amy-Jane Beer’s close friend who died while kayaking in the Howgills. During her first visit to the stretch of water where she died, Beer resolves to explore these places of wonder and connection to the natural world.

Much like a river itself, The Flow soon begins to change shape, from a celebration of the natural world, with rain-soaked night in the Highlands where Beer swims with salmon and meets pioneers of the rewilding movement, into a passionate critique of the crisis in our rivers, including the 3% access myth and a full immersion in the sewage crisis. There is even a terrifying anecdote about landowners leaving barbed wire across rivers during the winter paddling season.

What makes The Flow so special is the mixture of Beer’s expertise as a naturalist, her passion as a campaigner for Right To Roam and her rich poetic style. No wonder it won the Wainwright Prize for nature writing in 2023.

(The Flow is also a must-read for any Deakin fans who want to discover what really lies at the bottom of Hell Gill.)

The Flow: Rivers, Water And Wildness by Amy-Jane Beer, Bloomsbury

Patrick Naylor