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BOOK REVIEW: A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester

Friday, August 18, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):

It’s 1922 in the Manhattan of gin, jazz and prosperity. Women wear makeup and hitched hemlines – and enjoy a new freedom to vote and work. Not so Evelyn Lockhart, forbidden from pursuing her passion: to become one of the first female doctors.

Chasing her dream will mean turning her back on the only life she knows: her competitive sister, Viola; her conservative parents; and the childhood best friend she is expected to marry, Charlie.

And if Evie does fight Columbia University’s medical school for acceptance, how will she support herself? So when there’s a casting call for the infamous late-night Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, will Evie find the nerve to audition? And if she does, what will it mean for her fledgling relationship with Upper East Side banker Thomas Whitman, a man Evie thinks she could fall in love with, if only she lived a life less scandalous?

My Thoughts:

Natasha Lester is an Australian writer based in Perth, and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is her first foray into historical fiction, after two contemporary tales published by Fremantle Press.

I was irresistibly drawn to her book by its gorgeous cover and the promise of its title, A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald. I love books set in the 1920s, which was such a heady period of glamour and new freedoms. And I was intrigued by the premise: the heroine, Evelyn, is determined to become an obstetrician, at a time when women were rarely permitted to study medicine. To support herself, Evelyn becomes a dancer for the Ziegfield Follies.

The book didn’t let me down. Evelyn’s story is full of drama, heartbreak and determination, and the setting of Manhattan in the early ‘20s is brought to glorious vivid life. I particularly loved the scenes when Evelyn was fighting to be allowed to study medicine – they rang really true for me. I’m keen now to read Natasha Lester’s new book, Her Mother’s Secret.

If you love historical fiction you might also like to read my review of one of my all-time favourite books, Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.

Please leave a comment - I love to hear your thoughts!

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: Why We Must Always Resist

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We live in soul-harrowing times.

So much anxiety, so much terror. Sometimes I feel as if my heart is being broken every time I watch the news. Hatred, violence, bigotry and sadism seem to dominate our news screens and streams.  I fear for my children and for our world.



This photo of the recent events in Charlottesville comes from VOX


A few years ago, I wrote a novel set in the underground resistance to Hitler in Nazi Germany.  

I spent months researching World War II, its causes and consequences, its horror and heroism. I had been fascinated by the period ever since I was a little girl and read 'The Diary of Anne Frank' for the first time. As I grew up, I read many hundreds of books about resistance and defiance and have long wanted to write one. At last this desire became urgent. It is important, I thought, to remember the past so we can do not make the same terrible mistakes again.  

The whole time I was writing 'The Beast's Garden', I kept thinking to myself - what would I do if it was me? 




My heroine Ava is not sent to spy school or taught how to shoot a machine gun. She is just an ordinary young woman, living in extraordinary times. She lives with her father and her sisters, she wants to be a singer, she hopes one day to fall in love. But Ava lives in Berlin in 1938. The German people had just voted Hitler into power, hoping he will make good on his promises of more work and new political stability. Many people think Hitler is just a clown, or a bumbling fool. Sure, he shouts a lot and his followers seem like thugs. But how much harm could one man do?   

What awful irony.

The Beast's Garden begins on Kristallnacht with the words: "Ava fell in love the night the Nazis first showed their true faces to the world."

It is a novel about the importance of courage and resistance, and the importance of kindness and compassion. It tells the true and largely untold story of the German underground resistance who paid for their defiance with their lives.  

I hope that none of us ever have to see the kind of darkness and horror that saw Anne Frank die in a concentration camp.

My writing of The Beast's Garden  was, in a way, a call to arms. Please, let us all stand up against hatred and bigotry and racism and cruelty in every way we can. Let's write and create art and protest and point out the terrible mistakes of the past again and again, until we learn from them. Please.



Want to read more?

How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance 


The Diary of Anne Frank, a book that changed my life


SPOTLIGHT: The Women of the German Resistance


THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How a book can change your life

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sometimes a book can change your life.


The Diary of Anne Frank was that kind of book for me. 


I read it when I was twelve years old.  I can still remember the awful shock of reaching the end, and finding out that Anne did not escape her attic, that she died in Bergen-Belsen when she was only a few years older than I was. 

I had never read a book like it before. It felt like I had been punched hard in the solar plexus. I could not breathe, I could not cry. My very heart felt bruised.


Anne Frank


I began to write my own diary a few days later. Anne Frank had written hers as a series of letters addressed to an imaginary friend named Kitty. I did the same, but addressed mine to “Carrie”. The first entry was written on 15/8/1978 and began ‘Dear Diary, your name is now Carrie. You’ll be my confidant and my port in which to lay my head and my poor worn-out hopes, thoughts and ambitions …’ 


I have written in my diary nearly every day since. That is thirty-seven years of consecutive diary writing, much more than the two years so tragically given to Anne Frank.


Her diary also sparked in me a lifelong fascination with Hitler, and those few brave people who tried their best to resist Nazism. I began to collect a library of books to do with the Second World War, many of them first-hand accounts and memoirs. I was particularly interested in stories of ordinary people who found within themselves extraordinary courage and strength. I knew that one day I would try and write a novel about someone like Anne Frank. 


The years passed, and I wrote a great many books. More than thirty-five at last count. My books range from picture books to poetry, and from heroic fantasy for children to historical novels for adults. I have written books set in Renaissance Venice and at the court of the Sun King in Versailles, in the English Civil War and in the perilous reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Napoleonic Wars, and in worlds of my own imagining. Yet the Second World War never loosened its hold on my imagination. I continued to read as many books as I could find set at that period, and to continue to think about writing one of my own. 

Fairy tales are another long-held passion of mine. I have just completed a doctorate in the subject, and many of my novels have fairy tale motifs and metaphors entwined through their stories. 


The Wild Girl tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most beloved ‘wonder tales’. She told him stories like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘Six Swans’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ a beautiful variant on the tale we know as ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. 

Arthur Rackham's illustration for 'The Singing, Springing Lark' 


In this story, the father catches a lark, rather than stealing a rose, and the beast of the tale is a lion by day and a man by night (an arrangement which I always thought might have its compensations). The greatest difference, however, is the ending. In Dortchen Wild’s tale, the heroine must follow a trail of blood and white feathers her lover leaves behind him, and then outwit the enchantress who first cast the curse upon him. The heroine is given three gifts to help her: a dress as golden as the sun, another as silver as the moon, and a griffin on which to escape. 


Writing a novel always throws up many unexpected ideas as well as unforeseen problems, and The Wild Girl was no exception.  Taking place over twenty years, and told from the point of view of a young woman forgotten by history, The Wild Girl was very research-intensive indeed. And, for a long while, I did not have a strong sense of the narrative structure. I knew I wanted to retell one of Dortchen’s stories in some way; I did not yet know how. 


While researching the Grimm Brothers, I was distressed to learn their tales had been banned in Germany after the Second World War, as part of the Allies’ Denazification program. Hitler had loved the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales and had recommended all German households have a copy on their shelves. I went to bed that night troubled and upset. I loved the Grimm tales too. In times of darkness and fear, they had given me light and comfort. Yet I had always hated the Nazis and all they stood for, including their burning of books. 


I could not get to sleep that night, my mind in turmoil.  Eventually I got up and found myself a novel to read. I chose an old World War II thriller, about the Danish resistance to the Nazis. I read the whole book through, finally going to sleep long after midnight. Just before I fell asleep, I thought again about the novel I was struggling to write and about the beautiful tales Dortchen Wild had told Wilhelm Grimm. I said to myself: “Trust in the universe. The answer will come.” 


The next morning, as I drifted in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, an image rose up in my mind’s eye. I saw a beautiful young woman, wearing a dress as golden as the sun, singing in a vast dark hall. Her audience were German soldiers in black SS uniforms. I knew instinctively that she was some kind of spy, or resistance fighter, and also that she was German herself. 


I wrote in my diary that day, Monday 3rd October 2011: ‘I couldn’t sleep last night for worrying about Wild Girl … I need something new, strange, unexpected, surprising … I woke this morning and lay in that dim borderland between awake and asleep, that place of creative dreaming, and the idea came to me – why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … perhaps she has to flee and live wild in the woods – or joins the German Resistance - & she carries everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems it have some kind of power to it …’  


My unconscious mind had put together two very different desires – wanting to write a novel about resistance to the Nazis and wanting to retell one of Dortchen Wild’s fairy tales – and come up with something quite unexpected. 


That was the beginning of my novel The Beast’s Garden, a retelling of the Grimms’ version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, set in the German underground resistance to Hitler.


That vision, that not-quite-a-dream, was the beginning of an extraordinary journey of discovery for me. At first, I thought that this story of courage and resistance would be the second narrative strand in The Wild Girl. Slowly I came to realise it was a novel in its own right. I had to put the idea aside as I wrote The Wild Girl and finished my doctorate in fairy tale studies. The idea would not leave me alone, however. I began to read as much as I could about the German Resistance. 


I discovered, rather to my surprise, that many Germans abhorred the Nazis and risked their lives to stand against Hitler. I read about the Swing Kids who played jazz and danced swing in basements and cellars, despite the threat of arrest. The White Rose group of students in Munich printed leaflets calling the German people to rise up against the Third Reich. The Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne did battle with the Hitler Youth and hid deserters from the army. The Baum group in Berlin blew up one of Goebbels’ exhibitions. Other resisters smuggled Jews out of Germany, or hid them in their houses and gardens. Most of them paid for their defiance with their lives.

One of the most successful groups of resisters was based in Berlin. The Gestapo called them the Red Orchestra. They called themselves the Zirkel, which simply means circle. Their members were writers, actors, journalists, musicians and sculptors. Their leaders were a Luftwaffe officer called Harro Schulze-Boysen, his young aristocratic wife Libertas, and their friends Arvid and Mildred Harnack. Mildred would earn the terrible distinction of being the only American woman to be executed by the Third Reich.


Harro & Libertas Schulze-Boysen, who were both executed for their resistance to the Third Reich

I imagined a young German woman (the Beauty of the tale) who marries a Nazi officer (the Beast) in order to save her father. But secretly Ava helps her Jewish friends whever she can. One day she meets Libertas, and is drawn into the dangerous world of the underground resistance. Living a double life, she must spy on her husband Leo in order to help save whom she can. Gradually she comes to suspect her husband is himself involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. When the plot fails, Ava must risk everything to try and save her husband from a cruel traitor’s death. 


The Beast’s Garden was in many ways the most difficult book I have ever written. I found the research utterly harrowing. For months, every day was spent reading about Hitler, about the Gestapo, about the Holocaust. I wrote the first draft entirely in first person, as if it was a diary or a memoir. But then I found it was too limiting, trying to tell such a big story from just one person’s point of view. I rewrote the entire book, in just six weeks, from a number of different points of view, including that of a Jewish girl in hiding. 

On Thursday 12 February 2015, I wrote in my diary: ‘I finished the novel last night, at 1am … and could not sleep afterwards … very tired now, but oh so happy …’


The Beast’s Garden is my paean to all those ordinary people who found such extraordinary courage and strength of spirit within them during the dark days of the Third Reich, including, of course, Anne Frank and the people who hid her and her family. 


You can read more about my liminal dreaming here and more about my research books for THE BEAST'S GARDEN here


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

THE BEAST'S GARDEN: How liminal dreaming brought me a story of love, war & resistance

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY OF THE BEAST’S GARDEN

The first flash of inspiration for my new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN came to me while I was drifting in that shadowy place between being asleep and being awake. 

There are two such liminal borderlands. 

The first is called hypnagogia which means “leading toward sleep”; the second is hypnopompia meaning “leading away from sleep.”

I consciously use both of these twilight zones as a time and a space to daydream about my story. I run my narrative thread through my mind, testing for weaknesses, playing with alternatives, thinking about my characters and their fears and desires, rearranging words and images, allowing my mind to wander and to wonder …

Kinuko Craft 

The hypnagogic state (falling asleep) is the best time to ponder problems thrown up by the day’s work and to look over work that has already been written. I like to lie still in the dark silence, and consciously open my mind up to new images or visions. 

Sometimes I deliberately set about unlocking my unconscious to see what lurks within. I imagine myself walking down a flight of steps into shadows. There is a door at the end of the steps. It is locked, but I hold the key in my hand. The door is always different – sometimes a gateway through a yew tree, sometimes a great Gothic door with heavy iron hinges and a huge keyhole. The key might be as long as my arm, or so small I can scarcely grasp it with my fingers. I unlock the door and open it … wondering what I will find inside. Often it’s a garden, with a path that leads to a mysterious house. Sometimes, it’s a lake under a starlit sky, surrounded by sharp-etched mountain peaks. 

With each novel I write, the scene within will be different … and the more I unlock that door, the more vivid and real the scene within will seem.

Sometimes I choose what I will find; most times, what I find is a surprise. 

The hypnopompic state (rising from sleep) is very different. I am closer to the dream world, deeper within the dark vault of the subconscious. I float in darkness as if in a vast subterranean ocean, rising and falling, images and ideas drifting to the surface then falling away again like the undulation of bioluminescent jellyfish in the midnight tide. 

Sometimes the visions I have in that hypnopompic phase are extraordinarily vivid, filled with light and sound, like a brief glimpse of a film through the half-open door of a movie theatre. Sometimes they are strange and eerie; sometimes terrifying. 

I call it ‘liminal dreaming’, for want of a better term. It’s not quite a dream, not quite a daydream, but something in-between, a rite of passage between the conscious and the unconscious mind.

Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare


It was the 3rd November 2011. I had gone to bed the previous night unhappy and troubled by the novel I was then writing, THE WILD GIRL, which tells the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the Grimm brothers’ most famous fairy tales. I did not yet see the shape of my story, my narrative structure, which meant I could not begin writing the novel. I can never begin until I see the story’s whole shape. 


I went to sleep repeating to myself: it’s all right, trust the universe, the answer will come, the answer will come …


As I lay in the dim borderland between awake and asleep the next morning, an image came into my mind. A young woman, dressed in a sinuous golden silk dress, leant on a black piano in a dark and smoky nightclub, singing a sexy jazz number, while men in the severe black uniforms of the SS watched her. She had a flower in her hair, which was worn loose in heavy 1940s waves. 

An old photo of actress Ida Lupino 

As I came closer to being awake, my conscious mind reached for more images, more ideas. I saw her hugging a tattered book of fairy tales to her chest and weeping, I saw her living hand-to-mouth in the bombed-out rubble of a city, hiding in a dark forest, being chased … I saw her crouched beneath the weight of a heavy dark fur-coat, cramming food into her mouth … I saw books being burned in a bonfire and the girl, white-faced and desperate, trying to save her book …


I sat up and reached for my diary, and tried to write down all the phantasmagorias that had come so swift and bright into my mind’s eye. I wrote five pages: ‘why not have the secondary tale set in WWII … she has to flee and live wild in the wood – or joins the German Resistance – and she carries with her everywhere a copy of the Grimm fairy tales, as a kind of talisman … I have to say this new idea – so fragile and damp still – it feels good, it feels right, it feels hard and scary – but absolutely seems to have some kind of power to it.’


In my diary, I speculate where this idea came from: I had always wanted to write a book set in the Second World War; I’d always loved stories about resistance to Hitler; I had just read a page-turning World War II thriller about the Danish resistance; and I had been reading about the Grimm brothers and how their fairy tales were ‘used by Nazi Germany in a way they could never have imagined’. By this, I was referring to Hitler recommending all Germans had a copy of the Grimm brothers’ tales in their households, and how, after the war, the Allied had banned the Household and Children’s Tales as part of their denazification program. 


At first, I thought this liminal dream was a second narrative thread to be woven into THE WILD GIRL. I was planning to use ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a story about a king who wanted to marry his daughter that Dortchen had told to Wilhelm just days before the fairy tale collection was rushed to the printers in 1812. I wrote in my diary two days later, ‘I’ve been thinking about my WWII idea and have that bright panic in my veins that means it’s a good one. Already I can see a narrative arc.’  


On 7th October 2011, I wrote another four pages in my diary, outlining the basic sequence of events. I began a new notebook for it, filling its pages with research about Hitler’s rise to power and circles of German resistance. I began to try and weave my two stories together.


On 22nd February 2012, I wrote in my diary: ‘I’m rethinking the Nazi resistance strand of the story – I’m already at 69,000 words (of THE WILD GIRL) & the novel is growing slowly – I don’t want it to be too long - & I’m wondering if the two strands of my story shouldn’t be Dortchen as a grown woman and Dortchen growing up  … I’m going back to my original idea of having my opening scene being Dortchen dancing in a black dress in a winter forest with ravens crying overhead (my dream) … I can write the German resistance idea as a separate novel – rather than trying to weave 2 separate stories together …’ 


On 1st July, my diary reads ‘I’ve also been thinking a lot ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ and what a beautiful YA book it would make. Oh, if only I had more time. All these books I want to write.’ 


(‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ was an unusual and very beautiful variant of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale, told by Dortchen to Wilhelm on 7th January 1813).


A few days later (10th July 2013), I wrote: ‘I’ve been thinking about my German resistance story & wondering if I can do it as a retelling of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ – German girl married to a ‘beast’ – a German officer – to save her father – she is frightened of him – but really he is working to help people – inadvertently she betrays him and must go on quest to find him again – the celestial gifts – golden gown – what could the chicks be? Saves him from female Gestapo - & so on. I think it could work incredibly well.’ 


So that was how I got the idea for the story that became THE BEAST’S GARDEN. A liminal dream that was discarded, then transformed into something else through the strange and inexplicable creative process. 


It was a harrowing book to write, for many reasons, as I’m sure you can imagine.  Researching Hitler and the Holocaust for months on end was enough to give anyone nightmares … particularly someone who is used to consciously unlocking the gateway between the conscious and the subconscious …

So it was that, every night, as I walked down my shadowy steps to a mysterious locked door … it was the iron door to a Gestapo cell … and I would stand, paralysed, too afraid to open the door … 

In the end, I gave this particular liminal dream to my heroine, Ava … I gave her the strength and courage to open that cell door and rescue her love, who is imprisoned within … and so I was able to exorcise that waking nightmare …


And now, each night, as I walk down the twilight steps towards the gateway, I wonder … what new story awaits for me beyond the threshold ...

BOOK REVIEW: The Dying Season (The Patriarch) By Martin Walker

Monday, August 14, 2017



The Dying Season (Bruno, Chief of Police #8), AKA The Patriarch
by Martin Walker

The Blurb (from GoodReads):

When Bruno is invited to the lavish birthday celebration of World War II flying ace and national icon Marco “the Patriarch” Desaix, it’s the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. But when the party ends in the death of Gilbert, Marco’s longtime friend, it’s another day on the job for the chef de police. All signs point to a tragic accident, but Bruno isn’t so sure. There is more to the Desaix family’s lives and loyalties than meets the eye. There is Victor, the Patriarch’s son, Gilbert’s old comrade-in-arms and sometime rival; Victor’s seductive wife, Madeleine, whose roving eye intrigues Bruno even more than her fierce political ambitions; Yevgeny, another son, an artist whose paintings seem to hold keys to the past; and the Patriarch himself, whose postwar Soviet ties may have intersected all too closely with Gilbert’s career in Cold War intelligence.

Bruno is diverted by a dangerous conflict between a local animal rights activist and outraged hunters—as well as meals to cook, wine to share, and an ever more complicated romantic situation. But as his entanglement with the Desaix family grows and his suspicions heighten, Bruno’s inquiries into Gilbert’s life become a deadly threat to his own.

My Thoughts:

I really enjoy this series of contemporary crime novels by Martin Walker, partly because of its setting in the picturesque Dordogne and partly because of its hero, the gentle and good-natured police chief, Bruno. He is kind to dogs and children, cooks amazing French feasts, and falls into bed with various beautiful women, sometimes rather to his dismay.

Despite the emphasis on food and love, and the slow pace of the books, these mysteries cannot be described as ‘cosy’ as they always illuminate some dark aspect of French life. In this book – the eighth in the series – there are confrontations between environmentalists and hunters protecting their age-old traditions, and a powerful man with links to Russia and Israel. A great, light read.

You might be interested in my review of the previous book in this series, Children of War, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

GEORGIE BURNE-JONES: Her Life & Writing

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Georgiana Macdonald Burne-Jones (b. 1840 – d. 1920) is the main character in my novel Beauty in Thorns, a reimagining of 'Sleeping Beauty' set amongst the passions, scandals and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and poets in mid-Victorian London. 

Georgie has never attracted as much attention as Lizzie Siddal or Jane Burden, yet her story is just as fascinating. 



Born into the large family of a devout Methodist minister and his wife, she married Ned when he was a desperately poor young artist who had never had a proper drawing lesson in his life. She supported him steadfastly through every crisis of faith, ill health, and infidelity, managed his business affairs, and put aside her own dreams of art and creativity to support her husband’s. 

The scandal of Ned’s affair with the tempestuous and unbalanced Maria Zambaco tested her courage and faithfulness to the utmost. Her friend Rosalind Howard wrote in her diary: ‘her love is the deepest I ever met with. She is centred in her husband, the whole romance of her life is bound up with him from when she was eleven years old – more than romance, every feeling she has. She longs for him. He cannot know what she has endured.’ 



Yet Georgie was by no means the passive, long-suffering wife that she is sometimes painted to be. She pursued her own interests, and had many strong friendships with intelligent and forward-thinking women such as Rosalind Howard and Marian Evans (better known as George Eliot). She became a Socialist, against her husband’s inclinations, and was voted in as a parish councillor in Rottingdean at a time when women still did not have any voice or votes in politics. 



Most interestingly, the Memorials she wrote of Ned’s life are, I think, the most readable and engaging biography of Victorian times. Wherever possible, in Beauty in Thorns, I have tried to let Georgie speak in her own voice. For example, when Georgie speaks of ‘the cloven hoof of fashion’, that is a direct quote from her book. Elsewhere she describes the ‘brown sugar’ of a beach, or Ned’s ‘cloud-scattering laugh’. Her nephew Rudyard Kipling once said that ink ran in the veins of the Macdonalds. I think that he was right, and that it is a shame that Georgie never wrote that novel she dreamed of creating. 


The best books on the life of Ned and Georgie are A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin by Judith Flanders (2001), The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination (2011) by Fiona MacCarthy, and the two volumes of Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones by Lady Georgiana Burne-Jones (1904).  I also really enjoyed A Profound Secret by Josceline Dimbleby, about the intense late friendship between her great-grandmother May Gaskell and Edward Burne-Jones.

You may also enjoy my blog posts on Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris.

BOOK REVIEW: Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker

Wednesday, August 09, 2017




Along The Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story
by William Blacker


The Blurb (from GoodReads):

When William Blacker first crossed the snow-bound passes of northern Romania, he stumbled upon an almost medieval world. 

There, for many years he lived side by side with the country people, a life ruled by the slow cycle of the seasons, far away from the frantic rush of the modern world. In spring as the pear trees blossomed he ploughed with horses, in summer he scythed the hay meadows and in the freezing winters gathered wood by sleigh from the forest. From sheepfolds harried by wolves, to courting expeditions in the snow, he experienced the traditional way of life to the full, and became accepted into a community who treated him as one of their own. 

But Blacker was also intrigued by the Gypsies, those dark, foot-loose strangers of spell-binding allure who he saw passing through the village. Locals warned him to stay clear but he fell in love and there followed a bitter struggle. Change is now coming to rural Romania, and William Blacker's adventures will soon be part of its history. From his early carefree days tramping the hills of Transylvania, to the book's poignant ending, Along the Enchanted Way transports us back to a magical country world most of us thought had vanished long ago


My Thoughts:

My cousin recommended this book to me. After reading it, she told me, she and a friend felt utterly compelled to visit Romania before it changed too much. 

I can totally understand this. I long to go too now I’ve finished this book.

The author, William Blacker, was in Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Curious to see what lay beyond, he set out exploring and found himself discovering a long-lost world in which the peasants wore linen smocks and leather-wrapped shoes with upturned toes, and mowed their meadows with hand-made scythes. Fascinated by their cheerfulness and simplicity, Blacker ended up staying for almost a decade. 

Along the way he fell in love with a Gypsy girl and found himself drawn into their wild and chaotic lives, and at odds with his old-fashioned Romanian hosts. 

An utterly charming and poignant book that captures a way of life that is already vanishing, as Romania opens up to the west and its rampant materialism and advanced technologies. 


If you love memoirs or books about exotic places, then you must read Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler! Read my review here

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Black

Tuesday, August 08, 2017



If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging – Sharon Blackie

The Blurb (from GoodReads):

'Rising high up on the heather-covered moorlands, seeping through our bogs, flowing down our streams and into our rivers and out onto the sandy strands of the rock-strewn Atlantic seaboard, are the old Celtic myths and stories … waiting to be reclaimed and re-visioned for the modern world.'

Aged 30, Sharon Blackie found herself weeping in the car park of the multinational corporation where she worked, wondering if this was what a nervous breakdown felt like. Somewhere along the line, she realised, she had lost herself - and so began her long journey back to authenticity, rootedness in place and belonging. 

In this extraordinary book of myth, memoir and modern-day mentors (from fashion designers to lawyers), Blackie faces the wasteland of Western culture, the repression of women, and the devastation of our planet. She boldly names the challenge: to reimagine women's place in the world, and to rise up, firmly rooted in our own native landscapes and the powerful Celtic stories and wisdom which sprang from them.

A haunting heroine's journey for every woman who finds inspiration and solace in the natural world.


My Thoughts:
I have never met Sharon Blackie but we are twitter friends, sharing a love of storytelling, fairy tales, mythology and psychology. Our common interests caused us to occasionally touch minds across the geography that divides us, and so I became aware of her book If Women Rose Rooted as she tweeted about it. The title is inspired by one of my favourite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke: 

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So like children, we begin again...

to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

It sounded like the kind of book I would love, and so I ordered a copy and began to read as soon as it arrived.

If Women Rose Rooted is a beautiful, intelligent and unusual book. It combines a breathtakingly honest memoir about one woman’s journey towards wisdom, with tales drawn from Celtic mythology and folklore, and interviews with fascinating and inspiring women who are all working to live in harmony with the earth. Unashamedly political as well as spiritual, this is a book which celebrates the strength and power of women, and connects modern-day feminism with ancient gynocentric mythologies. 

It is also beautifully written:

‘If women remember that once upon a time we sang with the tongues of seals and flew with the wings of swans, that we forged our own paths through the dark forest while creating a community of its many inhabitants, then we will rise up rooted, like trees. And if we rise up rooted, like trees … well then, women might indeed save not only ourselves, but the world.’

I’m hoping this book will become the anthem of our generation, encouraging all women to surrender to the earth’s intelligence and rise up, rooted, like trees. 


You may also enjoy my review of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!

BEAUTY IN THORNS: celebrating the Pre-Raphaelites!

Sunday, August 06, 2017


Today I'm giving a lecture on the Pre-Raphaelites at the Art Gallery of NSW - I thought I'd re-run a vintage post for those of you who cannot make the event.

‘We cannot censure at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes, which continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves PRB.’ 
The Times, 1851

What were the Pre-Raphaelites?
In 1848 in England, a group of young painters rebelled against the Royal Academy, which rigidly adhered to rules laid down by the eighteenth century painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. They wanted to paint in a more natural style, drawing from myth and fairytales and poetry, and trying to make their paintings more true to nature. In a spirit of fun and defiance, they formed a secret society called The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).

Who were these young daring painters?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (age 20) founded the group along with Sir John Everett Millais (19), and William Holman Hunt (21).  Later, many artists followed the style set by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, and John William Waterhouse.  Although the Brotherhood was meant to be a secret, four others were later invited to join.  


Self-portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What were they trying to do?
The Pre-Raphaelites felt stifled by the rigidity of the Royal Academy's idea of what art should be. The PRB believed the only true great art came from before the 16th century Italian painter, Raphael (hence the society's name). The PRB wanted to produce works based on real landscapes and real models, and paid intense attention to accuracy of detail and colour.

What is so special about their art?
Instead of painting the typical landscapes and seascapes, the PRB drew their subject matters from medieval tales, fairy stories, and classical mythology.


'Ophelia' by John Everett Millais, modelled by Lizzie Siddal


Scandals of the Pre-Raphaelites

John Ruskin, one of the major critical supporters of the Pre-Raphaelites, never consummated his marriage to Effie Gray, with many believing he was shocked by the sight of her pubic hair. She annulled the marriage amidst a storm of scandal, and married his protégés, John Everett Millais. 

After Millais painted Lizzie Siddal as Ophelia, she caught pneumonia after being made to lie in freezing water for hours and almost died. 

Lizzie Siddall then became the muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and eventually – after many affairs and problems including her addiction to laudanum – they married. She only lived two more years, however, and some believed she committed suicide. Rossetti buried his poems in her grave, but seven years later had her exhumed so he could retrieve the manuscript. 

William Morris fell in love with Rossetti’s favourite model, Jane Burden, and married her. But Jane and Rossetti began a passionate affair after the death of Lizzie Siddall, and eventually the three managed a strange and painful ménage-a-trois.  


Jane Morris, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with Kelmscott Manor (the house Rossetti shared with the Morrises) in the background 


William Holman Hunt fell in love with his wife’s sister. After his wife died, he fled England with his sister-in-law so they could marry.

Edward Burne-Jones had an affair with his model, Mary Zambaco, who was a talented sculptor in her own right. When he refused to leave his wife and children, she tried to drown herself in Regent’s Canal. 

He painted his mistress over & over again, including this provocative image of her as Summer. He then painted his wife as Winter.

 

The love triangle between Edward Burne-Jones, his wife Georgie & his mistress Maria Zambaco, echoing that of his best friend William Morris with his wife Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are the subject of my new novel Beauty in Thorns - out now!

THE BLUE ROSE: the first flash of inspiration

Sunday, August 06, 2017

I have began a new novel!

It has a working title of 'The Blue Rose' and is is set in the late 18th entry, moving between France during the Terror of the French Revolution and Imperial China. It draws upon a fairy-tale set in China about a quest for an impossible rose. 

I first got the idea for it about eighteen months ago when I was reading 'Chasing the Rose' by Andrea di Robilant, which was one of my Best Books of 2015

In one passage he wrote:

'In 1792, Gilbert Slater, a nurseryman from Knotts Green, Leyton, introduced a dark, rich crimson rose known in China as Yue Yue Hong, or 'Monthly Crimson'. Europeans had never seen a rose of that colour (called pigeon's blood). The cultivar, which became known as 'Slater's Crimson China', quickly spread to France ... It became the ancestor of many of the red roses we have today ...'

How fascinating, I thought. Surely Europe had red roses before 1792?

And then, I thought ... 1792. That was right at the beginning of the French Revolution. That was when the Tuileries was stormed and Princesse de Lamballe's head was paraded around on a pike. 


Andrea di Robilant went upon to say:

'Around that time ... Sir George Staunton, a young diplomat and enthusiastic gardener, travelled to China as secretary to Lord Macartney. Taking time off from his embassy, he went looking for roses and found a lovely re-flowering silvery pink specimen in a Canton nursery, which he shipped to Sir Jospeh Banks, the powerful director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.'

I had read about the Macartney Embassy before. Britain wished to open up trade with China, which was still very closed to the West. Britain was importing tea and silk and Chinese porcelain in great quantities, but China was buying nothing in return. So in 1793 Lord Macartney and his entourage travelled to Peking to meet with the Emperor. At that time, it was Chinese custom to kowtow before the Emperor, a ritual obeisance that involved prostrating oneself on the floor and knocking one's forehead to the ground three times, then repeating the gesture another two times (i.e.e three acts of prostration, nine knockings of the head).  


Lord Macartney, as a representative of King George III, refused to kowtow. The Emperor refused to open trade. 

I knew about this failed ambassadorial journey because it was one of the things which led to the Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century. I did not know, however, that the British had brought roses back with them.

I was so interested by this that I went browsing amongst the many books on roses I have on my shelves (I've always been a rose fancier.) I discovered that the introduction of the China roses to the West at the end of the eighteenth century revolutionised rose cultivation.

For the first time roses could be grown that had more than one flush of blossoms. And for the first time Europeans could grow a rose that was truly red, long considered the symbol of passionate love.


I know a good story when I see one. I knew I had to write a novel inspired by this epic journey to China and the discovery of the first blood-red rose. I was, however, deep in the writing of a novel about the Pre-Raphaelites and ‘Sleeping Beauty’. I scribbled down a few notes, all the while wondering if I could find some clever way to weave a fairy-tale into the narrative.  


Quite some time later, I was reading about Victorian literary fairy tales and I found a story called 'The Blue Rose', written Maurice Baring, an English diplomat and man of letters. It is set in China, and tells the story of the Emperor's daughter who will only marry the man who can bring her a blue rose. Once again I felt that shudder of joyous recognition. I had my fairy-tale.


The months passed, as I researched and wrote and rewrote and edited Beauty in Thorns, my reimagining of 'Sleeping Beauty' set among the passions, scandals and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelites.  Then the novel was launched, and I embarked on a whirlwind tour, talking and teaching and telling stories.  

The weeks galloped past.

Always so much work to do! Blogs to write and emails to answer and books to sign. I could spend all day every day doing nothing else.

So I found the date of the next new moon, and I wrote in my diary, ‘Start new novel!’


It’s a small and pleasing ritual of mine, this idea of always beginning a new project at the time of the new moon.  It gives me a set date to work towards, and I like to imagine I harness some kind of natural lunar magic. Once I knew my starting date, I could scramble to get all my other jobs done so my desk and calendar was free. I also bought myself a beautiful new notebook, another ritual of mine.



For this novel I chose a notebook with a blue roses & peacocks on a red background - 'Enchanted Evenings' by Paperblanks - it's perfect!


An empty notebook is a prospect of infinite possibilities

And so, on the evening of Sunday 23rd July, when the new moon first rose, I settled down to work, typing up my first ideas, drafting rough timelines, printing out maps and drawings of 18th century fashion, and sticking it all into my new notebook along with all my little scraps of notes where I had scribbled down ideas in the preceding months. 




In the two weeks since, I have begun my research, established the time frame for my story, created rough character sketches, found a thematic structure for the novel, drafted up my first plan and written my first line.








I love beginning a new novel!   
 

And I hope you have loved this blog post. You will be able to follow my journey from the first flash of inspiration to the final proofreading check, before 'The Blue Rose' is published in mid-2019. 

Please feel free to leave a comment - I always love to know what you think. 












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