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BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BLURB:

In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child's life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale's Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels--a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.


MY THOUGHTS:

I have read Emma Donogue’s brilliant collection of fairy-tale retellings Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins but have not yet read any of her novels. I have heard such high praise of her writing, however, and I was so interested in the premise of her new novel, The Wonder, that I bought it as soon as it hit the bookshops.

The story begins with an English nurse, who had trained with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, arriving in a tiny Irish village to watch over a little girl whose family claims can survive without food. She lives on ‘manna from heaven’, and so is thought of as a kind of miracle. People come to her to be blessed, and leave the family gifts in return. The nurse, Mrs Wright, thinks it is all a sham, and determines to reveal the truth. However, slowly, all her preconceptions and prejudices are turned upside-down, and she discovers a very different truth to what she had expected.

I first read about cases like this in Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s brilliant history of Anorexia Nervosa, Fasting Girls. She shows how food-refusal by girls and young women stretches all the way back to medieval times, when saints and martyrs refused food or purged themselves of food as a sign of their religious devotion. In the nineteenth century, there were many cases of so-called ‘fasting girls’ including the famous case of Sarah Jacob, the ‘Welsh Fasting Girl’ who eventually died of starvation at the age of twelve after a watch was set over her by the local doctor. 

The Wonder is inspired by such real-life stories but, in the true art of fiction, transforms it into something much greater. The Wonder is a story about faith, about love, about secrets, and about the mysterious ways in which human lives intersect and impact on each other. I loved it.

BOOK REVIEW: The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements

Monday, March 27, 2017



BLURB:


1648: Civil war is devastating England. The privileged world Katherine Ferrars knows is crumbling under Cromwell's army, and as an orphaned heiress, she has no choice but to do her duty and marry for the sake of family.


But as her marriage turns into a prison, and her fortune is decimated by the war, Kate becomes increasingly desperate. So when she meets the enigmatic Ralph Chaplin, she seizes the chance he offers. Their plan is daring and brutal, but it's an escape from poverty and the shackles of convention. They both know if they're caught, there's only one way it can end..


MY THOUGHTS:


I absolutely loved Katherine Clements’s debut novel The Crimson Ribbon which was inspired by the true-life story of Elizabeth Poole, a mystic and writer during the English Civil War who became famous for her boldness and vision (she told Oliver Cromwell not to execute the king, for example).


It was one of my Best Books of 2013, and so I was excited to hear Katherine Clements had published a new book, also set during the English Civil War.


The Silvered Heart tells the story of Lady Katherine Ferrars, an impoverished noblewoman-turned-highwaywoman. The book begins when she is only thirteen, and is travelling to her wedding with the son of another aristocratic family. The Cavaliers and the Roundheads are at war, though, and so the roads are dangerous. Her carriage is held up by highwaymen, and young Kate barely escapes with her life. The events of that day foreshadow what will happen to her later, as she struggles to survive the imploding of her world. 


I have always loved books set during the English Civil War and never understood why it has not become as popular a period as Tudor or Elizabethan times. It has everything. Bloody battles, betrayals, executions, kings-in-hiding, star-crossed lovers, spies, witch-hunts, highwaymen and, of course, the legend of the Wicked Lady - a woman who tried to shape her own fate by taking to the roads. The character of Lady Katherine Ferrars is fascinating. She’s headstrong, impetuous, romantic and, at times, both selfish and unkind. This makes her seem so real – she just gallops off the page. 


The Silvered Heart is an exciting and engaging mix of drama, romance, and history – I really loved it and hope Katherine Clements is writing another book. 

BOOK REVIEW: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose

Friday, March 24, 2017




BLURB:


In her study of the married couple as the smallest political unit, Phyllis Rose uses as examples the marriages of five Victorian writers who wrote about their own lives with unusual candor.The couples are John Ruskin and Effie Gray; Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth.


MY THOUGHTS:


A really interesting look at the marriages of five different sets of men and women who lived in Victorian times. Most were writers and intellectuals, and so their lives were not the norm for the times; nonetheless these brief biographies show that Victorian society was not quite as rigidly stratified and straitlaced as most people think. 


The couples whose lives are examined here are John Ruskin and Effie Gray; Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh; John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor; George Eliot and G. H. Lewes; Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth. I learnt something new about them all, and about the cultural institution of marriage. 


BOOK REVIEW: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Wednesday, March 22, 2017



BLURB:


In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own.


But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. 


MY THOUGHTS:


I have been steadily reading my way through Sarah Waters’s backlist after discovering her a year or so ago with the brilliant, unputdownable Affinity. She’s one of those writers that always makes me sigh and wish that I could write as well. 


The three books of hers that I have read to date are all set during the Victorian era. The Little Stranger, however, is set in the difficult years after World War II, when the known world has been shaken loose from its moorings. Its topography is familiar to me from dozens of books by Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Patricia Wentworth. Even though The Little Stranger is not a who-dunnit by any means, it shares a great deal with books by these classic crime writers – a grand English country house, class snobbery, mysteries and misdirection, unexpected twists, and a series of unexplained deaths and tragedies.


The Little Stranger also differs from Sarah Water’s earlier books by having a male narrator. Dr Faraday is the local doctor who finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into affairs at Hundreds House. It soon becomes clear that he is a not-entirely-reliable narrator, which really heightens the tension and suspense, and reminded me of Agatha Christie’s great masterpiece Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? It also reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in the way the slowly building suspense becomes almost unbearable.


Yet The Little Stranger is at heart a creepy Gothic ghost story, with a malevolent poltergeist driving the inhabitants towards the house towards the book’s grand tragic finale. 


Or is it? 


Is the ghost real? Is it a strange kind of madness? A manifestation of intense psychic distress? Or is it a kind of malicious manipulation by someone in the house? Perhaps even the doctor himself?


This mystery and ambiguity is part of the genius of The Little Stranger. Since I finished reading it, I’ve discussed it with dozens of people who all believe something different. I think it is just brilliant. 


BOOK REVIEW: Beyond the Orchard by Anna Romer

Tuesday, March 21, 2017




Beyond the Orchard – Anna Romer 


BLURB (from GoodReads)


A haunting story of yearning, love and betrayal from the bestselling author of Thornwood House


Lucy Briar has arrived home in turmoil after years overseas. She’s met her fiancé in London and has her life mapped out, but something is holding her back.

Hoping to ground herself and find answers, Lucy settles into once familiar routines. But old tortured feelings flood Lucy’s existence when her beloved father, Ron, is hospitalised and Morgan – the man who drove her away all those years ago – seeks her out.

Worse, Ron implores Lucy to visit Bitterwood Estate, the crumbling historic family guesthouse now left to him. He needs Lucy to find something– an old photograph album, the very thing that drove Ron and his father apart.

Lucy has her own painful memories of Bitterwood, darkness that has plagued her dreams since she was young. But as Lucy searches for the album, the house begins to give up its ghosts and she is driven to put them to rest.

And there, held tightly between the house, the orchard and the soaring cliffs, Lucy uncovers a long-hidden secret that shattered a family’s bond and kept a frightened young girl in its thrall ... and Lucy discovers just how fierce the lonely heart can be.


MY THOUGHTS:

A story that moves between the past and the present, with intrigue, passion, betrayal and the metafictive use of a dark fairy-taleit’ll be no surprise to anyone that I loved Beyond the Orchard, the first novel of Anna Romer’s that I have read.
 

I loved the name of the heroine – ‘Lucy Briar’ - and the name of the house – ‘Bitterwood’. Names are always very important to me, and I love it when an author takes care in crafting their names. I also loved the setting – an old house set on cliffs with a creepy ice house in the gardens. The scenes set in the 1930s were particularly powerful, and I loved the us evocation of the Australian landscape.

The story is a complex one, with a great many characters and numerous different time periods, but I thought the numerous narrative threads were woven together with a light hand, and I never got confused about who was who and when was when. 

The mysteries hidden in the past were truly suspenseful, and I found myself turning the pages faster and faster, really wanting the secrets to be revealed

All in all, Beyond the Orchard is a tantalising mix of mystery and romance – Anna Romer weaves together the past and the present with a deft hand, creating a compelling page-turner with a shadowy fairy-tale-like atmosphere.

Love parallel narratives? Lots more reviewed here!


ANY RECOMMENDATIONS OF SIMILAR BOOKS FOR ME? Leave them in the Comments below :)

THE 50/50 PROJECT: Celebrating Midsummer's Day at a circle of stones

Monday, March 20, 2017

Something I have always wanted to do is celebrate the summer solstice at an ancient circle of stones like Stonehenge or Avebury.

It’s actually No 9 on my list of things I want to do one day – I call this list my 50/50 project

I was actually in England for the summer solstice last year, and only half an hour’s drive away from the Rollright Stones which is – so far – my favourite circle of stones. 

But I was too scared to go out in the dark by myself! I didn’t know anyone else who was going and I didn’t want to intrude on the celebrations of anyone who might be there. So I didn’t get to see the sunrise over the stones, as I’d hoped.

I did, however, go the next day. 

And it was such a beautiful & magical experience I thought I’d share it with you … even though it’s not quite making that particular dream come true. 














I went with Krys Saclier and Martina Smythe, two of my students from the 2016 History, Mystery & Magic retreat in the Cotswolds, and Martina took most of these dreamy photographs (thank you for letting me use them!)


Maybe one day I’ll be back in the UK at midsummer and will have the courage to go and see the sun rise over a circle of stones (or at least, have some friends to go with me!)





BOOK REVIEW: Kumiko & the Dragon By Briony Stewart

Sunday, March 19, 2017




Kumiko and the Dragon
– Briony Stewart
Kumiko and the Dragon’s Secret – Briony Stewart
Kumiko and the Shadow-catchers – Briony Stewart


BLURB of Book 1 (from GoodReads)


Kumiko doesn't like going to bed. She can't sleep, and the reason she can't sleep is because of the giant dragon that sits outside her bedroom window, every single night.

So one night she plucks up the courage to ask the dragon to leave, not knowing that the truth she is about to discover is more thrilling than anything she could ever have imagined.


MY THOUGHTS:

This delightful story will take the young readers on a soaring dragon adventure, as Kumiko discovers a strength she never even knew she had.

A trilogy of charming fantasy books for very young readers, inspired by the tales that Briony Stewart’s Japanese grandmother used to tell her. Kumiko is frightened of going to bed because a dragon spends each night perched outside her bedroom window. One day she plucks up the courage to write the dragon a note … and so begins her adventures with the many different dragons who live in the clouds above our world. 

Some really beautiful writing.


BOOK REVIEW: The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwaller

Saturday, March 18, 2017




The Anchoress – Robyn Cadwaller

BLURB (from GoodReads):

England, 1255. What could drive a girl on the cusp of womanhood to lock herself away from the world forever?

Sarah is just seventeen when she chooses to become an anchoress, a holy woman shut away in a cell that measures only seven by nine paces, at the side of the village church. Fleeing the grief of losing a much-loved sister in childbirth as well as pressure to marry the local lord's son, she decides to renounce the world--with all its dangers, desires, and temptations--and commit herself to a life of prayer.

But it soon becomes clear that the thick, unforgiving walls of Sarah's cell cannot protect her as well as she had thought. With the outside world clamoring to get in and the intensity of her isolation driving her toward drastic actions, even madness, her body and soul are still in grave danger. When she starts hearing the voice of the previous anchoress whispering to her from the walls, Sarah finds herself questioning what she thought she knew about the anchorhold, and about the village itself.

With the lyricism of Nicola Griffith's Hild and the vivid historical setting of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Robyn Cadwallader's powerful debut novel tells an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear, and the very human need for connection and touch. Compelling, evocative, and haunting, The Anchoress is both quietly heartbreaking and thrillingly unpredictable.



MY THOUGHTS:


I was on a panel with Robyn Cadwaller at the Perth Writers Festival a couple of years ago, and bought her book on the day as it just sounded so fascinating. An anchoress was a young woman who was walled up in a tiny cell in medieval times, living the rest of her life within that tiny space, praying, fasting and advising the women of the village. I have long been interested in stories of imprisoned women, and so I had read about anchoresses before. I was really intrigued to see how Robyn Cadwaller would bring to life a story of a young woman who voluntarily allows herself to be locked away from the world. 

Set in England in 1255, the story begins with 17-year old Sarah being enclosed within her cell. Her door is literally nailed shut. The cell is only seven by nine paces, with a small window to the outside world through which food and water is passed to her, and a narrow aperture (intriguingly called ‘a squint’) into the church. The only man she is permitted to speak to is her priest and confessor. She has two maids who serve her and guard her, who Sarah is meant to guide in a spiritual life.

Yet the world is not so easy to lock away. Sarah sees and hears glimpses of the life of the village, and is threatened by desire, grief, doubt and fear just as much as any other woman. 

She is haunted by the lives and deaths of the two women who were enclosed in this cell before her. One died, and one begged to be set free, much to the embarrassment of the church. Sarah wants to be good … but it is much harder than she could ever have imagined.

A beautiful, slow and thoughtful book with some really lovely pieces of lyrical writing, The Anchoress is a rare glimpse into a sliver of the almost forgotten past.

Love books by Australian women writers? Lots of recommendations here!

PLEASE LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

BOOK REVIEW; Rose's Vintage by Kayte Nunn

Friday, March 17, 2017




Rose’s Vintage – Kayte Nunn

BLURB (from GoodReads):

British blow-in, Rose Bennett, is heartbroken, overweight, irritable and a long way from home. She isn’t sure what exactly she’s doing at Kalkari Wines in the Australian Shingle Valley – it’s the middle of winter and far from the lush, romantic vineyard setting she’d been expecting. 

Her brother thinks she’s spying for him, her bad-tempered new boss thinks she’s the au pair and the nanny can’t wait for her to clean the place up. 

Discovering pagan bonfire ceremonies, bizarre winemaking practices and a valley full of eccentric locals, Rose just wishes she’d ended up somewhere a bit warmer. But as the weather improves, the valley reveals its beauty, and Rose starts to fall in love: with the valley, the wines, the two children she’s helping to look after, and one of the men there. 

When her boss’s estranged wife returns and her brother descends, wanting answers, Rose is forced to make the hardest decision of her life.


MY THOUGHTS:


A warm-hearted and very readable contemporary romance set in an Australian vineyard, Rose’s Vintage throws failed-British chef-turned-au-pair Rose into the midst of a range of lovable, eccentric characters including two adorable children and their brooding, difficult but gorgeous father. I really enjoyed Rose’s journey as she rediscovered her love of cooking and negotiated her way through a host of troubles to find, at last, true love. 

 Perfect reading for a lazy summer Sunday!


Love contemporary romance set in the Australian landscape? Read my interview with Georgina Penny, author of A Summer Harvest

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS!

BOOK REVIEW: The Waiting Room by Leah Kaminsky

Thursday, March 16, 2017




The Waiting Room – Leah Kaminsky


BLURB (from GoodReads)

Leah Kaminsky’s powerful fiction debut—a multi-generational novel perfect for fans of The Tiger’s Wife and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena—unfolds over a day in the life of a young physician in contemporary Israel, who must cope with modern threats in the shadow of her parents’ horrific wartime pasts.

A young doctor in Haifa, Israel, must come to terms with her family’s painful past—and its lingering aftermath—as the conflict between Palestine and Israel reaches its height and the threat of a terrorist attack looms over the city....

Born to two survivors in the smoky after-haze of WWII, Dina has never been able to escape her parents’ history. Tortured by memories of Bergen-Belsen, her mother leaves Dina to inherit her decades of trauma. 

Dina desperately anchors herself in family—a cherished young son, a world-weary husband, and a daughter on the way—and her work as a doctor, but she is struggling to cope, burdened by both the very real anxieties of her daily life and also the shadows of her parents’ ghosts, who follow her wherever she goes. A witty, sensitive narrator, she fights to stay grounded in the here-and-now, even as the challenges of motherhood and medicine threaten to overwhelm her. 

In taut, compelling prose, The Waiting Room weaves between Dina’s exterior and interior lives, straddling the present and the past—and building towards a profoundly dramatic climax that will remind readers of the fragility of human life even as it reassures them of the inescapable power of love and family.



MY THOUGHTS: 

Set in modern-day Israel, The Waiting Room tells the story of a single day in the life of a female Jewish doctor who is haunted by her parents’ tragic past. Born to Holocaust survivors, Dinah has always been acutely aware of the unspoken horrors of her parents’ survival. Struggling to build herself a new life in Haifa with her husband and child, she finds her internal life buckling under the pressure of her external life as she struggles to care for her family and patients in a world fraught with terror. 

Leah Kaminsky’s prose is simple, elegant, restrained, and shot through with moments of humour both bright and dark. Past and present, reality and unreality, are woven together until neither the narrator nor the reader can be sure exactly what is happening. A powerful and insightful book into the very black shadows the Holocaust continues to cast. 

Love books by Australian women writers? Try Nest by Inga Simpson

ANY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ME? Leave them in the Comments below!



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