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BOOK REVIEW: Molly & Pim & the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

BLURB:

All Molly wants is to be normal like her friend Ellen Palmer. Ellen, with her neat braids and a tidy house and a mother and father who are home for dinner every night. But Molly's mom spends her mornings tramping through the woods, looking for ingredients for her potions. 

Their house is not neat, and their rooster, the Gentleman, runs wild in their yard. And it is the Gentleman that angers their grumpy neighbors, the Grimshaws. So Molly's mom makes a potion that will grow a tree between their houses. 

When Molly's mom accidentally drinks the potion and turns into the tree, Molly is determined to get her back. But with the Grimshaws planning to cut down the tree branches that reach onto their property, time is of the essence. With the help of her mysterious classmate Pim Wilder, Molly sets out to save her mother and discovers the wonder that lies in the ordinary. 

MY THOUGHTS:

This is a small but enchanting book about a girl named Molly whose mother accidentally changes herself into a tree. Molly is left alone to fend for herself, but discovers that she has more friends than she realised. 

I loved the character of Molly, who thought she just wanted to be ordinary but discovers that being herself is better. I also loved her fey and eccentric mother, who wanders the garden and woods looking for ingredients for magical potions, and Molly’s two friends, Ellen (whose normal life with a normal family is envied by Molly) and Pim (who is anything but normal). Each character is deftly and vividly drawn, and there is a charming mix of humour, whimsy and poignancy. Glorious.


SPOTLIGHT: William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites 

William Blake was born today, two hundred and sixty years ago. He was a poet, painter and visionary who was virtually unknown in his lifetime. 
Nowadays he is widely celebrated, even being named No 38 in the BBC’s 2002 poll of 100 Greatest Britons. 

Yet few know that it was another young British painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was instrumental in saving him from obscurity. 

        

     William Blake, painted by Thomas Phillips (1807)  

                      

      A self-portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, drawn in 1847 


Rossetti first became interested in Blake after reading about him in Allan Cunningham’s The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1830. He was intrigued by this man who saw angels and devils, and who implored humanity to cast off their ‘mind-forg’d manacles.’ Like Rossetti, Blake was educated at home by his mother, showed extraordinary early promise as an artist, wrote poetry as well as painted, and was interested in the work of such unfashionable artists as Raphael, Michelangelo and Durer. 

One day Rossetti heard that an attendant at the British Museum had a battered old notebook in which Blake had drafted poems and scribbled sketches, mostly in pencil. On 30 April 1847, when he was just nineteen years old, Rossetti purchased the manuscript from the attendant, William Palmer, whose artist-brother Samuel had been a pupil of Blake’s in his final years. Rossetti paid ten shillings for it, which he borrowed from his long-suffering younger brother William Michael Rossetti. 

              

Blake had begun writing and drawing in the notebook in February 1787, and continued to work in it for the next thirty years. When he reached the end of the notebook, probably around 1793, he turned it upside down and began working from the end on the back of each leaf, over-writing earlier drafts and illustrations. 

The closely-filled pages give a fascinating insight into Blake's creative process, allowing readers to follow the composition of some of his best-known work, including one of my own personal favourites, 'The Tyger'.

            

The notebook was to have a profound effect on Rossetti’s work and life, and rippled out to influence the art and poetry of his friends and family, including Christina Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. 

Rossetti was intrigued with Blake’s rebellious reputation and with his rejection of conventional morality. The notebook is full of poems that promote free love and radical politics, including the humorous epigram ‘When a man has married a wife, he finds out whether/her knees and elbows are only glued together’, which accompanied a sketch of a man and a woman rising from a rumpled bed. 

              

The book also contained attacks on such well-known artists such as Sir 
Joshua Reynolds which chimed with Rossetti’s own rebellion against the establishment (Rossetti famously nicknamed the Academy’s first president Sir Sloshua). It was after reading Blake’s manuscript that Rossetti and his friends William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais decided to form the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in 1848.

Rossetti showed the notebook to Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, which helped inspire him to write what would become the first major biography of the poet and visionary. And after Gilchrist died from scarlet fever, Rossetti helped his widow Anne Gilchrist to finish the magnus opus. 

  
Rossetti also edited Blake’s poems for publication. He has since been criticised for making changes to make the poems more palatable for a Victorian readership, but the fact remains the poems may have been lost if he had not done so.

Blake’s interest in the occult, in the Gothic and in the spiritual can all be seen to chime with the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, and his clearly delineated outlines and rich prismatic colouring can also be seen as influences. 

         

William Blake "Glad Day", c. 1794 


          

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Damsel of the Sanct Grael' c.1857  

The literary critic Arthur Symons has written: ‘it is to D.G. Rossetti that we owe the recovery, if not also the discovery, of Blake.’ 

I went to see the notebook (often called The Rossetti Manuscript) at the British Library when I was in London last June. They have very kindly microfiched each page so you can scroll back and forth as you please.

I really loved looking through the pages, seeing William Blake’s swift deft sketches and scribbled poems, and seeing Rossetti’s handwritten note on the inner cover, describing how he bought it. And, yes, of course, I had to put  reference to it in my novel about the Pre-Raphaelites, Beauty in Thorns, to be published July 2017. 

You can see the whole book at the British Library’s website

Here is the final manuscript version of 'Tyger, Tiger, Burning Bright', with the words below for ease of reading. 



Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand, dare seize the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water'd heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


William Blake

BOOK REVIEW: Do You Love Me or What? by Sue Woolfe

Monday, May 29, 2017




BLURB:


A brilliant collection of short stories by the bestselling, award-winning author of Leaning Towards Infinity, Painted Woman and The Secret Cure


Do You Love Me or What? is a collection of eight sparkling, nuanced short stories from one of Australia’s most celebrated and loved writers. Written in elegant, shimmering prose, Sue’s stories are woven with themes encompassing love, loss and yearning, memory and identity, the desert and water, and people who live on the periphery of society. Her sentences are spare and evocative, yet paint fully realised pictures that speak of the poignant, shared experiences of the nature of relationships, past and present.


MY THOUGHTS:


A collection of eight elegant and poignant short stories, Do You Love Me or Not? is concerned with the (often failed) search for connection and love between humans. Each story introduces a new character, yet there are connections between the stories in setting, theme and language. 


Some of the stories are achingly sad, others frightening, and some tender and heart-warming. ‘Small Talk’ was my favourite. It tells the story of a woman who goes to the desert  and wants to connect with the local Indigenous people, but finds that the silence between them is more difficult to bridge than she had imagined. It is not until she listens to the silences that she begins to understand. The story is gorgeously written and vibrant with colour and sensual detail.


‘By early evening of that day, she’d travelled beyond the mountain range and was in country so flat, with trees so low, that when she turned on her heel, she saw the entire circle of the horizon spinning by. She didn’t put up her tent but lay under the dome of stars, watching the trajectory of the Southern Cross move directly above her toes, then above her stomach, above her chest, above her head. Until dawn, the black sky was spangled all the way down to the ground, all around her.


She felt herself become braver.’ 


I also loved ‘The Dancer Talks’, told from the point of view of a tango dancer who fears she is going blind. The story is full of the intensity and anguish of dancing: ‘Magdalena … had never ceased to marvel at the way dancers considered their bodies rather like the way her carpenter father considered a tool, something that, with enough skill, could create a heaven on earth.’


Just wonderful. 




BEAUTY IN THORNS: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Thursday, May 25, 2017



Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of four very different women, Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds. 

Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career: 




In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed. 





In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth.  This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.




In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal.  At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal. 

This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.




This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.





And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887,  as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress. 

The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen. 





His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'. 

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.  


It will be released in Australia in July 2017. 

BOOK REVIEW: A Court of Roses & Thorns - Sarah J. Maas

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sarah J Maas made her name when her first novel Throne of Glass, a heroic fantasy for young adults, became a runaway bestseller. She began writing the story when she was only sixteen and posted the first few chapters on FanFiction.Net, where its popularity encouraged her to try and find a publisher. Almost a dozen novels and novellas have followed, many making the New York Times bestseller lists with the series being optioned for a TV series. The story is said to be a loose retelling of Cinderella, with the premise that the heroine is not a down-beaten servant but a highly skilled assassin, who goes to the ball not in the hope of marrying the prince but with the intention of killing him.

A Court of Roses and Thorns is the first in a new series which takes ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as its starting point. I have studied this fairy-tale for some years, and written my own reimagining, and so I was interested to read what Sarah J. Maas did with it.

The story begins when 19-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the snowy woods. She suspects that it may be a shapeshifting faerie from the magical land across the borders, but kills it anyway as she hates the faeries. Then a beast-like creature storms into her house, demanding she pays for her crime. Feyre is taken back to the beast’s home – a huge mansion – where she is kept captive. Gradually, however, she comes to care for the beast (who is really an extremely handsome High Lord of the Fae) as he saves her – and she saves him - from various malevolent forces.

Sarah J. Maas’s writing is vivid and supple, and the world of the Fae is brilliantly evoked. The story is suspenseful and surprising too, with lots of interesting plot twists. My primary concern with the book is the high level of sexual violence. Both Tamlin (the hero) and Rhysand (the dark love complication) are the sort of brooding, dangerous, and overly forceful Alpha men that seem to be so beloved of certain romance novels of late. Their behaviour is controlling, jealous, and obsessive, and the heroine is often kissed, touched and manhandled against her will. I find this a very troubling trend in both fantasy and romance, and worry that young women will come to believe that such behaviour is not only acceptable, but desirable. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Friday, May 12, 2017


Robert Macfarlane was one of my great discoveries in the past couple of years (meaning that I discovered his books, not him!) I’ve been slowly reading my way through his oeuvre and have loved everything he has written so far.

The Wild Places was his second book, and established his style – beautiful, poetic writing that twines together landscape, nature, history, literature, and his own personal journey. Robert sets out to see if there are any genuinely wild places left in Britain, and then writes about what he discovers. One of the chapters – ‘Holloway’ – I had read before as it was expanded and published as an exquisite illustrated book about the lost greenways of Dorset. The other chapters have equally evocative names – ‘Beechwood’, ‘Moor’, ‘Summit’, ‘Grave’, ‘Storm-beach’ and ‘Tor’, for example. It’s the kind of book that you can pick up, read a few chapters, then put down for a while, as each chapter is an essay on a particular place.  His writing is sublime. It feels so effortless, but has all the quick-fire surprise of the perfect metaphor. Just wonderful.



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