Join Kate’s VIP Club Now!

Follow Me

FacebookPinterestTwitter

Kate's Blog

Subscribe RSS

BOOK REVIEW: The Road to Ever After by Moira Young

Monday, July 31, 2017



The Road to Ever After – Moira Young

The Blurb (from GoodReads)

Part Benjamin Button, part Harold and Maud, part Brian Selznick and part Neil Gaiman, this is a unique, magical story that will draw readers in and make them fall in love with both characters.

Davy David is a thirteen-year-old orphan, who lives in the bushes in a town ruled by a strict minister, Reverend Fall. A talented artist, Davy loves to draw pictures of angels in the dirt, in the early hours of the morning before the townspeople are awake. He spends his days on his own, except for a small dog, who has attached himself to Davy, often going to the library to find inspiration for his pictures of angels. One day, after chasing after a ball for some of the town's boys, he finds himself in the yard of the old boarded-up museum, now rumoured to be the home of a witch. The witch is Miss Elizabeth Flint, an elderly woman who has a proposition for Davy: drive her to her childhood home, where, it turns out, she has made the decision to die. 


My Thoughts:
Moira Young is a Canadian-born author best known for an award-winning series of young adult dystopian novels. An uncorrected proof copy of ‘The Road to Ever After’ was given to me whilst I was in the UK last year and I have only just got around to picking it up. It’s an enchanting and surprising read, and not at all what I was expecting given her earlier work.

The hero is a thirteen year old boy named Davy David who lives in a town under the sway of a severe and hypocritical pastor named Parson Fall. Davy is an orphan who spends his days drawing angels in the dirt with a stick. His only friend is a scruffy terrier who draws him into trouble. One day he meets an old woman who lives in a derelict boarded-up museum. Her name is Miss Elizabeth Flint, and she hires Davy as her chauffeur. She wants him to drive her home.

And so begins a magical fable of life and death, love and grief, transformation and transfiguration. Utterly simple and utterly profound, this is a strange but wonderful story of an unlikely friendship and a magical quest. 

BOOK REVIEW: Little Women By Louisa May Alcott

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother - Eva La Plante

When I was thirteen years old, I bought a battered old copy of ‘Little Women’ from a school fete because it had a picture of a dark-haired girl reading a book on the cover. 



From the first line, I was captivated. I devoured the story of the four March girls in an afternoon. Like hundreds of other girls, I saw myself reflected in the character of Jo – wild, harum-scarum, and bookish. It is one of the few books that tells the story of a young woman wanting to be a writer and so it has always been very important to me.  

When my daughter turned thirteen a few months ago, I bought her a beautiful illustrated hardback edition of the book as part of her birthday present. Telling her why I had loved Little Women so much when I was her age made me want to read it again, and so I’m ashamed to admit I took the book back from her the moment she opened her present. It is now back on her bedside table, waiting for her to discover this classic tale of four sisters growing up poor in the time of the American Civil War. 




Then, in June, I was in the US for a conference and made a pilgrimage to Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote her beloved novels at a tiny desk in her bedroom. 

Louisa May Alcott was one of the most successful authors of her day, earning more than any of her male contemporaries. Her classic Little Women has been a favourite with many (including me) since it was first published nearly 150 years ago.

In preparation to visiting her house, I decided to read a little more about her life. I chose Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother because the author, Eva LaPlante was a descendant of Abigail May, Louisa’s mother and the inspiration for Marmee, the famous mother of the Little Women. In writing this biography, she drew upon the family’s letters and journals and other private papers, some of which had only recently been discovered in an attic.

Louisa’s father has long been credited with being the primary shaping influence on her, but this biography shakes that assumption and examines the key role her mother had in her life. 

Abigail May was certainly a fascinating woman, who fought for women’s suffrage and an end to slavery. Her life, and the life of her four daughters, is brought to vivid life and really helps to illuminate Little Women and Louisa May Alcott’s other wonderful books. 


Another of my favourite books by Louisa May Alcott is Eight Cousins, and I was amazed to realise that there was a sequel called Rose in Bloom. I bought a battered old copy in Powell's, the world's largest bookstore, in Portland, Oregon, while I was there. I can't wait to read it!

Meanwhile, I loved my literary pilgrimage to Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. It was just so fascinating to see the tiny grey silk dress Louisa's sister Anna wore at her wedding (she was the inspiration for Meg in the book and her wedding is described at the end of Little Women), and the paintings on the walls by her sister May (Amy in the book). Her writing desk was so small, and it was easy to imagine Louisa crouched there, scribbling away with her ink-stained fingers. 



LIZZIE SIDDAL: Her Life & legacy

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Lizzie Siddal Rossetti (b. 1829 – d. 1862) 

is one of the key characters in my novel 

Beauty in Thorns

which reimagines the Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale 

set amongst the passions, tragedies and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelite circle 

of poets and artists in Victorian Britain




'Paolo and Francesca da Rimini', Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855 


Known best for her work as a model for Pre-Raphaelite artists such as William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal  was an artist in her own right, writing delicate melancholy poetry and painting small jewel-like oils. She was the only woman to have her work included in the first-ever exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art in 1857. 



'Clerk Saunders', Lizzie Siddal (1857)


One of the difficulties of writing biographical fiction is that the author cannot sit on the sidelines, and say, ‘it is believed that …’ or ‘it is possible …’ A novelist needs to try and find the explanation that seems most likely, and then bring it to life on the page. This was most difficult in the case of Lizzie Siddal, someone whose real life is much obscured by myth and rumour.

The story persists that Lizzie was discovered by Walter Deverell, an artist friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, while working in a milliner’s shop. However, as the renowned Pre-Raphaelite scholar Jan Marsh has found, Lizzie did not passively wait to be discovered but rather went out to meet her future by taking her drawings to Mrs Deverell, the wife of the secretary of the London School of Design, in the hope of pursuing her dreams of becoming an artist. Mrs Deverell’s son Walter then went to visit Lizzie at her workplace and, after seeing her, asked her to model for him. 

That, at least, is the story that Lizzie herself told. It may not be true, but it seems more likely than a busy young man accompanying his mother to her milliner’s. There is as much evidence for one as for the other, (i.e. none), and this novel was inspired by the desire to give the women of the Pre-Raphaelite circle a chance to tell their own stories, in their own voices. So it is Lizzie’s version of events I have drawn upon in Beauty in Thorns.


'Twelfth Night', Walter Deverell (1850)

Walter Deverell wanted a girl who looked like a boy, to pose as Viola in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'. Lizzie sits on the left, her slim legs exposed as she pretends to be a pageboy. The jester was modelled by Walter Deverell's friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who would soon become Lizzie's mentor and - most probably - her lover. 

Rossetti (called Gabriel by his friends) drew Lizzie obsessively.


        
 

Drawings of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1850-1852) 


In 1852, Lizzie modelled as 'Ophelia' for John Everett Millais. It was January 1852, and bitterly cold. Wearing an antique silver-embroidered wedding dress, she lay in a bathtub filled with water drawn from the filthy River Thames.  Millais had put candles and lamps underneath to try and keep the water warm, but one by one they blew out. Lizzie lay in the bath for five hours. In that one afternoon she would earn more for modelling than she did in a whole year as a milliner's apprentice. He brother had just died of tuberculosis, and her family were poor. She could not afford to lose her modelling job.


'Ophelia', John Everett Millais (1852) - Lizzie Siddal was the model


At last Millais saw that she was shivering with cold and fever, and helped her out of the bath. The damage was done, however. Lizzie was ill, most probably with pneumonia. Her family called for a doctor (a most unusual act by such a poor family). It is most likely that he prescribed her laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol. Lizzie became dependant on the drug, and began a slow slide down into addiction and physical and mental ill-health. 

Lizzie Siddal has not been treated well by the key biographers of the Pre-Raphaelites. She has been called 'sickly', 'wan', 'morbid', 'passive', 'obstinate', 'primitive', 'stupid', 'prim', 'neurotic', 'hysterical', 'feeble', and 'frigid', along with many other similar emotionally loaded words. Many of these biographers were apologists for Rossetti (including his brother and his niece), and so were not unbiased.  

Her addiction to laudanum is widely known. What is not so well-known is that Lizzie may have suffered from an eating disorder. Nowadays, when we see a young woman wasting away to a virtual skeleton, refusing food, or vomiting after meals, we would suspect anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, in the mid-19th century such pronounced emaciation was normally attributed to tuberculosis, commonly called ‘consumption’ because it seemed to consume the sufferer.  

The first medical identification of eating disorders was made in 1868 (six years after Lizzie’s death), when Sir William Gull, the Queen’s physician, delivered a paper describing a digestive disorder with no known cause, which he called ‘hysteric apepsia’ (apepsia means ‘without digestion’). In 1873 (eleven years after Lizzie’s death), Ernest-Charles Lasègue, a French physician, published a paper entitled 'De l’Anorexie Histerique' which was the first real examination of the idea that the wasting away of these young women could be caused by self-starvation. It was not understood as a mental illness, however, but as a ‘maladie imaginaire’. Sir William Gull consequently undertook further investigation and coined the term ‘anorexia nervosa’.

Dr Gull's illustrations of anorexia in the 1870s

If Lizzie was an anorectic, she and her family and friends would have had absolutely no idea what was wrong with her. Any ‘curious perversions of appetite’, as Lasègue named them, such as binge eating, secret eating, hoarding of food, purging, refusal of food, or food-related rituals, would have seemed, at best, a hysterical demand for attention. 

The possibility that Lizzie might have had an eating disorder was first suggested by Elaine Shafer in a 1985 essay, ‘Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal and "The Bird in the Cage".'  

However, it has never been closely examined as a probable cause for her troubling illnesses. Even the most recent biography, by Lucinda Hawksley in 2004, says: ‘Much of Lizzie’s ill health originated in her mind, stemming from her desire to receive attention and love.’ Lucinda Hawksley does acknowledge that Lizzie may have had some kind of eating disorder, but then says that ‘it became common for her to emotionally blackmail (Gabriel) by refusing to eat.’

Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are mental illnesses with devastating physical consequences, having the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. They cannot, and must not, be dismissed as a form of emotional blackmail (even though they are commonly misunderstood in such a way).

The more I researched Lizzie’s life, the more convinced I became that she did have an eating disorder. Descriptions of her thinness and her inability to eat are constant in the letters and diaries of the Pre-Raphaelites. A few examples:

In 1854, Ford Madox Brown writes in his diary that Lizzie was ‘thinner and more deathlike and more beautiful and more ragged than ever’.
 
In 1857, Gabriel wrote that she is ‘not better in health or eating anything to speak of’; This was the same year in which Lizzie refused to touch food for two weeks, resulting in her admission to the health spa in Matlock. 

In 1861, he refers to her ‘unfortunate lack of appetite which keeps her mostly fasting and prevents her from gaining much strength.’ 

Then, at the inquest into her death in 1862, he told the court ‘she could not sleep at times nor take food’ (insomnia is a common side effect of anorexia).

Most striking is the visual evidence of Gabriel’s drawings and paintings which show her physically dwindling away. 

    

                  Drawings of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (late 1850s)

Lizzie’s death is another matter which needed to be investigated carefully. It is widely believed that Lizzie committed suicide, even though the inquest into her death found that she died ‘accidentally and casually and by misfortune’ of an overdose of laudanum.

Laudanum was widely available in the 19th century, and was even given to newborn babies to help them sleep, sometimes resulting in the child dying of starvation. Laudanum acts to suppress appetite, among other effects. It is common for people with an eating disorder to also suffer from substance abuse problems, and certainly the opium would have been the cause of, or exacerbated, many of Lizzie’s problems.

But did Lizzie take an overdose of laudanum by accident, or on purpose?

The possibility of suicide was first given life by Sir Thomas Hall Caine, who had worked as Rossetti’s secretary during the last year of his life. In 1928, he published a new edition of his book Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in which he claimed Rossetti had told him of finding ‘a letter or message addressed to him lying on the table by her side.’ 

The rumour was fanned by Violet Hunt in her 1932 biography, Rossetti’s Wife, in which she declares that Lizzie left a note saying ‘My life is so miserable I wish for no more of it.’ Violet Hunt was born the same year that Lizzie died, and is no relation to William Holman Hunt, though her father Alfred Hunt was a landscape painter who knew the Pre-Raphaelites. She had a long affair with Ford Madox Brown’s grandson, Ford Madox Ford, and claims to have heard all the inside gossip from him. Her biography is considered unreliable, at the very best. At its worse, it is malicious and deliberately misleading.

William Rossetti’s daughter, Helen Rossetti Angeli, published an article in rebuttal of Violet Hunt’s book, which said ‘Lizzie’s last message, as reported, is touching and romantic, but she did not write it.’ 

Seventeen years later she published her own biography of her uncle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Friend and Enemies, in which she said that Lizzie was found with a note pinned to her nightgown, saying ‘Take care of Harry’, who was Lizzie's feeble-minded brother. 

The note did not survive, and so it is impossible to know if Helen Rossetti Angeli’s account is any truer than Violet Hunt’s. It has been argued that Angeli may have been trying to refute a consistent rumour that Gabriel had murdered Lizzie; or, at the very least, driven her to suicide by his cruel behaviour (Oscar Wilde told everyone that Gabriel had pushed the bottle into her hands and told her to ‘drink the lot’ before storming out of the house).

Then we have Lizzie’s last poem, ‘O Lord, May I Come?’, written in ‘a shaky and straggling hand’ which William Rossetti thought must have been ‘written under the influence of laudanum.’ It is possible that Gabriel was referring to this poem when he told Hall Caine of a message to him left by Lizzie’s bed.

Life and night are falling from me,
Death and day are opening on me,
Wherever my footsteps come and go,
Life is a stony way of woe.
Lord, have I long to go?

Hallow hearts are ever near me,
Soulless eyes have ceased to cheer me:
Lord, may I come to thee?

Life and youth and summer weather
To my heart no joy can gather.
Lord, lift me from life's stony way!
Loved eyes long closed in death watch for me:
Holy death is waiting for me -- 
Lord, may I come to-day?

My outward life feels sad and still
Like lilies in a frozen rill;
I am gazing upwards to the sun,
Lord, Lord, remembering my lost one.
O Lord, remember me!

How is it in the unknown land?
Do the dead wander hand in hand?
God, give me trust in thee.

Do we clasp dead hands and quiver
With an endless joy for ever?
Do tall white angels gaze and wend
Along the banks where lilies bend?
Lord, we know not how this may be:
Good Lord we put our faith in thee -- 
O God, remember me.


When I began writing Beauty in Thorns, I believed that Lizzie had committed suicide. As I researched more deeply, I changed my mind. The day before her death, Lizzie had told her friend, the poet Bessie Rayner Parkes, that she was pregnant. Lizzie had been devastated by the stillbirth of her daughter a year earlier, and it is known she and Gabriel were trying for another baby. I do not think she would have willingly killed her unborn child. Bessie Rayner Parkes was always adamant that Lizzie’s death was an accident, for that very reason, and I came to agree with her. 

'Beata Beatrix', the portrait of Lizzie that Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted after her death

In regards to Gabriel, it has been alleged that he was a compulsive womaniser and sexually betrayed Lizzie on many occasions. Yet his foremost biographer, Jan Marsh, does not believe this to be true. The evidence seems to show he was not unfaithful to her until after their relationship breakdown in 1856-57, which occurred around the time of his meetings with Fanny Cox (later called Fanny Cornforth) and Jane Morris. 

Famously, Gabriel buried his only manuscript of poems with Lizzie in her coffin. Seven years later, he had her body secretly exhumed so he could retrieve the notebook. He transcribed the stinking, tattered manuscript - that had worm holes through some of his best lines - but never fully recovered from his sense of guilt and shame.

 
One of the pages from the buried manuscript, showing the damage to the paper 

If you would like to read more about Lizzie, the best books are 

Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley (2004)
The Legend of Lizzie Siddal by Jan Marsh (1989) 
Elizabeth Siddal: Pre-Raphaelite Artist by Jan Marsh (1991), which is wonderful if you want to see Lizzie’s paintings and read her poems. Jan Marsh has also written a magisterial biography, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Poet and Painter (1999). The biography of Gabriel that I read when I was a university student was: 
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Alien Victorian by Brian and Judy Dobbs (1977). 


The key texts for my research into eating disorders included 
Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. 

I also read many memoirs of anorectics, including:

Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright 
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher 
Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia Rossi
 Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Elena Dunkle.

Want to read more about Lizzie? Check out a much earlier blog, written when I was speculating about what may have been the cause of Lizzie's mysterious illness

Or read more about the Pre-Raphaelites & Beauty in Thorns here!


BOOK REVIEW: The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

Thursday, July 06, 2017



The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

"An eloquent (and compulsively readable) reminder that, though we're laying waste the world, nature still holds sway over much of the earth's surface."
Bill McKibben 

Blurb (from GoodReads):
Are there any genuinely wild places left in Britain and Ireland? That is the question that Robert Macfarlane poses to himself as he embarks on a series of breathtaking journeys through some of the archipelago's most remarkable landscapes. He climbs, walks, and swims by day and spends his nights sleeping on cliff-tops and in ancient meadows and wildwoods. With elegance and passion he entwines history, memory, and landscape in a bewitching evocation of wildness and its vital importance. A unique travelogue that will intrigue readers of natural history and adventure, The Wild Places solidifies Macfarlane's reputation as a young writer to watch. 


My Thoughts:
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 (read my review here!) 

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.

BOOK REVIEW: An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Wednesday, July 05, 2017



An Isolated Incident – Emily Maguire


The Blurb (from GoodReads)

When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the small town of Strathdee, the community is stunned and a media storm descends.

Unwillingly thrust into the eye of that storm is Bella's beloved older sister, Chris, a barmaid at the local pub, whose apparent easygoing nature conceals hard-won wisdom and the kind of street-smarts only experience can bring.

As Chris is plunged into despair and searches for answers, reasons, explanation - anything - that could make even the smallest sense of Bella's death, her ex-husband, friends and neighbours do their best to support her. But as the days tick by with no arrest, Chris's suspicion of those around her grows.

An Isolated Incident is a psychological thriller about everyday violence, the media's obsession with pretty dead girls, the grip of grief and the myth of closure, and the difficulties of knowing the difference between a ghost and a memory, between a monster and a man.

PRAISE FOR EMILY MAGUIRE

"At the heart of ... Emily Maguire's work lies an urgent need to pull away at the interconnecting threads of morality, society and human relationships." Sydney Morning Herald

"What you get, along with a sharp mind and a keenness to investigate cultural confusions, is an engaging ability to put the vitality of the story first." Weekend Australian 


My Thoughts:

An Isolated Incident by Australian author Emily Maguire is a contemporary psychological suspense novel set in a small Australian town, with a particular emphasis on the traumatic effects of suspicion, grief and the voyeuristic curiosity of the public.

Bella Michaels is only twenty-five when she is found brutally raped and murdered on the side of the highway. Her sister Chris must find some way to deal with the intense scrutiny that the police and the media bring to every aspect of her and her sister’s lives. Chris works at the local pub, and sometimes takes a truckie home in return for a little extra cash. She has a broken marriage behind her, and drinks too much. She is haunted by her sister’s last moments, and paralysed by her own bleak future. 

Intense, powerful and raw, An Isolated Incident is an all-too-real look at the terrible cost of sexual violence in our society, and a profoundly intimate portrait of anguish and rage. It has justly been shortlisted for the Stella award. 


I also really enjoyed The Dry by Jane Harper, a very different but also very readable novel about murder in a small Australian country town - read my review here. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Tournament by Matthew Reilly

Sunday, July 02, 2017



The Tournament – Matthew Reilly

The Blurb (from GoodReads):

The year is 1546.

Europe lives in fear of the powerful Islamic empire to the East. Under its charismatic Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, it is an empire on the rise. It has defeated Christian fleets. It has conquered Christian cities.

Then the Sultan sends out an invitation to every king in Europe: send forth your champion to compete in a tournament unlike any other.

We follow the English delegation, selected by King Henry VIII himself, to the glittering city of Constantinople, where the most amazing tournament ever staged will take place.

But when the stakes are this high, not everyone plays fair, and for our team of plucky English heroes, winning may not be the primary goal. As a series of barbaric murders take place, a more immediate goal might simply be staying alive…


My Thoughts
Best known for his fast-paced contemporary thrillers, The Tournament is a real departure for Matthew Reilly. 

Told by Queen Elizabeth I on her death-bed, the action of the book is set in 1546 when the young princess was only thirteen years old. She accompanies her tutor, Roger Ascham, to Constantinople to attend a chess tournament. Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, had issued an invitation to every king in Europe, ‘to determine the champion of the known world’. 

Soon after their arrival, a powerful cardinal is found brutally murdered. Roger Ascham – known for his brilliant mind and incisive logical skills - is asked to find the killer. Bess, of course, is drawn into helping him. 

Other murders follow, and soon Bess and her tutor find themselves and the rest of their party in ever increasing danger.

I love books set in Elizabethan times, and I am a chess addict, and so this book was always going to appeal to me.  Of course, you need to suspend your disbelief at the young Princess Elizabeth as a sleuth, and I have to say the book is surprisingly sexy, but I enjoyed the story immensely and have to say The Tournament is now my favourite Matthew Reilly book. I hope he writes another just like it! 


Subscribe RSS

Recent Posts


Tags


Archive


Blogs I Follow