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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!

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: 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: The Locksmith's Daughter by Karen Brooks

Wednesday, March 15, 2017




The Locksmith’s Daughter – Karen Brooks

BLURB (from GoodReads):


In a world where no one can be trusted and secrets are currency, one woman stands without fear.

Mallory Bright is the only daughter of London’s master locksmith. For her there is no lock too elaborate, no secret too well kept. Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster and protector of Queen Elizabeth – the last of the Tudor monarchs – and her realm, is quick to realise Mallory’s talent and draws her into his world of intrigue, danger and deception. With her by his side, no scheme in England or abroad is safe from discovery; no plot secure.

But Mallory’s loyalty wavers when she witnesses the execution of three Jesuit priests, a punishment that doesn’t fit their crime. When Mallory discovers the identity of a Catholic spy and a conspiracy that threatens the kingdom, she has to make a choice – between her country and her heart.

Mallory, however, carries her own dark secrets and is about to learn those being kept from her – secrets that could destroy those she loves.

Once Sir Francis’s greatest asset, Mallory is fast becoming his worst threat … and everyone knows there’s only one way Sir Francis deals with those.


MY THOUGHTS: 

An absolutely gripping page-turner of a novel set in Elizabethan times, The Locksmith’s Daughter is told from the first person point of view of a young woman named Mallory Bright, the story starts a little slowly but the pace soon quickens, and the plot begins to twist and turn in unexpected ways. 

Mallory is the daughter of a master locksmith who has taught her all his secrets. One evening her father is visited by the Queen’s spymaster Sir Frances Walsingham and Mallory is asked to show off her skills. She finds herself being trained as a spy to work on Walsingham’s behalf, and is drawn deeper and deeper into a dark and violent world. 

The book is set during a time of intense religious strife, when Jesuit priests were being hunted down and hanged, drawn and quartered. Mallory finds herself caught with divided loyalties and in danger herself. The world of Elizabethan England is captured with all its myriad sounds and smells, and I particularly loved all the details about devious locks and how the Elizabethan secret service worked. It felt so real and authentic, it was as if I had actually slipped back in time myself – always a sign of meticulous research and attention to detail.

A gripping historical thriller that will quite literally steal your breath!

Love historical thrillers set in Elizabethan times? Try The Tudor Conspiracy by C.W. Gortner  


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I love your recommendations! 

BOOK REVIEW: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Friday, March 10, 2017



The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte


I first read The Tenant of Wildfall Hall when I was in my late teens and discovering the lives and work of the Bronte sisters. It came third in my esteem, after Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. For some reason I have never re-read it, even though I’ve re-visited the work of her sisters many times. It might have been because I remembered it as being rather gloomy, with a pious self-righteous heroine and an unlikeable hero.

Talking the book over with a friend last year, she said that she thought it was one of the earliest examples of feminist fiction. I decided I had to read it again and I’m very glad I did. 

Basically, the story begins with Gilbert Markham, an affable but rather shallow and impetuous young man, taking an interest in a beautiful but secretive widow who comes to live in Wildfell Hall with her young son. Helen supports herself with her painting and has very decided views on alcohol and other social problems. Gilbert talks with her and finds himself admiring her steadfastness and intelligence, in stark contrast to Eliza, the pretty but silly girl he had been courting previously. As his fascination with Helen grows, so does his curiosity about her past. But Helen guards her secrets closely. He asks her to marry him, and she refuses – but gives him her diaries to read.


The narrative then switches to Helen’s point-of-view. Headstrong and passionate, she falls in love with a handsome, charming young man and marries him, despite her family’s reservations. He rushes headlong into dissolution, however, spending long months drinking and carousing in London, then bringing his debauched friends back to spend months at their estate. He embarks on an affair with one of his friends’ wives, and mocks Helen’s sense of betrayal and pain. After he begins to teach his young son to drink and smoke and swear, Helen finds the strength and courage to leave him. She takes refuge at Wildfell Hall and lives in dread of her vindictive husband finding her. 

The third section returns to Gilbert’s point-of-view. He is no longer the shallow, pleasure-loving character of the first part of the book. He has been transformed by his love for Helen into someone much deeper and more thoughtful. He agrees that he and Helen must not see each other again, as she is not free to marry and does not wish to be tempted into being unfaithful to her wedding vows. Helen returns to nurse her dying husband, and Gilbert is filled with anguish and grief. After her husband dies, he stands by his vow not to contact her but then hears rumours that she is to be married again. So he rushes to the church to try and stop the wedding. In the end, the two are reunited again and find happiness.


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an astonishingly brave novel for a young woman to write in the early part of the 19th century. It’s a story about marital abuse, and Helen’s courageous action in leaving her husband would have been thought utterly shocking at the time. One of the biographers of the Brontës, May Sinclair, wrote “the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated through Victorian England.”

It is also a story about a woman who stood up for what she believed in, and who supported herself with her art. This was surely the unspoken dream of many young women bound within their society’s narrow view of a woman’s role in the world.



Finally, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall does not flinch away from depicting alcoholism, adultery, domestic violence, or attempted rape. It is clear-eyed and unflinching in its depiction of the realities of 19th century English life. 


Most interestingly, for me, is the transformation of the character of Gilbert. In the first half of the book, he is confident to the point of cocky, and thinks nothing of toying with Eliza’s feelings, or of pressing his unwanted attentions upon Helen. He calls on her uninvited, he seizes her hand and tries to kiss it, he tries to pry into her past. His behaviour foreshadows the actions of Helen’s husband Arthur, who treats her with rough passion that escalates to violence, and his friend Walter, who tries to first seduce, then rape, Helen.  

However, Gilbert changes once he has heard Helen’s story and understands how she has been abused in the past. He becomes more grave and gentler. Most interestingly, he swears to leave her be until she is ready for anything else. He does not write to her or hound her; he gives her the time she needs. 

By the time they are at last united, he too has suffered from his long enforced separation from Helen and is far more worthy of her love. And the final scenes – when Gilbert races to stop her marriage to another – are compelling, page-turning drama.



I do have one small caveat about my new-found love and admiration of Anne Brontë – I’m afraid I skim-read most of the long speeches about piety and morality. I suspect they are why so many contemporary readers dislike the book!

But if you can forgive Anne for her Victorian moralising, I think - if you read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - you must agree with me that's it's just as worthy of fame and veneration as the work of her two more famous sisters ... if not more so.

I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall again as part of my challenge to read more feminist fiction this year. I would love your suggestions as to what other books about women that I should be reading.

Please leave your suggestions & comments below!


BOOK REVIEW: Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden

Friday, January 06, 2017




Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place – Philip Marsden


THE BLURB (from GoodReads):


Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? 


When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land's End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe.From the Neolithic ritual landscape of Bodmin Moor to the Arthurian traditions of Tintagel, from the mysterious china-clay country to the granite tors and tombs of the far south-west, Marsden assembles a chronology of our shifting attitudes to place. 


In archives, he uncovers the life and work of other 'topophiles' before him - medieval chroniclers and Tudor topographers, eighteenth-century eighteenth-century antiquarians, post-industrial poets and abstract painters. Drawing also on his own travels overseas, Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man's perennial struggle to belong on this earth.




MY THOUGHTS:
I love books which take a place or a time or a person or a natural phenomenon, and then uses that as a springboard into a wide-ranging meditation on art, history, science, poetry, or any manner of things. And I have always wanted to go to Cornwall.


So I was interested in Rising Ground as soon as I heard about it. 


Philp Marsden has a degree in anthropology and has written a number of books about his travels in Ethiopia and Russia, as well as numerous essays for The Spectator. He was, however, raised in Cornwall and recently bought a farmhouse on a creek there with his wife and children. The book is not a memoir of the renovation of this old house, though some of his personal experiences are woven into the narrative. It is more about ‘topophilia’, a lovely word which means ‘love of place’, and examines some of the little-known but interesting people of the past who have loved Cornwall and studied it and written and painted about it. 


It’s the sort of book that you can pick up and enjoy, then put down and not pick up again for a few weeks, as each chapter is an essay on a particular aspect of Cornwall. I was particularly interested in the chapters on the standing stones and barrows and graves and other ancient monuments, and on the blind-and-deaf Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who I had never heard of before. 


A really interesting read. 

BOOK REVIEW: THE ROSE GARDEN by Susanna Kearsley

Friday, June 17, 2016



When Eva's film star sister Katrina dies, she leaves California and returns to Cornwall, where they spent their childhood summers, to scatter Katrina's ashes and in doing so return her to the place where she belongs. But Eva must also confront the ghosts from her own past, as well as those from a time long before her own. For the house where she so often stayed as a child is home not only to her old friends the Halletts, but also to the people who had lived there in the eighteenth century. When Eva finally accepts that she is able to slip between centuries and see and talk to the inhabitants from hundreds of years ago, she soon finds herself falling for Daniel Butler, a man who lived - and died - long before she herself was born. Eva begins to question her place in the present, and in laying her sister to rest, comes to realise that she too must decide where she really belongs, choosing between the life she knows and the past she feels so drawn towards. 

Susanna Kearsley mixes together romance, suspense, and the supernatural in wonderfully readable ways. The Rose Garden is the story of a woman who keeps slipping back and forth between times in Cornwall. So part of the story is set in the present-day and part of it set in 1715, a time of smugglers and Jacobite plots. Of course there’s a man in the now and a man in the past, and problems and dangers in both. It’s a period of history that I really love, and I must say I have a real soft spot for books set in Cornwall, a place I’ve always longed to visit. Susanna Kearsley has a light, deft touch – The Rose Garden is the sort of book that you can race through in a single setting, hoping all the time for a happy ending but not sure how the author is going to pull it off. Delightful.

BOOK REVIEW: THE SWORD IN THE STONE by T.H. White

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I had to re-read this book after reading Helen Macdonald’s extraordinary memoir H is for Hawk, which revealed much I did not know about T.H. White and his life and sorrows and struggles. 

A classic of children’s fantasy, The Sword in the Stone is a funny and inventive story of King Arthur’s childhood. It was first published in 1938, but it feels incredibly fresh. Much of the book is made up of a series of set pieces in which Arthur (known as the Wart) is changed into different animals like a fish, a falcon, and a badger, and meets various comic or menacing characters, such as Robin Hood (cleverly disguised as Robin Wood). The underlying idea is that the Wart is being secretly prepared to be king by his tutor, Merlyn. The book abounds in comic anachronisms (ostensibly because Merlyn lives backwards), but it is also filled with acutely observed historical details about medieval times. No attempt has been made to simplify the language, and so one of its joys is the multitude of strange words and terms, which I remember delighting in as a child. 

A wonderful, strange and memorable fantasy, perfect for any clever child.

BOOK REVIEW: THE MATISSE STORIES by A S Byatt

Monday, June 06, 2016


These three stories celebrate the eye even as they reveal its unexpected proximity to the heart. For if each of A.S. Byatt's narratives is in some way inspired by a painting of Henri Matisse, each is also about the intimate connection between seeing and feeling--about the ways in which a glance we meant to be casual may suddenly call forth the deepest reserves of our being. Beautifully written, intensely observed, The Matisse Stories is fiction of spellbinding authority.

I picked up this little book in a second-hand bookstore, only knowing that I love Matisse’s art and A.S. Byatt’s novels. I’m also very interested in how writers drew on the work of visual artists in fiction (I’m working on a book about the Pre-Raphaelites right now).

The book is comprised of three short stories, loosely linked through some mention of Matisse. The first story is the weakest, involving a frustrated middle-aged woman who visits a hairdresser because she likes his Matisse print on the wall. The second was my favourite, involving a tense triangle between a woman, her artist-husband, and their cleaner, who is much more than she seems. The final story – a sharply observed vignette about some of the problems of modern-day academia - is the one most closely concerned with Matisse. 

Each situation is acutely observed and stamped with A.S. Byatt’s trademark wit and irony.



SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites

Wednesday, April 20, 2016



I am in the early stages of writing and researching a new novel, which has a working title of BEAUTY IN THORNS. 

It tells the story behind Edward Burne-Jones's famous paintings of the 'Briar Rose' fairy tale, which he painted numerous times over the course of twenty tumultuous years. Most of the story will be told through the eyes of the women in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Georgie Burne-Jones and her daughter, Margaret, and Jane Morris, and her daughters, Jenny and May.    

I am still in the early stages of researching, which means a lot of reading. Here are just some of the books I have been studying: 




Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel – Lucinda Hawksley

Like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by the brief tragic life of Lizzie Siddal, whose face appears in so many early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

She rose to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain and a pivotal figure of London's artistic world, until tragically ending her life in 1862.


A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin

 – Judith Flanders

The Macdonald sisters were a fairly ordinary mid-Victorian family. Their father was a Methodist preacher, their mother a chronic invalid. They moved often, following their father’s itinerant preaching routes, and so relied one each other for comfort and amusement. Attractive, lively girls, none of them was startling beautiful or brilliant, and yet they all made extraordinary marriages that led to extraordinary family dynasties. Agnes married Edward Poynter, president of the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts; Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most extraordinary painters of the era; Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling; and Louisa gave birth to the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. In a way, their stories are a prime example for the way in which class boundaries in the Victorian era was changing, allowing those with talent and drive to change their social status.




The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones & the Victorian Imagination – Fiona McCarthy

This is a great big chunk of a book, but very readable, and magisterial in its approach to the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists. Best of all, it shines a light on to the inner life of the artist, helping illuminate the forces that drove this complex and haunted man.


Pre-Raphaelites in Love – Gay Daly 

This is a great book for anyone who wants a really readable look into the passions and scandals that defined the relationships of the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s wife-swapping, suicide, trials for impotence, affairs with models, exhumation of dead wives, madness, and horse skeletons being boiled in front yards. Gripping stuff.


Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites - Franny Moyle

Franny Moyle’s book was published in 2009, twenty years after Gay Daly’s Pre-Raphaelites in Love. So she has access to new research into the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a greater freedom to talk about sex and drugs and rocking-and-rolling. Her style is racy and often funny, and lacks any kind of deep analysis or evidence. It was written as a tie-in with the BBC series of the same name, which very much focuses on the love affairs, rather than the art. It is, nonetheless, immensely readable and engaging, and is probably the best place to start if you want to know all the racy stuff about the Pre-Raphaelites.


have a lot more books on the Pre-Raphaelites to read, so if you're interested ... watch this space!


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





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