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BOOK REVIEW: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Wednesday, August 30, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more.

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.

My Thoughts:

A memoir about life as a female boffin, melded with fascinating facts about trees and botany, this is an unusual but very readable book. Both funny and poignant, the book charts Hope Jahren’s journey through the cut-throat world of scientists, and her joy in the secret world of trees. She charts her friendships and love affairs, her battle with bi-polar disorder, her muddles and mistakes, and her profound insights into the natural world. Her writing is at times lyrical, and her enthusiasm for botany is infectious. A clever, quirky, and informative book about why we should love and protect the world’s trees.

You might interested in my review of another non-fiction, beautiful book, The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.

Please remember to leave a comment - I'm interested in your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler

Sunday, June 04, 2017

BLURB:

In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son Joe made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard's passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire - centred around the legendary Constantinople - we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilizations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

GHOST EMPIRE is a revelation: a beautifully written ode to a lost civilization, and a warmly observed father-son adventure far from home.

MY THOUGHTS:

I love listening to Richard Fidler on the radio. He is always so warm and funny and curious about people, and he has a knack for drawing out the personal and the unique in every story. I have also been increasingly interested in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), having read several novels set there in recent years. After hearing Richard speak about his book at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, I bought a copy and finally read it last month. Normally I read non-fiction slowly over a few weeks, reading several novels in between chapters. But Ghost Empire was so engaging and readable, I whizzed through it in just a few nights.

The book combines the personal memoir of a journey Richard and his son Joe made to Istanbul in 2014, with stories from the city’s long and bloody history. Constantinople was built on the foundations of Byzantium in the early 4th century and became the new capital of the Roman empire in 330 AD. From the mid-5th to the mid-13th century, it was the largest, richest and most powerful city in the world, and the guardian of the most sacred relics of Christianity, the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross. 

For almost a thousand years the city was the centre of extraordinary true tales of greed, murder, violence and betrayals, and Richard entwines these stories with anecdotes from his own life and his life-changing journey with his son. The result is utterly fascinating. 

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.


BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

Saturday, April 15, 2017

BLURB:

The Magician's Book is the story of one reader's long, tumultuous relationship with C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Enchanted by its fantastic world as a child, prominent critic Laura Miller returns to the series as an adult to uncover the source of these small books' mysterious power by looking at their creator, Clive Staples Lewis. What she discovers is not the familiar, idealized image of the author, but a more interesting and ambiguous truth: Lewis's tragic and troubled childhood, his unconventional love life, and his intense but ultimately doomed friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

Finally reclaiming Narnia "for the rest of us," Miller casts the Chronicles as a profoundly literary creation, and the portal to a life-long adventure in books, art, and the imagination.

MY THOUGHTS:

I love books about books, particularly when they weave together a personal story with new insights into a beloved work of literature. The genre is called ‘bibliomemoir’, which is such a great word it makes me want to write one. But which book would I want to write about? 

Like hundreds of thousands of people, when I am asked to name my favourite childhood book, I answer ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe’ by C. S. Lewis. But, much as I’d love to write a bibliomemoir about its profound influence on me and others, I can’t anymore. That’s because this book - The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller – does it so beautifully I could never hope to compare. 

Laura Miller was enchanted by the world of Narnia as a child – as was I and every kindred spirit I know - yet as an adult became aware of the many criticisms levelled against C. S. Lewis. Classism. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Anachronism. 

So as an adult, she revisits the books and examines them in light of her own life, the life of C.S. Lewis and his friends, and the vast influence – both positive and negative – that Narnia has had on the work of other writers as diverse as Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen and Philip Pullman. 

The result is utterly engrossing and utterly enchanting. It made me want to go and read all the Narnia books again!

BOOK REVIEW: Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

BLURB:

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

MY THOUGHTS:

I have spent the last two years deeply immersed in Victorian Britain. I have watched dozens of documentaries, and read more than a hundred biographies, memoirs, and histories of the time. Queen Victoria was a constant looming presence, sometimes revered, sometimes reviled. 

I was just finishing the final edit on Beauty in Thorns, my novel set in the mid 19th century, when Julia Baird’s immensely thick biography was published. It seemed a fitting way to finish my investigation of the period and so I paid the hefty $50 purchase price and lugged it home. I expected it to take me a while to finish, but the book is so warmly and engagingly written, and so fascinating, I whizzed through it in a couple of days. 

Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. Victoria was tiny, forthright, and loved sex. She refused to be a mere figurehead, and used her position to promote profound changes in the society in which she lived. For example, she hated cruelty to animals and was instrumental in bringing about anti-vivisectionist laws. Even though she famously said women who marched for female suffrage should be whipped, Queen Victoria was a great example to many women and supported education and job training for girls. And she condemned those around her for their snobbery and racism, and was actively engaged in trying to break down such societal barriers.

It is clear Julia Baird’s research has been impeccable, and there is much in this biography that is fresh and new. However, it is her storytelling skills that really shine.  The crowded streets of London, the stifling atmosphere of the court, the pure air of the lonely Highlands, are all brought vividly to life, as are the people in Victoria’s life – her austere and brilliant husband, Prince Albert, the rough yet tender gilly John Brown, and the many different Prime Ministers who served her. By far, the best biography of Queen Victoria I’ve yet read.

BOOK REVIEW: Rising Ground by Phillip Marsden

Friday, February 10, 2017



BLURB:


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: A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother – Jeremy Gavron

Thursday, January 05, 2017


THE BLURB (from GoodReads):


It's 1965, and in Primrose Hill, north London, a beautiful young woman has just gassed herself to death, leaving behind a suicide note, two small children, and an about-to-be-published manuscript: The Captive Wife.

Like Sylvia Plath, who died in eerily similar circumstances two years earlier just two streets away, Hannah Gavron was a writer. But no-one had ever imagined that she might take her own life. Bright, sophisticated, and swept up in the progressive politics of the 1960s, Hannah was a promising academic and the wife of a rising entrepreneur. Surrounded by success, she seemed to live a gilded life.

But there was another side to Hannah, as Jeremy Gavron's searching memoir of his mother reveals. Piecing together t
he events that led to his mother's suicide when he was just four, he discovers that Hannah's success came at a price, , and that the pressures she faced as she carved out her place in a man's world may have contributed to her death. Searching for the mother who was never talked about as he grew up, he discovers letters, diaries, and photos that paint a picture of a brilliant but complex young woman grappling to find an outlet for her creativity, sexuality, and intelligence.



A Woman on the Edge of Time not only documents the too-short life of an extraordinary woman; it is a searching
examination of the suffocating constrictions in place on intelligent, ambitious women in the middle of the twentieth century.



MY THOUGHTS:


In 1965, in Primrose Hill, London, a beautiful and passionate young woman gasses herself to death, leaving behind two small children and an about-to-be-published manuscript of her life’s work …


The woman is Hannah Gavron, and her death is eerily similar to that of Sylvia Plath who killed herself two years earlier and only two streets away. 


Jeremy Gavron, Hannah’s son, was only four when she died and has no memory of her. She was always an aching presence in his life, however, as absences so often are. He wondered about her, but could never talk about it to his father or his brother. When his brother died, however, Jeremy Gavron was so overwhelmed with pain he realised that he was also grieving for his mother. A few months later, Sylvia Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes committed suicide. The similarities between his own life and that of Nicholas Hughes chilled him, and he set out to try and solve the mystery of his mother’s death. 


A Woman on the Edge of Time is therefore a memoir of a woman the author could not remember, an autobiography which reveals little about the author’s life, a true-life detective story about a death in which the murderer was always known. It is also an utterly brilliant book about a woman who could not break out of the cage of her time.


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

BOOK REVIEW: Peacock & Vine – A.S. Byatt

Saturday, December 10, 2016



THE BLURB (from GoodReads):

From the Booker Prize-winning author: a ravishing, intimate, richly illustrated meditation on two astonishingly original artists whose work--and remarkable lives--have obsessed her for years. 

William Morris and Mariano Fortuny were born decades apart in the 19th century. Morris, a wealthy Englishman, was a designer beloved for his floral patterns that grace wallpaper, serving ware, upholstery, and countless other objects even today; Fortuny, a Spanish aristocrat, is now less recognized but was revolutionary in his time, in his ideas about everything from theatrical lighting to women's fashion. 

Though seeming opposites, these two men of genius and driving energy have long presented a tantalizing juxtaposition to A. S. Byatt; in this delightful book she delves into how their work converses with her across space and time. At once personal, critical, and historical, Peacock & Vine is a gorgeously illustrated tour of their private and public worlds: the women who were their muses; their eccentrically curated homes; the alluring works themselves, and above all what it means to this one brilliant and curious writer, whose signature gift for rendering character and place enlivens every page. Rich with insight and color, this book is itself a work of art, one to savor and treasure.


MY THOUGHTS:


This beautiful little hardcover book was a gift from a writer friend of mine who knew of my fascination with William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites. 


It is an extended personal essay, in which A.S. Byatt shares with us her personal response to the lives of two men whose art and creativity echoed each other in interesting ways. The first is William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement and a poet who refused to become Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate. Nowadays he is best known as the designer of beautiful intricate wallpapers and fabrics. 


The second subject is Mariano Fortuny, the aristocratic Spanish fashion designer and artist who lived and worked in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. They were not really contemporaries – Morris died in 1896 in London and Fortuny was born in 1871 in Granada – and they never met. However, A.S. Byatt finds interesting correlations between the two men, and the book is enriched with beautiful photographs of both of their work. 


I love books like this, which illuminate art and history and creativity in such interesting and unexpected ways, and which are themselves are work of art. 


Read my review of A.S. Byatt's POSSESSION or SPOTLIGHT: Books on the Pre-Raphaelites - and please leave a comment, I love to know what you think. 


BOOK REVIEW: The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece - Carola Hicks

Thursday, December 08, 2016

BLURB:

One of Europe’s greatest artistic treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. 


For all its fame, its origins and story are complex and somewhat cloudy. Though many assume it was commissioned by Bishop Odo—William’s ruthless half-brother—it may also have been financed by Harold’s dynamic sister Edith, who was juggling for a place in the new court. 


In this intriguing study, medieval art historian Carola Hicks investigates the miracle of the tapestry’s making—including the unique stitches, dyes, and strange details in the margins—as well as its complicated past. For centuries it lay ignored in Bayeux cathedral until its discovery in the 18th century. It quickly became a symbol of power: townsfolk saved it during the French Revolution, Napoleon displayed it to promote his own conquest, and the Nazis strove to make it their own. 


Packed with thrilling stories, this history shows how every great work of art has a life of its own. 


MY THOUGHTS:

I have always been interested in the Bayeux tapestry and made the trip to see it in its little French stone village this year. 


It really is a fascinating artefact, the world’s longest piece of embroidery and quite possibly the first real comic strip. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, in a series of small scenes sewn with extraordinary vigour and humour. 


I bought Carola Hicks’s book in Bayeux, and read it over the next few nights. It begins with the story of how the embroidery came about, and then the extraordinary story of its survival over the next three thousand years. It survived the French revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, years of being kept in a damp church cellar, and the Nazis who tried to steal it. A really lively and beguiling story about an utterly unique piece of art. 


Love books set in France? I have a list of my favourites here


Do you love non-fiction books that illuminate history for you? Any suggestions for me? Please leave a comment for me.


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