Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Island of Wings - Karin Altenberg

Island Of WingsIsland Of Wings by Karin Altenberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I chose this book as it appeals to my longing for escape, I love to read about women who have settled somewhere remote and alien to their usual surroundings and you can't get much more remote than the Isle of St Kilda.

This book tells the account of the lives of true couple Reverend Neil McKenzie and his wife Lizzie who in 1830 take up residence on the Scottish Island of St Kilda to bring Christianity to the barely civilised, superstitious Gaelic speaking islanders who live in mounds of earth, eat little but seabirds and are resistant to change. Life on St Kilda is hard, barbarous and pitiless and deprivation and hardship are a way of life.

Its a brutal yet beautiful location and Lizzie finds the isolation devastatingly lonely yet finds a solace in the wildness and freedom of the island. Unable to communicate with the islanders she finds it hard to get to know them and as her husband becomes increasingly moody and hurtful towards her she struggles to cope.

Battling to cope with the death of her firstborn drives a wedge between the couple and leads Lizzie to seek companionship with the local women, united in tragedy as the mortality rate of newborns is terribly high on the island most dying within a week of birth.

The book describes an unusual setting, the struggles of a difficult relationship made harder by having to rely so heavily on each other for companionship despite having been virtual strangers when wed. Life must have been incredibly lonely and hard for this young bride in an era when breaking away from the constraints of conventional life was virtually impossible and when women did seize the opportunity of escape there was no going back and they just had to make do with what was thrown at them.

A fascinating look at life on an island like no other, although in some parts I found the story dragged but overall a worthwhile read especially for anyone who has an interest or curiosity about the setting of St Kilda.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The hearts of horses - Molly Gloss

The Hearts of HorsesThe Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
From the Publishers blurb - 
In the winter of 1917, a big-boned young woman shows up at George Bliss’s doorstep. She's looking for a job breaking horses, and he hires her on. Many of his regular hands are off fighting the war, and he glimpses, beneath her showy rodeo garb, a shy but strong-willed girl with a serious knowledge of horses.

So begins the irresistible tale of nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen, a female horse whisperer trying to make a go of it in a man’s world. It was thought that the only way to break a horse was to buck the wild out of it, and broken ribs and tough falls just went with the job. But over several long, hard winter months, many of the townsfolk in this remote county of eastern Oregon witness Martha's way of talking in low, sweet tones to horses believed beyond repair—and getting miraculous, almost immediate results—and she thereby earns a place of respect in the community.

Along the way, Martha helps a family save their horses when their wagon slides into a ravine. She gentles a horse for a dying man—a last gift to his young son. She clashes with a hired hand who is abusing horses in unspeakable ways. Soon, despite her best efforts to remain aloof and detached, she comes to feel enveloped by a sense of community and family that she’s never had before.
With the elegant sweetness of Plainsong and a pitch-perfect sense of western life reminiscent of Annie Dillard, The Hearts of Horses is a remarkable story about how people and animals make connections and touch each other's lives in the most unexpected and profound ways.

What a delightful, charming story. I was captivated by the story told by Martha Lessen a young woman who sets out in Oregon in 1917 to make her living as a horse breaker. Shy but determined, gentle but strong, her unsentimental love for and skill with horses ensures that she soon finds work on the remote settlements in this bleak yet beautiful part of America.

Its a simple story, yet really kept me turning the pages, it tells the story of the lives of the families and the horses who come into her life and what happens to her over the course of a year or so.
Its poignant and gently romantic without ever being sentimental or slushy, the pace is quite slow but there is just something about it which, when I'd read it made me feel like picking it back up and reading it all over again.

Especially of interest to anyone with a love of animals I think this would appeal to anyone who liked Water for Elephants and The Outlander

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Illuminations - a novel of Hildegard Von Bingen by Mary Sharratt

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von BingenIlluminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a skilful author Mary Sharratt is, she draws you into a story effortlessly and keeps you there.

Illuminations tells a fictional account of the life of a real, very unique, historical character - Hildegard Von Bingen. Set in Germany in the 10th century, where choices for a youngest daughter were limited, yet little Hildegard has a joyous outlook on life, exploring the nearby forests with her beloved brother Rorich, developing a strong love of nature and the outdoors but at the age of just 7 she begins to have visions which her mother looks upon with suspicion and fear rather than the awe with which her nursemaid sees them.

All the more horrendous then is her Mothers decision to offer Hildegard as a hand maiden to a wealthy yet regarded as crazy, young woman Jutta von Sponheim, who is to take vows and become a Nun, believing this will be a great opportunity to learn new skills Hildegard is innocently unaware of what awaits her. Little realising the consequences of her Mothers betrayal Hildegard has no choice but to trust her Mother and accompanies Jutta to the crumbling monastery, where to her shock and absolute horror they are both about to be forcibly bricked in to a small cell together and left incarcerated there forever, only seeing the faces of monks and postulants who visit and joining in songs of worship through a small grill in the wall though which they are provided with sparse and meagre scraps of food to enable basic survival .

How can a child of just 8 years old contemplate a life like this? In Marys book we face this with Hildegard as she begins of necessity to grow close to the disturbed Jutta yet tries to retain her indomitable individuality and strength of character whilst dreaming of escape. She finds friendship with the young monk Volmar and a fragile friendship with Jutta which waxes and wanes as Juttas depression and mania increase. This is a story of survival against all odds, its a story of the overwhelming powers of friendship and it is the story of a young woman who is destined to become not only unusual for her time but a powerful influential character who fought for womens liberation back in these medieval times. It follows the long and fruitful life which Hildegard creates for herself.

I must confess I had a few reservations about reviewing this advance reading copy of this new book Illuminations, yes it ticks my favourite boxes of being a predominantly female book but not chick-lit, and by an author whose work I have previously loved, but when I recieved a request to review this work my reservations lay in the religious nature of the story I am not religious and dislike anything preachy. I needn't have worried too much as the book relies mainly on character building which the author is undoubtedly superb at and story telling of a joyful and delightful nature.

I must confess however there are a few passages describing the visions and ecstasy Hildegard experiences and the religious side of the story which left me a little confused and they are the main reason I have given this book 4 rather than 5 out of 5. But don't let this put you off reading it in any way its a lovely read.

I'd especially recommend this to anyone who has read Marys other books including The Vanishing Point, who enjoyed The Owl Killers with which this story has many parallels or who enjoyed Sacred Hearts.