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BOOK REVIEW: The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The author of The Girl Who Came Home turns the clock back one hundred years to a time when two young girls from Cottingley, Yorkshire, convinced the world that they had done the impossible and photographed fairies in their garden. Now, in her newest novel, international bestseller Hazel Gaynor reimagines their story.

1917… It was inexplicable, impossible, but it had to be true—didn’t it? When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, claim to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when one of the great novelists of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes convinced of the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a national sensation, their discovery offering hope to those longing for something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war. Frances and Elsie will hide their secret for many decades. But Frances longs for the truth to be told.

One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story it tells of two young girls who mystified the world. But it is the discovery of an old photograph that leads her to realize how the fairy girls’ lives intertwine with hers, connecting past to present, and blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, can Olivia find a way to believe in herself?

My Thoughts:

One hundred years ago, two girls went down to the stream at the bottom of their garden in the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, and took some photographs of fairies. Elsie Wright (aged 16) and Frances Griffiths (aged 10) were cousins, and each took turns in being photographed. They developed the photos, and showed them to Elsie’s father who had mocked them for believing in fairies. Elsie’s mother showed the photos at a meeting of the Theosophical Society, and eventually they came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who championed the two girls and their photos as evidence of supernatural phenomena. The two girls maintained the truth of their photographs all through the ensuing media storm but eventually confessed - when in their 80s – that the fairies had been drawn on paper and carefully cut out and stuck on hat-pins. All except one, Frances said. One of the photographs was real.

Hazel Gaynor brings the mystery of the Cottingley Fairies thrillingly to life in a gorgeously written narrative that moves seamlessly between Yorkshire in the 19th century - a time when Conan Doyle and other men of science wanted desperately to believe in the possibility of fairies and ghosts and spirits - and Ireland in the 21st century. A mystery, a love story, and an enchanting and surprising journey of self-discovery, 'The Cottingley Secret' unwraps the true story behind one of the great hoaxes of the 19th century while still allowing the possibility of the magical.



Read my 2015 interview with Hazel Gaynor here.

Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Marry in Haste by Anne Gracie

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

From the award-winning author of The Summer Bride comes the first in a charming new historical romance series where marriages of convenience turn into true love matches.

Major Calbourne Rutherford returns to England on the trail of an assassin, only to find he’s become Lord Ashendon, with the responsibility for vast estates and dependent relatives. Cal can command the toughest of men, but his wild half-sisters are quite another matter. They might just be his undoing.

When he discovers that Miss Emmaline Westwood, the girls’ former teacher, guides them with ease, Cal offers her a marriage of convenience. But strong-minded and independent Emm is neither as compliant nor as proper as he expected, and Cal finds himself most inconveniently seduced by his convenient wife.

Emm knows they didn’t marry for love, yet beneath her husband’s austere facade, she catches glimpses of a man who takes her breath away. As pride, duty and passion clash, will these two stubborn hearts find more than they ever dreamed of?

My Thoughts:


A light-hearted Regency romance by Australian author Anne Gracie, Marry In Haste is the story of a British soldier-turned-spy who unexpectedly finds himself hampered with a title, a vast estate, numerous aged retainers and a handful of wilful half-sisters who never do what they are told. Floundering helplessly, he turns to their former school teacher for help. But Miss Emmaline Westwood has her own dreams, and turning governess is not one of them. Life has other plans for her, however, and soon the mismatched couple are marrying for convenience’s sake, much to the disapproval of his irascible Aunt Agatha, who must always have the last word.

Anne Gracie’s Regency romances are always a delight, filled with vivid likeable characters, laugh-out-loud situations, and sparkling dialogue.




You might also enjoy my interview with Anne Gracie which you can read here.

Are you also an Anne Gracie fan? Please leave a comment, I love to read your thoughts.

BOOK REVIEW: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Now a major motion picture starring Eddie Redmayne and directed by Tom Hooper, THE DANISH GIRL is a shockingly original novel about one of the most unusual and passionate love stories of the 20th century.

Loosely inspired by a true story, this tender portrait of marriage asks: What do you do when the person you love has to change?

It starts with a question, a simple favour asked by a wife of her husband while both are painting in their studio, setting off a transformation neither can anticipate. Uniting fact and fiction into an original romantic vision, The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires.

The Danish Girl is an evocative and deeply moving novel about one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the 20th century.

My Thoughts:

Inspired by the tragic true-life story of Einar Wegener, one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery, The Danish Girl has since been made into a hit movie starring Eddie Redmayne. I haven’t seen the movie but it certainly brought the book to my attention.

Then I heard David Ebershoff speak at the Historical Novel Society conference in the US, and I was so entranced I rushed off to buy the book straight away and have it autographed.

It’s a simple yet fascinating story. Einer Wegener was a Danish landscape painter, married to another artist, Greta, who painted enormous portraits of famous people. One day Greta’s model – a ballerina – failed to turn up and she asked her husband to model for her instead. Einar had to pull on a pair of silk stockings and hold a tutu against him. It awoke something in him. Einer began to dress as Lili, identifying more strongly with her every day. Eventually she underwent a series of surgeries, eventually dying of an infection after a botched attempt to transplant a uterus.

David Ebershoff has taken numerous liberties with the story, making Greta Wegener an American heiress when she was in fact Gerda Gottlieb and Danish. I believe this was to make the story more appealing to an American audience, but I would have preferred more historical accuracy. That detail aside, the novel is written with great sensitivity and tenderness, and Greta’s struggle to understand Lili is at the core of the novel. A really fascinating and heart-breaking story.



For another great read that's about to be turned in to a movie, check out my review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Remember to leave a comment, I love to know what you think!

BOOK REVIEW: A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

From the author of Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy comes the story of a friendship between two girls set in Victorian England, with magical machines, wizards, witches, a mysterious underworld, and a race against time.

Annabel Grey is primed for a proper life as a young lady in Victorian England. But when her mother suddenly disappears, she’s put in the care of two eccentric aunts who thrust her into a decidedly un-ladylike life, full of potions and flying broomsticks and wizards who eat nothing but crackers. Magic, indeed! Who ever heard of such a thing?

Before Annabel can assess the most ladylike way to respond to her current predicament, she is swept up in an urgent quest. Annabel is pitted against another young witch, Kitty, to rescue the sacred Moreover Wand from the dangerous underworld that exists beneath London. The two girls outsmart trolls, find passage through a wall of faerie bones, and narrowly escape a dragon, but it doesn’t take long for Annabel to see that the most dangerous part of her journey is her decision to trust this wild, magical girl.

Sparkling with Karen Foxlee’s enchanting writing, this is a bewitching tale of one important wand and two most magical girls.

My Thoughts:


I’m a big fan of Karen Foxlee and always buy her books as soon as they come on my radar. A Most Magical Girl is a delightful, whimsical tale of a very ordinary girl named Annabel Grey who is sent to stay with two eccentric old aunts when her mother disappears. To her dismay, Annabel realises her aunts are witches and that she is the heir to their magic. Meanwhile, a wicked man named Angel is sucking out the power of sad things – such as flowers stolen from a new grave or the bonnets of long-dead babies – to feed his Dark-Magic Extracting Machine. He plans to take over the world and only Annabel can stop him. She needs help, however, which as always comes from the most unlikely people …

An enchanting story, told with simple lyrical writing, and just enough wild magic to keep it fresh and surprising, A Most Magical Girl is just the kind of book I would have loved when I was eleven.




Want more Karen Foxlee? Here is my interview with her from 2014.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts! 

BOOK REVIEW: The Alice Network by Alice Quinn

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth ...no matter where it leads.

My Thoughts:


The Alice Network
is one of the best books I’ve read this year. An utterly enthralling tale of love, courage, resistance and redemption, it begins in 1947 with the story of Charlie St Clair, who has been taken out of college because she is pregnant and does not know who the father is. Taken to Europe by her mother ‘to take care of the problem’, Charlie rebels. All she wants to do is try and track down her cousin, Rose, who went missing in Nazi-occupied France during the war. Charlie has only a few clues, but one of them leads her to the house of Eva Gardiner, a scarred and dangerous drunkard.

Eva then begins to tell her story. In 1915, she is a brilliant young woman hampered by a profound stutter that leads most people to think she is stupid. Fluent in both German and French, Eva is recruited as a spy for the British and sent into Occupied France to work for the Alice Network, an underground resistance group run by Lili, an audacious young woman with the codename of ‘Alice’. Cool-headed, smooth-faced Eva is a natural, and begins to acquire useful information as she works as a waitress in a restaurant frequented by the top-brass German officers, who do not realise she speaks their language. Despite all her care, Eva catches the attention of the restaurant owner, a suave, sophisticated – and deadly – French collaborator named René.

The novel moves fluidly back and forth between the two historical periods, the suspense building as Charlie’s search for her cousin becomes entwined with Eva’s search for René, a man she had thought was dead. I just could not put this book down and found myself reading it when I had a million other things to do. I particularly loved the depiction of Eva’s struggle with her stutter, as this has been a lifelong fight for me also. Stutterers are rarely given heroic status in fiction or film, and indeed often appear only for comic purposes. It’s really refreshing to see someone with a speech impediment portrayed as clever, quick-witted and incisive. A stumbling tongue does not mean a fumbling brain.

The Alice Network was the first of Alice Quinn’s books I’ve read, but it will not be the last. I’m hunting down all her other books as we speak!



If you're interested in history, you may also enjoy reading my review of A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart, another great read set in WWI.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

BOOK REVIEW: The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Returning to her hometown of Fjallbacka after the funeral of her parents, writer Erica Falck finds a community on the brink of tragedy. The death of her childhood friend, Alex, is just the beginning. Her wrists slashed, her body frozen in an ice-cold bath, it seems that she has taken her own life.

Erica conceives a book about the beautiful but remote Alex, one that will answer questions about their own shared past. While her interest grows into an obsession, local detective Patrik Hedstrom is following his own suspicions about the case. But it is only when they start working together that the truth begins to emerge about a small town with a deeply disturbing past.

My Thoughts:

I haven’t really been swept up into the craze for Nordic-noir (ie hard-boiled contemporary crime set in Finland or Norway or Denmark), but I do love a good atmospheric mystery and so I grabbed The Ice Princess on my e-reader when I saw it on sale.

First published in Sweden in 2003 and translated into English in 2007, The Ice Princess is Camilla Lackberg’s first novel and is the beginning of a series set in the small fishing village of Fjallbacka, which has since been made into a hugely popular television drama in Sweden. Camilla Lackberg is Sweden’s top-selling author, with sales of more than 20 million books in 60 countries.

The story begins when the writer Erica Falck is one of the first people to find the body of a woman frozen in a bath. The corpse is one of her childhood friends, Alexandra Wijkner, and at first it seems as if she had slashed her own wrists. However, there are a few unexplained mysteries about her death and Erica begins to hunt for the truth. Meanwhile, another old friend – local detective Patrik Hedstrom – has his own suspicions. When the two join forces, they uncover a long-hidden secret that will have tragic ramifications for the whole town.

The great strengths of this novel are the depths of characterisation, unusual for a murder mystery, and the ice-bound setting which adds so much tension and atmosphere. The book is not a thriller by any means; its suspense builds slowly but surely, and the growing relationship between Erica and Patrik adds warmth and charm. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the next in the series.



If you would like to read more books about 'dark happenings in cold places', please take a look at my review of Hannah Kent's wonderful novel, The Good People.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Daughters of the Witching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt.

Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic.

When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family members against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights.

Sharratt interweaves well-researched historical details of the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt with a beautifully imagined story of strong women, family, and betrayal. Daughters of the Witching Hill is a powerful novel of intrigue and revelation.


My Thoughts:

In the early 17th century, during the last years of the Elizabethan era, a witch craze hit Lancashire and a dozen men and women were brought to trial accused of black magic and Satanism. Six of the accused came from just two families who lived near to each other at Pendle Hill in Lancashire. Elizabeth Southerns (called Mother Demdike) was in her eighties, and was accused along with her daughter (also called Elizabeth) and her grand-children James and Alizon Device. A neighbour Annie Whittle (called Mother Chattox) was also in her eighties and was accused along with her daughter Anne. The other six also lived nearby, and included a mother and her son. One died in prison, and one was found not guilty, but the rest were hanged on 20 August 1612. The two women in their 80s were both acknowledged village healers and cunning-women, and their tsti9mony is a fascinating glimpse into the magical thinking of England in the 1600s.

Mary Sharratt has taken the story of the Pendle Witches – the most famous witch-trials in British history – and brought them to vivid and heart-rending life. Most of the narrative is told through the eyes of Bess Southerns, cunning-woman and widow, who ekes out a living on the edge of Pendle Forest by healing the sick, making love spells and foretelling the future. As her grand-daughter Alizon grows up, Bess begins to teach her the secret of magic but finds herself at odds with her neighbour, Mother Chattox, who turns to the dark arts in her desire for revenge and power.

When a peddler suffers a stroke after an exchange of hot words with Alizon, the family finds themselves drawn into accusation and counter-accusation, which leads them inexorably towards tragedy.

I knew the story of the Pendle Witches well, having read a great deal about it over the years, but it is not necessary to know the background to be drawn into this powerful and beautifully imagined novel. This is a story about love, compassion, strength and betrayal, and a must-read for anyone who loved Hannah Kent’s The Good People or Kathleen Kent’s
The Heretic’s Daughter.



For more great fiction about witches, check out my 2013 review of Witch Child by Celia Rees

Please do leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts! 

A Conspiracy of Inspiration: The Historial Novel Society conference 2017

Monday, September 25, 2017



In early September, I was lucky enough to attend the second conference of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, held in chilly Melbourne. For those of you who were unable to attend, here is the brief speech I made to welcome all the attendees,

The Historical Novel Society is an international organisation that was founded in 1997 to celebrate fiction of all kinds set in the past. The Australasian branch of the society was formally established in 2014, and I am very proud to be its patron.

In our auditorium today, we have some of Australia’s most celebrated and respected authors, working in all genres and all-time frames. Their stories are variously powerful and poignant, sexy and surprising, illuminating and inspiring.

As the weekend passes, they will be asked all sorts of questions and yet I can guarantee the one they dread the most is: Where do you get your ideas from?

My books have been inspired in all kinds of different ways.

A story my grandmother once told me about a bloodstain that can never be scrubbed away.

A charm bracelet passed down through generations of women. 

A raven that dropped a feather at my feet. 

A book that fell open on an unexpected page.

A story that haunted me for a lifetime.

A dream, a day-dream, a painting, an apparition.

Inspiration cannot be manufactured or manipulated. It comes like a bolt out of the blue, or like a whisper in the darkness. I call it ‘the flash’, which is what Emily of New Moon called it, in a beloved series of books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.


The word ‘inspire’ comes from the Latin ‘in-spirae’ which means ‘to breathe into’, as a shepherd might breathe life into a newborn lamb, as a god might breathe life into a statue of clay. Its root word is ‘spiritus’, which means breath, spirit, courage. Other words that arose from the same root included perspiration, respiration, aspiration and – surprisingly – conspiracy, which means to breathe together. 

To be inspired is to be filled with courage and grace, to be given an idea or purpose, to be animated with the breath of life.

And so I hope that all of us today can join together in a conspiracy of inspiration – as Mary Oliver writes, ‘Breathe it all in, Love it all out!’

Thank you.



BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Wednesday, September 06, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

My Thoughts:


"Lizzie Borden took an axe,
and gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one."


This chilling children’s playground rhyme was inspired by the true-life story of Lizzie Borden, who was – in 1892 - tried but then acquitted for murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. The case was never solved, and still continues to interest more than a hundred years after the event.

Sarah Schmidt says that she was inspired to write Look What I Have Done after Lizzie Borden came to her in a dream. I’m always fascinated by novels inspired by dreams, as so many of my own books begin in this way, and so I was eager to read her take on the well-known story.

The novel is told in alternating first-person accounts by Lizzie, her sister Emma, the Irish housemaid Bridget, and a loutish young man who seems to have been hired by the sisters’ maternal uncle to hurt or attack their father in some way. None of the voices seem particularly reliable, and so it is hard to ascertain the truth of what has happened. The atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic and cloying, with many descriptions of the stench of rotting meat and over-ripe pears. Lizzie’s voice is awkward and childish and gleeful in turns, and – although Sarah Schmidt does not attempt to answer the question of who was truly the murderer – by the end of the book, I felt sure that it was Lizzie and that her acquittal was a miscarriage of justice.

For another wonderfully eerie, historical mystery check out my review of Wolf Winter by Cecila Ekback.

Please leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!


BOOK REVIEW: Stars Across the Ocean by Kimberley Freeman

Friday, September 01, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A story about love, motherhood, and learning whom you belong to in the world.

In 1874, wild and willful Agnes Resolute finally leaves the foundling home where she grew up on the bleak moors of northern England. On her departure, she discovers that she was abandoned with a small token of her mother: a unicorn button. Agnes had always believed her mother to be too poor to keep her, but Agnes has been working as a laundress at the foundling home and recognises the button as belonging to the imperious and beautiful Genevieve Breakby, daughter of a local noble family. Agnes had only seen her once, but has never forgotten her. She investigates and discovers Genevieve is now in London. Agnes follows, living hard in the poor end of London until she finds out Genevieve has moved to France.

This sets Agnes off on her own adventure: to Paris, Agnes follows her mother's trail, and starts to see it is also a trail of destruction. Finally, in Sydney she tracks Genevieve down. But is Genevieve capable of being the mother Agnes hopes she will be?

A powerful story about women with indomitable spirits, about love and motherhood, and about learning whom you belong to in the world.


My Thoughts:


A new book by Kimberly Freeman is always a must-buy for me. I just love the way that she combines romance, adventure, and family drama, with two stories in different historical periods weaving together in a deeply satisfying way.

The primary narrative in Stars Across the Ocean is the story of a foundling-child Agnes Resolute (named for a ship) who sets out on a quest to find her real mother in the late 1870s. All she has to guide her is a small silver button with a rearing unicorn engraved upon it. She discovers the button once belonged to Genevieve Breakby, the beautiful and wilful daughter of a local noble family. Agnes follows a series of tiny clues that lead her first to London, then Paris, then across the ocean to Ceylon. Indomitable, brave, and as resolute as the ship she is named for, Agnes refuses to give up despite hardships, loss and the growing fear that perhaps her mother is not as she imagined her to be …

Meanwhile, in modern-day London, Victoria is struggling with her own problems, including a troubled relationship with her husband and a mother who is struggling with Alzheimer’s.

The two stories echo each other in interesting ways across the century that separates them, in a beautiful novel about mothers and daughters and finding one’s place in the world.

Click here to read an interview with Kimberley Freeman.

Please write me a comment and let me know your thoughts!

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