This month, I’ve read something old, something new and something blue – partly as a consequence of having visited Hay-on-Wye in Wales in September, the town said to have more second-hand bookshops per square mile than any other town in the world. I adore rummaging around in second-hand bookstores and always come home with bags of old treasures (that I then have to lug all the way back to Australia).
1. A Cotswold Killing – Rebecca Trope
I always like to read books set in places where I am travelling and I love a good murder mystery, so I grabbed ‘A Cotswold Killing’ by Rebecca Trope while I was over there. This is the first in a popular series of murder mysteries featuring the amateur detective Thea Osborne. Recently widowed and trying to begin a new life for herself, Thea decides to try house-sitting in the beautiful Cotswold village of Duntisbourne Abbots. She is woken in the middle of the night by a piercing scream, but does not get up to investigate and is horrified to find a body in the her pond the following day. Guilty and troubled by the murder, she begins to investigate …
‘A Cotswold Killing’ is a quiet, thoughtful and rather melancholy murder mystery, with as much space given to Thea’s interior life as to the events of the murder. I would have liked a much stronger sense of place and a faster pace, but the first in a series is often the worst and so I’m willing to try another of the series, perhaps next time I’m in the Cotswolds.
2. Jo of the Chalet School – Elinor M Brent-Dyer
One of the treasures I found in Hay-on-Wye – a third edition of ‘Jo of the Chalet School’ by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, published in 1936, with illustrated bookplates intact. This is the second book in the famous series about a girls’ school in the Austrian Tyrol, but was the first one I ever read. I had found a box of them in my grandmother’s attic while staying there on Christmas holidays, and read my way through them. Years later, I asked my grandmother if I could have that box of books and she said she had thrown them in the bin. If only she had known how much they are worth now! A first edition of ‘Book 1: The School at the Chalet’ is now worth a cool $3,600. Brent-Dyer wrote 59 books in the series in total, and they are the longest-surviving series of girls’ school stories every published, having been continuously in print for more than 70 years. More than 100,000 paperback copies are still sold every year. This one was first published in 1926 and is full of quaint expressions and old-fashioned values, but the setting and time is marvellously created and the story is full of charm and humour, just like I remembered.
3. The Barons’ Hostage – Geoffrey Trease
Geoffrey Trease is one of the authors I read as a child that gave me my lifelong love of historical fiction. He combined meticulous research with exciting, action-packed story lines that brought history vividly to life. He was remarkable for his ability to make his characters live on the page and, because he was careful to never use any archaic language like ‘prithee’ or ‘I troth thee’, his books are very readable and lively and have lasted the test of time extraordinarily well. I have collected his books for years but since he published 113, I still have quite a few to hunt down.
‘The Baron’s Hostage’ was first published in 1952 – the copy I bought in Hay-on-Wye is a first US edition, published in 1975. Like all of his books, the narrative is shared between a young man and a young woman, in this case Michael and Arlette, who are caught up in the civil war known as the Baron’s War in the late 1200s. A rattling good read.
4. Julius and the Watchmaker – Tim Hehir
An action-packed timeslip adventure for boys, that brings together a Dickensian cast of characters with a dash of humour and playfulness. The hero, Julius, is a bullied boy who lives in genteel poverty with his grandfather who owns a bookshop. One day he meets Jack Springheel, a charming rogue, and finds himself on the run with a magical watch and a host of villains on his heels. The magical watch has the ability to transport the owner back and forth and even, perhaps, sideways, in time. These convolutions could be, perhaps, confusing for a child reader (and I would have liked a far more active female character), but the book is funny and fast-paced enough to keep the reader’s interest. A great debut for the author.
5. The Tea Rose - Jennifer Donnelly
A fabulous, big, fat, epic historical novel! The Tea Rose tells the story of Fiona Finnegan who flees a life of poverty and hardship in the docklands of East London, 1888 (a place where Jack the Ripper lurks and ruthless employers keep their workers half-starved) to make a new life for herself in New York. Love, desire, grief, betrayal, revenge … this novel has it all. Although it weighs in a massive 675 pages, the book never felt anything less than compelling reading. A hugely enjoyable read.
6. Faking it To making it – Ally Blake
I love historical romance but rarely read contemporary romance, for reasons unknown. I met Ally Blake at the Australian Society of Authors’ National Congress, where we were both speakers. She writes ‘fun, fresh, flirty romance’ for Harlequin Mills and Boon and has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide which is most impressive. She was kind enough to give me a copy of one of her books (they are so slim she easily carry them around in my handbag while I’d dislocate my shoulder if I tried to heave copies of my books around with me). I read it in the bath that night and enjoyed it immensely. ‘Faking It to Making It’ is a sexy and funny contemporary romance set in Melbourne and would make a great rom com – I hope Hollywood comes knocking on Ally’s door!
7. Thornspell – Helen Lowe
New Zealand writer Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. Prince Sigismund has grown up in a castle whose gardens and parklands are surrounded by a deep, tangled forest. He is kept locked away from the world, and so longs for adventures like the ones in the stories he loves so much – fantastical tales of knights-errant and heroic quests, faie enchantments and shape-shifting dragons.
One day a beautiful and mysterious lady in a fine carriage speaks to him through the castle gates, and Sigismund's world begins to change. He dreams of a raggedy girl trapped in thorns, and a castle that lies sleeping … soon he is caught up in an adventure as perilous and strange as that of any story he had ever heard …
I absolutely adored this book! I love fairy tale retellings, especially ones that are full of magic, peril, and romance, and ‘Thornspell’ is one of the best I’ve ever read. It reminded me of Robin McKinley’s early books, which are still among my favourite fairy tale retellings. ‘Thornspell’ very deservedly won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best YA Novel – it’s a must red for anyone who loves fairy-tale-inspired YA fantasy.
8. The Storyteller & His Three Daughters – Lian Hearn
Lian Hearn is the author of the gorgeous bestselling ‘Tales of the Otori’ fantasy series for adults, set in an alternative feudal Japan, as well as a number of children’s books published under her true name, Gillian Rubenstein. The first book in the Otori series, ‘Across the Nightingale Floor’ is one of my favourite novels, the medieval Japanese setting being utterly fresh and fascinating.
‘The Storyteller and His Three Daughters’ is a departure from her other Lian Hearn books in many ways. The setting is Japan in the 1800s, and from many references to true historical events and people, it is clear that this is not an alternative world fantasy but rather a historical novel. The main character is a middle-aged storyteller named Sei who is struggling to keep alive traditional tales and storytelling techniques in a culture that is being increasingly dominated by Western values and customs. He finds himself out of joint with the times, and unable to write anymore. However, he cannot stop observing and speculating on the lives of the people around him and finds himself creating a tale of love, jealousy, murder, treason and betrayal that seems as if it might be all too true.
Drawing upon Japanese storytelling techniques, ‘The Storyteller and His Three Daughters’ is an ambitious and unusual meditation on the nature and meaning of art.
9. The Nargun & the Stars – Patricia Wrightson
Patricia Wrightson was my favourite Australian author when I was a child, and ‘The Nargun and the Stars’ was one of my favourites of her books. I found myself giving a very impassioned speech about her at an event on ‘Writing Villains for Children’ at the NSW Writers Centre in late October, which led into a long conversation with members of the audience afterwards. I came home, went straight to my bookshelf, got down my old copy of this book, and read it again that night. It’s as wonderful as I remembered.