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- December 2010
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
An immensely thick, long, difficult yet interesting book about Thomas Cromwell and King Henry the Eight's divorce from Catherine of Aragorn. The primary difficulty for me was not the history, or the cast of thousands – which I know many other readers have struggled with – but the peculiar use of an extremely close third person narrative. It felt as if Hilary Mantel had begun to write in the first person, and then for some reason – perhaps to have other points of view - had changed it to third person, perhaps even with a global change on computer with every 'I' changed to 'He'. There were a lot of sentences that read 'He held him tightly to his shoulder, telling him that he would never leave him.' It read awkwardly, and jerked me out of the story again and again, preventing a deeper engagement with the narrative. After a while, I got used to it and found it a little easier, but I still think it was a strange narrative choice. I'm afraid I didn't manage to finish it – I put it down to read something else and went back to it a few times, but found myself bored. It's most unusual for me not to finish a book!
An Affair Before Christmas by Eloisa James
A very light and frothy historical romance with lashings of sex, made just a little more interesting by the inclusion of some chess games – a pleasant enough way to while away an hour, but not one I'll repeat quickly.
The Sign of the Book by John Dunning
Another murder mystery solved by the rough yet wise ex-cop turned bookman, Cliff Janeway. Not quite as fascinating as the others – less about books in this one.
Happy Ever After by Adele Geras
A collection of three interlinked novellas that retell the well-known fairy-tales Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in the setting of an English girls' boarding school in the 60s. Some exquisite, haunting writing and a wonderful evocation of time – an interesting twist on the familiar tales.
Suffer The Little Children by Donna Leon
I usually love these murder mysteries, set in modern-day Venice, but this one seemed a little forced to me. It is her 16th Guido Brunetti novel, though, and so I guess it must be hard not to get stale. And the descriptionss of Venice and Venetian food were as wonderful as ever.
World Without End by Ken Follett
This is the sequel to 'The Pillars of the Earth' which I read earlier this year and loved, and I was looking forward to it immensely. It is not as good as 'Pillars', perhaps because it is too similar, but still enormously and compulsively readable. And I found it very interesting to read so close to 'Wolf Hall' – I had no problem at all in this book following who was who, and what they were doing at any given time and although it's even thicker, I finished it quickly. Once again I'm confounded by the Booker Prize. Is it me or is it them?
The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, Jen of the Abbey School, The New Abbey Girls, The Abbey Girls Again - all four books by Elsie J. Oxenham
Tired and weary after such a busy Christmas, I picked up and read through four old Abbey Girls books in quick succession, forwarding my aim to read the whole series in order. It was like meeting old friends again, and falling at once into eager conversation. A lovely relaxing way to end the year!
Ten books in December, a lot of froth and bubble balanced out by two big, magisterial historical novels.
Two books not included earlier:
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
A much celebrated book about an Irish girl moving to Brooklyn, I read this one for Book Club, but wasn't moved by it. These books which aim to capture the quiet, miserable lives of quiet, miserable people never do much for me. I'm always hoping something will happen!
The Ruby Talisman by Belinda Murrell
My sister's latest book, a wonderful time-travel adventure about a modern day girl who falls asleep wearing a ruby necklace belonging to one of her ancestors and wakes up at the beginning of the French Revolution. All sorts of exciting adventures and near-escapes follow until Tilly can at last return to her own time. A hugely enjoyable read!
A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters
The first in the Cadfael mysteries, bought to replace my original copy which seems to have got lost. I've really been enjoying revisiting this series!
Juliet by Anne Fortier
A brilliant read! I really recommend it. This book tells the story of the original Juliet of Shakespearean fame, in parallel with the modern-day quest of a young American woman to find an ancient family legacy. I love books which parallel two historical periods, particularly when it is done as well as this one.
Still Life by Louise Penny
The first in the Inspector Gamache series and I read it last! I wish I'd read them in order as a few relationships are illuminated. If you haven't discovered Louise Penny yet, try this one first! Great murder mysteries with an old-fashioned feel i.e. an unknown murderer, great minor characters, wise and charming old detective, small village (though this one is set in Quebec).
The Rosie Black Chronicles: Genesis by Lara Morgan
A gripping, suspenseful science fiction tale for young adults with a strong Australian feel, I'm betting this one will be a winner. Set in what feels like a future-day Perth (Lara grew up in Western Australia and now lives in Geraldton), with a sidetrip to Mars, Genesis is filled with lots of lovely neologisms like pyroflex and digibook which I can see entering the popular lexicon. I'm putting this on my son's pile to read – I think he'd enjoy it too.
The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capella
A wonderful historical novel set partly at the court of Louis XIV in France and partly at the court of Charles II in England, the story is shared between Carlo Demirco, the French king's confectioner, and Louise de Keroualle, sent to England to become the English king's mistress. Carlo Demirco's speciality are ices, and the story is as much about his search for the secret to making ice cream as it is about Louise's seduction of Charles II. A book about love, passion, secrets and food – I loved it!
The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
I loved this book! The Distant Hours is the story of a modern day girl obsessed with discovering the secret of her mother's past involvement with a mysterious family of three sisters, daughters of a famous children's writer. The contemporary detective tale is woven together with the stories of the past, and in particular with the father's most famous book, The Secret History of the Mud Man. A suspenseful historical page-turner, with a touch of the gothic and a dash of romance, this book has a lost letter, a crumbling old castle, a murder mystery, madness, passion, and despair – a wonderful read.
The Rebel Prince by Celine Kiernan
The last book in the Moorehawke Trilogy, this volume takes us into the camp of the rebel prince himself. We finally get some explanations for all that has happened before, plus reach some kind of resolution at the end. Though not as suspenseful as the earlier two books, The Rebel Prince is still beautifully written and paced, and wraps up the story nicely. One of the best heroic fantasy series in recent years.
The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer
What a delight this book is! An old favourite that I haven't read for years, it sparkles with wit and charm. Really, Georgette Heyer is incomparable. I just wish I knew how she did it.
The Crimson Chevalier by Mary Andrea Clarke
I was really disappointed by this. I think I was expecting a Georgette Heyer type romantic adventure, but it was leaden and predictable. I could barely bring myself to finish it. Perhaps I shouldn't have read it straight after a Georgette Heyer? The contrast was too dismal.
Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman
A compelling and poignant family saga that parallels the story of Beattie Blaxland, a Scottish girl who emigrates to Australia in 1929, with the story of her granddaughter, Emma Blaxland-Hunter. Linking the generations is the old house, Wildflower Hill, in Tasmania. A love story, and a story about making the best of what life throws at you, this is a book where the pages just seem to turn themselves. I'd really recommend this to anyone who loves a heart-warming tale.
10 Books in November, bringing my total to the year to 111.
A Summer in Gascony by Martin Calder
A warm and charming memoir of a young man's summer working on a farm in Gascony. It really brought that little known corner of France to life for me.
The Counterfeit Guest by Rose Melikan
I enjoyed this book so much! It's a historical suspense tale, following on from Rose Melikan's earlier book 'The Blackstone Key'. I really enjoyed that as well, but this is much better. It tells the story of Mary Finch, a clever and unconventional woman in the late 18th century who finds herself embroiled with murder and spies. Romance, history, suspense, adventure - just my kind of book!
A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
This is the second in the Inspector Gamache murder mystery series, and as engaging as the others I've read. Once again set in the Quebecois village of Three Pines in French Canada, Armand is this time round investigating the very clever murder of a very nasty woman.
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
I've read this book before & loved it – it stands up really well to a second round of reading. A beautifully told story of love, suspense and art set in Renaissance Italy, it's one of my all-time favourite books.
To Dance With Kings by Rosalind Laker
An historical novel which looks at four generations of women whose lives are intertwined with the fortunes of the palace of Versailles. This book is like a stately court dance, with lots of twists and unexpected turns, but plenty of time spent in developing character and place. It really brought the gilded world of Versailles to life.
A Curse As Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
A brilliant title and a very engaging book, being a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale. I love fairytale retellings, particularly when they breathe new life into the old tale, confounding expectations and surprising the reader. This is a really wonderful retelling, one of the best I've read in a long time. It is set in a small English village in the 1700s, during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the heroine, Charlotte Miller, is fighting to save her family's mill after the death of her father. I loved it!
What Remains of Heaven by C.S. Harris
The latest St. Cyr murder mystery and just as good as the rest. I really enjoy this series – the characters are all brilliantly depicted and intriguing, and the puzzles very well thought out. Start with book 1, though, if you haven't read them yet – each novel in the series develops relationships between the characters.
Seven books read in October!
The Botticelli Secret by Marina Fiorato
A grand romp of an adventure through Renaissance Italy and Botticelli's most famous painting, 'La Primavera', this was a great read (though you may need to willingly suspend your disbelief about quite a number of things). I loved it, though. The heroine Luciana is a delight, and the illumination of some of the possibly meanings behind the figures in the painting quite fascinating. I just wish they had put the painting on the cover. I read the book on the plane and so couldn't keep looking up the painting at each new revelation like I would have liked.
Once by Morris Gleitzman
A CBCA Honour Book, Once is the first in a loose trilogy of works by Morris Gleitzman which examine the Holocaust and its effects. Once tells the story of a boy called Felix who runs away from an orphanage to search for his parents, not realising they have been lost in the concentration camps of World War II. A deceptively simple book.
To Catch A Bride by Anne Gracie
A lovely romance novel, and a very pleasant way to while away a rainy Saturday evening.
Word of Honour, The Third Volume of 'The Laws of Magic' by Michael Pryor
When I read the first volume of 'The Laws of Magic', I was utterly captivated by the Edwardian atmosphere and the sense of almost-history which pervaded the book. I had not then heard of steam-punk, let alone understood what it meant. I actually hate the term – to me, books like the ones in this series by Michael Pryor are more like gaslight mysteries with magic in them. And I love gaslight mysteries (i.e. mystery novels set at the turn of the century, during the Industrial Revolution and a time of social upheaval). These books are among the best steampunk around, and so even if, like me, you think you don't like the genre, give them a go. This one is as fabulous as the first two!
Death and the Cornish Fiddler: A John Rawlings Mystery, by Deryn Lake
What a great title! And I enjoyed the book too. It was quite slow to start, but very readable and I enjoyed the colourful cast of characters. It made me want to go to Cornwall and see the Helstone Furry Dance (well, I've always wanted to do that but the book has revived my desire!)
Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach
I loved this book when it first came out and I really enjoyed reading it again. A simple yet ingenious story that brings to life 17th century Amsterdam, illuminating love, art, and the mania for tulips. A really wonderful book.
Black Diamond by Martin Walker
The third in the Bruno Courrèges Investigation series, this time pitting dear Bruno against truffle hunters. I loved it! A murder, a mystery, a touch of romance, and lots of descriptions of the luscious French countryside, food and wine – a wonderful recipe for a crime novel!
The Whisperer by Fiona Macintosh
Short-listed for the CBCA Award, this is a light-hearted, action-packed children's fantasy adventure with separated twins, wonderful magical creatures, and a circus. Quite enchanting!
One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters
An old favourite, read so many times it's beginning to fall to pieces.
Heartstone by C.J. Sansom
It's always a sign that you really love an author or a series when you get a thrill of excitement seeing the latest book on the shelf in a bookstore and you buy it straightaway, even though you had made a stern promise to yourself NOT TO BUY ANY MORE BOOKS! C.J. Sansom didn't disappoint me – I read this very thick, heavy volume over the course of two nights and loved it! He really has a knack for bringing the world of England in the time of King Henry VIII to life, as well as creating an intriguing mystery.
Girls of the Hamlet Club by Elsie J. Oxenham
Anyone who follows my reading patterns will know I was first enchanted by the Abbey Girls series of books by English writer Elsie J. Oxenham when I was about thirteen. Staying with my grandmother in Melbourne, I had read my way through all of the books I had taken away with me and faced a long train journey back to Sydney with nothing to read. You can imagine my despair! My grandmother said 'I have some of your aunties' old books up in a cupboard – take a look and see if there's anything you like.' So I took down a book called 'New Abbey Girls' and read it on the train home and just loved it. I began looking out for and collecting Abbey Girls books, spending my pocket money on them every week, and I know have nearly the whole series. This is one of the rarest of all the titles, being the absolute first. I paid quite a lot of money for it and it's not even the original book, just a bound photocopy. I still was thrilled to read it though!
That's 11 books in September, bringing my total for the year to 94 books.
The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide and Satanism in the Court of Louis XIV by Anne Somerset
A fascinating, scholarly look at the so-called 'Affair of the Poisons' that occurred during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. I actually bought this book some time ago at a second-hand bookshop because it looked intriguing, only to realise some time later that a good portion of the new book I am writing is set during the same period. This book has really helped me understand the court of the Sun King and the society at the time.
The Girls of the Abbey Schools by Elsie J Oxenham
Bought this over the internet to fill a gap in my Abbey Girls collection. I read it as a child at someone's house and have been searching for it ever since. Lovely to read it again and fill in the gaps, and I also found all the descriptions of the abbey very inspiring.
The Devil's Novice by Ellis Peters
Still focused on Benedictine abbeys! I love the way Ellis Peters brings the life of the abbey alive with such a light touch.
The Dèvotes: Women & Church in 17th century France by Elizabeth Rapley
A scholarly examination of religious life of women in 17th century France, this is nonetheless very readable and illuminated the period for me beautifully. I found it so useful, I then went on and read:
A Social History of the Cloister: Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old Regime, also by Elizabeth Rapley
Again, this was slow and heavy reading, but so useful to me in my research into life in a French convent in the last few years of the 17th century. Thank you, Elizabeth Rapley!
The Lucifer Stone by Harriet Graham
A children's adventury story set in the 1890s, this was a quick, light, fun read that I knocked off in a single night when I was too tired to read A Social History of the Cloister.
The House of The Paladin by Violet Needham
Someone recommended Violet Needham to me as a British children's writer of the 50s that I might enjoy, so I bought this second-hand when I was in London for £25. I think I was robbed. A very disappointing read, quite conventional and clunkily written. I won't be collecting more of her work.
The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages by Christopher Brooke
More research into convent life - not as useful to me as the Elizabeth Rapley books, but still helping me build up my general knowledge.
Monasteries and Monastic Orders: 2000 Years of Christian Art and Culture by Kristina Krüger
A huge, thick and beautifully illustrated book on monasteries, it has really helped me visualise what my imaginary convent would look like. The ground plans and photographs were particularly helpful.
The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg & Monastic Gardens by Mick Hales
Both of these books were ordered off the internet to help me imagine, visualise and describe the convent garden in my new book. The first was brilliant for descriptions and history, the second was a visual feast and very lucid and succinct. Interesting research.
Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
Sarah Dunant has become one of my favourite writers, someone whose new book will be snatched off the bookshop's shelf as soon as I can get my greedy little hands on it. I was particularly interested in this one because– wait for it – its set in a convent. Sarah Dunant's convent is in Ferrara, Italy, in the year 1570 while my area of interest is a French nunnery in the late 17th century, but I was still interested to see how she dealt with the technical difficulties of setting a novel within a small, enclosed community. Brilliantly, is the answer. I sat up till after 2am to finish this book. An absolute zinger!
The Apothecary's Daughter by Patricia Schonstein
Saw this book mentioned on the internet as one that featured an apothecary nun and a girl in a convent and then, two days later, saw it for sale in a second-hand shop. It was meant to be. A lush, sensual and rather strange tale that feels like a fable.
The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
I had to have a break from convents! Looked through my bookshelf and fell upon this with delight, as I'd absolutely adored his previous book, The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie. A murder mystery set in a small English village, it stars the utterly delightful (if rather dangerous) 11 year old girl-turned-detective, Flavia de Luce. The puzzle is wonderfully puzzling, the characters sufficiently eccentric and the asides about poisons and famous murderous funny and fascinating. Don't be turned off by the strange titles – these books are wonderful.
Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer
An old favourite, read and read again since I was a teenager. It is set in France and so counts as research. Doesn't it?
Duchess by Night by Eloisa James
A rather racy romance - which is actually dedicated to Georgette Heyer 'and her brilliantly funny cross-dressing heroines'. This was not nearly as funny or charming as a Georgette Heyer book, but then, what book is? It was rather disappointing, though, as I'd really enjoyed the last Eloisa James I read. This one had a few scenes that didn't ring quite true. Still, a very pleasant way to pass a few hours on a cold and windy winter's night.
The Bookman's Promise by John Dunning
I really enjoy these contemporary crime novels about a ex-cop turned second-hand bookseller. I always feel like a learn something about the literary world as well as enjoying a clever murder mystery.
Quillblade by Ben Chandler
This fantasy novel by newcomer Ben Chandler is an interesting mix of influences – it's like steampunk with its flying airships, but set in a sort of medieval Japanese world with samurai-like warriors and manga-like animals he calls Bestia, plus it has dragons and demons and prophetic dreams. An action-packed fantasy adventure with a really fresh, unusual feel to it because of its bravery in mingling so many new elements.
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
This book has been recommended to me a few times by people who know how I love historical novels, but I was always put off by its immense size. I shouldn't have been – this truly is an astonishing book, one of the best I've read in a long time. The blurb says 'it began with a curse, a song and a hanging and it builds into a magnificent adventure no reader will ever forget.' I couldn't say it better myself – this book has jumped into my list of all-time favourite books. A tale of love, revenge, passion and war, it tells the story of the building of a cathedral, and the intertwined lives of the people who dream of its magnificent completion, and those who plot to tear it down. You wouldn't think such a storyline would make for such compelling reading but I literally could not put the book down, reading when I should have sleeping, or working, or living a normal life. Utterly engrossing, all 1,076 pages of it!
The Pindar Diamond by Katie Hickman
Set in Italy in 1604, this is a romantic adventure tale filled with vivid and sometimes eccentric characters including a giantess, a mermaid baby, a crippled beauty and a nun that dreams of love. I enjoyed it immensely, and will certainly buy the next Katie Hickman book I see.
Twenty books read in August, which is rather a lot – that's five a week! Not a bad reading effort. A lot of research, though ...
Love and Louis XIV – The Women in the Life of the Sun King' by Antonia Fraser
I love Antonia Fraser's biographies. They are always such a pleasure to read, being clearly and beautifully written, and never weighted down with too much information. She has a knack for reminding the reader who everyone is and for bringing their characters to life. This particular biography is of the Sun King and the women in his life, and has brought that period of history to life for me.
'Cat Among the Pigeons' by Julia Golding
This is a great historical adventure series for kids, about a feisty girl called Cat who lives at the Theatre Royal, in Drury Lane, in Georgian times. I really enjoyed this book, which centres on the attempt of a slave-trader to recapture his escaped slave, Pedro, who is Cat's best friend and a talented musician and actor. An exciting story which also has a lot to say about the importance of personal liberty. Loved it!
'I, Mona Lisa' by Jeanne Kalogridis
This was the first book I have read by Jeanne Kalogridas and it won't be the last. I really enjoyed this book, which tells the story of the woman behind Leonardo da Vinci's most famous painting. So little was known about Lisa Gherardini, Kalogridas was able to position her right in the heart of the intrigues, murders, and religious fanaticism of Florence in the days of Savaronola. I've read quite a few books set during this period, including Sarah Dunant's 'Birth of Venus' and Karen Essex's 'Leonardo's Swans' but each is so different and has such a fresh perspective that it still really fresh and fascinating. A really good, exciting, romantic book.
'The Abbey Girls' by E.J.Oxenham, 'Schooldays At the Abbey' by E.J.Oxenham & 'Secrets of the Abbey' by E.J.Oxenham
Unpacked a box full of all my old second-hand Elsie J Oxenham books and enjoyed reacquainting myself with them. Hard to explain exactly what enchantment these books hold for me – I think it's the abbey, and the vivid characters, and also the philosophy that underlies the books, much deeper and more thoughtful than most school stories of the era. I enjoyed revisiting them, and am keen to buy the few in the series that I'm missing.
'Monk's Hood' by Ellis Peters & 'The Sanctuary Sparrow' by Ellis Peters
I unpacked all my old crime novels some time ago, but thought I'd re-read some of this series too, partly because I've always enjoyed them & partly because the novel I'm now writing has quite a few scenes set in a Benedictine abbey and so this counts as research.
Only eight books read in July, but I had the kids home on school holidays and so was writing at night, instead of reading. We went to the circus, we went to the movies and we went up to my brother's farm – all a lot of fun but not much time for curling up with a book!
'The Death-defying Pepper Roux' by Geraldine McCaughrean
I really love the work of Geraldine MCaughrean, who can always be relied on for telling a story quite unlike anything you've read before, in language made fresh and new. This book, for readers aged about 10+, tells the story of a boy who fully expected to die on his fourteenth birthday, thanks to the predictions of his religious and malicious aunt. He manages to evade his fate, but feels it at his back, hunting him down, as he sets out a series of hair-raising and rather eccentric adventures. I don't think this is Geraldine McCaughrean's best book, but then her best books are so astonishingly good that it can hardly be expected. My favourites are The Kite-Rider and A Little Lower than the Angels, with A Pack of Lies and A White Darkness highly recommended too.
'The Glassblower of Murano' by Marina Fiorato
This novel tells the parallel stories of a glassblower in Venice, 1681, and his descendant centuries later, a young woman who dreams of being a glassblowing artiste herself. It's a simple, romantic story, but well told and with lots of lovely Venetian details.
'Foreign Bodies' by Amanda Craig
An interesting coming-of-age tale with a murderous twist, this book tells the story of Emma Kenward who wants to be an artist and so runs away to Italy. She meets two men – an Oxford don she hoped never to meet again and Lucio, a handsome young Italian who seduces her. It has some lovely writing and a strong sense of place, though one sentence grated on me strongly. Amanda Craig writes about an Australian: "she had the curious blip-like voice colonials always have, as if advertising their voices over an ancient wireless.' I didn't realise Australians were still called colonials (the book was published in 1990!) and I'm sure my voice isn't curiously bliplike. I don't know. Maybe it is. I still didn't like the description, though – it raises my hackles. Other than that, though, I really enjoyed the book!
'The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi's Venice' by Laurel Corona
A tale of two sisters abandoned as babies on the steps of the Ospedale della Pieta, Venice's famous foundling school. Taught to sing and play musical instruments, they end up having very different lives. One leaves the convent and marries a rich Venetian lord, the other ends up being Vivaldi's muse though she lives a life behind convent bars. This was a really fascinating story, beautifully told and sparked lots of ideas for me. I'm very interested in Venice at the moment as I plan on setting my new novel there and so I'm reading everything I can find on the city. I bought this book at the HNS Conference in Chicago last year and am only now settling back to read and enjoy it – thank you, Laurel!
'The Rose Of Sebastopol' by Katharine McMahon
I really loved this book! Its set during the Crimean War and almost has Florence Nightingale as a character – that was my only disappointment, I would've liked to have met Florence Nightingale. The book tells the stories of cousins and best friends, Rosa Barr and Mariella Lingwood. The first is beautiful, passionate, headstrong and determined to do good in the world. The second is shy; she sits sewing her sampler and trying to be good. Against all advice, Rosa sets off to be a nurse during the war and soon disappears. Mariella sets off to find her, and finds herself in the thick of the war. It's a romance, but not at all what you might have expected; it's a story of war and love and madness; it's an utterly compelling story which will have me eagerly searching out other work by Katharine McMahon. She has a backlist! Yay!
'The Last Queen' by C.W. Gortner
The story of Juana the Mad – daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and sister to Catherine of Aragorn – has always interested me, although I knew very little about her. The back of the book says 'Married at sixteen. A queen at twenty-five. Declared insane and betrayed by the men she adored.' Who wouldn't want to read this novel? Luckily it was just as good as I hoped it would be. It really is a fascinating story about a passionate and cruelly wronged woman – God, it makes me glad I wasn't a woman in the 16th century! I'd probably have been locked up too!
'Relics of the Dead' by Ariana Franklin
1176, and our Mistress of the Dead, Adelia, is called upon to investigate the discovery of two skeletons at Glastonbury which rumour says are the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Another great medieval murder mystery from Ariana Franklin !
'Deep Water' by Pamela Freeman
Book Two in the Castings Trilogy, an absolutely brilliant fantasy series by Australian author Pamela Freeman. Just as compelling and beautifully written as Book 1 – I'm now in a rush to find Book 3!
'Luncheon of the Boating Party' by Susan Vreeland
Susan Vreeland is now one of my top favourite writers of all time. I've loved her earlier books about great artists and their works (Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia) and she certainly doesn't disappoint with this look at Renior's famous creation of the painting of the same name. The cover shows a replica of the painting – I was constantly turning the pages to stare at the cover and identify each character – and I marvel at her skill at turning this summer in Renoir's life into a compelling page-turner. I learnt so much about Renoir and Impressionist art and about France in the 1880s. Brilliant!
'The Miracles of Prato' by Laurie Albanese and Laura Morowitz
The Miracles of Prato told the story of the scandalous love affair between Fra Filipo Lippo, a monk and artist, and his model and muse, Lucrezia. Her face appeared in many of his paintings (and she truly was beautiful) - they lived together in defiance of the Church in 15th century Italy which can't have been easy. It was a fascinating story, and very well told. I'd have liked a little more passion, but I think the authors were trying to make sure it wasn't a bodice-ripper (which is rather a shame as I love a good love story).
'War Horse' by Michael Morpugo
I've wanted to read this since I saw the stage show in London last year – a simple yet heartstring-tugging story about a horse sent to war.
'The Wayward Muse' by Elizabeth Hickey
'The Wayward Muse' tells the story of Jane Burden, muse to the pre-Raphaelites, wife of William Morris, lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I really loved this book! I have always been fascinated by the pre-Raphaelites and wondered why no-one had written a book about them (I've read a few biographies but somehow novels are so much more fun to read!) I'd really recommend this to anyone who loves novels about art and artists.
Twelve books read in June, bringing my total for the year so far to 55 books. And some really great books too!
'The Blind Man of Seville' by Robert Wilson
This is an unusually deep, complex, thoughtful and intelligent thriller which is more interested in the inner life of its detective than in fast-paced action. Nonetheless, it is still a compelling read. And I loved the Spanish setting! This is the first in a series – I'll be looking out for more.
'Writing the Breakout Novel' by Donald Maass
I love books on writing, as I'm always interested in the craft. I am planning to start a new novel very soon, and it seemed like a good time to read this 'bible' by famous New York literary agent, Donald Maas. It was interesting and thought-provoking, and I'm sure I'll be dipping into it again.
'Grave Fairy Tale: A Romantic Novel' by Esther Meynell
I'm interested in fairytale retellings, particularly at the moment as I'm about to embark on writing my own. I bought this very old book at a second-hand shop purely on its title and because its blurb said it was set in the old Germany of the Brothers Grimm. I can't say I enjoyed the book – it had a very coy tone and not much really happened. Its setting was atmospheric, though.
'Blood Ties' by Pamela Freeman
Pamela Freeman is best known for her children's fantasies, the Florimonde books which begins with The Willow Tree's Daughter, and also for her biographical novel, The Black Dress, about the life of Sister Mark Mackillop. This is her first fantasy for adults and it is utterly brilliant. I haven't read a fantasy novel that I've enjoyed so much for a very long time, and one of the reasons for this is the fresh and surprising structure of the book, which takes the time to tell the stories of a myriad of minor characters that would, in most fantasy books, be merely flat, stock caricatures. Pamela says that her strength is really in short stories, and so what she has done in this novel is interweave small, vivid, sad, beautiful or shocking minor tales into the overarching dramatic arc. This does not at all detract from the action of the book, because it makes us understand the world so much better and all the stories link back to the main story of our heroes, Bramble and Ash. I just loved this book and am amazed it hasn't won prizes left, right and centre.
'Troll Fell' by Katherine Langrish and 'Troll Mill' by Katherine Langrish
I just loved both these books by Katherine Langrish, the UK author who wrote Dark Angels which was a wonderful new discovery of mine earlier this year. They tell of the adventure of an orphan boy, Peer, and his feisty friend and neighbour, Hilde, set in a Scandinavian world of history and mythology. Katherine Langrish's great strength is the beauty of her writing – I really love how well she draws a scene and how atmospheric her books are.
Only 6 books read in May – but I was on Book Tour and at the Sydney Writers Festival and barely had time to breathe!
'The Historian' by Elizabeth Kostova
This novel caused a huge buzz on publication, being the first book by a first-time novelist to hit the New York Times bestseller list the same week it was published (I so wish that had happened to me!) It is an intricate, atmospheric and compelling novel that draws upon the true history of Vlad the Impaler, the original Dracula prototype, intertwining his story with that of several generations of a family haunted by his presence. I've never really been a vampire lover, but this is an utterly brilliant book, superbly written and crafted, and has just leapt on to my list of all-time favourite books.
'Detection Unlimited' by Georgette Heyer
'The Unfinished Clue' by Georgette Heyer
'Duplicate Death' by Georgette Heyer
'They Found Him Dead' by Georgette Heyer
I've been slowly unpacking boxes of books to arrange on the new shelves in my new library and this weekend I unpacked the box labelled 'Crime H-L'. Most of them were old Georgette Heyer paperbacks which I have read before, some of them several times. GH is best known for her Regency romance novels, but she has a dozen or so murder mysteries too, which she wrote with the help of her barrister husband. The best of them are just as good as Agatha Christie, and usually have a nice little romance to add sparkle as well. I read four of them back to back, curled in a comfy chair by the fire in my new library, and a very nice way to spend a rainy weekend it was too!
'Last Voyage of the Valentina' by Santa Montefiore
I enjoyed this book, though I didn't love it - even though I love books set during WWII and set in Italy. Somehow the writing didn't quite come to life for me.
'World Shaker' by Richard Harland
I should probably declare that Richard Harland is a good friend of mine and so I really, really wanted to like this book. Luckily, I loved it! I've been told it's a YA steam punk novel – steam punk is not a new genre but it's hot at the moment and once I realised it simply meant books set in a sort of alternative Victorian world with lots of steam-propelled gadgets and frockcoats and corsets, I knew I'd enjoy it. It's an action-packed novel full of humour and drama and Dickensian characters and it really deserves its success!
'Where Eagles Dare' by Alistair Maclean
I unpacked the box labelled Crime M-P and found all my old Alistair Maclean books. This one was always a favourite of mine! I miss these old action-packed adventure thrillers – who's writing them now?
'The Moor' by Laurie R King
Laurie King has written a series of historical crime novels told from the point of view of Sherlock Holmes' unconventional academic wife, Mary Russell. This is number four in the series and takes us back to the dark, brooding scene of Dartmoor, where the Hound of the Baskervilles was set. These are complex and intelligent mystery novels, with beautifully drawn characters and a believable historical setting. I buy them whenever I see them.
Nine books read in April, including the very thick volume of The Historian which actually took me the better part of a week to read.
'My Life in France' by Julia Childs
A charming, if rather scatty, memoir about Julia Child's life which Nora Ephron drew upon for her movie 'Julie & Julia'. I'd never heard of Julia Child before the movie, but still enjoyed this – mainly because I so badly want to go and live in Paris!
'Devil's Bride' by Stephanie Laurens and 'A Rake's Vow' by Stephanie Laurens, published in one volume as 'On A Stormy Night'
We went away for a break by the sea, only to have it rain all weekend, and stupidly I'd left my book at home for the kitchen bench. Luckily for me, the holiday house had some books on the bookshelf, including this big, thick whopper. I was exhausted and very happy to curl up with these bodice-ripping Regency romances. The love scenes were much steamier than I'm used to, but the architecture of the story was good and strong, unlike so many romance books – I was pleasantly surprised.
'Willows For Weeping' by Felicity Pulman
Book 4 in a YA medieval murder series, Willows For Weeping sees our heroine Janna travel as a pilgrim past Stonehenge, where one of her party is mysteriously murdered. Janna is on a quest to find her father, and finds some clues to his whereabouts on the way. These are very enjoyable books, with an appealing heroine, for anyone who like thoughtful historical books for teenagers.
'Manhattan Dreaming' by Anita Heiss
Dr Anita Heiss has a most fascinating resume, ranging from writing what's been called 'Koori chick-lit' to political activism, poetry, journalism, academia, and children's books ('Yirra and her deadly dog, Demon' was written in conjunction with the students of La Perouse Public School.) 'Manhattan Dreaming' is a funny, warm-hearted chick-lit romance, lifted out of the ordinary by its heroine, a bright and talented Koori art curator who gets her dream job at the Smithsonian in New York, but has to leave her footballer boyfriend behind in Canberra. Smart, sassy, and rich with popular culture references including the showcasing of Australian Aboriginal artists, this was the best chick lit I've read in years. No, make that ever. Loved it!
'The Empty Sleeve' by Leon Garfield
I collect Leon Garfield's books, which I always loved reading as a child. They're becoming harder and harder to find in second-hand bookshops and church fetes, and so I was pleased to find this one - which I've never read – when I was in the UK last year. It's rather a strange story of a boy, Peter Gannet, who is born one stormy day in the midst of the ringing of the noonday chimes. An old ship's carpenter tells of a superstition that the chime child would see ghosts and communicate with the devil ... and sure enough, when he is fourteen, Peter begins to be haunted by a ghost with an empty sleeve. It's a spooky story, with murder and sly machinations and deceit in it, and Leon Garfield's trademark brooding atmosphere.
'Deadly Decisions' by Kathy Reichs
A series of forensic crime novels set in contemporary Montreal, Kathy Reichs' books are extremely popular, featuring Dr Temperance Brennan as the strong-willed and feisty forensic anthropologist who, in this book, gets caught up in bikie gangs and their innocent victims. I always enjoy them, though I felt the formula was getting tired with this one. Though perhaps it's just because I've read so many of the others? I think there's about ten now, which is always dangerous territory for an author writing about the same characters.
'A Royal Pain' by Rhys Bowen
Second in a series of comic historical murder mysteries set in 1930s London, this is a delightful, frothy whodunit that very gently takes off Agatha Christie and her kind. It features a very minor member of the royal family, Lady Georgina, who despite her royal connections is impoverished and must work as a maid to keep herself in cocktails. The first was called Her Royal Spyness, which sort of gives you the idea of what kind of book it is. Great fun.
'The Crowded Shadows' by Celine Kiernan
Second in the Moorhawke Trilogy by Celine Kiernan, a YA fantasy set in a world rather like 15th century France. Book 1 was like a small, exquisite miniature, taking place within the confines of a castle over the course of a few days. Book 2 is larger in scope. Our heroine Wynter Moorehawke gallops alone through the forest, facing all sorts of dangers, as she searches for her missing foster-brother, Prince Alberon. Superbly written, and filled with true suspense, the only thing I don't like about this book is the heroine's name, which sounds like a parody of a fantasy book. In this volume, her strange name is explained and her true name revealed which satisfied me a little (it's the beautiful Iseult, like my own heroine in the Witches of Eileanan). I can only admit, though, that in my first draft of the Witches of Eileanan, I called my twins Ysabel and Yseult – what is it with young fantasy writers and the Y?
'The Glass Castle' by Jeannette Walls
This heart-wrenching memoir begins with Jeannette, on her way to a swish New York party, seeing her bag-lady mother rummaging through a dustbin. Jeannette's parents were eccentrics who refused to live by society's rules, but whose children were made to pay the cost of a life lived dreaming big dreams while skipping out-of-town ahead of the debt collectors. Much of this book's poignancy comes from the difficulty in hating her parents for their choices they made – sometimes I wish I didn't have to wash dishes and worry about mortgage payments either! In one scene, the father tells his children that Christmas is just a big commercialised rip-off and that instead of getting presents that year, all the children could have a star instead. That really pierced my heart, both for its beauty and also for those poor children, who really just wanted to be kids like all the other kids in town. Best memoir I've read in a long, long time.
Ten books read in March, a far more respectable number and a sign that I've delivered my book! Yay!
'The Death Maze' by Ariana Franklin
This is the next book after The Mistress In the Art of Death, about Adelia, an woman doctor and forensic pathologist in medieval England. The king, Henry III (he who cried, 'who shall rid me of this pesky priest'), has a mistress, Fair Rosamund, who is kept in a tower in the centre of a maze (really, medieval men!) Nonetheless, someone somehow gets to Fair Rosamund and kills her. Adelia is sent to find out who and how. The king's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the prime suspect but if she is responsible, civil war will break out once again. It is winter, and the sense of bitter cold and foreboding is very well done indeed. I enjoyed this immensely and will eagerly buy the next in the series.
'A Florentine Death' by Michele Guittari
Michele Giuttari is the real-life police chief of Florence, and this contemporary murder mystery set in Florence is practically autobiographical. Both Giuttari and his alter-ego hero, Chief Superintendent Ferrara, are "well groomed, with a slight Sicilian accent, longish black hair combed back and streaked with white at the sides . . . sideburns white, in contrast with thick black eyebrows.' Both have a German wife and like cigars. Both are famous for capturing the 'Florence Monster', a real-life case of a serial murderer or murderers in Florence who brutally murdered more than thirty young men and women. The case is referred to in A Florentine Death, but the book focuses on a fictional series of murderers in Florence, with secrets from the past reaching out to shadow our intrepid hero. This is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit, but it was intriguing and well-written and Guittari has gone on to write another four or five bestselling books., which I'll happily read if they come my way.
'Secrets of A Perfect Night In' by Stephanie Laurens, Victoria Alexander and Rachel Gibson
Once upon a time, three young women each attended a New Year's Eve ball ... kisses were stolen and promises made. But what happens when morning comes ... This is the premise behind this collection of three romance novellas by three different authors. I was given this book as a lucky door prize at a 'Writing Romance' workshop and quite enjoyed it. I haven't read category romance in a very long time. I didn't read the three novellas back to back – that would have been far too much sugar – but quite enjoyed them spread out between books.
The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan
Irish writer Celine Kiernan has written an utterly gorgeous YA fantasy series which begins with The Poison Throne. Unlike many fantasy novels today, her canvas and cast of characters is small but vividly and brilliantly realised. The action begins when Wynter Moorehawk and her father return to the castle where she grew up, only to find everything has changed. The first intimation of trouble is the refusal of the castle cats to talk to her. She discovers, to her horror, that King Jonathan has ordered all the cats killed. Soon she realises that one of her best friends, the king's son Alberon, is in rebellion against his father who is forcing his illegitimate son, Lord Razi, to take his place. Wynter and her father must try and discover what has happened to break the royal family apart, with a growing undercurrent of menace and danger. Although the action takes place only over a few days and within the halls and dungeons and gardens of the castle, it is a compelling narrative, driven by the emotional intensity of the relationships between the characters. There is murder, intrigue, mystery, romance and a touch of horror, all written with a sure, deft touch.
'The Life You Want' by Emily Barr
Why did I buy this book? It's not at all the sort of book I usually buy. Perhaps that's why. Every now and again I feel as if I should be more in touch with what everyone else in the world is reading. This is a contemporary novel by a UK writer about a woman called Tansy who leaves her husband and two boys at home in London and heads to India to find herself. She gets caught up in a kind of cult that's trafficking in orphaned children, and gets herself into all kinds of trouble. I must admit I didn't really like this book. It was kind of chick lit, only without the humour, and kind of a thriller except without any real suspense, and kind of a contemporary drama, except rather slow and predictable. I have to admit – this is just not my cup of tea.
'The White Queen' by Philippa Gregory
I love Philippa Gregory's work and so I was quick to borrow her new book from my sister. Thankfully The White Queen is not set in Tudor times because I was sick of the whole poxy lot of them (something I never thought would happen!) Instead it's set in the time of the War of Roses, a period which I find interesting but confusing, like most people, I suspect. The White Queen is Elizabeth Woodville, who enchants King Edward IV with her beauty (some people think she did so with witchcraft) – and marries him, finding herself caught up in a world of shifting loyalties and war. The book ends with the imprisonment of the two princes in the Tower, though Philippa Gregory has gone with the story that Elizabeth manages to save one of her sons which I must admit makes sense. I loved the use of the supernatural in the book, and think she's back in form!
Only 6 books this month! I'm too busy writing!
'Mistress of the Art of Death' by Ariana Franklin
This is an unusually well-written medieval murder mystery, featuring a most unusual detective - Adelia, the Mistress of the Art of Death. An unconventional, strong-minded (some would even say bloody-minded) woman who trained as a doctor and forensic pathologist in Salerno, Italy, she must keep her skills and intelligence hidden in England where she would be accused of being a witch if anyone knew that she cut up dead bodies for a living. Brought from Italy by King Henry III of England to investigate the murder of a child, she must pretend that her Arabian eunuch assistant is the real doctor, else face execution on the death pyre. Once you manage to suspend your disbelief about a woman doctor in 1171, you can immerse yourself in the story which is actually quite fascinating. The historical world comes vividly to life, the characters are well-drawn and interesting, and the actual murder mystery a nice tricky puzzle. I loved it.
'Julie & Julia' by Julie Powell
I loved the movie so much I bought both Julie Powell's memoir and Julia Child's My Life in France. Powell is rather shockingly honest and forthright, and at times very funny – however, her humour can be sharp-edged and mordant and I thought that Amy Adams was actually a bad choice to play her in the movie, being far too sweet and soft. However, perhaps you needed the sweetness to make her more likeable, because the real Julie Powell was not always sympathetic. I picked this book up and put it down again numerous times, and read a few other books before I finished it.
'The Trouble With Magic' by Madelyn Alt
A fluffy, light and pleasurable read, about an American woman who quits her job and starts to work in an antique shop owned by a witch. Before she knows it, Maggie's up to her neck in trouble, including a murder, two disturbingly attractive men (one a policeman investigating the murder, the other a devilishly handsome warlock), and her own peculiar psychic warnings.
'Dark Angels' by Katherine Langrish
I was absolutely swept away by this book, which is a children's historical adventure setting during medieval times in, I think, Wales. It tells the story of Wolf, who runs away from a cruel monk in a monastery and encounters a strange, mute elf-child, and a pack of hunting dogs owned by the local lord of the castle. The lord takes Wolf and the elf-child in, and his daughter Nest help him care for her and try to teach her how to speak. Then, one day, a passing jongleur comes by who ends up being far more than he seems ... A beautifully written, atmospheric tale that draws upon folklore and history, Dark Angels is my favourite children's book of the year so far. I must find more of her books!
'The Book of A Thousand Days' by Shannon Hale
A retelling of an old Grimm fairytale 'Maid Maleen' which is a Maiden in the Tower type, obviously of intense interest to me at the moment as I am writing my own Rapunzel retelling. Shannon Hale has made her career out of fairytale retellings and has done extremely well – I really loved her first book The Goose Girl. I enjoyed this a lot, but I am not head over heels in love with it, the way I hoped and expected to be. Perhaps its because the world did not have that fairytale sense of wonder that I love so much in Robin McKinley's books and in other fairytale retellings I've read.
The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray
Garth Nix gave me this beautiful old second-hand book years ago, when he heard that I wanted to write a Rapunzel retelling one day. Published in 1963, this reworking of the Rapunzel story is told from the point of view of the witch's cat, a clever and cynical creature that stays with the evil woman because he cannot resist the lure of magic. I absolutely love this book, and read it again as part of my immersion in all old Rapunzel tales. An absolute classic.
The House of Arden by Edith Nesbit
I spent the weekend unpacking boxes of my old children's books to put in my beautiful, new library and found all my E. Nesbit books. I sat down right away and re-read this, books piled all over the couch and round my feet. No wonder its taking me so long to unpack all my boxes of books! I keep re-discovering ones I simply have to read again!
'The Temptation of the Night Jasmine' by Lauren Willig
The latest in this series of historical romance romps, and just as much fun as the earlier books. Lauren Willig must be running out of flowers thought ...
'The Heretic's Daughter' by Kathleen Kent
Kathleen Kent is a direct descendant of Martha Carrier, one of the women hanged following the Salem witch trials. Growing up with stories of her notorious ancestor, Kathleen sets out to tell her story, choosing as her protagonist Martha's young daughter Sarah. Beautifully told, this book was a true insight into the Salem witch trials and into the world of the American Puritans. I absolutely loved it. It really doesn't reach the witch trial until more than halfway through the book, but is so beautifully and compellingly told, this really doesn't matter. In fact, it's better than that – because we understand each of the characters and the situation so well, we really, really care about what happens to them.
'The Letter From Spain' by Frances Parkinson Keyes
I bought this book from a second-hand bookshop because a romantic mystery set in Spain is just my cup of tea. Unfortunately I didn't like it & will probably sell it on. Why? It was, frankly, my dear, boring. Big yawn!
The Turf-Cutter's Donkey by Patricia Lynch
I read this book when I was a child and always remembered it, so I gladly snaffled it when I found it at a second-hand bookshop in Brisbane. It has a lovely inscription inside: 'To dearest Sheila, with love from Auntie Eileen.' Doesn't that sound so gorgeous and Irish? Patricia Lynch was an Irish journalist and writer and this is her best known book, a simple novel about two Irish children, Seamus and Eileen, and their adventures with an enchanted teapot, a leprechaun, a golden eagle, various witches, gypsies and Irish heroes, including the Salmon of Knowledge, and a grey donkey called Long Ears. It's really a collection of short stories, rather like Enid Blyton's Adventures of the Wishing Chair, but very charming and sweet.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Lacuna tells the story of a sensitive young American who works in the tumultuous household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, while they shelter Leon Trotsky. He is present when Trotsky is assassinated, and his own life is marked by his experiences there. Yet its about much more than that – The Lacuna a complicated book with a complicated plot, much of it told in letters or journal excerpts, and with a mystery at its heart, symbolised by the lacuna of the title, and by the underwater cave that the hero Harrison Shepherd finds as a boy. I found it an utterly fascinating book, though the structure does take some time to get used to. Frida in particular is brought to vivid and memorable life and, like all good novels that feature the lives of artists, took me back to pore over her paintings, finding them illuminated by my new understanding of her as a woman and as an artist. As Rivera said of his wife, 'Never before had a woman put such agonizing poetry on canvas as Frida did.'