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BOOK REVIEW: The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

When Ada’s clubfoot is surgically fixed at last, she knows for certain that she’s not what her mother said she was—damaged, deranged, crippled mentally as well as physically. She’s not a daughter anymore, either. What is she?

World War II continues, and Ada and her brother, Jamie, are living with their loving legal guardian, Susan, in a borrowed cottage on the estate of the formidable Lady Thorton—along with Lady Thorton herself and her daughter, Maggie. Life in the crowded cottage is tense enough, and then, quite suddenly, Ruth, a Jewish girl from Germany, moves in. A German? The occupants of the house are horrified. But other impacts of the war become far more frightening. As death creeps closer to their door, life and morality during wartime grow more complex. Who is Ada now? How can she keep fighting? And who will she struggle to save?


My Thoughts:


The sequel to Kimberley Brubaker Bradley’s Newbery-Honor-winning book The War That Saved My Life, this lovely children’s novel continues the story of Ada, crippled from birth with a clubfoot and cruelly mistreated by her mother. Ada and her little brother Jamie have found refuge in the country with Sudan, a clever and sharp-tongued woman with a lot of love to give. She arranges for Ada to have the surgery she needs to correct her deformed foot, but the scars from Ada’s childhood are clawed deep into her psyche, and there is no surgery for emotional wounds. Ada must learn to trust others, and to understand the hidden hurts of those around her, all while living through the horrors of the Blitz. I had not thought the sequel could possibly live up to the power and beauty of the first book, but The War I Finally Won had me blubbering like a baby. These books are destined to be classics of children’s World War II evacuee stories, up there with Carrie’s War, Goodnight, Mister Tom and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.


You can read my review of The War That Saved My Life here. 


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



BOOK REVIEW: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Friday, January 26, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

An exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds set during World War 2, from the acclaimed author of Jefferson’s Sons and for fans of Number the Stars.

Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

This masterful work of historical fiction is equal parts adventure and a moving tale of family and identity—a classic in the making. 


My Thoughts:

The War That Saved My Life is the favourite book of the daughter of a friend of mine. She has read it dozens of times. I am always interested in knowing what books kids are reading and loving (as opposed to the books adults think kids should be reading), and so I bought it with a sense of great interest and curiosity. It is set in England during the early days of World War II (a period of time I am always interested in), and tells the story of Ada, a poor girl from the East End who is evacuated to the country with her little brother Jamie.

Ada has a clubfoot. This is a congenital deformity which means that she was born with the sole of one foot twisted inwards and upwards, so that she must walk with the soft upper flesh of her foot pressed into the ground. A clubfoot can be corrected by surgery, but Ada’s mother chose instead to keep her daughter locked up in their one-room flat. Ada has never been outside, never seen trees or meadows or the stars, never been taught to count or read, never been loved.

When word comes that London children are to be evacuated, Ada seizes her chance and runs away. Or, rather, hobbles away. She and her brother end up being housed by Susan Smith, a woman who is crippled by grief. Together, Ada and Susan learn a great deal about their unknown inner strength, kindness and wisdom. Ada is given a crutch and is taught to read, and finds joyous liberation learning to ride (which reminded me of the great Australian children’s classic, I Can Jump Puddles, inspired by author Alan Marshall’s struggle to overcome his crippling poliomyelitis). 

The War That Saved My Life is simply and sensitively written, the kind of book that leaves you with a big lump in your throat. It was a Newbery Honor Book in 2016, and became a New York Times bestseller. I loved it so much I went straight out and bought the sequel the day after I finished it. One of the best children’s books I have ever read.

Please check out my post, The Best Children's Books Set in World War II for more recommendations.

Are there any other similar books that you'd recommend? Let me know in the comments! 


BOOK REVIEW: Inspector Morse Book 3, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Dexter

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Nicholas Quinn is deaf, so he considers himself lucky to be appointed to the Foreign Examinations Board at Oxford, which designs tests for students of English around the world. But when someone slips cyanide into Nicholas's sherry, Inspector Morse has a multiple-choice murder. Any one of a tight little group of academics could have killed Quinn. Before Morse is done, all their dirty little secrets will be exposed. And a murderer will be cramming for his finals.


My Thoughts:


I have been assured by Colin Dexter fans that the Inspector Morse series gets better as it goes along and so I read the third book in the series, though not without qualms. Published in 1977, the book is set in the claustrophobic world of the Oxford Examinations Syndicate and centres on the murder of a deaf academic. The case is as labyrinthine as the earlier two books in the series, but in this instalment Inspector Morse seems less like a bumbling fool and more like a man gifted with the ability to make intuitive leaps of deduction. He and Sergeant Lewis seem more in tune with each other, with Lewis providing the dogged methodical police work. And my major gripe with the series so far – Morse’s sexist attitudes to women – is a little less acute in this book (perhaps because there is only one female character). The books have an oddly old-fashioned feel about them, because of their lack of forensic evidence and modern-day technology, and also because of Dexter’s writing style. He was born in 1930, in the midst of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, and his books have the same feel of being a cerebral puzzle as writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (whose work I admire enormously). It is this aspect of Dexter’s work that I enjoy – the task of pitting my brains against Inspector Morse’s. I have to admit that Morse won. I had no idea who the murderer was until the very end, which offered a most satisfying twist. Of the three Colin Dexter books I have read in recent weeks, this was the most enjoyable. It is up to Colin Dexter fans to convince me to keep on reading the series. 

You might also be interested in reading my reviews of book 1 and book 2 from the Inspector Morse series. 

Have you read this series? Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. 



BOOK REVIEW: Inspector Morse Book 2, Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter

Friday, January 19, 2018


The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Valerie Taylor has been missing since she was a sexy seventeen, more than two years ago. Inspector Morse is sure she's dead. But if she is, who forged the letter to her parents saying "I am alright so don't worry"? Never has a woman provided Morse with such a challenge, for each time the pieces of the jigsaw start falling into place, someone scatters them again. So Valerie remains as tantalizingly elusive as ever. Morse prefers a body—a body dead from unnatural causes. And very soon he gets one…


My Thoughts:

I’m giving the Inspector Morse mysteries by Colin Dexter a go, having never read them before. I started with Book 1, which I enjoyed with reservations. I have had exactly the same experience with Book 2. The mystery is interesting, with lots of unexpected twists and turns. It focuses on a cold case of a missing girl, who disappeared on her way to school at the age of seventeen. The detective working the case concluded she had run away with a man, but now that detective is dead. Only a few days later, the parent of the dead girl receive a letter from her telling them not to worry. Suspicions are raised, and Morse is assigned the case. He believes the girl is dead, and so he sets out to find the murderer. However, every time he thinks he has come close to solving the case, something happens to up-end all his suppositions.

I don’t find the character of Inspector Morse very likeable in these books. He seems to bumble round, leaping to conclusions, then trying to force the facts to fit his theories. He is also, I am sad to say, a misogynist with a taste for pornography. The depiction of women was my major problem in Book 1, and it is even more marked in Book 2. I understand that the book was published in 1976, and that it is aimed for a male readership, but it still makes me uncomfortable. The saving grace for me with this series so far has been the pleasure Colin Dexter takes with playing with language in his plots – Inspector Morse’s facility with crosswords and other word puzzles adds a welcome intelligence to the plot. 

You might be interested in my review of Book 1 in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock.  

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



BOOK REVIEW: The Betrayal by Kate Furnivall

Wednesday, January 17, 2018



The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Could you kill someone? Someone you love?

Paris, 1938. This is the story of twin sisters divided by fierce loyalties and by a terrible secret. The drums of war are beating and France is poised, ready to fall. One sister is an aviatrix, the other is a socialite and they both have something to prove and something to hide.

Discover a brilliant story of love, danger, courage ... and betrayal.

This epic novel is an unforgettably powerful story of love, loss and the long shadow of war, perfect for readers of Kate Morton and other exceptional historical fiction.


My Thoughts:

I bought this novel at the airport, having finished the book I had taken with me to read. I had never read anything by Kate Furnivall before, and bought it because the cover and the blurb made it sound like the kind of book I would like to read: a story of love, danger, courage and betrayal set in Paris, 1938.

The story begins with the brutal murder of the father of seventeen-year-old twins, Romaine and Florence. The family’s Arabic gardener is guillotined for the crime, but the twin sisters know that he is innocent.

Eight years later, Florence is a rich socialite married to a Nazi sympathiser, and Romy is an impoverished, reckless, hard-drinking aviatrix who flies guns and supplies to the rebels of the Spanish Civil War. From that point on, the plot gallops along with lots of surprises and nail-biting suspense. The contrast between the characters of the sisters is fascinating, while their love and support for each other is – by the end – heartbreaking. I particularly loved Romy: wild, passionate, loving, haunted by the past and determined to, somehow, make amends. This is historical storytelling at its best, and I am very keen now to read more by Kate Furnivall.


If you're interested in the lives of women during WWII, please take a look at my post about Women of the German underground resistance. 

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

KATE FORSYTH'S BEST BOOKS OF 2017

Friday, January 12, 2018


BEST BOOKS OF 2017 - chosen by Kate Forsyth 

With great difficulty, I’ve chosen the best books I’ve read this year. I have to say it was a challenge as I have read so many utterly brilliant books this year. 

I chose ten novels, five non-fiction books, and three debuts to look out for next year. The books are listed in the order in which I read them, not in order of preference. 


Interestingly, all but one of the books was written by a woman. They are all extraordinary. 

If you have not read them, I’d really urge you to give them a try. They will bring you to tears, give you chills, and keep you up reading through the dark hours of the night.


MY TOP 10 FICTION BOOKS


An Isolated Incident – Emily Maguire

A contemporary psychological suspense novel set in a small Australian town, which examines the terrible cost of sexual violence in our society. Intense, powerful and raw, An Isolated Incident was justly shortlisted for the Stella award.



The Bright Edge of the World – Eowyn Ivey

A magic realist historical novel that tells the story of an attempt to explore the Alaskan wilderness in the mid-1880s, The Bright Edge of the World is as astonishing tour-de-force of ventriloquism that brings the icy, dangerous and mysterious world of Alaska vividly to life. 




The Muse – Jessie Burton

A historical novel which entwines the story of two women in different times around the story of a mysterious painting. Moving between London in the 1960s to Spain at the time of the civil war, this is a story of love, art and deception that kept twisting in unexpected ways.



The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden 

A wonderful, magical novel set in a snow-bound village in medieval Muscovy and drawing upon old Russian fairy tales, The Bear & the Nightingale is a brilliant debut.



The Traitor’s Girl – Christine Wells

The Traitor’s Girl moves between contemporary times and war-torn London in the 30s, and tells the story of a young woman recruited to spy for MI5 during the Second World War, only to be betrayed and imprisoned.


Stars Across the Ocean - Kimberley Freeman

Agnes Resolute, an orphan named for a ship, sets out on a quest to find her real mother in the late 1870s, travelling from London, to Paris, then across the ocean to Ceylon. A beautiful novel about mothers and daughters and finding one’s place in the world.



The Alice Network – Kate Quinn

An utterly enthralling tale of love, courage, resistance and redemption, The Alice Network weaves together the story of Charlie St Clair’s quest to find her cousin, Rose, who went missing in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War; and Eva Gardiner, who is recruited as a spy for the British and sent into Occupied France during the First World War. Just brilliant.



The Shadow Land – Elizabeth Kostova

A young American woman, newly arrived in Bulgaria, accidentally picks up someone else’s bag. Inside is an urn filled with human ashes. Trying to find the owner, she stumbles upon the story of Stoyan Lazarov, a musician who sees something he should not have seen during the years of the communist regime. Evocative and suspenseful.



Sixty Seconds – Jesse Blackadder

A contemporary family drama set in Australia which articulates what must be every parent’s greatest dread – the tragic loss of a child. Inspired by the author’s own life experience, this haunting and heart-rending story is as much about the redemptive power of love as it is about the terrible power of grief.



The Night Watch – Sarah Waters
A historical novel for adults which tells the entwined stories of four people during the dreadful days of the London Blitz, moving backwards in time from the end to the beginning. Astonishing and brilliant.


MY BEST FIVE NON-FICTION BOOKS


I read a great deal of non-fiction, both for research and for pleasure. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my favourite non-fiction books are about books, stories, myths and fairy-tales, history, gardens, nature, food, and travel. Here are my best five of the year:  



The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia – Laura Miller

A “utterly engrossing and utterly enchanting” bibliomemoir which explores the author’s personal engagement with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia book.s



The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

Beautiful, poetic writing that twines together landscape, nature, history, literature, and memoir in a journey to discover the wild places of Britain.



If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging – Sharon Blackie

A breathtakingly honest memoir about one woman’s journey towards wisdom, combined with tales drawn from Celtic mythology and folklore, and interviews with inspiring women all working to live in harmony with the earth.




Mozart’s Starling - Lyanda Lynn Haupt

In 1784, Mozart encountered a playful little starling in a Viennese shop who sang the theme from his Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. Charmed, he brought the bird home to be his pet. A combination of natural history, biography and memoir, Mozart’s Starling investigates this story, combined with the author’s own experiment with raising a baby starling.



The Rose: A True History – Jennifer Potter

This gorgeously produced and illustrated book by Jennifer Potter is the perfect gift for a rose-fancier, telling the history, mythology and romance of the rose from its very earliest days to now.

MY MOST ANTICIPATED DEBUTS OF 2018

I am very lucky in that I get sent a lot of advance reading copies of unreleased books, so I get to read some wonderful books ahead of the rest of the world.  Here are the three best I’ve read:


The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart – Holly Ringland
A coming-of-age story with a vividly evocative setting of the sparkling Australian seashore and hot, red sand of the outback, this novel follows the story of Alice Hart who must learn to escape the shadows of an abusive father in order to build a life for herself. Released April 2018.


The Lace Weaver - Lauren Chater
A heart-wrenching novel of love, war and resistance set in Estonia in the 1940s, The Lace Weaver tells the story of two very different young women and their struggle to survive in a country caught between to of the greatest evils of the 20th century: Stalin’s Red Army and Hitler’s Third Reich. Released April 2018.


The Beast's Heart  - Leife Shallcross
A compelling and surprising retelling of ‘The Beauty & the Beast’, this debut offering from an Australian author is filled with peril, darkness, romance and beauty. Utterly enchanting!


You might like to read My Best Books for previous years - if so, click here.  


What were your best reads of the year? Anything I should read?

SPOTLIGHT: Books That Haunt a Child Forever

Saturday, January 06, 2018

BOOKS THAT HAUNT A CHILD FOREVER

Bertrand Russell said, ‘There are only two motives for reading a book: one, that you can enjoy it; two, that you can boast about it.’
Children, of course, rarely read a book for any other reason than enjoyment. And there really should be no other reason to read. 

Books give us entertainment and escape, refreshment and relaxation, and even, perhaps, wisdom. 
The best of them also bewitch us, giving us some sense of beauty and astonishment that stays with us all of our lives.

One of my favourite writers, Susan Cooper, wrote about one of her favourite writers, Walter de la Mare: 
“I’ve had my copy of this wonder for thirty years and must have turned to it at least as many times each year – 
sometimes for solace, sometimes for sunlight, always with an emotion that I have never quite been able to define. 
Come Hither is my talisman, my haunting: a distillation of the mysterious quality that sings out of all the books 
to which I've responded most deeply all my life - 
and that I deeply hope as a writer I might someday, somehow, be able to catch.”

That quote says exactly what I feel most passionately about books and about my writing. I too want to write books that become talismans, 
to write books that have that “mysterious quality that sings”.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising is a book that has haunted me all my life. 



So too:

Philippa Pierce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden

Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe

Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse

Ursula le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea 

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase 

 Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life. 


There are, of course, others. 

These, however, are my magic seven, the ones I have returned to so many times 

their flimsy paperbacks are falling to pieces in my hands.


What all these books have in common is a sense of wonder and mystery, 

a feeling that adventure and magic is lurking just around the corner. 


They are also silver-tongued. The writing is vivid and supple and lucent. 

The characters are alive, dancing and joking and fighting and fearing 

and losing and sorrowing and prevailing at sometimes a great cost. 

They sing.


Lucy Boston once wrote: 

"I believe children, even the youngest, love good language, and that they see, feel, understand 

and communicate more, not less, than grownups. 

Therefore I never write down to them, but try to evoke that new brilliant awareness that is the world.’



Me too!

Every book I have ever written is in homage to these writers – among others – 

and these books – among others. I'm a passionate advocate of books which empower children -

books which teach children they have the chance to choose 

what they become, and that their choice can change the world.


Jane Yolen - another favourite writer of mine - said:

“A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book 

cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. 

What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child 

that has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, 

or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged, the greatest wizard Earthsea has ever known?” 



In a speech I gave recently, I said, 'I love writing for children aged about eleven or twelve.

It was the age in which I first really discovered books and reading. 

It was the age in which I laid down my idea of the world and how it works. 

The books I read then are the books which I have carried with me all my life. 

At this age, I can still hope to surprise and enchant my readers. 

I can still hope to save them.’

Until I said this, I did not know that was what I longed for. 

Yet I do. 


To haunt my readers with beauty, to astonish them with the strange and the miraculous, 

to help them realise they have the power to change the world. 






This is what I, as a writer, deeply hope I might someday, somehow, catch and pass on.






(This longer version of this article was first published in Magpies in 2004)

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Friday, January 05, 2018



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

When the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in Dorseteshire in June 1348, no one knows what manner of sickness it is or how it spreads and kills so quickly. The Church cites God as the cause, and religious fear grips the people as they come to believe that the plague is a punishment for wickedness.

But Lady Anne of Develish has her own ideas. Educated by nuns, Anne is a rarity among women, being both literate and knowledgeable. With her brutal husband absent from Develish when news of this pestilence reaches her, she takes the decision to look for more sensible ways to protect her people than daily confessions of sin. Well-versed in the importance of isolating the sick from the well, she withdraws her people inside the moat that surrounds her manor house and refuses entry even to her husband.

She makes an enemy of her daughter and her husband's steward by doing so, but her resolve is strengthened by the support of her leading serfs … until food stocks run low and the nerves of all are tested by continued confinement and ignorance of what is happening in the world outside. The people of Develish are alive. But for how long? And what will they discover when the time comes for them to cross the moat?

Compelling and suspenseful, The Last Hours is a riveting tale of human ingenuity and endurance against the worst pandemic known to history. In Lady Anne of Develish - leader, saviour, heretic - Walters has created her most memorable heroine to date.


My Thoughts:

Minette Walters is best known for her contemporary psychological thrillers (which I must read again!) However, it has been ten years since her last book and now she has released a doorstopper of a novel set during the time of the Black Death in England.

The accepted wisdom is that a writer must continue to churn out books as much like their previous books as possible, but I think this leads to a steady decline in the quality of the writing. A creative artist must be constantly challenging themselves, trying new things, following new interests. And I love writers to break rules and subvert expectations. So the news that Minette Walters had written a historical novel filled me with joy. I ordered it straightaway, and plunged into it with delight.

Set in Dorset in 1348, the book begins when news begins to spread of a terrible new disease that strikes down quickly and spreads just as fast. Widowed by the death of her husband, Lady Anne tries to save her people by isolating them. However, she cannot banish lust, jealousy, and hatred, all of which lead to a tragic death within the walls of her castle.

The story swings along with great aplomb, filled with suspense, drama, murder and surprise. I particularly loved the character of Lady Anne, who is plain but intelligent and kind-hearted, and who has her own secrets. Although it's a massive book at 550 pages, the pace never flags …. At least not until the very last scene, in which Minette Walters’ control over her story falters. It turns out that there is to be a sequel, where the story shall be continued, and so the book ends on a cliffhanger. I would have so much rather have had a good strong resolution, with just a hint that there was still drama and darkness to come, but it’s just one quibble in a book which I enjoyed immensely. And I’ll be buying the sequel when it comes out, never fear!

Another great book about the plague, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, made my 2013 list of Favourite Australian Authors.

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

BOOK REVIEW: A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson

Wednesday, January 03, 2018



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


Late spring, 1728 and Thomas Hawkins has left London for the wild beauty of Yorkshire - forced on a mission he can't refuse. John Aislabie, one of the wealthiest men in England, has been threatened with murder. Blackmailed into investigating, Tom must hunt down those responsible, or lose the woman he loves forever.

Since Aislabie is widely regarded as the architect of the greatest financial swindle ever seen, there is no shortage of suspects.

Far from the ragged comforts of home, Tom and his ward Sam Fleet enter a world of elegant surfaces and hidden danger. The great estate is haunted by family secrets and simmering unease. Someone is determined to punish John Aislabie - and anyone who stands in the way. As the violence escalates and shocking truths are revealed, Tom is dragged, inexorably, towards the darkest night of his life.

Inspired by real characters, events and settings, A Death at Fountains Abbey is a gripping standalone historical thriller. It also continues the story that began with the award-winning The Devil in the Marshalsea and The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins.


My Thoughts:

This novel is the third in a series of witty, fast-paced historical murder mysteries set in Georgian times in England. The hero, Thomas Hawkins, is a rake and a gambler who has spent time in prison for debt and was almost hanged in Book 2: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. And when I say ‘almost hanged’, I mean it. He still carries the scar of the hangman’s noose in this, his third adventure. Sent by the queen to investigate threats of murder against one of England’s richest men, Thomas finds himself drawn into a puzzling mystery which soon escalates into violence. The prose gallops along, enlivened by Thomas’s cynical asides, and the story is full of surprises. If you haven’t read Antonia Hodgson before, start with Book 1: The Devil in the Marshalsea. The whole series is great.

You can read my review of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins here.

Please leave a comment!

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