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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!

BOOK REVIEW: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

Friday, December 29, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


DETERMINED LADY

Tough-minded Jessica Trent's sole intention is to free her nitwit brother from the destructive influence of Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain. She never expects to desire the arrogant, amoral cad. And when Dain's reciprocal passion places them in a scandalously compromising, and public, position, Jessica is left with no choice but to seek satisfaction...

LORD OF SCOUNDRELS

Damn the minx for tempting him, kissing him... and then forcing him to salvage her reputation! Lord Dain can't wait to put the infuriating bluestocking in her place—and in some amorous position, And if that means marriage, so be it!—Though Sebastian is less than certain he can continue to remain aloof... and steel his heart to the sensuous, headstrong lady's considerable charms.


My Thoughts:

Struck down by bronchitis this month and looking for a heart-warming Regency romance to read, my friend Anna Campbell suggested Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. ‘It’s sometimes called the best Regency romance ever written,’ she told me. Well, that was good enough for me. I ordered it and, as soon as it arrived, sank back into my welter of pillows and began to read.

Now, I would never have bought this book from the back-cover blurb. It begins:
‘Sebastian Baillister, the notorious Marquess of Dain, is big, bad and dangerous to know. No respectable woman would have anything to do with the “Bane and the Blight of the Ballisters” – and he wants nothing to do with respectable women. He’s determined to continue doing what he does best – sin and sin again – and all that’s going swimmingly, thank you … until the day a shop door opens and she walks in …’

The thing is, I really hate alpha males. They are always rude, overbearing, patronising and sexually aggressive. I hate them in real life and I hate them in fiction. I’ve been having trouble reading much romance or young-adult fantasy lately because of the ubiquity of the alpha male. Give me a kind and clever man over these ruddy brutes anytime!

But there I was, trapped in my sickbed, desperate for some light-hearted diversion, and so I opened the book and read the first page. It was a letter from the author, addressed to ‘Dear Reader’, and it said, ‘as many of you know, we authors can be fragile creatures. Pale and wan, we toil in our garrets, talking to people who don’t exist. Our tender egos hoard the snippets of praise that come our way from time to time, saving them to get us through a Really Bad Writing Day …’

I laughed out loud. Pale and wan I was indeed, and much prone to talking to people who don’t exist. And, yes indeedy, a snippet of praise is sometimes all that gets us through.

And so I read the book. And I laughed out loud quite a few more times, and once or twice towards the end I had a lump in my throat too.

I don’t need to paraphrase the plot for you. Big bad beast of a hero meets clever unconventional heroine and, despite himself, falls in love.

It is all done with a deft, light hand, however, and a great deal of humour. And, most interestingly, it made me understand why so many women love a romance with a big, bad beast of a hero. The thing is, Loretta Chase shows us the hurt and pain behind this seemingly hard and confident man, and then she shows us how he is saved by the steadfast love of a good woman. Now the feminist in me has always both scorned and feared this particular cultural myth – how many women have found themselves trapped in abusive relationships because they hope the man can change?

Yet I do believe that people can grow and change, and that love has transformative power. I think it is important for us to believe in the possibility of love to change the world.

Because so much of the story dwelt on Sebastian’s back story, and the unkindness and lovelessness that made him the man he was, you can’t help cheering Jessica on and admiring her for never giving up till she has finally cracked his hard outer shell.

If you are someone who steers clear of romances because you cannot bear the breathless banality of the language, then you may need to skip some scenes (for example: “She never had to think, only let herself be swept endlessly round the ballroom while her body tingled with the consciousness of him and only him: the broad shoulder under her hand … the massive, muscular frame inches from her own … the tantalizing scent of smoke and cologne and Male …’ And yes, ‘Male’ was capitalised in the text.)

However, if you can forgive Loretta Chase those passages of purple prose, you will be rewarded with a love story full of heart, humour and that essential touch of poignancy that can make the romance genre such a rewarding read. Particularly when you are sick.

You might also enjoy my reviews of Charity Girl and Sylvester, by the Queen of Regency Romances, Georgette Heyer.

Please leave a comment - what are your favourite Regency Romances?

BOOK REVIEW: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Wednesday, December 27, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners - three women and a young man with a past - whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.


My Thoughts:

I am such a huge fan of Sarah Waters. I think she may be my favourite author at the moment. I’ve been slowly working my way though her backlist, and finally had the chance to read The Night Watch, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize.

The novel has an unusual and audacious structure, in that each new section of the book moves backwards in time rather than forwards. So the first section begins in 1947, in the aftermath of World War II, when the people of London are struggling to get their lives back together; the second section is set in 1944, when it seemed the war would never end; and the final in 1941, during all the chaos and horror of the Blitz. We are introduced to a handful of people whose lives are linked, we shall discover, in surprising ways. There is Kay, a young woman who dresses like a man and who cannot recover from a broken heart. There is Duncan, a young man who spent much of the war in prison. And there are Helen and Viv, two young women who work together and yet know surprisingly little about each other’s secret private lives. Working backwards through their stories, much like an archaeologist may dig deeper for new revelations about a place and time, has an unexpected effect of slow-building suspense. The book, though slow and deep, becomes unputdownable. I cared so much for them – especially heart-broken Kay and soul-damaged Duncan – that I could almost not bear to reach the parts where the hurt was done.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because this is a book rife with spoilers. All I will say is that – like all of Sarah Waters’ books – it is utterly brilliant! I wish I could write so well.

Please also check out my review of another brilliant Sarah Waters book, Fingersmith.

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


BOOK REVIEW: Australian Gypsies: Their Secret History by Mandy Sayers

Friday, December 22, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):


Today, roughly 100,000 Gypsies call Australia home, yet until now their experiences have been hidden from our history, and from our present. Here, award-winning memoirist and novelist Mandy Sayer weaves together a wide-ranging and exuberant history of Gypsies in Australia. She begins with the roots of Romani culture, and traces the first Gypsy people to arrive in Australia, including James Squire, the colony’s first brewer. She meets Gypsy families who live all over Australia, who share the stories of their ancestors and their own lives. With her own nomadic early life and experiences as a street performer, Sayer brings unique insight into the lives of the people she meets, and a strong sense of their extraordinary history. She also demolishes some longstanding but baseless myths along the way. Her original and compelling book reveals a rich part of our history that few of us even know is there.


My Thoughts:

When I was a little girl, my father was always going off adventuring. One day I asked my grandmother why he loved travelling so much, and she laughed a little and said, ‘oh, darling, it’s the gypsy in him.’

Now, I do not know if she was speaking literally or metaphorically but I’ve been fascinated by the Roma ever since. I used to dress up in a gypsy skirt and embroidered blouse, and call myself Mitzi, and my sister and brother and I were always camping out under the stars and cooking sausages on the campfire. As I got older, I began to collect books about the Roma and their fascinating and tragic history. This interest culminated in ‘The Chain of Charms’, a series of six historical novels about the adventures of two Romani children in the final weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s rule in 17th century England.

While researching ‘The Chain of Charms’, I tried numerous times to make contact with the Romanichal community in the UK, particularly the Finch and Smith families who were the descendants of the real-life Queen of the Gypsies I was writing about. I had no luck at all. In the end, after the books were written and published, I met by the purest chance a member of the Finch family who told me that there were a great many Roma in Australia. I was so interested to hear his story, and tried to research more, but once again found it difficult to make contact or open lines of communication.

So when I saw that Mandy Sayer – a writer I had read and admired for years – was working on a history of the Roma, I knew that I wanted to read the resulting book. I went along to her launch, where Romani musicians played and danced, and then later that week I began to read it.

Australian Gypsies: A Secret History begins with Mandy Sayer’s own first encounter with the Roma, in Hungary, which sparked her fascination with their rich and secretive culture. Then she moves on to a brief summary of their history – their slow migration from India to Europe in the 11th-13th centuries, and their many years spent wandering and making a sketchy living as dancers, musicians, fortune-tellers, and horse-traders. Gradually the prejudice against the dark-skinned outsiders grew and persecution intensified, until the horrors of the Holocaust, where 1.5 million Romani were exterminated in death camps. I was deeply familiar with this history, thanks to my own research, but it is always interesting to read it again.

The narrative then moves to the history of the Romani in Australia, and in Mandy Sayer’s own personal experience in researching their lives and telling their stories. This was all new to me, and deeply interesting. I did not know, for example, that there were three Romani men on the First Fleet and that was one of them was James Squire, Australia’s first brewer. I really loved hearing the stories of the many different families who came to Australia hoping for a place of safety to call home, and the subsequent generations who have lived here since. Mandy Sayer’s account of the history of the Australian Roma is truly an enthralling untold story. I just wished that she had confessed how she came to win the confidence and friendship of people who are notoriously suspicious of the Gadje (non-Romani people), and perhaps a little more about the youngest generations and how they perceive their lives and culture changing and growing into the future. These are minor quibbles, however. The book itself is a brilliant piece of untold social history and will hopefully do much to break down any existing prejudices still remaining in our society.

For another great read about the Romani, check out my review of Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker.

Please leave a comment, I'm interested in your thoughts.

BOOK REVIEW: The Ravenmaster’s Boy by Mary Hoffman

Wednesday, December 20, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The story of the fall of Anne Boleyn as it has never been told – this time with ravens.

Young Kit finds himself on a plague cart wedged between the bodies of his mother and father. But he is alive and is rescued and taken into the home of the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. He soon finds he can speak the language of the big black birds, a skill which proves useful when he finds himself caught up in a story of queens and treason, princesses and executioners.

There can be no change in the history of Henry Vlll’s first two wives but without Kit and the ravens another Tudor monarch might never have survived.


My Thoughts:

‘Kit wasn’t the only one who thought that he was dead.’

So begins this wonderful story about a boy in the 1500s who is rescued from a plague-cart by the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. Living within the confines of the tower, gifted with the ability to speak with the king’s ravens, Kit lives in violent times. King Henry VIII rules England, and many of his enemies find themselves imprisoned within the tower’s dank walls.

One day the king’s young and beautiful queen, Anne Boleyn, finds herself accused of unspeakable crimes and imprisoned. Kit and the ravens find themselves drawn into a world of intrigue, treason, and bloodshed. Kit may not be able to save the doomed queen, but perhaps he can help save her baby princess …

Swiftly moving and suspenseful, this is an enthralling novel for children aged twelve and upwards, and a fascinating introduction to Tudor history. Loved it.

For another beautiful historical children's book, check out my review of Midnight is a Place by Joan Aitken.

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

BOOK REVIEW: A Gift From Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside by Marjorie Price

Friday, December 15, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):


The enchanting memoir of an artist's liberating sojourn in France during the sixties, and the friendship that transformed her life

While in her late twenties, Marjorie Price leaves the comfort of her Chicago suburb to strike out on her own in Paris and hone her artistic talents. Dazzled by everything French, she falls in love with a volatile French painter and they purchase an old farmhouse in the Breton countryside. When Marjorie's seemingly idyllic marriage begins to unravel, she forms a friendship with an elderly peasant woman, Jeanne, who is illiterate, has three cows to her name, and has never left the village. Their differences are staggering yet they forge a friendship that transforms one another's life.


My Thoughts:

I love memoirs about brave adventurous people who move to Italy or France or Spain, and renovate an old house, plant a garden, cook fabulous feasts, fall in love and find themselves. Surely its my Sliding Doors life? Sometimes, when I’m meant to be writing, I look at castles for sale in Scotland instead. In fact, I do so far too often. Lately I’ve been gazing longingly at chateaus in Brittany. The book I am now writing is set there and so I can tell myself it’s research and not procrastination.

I stumbled upon this memoir one day while googling ‘Brittany chateaus for sale’ and, on a whim, I bought it. I’m very glad I did. It’s one of the most beautiful and moving memoirs I’ve ever read, and surprising in a number of ways.

Firstly, even though it’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of Love and Loss’, it is not a story about a woman moving to France, falling in love and living happily ever after. Marjorie Price does marry a Frenchman and they do buy an enchanting derelict farmhouse in Brittany, but her husband turns out to be a charming but controlling misogynist who refuse to allow her to paint or make her own decisions. His domineering behaviour escalates to violence, and Marjorie must find the inner strength to escape him and make a life on her own for herself and her daughter.

Secondly, this is not a contemporary tale. Marjorie left her native USA to travel to France in 1960. Her story is therefore set at a time of huge political and cultural change in the world. The scars inflicted by the Second World War are still deep, and the Vietnam War and the battle for civil rights are cutting new ones. Women’s rights are still being fought for, and Marjorie’s decision to travel on her own to Paris and try to make a life for herself as an artist is seen as shocking and unladylike. So the betrayal of her dreams by a misogynist who thinks women should only support their husband’s careers is just heart-breaking, and her struggle to make her own way doubly poignant.

Lastly, A Gift From Brittany has at its heart the story of an unlikely friendship between women. Marjorie is young, college-educated, American, and a single mother, struggling to make her way as an artist. Her neighbour Jeanne is elderly, illiterate, and lives in a cottage with no running water or plumbing. She has never ridden in a car, eaten in a restaurant, talked on the telephone, or seen the sea. She wears a shapeless black dress and a white cap pinned to her hair, as her ancestors have done for years. Yet she is funny, earthy, and unfailingly kind. She helps and supports Marjorie at every new challenge or crisis, and teaches her much about life and the world – even though she has never travelled more than a few miles from her home.

Jeanne is dead now, and so is her way of her life and all her stories and songs. Yet this memoir captures something of her warmth and wisdom, and gives us a poignant glimpse of an ancient vibrant culture that is now mostly lost. A truly wonderful book.

For another wonderful memoir set in France, you might be interested in my review of Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard.

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

BOOK REVIEW: Inspector Morse: Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Beautiful Sylvia Kaye and another young woman had been seen hitching a ride not long before Sylvia's bludgeoned body is found outside a pub in Woodstock, near Oxford. Morse is sure the other hitchhiker can tell him much of what he needs to know. But his confidence is shaken by the cool inscrutability of the girl he's certain was Sylvia's companion on that ill-fated September evening. Shrewd as Morse is, he's also distracted by the complex scenarios that the murder set in motion among Sylvia's girlfriends and their Oxford playmates. To grasp the painful truth, and act upon it, requires from Morse the last atom of his professional discipline.


My Thoughts:

I am a big fan of the ‘Inspector Morse’ TV series, and its spin-off ‘Lewis’, and yet I had never read any of the novels by Colin Dexter which inspired the shows. I had heard that they were good old-fashioned murder mysteries with clever plots, which is something I am always hunting for, and so I thought I’d give them a go.

The first book in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock, was published in 1975, and so it reads like historical fiction now. The plot depends on a warning letter being hand-delivered because of the slowness of the English postal system; there are no mobile phones, or internet, or traffic cameras, or DNA testing. Inspector Morse has old-fashioned tastes in music (Wagner) and hobbies (cryptic crosswords) and very old-fashioned attitudes to women, who are all pretty typists with good legs. The casual misogyny can be a little hard to take (the conclusion that the murdered girl must have been promiscuous because she didn’t wear a bra, for example). However, the mystery itself is really clever and surprising, and I happen to love classical music and cryptic clues, and so I quite enjoyed the character of Inspector Morse, who is much lazier and bumbling in the novel than he is in the TV show.

For another great read written by an author who also works on British TV scripts, check out my review of The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.

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


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