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REVIEW: 'The Girl You Left Behind' by Jojo Moyes

Monday, January 21, 2013

Title: ‘The Girl you Left Behind’
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Penguin
Age Group & Genre: Adult Fiction – Parallel Contemporary/Historical 

The Blurb:

What happened to the girl you left behind?

In 1916 French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, his portrait of Sophie stirs the heart of the local Kommandant and causes her to risk everything - her family, reputation and life - in the hope of seeing her true love one last time.

Nearly a century later and Sophie's portrait is given to Liv by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. Its beauty speaks of their short life together, but when the painting's dark and passion-torn history is revealed, Liv discovers that the first spark of love she has felt since she lost him is threatened...

In The Girl You Left Behind two young women, separated by a century, are united in their determination to fight for the thing they love most - whatever the cost

What I Liked About This Book: 
Is there anything more wonderful than discovering a fabulous new author?

I had not read anything by Jojo Moyes before, but was drawn to this book because of its parallel narrative structure and because it is set in France during the First World War, one of my favourite historical periods and, of course, one of my favourite places in the world. 

'The Girl You Left Behind' starts in occupied France during World War I, with the main character, Sophie Lefevre standing up the local German Kommandant. He sees a painting of Sophie, rendered by her artist-husband who is off fighting the German army. The Kommandant is drawn irresistibly to the painting – and to its beautiful, red-haired subject – and begins to show her favour. This attracts the suspicion and contempt of the other French villagers, and sets in chain a series of tragic events. 

The action then moves to modern-day London, where the young widow Liv now owns the painting and becomes the centre of a legal battle by the Lefevre family to get it back. 

I usually find I like the historical sections of a parallel narrative the best, but in this book I really enjoyed both strands and feared and worried for both of the protagonists. There’s romance and drama and suspense aplenty in both sections of the book – I really loved it and am looking forward to reading more books by Jojo Noyes (she has a back list!)

'The Girl She Left Behind' by Jojo Moyes was one of the best books I read in 2012 - check out the others!

Other parallel narratives you may also enjoy: 

INTERVIEW: Emily Rodda, author of 'The Three Doors' trilogy

Friday, January 18, 2013

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes! I really believe all writers are. I think there should be more daydreaming. It’s a mistake to expect to be always busy. When your mind is idling, you get your best ideas. And not just writers. Daydreaming is good for everybody. It’s good for children to gaze into space, to watch clouds drift past, it’s good for them to think and daydream. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Oh, yes, always. From the very first time I could read. I wrote a lot when I was very young, but gave it up after my middle teens, probably because there are so many wonderful writers and I didn’t think I could ever be as good. I didn’t write for a great many years but then I slowly came back to it and of course, have not looked back since.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in Killara, on the North Shore in Sydney. I was the first child, with two younger brothers.  I live in the Blue Mountains now; it’s very like what Killara was like when I was a child, lots of bush and trees and gardens with that wonderful smell of eucalyptus. I love to read , of course, but I also love cooking and sewing and playing around in the garden. I don’t much like housework or playing sport; I avoid those.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I have always been interested in fairy tales, and often use fairy tale elements in my books. Having to make choices between things is a common fairy tale motif; usually there are three choices, three being a fairy tale number. One day I was just thinking idly – daydreaming if you like – and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be more interesting to have to choose between three doors?’ A book is like a door, I thought. It opens to new worlds, new adventures. I imagined having a book that looked like a door. Then I began to think about what the doors might be like, where they might lead, who might travel through them … and the story grew from there. 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
On occasion. It’s more a moment in a dream, a picture, nightmarish or beautiful, that I remember forever and which will eventually be worked into a book in one way or another. 

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I think my writing style is quite intuitive. It seems a natural process to me. I mean, I do think about how the novel should progress, where the story is headed, what I need to do to get to the end … but I don’t write chapter outlines or anything like that. I like to discover things along the way. For example, in the Rondo books, Bertha the pig just appeared in a scene. It was fun to meet her. She wouldn’t leave, and so I thought, perhaps she’s important in some way … So even though I do think about the book a lot, I don’t plan it as such … it’s a lot more intuitive. I’ve been such a massive reader all of my life, I think I just absorbed how to do it, through the skin, you might say.

I always think your books are so perfectly structured. I often use ‘Rowan of Rin’ to teach what I think is a perfect novel structure, for example.
Oh, thank you, that’s so kind of you. Well, Rowan of Rin did have quite a rigid structure. There were seven heroes, each with a failing, so seven tests or obstacles … the story needed that kind of structure though. It was the same with the Deltora Quest books – it was a quest to find seven gems, and so each book was built around the individual quest, each with a satisfying end … you need a satisfying end, I think. 

Where do you write, and when?
I write every day, if I can. I work best in the mornings. I often get up early, around 4 o’clock when the house is quiet and dark. I particularly used to do this when my children were young. I never worked while they were awake.  

What is your favourite part of writing?
The most exciting part is the first handwritten notes – when the story first starts coming. Often it comes like a stream of consciousness, when I’m playing with ideas, asking questions, seeing what answers come. Starting can be difficult, when you know what a big undertaking is ahead. I always say, ‘don’t worry about the first line; just do it.’ 

Then I love that feeling of writing well, and the rush that comes around the middle of the book. When I’m writing well, it feels as if I’m reading the book, rather than writing it.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Promoting! I tend to be shy about my writing. Though I love signing books for children, these battered old books that have fallen in the bath or been dragged around all over the place. That’s really special. 

What do you do when you get blocked? 
I don’t get blocked very often. Usually it means I’ve got my heroes into an appalling mess and can’t get them out. I simply go somewhere else. I might take a walk, or go up to the coffee shop, or have a shower, and usually I’ll have solved the problem by the time I get back. Sometimes I’ll write down what the problem is and start listing all the possible answers – that usually works. 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
No, all I need is a cup of tea or, as a real treat, a takeaway coffee. Though I do like to have a few special little things around me, little gifts from kids . 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Tim Winton. Roald Dahl, Ruth Park, Margaret Mahy.

Photo of Margaret Mahy by David Hallet

What do you consider to be good writing?  
It doesn’t matter how beautiful the writing is, if it doesn’t draw you into the world then the book has failed. No matter the genre, good writing must engage the reader.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Keep writing. Read as much as you can – you will learn to w rite by reading.

What is the secret of your success?
I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I’m a storyteller. People love stories, you know. 

You may also enjoy reading my interview with Michael Pryor, author of the Extraordinaires.



Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Emily Rodda’s new fantasy series 'The Three Doors Trilogy' uses the device of three magical doors to create a portal for her heroes to set out on their quest. This got me thinking – not for the first time – about what a magical number three is. 

There is the Triple Goddess and the Holy Trinity. The Three Fates and the Rule of Three. Three wise men and three gifts. Three denials.

Bad luck comes in threes, and so, of course, does good luck.

Beginnings, middles and ends. 

Three-act structures.

Blood, sweat and tears. 

The rule of thirds in art.

Trilogies, triptychs, and Freytag triangles.

And, of course, three happens a lot in fairy tales. 

Let me see. 

Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Little Pigs. Three Blind Mice. Three Billy Goats Gruff. 

The Three Spinners. The Devil with Three Golden hairs. Three wishes. Three gifts. Three tasks. Three brothers, and, sometimes, three sisters.

Usually the first two fail in some way, allowing the third to succeed. 

This reflects the pattern of what comedians call ‘the comic triple’. The idea is that two points establish a pattern; the audience comes to expect for the pattern to be repeated; and so the break in the pattern comes as a surprise, which makes people laugh. 

Interestingly enough, many old fragments of Druid mythology also come grouped in three. For example, the old saying: ‘Three things not easily restrained: the flow of a torrent, the flight of an arrow, and the tongue of a fool.’

I always build a plot on three key pivotal moments, or three major obstacles. 

And I live my life by the Threefold Law, the idea that everything you give out to the universe is returned to you threefold.

Three is also, strangely, the date of my birthday (I was born on 3/6/66). 

BOOK REVIEW: Emily Rodda's 'Three Doors Trilogy'

Monday, January 14, 2013

'The Three Doors Trilogy' is a new fantasy series by the wonderful Australian children’s author, Emily Rodda, filled with all of her trademark suspense, adventure and touches of horror.

The first book, 'The Golden Door', introduces a new hero, Rye, the youngest of three brothers living in the walled city of Weld, which is terrorised by giant skimmers that fly over every night. The city decides to send heroes to find and destroy the source of the skimmers; one by one, the young men of the city set forth, choosing one of three magical doors. None return.

After Rye's two elder brothers disappear, Rye decides to set out to find them. He is joined in his quest by a strong-willed, red-haired girl called Sonia who has her own reasons for travelling through the magical doors. Only their courage, persistence and kindness will help them in a journey fraught with dangers of all kinds.

I really love the fairy tale element – the way the quest begins with the eldest brother who does not return, and then the second brother sets out and does not return either, and so it is up to the youngest, Rye, to rescue his brothers and save his world. The device of the three doors is also an old one, but as always Emily Rodda makes it new. 

The second book, ‘The Silver Door’, takes Rye and Sonia to a very different place, a kind of badlands with people scounging what they can from the desert. As well as a wide array of eccentric and memorable characters, there are some truly terrifying monsters to battle..

'The Third Door' is an action-packed and exciting roller-coaster ride with enough chills and shocks to keep the most reluctant reader glued to the page.

Our heroes, Rye and Sonia, continue their heroic quest to find and defeat the enemy of Weld, discovering new things about themselves and their world at every turn. My favourite part of these books was the little bag of magical tricks that Rye was given in the first book - each gift has a hidden power and each is so fresh and inventive, it reminds me why Emily Rodda is Australia's queen of children's fantasy. 



Monday, December 31, 2012

This past year was the first year of The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge – a call to arms for Australians to support our women writers by reading and reviewing their books, and spreading the word about the extraordinary literary talent we have in this country.

The initiative – begun by Elizabeth Lhuede – aims to redress the gender imbalance in the way male and female writers are treated in this country. Male writers are reviewed more often and win prizes more often, even though they do not write more books than women.

I have to admit I've  always had a strong bias towards women writers – my husband will growl, ‘don’t you have any books by men?’ as he searches my many bookshelves for something to read – yet I have noticed that the major literary papers do not review the type of books I really want to read. 

So I decided to join in the AWW challenge by reviewing novels that I had read and loved on a blog which I began for that purpose. I have reviewed and interviewed both men and women, from Australia and elsewhere – and I have made an effort to read more books by Australian women writers. 

In all, I read 95 books in 2012, 26 less than in 2011.

Less than one-third of these were written by men.

Of the 63 women writers, 35 of them were Australian. All of them were utterly brilliant. If you haven’t read their novels, read them in 2013 and discover for yourself the amazing talent of writers we have in this country: 

Parallel Historical/Contemporary

1. Secrets of the Tides – Hannah Richell
A dramatic story of family secrets and lies, set in London & Devon. Hannah Richell is UK-born, but lives in Sydney so I have counted her as an Aussie. 

2. The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton 
A riveting read that moves between contemporary times and the early days of the Second World War

3. Lighthouse Bay - Kimberley Freeman
One of my favourite books of the year, this book has romance, suspense, a dastardly villain, and a cast of strong, defiant women.

4. In Falling Snow  -  Mary Rose MacColl
A fascinating look at the role of women nurses and doctors in the Second World War in France.


5. Raven’s Heart  -  Jesse Blackadder
Set in Scotland in the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, this novel is filled with unexpected twists and turns.


6. The Reasons for Marriage  -  Stephanie Laurens
7. A Lady of Expectations  -  Stephanie Laurens
8. An Unwilling Conquest  -  Stephanie Laurens
9. A Comfortable Wife  -  Stephanie Laurens
Regency romance novels that are thin on story and thick on sex – but enjoyable nonetheless. 

10. The Perfect Rake  -  Anne Gracie
11. Bride by Mistake – Anne Gracie
12. The Perfect Waltz  -  Anne Gracie
13. The Stolen Princess – Anne Gracie
14. The Perfect Kiss – Anne Gracie
15. His Captive Lady - Anne Gracie 
Sparkling Regency romances with just the right mixture of humour, pathos, intrigue and romance.


16. Sea Hearts  -  Margo Lanagan
A haunting tale of love, betrayal and selkies by one of Australia’s most extraordinary authors. 

17. Shadowfell – Juliet Marillier
The first in a romantic YA fantasy series by one of my all-time favourite authors.

18. Flame of Sevenwaters  -  Juliet Marillier
Another fabulous historical fantasy set in the otherworldly forest of Sevenwaters.

19. A Corner of White  -  Jaclyn Moriarty
A startlingly original book that moves between the parallel worlds of contemporary Oxford and the strange and magical Kingdom of Cello.


20. Poet’s Cottage – Josephine Pennicott
An intriguing murder mystery set in Tasmania, which moves between the present day and the tragic past. 

21. A Few Right Thinking Men  -  Sulari Gentill
The first in a series of murder mysteries set in 1930s.

Children’s/Young Adult

22. The Golden Door – Emily Rodda
23. The Silver Door - Emily Rodda
24. The Third Door - Emily Rodda
A new trilogy of action-packed fantasy adventure novels for 8+, by the brilliant Emily Rodda

25. The Forgotten Pearl – Belinda Murrell 
A fabulous historical novel for 10+, set during the Second World War in Darwin and Sydney.

26. The River Charm  -  Belinda Murrell
A beautiful and very moving novel that moves between contemporary times and New South Wales’ early pioneering days, drawing upon the true life story of Charlotte and Louisa Atkinson, Australia’s first female novelists and journalists (and, I proudly must admit, my sister Belinda and my ancestors)

27. Bright Angel – Isabelle Merlin
A charming romantic suspense novel for 13+ set in the South of France.

28. One Long Thread – Belinda Jeffries
A fresh and unusual coming-of-age story that moves between Australia and Tonga.

29. Moonlight & Ashes – Sophie Masson
A really brilliant retake on the well-known Cinderella story, set in a make-believe Prague.

30. The Madman of Venice – Sophie Masson
A romantic historical novel set in Venice, with lots of suspense to keep the pages turning.

31. The FitzOsbornes in Exile - Michelle Cooper


32. You’ll be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy

Next year I aim to read even more books by Australian Women Writers. 
What about you?

INTERVIEW: Belinda Jeffrey, author of 'A Few Long Threads'

Monday, December 31, 2012

Finally, an interview with the beautiful and talented Belinda Jeffrey.


I first met Belinda a few years ago at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and - having a rare afternoon free - she took me shopping, as one does. We had a lovely afternoon, and found we had a lot in common. We were both writers and mothers of beautiful, rambunctious boys, and both passionate believers in the power of stories and books. We also both rather like shoes.

We met up again earlier this year at the Whitsunday Voices literary festival, and I was able to hear her speak about her new book 'One Long Thread'. She spoke with so much humour and charm and pathos about her childhood and her family that I went straight after wards and bought her novel.


'One Long Thread' is a beautiful, moving coming-of-age novel, refreshingly original and beautifully written. It tells the story of Ruby Moon, whose family has been split in half by her parents’ divorce. The mother moves to Darwin to join what can only be described as a cult, and takes Ruby’s twin sister with her. This seems to me so insensitive, so cruel … and, sure enough, the fallout from that decision has tragic consequences. The action of the book moves from Melbourne to Darwin to Tonga – the sections set there are among my favourite in the book. I also loved the use of the silkworm as a recurring motif and symbol. This was the first of Belinda Jeffrey’s books that I have read but I will be seeking out more.

A quote from the book:

"I had moths in my chest. A thousand of them drumming with their insistent wings, thumping inside my heart. It was like the feeling of something struggling to get out, to fly free… Love is like that."

Here are Belinda's answers to my questions:

Are you a daydreamer too?
I am a terrible daydreamer. So much so that I walk into things, drive into things, fall down stairs and boil vegetables dry because I forget what is going on around me.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I have always adored books. The experience of visiting the library as a child and borrowing books and secreting them home is embedded in my brain like some magical experience. I remember the smell of books and the feeling of sharing in something wonderful when I opened the cover. I didn't dream of being a writer until I was in year seven. I buried it for a few years during high school but it resurfaced in university and its been a dream ever since.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I tracked down my long lost grandmother some years ago and she told me the story of the girl and the red cost which was actually her story about how she came to find herself pregnant with my father. When a friend of mine asked why I hadn't written a story about girls the first thing I thought of was the red coat and a girl who seeks to understand where she has come from.
How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I'm not a detailed plotter or planner. My writing process is very intuitive. I gather ideas and thoughts and string them together a little like beads. I write once I feel the voice of my character and see where it leads.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I often dream at different phases of my writing process and I think the brain helps process, project and reflect back into itself, all the problems and issues we are working on in our waking lives. I've never written a novel on the basis of a dream, however.

Where do you write, and when?
At the moment I write whenever I can - which is limited while I'm back working full time. I pref to write in the first part of the day and I always write at a little coffee shop somewhere. I can come home and continue writing but I always begin out of the house.

What is your favourite part of writing?
 My favourite part of writing is beginning a new novel. I love the energy and possibilities that exist with a new idea.

What do you do when you get blocked? 
When I get blocked I try stepping up and outside the writing process. I will journal, research, think about the bigger picture. I step into my cognitive brain when I'm blocked. Watching movies helps as does reading a good book. If that fails a bit of a whinge to a friend never goes astray.

 How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I'm rarely short of inspiration. My problem is lack of time and too much stress from work. I do find that I need to unhinge a little to tap into my creative well. Lots of sleep, relaxing, a swim or walk usually puts me back in touch with the wonder of ideas and creative expression. I think the well is always there we just have to find ways to tap back into it at various times.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
My biggest ritual with writing is to go to a coffee shop somewhere. I'm pretty hooked on this process now. I wrote all three of my novels at the same coffee shop but I've moved away and have yet to find the one perfect place.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
My favourite ten writers are: Tim Winton, Margaret Atwood, Marcus Zusack, Paul Griffin, Shaun Tan, Margaret Wild, Philipp Meyer, Kirsty Eager, Joanne Harris and Wilbur Smith (earlier novels only and because they were so influential on me at a certain point in my writing journey)



What do you consider to be good writing?  
Good writing is full of voice and verve. It is a great story well told.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
My advice for those wishing to become published writers is 1) marry for money 2) write what you love 3) always listen to those who know more than you do

What are you working on now? 
 At the moment I'm illustrating a picture book which is due out next year. I'm also tinkering with a novel for upper primary/early high school years.


 Belinda Jeffrey's blog

BOOK LIST: Best Books Read in 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I didn't quite make my target of 100 books this year, reading only 95, but I did discover some brilliant new writers. Here are my top reads of the year: 

Best Historical Novel

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey 

What a wonderful, amazing, magical book! I just loved this and think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I wish I’d written it. A retelling of the Russian fairytale, the Snow Child, set in Alaska at the turn of the 19th century, it seems far too accomplished to be by a debut novelist ... I can only look forward hopefully to many more books by Eowyn Ivey.

Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder

I was sure I was going to love this book as soon as I read the subtitle: ‘The Story of a Quest, a Castle and Mary Queen of Scot’. And I did love it! A fabulous, dark, surprising historical novel, with a hefty dose of mystery, intrigue, passion and cross-dressing. This was one of the best reads of the year so far.

The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift

Set in 1666, soon after the restoration of King Charless II, this novel tells the story of how Alice – a young wife and talented painter - discovers a rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper, growing in a nearby wood. She is captivated by its beauty and wants to paint it, but the owner of the wood —a Quaker called Richard Wheeler, is determined to keep the flower where God intended it to grow. So Alice steals the flower, and sets off a chain of events including murder, riot, witchcraft, betrayal and exile. Brilliant historical fiction.

The Queen’s Vow by C.W Gortner

The Queen’s Vow brings Isabella of Castile, a powerful and passionate woman, to life, illuminates the forces that drove her, and paints a vivid picture of late 15th century Spain, one of the most fascinating of countries. I absolutely loved this book, and loved this place and time in history – I hope C.W. Gortner writes a lot more books, fast!

Best Parallel Historical/Contemporary Novel

Secrets of the Tide by Hannah Richell

Secrets of the Tides is a suspenseful page-turner of a family drama, taking place mainly in Cornwall and London, and moving back and forth between the past and the present. It begins with a girl jumping off a bridge into the Thames. We do not know who she is or why she is jumped, or even if she lives or dies. Slowly the answers to these mysteries are revealed, some of them very surprising. I absolutely loved it, and look forward to more from this debut author.

Lighthouse Bay by Kimberly Freeman

Lighthouse Bay begins in 1901, with a woman – the only survivor of a shipwreck - dragging a chest full of treasure down a deserted beach. The narrative then moves to contemporary times, with a woman secretly grieving at the funeral of her married lover. These two women – Isabella Winterbourne and Libby Slater – are joined through time by a lighthouse and its secrets and mysteries. I raced through this compelling and intriguing book, utterly unable to put it down. Fabulous rollicking read. 

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left Behind starts in occupied France during World War I, with the main character, Sophie Lefevre standing up the local German Kommandant. He sees a painting of Sophie, rendered by her artist-husband who is off fighting the German army. The Kommandant is drawn irresistibly to the painting – and to its beautiful, red-haired subject – and begins to show her favour. This attracts the suspicion and contempt of the other French villagers, and sets in chain a series of tragic events. 
The action then moves to modern-day London, where the young widow Liv now owns the painting and becomes the centre of a legal battle by the Lefevre family to get it back. There’s romance and drama and suspense aplenty – I really loved it.

Best Historical Mystery

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

A historical thriller set in Tudor England, this novel features a beautiful young nun, Sister Joanna, as its heroine. The book begins with the burning of Joanna’s cousin for treason, and sees our intrepid nun being thrown in the Tower and then coerced into a hunt for a mysterious crown thought to have supernatural powers. The book moves swiftly along, with lots of danger, suspense, and a little romance. An engaging read.

Where Shadows Dance by C.S. Harris

The latest in a series of great Regency murder mysteries featuring the aristocratic detective Sebastian St Cyr. I really enjoy this series, and buy each new one as soon as it comes out. Begin with the first in the series, What Angels Fear, as part of the pleasure is the unfolding relationships. 

Best Contemporary Mystery 

The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker

The latest in the delightful Bruno Courreges mysteries set in the Perigord in southern France, this one seems a little darker in tone than the previous ones, with terrorists, animal rights campaigners and archaeologists keeping Bruno busier than ever. There are the usual wonderful descriptions of French food and French countryside, and a little romance – I’m just hoping Martin Walker is writing fast. 

Best Fantasy

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Sea Hearts is wonderful, in all senses of the word. It’s a dark, moody, storm-wracked book of love, longing, desire, and wickedness. Its central character, Misskaella the sea-witch, is one of the most powerful fictive creations I’ve read in quite some time. Her story - and that of the selkies and the men who covet them – is heartbreaking in its sadness, yet also so hauntingly beautiful, so filled with the sweeping rhythm of the sea, and pierced here and there with shafts of light, that  the lingering feeling is one of awe and wonderment.

Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier 

The sixth in the wonderful Sevenwaters series, this book is, as always, filled with wonder, peril, magic, romance, courage, wisdom and compassion. Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favourite writers and she never, ever disappoints. A beautiful, radiant book. 

Best Children’s Fiction

The Forgotten Pearl by Belinda Murrell 

The most recent book by my beautiful sister, Belinda, The Forgotten Pearl is set in Darwin and Sydney during the Second World War. The heroine, Poppy, is a young girl who faces danger, loss, grief and new love during one of the most tumultuous times in Australian history. She lives through the bombing of Darwin and is evacuated to Sydney where she must learn to make a new life for herself. I always judge a book by whether it brings a prickle of tears to my eyes, and this book did that a number of times – a beautifully written historical novel for children set during a fascinating and largely forgotten period of Australian history. 

The Perilous Gard
by Elizabeth Marie Pope

I am so grateful to whoever it was that told me I should read this book - an absolute masterpiece of children's historical fantasy, written with such deftness and lightness of touch. It has become one of my all-time favourite children's books.

Flint Heart by Katherine & John Paterson

Katherine Paterson was one of my favourite authors when I was a child – I absolutely loved ‘Bridge to Terabithia’, and a lesser known book of hers, ‘Jacob Have I Loved’. So when I saw she and her husband John had retold an old English folktale and that it was sumptuously illustrated by John Rocco, the former creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, I had to have it. It’s a beautiful book in every sense of the word. The writing is simple and pitch-perfect, and the illustrations are strange and sumptuous – after I read it, I gave it to my 8 year old daughter and she loved it too. A lovely antidote to all those sparkly fairy books.

Best Young Adult Fiction

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

A lovely retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale, Jessica Day George has a light touch, a sweet romance, and a clever use of knitting – I’d recommend this to anyone who loves YA fantasy and fairytale retellings. 

One Long Thread by Belinda Jeffries

This is a beautiful, moving coming-of-age novel, refreshingly original and beautifully written. It tells the story of Ruby Moon, whose family has been split in half by her parents’ divorce. The mother moves to Darwin to join what can only be described as a cult, and takes Ruby’s twin sister with her. This seems to me so insensitive, so cruel … and, sure enough, the fallout from that decision has tragic consequences. The action of the book moves from Melbourne to Darwin to Tonga – the sections set there are among my favourite in the book. I also loved the use of the silkworm as a recurring motif and symbol. This was the first of Belinda Jeffries’ books that I have read but I will be seeking out more. 

Moonlight & Ashes by Sophie Masson

I really loved this new book by Sophie Masson. I think it's her best book yet, and I'm a long-time fan of her work. 'Moonlight & Ashes' is a retelling of the Aschenputtel fairy tale, the German Cinderella. It is set in alternative Prague, and is full of adventure, magic and romance. It has the most beautiful, dreamy cover too - loved it!

by Juliet Marillier

The latest book from one of my all-time favourite authors, Shadowfell is a magical quest set in an otherworldy Scotland. I loved it!

Best Historical Romance

The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie

The Perfect Waltz by Anne Gracie

The Perfect Kiss by Anne Gracie

I read a lot of romance this year, by a lot of different authors, possibly because I am studying my doctorate and so was seeking the very best kind of comfort reading as an antidote to all the academia I was ploughing through. Nonetheless, the three top romance books I read this year were all by the Australian author, Anne Gracie. Such lightness and deftness of touch, such wit and warmth, such sparkling dialogue - she never disappoints. 

Best Contemporary Romance

I didn’t read any this year – I wonder why?

Best Non-Fiction

Napoleon & Josephine: An Improbable Marriage by Evangeline Bruce

An utterly engrossing and illuminating look at Napoleon and his Empress, this thick tome is as readable as any novel. I went it to it understanding nothing about Napoleon and his rise and fall, and came away feeling I understood everything.

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski

Looking at the single year of 1812 - and drawing on thousands of first-hand accounts from both sides - this brilliant book looks at each step of Napoleon’s march on Russia and his disastrous retreat. Utterly compelling, shocking and fascinating. 

I need to make a disclaimer, of course:
1) My choice is utterly and unashamedly subjective
2) I know many of these writers, and am lucky enough to call some of them my friends. One of them is even my sister! Regardless of whether they’re friends or family, I still absolutely loved their works, though, and hope you will too.
3) Many thanks to the publishers and writers who sent me books this year– I’m sorry if I haven’t read those books yet and I will try to get to them. My reading choices are prompted purely by my own selfish pleasure and so sometimes I don’t read the books I should!
4) This means, of course, that there are many absolutely wonderful books out there which I haven’t yet discovered. I hope that I shall soon. 

You may enjoying reading my interviews with some of the above authors:


INTERVIEW: Kate Mosse, author of 'Citadel'

Friday, November 30, 2012

I am really incredibly excited to have Kate Mosse appearing on the blog today, answering my usual questions about daydreaming, writing & reading. I met Kate at a literary dinner in London a few years ago, and was virtually dumbstruck at the time, having really loved her book 'Labyrinth'. She was lovely, though, and very warm and natural and kind. She's been on a whirlwind tour promoting her new book, 'Citadel' (which I loved), but took the time out to respond to my email. Thank you, Kate! 

Are you a daydreamer too?
Not really.  I spend a fair bit of time in my imagination, of course, but in the company of characters or trying to work out a problem in this chapter or that.  I rarely just sit and look out of the window.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A reader, more than a writer.  I always hoped I'd be able to spend much of my time reading - I studied English at University, then worked in publishing for ten days, then was involved in setting up a major literary prize (the Women's Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize), before becoming a writer.  Even then, I wrote four books (two nonfiction, two fiction) before Labyrinth, still feeling as if I was a reader who was scribbling a bit too.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in London, but my parents moved back to my father's home area in Chichester, West Sussex, when I was a few months old. I think of myself as a Cicestrian born and and bred and my husband and I (who met at school), returned to live there after years away - in London and Paris in his case, Oxford and London in mine - when our own children were young.  We now live about a mile from where I grew up, a multigenerational household (both Mums) and our children, with my sisters and their families not far away.  As for what I like to do - walk in the woods, swim, read, read and read, go to the theatre, sit round the big kitchen table with family and friends to chat.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
We bought a tiny house in the medieval city of Carcassonne in 1989.  I knew nothing about the southwest of France, but I fell head over heels in love with the landscape, with the spirit of the place, with the history.  Each of the novels is, in a sense, a love letter to Carcassonne and I've been working and researching for twenty-three years now, albeit in an ad hoc way.  ‘Labyrinth’ - the first in the Trilogy, that came out in 2005 - is focused on the medieval Cité. ‘Citadel’, which is the third and final novel in the sequence, is based in and around the modern part of Carcassonne, the fourteenth century Bastide.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I spend years researching the history, allowing the characters to come to me and have a sense of the key sections of each novel.  However, I like to discover things as I go along - in adventure writing, the key is pace, momentum, the excitement that keeps a reader feverishly turning the pages.  So a sense of discovery for the writer, as well as the reader, is essential.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Not really.  When I'm writing (as opposed to researching, planning, drafting) I do go to bed very early thinking about the characters and start work very early in the morning, with them still fresh in my head.  A kind of dreaming, I suppose.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I knew it anyway, but I suppose it just brought home to me the extraordinary bravery of women and men who lived under the Nazi occupation in France during WW2, their morality, their courage to keep fighting against what they knew to be wrong, at terrible cost to themselves.  Would we all be as brave?

Where do you write, and when?
I can write anywhere, truthfully.  The early books were written, mostly, in our bedroom in our tiny house in Carcassonne, looking at the towers and turrets of the medieval Cité above.  Now we are based in the UK, I set up shop in my study on the first floor of our house in Sussex, looking out over copper beach tree, a horse chestnut, apple trees in the neighbouring gardens and squirrels running up and down the trunk.  I start at about 3.30am and work for a good chunk of time, then a few more hours during the afternoon.  I never work after about 5pm. My brain stops working and turns to thoughts of a glass of white wine and supper!

What is your favourite part of writing?
The editing.  I do three drafts always - and Citadel is about 230,000 words long, so that's a lot of material to work with.  The first is getting the basics down, the second is knocking it in to shape, then the third draft is starting again and writing the novel as it is supposed to be.  Then, a period of editing - both my agent and my editor work on the text and give notes - and then it's back to me. I love the edit because it's problem solving, it's about making the book the best it can be, ironing out all the creases.  A great sense of satisfaction when it finally goes to press.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I don't let that happen.  Writing is hard work and it's a job like any other.  So, I go to my computer every day and just keep at it.  Always, I have Samuel Beckett's words in my head - 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Reading source materials, letting your characters come properly to life, walking in the woods of Sussex or Carcassonne, listening to the stories of other people.  

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Strong, sweet black coffee first thing in the morning.  All you need to get going.  Once you've started, it's easy to continue.  It's the blank screen that's the enemy!

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Including - but not limited at all to so few - Sarah Waters, Emily Bronte, T S Eliot, Algernon Blackwood, Margaret Atwood, M R James, Hilary Mantel, Marilynne Robinson, Antony Beevor, Ian Rankin ...

Emily Bronte, painted by her brother Branwell

What do you consider to be good writing?
From the list above, you'll see:  good writing is where the author has succeeded in delivering to the reader what they set out to achieve. Each book is a promise made - of story, of style, of pace, of language, of intent.  If you can make good your promise, then a writer can be proud.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Don't dream, do it!  Work every day and work hard. Five minutes a day is better than no minutes ...

What are you working on now?
An idea for a play - a commission from Chichester Festival Theatre - is starting to take root in my mind.  You can't rush this side of things, but rather allow the ideas and characters to find their own shape, before you turn the writer's spotlight on them.  I love this point in a project, where you're excited and everything is still possible - and perfect.

The character of Audric Baillard appears in all of the three books – can you tell me a little bit more about him and how you came to conceive him? What is his importance in the three novels?
Baillard is, I suppose, the Conscience of the South, a person who stands both within his period of history, but also outside of it looking on.  He represents the eternal human qualities that most matter and that are - should be - unaffected by the changing politics of any era, of political expediency, of opportunism.   Baillard was fundamental to the plotting of Labyrinth - he carries a burden of extended life in order that he should bear witness to the horrors of history - then appears, almost as a cameo in Sepulchre - then, of course, in Citadel we see his World War II story that's hinted at in Labyrinth.  He is the character that ties all three novels of the Trilogy together.

Please feel free to leave a comment, I love to know what you think!

BOOK LIST: My Favourite Books Set in France

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My lovely publicist Peri is setting off to France for Christmas, and knowing what a Francophile I am, asked me for a list of books she should read before she goes. 

So here it is. My favourite books set in France:

Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris – Sarah Turnbull
My Life in France – Julia Child
True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women In Paris – Lucinda Holdforth (a must read! I'm lending it to Peri)

Fiction by Contemporary Writers
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
Girl at the Lion d’Or - Sebastian Faulks
Charlotte Grey - Sebastian Faulks
Chocolat – Joanne Harris
Five Quarters of the Orange – Joanne Harris (one of my all-time favourite books)
Peaches for Monsieur l’Cure - Joanne Harris
Perfume – Patrick Suskind   
The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. - Sandra Gullard
The Lady & the Unicorn – Tracy Chevalier
The Confessions of Catherine d’Medici: A Novel  – Christopher Gortner 
Labyrinth - Kate Mosse
Sepulchre - Kate Mosse
Citadel - Kate Mosse 

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
These Old Shades - Georgette Heyer (I love this book so much - it was my first Georgette Heyer!)
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens 

I know I'm forgetting some fantastic books! Any recommendations?

BOOK REVIEW: 'Citadel' by Kate Mosse

Monday, November 26, 2012

Title: Citadel
Author: Kate Mosse
Publisher: Hachette 
Age Group & Genre: Historical Thriller with supernatural twist

The Blurb:
LABYRINTH took us to the walled city of Carcassonne, SEPULCHRE travelled to the mysterious town of Rennes les Bains, now CITADEL transports us right to the southern-most edge of France - and to an amazing adventure set at key points in history in this scarred land right on the Spanish border. Combining the rugged action of LABYRINTH with the haunting mystery of SEPULCHRE, CITADEL is a story of daring and courage, of lives risked for beliefs, of unlocking secrets buried by time. Through history, this 'green land washed red by blood' has seen so much - not least the bravery of the men and women who smuggled exiles out of occupied France and away from the Nazi regime over the border into Spain. In CITADEL, Kate Mosse once again sets out to captivate the reader with the people at the heart of ancient struggles, to bring alive places and times unknown to us and to keep us on the edge of our seats with an amazing story.

What I Thought:
I really loved both ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Sepulchre’, which brought together elements of my favourite genres – history, suspense, romance, with a twist of the supernatural. So I was very excited to get Kate Mosse’s new book, ‘Citadel’, which is a lovely, big, thick thwack of a book. You wouldn’t want to drop it on your toe, or have to carry it around in your handbag.

Even though it is very heavy and hard to hold while reading in bed, ‘Citadel’ was a swift and pleasurable read. Most nights I stayed up later than I should have, unable to put it down.  I love books set in France (I’m such a Francophile!), I love books set during the Second World War, and I love books that have a parallel narrative, set in two different time periods – and so ‘Citadel’ ticks a lot of boxes for me. 

Unlike ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Sepulchre’, there is no contemporary narrative in this book. Instead the story set during the Second World War is interwoven with a tale of a Dark Ages monk who is seeking to protect a mysterious scroll called the Codex. This secondary thread is only a minor part of the book, which concentrates on the primary story of the struggles of a group of women Resistance fighters trying to help people escape Nazi-occupied France. Really, the book could have done without the Codex - the story of the brave women Resistance fighters is strong enough to stand on its own. However, with this second narrative thread, Kate Mosse is able to have the same twist of the supernatural that worked so well in her earlier two books, plus tie all three books together at the climax. 

I’m actually rather sad to know that this is the end of Kate Mosse’s Carcassone books – I hope she writes some more!


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