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COMPETITION: Are you Australia's biggest Harry Potter fan? Say so & win!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bloomsbury is celebrating the 15th anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter novel with a competition to find Australia and New Zealand's biggest fan.

The competition is going to be fierce. 

Harry Potter novels have now sold approximately 450 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 73 languages. 


You need to write a letter of no more than 50 words explaining why you love Harry Potter. Bloomsbury is looking for the most creative, clever and entertaining reasons and entrants are encouraged to draw, doodle and make their letters as elaborate as possible (without crossing the 50 word limit).
 
You can only enter by visiting a local bookshop and posting your letter in the specially designed postboxes. Over 400 bookshops have already signed up to take part. The competition will run from Tuesday 26th June to Tuesday 31st July 2012 , with the winner and runners up  announced on Saturday 1st September.


For more details, check out their website at: http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/Admin/www.bloomsburyanz.com/harrypottercompetition

Winners will receive a leather-bound, signed, dedicated and numbered 15th Anniversary Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The limited number 15th Anniversary Editions are exclusive to the competition and cannot be purchased elsewhere. 

Winners will also receive a Harry Potter Special Edition Boxed Set (value AU$470/NZ$550) and a Harry Potter signature edition audio box (value AU$800/NZ$990). 

There will be one winner in Australia and one winner in New Zealand. 

Three Runners Up will receive a leather-bound, signed, dedicated and numbered 15th anniversary edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Notes:
 
Entry to the competition is only available through bookshops. Terms and conditions apply, and no purchase is necessary. Other international competitions will be running in other territories. 
 
Bloomsbury will be unable to return any entries. All entries become the property of Bloomsbury Publishing Pty Ltd; by participating in the competition, entrants consent to the use and publication of their names and contributions by Bloomsbury.
 
 
 
 

INTERVIEW: With Susan Vreeland

Monday, June 25, 2012

Interview with Susan Vreeland

 

I first fell in love with Susan Vreeland’s work when I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue which was just the most extraordinary book. It told the story of a painting, going backwards from contemporary times to the day the painting was created. Each chapter is complete in itself, making it a collection of interlinked short stories, each detailing the impact the painting made upon an individual. Some of the stories are hauntingly sad, others filled with small pleasures and preoccupations. I absolutely loved the book, and so whenever a new Susan Vreeland book came out, I would buy it at once. This is a rare occurrence. Since Girl in Hyacinth Blue was published in 1999, Susan Vreeland has published only five new books. All of them have a preoccupation with art and artists, and all of them bring a place and a time vividly to life.

Just briefly, here are a round-up of her other books:

The Passion of Artemisia (2002) which tells the life story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman painter in the Renaissance. She was raped at 18 by her father's colleague and had to endure a trial in which she was tortured to see if she was telling the truth. She went on to paint some extraordinary paintings, and to become the only woman ever to be accepted into the Florence salon. Brilliant!

The Forest Lover (2004) is told from the point of view of the Canadian Impressionist painter Emily Carr. I had never heard of Emily Carr before I read this book. Afterwards I was googling her paintings and could not believe that this feisty, strong-willed, pig-headed and vulnerable woman was not more widely known. Her paintings are extraordinary - bold, unconventional and filled with light and mystery.

Life Studies (2005) is a collection of short stories revealing the inner and outer lives of well-known Impressionistic painters. Luminous and entrancing.

Luncheon of the Boating Party (2007) looks at Renoir's famous creation of the painting of the same name. The cover shows a replica of the painting – I was constantly turning the pages to stare at the cover and identify each character – and I marvel at her skill at turning this summer in Renoir's life into a compelling page-turner.

Finally, her new book Clara and Mr Tiffany (2012) which looks at the unknown woman designer of the famous Tiffany leadlight lightshades. It’s another piece of forgotten art history illuminated and brought to life. I loved it:

Here are Susan’s answers to my questions:

 Are you a daydreamer too?
I sometimes work myself into a quiet mental space whereby the next chapter of a novel will come to me, or the next thing a character says or does.

 Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. The urge started in 1984 when I was forty.

 How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
By seeing Clara's gorgeous lamps in an exhibit at the New York Historical Society in 2007, the exhibit that introduced her to the world.

 How extensively do you plan your novels?
I make a list of chapters or scenes, but this list constantly is altered as I proceed.

 Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
My own dreams? No, but I like to have my characters dream.

 Where do you write, and when?
I have a beautiful office with wood built-ins. From my desk, I can look through the glass French doors onto a patio. When? Morning, noon, and night, my dear.

 What is your favourite part of writing?
Rewriting.

 What do you do when you get blocked?
Change activities, while keeping the chapter that comes next floating in my thoughts.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I remind myself to listen to the one divine Mind of the universe which is offering me ideas and directing me. I deeply feel gratitude to this source for what I've just written.

 Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
I try to do some reading of a spiritual nature in the morning before I start work.

 Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Virginia Woolf
Shakespeare
Robert Frost
Sena Jeter Naslund
Stephen Dunn, poet
Emily Dickinson
Emily Carr, Canadian painter
Harper Lee

What do you consider to be good writing? 
A delicate touch of imagery, a compelling story, a handful of themes that resonate currently even though the work may take place ages ago, an appealing voice, an occasional surprise.

 What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read, read, read, keep a journal of favorite sentences or passages arranged by topic. Readers can email me for my list of topics.

 What are you working on now?
LISETTE'S LIST, a novel taking place in Provence, France, of two generations who own a small collection of paintings by Pissarro, Cézanne, Picasso, and Chagall, and what happens to their lives and the paintings during and after World War II.

A link to Susan Vreeland's website describing how she came to write Clara and Mr Tiffany:

 Susan Vreeland's website

You may also like:

My review of 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' 

My review of 'Vienna Waltz' by Teresa Grant

My Midwinter Feast

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Midwinter Solstice
Today is the midwinter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and I always like to celebrate by cooking a special meal for the family. This is what I plan to cook this year: 

Midwinter Feast
Roast beef & mushrooms
Roast potatoes, onions, carrots and pumpkin 
Green beans & peas


(Photo by John Paul Urizan)

For Pudding:
Apple & rhubarb crumble with cream

(I like to cook warm-coloured vegetables like pumpkin or rhubarb to remind us of the return of summer)

Midwinter Wish
The whole family will eat by candlelight, and then, whoever wants to, will write a wish for the coming year on a piece of paper and burn the paper in the candle flame. Simple!

REVIEW: 'Clara and Mr Tiffany' by Susan Vreeland

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Title: Clara and Mr Tiffany
Author: Susan Vreeland 
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 432 
My stars: 4/5 stars 

The Blurb:
Against the unforgettable backdrop of New York near the turn of the twentieth century, from the Gilded Age world of formal balls and opera to the immigrant poverty of the Lower East Side, bestselling author Susan Vreeland again breathes life into a work of art in this extraordinary novel, which brings a woman once lost in the shadows into vivid color. 

It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World's Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women's division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered. 

Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest--the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart. 

My Feelings:
I love Susan Vreeland’s books. She is interested in art and poetry and history, all the things which I love too. Her books always feel like a journey of discovery for me, illuminating the forgotten life of some brilliant, creative, unknown woman. Her latest book is called Clara and Mr Tiffany, and it brings to life Clara Driscoll, the woman behind the beautiful and exotic stained glass lamps that the House of Tiffany produced just before the turn of the century. The Mr Tiffany in this case is the son of the famous Mr Tiffany of the well-known aquamarine box. He was an extraordinary character too, and the relationship between him and Clara is quite fascinating. He made it a rule that none of the women artists working for him were permitted to marry, so that Clara was constantly having to choose between her art and love.  I really loved this book, and look forward to Ms Vreeland’s next wonderful creation. 



A Rapunzel poem by Adele Geras

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Adele Geras, a UK writer whose work I admire greatly, sent me this beautiful Rapunzel poem. I just wish I could have included it as an epigraph in Bitter Greens!

WHITE TOWER

          There were stairs
               on the way up.
               I am sure of it.
 
               I can see the wall.
               Beyond the wall
               there must be something,
               but I cannot say
               exactly what it is.
 
               There was a door
               on the way in.
               I am sure of it,
 
               but thorn trees have grown
               as quick as weeds
               and covered it.
 
               The stairs have melted.
               Your footsteps, as you left,
               turned them to wax,
               which has blocked the stairwell
               and set in every crevice.
 
               You have made the tower
               your particular candle.
               Presently,
               my hair will flare to gold.
 
               There were other places
               before this room.
               I am sure of it.
 

'Rapunzel' drawing by Isobel Lilian Gloag


Adele Geras has written a fresh and inventive retake on Rapunzel called The Tower Room, which is set in a 1960s English girls’ school. The story draws upon the key motifs of the fairytale - the tower, illicit love, an angry mother-figure - while still telling a compelling coming-of-age story. 

Adele Geras's website



'Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe' by Sandra Gullard

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe by Sandra Gullard

This is the second book in Sandra Gullard’s trilogy about the Empress Josephine, one of the most fascinating women in history.

Told in first person, in diary form, the books has an immediacy which brings the character of Mrs Napoleon Bonaparte vividly to life. I think it helps to know the story well; I’ve read biographies of Napoleon and Josephine before and am studying the period, and so find it intriguing to have the story told in such a fresh and engaging way. However, if you are interested in knowing more about the period, these books may well be a good place to start.

Sandra Gullar's website

BOOK REVIEW: 'Vienna Waltz' by Teresa Grant

Monday, March 12, 2012

Vienna Waltz by Teresa Grant

Vienna Waltz is a very enjoyable murder mystery set during the Vienna Congress of 1814.

It has a fascinating mix of true historical figures, such as the Russian Czar and Prince Metternich, and imaginary characters such as our heroine, Suzanne Rannoch, who has a rather shady past. With lots of descriptions of gorgeous clothes, diplomats dancing at glittering balls, and skulduggery in dark, stinking alleyways, the setting is vivid and believable, and the mystery itself an intriguing puzzle.

Teresa Grant's Blog

INTERVIEW: Margo Lanagan

Friday, February 17, 2012

I first read Margo Lanagan a few years ago, when Garth Nix pressed a copy of her short story collection Black Juice upon me at a writer’s conference. ‘You must read this,’ he said.

‘But I really don’t like short stories,’ I said.

‘You’ll like these,’ he answered. And he was right. One of the stories in particular really haunted me – ‘Singing My Sister Down’ was a strange, dark, heartbreaking and yet beautiful story which recounts the last hours in the life of a young woman condemned to death by drowning in a tar pool. We don’t know where or when the story is set, and we only gradually learn some of the reason why. What is striking about the story is the language, which was so unlike anything else I had ever read I was mesmerised. Margo Lanagan’s voice was bold, inventive, and filled with mystery.

I loved it.

So did the rest of the world. Black Juice ended up being a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, winning two World Fantasy Awards, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, a Golden Aurealis Award, and a Bram Stoker Award nomination.

Phew!

So when I heard a few years later that Margo had written a novel, I was keen to read it. My interest sharpened when I learned that it was a retelling of the ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ fairy tale. You all know how much I love fairy tale retellings!

I finally read her novel Tender Morsels last year (about three years after it came out) and this is how I reviewed it:

This is a truly extraordinary book, and one that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards. The language is astonishingly good – bold, original, unexpected – and the story itself takes all kinds of surprising directions ... It’s only occasionally that I finish a book with a real sense of awe, but this book delivered me that. If you haven’t read it yet, read it now. Then let’s talk about it. I’m dying to talk to someone about it!

Tender Morsels was a controversial book, dealing as it did with incest, rape, and revenge, and I certainly found some of the scenes hard to read. What I loved most about the book was the firecracker language, and that sense of strangeness and mystery that Margo seems to do so well. It went on to win a World Fantasy Award too, and was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book as well.

Now Margo has a new book out and I could hardly wait to get my greedy little hands on it. It’s about selkies, I was informed. I love selkies! If you don’t all know how much I love selkies, well, you should be able to guess.

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.

The blogosphere has been abuzz with the book, and so I’m very glad that Margo took some time out to answer my questions:

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes, daydreaming is very important for idea development. It's very easy to become self-conscious and anxious about a story, and it's important to be relaxed at the beginning, when I'm first approaching the story, idea in hand, looking for a character and a situation to carry it.

With some stories, it's productive to sit down and make notes while I interrogate the idea, Q&A-ing myself about it; others are better if I give them time, bring the idea to the forefront of my brain for a little while and poke at its possibilities, try to imagine what would be the most fun place to take it; then I push it back into my subconscious to cook, until the next opportunity to daydream with it - when it often comes out of the sub-conscious with a new, better, unexpected something attached.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I would always have wanted to be a writer if I'd known that normal people could become writers, but that wasn't something I realised until I was in my late 20s. Before that, I wrote and published poetry, but I assumed that real books, full of story, simply fell out of the sky, as a kind of natural phenomena. It was only when I started working in publishing that I realised there was a process for making them from (sometimes really scrappy) manuscripts into finished books, and that I could manage to produce a scrappy manuscript myself, just fine.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

I tell the story of this in the lovely book trailer that Allen & Unwin made for Sea Hearts. The short version? I bought some knitting wool!

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I never plan a novel really thoroughly, as that takes all the exploratory fun out of writing it. But during the writing there are usually many points where I have to step back and think about the story as a whole: where all the different bits fit, how each character's story flows and builds and combines with the others. At the start of a novel, I'm very experimental and free, then I stand back and try to sort things out, then let myself off the leash again within the new constraints I've set for myself; if I then find myself launching off in a new direction, I have to pause and sort things out again so that I'm comfortable that I know (but only roughly!) where I'm going.

I don't write character descriptions or biographies unless I need that information for plotting purposes. I don't write timelines unless I start to get confused about the order of things (meaning, for both Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts I wrote extensive timelines, several different versions of them).

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I have occasionally, but only for short stories. The story "Wooden Bride" in Black Juice was largely a recounting of a dream I had. The sorts of dreams that are inspiring are the ones with both strong visual impressions and a strong atmosphere about them. Lately I haven't been having many memorable dreams at all, though. But that's no problem; there are far too many sources of inspiration in the world already!

Where do you write, and when?

Sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes in my Writing Room, which is a rented room a couple of blocks from my house. I write best if I get up early-early in the morning before I've had time to properly shake sleep off; then I don't get in my own way with doubts or irrelevant thoughts. If I can get in an hour or so's good writing before breakfast, I know I'll get a lot done that day.

When I'm writing full-time (but I've been only part-time for the past few years), I'll write Monday to Friday, from as early as possible until I've written 10 pages, which might mean 11 a.m. and might mean 5 p.m. It depends on how much pausing-and-thinking I have to do to keep things moving along.

What is your favourite part of writing?

Oh, I pretty much like it all, from buying pens and paper (yes, I write first drafts in longhand) to keeping notebooks of ideas, to making the first stab at a story, to coming back and rereading and realising what it needs to make it interesting to me again.

When I'm working, and completely absorbed in whatever story I'm writing, and there's hardly space in my mind to realise it, that's probably when I'm happiest. But finishing a novel draft and listening to the printer churning out the pages for revision, that's satisfying too, and picking over editors' remarks or copyeditors' queries, working up the story towards being polished and finished - as long as any of these stages is not too badly pressurised by oncoming deadlines, I'm very happy spending my days this way.

I know I'm supposed to be all angsty and tortured by the process, but honestly, compared to writing tax procedures for a bank, it's heaven.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Physical exercise. Put the problem out of my head and get some oxygen to the brain. That usually lets some air into the plot-knot as well, and helps me be relaxed about it and regain my faith in untangling it. Also, having faced story-problems for more than 20 years and solved quite a few of them, I've built up confidence that I can crawl out of most holes I manage to dig for myself.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

By reading other people's books, good (for inspiration) and bad (for righteous rage). With poetry, music, art, movies and as much travel as I can afford. By taking time off from writing to break habits and patterns my voice falls into every now and again if I write too continuously. By having a social life that involves both other writers and real-world people with real jobs.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Just the getting up early thing. Oh, and eating carrots and Vita-Weets, for the purposes of crunching through plot and scene hitches. And not using pens, notebooks or writing-paper that's so fancy that it intimidates me. Cheap and scuffed is best.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

  • Anne Tyler
  • George Saunders
  • Anne Enright
  • William Mayne
  • Alan Garner
  • Kelly Link
  • Jennifer Stevenson, on the strength of Trash Sex Magic—I haven't read anything else of hers yet
  • W. G. Sebald
  • Gail Godwin
  • Ursula Dubosarsky

What do you consider to be good writing?

Good writing happens when the author gives the impression (doesn't matter how much sweat and pain have gone into creating the illusion) of not watching the audience but looking with great commitment and fascination at the matter at hand; where you can feel the writing as their exploration rather than a performance they're delivering. Ego-free, intense, well-crafted writing, that's what I like.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Forget "being a writer". Focus on the story in front of you. How can you best serve it? How can you learn the most from it? How can you get the most pleasure out of exploring it?

Also, read lots, write lots, and have some kind of life out in the real world as well, not just in your own head.

What are you working on now?

A novel about an Irish seer transported to colonial New South Wales, and a collection (the Blue collection) of not-very-nice stories.

Books I've been reading in 2011

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Books read in January 2011

All these books are by Elsie J. Oxenham, and are part of the Abbey Girls series which were written between 1920 and 1946. I've been collecting these books since I was twelve, and recently decided to read my way through the entire series again, in order, and trying to locate any books in the series that I didn't have. The final three in this list are all books I haven't read before and which I acquired thanks to the kindness and generosity of another Abbey Girls fan. I have quite a few more to read before I reach the end, but it was immensely satisfying to fill in the gaps in the story and see what happens to all my favourite characters!

The Principessa by Christie Dickason

This absorbing historical novel has the firemaster of James I of England as its hero, and is a follow-on from the novel The Firemaster's Mistress, which I read and enjoyed a few years ago. In this story, the firemaster – who is called Francis Quoynt – is sent as a spy to a small Italian state where he has to find a secret document that compromises the safety of King James's secretary of state, Robert Cecil. The task is complicated, however, by the madness of the prince of La Spada and the beauty and cunning of his daughter, Sofia, the Principessa of the title. A wonderful mix of history, suspense, adventure and romance, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend both of them.

The Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent by Mary Laver

A very readable non-fiction book about Renaissance convents in Venice with some fascinating stories.

Interrupted Aria & A Painted Veil by Beverle Graves Myers

These are the first two books in the 'Baroque Mystery' series, which are set in Venice in the 1730s. Our hero is a castrati opera singer called Tito Amato and the books are full of all sorts of intriguing facts about Venice and the early years of opera.

A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant

This book is sub-titled 'A True Story of Impossible Love in the Eighteenth Century' and is an extraordinary account of two star-crossed lovers and their forbidden affair in the mid-eighteenth century. Andrea Memmo is a Venetian nobleman, and Giustiniana is a beautiful young girl from a family of dubious lineage (her father was an English lord, but her mother was a scandalous nobody who conceived Giustniana out of wedlock). It's a beguiling story, destined to end tragically, which weaves together the lovers' own letters with a narrative that sets their affair in context with the times and places. I was particulrly charmed by the character of Giustiniana, who ended up a countess and a novelist in her own right.

3,096 Days by Natascha Kampusch

Natascha Kampusch is the young German girl who was abducted on her way to school one day and spent the next eight years locked in a dungeon-like room concealed below her kidnapper's cellar. This is her story, told with the help of two journalists, and is absolutely compelling and frightening. I ended up with such admiration for Natascha's courage, intelligence and wisdom, and I so hope she can find peace and happiness in her life now that she has escaped such horror. A very disturbing story.

Seventeen books read in January, plus a lot of research into Renaissance Venice as I'm now working on the Venetian sections of the book I'm writing. Though I feel a little guilty claiming so many books, since eight of them were Abbey Girl books which can be devoured in a single sitting!

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Books read in February 2011

The Borgia Bride by Jeanne Kalogridas

The tagline for this book reads 'Incest. Poison. Betrayal. Three wedding presents for the Borgia Bride.' This sums up the book really well. It's a real historical page turner, set in Italy in the 1490s when the Borgia family ruled Rome. Although it's a big, thick book I read it in a night, reading way past my bedtime. I have to warn you, some scenes are rather graphic – sex, incest, rape, murder – but we are talking about the Borgias here! Riveting stuff.

Seer of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier

Another wonderful historical fantasy from one of my all-time favourite writers. I was a little disappointed – given the title - that the book wasn't actually set at Sevenwaters (the location of many of Juliet's books), but it was lovely to meet some old friends and the story had me guessing almost to the very end. And the love story was quite beautiful.

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan

Brian Keenan is an Irish teacher who was kidnapped in 1985 while working in Beirut. This is a memoir of his four and a half years as a hostage, enduring torture, beatings, and solitary confinement. A very hard book to read at times – how can humans be so cruel? Yet Brian survived mind and soul intact, an amazing testament to the strength of his spirit.

The Venetian Mask by Rosalind Laker

The story begins in Venice in the 1770s, with a little orphan girl being taken in by the Pieta, and finishes with the fall of Venice to Bonaparte in 1797. It's a novel on a grand scale, with themes of love, loss, suffering, and betrayal. Rosalind Laker is particularly good at the minutiae of life at the time – the clothes, the food, the hairdos. Although romances, her books are really more about female relationships and this is particularly true of this novel.

Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick

Another book set at the Pieta, the founding school which trained abandoned children to sing and play musical instruments. Antonio Vivaldi is a key character in this book, but the spotlight is mostly on Anna Maria dal Violin, a true life girl whose musical virtuosity was lauded in the early 18th century. And even though she is locked up behind the Ospedale's walls most fo the time, Venice itself comes vividly to life. A really wonderful read.

Royal Flush by Rhys Bowen

These books are great fun! Very frothy, but wonderfully quick-witted and amusing.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

This is a truly extraordinary book, and one that lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards. The language is astonishingly good – bold, original, unexpected – and the story itself takes all kinds of surprising directions. I really think it's going to be one of the best books of the year (OK, OK, I know it was published in 2008, but sometimes it takes me a while to get to a book!) It's only occasionally that I finish a book with a real sense of awe, but this book delivered me that. If you haven't read it yet, read it now. Then let's talk about it. I'm dying to talk to someone about it!

The King's Daughter by Christie Dickason

The King's Daughter is the story King James I's daughter, Princess Elizabeth. I have never known much about James I - who seems to be largely ignored by the history books - but he was a strange and rather cruel man with all sorts of odd tics and mannerisms and it must have been awful being his daughter. Christie Dickason brings the whole era vividly to life, and I felt enormous sympathy for both Princess Elizabeth and her black slave-girl who teaches her how to trust and how to love.

Lovesong by Alex Miller

This is a book as much about the craft of writing as the actual love story and, as such, was a fascinating read. It's about an ageing writer, Ken, who strikes up a friendship with a younger man, John, who is married to a Tunisian woman, Sabiha. Slowly John reveals the story of his marriage with Sabiha and how her longing for a child led them into betrayal and tragedy. Beautifully told, with a deceptively simple and elegant style.

Nine books read this month – a total of 26 for the year.

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Books read in March 2011

The Devil & Maria d'Avalos by Victoria Hammond

I had this book on my shelf for more than three years, and yet never picked it up to read it. I think this is because the book's blurb says "Steeped in the overripe beauty, violence and exoticism of sixteenth century Naples, this is the riveting story behind one of the most famous and terrible murders in the history of the Renaissance ... In 1590, the great and tormented composer Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, murdered his beautiful wife Maria d'Avalos and her aristocratic lover." It's hard to read a book when you know the protagonist is going to be murdered! It was, however, a really fascinating book that vividly brings the world of 16th century Naples to life. In some ways, the book reads more like a non-fiction book, though it is as gripping as any novel. I really enjoyed it!

In the Company of The Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

I've read and loved this book before and very much enjoyed re-reading it. Set in 16th century Venice, the story is told from the point of view of a courtesan's dwarf, Bucino, one of the most original characters in recent literary history. A wonderful book by a wonderful writer.

The Virgin Blue by Tracey Chevalier

The first novel by Tracey Chevalier, this story is told in parallel between the voices of two women born four hundred years apart. Ella Turner is haunted by dreams which lead her to try and discover the life story of one of her ancestors, Isabella Tournier. Isabella's fate is tragic and heart-rending, but Ella is able to grow in self-understanding as a result of her investigations and ultimately finds happiness. I have read this before, but not for some years – it was great to revisit it.

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

This book is so vivid and rings so true that at first I thought I was reading a memoir. It tells the story of an Indian-born chef, Hassan Haji, and his journey to winning five Michelin stars. Filled with remarkable characters and some wonderful descriptions of food, it glows with joyousness and a love for life. A fabulous read.

Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

An unusual and amusing book which feels like a cross between Jane Austen and Terry Pratchett. Told in an epistolary narrative (i.e through an exchange of letters), the two heroines are cousins trying to deal with the London season, romance, magic and mayhem. The narrative structure is rather awkward at times, and the arch tone is sometimes a little annoying, but it made me smile, always something to be grateful for.

Game of Patience by Susanne Alleyn

The first book I read on my new Kindle. A historical murder mystery set in Paris after the French Revolution – not as gripping as it could have been but an enjoyable read, and the setting was fascinating.

Titian: A Short Biography by William Michael Rossetti

A biography that assumes you have read all the other biographies on a subject. Which I haven't. It raised more questions than it answered, and sent me in search of better biographies.

Titian's Women by Rona Goffen

An enormous book on the artist Titian, in all senses of the word. Thick, heavy, magisterial, and a little too academic for my taste, it was nonetheless illuminating.

Titian: The Last Days by Mark Hudson

Another biography of Titian, though this one concentrated on his final years and on the author's personal responses to his paintings. A much livelier read than the other two books, and with some illuminating insights into both Venice and Titian's art.

Vampire Forensics by Mark Collins Jenkins

A really engrossing and interesting look at the origins of the vampire myth in various cultures, and how it has changed and grown over various novel incarnations to the present-day fascination with all things fanged.

10 books in March!

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Books read in April 2011

The Betrayal of the Blood Lily by Lauren Willig

I've really enjoyed this series from Lauren Willig – light, clever, amusing and romantic. On the lookout for the next in the series.

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C W Gortner

An absolutely fabulous historical novel told from the point of view of Catherine de Medici, one of the most maligned women in history. This novel makes her seem sympathetic without white-washing some of her more dastardly deeds, and indeed illuminates and explains some of the most dramatic events of her life, for example the St Bartholomew's massacre in France. I loved C W Gortner's last book The Last Queen; this is even better!

The Beauty Chorus by Kate Lord Brown

This novel tells the story of three young women who fly planes for the airforce during the Second World War. It's based on fact; women really did fly planes during the Second World War, risking their lives to help the war effort. This is a great book, with vivid characters and a storyline filled with drama, romance, and intrigue.

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie, Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie & Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

I spent Easter in a villa in Provence and they had a fantastic book collection, including a whole row of old Agatha Christie books. I read my way through three of them in a row. Why Didn't They Ask Evans is an old favourite, The Secret Adversary is one I haven't read in years and enjoyed meeting again, Ten Little Niggers is one of her worst, written by her as an exercise in an unsolveable mystery.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

'The Pillars of the Earth' by Ken Follett was one of my favourite books last year, so I was looking forward to this with great anticpation. I have to say I was disappointed.

It was readable, and interesting, and I came away with a much deeper and richer understanding of the causes and effects of the First World War, but ... I didn't laugh or weep or catch my breath in surprise or feel my pulse accelerate as I turned the pages faster and faster, desperate to find out what happened. It was simply too big. Too many characters, and not enough time spent with each one? Too much research and not enough story? A shame.

Ice Station Zebra by Alastair Maclean

Picked this up in a second-hand bookstore in Venice – I've read it before but always happy to read an Alastair Maclean again.

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Books read in May 2011

The Falconer's Knot by Mary Hoffman

'A tale of poison, bloodshed and passion', the front cover tells me. Sounds just like my kind of book! I thought. And since I had read and enjoyed Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza series, which features modern-day teenagers travelling backwards (or sideways) to an alternative Renaissance Italy, I grabbed it off the bookshelf right away. I was not disappointed. The Falconer's Knot tells the story of Silvano, a young man who falls in love with the pretty face of a married woman. When her husband is found murdered, with Silvano's knife in the body, he has to flee or face being hanged for the deed. He takes refuge in a friary, and meets a beautiful young novice-nun called Chiara.

Soon a friar is murdered too and once again suspicion falls on Silvano. It seems he is being stalked by tragedy. He and Chiara – who have met in their work grinding pigments for artists – decide to try and solve the mystery. A convoluted plot follows, though so simply and beautifully told it is a pleasure to read, and the murderer is at last unmasked. A fabulous book, and one I can highly recommend.

In the Shadow of the Sun King by Golden Keyes Parsons

A historical novel with a strong thread of faith running through it, In the Shadow of the Sun King was based on the writer's own family history. It tells the story of a Huguenot family suffering persecution at the hands of the Sun King, Louis XIV. I felt some trepidation reading this book because Golden Keyes Parsons describes herself as: 'A Speaker and Author who issues the challenge: Dare to take God seriously!'

I wanted to read it because the heroine of the novel I am writing is a Huguenot at the court of the Sun-King and so I have been reading anything I could get my hands on about French Protestantism. I was afraid the book would be virtually unreadable – a religious rant described as literature - but to my pleased surprise, it was a vivid and interesting story that truly illuminated the plight of the beleaguered Huguenots in France at this time.

Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre by Gwendolin Courtney

Published in 1948, this is a children's book about a family of four girls whose author-father remarries, and the step-mother's struggle to win the hearts of her new step-daughters. It's quite charming, in an old-fashioned way, and full of literary allusions that most children today simply wouldn't get, which is a shame.

The Tudor Secret by Christopher Gortner

I loved this book! It's a fast-paced historical thriller set during the last days of Edward VI, the teenage son of Henry VIII and the younger brother of Princess Elizabeth. I had thought the Tudor period had been milked dry, but this book brings in all the major players and still manages to be fresh, surprising, and a real page-turner. I stayed awake long past my bedtime to finish it, and was excited to learn it's the first in a series called 'Elizabeth's Spymaster'. I'll be buying the next one before the ink has a chance to dry on its pages!

The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella

I loved this book too! What a delight. The story of a love affair between a British officer and his tempestuous Italian cook in the final years of the Second World War, it would make a wonderful movie. I'd pay to see it, for sure. I've read two earlier books by Anthony Capella, The Food of Love and The Empress of Icecream, and like them, this book is full of fabulous descriptions of food. I cooked my family an Italian feast once I'd finished this book, though I had to look up some of the recipes on the internet. I can't believe this book is not better known – it should be. One of the best books so far this year.

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley

This novel is set in 17th century France, during the reign of the Sun King, and has at its heart the shocking Affair of the Poisons which scandalised French society and saw many hundreds put on trial for murder, sorcery, abortion and satanic rites. I've been studying the period for the book I'm now writing and so it was very interesting to read another novel drawing on the same events. The Oracle Glass is a thick, dense, and rather strange book, jammed full of reflections on philosophy and religion. Judith Merkle Riley taught political science at Claremont McKenna College in California, and her intelligence – and that of her intriguing heroine, Genevieve – shines forth on every page. I say 'taught' instead of 'teaches' because sadly Judith died last year from ovarian cancer.

The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

A great title and a fantastic idea – a girl who is the thirteenth child born into a family of magic-makers and a world that believes birth order matters. Her twin brother is the seventh son of a seventh son, and so lauded from birth as someone special. The heroine, who has the dreadful name of Eff, is expected to turn to the bad, however, and so she learns to fear her own destiny. Set in a world that rather oddly combines the Wild West with creatures like steam dragons and mammoths, this book is a most unusual children's fantasy that chooses the small and domestic over thrills and chills.

Seven books read in May, bringing me to a total of 51 for the year so far.

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Books read in June 2011

Troll Blood by Katherine Langrish

This is the third in Katherine Langrish's Troll trilogy, which I have absolutely loved! The books are set in the world of the Vikings, a place where trolls skulk in the hills and Granny Green-teeth lurks at the bottom of the millpond. Katherine is a wonderful lyric writer who brings this world vividly to life without ever once letting the compelling pace flag. The three books are currently available in Australia in an abridged form as one complete book called West of the Moon. I'd recommend these books to anyone!

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is one of my top 10 favourite writers, and so I was very keen to get my hands on her latest book. I just love the way she enters into the heart and imagination of a girl who lived so long ago, and brings that historical past so vividly alive. It's a truly fascinating story too – told from the point of view of young Bethia, it details the events which led her Wampanoag friend, Caleb, to study at Harvard in the 1660s, becoming the first Native American to matriculate there. I really loved this book, though it was very sad in parts.

The Assassin's Prayer by Ariana Franklin

This is a brilliant series of medieval murder mysteries featuring the intelligent and difficult Mistress of the Art Of Death, Adelia Aguilar, who is an early (very early) forensic investigator. In this book, Adelia is sent to accompany the king's daughter, Joanna, on her lavish thousand-mile journey to marry the King of Sicily. Travelling in the same train is a sadistic killer who seeks revenge on Adelia for a former mystery she solved. The killer's only aim is to see Adelia burn as a witch, and given the state of religious intolerance in Europe at that time, he may well succeed ... I'd really recommend these books to anyone who likes a good hefty medieval murder mystery!

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford

A classic biography of Louis XIV by Nancy Mitford, most remarkable for its racy style and personal comments (for Example, she calls The Marquie de Montespan, one of the king's mistresses, 'a grubby woman'). Beautifully illustrated, but feels a little dated now.

Eon by Alison Goodman & Eona by Alison Goodman

First published as Two Pearls of Wisdom, Eon is the first book in this wonderful fantasy duology by Melbourne writer, Alison Goodman, with Eona being the second. The books are set in a world that feels like medieval China, with a fascinating and rich culture all of its own. Compulsively readable, the book tells the story of Eon, a girl pretending to be a boy, who must navigate the treacherous waters of life at court in her bid to become a Dragoneye Lord, and so one of the most powerful people in the land. Book 1 won a swathe of awards and I can see why – they are vivid, action-packed, and beautifully written – highly recommended.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig

A lovely romantic romp with lots of intrigue and humour – if you love Georgette Heyer, then I think you'd enjoy Lauren Willig.

The Unquiet Bones: the first chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, surgeon, by Melvin R. Starr

A quiet, but charming, medieval murder mystery with a strong sense of the times (14th century England). Wouldn't mind reading more.

Eight books read in June, bringing me to a total of 59 for the year!

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Books read in July 2011

Tuscan Rose by Belinda Alexandra

This novel had a subtitle 'Passion, longing, secrets, and a dangerous time' and is set in wartime Italy so it sounded just like my kind of book. Yet, despite its readability, I have to admit I was disappointed. I'm not sure exactly why. I should've loved sensitive Rosa, and I really adore romantic books set in wartime Italy ... yet ... I think it was too long, or the writing was simply too pedestrian, or because I never got to really like either of the two men Rosa falls in love with ... too much telling, not enough showing ...

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

This is a beautiful but slight book from Kate Mosse, author of 'Labyrinth' and 'Sepulchre', two historical novels I really enjoyed. I understand it was originally written as a short story and then expanded, and I think this shows. It is, nonetheless, a beautifully written tale of loss and grief and murder which vividly evokes the winter landscape of southern France – quite haunting.

White As Snow by Tanith Lee

An extraordinary retelling of the Snow White fairytale – dark and sensual and strange and rather frightening – with some astonishingly good writing. I have never read anything by Tanith Lee before but I will be hunting down her other books for sure. I'd be very careful about giving this to children to read, though – it is very confronting and even shocking in parts.

Charlie's Dream by Jamie Rowboat

Jamie was inspired to write this book after the son of friends of his was in a car accident and was locked in a coma for years. It imagines a boy in a coma who wakes up to find himself in the world of the elves and who learns about their work to save the natural world. It is a YA fantasy – though it has some quite sexy scenes in it. I launched it for him at Berkelouw Books in Glebe

The Understudy's Revenge by Sophie Masson

Set in the days of Dickens, The Understudy's Revenge tells the story of Millie Osborne, who works for The King's Company, a famous troupe of actors who have fallen on hard times following the death of its lead actor and director. The new manager is both the brother of the dead director and newly married to his widow. Perhaps recognising the thematic links to Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', he decides to put on a performance of the tragedy. A young actor called Oliver Parry is given a role in the play, but arouses Millie's suspicion because of all the questions he asks. One day she follows him to Seven Dials, one of the most dangerous places in London, and finds herself catapulted into an exciting mystery that soon sees her and her friend Seth facing danger, intrigue and murder.

I enjoyed The Understudy's Revenge immensely. It reminded me of some of my favourite writers including Agatha Christie and the UK children's writer Julia Golding who has written a great series of historical mysteries set in a Drury Lane theatre (The Cat Royal series). I'd really recommend The Understudy's Revenge to anyone who loves a quick-paced historical mystery.

The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella

I had enjoyed Anthony Capella's last two books so much I bought this to read on my Kindle, but I have to admit I didn't enjoy this as much. The opening chapters are hard to read because the primary character is so unlikeable – his tone is arch and artificial, and he spends most of time tossing off unpleasant comments and frequenting brothels. The only interesting part is the descriptions of coffee – which I didn't really respond to because I don't like coffee. However, perseverance paid off – our unpleasant hero is sent to Africa where he is taught some hard life lessons and loses his aphoristic tone. The chapters set in Africa are vivid and sexy and alive. Once our hero Robert returns to London, however, the writing changes gear once more and becomes a quite moving account of the suffragette movement. So the book has its rewards for those who persevere, but it doesn't have the vivid energy of The Food of Love, or the romantic joyousness of The Wedding Officer, or the warmth and charm of The Empress of Ice Cream. I'd choose to read all of his other books first.

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Wow! What an amazing read. From the very first page, I was unable to put this book down, reading late into the night and sneaking back to it during the day when I had many other things to do. It is so full of menace and atmosphere, and the characters are truly fascinating. Although it's very clearly a medieval murder mystery, it has the page-turning compulsion of the best thrillers and the depth and vividness of the best historical novels. One of the best books of the year so far!

The Lady Tree by Christie Dickason

Subtitled 'A Novel of Intrigue, Passion and Tulips', this novel is set in England and Holland in 1636 and is filled with a deep love of gardens and trees and flowers. Hawkridge House, the home of the hero John Nightingale, is created with such loving care that it feels as if it must be real. The novel isn't just about gardens, though. There's a murder mystery, blackmail, a love affair and a romance, and all the fever of tulip mania in 17th century Holland. A wonderful book.

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradiz

A fascinating and very readable book about the women who told the Grimm brothers most of their stories.

The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World by Jack Zipes

A collection of academic essays on the Grimm Brothers by one of the world's best known fairytale scholars.

The Brothers Grimm: Two Loves, One Legacy by Donald R. Hettinga

A fabulous, brief biography of the Grimm Brothers with an emphasis on their daily lives and work. Lots of lovely illustrations.

Eleven books read in July – and a total over the year of 70.

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Books read in August 2011

And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander

An elegant but rather slow moving historical mystery, this book is told from the point of view of Lady Emily Ashton, who married her husband to escape her overbearing mother only to have him killed while on safari in Africa. The discovery of his journals make Emily realise she hardly knew her husband at all. Normally I love this kind of novel, but I must admit I found it hard to warm to Emily and I found her 'intellectual awakening' through long-winded discussions of Homer rather boring.

Daughter of Siena by Marina Fiorata

Filled with romance and suspense, this lush historical novel set in 18th century Siena is a fabulous read, with a perfect blend of action, mystery and love. The primary character if the 19 year old Pia Tolomei, who is married against her will to a cruel and vengeful man who is involved in a plot to overthrow the Duchess of Siena, Violante de' Medici. Pia, however, is in love with a handsome but poor horseman, Riccardo, who sets out to tame a battle-maddened stallion to ride in the Palio, Siena's famously dangerous horse race. This is the third book by Marina Fiorata that I've read, and each has been even better than the one before. I think she's made the leap to one of my favourite authors.

Violet for Bonaparte by Geoffrey Trease

I've been collecting Geoffrey Trease's novels since I was a kid, and it's always a pleasure to find a new one. He is definitely one of the great children's historical writers and should be more widely known. Violet for Bonaparte was written in 1976, and tells the story of an English boy Ben, who travels to Europe in 1814 during a lull in the Napoleonic Wars, with Napoleon himself having been confined to the island of Elba. Curious, Ben and his employer travel to Elba to see Boney with their own eyes, and there Ben meets a pretty and spirited American girl who hero-worships the deposed French emperor. Before they know it, Ben and Fanny are caught up in a dangerous situation as Napoleon escapes Elba and gathers together his army once more. This is not Geoffrey Trease's best book, but any book by Geoffrey Trease is very readable and he always manages his plot and the historical period with enviable lightness.

The Graveyard Book by Nail Gaiman

I've had this book on my TBR shelf for more than 2 years and for some reason never picked it up. I'm glad I did, for it's a true beauty of a book, pitch-perfect in every way. It deserves every prize it won. It reminds me in some ways of Nicholas Stuart Grey, and other great writers of the 40s and 50s, the "golden era of children's literature" – a perfect balance of beauty and pathos, terror and joy, and so beautifully written.

Five Bells by Gail Jones

A dense, poetic, beautifully written novel set during one day in Sydney, Australia, Five Bells is one of those novels that is read more for its lyrical language than for a compelling story. Not much really happens at all, other than the thoughts and feelings of four adults – three women and a man – whose paths cross, or fail to cross, at Circular Quay, under the arches of the Sydney Opera House. However, the inner life of those four adults is so well-imagined that the novel has its own compulsion, and the language is often so lovely it's a pleasure just to read and re-read it, rolling the words over your tongue.

Storm Peak by John A. Flanagan

This is an intriguing murder mystery set at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, featuring a serial killer who takes pleasure in killing right under the noses of the local police. Lee Torrens, the sheriff of Steamboat Springs, asks her old friend and ex-lover Jesse Parker to help her, for he was used to work as a detective in Denver, having given up police work with the death of his partner. Matters are complicated by the arrival of Jesse's ex-wife and the fanning of the embers of old feelings between Lee and Jesse.

The Seventh Swan by Nicholas Stuart Gray

Oh I loved this book so much! Nicholas Stuart Gray is truly a magical writer. I loved his books as a child and I think I love him even more as an adult, because he writes in such an effortlessly enchanting way, and I know now just how difficult that is. I've wanted to read this book for many years and at last ordered it over the internet – I'm so glad I did. It makes me want to track down more of his books.

Mourning Dress – A Costume and Social History by Lou Tayor

A fascinating look at the history of mourning dress - I read this book as research into the 19th century and really enjoyed it.

Pride and Prescience (Or a Truth Universally Acknowledged): A Mr & Mrs Darcy Mystery by Carrie Bebris

I'm not sure how I feel about this book, which is a historical murder mystery where the newly married Mr and Mrs Darcy feature as the amateur detectives. I think I would have enjoyed it much more if it had been the same story with a whole other cast of characters. I love historical mysteries and I love Jane Austen, and I'm certainly no purist – I think perhaps its simply that comparisons are odious. Although the author Carrie Bebris manages a fair approximation of Austen's style, it only ever feels like a poor copy. Sorry, Carrie.

Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross

Another historical murder mystery (I really do love them!), this one was actually very good. The amateur detective in this case is Julian Kestrel, a dandy who seems more concerned with the cut of his coat than with anything else. He is, however, a dandy with more a quick wit and a warm heart, though he does the best to keep both of these hidden. Staying at a country estate, he is confounded to find a dead girl in his bed. What follows is a really intriguing mystery with lots of twists and turns, and some interesting characters. I enjoyed it immensely.

Mozart's Last Aria by Matt Rees

The blurb for this book begins: "Six weeks ago, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart told his wife he had been poisoned. Yesterday, he died." The heroine is Mozart's sister Nannerl, who has been estranged from him for years. However, hearing of her brother's death, she travels to Vienna to investigate. Soon she finds herself caught up in secret Masonic plots, her life in danger. I really enjoyed this book. It's a little like The Da Vinci Code in some ways, with its emphasis on secret societies and symbolic codes, but warmer and more engaging because of Nannerl, who is very easy to sympathise with. A great historical thriller.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

I absolutely loved this book! Even though its 550 pages long, it was so compelling I read it in only a few bites. A historical novel that reads likes an intelligent thriller, it is dark, chilling, atmospheric and absolutely impossible to put down. It tells the story of a community of Beguines in the English countryside who find themselves challenging a cruel pagan sect of men who call themselves the Owl Masters. I have read about Beguines before – groups of women who neither wish to marry nor take the veil as nuns set out to make a community of sisters who work and pray together. Of course, they were branded heretics and many of them burned. This novel has elements of supernatural horror in it as well as the terror of what humans can do to each other – an absolutely brilliant book and one of the best reads of the year.

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Books read in September 2011

Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge is one of the most unusual and inventive writers of children's fantasy today. I loved her first book, Fly by Night, which featured the adventures of the feisty, foul-mouthed Mosca Mye and her bad-tempered goose. Mosca and her goose, Saracen, are back in Twilight Robbery, this time getting themselves into trouble in the strange and perilous town of Toll-by-Day ... which is a very different place at night. A brilliant, fresh, funny and right-minded fantasy for reads 12+, this is possibly the best children's fantasy I've read all year.

The Apple-Stone by Nicholas Stuart Gray

Ah, The Apple-Stone. One of my favourite books from my childhood. Why does no-one write books like this anymore?

Sins of the Wolf by Anne Perry

All I really need to say about this book is I finished it, went straight to the computer, and ordered more books by Anne Perry. Although I've read other books by her in the past, this really is a humdinger – interesting, complex characters, a really puzzling plot, lots of surprises, and a real sense of danger.

The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

I really bought this book because its set in Edinburgh, one of my all-time favourite cities in the world and a perfect setting for a Victorian mystery novel. And perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Anne Perry's book, Sins of the Wolf, which was also set in Edinburgh, and had enjoyed it so much. The Edinburgh Dead is a quite different book altogether, having a large dose of supernatural terror to it, but I absolutely loved it. The tagline should probably have prepared me; it reads: 'There is a law against murder. But there are no laws for the dead.' However, the horror elements came as a complete surprise to me, but not unpleasantly. I love books that mix elements of different genres together, and this book does it particularly well.

Liberator by Richard Harland

Liberator is the sequel to the fabulous steam-punk adventure, Worldshaker, which I read and enjoyed immensely last year. Richard Harland really knows how to construct a page-turner. The books are set on board a giant metal juggernaut that rolls over the world, carrying an entire city on its back. In Book 1, the juggernaut was driven by down-trodden and maltreated menials called Filthies. With the help of Col, one of the Upper Deck aristocrats, they rise up and seize control of the juggernaut. Liberator tells what happens next, with an intoxicating mix of suspense, humour, romance and action.

The Kingdom of Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh

A classic children's fantasy written in 1960, this book is the sequel to Carbonel which I read and loved as a child. Carbonel is a cat, but not just any cat. He's the King of the Cats. In the first book, he has been imprisoned by a witch but with the help of Rosemary and her friend John, manages to escape and resume his rightful place ruling the rooftops of the city. In this book, he comes to Rosemary and John for help – he wants them to guard his kittens for him while he's away. A charming domestic fantasy.

The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Carlos Ruiz Zafon is the Spanish author of The Shadow of the Wind, one of my all-time favourite books, and so I had to buy this when I saw it. Originally published in 1994, it has been translated and published in English, presumably to take advantage of his international popularity. Set in Calcutta in the 1930s, it's a rather odd book, and ultimately very sad. It tells the story of twins separated at birth and hidden to protect them from supernatural danger – a man who does not die when he is shot and who can burn people to death with flames from his hands. The twins grow up – the boy in an orphanage where he makes a group of friends and the girl living a lonely existence on the run with their grandmother – but when they are sixteen the man in black comes after them once more. I really wanted to like this book – it sounded just the kind of book I would like – but my abiding reaction is one of sadness and even disappointment.

A Childhood at Green Hedges: A Fragment of Autobiography by Enid Blyton's Daughter by Imogen Smallwood

I remember when this book was first published in 1989. I read a review of it in the newspaper, and was in tears. My mother comforted me, thinking that I was distressed because I had not realised that Enid Blyton, one of my all-time favourite authors, was dead. The true reason for my distress, though, was realising that the perfect writer's life that I imagined Enid Blyton to have (heavily influenced by her autobiography, My Life) was in fact really a lie. In My Life she describes her beautiful old house with its magnificent garden, filled with hedges and roses and waterlilies, her playful dogs, her loving daughters, her husband who bought her a beautiful statue of a little girl reading, her daily routine of writing and reading, and I wanted that life. To read that she used to beat her daughters and locked them away in the nursery and sent them to boarding school against their will so they grew up to hate her shook my own dreams of how I wanted my life to be. So I always wanted to read the autobiography of her daughter Imogen, and one day, seeing it in a second-hand shop, I bought it. In a way, I'm glad. Imgon does not come over well in her autobiography. It's clear it can't have been easy for Enid either. And I certainly understand the frustrations of trying to write and bring up a young family.

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Books read in October 2011

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett

This is the first Ken Follett thriller that I've read and I really enjoyed it. A spy thriller set in Denmark during World War II, it was fast-paced, with a few unexpected twists and the setting was fresh and unusual.

The Widow Cliquot: The story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman who Ruled It by Tilar J. Mazzeo

A fascinating and very readable biography of Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin, the woman behind the famous champagne. She lived during Napoleonic times, when women were being repressed even more firmly than before, and yet she was able to save her family from financial ruin after the death of her young husband and founded an extraordinary empire of her own.

The House of the Winds by Titania Hardie

A story told in parallel between a modern-day American woman called Maddie and a 14th century Italian girl called Mia, this book centres on the mysterious House of the Wind which was destroyed – perhaps by magic – many centuries before. It's a rich and densely woven novel, with some wonderfully evocative scenes. I found myself much more interested in the historical thread, and occasionally wished for a quicker pace, but there is a lot of beauty in this book and a lot of heart and spirit.

I am Drinking Stars! History of a Champagne, edited by Gerhard Steidl

This book is a history of Dom Pèrignon, which would be my favourite champagne if I could afford to drink it. I have enjoyed a bottle or two in my time, but my primary reason for loving this champagne is the myth about the young Dom Pèrignon who, when he first tasted the sparkling concoction he had made, called, 'Brothers, come! I am drinking stars!' Although wine historians believe this story is probably apocryphal, I choose to believe it – it's too beautiful a tale to dismiss out-of-hand. A slim book, and a trifle sycophantic, its nonetheless an interesting look at the champagne brand over the centuries.

An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer

What a pleasure to curl up with a tattered old copy of a Georgette Heyer book on a rainy weekend. I've read this a few times before, and it's not her best book by far – but its set during Napoleonic times and so counts as research for the book I am working on (The Wild Girl).

Dragon's Lair by Sharon Kay Penham

Medieval murder mysteries, written by one of the most respected historical novelists of this era – I settled down with a sigh of anticipation from the very first word. I wish I had started with Book 1 – the early chapters talked a lot about characters I didn't know – but once the action moved to Wales, it was excellent. Ordering Book 1 now.

The World in 1800 by Olivier Bernier

A big thick historical book which did an excellent job of bringing the world of 1800 to life. Read for research for the new book I plan to write (The Wild Girl), but very readable for anyone interested in the era.

Napoleon & Josephine: An Improbably Marriage by Evangeline Bruce

I read this for research but hugely enjoyed it – I never really understood how Napoleon got to be Emperor before, or how he was then thrown down, but now I feel like I'm an expert on the subject. Very well written – clear, simple, evocative – and very, very useful to me.

The Mistaken Wife by Rose Melikan

A historical thriller set during the Napoleonic Wars, this is the third in a series that began with The Blackstone Key and continued with The Counterfeit Guest. I've enjoyed each of them, and found them amusing and engaging ... I'm not completely swept off my feet by them, though. The first was the cleverest, the second was the funniest, the third was action-packed ... I'm hoping the fourth will combine all these elements and be a real humdinger.

The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland

I absolutely adored this book! Susan Vreeland never fails to enchant, surprise, and illuminate. Her style is subtle yet powerful; the character of the Canadian painter Emily Carr was brought fully to life, as was her world. I had never heard of Emily Carr before I read this book. Afterwards I was googling her paintings and could not believe that this feisty, strong-willed, pig-headed and vulnerable woman was not more widely known. Her paintings are extraordinary - bold, unconventional and filled with light and mystery. Susan Vreeland's wonderful book is a wonderful introduction to her art, and to the world of the indigenous people of British Columbia.

The Golden Day by Ursula Duborsarky

A slight yet exquisitely rendered book about the mysterious disappearance of a girls' school teacher, and the ripples of unease that spread out across the lives of her young students. Beautifully written, with some striking metaphors and images, the book is haunting in its strangeness.

A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susannah Gregory

This is a medieval murder mystery with an unorthodox physician acting as amateur detective as dead bodies pile up all around the University of Cambridge. The story is at times incoherent, with so many characters and plots and sub-plots crossing and re-crossing that it is easy to become confused. However, some of the historical detail was very well done and any book that deals with the Black Death cannot help but be filled with ghoulish appeal. This is the first book in the long-running Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew and I have been assured the books get better as they go on. It was readable enough that I'm willing to test this hypothesis.

12 books this month, bringing my total to 102 this year.

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Books I've been reading in 2010

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Books read in December 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

An immensely thick, long, difficult yet interesting book about Thomas Cromwell and King Henry the Eight's divorce from Catherine of Aragorn. The primary difficulty for me was not the history, or the cast of thousands – which I know many other readers have struggled with – but the peculiar use of an extremely close third person narrative. It felt as if Hilary Mantel had begun to write in the first person, and then for some reason – perhaps to have other points of view - had changed it to third person, perhaps even with a global change on computer with every 'I' changed to 'He'. There were a lot of sentences that read 'He held him tightly to his shoulder, telling him that he would never leave him.' It read awkwardly, and jerked me out of the story again and again, preventing a deeper engagement with the narrative. After a while, I got used to it and found it a little easier, but I still think it was a strange narrative choice. I'm afraid I didn't manage to finish it – I put it down to read something else and went back to it a few times, but found myself bored. It's most unusual for me not to finish a book!

An Affair Before Christmas by Eloisa James

A very light and frothy historical romance with lashings of sex, made just a little more interesting by the inclusion of some chess games – a pleasant enough way to while away an hour, but not one I'll repeat quickly.

The Sign of the Book by John Dunning

Another murder mystery solved by the rough yet wise ex-cop turned bookman, Cliff Janeway. Not quite as fascinating as the others – less about books in this one.

Happy Ever After by Adele Geras

A collection of three interlinked novellas that retell the well-known fairy-tales Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in the setting of an English girls' boarding school in the 60s. Some exquisite, haunting writing and a wonderful evocation of time – an interesting twist on the familiar tales.

Suffer The Little Children by Donna Leon

I usually love these murder mysteries, set in modern-day Venice, but this one seemed a little forced to me. It is her 16th Guido Brunetti novel, though, and so I guess it must be hard not to get stale. And the descriptionss of Venice and Venetian food were as wonderful as ever.

World Without End by Ken Follett

This is the sequel to 'The Pillars of the Earth' which I read earlier this year and loved, and I was looking forward to it immensely. It is not as good as 'Pillars', perhaps because it is too similar, but still enormously and compulsively readable. And I found it very interesting to read so close to 'Wolf Hall' – I had no problem at all in this book following who was who, and what they were doing at any given time and although it's even thicker, I finished it quickly. Once again I'm confounded by the Booker Prize. Is it me or is it them?

The Abbey Girls Go Back to School, Jen of the Abbey School, The New Abbey Girls, The Abbey Girls Again - all four books by Elsie J. Oxenham

Tired and weary after such a busy Christmas, I picked up and read through four old Abbey Girls books in quick succession, forwarding my aim to read the whole series in order. It was like meeting old friends again, and falling at once into eager conversation. A lovely relaxing way to end the year!

Ten books in December, a lot of froth and bubble balanced out by two big, magisterial historical novels.

Two books not included earlier:

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

A much celebrated book about an Irish girl moving to Brooklyn, I read this one for Book Club, but wasn't moved by it. These books which aim to capture the quiet, miserable lives of quiet, miserable people never do much for me. I'm always hoping something will happen!

The Ruby Talisman by Belinda Murrell

My sister's latest book, a wonderful time-travel adventure about a modern day girl who falls asleep wearing a ruby necklace belonging to one of her ancestors and wakes up at the beginning of the French Revolution. All sorts of exciting adventures and near-escapes follow until Tilly can at last return to her own time. A hugely enjoyable read!

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Books read in November 2010

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

The first in the Cadfael mysteries, bought to replace my original copy which seems to have got lost. I've really been enjoying revisiting this series!

Juliet by Anne Fortier

A brilliant read! I really recommend it. This book tells the story of the original Juliet of Shakespearean fame, in parallel with the modern-day quest of a young American woman to find an ancient family legacy. I love books which parallel two historical periods, particularly when it is done as well as this one.

Still Life by Louise Penny

The first in the Inspector Gamache series and I read it last! I wish I'd read them in order as a few relationships are illuminated. If you haven't discovered Louise Penny yet, try this one first! Great murder mysteries with an old-fashioned feel i.e. an unknown murderer, great minor characters, wise and charming old detective, small village (though this one is set in Quebec).

The Rosie Black Chronicles: Genesis by Lara Morgan

A gripping, suspenseful science fiction tale for young adults with a strong Australian feel, I'm betting this one will be a winner. Set in what feels like a future-day Perth (Lara grew up in Western Australia and now lives in Geraldton), with a sidetrip to Mars, Genesis is filled with lots of lovely neologisms like pyroflex and digibook which I can see entering the popular lexicon. I'm putting this on my son's pile to read – I think he'd enjoy it too.

The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capella

A wonderful historical novel set partly at the court of Louis XIV in France and partly at the court of Charles II in England, the story is shared between Carlo Demirco, the French king's confectioner, and Louise de Keroualle, sent to England to become the English king's mistress. Carlo Demirco's speciality are ices, and the story is as much about his search for the secret to making ice cream as it is about Louise's seduction of Charles II. A book about love, passion, secrets and food – I loved it!

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

I loved this book! The Distant Hours is the story of a modern day girl obsessed with discovering the secret of her mother's past involvement with a mysterious family of three sisters, daughters of a famous children's writer. The contemporary detective tale is woven together with the stories of the past, and in particular with the father's most famous book, The Secret History of the Mud Man. A suspenseful historical page-turner, with a touch of the gothic and a dash of romance, this book has a lost letter, a crumbling old castle, a murder mystery, madness, passion, and despair – a wonderful read.

The Rebel Prince by Celine Kiernan

The last book in the Moorehawke Trilogy, this volume takes us into the camp of the rebel prince himself. We finally get some explanations for all that has happened before, plus reach some kind of resolution at the end. Though not as suspenseful as the earlier two books, The Rebel Prince is still beautifully written and paced, and wraps up the story nicely. One of the best heroic fantasy series in recent years.

The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer

What a delight this book is! An old favourite that I haven't read for years, it sparkles with wit and charm. Really, Georgette Heyer is incomparable. I just wish I knew how she did it.

The Crimson Chevalier by Mary Andrea Clarke

I was really disappointed by this. I think I was expecting a Georgette Heyer type romantic adventure, but it was leaden and predictable. I could barely bring myself to finish it. Perhaps I shouldn't have read it straight after a Georgette Heyer? The contrast was too dismal.

Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman

A compelling and poignant family saga that parallels the story of Beattie Blaxland, a Scottish girl who emigrates to Australia in 1929, with the story of her granddaughter, Emma Blaxland-Hunter. Linking the generations is the old house, Wildflower Hill, in Tasmania. A love story, and a story about making the best of what life throws at you, this is a book where the pages just seem to turn themselves. I'd really recommend this to anyone who loves a heart-warming tale.

10 Books in November, bringing my total to the year to 111.

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Books read in October 2010

A Summer in Gascony by Martin Calder

A warm and charming memoir of a young man's summer working on a farm in Gascony. It really brought that little known corner of France to life for me.

The Counterfeit Guest by Rose Melikan

I enjoyed this book so much! It's a historical suspense tale, following on from Rose Melikan's earlier book 'The Blackstone Key'. I really enjoyed that as well, but this is much better. It tells the story of Mary Finch, a clever and unconventional woman in the late 18th century who finds herself embroiled with murder and spies. Romance, history, suspense, adventure - just my kind of book!

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

This is the second in the Inspector Gamache murder mystery series, and as engaging as the others I've read. Once again set in the Quebecois village of Three Pines in French Canada, Armand is this time round investigating the very clever murder of a very nasty woman.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

I've read this book before & loved it – it stands up really well to a second round of reading. A beautifully told story of love, suspense and art set in Renaissance Italy, it's one of my all-time favourite books.

To Dance With Kings by Rosalind Laker

An historical novel which looks at four generations of women whose lives are intertwined with the fortunes of the palace of Versailles. This book is like a stately court dance, with lots of twists and unexpected turns, but plenty of time spent in developing character and place. It really brought the gilded world of Versailles to life.

A Curse As Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

A brilliant title and a very engaging book, being a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale. I love fairytale retellings, particularly when they breathe new life into the old tale, confounding expectations and surprising the reader. This is a really wonderful retelling, one of the best I've read in a long time. It is set in a small English village in the 1700s, during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the heroine, Charlotte Miller, is fighting to save her family's mill after the death of her father. I loved it!

What Remains of Heaven by C.S. Harris

The latest St. Cyr murder mystery and just as good as the rest. I really enjoy this series – the characters are all brilliantly depicted and intriguing, and the puzzles very well thought out. Start with book 1, though, if you haven't read them yet – each novel in the series develops relationships between the characters.

Seven books read in October!

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Books read in September 2010

The Botticelli Secret by Marina Fiorato

A grand romp of an adventure through Renaissance Italy and Botticelli's most famous painting, 'La Primavera', this was a great read (though you may need to willingly suspend your disbelief about quite a number of things). I loved it, though. The heroine Luciana is a delight, and the illumination of some of the possibly meanings behind the figures in the painting quite fascinating. I just wish they had put the painting on the cover. I read the book on the plane and so couldn't keep looking up the painting at each new revelation like I would have liked.

Once by Morris Gleitzman

A CBCA Honour Book, Once is the first in a loose trilogy of works by Morris Gleitzman which examine the Holocaust and its effects. Once tells the story of a boy called Felix who runs away from an orphanage to search for his parents, not realising they have been lost in the concentration camps of World War II. A deceptively simple book.

To Catch A Bride by Anne Gracie

A lovely romance novel, and a very pleasant way to while away a rainy Saturday evening.

Word of Honour, The Third Volume of 'The Laws of Magic' by Michael Pryor

When I read the first volume of 'The Laws of Magic', I was utterly captivated by the Edwardian atmosphere and the sense of almost-history which pervaded the book. I had not then heard of steam-punk, let alone understood what it meant. I actually hate the term – to me, books like the ones in this series by Michael Pryor are more like gaslight mysteries with magic in them. And I love gaslight mysteries (i.e. mystery novels set at the turn of the century, during the Industrial Revolution and a time of social upheaval). These books are among the best steampunk around, and so even if, like me, you think you don't like the genre, give them a go. This one is as fabulous as the first two!

Death and the Cornish Fiddler: A John Rawlings Mystery, by Deryn Lake

What a great title! And I enjoyed the book too. It was quite slow to start, but very readable and I enjoyed the colourful cast of characters. It made me want to go to Cornwall and see the Helstone Furry Dance (well, I've always wanted to do that but the book has revived my desire!)

Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

I loved this book when it first came out and I really enjoyed reading it again. A simple yet ingenious story that brings to life 17th century Amsterdam, illuminating love, art, and the mania for tulips. A really wonderful book.

Black Diamond by Martin Walker

The third in the Bruno Courrèges Investigation series, this time pitting dear Bruno against truffle hunters. I loved it! A murder, a mystery, a touch of romance, and lots of descriptions of the luscious French countryside, food and wine – a wonderful recipe for a crime novel!

The Whisperer by Fiona Macintosh

Short-listed for the CBCA Award, this is a light-hearted, action-packed children's fantasy adventure with separated twins, wonderful magical creatures, and a circus. Quite enchanting!

One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters

An old favourite, read so many times it's beginning to fall to pieces.

Heartstone by C.J. Sansom

It's always a sign that you really love an author or a series when you get a thrill of excitement seeing the latest book on the shelf in a bookstore and you buy it straightaway, even though you had made a stern promise to yourself NOT TO BUY ANY MORE BOOKS! C.J. Sansom didn't disappoint me – I read this very thick, heavy volume over the course of two nights and loved it! He really has a knack for bringing the world of England in the time of King Henry VIII to life, as well as creating an intriguing mystery.

Girls of the Hamlet Club by Elsie J. Oxenham

Anyone who follows my reading patterns will know I was first enchanted by the Abbey Girls series of books by English writer Elsie J. Oxenham when I was about thirteen. Staying with my grandmother in Melbourne, I had read my way through all of the books I had taken away with me and faced a long train journey back to Sydney with nothing to read. You can imagine my despair! My grandmother said 'I have some of your aunties' old books up in a cupboard – take a look and see if there's anything you like.' So I took down a book called 'New Abbey Girls' and read it on the train home and just loved it. I began looking out for and collecting Abbey Girls books, spending my pocket money on them every week, and I know have nearly the whole series. This is one of the rarest of all the titles, being the absolute first. I paid quite a lot of money for it and it's not even the original book, just a bound photocopy. I still was thrilled to read it though!

That's 11 books in September, bringing my total for the year to 94 books.

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Books read in August 2010

The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide and Satanism in the Court of Louis XIV by Anne Somerset

A fascinating, scholarly look at the so-called 'Affair of the Poisons' that occurred during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. I actually bought this book some time ago at a second-hand bookshop because it looked intriguing, only to realise some time later that a good portion of the new book I am writing is set during the same period. This book has really helped me understand the court of the Sun King and the society at the time.

The Girls of the Abbey Schools by Elsie J Oxenham

Bought this over the internet to fill a gap in my Abbey Girls collection. I read it as a child at someone's house and have been searching for it ever since. Lovely to read it again and fill in the gaps, and I also found all the descriptions of the abbey very inspiring.

The Devil's Novice by Ellis Peters

Still focused on Benedictine abbeys! I love the way Ellis Peters brings the life of the abbey alive with such a light touch.

The Dèvotes: Women & Church in 17th century France by Elizabeth Rapley

A scholarly examination of religious life of women in 17th century France, this is nonetheless very readable and illuminated the period for me beautifully. I found it so useful, I then went on and read:

A Social History of the Cloister: Daily Life in the Teaching Monasteries of the Old Regime, also by Elizabeth Rapley

Again, this was slow and heavy reading, but so useful to me in my research into life in a French convent in the last few years of the 17th century. Thank you, Elizabeth Rapley!

The Lucifer Stone by Harriet Graham

A children's adventury story set in the 1890s, this was a quick, light, fun read that I knocked off in a single night when I was too tired to read A Social History of the Cloister.

The House of The Paladin by Violet Needham

Someone recommended Violet Needham to me as a British children's writer of the 50s that I might enjoy, so I bought this second-hand when I was in London for £25. I think I was robbed. A very disappointing read, quite conventional and clunkily written. I won't be collecting more of her work.

The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages by Christopher Brooke

More research into convent life - not as useful to me as the Elizabeth Rapley books, but still helping me build up my general knowledge.

Monasteries and Monastic Orders: 2000 Years of Christian Art and Culture by Kristina Krüger

A huge, thick and beautifully illustrated book on monasteries, it has really helped me visualise what my imaginary convent would look like. The ground plans and photographs were particularly helpful.

The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg & Monastic Gardens by Mick Hales

Both of these books were ordered off the internet to help me imagine, visualise and describe the convent garden in my new book. The first was brilliant for descriptions and history, the second was a visual feast and very lucid and succinct. Interesting research.

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant has become one of my favourite writers, someone whose new book will be snatched off the bookshop's shelf as soon as I can get my greedy little hands on it. I was particularly interested in this one because– wait for it – its set in a convent. Sarah Dunant's convent is in Ferrara, Italy, in the year 1570 while my area of interest is a French nunnery in the late 17th century, but I was still interested to see how she dealt with the technical difficulties of setting a novel within a small, enclosed community. Brilliantly, is the answer. I sat up till after 2am to finish this book. An absolute zinger!

The Apothecary's Daughter by Patricia Schonstein

Saw this book mentioned on the internet as one that featured an apothecary nun and a girl in a convent and then, two days later, saw it for sale in a second-hand shop. It was meant to be. A lush, sensual and rather strange tale that feels like a fable.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

I had to have a break from convents! Looked through my bookshelf and fell upon this with delight, as I'd absolutely adored his previous book, The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie. A murder mystery set in a small English village, it stars the utterly delightful (if rather dangerous) 11 year old girl-turned-detective, Flavia de Luce. The puzzle is wonderfully puzzling, the characters sufficiently eccentric and the asides about poisons and famous murderous funny and fascinating. Don't be turned off by the strange titles – these books are wonderful.

Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer

An old favourite, read and read again since I was a teenager. It is set in France and so counts as research. Doesn't it?

Duchess by Night by Eloisa James

A rather racy romance - which is actually dedicated to Georgette Heyer 'and her brilliantly funny cross-dressing heroines'. This was not nearly as funny or charming as a Georgette Heyer book, but then, what book is? It was rather disappointing, though, as I'd really enjoyed the last Eloisa James I read. This one had a few scenes that didn't ring quite true. Still, a very pleasant way to pass a few hours on a cold and windy winter's night.

The Bookman's Promise by John Dunning

I really enjoy these contemporary crime novels about a ex-cop turned second-hand bookseller. I always feel like a learn something about the literary world as well as enjoying a clever murder mystery.

Quillblade by Ben Chandler

This fantasy novel by newcomer Ben Chandler is an interesting mix of influences – it's like steampunk with its flying airships, but set in a sort of medieval Japanese world with samurai-like warriors and manga-like animals he calls Bestia, plus it has dragons and demons and prophetic dreams. An action-packed fantasy adventure with a really fresh, unusual feel to it because of its bravery in mingling so many new elements.

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This book has been recommended to me a few times by people who know how I love historical novels, but I was always put off by its immense size. I shouldn't have been – this truly is an astonishing book, one of the best I've read in a long time. The blurb says 'it began with a curse, a song and a hanging and it builds into a magnificent adventure no reader will ever forget.' I couldn't say it better myself – this book has jumped into my list of all-time favourite books. A tale of love, revenge, passion and war, it tells the story of the building of a cathedral, and the intertwined lives of the people who dream of its magnificent completion, and those who plot to tear it down. You wouldn't think such a storyline would make for such compelling reading but I literally could not put the book down, reading when I should have sleeping, or working, or living a normal life. Utterly engrossing, all 1,076 pages of it!

The Pindar Diamond by Katie Hickman

Set in Italy in 1604, this is a romantic adventure tale filled with vivid and sometimes eccentric characters including a giantess, a mermaid baby, a crippled beauty and a nun that dreams of love. I enjoyed it immensely, and will certainly buy the next Katie Hickman book I see.

Twenty books read in August, which is rather a lot – that's five a week! Not a bad reading effort. A lot of research, though ...

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Books read in July 2010

Love and Louis XIV – The Women in the Life of the Sun King' by Antonia Fraser

I love Antonia Fraser's biographies. They are always such a pleasure to read, being clearly and beautifully written, and never weighted down with too much information. She has a knack for reminding the reader who everyone is and for bringing their characters to life. This particular biography is of the Sun King and the women in his life, and has brought that period of history to life for me.

'Cat Among the Pigeons' by Julia Golding

This is a great historical adventure series for kids, about a feisty girl called Cat who lives at the Theatre Royal, in Drury Lane, in Georgian times. I really enjoyed this book, which centres on the attempt of a slave-trader to recapture his escaped slave, Pedro, who is Cat's best friend and a talented musician and actor. An exciting story which also has a lot to say about the importance of personal liberty. Loved it!

'I, Mona Lisa' by Jeanne Kalogridis

This was the first book I have read by Jeanne Kalogridas and it won't be the last. I really enjoyed this book, which tells the story of the woman behind Leonardo da Vinci's most famous painting. So little was known about Lisa Gherardini, Kalogridas was able to position her right in the heart of the intrigues, murders, and religious fanaticism of Florence in the days of Savaronola. I've read quite a few books set during this period, including Sarah Dunant's 'Birth of Venus' and Karen Essex's 'Leonardo's Swans' but each is so different and has such a fresh perspective that it still really fresh and fascinating. A really good, exciting, romantic book.

'The Abbey Girls' by E.J.Oxenham, 'Schooldays At the Abbey' by E.J.Oxenham & 'Secrets of the Abbey' by E.J.Oxenham

Unpacked a box full of all my old second-hand Elsie J Oxenham books and enjoyed reacquainting myself with them. Hard to explain exactly what enchantment these books hold for me – I think it's the abbey, and the vivid characters, and also the philosophy that underlies the books, much deeper and more thoughtful than most school stories of the era. I enjoyed revisiting them, and am keen to buy the few in the series that I'm missing.

'Monk's Hood' by Ellis Peters & 'The Sanctuary Sparrow' by Ellis Peters

I unpacked all my old crime novels some time ago, but thought I'd re-read some of this series too, partly because I've always enjoyed them & partly because the novel I'm now writing has quite a few scenes set in a Benedictine abbey and so this counts as research.

Only eight books read in July, but I had the kids home on school holidays and so was writing at night, instead of reading. We went to the circus, we went to the movies and we went up to my brother's farm – all a lot of fun but not much time for curling up with a book!

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Books read in June 2010

'The Death-defying Pepper Roux' by Geraldine McCaughrean

I really love the work of Geraldine MCaughrean, who can always be relied on for telling a story quite unlike anything you've read before, in language made fresh and new. This book, for readers aged about 10+, tells the story of a boy who fully expected to die on his fourteenth birthday, thanks to the predictions of his religious and malicious aunt. He manages to evade his fate, but feels it at his back, hunting him down, as he sets out a series of hair-raising and rather eccentric adventures. I don't think this is Geraldine McCaughrean's best book, but then her best books are so astonishingly good that it can hardly be expected. My favourites are The Kite-Rider and A Little Lower than the Angels, with A Pack of Lies and A White Darkness highly recommended too.

'The Glassblower of Murano' by Marina Fiorato

This novel tells the parallel stories of a glassblower in Venice, 1681, and his descendant centuries later, a young woman who dreams of being a glassblowing artiste herself. It's a simple, romantic story, but well told and with lots of lovely Venetian details.

'Foreign Bodies' by Amanda Craig

An interesting coming-of-age tale with a murderous twist, this book tells the story of Emma Kenward who wants to be an artist and so runs away to Italy. She meets two men – an Oxford don she hoped never to meet again and Lucio, a handsome young Italian who seduces her. It has some lovely writing and a strong sense of place, though one sentence grated on me strongly. Amanda Craig writes about an Australian: "she had the curious blip-like voice colonials always have, as if advertising their voices over an ancient wireless.' I didn't realise Australians were still called colonials (the book was published in 1990!) and I'm sure my voice isn't curiously bliplike. I don't know. Maybe it is. I still didn't like the description, though – it raises my hackles. Other than that, though, I really enjoyed the book!

'The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi's Venice' by Laurel Corona

A tale of two sisters abandoned as babies on the steps of the Ospedale della Pieta, Venice's famous foundling school. Taught to sing and play musical instruments, they end up having very different lives. One leaves the convent and marries a rich Venetian lord, the other ends up being Vivaldi's muse though she lives a life behind convent bars. This was a really fascinating story, beautifully told and sparked lots of ideas for me. I'm very interested in Venice at the moment as I plan on setting my new novel there and so I'm reading everything I can find on the city. I bought this book at the HNS Conference in Chicago last year and am only now settling back to read and enjoy it – thank you, Laurel!

'The Rose Of Sebastopol' by Katharine McMahon

I really loved this book! Its set during the Crimean War and almost has Florence Nightingale as a character – that was my only disappointment, I would've liked to have met Florence Nightingale. The book tells the stories of cousins and best friends, Rosa Barr and Mariella Lingwood. The first is beautiful, passionate, headstrong and determined to do good in the world. The second is shy; she sits sewing her sampler and trying to be good. Against all advice, Rosa sets off to be a nurse during the war and soon disappears. Mariella sets off to find her, and finds herself in the thick of the war. It's a romance, but not at all what you might have expected; it's a story of war and love and madness; it's an utterly compelling story which will have me eagerly searching out other work by Katharine McMahon. She has a backlist! Yay!

'The Last Queen' by C.W. Gortner

The story of Juana the Mad – daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and sister to Catherine of Aragorn – has always interested me, although I knew very little about her. The back of the book says 'Married at sixteen. A queen at twenty-five. Declared insane and betrayed by the men she adored.' Who wouldn't want to read this novel? Luckily it was just as good as I hoped it would be. It really is a fascinating story about a passionate and cruelly wronged woman – God, it makes me glad I wasn't a woman in the 16th century! I'd probably have been locked up too!

'Relics of the Dead' by Ariana Franklin

1176, and our Mistress of the Dead, Adelia, is called upon to investigate the discovery of two skeletons at Glastonbury which rumour says are the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Another great medieval murder mystery from Ariana Franklin !

'Deep Water' by Pamela Freeman

Book Two in the Castings Trilogy, an absolutely brilliant fantasy series by Australian author Pamela Freeman. Just as compelling and beautifully written as Book 1 – I'm now in a rush to find Book 3!

'Luncheon of the Boating Party' by Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland is now one of my top favourite writers of all time. I've loved her earlier books about great artists and their works (Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia) and she certainly doesn't disappoint with this look at Renior's famous creation of the painting of the same name. The cover shows a replica of the painting – I was constantly turning the pages to stare at the cover and identify each character – and I marvel at her skill at turning this summer in Renoir's life into a compelling page-turner. I learnt so much about Renoir and Impressionist art and about France in the 1880s. Brilliant!

'The Miracles of Prato' by Laurie Albanese and Laura Morowitz

The Miracles of Prato told the story of the scandalous love affair between Fra Filipo Lippo, a monk and artist, and his model and muse, Lucrezia. Her face appeared in many of his paintings (and she truly was beautiful) - they lived together in defiance of the Church in 15th century Italy which can't have been easy. It was a fascinating story, and very well told. I'd have liked a little more passion, but I think the authors were trying to make sure it wasn't a bodice-ripper (which is rather a shame as I love a good love story).

'War Horse' by Michael Morpugo

I've wanted to read this since I saw the stage show in London last year – a simple yet heartstring-tugging story about a horse sent to war.

'The Wayward Muse' by Elizabeth Hickey

'The Wayward Muse' tells the story of Jane Burden, muse to the pre-Raphaelites, wife of William Morris, lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I really loved this book! I have always been fascinated by the pre-Raphaelites and wondered why no-one had written a book about them (I've read a few biographies but somehow novels are so much more fun to read!) I'd really recommend this to anyone who loves novels about art and artists.

Twelve books read in June, bringing my total for the year so far to 55 books. And some really great books too!

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Books read in May 2010

'The Blind Man of Seville' by Robert Wilson

This is an unusually deep, complex, thoughtful and intelligent thriller which is more interested in the inner life of its detective than in fast-paced action. Nonetheless, it is still a compelling read. And I loved the Spanish setting! This is the first in a series – I'll be looking out for more.

'Writing the Breakout Novel' by Donald Maass

I love books on writing, as I'm always interested in the craft. I am planning to start a new novel very soon, and it seemed like a good time to read this 'bible' by famous New York literary agent, Donald Maas. It was interesting and thought-provoking, and I'm sure I'll be dipping into it again.

'Grave Fairy Tale: A Romantic Novel' by Esther Meynell

I'm interested in fairytale retellings, particularly at the moment as I'm about to embark on writing my own. I bought this very old book at a second-hand shop purely on its title and because its blurb said it was set in the old Germany of the Brothers Grimm. I can't say I enjoyed the book – it had a very coy tone and not much really happened. Its setting was atmospheric, though.

'Blood Ties' by Pamela Freeman

Pamela Freeman is best known for her children's fantasies, the Florimonde books which begins with The Willow Tree's Daughter, and also for her biographical novel, The Black Dress, about the life of Sister Mark Mackillop. This is her first fantasy for adults and it is utterly brilliant. I haven't read a fantasy novel that I've enjoyed so much for a very long time, and one of the reasons for this is the fresh and surprising structure of the book, which takes the time to tell the stories of a myriad of minor characters that would, in most fantasy books, be merely flat, stock caricatures. Pamela says that her strength is really in short stories, and so what she has done in this novel is interweave small, vivid, sad, beautiful or shocking minor tales into the overarching dramatic arc. This does not at all detract from the action of the book, because it makes us understand the world so much better and all the stories link back to the main story of our heroes, Bramble and Ash. I just loved this book and am amazed it hasn't won prizes left, right and centre.

'Troll Fell' by Katherine Langrish and 'Troll Mill' by Katherine Langrish

I just loved both these books by Katherine Langrish, the UK author who wrote Dark Angels which was a wonderful new discovery of mine earlier this year. They tell of the adventure of an orphan boy, Peer, and his feisty friend and neighbour, Hilde, set in a Scandinavian world of history and mythology. Katherine Langrish's great strength is the beauty of her writing – I really love how well she draws a scene and how atmospheric her books are.

Only 6 books read in May – but I was on Book Tour and at the Sydney Writers Festival and barely had time to breathe!

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Books read in April 2010

'The Historian' by Elizabeth Kostova

This novel caused a huge buzz on publication, being the first book by a first-time novelist to hit the New York Times bestseller list the same week it was published (I so wish that had happened to me!) It is an intricate, atmospheric and compelling novel that draws upon the true history of Vlad the Impaler, the original Dracula prototype, intertwining his story with that of several generations of a family haunted by his presence. I've never really been a vampire lover, but this is an utterly brilliant book, superbly written and crafted, and has just leapt on to my list of all-time favourite books.

'Detection Unlimited' by Georgette Heyer

'The Unfinished Clue' by Georgette Heyer

'Duplicate Death' by Georgette Heyer

'They Found Him Dead' by Georgette Heyer

I've been slowly unpacking boxes of books to arrange on the new shelves in my new library and this weekend I unpacked the box labelled 'Crime H-L'. Most of them were old Georgette Heyer paperbacks which I have read before, some of them several times. GH is best known for her Regency romance novels, but she has a dozen or so murder mysteries too, which she wrote with the help of her barrister husband. The best of them are just as good as Agatha Christie, and usually have a nice little romance to add sparkle as well. I read four of them back to back, curled in a comfy chair by the fire in my new library, and a very nice way to spend a rainy weekend it was too!

'Last Voyage of the Valentina' by Santa Montefiore

I enjoyed this book, though I didn't love it - even though I love books set during WWII and set in Italy. Somehow the writing didn't quite come to life for me.

'World Shaker' by Richard Harland

I should probably declare that Richard Harland is a good friend of mine and so I really, really wanted to like this book. Luckily, I loved it! I've been told it's a YA steam punk novel – steam punk is not a new genre but it's hot at the moment and once I realised it simply meant books set in a sort of alternative Victorian world with lots of steam-propelled gadgets and frockcoats and corsets, I knew I'd enjoy it. It's an action-packed novel full of humour and drama and Dickensian characters and it really deserves its success!

'Where Eagles Dare' by Alistair Maclean

I unpacked the box labelled Crime M-P and found all my old Alistair Maclean books. This one was always a favourite of mine! I miss these old action-packed adventure thrillers – who's writing them now?

'The Moor' by Laurie R King

Laurie King has written a series of historical crime novels told from the point of view of Sherlock Holmes' unconventional academic wife, Mary Russell. This is number four in the series and takes us back to the dark, brooding scene of Dartmoor, where the Hound of the Baskervilles was set. These are complex and intelligent mystery novels, with beautifully drawn characters and a believable historical setting. I buy them whenever I see them.

Nine books read in April, including the very thick volume of The Historian which actually took me the better part of a week to read.

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Books read in March 2010

'My Life in France' by Julia Childs

A charming, if rather scatty, memoir about Julia Child's life which Nora Ephron drew upon for her movie 'Julie & Julia'. I'd never heard of Julia Child before the movie, but still enjoyed this – mainly because I so badly want to go and live in Paris!

'Devil's Bride' by Stephanie Laurens and 'A Rake's Vow' by Stephanie Laurens, published in one volume as 'On A Stormy Night'

We went away for a break by the sea, only to have it rain all weekend, and stupidly I'd left my book at home for the kitchen bench. Luckily for me, the holiday house had some books on the bookshelf, including this big, thick whopper. I was exhausted and very happy to curl up with these bodice-ripping Regency romances. The love scenes were much steamier than I'm used to, but the architecture of the story was good and strong, unlike so many romance books – I was pleasantly surprised.

'Willows For Weeping' by Felicity Pulman

Book 4 in a YA medieval murder series, Willows For Weeping sees our heroine Janna travel as a pilgrim past Stonehenge, where one of her party is mysteriously murdered. Janna is on a quest to find her father, and finds some clues to his whereabouts on the way. These are very enjoyable books, with an appealing heroine, for anyone who like thoughtful historical books for teenagers.

'Manhattan Dreaming' by Anita Heiss

Dr Anita Heiss has a most fascinating resume, ranging from writing what's been called 'Koori chick-lit' to political activism, poetry, journalism, academia, and children's books ('Yirra and her deadly dog, Demon' was written in conjunction with the students of La Perouse Public School.) 'Manhattan Dreaming' is a funny, warm-hearted chick-lit romance, lifted out of the ordinary by its heroine, a bright and talented Koori art curator who gets her dream job at the Smithsonian in New York, but has to leave her footballer boyfriend behind in Canberra. Smart, sassy, and rich with popular culture references including the showcasing of Australian Aboriginal artists, this was the best chick lit I've read in years. No, make that ever. Loved it!

'The Empty Sleeve' by Leon Garfield

I collect Leon Garfield's books, which I always loved reading as a child. They're becoming harder and harder to find in second-hand bookshops and church fetes, and so I was pleased to find this one - which I've never read – when I was in the UK last year. It's rather a strange story of a boy, Peter Gannet, who is born one stormy day in the midst of the ringing of the noonday chimes. An old ship's carpenter tells of a superstition that the chime child would see ghosts and communicate with the devil ... and sure enough, when he is fourteen, Peter begins to be haunted by a ghost with an empty sleeve. It's a spooky story, with murder and sly machinations and deceit in it, and Leon Garfield's trademark brooding atmosphere.

'Deadly Decisions' by Kathy Reichs

A series of forensic crime novels set in contemporary Montreal, Kathy Reichs' books are extremely popular, featuring Dr Temperance Brennan as the strong-willed and feisty forensic anthropologist who, in this book, gets caught up in bikie gangs and their innocent victims. I always enjoy them, though I felt the formula was getting tired with this one. Though perhaps it's just because I've read so many of the others? I think there's about ten now, which is always dangerous territory for an author writing about the same characters.

'A Royal Pain' by Rhys Bowen

Second in a series of comic historical murder mysteries set in 1930s London, this is a delightful, frothy whodunit that very gently takes off Agatha Christie and her kind. It features a very minor member of the royal family, Lady Georgina, who despite her royal connections is impoverished and must work as a maid to keep herself in cocktails. The first was called Her Royal Spyness, which sort of gives you the idea of what kind of book it is. Great fun.

'The Crowded Shadows' by Celine Kiernan

Second in the Moorhawke Trilogy by Celine Kiernan, a YA fantasy set in a world rather like 15th century France. Book 1 was like a small, exquisite miniature, taking place within the confines of a castle over the course of a few days. Book 2 is larger in scope. Our heroine Wynter Moorehawke gallops alone through the forest, facing all sorts of dangers, as she searches for her missing foster-brother, Prince Alberon. Superbly written, and filled with true suspense, the only thing I don't like about this book is the heroine's name, which sounds like a parody of a fantasy book. In this volume, her strange name is explained and her true name revealed which satisfied me a little (it's the beautiful Iseult, like my own heroine in the Witches of Eileanan). I can only admit, though, that in my first draft of the Witches of Eileanan, I called my twins Ysabel and Yseult – what is it with young fantasy writers and the Y?

'The Glass Castle' by Jeannette Walls

This heart-wrenching memoir begins with Jeannette, on her way to a swish New York party, seeing her bag-lady mother rummaging through a dustbin. Jeannette's parents were eccentrics who refused to live by society's rules, but whose children were made to pay the cost of a life lived dreaming big dreams while skipping out-of-town ahead of the debt collectors. Much of this book's poignancy comes from the difficulty in hating her parents for their choices they made – sometimes I wish I didn't have to wash dishes and worry about mortgage payments either! In one scene, the father tells his children that Christmas is just a big commercialised rip-off and that instead of getting presents that year, all the children could have a star instead. That really pierced my heart, both for its beauty and also for those poor children, who really just wanted to be kids like all the other kids in town. Best memoir I've read in a long, long time.

Ten books read in March, a far more respectable number and a sign that I've delivered my book! Yay!

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Books read in February 2010

'The Death Maze' by Ariana Franklin

This is the next book after The Mistress In the Art of Death, about Adelia, an woman doctor and forensic pathologist in medieval England. The king, Henry III (he who cried, 'who shall rid me of this pesky priest'), has a mistress, Fair Rosamund, who is kept in a tower in the centre of a maze (really, medieval men!) Nonetheless, someone somehow gets to Fair Rosamund and kills her. Adelia is sent to find out who and how. The king's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the prime suspect but if she is responsible, civil war will break out once again. It is winter, and the sense of bitter cold and foreboding is very well done indeed. I enjoyed this immensely and will eagerly buy the next in the series.

'A Florentine Death' by Michele Guittari

Michele Giuttari is the real-life police chief of Florence, and this contemporary murder mystery set in Florence is practically autobiographical. Both Giuttari and his alter-ego hero, Chief Superintendent Ferrara, are "well groomed, with a slight Sicilian accent, longish black hair combed back and streaked with white at the sides . . . sideburns white, in contrast with thick black eyebrows.' Both have a German wife and like cigars. Both are famous for capturing the 'Florence Monster', a real-life case of a serial murderer or murderers in Florence who brutally murdered more than thirty young men and women. The case is referred to in A Florentine Death, but the book focuses on a fictional series of murderers in Florence, with secrets from the past reaching out to shadow our intrepid hero. This is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit, but it was intriguing and well-written and Guittari has gone on to write another four or five bestselling books., which I'll happily read if they come my way.

'Secrets of A Perfect Night In' by Stephanie Laurens, Victoria Alexander and Rachel Gibson

Once upon a time, three young women each attended a New Year's Eve ball ... kisses were stolen and promises made. But what happens when morning comes ... This is the premise behind this collection of three romance novellas by three different authors. I was given this book as a lucky door prize at a 'Writing Romance' workshop and quite enjoyed it. I haven't read category romance in a very long time. I didn't read the three novellas back to back – that would have been far too much sugar – but quite enjoyed them spread out between books.

The Poison Throne by Celine Kiernan

Irish writer Celine Kiernan has written an utterly gorgeous YA fantasy series which begins with The Poison Throne. Unlike many fantasy novels today, her canvas and cast of characters is small but vividly and brilliantly realised. The action begins when Wynter Moorehawk and her father return to the castle where she grew up, only to find everything has changed. The first intimation of trouble is the refusal of the castle cats to talk to her. She discovers, to her horror, that King Jonathan has ordered all the cats killed. Soon she realises that one of her best friends, the king's son Alberon, is in rebellion against his father who is forcing his illegitimate son, Lord Razi, to take his place. Wynter and her father must try and discover what has happened to break the royal family apart, with a growing undercurrent of menace and danger. Although the action takes place only over a few days and within the halls and dungeons and gardens of the castle, it is a compelling narrative, driven by the emotional intensity of the relationships between the characters. There is murder, intrigue, mystery, romance and a touch of horror, all written with a sure, deft touch.

'The Life You Want' by Emily Barr

Why did I buy this book? It's not at all the sort of book I usually buy. Perhaps that's why. Every now and again I feel as if I should be more in touch with what everyone else in the world is reading. This is a contemporary novel by a UK writer about a woman called Tansy who leaves her husband and two boys at home in London and heads to India to find herself. She gets caught up in a kind of cult that's trafficking in orphaned children, and gets herself into all kinds of trouble. I must admit I didn't really like this book. It was kind of chick lit, only without the humour, and kind of a thriller except without any real suspense, and kind of a contemporary drama, except rather slow and predictable. I have to admit – this is just not my cup of tea.

'The White Queen' by Philippa Gregory

I love Philippa Gregory's work and so I was quick to borrow her new book from my sister. Thankfully The White Queen is not set in Tudor times because I was sick of the whole poxy lot of them (something I never thought would happen!) Instead it's set in the time of the War of Roses, a period which I find interesting but confusing, like most people, I suspect. The White Queen is Elizabeth Woodville, who enchants King Edward IV with her beauty (some people think she did so with witchcraft) – and marries him, finding herself caught up in a world of shifting loyalties and war. The book ends with the imprisonment of the two princes in the Tower, though Philippa Gregory has gone with the story that Elizabeth manages to save one of her sons which I must admit makes sense. I loved the use of the supernatural in the book, and think she's back in form!

Only 6 books this month! I'm too busy writing!

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Books read in January 2010

'Mistress of the Art of Death' by Ariana Franklin

This is an unusually well-written medieval murder mystery, featuring a most unusual detective - Adelia, the Mistress of the Art of Death. An unconventional, strong-minded (some would even say bloody-minded) woman who trained as a doctor and forensic pathologist in Salerno, Italy, she must keep her skills and intelligence hidden in England where she would be accused of being a witch if anyone knew that she cut up dead bodies for a living. Brought from Italy by King Henry III of England to investigate the murder of a child, she must pretend that her Arabian eunuch assistant is the real doctor, else face execution on the death pyre. Once you manage to suspend your disbelief about a woman doctor in 1171, you can immerse yourself in the story which is actually quite fascinating. The historical world comes vividly to life, the characters are well-drawn and interesting, and the actual murder mystery a nice tricky puzzle. I loved it.

'Julie & Julia' by Julie Powell

I loved the movie so much I bought both Julie Powell's memoir and Julia Child's My Life in France. Powell is rather shockingly honest and forthright, and at times very funny – however, her humour can be sharp-edged and mordant and I thought that Amy Adams was actually a bad choice to play her in the movie, being far too sweet and soft. However, perhaps you needed the sweetness to make her more likeable, because the real Julie Powell was not always sympathetic. I picked this book up and put it down again numerous times, and read a few other books before I finished it.

'The Trouble With Magic' by Madelyn Alt

A fluffy, light and pleasurable read, about an American woman who quits her job and starts to work in an antique shop owned by a witch. Before she knows it, Maggie's up to her neck in trouble, including a murder, two disturbingly attractive men (one a policeman investigating the murder, the other a devilishly handsome warlock), and her own peculiar psychic warnings.

'Dark Angels' by Katherine Langrish

I was absolutely swept away by this book, which is a children's historical adventure setting during medieval times in, I think, Wales. It tells the story of Wolf, who runs away from a cruel monk in a monastery and encounters a strange, mute elf-child, and a pack of hunting dogs owned by the local lord of the castle. The lord takes Wolf and the elf-child in, and his daughter Nest help him care for her and try to teach her how to speak. Then, one day, a passing jongleur comes by who ends up being far more than he seems ... A beautifully written, atmospheric tale that draws upon folklore and history, Dark Angels is my favourite children's book of the year so far. I must find more of her books!

'The Book of A Thousand Days' by Shannon Hale

A retelling of an old Grimm fairytale 'Maid Maleen' which is a Maiden in the Tower type, obviously of intense interest to me at the moment as I am writing my own Rapunzel retelling. Shannon Hale has made her career out of fairytale retellings and has done extremely well – I really loved her first book The Goose Girl. I enjoyed this a lot, but I am not head over heels in love with it, the way I hoped and expected to be. Perhaps its because the world did not have that fairytale sense of wonder that I love so much in Robin McKinley's books and in other fairytale retellings I've read.

The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray

Garth Nix gave me this beautiful old second-hand book years ago, when he heard that I wanted to write a Rapunzel retelling one day. Published in 1963, this reworking of the Rapunzel story is told from the point of view of the witch's cat, a clever and cynical creature that stays with the evil woman because he cannot resist the lure of magic. I absolutely love this book, and read it again as part of my immersion in all old Rapunzel tales. An absolute classic.

The House of Arden by Edith Nesbit

I spent the weekend unpacking boxes of my old children's books to put in my beautiful, new library and found all my E. Nesbit books. I sat down right away and re-read this, books piled all over the couch and round my feet. No wonder its taking me so long to unpack all my boxes of books! I keep re-discovering ones I simply have to read again!

'The Temptation of the Night Jasmine' by Lauren Willig

The latest in this series of historical romance romps, and just as much fun as the earlier books. Lauren Willig must be running out of flowers thought ...

'The Heretic's Daughter' by Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent is a direct descendant of Martha Carrier, one of the women hanged following the Salem witch trials. Growing up with stories of her notorious ancestor, Kathleen sets out to tell her story, choosing as her protagonist Martha's young daughter Sarah. Beautifully told, this book was a true insight into the Salem witch trials and into the world of the American Puritans. I absolutely loved it. It really doesn't reach the witch trial until more than halfway through the book, but is so beautifully and compellingly told, this really doesn't matter. In fact, it's better than that – because we understand each of the characters and the situation so well, we really, really care about what happens to them.

'The Letter From Spain' by Frances Parkinson Keyes

I bought this book from a second-hand bookshop because a romantic mystery set in Spain is just my cup of tea. Unfortunately I didn't like it & will probably sell it on. Why? It was, frankly, my dear, boring. Big yawn!

The Turf-Cutter's Donkey by Patricia Lynch

I read this book when I was a child and always remembered it, so I gladly snaffled it when I found it at a second-hand bookshop in Brisbane. It has a lovely inscription inside: 'To dearest Sheila, with love from Auntie Eileen.' Doesn't that sound so gorgeous and Irish? Patricia Lynch was an Irish journalist and writer and this is her best known book, a simple novel about two Irish children, Seamus and Eileen, and their adventures with an enchanted teapot, a leprechaun, a golden eagle, various witches, gypsies and Irish heroes, including the Salmon of Knowledge, and a grey donkey called Long Ears. It's really a collection of short stories, rather like Enid Blyton's Adventures of the Wishing Chair, but very charming and sweet.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna tells the story of a sensitive young American who works in the tumultuous household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, while they shelter Leon Trotsky. He is present when Trotsky is assassinated, and his own life is marked by his experiences there. Yet its about much more than that – The Lacuna a complicated book with a complicated plot, much of it told in letters or journal excerpts, and with a mystery at its heart, symbolised by the lacuna of the title, and by the underwater cave that the hero Harrison Shepherd finds as a boy. I found it an utterly fascinating book, though the structure does take some time to get used to. Frida in particular is brought to vivid and memorable life and, like all good novels that feature the lives of artists, took me back to pore over her paintings, finding them illuminated by my new understanding of her as a woman and as an artist. As Rivera said of his wife, 'Never before had a woman put such agonizing poetry on canvas as Frida did.'

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