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BOOK LIST: Best books of 2013

Saturday, January 04, 2014

I have read so many brilliant books this year that I had great trouble narrowing it down to only a few. However, at last I have managed it – here are the best books I read in 2013, divided by genre. 

Because I love historical fiction, and stories that move between a historical and a contemporary setting, most of my favourite books are in these genres. However, there are a few utterly brilliant contemporary novels and fantasy novels as well. As always, my list is entirely and unashamedly subjective – many of these writers are my friends and colleagues, and one is my sister! 

However, all I can say is I am incredibly lucky to know so many über-talented writers. 

Best Historical Novel for Adults



Chasing the Light – Jesse Blackadder
A beautiful, haunting novel about the first women in Antarctica.


The Crimson Ribbon – Katherine Clements
Set in England in 1646, in the midst of the English Civil War, this is a utterly riveting tale of passion, intrigue, witchcraft, and treason. 


Longbourne – Jo Baker
A beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching tale about the lives of the servants at Longbourne, the home of the Bennets from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. 


A Spear of Summer Grass – Deanna Raybourn
Set during the Roaring 20s, this is the story of debutante Delilah Drummond who has caused one scandal too many and so is banished to Kenya .. where she finds intrigue, murder and romance. 


Letters from Skye – Jessica Brockmole 
This charming epistolary novel moves between the First World War and the Second World War, and tells the story of the blossoming romance between a young Scottish poet and an American university student. 


Best Historical Mystery


The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy - James Anderson
As one can probably tell from the title, this book is a gentle spoof of the Golden Age type of mysteries written by authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh – utterly clever and charming!


Bellfield Hall, or The Deductions of Miss Dido Kent – Anna Dean
Imagine a novel where Miss Marple meets Jane Austen, and you will begin to have a sense of this delightful Regency murder mystery. Miss Dido Kent, the heroine and amateur sleuth, is clever, witty, and astute … and finds a touch of romance in her search to uncover the murderer. 


Best Historical Thrillers



The Falcons of Fire & Ice - Karen Maitland
An utterly compelling historical novel which moves between Portugal and Iceland as a young woman searches for two rare white falcons in a desperate attempt to save her father's life. Her journey is fraught with danger, betrayal, murder and horror, with the strangest set of seers ever to appear in fiction.


The Tudor Conspiracy – C.W. Gortner
A fast-paced, action-packed historical thriller, filled with suspense and switchback reversals, that also manages to bring the corrupt and claustrophobic atmosphere of the Tudor court thrillingly to life.


Ratcatcher – James McGee
A ratcatcher is a Bow Street Runner, an early policeman in Regency times. A great historical adventure book, filled with spies, and intrigue, and romance, and murder. 


Best Historical Romance



The Autumn Bride - Anne Gracie
Anne Gracie never disappoints. This is beautiful, old-fashioned romance, driven by character and situation and dialogue, and, as always, is filled with wit and charm and pathos. 


A Tryst with Trouble – Alyssa Everett
Lady Barbara Jeffords is certain her little sister didn't murder the footman, no matter how it looks … and no matter what the Marquess of Beningbrough might say ... A fresh, funny and delightful Regency romance. 


I bought this book solely on the cover – a Regency romance set in Venice? Sounds right up my alley … I mean, canal … It proved to be a very enjoyable romantic romp, with musical interludes. 


Best Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults



The Year of Ancient Ghosts – Kim Wilkins
'The Year of Ancient Ghosts' is a collection of novellas and short stories - brave, surprising, beautiful, frightening and tragic all at once


Beauty’s Sister – James Bradley
Beauty’s Sister is an exquisite retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, reimagined from the point of view of Rapunzel’s darker, wilder sister. 


Best Parallel Contemporary/Historical



Ember Island – Kimberley Freeman
A real page-turning delight, with a delicious mix of mystery, romance, history and family drama. One of my all-time favourite authors, Kimberley Freeman can be counted on to deliver an utterly compelling story. 


Secrets of the Sea House - Elisabeth Gifford
An intriguing and atmospheric novel set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, its narrative moves between the contemporary story of troubled Ruth and her husband Michael, and the islands in the 1860s when crofters are being forced to emigrate and science and religion are in conflict.


The Shadow Year – Hannah Richell
A perfectly structured and beautifully written novel which uses parallel narratives to stunning effect. A compelling and suspenseful novel about family, love, and loss.


The Perfume Garden - Kate Lord Brown
A young woman inherits an old house in Spain, discovers clues to buried family secrets, meets a gorgeous Spaniard, and finds her true path in life ... interposed with flashbacks to her grandmother's experiences during the bloody and turbulent Spanish Civil War  ... 


The Ashford Affair – Lauren Willlig
I absolutely loved this book which moves between contemporary New York, and 1920s England and Africa. It's a historical mystery, a family drama, and a romance, all stirred together to create a compulsively readable novel.



Best Contemporary Novel



The Midnight Dress – Karen Foxlee
A beautiful, haunting, tragic tale of love and loss and yearning. 


The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
A feel-good romantic comedy, with wit and charm. 



Best Contemporary Suspense Novels


Sister – Rosamund Lupton
Utterly compulsive, suspenseful, clever, surprising, this is one of the best murder mysteries I have ever read. 


Shatter – Michael Robotham
Chilling, powerful and superbly written. Highly recommended for the brave.   


Best YA Fantasy/Fairytale Retellings



Thornspell – Helen Lowe
Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. 


Raven Flight – Juliet Marillier
A classic old-fashioned high fantasy with a quest at its heart. The writing is beautiful and limpid, the setting is an otherworldy Scotland, and the story mixes danger, magic and romance - sigh! I loved it. This is YA fantasy at its absolute best.  


Pureheart – Cassandra Golds
Pureheart is the darkest of all fairy tales, it is the oldest of all quest tales, it is an eerie and enchanting story about the power of love and forgiveness. It is, quite simply, extraordinary. 


Scarlet in the Snow – Sophie Masson 
I just loved this retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, told with flair, dash, and panache, by one of my favourite Australian women writers. This is YA fantasy at its best - filled with magic, adventure and just a touch of romance. Loved it!




Best Historical Novel for Young Adults



The River Charm – Belinda Murrell
This beautiful, heart-wrenching novel is inspired by the true life story of the famous Atkinsons of Oldbury, earlier settlers in colonial Australia. It moves between the life of modern-day Millie, and her ancestor Charlotte Atkinson, the daughter of the woman who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia (who was, by the way, my great-great-great-great-grandmother. So, yes, that means Belinda is my sister.) 


Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
One of the best YA historical novels I have ever read, it is set in France and England during the Second World war and is the confession of a captured English spy. 


Witch Child – Celia Rees
Set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II, this is a simple yet powerful tale that explores the nature of magic and superstition, faith and cruelty.


Act of Faith - Kelly Gardiner
A heart-breaking and thought-provoking historical novel for young adults, set during the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. 


Best Children’s Books



A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
What can I say? It's brilliant, surprising, harrowing, humbling. I found it hard to breathe after I finished reading it – such an emotional wallop!


Fire Spell – Laura Amy Schiltz
I absolutely adored this book! Laura Amy Schlitz reminds me of one of my all-time favourite authors, Joan Aiken, which is very high praise indeed. This is a rather creepy story about children and witches and a puppet-master in London a century or so ago. Brilliant. 


Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick
A perfect title for a book that is, indeed, struck with wonder. 


Best Non-Fiction




Hanns & Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz – Thomas Harding
The author of this utterly riveting and chilling book found out, at his great-uncle’s funeral, that the mild-mannered old man he had known had once been a Nazi hunter. And not just any Nazi. His Great Uncle Hanns had been the man who had hunted down and caught Rudolf Hoss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz. 



84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff
84 Charing Cross Road is not a novel, but rather a collection of letters between an American writer and an English bookseller over the course of many years. That description does not really give any indication of just how funny, heart-wrenching and beautiful this book is – you really do have to read it yourself.


The Bolter: The Story of Idina Sackville – Frances Osborne
The Bolter is the non-fiction account of the life of Idina Sackville, the author's great-grandmother, who had inspired the key character in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. She married and divorced numerous times, and was part of a very fast set in 1930s Kenya that led to scandal and murder - I loved it. 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

BOOK LIST: Books Read in December 2013

Friday, January 03, 2014

I discovered some wonderful new writers this month, which always makes me happy. I also managed to read five books by Australian women writers, as part of the AWW 2013 Challenge (bringing me to a total of 30 for the year.) Many of the books I read sent me straight to the bookstore to find other books by these authors, always a good sign. Twelve books read in December brings me to a grand total of 130 books, well over my target for the year. I hope you have all had a happy reading year too! 


1. A Tryst with Trouble – Alyssa Everett
Lady Barbara Jeffords is certain her little sister didn't murder the footman, no matter how it looks … and no matter what the Marquess of Beningbrough might say ... 

This is a really fresh, funny and delightful Regency romance. I really loved it. Of course, I always do think a little murder and mayhem improves a book! The balance of humour, romance and suspense is really well done and I’ve gone in search of more books by Alyssa Everett – hoping they are just as good!


2. The Midnight Dress – Karen Foxlee
The Midnight Dress is a beautiful, haunting, tragic tale of love and loss and yearning. Told in a series of stories within stories, it circles around the mysterious disappearance of a girl one night in a far north Queensland town. The setting is superbly created, the characters are vivid and achingly alive, and the writing is exquisite. I particularly loved the character of the old seamstress Edie who, by teaching the young, sullen heroine  Rose to sew and telling her stories of her own past, teaches Rose how to live. A standout read of the year for me.


3. Half Moon Bay – Helene Young
I enjoyed this contemporary romance suspense novel set in the north coast of New South Wales. The heroine Ellie is a photo-journalist still struggling with grief over the death of her sister Nina in Afghanistan two years earlier, while the hero is an undercover government agent and ex-military officer who feels responsible for Nina’s death. They are on opposite sides of a small town’s struggle with corruption and drugs, yet neither can deny that sparks fly whenever they meet. 


4. Crow Country – Kate Constable
I am in such admiration of Kate Constable’s bravery and delicacy in writing this beautiful book, which draws upon Aboriginal mythology and Australian history to deal with themes of injustice, racism, truthfulness and atonement. Crow Country is a simple book, simply told, but that is part of its great strength. It tells the story of Sadie, an unhappy teenager who moves to the country with her flighty but loving mother. One day she stumbles across an Aboriginal sacred site, and a crow speaks to her – she is needed to right a wrong that occurred many years earlier. So Sadie slips back in time, into the body of one of her ancestors, and sees what happens. With the help of a local Aboriginal boy, she sets out to try to fix things.

A quote from the book: “The Dreaming is always; forever... it's always happening, and us mob, we're part of it, all the time, everywhere, and every-when too.”

I loved it. 


5. Sister – Rosamund Lupton
Oh my gaudy heavens! What a brilliant book. Utterly compulsive, suspenseful, clever, surprising. I think it may be one of the best murder mysteries I have read this year. Perhaps even ever. Told from the first person point of view of Beatrice, and addressed to her murdered sister Tess, the story packs a really powerful emotional punch (perhaps because I am so close to my sister Belinda and so could so well imagine the anguish Beatrice was feeling). Although the book follows Beatrice’s dogged investigation into her sister’s death and ultimate confrontation with the killer, it is so much more than that – it’s an exploration of the bonds of love and duty between sisters, a meditation on the harrowing experience of grief, and a clever literary game. Ten seconds after I read this book I bought her next book and I cannot wait to read it. ‘Sister’ was that good!


6. Under the Wide Starry Sky – Nancy Horan
As soon as I heard about this book, I grabbed hold of it and read it. There were two reasons for this. One: I really enjoyed Nancy Horan’s earlier book ‘Loving Frank’, about the passionate love affair between Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright. Two: the novel tells the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wild, strong-willed American wife, Fanny. I have had a soft spot for Robert Louis Stevenson since I was given his poetry to read as a little girl. In particular, his poem ‘The Land of Counterpane’ (about being a sick boy made to stay in bed) resonated with me strongly as I was a sick girl who spent far too much time in hospital. Consequently, I have read nearly every book he has ever written, including obscure ones like ‘Catriona’, plus have read many biographies of his life and collections of his letters. I was always intrigued by his relationship with his wife, and was eager indeed to read Nancy Horan’s imaginative recreation of their turbulent romance. I was not disappointed. This is a brilliant book, that brings the lives and times of RLS and his circle vividly to life. Read it!


7. The Bone Garden – Tess Gerritsen
This was my first book I’ve read by Tess Gerritsen, and I really enjoyed it. She is best known for her Rizzoli & Isles series of contemporary forensic thrillers, known for their anatomical precision and grisly detail, and so this book – which moves between the present and the past – is a departure for her. It was the historical aspect of the novel which first attracted me but I’m willing to try her other, more contemporary novels now (I just hope they are not TOO grisly). 


8. Who Am I? : The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937  – Anita Heiss
‘Who Am I?’ is part of the My Story series’ published by Scholastic Australia. Set in Sydney, 1937, this is the fictional diary of a young Aboriginal girl who was stolen from her parents under the White Australia government policy. Mary grows up in the Bomaderry Aboriginal Children's Home and is given the diary by the matron when she is ten years old. In its pages, she describes the daily events of her life, as well as her fears and anxieties and confusions. She soon has to leave the home, as she is adopted by a white family who live in St Ives, on the North Shore in Sydney. Here she faces racism in perhaps its most poisonous form – the daily stares, sniggers, casual insults, and calm assurance that White People Are Best. This part of the book hit home really hard for me - I grew up on the border of St Ives and many of the settings are my childhood stamping ground. I too would certainly have stared at an Aboriginal child in my school playground – I did not see anyone of Aboriginal blood until I was in my late teens and it certainly was not on the North Shore. I can only hope I would have been kinder than the fictional children in this book. I found ‘Who Am I: The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937’ a really heart-breaking and eye-opening novel which moved me to tears. A really important book for all school children, whether they live on the North Shore or not.



9. A Gentleman of Fortune, or, The Suspicions of Miss Dido Kent – Anna Dean
This is the second in a charming series of Regency-era murder mysteries featuring the sharp-witted lady-detective Miss Dido Kent, who cannot help being curious about the odd circumstances surrounding the death of a rich neighbour, Mrs Lansdale. The author Anna Dean must have read the works of Jane Austen many times – she captures her turn of phrase and ironic eye for detail perfectly, and the voice never flags for an instant. The mystery is brilliantly well-done too – every clue is there, and yet I still didn’t guess the murderer …



10. Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick
A perfect title for a book that is, indeed, struck with wonder. I absolutely loved Brian Selznick’s earlier book, ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, which was turned into a gorgeous movie called ‘Hugo’ by Martin Scorcese. Like that book, ‘Wonderstruck’ is told partly in extraordinarily beautiful and detailed pencil drawings and partly in text. It tells the stories of Ben, who has lost his mother, and Rose, who stares longingly at pictures of a silent screen movie star. The first narrative is told in words, the second in pictures. 


Slowly the two tales intersect in surprising ways, becoming a heart-touching story about love, art, and joyousness. Although this would be a wonderful book for a child who loves both stories and art, this is really a book for everyone who still has room in their lives for a little wonder. 


11. Wild Lavender – Belinda Alexander
An epic historical saga that follows the life of Simone Fleurier from her days as a poor girl on a lavender farm in Provence to the heights of fame as a singer on the Parisian stage and then through to her involvement with the French Resistance during the dark horror of Nazi Occupation. I enjoyed every moment of this rags-to-riches-to-rags story – the characters and the historical period were all so real and I really enjoyed every aspect of it. 


12. The Crimson Ribbon – Katherine Clements
I was utterly enthralled from the very first line of this novel: ‘Sometimes death comes like an arrow, sudden and swift, an unforseen shot from an unheeded bow.’ 

THE CRIMSON RIBBON is set in England in 1646, in the midst of the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell leads the army of the people against a tyrannical king, witches are hunted down, the skies are full of evil portents. A young woman named Ruth Flowers is on the run, trying to find a safe place for herself. She is helped by an enigmatic young soldier named Joseph, but – bruised by the encounter - takes refuge in the house of an extraordinary young woman named Elizabeth Poole. Her beauty and kindness ensnare Ruth, and she uses an old charm to tie herself to her new mistress. But Elizabeth is as troubled as she is charismatic, and – as the King of England finds himself imprisoned and on trial for his life - Ruth finds herself drawn into danger, intrigue, witchcraft, and treason. 


I found myself utterly unable to put this book down, constantly surprised, and constantly rewarded. This is an astonishingly assured debut title from Katherine Clements, and I’m really hoping she has more stories like this one up her sleeve!


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

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