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SPOTLIGHT: My Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2016

Saturday, January 07, 2017


    Every year I take part in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, in which readers all around the world do their best to read as many books written by Aussie women as possible. Last year I read only 10 books  by Australian women, and so I was determined to do better this year. I'm really rather proud of myself because I managed 28 books in total, and enjoyed them all.

     Here is my list (in the order in which I read them). Most of them have longer reviews that you can read by clicking on the title.

    I hope you are inspired to try the challenge for yourself in 2017. You can sign up here

1. 1. Wild Wood – Posie Graeme-Evans

WILD WOOD is a dual timeline narrative that moves between the Scottish Borderlands in the 14th century and an unhappy young woman in the 1980s who finds herself compelled to draw the same Scottish castle over and over again 

2.  Summer Harvest – Georgina Penney

A funny, romantic story with lots of heart, set in the Margaret River wine region and featuring engaging characters and light-hearted encounters. 

3. The Wife’s Tale  - Christine Wells 
The Wife’s Tale is a dual timeline novel that alternates between the point-of-view of Liz Jones, a young Australian lawyer whose ambition and drive to succeed have put her marriage at risk, and Delany Nash, who was at the centre of an infamous scandal in the 1780s.  

4. Tower of Thorns – Juliet Marillier 
Juliet Marillier’s books are an enchanting mix of romance, mystery and historical fantasy. Tower of Thorns is the second in her new series ‘Blackthorn & Grim’ which tells the story of the damaged and disillusioned healer Blackthorn and her faithful companion Grim. 

5. Our Tiny, Useless Hearts – Toni Jordan
The fourth novel by award-winning Australian author, Toni Jordan, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is a clever, funny, wise-cracking novel about love, infidelity and divorce. 

6. Nest – Inga Simpson
Inga Simpson is an Australian writer and Nest is a rhapsody about the importance of being at one with the natural world.. 

7. Daughter of the Forest – Juliet Marillier
This is one of my all-time favourite books, that I like to re-read every few years. A retelling of the ‘Six Swans’ fairy-tale, set in ancient Ireland, it is a beautiful story of courage, love, peril and wonder set in a world where magic is only ever a hairsbreadth away from us all. 

8. The Lost Sapphire – Belinda Murrell
I always love a new timeslip adventure from my brilliant sister, Belinda. In The Lost Sapphire, a teenage girl Marli is reluctantly sent to stay with her father in Melbourne. Things began to get more interesting, though, when she discovers an abandoned house with a mysterious past, and makes a new friend, a boy with his own connection to the house. 

9. Hexenhaus – Nikki McWatters
Hexenhaus is a gripping story of three different young women at different times of history who all find themselves persecuted in some way for witchcraft. 

10. Enemy: A Daughter’s Story – Ruth Clare
A memoir of growing up in Australia with a brutal and domineering father who had been damaged by his experiences in the Vietnam war. 

11. The Good People – Hannah Kent
Dark, poetic, and intense, The Good People is a fascinating and atmospheric tale of the ancient fairy lore of Ireland and how it shaped the people who believed it. One of my best reads of 2016.

12. The Summer Bride – Anne Gracie
The last book in Anne Gracie’s delightful Regency romance quartet, ‘The Chance Sisters’. 

13. The Ties That Bind – Lexi Landsman
An engaging and heart-warming read that moves between the story of a modern-day woman’s desperate search for a bone marrow donor for her son, and the hidden secrets of the past.

14. Den of Wolves – Juliet Marillier
The final book in Juliet Marillier’s latest magical historical trilogy, Den of Wolves wraps up the story of Blackthorn and Grim beautifully. A wonderful mix of history, romance, and fairy-tale-like enchantment. 

15. Where the Trees Were – Inga Simpson
A beautiful meditation on the Australian landscape and the Aboriginal connection to it, Where the Trees Were is a must-read for anyone who has ever swung on a tyre over a slow-moving brown river or lain on the ground looking up at a scorching blue sky through the shifting leaves of a gum tree. 

16. On the Blue Train – Kristel Thornell
This novel was inspired by the true-life story of how Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days in 1926. A slow, melancholy, and beautiful meditation on failed love. 

17. The Dry – Jane Harper
Set in a small Australian country town, The Dry is a tense, compelling and atmospheric murder mystery, as well as an astonishingly assured debut from English-born novelist Jane Harper. 

18. Castle of Dreams – Elise McCune
A gorgeous cover and intriguing title drew me to Castle of Dreams by Elise McCune, described as an ‘enthralling novel of love, betrayals, loss and family secrets.’  

19. The Family with Two Front Doors – Anna Ciddor
Inspired by the real-life stories of Anna Ciddor’s grandmother, The Family with Two Doors is a charming and poignant account of the life of a family of Jewish children in 1920s Poland. 

20. Beyond the Orchard – Anna Romer 
A story that moves between the past and the present, with intrigue, passion, betrayal and the metafictive use of a dark fairy-tale – it’ll be no surprise to anyone that I loved Beyond the Orchard, the first novel of Anna Romer’s that I have read. 

21. The Locksmith’s Daughter – Karen Brooks
An absolutely gripping page-turner of a novel set in Elizabethan times. 

22. The Waiting Room – Leah Kaminsky
Set in modern-day Israel, The Waiting Room tells the story of a single day in the life of a female Jewish doctor who is haunted by her parents’ tragic past. 

23. Rose’s Vintage – Kayte Nunn
A warm-hearted and very readable contemporary romance set in an Australian vineyard, Rose’s Vintage throws failed-British chef-turned-au-pair Rose into the midst of a range of lovable, eccentric characters including two adorable children and their brooding, difficult but gorgeous father. 

24. The Anchoress – Robyn Cadwaller
Set in England in 1255, the story begins with 17-year old Sarah being enclosed within her cell. Her door is literally nailed shut. Yet the world is not so easy to lock away. Sarah sees and hears glimpses of the life of the village, and is threatened by desire, grief, doubt and fear just as much as any other woman. 

25. Kumiko and the Dragon – Briony Stewart
26. Kumiko and the Dragon’s Secret – Briony Stewart
27. Kumiko and the Shadow-catchers – Briony Stewart
A trilogy of charming fantasy books for very young readers, inspired by the tales that Briony Stewart’s Japanese grandmother used to tell her. 

28. Victoria the Queen – Julia Baird
Described as ‘An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire,’ Victoria the Queen busts open many of the myths about both the woman and the era. 

Want more? Read my list of Books by Australian Women Writers in 2016 

BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Sapphire by Belinda Murrell

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Marli is staying with her dad in Melbourne, and missing her friends. Then she discovers a mystery—a crumbling, abandoned mansion is to be returned to her family after 90 years. Marli sneaks into the locked garden to explore, and meets Luca, a boy who has his own connection to Riversleigh. 

A peacock hatbox, a box camera and a key on a velvet ribbon provide clues to what happened long ago. In 1922, Violet is 15. Her life is one of privilege, with boating parties, picnics and extravagant balls. An army of servants looks after the family, including new chauffeur Nikolai Petrovich, a young Russian émigré. 

Over one summer, Violet must decide what is important to her. Who will her sister choose to marry? What will Violet learn about Melbourne’s slums as she defies her father’s orders to help a friend? And what breathtaking secret is Nikolai hiding? Violet is determined to control her future. 

But what will be the price of her rebellion?


I always love a new timeslip adventure from my brilliant sister, Belinda. In The Lost Sapphire, a teenage girl Marli is reluctantly sent to stay with her father in Melbourne. Things began to get more interesting, though, when she discovers an abandoned house with a mysterious past, and makes a new friend, a boy with his own connection to the house. Meanwhile, back in 1922, Violet lives the high life at the luxurious mansion but a forbidden friendship with her father’s Russian chauffeur opens up her eyes about the world and her own heart. 

A wonderful story for girls who like to imagine what life was like in the past.

The fascinating story of the woman who wrote Australia's first children's book (my great-great-great-grandmother)

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Last week I did an hour-long interview with Richard Fidler on his hugely popular ABC Radio Show  'Conversations' (click the link to listen to the whole interview).  Among other things, I spoke about my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson, who wrote the first children's book published in Australia. I have had such a huge response from the show, and so many questions about this incredibly strong, brave and clever woman, that I decided to post an article I wrote for Australian Author some years ago to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the book's publication:

Frontispiece of the first edition of A Mother's Offering To Her Children by A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales, first published in 1841

‘Heirs of Immortality’
Who was the mysterious ‘Lady’ who wrote Australia’s first children’s book?

Nowadays, Australian children’s authors such as Shaun Tan, Melina Marchetta, Sonya Hartnett, John Marsden, and Garth Nix are as well-known internationally as they are here.

Yet how many people know the name of Australia’s first children’s writer?

A Mother’s Offering to Her Children was published 174 years ago by a woman known simply as ‘A Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’. For almost a century and a half, her identity was Australia’s most puzzling literary mystery.  In the 1960s, Marcie Muir - a passionate lover of Australian children’s literature - set herself the task of finding out who this anonymous ‘Lady’ was. She could never have anticipated that she would uncover one of the great lost stories of Australian history, a tale of courage, grief, violence, and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. 

So who was the ‘Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’?
She was a child prodigy who could read by the age of two.

She was a fiercely independent young woman who scandalised Sydney society with her determination to forge her own way. 

She was a widowed mother of four who singlehandedly ran one of the largest land grants in early New South Wales.

She was probably raped by an infamous bushranger, the man later dubbed the Berrima Axe Murderer.

She was a battered wife who fled her “raving lunatic” of a second husband, even though it left her homeless and penniless. 

She was the mother of the first Australian-born female novelist.

She was also my great-great-great-great-grandmother.

Marcie Muir (1919-2007) was a collector and bibliographer of Australian children’s books whose passion became an obsession. Her library of over 7000 books – many of them extremely rare – was bought last year by the National Library of Australia. There was one book, though, that she was never able to afford to buy. A first edition of A Mother’s Offering To Her Children is now valued at $60,000. Even sixty-odd years ago, it was worth more than Marcie Muir could afford to pay. 

In 1978, a second edition was printed by Jacaranda Press, with a foreword by Rosemary Wighton, author of Early Australian Children’s Literature. She says, ‘For many years it was believed, because of a hand-written note in one of the surviving copies, that the author was Lady Gordon Bremer ... This attribution now seems increasingly dubious ... a letter from one of Lady Gordon Bremer’s descendants to the bibliographer of Australian children’s books, Marcie Muir, states that, as far as family records show, she never visited Australia at all.’

When this second edition was published, Marcie Muir had already spent almost a decade trying to identify the author of A Mother’s Offering, searching through ancient newspapers, scrolling down endless microfiches, and writing to anyone who might be able to help.

One day, in the summer of 1978, her doggedness at last paid off. Marcie Muir had flown to Sydney to look through Mitchell Library’s newspaper archives, in particular those of 1841, the year A Mother’s Offering was published. In The Sydney Gazette, on the very last newspaper of the year – 23 December 1841 – she found a small review tucked away at the back. 

It said: ‘(A Mother’s Offering to Her Children), which embraces a variety of useful and entertaining matter, is got up under the form of dialogues between a mother and her children. It is to be hoped that others will follow the noble example set up Mrs Barton ... nothing sooner gives young persons a taste for refined literature than books ... which while ... interesting, are also instructive.’

A name! ‘Mrs Barton.’ Yet who was Mrs Barton? 

Nobody seemed to know. For another eighteen months, Marcie Muir tried to find out. Eventually, wearied of her task, she gave up and turned her attention to another literary mystery – identifying the author of the first illustrated children’s book, Peter Possum’s Portfolio

Finding an advertisement for it in the back of Cowanda, the Veteran’s Grant, an 1859 novel by the colonial writer Louisa Atkinson, Marcie Muir wondered if she could also have been the author of Peter Possum’s Portfolio. Louisa Atkinson was an accomplished novelist, artist and naturalist, and well-known as Australia’s first native-born female novelist. 

Marcie Muir began to research Louisa Atkinson’s life and work. To her astonishment, she discovered that Louisa Atkinson’s mother – born Charlotte Waring – had remarried a man named George Barton when Louisa had been only four.

Could the mother of Australia’s first native-born female novelist also be the author of Australia’s first published children’s book? 

The idea fascinated Marcie Muir. She plunged into research on the Atkinson family and eventually made contact with the descendants of the Atkinsons, who had many drawings and papers which were able to conclusively prove that it was indeed Louisa Atkinson’s mother who was the mysterious ‘Lady’ Marcie Muir had been searching for. 

Born in 1796, Charlotte Waring was the third of four sisters. Her mother died giving birth to her younger sister, and Charlotte was raised by her father, a man of fortune whose ancestors had come to England with William the Conquerer. Charles Darwin was her fifth cousin, and her father, Albert Waring, was a younger son of Lord Saye and Sele. Charlotte was a brilliant child who could read fluently at the age of two and who received an unusually good education. 

When she was fifteen, her father died, and Charlotte’ young half-brother inherited all his wealth and property. Charlotte and her sisters were left impoverished and, like many a heroine of a Bronte novel, were forced to find work as governesses. 

Yet Charlotte was strong-willed and strong-minded, and used to a life of privilege. When a position was advertised for the princely price of 100 pounds a year, Charlotte leapt at the chance. Unlike the 24 other applicants for the job, she was not daunted by the idea of travelling halfway round the world to the tiny colony of Sydney, although she had read newspaper accounts of attacks by savage natives with spears, escaped convicts, bushfires, and smallpox epidemics.

She had one stricture. She would only go if she travelled first class. 

At first Mrs King, the wife of Admiral Phillip Parker King, was effusive in her praise of the governess she had hired for the Macarthurs. A few weeks later, however, she wrote to her husband, “I am very much disappointed in Miss Waring the Governess, she is very different from what she ought to be ... We had not been 2 hours on board before I saw she was flirting with Mr Atkinson, and ere 10 days were over she was engaged to him … she told me … she must be mistress of her own actions.’

Charlotte Waring left Plymouth on 19th September 1826, a penniless governess with few prospects. She arrived in Sydney on 22nd January 1827, engaged to James Atkinson, a rich gentleman-settler. 

James Atkinson had landed in Sydney in 1820, only thirty-two years after the arrival of the First Fleet. He had been given two land grants totaling 2,000 acres as a reward for his services in the Colonial Secretary’s Office. This land, called Oldbury after his father’s manor in Kent, was at Sutton Forest, 140 kilometres south of Sydney. He was good friends with the Kings and the Macarthurs, and his book, An Account of Agriculture and Grazing in NSW, had just been published in London to great acclaim. 

Their romance scandalised Sydney. Alexander Berry, writing to Edward Wollstonecraft, said ‘I must say I never saw a lady whose manners were less to my taste … the grossest levity!’ Mrs King wrote ‘she behaved very ill and gave herself many airs’, though, as Marcie Muir was to write, ‘there is more than a little malice in Mrs King’s tone, inspired by her disapproval of the governess she had engaged daring to become betrothed to a gentleman of their acquaintance.’ 

Charlotte and James were married on 29 September 1827 and went to live at Oldbury, where they built a grand sandstone manor which still stands today (though not, sadly, owned by my family). Four children were born in quick succession - Charlotte Elizabeth (my great- great-great-grandmother), Jane Emily, James John Oldbury and Caroline Louisa Waring (known as Louisa).

A photo of Oldbury Farm as it is today, taken by my sister Belinda Murrell

When Louisa was only two months old, James died and Charlotte was left alone, the mistress of a vast, isolated property worked by convicts and the mother of four children under the age of six. In a repeat of her childhood tragedy, Oldbury was left in trust for her son, then only two years old. 

Almost two years after James’s death, Charlotte and her overseer, George Barton, were visiting an outlying property when they were held up and robbed by bushrangers, led by the notorious escaped convict John Lynch, later to be named the Berrima Axe Murderer. Lynch whipped Barton cruelly, saying he “considered it his duty to … flog all the gentlemen so they might know what punishment was.”

A drawing of the infamous bushranger and Berrima Axe Murder, John Lynch

Charlotte herself may have been raped. Since she never spoke of that day, we cannot be sure but certainly her own family came to believe so. Whatever happened that terrible day, it led Charlotte to make the greatest mistake of her life. 

One month later Charlotte married George Barton. He was a violent drunk. When asked to testify against Lynch in a court of law, he turned up so incapacitated by alcohol that Lynch was acquitted and went on to murder another ten people. Louisa Atkinson was to write of her step-father: ‘(he) became a furious maniac and had to be kept under restraint.’ In time Barton would be charged with murder, and sent to gaol. 

After three terrible years, Charlotte and her four young children fled Oldbury. They took only their clothes, Charlotte’s jewellery box, the children’s pet koala, and her writing desk, tied to the back of a bullock. They travelled at night down the precipitous Meryla Pass and through the wild gorges of the Shoalhaven River, at last reaching Sydney some months later.  Charlotte had no income at all from Oldbury, supporting her family by the sale of her clothes and jewellery, and by running up debts. 

For the next six years, Charlotte would fight not only for the allowance she was entitled to under her dead husband’s will, but also for custody of her children. The executors of the will – Alexander Berry and John Coghill – maintained she was ‘not a fit and proper person to be the Guardian of the Infants … in consequence of her imprudent … intermarriage with George Bruce Barton.’ This accusation must have been a bitter pill for Charlotte to swallow, as she had run away from her violent husband and had already applied to the courts for protection from him. 

In the meantime, Charlotte had to find some way to house, feed, clothe and educate her children who were ‘literally starving’. So she wrote a book, the first children’s book to be published in Australia. It was released in December 1841, in time for the Christmas trade. Cleverly, A Mother’s Offering was educational enough to appeal to early Victorian sensibilities and yet still exciting enough to appeal to children, filled as it was with descriptions of storms, shipwrecks, strange animals, fossils and cannibals. It was an instant bestseller, and provided Charlotte with an income until her son was at last old enough to inherit Oldbury.

Structured as a dialogue between a mother and her four young children, the book is hard to read now, with all its moral instructions and outmoded Victorian sensibilities. Yet it was the first book in the world to draw upon Australian history, the first to feature native trees, birds and animals, the first to describe life as a settler, the first to feature the life and culture of the Australian Aborigines. I have to remind myself of this because, I must admit, the first time I read it I was horrified at her racism. It is hard to remember that Charlotte was writing in the early 19th century, and that her depiction of “the natives” was considered rather too sympathetic at the time. 

A sketch of a local Aboriginal woman with her child, drawn by Charlotte Waring Atkinson 

By the time the book was published, Charlotte had resoundingly won her case, though she was fined in court for her ‘impertinence’. The Chief Justice, Sir James Dowling, ruled: “It would require a state of urgent circumstances to induce the Court to deprive them (all of whom are under thirteen years of age) of that maternal care and tenderness, which none but a mother can bestow.” 

A Mother’s Offering To Her Children was based on stories that Charlotte had told her own children, who had lost everything - their father, their wealth, their home. She told them stories to teach them, to entertain them, and to comfort them. With her stories, she created an enchanted circle where those four fatherless children knew that they were loved.

Charlotte Waring wrote in her final paragraph of A Mother’s Offering to her Children: ‘we know not the day, nor the hour, when time may cease for us; and we be summoned into eternity. Let us, dear children, endeavour to profit by the frequent warnings we have of the uncertainty of life … (Let us) so pass through this life that we gain a knowledge of the things which belong to our peace; and become at last heirs of immortality!’

To celebrate the 170th anniversary of the publication of her book, the Children’s Book Council of Australia (NSW Branch) has announced they plan to rename the Frustrated Writers’ Award in her honour, so that her name – unknown for so long - shall at last be remembered.

(The primary sources for this article were Charlotte Barton: Australia’s First Children’s Author by Marcie Muir (Wentworth Books, 1980), Pioneer Writer - The life of Louisa Atkinson: novelist, journalist, naturalist by Patricia Clarke (Allen & Unwin, 1990) and oral history passed down by the descendants of James and Charlotte Atkinson. 

My sister has written a wonderful novel about the Atkinsons entitled The River Charm which I hope you will all read.

And just finally, a note in regards to Charlotte's name. As a result of Marcie Muir's book, Charlotte is known as Mrs Barton ... but my great-great-great-grandmother hated and feared her second husband, took out a restraining order against him, and never called herself by that name. To the time of her death, she called herself Charlotte Atkinson,  as can be seen by this sketchbook she made for her eldest daughter, also called Charlotte. No-one in the family would ever call her by the name Mrs Barton, and we all hope that others will respect her wishes and not call her that either!

SPOTLIGHT: Best Children's Books Set in World War II

Sunday, November 08, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Best Children’s Novels Set in World War II

My new novel THE BEAST’S GARDEN is a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, set in Nazi Germany.

I have been fascinated by World War II ever since I was a child, and read every book I could find set during those tumultuous years as I grew up. 

I thought I’d make up a list of my favourite children’s books set in World War II for you. 

The first book I ever read with that setting was The Diary Of Anne Frank. It sent a seismic shock through my life when I first read it at the age of twelve. Her voice was so honest and true, and her ending so very tragic. I found it devastating, and it began my lifelong fascination with the Second World War.

I am David by Anne Holm was published in 1963, and written by a Danish author. It’s a haunting tale about a 12 year old’s escape from a concentration camp and his struggles to find safety and a home. I have read it again several times, and it never fails to shock and move me. 

The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier, published in the late 1950s, is another utterly gripping and harrowing children’s book set during World War II. 
On a cold winter’s night in Warsaw, three children watch in horror as the Nazis arrest their mother. Left alone to fend for themselves, in a city that has been bombed into ruins, the three children struggle to stay alive. Eventually they hear their father is alive and has escaped to Switzerland. They set out to find him, keeping as their talisman an old letter opener that they call the silver sword. 

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico is a small exquisite book about the friendship between a crippled young man, a girl, and a snow goose. It was first published in 1940 as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, then he expanded it to create a short novella which was first published on April 7, 1941. It was my introduction to the extraordinary story of the Dunkirk evacuation, and has lingered in my imagination ever since. Youc an read a longer review here.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr is inspired by the author’s own childhood, growing up in Nazi Berlin. It tells the story of a little girl who does not even realise that she and her family are Jewish until the pogroms begin. Her father – an outspoken writer – has to flee in the middle of the night, and Anna and her mother and brother must try to follow as best they can. I remember lying awake for weeks afterwards, imagining what I would pack … where I would hide … would I remember a can opener? Which one of my beloved soft animals would I take? 

Good night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian did not have as strong an impact upon my imagination as many of the other books in my list – perhaps because it is set in England and so the danger did not seem so acute. It tells the story of a skinny Cockney boy sent away from London because of the Blitz. He is reluctantly taken in by a grumpy old man in a small country village, but the two end up being each other’s saviours. As a child, I mainly remembered the scene in which the boy, Willie, is discovered to have been sewn into his undies by his mother … and his bed-wetting …. But I read the book again as an adult, and found it a beautiful and subtle book.

I first read Dawn Of Fear by Susan Cooper because I loved her Dark is Rising fantasy series so much, rather than because of its WW2 setting. However, it lingered for a long time in my memory … I think because it felt so real. It tells the story of a mob of boys in blitzed London, their games and feuds, and the sudden shock of tragedy that changes everything. An unjustly ignored book, I think. 

As I grew older, I read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, an utterly brilliant story about the Danish Resistance and how they worked to save nearly all of the country’s Jewish population after the German occupation in 1943. This is a book I return to again and again – it is so simple, and yet so powerful. In my estimation, it is one of the best books for children about World War II.

In my teens, I also read Briar Rose and The Devil’s Arithmetic, both by Jane Yolen. The first is an extraordinary reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ‘Briar Rose’, moving between the modern day story of a Holocaust survivor’s granddaughter and her grandmother’s harrowing escape from the Chelmno concentration camp. The second is a timeslip adventure, taking a modern-day girl – who finds her family’s Jewish traditions embarrassing – back to a Polish village in the 1940s. When the Nazi soldiers come and start rounding up the Jewish residents, only Hannah has any idea of what lies in store … but no-one will believe her. Utterly compelling and heart-wrenching.

As I grew up, I never stopped reading WW2 fiction intended for the young … here are a few favourites by contemporary authors:

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper

This is the first in a trilogy about an extraordinary family, the FitzOsbornes, who live in a tumbledown castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray. The FitzOsbornes are minor royalty, and their home has a strategic position in the ocean between Germany and Great Britain. Beginning in 1936, the trilogy charts the lives of the family as war breaks out in Europe. It is fresh, charming, surprising, and will make you smile one moment and weep the next. You can read more about Michelle Cooper and the Montmaray 
Journals here

I also really love those books of Eva Ibbotson set during this period. My favourite is A Song for Summer, which tells the story of an unusual English girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in a progressive Austrian boarding school in the late 1930s. As always, the minor characters are extremely eccentric and delightful, but there are darker shadows here as the Third Reich spreads its tentacles over Europe. I’d also recommend The Morning Gift and The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson, set in the same period and sharing her delicious blend of sparkling humour, acute insight, and heart-warming romance.

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo is one of my daughter’s all-time favourite books. I first read it to her when she was about eight, and she has read it again many times since (Michael Morpurgo is her favourite author). It’s the story of a girl and her cat and their small English village, and the impact of the war upon their lives. I am not ashamed to say I cry at the end every single time. We also love Waiting for Anya and  An Elephant in the Garden by the same author.

One of the most brilliant, clever, and heart-rending novels about WW2 that I have ever read is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It was only published in 2012, and so is a recent addition to the oeuvre – and absolutely one of the best.   It tells the story of a young British female spy whose plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Arrested and held prisoner and tortured for information, she tells her story on small scraps of paper … yet is she telling the truth? This is one of those books that is terribly hard to summarise in a blurb, in the fear of giving away the story’s unexpected plot twist … and yet you want to say to everyone: READ  IT!

Elizabeth Wein’s follow-up Rose Under Fire is almost as good … which means it is absolutely soul-shakingly brilliant.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne has been widely celebrated and has sold a motza. I did not like it much when I first read it – I felt it struck a note of false naivety, plus I thought it was too similar in key ways to Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, which I absolutely loved. However, I have re-read the book a few times since then and have been won over. In a way, its simplicity and naivety make it a key entry point for teenagers who have never read any Holocaust fiction … and its ending (very similar to the ending of Jane Yolen’s novel) at least does not try to escape the awful reality of Auschwitz. 
I just hope that readers of John Boyne’s work will go on and read Anne Frank, and Anne Holm, and Ian Serallier, and Jane Yolen, and those other writers of extraordinary WW2 children’s fiction. 

And one final note: I cannot talk about wonderful WW2 children’s’ fiction without mentioning my own sister Belinda Murrell’s brilliant and heart-wrenching novel The Forgotten Pearl, set in Darwin and Sydney in the 1940s.


You may also like to read my blog about The Diary of Anne Frank, and how reading it changed my life. 


INTERVIEW: Belinda Murrell author of The Sequin Star

Friday, July 25, 2014

Please welcome the brilliant and beautiful Belinda Murrell (my sister, who I am so proud of) to the blog, to talk about her new book THE SEQUIN STAR!

What is your latest novel all about?

My new book is The Sequin Star, which is the latest book in my time slip series for children aged about 10 to 14. This book was so fascinating to research and write as it is set in a circus during the Great Depression. My daughter Emily and I went to visit lots of circuses as part of my research, and we went behind the scenes to meet and interview some of the circus equestrian performers. 

The Sequin Star is the story of a modern day girl called Claire, who is very close to her grandmother. After her grandmother is rushed to hospital, Claire finds a chipped and battered sequin star brooch amongst her grandparents’ treasures. Why does Claire’s wealthy grandmother own such a cheap piece of jewellery? The mystery deepens when the brooch hurtles Claire back in time to 1932. 

Claire finds herself stranded in the camp of the Sterling Brothers Circus. Rescued by Princess Rosina, a gypsy princess and bareback rider extraordinaire, Claire is allowed to stay – if she promises to work hard. The Great Depression has made life difficult for everyone, but Claire makes friends with Rosina and Jem, and a boy called Kit who comes to the circus night after night to watch Rosina perform.

When Kit is kidnapped, it’s up to Claire, Rosina and Jem to save him. But Claire is starting to wonder just who Kit and Rosina really are. One is escaping poverty and the other is escaping wealth – can the two find happiness together?

How did you get the first idea for it?
I have always been fascinated by circuses. One of my earliest memories is visiting The Great Moscow Circus with Dad and being entranced by the performing bears (As a vet, Dad was called out to treat one of the Russian bears when the circus first came to Australia). I remember as a teenager trying to teach myself bareback circus tricks on my pony and getting thrown off multiple times. Over the years I managed to break several bones attempting fancy tricks on horseback. So I have wanted to write a story about an old fashioned circus for a long time. The 1930s seemed like an ideal time to set it because it was a very harsh period in Australian history.  

What was the most interesting thing you discovered during your research?

Lots of my books have been inspired by family stories and experiences, and at first I thought that this was one book of mine that wasn’t. However halfway through writing and researching the book, I made an amazing discovery. There actually was a member of my family who ran away and joined the circus. Nearly a hundred years ago, my husband’s great uncle Max Murrell, ran away when he was a teenager and joined a circus. He eloped with a gorgeous young girl called Gertrude and together they travelled all over the world to Asia, India, Africa and America. They developed an aerial equilibrist act which included doing handstands on the back of a chair, balanced on a tightrope high above the ground. I had great joy in poring over his fascinating old photo albums. 

What do you love most about writing?
Immersing myself in a different place and time. Discovering the stories of my characters. Experiencing the almost magical evolution from the first spark of an idea, to the outline of a story, to a complete book. 
I also love the feedback from my readers. One of my greatest joys is getting hundreds of emails and letters from kids, telling me how much they love my books.

What are the best 5 books you've read recently?

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Sheila by Robert Wainright

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

I am currently reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd which I am really enjoying. 

What lies ahead of you in the next year?

This year I am writing four new books in my Lulu Bell series – written for younger kids (6 to 9) years old. 

I just adore my character Lulu Bell. She is an eight year old girl, growing up in a vet hospital just like we did as children. She is the eldest child, so she is creative but practical, sometimes a little sassy, but usually warm and caring and great at solving problems. 

I have just finished editing Lulu Bell and the Christmas Elf, to come out in November and writing books 10 to 13 to come out next year. The series, which is illustrated by the very talented Serena Geddes, is about family, friends and animal adventures. 

I have just been away on tour for a few weeks for the launch of Lulu Bell and the Pyjama Party visiting a wide array of schools, bookshops, libraries and literary festivals in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. The series is currently being translated into Portuguese and Afrikaans, and the first six books are being released in a book-shaped treasure tin. So it is very exciting to see the series doing so well.  

BOOK LIST: Best Books about Circuses for Children

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

To celebrate the success of The Sequin Star, the new YA timeslip adventure written by my sister Belinda, I asked her to prepare a list of the best books about circuses for kids. I remember reading all of these!

Here they are:

Mr Galliano’s Circus by Enid Blyton was one of my favourite books when I was young. I loved reading about the adventures of Jimmy Brown, who leaves his everyday, suburban life behind when his Dad gets a job as the circus carpenter. Jimmy makes friends with the naughty, mischievous circus girl called Lotta. The circus is filled with colourful characters like the ringmaster, Mr Galliano and lots of wonderful animal performers. I particularly loved Jemima the monkey, and remember begging for a pet monkey of my own. Lotta is a delightful character – a bareback trick rider who teaches Jimmy how to perform in the circus ring. Enid Blyton wrote several other books set in circuses, including Hurrah for the Circus and The Circus of Adventure

Circus Ring was written by Mary Grant Bruce in 1936 but is set in a horse drawn circus in the 1890s. The two primary characters are Hugh Russell and Nina Peterson, child performers in Peterson’s Circus. The book follows the ups and downs of the circus performers as they travel through the Australian countryside. It is a story of hardship and adventure set in an old-time travelling circus. 

The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene was a big favourite in our house, so I particularly enjoyed The Ringmaster’s Secret, when Nancy is sleuthing a mystery involving a long lost gold charm bracelet, an orphaned trapeze artist and various circus villains. To solve the mystery, Nancy goes undercover as a bareback circus rider, and of course she performs like a seasoned professional. During her adventures she is attacked, kidnapped from the circus and finally imprisoned in the lion’s cage before the ringmaster’s secret is solved. 

Five Go Off in a Caravan, was one of my favourite Famous Five adventures. Once again Enid Blyton writes a rollicking adventure story amongst the colourful characters of a circus. George, Julian, Dick, Anne and Timmy the dog, set off on a holiday in two horse drawn gypsy caravans, blissfully free of any interfering parents. They stumble across a circus camp and make friends with Nobby, the circus boy, his performing dogs and Pongo the chimpanzee. Of course, as well as loveable circus performers, there are villains and mysteries aplenty.  

Know any other great books about circuses for kids? I'd love to hear about them!

BOOK REVIEW: The Sequin Star by Belinda Murrell

Monday, July 21, 2014


Author: Belinda Murrell

Publisher: Random House Australia

Age Group & Genre: YA timeslip adventure

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

Source of Book: A gift from the author (who is also my sister!)

The Blurb:
In an  exciting timeslip tale, Claire finds an old trunk filled with her grandmother's treasures, including an old star-shaped brooch covered in sequins

Why does Claire's wealthy grandmother own such a cheap piece of jewelry? The mystery deepens when the brooch hurtles Claire back in time to 1932. Australia is in the grip of the Great Depression and people seek distraction from their problems through entertainment. There's the famous horse Phar Lap, cricket hero Don Bradman, and then there are circuses. Claire finds herself stranding in the camp of the Sterling Brothers Circus. Rescued by Princess Rosina, a beautiful trick rider, Claire is given a job in the camp kitchen. Life is hard, but she makes friends with Rosina and Jem, and a boy named Kit who comes to the circus night after night to watch Rosina perform. When Kit is kidnapped by a fanatical political group, it's up to Claire, Rosina, and Jem to save him. But Claire is starting to wonder just who Kit and Rosina really are. One is escaping poverty and the other is escaping wealth—can the two find happiness together?(

What I Thought: 

Many of you may know that Belinda Murrell is my elder sister, and so I have to admit to a strong partiality to any book I read of hers!

The Sequin Star is the latest in her very popular timeslip series for teenage girls. The action follows a modern-day Australian girl named Claire who finds herself thrown back in time to a Great Depression-era circus in 1932. She is rescued by a warm-hearted girl named Rosina who is riding on the back of an elephant. 

Claire has no way of getting back to her own time, and so begins to work in the circus. As well as Rosina and her pet monkey, Claire makes friends with two boys from very different backgrounds. Jem’s family is dirt-poor and living in a shanty town, while Kit has a chauffeur and lives in a mansion. Kit comes to the circus night after night to watch Rosina ride her beautiful dancing horses, not realising he is putting himself in danger. 

When Kit is kidnapped, Claire and her friends have to try and work out the mystery in order to save him. The Sequin Star is exactly the sort of book I would have loved to have read in my early teens (in fact, any time!), and is gives a really vivid look at life in Sydney in the early 1930s. Loved it!

Writer’s website:

BOOK LIST: Books I Read in May 2014

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Its been such a busy time for me lately that I haven't had much time for blogging! I hope you'll all forgive me ... the good news is that I've been working on a new novel. 

I always have time for reading, though - here's my May roundup of what Books I've Been Reading. 

May is festival time in Sydney, and so I spent a lot of time talking about, and listening to other writers talk about, books and writing. It was wonderful to see the festival precinct at the wharves so alive and buzzing with book-lovers, and I bought a great pile of books that I shall be slowly working my way though in the upcoming weeks. 

A lot of my reading time is still being taken up by research, but I managed to read a few other lovely books as well. 

The Sequin Star – Belinda Murrell
Many of you may know that Belinda Murrell is my elder sister, and so I have to admit to a strong partiality to any book I read of hers. The Sequin Star is the latest in her very popular timeslip series for teenage girls. The action follows a modern-day Australian girl named Claire who finds herself thrown back in time to a Great Depression-era circus in 1932. She is rescued by a warm-hearted girl named Rosina who is riding on the back of an elephant. Claire has no way of getting back to her own time, and so begins to work in the circus. As well as Rosina and her pet monkey, Claire makes friends with two boys from very different backgrounds. Jem’s family is dirt-poor and living in a shanty town, while Kit has a chauffeur and lives in a mansion. Kit comes to the circus night after night to watch Rosina ride her beautiful dancing horses, not realising he is putting himself in danger. When Kit is kidnapped, Claire and her friends have to try and work out the mystery in order to save him. The Sequin Star is exactly the sort of book I would have loved to have read in my early teens (in fact, any time!), and is gives a really vivid look at life in Sydney in the early 1930s. Loved it!

Gift from the Sea – Anne Morrow Lindbergh 
After reading and enjoying Melanie Benjamin’s wonderful novel about the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh in The Aviator’s Wife, I was inspired to go back and read ‘Gift from the Sea’, the most famous of Lindbergh’s numerous books. It’s a small, delicate and wise book, full of meditations on the life of women. I first read it when I was sixteen, and am now thinking I shall pass it on to my daughter at the same age.  

The Unlikely Spy – Daniel Silva
I love a good spy thriller, particularly when its set during World War II, and Daniel Silva did not disappoint. The unlikely spy of the title is an amiable history professor and he is on the track of a ruthless Nazi spy working undercover in Great Britain in the lead-up to D-Day. This is more a novel of psychological suspense than an action-packed page-turner, but I enjoyed seeing the action from all sides, and found the historical details fascinating. 

Ingo – Helen Dunmore
I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long, but only picked it up this month because I was doing a talk on retellings of mermaid tales, and thought I should catch up on recent additions to the genre. I am so glad I did – I loved this book! It’s a very simple story – after a girl’s father disappears and is believed drowned, she finds her brother beginning to be drawn irresistibly to the sea as well. In time, the girl (whose name is Sapphire) learns of the mysterious realm of Ingo, the world of the mermaids that lies in the depths of the ocean. Its enchanting siren song is dangerous, however, and Sapphire will find it hard to escape its spell. What lifts this novel out of the ordinary, however, is the beauty of the writing. Helen Dunmore is a poet as well as an Orange Prize-winning novelist for adults. Her writing is both lyrical and deft, and I’m looking forward to the rest in the series. 

The Winter Bride – Anne Gracie
Anne Gracie is my favourite living romance novelist; she never disappoints. The Winter Bride is the second in a Regency-times series featuring four plucky young women trying to make their own way in the world, and finding all sorts of trouble along the path towards true love. Read The Autumn Bride first, but have this one close to hand as once you’ve read one, you’ll want more. I’m just hanging out for the next in the series now. 

The Chalet School in Exile – Elinor Brent-Dyer
Elinor Brent-Dyer was an extraordinarily prolific author who wrote more than 100 books in total, many of them in the famous Chalet School series about a 1930s girls’ school set in the Austrian Tyrol. I’ve been collecting them for years and had been searching for this one in particular – the rare The Chalet School in Exile, set during the Nazis’ Anschluss of Austria. The girls of the school fall foul of the Gestapo after trying to save an old Jewish man from being beaten to death, and have to escape Austria on foot through the Alps. It’s an extraordinarily vivid snapshot of a time and a place, and one of the few children’s books of the era to deal directly with the terror of the Nazis. I read it when I was about 10, and it made a deep impression on me at the time. An original first edition hardback with the original dust-jacket showing a SS officer confronting the girls is worth over $1,000 (though this is cheap compared to the almost $4,000 you need to fork out for a first edition copy of the first book in the series, The School at the Chalet). I however bought my copy from Girls Gone By publishers which re-issue the rarer editions at a much more affordable price (and feature the famous dustjacket as well). 

Meanwhile, I’ve continued with my own research into the Nazi era. I’ve read another half-a-dozen non-fiction books on the subject. Here are three of the best I’ve read this month: 

Between Dignity & Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany – Marion A Kaplan
This powerful and heart-rending book draws on many different memoirs, diaries, letters and post-war interviews to give us an extraordinary insight into what it was like to be a Jew in Germany during the Nazi years. It shows how the many small humiliations and unkindnesses of the early years gradually began to drag the Jewish community inexorably towards the horror of the Holocaust, and gives a sense of how that horror continues to shadow those that survived. 

Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields – Wendy Lower
This book was so chilling that I could only read it in parts. It tells the stories of the active role played by Nazi women in the Third Reich: nurses and secretaries and wives, as much as the already well-known horrors of the female camp guards. Some of the events seem impossible to believe, except that they have been documented in the Nuremberg court of law. 

Hitler’s Spy Chief: the Wilhelm Canaris Mystery – Richard Bassett
Wilhelm Canaris was the enigmatic head of the Abwehr, the German secret service. He was executed for treason in a Bavarian concentration camp only days before the Allies’ reached the camp and liberated it. He had been involved in the failed assassination of Hitler immortalised in the movie ‘Valkyrie’, but many researchers believe that he had been working to undermine the Third Reich from before the beginning of the war.  This detailed and in-depth examination of his life and work is not for the casual reader (it assumes a wide knowledge of the Nazi era and the Valkyrie plot), but it is utterly fascinating and convincingly argues that Canaris had been feeding secrets to the British for many years and was in fact protected to some extent by them. 

Want more? Here's my list of Books Read in April 


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. 


INTERVIEW: Belinda Murrell author of The River Charm

Friday, June 28, 2013

Those of you who know me well will know that I come from a family of writers.

My great-great-great-great-grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson wrote the first children's book published in Australia.

Her youngest daughter Louisa Atkinson was the first Australian-born female novelist.

There have been writers of all kind - poets, journalists, academics, novelists - in nearly every generation since, including my brother Nick Humphrey, my sister Belinda Murrell, and me. 

Now my sister Belinda has written a novel inspired by the extraordinary story of how Charlotte Waring Atkinson came to write her book, the first written and published for children in Australia. I'm very proud to welcome her today: 

For those readers who have not yet discovered your wonderful new novel THE RIVER CHARM, what is it all about?

The River Charm is a very special book to me, because it is based on the true life adventures of our great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Elizabeth Atkinson. Set in Australia, during the 1840s, it is the story of a family who lost everything but fought against almost insurmountable odds to regain their independence and their right to be together as a family. Charlotte was born into a wealthy family at Oldbury, a grand estate in the bush. But after her father dies, her mother is left to raise four young children on her own. A young widow was a tempting target – from murderous convicts, violent bushrangers and worst of all, a cruel new stepfather. Fearing for their lives, the family flees on horseback to a remote hut in the wilderness. The Atkinson family must fight to save everything they hold dear. 

How did you get the first idea for it?
When I was a child, my grandparents, Nonnie and Papa used to take my sister (that's me!) and I down to the Southern Highlands to visit the ancestral home. It was a grand old mansion called Oldbury which had been built by my great-great-great-great grandparents James and Charlotte Atkinson in about 1828. On the way, my grandparents always told us stories about the family who had lived there. The stories were filled with adventure, tragedy and joy. I can remember peering through the gate at the old house which was then neglected and shabby but being in love with the romance of the stories.

When my grandmother Nonnie died, she left me a pile of her treasures. Amongst them were a painting of Oldbury, and a pile of old books. One had been written by James and one by Charlotte. This one was the first children’s book published in Australia. 

Two years ago my mum, Gilly my sister, Kate (that's me again!) and our daughters Emily and Ella went to see an original sketchbook of drawings done by Charlotte Atkinson. It was when we were all sitting around that desk, with our white gloves on, looking through this priceless heirloom that I decided I wanted to write a story about that extraordinary family.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered during your research?

I discovered that there was a journal written in 1826 by Charlotte Waring (my great-great-great-great grandmother) which is now held in the National Library. I obtained a copy of it and it was so fascinating to read her words in her own handwriting about the beginning of her voyage to Australia. The journal covers just a short few weeks but during this time she left her family and homeland for ever, met her future husband, enjoyed their early romance and survived a terrifying storm which nearly destroyed their ship. 

I also read a letter written by her daughter Charlotte which listed the fascinating items which James Atkinson brought out on that journey with him – including a fine stallion, several dogs, plus white lillies in glass topped boxes for his garden.  Like my family, the Atkinson family loved animals and raised many orphan creatures including a pet koala, wallabies and baby possums. 

What do you love most about writing?

Immersing myself in a different place and time. Discovering the stories of my characters. Experiencing the almost magical evolution from the first spark of an idea, to the outline of a story, to a complete book. 
I also love the feedback from my readers. One of my greatest joys is getting hundreds of emails and letters from kids, telling me how much they love my books.

What are the best 5 books you've read recently?
Of course The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth!! I love historical novels based on real people and real events, and this was particularly fascinating. (Thank you, Bin!)

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This book made me laugh out loud. A fun, entertaining book.

Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (yes you gave it to me for my birthday!!). I loved the voice of Zelda and it gave a captivating insight into 1920s America, the Jazz Age and its literary stars including of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I love all of Kate’s books, particularly the way they weave together stories of different generations and different time periods, through many twists and turns, to reveal deeply buried family secrets. 

I’m now reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant about the Borgia family during the Italian Renaissance. 

What lies ahead of you in the next year? 
I am currently writing the sixth book in my new Lulu Bell series, called Lulu Bell and the Sea Turtle, which will come out in January 2014. It has been so much fun to work together with illustrator Serena Geddes to create the Lulu Bell series. The series has just been launched this week, and it has been so exciting to experience the excited buzz of a new series. I have a giant Lulu Bell cardboard character keeping me company in my office! With five books out this year, I am doing about eight weeks of touring including Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and regional areas.  

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