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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!

INTERVIEW: Deanna Raybourn, author of A Spear of Summer grass

Friday, August 09, 2013

I've long been a fan of Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Victorian murder mystery series (you can read my review of them here), and so I was all excited to find out she had written a new book that looked set to be completely different.

A Spear of Summer Grass is set in the 1920s and moves from Paris to Kenya, making it one of a new wave of novels set in Kenya after the First World War. (Two other such books I've recently read are Lauren Willig's The Ashford Affair and Frances Osbourne's The Bolter, both of which were fabulous too).

I adored A Spear of Summer Grass - its sexy, funny, romantic and poignant, and I love the African setting. I'm very happy to welcome Deanna to the blog today to talk about her inspirations and aspirations: 



Are you a daydreamer too? 
Yes, and not just about my work! I lead a very Walter Mitty existence. I love to make up stories about people I see and odd scraps of conversation I overhear. And I’m always imagining things are more intriguing than they actually are. For example, my neighbor has a really odd, high fence portioning off part of his backyard. It could be where he keeps the compost, but it’s more interesting to think it’s a body farm. 
 
Have you always wanted to be a writer? 
Always. I remember being thrilled when I learned how to print so I could finally get the stories out of my head and onto paper. I decided to double-major in English and history because I knew I would write historical fiction. I wrote my first novel when I was 23, but it took me fourteen years to get published. In that time I wrote probably six or seven novels that are still living in a box in my attic. Thanks to a superb bit of advice from my agent, I finally got lucky with SILENT IN THE GRAVE, the first book in the Lady Julia Grey series. 


 
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I’m a sixth-generation native Texan on my mother’s side, but my father’s a first-generation American. His mother is English, so I come by my Anglophilia honestly. I live in Virginia now, and it’s been an interesting change for us. I really, really love what I do, so when I’m not writing, I’m usually thinking about writing or reading. I am always happy to travel or hit a museum, and I knit but badly—only flat things and it takes me ages. I keep thinking I ought to develop a proper hobby for questions like this, perhaps beekeeping or origami or breeding Bedlingtons, but I’m far too lazy. I’m a dabbler. There are loads of things like gardening or crafting or astronomy or languages that I pick up and put down depending on my mood. 
 
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for A Spear of Summer Grass? 
My publisher told me to write anything I wanted—and it was almost too much freedom! I spent a few days figuratively bumping into walls because it was a little dizzying to be told to write what I liked. Then I got practical. I sat down and made a list of some of my favorite nonfiction topics, things I read about for pure pleasure. When I jotted down about thirty, I circled a few items that didn’t immediately seem to go together: Africa, 1920s, roses, scandalous society beauties. And then I realized they DID go together. For roughly the period between the world wars, the English colony in British East Africa—later Kenya—was home to a group of extremely decadent people with larger than life personalities and tremendous stories. This was the Happy Valley set, and I had done a little reading about them, but researching A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS was my chance to immerse myself in their world. It was absolutely enthralling, and the more I read about them, the easier it was to write the novel because they did such incredibly dramatic things. (If you’re looking for roses in SPEAR, they didn’t make the cut. I decided to make Fairlight a pyrethrum farm instead. Rose farming is huge in Kenya, but the industry is tremendously controversial, and I didn’t have the space to do it justice within the scope of the book.)


 
How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I’m an organized pantser. If you think of a novel as a journey, I know where I’m starting and where I’m ending, and I know the major turning points, but I don’t know the tiny twists in the road. I love having those moments of spontaneity in a book, those little flashes of surprise where I suddenly weave something into the story I hadn’t planned. Often those will come about from research I do while I’m writing, and it’s always thrilling to feel it coming together. 
 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I do! Sometimes I will imagine an entire novel, and the odd thing is that I know I’m conjuring a book and not just having a dream. I wake up and jot down notes on the plot, but only one of those has been the source of a novel and that was my Gothic, THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST. Usually I will just take bits and pieces of dreams and find a way to tweak details of a book with them. 
 
Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book? 
When I was researching the book I did a fair bit of reading about Denys Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover who was played by Robert Redford in “Out of Africa”. I was amazed to discover he was a distant cousin of mine! His mother was a Codrington, as was my grandfather’s family, and it was so intriguing to me to find an actual connection to one of the people who made that time and place—1920s Kenya—so legendary. He was a man of many talents, including flying, and that’s why I gave Ryder White, my hero, a pilot’s license. It was a little tip of the hat to my own family connection to that setting. 
 
Where do you write, and when? 
I write in the morning in my tiny study. We think it must have been the sewing room when the house was first built in 1940. It’s got lovely morning light, but it’s very small—about eight by nine feet. I painted it pink with a pale turquoise ceiling and my husband put up open shelves for my books and hung a little chandelier I inherited from a great aunt. It’s very girlie and very restful. For each book I write, I create a collage and that hangs opposite my desk while I work. It’s right at my eye line, so whenever I look up I can see it and get a little inspiration. There’s also a window right at my desk, but I try not to look out too often. We have some beautiful big oak trees right outside, so there’s usually a bird or two hanging around as well.
 
What is your favourite part of writing? 
I love putting the pieces together. I read an article that correlated writing a novel with writing a symphony—which is absolutely true, except that a writer gets to decide how the instruments sound as well! I get such a thrill out of assembling the various pieces and deciding what will work and what won’t. The actual getting words on paper part can be painful, but the rest makes it all worthwhile. 
 
What do you do when you get blocked? 
I never miss deadlines, so I don’t stop, ever. I keep reading; I keep writing. Even if I know what I’m writing is wrong, it is helping me get where I need to be. I had that issue with CITY OF JASMINE simply because I couldn’t get the opening scene right. Conventional wisdom says you’re supposed to just write the rest of the book, but I kept after that scene because I had a gut feeling that once I cracked it, the rest would fall into place. I was right. Once I had that scene—after five or six major attempts—I knew exactly who these characters were and how to handle them. I never would have gotten that if I’d simply forged onto the end. And it wasn’t a dead loss because I kept the scenes and one of them is the perfect opener to my next novel! 
 
How do you keep your well of inspiration full? 
I read a lot; I watch documentaries and films set in the periods I like to write about. I also try not to take on too much outside of my actual writing. I work hard at only saying yes to things I am enthusiastic about for two reasons: first, it saves energy because I’m not spending myself on projects I don’t really care about. Second, it means I get more excited about everything because I’m always working on things that interest and fulfill me. I also try to push myself into projects that scare me in a good way. If I want to write a book but I’m not sure how I’m going to pull it off, that’s the book I need to write. I do my best work when I’m slightly terrified. 
 
Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
I start a new novel on the first day of a month, and I always light a fresh candle and wear a necklace that has a Virgen de Guadalupe charm hanging from it. I try to have my collage finished and hanging up, and I make sure to clean out all traces of the previous book. Manuscripts and notes are banished to the attic; research books are reshelved, and the sheets of newsprint I tack up for revision notes are pulled down. I also create a playlist for my ipod and always have music that suits the book I’m writing. Sometimes I will bring in scents that conjure a mood as well—for instance, with SPEAR, my heroine spent a good deal of time in New Orleans and her grandfather always smelled of vetiver. So I bought a little bundle of dried vetiver in the French Quarter and kept it on the desk to sniff from time to time. My husband also bought me a reproduction of a lion’s tooth, and I kept that on my desk as well for a little extra inspiration. 
 
Who are ten of your favourite writers? 
Jane Austen, Elizabeth Peters, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Stella Gibbons, Baroness Orczy, Charlotte Bronte, Anya Seton, Bettany Hughes, Lucy Worsley. I just realized I only named women, but it’s fine—ask me tomorrow and I’d probably give you a different ten. 

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite writers too! 


What do you consider to be good writing?  
Good writing is the stuff that will put me into the same state of flow I achieve when I write—I lose all sense of time and space and am completely immersed in a world someone else created. I love that feeling of everything else falling away and the characters coming so utterly to life I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually spoke to me. With good writing, I’m not mentally rewriting the scenes as I go. If the writing is lacking, I find I’m changing it as I read, and that takes me out of the story. I like to be taken for a magic carpet ride. 
 
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too? 
Don’t listen to advice on how to be a writer—or at least, take it all with a hefty pinch of salt. There are as many methods and processes and ways of working as there are writers, and they are all valid. Whatever works for you is what works, regardless of what anyone else says. And absolutely ignore the old adage of “write what you know.” It’s rubbish. Write what you want to read. 
 
What are you working on now?
am finishing up a Lady Julia digital novella, writing the prequel novella to my next novel, CITY OF JASMINE (March 2014), and preparing to start my next novel on August 1. It’s demanding but so exciting—and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Deanna's website 


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT – I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK

BOOK LIST - Books Read in July 2013

Thursday, August 08, 2013


Thanks to a lot of time spent in planes and airports, and a weekend sick in bed, I read 14 books this month, with an eclectic mix of fiction, non-fiction, children’s and adults, historical and contemporary. 


1. Stay: The Last Dog in Antarctica  – Jesse Blackadder
This is Jesse Blackadder’s first book for children, and was inspired by her trip to the icy south after she won the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship in 2011/2012. Jesse was travelling there to research her wonderful historical novel for adults Chasing the Light, and was most surprised to see one of those life-sized fibreglass seeing eye dogs used to collect donations for the Royal Blind Society. It had been dognapped from a Hobart shopping centre in 1991 by some Antarctic expeditioners who were earth-broken at the impeding loss of huskies from the South Pole. In the decades since, the fibreglass dog had become a sort of mascot and had even ended up going to the North Pole. Jesse has turned the story of these adventures into a heart-warming book for 8+ .


2. Heretic – S.J. Parris
I love a good historical murder mystery, particularly one set in one of my favourite eras of history. Heretic is set during Elizabethan times, quite possibly the most popular of periods. The novel features a true life heretic monk as its amateur detective, this being Giordano Bruno who was sought by the Roman Inquisition for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. He travels to Oxford in 1576 to take part in a religious debate, but gets caught up in a series of grisly murders. The novel is described by its publishers as a ‘blockbuster historical thriller’ (think Dan Brown in tights), but it is a little slow to truly be called a thriller. It is, however, a clever and sophisticated murder mystery, with an unusual and charismatic hero. I enjoyed it thoroughly. 

3. Hitler’s Daughter – Jackie French
My son is reading Hitler’s Daughter for English and so I thought I’d read it too so we could discuss it together. The story begins with a group of school children who tell stories as a way to pass the time while they wait for their bus. One girl begins to tell a story about Hitler’s daughter, Heidi. The other children object that Hitler never had a daughter, and Anna tells them that no-one ever knew about her. She was kept secret. The story of Heidi’s life goes on, told in interludes that describes the ordinary life of Mark, the narrator. Anna’s story stirs Mark up and he begins to ask questions – why did so many people support Hitler? What would we do today if we were in the same situation. But no-one has any answers for him. It’s a very simple tale, told in very simple language, and references to what life in Germany must have been like are touched on very lightly. I can see that it may be a good book for reluctant readers, or for younger readers who may be frightened by a more dramatic and intense reading experience. My son read it in an hour and shrugged when I asked him what he thought. However, we have talked quite a bit about Hitler and the Second World War since, so I think the book has been working away in his mind ever since he read it. 


4. Anne Sexton: A Biography – Diane Wood Middlebrook
Anne Sexton is an American poet most famous for her intense, shocking and autobiographical poems and for having committed suicide, much like her friend Sylvia Plath. She had spent most of her 20s fighting depression and suicidal thoughts, and her therapist suggested she begin to write poetry to help her express her feelings. The suggestion was like a match to paper. Anne Sexton took fire, and wrote obsessively. Within a remarkably short time, she was one of America’s best known poets and had won the Pulitzer Prize. She killed herself in 1974, at the height of her career. Published in 1991, Middlebrook’s biography of the poet caused great controversy, primarily because of the use of tapes from Sexton’s sessions with her psychiatrist, and because of details of incest and infidelities contained within those tapes. The inclusion of these tapes, however controversial, makes this an utterly fascinating read. You must check out Youtube videos of Sexton reading her own work – she is utterly compelling: 

5. Beauty’s Sister – James Bradley
Beauty’s Sister is an exquisite retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, published as a Penguin Special. Too short to be a novel, too long to be a story, I’d call this a novelette. Penguin Specials are designed to be read in half an hour or so, perfect for a commute or a quick bite between larger narrative fare. I loved it. Bradley’s writing is spare and precise, his images haunting, and his plot reimagines the well-known fairy tale from the point of view of Rapunzel’s darker, wilder sister. Having written my own Rapunzel retelling, Bitter Greens, and being in the final throes of a doctorate on the Maiden in the Tower tales, I have read many hundreds of reinventions of this tale. Beauty’s Sister is one of the most powerful.


6. 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. The book begins with the discovery of a body in the shrubbery at a grand English manor house where Miss Kent is staying. She sets out to solve the mystery, of course, in her own ladylike way, and the story rollicks along from there, filled with charm, humour, and the faintest touch of romance. I’m so looking forward to reading the next instalments! 

7. A Spear of Summer Grass – Deanna Raybourn
"Don't believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman's husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn't want taking."

As soon as I read these opening lines, I sighed happily, knowing I was going to love this book. Deanna Raybourn is best known for her Lady Julia series of Victorian murder mysteries, and so A Spear of Summer Grass is a new departure for her. Set during the Roaring 20s, it tells the story of the scandalous debutante Delilah Drummond who has caused one scandal too many and so is banished to Kenya. Her voice is pitch-perfect. She’s sassy, cynical, and smart, yet there is a touch of pathos and vulnerability about her which makes her a far more interesting character than you might expect. In Kenya, Delilah gets caught up in the social whirl of the white landowners, makes unexpected friends, takes a lover and falls in love (not with the same man), and finds herself accused of murder. An utterly brilliant book, and one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far for me. 


8. Resurrectionist – James McGee 
This is Book 2 in a series of Regency thrillers featuring Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood. This time round, the ‘ratcatcher’, as the Runners were nicknamed, is called in to investigate a strange murder in the mental asylum known to most as Bedlam. Hawkwood also finds himself dealing with ‘resurrectionists, men who dig up dead bodies to sell to doctors for their research. Before long, he realises the two cases are connected and he is dealing with the most ruthless and macabre villain ever. These Regency thrillers are a long way from the romantic and genteel worlds of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. The London of McGee’s book is dark, gritty and violent, populated by thieves and cut-throats and prostitutes and war-damaged ex-soldiers. Gripping and dramatic stuff. 

9. Longbourne – Jo Baker
What a brilliant premise this book has! Did you ever wonder – when reading Pride & Prejudice - about the lives of the servants toiling away quietly downstairs? No, me either. Jo Baker did wonder, however, and from that imagining has spun a beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching tale. Do not expect the wit and charm of Jane Austen; do not expect the well-beloved characters to be lauded. In fact, most of the cast of Pride & Prejudice come off badly – some are selfish and narcissistic, others merely oblivious. Do expect to have your understanding of the world of Jane Austen turned upside down and inside out, and made richer and truer as a result. Longbourne is driven by a strong sense of social justice, and we see just how hard life in Regency times could be for the poor and the weak. Much as I love Jane Austen, I always wondered why we heard nothing of the political turmoil of her times, nothing about the impassioned debate over slavery, nothing about the Napoleonic wars, nothing about the Luddites and the costs of the Industrial Revolution. Jo Baker has attempted to engage with many of these gaping holes in Jane Austen’s world, and has achieved a work of great beauty and serious intent. Longbourne caused an international bidding war and has already sold film rights, and I can certainly see why. 



10. Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice – Susannah Fullerton
Good gracious me, a lot of books that deal with Jane Austen on the bookshop shelves at the moment! It must be the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice. Susannah Fullerton is President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, and has published a number of books and articles about her. Happily Ever After is a hagiography; Fullerton firmly believes that Jane Austen is the best writer in the world and Pride and Prejudice her best book. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable and very readable examination of a novel that is certainly one of the world’s favourites. 



11. 84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff
I have heard about this book on-and-off for years, all my bibliomaniac friends saying, ‘you haven’t read it? Oh, but you must!’ So this month I decided it was time. 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 book begins in 1949, when Miss Helene Hanff of New York writes a letter to Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road,  London, an ‘antiquarian’ bookshop that specialise in out of print books. Helene is a struggling writer with a rather refined taste in books, most of which are impossible to find in America. The exchange of letters that follows begins rather formally, but soon Helene’s natural wit and charm break through, and she is soon cajoling Frank Doel, the reserved English bookseller, into an unlikely friendship. Their correspondence lasts for 20 years, and soon draws others into the friendship – the other staff at the bookshop, Frank’s wife and daughter, his elderly and lonely neighbour. Helene is very much a New York Jew, bold, funny and forthright. Frank is gentle and courteous and shy. Reading this slender book, I loved out loud and then finished with quite a large lump in my throat. A lovely, heartwarming book that any bibliophile will appreciate.

12. Letters from Skye – Jessica Brockmole 
One of my favourite books is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Anne Schaffer. It is an epistolary narrative which simply means ‘told in the form of a letter or letters’.  Extremely popular in the 18th century, this narrative form fell out of favour in the 19th century and has not been used much since. It seems that Mary Anne Schaffer may have revived the form, however, for this new novel by debut author Jessica Brockmole is told entirely in letters. It moves between two historical periods: the First World War and the Second World War. The primary narrative is that of the relationship of a young Scottish poet who lives on Skye in and an American university student who writes in March 1912 to tell her how much he admires her poetry. Slowly friendship blossoms into love, but many obstacles stand in their way, including the fact that Elspeth is already married and their world is on the brink of a cataclysmic war. The device of driving a narrative through an exchange of letters can be hard to pull off (one reason why it fell out of favour), but Jessica Brockmole has created an engaging and very readable suspenseful romance in Letters from Skye.  


13. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler
Baz Lurhmann’s movie of The Great Gatsby has re-ignited a fascination for the famous Fitzgeralds and Therese Anne Fowler’s new novel is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this. The novel is told entirely from the point of view of Zelda, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glamorous, brilliant and unstable wife. As she says in her Afterword, most biographies of the Fitzgeralds tend to fall squarely into Camp Scott (who blame Zelda for thwarting his genius) or Camp Zelda (who blame Scott for thwarting her genius). I’ve always been firmly in Camp Zelda, and so I really enjoyed this sympathetic portrayal of the girl called the original flapper. 


14. Austenland – Shannon Hale
I know Shannon Hale’s work as a young adult novelist, and so I was curious to see how she measured up as a writer of funny chick-lit for adults. I’m also reading a lot of Jane Austen-related books at the moment (did you guess?), and so I thought I’d give Austenland a whirl. The basic premise is our heroine Jane (subtle name choice) is obsessed with Mr Darcy as played by Colin Firth in the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice. No real man can ever measure up, so her obsession is ruining her love life. A wealthy great-aunt sends her off to Austenland so she can live out her fantasies pretending she lives in Regency times. She gets to wear Empire-line frocks and bonnets, dance at balls, and exchange witty repartee with men in skintight breeches and cravats. It’s all meant to be good, clean fun, but Jane begins to have trouble distinguishing what’s real and what’s not … all while getting tangled up in romance. Austenland is really chick-lit at its most frivolous and fantastical. All the pleasure comes from the dialogue and the situation; the characters are very one-dimensional and the plot as predictable as possible. It has been turned into a film directed by Stephanie Meyer and is due for release later this year, and I’ll happily settle down with some popcorn to enjoy it again.  


This round-up of my July reading was also published in BOOKTOPIA's blog and they have links to all the books so you can buy them here







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SPOTLIGHT: Best books set in Africa

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

I'm very happy to welcome Deanna Raybourn, author of  A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, to the blog to tell us her favourite books set in Africa. 




Huge bouquets of thanks to Kate for inviting me to come and hang out in her corner of the interwebs! I love playing the voyeur and getting a peek at other writers’ inspirations, so I thought I would offer a glimpse into the books that went into making A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS.


For every book I write, I end up adding to my library—usually twenty or thirty books—but SPEAR was a cat of a different color. I bought 55 books, and that doesn’t even take into account all the material I collected from the library and internet! It was a luxury to immerse myself in the time and place I was writing about, and most of all, the people. 

Here are my favorites:

THE TEMPTRESS by Paul Spicer. The subject of this biography is Alice de Janzé, an American heiress and one of the Happy Valley set. She was notorious for shooting her lover in a Paris train station—and being acquitted on the grounds that she was too lovely to have really intended to kill a man. Her lover, incidentally, survived and continued the relationship for some years after. 

SAFARI by Bartle Bull. This is a BIG book—an epic coffee-table book that chronicles the history and practice of safari. It is frank and brutal and absolutely gripping. 

ZARA’S TALES by Peter Beard. Renowned fashion photographer Peter Beard has lived in Africa for decades, documenting his life there in stunning images. His diaries are works of art, layered with blood, bones, feathers, beads, and the facsimiles of them sell for hundreds of dollars. This book is a smaller, more intimate effort written for his small daughter, but it is by no means a children’s book. Beard offers an unflinching look at the continent today and the aftereffects of colonial involvement in east Africa.


WHITE MISCHIEF by James Fox. The definitive book on the Happy Valley set, it traces the rise of this hedonistic group and covers their decline with the murder of Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll. It introduces all of the major players in British East Africa/Kenya, and untangles their complicated and tempestuous relationships. It is the perfect prelude to any other reading on the Happy Valley. (I have this on my reading pile - I'm so looking forward to reading it!)


SILENCE WILL SPEAK and THE LIVES OF BERYL MARKHAM by Errol Trzebinski. I have half a dozen books by Trzebinksi, but anything she has written is worth reading. The first is a biography of Denys Finch Hatton, lover of Karen Blixen and immortalized by Robert Redford in the film “Out of Africa”. His relationship with Blixen might be better known, but his affair with Markham was much more a meeting of equals. Daring and independent, Markham took life on her own terms and became an accomplished aviation pioneer. Reading their biographies together offers a complete picture of how their lives entwined. 


AFRICAN NIGHTS by Kuki Gallmann. Gallmann is a lyrical writer with prose that reads like poetry. The images she conjures are vivid and lasting, and any of her books on Africa make for delectable reading. Gallmann has suffered great tragedy and tremendous triumphs in her adopted land, and she does not shy away from describing both in breathtaking detail. 

ISAK DINESEN: THE LIFE OF A STORYTELLER. Judith Thurman. A far better book than Dinesen’s OUT OF AFRICA. Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Karen Blixen, the Danish aristocrat who was a writer, a failed coffee grower, and lover of Denys Finch Hatton. An arch-fantasist, she was unlikeable but deeply interesting, and Thurman’s biography offers a far more comprehensive portrait of Blixen than her own writings. 

OUT IN THE MIDDAY SUN by Elspeth Huxley. In trying to choose a single Huxley book, I might have just as well thrown a dart at the bookshelf to see where it stuck. Huxley wrote vividly about her family’s experiences as settlers in British East Africa, both before and after World War I. She wrote with a child’s eye for detail and color, and her descriptions of her mother’s care for the native Africans was a direct inspiration for my own main character’s medical treatment of the workers on her stepfather’s farm. Reading Huxley’s books in order, it’s possible to trace her development as it parallels that of the colony from the early days through the trials of growing pains and into maturity. 

Now that I’ve chosen a handful of books to recommend, I’m feeling horribly guilty about all the ones I didn’t mention! The books on the Maasai, the histories of Kenya, the memoirs of settlers, the safari stories…the list is potentially endless and every omission feels like a failure. 

I did post photographs of the research stacks on my blog, so if you’re curious, a quick skim of those should fill in the blanks. And I didn’t mention THE BOLTER by Frances Osborne because Lauren Willig carried the flag for that particularly helpful book. In a strange twist of fate, over drinks at the Yale Club a few years ago, Lauren and I discovered we were both writing books set in Africa in the 1920s with flappers and farms and repressed cousins named Dodo… 



(You can read my review of Lauren Willig's 1920s Kenya book THE ASHFORD AFFAIR here)

Any and all of these books are transportive—books that can take you on a journey. So grab a stack and settle in and prepare for an armchair safari!

Deanna's blog 

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BOOK REVIEW: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Monday, August 05, 2013



Title
: A Spear of Summer Grass 
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Age Group & Genre: Historical Adventure/Romance for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth


The Blurb:

Paris, 1923 

The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather's savannah manor house until gossip subsides. 

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.  

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.  

Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.


What I Thought: 
"Don't believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman's husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn't want taking."

As soon as I read these opening lines, I sighed happily, knowing I was going to love this book. Deanna Raybourn is best known for her Lady Julia series of Victorian murder mysteries, and so A Spear of Summer Grass is a new departure for her. 

Set during the Roaring 20s, it tells the story of the scandalous debutante Delilah Drummond who has caused one scandal too many and so is banished to Kenya. Her voice is pitch-perfect. She’s sassy, cynical, and smart, yet there is a touch of pathos and vulnerability about her which makes her a far more interesting character than you might expect. In Kenya, Delilah gets caught up in the social whirl of the white landowners, makes unexpected friends, takes a lover and falls in love (not with the same man), and finds herself accused of murder. An utterly brilliant book, and one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far for me. 


Deanna's website

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BOOK LIST: Books Read in June 2013

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I read 13 books in June, bringing my number for the year to a total of 65. My reading was a little broader than usual, with some contemporary settings and non-fiction stirred into the mix. All in all, a happy reading month!

June
1. The Duke and I – Julia Quinn
I really enjoyed this frothy historical romance - a lovely way to while away a few peaceful hours in a hot bath with a glass of sparkling wine. 



2. 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. You can read my review here and here's my Interview with Lauren Willig.



3. Keeping the Castle – Patrice Kindl
What a delightful surprise this book was! I'd read a review of it which said it was a cross between Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (two of my absolute favourite books), and so I thought I'd give it a whirl. I loved it! It's funny, romantic, and has a slight satirical edge. I'm hoping to run a longer review and interview with the author in a few weeks' time - keep an eye out!



4. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
This book was another pleasant surprise. I'd heard it was rather like contemporary chick lit, except told from the point of view of an man with Asperger's, and so I was a little reluctant to read it. I've read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and The London Eye Mystery, and enjoyed them both, but was a little jaded with this type of voice after too many episodes of The Big Bang Theory. I'm glad I read it, though. Its a feel-good read, with enough intelligence to lift it out of the usual chick-lit rut, and it'd make a great rom-com movie. 

5. A Proud Taste for Scarlet & Miniver – E.L. Koningsburg 
The great American children's author E.L. Koningsburg sadly died in mid-April, and I remembered her books fondly from childhood. I had never read  A Proud Taste for Scarlet & Miniver and so ordered it in. It's an unusual book, quite unlike her others which are really about everyday kids. This one is a fictive biography of Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of my historical heroines. Its brilliantly well done, bringing Queen Eleanor and her times vividly to life. 

6. A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
I had been wanting to read A Monster Calls for quite some time, and seeing Patrick Ness speak at the Sydney Writers Festival in May gave me the impetus I needed to buy the book. What can I say? It's brilliant, surprising, harrowing, humbling. I found it hard to breathe after I finished reading it, and my dreams that night were restless and disturbed. A month later, I am still thinking about it. The book packs a hefty emotional wallop and deserves all the prizes it won. 



7. Barkbelly – Cat Weatherill
A wonderfully written, rambunctious adventure fantasy for children, Barkbelly also carries important messages about the importance of tolerance and compassion. I loved Cat Weatherill's earlier book Wild Magic which retells the Pied Piper of Hamelin fairy tale (you can read about it here), and so I was really glad to read her newest venture. 


8. Dark Road to Darjeeling – Deanna Raybourn
9. Dark Enquiry - – Deanna Raybourn
10. Silent Night – Deanna Raybourn

In April, I re-read The Lady Julia Grey series of historical murder mysteries by Deanna Raybourn and enjoyed them thoroughly (you can read my review of the first three books here). I settled in to read the last 2 books in the series (plus one Xmas novella) this month, and enjoyed them just as much. The characters are always sharply drawn, the mystery is always intriguing (and not always easy to guess), and the ongoing romance between Lady Julia and her enigmatic new husband is a large part of the pleasure. Well worth a read.


11. Me Before You – Jojo Moyes
I read The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes earlier this year and absolutely loved it, and so I thought I'd read some of her other books (you can read my review here). I did enjoy Me Before You, though not nearly as much as The Girl You Left Behind. Its a very readable book, with an unusual premise, and the two main characters do feel quite real. The contemporary setting and voice made it read like chick-lit, yet the tone is one of pathos, not humour. I was moved by the story, but did not cry buckets as had been predicted. Which is not like me (I'm an unashamed crier!) Perhaps because I knew what to expect ... anyway, an enjoyable read, and one that should be read with some tissues to hand, just in case ... 



12. The Bolter: The Story of Idina Sackville – Frances Osborne
In Lauren Willig's Acknowledgements at the back of The Ashford Affair, she mentioned that her novel had been inspired by reading The Bolter by Frances Osborne. it sounded so fascinating I ordered it straightaway and it was just as interesting as I had expected. 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, as explored in James Fox's well-known book White Mischief (which I have also ordered.) Although The Bolter is non-fiction, it reads as compulsively as any novel - I loved it. 
PS: I have also read and loved Frances Osborne's earlier non-fiction book, Lilla's Feast - here is a review of it I wrote some years ago for Good Reading magazine. 



13. Raven Flight – Juliet Marillier
Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favourite authors and a new book from her is always reason to celebrate. So when Raven Flight appeared in my mailbox, I gave a little jump of joy and read it straightaway. Raven Flight is Book 2 in the Shadowfell series. I loved Shadowfell and it made my List of Best Books 2012 - the books are 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.  

BOOK LIST: Books Read in April 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I read 10 books in April, bringing me to a grand total of 44 books for the year. All but one was a historical novel - next month, I must try and read a little more widely!


The Changeling – Philippa Gregory

This is Philippa Gregory's first foray in Young Adult Fiction and I thought it was really well done. From the opening scene, I felt as if I was in the hands of a storytelling master. The pace is swift, the characters are believable, sympathetic and sharply drawn, and the historical setting done with a sure, light touch. The book twists together a medieval mystery, romance, and a touch of the supernatural to make a most enjoyable read. 


The Firebird – Susanna Kearsley

I was drawn to this book by the utterly gorgeous cover and also by a Good Reads recommendation which said it was like other authors I'd enjoyed like Kate Morton and Kimberley Freeman. It's always a risk and an adventure trying out a new author, and I'm really glad I took the jump. Susanna Kearsley's writing is just gorgeous - very sensuous and vivid - and the storyline is intriguing. The heroine Nicola has the psychic gifts of seeing 'flashes' of an object's past when she lays her hands on it. Although she works in antiques and art, she tries to keep her gift hidden from the world. Until she touches a simple, wood-carved firebird ... and finds herself on a quest to discover its story. The Firebird combines contemporary and historical narratives, romance, suspense, and a a twist of the supernatural into a delicate, wise tale. I believe the book is part of a connected series and so I look forward to discovering her other books. 



The Darling Strumpet – Gillian Bagwell
A wonderful historical novel told from the point of view of Nell Gwyn, the feisty mistress of Charles II. 

Silent in the Grave – Deanna Raybourn
Silent in the Sanctuary – Deanna Raybourn
Silent on the Moors – Deanna Raybourn


I read and enjoyed this these Victorian murder mysteries some time ago, but recently realised that there were now five in the whole series and I had only read the first three. So I set myself the task of reading them all again. They were a great pleasure to revisit. Each book is a separate mystery, but a lot of the intrigue comes from the slowly developing romance between the heroine, Lady Jane Grey, and the mysterious investigator she first meets in the first line of the first book: 

"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor." 

The tone of the books are wry and clever - there's a lot of subtle ironic humour - plus I loved the way lady Julia slowly turns from being a repressed Victorian lady to a bold, sensual and self-determined woman. I'm looking forward to reading the last books in the series (I've already bought them!) 

 
The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris – Jenny Colgan
A book bought solely on the title and the cover! I don't read much chick lit but enjoy a frothy comic romance every now and again. This was even frothier than I expected - and not quite as funny as I had hoped - but a few memorable characters, gorgeous descriptions of making chocolate, and the Parisian setting made it a most relaxing and sweet read. 



And Then She Fell – Stephanie Laurents
I enjoyed this Stephanie Laurents book more than I have some of her other titles --- I think because there was a murder in there as well which meant that was a story line other than the usual rake-meets-lady angle. Good holiday reading.


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  ... this book is exactly the sort of book I love to read the most. And I did love it! Look out for a longer review and an interview with the author in the months to come. 



The Chalice – Nancy Bilyeau 
I read and really enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Crown last year and so was eager to return to her world of bloody Tudor intrigue, romance, with a twist of the supernatural. Her heroine Joanna is a sympathetic character and the story is filled with  slowly building suspense. 






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