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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. 


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


BOOK LIST: Books Read in January 2014

Thursday, February 13, 2014

I read 15 books in January, with my number bolstered by the back-to-back reading of six old books by the 1930s Irish novelist, Maurice Walsh, while I was sick in bed with bronchitis. Do you like reading old beloved books when you are sick too? Usually I go for Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie or Mary Stewart - it was interesting reading six books by the same author, one after the other. You do begin to see a plot pattern emerge ...

But I read lots of other great books this month as well. I hope you find some new ones to discover here:




1. Touchstone – Laurie R. King
Laurie R. King is best known for her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes historical mystery series in which a brilliant young woman becomes first a student – and then the lover – of the brilliant and enigmatic detective. I’ve read quite a few of this series and really enjoyed them. Laurie R. King is as interested in the internal lives of her characters as much as in the actual solving of a crime, and so her books are rich, complex, psychologically acute, and slow. Touchstone is the first in a new series set in the 1920s in England, featuring the unlikely friendship between an American agent and a war-damaged British gentleman. The first is Harris Stuyvesant and he is on the hunt for a terrorist whose bombs have left a raw scar on his own life.  The trail leads him to England, where he meets Bennett Grey, whose acute sensitivity to the world following a shell attack makes him a kind of human lie detector. The two men find themselves tracking down the terrorist together … with tragic results.
This book took a while to cast its spell on me, but slowly and gradually the dramatic tension escalates until the book was unputdownable. And by that time I knew the characters so intimately I really feared for them. This is not the kind of thriller that will get your blood pumping and your heart racing; it will, however, make you think about it for a long time after you close the final, brilliant page. 


2. Mrs Mahoney’s Secret War – Gretel Mahoney & Claudia Strahan
Claudia Strahan was at a friend’s house in London, listening to music one day, when a cross neighbour knocked on the door to complain about the noise. She was 78 years old, and spoke with a German accent. Claudia had been born in Germany and so asked her a little of where she came from. The cross old lady proved to be so interesting, Claudia went to have coffee with her. The more she discovered about Mrs Mahoney’s life, the more fascinated she became. Nine years later, the two published this extraordinary memoir of Mrs Mahoney’s life in Hamburg during the Second World War. 
Gretel Wachtel, as she was then, helped to protect fugitives hunted by the Gestapo, hid her Jewish doctor in her cellar, and passed secrets she learned from her work on the Enigma encryption machine to the German Resistance, and was finally arrested by the Gestapo. 

She was just an ordinary German girl who did extraordinary things to try and fight the cruel Nazi regime under which she lived. Her verve, courage, and humour shine through in every word … one can just imagine her as a feisty old lady, telling her stories to Claudia over kaffeeklatsch, remembering one story after another through her young visitor’s eager questioning. A great memoir of one woman’s extraordinary life.  

3. Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler - by Anne Nelson 

When we think of Germany under Hitler, we often think of Germans as being either enthusiastic supporters of Nazism, or passive bystanders who did nothing to stop him. This fascinating non-fiction account of the Berlin Underground shows that there were, in fact, many Germans who risked everything to fight against the Nazi regime. 
The Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) was the Gestapo’s name for a group of German artists, actors, filmmakers, writers, journalists and intellectuals who worked indefatigably to undermine the Nazis in Berlin, the heart of Hitler’s war machine. Almost half of them were women.
Based on years of research, including exclusive interviews with the few that survived the war, Red Orchestra brings to life the different characters of the key people involved in the resistance ring.
These include Adam Kuckhoff, a playwright who found employment in Goebbels’s propaganda unit in order to undermine the regime, and his wife, Greta, who risked her own family to help smuggle Jews and homosexuals out from Berlin; Arvid Harnack, who collected anti-Nazi intelligence while working for the Economic Ministry, and his wife, Mildred, the only American woman executed by Hitler; Harro Schulze-Boysen, the glamorous Luftwaffe intelligence officer who leaked anti-Nazi information to allies abroad, and his wife, Libertas, a social butterfly who coaxed favours from an unsuspecting Göring; and many more. 
The Berlin Underground was betrayed in 1942, and many of its members were tortured and executed, including young women in their teens. I ended the book with tears in my eyes – it is impossible not to imagine yourself living under such terrifying circumstances and wondering what choices you would make. 


4. Storming the Eagle’s Nest: Hitler’s War in the Alps  - Jim Ring
Another World War II book! I’m researching a novel to be set during that period and so you’ll need to expect a lot of books set during that time in my reading lists. This one is another non-fiction book, focusing on the role of the Alps in the Second World War. 

Hitler declared: ‘Yes, I have a close link to this mountain. Much was done there, came about and ended there; those were the best times of my life . . . My great plans were forged there.’

The book examines the war in the Alps from all angles, including battles from resistance fighters in Italy, France and Yugoslavia, concentration camps in Bavaria,  Hitler’s enormous caches of art and wine hidden in caves, and Switzerland’s role as a centre for Allied spies – Storming the Eagle’s Nest is an interesting, unusual and very readable addition to WWII non-fiction.

Note: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.


5. The Marsh King’s Daughter – Elizabeth Chadwick
I’ve wanted to read a book by Elizabeth Chadwick for a while – a lot of my Goodreads friends rave about her work – and so I finally bought one to read. I chose this book because of the title – it’s the name of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale that I am actually thinking of rewriting one day. The title has little to do with the book, however, except that the heroine, Miriel, is the granddaughter of a rich weaver who lives near the marshes. 

The book is set in 1216, one of my favourite periods of history (nasty King John ruled the land back then). Miriel is intelligent, high-spirited, and rebellious, and so is locked up in a convent by her violent and lustful step-father. She plans to escape but then helps rescue a half-drowned young man and stays so she can help nurse him back to health. The young man is Nicholas de Caen and he has a secret. He was present when King John’s treasure sank beneath the marshes (a true historical event), and he has hidden some of the treasure …

The two help each other escape, but their road of romance is rocky indeed. They have to deal with all sorts of misfortunes – including their own pigheadedness – before at last finding refuge in each other’s arms. 

A big, brightly coloured romance, with lots of twists and turns, The Marsh King’s Daughter was a most enjoyable read and I’ll be picking up more books by Elizabeth Chadwick.


6. The Tulip Eaters – Antoinette van Huegten 
The premise of this book sounded so engaging that I was really keen to read it – a contemporary woman comes home to find her mother murdered and her baby stolen, and comes to realise these shocking crimes are somehow related to her mother’s past in Nazi-occupied Holland. She sets off for Amsterdam, determined to find her baby and uncover the truth of her family’s history. The title refers to the Dutch having to go out into the fields to dig up tulip bulbs to stave off starvation during the Occupation. It sounded just the kind of book I love to read. I have to admit, though, that I found the book disappointing. The most interesting parts were the ones that referred to the past, and they were all told, not shown. There were also a few inconsistencies which marred the reading for me. However, if you’re looking for a light and easy suspenseful read, then this may appeal to you. 
Note: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.


7. The Small Dark Man – Maurice Walsh
8. Castle Gillian - Maurice Walsh
9. The Man in Brown - Maurice Walsh
10. Danger Under the Moon - Maurice Walsh
11. Trouble in the Glen - Maurice Walsh
12. The Hill is Mine - Maurice Walsh


I first read Castle Gillian by Maurice Walsh as a teenager, and was enchanted. It’s a romance set in Ireland in the 1930s, and tells the story of a young man, broken by the war, and his family’s struggle to keep the ancestral home. Whenever I go into an old, cobwebby  second-hand bookstore, I look to see if they have any of his books and over the years I’ve amassed half-a-dozen of them. Fighting off a nasty bout of bronchitis over the summer holidays, I stayed in bed and read my way through the whole lot of them again. Nearly all follow the same plot sequence as Castle Gillian (which is still my favourite) – a small quiet man comes to the glen, usually to visit a friend; there’s a beautiful girl (sometimes there are two, giving the friend a romance too); he has to outface a big tough cocksure man; at the end of the book, they fight; the small, quiet man wins against all odds and gets the girl. Sometimes there’s a murder involved as well. Most of them are set in Scotland and celebrate the wild and beautiful landscape (Castle Gillian is the exception, being set in Ireland); all of them are whimsical and a little wry.

Maurice Walsh was Irish himself (born in County Kerry in 1879), but spent a lot of time in Scotland and married his wife there in 1908. He is best known for the short story ‘The Quiet Man’ which was made into an Oscar-winning film directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. He was one of Ireland’s best-selling authors in the 1930s, but no-one I know has heard of him. It’s a shame, I think. The best of his books (Castle Gillian, Trouble in the Glen, Danger Under the Moon & The Small, Dark Man are all well worth reading. 


13. Fairest of Them All - Carolyn Turgeon

I’m in the final stages of a doctorate on Rapunzel, which means I simply must read every book ever inspired by the old fairy tale. 

Fairest of Them All is an interesting take on the well-known story, imagining: What if Rapunzel was Snow White’s evil stepmother?  

The story begins with a young Rapunzel living in a forest with her foster mother, Mathena, a witch who had been banished from court because of her magical powers. They live an idyllic life, tending the herb garden and helping the women of the village. 

One day Rapunzel’s singing attracts a young prince who was out hunting in the forest. He climbs up her hair into her tower bedroom and they have a brief afternoon of passion before the prince must return to his kingdom and his betrothed. 

Rapunzel loses the baby she carries, and is grieved to discover the king and his wife have a living daughter soon after hers has died. The girl is so beautiful she is named Snow White.

The tale then follows the familiar sequence of events known to us from the original Grimm tale – the mother dies, the king remarries, his queen has a magical mirror that tells her she is the fairest of all …
Written simply yet lyrically, this is a dark and powerful reimagining of two well-known fairy-tales and should appeal to the millions of fans of writers such as Donna Jo Napoli, Shannon Hale, Jessica Day George and Gail Carson Levine.


14. Rose Under Fire -  Elizabeth Wein
Elizabeth Wein’s novel Code Name Verity was one of the best books I read last year, and I was very eager to read her latest book, Rose Under Fire.

Both books are set during World War II, and both pack a hefty emotional wallop. In Rose Under Fire, the heroine is a young American woman who is caught by the Germans while flying an Allied fighter plane back from Paris.  She is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp. Trapped there in horrific circumstances, she has to try and survive, even while the German war machine grinds ever closer to genocide. Rose makes friends among the Rabbits (young Polish women who were experimented upon by doctors) and recites poetry to keep herself to stay sane. This book is so intense and powerful that I had trouble breathing by the end – like Code Name Verity, is one of the best WWII books for teenagers that I’ve ever read. Expect to be emotionally wrung out whilst reading it. 



15. Poison – Sara Poole
‘The Spaniard died in agony. That much was evident from the contortions of his once handsome face and limbs and the black foam caking his lips. A horrible death to be sure, one only possible from that most feared of weapons.
Poison.’

What a great opening to what proved to be a real page-turner of a novel. The book’s heroine, a young woman named Francesca Giordano, kills a man to prove that she is the better poisoner. Her reward is to become the official poisoner of Rodrigo Borgia, during his dangerous quest to become the next Pope. Francesca wants the job so she can find out who murdered her father, who had been poisoner before her. She finds herself caught up in an action-packed roller-coaster ride of an adventure, with intrigue, treachery, romance and murder a-plenty. A fabulous read!

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

BOOK LIST: Best books of 2013

Saturday, January 04, 2014

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

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

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

Best Historical Novel for Adults



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


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


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


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


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


Best Historical Mystery


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


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


Best Historical Thrillers



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


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


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


Best Historical Romance



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


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


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


Best Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults



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


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


Best Parallel Contemporary/Historical



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


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


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


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


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



Best Contemporary Novel



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


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



Best Contemporary Suspense Novels


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


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


Best YA Fantasy/Fairytale Retellings



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


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


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


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




Best Historical Novel for Young Adults



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


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


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


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


Best Children’s Books



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


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


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


Best Non-Fiction




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



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


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

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

BOOK LIST: Books Read in September 2013

Saturday, October 26, 2013


I’ve been on the move nearly all this month, with lots of Book Week events, followed by the Brisbane Writers Festival, and then the rest of the month spent on the road in England and Wales. So a lot of my reading was done on my e-book reader, which I really only use while travelling, and also dictated by where I was and what I was doing. I still managed to read 13 books (though one was only a novella), with lots of romance and murder mysteries, and one absolutely riveting and blood-chilling non-fiction.  


1. Ember Island – Kimberley Freeman


I get all excited when I hear a new Kimberley Freeman novel is due out. I know I’m in for a real page-turning delight, with a delicious mix of mystery, romance, history and family drama. These are books I like to clear some space for, because I know that once I pick one up I’m utterly compelled to keep on reading till the very end. ‘Ember Island’ was no exception. It weaves together the story of Tilly Kirkland, newly married to a man of secrets in the Channel Islands in 1890; and the story of bestselling novelist Nina Jones, who retreats to a small Queensland island in 2012 in an attempt to heal her broken heart and overcome her crippling writer’s block. The two stories touch as Nina discovers old diary pages hidden in the walls of her dilapidated old house … 



2. Captive of Sin – Anna Campbell
I like nothing better than a good romance novel, particularly when I’m feeling tired and over-worked (which seems to be all the time at the moment). Anna Campbell had recently been voted Australia’s Favourite Romance Author and I had read and enjoyed one of her earlier novels ‘Seven Night’s In A Rogue’s Bed’ and so hunted down another of her books. ‘Captive of Sin’ is a very readable Regency romance with a hero tormented by dark secrets in his past and a heroine on the run from her abusive step-brothers. I enjoyed it immensely!



3. Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
I’ve been hearing some slowly building buzz about this book for some kind, which grew much louder after it was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Then I met Elizabeth Wein at the Brisbane Writers Festival and so grabbed a copy. I’m so glad I did. I loved this book so much. ‘Code Name Verity’ begins with the first person account of a young English woman who has been captured by the Nazis in German-occupied France during the Second World War. She has been tortured and has agreed to tell her interrogators everything she knows. Instead, however, she writes about her growing friendship with Maddie, the female pilot who had dropped her into France. The first person voice is intimate and engaging and surprisingly funny; the descriptions of flying are lyrically beautiful; and the growing fear for our heroine masterfully built. At a high point of tension, the narrative voice suddenly swaps to Maddie, and we hear the rest of the story from her point of view. This switch in view destabilises the whole story in an utterly brilliant and surprising way. I gasped out loud once or twice, and finished the book with eyes swimming with tears. Once of the best YA historical novels I have ever read. 



4. The Passion of the Purple Plumeria – Lauren Willig
This is Book No 12 in a long-running series of delightful and very funny historical romances that tell the adventures of a set of English spies in Napoleonic times. The spies all have named like the Pink Carnation and the Black Tulip, and rampage about in disguise, getting into trouble, falling in love, and fighting off bully-boys with swords hidden in their parasols. Think the Scarlet Pimpernel mixed with Georgette Heyer and Sophie Kinsella (the books also have a chick-lit thread with the contemporary adventures of a young woman tracking down the truth about the Pink Carnation and other spies). Fabulous, frivolous fun (but you must start with Book 1 ‘The Secret History of the Pink Carnation’.)



5. The Dress of the Season – Kate Noble
A sweet little Regency romance novella, adroitly handled by the author, and quite a nice way to pass the commute to work. It’s so short it can be read in an hour or so. I downloaded it on to my e-reader while caught with nothing to read in an airport, and finished it just as the gates opened for boarding. Nice.



6. 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 and the architect of the Final Solution that saw millions of people efficiently and cold-bloodedly murdered.

Thomas Harding was so surprised and intrigued by this revelation, he began to try and found out more. His research led him to write this extraordinary book, which parallels the lives of the two men from birth till death.

Rudolf Hoss was born in 1901 in Baden-Baden, and ran away at the age of 14 to fight in WWI. He was a Commander at just sixteen years old, and joined the National Socialist Party after spending time in prison after murdering a traitor. 

Hanns Alexander, meanwhile, was born in 1933 in Berlin to a prosperous middle-class Jewish family. He managed to escape Germany in time, but his great-aunt died in the concentration camps and his family lost everything. When WWII broke out, he fought for the British army, along with his twin brother.

Hoss, meanwhile, was busy fulfilling his orders to make Auschwitz ‘a site of mass annihilation.’ The chapters set during this time are truly disturbing and had me in tears more than once. Then, as Germany lost the war, Hoss escaped – abandoning his wife and children - and hid himself in an assumed identity.

After the concentration camps were discovered, the War Crimes Commission was established and Hanns Alexander was chosen to help track down war criminals. How he tracked down Hoss makes for riveting reading; in parts, it feels more like a thriller than non-fiction. An utterly brilliant book which I recommend very highly. 


7. Anybody Out There – Marian Keyes
I have never read any of Marian Keyes’ books before and bought one on the very strong recommendation of a friend.  She said that they were the sort of books that make you laugh and make you cry, and really, what more could you want from any book? ‘Anybody Out There’ is certainly an engaging mixture of humour and pathos and gave me a lump in the throat more than once. It tells the story of Anna Walsh, who has been in some kind of terrible accident, and is recuperating on her parents’ couch in Dublin. But Anna is desperate to speak to a man named Aiden and so returns to New York to find him. There’s a vast cast of eccentric characters, some odd and some funny moments, and a dark and serious streak I was not expecting. Marian Keyes is not afraid to grapple with themes of grief, depression, loneliness, and pain, even as she mocks the shallowness of the beauty industry and throws in some slapstick humour. The warmth and wit of her heroine, Anna, keeps the story from jangling too wildly. This is chick-lit with heart and an acute social conscience.




8. Love on a Midsummer Night – Christie English
A lovely, gentle and lyrical Regency romance with themes and images from 
Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" woven through. The hero is a dissolute rake who has never been able to forget his first love. The heroine is a vulnerable widow who had been forced into marriage with a much older man and is now forced to stand against his lascivious heir. She turns to her old flame for help, and finds herself falling in love all over again. A sweet and easy read.



9. Witch Child – Celia Rees
This wonderful historical novel for teenagers begins: ‘I am Mary. I am a witch.’ It is set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II. Her story is purportedly told in diary entries that have been found sewn inside a quilt. It is a tragic and powerful tale, which begins when Mary’s grandmother is arrested and tortured by witch-finders and then hanged in the town square. Mary is rescued by a rich woman who she suspects may be her real mother, and sent to join a group of Puritans fleeing to the New World. However, the Puritans are stern and narrow-minded and quick to blame any misfortune on witchcraft. Mary finds herself in increasing danger as the party lands in Salem, Massachusetts. A growing friendship with a Native American and his shaman grandfather increases her risk. A simple yet powerful tale that explores the nature of magic and superstition, faith and cruelty.


10. 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. The story is set in a stately home. There is a butler, a beautiful and mysterious baroness whose car just happens to crash outside the manor’s front gate, a daring jewel thief, an amiable fool called Algernon Fotheringay, and a very puzzling mystery that involves not just a locked room but, indeed, a locked house.  The detective is humble and crumpled, and, oh yes, there’s a few international spies thrown in too. I adored it. Clever, amusing, and surprisingly surprising. 


11. Beware This Boy – Maureen Jennings
I had never heard of Maureen Jennings before I picked up this book, but apparently she is best known for a series of historical mysteries that have been televised as ‘the Murdoch Mysteries’. I was interested in this book because it was compared to ‘Foyle’s War’, which I love, and because generally anything set during the Second World War is of interest to me. It’s an unusual crime novel. Yes, there is murder, and sabotage, and spies, and skulduggery, but the action is slow and deliberate, and much of the emphasis is on the interior lives of its troubled characters. The action all takes place in in rain, in fog, in bomb shelters, and in munitions’ factories. The atmosphere is gloomy and laden with dread. This is historical crime at its most serious and deliberate, and most effective in its evocation of a terrible time in British history.


12. A Parcel of Patterns – Jill Paton Walsh
I spent a weekend in the Peaks District during my time in the UK this month. Given a choice between visiting Chatsworth House (the opulent seat of the Duke of Devonshire which was used as the site of Pemberley in the 2005 film adaption of Pride and Prejudice) and a small local village called Eyam (prounced ‘eem’), you might be surprised to know I chose the latter. Eyam, however, is the famous ‘plague village’ which isolated itself voluntarily in 1665 after the Black Death arrived in a flea-infested parcel of cloth. Only 83 villagers survived from a total population of 350. One of my all-time favourite books, ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks, published in 2001, imagines what may have happened in that village in that year. ‘A Parcel of Patterns’ by Jill Paton Walsh, published in 1983, was one of the first fictional attempts to grapple with the subject. It is told from the point of view of a young woman named Mall, and shows how the coming of the plague destroyed lives and loves, and faith and fealty. It’s a delicate little book, and very sad.


13. Secrets of the Sea House - Elisabeth Gifford
An intriguing and atmospheric novel set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, the narrative moves between the contemporary story of 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.  


Ruth and Michael are living in, and renovating, the ramshackle Sea House on the Hebridean Island of Harris. Ruth is haunted by feelings of fear and grief, and worries they have made a mistake in sinking all their savings into this remote and run-down house. Then they discover, buried beneath the floorboards, the tiny bones of a dead child. Its legs are fused together, its feet splayed like flippers. The discovery unsettles Ruth, reminding her of her dead mother’s strange tales of a selkie ancestry. She begins to try and find out how the skeleton came to be buried under the house. 


The story moves to 1860, and the alternating points of view of the young and handsome Reverend Alexander Ferguson and his intelligent yet illiterate housemaid, Moira. Alexander’s obsession with mermaids and selkies, and his forbidden attraction to the daughter of the local laird, lead to grief and betrayal and death. 


The weaving together of the two threads is masterfully done. The story is powerful, beautiful, and magical, and Ruth’s struggle to overcome the shackles of the past is sensitively handled. Hard to believe this is a debut author – definitely one to watch. 

BOOKS READ IN AUGUST




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