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BOOK LIST - Books Read in August 2013

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


August is Book Week in Australia, and that means lots of authors, including myself, have been on the road, talking about our books at schools, libraries and literary festivals. With so much travelling and talking, there’s not much time for reading and so this month I managed only eight books – however, I discovered a couple of wonderful new authors and read the new work of a few old favourites and so it was a happy reading month for me. 



1. The Tudor Conspiracy – C.W. Gortner
The Tudor period was a time of turmoil, danger, and intrigue … and this means spies. Brendan Prescott works in the shadows on behalf of a young Princess Elizabeth, risking his life to save her from a dark conspiracy that could make her queen … or send her to her death. Not knowing who to trust, surrounded by peril on all sides, Brendan must race against time to retrieve treasonous letters before Queen Mary’s suspicions of her half-sister harden into murderous intent.    

The Tudor Conspiracy is 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. It follows on from C.W. Gortner’s earlier novel, The Tudor Secret, but can be read on its own (though I really recommend reading Book 1 first – it was great too). 


2. Pureheart – Cassandra Golds
Cassandra Golds is one of the most extraordinary writers in the world. Her work is very hard to define, because there is no-one else writing quite like she does. Her books are beautiful, haunting, strange, and heart-rending. They are old-fashioned in the very best sense of the word, in that they seem both timeless and out-of-time. They are fables, or fairy tales, filled with truth and wisdom and a perilous kind of beauty. They remind me of writers I adored as a child – George Macdonald Fraser, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Elizabeth Goudge, or Eleanor Farjeon at her most serious and poetic. 

I have read and loved all of Cassandra’s work but Pureheart took my breath away. Literally. It was like being punched in the solar plexus. I could not breathe for the lead weight of emotion on my heart. I haven’t read a book that packs such an emotional wallop since Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. This is a story about a bullied and emotionally abused child and those scenes are almost unbearable to read. It is much more than that, however. 

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. 


3. Park Lane – Frances Osborne
Park Lane is the first novel by Frances Osborne, but she has written two earlier non-fiction books which I really enjoyed. The first, called Lilla’s Feast, told the story of her paternal great-grandmother, Lilla Eckford, who wrote a cookbook while being held prisoner in a Japanese internment camp during World war II. The second, called The Bolter, was written about Frances Osborne’s maternal great-grandmother, the notorious Lady Idina Sackville. Married five times, with many other lovers, Idina was part of the scandalous Happy Valley set in Kenya which led to adultery, drug addiction, and murder. Both are absolutely riveting reads, and so I had high hopes of Park Lane, particularly after I read a review in The Guardian which said ‘Frances Osborne will be in the vanguard of what is surely an emergent genre: books that appeal to Downton Abbey fans.’ Well, that’s me! I should have been a very happy reader. 

I have to admit, however, that the book did not live up to my expectations. This was partly because it is written entirely in present tense, a literary tic which I hate, and partly because of the style, which felt heavy and awkward. 

The sections told from the point of view of the aristocratic Beatrice are the most readable, perhaps because this is a world that Frances Osborne knows well (she is the daughter of the Conservative minister David Howell, Baron Howell of Guildford, and wife of George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, which means she lives next door to the Prime Minister on Downing Street in London.) However, the sections told from the point of view of her servant, Grace, are less successful, and her voice did not ring true for me. Also, I was just getting interested in her story when she disappears from the page, popping up again at the end. 

The sections I enjoyed the most were those detailing the suffragettes’ struggle for the vote. These scenes were full of action and drama, and draw upon Frances Osborne’s own family history, with her great-great-grandmother having made many sacrifices for the women’s cause. I’d have liked to have known much more about their struggle and the hardships they faced (maybe I’ll need to write my own suffragette novel one day). 


4. The Devil’s Cave – Martin Walker
I really love this series of murder mysteries set in a small French village in the Dordogne. A lot of the pleasure of these books does not come from the solving of the actual crime – which is often easily guessed – but from the descriptions of the town, the countryside, and the food and wine (I always want to cook the recipes, many of which can be found on the author’s website). These books also really make me want to go back to France!

The hero of this series is the small-town policeman Benoît Courrèges, called Bruno by everyone. He lives in an old shepherd’s cottage, with a beagle hound, ducks, chickens, a goat and a vegetable garden. He’s far more likely to offer some homespun wisdom than arrest anyone, a trait I appreciate. There’s always a touch of romance, and a cast of eccentric minor characters who add warmth and humour.  

The first few books were lazy and charming; the tension is slowly growing in later books which I think is a good thing as the series may have grown just a little too comfortable otherwise. In this instalment – no 5 in the series – there is a dead naked woman in a boat, satanic rituals and chase scenes in an underground cave, a Resistance heroine to be rescued, a local girl led astray, and an omelette made with truffle-infused eggs and dandelion buds. A big sigh of happiness from me. 


5. Let It Be Me – Kate Noble
I bought this book solely on the cover – a Regency romance set in Venice? Sounds right up my alley … I mean, canal …

I have never read a book by Kate Noble before, but I certainly will again. Let It Be Me is clearly part of a series, as is often the case with historical romances, but I had no trouble working out who everyone is. 

The book was set in 1824, and our heroine is the red-haired Bridget Forrester. Although she is quite pretty, none of the men at the ball ask her to dance as she has a reputation for being a shrew. It seems she has been over-shadowed by her sister, the Beauty of the family. 

So Sarah is over-joyed when she receives an invitation to be taught by the Italian composer, Vincenzo Carpenini. After a series of troubles and complications, Bridget ends up going to Venice and before she know sit, finds herself part of a wager to prove that women can play the piano just as well as men. All sorts of romantic entanglements occur, with a wonderful musical leitmotif running through – a very enjoyable romantic read. 


6. The Sultan’s Eyes – Kelly Gardiner
I was on a panel with Kelly Gardiner at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and so read The Sultan’s Eyes in preparation for our talk together. Historical fiction is my favourite genre, and I particularly love books set in the mid-17th century, a time of such bloody turmoil and change. I set my six-book series of children’s historical adventure novels ‘The Chain of Charms’ during this time and so I know the period well. I absolutely loved reading The Sultan’s Eyes, which is set in Venice and Constantinople in 1648, and am now eager to read the book that came before, Act of Faith.

The heroine of the story is Isabella Hawkins, the orphaned daughter of an Oxford philosopher, and educated by him in the classics as if she had been a boy. She has taken refuge in Venice with some friends following the death of her father, after what seem like some hair-raising adventures in Book 1. An old enemy, the Inquisitor Fra Clement, arrives in Venice, however, and afraid for their lives, Isabella and her friends free to the exotic capital of the East, Constantinople, which is ruled by a boy Sultan. His mother and his grandmother are engaged in covert and murderous intrigues to control him, and it is not long before Isabella and the others are caught up in the conspiracies. I loved seeing the world of the Byzantine Empire brought so vividly to life, and loved the character of Isabella  - passionate, outspoken, intelligent and yet also vulnerable. 


7. The Wishbird – Gabrielle Wang
I love Gabrielle Wang’s work and I love listening to her speak, so I was very happy to be sharing a stage with her at the Melbourne Writers Festival.  Her new novel The Wishbird is a magical adventure for young readers, and has the added bonus of illustrations by Gabrielle as well, including the gorgeous cover. 

Boy is an orphaned street urchin in the grim City of Soulless who makes a living as a pickpocket. One day he has a chance encounter with Oriole, a girl with a ‘singing tongue’ who was raised by the Wishbird in the Forest of the Birds. The Wishbird is dying, and Oriole has come to the city to try and find a way to save him. She finds herself imprisoned for her musical voice, however, and Boy must find a way to help her. What follows is a simple but beautiful fable about courage, beauty, love and trust that reminded me of old Chinese fairy tales. 



8. Elijah’s Mermaid – Essie Fox
Elijah’s Mermaid is best described as a dark Gothic Victorian melodrama about the lives of two sets of orphans. One is the beautiful and wistful Pearl, found as a baby after her mother drowned in the Thames, and raised in a brothel with the rather whimsical name of The House of Mermaids. The other two are the twins Elijah and Lily, also abandoned, but lucky enough to be adopted by their grandfather, an author named Augustus Lamb. 
The voices of Pearl and Lily alternate. At first Pearl’s voice is full of street slang and lewd words, but as she grows up many of these are discarded. For the first third of the book, the only points of contact are the children’s fascination with mermaids and water-babies (Pearl has webbed feet), but then they meet by chance at a freak show in which a fake mermaid is exhibited. After that, their lives slowly entwine.
Although the pace is leisurely, the story itself is intense and full of drama and mystery. The Victorian atmosphere is genuinely creepy. I could feel the chill swirl of the fog, and hear the clatter of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, and see Lily struggling to run in her corset and bustle. The story’s action takes place in freak shows, brothels, midnight alleys, underground grottos, and a madhouse, and so the dark underbelly of Victorian society is well and truly turned to the light. Yet this is a novel about love and redemption, as well as obsession and murder, and the love between the twins, and between Elijah and Pearl, is beautifully done.  


This monthly round-up of my reading was first posted for BOOKTOPIA and if you want to buy any of these books, they have all the links you need.


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 REVIEW: Lilla's Feast by Frances Osborne

Monday, July 15, 2013




Lilla’s Feast – A True Story of Love, War and a Passion for Food
, by Frances Osborne, is well named indeed. This book is indeed a feast for all the senses, telling the compelling life story of the writer’s great-grandmother who was born into a British colonial family in China towards the end of the nineteenth century. 

In the hundred years of her life, she survived the Boxer rebellion, the Japanese invasion and the Communist uprising, spending three years in a Japanese internment camp. Fighting terror, starvation and the bitter cold, Lilla consoled herself by writing a cookery book, typing it up on whatever odd bits of paper she could find. 

Her book recalls another age, containing recipes for jugged hare, cream puffs, galantine of beef, ox-foot soup, raspberry meringue. All while she and her fellow prisoners were subsisting on cabbage water soup and a tablespoon of rancid donkey meat – if they were lucky. By the end of the war, her book was a complete encyclopedia on how to live life well, which Lilla did for another half a decade. 

Lilla’s Feast is a fascinating book, filled with recipes, a wealth of illuminating historical detail, and the charming illustrations Lilla’s brother drew for her in the camp.

This review was originally published in Good Reading magazine. 


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