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SPOTLIGHT: Enid Blyton, Shoddy Noddy & the Infamous Five

Monday, May 30, 2016



Enid Blyton, Shoddy Noddy and the Infamous Five 

(an article published in BLACK & WHITE in 2001)


There could be few people left on the face of this planet who have not heard of Harry Potter. You know, the one that has had kids camping outside bookshops all night. The one that has made sardine-flavoured jelly beans fashionable.

Maybe, if you’d been in a contemplation retreat for the past four years, you might have missed the commotion. Or lost in the Amazon jungle without a radio. Otherwise I can confidently say you know all about the Harry Potter Phenomenon. 

What you may have missed is the growing backlash against Pottermania. At the moment it is still low-key. Mutterings of middle-class bias. Fuming by feminists that Harry is not Harriet. Banning of the book by Bible-bashers. One critic described the hype ahead of the release of the fourth book as being “worthy of a Wonderbra.” Another has described them as ‘marginally less testing than watching Neighbours.’ That critic, Whitbread book judge Anthony Holden, went on to call Rowlings’ books “essentially patronising, very conservative, highly derivative (and) dispiritingly nostalgic.” 

I would have said exuberantly nostalgic. For therein lies the secret of Rowling’s success. It should be no surprise that her books have proved as hugely popular with adults as they have with children. For decades the literary establishment has been blaming TV, video games, the Internet, MTV and Macdonald’s for the demise of reading in the young and not-so-young. Few have wondered whether the reason reading has gone out of fashion is because the books published have simply not been what anyone wants to read. 

To me, the Harry Potter books have all the verve and wit and excitement of the books I loved to read as a child – and still read today when I’m tired or sick or studying for exams, when I feel in need of sinking myself in the guilty, sensuous pleasure of reading for the pure joy of reading. And though Rowling has been compared with C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl and Edith Nesbit, the author she reminds me of most is the author I loved most passionately as an eight year old. Enid Blyton.



The first story I ever wrote was about a brother and sister who fell down a hole into Fairyland. It was unashamedly influenced by Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I was six years old. A year or so later I attempted my first novel. It was entitled Runaway and was about a brother and sister who run away from their cruel aunt and uncle, at last finding a happy home with their nice auntie after enduring all sorts of adventures. Coincidentally, the plot synopsis sounds remarkably like that of Blyton’s first book, The Secret Island (1938). 



For quite a few years, nothing gave me such a thrill as being given a new Famous Five book to read. Since there were 21 in the Famous Five series, my family found buying me Christmas and birthday presents very easy. I daydreamed about exploring secret passages, thwarting smugglers, discovering buried treasure and having a dog called Timmy. My sister and I used to fight over who would get to be George, the girl-who-was-as-good-as-a-boy, in our never-ending Famous Five games. Since she was bigger than me, my sister always won. I had to be timid Anne who liked to play with dolls.

When I imagined my life as a grown-up, I modelled my daydreams on Blyton’s The Story Of My Life, which had belonged to my mother when she was a child. Blyton described her life in idyllic terms. She lived in a big old house in the country with a huge garden filled with flowers and lots of animals and two sweet-faced children of her own and a vague sort of husband floating around. 



She never mentioned her bitter divorce,  perennial problems with the plumbing or the time her house was invaded by hundreds of rats – just like Julian never got a pimple or George never experienced her first menstrual cramp. I wanted desperately to be a writer living in a big old house in the country too – and I have to admit my ambitions have not changed much since I was eight.

Confessing to all this is actually very hard. Enid Blyton has been sneered at for so many years. One critic described her as “slow poison”; another said her language was “colourless, dead and totally undemanding.”

The first shot in the anti-Blyton campaign was fired by Geoffrey Trease in 1949 with the comment “The Blyton school stories entertain but … can hardly be said to go far in depicting reality, stimulating the imagination or educating the emotions. Their style (is) drained of all difficulty until it achieves a kind of aesthetic anaemia.” In other words, “marginally less testing than watching Neighbours.”

Geoffrey Trease’s 1949 book, Tales Out of School, was the first ever critical analysis of British children’s literature and it was to prove highly influential over the next half a century. In this seminal work, he placed great emphasis on the need for children’s books to “represent reality.” 

This was to become the rallying cry for critics, librarians, and literary academics everywhere – and not just in relation to children’s books. This was the age when ‘angry young men’ dominated the world stage. There was no room for whimsy and wonder, frivolity or fancy. No room for illicit midnight feasts in the dormitory or hunting for treasure in secret passages. No room for a world where gangs of children outwitted gangs of baddies without the unwelcome interference of bumbling grown-ups. No room for wishing-chairs or flying broomsticks or animals that could speak or wardrobes that led into magical lands.



In December 1975, the Times Literary Supplement wrote “the past fifteen years has seen a turgid wave of problem books, bombarding children with facts on abortion, menstruation, racism, mental and physical handicaps, divorce, adolescent hang-ups, violence, religion and so forth. No area has remained sacred; but style, imagination and storytelling have too often been sacrificed to the golden calf of truth.”

Twenty-five years after that review and fifty years after Geoffrey Trease first cast Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis, Edith Nesbit and other popular children’s writers out into the arctic circle of academic scorn, Harry Potter has taken over the world. J.K. Rowling had the good luck to sit down and write her fantastical, whimsical adventure stories at a time when the world was hungry for kiddies’ books like you used to get. Of course, she had some trouble convincing the literary establishment of that. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the series, was rejected by every single publisher in the UK before at last being picked up by Bloomsbury. It now accounts for more than 20 per cent of that publisher’s turnover and all the other publishers in the world are now clamouring for books about boy wizards, grumpy owls, chambers of secrets and boarding school capers. 

What is most interesting is that this enthusiastic embracing of the unrealistic comes at a time when the almost universal derision towards Enid Blyton is being replaced with a new degree of critical and popular interest. 

Hugh Grant recently named The Naughtiest Girl In the School as his favourite book of all time, and it was widely reported that Liz Hurley sought refuge in her own Blyton collection after his infamous encounter with a black prostitute. Writers who have unashamedly acknowledged their early love of Blyton include Melvyn Bragg, Beryl Bainbridge, Ken Follett, Hanif Kureishi, and Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme (who, much like me, wrote a Enid Blyton rip-off called 
‘The Cave of Adventure’ at the age of seven). 



Blyton’s own life has been a source of continual fascination, perhaps because she so unfailingly represented it as bathed in perpetual sunshine. The Channel Four series Secret Lives recently probed the dark, secret shadows of her life with great relish - Blyton’s frigid relations with her own family, her affairs and bitter divorce, her intense friendship with Dorothy Richards (Bi Women On the Web, a resource page for bisexual women, lists Enid Blyton as one of its heroines, along with Josephine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir and Sandra Bernhard).

Most tellingly, Blyton has finally been the subject of an in-depth critical analysis, published last month in the UK as Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature. David Rudd, a senior lecturer at Bolton Institute, has examined the life and work of Blyton, with particular emphasis on the fact that, despite the storm of adult negativity, Blyton remains the most popular children’s author ever.  To date, her books have sold over 300 million copies and are still selling strongly. They have been made into TV series, feature films, radio plays, stage plays, fun parks, animated cartoons, and puppet shows. They have never gone out of print and 32 years after her death, Enid Blyton is still chosen by children as one of their all-time favourite authors.

“Why does a writer accused of being … middle-class, snobbish, sexist, racist … continue to fascinate in our multicultural world? To fascinate not only in France, Germany and Australia, but also in Malaysia, Russia and Japan, and in languages such as Catalan and Tamil?’ Rudd asks.

To begin with, Rudd examines the primary criticisms of Blyton’s work and concludes that many “are based on glaring misreadings, sometimes not even drawing on Blyton’s own original texts.”

The accusation of sexism, for example, is one that has always troubled me. Of all the thousands of books I read as a child, it is George of the Famous Five that remains most vivid in my memory - the tomboy who refused to let the boys push her around, the girl who could out-swim, out-climb and out-wit anyone. The critic Bob Dixon has described George as “a very bad case of … penis-envy’, yet she was a powerful role-model for literally millions of young girls. 



Enid Blyton said that the character of George was inspired by herself as a child


Blyton’s books are filled with passionate, independent girls who fight desperately against being straitjacketed in normal gender roles. Even Anne, normally dismissed as the typical domesticated female, has her own power, which often takes her brothers by surprise. And as Rudd points out, without the contrast of Anne, George’s behaviour would not appear half so subversive.

Noddy, once Blyton’s most popular and celebrated creation, was singled out for the most venom. One critic of the early ‘60s called him “the most egocentric, joyless, snivelling and pious anti-hero in the history of British fiction.” Noddy books were banned for many years, primarily because of the racial implications of their naughty golliwogs. Blyton herself protested that she depicted more bad teddies than golliwogs and statistically she was right. A close examination of the Noddy books shows that the poor maligned golliwogs were wicked in only one story, out of 24 books in total, with the real villains more likely to be monkeys or goblins.




In the sanitised, homogenised versions of the books on sale now, the golliwogs have been replaced by slit-eyed goblins. Noddy and Big Ears, who once liked to share a bed, now live in separate establishments and Noddy no longer feels himself “coming over all queer.” The BBC, producer of the hugely popular animated TV series, has introduced a number of new characters, among them Dinah Doll, who it describes as a “black, assertive, ethnic minority female.” 
In spite of the controversy, Noddy has continued to be hugely popular with the very young. In the 50 years since he sprang to life in Enid Blyton’s fertile imagination, the Noddy books have sold more than 200 million copies in 27 different languages, with spinoffs including toys, clothing and CD-ROMs generating annual sales of more than $80 million in Britain alone. In the US, the Noddy series is now more popular than Sesame Street. No wonder he was asked to ring the bell to launch the day’s trading at the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year!

Most interestingly, Rudd places Blyton strongly within the Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, where the audience is spellbound by the visual, sensual aspects of the tales, their sense of immediacy, their affinity with the natural daydreams of the powerless, who long to be heroes. What is most interesting about Rudd’s analysis is his comparison of this oral tradition with the literary tradition, and how contempt for the more intuitive, spontaneous and simplistic oral tradition reaches as far back as Plato.

In The Republic, Plato criticises Homer’s work for being, at best, frivolous and at worst, dangerous. He sees it as a ‘crippling of the mind’, a ‘species of mental poison and an enemy of the truth.’ Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? 
One of the primary causes for concern for many critics was the sheer volume of Blyton’s work. She was the most prolific author of all time, writing 700 books, 10,000 short stories and hundreds of magazine article and columns. She could write up to 10,000 words in a day. This meant she could write a Famous Five adventure in a week. 

Many worried that once a child became addicted to Blyton, he or she would read nothing else until they progressed - “if ever, on such a spoon-fed diet” as one critic despaired - to adult literature. However, all the evidence goes to show that children who are given the gift of reading for pleasure read voraciously. They read everything they can lay their grubby little mitts on. They read all their lives. 



The fact is Blyton was a wonderful storyteller, with a wonderful knack of knowing just what it is children like in books. Her first ever review, for the book of poems Child Whispers (published in 1922 when she was just twenty-five and working as a nursery governess) celebrated her ability “to move into the child’s world of fancy”. 

The psychologist Michael Woods wrote “she was a child, she thought as a child and she wrote as a child.” He did not mean it as a compliment. Nonetheless, it is a statement of profound truth and the greatest tribute any critic could give a writer for children.  



(This article was written and published quite some time ago, but I think is as relevant as ever. Just to be fair, I have to say I love Geoffrey Trease's books too!) 

SPOTLIGHT: Geoffrey Trease, who began my passion for historical fiction

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Today is the birthday of Geoffrey Trease, one of my all-time favourite writers for children. He was born in Nottingham on 11 August 1909, and died in January 1998. 

In all, he wrote 100 books for children. I’ve been collecting his books since I was a teenager, but I’ve managed to find less than half of them. I hope to find them all in time. 


My love for him began when I was about eleven, and I read his book Cue for Treason (first published in 1940).

It’s a wonderful adventure story set in Elizabethan England. A boy named Peter has to flee after throwing a rock at Sir Philip Morton, the local tyrant, in protest at his theft of the village’s common ground. He sees a troupe of travelling actors and pauses to watch, but then sees Sir Philip in the audience. 

In desperation, Peter hides in a prop coffin and finds himself loaded on to the actors’ wagon. Desmond, the kind-hearted leader of the troupe, takes him on as a child actor, and he travels the roads with them.  Another boy called Kit joins the troupe, and is given all the best female roles (which, of course, could only be played by boys). 

Philip is jealous and fights him, only to discover Kit is really a girl in disguise. She is fleeing a forced marriage to the evil Sir Philip. 

The troupe ends up in London, and Peter and Kit are accepted as actors by a young playwright named Shakespeare. They act in several of his plays, and then accidentally stumble upon a plot to murder the queen. A wild, fast-paced adventure follows as they race to unravel the plot and stop the assassin. All ends well, with the queen grateful to the young adventurers and Sir Philip unmasked as a traitor.  

I loved Cue for Treason. It was one of the books that ignited my passion for historical fiction. The late 16th century world was so adeptly brought to life, and the characters seemed so real. Kit and Peter were both so brave and determined, and the developing romance between them was so deftly handed. 

I began trying to find more books by him. Our library had a few, which I devoured hungrily, and every now and again I found one in a second-hand book stall. 

What I loved about his books was how effortlessly the historical background was woven into the story. The pace never lags, the story never stumbles, the characters never sound awkward or anachronistic, and yet I finished each book feeling as if I had knew exactly how people of that time spoke and dressed and ate and fought. 

He wrote books set in a number of different historical periods. My favourites include Cloak for a Spy (also set in Elizabethan times); The Popinjay Stairs, set in Restoration Times with Samuel Pepys as a character; Thunder of Valmy, set during the French revolution; and The White Nights of St Petersburg, set during the Russian revolution. 

He began writing stories in an old desk diary as a child, and earned his first half-guinea as a writer at the age of 13 with an article on ‘Amateur Journalism’. He won a scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford - but dropped out, determined to be a writer. He worked to help the plight of slum children in the East End of London, and his books reflect his passionately held socialist beliefs. 

In Bows Against the Barons (1934), his very first book, Robin Hood cries out: ‘There are only two classes, masters and men, haves and have-nots.’

Such beliefs were radical in children’s literature at the time, and contributed greatly to his international success. He was particularly beloved in Russia, where his first book sold 100,000 copies. At the time, royalties could not be taken out of the Soviet Union. Geoffrey and his wife, Marian, subsequently lives in Russia for a while, enjoying the fruits of his success. What he saw there may have tempered his beliefs, as his later books – including White Nights of St Petersburg (1967) - were more moderate in their politics. 

From the beginning, Geoffrey set out to overthrow the heavy-handed archaism of historical fiction at the time. “Some of the merriment should be taken out of Merrie England,’ he wrote. 

He did away with what he called ‘gadzookery’, with people saying ‘Zounds’ or ‘Prithee’ at every breath. His characters all talk as ordinary human beings. 

Geoffrey was also determined to have the girls in his stories being as strong-willed and fully-rounded as the boys, something most unusual for the time in which he was writing. 

My love for his books led me to discover other great children’s HF writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff, Leon Garfied, and Elizabeth George Speare. Eventually I read Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and the Baroness d’Orczy … and have been an avid reader of anything historical ever since.  

It's always a pleasure to re-read old favourites (and endeavouring to do so is part of The 50/50 Project - in which I am trying to re-read the books of my Fifty Favourite Authors)  

BOOK LIST: Best Books set during the times of Charles II

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

BEST BOOKS SET DURING THE TIME OF CHARLES II


I’ve always loved stories set in Stuart times, perhaps because my grandmother told me, when I was a little girl, that we were related to the Stuart royal family. When she said ‘we’, she really meant the Clan of Mackenzie, which does indeed have links to the doomed royal family of Scotland, but so long ago and so far away from my own great-great-grandmother Ellen Mackenzie that I could never lay claim to such a connection with a straight face.

Nonetheless, growing up, I read quite a few books set in Scotland and quite a few about the Stuarts. I set ‘The Chain of Charms’, my series of children’s historical adventure stories, in the last days of the rule of Oliver Cromwell and one of my favourite stories to tell at schools and storytelling festivals is the escape of Charles II after the final disastrous defeat to Oliver Cromwell’s army.

Here is a list of my favourite books set during the years of the English Civil War and the Restoration. This blog first ran in May 2013, but I have updated it to include the books I've read in the past year. 

Favourite Books I read as a Kid: 

Sidney Seeks Her Fortune- Catherine Christian
This is an adventure story about a Cavalier family that lost all its money fighting for the king, and sets outs to restore its fortunes. It includes shipwrecks, highwaymen, pirates, romance and the eventual triumph of its heroine, the steadfast Sidney of the title, and writing about it makes me want to read it all over again … 


The Popinjay Stairs – Geoffrey Trease
I really love all of Geoffrey Trease’s books, but this is one of my favourites. The novel begins with a highwayman waylays a coach that numbers among its passengers Samuel Pepys, who is at that time Secretary to the Office of Lord High Admiral of England. The highway men seem more interested in Pepys’official document case than in gold and watches … and this sets off a wild adventure dealing in treason, blackmail and spies. 


Rider of the White Horse – Rosemary Sutcliff 
I also adore Rosemary Sutcliff. This is not one of my favourite, but it is still a vivid and engaging historical novel, telling the story of Anne Fairfax, the wife of a Puritan general, Sir Thomas Fairfax. As always, the writing is vivid and supple and evocative. 


The House at Green Knowe – Lucy M. Boston
This book has only one scene set during the English Civil War, but it always lingered in my memory.  


Favourite Books I Read as a Teenager: 

Royal Escape – Georgette Heyer
One of her few straight historical novels, this book tells the story of Charles II’s dramatic six week escape from England after the last, disastrous battle of the English Civil war. 

The Wandering Prince – Jean Plaidy 
The story of the years Charles II spent in exile as a young man after the loss of his crown, as seen through the eyes of his sister Minette, and his mistress Lucy Walter – Jean Plaidy is not much read these days, but I adored her as a teenager and read every book of hers I can lay my hands on. The Stuart saga was a favourite – it follows on with ‘A Health Unto His Majesty’ which I also really enjoyed. 

Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier
A wonderfully romantic and adventurous book set in Restoration England, about the affair between a bored English noblewoman and a daring French pirate.


Favourite Books I’ve Read in Recent Years

Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks
A brilliant novel about the plague village of Ayam – one of my all-time favourite novels. 

Read my interview with Geraldine Brooks

Lady’s Slipper – Deborah Swift
A fabulous historical novel filled with romance, murder, art, and one rare and gorgeous orchid. 

You can read my full review here


Empress of Icecream – Anthony Capella 
A historical novel about the invention of ice cream, and the seduction of Charles II by the French spy, Louise de Keroualle. 


The Darling Strumpet - Gillian Bagwell
A wonderful novel inspired by the life  of Nell Gwyn, one of Charles II's most famous mistresses. Here is my full review of the book and an interview with Gillian Bagwell.


The September Queen – Gillian Bagwell 
The story of Lady Jane, the young woman who helped Charles II escape England after failing to win back his crown. 


An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears 
An utterly brilliant historical thriller set after the restoration of Charles II, it has so many unexpected twists and turns I gasped aloud at several points in the narrative. Another all-time favourite novel of mine - a must read for any lover of clever, intriguing historical fiction. 


 

The Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart - Marci Jefferson
A wonderful novel set at the royal court after the Restoration, The Girl on the Golden Con tells the story of the beautiful, spirited young woman chosen to be the face of Britannica by Charles II. You can read my full review here. 

Witch Child - Celia Rees
This brilliant 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. You can read my full review here and my interview with Celia Rees here.



Act of Faith - Kelly Gardiner
The Sultan's Eyes - Kelly Gardiner

These heart-breaking and thought-provoking historical novels for young adults are set during the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Only the opening scenes of the first are set in England and involve the escape of the heroine Isabella and her father after he is accused of sedition and treason due to his political views. The action moves first to Amsterdam, then to Venice, Spain and, finally, in Book 2, to Constantinople. However I am including them in this list because they give a very vivid picture of the tumultuous times of the English Civil War, and the foment of ideas, philosophies, and politics that surrounded the exile and restoration of King Charles II. Besides, I loved them and want others to love them too. 


If you liked this list, you may also enjoy:




BOOK LIST: Books Read in October 2013

Sunday, November 24, 2013


This month, I’ve read something old, something new and something blue – partly as a consequence of having visited Hay-on-Wye in Wales in September, the town said to have more second-hand bookshops per square mile than any other town in the world. I adore rummaging around in second-hand bookstores and always come home with bags of old treasures (that I then have to lug all the way back to Australia). 


1. A Cotswold Killing – Rebecca Trope
I always like to read books set in places where I am travelling and I love a good murder mystery, so I grabbed ‘A Cotswold Killing’ by Rebecca Trope while I was over there. This is the first in a popular series of murder mysteries featuring the amateur detective Thea Osborne. Recently widowed and trying to begin a new life for herself, Thea decides to try house-sitting in the beautiful Cotswold village of Duntisbourne Abbots. She is woken in the middle of the night by a piercing scream, but does not get up to investigate and is horrified to find a body in the her pond the following day. Guilty and troubled by the murder, she begins to investigate …
‘A Cotswold Killing’ is a quiet, thoughtful and rather melancholy murder mystery, with as much space given to Thea’s interior life as to the events of the murder. I would have liked a much stronger sense of place and a faster pace, but the first in a series is often the worst and so I’m willing to try another of the series, perhaps next time I’m in the Cotswolds. 
 

2. Jo of the Chalet School – Elinor M Brent-Dyer
One of the treasures I found in Hay-on-Wye – a third edition of ‘Jo of the Chalet School’ by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, published in 1936, with illustrated bookplates intact. This is the second book in the famous series about a girls’ school in the Austrian Tyrol, but was the first one I ever read. I had found a box of them in my grandmother’s attic while staying there on Christmas holidays, and read my way through them. Years later, I asked my grandmother if I could have that box of books and she said she had thrown them in the bin. If only she had known how much they are worth now! A first edition of ‘Book 1: The School at the Chalet’ is now worth a cool $3,600. Brent-Dyer wrote 59 books in the series in total, and they are the longest-surviving series of girls’ school stories every published, having been continuously in print for more than 70 years. More than 100,000 paperback copies are still sold every year. This one was first published in 1926 and is full of quaint expressions and old-fashioned values, but the setting and time is marvellously created and the story is full of charm and humour, just like I remembered.



3. The Barons’ Hostage – Geoffrey Trease
Geoffrey Trease is one of the authors I read as a child that gave me my lifelong love of historical fiction. He combined meticulous research with exciting, action-packed story lines that brought history vividly to life. He was remarkable for his ability to make his characters live on the page and, because he was careful to never use any archaic language like ‘prithee’ or ‘I troth thee’, his books are very readable and lively and have lasted the test of time extraordinarily well. I have collected his books for years but since he published 113, I still have quite a few to hunt down.

‘The Baron’s Hostage’ was first published in 1952 – the copy I bought in Hay-on-Wye is a first US edition, published in 1975.  Like all of his books, the narrative is shared between a young man and a young woman, in this case Michael and Arlette, who are caught up in the civil war known as the Baron’s War in the late 1200s. A rattling good read.



4. Julius and the Watchmaker – Tim Hehir
An action-packed timeslip adventure for boys, that brings together a Dickensian cast of characters with a dash of humour and playfulness. The hero, Julius, is a bullied boy who lives in genteel poverty with his grandfather who owns a bookshop. One day he meets Jack Springheel, a charming rogue, and finds himself on the run with a magical watch and a host of villains on his heels. The magical watch has the ability to transport the owner back and forth and even, perhaps, sideways, in time. These convolutions could be, perhaps, confusing for a child reader (and I would have liked a far more active female character), but the book is funny and fast-paced enough to keep the reader’s interest. A great debut for the author. 


5. The Tea Rose - Jennifer Donnelly
A fabulous, big, fat, epic historical novel! The Tea Rose tells the story of Fiona Finnegan who flees a life of poverty and hardship in the docklands of East London, 1888 (a place where Jack the Ripper lurks and ruthless employers keep their workers half-starved) to make a new life for herself in New York. Love, desire, grief, betrayal, revenge … this novel has it all. Although it weighs in a massive 675 pages, the book never felt anything less than compelling reading. A hugely enjoyable read.



6. Faking it To making it – Ally Blake
I love historical romance but rarely read contemporary romance, for reasons unknown. I met Ally Blake at the Australian Society of Authors’ National Congress, where we were both speakers. She writes ‘fun, fresh, flirty romance’ for Harlequin Mills and Boon and has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide which is most impressive. She was kind enough to give me a copy of one of her books (they are so slim she easily carry them around in my handbag while I’d dislocate my shoulder if I tried to heave copies of my books around with me). I read it in the bath that night and enjoyed it immensely. ‘Faking It to Making It’ is a sexy and funny contemporary romance set in Melbourne and would make a great rom com – I hope Hollywood comes knocking on Ally’s door!


7. Thornspell – Helen Lowe
New Zealand writer Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. Prince Sigismund has grown up in a castle whose gardens and parklands are surrounded by a deep, tangled forest. He is kept locked away from the world, and so longs for adventures like the ones in the stories he loves so much – fantastical tales of knights-errant and heroic quests, faie enchantments and shape-shifting dragons.  
One day a beautiful and mysterious lady in a fine carriage speaks to him through the castle gates, and Sigismund's world begins to change. He dreams of a raggedy girl trapped in thorns, and a castle that lies sleeping … soon he is caught up in an adventure as perilous and strange as that of any story he had ever heard …

I absolutely adored this book! I love fairy tale retellings, especially ones that are full of magic, peril, and romance, and ‘Thornspell’ is one of the best I’ve ever read. It reminded me of Robin McKinley’s early books, which are still among my favourite fairy tale retellings. ‘Thornspell’ very deservedly won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best YA Novel – it’s a must red for anyone who loves fairy-tale-inspired YA fantasy. 



8. The Storyteller & His Three Daughters – Lian Hearn

Lian Hearn is the author of the gorgeous bestselling ‘Tales of the Otori’ fantasy series for adults, set in an alternative feudal Japan, as well as a number of children’s books published under her true name, Gillian Rubenstein. The first book in the Otori series, ‘Across the Nightingale Floor’ is one of my favourite novels, the medieval Japanese setting being utterly fresh and fascinating.

‘The Storyteller and His Three Daughters’ is a departure from her other Lian Hearn books in many ways. The setting is Japan in the 1800s, and from many references to true historical events and people, it is clear that this is not an alternative world fantasy but rather a historical novel. The main character is a middle-aged storyteller named Sei who is struggling to keep alive traditional tales and storytelling techniques in a culture that is being increasingly dominated by Western values and customs. He finds himself out of joint with the times, and unable to write anymore. However, he cannot stop observing and speculating on the lives of the people around him and finds himself creating a tale of love, jealousy, murder, treason and betrayal that seems as if it might be all too true.
Drawing upon Japanese storytelling techniques, ‘The Storyteller and His Three Daughters’ is an ambitious and unusual meditation on the nature and meaning of art. 



9. The Nargun & the Stars – Patricia Wrightson
Patricia Wrightson was my favourite Australian author when I was a child, and ‘The Nargun and the Stars’ was one of my favourites of her books. I found myself giving a very impassioned speech about her at an event on ‘Writing Villains for Children’ at the NSW Writers Centre in late October, which led into a long conversation with members of the audience afterwards. I came home, went straight to my bookshelf, got down my old copy of this book, and read it again that night. It’s as wonderful as I remembered. 


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