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BOOK LIST: Best books of 2013

Saturday, January 04, 2014

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

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

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

Best Historical Novel for Adults



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


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


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


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


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


Best Historical Mystery


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


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


Best Historical Thrillers



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


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


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


Best Historical Romance



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


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


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


Best Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults



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


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


Best Parallel Contemporary/Historical



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


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


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


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


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



Best Contemporary Novel



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


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



Best Contemporary Suspense Novels


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


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


Best YA Fantasy/Fairytale Retellings



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


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


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


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




Best Historical Novel for Young Adults



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


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


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


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


Best Children’s Books



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


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


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


Best Non-Fiction




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



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


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

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

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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