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BOOK REVIEW: Sixty Seconds by Jesse Blackadder

Friday, November 24, 2017


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Inspired by the author's own family experience. The Brennans - parents Finn and Bridget, and their sons, Jarrah and Toby - have made a sea change, shifting from chilly Hobart to a sprawling purple weatherboard in subtropical Murwillumbah. Feeling like foreigners in this land of sun and surf, they are only just starting to settle when, one morning, tragedy strikes - changing their lives forever.

Determined to protect his wife, Finn finds himself under the police and media spotlight. Guilty and enraged, Bridget spends her nights hunting answers in the last place imaginable. Jarrah - his innocence lost - is propelled suddenly from his teens into frightening adulthood. As all three are pushed to the limit, questions fly: Who is to blame? And what does it take to forgive?

A haunting and ultimately redemptive story about what it takes to forgive.


My Thoughts:

A few years ago I bought a novel called The Raven’s Heart by a writer I had never heard of, Jesse Blackadder. I was partly seduced by the cover and partly by the subtitle, ‘The Story of A Quest, a Castle, and Mary, Queen of Scots.’ It sounded just like my kind of book! And it was. I adored it so much I wrote to the author and told her so. Jesse wrote back to say thank you and to ask me if I would be willing to launch her next book for her. Chasing the Light was inspired by the story of the first women to travel to Antarctica. I was intrigued enough by the premise to agree to read the book, and then – once I had read it and loved it – to launch it. So Jesse and I met for the first time at Chasing the Light’s book launch in 2013 and we’ve been fast friends ever since.

We’ve attended festivals together in both Australia and the UK, and last year spent a close-bonding week together as part of the Byron Writers Festival ‘Five Writers Road Trip’ around far northern New South Wales. Jesse told me that she was working on a novel inspired by a family tragedy that had had a powerful shaping force upon her life and her imagination. When Jesse was twelve, her two-year-old sister had drowned in their backyard pool. Jesse had tried to grapple with this catastrophe in her fiction before, but it had always been too raw, too close to home. As the 40th anniversary of her sister’s birth approached, however, Jesse had experienced a moment of epiphany. The story of Sixty Seconds had sprung into her imagination, demanding to be told.

Although it is inspired by true life, Sixty Seconds is a work of fiction. It begins: ‘The boy steps into this day like he owns it – like he is, in fact, God and has conjured this up with a sweep of his hand before breakfast: this achingly blue sky, this currawong sending out a ringing call from the verandah post, this water dragon sunning on a warm rock to loosen her scales, cocking her head and blinking a yellow eye in his direction.’

It’s a moment of easy joy and summery beauty, made heartbreakingly poignant by the tragedy we know is about to happen.

Sixty Seconds articulates what must be every parent’s greatest dread. The death of a beloved child, the grief and horror and guilt, ‘the seismic shift’, as Jesse calls it, which changes everyone’s life. Told in alternating chapters between the points-of-view of the boy’s father Finn, his mother Bridget, and his elder brother, Jarrah, the book moves forward from this point of shock, and shows how the ripples affect the whole community. Each voice is distinctively different. Jarrah speaks in first person, Finn in third person, and Bridget – most interestingly - in second person (and present tense). It’s a bold and unconventional narrative choice, but it works. Each chapter is very short, and so the fractured narrative structure of the book reflects the shattered family unit. As Bridget reflects, ‘the three of you – Finn, you, Jarrah – clinging to each other, rain-slicked, like shipwreck survivors. All looking in different directions.’

There is always a danger of melodrama and sentimentality when writing of tragedy, but Jesse never veers anywhere close. Her language is simple, direct and powerful. The story has tremendous pace, as the ramifications of the boy’s death reverberate through the grief-stricken family. Secrets are revealed, choices and mistakes made. At the heart of the novel is the question: can anyone recover from such a loss? If so, how?

The final chapters of this beautiful novel gave me chills all over my body, and such a lump in my throat I could not breathe. Both haunting and heart-rending, Sixty Seconds is as much a story about the redemptive power of love as it is about the terrible power of grief. I know some people will be afraid of reading it, afraid of how close it may cut to the bone. I can only urge you to read it anyway. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. 


You might also like to read my 2013 interview with Jesse Blackadder


Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts!

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 July 2013

Thursday, August 08, 2013


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


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


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

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


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

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


6. Bellfield Hall, or The Deductions of Miss Dido Kent – Anna Dean
Imagine a novel where Miss Marple meets Jane Austen, and you will begin to have a sense of this delightful Regency murder mystery. Miss Dido Kent, the heroine and amateur sleuth, is clever, witty, and astute. The book begins with the discovery of a body in the shrubbery at a grand English manor house where Miss Kent is staying. She sets out to solve the mystery, of course, in her own ladylike way, and the story rollicks along from there, filled with charm, humour, and the faintest touch of romance. I’m so looking forward to reading the next instalments! 

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

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


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

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



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



11. 84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff
I have heard about this book on-and-off for years, all my bibliomaniac friends saying, ‘you haven’t read it? Oh, but you must!’ So this month I decided it was time. 84 Charing Cross Road is not a novel, but rather a collection of letters between an American writer and an English bookseller over the course of many years. That description does not really give any indication of just how funny, heart-wrenching and beautiful this book is – you really do have to read it yourself.

The book begins in 1949, when Miss Helene Hanff of New York writes a letter to Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road,  London, an ‘antiquarian’ bookshop that specialise in out of print books. Helene is a struggling writer with a rather refined taste in books, most of which are impossible to find in America. The exchange of letters that follows begins rather formally, but soon Helene’s natural wit and charm break through, and she is soon cajoling Frank Doel, the reserved English bookseller, into an unlikely friendship. Their correspondence lasts for 20 years, and soon draws others into the friendship – the other staff at the bookshop, Frank’s wife and daughter, his elderly and lonely neighbour. Helene is very much a New York Jew, bold, funny and forthright. Frank is gentle and courteous and shy. Reading this slender book, I loved out loud and then finished with quite a large lump in my throat. A lovely, heartwarming book that any bibliophile will appreciate.

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


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


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


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







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

BOOK LIST: Books read in January 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

I've been meaning to keep a better track of all the books I read so here is, a little late, a list of all the books I read in January 

1. 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. Highly recommended.

2. Jewels of Paradise – Donna Leon
Donna Leon is best known for her murder mysteries set in Venice, which I really enjoy. This one was a disappointment - it was rather slow and the characters were unappealing. Stick to her Guido Brunetti series instead. 


3. 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. 

4. Madonna of the Almonds – Marina Fiorato

I've been slowly reading my way through Marnia Fiorato's books since enjoying her debut The Glassblower of Murano a few years ago. This one is set in Renaissance Italy, and tells the story of the love affair between a painter and a young woman who invents a liquor made from almonds in order to save her beloved house. I really enjoyed this and will be interviewing the author later this month. 

5. The Mystery of Rilloby Fair  - Enid Blyton

An old childhood favourite.

6. Shatter – Michael Robotham

Warning: this book must be read with all the lights on and a man or a large dog in the house. I have not been so freaked out by a book in a long time. Seriously scary, this book is possibly the most brilliant psychological thriller I have ever read. I still shudder from time to time thinking about it ... wondering what I'd do if I was faced with such a situation ... and determined to keep my children closer than ever ... Chilling, powerful and utterly superbly written. Highly recommended for the brave.   


7. Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake – Sarah McLean

I really enjoyed this Regency romance novel - it was funny, sexy, and had a really appealing hero and heroine. Great fun.  

8. Island of the Blue Dolphins – Scott O’Dea
I've had a vague plan to read all the Newbery Medal winners, and slowly I'm getting through them. This one is very restrained, almost cold, yet its a compelling story of a young Indian girl left alone on an island and her struggle to survive. It won the Newbery in 1961, and so its older than I am. One of those short, yet very strong books that leave a lingering impression.  

9. Chasing the Light – Jesse Blackadder
This is the most beautiful, haunting novel about the first women in Antarctica - I'd really recommend it to anyone who loves books about forgotten women in history (in fact, I'd recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction.) Here's my review of 'Chasing the Light' and here's my interview with Jesse Blackadder

10. Bury Your Dead – Louise Penny
I really enjoy Louise Penny's contemporary murder mysteries set in Quebec - she's very good on character and dialogue, and her mysteries are always clever and puzzling, the way mysteries should be. 



11. The Lavender Keeper - Fiona McIntosh
Loved this book! Loved it! Its the story of French resistance fighters in the Second World War, and their loves and fears and betrayals. I believe there's a sequel coming out - I can't wait. 




12. White Truffles in Winter – N.M. Kelby
This is a slow moving but beautifully written account of the famous French chef Escoffier and his life and loves. It desperately made me want to eat the amazing food described in the  book - larks cooked with truffles and such things and brought to life that period of history for me most vividly. 

13. Ratcatcher – James McGee
A ratcatcher is a Bow Street Runner, which was like an early policeman in Regency times. This was a great historical adventure book, filled with spies, and intrigue, and romance, and murder. I'm looking forward to reading the next one. 

14. The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier
I love Tracy Chevalier so much. She's what I'd like to be. Each book is very different from what has come before, each is beautifully written - walking that fine line between the high style of the literary novel and the accessiblity of the popular - and she is interested in the subjects that interest me. I've always been intrigued by the Quakers and I've always wanted to know more about the Underground Railway that helped runaway slaves escape. I've even thought I might one day write a book about it. Once again, Tracy has beaten me to it - this book brings to life both the inner world of a Quaker woman and her struggle with the narrow strictures of a Quaker life, and the drama of the Underground Railway, and the bounty hunters that seek to drag back the runway slaves. 'The Last Runaway' is rather a quiet book, yet its utterly readable and compelling. I really loved it - I just wish Tracy wrote faster!


INTERVIEW: Jesse Blackadder, author of 'Chasing the Light'

Friday, February 08, 2013




What was the first flash of inspiration for 'Chasing the Light'?

My Antarctic obsession began with an old black and white photograph of two women sitting on the deck of a ship on the way to Antarctica. One of them, Ingrid Christensen, gazed into the camera enigmatically. When I learned she was the first woman known to have seen Antarctica, I wanted to know more.
One problem – there was little more to be found. I discovered that Ingrid, a 38-year-old Norwegian, left her six children behind and travelled to Antarctica by ship four times with her husband Lars in the 1930s as part of his whaling fleet, taking a female friend or two on each trip. But the question of her ever making a landing seemed to be unanswered, and history books cite another Norwegian woman as the first to land on Antarctica. None of Ingrid’s own words have survived, if they were ever written down in the first place. This intrigued me.


You travelled to Antarctica to research the book. That must have been amazing! Can you tell me all about it?

I went the first time as a tourist, on a 10 day cruise from Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a very dramatic and beautiful place, with lots of wildlife, and that’s where most tourists go because the sea crossing is short – just two days. The second time I went as the Antarctic Arts Fellow, with the Australian Antarctic Division’s ship Aurora Australis. That’s a two-week crossing each way to a very remote part of Antarctica – and it happens to be the part of the continent where Ingrid Christensen visited. In fact I went to “Ingrid Christensen Land”, as it’s now known. Going as part of a working ship was completely different and the landscape at the other end was different too – less picturesque in some ways, but very dramatic and with its own incredible beauty. I had five days on the continent, including three days staying out in huts and travelling across the sea ice in a Hagglunds all terrain vehicle. I can truly say I will never forget it. Antarctica is beyond all the superlatives. I’d go back in a moment.



I particularly loved the characters of the three women at the heart of this novel. They were each so different, and yet so strong and full of life. Can you please tell me how you came to create them?

Lillemor and Mathilde almost created themselves – somehow from the little scraps of history that survived they emerged in my imagination almost fully formed. The main character, Ingrid, was harder. What was it that drove her to go to Antarctica four times? There wasn’t a simple answer to that question, and I puzzled over it, revisited it and imagined it over and over again as I was writing. I had to balance my own desires for her as a character – that she was brave, intrepid and adventurous – with historical realities – that she was extremely wealthy and possibly quite spoilt. In the end I had to let the imagined character take over – this is a novel after all, not a history, though it is deeply informed by history.


Lillemor, who tricked her way on board the ship, and uses her charm and vivacity to always get her own way, was actually my favourite character. Was she yours?

Good spotting! Yes she was my favourite. The glimpses of the real woman that echoed down from history were fascinating. Living in London in the 1920s and 30s, doing charity work in the slums during the great depression, marrying a diplomat who divorced his wife and left his children to be with her, travelling twice to Antarctica, keeping a diary (which is now lost) and taking photographs that ended up being published – she was fascinating. I could let her be competitive, canny and self interested, which was fun.


Grief and loss are the haunting themes of 'Chasing the Light'. I felt sure you must have felt some great sorrow of your own in order to be able to capture Mathilde's paralysing sense of loss over the death of her husband, and  Ingrid's abiding awareness of her mother's absence. Can you tell us how you manage to connect with these women and their grief?

That’s true, Kate. I had a major family tragedy when I was just 12, and my two year old sister drowned in our backyard swimming pool. It was a defining moment, when childhood suddenly ended and adulthood began through the experience of profound grief. My mother also died young, at age 46, at a time when we were quite estranged and though that was more than 25 years ago, I still feel a sense of loss, and think about how I could have acted differently. 


I particularly loved the passages with the whales - both the cruel and the beautiful. I've been thinking about them ever since I read the book. Can you share with us your own feelings towards these parts of the book?

I found the research into whaling to be the most disturbing part of the process. Some years ago I spent a week on a humpback whale research vessel in Hervey Bay and that’s where I first learned about deep sea whaling in the Southern Ocean, and the toll it had extracted. We’re talking about 40,000 whales killed in a single season in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The whaling museum in Sandefjord, Norway, where Ingrid lived, has a blue whale fetus in a jar as part of its display and it’s a very sad sight. I live near Byron Bay, so the annual humpback whale migration is part of my life and I find those creatures deeply moving. I mourned them while I was writing.


Finally, I believe you wrote the novel as part of a doctorate of creative arts. Tell me about the process.

I enrolled in a Doctor of Creative Arts at the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. It was a great experience, and I was lucky enough to have novelist Gail Jones as my supervisor while writing 'Chasing the Light' – her feedback helped me stop and reconsider during the first draft, and then start all over again with a different approach – something I’m not sure I would have done by myself. It also meant the book was informed by the academic side of my research into gender and Antarctica – I think that’s an invisible, but important influence. I loved being part of the research group – the staff and other students were inspiring and incredibly supportive and it challenged me to think harder and in a different way. I’ll miss it!

If you enjoyed this interview, you may also enjoy an earlier interview I did with Jesse, talking about her novel 'The Raven's Heart'

Jesse's website is here.

Please leave a comment and tell me what you think

BOOK REVIEW: 'Chasing the Light' by Jesse Blackadder

Wednesday, February 06, 2013



Title: Chasing the Light’
Author: Jesse Blackadder
Publisher: Harper Collins 
Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults


The Blurb:
It′s the early 1930s. Antarctic open-sea whaling is booming and a territorial race for the mysterious continent between Norwegian and British-Australian interests is in full swing.
Aboard a ship setting sail from Cape Town carrying the Norwegian whaling magnate Lars Christensen are three women: Lillemor Rachlew, who tricked her way on to the ship and will stop at nothing to be the first woman to land on Antarctica; Mathilde Wegger, a grieving widow who′s been forced to join the trip by her calculating parents-in-law; and Lars′s wife, Ingrid Christensen, who has longed to travel to Antarctica since she was a girl and has made a daunting bargain with Lars to convince him to take her.
Loyalties shift and melt and conflicts increase as they pass through the Southern Ocean and reach the whaling grounds. None of the women is prepared for the reality of meeting the whaling fleet and experiencing firsthand the brutality of the icy world.
As they head for the continent itself, the race is on for the first woman to land on Antarctica. None of them expect the outcome and none of them know how they will be changed by their arrival.
Based on the little-known true story of the first woman to ever set foot on Antarctica, Jesse Blackadder has captured the drama, danger and magnetic pull of exploring uncharted places in our world and our minds.




What I Thought: 
‘Chasing the ‘Light is a beautifully written novel about Ingrid Christensen, the first woman to ever see Antarctica (and, quite possibly, the first woman to ever set foot there). It’s also about the two women who accompany her there, the grief-wracked Mathilde and the determined and vivacious Lillemor, who is determined she shall be the first – and will stop at virtually nothing to get her way.
Antarctica herself is a character (is it wrong to call a continent a ‘she’? Because somehow that vast, mysterious, and dangerous land just seems like a woman to me).
Sorrow and courage and the singing of whales weave their way through the story, adding poetry and depth – yet the story swings along at a compelling pace, never losing its narrative drive. The novel is not only about the race to be the first woman in Antarctica, but also about friendships, betrayals, and the hidden mysteries of the human heart.

THE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS' CHALLENGE FOR 2012

Monday, December 31, 2012

This past year was the first year of The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge – a call to arms for Australians to support our women writers by reading and reviewing their books, and spreading the word about the extraordinary literary talent we have in this country.

The initiative – begun by Elizabeth Lhuede – aims to redress the gender imbalance in the way male and female writers are treated in this country. Male writers are reviewed more often and win prizes more often, even though they do not write more books than women.

I have to admit I've  always had a strong bias towards women writers – my husband will growl, ‘don’t you have any books by men?’ as he searches my many bookshelves for something to read – yet I have noticed that the major literary papers do not review the type of books I really want to read. 

So I decided to join in the AWW challenge by reviewing novels that I had read and loved on a blog which I began for that purpose. I have reviewed and interviewed both men and women, from Australia and elsewhere – and I have made an effort to read more books by Australian women writers. 

In all, I read 95 books in 2012, 26 less than in 2011.

Less than one-third of these were written by men.

Of the 63 women writers, 35 of them were Australian. All of them were utterly brilliant. If you haven’t read their novels, read them in 2013 and discover for yourself the amazing talent of writers we have in this country: 


Parallel Historical/Contemporary


1. Secrets of the Tides – Hannah Richell
A dramatic story of family secrets and lies, set in London & Devon. Hannah Richell is UK-born, but lives in Sydney so I have counted her as an Aussie. 


2. The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton 
A riveting read that moves between contemporary times and the early days of the Second World War



3. Lighthouse Bay - Kimberley Freeman
One of my favourite books of the year, this book has romance, suspense, a dastardly villain, and a cast of strong, defiant women.



4. In Falling Snow  -  Mary Rose MacColl
A fascinating look at the role of women nurses and doctors in the Second World War in France.


Historical



5. Raven’s Heart  -  Jesse Blackadder
Set in Scotland in the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, this novel is filled with unexpected twists and turns.


Romance


6. The Reasons for Marriage  -  Stephanie Laurens
7. A Lady of Expectations  -  Stephanie Laurens
8. An Unwilling Conquest  -  Stephanie Laurens
9. A Comfortable Wife  -  Stephanie Laurens
Regency romance novels that are thin on story and thick on sex – but enjoyable nonetheless. 

10. The Perfect Rake  -  Anne Gracie
11. Bride by Mistake – Anne Gracie
12. The Perfect Waltz  -  Anne Gracie
13. The Stolen Princess – Anne Gracie
14. The Perfect Kiss – Anne Gracie
15. His Captive Lady - Anne Gracie 
Sparkling Regency romances with just the right mixture of humour, pathos, intrigue and romance.


Fantasy



16. Sea Hearts  -  Margo Lanagan
A haunting tale of love, betrayal and selkies by one of Australia’s most extraordinary authors. 



17. Shadowfell – Juliet Marillier
The first in a romantic YA fantasy series by one of my all-time favourite authors.



18. Flame of Sevenwaters  -  Juliet Marillier
Another fabulous historical fantasy set in the otherworldly forest of Sevenwaters.



19. A Corner of White  -  Jaclyn Moriarty
A startlingly original book that moves between the parallel worlds of contemporary Oxford and the strange and magical Kingdom of Cello.


Crime/Mystery



20. Poet’s Cottage – Josephine Pennicott
An intriguing murder mystery set in Tasmania, which moves between the present day and the tragic past. 



21. A Few Right Thinking Men  -  Sulari Gentill
The first in a series of murder mysteries set in 1930s.


Children’s/Young Adult



22. The Golden Door – Emily Rodda
23. The Silver Door - Emily Rodda
24. The Third Door - Emily Rodda
A new trilogy of action-packed fantasy adventure novels for 8+, by the brilliant Emily Rodda



25. The Forgotten Pearl – Belinda Murrell 
A fabulous historical novel for 10+, set during the Second World War in Darwin and Sydney.

26. The River Charm  -  Belinda Murrell
A beautiful and very moving novel that moves between contemporary times and New South Wales’ early pioneering days, drawing upon the true life story of Charlotte and Louisa Atkinson, Australia’s first female novelists and journalists (and, I proudly must admit, my sister Belinda and my ancestors)



27. Bright Angel – Isabelle Merlin
A charming romantic suspense novel for 13+ set in the South of France.



28. One Long Thread – Belinda Jeffries
A fresh and unusual coming-of-age story that moves between Australia and Tonga.



29. Moonlight & Ashes – Sophie Masson
A really brilliant retake on the well-known Cinderella story, set in a make-believe Prague.

30. The Madman of Venice – Sophie Masson
A romantic historical novel set in Venice, with lots of suspense to keep the pages turning.


31. The FitzOsbornes in Exile - Michelle Cooper


Memoir



32. You’ll be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy

Next year I aim to read even more books by Australian Women Writers. 
What about you?



BOOK LIST: Best Books Read in 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I didn't quite make my target of 100 books this year, reading only 95, but I did discover some brilliant new writers. Here are my top reads of the year: 


Best Historical Novel


The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey 

What a wonderful, amazing, magical book! I just loved this and think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I wish I’d written it. A retelling of the Russian fairytale, the Snow Child, set in Alaska at the turn of the 19th century, it seems far too accomplished to be by a debut novelist ... I can only look forward hopefully to many more books by Eowyn Ivey.


Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder

I was sure I was going to love this book as soon as I read the subtitle: ‘The Story of a Quest, a Castle and Mary Queen of Scot’. And I did love it! A fabulous, dark, surprising historical novel, with a hefty dose of mystery, intrigue, passion and cross-dressing. This was one of the best reads of the year so far.


The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift

Set in 1666, soon after the restoration of King Charless II, this novel tells the story of how Alice – a young wife and talented painter - discovers a rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper, growing in a nearby wood. She is captivated by its beauty and wants to paint it, but the owner of the wood —a Quaker called Richard Wheeler, is determined to keep the flower where God intended it to grow. So Alice steals the flower, and sets off a chain of events including murder, riot, witchcraft, betrayal and exile. Brilliant historical fiction.


The Queen’s Vow by C.W Gortner

The Queen’s Vow brings Isabella of Castile, a powerful and passionate woman, to life, illuminates the forces that drove her, and paints a vivid picture of late 15th century Spain, one of the most fascinating of countries. I absolutely loved this book, and loved this place and time in history – I hope C.W. Gortner writes a lot more books, fast!



Best Parallel Historical/Contemporary Novel

Secrets of the Tide by Hannah Richell

Secrets of the Tides is a suspenseful page-turner of a family drama, taking place mainly in Cornwall and London, and moving back and forth between the past and the present. It begins with a girl jumping off a bridge into the Thames. We do not know who she is or why she is jumped, or even if she lives or dies. Slowly the answers to these mysteries are revealed, some of them very surprising. I absolutely loved it, and look forward to more from this debut author.


Lighthouse Bay by Kimberly Freeman

Lighthouse Bay begins in 1901, with a woman – the only survivor of a shipwreck - dragging a chest full of treasure down a deserted beach. The narrative then moves to contemporary times, with a woman secretly grieving at the funeral of her married lover. These two women – Isabella Winterbourne and Libby Slater – are joined through time by a lighthouse and its secrets and mysteries. I raced through this compelling and intriguing book, utterly unable to put it down. Fabulous rollicking read. 


The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left Behind starts in occupied France during World War I, with the main character, Sophie Lefevre standing up the local German Kommandant. He sees a painting of Sophie, rendered by her artist-husband who is off fighting the German army. The Kommandant is drawn irresistibly to the painting – and to its beautiful, red-haired subject – and begins to show her favour. This attracts the suspicion and contempt of the other French villagers, and sets in chain a series of tragic events. 
The action then moves to modern-day London, where the young widow Liv now owns the painting and becomes the centre of a legal battle by the Lefevre family to get it back. There’s romance and drama and suspense aplenty – I really loved it.


Best Historical Mystery

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

A historical thriller set in Tudor England, this novel features a beautiful young nun, Sister Joanna, as its heroine. The book begins with the burning of Joanna’s cousin for treason, and sees our intrepid nun being thrown in the Tower and then coerced into a hunt for a mysterious crown thought to have supernatural powers. The book moves swiftly along, with lots of danger, suspense, and a little romance. An engaging read.


Where Shadows Dance by C.S. Harris

The latest in a series of great Regency murder mysteries featuring the aristocratic detective Sebastian St Cyr. I really enjoy this series, and buy each new one as soon as it comes out. Begin with the first in the series, What Angels Fear, as part of the pleasure is the unfolding relationships. 


Best Contemporary Mystery 

The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker

The latest in the delightful Bruno Courreges mysteries set in the Perigord in southern France, this one seems a little darker in tone than the previous ones, with terrorists, animal rights campaigners and archaeologists keeping Bruno busier than ever. There are the usual wonderful descriptions of French food and French countryside, and a little romance – I’m just hoping Martin Walker is writing fast. 


Best Fantasy

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Sea Hearts is wonderful, in all senses of the word. It’s a dark, moody, storm-wracked book of love, longing, desire, and wickedness. Its central character, Misskaella the sea-witch, is one of the most powerful fictive creations I’ve read in quite some time. Her story - and that of the selkies and the men who covet them – is heartbreaking in its sadness, yet also so hauntingly beautiful, so filled with the sweeping rhythm of the sea, and pierced here and there with shafts of light, that  the lingering feeling is one of awe and wonderment.




Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier 

The sixth in the wonderful Sevenwaters series, this book is, as always, filled with wonder, peril, magic, romance, courage, wisdom and compassion. Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favourite writers and she never, ever disappoints. A beautiful, radiant book. 


Best Children’s Fiction

The Forgotten Pearl by Belinda Murrell 

The most recent book by my beautiful sister, Belinda, The Forgotten Pearl is set in Darwin and Sydney during the Second World War. The heroine, Poppy, is a young girl who faces danger, loss, grief and new love during one of the most tumultuous times in Australian history. She lives through the bombing of Darwin and is evacuated to Sydney where she must learn to make a new life for herself. I always judge a book by whether it brings a prickle of tears to my eyes, and this book did that a number of times – a beautifully written historical novel for children set during a fascinating and largely forgotten period of Australian history. 



The Perilous Gard
by Elizabeth Marie Pope

I am so grateful to whoever it was that told me I should read this book - an absolute masterpiece of children's historical fantasy, written with such deftness and lightness of touch. It has become one of my all-time favourite children's books.


Flint Heart by Katherine & John Paterson

Katherine Paterson was one of my favourite authors when I was a child – I absolutely loved ‘Bridge to Terabithia’, and a lesser known book of hers, ‘Jacob Have I Loved’. So when I saw she and her husband John had retold an old English folktale and that it was sumptuously illustrated by John Rocco, the former creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, I had to have it. It’s a beautiful book in every sense of the word. The writing is simple and pitch-perfect, and the illustrations are strange and sumptuous – after I read it, I gave it to my 8 year old daughter and she loved it too. A lovely antidote to all those sparkly fairy books.


Best Young Adult Fiction

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

A lovely retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale, Jessica Day George has a light touch, a sweet romance, and a clever use of knitting – I’d recommend this to anyone who loves YA fantasy and fairytale retellings. 


One Long Thread by Belinda Jeffries

This is a beautiful, moving coming-of-age novel, refreshingly original and beautifully written. It tells the story of Ruby Moon, whose family has been split in half by her parents’ divorce. The mother moves to Darwin to join what can only be described as a cult, and takes Ruby’s twin sister with her. This seems to me so insensitive, so cruel … and, sure enough, the fallout from that decision has tragic consequences. The action of the book moves from Melbourne to Darwin to Tonga – the sections set there are among my favourite in the book. I also loved the use of the silkworm as a recurring motif and symbol. This was the first of Belinda Jeffries’ books that I have read but I will be seeking out more. 


Moonlight & Ashes by Sophie Masson

I really loved this new book by Sophie Masson. I think it's her best book yet, and I'm a long-time fan of her work. 'Moonlight & Ashes' is a retelling of the Aschenputtel fairy tale, the German Cinderella. It is set in alternative Prague, and is full of adventure, magic and romance. It has the most beautiful, dreamy cover too - loved it!


Shadowfell
by Juliet Marillier

The latest book from one of my all-time favourite authors, Shadowfell is a magical quest set in an otherworldy Scotland. I loved it!

Best Historical Romance



The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie

The Perfect Waltz by Anne Gracie

The Perfect Kiss by Anne Gracie

I read a lot of romance this year, by a lot of different authors, possibly because I am studying my doctorate and so was seeking the very best kind of comfort reading as an antidote to all the academia I was ploughing through. Nonetheless, the three top romance books I read this year were all by the Australian author, Anne Gracie. Such lightness and deftness of touch, such wit and warmth, such sparkling dialogue - she never disappoints. 


Best Contemporary Romance

I didn’t read any this year – I wonder why?


Best Non-Fiction

Napoleon & Josephine: An Improbable Marriage by Evangeline Bruce

An utterly engrossing and illuminating look at Napoleon and his Empress, this thick tome is as readable as any novel. I went it to it understanding nothing about Napoleon and his rise and fall, and came away feeling I understood everything.


1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski

Looking at the single year of 1812 - and drawing on thousands of first-hand accounts from both sides - this brilliant book looks at each step of Napoleon’s march on Russia and his disastrous retreat. Utterly compelling, shocking and fascinating. 



I need to make a disclaimer, of course:
1) My choice is utterly and unashamedly subjective
2) I know many of these writers, and am lucky enough to call some of them my friends. One of them is even my sister! Regardless of whether they’re friends or family, I still absolutely loved their works, though, and hope you will too.
3) Many thanks to the publishers and writers who sent me books this year– I’m sorry if I haven’t read those books yet and I will try to get to them. My reading choices are prompted purely by my own selfish pleasure and so sometimes I don’t read the books I should!
4) This means, of course, that there are many absolutely wonderful books out there which I haven’t yet discovered. I hope that I shall soon. 


You may enjoying reading my interviews with some of the above authors:






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

INTERVIEW: Jesse Blackadder, author of 'The Raven's Heart'

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I recently reviewed 'The Raven's Heart' by Jesse Blackadder and this is what I had to say:

'I was sure I was going to love this book as soon as I read the subtitle: ‘The Story of a Quest, a Castle and Mary Queen of Scot’. And I did love it! The Raven’s Heart is a fabulous, dark, surprising historical novel, with a hefty dose of mystery, intrigue, and passion.'

 

I was very happy to have a chance to learn more about Jesse Blackadder and the inspirations for her wonderful novel. Here are her answers to my questions:

Are you a daydreamer too?
Of course. What writer isn’t? I daydream about plots, places and people, about other times, about the future, about love and sex and six figure book advances – all the usual things.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, from the age of five I wanted to be a vet. That desire continued right up to the day I was enrolling at university, when I decided to take a break from science and do arts for a kind of gap year without the gap. I never went back. I had written my first novel at age 11 when I had a passionate crush on the Bay City Rollers. What it lacked in believability it made up for in energy – my best friends and I married our favourite stars by about page 20. I consigned it to the incinerator a few years later, but I still think it was one of the most pleasurable writing experiences of my life. It must have had a lasting impact, as I wrote stories and poems through my teen years and enrolled in creative writing at uni.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I’d like to say it was when I was standing on the bank of the Blackadder River in Scotland looking up at the ruins of Blackadder Castle in the mist, having just heard the story of my ancestor, Alison Blackadder, being widowed there 500 years earlier and trying to protect herself and her daughters from marauding neighbours. That was a great moment, but in fact I didn’t think of writing a novel about it till I got back to Australia and found the memory just wouldn’t leave me alone. The story had found me – it just took me a while to realise it.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I’m more a ‘seat of the pants’ writer – I always need to have something unknown in the novel so that I’m writing to find out what happens. With The Raven’s Heart I had to plan as I went along, because I wanted to be true to the life of Mary Queen of Scots (one of the major characters) and her life was very complex and well documented. I had a one-page sketch of the overall shape of the book and key plot points, but until I wrote the last few chapters I didn’t know what would happen to my main character, Alison Blackadder. However, that lack of planning did mean a long and sprawling first draft that had to be cut by a third. Ouch.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Not really. I did start an earlier book as a result of a dream, but I never completed it. I wish my dreams were that vivid, but when I’m writing I don’t tend to have so many – perhaps my unconscious has enough entertainment going on.

Where do you write, and when?
I love to write first drafts early in the morning, longhand, in bed, wearing pyjamas, drinking tea. I think that’s why The Raven’s Heart took several years to write – it’s not the most practical method, but I do love it. However, once the first draft is down then I’m much more workmanlike. Thanks to a PhD scholarship I’ve been writing as a day job for the past three years and I treat it like any other work. I wrote a huge chunk of my next novel while on a ship sailing to Antarctica, perched on a laboratory stool next to a porthole and grabbing the laptop when the ship rolled. I have also trained myself to write on planes, trains and at airports. I’m getting less and less precious about where.

What is your favourite part of writing?
Finishing.
Accolades.
When my girlfriend reads it and cries.
Of course the writing is great too, but is it enjoyable? Sometimes it’s agonising.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I haven’t been blocked for a while, and the longer that I’m a writer, the more I believe it’s a state of mind. Bricklayers, doctors and waitresses don’t get blocked. Perhaps I think this way because I have been a freelance writer for 13 years. There’s no question of being blocked when you’ve got a job and a deadline. If I’m feeling uninspired, I go out in nature, which generally fixes it. Hopefully I won’t now be struck with severe writer’s block to teach me not to be arrogant.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Deadlines. They are an incredible inspiration. After The Raven’s Heart, I was contracted for my next book Chasing the light before it was finished. That was inspiring. Not to mention terrifying. After deadlines, nature is the best well-filler. I live near Byron Bay on the easternmost tip of Australia and we’re blessed with a superb environment. Sometimes I have a physical sensation of literally being nourished – that happened when I went out to the desert in Western Australia a few weeks back.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Picking up the pen. Turning on the computer. Trying to resist checking Facebook.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Jeanette Winterson always tops the list. Sarah Waters (historical lesbian fiction like Tipping the Velvet), Elizabeth Arthur (stunning novel Antarctic Navigation), James Herriot (All creatures great and small), Anne McCaffrey (dragon fantasy novels), Enid Blyton (haven’t read hers for years, but loved them growing up), Kim Stanley Robinson (his novel Antarctica set me on a journey that’s still going), Philippa Gregory (such an impressive historical fiction writer), and Natalie Goldberg for writing Wild Mind all those years ago – it still inspires me to write. Is that ten? Oh, and Kate Forsyth. Brilliant.

Jeannette Winterson

What do you consider to be good writing?
I have very eclectic taste, as you might have gathered from the above list. For me, good writing has to draw me in, take me on a journey and make me care about the characters. It doesn’t have to be extraordinary literature, but beautiful words and sentences are a bonus.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Two things you have to do: read a lot and write a lot. Everything else that seems important is probably wasting time.

What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished Chasing the light, a novel about the first woman to reach Antarctica. It’s being published in Australia by Fourth Estate in February 2013. I’ve also just finished Stay: the last dog in Antarctica, a novel for children 8-11. It’s the first in my ‘Amazing Animals’ series and is coming out July 2013. I’m about to start the second in that kid’s series, about wild brumbies who are captured to become endurance racehorses.

The Raven’s Heart is being released in the UK, USA and Canada in September 2012. For more information go to Jesse Blackadder's website

If you enjoyed this interview, you may also enjoy my interviews with Deborah Swift, author of 'The Lady's Slipper' and Susan Vreeland, author of 'Clara and Mr Tiffany'

 

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Raven's Heart' by Jesse Blackadder

Friday, July 27, 2012

Title: The Raven’s Heart
Author: Jesse Blackadder
Publisher: Fourth Estate, an Imprint of Harper Collins
Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults


 The Blurb:
‘I am awaiting my castle and the Queen is waiting for love.’
Scotland, 1561
A ship carries Mary, the young Queen of Scots, home from the French court to wrest back control of her throne. Masquerading as a male crew member, Alison Blackadder must find a way to gain the Queen’s favour so she can win back her family’s castle and lands, cruelly stolen by a murderous clan a generation ago. 
Surrounded by treachery and deep suspicion, the Queen can trust nobody in the Scottish court until Alison with her flair for disguise, becomes her valued confidante and spy. But Alison’s drive to reclaim the Blackadder birthright is relentless, setting off events that threaten to bring down the monarchy. Alison discovers lies, danger and betrayal at every turn. Then, unexpectedly, she finds love ...
This sweeping and imaginative tale of political intrigue, secret passion and implacable revenge is a breathtaking epic from a remarkable Australian literary talent.  

 What I Liked About This Book: 
I was sure I was going to love this book as soon as I read the subtitle: ‘The Story of a Quest, a Castle and Mary Queen of Scot’. And I did love it! The Raven’s Heart is a fabulous, dark, surprising historical novel, with a hefty dose of mystery, intrigue, and passion. 

 Jesse Blackadder says that she had finally had had enough of people asking if she was related to Rowan Atkinson, star of the BBC sitcom ‘Blackadder’. So she travelled to Scotland to find the origins of her surname and discovered the ruins of Blackadder House on the banks of the Blackadder River.  Wondering about how the castle came to fall, Jesse Blackadder began to imagine this book ... and then began to write it.

 It all made me very jealous of her – what a fabulous last name and what a fabulous heritage to have. 

 As you all may know, I’ve been fascinated by Mary, Queen of Scots and Scotland since I was a child and so any book set during that bloody and turbulent period was always going to draw me in. However, I thought this version of the famous events of the 1560s was thoughtful, original and unusual, and I really loved the book. Jesse Blackadder did a brilliant job of bringing the historical period to life, and her characters are particularly well-drawn, with all their oddities and obsessions. One of the best books I've read this year.

 What I Didn’t Like About This Book:
I was a little startled when the heroine, Alison Blackadder, fell in love with and had an affair with another woman, but overall this queer angle to the story only added to its originality and surprise. Alison had been brought up dressed as a boy, and yet is fascinated by women and all their flummery, and so it seemed natural that she should be confused in her sexuality as she grows into a  woman. The love scenes in the book are handled delicately and yet honestly, and the dangers of loving another woman at that time felt historically true. 


Other books I’ve loved recently:


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