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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. 


INTERVIEW: Jessica Brockmole, author of Letters from Skye

Friday, October 18, 2013

I really loved Jessica Brockmole's beautiful novel Letters from Skye and so I'm happy to welcome her to the blog, talking about daydreaming, most loved authors, and Scotland.


Are you a daydreamer too?
Is there a writer who isn’t? The littlest thing tends to send us off imagining. A headline, a bit of trivia, a family story, a line scrawled on a postcard, that person at the next table slurping green tea, a dream, a nightmare, the way an autumn leaf hangs just so. I don’t know how often my family has encountered me with that familiar vacant stare that they know means I’m lost in my own thoughts and imaginings. 
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was young, I used to go to my local library every day in the summer and return with my bike basket full of books. At that pace, I was worried that I’d run out of things to read. I decided I needed to write my own, to always keep a stock of books around. Back then I tended to write stories about time travel and ghosts and pioneers in the American West. I suppose my love of writing historical fiction started even then.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in and lived most of my life in the Midwestern United States—Michigan, Illinois, and now Indiana. I did live in Edinburgh, Scotland for four years, not long after I was married, and that’s where I wrote Letters from Skye. The hills and lochs and history of Scotland are so unlike the cornfields and rambling farms that surrounded me growing up! In my free time I enjoy reading, of course, and also cooking. I’m also a passionate canner and can be found pickling all sorts of vegetables come summer.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I had tossed around the idea of writing an epistolary novel for a while, but I wasn’t sure when and where to set it. After a holiday on the Isle of Skye, just after my son was born, I had my setting. I was entranced with the island—the landscape, the wind, the smell of the sea, the history and legend woven into the very place names on the map. On the drive home, the story began coming together. A poet—for my heroine could only be a poet on this wind-lashed island—receiving a fan letter. A headstrong man—for who else would write to my poet?—heading off to a war that feels so distant to this isolated corner of Scotland. I started writing that very evening.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
For the most part, I don’t plan them at all. Letters from Skye was written without anything more than “How about a book about a Scottish poet and an American fan? And then the First World War happens. But I’ll write it ALL IN LETTERS!” I like to let the story unfold for me at the same time that it unfolds for the characters. I love surprises. When I have done more planning for a tricky novel, it’s not much. Before beginning, I might write a 1-3 page synopsis that will lay out for me the big plot elements, but I almost always end up writing around that initial synopsis. 

I’ve tried writing from detailed outlines and character sheets before, and it just doesn’t work for me. But, then again, I shouldn’t expect it to. When traveling, I’m not one to sightsee along a map. I keep it tucked in my back pocket, in case I get lost, but I’d rather wander and discover the unexpected that way.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Not as a source of inspiration, but I do sometimes untangle plot snarls in my sleep. I fall asleep frustrated but I wake up and, in the snippets that I remember of my dreams, I can see a potential solution.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I did! I love those moments. One that comes to mind right away is the hotel. While I was writing the first draft, I needed a swanky London hotel for David to stay at. I’d heard of The Langham and, when I looked it up, saw that it was around when I needed it, in 1915, and that it seemed the perfect place for him to take the untraveled and nervous Elspeth. Done. In a much later draft, I decided to bring Elspeth back to London, decades later. I wanted her to be there for the very beginning of the Blitz. Upon researching, I learned that, of the few luxury hotels in London that suffered damage during the Blitz, the only that was hit during the week I needed was…The Langham. Perfect.

Where do you write, and when?
I write while my children are in school, but then I usually write again in the evening, sometimes quite late. When I first started writing seriously and they were young, I rarely wrote earlier than midnight, though I’m now discovering that I can have an early-morning creative burst!

Though I have a desk, I don’t often write there. I find that I work better when I keep moving, from one location to the next. Not only does changing positions keep me from getting back and shoulder strain, but each fresh location brings with it renewed focus.

What is your favourite part of writing?
I love the warm feeling of serendipity, when a piece of research fits in so neatly to a scene that they seem built for one another. It’s like a wash of magic. 

What do you do when you get blocked?
I move to a different writing location. Sometimes a different view and position helps refresh me. If that doesn’t work, a walk or a run usually lets me free my mind and see the problem from a different angle. And if that doesn’t work, then I walk away from it for the day. Although I’m a firm believer in writing every day, whether the muse is present or not, I know when I’m beat. As long as I’ve given it my best shot for the day, I don’t feel guilty about walking away.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
 I read, a lot. Fiction and non-fiction; new releases and classics; adventures, love stories, mysteries, sagas, fairy tales, books about ordinary people struggling to do ordinary things. Reading gorgeous prose, furtive mythology, or smart essays, I’m inspired to write. And in books of intriguing (yet forgotten) history, I usually find the stories I’m looking for.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
 I don’t really have any rituals, as I tend to move around and change how and when and where I write to keep my mind fresh. Two constants, though, are my music—an eclectic, energetic mix that always gets me singing and thinking—and my tea. A hot mug of tea always helps me to focus.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
There are many new authors who I admire and read with relish, and those authors have their own list.  My favorites list, however, contains those writers who have been favorites for a while and whose books I happily reread. Authors like Jane Austen, Betty Smith, Louisa May Alcott, and Anne and Charlotte Bronte (never a big Emily fan) are always on the list. Women writing in times when many women didn’t write. Childhood favorites like Laura Ingalls Wilder and L. M. Montgomery are there, as I still have my old copies on the shelf and reread them frequently. They always take me to different places. Tolkien, of course, for his inventiveness. Rowling for her sense of wonder. Bill Bryson for always making me laugh. 

L.M. Montgomery

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Good writing makes me want to use a pencil as bookmark so that I can underline phrases that make my heart skip. And I do.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Talk to other writers. Listen to how they do it. Realize that there is no one perfect way to write. Then go away quietly by yourself, shut the door, and do it.

What are you working on now? 
My next book, finished but still untitled, is also set during the First World War. Two artists, one Scottish and one French, find each other in wartime Paris and together try to recapture a long-lost summer of innocence. 

It sounds wonderful!

BOOK LIST: Best World War I books chosen by Jessica Brockmole

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Today I'm very happy to welcome Jessica Brockmole, the author of the enchanting epistolary novel LETTERS FROM SKYE to my blog. She's here to tell us her favourite books set during the First World War (the period of her novel).

Here she is:

I really enjoy reading about the first quarter of the twentieth century, especially the years surrounding the Great War. Although I find the battles fascinating—the whats and whens and wheres—it’s the interpersonal angles that really interests me. The emotions, both from those at the trenches and those waiting back at home. The shock of the experience. The scars that run beneath the skin. The recovery. I’ve read many books that really bring this to life.

The book that started my fascination with the era is Vera Brittain’s passionate and honest memoir Testament of Youth. It begins in the halcyon days before the war, as Brittain plans to enter university with her brother and friends, takes her through the years where she serves as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, then the post-war years, recovering from her own war experiences and from the loss of so many close to her, and channeling that grief into work with the fledgling League of Nations. 

There are other very interesting memoirs—some written during the war, some after—as well as epistolary collections. Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis’s A War in Words is a neat volume, as it contains excerpts from letters and diaries spanning the whole length of the war (and a little beyond), from writers of all ages, nationalities, on both sides of the conflicts. Through their own words, they tell the story of the war.

There were some powerful novels written during and after the war, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front being one of the most well-known. Less familiar is its sequel, The Road Back, which begins as the war ends. I like it for its different viewpoint. So many war novels end with the ceasefire—if not a happily-ever-after, an as-happy-as-it-gets ending. But war is not always immediately followed by peace. The Road Back follows the soldiers who survived All Quiet on the Western Front as they return home. Germany is in tatters and they have trouble easing back into both the community and their own families. It’s a sobering reminder that, after war, soldiers can bring back more than scars.

Another very potent novel, written by a veteran and published after the war, is Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory. After a botched attack on a hopeless section of trench, a general is looking to salvage his dignity (but none of the blame) and orders an execution. The order, given in fury, but received down through the ranks in silence, causes the men, from the officers carrying it out to the wrongly sentenced soldiers waiting in prison, to rethink what it means to be brave and what it means to be unlucky in battle. A moving story of courage, culpability, and the futility of war.

Although the First World War isn’t as popular an era for modern novelists as some other eras, there are some well-regarded novels set then, such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and the books in Pat Barker’s thoughtful Regeneration Trilogy. Another that I enjoyed is Frances Itani’s Deafening, a novel about a young deaf woman living in small-town Ontario and her husband, a hearing man who goes to the Western Front as a stretcher-bearer. It’s a novel of sound and silence, of searching for the words to explain the inexplicable. 

A newer addition to the category of First World War novels, just out a couple of years ago, is Andrew Krivak’s slim book The Sojourn. In it, a young man, raised by his shepherd father in rural Austria-Hungary, is sent as a sharpshooter to the southern front. He survives war, only to face capture and a perilous journey home. This is as much a story of fathers and sons as it is about war, told with beautifully restrained prose.

Others that look at interesting angles of the war: Ben Elton’s The First Casualty, a mystery involving a conscientious objector and his investigation into the murder of a shell-shocked poet; Michael Lowenthal’s marvelously written Charity Girl, a look at both the suffrage movement in the U.S. during as well as the forced incarceration during the war of accused “charity girls,” young women found to have venereal disease; Pam Jenoff’s The Ambassador’s Daughter, where, amid the peace talks leading up to the Treaty of Versailles, the loyalties of a German diplomat’s daughter are tested.

One of my favorite novels about the war, though, is Sébastien Japrisut’s A Very Long Engagement. In the first chapter, we meet five French soldiers, all accused of self-mutilation, who are bound and forced out into No Man’s Land to be executed by enemy fire. Two years later, Mathilde, unable to walk since childhood, receives a letter suggesting that her fiancé, officially “killed in the line of duty,” might have been one of those five soldiers. She’s stubborn and tenacious and so launches her own investigation into the execution, hoping, as she pieces together the story, that her fiancé might have actually survived. Japrisut is unflinching in writing the brutality and sordidness of war, but A Very Long Engagement is as much a love story as it is a war story. Mathilde is a wonderfully engaging narrator, a heroine who never lets anyone tell her “no.” As she searches for her fiancé, sorting through the conflicting stories she gathers, she recounts moments in their friendship and later courtship. I laughed and I cried, sometimes within pages.  

There are so many novels about the First World War that are still waiting on my shelf for their turn to be read (although not a Hemingway fan, I know that I should attempt A Farewell to Arms). With the centenary approaching next summer, I hope to see many more appear in the bookstores. It was a complex era, full of social and political change. There are so many corners of its history yet to be explored!

You can read more about Jessica at her website 

BOOK REVIEW: Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Monday, October 14, 2013

Letters from Skye
Author: Jessica Brockmole
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

The Blurb:
A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.
March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.
June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.(less)

What I Thought: 
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. 

Letters from Skye 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.  I really loved it!

Jessica's website 


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


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