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BOOK LIST: Best books of 2013

Saturday, January 04, 2014

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

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

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

Best Historical Novel for Adults



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


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


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


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


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


Best Historical Mystery


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


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


Best Historical Thrillers



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


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


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


Best Historical Romance



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


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


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


Best Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults



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


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


Best Parallel Contemporary/Historical



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


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


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


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


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



Best Contemporary Novel



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


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



Best Contemporary Suspense Novels


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


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


Best YA Fantasy/Fairytale Retellings



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


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


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


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




Best Historical Novel for Young Adults



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


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


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


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


Best Children’s Books



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


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


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


Best Non-Fiction




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



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


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

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

INTERVIEW: Jo Baker, author of Longbourn

Friday, August 23, 2013

I'm very happy to welcome Jo Baker, author of Longbourn, to the blog today. Her novel turns the world of Pride and Prejudice upside-down and inside-out in an utterly brilliant imagining of Jane Austen's famous novel for the point of view of the hard-working and usually invisible servants. 


Jo Baker

Are you a daydreamer too?
Oh god yes. I wander around in a daze half the time, I’m afraid.
 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes. As a child, I wrote all the time – writing was a kind of more intense version of reading for me. I studied English at University, and though it laid down a good grounding in literature for me, which is invaluable to a writer, it also knocked all the creativity out of me for years. I felt like I’d got lost in this graveyard crowded with monuments to Great Men: there was nowhere left for me to pitch my flimsy little tent – and I was no longer sure that I even wanted to. 

I started writing again when I was in my late twenties, when I lived in Belfast. There was – and still is – a vibrant literary community there, and I’d got to know some actual living writers, and it just started to become clear to me that this was something that I could actually aspire to. 


Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in a little village in the north of Lancashire. Childhood full of nettle stings and swimming in the river, and climbing trees. I moved away when I was 18, and spent a lot of time in Ireland. In that weirdly circular way that life sometimes has, circumstances have conspired to bring me back near where I grew up. We live in Lancaster, which is a pretty little Georgian town in the north of England. I’m a writer, and a mum, and so I don’t have much free time– but I love going for long walks and bike rides, and really just getting out of doors whenever I can.  
 
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I’d always known my family had been in service, and this perhaps made me more alert to the servants’ presence in Austen’s novel, but the catalyst was really the line in Pride and Prejudice: ‘The very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy’. I got snagged on this, couldn’t stop thinking about the reality of what it meant. I wondered who ‘proxy’ might be, and how s/he felt about having to go and fetch decorations for someone else’s dancing shoes, in the pouring rain, when none of the Bennet girls are prepared themselves to go.  And that’s when the story started to fizz. 
 
How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Apart from my first, which I fumbled my way through blindfolded, I always have a sense of where they go, and often will have some scenes already in my head before I start to write. But I have never actually sat and plotted a book before starting. I’d be afraid that I’d have worn it out before I’d even written it. 
 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
My dreams are often extraordinarily dull. I have a recurring one about a cafeteria where there’s no food I can eat (I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life, and a vegan for a while – I think it stems from that!) I recently had a dream about a new shop opening in town, and deciding I might go and have a look at what they stock. Really not the most thrilling material, though you could maybe make a short story out of them… I think I probably use up all the most exciting bits of the subconscious soup in my waking life, while writing. Freud described writers  as ‘dreamers in broad daylight’ – so maybe that’s why my dreams are so uninspiring – it’s all drained during the daylight hours.  
 

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
There were a bundle of co-incidences around this novel, but the one that made me really feel that I was onto something was when reading Austen’s letters. I found a reference to some mantua makers she used. These were sisters who did low-paid piece work, sewing for the local ladies. The surname was Baker. Obviously, it’s a common enough name, but it did make me feel my instincts were working – it ‘placed’ me within Austen’s world.
 

Where do you write, and when?
I write (I am writing this now) in a little coffee shop in town. I write in the mornings – though these can often be quite long, extending to 2 or 3 in the afternoon. But once I’ve broken for lunch, I’m fit for nothing. 

I used to have a proper job too – then, I had to write at night. We called it ‘the Sylvia Plath shift’ – from 3 am, when I’d wake naturally, to 7 am, when the kids got up. It was the only way I could get any work done. Couldn’t keep that up forever, though – it was like being constantly jetlagged. 
 

What is your favourite part of writing?
The bit where you lose yourself completely in the other world.
 

What do you do when you get blocked? 
It hasn’t happened yet… I have so little time to write, that I can’t waste a drop of it, so I don’t have time to be blocked, I just have to get on with things…


How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I really don’t know…
I’m nosy, I suppose. Friends say I am a good listener; and I am endlessly fascinated by people, and speculate on lives and behaviour and motivation. I think that probably has something to do with it. 

I read constantly if erratically, and watch films, devour box sets. 

I also talk a lot with writer friends and my husband – who is also a writer. And just absorb stuff really. I’m really fascinated by the natural world too, seasonality and sensory experiences. I think you just have to be open to the world. 


Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
It’s like getting into cold water. You can’t faff around dabbling in a toe and paddling. Take a run and jump, and you’re in deep before you know it. I walk into town, into the coffee shop, order the same coffee, sit at the same table, and just start work until  - on a good day -I’m too hungry to keep on going. 


Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Oh, crikey. Ten….Okay. In no particular order:

William Blake, Ray Davies, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, Jane Austen, George Elliot, Cormac McCarthy, Joss Whedon, William Goldman, Victor Hugo, Hilary Mantel, Susan Cooper, Daragh Carville. 
(I’m not very good with numbers, did I mention?)


What do you consider to be good writing?  
Mostly, good writing is happening when you don’t notice it. 


What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write. 
(No-one else is going to do it for you)


What are you working on now?
A secret

Earlier this week Jo explained more about her inspirations for Longbourn in a guest post for me 

SPOTLIGHT: Jo Baker on why she wrote Longbourn

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On the blog today, Jo Baker tells the story behind the writing of her brilliant novel Longbourn which reimagines Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants of the house.


Jo Baker

I can’t even remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice, it seems like I’ve always known that book. Jane Austen was my first experience of grown-up literature, and I have continued to return to and love her work throughout my life. I admire her books enormously, as a writer - the immaculate prose, the deft plotting. I’m also a sucker for all that buttoned-up desire and wish-fulfilment. Who isn’t?

But as I read and re-read the books, I began to become aware - I remember saying at quite a young age - that if I’d been living at the time, I wouldn’t have got to go to the ball. I would’ve been stuck at home, with the sewing. Just a few generations back, my family were in service (we still have some cutlery from this era. My great aunt maintained it was a ‘gift’ from her employer; her sisters all believed that she’d 
nicked it). I am not a gentleman’s daughter, as Elizabeth so assuredly is. (No offence, Dad.)

Aware of that - of that English class thing - Pride and Prejudice begins to read a little differently. You notice a name here and there, or an unnamed figure performing a role. Footman, housemaid. You realise that things just ‘happen’ - notes arrive, carriages are brought round, meals are served - but they actually require human agency to make them occur. I noticed these little flickers of activity 
below the surface, and was intrigued. 

But Longbourn really began to take shape when I re-read the line ‘the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy’. The weather is far too bad for the Bennet girls to venture forth, so they send a maid to get soaked on their behalf. But she’s as real a human being as they are - insofar as any of these fictional characters can be.



And thinking about Pride and Prejudice in this way began to raise other questions. 

The Napoleonic War, and the civil unrest of the period are implicit in the book - all those handsome officers, all those troops billeted in Meryton. And that chilling throwaway line of Lydia’s, that a private had been flogged. I found myself thinking about this man. His suffering must have been terrible. 

I wanted to explore the reality of soldiering in this period, and to think about not just the dashing officers in their scarlet coats, but the ordinary footsoldiers who came back from the front lines damaged, as men are by war. 

The domestic detail in Longbourn I gathered from a lot of sources; history books, contemporary domestic guides and recipes and practical research. In the village where I grew up there was an old house that had the kinds of outhouses and kitchen I’ve imagined for Longbourn - even a ‘necessary house’, made redundant by indoor plumbing, but with multiple wooden seats still in place. We used to play in the grounds as children - it’s all been redeveloped now, but I re-occupied it in my 
imagination for this book. 

Tea-leaves as a cleaning method were still in use when my dad was a boy; I sweep my own wooden floors with tea-leaves now - my kids thought I was mad at first, lobbing handfuls of the stuff around the house, but it really works. Tea is mildy antiseptic, the tannic acid gives a subtle shine, and it’s totally ecological - no chemicals, no waste, completely free once you’ve made your tea. 

A lot of the research behind Longbourn was amassed over time, without me really being aware of it. I already knew, for example, the English law of the period in relation to slavery, and that there were quite a few former slaves in the country, often brought over as servants; in Austen’s letters she mentions 
a family friend who has a black servant. And then of course the Bingleys were in Trade, in the north - and there were slave-ports in the north of England (I live in one of them, Lancaster), and 
it just seemed right that they might have a black servant, like Austen’s neighbours. And he would seem just so fascinating to a girl who’s seen nothing, been nowhere. It all just seemed to fit.

In her letters, Austen mentions two sisters who worked for her as seamstresses. They were called Miss Baker. Okay, it’s a common name, but still, the co-incidence was striking. It confirmed that my first thought was right: I’d have been stuck at home with the other servants, with the cleaning and cooking and 
the mending. And I wanted to explore the reality of that, to show that real human 
experience. 

That’s why I wrote Longbourn


BOOK REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Monday, August 19, 2013




Title
: Longbourn
Author: Jo Baker
Publisher: Knopf
Age Group & Genre: Historical novel for adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth 


The Blurb:
 
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
 
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice,the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended. 


Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own. 


What I Thought: 

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. 


Jo Baker's website 

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







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