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BOOK REVIEW: A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

From the author of Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy comes the story of a friendship between two girls set in Victorian England, with magical machines, wizards, witches, a mysterious underworld, and a race against time.

Annabel Grey is primed for a proper life as a young lady in Victorian England. But when her mother suddenly disappears, she’s put in the care of two eccentric aunts who thrust her into a decidedly un-ladylike life, full of potions and flying broomsticks and wizards who eat nothing but crackers. Magic, indeed! Who ever heard of such a thing?

Before Annabel can assess the most ladylike way to respond to her current predicament, she is swept up in an urgent quest. Annabel is pitted against another young witch, Kitty, to rescue the sacred Moreover Wand from the dangerous underworld that exists beneath London. The two girls outsmart trolls, find passage through a wall of faerie bones, and narrowly escape a dragon, but it doesn’t take long for Annabel to see that the most dangerous part of her journey is her decision to trust this wild, magical girl.

Sparkling with Karen Foxlee’s enchanting writing, this is a bewitching tale of one important wand and two most magical girls.

My Thoughts:

I’m a big fan of Karen Foxlee and always buy her books as soon as they come on my radar. A Most Magical Girl is a delightful, whimsical tale of a very ordinary girl named Annabel Grey who is sent to stay with two eccentric old aunts when her mother disappears. To her dismay, Annabel realises her aunts are witches and that she is the heir to their magic. Meanwhile, a wicked man named Angel is sucking out the power of sad things – such as flowers stolen from a new grave or the bonnets of long-dead babies – to feed his Dark-Magic Extracting Machine. He plans to take over the world and only Annabel can stop him. She needs help, however, which as always comes from the most unlikely people …

An enchanting story, told with simple lyrical writing, and just enough wild magic to keep it fresh and surprising, A Most Magical Girl is just the kind of book I would have loved when I was eleven.

Want more Karen Foxlee? Here is my interview with her from 2014.

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

BOOK LIST: Books Read in June 2014

Sunday, August 03, 2014


I came home from the ANZ Festival of Literature & the Arts in London with a whole bag of books and am slowly reading my way through them. Quite a few of them are by Australian writers who were speakers at the festival – it seems ironic that I had to travel 17,000 kilometres to discover books I could have bought at my local bookstore! 

Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy – Karen Foxlee
I really loved Karen’s mysterious and beautiful novel The Midnight Dress, and once I heard Karen speak about her new book Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy I knew at once that it sounded like my kind of book. I bought the gorgeous hard-back in London, and am glad that I did as the production is just exquisite.
The story revolves around eleven-year-old Ophelia who is smart and scientifically minded. She and her sister and father have moved to a city where it never stops snowing, as her father – who is an expert on swords – has taken up a position in a huge, dark, gothic museum filled with secrets and strange things. Ophelia sets out to explore, and finds a locked room hidden away in the depths of the museum. She puts her eyes to the keyhole … and sees a boy’s blue eyes looking out at her. He tells her that he has been a prisoner for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen and her clock is ticking down towards the end of the world. Only he can stop her … but first he must escape.

A gorgeously written and delicate fairy tale, Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy reminded me of some of my favourite children’s writers such as Cassandra Golds and Laura Amy Schlitz, who are themselves inspired by Nicholas Stuart Grey and George Macdonald. (You can read my interview with Karen Foxlee here)

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes – Mary M Talbot & Bryan Talbot 
Another book I bought in London was what I can best describe as a graphic memoir/biography. Told in comic book form, the story compares the life stories of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of the famous writer James Joyce, and that of the book’s author Mary Talbot, daughter of the foremost Joycean scholar, James S. Atherton. Both narratives begin with the girls’ childhood and show their struggles to grow up in the shadows of difficult and demanding fathers. Lucia wants to dance, but is confined by the petty societal rules of her time. She ends up confined in a madhouse.  Mary rebels against her father, and forges a life for herself. The book shows how she fell in love with a young artist and married him – he is, of course, Bryan Talbot, the illustrator whose incredible artwork adorns every page. The book is acutely intelligent but highly readable, illuminating both the heartbreakingly sad story of Lucia James and the work of two exceptional contemporary artists. Not surpisingly, Dotter of My Father’s  Eyes won the 2012 Costa biography award.

The Spare Room – Helen Garner
I heard Helen speak in London and thought she was warm and funny and beautifully articulate, so I was very pleased to have her sign my copy of her first novel in sixteen years, The Spare Room. Published in 2008, the novel won a swathe of awards including the Barbara Jefferis Award. It reads more like a memoir, being told from the first person point of view of a writer named Helen living in Melbourne and being inspired by events that actually happened in Helen Garner’s life. However, no doubt many of the people and incidents have been changed during the writing process. The story is driven by the narrator Helen’s fear and distress, after a dear friend who is dying of cancer comes to stay with her for three weeks while undertaking some kind of quack treatment. The writing is crisp and strong and poised, and the characters spring to life on the page with only a few deft strokes. I loved it. 

Goddess – Kelly Gardiner
I’m been a big admirer of Kelly Gardiner’s gorgeous historical novels for young adults, Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, both of which are set in the mid-17th century, one of my favourite historical periods for fiction. Goddess is Kelly’s first novel for adults, based on the fascinating true life story of Julie d'Aubigny, a woman out of step with her own time (The court of the Sun King, Louise XIV, in Paris during the 1680s) Raised like a boy by her swordsman father, Julie likes to dress like a man and will fight a duel with anyone who crosses her. One night she fights three duels back-to-back, winning them all. She elopes with a young nun and is sentenced to be burned at the stake, but escapes and becomes a famous opera star. The story of her adventures seems too incredible to possibly be true. The book is told in Julie’s voice – witty, intelligent and wry - and the whole is pulled off with wit and flair. 

A Stranger Came Ashore – Mollie Hunter
Mollie Hunter is a wonderful Scottish writer for children who is not nearly as well-known as she deserves to be. I have many of her books – some collected when I was a child and some (including a signed first edition) collected as an adult. I first read A Stranger Came Ashore when I was about eleven, after borrowing it from my school library. I’ve been looking for it ever since, but could not remember its name. Then, a month or so ago, I read a brief review of it on an English book blog and at once remembered how much I had loved it, and orderd a copy straightaway. 
It’s a Selkie tale, set in the Highlands of Scotland sometime in the 19th century. The novel begins with a storm, and a shipwreck, and a handsome, young stranger washed ashore. As his sister begins to fall in love with the stranger, forgetting her childhood sweetheart, 12-year old Robbie Henderson finds himself becoming more and more suspicious. He remembers an old tale his grandfather used to tell him about seals that turn into humans, but cannot believe it could be true. Soon he is caught up in a dark and suspenseful adventure as he tries to save his sister. A Stranger Came Ashore was rightly acclaimed when it was published in 1975, winning many awards including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. 

The Color Purple - Alice Walker
I saw Alice Walker speak at the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and bought The Color Purple which I had read and adored about thirty years ago (it was first published in 1982 – impossible to believe it’s been so long!) I read it all in one gulp and loved it just as much as I did when I was a teenager. I loved the movie too. This book will always be on my list of all-time favourite books.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
I finally had a chance to read this brilliant historical novel by debut author Hannah Kent. Burial Rites been a critical and a commercial success, and deservedly so. The writing is so precise and vivid, and the story so compelling. I found myself stopping to read certain sentences again, just for the pleasure of the words: ‘it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow.’ Burial Rites is set in Iceland in 1830, the last year in the life of a woman condemned to be executed for murder. The use of real historical documents as epigraphs at the beginning of each section adds to the sense of truth and awfulness. A clever and truly beautiful book.  

Meanwhile, my research into Nazi Germany continues. Two stand-out books I read this month: 

Some Girls, Some Hats & Hitler – Trudi Kanter
Sifting through a second-hand bookshop in London, an English editor stumbled upon this self-published memoir of a young Jewish woman in Vienna and – enchanted by her romantic love story and vivid writing style – republished the book.
In 1938 Trudi Kanter was a milliner for the best-dressed women in Vienna. She was beautiful and chic and sophisticated, travelling to Paris to see the latest fashions and selling her hats to some of the most wealthy and aristocratic ladies of Europe. She was madly in love with a charming and wealthy businesseman, and had a loving and close-knit family. Then the Nazis marched into Austria, and everything Trudi knew was in ruins. She and her new husband had to try and find some way to escape and make a new life for themselves … and Trudi would need all her wits and panache just to survive.  

Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of The Woman Who Defied Hitler – Frank McDonough
The heart-breaking story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, a group of young university students who protested against the crimes of the Nazi regime and paid for it with their lives. 


INTERVIEW: Karen Foxlee author of Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy

Friday, August 01, 2014

Please welcome Karen Foxlee to the blog as she answers a few quick questions:

Tell me about your new book:

My new book is called OPHELIA AND THE MARVELLOUS BOY and it’s about a little girl named Ophelia who only believes in things that can be proven by science.  She’s mourning the loss of her mother when she stumbles upon a magical boy locked away in a museum, kept prisoner by an evil Snow Queen. 

Everything she believes is challenged as she goes on a tremendous journey to rescue the boy and save the world. 

What was the first flash of inspiration for it?
I was having a lot of trouble writing my second novel (which would ultimately become THE MIDNIGHT DRESS) so I gave up and decided to explore other things.  I wanted to write something that made me happy – something for me alone!  In short I needed to rediscover what I loved about writing.  

I was lying on my sofa thinking about something I once saw in a museum many years ago.  It was somewhere in Eastern Europe although the friend I was travelling with and I still fight over which city it was. In this museum I peeked through a door which had been left slightly ajar into a room that wasn’t meant to be on display.  It was a very cluttered storeroom but in that storeroom there was a glass coffin and in that coffin there was a skeleton with a crown on its head.  I’m not kidding. A man came along and shooed us away.  Lying on my sofa it made me think of all the amazing things that might be hidden away in such places.  The story kind of grew from there. 

What do you love most in the world?
I love my little girl Alice.  I love when she explains the world to me.  The world would be a much better place if Alice ruled it.

What do you fear most in the world?
I get really scared that compassion is leaching out of the world. I think compassion is a taught thing and maybe people aren’t being taught it anymore. OR maybe it’s empathy.   My mother always said imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.  It was drummed into us. That’s my whine.   On a very personal level I’m 43 and I still have a terrible fear of the dark. You’d think I would have got over it by now. 

What are your 5 favourite childhood books?
 My overall 5 favourite? I could be here forever so I’m just going to list the first that come to mind.  
I loved:

1. Sinuhe the Egyptain (by Mika Walteri) which I read and read the summer I was twelve.  It’s a rollicking adventure about Sinuhe, the physician to the Pharaoh. I’m not even sure it was a children’s book.  There was war and friendship and love and betrayal.  And there was this beautiful woman Nefernefernefer – who wore hardly any clothes.  Scandalous!

2. The Magic Wishing Chair (by Enid Blyton).  My sister and I used to laugh and laugh at the antics of that chair.  Actually – most stuff by Enid Blyton.  I was kind of raised on those stories. And they were the first kind of stories I tried to emulate when writing as a child. 

3. The Doll’s House (Rumer Godden) – oh so beautiful.  Plain good little Tottie and the deliciously evil Marchpane. 

4. The Princess and the Goblin (George MacDonald).  I loved, loved, loved this as a child.  The adventures of lonely Princess Irene and of course, the lovely Curdie, a little miner boy, who I think was my first literary crush.  He was so simple and kind and brave! 

5. Andersen’s Fairy tales – in particular The  little Mermaid and The Snow Queen which were read to us again and again by our mum.  We used to weep over the ending of The little Mermaid – literally, a big huddle of weeping children and our mum. It was so….good for us.  
What are your 5 favourite books read as an adult?

Again the first five that come to mind.  They all affected me in different ways  
1. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
2. Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson 
3. Northern Lights –  Phillip Pullman 
4. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood 
5. Close Range – Annie E Proulx 

Wow, all female bar one. And all American except one.  Oh no! Now I want to do a list of Australian favourites….. 

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
 The complete Red Dwarf series of books.  Lots and lots of books about saints (it seems I collect them). 

The complete set of crumbling and decaying Merit Students Encyclopaedia which was our childhood encyclopaedia and which featured prominently in my first novel The Anatomy of Wings.  Lots of books on sewing.  I can’t sew.  Never sew.  But I love looking at books about sewing.  They are just so mysterious.  

How would you describe perfect happiness?
I would say lunch at my mum’s house on a sunny day.  All of us together.  My siblings, our kids.  Everyone eating and talking and laughing.  The shrieking, wild, sugar-fuelled galumphing of cousins. I think that happiness comes from feeling like I belong there.  We all belong.   

(PS: A note from Kate: I am psychic! When I reviewed Karen's book Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy I said that it reminded me of George Macdonald! 

SPOTLIGHT: Karen Foxlee on the wonderment of fairy tales

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Today on the blog I am delighted to welcome Karen Foxlee, an Australian writer whose work I admire immensely - it is achingly beautiful, mysterious, and edged with darkness. She's come to talk about one of my favourite topics of all .... yes, you've guessed it.

Fairy tales!

Here she is:

Why do writers turn again and again to fairy tales for inspiration? 

There’s an evil Snow Queen in my children’s novel Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy and I’ve been asked lots of questions about her recently.  Why did I choose to feature her in my story, was Andersen’s Snow Queen a favourite of mine, am I a lover of fairy-tales in general? 

The funny thing was the snow queen wasn’t there when I first started out.  I was writing about a boy being kept prisoner in a museum which seemed like a strange yet exciting idea with endless possibilities. I was asking myself questions about why he might be there and who might be keeping him prisoner when she suddenly appeared all ice and snow, teeth like razor blades and hair like a blizzard. She gave me quite a fright.  

The thing about fairy tales is I think they seep into your blood when you are small.  They lie there dormant for years.  I’d say the Snow Queen had been lurking around inside me for decades, much like half a dozen or so other fairy-tales, imprinted on my mind from childhood.  

When I was small my mother would read us fairy-tales and we loved them. We huddled around her in my little bedroom, in our tiny house, in our dusty, faded town in the middle of nowhere…. and each night she opened up new and miraculous worlds to us. 

Fairy tales were my introduction to the raw, pure, emotional punch of literature.

The Snow Queen - Michael Whelan

Within those fairy tales she told us I experienced fear and longing, sadness and anger.  We wept together at the end of The Little Mermaid.  The betrayal!! And again and again we returned to that story to revel in that emotional response.  And the wind was knocked out of me when the snow queen’s sleigh slid to a stop beside Kai.  The horror!  A beautiful woman, perfectly respectable, stealing children.   
In fairy-tales, I first encountered magic.  Wild, pulse-quickening magic.  A girl breathing life back into a dead swallow, a mermaid giving her tongue away in exchange for legs, boys turned into swans, climbing suddenly up into the sky, shoes that dance you to death, magical mirrors smashed to a million pieces, the glittering shards wrecking lives.  I’ve sought that magic out, searched for it in pages ever since.

And in fairy tales I think I experienced my first tremors of wonderment at the art of story-telling.  My budding interest in writing began there among those old yellowing pages, among those illustrations hiding behind their paper veils.

In The Snow Queen I loved that Gerda set off to rescue her friend Kai without thought of the peril.  That the journey is the story! I loved that I travelled with her.  That each page I turned she was arriving somewhere new, or leaving somewhere behind.  That each page I was itching for her to make it to the snow queen’s castle even though I was terrified.  In fairy tales I first experienced the narrative arc, tension, the quest, good versus evil. I fell in love with that journey. 

So these are some of the reasons fairy tales inspire my writing.  I don’t turn to them so much as they bubble up to the surface, into my words, all tangled and emotion-filled from my childhood.  


BOOK REVIEW: Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Monday, July 28, 2014

Title: Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy
Author: Karen Foxlee
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Age Group & Genre: Children’s Fantasy
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth
Source of Book: I bought in London & lugged it all the way home 

The Blurb:

Eleven-year-old Ophelia might not be brave, but she certainly is curious. Her family are still reeling from her mother's death, and in a bid to cheer everyone up, her father has taken a job at a fantastically enormous and gothic museum in a city where it never stops snowing. Ophelia can't wait to explore - and she quickly discovers an impossibility. In a forgotten room, down a very dark corridor, she finds a boy, who says he's been imprisoned for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen who has a clock that is ticking down towards the end of the world. 

A sensible girl like Ophelia doesn't quite believe him, of course, but there's no denying he needs her help. There are many other, darker, impossibilities in this museum too. Ghosts, wolves, Misery Birds, magical swords - and even fabled Snow Queens - will all do their very best to stop Ophelia and hurt her family. She will have to garner all her courage, strength and cleverness if she is to rescue this most Marvellous Boy - and maybe even save the world in the process.

What I Thought: 

I really loved Karen’s mysterious and beautiful novel The Midnight Dress, and once I heard Karen speak about her new book Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy I knew at once that it sounded like my kind of book. 

I bought the gorgeous hard-back in London, and am glad that I did as the production is just exquisite.
The story revolves around eleven-year-old Ophelia who is smart and scientifically minded. She and her sister and father have moved to a city where it never stops snowing, as her father – who is an expert on swords – has taken up a position in a huge, dark, gothic museum filled with secrets and strange things. 

Ophelia sets out to explore, and finds a locked room hidden away in the depths of the museum. She puts her eyes to the keyhole … and sees a boy’s blue eyes looking out at her. He tells her that he has been a prisoner for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen and her clock is ticking down towards the end of the world. Only he can stop her … but first he must escape.

A gorgeously written and delicate fairy tale, Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy reminded me of some of my favourite children’s writers such as Cassandra Golds and Laura Amy Schlitz, who are themselves inspired by Nicholas Stuart Grey and George Macdonald. I especially loved the deceptive simplicity of Karen's writing and the vividness of the world that she creates - it has that delicious edge of creepiness whetted upon a fairy-tale-like beauty and strangeness. One of the best children's fantasy novels I've read in a while - I'm very eager to see what Karen does next.  


INTERVIEW: Karen Foxlee, author of The Midnight Dress

Friday, January 17, 2014

I was utterly enchanted by Karen Foxlee's novel The Midnight Dress, and so I am delighted to welcoem her to the blog today.

Are you a daydreamer too?

Yes, I’m a daydreamer.  I actually schedule daydream breaks into my writing day.  I say to myself, “if you can get through this scene you can have a fifteen minute daydream”.  I daydream about my characters, about my stories, about me.  Daydreaming is about letting go, isn’t it?  I love those little “letting go” parts of my day. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I can recall being in grade two and everyone being asked to write down what they wanted to be when they grew up.  I wrote, “I want to be an Arthur.”  I meant author of course but the teacher was very confused.  I told everyone that was what I was going to be.  I’d written my first story about a girl and horse and flooding river.  I’d used the word FLED.  They fled from the river.  I was so impressed with myself.  I never gave up that dream.  

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in Mount Isa, the big mining town in far North West Queensland.  My dad was a miner.  I had an amazing childhood there with a brother and two sisters. We climbed the red spinifex covered hills and explored the dry Leichhardt River.  It was a wild frontier town in many ways, very different to growing up in a city.  And very isolated.  We were a day’s drive from the coast.  I left home at seventeen and went to university but dropped out and did my nursing training instead.  I’ve nursed ever since.  I live in Gympie, Queensland, with my five year old daughter, two cats, five chooks and some fish. I love it.  It’s a little town but still close enough to a major city and the coast so I can enjoy that world as well.  

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for The Midnight Dress?
I really had nothing but the idea for the character Rose which is the way most of my stories start.  I just kept thinking of a girl with wild red hair, terribly hurt, very lonely, arriving in a place that somehow changes her. I started to write about her; why did she come to the place, who did she meet there? Suddenly a hand-stitched dress kept appearing.  The story changed many times before it took its final form.  

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I don’t plan them at all.  I am in awe of writers who can plot everything out.  As soon as I start to plot everything seems to disappear.  I only seem able to find answers through writing.  I used to waste a lot of energy worrying about this – thinking it was a defect – but I think I write really beautiful stories this way, kind of growing them up out of nothing.  

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Not really. Occasionally I will get ideas all of the sudden in the middle of the night.  My eyes open and everything seems very clear.  I think I use memories a lot more than dreams as a source of inspiration.  I’m constantly plundering my own memories.  For the town of Leonora and the landscape around it, the tropical rainforest, I went back again and again to my memories.  To the places we visited as children in North Queensland on our annual pilgrimage to the coast. I can remember climbing rocks at the beach, daydreaming about running away into the rainforest.   

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I discovered all the same things that I discovered with the first, again! Why had I forgotten them?  I discovered that if it felt right, I shouldn’t give up.  That I should follow my heart.  That I should write the book that I wanted to write.  Not sure they are serendipitous discoveries.  They feel monumental each time though.   

Where do you write, and when?
I write in bed in the early morning or on the sofa.  Sometimes I get serious and write in the kitchen.  I have a little study in the sleep-out of my old house but the desk is constantly covered in books and filing and scrap books and various other projects.  I write best in the early hours of the morning.  430 am or 5ish until about 730 am.  The house is very quiet and my mind is very calm.  I write again after school drop off if I don’t have to go to my nursing job.  My mind starts to wander by midday.  I’m useless after that!  I write like that for blocks of a few months.  I love seeing a story coming together over that time, or the shape of a story anyway.  I’m exhausted at the end and need a couple of weeks off.  
What is your favourite part of writing?
My favourite part of writing is the smoothing down, polishing and making perfect part.  All the getting to there I find stressful and uncomfortable and I worry constantly.  Not knowing what the story is does my head in.  Having said that, I do love seeing characters grow and change and become so real over several drafts.  

What do you do when you get blocked? 
I think there are two types of blocked.  There is blocked with a specific story problem and also good old fashioned writer’s block.  With the former, I had a chair that I called the “thinking chair” for years.  If I couldn’t get anywhere because of a story problem, I’d go and sit in it and write longhand, freely, trying to work the problem out. I sold the chair in a garage sale recently so I don’t know what I’ll do now!  A new chair is needed.  

If it’s plain old fashioned writers block, I just sit down and write anything.  It is the only thing I know how to do.  I just write what seems like really bad writing, and then I keep doing that until after a while (hours, days, weeks) good stuff starts to happen again.  I try to stay calm.  If you panic it’s all over.   

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I’m not sure.  It just seems constantly full.  I think as a writer I am distilling my life, my surroundings, my dreams, my memories, the whole world around me, constantly through my words.  There are always new story ideas.  They are lined up in a queue.  They call to me, sometimes urgently, other times just gentle nudging reminders.  “Write me!”

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
After I finish a story (although they never really feel finished) to a stage that I know I can show it to someone… I clean the house.  Really clean it! For a month.  Nothing has been done while I’ve been writing!  It’s a ceremonial cleaning, getting ready for the next project. That’s about the only big ritual I can think of.  I can’t start a new story without a clean house.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Arundhati Roy, Ian McEwan, Ruth Rendell, Truman Capote, Douglas Adams, Murray Bail, Kate Grenville, Phillip Pullman.  

Kate Grenville - I love her books too!
What do you consider to be good writing?  
Clear clean writing.  Well-constructed stories. Words that make you think and feel and your heart beat faster.  

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Love your stories.  Spend so much time with them.  Tend to them, worry over them, and make them as beautiful as you can.  Don’t give up on them.  

What are you working on now? 
I remain lost in a big story set in Victorian England about a girl who sees the future in rain puddles and who is entrusted to save the world from a terrible darkness.  My children’s novel “Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy” is to be published on January 28th in the US (Knopf) and soon after in the UK (Hot Key Books).  I am really very excited about that.  


BOOK LIST: Best Australian Young Adult novels chosen by Karen Foxlee

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Today please welcome Karen Foxlee, author of the haunting and utterly beautiful THE MIDNIGHT DRESS. I asked her to compile a list of her five favourite Australian Young Adult novels and you know what? I have some reading to do! I've only read two on this list, but they are two of my all-time favourite authors (Margo Lanagan & Marcus Zusak) so this proves Karen has excellent taste. 

I hope you find some new reading here too.

After compiling a little list of my five favourite Australian young adult novels I was very surprised to find what a mixed bag it was!  Some of the novels I read as a teenager, while others I came to later in life.  All of them can be read by adults.  They are novels that I enjoyed immensely, that moved me, that made me laugh and cry and that remain in my mind years after I read them.  In fact, thinking about some of them has made me want to dig them out again and reread!  My list of five is in no particular order. 

1. “The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay” by Rebecca Sparrow 
I can’t think of a more perfect premise for a contemporary YA novel.  What would happen if the cutest/coolest boy in school had to come and live at your house!  Rebecca Sparrow is such a clever writer and this novel is by turns sweet, sad, and hilariously funny. I was a teenager in the eighties so it all feels so wonderfully familiar.  And I love a main character who makes you feel.  Rachel made me laugh, cringe, worry and cheer.  

2. “The Harp in the South” by Ruth Park
I was in grade nine when I read this novel and thinking about it, straight away, an image of Plymouth Street, Surrey Hills, appears before me.  It’s amazing how the mind works and the power of words a good thirty years on!! Ruth Park bought the slums of Sydney to life, riotously, colourfully, teaming with tenements and razor gangs and brothels.  She tells the story of the Darcy family in Surrey Hills, with two daughters Rosie and Dolour.  I can recall being completely mesmerised by their tale.  There is a thread that runs through the story about Mumma’s sorrow for a missing brother, Thady, who was taken from the streets when he was three which moved me so much.  And I can still remember my horror at the treatment of Johnny, an intellectually impaired neighbour.  I’m heading out to the library to find this one again!

3. “Tender Morsels” by Margo Lanagan
I have more than one Margo Lanagan novel that could make this list but I thought I better just go with my favourite, “Tender Morsels.”  Even the name excites me.  I think it is a wonderful thing to be so moved, upset, confused and compelled by a book.  The story of Liga and her two daughters Branza and Urdda is a powerful one, about past hurts and healing and re-entering the world, and packed solid with Lanagan’s amazingly earthy, raw magic, and wild bears! Oh don’t get me started on the bears.  After this novel was chosen as a Printz Honor book I remember reading lots of comments questioning how YA appropriate it was.  Gosh I hope my daughter reads books like this when she is a teenager! These kind of books make you feel like you’re alive.  

4. “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak  
How can you not love a book that starts: “Here is a small fact. You are going to die”.  I read Zusak’s book when it first came out and was hooked from that line.  I love his writing. It is completely audacious, when you think about it, a book narrated by death, but never once does it feel wrong. His writing is so natural, so fresh, and so completely unique.  It’s the tale of girl called Leisel and her acts of book thievery in Nazi Germany.  It stares the brutality of war and death down the barrel, unflinchingly, while somehow, so wonderfully, celebrating words and all the beauty in our brief lives. 

5.  "Thursday's Child" by Sonya Hartnett
This was my introduction to Sonya Hartnett and I came to her writing late.  She is a wonderful writer and her books always stay with me long after I put them down.  I love her dark complex stories and this coming of age story is particularly dark and strange.  Thursday’s Child is the story of a family, struggling to survive in 1930s Great Depression Australia, facing poverty and heartbreak.  It is the tale of Harper Flute but also her little brother, Tin, who is different to the rest and slowly turning wild.  He enters the earth beneath their ramshackle house, and begins to dig and burrow, leaving them behind.  Hartnett’s descriptions of Tin’s subterranean wanderings, the Australian landscape and the harshness of life in that era, made me feel uneasy and anxious but this is also a story, thankfully, of hope.  So different, I remember thinking.  So wonderfully different! 

Thank you, Karen!

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BOOK REVIEW: The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee

Monday, January 13, 2014

Title: The Midnight Dress
Author: Karen Foxlee
Publisher: Knopf Books for Younger Readers
Age Group & Genre: Contemporary Fiction for Young Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

The Blurb:
Quiet misfit Rose doesn't expect to fall in love with the sleepy beach town of Leonora. Nor does she expect to become fast friends with beautiful, vivacious Pearl Kelly, organizer of the high school float at the annual Harvest Festival parade. It's better not to get too attached when Rose and her father live on the road, driving their caravan from one place to the next whenever her dad gets itchy feet. But Rose can't resist the mysterious charms of the town or the popular girl, try as she might.

Pearl convinces Rose to visit Edie Baker, once a renowned dressmaker, now a rumored witch. Together Rose and Edie hand-stitch an unforgettable dress of midnight blue for Rose to wear at the Harvest Festival—a dress that will have long-lasting consequences on life in Leonora, a dress that will seal the fate of one of the girls. Karen Foxlee's breathtaking novel weaves friendship, magic, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and distinctly original.

What I Thought: 
The Midnight Dress is a beautiful, haunting, tragic tale of love and loss and yearning. Told in a series of stories within stories, it circles around the mysterious disappearance of a girl one night in a far north Queensland town. 

Yet The Midnight Dress is as much a coming-of-age story as a mystery, and it has all the haunting beauty of a fairy tale. I loved the way it was structured, moving backwards and forwards in time, and telling stories within stories. The pace never flags, and the suspense is sustained beautifully. 

The setting of a far north Queensland country town is superbly created, the characters are vivid and achingly alive, and the writing is exquisite. I particularly loved the character of the old seamstress Edie who, by teaching the young, sullen heroine  Rose to sew and telling her stories of her own past, teaches Rose how to live.

This was one of the best books I read in 2013, and I’m keen to read more by Karen Foxlee now.


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. 


BOOK LIST: Books Read in December 2013

Friday, January 03, 2014

I discovered some wonderful new writers this month, which always makes me happy. I also managed to read five books by Australian women writers, as part of the AWW 2013 Challenge (bringing me to a total of 30 for the year.) Many of the books I read sent me straight to the bookstore to find other books by these authors, always a good sign. Twelve books read in December brings me to a grand total of 130 books, well over my target for the year. I hope you have all had a happy reading year too! 

1. 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 ... 

This is a really fresh, funny and delightful Regency romance. I really loved it. Of course, I always do think a little murder and mayhem improves a book! The balance of humour, romance and suspense is really well done and I’ve gone in search of more books by Alyssa Everett – hoping they are just as good!

2. The Midnight Dress – Karen Foxlee
The Midnight Dress is a beautiful, haunting, tragic tale of love and loss and yearning. Told in a series of stories within stories, it circles around the mysterious disappearance of a girl one night in a far north Queensland town. The setting is superbly created, the characters are vivid and achingly alive, and the writing is exquisite. I particularly loved the character of the old seamstress Edie who, by teaching the young, sullen heroine  Rose to sew and telling her stories of her own past, teaches Rose how to live. A standout read of the year for me.

3. Half Moon Bay – Helene Young
I enjoyed this contemporary romance suspense novel set in the north coast of New South Wales. The heroine Ellie is a photo-journalist still struggling with grief over the death of her sister Nina in Afghanistan two years earlier, while the hero is an undercover government agent and ex-military officer who feels responsible for Nina’s death. They are on opposite sides of a small town’s struggle with corruption and drugs, yet neither can deny that sparks fly whenever they meet. 

4. Crow Country – Kate Constable
I am in such admiration of Kate Constable’s bravery and delicacy in writing this beautiful book, which draws upon Aboriginal mythology and Australian history to deal with themes of injustice, racism, truthfulness and atonement. Crow Country is a simple book, simply told, but that is part of its great strength. It tells the story of Sadie, an unhappy teenager who moves to the country with her flighty but loving mother. One day she stumbles across an Aboriginal sacred site, and a crow speaks to her – she is needed to right a wrong that occurred many years earlier. So Sadie slips back in time, into the body of one of her ancestors, and sees what happens. With the help of a local Aboriginal boy, she sets out to try to fix things.

A quote from the book: “The Dreaming is always; forever... it's always happening, and us mob, we're part of it, all the time, everywhere, and every-when too.”

I loved it. 

5. Sister – Rosamund Lupton
Oh my gaudy heavens! What a brilliant book. Utterly compulsive, suspenseful, clever, surprising. I think it may be one of the best murder mysteries I have read this year. Perhaps even ever. Told from the first person point of view of Beatrice, and addressed to her murdered sister Tess, the story packs a really powerful emotional punch (perhaps because I am so close to my sister Belinda and so could so well imagine the anguish Beatrice was feeling). Although the book follows Beatrice’s dogged investigation into her sister’s death and ultimate confrontation with the killer, it is so much more than that – it’s an exploration of the bonds of love and duty between sisters, a meditation on the harrowing experience of grief, and a clever literary game. Ten seconds after I read this book I bought her next book and I cannot wait to read it. ‘Sister’ was that good!

6. Under the Wide Starry Sky – Nancy Horan
As soon as I heard about this book, I grabbed hold of it and read it. There were two reasons for this. One: I really enjoyed Nancy Horan’s earlier book ‘Loving Frank’, about the passionate love affair between Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright. Two: the novel tells the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wild, strong-willed American wife, Fanny. I have had a soft spot for Robert Louis Stevenson since I was given his poetry to read as a little girl. In particular, his poem ‘The Land of Counterpane’ (about being a sick boy made to stay in bed) resonated with me strongly as I was a sick girl who spent far too much time in hospital. Consequently, I have read nearly every book he has ever written, including obscure ones like ‘Catriona’, plus have read many biographies of his life and collections of his letters. I was always intrigued by his relationship with his wife, and was eager indeed to read Nancy Horan’s imaginative recreation of their turbulent romance. I was not disappointed. This is a brilliant book, that brings the lives and times of RLS and his circle vividly to life. Read it!

7. The Bone Garden – Tess Gerritsen
This was my first book I’ve read by Tess Gerritsen, and I really enjoyed it. She is best known for her Rizzoli & Isles series of contemporary forensic thrillers, known for their anatomical precision and grisly detail, and so this book – which moves between the present and the past – is a departure for her. It was the historical aspect of the novel which first attracted me but I’m willing to try her other, more contemporary novels now (I just hope they are not TOO grisly). 

8. Who Am I? : The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937  – Anita Heiss
‘Who Am I?’ is part of the My Story series’ published by Scholastic Australia. Set in Sydney, 1937, this is the fictional diary of a young Aboriginal girl who was stolen from her parents under the White Australia government policy. Mary grows up in the Bomaderry Aboriginal Children's Home and is given the diary by the matron when she is ten years old. In its pages, she describes the daily events of her life, as well as her fears and anxieties and confusions. She soon has to leave the home, as she is adopted by a white family who live in St Ives, on the North Shore in Sydney. Here she faces racism in perhaps its most poisonous form – the daily stares, sniggers, casual insults, and calm assurance that White People Are Best. This part of the book hit home really hard for me - I grew up on the border of St Ives and many of the settings are my childhood stamping ground. I too would certainly have stared at an Aboriginal child in my school playground – I did not see anyone of Aboriginal blood until I was in my late teens and it certainly was not on the North Shore. I can only hope I would have been kinder than the fictional children in this book. I found ‘Who Am I: The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937’ a really heart-breaking and eye-opening novel which moved me to tears. A really important book for all school children, whether they live on the North Shore or not.

9. A Gentleman of Fortune, or, The Suspicions of Miss Dido Kent – Anna Dean
This is the second in a charming series of Regency-era murder mysteries featuring the sharp-witted lady-detective Miss Dido Kent, who cannot help being curious about the odd circumstances surrounding the death of a rich neighbour, Mrs Lansdale. The author Anna Dean must have read the works of Jane Austen many times – she captures her turn of phrase and ironic eye for detail perfectly, and the voice never flags for an instant. The mystery is brilliantly well-done too – every clue is there, and yet I still didn’t guess the murderer …

10. Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick
A perfect title for a book that is, indeed, struck with wonder. I absolutely loved Brian Selznick’s earlier book, ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, which was turned into a gorgeous movie called ‘Hugo’ by Martin Scorcese. Like that book, ‘Wonderstruck’ is told partly in extraordinarily beautiful and detailed pencil drawings and partly in text. It tells the stories of Ben, who has lost his mother, and Rose, who stares longingly at pictures of a silent screen movie star. The first narrative is told in words, the second in pictures. 

Slowly the two tales intersect in surprising ways, becoming a heart-touching story about love, art, and joyousness. Although this would be a wonderful book for a child who loves both stories and art, this is really a book for everyone who still has room in their lives for a little wonder. 

11. Wild Lavender – Belinda Alexander
An epic historical saga that follows the life of Simone Fleurier from her days as a poor girl on a lavender farm in Provence to the heights of fame as a singer on the Parisian stage and then through to her involvement with the French Resistance during the dark horror of Nazi Occupation. I enjoyed every moment of this rags-to-riches-to-rags story – the characters and the historical period were all so real and I really enjoyed every aspect of it. 

12. The Crimson Ribbon – Katherine Clements
I was utterly enthralled from the very first line of this novel: ‘Sometimes death comes like an arrow, sudden and swift, an unforseen shot from an unheeded bow.’ 

THE CRIMSON RIBBON is set in England in 1646, in the midst of the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell leads the army of the people against a tyrannical king, witches are hunted down, the skies are full of evil portents. A young woman named Ruth Flowers is on the run, trying to find a safe place for herself. She is helped by an enigmatic young soldier named Joseph, but – bruised by the encounter - takes refuge in the house of an extraordinary young woman named Elizabeth Poole. Her beauty and kindness ensnare Ruth, and she uses an old charm to tie herself to her new mistress. But Elizabeth is as troubled as she is charismatic, and – as the King of England finds himself imprisoned and on trial for his life - Ruth finds herself drawn into danger, intrigue, witchcraft, and treason. 

I found myself utterly unable to put this book down, constantly surprised, and constantly rewarded. This is an astonishingly assured debut title from Katherine Clements, and I’m really hoping she has more stories like this one up her sleeve!


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