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INTERVIEW: Kelly Gardiner, author of Goddess

Friday, August 15, 2014

Please welcome Kelly Gardiner, the author of the brilliant new historical novel Goddess!

Tell me about your new book:
Goddess is based on the life of the extraordinary Mademoiselle de Maupin, also known as Julie d’Aubigny. She was born in 1673, and grew up (I think) in the stables at Versailles, where she learned to ride and fence. She dressed as a boy from a young age, ran away to Marseille and became an opera singer, and her life was a dazzling series of escapades: duels, crimes, affairs with famous men and women, stardom on the stage of the Paris Opera, and sheer celebrity. She was flamboyant and courageous and astonishing. 

And I’m not making any of that up!

She has been portrayed many times over the centuries in print and on screen, but I think this is the first novel in English based on her life. I had to learn a great deal about her and her world, to get into her character and her voice, and it’s been a joy to spend the past five years writing about her.

What was the first flash of inspiration for it?
I fenced when I was young, so I’ve always been interested in the history of fencing and duelling (I even collect historical swords). Julie is in all the books on the history of duelling and of opera, and once a figure like that is in your head, believe me, she won’t let go.

What do you love most in the world?
Exploring the natural and historic wonders of the world with my partner. (I admit that I can get a little carried away peeking into the historic nooks and crannies of any place we visit.) We recently sailed along the Kimberley coast and it was truly amazing.

What do you fear most in the world?
Sharks. And we saw some there! Very large, very close. And I was very brave.

What are your 5 favourite childhood books?
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Smith by Leon Garfield
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Hill End by Ivan Southall
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe.

What are your 5 favourite books read as an adult?
War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantell
The Dreams of Scipio by Iain Pears

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have an awful lot of military history books but I promise they will come in handy one day.

How would you describe perfect happiness?
There’s a thing that happens sometimes when you’re writing, when you are right there – where you need to be – with the characters’ voices sounding clearly in your head, and the setting, the furniture, the clothes all perfectly visible to you; and yet you also know that nobody else can see what you’re seeing unless you do your job properly. And some days it just seems to come out as if it that’s the only thing on earth you should be doing, and you’re the only person on earth who can tell that story.

Want more? Read the interview I did with Kelly last year 


SPOTLIGHT: Warrior Women of History

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Please welcome Kelly Gardiner, author of Goddess, to the blog today, to celebrate true life warrior women of history! 

So many historical novels are written about real and remarkable women in history – queens and would-be queens, empresses, noblewomen, inspiring leaders, and, more and more, scientists, thinkers, musicians, and inventors. Of course, some of our favourite historical fiction is about ordinary but equally remarkable women who get caught up in the happenings of their day, whose lives are affected by war or revolution or politics or the machinations of people more powerful than they are.

My most recent novel, Goddess, is my first about a real historical character – my previous characters have all been imagined, even if they were inspired by the idea of real people. She was Mademoiselle de Maupin, also known as Julie d’Aubigny, a seventeenth century French swordswoman and opera singer. She fought duels, had affairs with both men and women, starred on the stage of the Paris Opera, committed one or two crimes, and was a celebrity in her lifetime and ever since. 

In researching her life, and my earlier pirate stories for children, I delved into a fascinating tradition of women who went to war or fought in combats of various kinds. You might have read about Boudicca, the famous early Briton who took on the Roman conquerors, or Joan of Arc and her campaign to save France. But how about these amazing women?

Artemisia was the world’s first female naval fleet commander – or, at least, the first we know about. Many women commanded ships and even fleets in antiquity and throughout history, but she is one of the few whose deeds were documented – in her case, by Herodotus. Artemisia ruled over the kingdom of Halicarnassus (known as Bodrum today, one of the most beautiful of the fortified Turkish ports), as a vassal of the great Persian emperor Xerxes. After the famous battle with the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae in 480BC, Xerxes decided to attack the Greeks by sea. Not a good idea, warned Artemisia. 

But Xerxes wouldn’t listen. He attacked the Greek fleet in what became known as the Battle of Salamis. Artemisia and her ships fought with skill and courage, while all around them the Persian fleet was smashed to pieces. But all her efforts were in vain. The battle was lost, and at the last minute Artemisia managed to rescue Xerxes’ family and take them to safety. So amazed was he by her courage, that Xerxes announced, ‘My men have become women, and my women, men!’

Kenau Hasselaar was a timber merchant in the Dutch town of Haarlem, just near Amsterdam, in the years when the Low Countries were under the thumb of Spain. In 1567, a vast Spanish army arrived to quell unrest, and the Dutch people rose in rebellion. In 1573, 12,000 Spanish troops besieged Haarlem, assuming the town would fall to them in a week. But they didn’t reckon on the people of the town. 300 women joined the fight, and among them was Kenau Hasselaar. Whenever the Spanish army breached the city walls with their cannonballs, Kenau was there on the ramparts, helping to shore up the defences and mending the shattered walls with earth and timber from her warehouse. It is said (although accounts differ) that she organised care for the wounded and supplies for the artillery, helped get food and water into the city, and kept everyone’s spirits high. The siege lasted seven months, not seven days, but the town eventually had to surrender and its garrison was butchered. The name Hasselaar became a symbol of courage in defeat.

One of my favourite moments in history is the meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille), the Irish pirate queen whose ships had plagued the English trading routes for decades. O’Malley had fought off English troops at her island castle, talked her way out of prison, attacked and beaten Turkish pirates in distant waters, raided castles, kidnapped a young baron, and was, according to Sir Richard Bingham, ‘nurse to all Rebellions in the province’. When Bingham arrested her sons, O’Malley petitioned the queen for their release, which led to the summit between two of the most remarkable, if now elderly, women of their time. 

It happened at Greenwich Palace on 6 September 1593, and before the meeting, the guards had to wrestle O’Malley’s dagger off her. We don’t know what these two wily warrior queens said to each other, but it appears they got on famously, and Elizabeth ordered Bingham to release Grace’s sons and granted her a pensions. O’Malley turned her pirate skills to the queen’s advantage, becoming one of Elizabeth’s privateers instead of her enemy.
There are so many fascinating stories like these. What are your favourite historical novels about women who take up swords or banners instead of (or as well as) sewing needles?

Here's my review of Goddess!


BOOK REVIEW: Goddess by Kelly Gardiner

Monday, August 11, 2014

Author: Kelly Gardiner 
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins)
Age Group & Genre: Historical/Contemporary Novel for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth
Source of Book: An ARC from the publisher

The Blurb:
Versailles, 1686: Julie d'Aubigny, a striking young girl taught to fence and fight in the court of the Sun King, is taken as mistress by the King's Master of Horse. Tempestuous, swashbuckling and volatile, within two years she has run away with her fencing master, fallen in love with a nun and is hiding from the authorities, sentenced to be burnt at the stake. Within another year, she has become Mademoiselle de Maupin, a beloved star at the famed Paris Opéra. Her lovers include some of Europe's most powerful men and France's most beautiful women. Yet Julie is destined to die alone in a convent at the age of 33. 
Based on an extraordinary true story, this is an original, dazzling and witty novel - a compelling portrait of an unforgettable woman. 
For all those readers who love Sarah Dunant, Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel.

What I Thought: 
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. 

Writer’s website:


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. 


BOOK LIST: Books I Read in November 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Books Read in November 2013

I read 9 books this month, with an interesting mixture of historical fiction, contemporary suspense, and philosophy. It was also AusReading Month in the blogosphere and so I made an effort to read some of the books by Australian authors in my tottering pile of books to-be-read. I managed four – Kelly Gardiner, Sara Foster, Jenny Bond and Damon Young – and I can recommend them all. Proof that we have an exciting degree of writing talent here in Australia!

1. Mrs Poe – Lynn Cullen
I have always thought of Edgar Allen Poe as being a strange, moody, melancholy drunk, prone to irrational rages, with a mind like a dark cabinet of curiosities. This novel bursts open those misconceptions and shines a bright light on his life, through the eyes of the woman who loved him. But no, not his wife. Mrs Poe is told through the eyes of his lover, the poet Frances Osgood. It is mostly set in 1845, the year Poe wrote his most famous poem, ‘The Raven’. There is a Mrs Poe – Edgar’s wife was his first cousin and they were married when she was only 13 – and Frances finds herself torn by love for Edgar and guilt over hurting his naïve and childlike wife. This novel is a really fascinating read – it brought the world of 1840s New York vividly to life, taught me a whole lot I didn’t know, and made me want to go and read Poe again. 

2. The Girl on the Golden Coin – Marci Jefferson
The Restoration is one of my absolute favourite periods of history and I have read a lot of books set in that period. However, I had never read about Frances Stuart before and so I found this novel of her life by Marci Jefferson utterly fascinating. Frances is a distant cousin of Charles II whose family lost everything in the English Civil War and their subsequent exile with the royal court.  Frances has only her beauty and her wit to help her survive in the decadent Restoration court, but she uses both to high advantage. Spying for the French king, Louis XIV, on the one hand and keeping a sensual King Charles II on a short leash with the other hand, Frances must keep a clear head without losing her heart –which proves far more difficult than she imagined.  A wonderful read for anyone who loves historical fiction. 

3. Act of Faith – Kelly Gardiner
Act of Faith is an intoxicating mixture of history, adventure, romance and philosophy. It is, I think, one of the cleverest books to be published for young adults in the past few years, yet it wears its scholarship lightly. The novel is set in 1640. England is in the midst of the English Civil War, a time of extraordinary political and religious upheaval. The heroine of the tale is Isabella Hawkins, daughter of an Oxford don and philosopher. She has been taught by her father to read Greek and Latin, as well as many other languages, but she has to hide her brilliance for, in the mid-17th century educated women were considered quite freakish. When Master Hawkins is imprisoned for his ideas, Isabella helps her father escape but sets in chain a sequence of events that will end in tragedy and exile. She ends up alone, in Amsterdam, working with a printer who is publishing seditious books and smuggling them all over the world. Danger is all around her, but Isabella is determined to work for political liberty and intellectual freedom. With a gorgeous cover and interior design from the Harper Collins designers, this is a book both beautiful and brilliant, and one I highly recommend. 

4. Death & Judgement – Donna Leon
I always enjoy Donna Leon’s murder mysteries set in Venice and featuring the unflappable Commissario Guido Brunetti. This book is No 4 in the series and not one of her best, but its still very readable. In this case, Brunetti is investigating the murder of a prominent lawyer. As he digs deeper, Brunetti discovers a sordid web of corruption, prostitution and lies which ends up hurting his own family. Donna Leon has now written 22 books, and apparently a TV series is being filmed. I’d recommend starting with No 1 (Death at la Fenice) and reading your way through. 

5. Beneath the Shadows – Sara Foster
This contemporary suspense novel begins with a really intriguing premise. Our heroine Grace is living in an old Yorkshire cottage with her husband and newborn baby. One evening, her husband takes the baby out for a walk and never comes back. The baby is found on the doorstep in her pram. One year later, Grace returns to the cottage in an attempt to put the pieces of her life back together. She finds herself troubled by strange happenings and gradually comes to realise that she and her daughter are both in grave danger. The suspense is a little unevenly handled, but the setting is truly creepy and evocative and the story kept me turning the pages. 

6. My Brother Michael – Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my all-time favourite authors, and I like to re-read at least one of her books again every year. My Brother Michael has never been one of my favourites, but its been a long while since I last read it (at least six years!) so I felt it was time to revisit. I’m so glad I did. Her books are such a joy to read – effortlessly graceful, suspenseful, character-driven and this one made me want to go to Greece so badly. My Brother Michael was first published in 1959, yet it has not dated at all. I wish she had written many many more books!

7. Goodbye, Marianne: A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany – Irene N. Watts
A novel for children inspired by the author’s own childhood, this is a beautiful and very moving account of life for a young Jewish girl in Berlin in the early days of World War II. Marianne, like the author, escapes on the Kindertransport to Great Britain, leaving her family behind, so the book does not contain any great atrocity, making it a perfect read for a thoughtful and sensitive child. 

8. Perfect North – Jenny Bond
This historical novel is the first book from Jenny Bond and illuminates a little known expedition to conquer the North Pole by hot-air balloon. Although inspired by true events - the 1897 hydrogen balloon voyage by Swedish explorers S.A Andrée, Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg to the North Pole and the discovery of their frozen remains in 1930 – the story is much more focused on the inner life of Strindberg’s fiancée Anna. An intriguing and unusual book.

9. Philosophy in the Garden – Damon Young
What an unusual and engaging book! Damon Young is Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, which makes him sound rather musty and dusty. On the contrary he is young, hip, and has a very readable style. His premise is very simple – he looks at the lives and works of half-a-dozen authors in relation to their garden (or lack of garden) with a particular focus on their philosophies. I was very familiar with some of the writers’ work (Jane Austen, George Orwell, Emily Dickinson), had tried and failed to read some of the others (Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre) and had never heard of one (Nikos Kazantzakis). Each chapter was full of illuminations and insights. I knew Jane Austen loved her garden but did not realise that her writing suffered when she was away from it. I didn’t know Proust kept bonsai by his bed, or that Friedrich Nietzsche lived in a ménage a trois (this was one chapter when I’d have liked to have none a whole lot more!) I loved discovering Emily Dickinson was a gardener and that her poems were full of flower symbology. Each chapter made me want to know more, and sent me on little expeditions of googling and looking up other books. And I’m now off in search of books by Nikos Kazantzakis (he sounds so brilliant, how could I never have heard of him?) I’d really recommend this for anyone with an enquiring mind (even those who, like Sartre, hated gardens). 

How many books did you read last month? Did you beat me? Any good recommendations?


INTERVIEW: Kelly Gardiner author of Act of Faith

Friday, December 13, 2013

I hugely enjoyed Kelly Gardiner's two YA historical novels about the adventures of Isabella Hawkins, a brilliant and highly educated young woman fighting to find a place in her world - Europe in the dangerous years of the 1640s. The first is entitled Act of Faith and the second is The Sultan's Eyes - I'd recommend reading them in order.

Here Kelly joins me to chat about inspirations, serendipity, favourite books and my usual preoccupations:

Are you a daydreamer too?


Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, although I did go through a phase where I wanted to be an archaeologist - until I found out you had to be really good at maths and science. 

Tell me about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in Melbourne, and lived here most of my life although I did spend several years in Sydney and then on an island in New Zealand. Now I'm back in Melbourne and I live in an old cottage called Thelma. I spend a lot of time gardening. And day dreaming.

 How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

A few different things came together. I was thinking about how the impact of the early printing press in Europe felt similar to the impact of the web; it changed the world, but there were also crackdowns on information and ideas, as there are in many countries today. And I was also getting cranky about media reports and all the rhetoric about refugees, as if it's a new thing, when of course there have always been refugees, sadly. But then I had a flash of a scene in which a young woman is on a ship about to be wrecked - I didn't know who or where or even when she was but then she became in my mind someone who was a refugee from the kind of political and religious oppression many people have faced throughout history.
Isn't a gorgeous cover?

How extensively do you plan your novels?

It depends on the story. I don't usually have a complete plan at the start, but once I've done some research it all becomes clearer and then I do plan quite precisely, especially where the story rubs up against real events in history. But when I'm writing I always forget to look at my plan.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I sometimes have scenes flash into my mind in those minutes between sleeping and being fully awake, but not dreams as such. More often it's the case that I can't sleep for thinking about the work, and have to get up and scribble things down. Then the next morning they make no sense at all.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

I hadn't understood that the Puritans in England had really gone all over the countryside and smashed up everything in the churches and especially the universities. I'd decided to set the first part of Act of Faith in Cambridge, and it was only then that I read about the attacks on the colleges. Amazingly, all the proceedings of the House of Lords and Commons from the Civil war era are digitised and online, so you can actually read the transcripts of Parliament, for example on the day the King turned up to arrest some of the members and the House refused. It gives me goosebumps.

Where do you write, and when?

I have a tiny writing room lined with books and looking out into the garden. But I can write anywhere - on the train, in a cafe. I try to have a couple of writing days in the week, but I also have a part-time job and do some teaching so I have to be very careful to lock in some writing time. 

What is your favourite part of writing?

It's those moments when you have no idea how much time has past or what day it is because you are somewhere else completely.

What do you do when you get blocked?

I don't really get blocked, but if it's not working for some reason I will just keep writing through it, even if what I produce is rubbish that I'll never use - or watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

How do we stop it from overflowing? There are so many stories I want to write.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Not really, though I do find it hard to work in mess, so I tidy up beforehand. Because I can only write part-time, I have to be very good at managing time. This is what I do: I block out two-hour sessions in my diary. And in those hours I just write - no email, no facebook, no putting loads of washing on - nothing. I don't even answer the phone. Within those hours I do 25 minute writing sprints. This is called the Pomodoro method. You just write for 25 minutes, then have a five or ten minute break, and keep repeating that for the two hours. I use a little app which dings when the time's up. 

I can fit three blocks of two hours into a writing day - or more if I write into the night. I don't look up anything or fuss over words, I just write. Then in the breaks I can check my research or find a missing word.  It's quite intense but great for drafting or really focusing on a task. 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Gosh, what a hard question. Let's see...
Jeanette Winterson
Leo Tolstoy
Ernest Hemingway
Hilary Mantel
Primo Levi
Sarah Waters
David Malouf
Umberto Eco
Jan Morris
Antony Beevor

My favourite writer for children is Margaret Mahy - she was a genius and I miss her. And there are so many fantastic local writers for children and young adults I can't even begin to list them here.
I love Margaret Mahy too!

What do you consider to be good writing? 

I like precise writing, not too overwritten or self-conscious, moving without being emotional, and with a strong narrative and rhythmic voice. Those elements are important in writing for readers of any age, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, but precision is critical in writing for younger readers. I live in hope of mastering it one day.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Read everything you can get your hands on, even genres you might not normally read. And just write. Don't get obsessed with all the stuff about publishing - just write the best work you can, and tell the stories that only you can tell.

What are you working on now? 

I've just finished a novel for adults called Goddess, based on the real life of a seventeenth-century French swordswoman and opera singer, Mademoiselle de Maupin. It's taken four years to research and write, and I feel a bit bereft without it. It's being typeset at the moment, so I'll get pages to proofread in the next week or so. It comes out in the middle of 2014. 

Over summer I'll go onto the next project, War Songs, which is set on the Somme during World War One - it's a major redraft and I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into it.

You can read my review of Act of Faith here and visit Kelly's website here 

SPOTLIGHT: Fie on the Feisty Heroine!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fie on the Feisty Heroine! I say.

I’m been a little troubled recently by the plethora of ‘feisty heroines’ in the historical fiction I’ve been reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a strong woman!

Yet the truth is that the way that many of these heroines speak and act is utterly anachronistic. It rings untrue, and that breaks the spell of enchantment the book should be casting over me. 

In truth, strong women in the past were, more often than not, broken by their society. They were beaten, locked in scold-bridles, burnt to death for petty treason, stoned or imprisoned or locked away in towers or convents. Most learned very early on to do as they were told. 

Of course there were exceptions. Women who ran away to war, dressed as a boy, and were not discovered for years, for example (Wikipedia has a fascinating list of them

Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake

And history is full of women who were rebellious and rowdy, passionate and powerful – Cleopatra (killed herself with an asp). Boadicea (committed suicide rather than be taken captive by her enemies). Joan of Arc (burnt at the stake). Eleanor of Aquitaine (kept locked up by her husband for years). Emmeline Pankhurst (imprisoned and force-fed) … 

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested

Of course I’m being selective here to make a point. There are many amazing women in history that lived mostly happy lives and achieved astonishing things. Empress Theodora. Elizabeth I. Marie Curie. Florence Nightingale. Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Marie Curie, a woman alone in a world of men

However, these are the exceptions, not the rule. 

This poses a difficult problem for historical novelists. On the one hand, we want to write books with strong, interesting, clever heroines. On the other hand, we need to be true to the times in which our heroines live.

It can help if we write about heroines outside the cultural norm. In my historical children’s series The Chain of Charms, which is set in the last few weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s life, my heroine is a Rom. This means she is free to gallop about the countryside and have adventures instead of sit quietly and sew her sampler as girls in the mid-1600s were expected to do. 

I recently read Act of Faith by Kelly Gardiner, which is set in the 1640s. Her heroine, Isabella Hawkwood, is the daughter of an Oxford don and philosopher and has been taught to read Latin, Greek and many other languages, as well as to think deeply and clearly. She is headstrong and impetuous and does many things that would be considered utterly scandalous in that period of time. However, she is constantly having to hide her intelligence and her learning, and she is also afraid and unsure, giving her character greater depth. (Here's my review of Act of Faith)

I ran up against this problem all the time in my novel The Wild Girl, which is inspired by the true untold love story between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales. How I wanted Dortchen to be feistier! But she was the product of her time and her culture – the strict, puritanical and patriarchal world of Germany in the early 19th century. I could make her long for a world in which women were free to make their own choices, but I could not give her that world. 

Dortchen could not marry without her father’s permission.

She could not go to school past the age of 14, let alone go on to university.

She could not get a job. 

She could not even choose what to wear.

And, to tell you the truth, I think that my Dortchen shows greater strength and resilience in finding her way forward in the life she was given than if I had made her dress up as a boy and run away to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Because the life I have created for her is as true as I could make it. It doesn’t turn history into a fantasyland where women dress in tight leather corsets and can kickbox (though, mind you, I do love a good, kick-ass, leather-clad heroine too! Just not in a historical novel).

In The Wild Girl, I have tried to show how difficult life was for women in the past, so that we can make sure that we don’t forget all that has been won for us. 

This is why I say: Fie on the feisty heroine! 

Give me women who are vulnerable as well as strong, conflicted as well as determined, kind-hearted as well as quick-witted, and who have to truly struggle to make their way in a world that does not pretend to make life easy for women.

One last final note: did you know the word ‘feisty’ comes from the German word feist, a derogatory term for a lapdog? 

What about you? Do you love a feisty heroine, or do also you think they are perhaps becoming a little cliched? 

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment - I always love to know what you think.

BOOK LIST: Best Books set during the times of Charles II

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


I’ve always loved stories set in Stuart times, perhaps because my grandmother told me, when I was a little girl, that we were related to the Stuart royal family. When she said ‘we’, she really meant the Clan of Mackenzie, which does indeed have links to the doomed royal family of Scotland, but so long ago and so far away from my own great-great-grandmother Ellen Mackenzie that I could never lay claim to such a connection with a straight face.

Nonetheless, growing up, I read quite a few books set in Scotland and quite a few about the Stuarts. I set ‘The Chain of Charms’, my series of children’s historical adventure stories, in the last days of the rule of Oliver Cromwell and one of my favourite stories to tell at schools and storytelling festivals is the escape of Charles II after the final disastrous defeat to Oliver Cromwell’s army.

Here is a list of my favourite books set during the years of the English Civil War and the Restoration. This blog first ran in May 2013, but I have updated it to include the books I've read in the past year. 

Favourite Books I read as a Kid: 

Sidney Seeks Her Fortune- Catherine Christian
This is an adventure story about a Cavalier family that lost all its money fighting for the king, and sets outs to restore its fortunes. It includes shipwrecks, highwaymen, pirates, romance and the eventual triumph of its heroine, the steadfast Sidney of the title, and writing about it makes me want to read it all over again … 

The Popinjay Stairs – Geoffrey Trease
I really love all of Geoffrey Trease’s books, but this is one of my favourites. The novel begins with a highwayman waylays a coach that numbers among its passengers Samuel Pepys, who is at that time Secretary to the Office of Lord High Admiral of England. The highway men seem more interested in Pepys’official document case than in gold and watches … and this sets off a wild adventure dealing in treason, blackmail and spies. 

Rider of the White Horse – Rosemary Sutcliff 
I also adore Rosemary Sutcliff. This is not one of my favourite, but it is still a vivid and engaging historical novel, telling the story of Anne Fairfax, the wife of a Puritan general, Sir Thomas Fairfax. As always, the writing is vivid and supple and evocative. 

The House at Green Knowe – Lucy M. Boston
This book has only one scene set during the English Civil War, but it always lingered in my memory.  

Favourite Books I Read as a Teenager: 

Royal Escape – Georgette Heyer
One of her few straight historical novels, this book tells the story of Charles II’s dramatic six week escape from England after the last, disastrous battle of the English Civil war. 

The Wandering Prince – Jean Plaidy 
The story of the years Charles II spent in exile as a young man after the loss of his crown, as seen through the eyes of his sister Minette, and his mistress Lucy Walter – Jean Plaidy is not much read these days, but I adored her as a teenager and read every book of hers I can lay my hands on. The Stuart saga was a favourite – it follows on with ‘A Health Unto His Majesty’ which I also really enjoyed. 

Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier
A wonderfully romantic and adventurous book set in Restoration England, about the affair between a bored English noblewoman and a daring French pirate.

Favourite Books I’ve Read in Recent Years

Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks
A brilliant novel about the plague village of Ayam – one of my all-time favourite novels. 

Read my interview with Geraldine Brooks

Lady’s Slipper – Deborah Swift
A fabulous historical novel filled with romance, murder, art, and one rare and gorgeous orchid. 

You can read my full review here

Empress of Icecream – Anthony Capella 
A historical novel about the invention of ice cream, and the seduction of Charles II by the French spy, Louise de Keroualle. 

The Darling Strumpet - Gillian Bagwell
A wonderful novel inspired by the life  of Nell Gwyn, one of Charles II's most famous mistresses. Here is my full review of the book and an interview with Gillian Bagwell.

The September Queen – Gillian Bagwell 
The story of Lady Jane, the young woman who helped Charles II escape England after failing to win back his crown. 

An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears 
An utterly brilliant historical thriller set after the restoration of Charles II, it has so many unexpected twists and turns I gasped aloud at several points in the narrative. Another all-time favourite novel of mine - a must read for any lover of clever, intriguing historical fiction. 


The Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart - Marci Jefferson
A wonderful novel set at the royal court after the Restoration, The Girl on the Golden Con tells the story of the beautiful, spirited young woman chosen to be the face of Britannica by Charles II. You can read my full review here. 

Witch Child - Celia Rees
This brilliant historical novel for teenagers begins: ‘I am Mary. I am a witch.’ It is set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II. You can read my full review here and my interview with Celia Rees here.

Act of Faith - Kelly Gardiner
The Sultan's Eyes - Kelly Gardiner

These heart-breaking and thought-provoking historical novels for young adults are set during the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Only the opening scenes of the first are set in England and involve the escape of the heroine Isabella and her father after he is accused of sedition and treason due to his political views. The action moves first to Amsterdam, then to Venice, Spain and, finally, in Book 2, to Constantinople. However I am including them in this list because they give a very vivid picture of the tumultuous times of the English Civil War, and the foment of ideas, philosophies, and politics that surrounded the exile and restoration of King Charles II. Besides, I loved them and want others to love them too. 

If you liked this list, you may also enjoy:

BOOK LIST - Books Read in August 2013

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

August is Book Week in Australia, and that means lots of authors, including myself, have been on the road, talking about our books at schools, libraries and literary festivals. With so much travelling and talking, there’s not much time for reading and so this month I managed only eight books – however, I discovered a couple of wonderful new authors and read the new work of a few old favourites and so it was a happy reading month for me. 

1. The Tudor Conspiracy – C.W. Gortner
The Tudor period was a time of turmoil, danger, and intrigue … and this means spies. Brendan Prescott works in the shadows on behalf of a young Princess Elizabeth, risking his life to save her from a dark conspiracy that could make her queen … or send her to her death. Not knowing who to trust, surrounded by peril on all sides, Brendan must race against time to retrieve treasonous letters before Queen Mary’s suspicions of her half-sister harden into murderous intent.    

The Tudor Conspiracy is 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. It follows on from C.W. Gortner’s earlier novel, The Tudor Secret, but can be read on its own (though I really recommend reading Book 1 first – it was great too). 

2. Pureheart – Cassandra Golds
Cassandra Golds is one of the most extraordinary writers in the world. Her work is very hard to define, because there is no-one else writing quite like she does. Her books are beautiful, haunting, strange, and heart-rending. They are old-fashioned in the very best sense of the word, in that they seem both timeless and out-of-time. They are fables, or fairy tales, filled with truth and wisdom and a perilous kind of beauty. They remind me of writers I adored as a child – George Macdonald Fraser, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Elizabeth Goudge, or Eleanor Farjeon at her most serious and poetic. 

I have read and loved all of Cassandra’s work but Pureheart took my breath away. Literally. It was like being punched in the solar plexus. I could not breathe for the lead weight of emotion on my heart. I haven’t read a book that packs such an emotional wallop since Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. This is a story about a bullied and emotionally abused child and those scenes are almost unbearable to read. It is much more than that, however. 

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. 

3. Park Lane – Frances Osborne
Park Lane is the first novel by Frances Osborne, but she has written two earlier non-fiction books which I really enjoyed. The first, called Lilla’s Feast, told the story of her paternal great-grandmother, Lilla Eckford, who wrote a cookbook while being held prisoner in a Japanese internment camp during World war II. The second, called The Bolter, was written about Frances Osborne’s maternal great-grandmother, the notorious Lady Idina Sackville. Married five times, with many other lovers, Idina was part of the scandalous Happy Valley set in Kenya which led to adultery, drug addiction, and murder. Both are absolutely riveting reads, and so I had high hopes of Park Lane, particularly after I read a review in The Guardian which said ‘Frances Osborne will be in the vanguard of what is surely an emergent genre: books that appeal to Downton Abbey fans.’ Well, that’s me! I should have been a very happy reader. 

I have to admit, however, that the book did not live up to my expectations. This was partly because it is written entirely in present tense, a literary tic which I hate, and partly because of the style, which felt heavy and awkward. 

The sections told from the point of view of the aristocratic Beatrice are the most readable, perhaps because this is a world that Frances Osborne knows well (she is the daughter of the Conservative minister David Howell, Baron Howell of Guildford, and wife of George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, which means she lives next door to the Prime Minister on Downing Street in London.) However, the sections told from the point of view of her servant, Grace, are less successful, and her voice did not ring true for me. Also, I was just getting interested in her story when she disappears from the page, popping up again at the end. 

The sections I enjoyed the most were those detailing the suffragettes’ struggle for the vote. These scenes were full of action and drama, and draw upon Frances Osborne’s own family history, with her great-great-grandmother having made many sacrifices for the women’s cause. I’d have liked to have known much more about their struggle and the hardships they faced (maybe I’ll need to write my own suffragette novel one day). 

4. The Devil’s Cave – Martin Walker
I really love this series of murder mysteries set in a small French village in the Dordogne. A lot of the pleasure of these books does not come from the solving of the actual crime – which is often easily guessed – but from the descriptions of the town, the countryside, and the food and wine (I always want to cook the recipes, many of which can be found on the author’s website). These books also really make me want to go back to France!

The hero of this series is the small-town policeman Benoît Courrèges, called Bruno by everyone. He lives in an old shepherd’s cottage, with a beagle hound, ducks, chickens, a goat and a vegetable garden. He’s far more likely to offer some homespun wisdom than arrest anyone, a trait I appreciate. There’s always a touch of romance, and a cast of eccentric minor characters who add warmth and humour.  

The first few books were lazy and charming; the tension is slowly growing in later books which I think is a good thing as the series may have grown just a little too comfortable otherwise. In this instalment – no 5 in the series – there is a dead naked woman in a boat, satanic rituals and chase scenes in an underground cave, a Resistance heroine to be rescued, a local girl led astray, and an omelette made with truffle-infused eggs and dandelion buds. A big sigh of happiness from me. 

5. Let It Be Me – Kate Noble
I bought this book solely on the cover – a Regency romance set in Venice? Sounds right up my alley … I mean, canal …

I have never read a book by Kate Noble before, but I certainly will again. Let It Be Me is clearly part of a series, as is often the case with historical romances, but I had no trouble working out who everyone is. 

The book was set in 1824, and our heroine is the red-haired Bridget Forrester. Although she is quite pretty, none of the men at the ball ask her to dance as she has a reputation for being a shrew. It seems she has been over-shadowed by her sister, the Beauty of the family. 

So Sarah is over-joyed when she receives an invitation to be taught by the Italian composer, Vincenzo Carpenini. After a series of troubles and complications, Bridget ends up going to Venice and before she know sit, finds herself part of a wager to prove that women can play the piano just as well as men. All sorts of romantic entanglements occur, with a wonderful musical leitmotif running through – a very enjoyable romantic read. 

6. The Sultan’s Eyes – Kelly Gardiner
I was on a panel with Kelly Gardiner at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and so read The Sultan’s Eyes in preparation for our talk together. Historical fiction is my favourite genre, and I particularly love books set in the mid-17th century, a time of such bloody turmoil and change. I set my six-book series of children’s historical adventure novels ‘The Chain of Charms’ during this time and so I know the period well. I absolutely loved reading The Sultan’s Eyes, which is set in Venice and Constantinople in 1648, and am now eager to read the book that came before, Act of Faith.

The heroine of the story is Isabella Hawkins, the orphaned daughter of an Oxford philosopher, and educated by him in the classics as if she had been a boy. She has taken refuge in Venice with some friends following the death of her father, after what seem like some hair-raising adventures in Book 1. An old enemy, the Inquisitor Fra Clement, arrives in Venice, however, and afraid for their lives, Isabella and her friends free to the exotic capital of the East, Constantinople, which is ruled by a boy Sultan. His mother and his grandmother are engaged in covert and murderous intrigues to control him, and it is not long before Isabella and the others are caught up in the conspiracies. I loved seeing the world of the Byzantine Empire brought so vividly to life, and loved the character of Isabella  - passionate, outspoken, intelligent and yet also vulnerable. 

7. The Wishbird – Gabrielle Wang
I love Gabrielle Wang’s work and I love listening to her speak, so I was very happy to be sharing a stage with her at the Melbourne Writers Festival.  Her new novel The Wishbird is a magical adventure for young readers, and has the added bonus of illustrations by Gabrielle as well, including the gorgeous cover. 

Boy is an orphaned street urchin in the grim City of Soulless who makes a living as a pickpocket. One day he has a chance encounter with Oriole, a girl with a ‘singing tongue’ who was raised by the Wishbird in the Forest of the Birds. The Wishbird is dying, and Oriole has come to the city to try and find a way to save him. She finds herself imprisoned for her musical voice, however, and Boy must find a way to help her. What follows is a simple but beautiful fable about courage, beauty, love and trust that reminded me of old Chinese fairy tales. 

8. Elijah’s Mermaid – Essie Fox
Elijah’s Mermaid is best described as a dark Gothic Victorian melodrama about the lives of two sets of orphans. One is the beautiful and wistful Pearl, found as a baby after her mother drowned in the Thames, and raised in a brothel with the rather whimsical name of The House of Mermaids. The other two are the twins Elijah and Lily, also abandoned, but lucky enough to be adopted by their grandfather, an author named Augustus Lamb. 
The voices of Pearl and Lily alternate. At first Pearl’s voice is full of street slang and lewd words, but as she grows up many of these are discarded. For the first third of the book, the only points of contact are the children’s fascination with mermaids and water-babies (Pearl has webbed feet), but then they meet by chance at a freak show in which a fake mermaid is exhibited. After that, their lives slowly entwine.
Although the pace is leisurely, the story itself is intense and full of drama and mystery. The Victorian atmosphere is genuinely creepy. I could feel the chill swirl of the fog, and hear the clatter of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, and see Lily struggling to run in her corset and bustle. The story’s action takes place in freak shows, brothels, midnight alleys, underground grottos, and a madhouse, and so the dark underbelly of Victorian society is well and truly turned to the light. Yet this is a novel about love and redemption, as well as obsession and murder, and the love between the twins, and between Elijah and Pearl, is beautifully done.  

This monthly round-up of my reading was first posted for BOOKTOPIA and if you want to buy any of these books, they have all the links you need.

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