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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?

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





INTERVIEW: Marci Jefferson author of The Girl on the Golden Coin

Friday, December 06, 2013

Please welcome Marci Jefferson, the debut author of the historical novel: The Girl on the Golden Coin! I just loved her book (you can read my review here) and I hope its the beginning of many more wonderful historical novels from her. 



Are you a daydreamer too? 
Oh yes. As a kid, if I wasn’t reading, I was daydreaming. Even at school!
 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. For most of my life I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I became a nurse because it was practical, and then I focused intently on nursing because it was so rewarding. Then I wanted to be a mother - even more rewarding. I decided I wanted to write historical fiction after reading The Other Boleyn Girl - but I didn’t realize at the time what *being* a writer was even like. It is rewarding in unforeseen ways, but it is also all-consuming. 
 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in New Mexico. I’m an Air Force Brat - we lived all over the southern United States and twice in the Philippines. Now I live in the Midwest. These days my interests are limited by time constraints to parenting, researching, and writing. Oh, and I still work part-time as a nurse.

 

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I learned about the Stuarts years ago on a trip to London. As a history lover, I read everything about them that no one bothered to teach me in nursing school. Years later, when I read The Other Boleyn Girl, the seed was planted. I knew I wanted to write something about the Stuarts...but the plot developed slowly.
 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I do dream about my characters, but I can’t say my dreams inspired any particular scenes. 
 

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
While researching Frances Stuart, I was gratified to learn she was not the featherbrain so many people assume she was. Nor was her life story so simple. She wasn’t just a pretty maid of honor at the Restored English Court known throughout Europe for its debauchery. She survived complex and dangerous historical events such as the French Fronds, the unresolved political tensions after the English Civil Wars, the Great Plague, the Great Fire, the Anglo Dutch War, poverty, riches, and the fractious religious conflicts inherent to seventeenth century England. 

Her letters prove her to be intelligent, kind-hearted, and tolerant. I realized she embodied the spirit of the Restoration era, which, combined with her portrait as Britannia on the coins, made her a compelling subject for a historical novel. 

 

Where do you write, and when?
When my kids were little I restricted my writing to naptimes and bedtimes. Now that they’re in school and I work as a nurse part time, I have two full days at home each week designated for writing. When my kids are at home, I have to escape to the local library to get my writing done.
 

What is your favourite part of writing?
I love and adore the historical research. In fact, sometimes I get a bit too caught up in little discoveries. I call it researchitis. But while actually writing, I love it when a character comes so alive that they take unexpected turns in my own narrative. 
 

What do you do when you get blocked?
My blocks tend to pop up when I’m not clear on historical details. So I research.
 

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
History is full of inspiration and inspirational characters! The more I read and learn, the more intrigued I am.
 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Unfortunately, I like to have a snack while writing. This has necessarily led to scheduling in some time for exercise!
 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Just ten? I’ll try...

Michelle Moran
Kate Quinn
Margaret George
Philippa Gregory
Tracy Chevalier
Sarah Dunant
Madeline Hunter
Anne Rice
Diana Gabaldon
Alice Hoffman
 

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Engaging writing, be it lyrical or simplistic, is good writing. I like tight sentences. Active scenes. Subversive dialogue. Tension on every page. Complex characters. 
 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
 Write every day and never ever give up. 
 

What are you working on now? 
A novel about Marie Mancini who, based on the alignment of the stars at her birth, was destined to disgrace her family an a most spectacular fashion, but ended up shaping the world’s most powerful monarch. It’s loosely titled INAMORATA, A NOVEL OF ENCHANTMENT AT THE SUN KING’S COURT. 
 
Marci Jefferson's website


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

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

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

BEST BOOKS SET DURING THE TIME OF CHARLES II


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 REVIEW: The Girl on the Golden Coin by Marci Jefferson

Monday, December 02, 2013





Title: Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart

Author: by Marci Jefferson

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth


The Blurb:
Impoverished after the overthrow of the English Crown, Frances Stuart survives merely by her blood-relation to the Stuart Royals. 

But in 1660, the Restoration of Stuart Monarchy in England returns her family to favor. Frances discards threadbare gowns for gilded Fontainebleau Palace, where she soon catches King Louis XIV’s eye. But Frances is no ordinary court beauty, she has Stuart secrets to keep and people to protect. The king turns vengeful when she rejects his offer to become his Official Mistress. He banishes her to England with orders to seduce King Charles II and stop a war ...


What I Thought: 
The Restoration is one of my absolute favourite periods of history and I have read a lot of books set in that period (Here is a list of my favourite books set during the reign of Charles II)

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. 

I particularly loved the characterisation of the king and his many mistresses, particularly Barbara Castlemaine, and the vividness of the court setting. A wonderful read for anyone who loves historical fiction. 





Marci Jefferson's website 

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

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