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KATE FORSYTH'S BEST BOOKS OF 2015

Thursday, January 07, 2016

BEST BOOKS OF 2015

This year I read 110 books in total, with 50 of these being research for the new novel I am working on (about the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and writers in mid-Victorian England). 

So it was difficult to pick only 10 novels and 10 non-fiction books for my annual ‘Best of the Year’ list! I began by eliminating books that I had already read (I tried to re-read an old favourite at least once a month this year) and then slowly whittled it back. Some of the books are not new releases, but they were new to me and I thought that was what was important. 

Most of these books have been reviewed on my blog - just click the link to read the full review.



FICTION:



1. The Light Between the Oceans - M.L. Stedman

This novel has at its heart a disturbing moral dilemma. A young woman married to a lighthouse keeper longs for a child of her own, but has lost all of her own babies. One day a boat washes up on their remote island. Inside the boat are a dead man and a baby, who is very much alive. The lighthouse keeper and his wife take in the founding child and, before long, Izzy begins to pretend the little girl is hers. The consequences of that decision will change their lives forever. 




2. Half a King - Joe Abercrombie

I just loved Half A King. It was tightly constructed, quick-paced, and surprising – qualities that can sometimes be rare in a fantasy novel. It was also beautifully written. I’m really looking forward to reading the next in the series, Half A World, and discovering his earlier book as well. A must-read for fantasy lovers.





3. The Devil in the Marshalsea - Antonia Hodgson

I can strongly recommend this to anyone who loves a really top-notch, fast-paced, and atmospheric historical thriller.




 
4. The Taxidermist’s Daughter – Kate Mosse

An utterly gripping murder mystery with gorgeous lyrical prose and the pace of a thriller, The Taxidermist’s Daughter was an absolute delight to read. 







5. Affinity – Sarah Waters

I have never read one of Sarah Waters’ books before. Now I want to gobble them all down as fast as I can get my greedy hands on them. Affinity is just brilliant!





 
6. The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in the series of Robert Galbraith’s contemporary crime novels (Robert Galbraith being, of course, the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling) & is a compelling and surprising murder mystery that shines a spotlight on the murky world of modelling. 





7. The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

This is one of the most beautiful and haunting psychological thrillers I have ever read.






8. Possession – A. S. Byatt

This novel has been on my shelf for more than twenty years, and yet somehow I have never before read it. So at last I picked it up and began. Of course, I utterly adored it!  






9. The Marriage of Opposites – Alice Hoffman

Beautiful, romantic, haunting, and alive with sensuality, I cannot recommend The Marriage Of Opposites highly enough. Read it!





10. The Lake House – Kate Morton

Mysteries and secrets have always been at the heart of Kate Morton’s books, but with this one she takes a step closer to the crime genre. The result is as beguiling and suspenseful as always. 



NON-FICTION



11. A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France - Miranda Richmond Mouillot

An extraordinary memoir of her grandparents' dramatic escape from Nazi-occupied France and their troubled marriage which followed, A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War & A Ruined House in France is as much a meditation on memory, storytelling, and the dark shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over the descendants of those who survived. 






12. The Life of Anne Frank – Menno Metselaar & Ruud van der Rol 

This small book from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam tells the tragic story of Anne Frank's life and death through photographs and scraps of her diaries. Intended for children, it is nonetheless a heart-piercing record of the impact of Nazism upon one girl.  





13. Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside - Andrea di Robilant

Another wonderful book from the Venetian journalist and historian Andrea di Robilant, this time about a unknown rose growing among the ruins of his family's once magnificent estate on the Italian mainland. His search to identify and name the rose takes him on a journey through the history of roses, and he meets many fascinating and eccentric rose enthusiasts along the way. 






14. For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World's Favourite Drink - Sarah Rose

A really interesting non-fiction book about Robert Fortune, the Scottish horticulturist who went to China and bought, borrowed and stole the secrets to growing tea, which had been up to then a closely guarded secret of the Chinese emperor. Utterly fascinating.   






15. March, Women, March: Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to the Suffragettes  – Lucinda Hawksley 

What I most loved about the book is the way it foregrounded the stories of the real-life women who suffered so much to bring about such a fundamentally important change in the laws of the United Kingdom, which flowed on to affect countries elsewhere. Famously, Australia and New Zealand were among the first countries in the world to bring about the vote for a limited number of women. It was a little too little, far too late, as far as I can see, and I think many people today are not aware of just what a bitter battle it was.






16. What We See When We Read – Peter Mendelsund

A strange, fascinating and totally original book about the relationship between the words on the page and the images seen in the mind’s eye, this is a book to be thought about and re-read again and again






17. Small Acts Of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger  - Fiona Wright

An utterly extraordinary collection of essays inspired by the author's long struggle with an eating disorder – intelligent, fierce and deeply informative. 






18. The Old Ways – Robert Macfarlane 

Robert Macfarlane has been a new discovery of mine this year. He writes exquisitely crafted personal essays on his adventures exploring ancient landscapes on foot ... the result is magical and eye-opening. 






19. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa – Joan Jacobs Brumberg

This book is exactly what the title promises - a social history of anorexia nervosa. And it's utterly fascinating & illuminating!





20. A Year With Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke – translated & edited-Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows

A collection of snippets from the poems, letters and diaries of the lyrical German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favourite poets, this book is designed to be read a page a day for a year. I can really recommend it! 

INTERVIEW: Miranda Richmond Mouillot, author of A Fifty Year's Silence

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Interview with Miranda Richmond Mouillot (first published in Good Reading magazine)



In 1936, two young Jewish students met in a café in Strasbourg. 

In 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, the young man Armand walked three hundred kilometres to find Anna, the beautiful young Romanian he had met that day, who was hiding out in the French Pyrenees. Two years later, they managed to escape France by climbing the Alps in a snowstorm. In Switzerland, as war refugees, they were married.

In 1945, Anna gave birth to a beautiful little girl and Armand worked as a translator at the Nuremberg Trials, giving voice for the first time to the full horrors of the Nazi regime. 

In 1948, the couple bought a tumbledown stone house in a tiny village in the south of France.

In 1953, Anna fled their home with her two children and just a few souvenirs of their life together. She and Armand never spoke again. 

In 2015, Miranda Richmond Mouillot - Armand’s and Anna’s only granddaughter  - published an extraordinary memoir entitled A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War & A Ruined House in France. Although it tells the story of Armand and Anna’s tumultuous love affair and its tragic end, Miranda’s book is as much a meditation on memory, storytelling, and the dark shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over the descendants of those who survived. It is also the story of how the author fell in love with France, and with the Frenchman who would become her husband. 





Questions: 
Miranda, you wrote in your Author’s Note that you “sought to maintain the vertiginous sense of poetry that their silence provoked in my life.” Could you please expand on this idea? 

Fairy tales and poems are a powerful part of the human experience because they are like little symbolic capsules for carrying big ideas and emotions. They help us to remember and pass on what would otherwise be too vast and complex for us handle. We connect to those little capsules long before we understand them fully because we sense all the meaning packed into them. And I sensed before I could give words to it that grandparents’ silence was like that, a capsule tightly packed with a lifetime of experiences, of love and loss and hope and heartbreak. It was so palpable – and they themselves were such extraordinary people – that it made me alive to that symbolic potential in all things. And when you walk around sensing that symbolic potential in all things, it’s a bit dizzying: you are keenly aware that everything around you contains an infinity of stories. In A Fifty-Year Silence I sought to make the reader aware of that world of infinite memory, not only in my own family, but everywhere.  




Why do you think your grandparents’ tragic love story took such a hold of your imagination? 

For two reasons: first, I think that it was imprinted in me. There’s research showing that the methyl group that gets attached to your genes in certain traumatic situations causes epigenetic changes that are actually passed on from one generation to the next. I literally felt it in my bones. Second, to say my grandparents fascinated me would be an understatement: there was simply no one like them on earth. And they were so beautiful, both as I knew them and in the few pictures we had from when they were young. They were larger than life, more brilliant, difficult, and original than anyone I knew. I wanted to follow them into their originality and find out more. 


Your grandmother had a knack for finding four –leaf clovers, told fortunes with playing cards, and ‘viewed death as an interesting dance step she’d eventually get around to learning.’ She sounds so wonderful! Can you tell me more about her? 

She was wonderful! A brilliant psychiatrist, a staggeringly well-read woman, equally at home in Samarkand and at the supermarket and would strike up a conversation with anyone she met, anywhere she went. She made every part of life into an adventure, loved postmodernist literature, and made catastrophically bad cakes from whatever she had lying around in the refrigerator – squishy kiwis, grated carrots, old raspberry jam. And she was generous – she wasn’t a wealthy woman, but she supported her artist friends, gave to charity, and kept up with old patients long after they’d left treatment. 


Your grandfather cooked elaborate feasts, sent you poetry to read, and had a library of books on the Holocaust. He sounds like such an intelligent and deep-thinking man. Can you please tell us more? 

My grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War, and then as an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trial just after, left his confidence in humanity shaken to the core. I don’t think he ever fully trusted another human being again. But he wanted to – he wanted to desperately. And that desperate want drove him on a lifelong intellectual quest for the best and most hopeful of parts of human existence, which he located in two places: in the human capacity to create beauty, and in the human potential for kindness to others. That intersected for him in literature, so he read all the time. (After he retired, when he wasn’t reading, he was volunteering for Amnesty International, seeking justice for writers.) No matter how difficult and tyrannical he was – and he was, he sent back my letters with corrections written on them, wouldn’t let me wear my hair down in his company, and nearly cut off our relationship because I disagreed with him on the Shakespeare authorship question – he threw me the lifeline of literature. 


As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, you describe your childhood as being ‘bafflingly full of terror.’ You kept your shoes by the front door so you could grab them if you had to flee in the night, and always looked out for possible places to hide. I find this evidence of the long shadow cast by the Holocaust deeply moving. Can you tell us some of the stories that engendered this terror in you? 

A lot of those stories are in the book, so I won’t give them away, but I believe the thread connecting them is uprootedness, the possibility of being taken away from your life at any moment, or having to leave it. Of everything you’ve created and grown accustomed to shattered in an instant. One thing that stands out to me is footsteps in the night. My grandparents were nearly arrested many times, but the first time, as far as I can tell, they were lying in the dark morning in the south of France and heard boots on the stairs. There was a pounding at the door, and two French milice officers demanded they rise – to go interpret for them as they arrested my grandparents’ upstairs neighbours, who had grown to be very dear friends. My grandparents had to stand and not only watch, but enunciate the brutal arrest of two people they had grown to love, and were only saved from the same fate by one of the officers, for whom my grandmother had (through a chance encounter) knitted a pair of wool gloves. 


Tell us about the first time you saw your grandparents’ house in the south of France.

I was fifteen, and in boarding school in Geneva, and my grandfather drove me down there one Sunday, with absolutely no explanation as to where we were going or why. The house is in a little medieval hamlet, a tiny fortified village with just two streets. A lazy, half-dry river runs by it and it is dominated by a gigantic rock, some six stories high, with the ruins of a fort on its flat top. When my grandfather propelled me down one of the hamlet’s two narrow streets and showed me the house, it was as if he’d thrown a brick into the still, unruffled pond of my teenage imagination: in an instant, I knew I had to live there. 


You had trouble establishing the truth of your grandparents’ love affair and subsequent marriage. Even the date of their wedding was hard to pin down. Explain some of the challenges you had to overcome in your search for your grandparents’ story.

The main challenge was them! No matter how many times I interviewed them, and how many questions I asked, it was as if they’d lived through the war in parallel, matching universes. They would tell stories about the same times, and the same places, with absolutely no mention of one another. And when I did get them talking about the other, it was like finally grabbing the bar of soap you’ve lost in the bathtub: they’d slip irretrievably off onto another subject before I knew it. Talking to them was also challenging because I loved them so dearly, and knew what suffering they were carrying in them, and how hard it was to for them to talk about. 


You moved to the south of France to life in your grandparents’ long abandoned house. Can you explain some of the emotions behind that choice, and some of the consequences?

I moved there chasing an ideal, in many ways: like many young people starting out to study history, I believed there was a single truth to uncover, and that the house would lead me to it. I also, as many children of refugees and immigrants do, grew up with a sense that I had no real home, and I was chasing the dream of finally finding my home, which I thought was a physical place. Moving there showed me how much more complex life really is – not only was there no clear-cut connection between the house and my grandparents’ love affair (though the complex connection I discovered in its place is just as strong), there was no way I could make this house my home! It wasn’t mine, for one thing, and for another it was nearly uninhabitable. Half its windows had been shattered, one of the doors had rotted nearly away, it was freezing cold and infested with spiders and scorpions. But I moved in anyway (I had no real choice) and learned more about my grandparents’ experiences with hardship than I ever would have in a cushier place. And of course the best consequence of all was meeting my husband – who is my true home. 


One aspect of the book which I found utterly heart-wrenching was the scenes in which you explore your grandfather’s work as a translator at the famous Nazi trials at Nuremberg. On one occasion, he broke down while translating Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command. What kind of scars did this experience leave on your grandfather?

Interpreting is usually thought of as highly intellectual work; certainly it requires a great deal of knowledge and quick thinking. But it is also intensely physical: the voices of the people you are interpreting enter your body through your ears, they vibrate into you, travel through your brain, and then you perform the work of transforming it into another language, and vibrate it back out into the world with your vocal cords. My grandfather once said to a journalist that he felt as if he had been a black box into which all the Trial disappeared, which he carried with him without being able to see inside it – and which I know tortured him and weighed on his soul for the rest of his life. 




What happened to your grandparents’ ruined stone house in the south of France?

It’s still there, still in the family, and I still hope to one day fix it up and live there. But who knows what life will bring? 

Perth Writers Festival round-up - February 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I spent the last few days in Western Australia for the wonderful Perth Writers Festival. Big congratulations to Katherine Dorrington, the program director, for such a lively and inspirational program, and thanks to Maria Alessandrino and the whole team for taking such good care of all the writers. 

I began my events last Thursday with a wonderful event with Sean Williams. I've known him for years, and love his work, but did not know his favourite book is The Weirdstone of Brisignamen by Alan Garner, which is one of my favourites too! I plan on digging it out and reading ti again - its been years!

Sean has a brilliant new series out called TWINMAKER with Book 1 called Jump in Australia. It's an extremely clever Sci-Fi thriller that imagines a world in which technology has completely transformed the world. One of the most wonderful - and dangerous - inventions is a machine that transports you anywhere in the world in just a moment. Called a d-mat, you can catch it to an extraordinary old observatory in the mountain heights of Switzerland, then to the deserts of the Sahara, all in the time it takes to go down in a lift. Of course everyone wants one! I want one! But the whole book is about what this kind of technology could do to our bodies ... and our souls ...


I then talked about my new children's fantasy adventure series THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST to a tent full of excited kids. It was great fun (if rather hot!), and I impressed all the boys in the audience with my sword-fighting skills. 

 

Book 3: The Beast of Blackmoor Bog has just been released, and it was wonderful to see so many kids eager to get their hands on it. I also had a number of older kids bringing along piles of my other books for me to sign. 

Then, on Friday, Danielle Wood and I did a panel on Fairy Tales with Delys Bird as our very warm and embracing chair. I have written about Danielle's incredible, intense and surprising fairy tale retellings for The Sydney Morning Herald, saying she "writes with acute insight into the inner lives of women, and all in prose so precise and crystal-cut, the whole shines with an unsettling beauty." It was wonderful to hear Danielle speak of her interest with fairy tales and why she "repurposes" them into contemporary social realism. Our books are very different indeed, but we share the same fascinations with these old, beautiful and sometimes very strange stories.

I sold out of all copies of BITTER GREENS and THE WILD GIRL after our talk, which is always a good sign (though a shame as I had another two days at the festival in which to woo new readers).

On Saturday, I had the whole day off but instead of going shopping, going to the beach, or exploring Perth I went straight back to the festival - of course! And I'm so glad I did. 

I saw a wonderful panel with Liane Moriarty, Liz Byrski and Hanni Rayson - I loved so much my cheeks ached. They were all so warm and clever and funny - the audience was in heaven! I have read Liane Moriarty's brilliantly funny & brilliantly sad The Husband's Secret (you can read my interview with her here), but the other two authors were new to me. Can't wait to discover their books!


Then I listened to Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth is Missing, and John Darnielle, author of Wolf in White Van, talk about their books, about writing from the point of view of a damaged psyche, their lives and much more. It was fascinating. John made my favourite quote of the day when he said "writing a book is like having a vampire living in your home, festering in their coffin, demanding to be fed blood every day."

Another highlight was listening to Georgina Penney talk in 'Romance is Not a Dirty Word', a panel in which Anna Cowan, the author of Untamed, was meant to be sharing but unfortunately could not make it because she is just about ready to pop out a baby. Georgina did a fabulous job despite her absence, being as warm and funny and passionate as she seems to be in her books. Favourite quote from her website is that she likes to spend her days imagining: "buff medieval Scotsmen in kilts (who have access to shower facilities and deodorant) living behind every bramble hedge."

Then I went to see Erik Jensen, Miranda Richmond Mouillot, and Tom Rob Smith talk about their books, all inspired by real lives and real stories. They were discussing the ideas of truth versus good storytelling, who owns their stories, and what right we have to draw upon them, and many other fascinating philosophical  questions that I have grappled with in my own writing. Once again, I feel I have to read all their books! That is the magic of festivals. 

On Sunday, I was on a panel called 'Drawing From History' with Joe Abercrombie, Juliet Marillier and Robyn Cadwaller, with the elegant Natasha Lester as our chair. Everyone knows Juliet Marillier is one of my favourite novelists (you can check out the dozens of blogs in which I rave about her here), but both Joe and Robyn were new to me. I managed to read Joe's new book Half a King (brilliant! I will rave upon it anon) but Robyn's book The Anchoress is still on my tottering to-be-read pile (sorry, Robyn, I'll get to it soon, I promise). 

I enjoyed this panel hugely. It was so much fun, and I wish we could have talked on for another hour.  

I also went to see Andrea de Robilant speak about his new book, Chasing the Rose, which I ended up buying and devouring on the plane home. It was a wonderful story, and I think I want his life (descendant of Venetian nobleman, lives in Venice and travels the world, rose named after his family ... you get the picture).  

I had an utterly brilliant time, and to top it all off, I sold out of all of THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST as well!

My display box before my event: 

My display box after my event: 


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