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BOOK LIST: Books Read in April 2013

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I read 10 books in April, bringing me to a grand total of 44 books for the year. All but one was a historical novel - next month, I must try and read a little more widely!

The Changeling – Philippa Gregory

This is Philippa Gregory's first foray in Young Adult Fiction and I thought it was really well done. From the opening scene, I felt as if I was in the hands of a storytelling master. The pace is swift, the characters are believable, sympathetic and sharply drawn, and the historical setting done with a sure, light touch. The book twists together a medieval mystery, romance, and a touch of the supernatural to make a most enjoyable read. 

The Firebird – Susanna Kearsley

I was drawn to this book by the utterly gorgeous cover and also by a Good Reads recommendation which said it was like other authors I'd enjoyed like Kate Morton and Kimberley Freeman. It's always a risk and an adventure trying out a new author, and I'm really glad I took the jump. Susanna Kearsley's writing is just gorgeous - very sensuous and vivid - and the storyline is intriguing. The heroine Nicola has the psychic gifts of seeing 'flashes' of an object's past when she lays her hands on it. Although she works in antiques and art, she tries to keep her gift hidden from the world. Until she touches a simple, wood-carved firebird ... and finds herself on a quest to discover its story. The Firebird combines contemporary and historical narratives, romance, suspense, and a a twist of the supernatural into a delicate, wise tale. I believe the book is part of a connected series and so I look forward to discovering her other books. 

The Darling Strumpet – Gillian Bagwell
A wonderful historical novel told from the point of view of Nell Gwyn, the feisty mistress of Charles II. 

Silent in the Grave – Deanna Raybourn
Silent in the Sanctuary – Deanna Raybourn
Silent on the Moors – Deanna Raybourn

I read and enjoyed this these Victorian murder mysteries some time ago, but recently realised that there were now five in the whole series and I had only read the first three. So I set myself the task of reading them all again. They were a great pleasure to revisit. Each book is a separate mystery, but a lot of the intrigue comes from the slowly developing romance between the heroine, Lady Jane Grey, and the mysterious investigator she first meets in the first line of the first book: 

"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor." 

The tone of the books are wry and clever - there's a lot of subtle ironic humour - plus I loved the way lady Julia slowly turns from being a repressed Victorian lady to a bold, sensual and self-determined woman. I'm looking forward to reading the last books in the series (I've already bought them!) 

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris – Jenny Colgan
A book bought solely on the title and the cover! I don't read much chick lit but enjoy a frothy comic romance every now and again. This was even frothier than I expected - and not quite as funny as I had hoped - but a few memorable characters, gorgeous descriptions of making chocolate, and the Parisian setting made it a most relaxing and sweet read. 

And Then She Fell – Stephanie Laurents
I enjoyed this Stephanie Laurents book more than I have some of her other titles --- I think because there was a murder in there as well which meant that was a story line other than the usual rake-meets-lady angle. Good holiday reading.

The Perfume Garden - Kate Lord Brown
A young woman inherits an old house in Spain, discovers clues to buried family secrets, meets a gorgeous Spaniard, and finds her true path in life ... interposed with flashbacks to her grandmother's experiences during the bloody and turbulent Spanish Civil War  ... this book is exactly the sort of book I love to read the most. And I did love it! Look out for a longer review and an interview with the author in the months to come. 

The Chalice – Nancy Bilyeau 
I read and really enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau's historical thriller The Crown last year and so was eager to return to her world of bloody Tudor intrigue, romance, with a twist of the supernatural. Her heroine Joanna is a sympathetic character and the story is filled with  slowly building suspense. 

INTERVIEW: Nancy Bilyeau. author of 'The Crown'

Friday, March 08, 2013

Last year I was browsing through the bookstore looking for a book to take overseas with me. I was travelling to the UK and Germany, and wanted a book that would keep me utterly absorbed as I negotiated endless airports and hotels and transit lounges. I picked up 'The Crown' by Nancy Bilyeau.

It was a risk. I've never hear of the book or the author before. But I loved the cover, and I loved the blurb, and so I bought it.

I am so glad I did.

'The Crown' begins with a heart-wrenching scene of a woman being burnt to death, and her young relative - a young nun - risking her life to offer her comfort. The story is set during the turbulent days of of the Tudor king, Henry VIII, when abbeys were being torn down and monasteries dissolved, and the  protagonist of the story - Sister Joanna - will have more than her faith tested over the course of the novel.  'The Crown' is an intelligent historical thriller, with nail-biting action, religious conspiracy theories, and a nice dash of romance thrown in.

I loved it!

So, in my usual fashion with any book I love, I had to know more.

The author Nancy Bilyeau has had her life turned upside-down by the success of her first novel. She has given up her hot-shot career as a magazine editor and screenwriter to write the sequel, 'The Chalice'(I can't wait!) and has very kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions:

Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes, my whole life. I'm a real Water Mitty. Just last week, I missed my stop on the subway in New York City because of my daydreaming. Growing up, I would bounce a large ball on the patio in our suburban backyard, spinning story lines by the hour. They were vaguely Agatha Christie-ish. I remember in one, an heiress showed up from Argentina to collect the money willed to her but then it turned out she was an imposter. Why Argentina? No idea! 
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
When I was eight years old, the class went on a field trip. The teacher asked us to write a report on what we'd seen after we got back to the classroom. She loved my report so much, the teacher made a sign that said, "Have you heard of Nancy Bilyeau, the Famous Writer?" and tacked it to the wall. Ever since that day, I felt that perhaps this was something I could do.
(I love this story - see what teachers can do!)
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in Chicago, Illinois. My mother was from an Irish-American family in Illinois, the O'Neills. My father was a watercolor artist from Michigan. We moved to Michigan later, and I grew up there. I'm very much a Midwesterner; people say I still have the accent. After I graduated from the University of Michigan, I eventually made my way to the big city of New York, and started a career as a magazine editor. I worked for Rolling Stone, Good Housekeeping, InStyle. In the middle of all this, I married a Canadian man after a long-distance relationship and moved to Toronto for a couple of years. I love going to the movies, hiking, eating Italian food, gathering shells on the beach, touring historic homes. I lured my husband down to New York and that is where we live now with our two children.
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I joined a fiction workshop because someone dropped out and they needed a fourth for the minimum number. I came in wanting to write about the 16th century, my favorite. I didn't know what I wanted it to be until I decided to make the protagonist a novice in a Catholic order. 
How extensively do you plan your novels?
Not that extensively. I know where I want the characters to go but I don't outline in great detail because it makes me self-conscious and diminishes the creative possibilities, at least for me. In The Crown, the whole sequence at Howard House, the masqued party and meeting with Princess Mary, I came up with it suddenly while almost finished with the book.  
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I believe in dreams but I didn't get specific ideas for the books that I am aware of. I think things seep out of the unconscious. though. The Crown is a product of a fever. I had a bad flu with a fever, and while semi-hallucinating with 103 degrees, I thought, I have to get back to that novel (It was about one-fourth written) and finish it. 
Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Researching Athelstan, an obscure Dark Ages king, yielded some amazing discoveries.There were things I learned while researching that connected to Richard the Lionheart and Edward the Black Prince that gave me shivers. I can't say what--spoilers!

Athelstan, often called the first king of England 

 Where do you write, and when?
The first book I wrote at the kitchen table and at Starbucks, early in the morning, on weekends and on "stay cations." The second book I took a break from the magazine business and I wrote it every day in the library. 
What is your favourite part of writing?
The first burst of inspiration that seems to shoot out of my fingers as I type, and then the revised passage delivering that scene. It's the in-between part that can get you! 
What do you do when you get blocked?
I write something anyway, even if it's wretched. I then redo it. And redo it.  
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
Long walks, particularly in the snow. Seeing movies. Reading books that are far from what I am doing. Going to art museums. 
Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Earl Gray tea, some jolting classical music, like Beethoven. 
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Daphne du Maurier, A.S. Byatt, Mary Renault, Jane Austen, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Norah Lofts and Alison Weir. 

I love Alison Weir's books too! 

What do you consider to be good writing?  
The conveying of an idea that is new and yet familiar. 
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
You must workshop to find out if what you're writing in your head is coming across on the page. 
What are you working on now? 
I'm plotting out Book Three! It's going to be even scarier, plus Joanna will have encounters with Henry VIII himself. OK, that could be considered scary and of itself, right? But frightening things aside from the King.

BOOK LIST: Best Books Read in 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I didn't quite make my target of 100 books this year, reading only 95, but I did discover some brilliant new writers. Here are my top reads of the year: 

Best Historical Novel

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey 

What a wonderful, amazing, magical book! I just loved this and think it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I wish I’d written it. A retelling of the Russian fairytale, the Snow Child, set in Alaska at the turn of the 19th century, it seems far too accomplished to be by a debut novelist ... I can only look forward hopefully to many more books by Eowyn Ivey.

Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder

I was sure I was going to love this book as soon as I read the subtitle: ‘The Story of a Quest, a Castle and Mary Queen of Scot’. And I did love it! A fabulous, dark, surprising historical novel, with a hefty dose of mystery, intrigue, passion and cross-dressing. This was one of the best reads of the year so far.

The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift

Set in 1666, soon after the restoration of King Charless II, this novel tells the story of how Alice – a young wife and talented painter - discovers a rare orchid, the Lady’s Slipper, growing in a nearby wood. She is captivated by its beauty and wants to paint it, but the owner of the wood —a Quaker called Richard Wheeler, is determined to keep the flower where God intended it to grow. So Alice steals the flower, and sets off a chain of events including murder, riot, witchcraft, betrayal and exile. Brilliant historical fiction.

The Queen’s Vow by C.W Gortner

The Queen’s Vow brings Isabella of Castile, a powerful and passionate woman, to life, illuminates the forces that drove her, and paints a vivid picture of late 15th century Spain, one of the most fascinating of countries. I absolutely loved this book, and loved this place and time in history – I hope C.W. Gortner writes a lot more books, fast!

Best Parallel Historical/Contemporary Novel

Secrets of the Tide by Hannah Richell

Secrets of the Tides is a suspenseful page-turner of a family drama, taking place mainly in Cornwall and London, and moving back and forth between the past and the present. It begins with a girl jumping off a bridge into the Thames. We do not know who she is or why she is jumped, or even if she lives or dies. Slowly the answers to these mysteries are revealed, some of them very surprising. I absolutely loved it, and look forward to more from this debut author.

Lighthouse Bay by Kimberly Freeman

Lighthouse Bay begins in 1901, with a woman – the only survivor of a shipwreck - dragging a chest full of treasure down a deserted beach. The narrative then moves to contemporary times, with a woman secretly grieving at the funeral of her married lover. These two women – Isabella Winterbourne and Libby Slater – are joined through time by a lighthouse and its secrets and mysteries. I raced through this compelling and intriguing book, utterly unable to put it down. Fabulous rollicking read. 

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left Behind starts in occupied France during World War I, with the main character, Sophie Lefevre standing up the local German Kommandant. He sees a painting of Sophie, rendered by her artist-husband who is off fighting the German army. The Kommandant is drawn irresistibly to the painting – and to its beautiful, red-haired subject – and begins to show her favour. This attracts the suspicion and contempt of the other French villagers, and sets in chain a series of tragic events. 
The action then moves to modern-day London, where the young widow Liv now owns the painting and becomes the centre of a legal battle by the Lefevre family to get it back. There’s romance and drama and suspense aplenty – I really loved it.

Best Historical Mystery

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

A historical thriller set in Tudor England, this novel features a beautiful young nun, Sister Joanna, as its heroine. The book begins with the burning of Joanna’s cousin for treason, and sees our intrepid nun being thrown in the Tower and then coerced into a hunt for a mysterious crown thought to have supernatural powers. The book moves swiftly along, with lots of danger, suspense, and a little romance. An engaging read.

Where Shadows Dance by C.S. Harris

The latest in a series of great Regency murder mysteries featuring the aristocratic detective Sebastian St Cyr. I really enjoy this series, and buy each new one as soon as it comes out. Begin with the first in the series, What Angels Fear, as part of the pleasure is the unfolding relationships. 

Best Contemporary Mystery 

The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker

The latest in the delightful Bruno Courreges mysteries set in the Perigord in southern France, this one seems a little darker in tone than the previous ones, with terrorists, animal rights campaigners and archaeologists keeping Bruno busier than ever. There are the usual wonderful descriptions of French food and French countryside, and a little romance – I’m just hoping Martin Walker is writing fast. 

Best Fantasy

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Sea Hearts is wonderful, in all senses of the word. It’s a dark, moody, storm-wracked book of love, longing, desire, and wickedness. Its central character, Misskaella the sea-witch, is one of the most powerful fictive creations I’ve read in quite some time. Her story - and that of the selkies and the men who covet them – is heartbreaking in its sadness, yet also so hauntingly beautiful, so filled with the sweeping rhythm of the sea, and pierced here and there with shafts of light, that  the lingering feeling is one of awe and wonderment.

Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier 

The sixth in the wonderful Sevenwaters series, this book is, as always, filled with wonder, peril, magic, romance, courage, wisdom and compassion. Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favourite writers and she never, ever disappoints. A beautiful, radiant book. 

Best Children’s Fiction

The Forgotten Pearl by Belinda Murrell 

The most recent book by my beautiful sister, Belinda, The Forgotten Pearl is set in Darwin and Sydney during the Second World War. The heroine, Poppy, is a young girl who faces danger, loss, grief and new love during one of the most tumultuous times in Australian history. She lives through the bombing of Darwin and is evacuated to Sydney where she must learn to make a new life for herself. I always judge a book by whether it brings a prickle of tears to my eyes, and this book did that a number of times – a beautifully written historical novel for children set during a fascinating and largely forgotten period of Australian history. 

The Perilous Gard
by Elizabeth Marie Pope

I am so grateful to whoever it was that told me I should read this book - an absolute masterpiece of children's historical fantasy, written with such deftness and lightness of touch. It has become one of my all-time favourite children's books.

Flint Heart by Katherine & John Paterson

Katherine Paterson was one of my favourite authors when I was a child – I absolutely loved ‘Bridge to Terabithia’, and a lesser known book of hers, ‘Jacob Have I Loved’. So when I saw she and her husband John had retold an old English folktale and that it was sumptuously illustrated by John Rocco, the former creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, I had to have it. It’s a beautiful book in every sense of the word. The writing is simple and pitch-perfect, and the illustrations are strange and sumptuous – after I read it, I gave it to my 8 year old daughter and she loved it too. A lovely antidote to all those sparkly fairy books.

Best Young Adult Fiction

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

A lovely retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale, Jessica Day George has a light touch, a sweet romance, and a clever use of knitting – I’d recommend this to anyone who loves YA fantasy and fairytale retellings. 

One Long Thread by Belinda Jeffries

This is a beautiful, moving coming-of-age novel, refreshingly original and beautifully written. It tells the story of Ruby Moon, whose family has been split in half by her parents’ divorce. The mother moves to Darwin to join what can only be described as a cult, and takes Ruby’s twin sister with her. This seems to me so insensitive, so cruel … and, sure enough, the fallout from that decision has tragic consequences. The action of the book moves from Melbourne to Darwin to Tonga – the sections set there are among my favourite in the book. I also loved the use of the silkworm as a recurring motif and symbol. This was the first of Belinda Jeffries’ books that I have read but I will be seeking out more. 

Moonlight & Ashes by Sophie Masson

I really loved this new book by Sophie Masson. I think it's her best book yet, and I'm a long-time fan of her work. 'Moonlight & Ashes' is a retelling of the Aschenputtel fairy tale, the German Cinderella. It is set in alternative Prague, and is full of adventure, magic and romance. It has the most beautiful, dreamy cover too - loved it!

by Juliet Marillier

The latest book from one of my all-time favourite authors, Shadowfell is a magical quest set in an otherworldy Scotland. I loved it!

Best Historical Romance

The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie

The Perfect Waltz by Anne Gracie

The Perfect Kiss by Anne Gracie

I read a lot of romance this year, by a lot of different authors, possibly because I am studying my doctorate and so was seeking the very best kind of comfort reading as an antidote to all the academia I was ploughing through. Nonetheless, the three top romance books I read this year were all by the Australian author, Anne Gracie. Such lightness and deftness of touch, such wit and warmth, such sparkling dialogue - she never disappoints. 

Best Contemporary Romance

I didn’t read any this year – I wonder why?

Best Non-Fiction

Napoleon & Josephine: An Improbable Marriage by Evangeline Bruce

An utterly engrossing and illuminating look at Napoleon and his Empress, this thick tome is as readable as any novel. I went it to it understanding nothing about Napoleon and his rise and fall, and came away feeling I understood everything.

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski

Looking at the single year of 1812 - and drawing on thousands of first-hand accounts from both sides - this brilliant book looks at each step of Napoleon’s march on Russia and his disastrous retreat. Utterly compelling, shocking and fascinating. 

I need to make a disclaimer, of course:
1) My choice is utterly and unashamedly subjective
2) I know many of these writers, and am lucky enough to call some of them my friends. One of them is even my sister! Regardless of whether they’re friends or family, I still absolutely loved their works, though, and hope you will too.
3) Many thanks to the publishers and writers who sent me books this year– I’m sorry if I haven’t read those books yet and I will try to get to them. My reading choices are prompted purely by my own selfish pleasure and so sometimes I don’t read the books I should!
4) This means, of course, that there are many absolutely wonderful books out there which I haven’t yet discovered. I hope that I shall soon. 

You may enjoying reading my interviews with some of the above authors:


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