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SPOTLIGHT: My List of Best Feminist Reads

Friday, March 10, 2017



I recently asked what people would like to see me blogging about on Facebook, and among some great suggestions was one asking me to list my favourite feminist literature.


So I spent some time quietly thinking about this and slowly began to put together a list of books which I felt had helped shape me as a feminist. 

After I posted my list, Stephanie Dowrick suggested that I should add a definition of what I mean by 'feminist literature' - and also quite rightly pointed out how many gaps there are in my reading. I agreed most humbly. My aim for this list was always that it would be an ongoing project, with me adding books as I read or remember them, and taking suggestions to widen my knowledge. I have already got compiled a long list of books I must read, and am hoping to add a new book or two every month. So please feel free to leave a suggestion for me in the comments section below. 

So what do I mean by 'feminist fiction'?

I was brought up by my mother - a brilliant, strong-willed and wise woman - to believe that women are entitled to the same rights and liberties as men, and have the same potential for intellectual and moral strength. I have always passionately believed in fighting to ensure the political, social, and economic quality of all humans, regardless of gender, race, spiritual beliefs or sexual orientation.   

I am proud that my books have been identified by many readers as being feminist. Most recently, Jack Zipes - the world's foremost fairy tale scholar - wrote of my work: "Kate Forsyth is one of the leading feminist writers of fairy tales in Australia. In recent years she has published a notable series of historical fairy-tale novels based on ‘Rapunzel’, ‘All-Fur’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. They include Bitter Greens (2012), The Wild Girl (2013), and The Beast’s Garden (2015). All of them are complex feminist adaptations that shed light on intrepid women in historical events that test their compassion and fortitude."

I love this endorsement so much because I feel it recognises something of what I am trying to do in my fiction. That is to celebrate and illuminate the lives of women, both in the past and today, to help my readers understand some of the costs and consequences of gender inequality, and to inspire them to strive harder for such basic rights as creative freedom, economic independence, political power, and universal respect. 



So - for me - this is a list of books which I feel have been important to me in my personal struggle for women's rights and liberties; and which I hope will help and inspire others. My intention is for the list to be - with your help - an ever-growing and evolving thing of beauty.

Most of these books are fiction, simply because that is my own great love, but I have decided to widen the scope of my list to include essays, poems, and non-fiction works as well. So please, help me! What should I be reading?


Five Go to Treasure Island – Enid Blyton
When I was a kid growing up, my sister and I wanted to be just like George – strong, fearless, truthful and just as good as a boy. There were not that many heroines like George all the way back then.



Emily of New Moon – L.M. Montgomery
My favourite L.M. Montgomery book, I loved it because the heroine wanted to be a writer. She was clever and determined and did not want to marry if it was going to stand in the way of her ambition.

I also love Anne of Green Gables, of course, and one of her lesser-known books, The Blue Castle, also has to be included on my list


Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
I loved the character of Jo so much. She seemed just like me – untidy, dreamy, and always scribbling away at a story. I also love Eight Cousins!




The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
This was the first fantasy book I ever read where it was the woman’s tale that was the focus. A touchstone book for me. 



The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
A powerful novel about domestic abuse in 19th century England, with a heartbreaking denouement. 


Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 
Still one of my all-time favourite books – I try and re-read it every few years. 


The Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
The story of ‘Jane Eyre’ retold from the point of view of the mad wife in the attic. So clever! 


Persuasion – Jane Austen
My favourite Jane Austen novel – the story of a young woman learning to speak out for herself. I would also include all of Jane Austen's other books, including - of course - Pride & Prejudice.




The Awakening - Kate Chopin
I read this in my first degree, and have never forgotten the effect it had on me. A landmark work of early feminism (published in 1899).

The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A 6,000 word short story published in 1892 that describes a woman's slow descent into madness after being confined to a room on a 'rest cure',  a common prescription for women in the 19th century. Unsettling and powerful. 

Precious Bane - Mary Webb
This is one of my all-time favourite books & am always pressing it upon my friends, insisting they read it. 

A Room of Her Own – Virginia Woolf
I carry this book in my heart. It had a profound influence on me and my determination to shape my own life.




The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by the American poet, and published under a pseudonym in 1963. Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after its UK publication. I also love her poetry, particularly Ariel.

Transformations - Anne Sexton
A dark and powerful collection of poems inspired by fairy tales. I also really love 'Her Kind':




The Color Purple - Alice Walker 
Another all-time favourite book! It never fails to dazzle and move me.




I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
A heart-rending memoir of the poet’s life.



Stravinsky’s Lunch – Drusilla Modjeska

A fascinating book on the lives of women’s artists. 



Women Who Run with the Wolves - Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Myths and Stories of the Archetypal Woman - a book I have dipped into again many times. 


The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century Literary Imagination - Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar  
Hugely influential book of feminist re-readings of writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. Fuelled my fascination with the Victorian era.  


Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood
My favourite book by Margaret Atwood, this tells the story of a young woman accused of murder.


Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver
Such a beautiful and wise book.




Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier

The story of Mary Anning, the young woman who discovered dinosaur fossils at Lyme Regis.


Possession – A.S. Byatt
The story of a love affair between Victorian poets.




Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

The contrasting lives of two young women in Victorian Britain - a tour-de-force!


The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

A tour de force! Tells the story of a brilliant, unconventional woman in the 19th century who studies lichen in order to understand the world.



There are, of course, many thousands more ... and as I read them or remember them, I will add them to my list!

Please feel free to make suggestions below!

BOOK LIST: Kate Forsyth's Best Books of 2016

Sunday, January 08, 2017



In 2016, I read around 90 books (not including research books!) 

That’s an average of seven or eight books a month, and is actually less than I usually read. I had a lot of research to do this year, though!

For my own interest I’ve done two pie-charts to break down the gender of the writers and the genres of the fiction. 

Unsurprisingly, I read a lot more books by women than by men, and my favourite genre was historical fiction. 

I was surprised by how little fantasy and romance I read – it’s not like me. I obviously have some reading to catch up on! 









Here are my lists of the Best Books of the Year. Just click on the links to read my reviews of these amazing books.




Fiction



1. The Observations – Jane Harris



2. Fingersmith – Sarah Waters



3. All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr



4. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith  



5. Tower of Thorns – Juliet Marillier 



6. The Marvels – Brian Selznick



7. The Other Daughter – Lauren Willig



8. The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry 



9. The Midnight Watch – David Dyer



10. The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge



11. The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert



12. The Good People – Hannah Kent



13. The Suspect – Michael Robotham



14. Wolf Winter – Cecilia Ekback 



15. The Wonder – Emma Donoghue


Non-Fiction/Memoir




1. H Is For Hawk – Helen Macdonald 



2. The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece - Carola Hicks



3. Peacock & Vine – A.S. Byatt



4. A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for his Mother – Jeremy Gavron



5. Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place – Philip Marsden



6. Victoria the Queen – Julia Baird



Wondering what were my Best Books of the past few years? Click here!

BOOK REVIEW: FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters

Monday, March 14, 2016



THE BLURB:


Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. 

Mrs. Sucksby's household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home. 

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naive gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud's vast inheritance. 

Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum. 

With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways...But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals. 

The New York Times Book Review has called Sarah Waters a writer of "startling power" and The Seattle Times has praised her work as "gripping, astute fiction that feeds the mind and the senses." Fingersmith marks a major leap forward in this young and brilliant career.


WHAT I THOUGHT OF THIS BOOK:

Sarah Waters had been on my radar for a while, but I only read one of her books – Affinity – last year. I absolutely adored it, and am now working my way through all of her books.

 I asked friends which one I should read next and they all recommended Fingersmith, and so of course I ordered a copy straightaway. It was short-listed for the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize, and has been widely acclaimed, and all for very good reason. 

Fingersmith is one of the best books I have ever read. Fiendishly clever and utterly suspenseful, it has one of the most unexpected twists I have ever read. I just loved the way the whole plot turned itself about, and how it was all resolved in the end. 

Sarah Waters is without a doubt one of the most brilliant authors writing today, and Fingersmith has become one of my all-time favourite books. I’m still thinking about it and marvelling about it weeks later. 


WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THIS BOOK?

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! 

BOOK REVIEW: Affinity by Sarah Waters

Monday, August 31, 2015

Affinity – Sarah Waters

Blurb (from GoodReads)

An upper-class woman recovering from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior has begun visiting the women’s ward of Millbank prison, Victorian London’s grimmest jail, as part of her rehabilitative charity work. Amongst Millbank’s murderers and common thieves, Margaret finds herself increasingly fascinated by one apparently innocent inmate, the enigmatic spiritualist Selina Dawes. Selina was imprisoned after a séance she was conducting went horribly awry, leaving an elderly matron dead and a young woman deeply disturbed. Although initially skeptical of Selina’s gifts, Margaret is soon drawn into a twilight world of ghosts and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom, and her own.

What I Thought:

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. It tells the story of Margaret, a depressed young Victorian woman, who begins visiting the women’s ward at Millbank Prison as part of a do-gooder charity mission. She meets a number of different women, some incarcerated for acts that today would not be considered crimes. Among them is a beautiful young woman named Selina Dawes. Selina is a spiritualist. She was imprisoned after one of her séances went horribly wrong, causing the death of her patron and the hysteria of a rich young client. Margaret finds herself reluctantly convinced of Selena’s clairvoyant powers, and draw to her beauty and fragility.  

I don’t want to say much more, because the brilliance of this book is in its clever and surprising plot. I can say, though, with absolute conviction: READ IT!


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