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SPOTLIGHT: Fairy Retellings

Thursday, May 07, 2015

FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS

A few months ago, I gave a speech on fairy tales at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. I've had a lot of queries from people who were unable to make it for various reasons (including vast distances) and so I've summarised my speech into a couple of blogs so everyone may enjoy.  Here is a brief rundown on fairy tale retellings and ways to use them in your own creative work ...



A fairy tale retelling is a story which retells or reimagines a fairy tale, or draws upon well-known fairy tale symbols and structures.


Fairy tale retellings deal with personal transformation - people and creatures change in dramatic and often miraculous ways. Many fairy tales hinge upon a revelation of a truth that has been somehow hidden or disguised. 

Fairy Tale Retellings are most often written as a fantasy for children or young adults.


        

Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for young adults


Not all, however. In recent years, there have been a number of beautiful, powerful and astonishing fairy tale retellings for adults too. 

          
      

Some of my favourite fairy tale retellings for adults

My own novel BITTER GREENS is a sexy and surprising retelling of the 'Rapunzel' fairy tale, interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, the French noblewoman Charlotte-Rose de la Force . It moves between Renaissance Venice and the glittering court of the Sun King in 17th century Versailles and Paris, imagining the witch of the tale as a beautiful courtesan and the muse of the Venetian painter Titian. 

      

There are many different ways to draw upon fairy tales in fiction. Here is a brief overview: 


“Pure” Fairy Tale Retellings
A retelling of a fairy tale in which few changes are made to the best-known or ‘crystallised’ sequence of action and motifs. Changes tend to be small and subtle, such as adding dialogue or rhymes, naming characters, describing the setting more vividly, or smoothing out any inconsistencies. My picture book TWO SELKIE TALES FROM SCOTLAND, beautifully illustrated by Fiona McDonald, is an example of a "pure" fairy tale retelling. 



Fairy tale Parodies
Stories in this genre parody fairy tales for comic effect – they are usually done in picture book form, though sometimes writers do so in longer fiction also. 



Fairy Tale Pastische
A pastiche is a work of literature which celebrates the work that it imitates i.e. it is a new work which copies or mimics the style of an older literary form. A fairy tale pastiche therefore sounds like it comes from the ancient oral tradition, but is entirely new 



Sequels, prequels and Spin-Offs

Many fiction writers take a well-known fairy tale, and then create new stories that tell of the events which happened before or after the pattern of action in the 'crystallised' tale. 




Fairy Tale Allusion & Intertextuality

Some novels can draw upon fairy tale motifs, metaphors and plot patterns in more subtle ways. 

A girl may wear a red hoodie, or red dancing shoes. 

A young woman may be poor and under-valued, yet still win the heart of the most eligible bachelor

A dark forest may be a dark city … a tower may be a hospital …

My novel DANCING ON KNIVES is a contemporary romantic suspense novel set in Australia, yet it draws upon Hans Christian Andersen's well-known fairy tale, 'The Little Mermaid'. My heroine Sara is not at home in the world. She feels as if she cannot breathe, and every step causes her pain. She is haunted by the ghosts of the past, and must learn to be brave before she can begin a new life for herself. The fairy tale elements are used only as allusion and metaphor, and as a structural underpinning of the story. 




Retelling well-known tales from another Point of View

Another way to reinvigorate a well-known fairy tale is to tell the story from an unexpected point of view. I was always interested in the motivations of the witch in 'Rapunzel', and so knew right from the beginning that she would be a major point of view in BITTER GREENS. Here are a few other books which make the villain the protagonist of the story: 

      


Retelling well-known Fairy Tales in unexpected settings

Another way to revitalise a well-known fairy tale is to set it somewhere startling or unexpected. I have spent the last year working on a retelling of the Grimm Brothers'version of 'Beauty & the Beast', set in Nazi Germany.  THE BEAST'S GARDEN will be released in late April 2015.





Books About Fairy Tales & Their Tellers

As I noted earlier, BITTER GREENS is a retelling of the ' Rapunzel' fairy tale interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. As an author and oral storyteller, I am very interested in the tellers of the tales. In my novel, THE WILD GIRL, I tell the story of the forbidden romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world's most famous fairy tales, against the dramatic background of the Napoleonic Wars in Germany. 

      
   


Retelling Little Known Fairy Tales

You do not need to only drawn upon the best-known fairy tales. There are many hundreds of beautiful, romantic and beguiling fairy tales that are not as well-known as they should be. In THE GYPSY CROWN, I retell some old Romany folk tales. In THE PUZZLE RING, I was inspired by Scottish fairy tales and history. In THE WILD GIRL, I shine a light upon some of the forgotten Grimm tales. In THE IMPOSSIBLE QUEST, I play with old Welsh tales. 

The only limits are your own imagination!

FURTHER READING:




FILM REVIEW: Tangled by the Disney Animated Studios

Sunday, August 03, 2014



'Rapunzel', by Kevin Nichols

Many of you may not know I have spent the last few years working away steadfastly on a Doctor of Creative Arts. My novel Bitter Greens (a telling of the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale) was written as the creative component of this doctorate. 

As my theoretical component, I also wrote a mythic biography of Rapunzel. I traced the story’s genealogy from its ancient mythological roots to contemporary reimaginings of the tale, including Disney’s recent animated musical fantasy Tangled.

I am always being asked what I think about Tangled, and so I thought I’d share some of my thinking with you all. 
 
Released on 24 November 2010, Tangled was Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 50th animated motion picture and their first to be shot in 3D. It cost the studio $260 million to create, making it the most expensive animated film ever to be made, but earned more than $590 million worldwide.  The studio promoted it with the tagline: ‘Tangled is the ultimate story of breaking free after being grounded for life.’ 

The story, the studio announced in its publicity material, ‘is based on the classic German fairy tale 'Rapunzel' by the Brothers Grimm.’ Most journalists added the adverb ‘loosely’. That is probably an understatement. There is little remaining of the original story except for a girl in a tower, a witch, and a whole lot of hair. 
 
The story is funny, light-hearted and visually rich. It features a girl who can use her magical hair as a lasso, and a wise-cracking thief as the hero. 

It seems clear to me that the screenwriter, Dan Fogelman, must have previously encountered the brilliantly witty graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge, written by husband-and-wife team Dean and Shannon Hale, and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation). Shannon Hale certainly noticed the resemblances herself, tweeting in January 2011: ‘Just watched Tangled. Feeling slightly violated.’ (@haleshannon, twitter post, 9/1/11).

        





So what do I think about Tangled


I have to say that I think Disney Animation Studios adroitly sidestepped most of the key moral dilemmas in the tale. Their heroine is not a poor girl sold for a handful of lettuce, but a beloved princess kidnapped from her bed. The tower is not a prison, but a vast and luxurious palace. Most importantly, it is not difficult for Rapunzel to leave her tower – she can simply abseil her way out anytime she pleases, thanks to the magical properties of her glowing, golden hair. The only bar to her freedom is her duty to the woman she thinks is her mother. 

The film deliberately sets out to be light-hearted, fast-paced, and sentimental. It makes the occasional nod to its forebears, but always in as frivolous and amusing way as possible, as in the following dialogic exchange: 
Flynn Rider: Alright, blondie ... 
Rapunzel: Rapunzel.
Flynn Rider: Gesundheit!


The narrative purpose of the movie is not to recount Rapunzel’s escape from the tower – this occurs easily and joyously in a matter of seconds – but rather her journey towards the unmasking of her false mother and finding her true parents. 

Tangled has its moments of charm, despite its abandonment of many of the key motifemes of the plot, but the character of Mother Gothel is not one of them. She remains a cartoonish character, shallow and manipulative, with no moral ambiguity. As Mother Gothel says in Tangled, ‘You want me to be the bad guy? Fine, now I'm the bad guy.’


One consequence of changing Rapunzel from a surrendered child to a stolen child is the alteration of the whole power mechanics of the tale. It is no longer what Bottigheimer calls ‘a rise fairy tale’, but rather becomes ‘a restoration fairy tale’. The key difference, Bottigheimer explains in Fairy Tales: A New History is that in a restoration tale, the protagonist first loses, then - after a series of adventures and lessons - is returned to their proper social and economic status. However, in a ‘rise fairy tale’, the story begins with ‘a dirt-poor girl or boy who suffers the effects of grinding poverty and whose story continues with tests, tasks, and trials until magic brings about a marriage to royalty and a happy accession to great wealth’. The former upholds the socio-political status quo. The latter holds out the hope for social-political change. 

Jack Zipes said in an interview in 2013 that ‘the Disney promoters should have called the film Mangled because of the way it slaughtered and emptied the meaning of the Grimms’ and other ‘Rapunzel’ folk tales … The major conflict is between a pouting adolescent princess and a witch. The Disney films repeatedly tend to demonize older women and infantilize young women. Gone are any hints that ‘Rapunzel’ might reflect a deeper initiation ritual in which wise old women keep young girls in isolation to protect them’ (Interstitial Journal 2013, p3). 

Disney’s abandonment of the key motifemes of the ‘Rapunzel’ tale and its messages about growth, transformation, and the hard journey towards wisdom shows that there is no steady ‘evolution’ from conservative attitudes to less conservative ones with the passing of time. Each teller makes their own individual choices in what aspects of the tale are to be preserved or abandoned, and thus even a story as full of camouflaged mythic power as ‘Rapunzel’ has the potential to be drained of all meaning whatsoever.

That said, I did enjoy the movie and my daughter loved it. The character of Rapunzel is at least a little feistier than earlier Disney heroines, and the story was in turns funny, poignant, and romantic. I would have liked a greater sense of the horror of being locked away in a tower, and I certainly would have liked Rapunzel not to have been turned into a Disney princess but to have remained an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances. 



'Rapunzel, Forgotten' by Sarah Schloss


BOOK LIST: My Favourite Fairy Tales Retellings

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I love fairy tale retellings ... here are a few of my favourites! 



'The Glass Slipper' by Eleanor Farjeon
I read this retelling of the Cinderella fairytale while walking home from primary school one day and was so entranced I walked straight past the turnoff to my street. I might have kept walking for hours if a neighbour hadn’t driven past and honked me back to reality. 

I love this book so much that I named my daughter Eleanor after the writer, with her pet name being Ella after the heroine. The Glass Slipper is full of wit and charm and whimsy and word play, the prose dancing like poetry. After I left my primary school, my one regret was that I hadn’t smuggled the book out of the library in my school bag and kept it. 

Years later, I found it in a second-hand shop and fell upon it with squeals of excitement. This is very much a classic children’s book, published in 1955 – the Prince does no more than kiss Ella’s hand – but it is so full of joy and innocence, it will always be one of the most magical books of my life. 


For 8+

'The Stone Cage' by Nicholas Stuart Gray
A beautiful retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, told from the point of view of the witch’s cat, this is an absolute classic fairytale retelling. Reading this as a child is what first made me think of writing my own Rapunzel tale – I wanted to make my heroine a little feistier than Nicholas Stuart Gray’s sweet and loving Rapunzel. 

What I love most about this book is the personalities of the witch’s cat and the witch’s raven – one is arrogant, selfish and smart-mouthed, the other serious-minded and scholarly. 

For 8+


Cold Iron by Sophie Masson

Published as Malkin in the US, this is a retelling of the English fairytale ‘Tattercoats’, interwoven with elements of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’.  ‘Tattercoats’ is a Cinderella type story, about a persecuted heroine, but in this book it is not the sweet and maltreated Tattercoats who is the heroine, but the brave and feisty serving-girl Malkin, and her friend, the goose-boy Pug. Cold Iron is a small book, but packed to the brim with personality. Sophie Masson writes with a light, deft touch, lavishing attention on her minor characters and on the scenery, so that the book gleams like a little jewel.

I also love Sophie's most recent fairy tale retellings - Moonlight & Ashes and Scarlet in the Snow - gorgeous and romantic and surprising. 



Wild Magic by Cat Weatherill 
This is a wonderful fresh take on the Pied Piper legend, which explores why the Piper may have lured away all the children of the town of Hameln and what may have happened to them afterwards. The primary protagonists are Mari and her little brother Jakob, and the land they have been taken to is a place of wild magic, fearsome beasts, and an ancient curse than must be broken if they are ever to escape. The writing is beautiful, and the story itself gripping and suspenseful.  I’m surprised this wonderful book is not better known. 


For 8+ 


Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George 
I thought, from the title, that this must be a Cinderella- retelling, but it is in fact ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’ which Jessica Day George has re-told in this sweet and atmospheric novel. Even though Jessica Day George has done a classic retelling here, in a fantasy otherworld very much like Europe, and with the plot line adhering closely to the original tale, she has done it with a light touch, a sense of humour, and just enough twists and turns to keep the reader turning the pages.  A captivating fairytale retelling. 

For 8+


Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Since being made into a movie with the beautiful young Anne Hathaway, Ella Enchanted is possibly the best known retelling of Cinderella. As always, though, the book is much better than the movie, being filled with humour and surprise and intelligence.

At birth, Ella is given the gift of obedience by a well-meaning but air-brained fairy called Lucinda. The gift is more of a curse for poor Ella, and so she sets out to find Lucinda and undo the spell. She has all sorts of adventures along the way, some of which include a prince, a pumpkin coach and a glass slipper, but Gail Carson Levine takes great delight in twisting the known elements of this most popular of tales to give it new life.

12+


The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
The Goose Girl was Shannon Hale’s first book, and launched her career.  It is a retelling of the Grimm Brothers story ‘The Goose Girl’, which is one of the lesser known tales but still filled with a few gruesome touches, like a dead horse’s head that talks. 

Ani, a crown princess, can talk with birds and animals, but her talents are not appreciated in the royal family. When Ani is sent off to marry the prince of a neighbouring kingdom, her treacherous maid-in-waiting schemes to take her place. Barely escaping with her life, Ani disguises herself as a goose girl while she tries to find a way to reclaim her rightful palace. With some surprising twists and a satisfying ending, this is a lovely romantic retelling, suitable for children or adults. 

For 12+


North Child by Edith Pattou 
Known as East in the US, this beguiling book is a retelling of a traditional Norwegian fairytale ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, which is an Animal Bridegroom type story. 

Rose was born into the world facing north, and as a north child, superstition says that she will be a wanderer, travelling far from home. This prophecy is fulfilled when she rides away on the back of a white bear to a mysterious castle, where a silent stranger appears to her night after night. When her curiosity overcomes her, she loses her one true love, and must journey to a land east of the sun and west of the moon to save him.

For 12+

A Curse As Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce 
I love fairytale retellings that are set in the real world, at a real time in history – somehow they make the fairytale seem so much more possible. A Curse As Dark as Gold was one of my favourite reads last year – a beautiful, romantic retelling of the well-known Rumpelstiltskin fairytale, set in a British wool town during the Industrial Revolution. This story is really brought to life by the atmosphere of the mill, the heroine’s family home which is being threatened with closure. It also has a really charismatic and surprising villain, which helped add suspense and surprise to this well-known tale.


Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

I had adored C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series as a child and so one day, while staying with my great-aunts, I found this book on a bookshelf and sat down on the floor to look at it. The first line reads: ‘I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.’  

Entranced, I read on to the end, devouring the book in a single sitting. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, which is not properly a fairytale, except in its obvious similarity to Animal Bridegroom tales such as ‘Beauty & the Beast’ and ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’. It is, however, still one of my all-time favourite retellings.

For 16+


Deerskin by Robin McKinley
This is a heart-rending retelling of ‘All-Kinds’-of-Fur’, the Grimm tale about a king who falls in love with her daughter and seeks to marry her. Known under different names in different cultures, it’s probably best known as Tattercoats, Catskin, or Donkeyskin. In some versions of the tale, the princess manages to outwit and escape her lustful father, before hiding herself in the skin of a wild beast and working in the kitchen of the king of a neighbouring country. In time, the second king comes to recognise the princess hidden beneath the filthy furs, and marries her. 

In Robin McKinley’s novel, the daughter does not escape until she has been raped by her father, making this one of the most powerful, and ultimately redemptive, novels ever written about incest. 

Robin McKinley has written many other beloved fairytale retellings, including Beauty and Rose Daughter (both retellings of ‘Beauty & the Beast’) and Spindle’s End (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty), which I adore as well. 




Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
A retelling of the Six Swans fairytale, this was Australian author Juliet Marillier’s first published book.  Although she has written a number of gorgeous, spell-binding fairytale retellings since – including Heart’s Blood (‘Beauty & the Beast’) and Wildwood Dancing (Twelve Dancing Princesses), 

Daughter of the Forest is still my favourite. It is set long, long ago, in Ireland, and begins when Sorcha, the seventh child of the family and the only girl, is only a child. The whole atmosphere of the book is filled with romance, enchantment, beauty and danger, making it one of the best retellings ever written (in my humble opinion).



Other must-read fairy tale retellings by Juliet Marillier include Wildwood Dancing, Heart's Blood and Cybele's Secret - I love them all!


I also love Margo Lanagan's novels, especially Sea Hearts - a haunting tale of love, betrayal and selkies by one of Australia’s most extraordinary authors. 





Thornspell by Helen Lowe

New Zealand writer Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. Prince Sigismund has grown up in a castle whose gardens and parklands are surrounded by a deep, tangled forest. He is kept locked away from the world, and so longs for adventures like the ones in the stories he loves so much – fantastical tales of knights-errant and heroic quests, faie enchantments and shape-shifting dragons. One day a beautiful and mysterious lady in a fine carriage speaks to him through the castle gates, and Sigismund's world begins to change. He dreams of a raggedy girl trapped in thorns, and a castle that lies sleeping … soon he is caught up in an adventure as perilous and strange as that of any story he had ever heard …


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.


White As Snow by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee has been called "the Angela Carter of the fantasy field" for her dark and sensuous prose. This is one of the strangest and yet most compelling fairytale retellings I’ve ever read. It is so filled with violence and despair, it is almost unreadable in parts. Yet somehow it haunts the imagination afterwards, giving new depths to the well-known story of Snow-White, and taking it very far away from Disney territory.


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

BOOK LIST - Books Read in July 2013

Thursday, August 08, 2013


Thanks to a lot of time spent in planes and airports, and a weekend sick in bed, I read 14 books this month, with an eclectic mix of fiction, non-fiction, children’s and adults, historical and contemporary. 


1. Stay: The Last Dog in Antarctica  – Jesse Blackadder
This is Jesse Blackadder’s first book for children, and was inspired by her trip to the icy south after she won the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship in 2011/2012. Jesse was travelling there to research her wonderful historical novel for adults Chasing the Light, and was most surprised to see one of those life-sized fibreglass seeing eye dogs used to collect donations for the Royal Blind Society. It had been dognapped from a Hobart shopping centre in 1991 by some Antarctic expeditioners who were earth-broken at the impeding loss of huskies from the South Pole. In the decades since, the fibreglass dog had become a sort of mascot and had even ended up going to the North Pole. Jesse has turned the story of these adventures into a heart-warming book for 8+ .


2. Heretic – S.J. Parris
I love a good historical murder mystery, particularly one set in one of my favourite eras of history. Heretic is set during Elizabethan times, quite possibly the most popular of periods. The novel features a true life heretic monk as its amateur detective, this being Giordano Bruno who was sought by the Roman Inquisition for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. He travels to Oxford in 1576 to take part in a religious debate, but gets caught up in a series of grisly murders. The novel is described by its publishers as a ‘blockbuster historical thriller’ (think Dan Brown in tights), but it is a little slow to truly be called a thriller. It is, however, a clever and sophisticated murder mystery, with an unusual and charismatic hero. I enjoyed it thoroughly. 

3. Hitler’s Daughter – Jackie French
My son is reading Hitler’s Daughter for English and so I thought I’d read it too so we could discuss it together. The story begins with a group of school children who tell stories as a way to pass the time while they wait for their bus. One girl begins to tell a story about Hitler’s daughter, Heidi. The other children object that Hitler never had a daughter, and Anna tells them that no-one ever knew about her. She was kept secret. The story of Heidi’s life goes on, told in interludes that describes the ordinary life of Mark, the narrator. Anna’s story stirs Mark up and he begins to ask questions – why did so many people support Hitler? What would we do today if we were in the same situation. But no-one has any answers for him. It’s a very simple tale, told in very simple language, and references to what life in Germany must have been like are touched on very lightly. I can see that it may be a good book for reluctant readers, or for younger readers who may be frightened by a more dramatic and intense reading experience. My son read it in an hour and shrugged when I asked him what he thought. However, we have talked quite a bit about Hitler and the Second World War since, so I think the book has been working away in his mind ever since he read it. 


4. Anne Sexton: A Biography – Diane Wood Middlebrook
Anne Sexton is an American poet most famous for her intense, shocking and autobiographical poems and for having committed suicide, much like her friend Sylvia Plath. She had spent most of her 20s fighting depression and suicidal thoughts, and her therapist suggested she begin to write poetry to help her express her feelings. The suggestion was like a match to paper. Anne Sexton took fire, and wrote obsessively. Within a remarkably short time, she was one of America’s best known poets and had won the Pulitzer Prize. She killed herself in 1974, at the height of her career. Published in 1991, Middlebrook’s biography of the poet caused great controversy, primarily because of the use of tapes from Sexton’s sessions with her psychiatrist, and because of details of incest and infidelities contained within those tapes. The inclusion of these tapes, however controversial, makes this an utterly fascinating read. You must check out Youtube videos of Sexton reading her own work – she is utterly compelling: 

5. Beauty’s Sister – James Bradley
Beauty’s Sister is an exquisite retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, published as a Penguin Special. Too short to be a novel, too long to be a story, I’d call this a novelette. Penguin Specials are designed to be read in half an hour or so, perfect for a commute or a quick bite between larger narrative fare. I loved it. Bradley’s writing is spare and precise, his images haunting, and his plot reimagines the well-known fairy tale from the point of view of Rapunzel’s darker, wilder sister. Having written my own Rapunzel retelling, Bitter Greens, and being in the final throes of a doctorate on the Maiden in the Tower tales, I have read many hundreds of reinventions of this tale. Beauty’s Sister is one of the most powerful.


6. Bellfield Hall, or The Deductions of Miss Dido Kent – Anna Dean
Imagine a novel where Miss Marple meets Jane Austen, and you will begin to have a sense of this delightful Regency murder mystery. Miss Dido Kent, the heroine and amateur sleuth, is clever, witty, and astute. The book begins with the discovery of a body in the shrubbery at a grand English manor house where Miss Kent is staying. She sets out to solve the mystery, of course, in her own ladylike way, and the story rollicks along from there, filled with charm, humour, and the faintest touch of romance. I’m so looking forward to reading the next instalments! 

7. A Spear of Summer Grass – Deanna Raybourn
"Don't believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman's husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn't want taking."

As soon as I read these opening lines, I sighed happily, knowing I was going to love this book. Deanna Raybourn is best known for her Lady Julia series of Victorian murder mysteries, and so A Spear of Summer Grass is a new departure for her. Set during the Roaring 20s, it tells the story of the scandalous debutante Delilah Drummond who has caused one scandal too many and so is banished to Kenya. Her voice is pitch-perfect. She’s sassy, cynical, and smart, yet there is a touch of pathos and vulnerability about her which makes her a far more interesting character than you might expect. In Kenya, Delilah gets caught up in the social whirl of the white landowners, makes unexpected friends, takes a lover and falls in love (not with the same man), and finds herself accused of murder. An utterly brilliant book, and one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far for me. 


8. Resurrectionist – James McGee 
This is Book 2 in a series of Regency thrillers featuring Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood. This time round, the ‘ratcatcher’, as the Runners were nicknamed, is called in to investigate a strange murder in the mental asylum known to most as Bedlam. Hawkwood also finds himself dealing with ‘resurrectionists, men who dig up dead bodies to sell to doctors for their research. Before long, he realises the two cases are connected and he is dealing with the most ruthless and macabre villain ever. These Regency thrillers are a long way from the romantic and genteel worlds of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. The London of McGee’s book is dark, gritty and violent, populated by thieves and cut-throats and prostitutes and war-damaged ex-soldiers. Gripping and dramatic stuff. 

9. Longbourne – Jo Baker
What a brilliant premise this book has! Did you ever wonder – when reading Pride & Prejudice - about the lives of the servants toiling away quietly downstairs? No, me either. Jo Baker did wonder, however, and from that imagining has spun a beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching tale. Do not expect the wit and charm of Jane Austen; do not expect the well-beloved characters to be lauded. In fact, most of the cast of Pride & Prejudice come off badly – some are selfish and narcissistic, others merely oblivious. Do expect to have your understanding of the world of Jane Austen turned upside down and inside out, and made richer and truer as a result. Longbourne is driven by a strong sense of social justice, and we see just how hard life in Regency times could be for the poor and the weak. Much as I love Jane Austen, I always wondered why we heard nothing of the political turmoil of her times, nothing about the impassioned debate over slavery, nothing about the Napoleonic wars, nothing about the Luddites and the costs of the Industrial Revolution. Jo Baker has attempted to engage with many of these gaping holes in Jane Austen’s world, and has achieved a work of great beauty and serious intent. Longbourne caused an international bidding war and has already sold film rights, and I can certainly see why. 



10. Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice – Susannah Fullerton
Good gracious me, a lot of books that deal with Jane Austen on the bookshop shelves at the moment! It must be the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride & Prejudice. Susannah Fullerton is President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, and has published a number of books and articles about her. Happily Ever After is a hagiography; Fullerton firmly believes that Jane Austen is the best writer in the world and Pride and Prejudice her best book. Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable and very readable examination of a novel that is certainly one of the world’s favourites. 



11. 84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff
I have heard about this book on-and-off for years, all my bibliomaniac friends saying, ‘you haven’t read it? Oh, but you must!’ So this month I decided it was time. 84 Charing Cross Road is not a novel, but rather a collection of letters between an American writer and an English bookseller over the course of many years. That description does not really give any indication of just how funny, heart-wrenching and beautiful this book is – you really do have to read it yourself.

The book begins in 1949, when Miss Helene Hanff of New York writes a letter to Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road,  London, an ‘antiquarian’ bookshop that specialise in out of print books. Helene is a struggling writer with a rather refined taste in books, most of which are impossible to find in America. The exchange of letters that follows begins rather formally, but soon Helene’s natural wit and charm break through, and she is soon cajoling Frank Doel, the reserved English bookseller, into an unlikely friendship. Their correspondence lasts for 20 years, and soon draws others into the friendship – the other staff at the bookshop, Frank’s wife and daughter, his elderly and lonely neighbour. Helene is very much a New York Jew, bold, funny and forthright. Frank is gentle and courteous and shy. Reading this slender book, I loved out loud and then finished with quite a large lump in my throat. A lovely, heartwarming book that any bibliophile will appreciate.

12. Letters from Skye – Jessica Brockmole 
One of my favourite books is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Anne Schaffer. It is an epistolary narrative which simply means ‘told in the form of a letter or letters’.  Extremely popular in the 18th century, this narrative form fell out of favour in the 19th century and has not been used much since. It seems that Mary Anne Schaffer may have revived the form, however, for this new novel by debut author Jessica Brockmole is told entirely in letters. It moves between two historical periods: the First World War and the Second World War. The primary narrative is that of the relationship of a young Scottish poet who lives on Skye in and an American university student who writes in March 1912 to tell her how much he admires her poetry. Slowly friendship blossoms into love, but many obstacles stand in their way, including the fact that Elspeth is already married and their world is on the brink of a cataclysmic war. The device of driving a narrative through an exchange of letters can be hard to pull off (one reason why it fell out of favour), but Jessica Brockmole has created an engaging and very readable suspenseful romance in Letters from Skye.  


13. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler
Baz Lurhmann’s movie of The Great Gatsby has re-ignited a fascination for the famous Fitzgeralds and Therese Anne Fowler’s new novel is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this. The novel is told entirely from the point of view of Zelda, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glamorous, brilliant and unstable wife. As she says in her Afterword, most biographies of the Fitzgeralds tend to fall squarely into Camp Scott (who blame Zelda for thwarting his genius) or Camp Zelda (who blame Scott for thwarting her genius). I’ve always been firmly in Camp Zelda, and so I really enjoyed this sympathetic portrayal of the girl called the original flapper. 


14. Austenland – Shannon Hale
I know Shannon Hale’s work as a young adult novelist, and so I was curious to see how she measured up as a writer of funny chick-lit for adults. I’m also reading a lot of Jane Austen-related books at the moment (did you guess?), and so I thought I’d give Austenland a whirl. The basic premise is our heroine Jane (subtle name choice) is obsessed with Mr Darcy as played by Colin Firth in the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice. No real man can ever measure up, so her obsession is ruining her love life. A wealthy great-aunt sends her off to Austenland so she can live out her fantasies pretending she lives in Regency times. She gets to wear Empire-line frocks and bonnets, dance at balls, and exchange witty repartee with men in skintight breeches and cravats. It’s all meant to be good, clean fun, but Jane begins to have trouble distinguishing what’s real and what’s not … all while getting tangled up in romance. Austenland is really chick-lit at its most frivolous and fantastical. All the pleasure comes from the dialogue and the situation; the characters are very one-dimensional and the plot as predictable as possible. It has been turned into a film directed by Stephanie Meyer and is due for release later this year, and I’ll happily settle down with some popcorn to enjoy it again.  


This round-up of my July reading was also published in BOOKTOPIA's blog and they have links to all the books so you can buy them here







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