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IN CONVERSATION: Kate Forsyth & Sophie Masson talk Fairy Tales (Part 3)

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Kate Forsyth and Sophie Masson are both award-winning and internationally published Australian authors whose novels are often inspired by fairytales. Although Kate and Sophie live six hours drive away from each other, they often meet at literary festivals and conferences, or, when their paths cross, for lunch or dinner. They share a love of fairy tales, gardens, cooking, reading, writing, and living the big life. 

Today they get together to talk about the craft of writing, and the challenge of rewriting fairytales. Kate's novel Bitter Greens is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. Sophie’s novel Moonlight and Ashes, was inspired by Aschenputtel, the Grimm’s version of the well-known Cinderella tale. This conversation was first published on the wondrous fairy tale e-magazine ENCHANTED CONVERSATIONS.


Kate: What are the biggest challenges of retelling such a well-known tale as Cinderella?

Sophie: The biggest challenges of retelling such a well-known tale as Cinderella is that people have certain assumptions about the character and the way the story goes. But it's my story, and so I've made it very much my vision of the character and the story arc. In fact the challenges are what make the story so good to write as you are constantly open to the unexpected that will transform familiar territory into surprising discovery. 

Kate: I think the key word there is ‘surprising’.  Many fairytale retellings lose that sense of surprise and wonder that is so important in hooking in the reader, and keep them wanting to turn the pages till long past midnight. I saw that as one of the biggest challenges in writing Bitter Greens. I decided one way to reinvigorate the story was to tell it as if it really happened, in our own world. The Rapunzel sections of Bitter Greens are set in Renaissance Venice, and feature real historical personages, such as the painter Titian and the fairytale teller Giambattista Basile (who wrote one of the earliest known versions of the Maiden in the Tower tale). I also chose to interweave the fairy tale retelling with the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a scandalous writer of the late 17th century who wrote the version of Rapunzel that we know now. By making the story seem real, and entirely possible, I hoped to give the story new energy, filling it with suspense and surprise and spectacle. 

Sophie: Oh, yes, I do agree. Setting the story in a real place, albeit transformed, as Ashberg is a transformed version of Prague, really helps with that as the usual fairy tale territory is rather vague--once upon a time in a land far away. That said, the story really took off when I started with 'Once upon a time'--only that too was transformed, as readers will see when they read the book!

Kate: How closely do you stick to the known story? Do you feel free to invert, subvert, or generally play around with it? 

Sophie: I start from that familiar territory; I just make the journey go into different directions. I certainly feel completely free to do what I want, only I don't like to invert or subvert just for the sake of it, there's got to be a good reason for it. There's also a good reason why fairy tales continue to resonate with us--they really feel like they describe human nature and if you do too much consciously-ideological 'subverting' of that, it doesn't feel satisfying. But there's lots of scope to play around, still!

Kate: Cinderella has been retold so many times – what have you done with the tale that makes your work different?

Sophie: Well, most of all, my Cinderella--Selena--is no meek, resigned character. She can be prickly, and tough, but she's also got great tenderness and great intelligence. I wanted her to really be the heroine of her own story. But I also wanted the love interest to be interesting and strong, and to bring the whole setting alive in an unusual and exciting way. 

Kate: Oh, I love a bit of romance in a novel. Though isn’t that one of the reasons why we all love fairy tales so much? They’re so romantic!

Sophie: There’s more than ‘a bit of’ romance in Bitter Greens, Kate! It’s very steamy in parts.

Kate: Oh, I know. But the original tale told by Charlotte-Rose de la Force was really very sexy. Her heroine Persinette was seduced by the prince and fell pregnant to him, and their love affair was betrayed by the growing size of her belly. Later, when the witch cast her out, Persinette bore twins by herself in the wilderness. The Grimm Brothers changed the story so that any hint of sex was taken out, to make it more suitable for a childish readership. 

Sophie: Charlotte-Rose de la Force was not the retiring type either, by your account.

Kate: Oh, no, she was banished from the court because of her scandalous love affairs. One time she even dressed up as a dancing bear to gain access to her much younger lover, who had been locked away by his parents. It was this anecdote which first sparked my interest in her.

Sophie: one thing that draws many of us to re-writing fairy tales is the chance to give a voice and a sense of spirit to these fairy tale heroines who have been made so passive by re-tellers such as the Grimm brothers.

Kate: Okay, Sophie, let’s talk about craft. What’s your favourite part of writing a novel? And least favourite part?

Sophie: My favourite part of writing a novel is the beginning--so exciting, like being in love, an intense yet floaty feeling! Everything seems possible. And I love the end, when everything comes together in a kind of perfect symphony (hopefully!) I also love getting to know my characters, and also, in this kind of novel, creating magic.  My least favourite part is the middle--sometimes I have to push myself through it!  What about you, Kate, what's your favourite and least favourite part?

Kate: I love everything about WRITING the novel, even the times in the middle when the way forward seems unclear and you’re afraid you’ve lost the way. The only part I’m not fond of is the proofreading at the end, when I’ve read every sentence so many times it loses its freshness. However, I know it’s important, and it’s my last chance to make the book as good as I possibly can, and so I knuckle down and do the job. And it’s worth it when you finally get to hold the beautiful finished book in your hands ... now that’s a truly wonderful feeling! 

Sophie: Isn’t it? 

IN CONVERSATION: Kate Forsyth & Sophie Mason talk about Fairy Tales (Part 2)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Kate Forsyth and Sophie Masson are both award-winning and internationally published Australian authors whose novels are often inspired by fairytales. Although Kate and Sophie live six hours drive away from each other, they often meet at literary festivals and conferences, or, when their paths cross, for lunch or dinner. They share a love of fairy tales, gardens, cooking, reading, writing, and living the big life. 

Today they get together to talk about their fascination with fairy tales. Kate's novel Bitter Greens, is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. Sophie’s novel, Moonlight and Ashes, was inspired by Aschenputtel, the Grimm’s version of the well-known Cinderella tale. 

Kate: Do you have a favourite fairy tale, Sophie? Which is it?

Sophie: My favourite fairy tale is probably Beauty and the Beast--it is so romantic and exciting but also it has such a spirited heroine! And I'm currently writing a novel, Scarlet in the Snow, based on the Russian version of the story, ‘The Scarlet Flower’. But I also love many others, including ‘The Firebird’, ‘Puss in Boots’, and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (I’ve written books based on these ones too), ‘The Wild Swans’, ‘The Goose Girl’ (there are elements of ‘The Goose Girl’ in Moonlight and Ashes too), ‘Ashenputtel’, and many, many others.  How about you?

Kate: I love Beauty & the Beast too! And Sleeping Beauty, and, of course, Rapunzel. The story of Rapunzel haunted me for many years, and of course was the inspiration for my latest novel Bitter Greens. I became so obsessed by the story I’m even studying it for my doctorate at the moment. It has so much in it that’s intriguing for a novelist – obsession, desire, madness, secrets, love ...

But I think Six Swans has always been the one for me. There’s something about that mute girl, weaving nettles into shirts for her enchanted brothers, not permitted to speak or laugh for six long years ... it just gives me the shivers. I’m actually written a novel about the girl who first told ‘The Six Swans’ to the Grimm brothers, as well as many more of their most compelling and powerful fairy tales. Her name was Dortchen Wild, and she ended up marrying Wilhelm Grimm. It’s the most beautiful, dramatic love story, with a lot of darkness in it, but also beauty ... which really sums up the power of fairy tales, in general, doesn’t it? (This novel is THE WILD GIRL)

Sophie: It does indeed! It sounds a most intriguing novel, Kate. And it seems to me as if you are just as fascinated by the tellers of fairy tales, as much by the tales themselves.

Kate: Yes, that’s true. When writing Bitter Greens, my retelling of Rapunzel, I became so intrigued by the life and character of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who first told the tale as we best know it ... well, she ended up dominating the book. She was such an amazing woman, witty, intelligent, headstrong. Her life scandalised the court of the Sun King and she was locked up for her wild and wicked ways. Dortchen Wild is very different ... but I’m now as obsessed with her as I was with Charlotte-Rose.

Sophie: I think it’s impossible to write a novel unless you’re obsessed with the story. I know I’m the same!

Kate: Sophie, so many of your novels are inspired by fairy tales. What most fascinates you about these old tales?

Sophie: I think fairy tales are extraordinary because they are so simple, so clear: and yet so rich and complex. You can never get to the end of their meanings, and they are the most wonderful source of inspiration for writers that I know of. The enchanted world they portray is both utterly magical and yet utterly believable; they are so wise yet so funny; so brutal, yet so romantic. They are distillations of understanding and knowledge; they can be profoundly disturbing; and yet they are also enormous fun. Why do you think we can get so much from fairytales, still, Kate? 

Kate: I love the fact that fairy tales operate on two levels. On the surface, they are magical adventures filled with wonder, enchantment, beauty, romance, danger, and a satisfying happy ending. On a deeper level, they are serious dramas that reflect, symbolically and metaphorically, problems and pitfalls that are can be very real in people’s inner lives. They offer a stage where the reader (or listener) can act out universal fears and desires, and so resolve deep, subconscious tensions that the reader  (or listener) perhaps is not even aware of. One more question in that vein: you've written a lot of novels inspired by fairy tales. Which is your personal favourite?

Sophie: Moonlight and Ashes, probably. I feel like I've said everything I wanted to say in it. It's very powerful and disturbing (and at heart, that story of the abused, neglected child is infinitely disturbing) but it's also gripping, exciting, romantic, magical and mysterious. I feel like everything came together perfectly in it, and that is very exciting. And I can't wait till it comes out so I can see if readers share my excitement!  But I do love my other fairy tale novels too, each in their own way. 

Kate: Although many of my books are rich with fairy tale themes and motifs, Bitter Greens is really my first true retelling.  I loved writing it so much, it is definitely my favourite. I love the way that these old, old tales still have so much mystery and beauty and power. 

IN CONVERSATION: Kate Forsyth & Sophie Masson talk Fairy Tales (Part 1)

Monday, October 06, 2014

Kate Forsyth and Sophie Masson are both award-winning and internationally published Australian authors whose novels are often inspired by fairytales. Although Kate and Sophie live six hours drive away from each other, they often meet at literary festivals and conferences, or, when their paths cross, for lunch or dinner. They share a love of fairy tales, gardens, cooking, reading, writing, and living the big life. 

Today they get together to talk about Kate's novel Bitter Greens, a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, interwoven with the dramatic life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. Sophie’s novel, Moonlight and Ashes, was inspired by Aschenputtel, the Grimm’s version of the well-known Cinderella tale. (This conversation was first published with the wondrous fairy tale e-magazine ENCHANTED CONVERSATIONS)


Kate: Sophie, I’m so excited about your novel, Moonlight and Ashes? What first inspired you to write it?

Sophie: Moonlight and Ashes was inspired firstly by Aschenputtel, the Grimm version of Cinderella. It always fascinated me that the Cinderella figure in that story was much more active than Cinderella normally is; and it also was striking how there was no fairy godmother, but that it was her dead mother appearing to Aschenputtel in a dream and telling her to plant the hazel twig which made the magic happen.
At once, that not only makes Aschenputtel part of her own story, and not just a helpless girl to whom things happen--she actually wants to change things, she's not completely browbeaten. But it also reminds you of her loss--of her grief at losing her mother, and how that's transformed her life for the worse. And also that her mother can't rest in peace knowing what's happened to her daughter, and that her father is a coward who shuts his eyes to his daughter's situation. 

And then, thinking about it further, I wondered about the mother and the hazel twig: surely she must herself have had some kind of magical background. From thinking about these things, I had this growing picture of an angry, defiant but vulnerable young girl who is trapped in a terrible situation but who still has the spirit to want to change things: and who harbours a dark secret that she dare not reveal to a living soul: the secret of her mother's ancestry. That's how Selena, my heroine, was born.

There's another inspiration, and that's Prague. We visited it in 2010 and I loved it and was fascinated by its history. We also had the great privilege of being shown around Prague by another writer and good friend, the fantastic Isobelle Carmody, who lives there with her family. Ashberg in my book is very much an alternative-world version of Prague, while the Faustine Empire which controls it is based on the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian Empire, in fairy tale version: but still with trains and telegraphs and magazines and all! 

Kate: Oh, I love the sound of this, Sophie! I’ve always wanted to go to Prague, and I love the sound of an Aschenputtel story told with trains and telegraphs and so on. I’ll be so looking forward to reading this one! 

Sophie: Kate, Bitter Greens is such a wonderful book, so rich and exciting and deep and sad. Now I want to ask you: what drew you to Rapunzel as an inspiration for the book? 

Kate: The inspiration reaches far back into my own childhood, back to the time when I was first beginning to walk and talk. I was savagely attacked by a dog and spent weeks in hospital, suffering terrible wounds to my head and face. One of the dog’s fangs penetrated straight through my tear duct, located between the eye and the nose. I was lucky not to lose my eye!

As a result, I spent many years in and out of hospital with chronic eye infections. I’d be feverish, in pain, half-blind. My only consolation was stories – the ones I read and the ones I made up in my imagination. Anyone who came to visit me knew they had to bring me a pile of books. One day someone brought me a collection of fairy tales. One of the stories was Rapunzel.

I felt a great affinity with that other young girl, locked away alone in a tower as I was confined alone in my hospital ward. I loved the fact that her tears had the power to heal the prince’s blindness and wished that my own tears, weeping constantly from the damaged tear duct, would heal mine. 

I was as haunted by the story as the prince was by Rapunzel’s singing, but I was puzzled too. Why did the witch lock Rapunzel away? Why didn’t the prince fetch some rope? What happened to the witch? Did Rapunzel ever find her true parents? 

Don’t you find that it is often these little niggling questions about something that is the grit in the oyster that causes a pearl to grow? 

Sophie: Oh, absolutely! And I was so very touched by your recounting of that frightening and painful childhood experience—and how because of it the story of Rapunzel spoke so directly to you. I think that's so very much the power of fairytales. 

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.


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.


BOOK LIST: Best books of 2013

Saturday, January 04, 2014

I have read so many brilliant books this year that I had great trouble narrowing it down to only a few. However, at last I have managed it – here are the best books I read in 2013, divided by genre. 

Because I love historical fiction, and stories that move between a historical and a contemporary setting, most of my favourite books are in these genres. However, there are a few utterly brilliant contemporary novels and fantasy novels as well. As always, my list is entirely and unashamedly subjective – many of these writers are my friends and colleagues, and one is my sister! 

However, all I can say is I am incredibly lucky to know so many über-talented writers. 

Best Historical Novel for Adults

Chasing the Light – Jesse Blackadder
A beautiful, haunting novel about the first women in Antarctica.

The Crimson Ribbon – Katherine Clements
Set in England in 1646, in the midst of the English Civil War, this is a utterly riveting tale of passion, intrigue, witchcraft, and treason. 

Longbourne – Jo Baker
A beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching tale about the lives of the servants at Longbourne, the home of the Bennets from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. 

A Spear of Summer Grass – Deanna Raybourn
Set during the Roaring 20s, this is the story of debutante Delilah Drummond who has caused one scandal too many and so is banished to Kenya .. where she finds intrigue, murder and romance. 

Letters from Skye – Jessica Brockmole 
This charming epistolary novel moves between the First World War and the Second World War, and tells the story of the blossoming romance between a young Scottish poet and an American university student. 

Best Historical Mystery

The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy - James Anderson
As one can probably tell from the title, this book is a gentle spoof of the Golden Age type of mysteries written by authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh – utterly clever and charming!

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 … and finds a touch of romance in her search to uncover the murderer. 

Best Historical Thrillers

The Falcons of Fire & Ice - Karen Maitland
An utterly compelling historical novel which moves between Portugal and Iceland as a young woman searches for two rare white falcons in a desperate attempt to save her father's life. Her journey is fraught with danger, betrayal, murder and horror, with the strangest set of seers ever to appear in fiction.

The Tudor Conspiracy – C.W. Gortner
A fast-paced, action-packed historical thriller, filled with suspense and switchback reversals, that also manages to bring the corrupt and claustrophobic atmosphere of the Tudor court thrillingly to life.

Ratcatcher – James McGee
A ratcatcher is a Bow Street Runner, an early policeman in Regency times. A great historical adventure book, filled with spies, and intrigue, and romance, and murder. 

Best Historical Romance

The Autumn Bride - Anne Gracie
Anne Gracie never disappoints. This is beautiful, old-fashioned romance, driven by character and situation and dialogue, and, as always, is filled with wit and charm and pathos. 

A Tryst with Trouble – Alyssa Everett
Lady Barbara Jeffords is certain her little sister didn't murder the footman, no matter how it looks … and no matter what the Marquess of Beningbrough might say ... A fresh, funny and delightful Regency romance. 

I bought this book solely on the cover – a Regency romance set in Venice? Sounds right up my alley … I mean, canal … It proved to be a very enjoyable romantic romp, with musical interludes. 

Best Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults

The Year of Ancient Ghosts – Kim Wilkins
'The Year of Ancient Ghosts' is a collection of novellas and short stories - brave, surprising, beautiful, frightening and tragic all at once

Beauty’s Sister – James Bradley
Beauty’s Sister is an exquisite retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, reimagined from the point of view of Rapunzel’s darker, wilder sister. 

Best Parallel Contemporary/Historical

Ember Island – Kimberley Freeman
A real page-turning delight, with a delicious mix of mystery, romance, history and family drama. One of my all-time favourite authors, Kimberley Freeman can be counted on to deliver an utterly compelling story. 

Secrets of the Sea House - Elisabeth Gifford
An intriguing and atmospheric novel set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, its narrative moves between the contemporary story of troubled Ruth and her husband Michael, and the islands in the 1860s when crofters are being forced to emigrate and science and religion are in conflict.

The Shadow Year – Hannah Richell
A perfectly structured and beautifully written novel which uses parallel narratives to stunning effect. A compelling and suspenseful novel about family, love, and loss.

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  ... 

The Ashford Affair – Lauren Willlig
I absolutely loved this book which moves between contemporary New York, and 1920s England and Africa. It's a historical mystery, a family drama, and a romance, all stirred together to create a compulsively readable novel.

Best Contemporary Novel

The Midnight Dress – Karen Foxlee
A beautiful, haunting, tragic tale of love and loss and yearning. 

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
A feel-good romantic comedy, with wit and charm. 

Best Contemporary Suspense Novels

Sister – Rosamund Lupton
Utterly compulsive, suspenseful, clever, surprising, this is one of the best murder mysteries I have ever read. 

Shatter – Michael Robotham
Chilling, powerful and superbly written. Highly recommended for the brave.   

Best YA Fantasy/Fairytale Retellings

Thornspell – Helen Lowe
Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. 

Raven Flight – Juliet Marillier
A classic old-fashioned high fantasy with a quest at its heart. The writing is beautiful and limpid, the setting is an otherworldy Scotland, and the story mixes danger, magic and romance - sigh! I loved it. This is YA fantasy at its absolute best.  

Pureheart – Cassandra Golds
Pureheart is the darkest of all fairy tales, it is the oldest of all quest tales, it is an eerie and enchanting story about the power of love and forgiveness. It is, quite simply, extraordinary. 

Scarlet in the Snow – Sophie Masson 
I just loved this retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, told with flair, dash, and panache, by one of my favourite Australian women writers. This is YA fantasy at its best - filled with magic, adventure and just a touch of romance. Loved it!

Best Historical Novel for Young Adults

The River Charm – Belinda Murrell
This beautiful, heart-wrenching novel is inspired by the true life story of the famous Atkinsons of Oldbury, earlier settlers in colonial Australia. It moves between the life of modern-day Millie, and her ancestor Charlotte Atkinson, the daughter of the woman who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia (who was, by the way, my great-great-great-great-grandmother. So, yes, that means Belinda is my sister.) 

Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
One of the best YA historical novels I have ever read, it is set in France and England during the Second World war and is the confession of a captured English spy. 

Witch Child – Celia Rees
Set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II, this is a simple yet powerful tale that explores the nature of magic and superstition, faith and cruelty.

Act of Faith - Kelly Gardiner
A heart-breaking and thought-provoking historical novel for young adults, set during the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. 

Best Children’s Books

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
What can I say? It's brilliant, surprising, harrowing, humbling. I found it hard to breathe after I finished reading it – such an emotional wallop!

Fire Spell – Laura Amy Schiltz
I absolutely adored this book! Laura Amy Schlitz reminds me of one of my all-time favourite authors, Joan Aiken, which is very high praise indeed. This is a rather creepy story about children and witches and a puppet-master in London a century or so ago. Brilliant. 

Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick
A perfect title for a book that is, indeed, struck with wonder. 

Best Non-Fiction

Hanns & Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz – Thomas Harding
The author of this utterly riveting and chilling book found out, at his great-uncle’s funeral, that the mild-mannered old man he had known had once been a Nazi hunter. And not just any Nazi. His Great Uncle Hanns had been the man who had hunted down and caught Rudolf Hoss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz. 

84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff
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 Bolter: The Story of Idina Sackville – Frances Osborne
The Bolter is the non-fiction account of the life of Idina Sackville, the author's great-grandmother, who had inspired the key character in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. She married and divorced numerous times, and was part of a very fast set in 1930s Kenya that led to scandal and murder - I loved it. 


INTERVIEW: Sophie Masson author of Scarlet in the Snow

Friday, June 14, 2013

I love a good fairy tale retelling, as you all know, particularly if its mixed together with a hefty dose of romance, adventure and mystery. Sophie Masson is one Australian author who is giving all those American YA fairy retellers a run for their money. I really loved Midnight & Ashes, which was published last year, and now she's come out with a  new novel called Scarlet in the Snow which draws upon Beauty & the Beast, one of my own personal favourite fairy tales.

Sophie has been kind enough to join us today to answer a few questions about her new book: 

Tell me about your new book
Scarlet in the Snow is what I call a 'fairytale thriller', which combines the mystery and magic of fairytale with the pace of a good thriller. And did I say it's also very romantic? Inspired by the Russian version of Beauty and the Beast, the Scarlet Flower, as well as having elements from two other Russian fairytales, Fenist the Falcon and Vassilissa the Fair, it's set in the same world as last year's Moonlight and Ashes, but in a different country. It's told in the lively first person voice of Natasha Kupeda, youngest of three girls, whose widowed artist mother struggles to keep the family going with portrait commissions after her husband dies, leaving many debts. One day, when Natasha is delivering her mother's latest painting to a client out in the wilds, she is caught in a blizzard and, pursued by wolves, has to find shelter in a mysterious mansion that looms out of the gloom--and so begins an extraordinary, frightening and wonderful adventure that will change her whole life.

What do you love most in the world? 
My family.

What do you fear most in the world? 
That anything bad should happen to any of them.

What are your 5 favourite childhood books? 
Michel Strogoff by Jules Verne 
King Ottakar's Sceptre (a Tintin adventure) by Herge
The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray (this is one of my favourites too!)
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jannsson
Black Jack by Leon Garfield
Agh! So many more I couldn't squeeze in!

What are your 5 favourite books read as an adult? 
Le Testament Francais (Andrei Makine); 
Kristin Lavransdatter(Sigrid Undset)
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell(Susanna Clarke) 
The Ghost Writer(John Harwood) 
The Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko--And lots more, that's just a small selection!

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves? 
Card Games and Tricks; The Book of Vintage Cars; Men at Arms series: The Scythians; the Journal of the Royal Society of NSW, 1900!

How would you describe perfect happiness? 
A lovely family day with us all together in a beautiful spot--my new book out and lots of people enjoying it-the sun shining but not too hot--in the early-mid 20's--and a great cake to celebrate it all!

FAIRY TALES & FANTASY: Sophie Masson talks about fairy tales as inspiration

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On the blog this week we are celebrating the Australian author Sophie Masson and her latest novel, Scarlet in the Snow, inspired by the Russian variant of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.

Today Sophie talks about how fairy tales help inspire her fiction: 

Fairytales have always been a rich source of inspiration for me, and those of my fantasy novels for young people that are based on fairytale elements seem to have struck the strongest chord with readers.

What to me makes traditional fairytales particularly suitable as a basis for modern fantasy is that in themselves they mix both enchantment and pragmatism, the world of the everyday and a realm of pure magic. And it's all done in such a matter of fact yet also profound way. You can never get to the end of the meanings of fairytale; and the fairytales of a people reveal their essence, their soul, if you like, in a moving yet also funny and beautiful way. 

And it's not just the folk-based fairytales such as the Arabian Nights, Grimm's collections and Perrault's that are so inspirational. Original fairytales can also work this way: think of Hans Christian Andersen and Madame Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote Beauty and the Beast, a story which has inspired countless writers, including me with Scarlet in the Snow!

I loved fairytales as a child. 

They were both consolation and escape; helped me to disappear into enchanted realms when family melodramas made life difficult and painful; but also helped me to make sense of the world on my return. 

I love fairytales now, both as a writer, and as a reader. There's something about good fairytale-based novels—a lightness of touch, a freshness of spirit—that I think comes directly out of that sparkling spring, that bubbling source of fairytale. 

Fairytale is less grand than myth, and less 'serious' than legend, but it is more romantic than both. More human. And yet more magical. More geared towards not the great ones of this world, but the little people. Going from light to dark and all shades in between, managing all emotions from love to hatred, joy to sorrow, dread to excitement, fairytale is humble yet powerful, full of meaning yet full of adventure. 

And in my opinion it is evergreen and inexhaustible in its potential to enrich the work of writers at all times in the history of literature. If you actually looked at the writers through the ages who have been influenced by fairytale, you might be surprised! 

They range from giants of literature like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Dickens to popular geniuses like JRR Tolkien and Agatha Christie, from the Arthurian writers of the Middle Ages to the classical children's writers such as Nicholas Stuart Gray and CS Lewis, on to modern magicians such as Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Kate Forsyth, Juliet Marillier, Robin McKinley, Margo Lanagan, and many more.

Mind you, it is very important when using fairytale as a basis for your own work to understand what those writers understood: go to the core of the story you're using as a base. Don't do violence to the story's spirit; but don't be afraid of taking risks, either. The originality of what you do won't lie in turning the story upside down—anyone can do that—but in refreshing it, in making your readers see it and understand it with new eyes, in uncovering yet another magical flash of colour in the opal beauty of fairytale.

BOOK REVIEW: Scarlet in the Snow by Sophie Masson

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Title: Scarlet in the Snow
Author: Sophie Masson
Publisher: Random House Australia 
Age Group & Genre: YA fairy tale retelling

The Blurb:

A deserted mansion. Empty picture frames. A perfect red rose in a snowy garden. There is rich and powerful magic here, and a mystery to unravel . . .

When Natasha is forced to take shelter from a sudden, terrible blizzard, she is lucky to see a mansion looming out of the snow. Inside it is beautiful: the fire lit, the table set. But there is no one there. And on the walls, instead of paintings, are empty frames. 

In the garden, she finds one perfect red rose about to bloom, a vivid splash of scarlet against the snow. Dreamily she reaches out a hand . . . 

Only to have the master of the house appear – a terrifying, gigantic creature who looks like a cross between a bear and a man – and demand vengeance on her for taking his rose. 

So begins an extraordinary adventure that will see Natasha plunged deep into the heart of a mystery. She begins to realise she has stumbled upon a great tragedy – a spell of revenge laid on the young man the Beast once was, devised by a powerful sorcerer.

But even if she can break the spell, the Beast she has now come to love will be snatched from her. Natasha will have a long journey, and many ordeals, ahead of her before there can be a happy ending.

Inspired by two beautiful Russian fairytales – The Scarlet Flower (the Russian version of Beauty and the Beast) and Fenist the Falcon, Scarlet in the Snow is a beguiling mix of magic, romance, adventure and mystery. 

What I Thought: 
I just loved this retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, told with flair, dash, and panache, by one of my favourite Australian women writers. Sophie Masson has really found her niche with these books ('Scarlet in the Snow' is set in the same alternative-world as Sophie's previous novel, 'Moonlight & Ashes', which was one of my BEST BOOKS READ IN 2012.) 

Do not expect a straight retelling a la Robin McKinley's 'Beauty'. Sophie Masson has instead used the fairy tale as a springboard to create a whole new romantic adventure. The story is full of snowstorms, lavish feasts, mysteries and surprises -  I loved it!


Monday, December 31, 2012

This past year was the first year of The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge – a call to arms for Australians to support our women writers by reading and reviewing their books, and spreading the word about the extraordinary literary talent we have in this country.

The initiative – begun by Elizabeth Lhuede – aims to redress the gender imbalance in the way male and female writers are treated in this country. Male writers are reviewed more often and win prizes more often, even though they do not write more books than women.

I have to admit I've  always had a strong bias towards women writers – my husband will growl, ‘don’t you have any books by men?’ as he searches my many bookshelves for something to read – yet I have noticed that the major literary papers do not review the type of books I really want to read. 

So I decided to join in the AWW challenge by reviewing novels that I had read and loved on a blog which I began for that purpose. I have reviewed and interviewed both men and women, from Australia and elsewhere – and I have made an effort to read more books by Australian women writers. 

In all, I read 95 books in 2012, 26 less than in 2011.

Less than one-third of these were written by men.

Of the 63 women writers, 35 of them were Australian. All of them were utterly brilliant. If you haven’t read their novels, read them in 2013 and discover for yourself the amazing talent of writers we have in this country: 

Parallel Historical/Contemporary

1. Secrets of the Tides – Hannah Richell
A dramatic story of family secrets and lies, set in London & Devon. Hannah Richell is UK-born, but lives in Sydney so I have counted her as an Aussie. 

2. The Secret Keeper - Kate Morton 
A riveting read that moves between contemporary times and the early days of the Second World War

3. Lighthouse Bay - Kimberley Freeman
One of my favourite books of the year, this book has romance, suspense, a dastardly villain, and a cast of strong, defiant women.

4. In Falling Snow  -  Mary Rose MacColl
A fascinating look at the role of women nurses and doctors in the Second World War in France.


5. Raven’s Heart  -  Jesse Blackadder
Set in Scotland in the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, this novel is filled with unexpected twists and turns.


6. The Reasons for Marriage  -  Stephanie Laurens
7. A Lady of Expectations  -  Stephanie Laurens
8. An Unwilling Conquest  -  Stephanie Laurens
9. A Comfortable Wife  -  Stephanie Laurens
Regency romance novels that are thin on story and thick on sex – but enjoyable nonetheless. 

10. The Perfect Rake  -  Anne Gracie
11. Bride by Mistake – Anne Gracie
12. The Perfect Waltz  -  Anne Gracie
13. The Stolen Princess – Anne Gracie
14. The Perfect Kiss – Anne Gracie
15. His Captive Lady - Anne Gracie 
Sparkling Regency romances with just the right mixture of humour, pathos, intrigue and romance.


16. Sea Hearts  -  Margo Lanagan
A haunting tale of love, betrayal and selkies by one of Australia’s most extraordinary authors. 

17. Shadowfell – Juliet Marillier
The first in a romantic YA fantasy series by one of my all-time favourite authors.

18. Flame of Sevenwaters  -  Juliet Marillier
Another fabulous historical fantasy set in the otherworldly forest of Sevenwaters.

19. A Corner of White  -  Jaclyn Moriarty
A startlingly original book that moves between the parallel worlds of contemporary Oxford and the strange and magical Kingdom of Cello.


20. Poet’s Cottage – Josephine Pennicott
An intriguing murder mystery set in Tasmania, which moves between the present day and the tragic past. 

21. A Few Right Thinking Men  -  Sulari Gentill
The first in a series of murder mysteries set in 1930s.

Children’s/Young Adult

22. The Golden Door – Emily Rodda
23. The Silver Door - Emily Rodda
24. The Third Door - Emily Rodda
A new trilogy of action-packed fantasy adventure novels for 8+, by the brilliant Emily Rodda

25. The Forgotten Pearl – Belinda Murrell 
A fabulous historical novel for 10+, set during the Second World War in Darwin and Sydney.

26. The River Charm  -  Belinda Murrell
A beautiful and very moving novel that moves between contemporary times and New South Wales’ early pioneering days, drawing upon the true life story of Charlotte and Louisa Atkinson, Australia’s first female novelists and journalists (and, I proudly must admit, my sister Belinda and my ancestors)

27. Bright Angel – Isabelle Merlin
A charming romantic suspense novel for 13+ set in the South of France.

28. One Long Thread – Belinda Jeffries
A fresh and unusual coming-of-age story that moves between Australia and Tonga.

29. Moonlight & Ashes – Sophie Masson
A really brilliant retake on the well-known Cinderella story, set in a make-believe Prague.

30. The Madman of Venice – Sophie Masson
A romantic historical novel set in Venice, with lots of suspense to keep the pages turning.

31. The FitzOsbornes in Exile - Michelle Cooper


32. You’ll be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy

Next year I aim to read even more books by Australian Women Writers. 
What about you?

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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