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BOOK REVIEW: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson

Wednesday, February 14, 2018



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners; the second was loved by John Betjeman; the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley; the fourth idolized Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany; the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party; the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire.

They were the Mitford sisters: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. Born into country-house privilege, they became prominent as ‘bright young things’ in the high society of interwar London. Then, as the shadows crept over 1930s Europe, the stark – and very public – differences in their outlooks came to symbolise the political polarities of a dangerous decade.

The intertwined stories of their lives – recounted in masterly fashion by Laura Thompson – hold up a revelatory mirror to upper-class English life before and after World War II.


My Thoughts:

I first became aware of the controversial and fascinating lives of the six Mitford sisters when Mary Hoffman, a writer friend of mine, took me to see their graves in the cemetery in Swinbrook, a village in the Cotswolds near where the family grew up. Only four of the six sisters are buried there – Nancy the Writer, Unity the Nazi, Diana the Fascist, and Pamela the Boring One. The other two sisters are known as Jessica the Communist and Deborah the Duchess, I kid you not.

After Mary told me something of their lives, I became so interested that I read a few biographies about the family. Unity and Diana ended up having cameo appearances in my novel The Beast’s Garden, which tells the story of the secret underground resistance to Hitler in Berlin during the Third Reich. Both Unity and Diana were avid supporters of Hitler and the Nazis, and Unity shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany (Diana spent most of the war in prison).

The Mitfords were an impoverished aristocratic family with seven children (the only son, Tom Mitford, could be nicknamed the One Who Everyone Forgets).

Nancy (b. 1904) was a bestselling novelist and biographer; Pamela (b. 1907) was a country woman who bred chickens; Tom (b. 1909) was killed in action during the Second World War; Diana (b.1910) was considered one of the most beautiful women of the age and left her first husband Bryan Guinness (of the Guinness beer fortune) to marry Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists; Unity (b. 1914) was in love with Hitler and tried to commit suicide the day war broke out (she survived another nine years); Jessica (b. 1917) eloped with her cousin Esmond Romilly to serve in the Spanish Civil War and was later active in the American Civil Rights movement; and Deborah (b. 1920) become the Duchess of Devonshire and ran Chatsworth House, the house famous for playing the role of Pemberley in the 2005 film with Keira Knightley).

No wonder people find them fascinating!

If you have never heard of the Mitford sisters, this is may not the place to start as the author assumes the reader is familiar with the lives, loves and hates of the six young women. (Start by reading Nancy’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in A Cold Climate, and then move on to Jessica’s autobiography Hons & Rebels.)

However, for someone who knows the background and is familiar with previous biographies, this book offers fresh material in the form of interviews with the last two surviving Mitfords, Diana and Deborah, before their deaths. And Laura Thompson does not pass judgement on the six sisters and their sometimes disastrous choices – she allows them to speak to us in their own words, through quotes from letters and diaries and interviews, so we may draw our own conclusions.


You might also be interested in reading this blog post from 2013, in which my guest blogger Michelle Cooper lists some of her favourite books set in the '20s and '30s.

What are your favourites set in that period? Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.


BOOK REVIEW: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Friday, January 05, 2018



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

When the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in Dorseteshire in June 1348, no one knows what manner of sickness it is or how it spreads and kills so quickly. The Church cites God as the cause, and religious fear grips the people as they come to believe that the plague is a punishment for wickedness.

But Lady Anne of Develish has her own ideas. Educated by nuns, Anne is a rarity among women, being both literate and knowledgeable. With her brutal husband absent from Develish when news of this pestilence reaches her, she takes the decision to look for more sensible ways to protect her people than daily confessions of sin. Well-versed in the importance of isolating the sick from the well, she withdraws her people inside the moat that surrounds her manor house and refuses entry even to her husband.

She makes an enemy of her daughter and her husband's steward by doing so, but her resolve is strengthened by the support of her leading serfs … until food stocks run low and the nerves of all are tested by continued confinement and ignorance of what is happening in the world outside. The people of Develish are alive. But for how long? And what will they discover when the time comes for them to cross the moat?

Compelling and suspenseful, The Last Hours is a riveting tale of human ingenuity and endurance against the worst pandemic known to history. In Lady Anne of Develish - leader, saviour, heretic - Walters has created her most memorable heroine to date.


My Thoughts:

Minette Walters is best known for her contemporary psychological thrillers (which I must read again!) However, it has been ten years since her last book and now she has released a doorstopper of a novel set during the time of the Black Death in England.

The accepted wisdom is that a writer must continue to churn out books as much like their previous books as possible, but I think this leads to a steady decline in the quality of the writing. A creative artist must be constantly challenging themselves, trying new things, following new interests. And I love writers to break rules and subvert expectations. So the news that Minette Walters had written a historical novel filled me with joy. I ordered it straightaway, and plunged into it with delight.

Set in Dorset in 1348, the book begins when news begins to spread of a terrible new disease that strikes down quickly and spreads just as fast. Widowed by the death of her husband, Lady Anne tries to save her people by isolating them. However, she cannot banish lust, jealousy, and hatred, all of which lead to a tragic death within the walls of her castle.

The story swings along with great aplomb, filled with suspense, drama, murder and surprise. I particularly loved the character of Lady Anne, who is plain but intelligent and kind-hearted, and who has her own secrets. Although it's a massive book at 550 pages, the pace never flags …. At least not until the very last scene, in which Minette Walters’ control over her story falters. It turns out that there is to be a sequel, where the story shall be continued, and so the book ends on a cliffhanger. I would have so much rather have had a good strong resolution, with just a hint that there was still drama and darkness to come, but it’s just one quibble in a book which I enjoyed immensely. And I’ll be buying the sequel when it comes out, never fear!

Another great book about the plague, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, made my 2013 list of Favourite Australian Authors.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson

Wednesday, January 03, 2018



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


Late spring, 1728 and Thomas Hawkins has left London for the wild beauty of Yorkshire - forced on a mission he can't refuse. John Aislabie, one of the wealthiest men in England, has been threatened with murder. Blackmailed into investigating, Tom must hunt down those responsible, or lose the woman he loves forever.

Since Aislabie is widely regarded as the architect of the greatest financial swindle ever seen, there is no shortage of suspects.

Far from the ragged comforts of home, Tom and his ward Sam Fleet enter a world of elegant surfaces and hidden danger. The great estate is haunted by family secrets and simmering unease. Someone is determined to punish John Aislabie - and anyone who stands in the way. As the violence escalates and shocking truths are revealed, Tom is dragged, inexorably, towards the darkest night of his life.

Inspired by real characters, events and settings, A Death at Fountains Abbey is a gripping standalone historical thriller. It also continues the story that began with the award-winning The Devil in the Marshalsea and The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins.


My Thoughts:

This novel is the third in a series of witty, fast-paced historical murder mysteries set in Georgian times in England. The hero, Thomas Hawkins, is a rake and a gambler who has spent time in prison for debt and was almost hanged in Book 2: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. And when I say ‘almost hanged’, I mean it. He still carries the scar of the hangman’s noose in this, his third adventure. Sent by the queen to investigate threats of murder against one of England’s richest men, Thomas finds himself drawn into a puzzling mystery which soon escalates into violence. The prose gallops along, enlivened by Thomas’s cynical asides, and the story is full of surprises. If you haven’t read Antonia Hodgson before, start with Book 1: The Devil in the Marshalsea. The whole series is great.

You can read my review of The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins here.

Please leave a comment!

BOOK REVIEW: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Wednesday, December 27, 2017



The Blurb (from Goodreads):


Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners - three women and a young man with a past - whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.


My Thoughts:

I am such a huge fan of Sarah Waters. I think she may be my favourite author at the moment. I’ve been slowly working my way though her backlist, and finally had the chance to read The Night Watch, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize.

The novel has an unusual and audacious structure, in that each new section of the book moves backwards in time rather than forwards. So the first section begins in 1947, in the aftermath of World War II, when the people of London are struggling to get their lives back together; the second section is set in 1944, when it seemed the war would never end; and the final in 1941, during all the chaos and horror of the Blitz. We are introduced to a handful of people whose lives are linked, we shall discover, in surprising ways. There is Kay, a young woman who dresses like a man and who cannot recover from a broken heart. There is Duncan, a young man who spent much of the war in prison. And there are Helen and Viv, two young women who work together and yet know surprisingly little about each other’s secret private lives. Working backwards through their stories, much like an archaeologist may dig deeper for new revelations about a place and time, has an unexpected effect of slow-building suspense. The book, though slow and deep, becomes unputdownable. I cared so much for them – especially heart-broken Kay and soul-damaged Duncan – that I could almost not bear to reach the parts where the hurt was done.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, because this is a book rife with spoilers. All I will say is that – like all of Sarah Waters’ books – it is utterly brilliant! I wish I could write so well.

Please also check out my review of another brilliant Sarah Waters book, Fingersmith.

Remember to leave a comment - I love to know your thoughts!


BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Friday, October 20, 2017




The Blurb (From Goodreads)

From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country.

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shat
tered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Kostova's new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.

My Thoughts:

Elizabeth Kostova is best known as the author of The Historian which was a huge bestseller in 2005, riding the tsunami of vampire craziness. Elizabeth Kostova’s book was dark, complex, intelligent, and filled with the true history of vampiric lore. I loved it. I also loved her second novel, The Swan Thieves, about art, love and madness. So I was really thrilled when I was asked to do an event with Elizabeth during her Australian tour in July.

She was here to promote her third book, The Shadow Land, which moves fluidly between the past and the present in Bulgaria. The story begins when a young American woman – newly arrived in the capital city of Sofia – accidentally finds herself in possession of someone else’s bag. Inside the bag is an urn filled with human ashes.

Distraught at the discovery, Alexandra tries to find the original owner but the only clue she has is the name engraved on the urn – Stoyan Lazarov. In her quest to identify him, she finds herself in ever increasing danger.

The sections set in the past are told from numerous points-of-view but circle ever closer to the life and death of Stoyan Lazarov, a musician who sees something he should not have seen during the years of the communist regime.

Heart-breaking, evocative, and suspenseful, The Shadow Land explores a little-known and tragic part of European history in beautiful, restrained writing that brought me to tears several times.

For another great historical read set in Europe, check out my review of Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts.

BOOK REVIEW: The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The author of The Girl Who Came Home turns the clock back one hundred years to a time when two young girls from Cottingley, Yorkshire, convinced the world that they had done the impossible and photographed fairies in their garden. Now, in her newest novel, international bestseller Hazel Gaynor reimagines their story.

1917… It was inexplicable, impossible, but it had to be true—didn’t it? When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, claim to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when one of the great novelists of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes convinced of the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a national sensation, their discovery offering hope to those longing for something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war. Frances and Elsie will hide their secret for many decades. But Frances longs for the truth to be told.

One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story it tells of two young girls who mystified the world. But it is the discovery of an old photograph that leads her to realize how the fairy girls’ lives intertwine with hers, connecting past to present, and blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, can Olivia find a way to believe in herself?

My Thoughts:

One hundred years ago, two girls went down to the stream at the bottom of their garden in the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire, and took some photographs of fairies. Elsie Wright (aged 16) and Frances Griffiths (aged 10) were cousins, and each took turns in being photographed. They developed the photos, and showed them to Elsie’s father who had mocked them for believing in fairies. Elsie’s mother showed the photos at a meeting of the Theosophical Society, and eventually they came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who championed the two girls and their photos as evidence of supernatural phenomena. The two girls maintained the truth of their photographs all through the ensuing media storm but eventually confessed - when in their 80s – that the fairies had been drawn on paper and carefully cut out and stuck on hat-pins. All except one, Frances said. One of the photographs was real.

Hazel Gaynor brings the mystery of the Cottingley Fairies thrillingly to life in a gorgeously written narrative that moves seamlessly between Yorkshire in the 19th century - a time when Conan Doyle and other men of science wanted desperately to believe in the possibility of fairies and ghosts and spirits - and Ireland in the 21st century. A mystery, a love story, and an enchanting and surprising journey of self-discovery, 'The Cottingley Secret' unwraps the true story behind one of the great hoaxes of the 19th century while still allowing the possibility of the magical.



Read my 2015 interview with Hazel Gaynor here.

Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Now a major motion picture starring Eddie Redmayne and directed by Tom Hooper, THE DANISH GIRL is a shockingly original novel about one of the most unusual and passionate love stories of the 20th century.

Loosely inspired by a true story, this tender portrait of marriage asks: What do you do when the person you love has to change?

It starts with a question, a simple favour asked by a wife of her husband while both are painting in their studio, setting off a transformation neither can anticipate. Uniting fact and fiction into an original romantic vision, The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires.

The Danish Girl is an evocative and deeply moving novel about one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the 20th century.

My Thoughts:

Inspired by the tragic true-life story of Einar Wegener, one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery, The Danish Girl has since been made into a hit movie starring Eddie Redmayne. I haven’t seen the movie but it certainly brought the book to my attention.

Then I heard David Ebershoff speak at the Historical Novel Society conference in the US, and I was so entranced I rushed off to buy the book straight away and have it autographed.

It’s a simple yet fascinating story. Einer Wegener was a Danish landscape painter, married to another artist, Greta, who painted enormous portraits of famous people. One day Greta’s model – a ballerina – failed to turn up and she asked her husband to model for her instead. Einar had to pull on a pair of silk stockings and hold a tutu against him. It awoke something in him. Einer began to dress as Lili, identifying more strongly with her every day. Eventually she underwent a series of surgeries, eventually dying of an infection after a botched attempt to transplant a uterus.

David Ebershoff has taken numerous liberties with the story, making Greta Wegener an American heiress when she was in fact Gerda Gottlieb and Danish. I believe this was to make the story more appealing to an American audience, but I would have preferred more historical accuracy. That detail aside, the novel is written with great sensitivity and tenderness, and Greta’s struggle to understand Lili is at the core of the novel. A really fascinating and heart-breaking story.



For another great read that's about to be turned in to a movie, check out my review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Remember to leave a comment, I love to know what you think!

BOOK REVIEW: Stars Across the Ocean by Kimberley Freeman

Friday, September 01, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A story about love, motherhood, and learning whom you belong to in the world.

In 1874, wild and willful Agnes Resolute finally leaves the foundling home where she grew up on the bleak moors of northern England. On her departure, she discovers that she was abandoned with a small token of her mother: a unicorn button. Agnes had always believed her mother to be too poor to keep her, but Agnes has been working as a laundress at the foundling home and recognises the button as belonging to the imperious and beautiful Genevieve Breakby, daughter of a local noble family. Agnes had only seen her once, but has never forgotten her. She investigates and discovers Genevieve is now in London. Agnes follows, living hard in the poor end of London until she finds out Genevieve has moved to France.

This sets Agnes off on her own adventure: to Paris, Agnes follows her mother's trail, and starts to see it is also a trail of destruction. Finally, in Sydney she tracks Genevieve down. But is Genevieve capable of being the mother Agnes hopes she will be?

A powerful story about women with indomitable spirits, about love and motherhood, and about learning whom you belong to in the world.


My Thoughts:


A new book by Kimberly Freeman is always a must-buy for me. I just love the way that she combines romance, adventure, and family drama, with two stories in different historical periods weaving together in a deeply satisfying way.

The primary narrative in Stars Across the Ocean is the story of a foundling-child Agnes Resolute (named for a ship) who sets out on a quest to find her real mother in the late 1870s. All she has to guide her is a small silver button with a rearing unicorn engraved upon it. She discovers the button once belonged to Genevieve Breakby, the beautiful and wilful daughter of a local noble family. Agnes follows a series of tiny clues that lead her first to London, then Paris, then across the ocean to Ceylon. Indomitable, brave, and as resolute as the ship she is named for, Agnes refuses to give up despite hardships, loss and the growing fear that perhaps her mother is not as she imagined her to be …

Meanwhile, in modern-day London, Victoria is struggling with her own problems, including a troubled relationship with her husband and a mother who is struggling with Alzheimer’s.

The two stories echo each other in interesting ways across the century that separates them, in a beautiful novel about mothers and daughters and finding one’s place in the world.

Click here to read an interview with Kimberley Freeman.

Please write me a comment and let me know your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler

Sunday, June 04, 2017

BLURB:

In 2014, Richard Fidler and his son Joe made a journey to Istanbul. Fired by Richard's passion for the rich history of the dazzling Byzantine Empire - centred around the legendary Constantinople - we are swept into some of the most extraordinary tales in history. The clash of civilizations, the fall of empires, the rise of Christianity, revenge, lust, murder. Turbulent stories from the past are brought vividly to life at the same time as a father navigates the unfolding changes in his relationship with his son.

GHOST EMPIRE is a revelation: a beautifully written ode to a lost civilization, and a warmly observed father-son adventure far from home.

MY THOUGHTS:

I love listening to Richard Fidler on the radio. He is always so warm and funny and curious about people, and he has a knack for drawing out the personal and the unique in every story. I have also been increasingly interested in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), having read several novels set there in recent years. After hearing Richard speak about his book at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, I bought a copy and finally read it last month. Normally I read non-fiction slowly over a few weeks, reading several novels in between chapters. But Ghost Empire was so engaging and readable, I whizzed through it in just a few nights.

The book combines the personal memoir of a journey Richard and his son Joe made to Istanbul in 2014, with stories from the city’s long and bloody history. Constantinople was built on the foundations of Byzantium in the early 4th century and became the new capital of the Roman empire in 330 AD. From the mid-5th to the mid-13th century, it was the largest, richest and most powerful city in the world, and the guardian of the most sacred relics of Christianity, the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross. 

For almost a thousand years the city was the centre of extraordinary true tales of greed, murder, violence and betrayals, and Richard entwines these stories with anecdotes from his own life and his life-changing journey with his son. The result is utterly fascinating. 

BEAUTY IN THORNS: Edward Burne-Jones's Sleeping Beauty paintings

Thursday, May 25, 2017



Beauty in Thorns is an historical novel for adults which tells the astonishing true story behind the famous 'Sleeping Beauty' painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Told in the voices of four very different women, Beauty in Thorns is a story of love, desire, art, and awakenings of all kinds. 

Burne-Jones painted the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale many times over the forty-odd years of his career: 




In May 1856, Burne-Jones drew a pencil sketch of his betrothed, Georgie Macdonald, as the Sleeping Beauty to amuse her little sister Louie on her birthday. He was 23 years old and Georgie was sixteen. I believe this is the sketch, though it has not been officially confirmed. 





In 1862, Burne-Jones designed a series of 'Sleeping Beauty' tiles for a client of the Morris & Co decorating firm, of which he was a partner. The princess looks very much like Lizzie Siddal, who had died a few months earlier of a laudanum overdose, and the prince kneeling to kiss her awake looks very much like her grieving widower Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The peacock (featured on the wall of the boudoir) is a symbol of immortality and rebirth.  This tile is one of nine in a sequence that begins with the baby in her cradle and ends with the marriage of the prince and princess. The tiles can be seen at the V&A Museum in Kensington.




In the 1870s, Burne-Jones had a tempestuous affair with one of his models, the sculptor Maria Zambaco, and he painted a very sensual version of Sleeping Beauty with his mistress modelling as the princess. The affair ended badly, with Maria attempting to drown herself in Regent's Canal.  At one point, Ned planned to run away with Maria but he ended returning to his wife and family so they would not be besmirched by the scandal. 

This painting - now in Puerto Rico - was the final in a sequence of three paintings that showed the prince in the briar wood, the king and his councillors asleep in the council chamber, and the princess asleep with her maids.




This beautiful drawing is a chalk study of his daughter Margaret that Burne-Jones made in 1881, when he was planning another sequence of painting inspired by the fairytale. Margaret was then fifteen, the age of the princess in the story.





And this exquisite painting of his daughter Margaret as Sleeping Beauty was created by Burne-Jones in 1884-1887,  as the final in a sequence of four enormous painting which now hang in Buscot Park, in Oxfordshire. Margaret was aged in her late teens and early twenties, and had fallen in love with a young poet and scholar named John William Mackail, much to her father's distress. 

The four paintings - called 'The Legend of Briar Rose' - caused an absolute sensation when they were first exhibited in 1890, with queues of carriages along Bond Street and crowds of people returning again and again to view them. Burne-Jones sold the quartet of painting for fifteen thousand guineas, the most money a British artist had ever been paid, and he was subsequently knighted by the Queen. 





His final painting is a small circle, entitled 'Wake Dearest' which he painted for his ever-loving and faithful wife Georgie in the final year of his life (1898). I believe she was the model for the princess. This tiny masterpiece - along with 37 other tiny glowing circles - were left to Georgie in his will, and later published as 'The Flower Book'. 

My novel Beauty in Thorns tells the story behind the creation of these exquisite drawings and paintings - a story of love, betrayal, heartbreak, death, and awakening of all kinds.  


It will be released in Australia in July 2017. 

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