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BOOK LIST: Best 25 Books Set in Italy

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Italy is one of my favourite places in the world, and I have a particular love of historical novels set there. My own novel BITTER GREENS is set half in Venice and in a tower on the shores of Lake Garda - t gave me a wonderful excuse for a trip there! 

Today I've gathered together a list of what I consider the BEST 25 BOOKS SET IN ITALY:
(in alphabetical order)

1. The Wedding Officer – Anthony Capella

I loved this books so much! Its set in Sicily during the Second World War, and is all about food and love. It'll make you want to cook, I warn you!

2. Four Seasons – Laurel Corona

A beautiful book about Vivaldi and the women musicians of the Pieta in Venice.

3. A Thousand Days in Venice - Marlena de Blasi

This is really a memoir and not a novel, but I really loved it and so wanted to include it. Another gorgeous book about love and food. 

4. The Principessa – Christie Dickason
Set in the Italian city-state of La Spada, the gateway to Europe, this is an absolutely wonderful book of romance, palace intrigue, murder and fireworks. 

5. The Birth of Venus – Sarah Dunant

I loved this book - its bold, passionate and brilliantly brings the world of Renaissance Italy to life.

6. In the Company of the Courtesan - Sarah Dunant

One of my all time favourite books!

7. Sacred Hearts - Sarah Dunant

This one is set in a convent in Ferrara, Italy, in the year 1570 - I sat up till after 2am to finish it. An absolute zinger! 

8. Leonardo’s Swans – Karen Essex
Set in Renaissance Italy, the book charts the lives, loves and marriages of two sisters. Isabella and Beatrice, and their relationship with Leonardo da Vinci. This is historical writing at its best, vivid, alive, crackling with sexual and political tension, and uncompromising in its reality. 

9. The Glassblower of Murano – Marina Fiorato

This novel tells the parallel stories of a glassblower in Venice, 1681, and his descendant centuries later, a young woman who dreams of being a glassblowing artiste herself. It’s a simple, romantic story, but well told and with lots of lovely Venetian details. 

10. The Madonna of the Almonds - Marina Fiorato
A story of love, art, war and the story behind the making of the Amaretto di Saronna liquer - loved it! 

11. The Botticelli Secret - Marina Fiorato
A grand romp of an adventure through Renaissance Italy and Botticelli’s most famous painting, ‘La Primavera’, this was a great read (though you may need to willingly suspend your disbelief about quite a number of things). I loved it, though. The heroine Luciana is a delight, and the illumination of some of the possibly meanings behind the figures in the painting quite fascinating.

12. Daughter of Siena - Marina Fiorato

This lush historical novel set in 18th century Siena is a fabulous read, with a perfect blend of action, mystery and love. 

13. The Venetian Contract - Marina Fiorato
Her latest book and just as good as all her others. 

E.M. Forster

14. A Room with a View- E.M. Forster
An old favourite of mine and one I like to re-read every few years. A beautiful, subtle love story set partly in Italy and partly in England, with a gentle satire on English manners and mores – a wonderful book.

15. Where Angels’ Fear to Tread – E.M. Forster
Not as well known as A Room with a View, but just as good - romance and misunderstandings among English ex-pats in a small Italian village

16. Juliet – Anne Fortier 
A brilliant read! I really recommend it. This book tells the story of the original Juliet of Shakespearean fame, in parallel with the modern-day quest of a young American woman to find an ancient family legacy. I love books which parallel two historical periods, particularly when it is done as well as this one. 

17. The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke
An absolutely wonderful and magical children's book set in Venice. I love all of Cornelia Funke's books but this is my favourite.  A must read for all ages. 

17. The Confessions of Catherine de Medici – C.W. Gortner 
An absolutely fabulous historical novel told from the point of view of Catherine de Medici, one of the most maligned women in history. The parts dealing with her childhood are set in Italy; the rest in France. 

18. The Falconer’s Knot – Mary Hoffman
‘A tale of poison, bloodshed and passion’ ...  a fabulous book, and one I can highly recommend.

19. I, Mona Lisa – Jeanne Kalogridis 
This was the first book I have read by Jeanne Kalogridas and it won't be the last. I really enjoyed this book, which tells the story of the woman behind Leonardo da Vinci's most famous painting. So little was known about Lisa Gherardini, Kalogridas was able to position her right in the heart of the intrigues, murders, and religious fanaticism of Florence in the days of Savaronola. A really good, exciting, romantic book.

20. The Borgia Bride - Jeanne Kalogridis 
The tagline for this book reads ‘Incest. Poison. Betrayal. Three wedding presents for the Borgia Bride.’ This sums up the book really well. It’s a real historical page turner, set in Italy in the 1490s when the Borgia family ruled Rome. Riveting stuff. 

21. The Book of Unholy Mischief – Elle Newmark
An utterly fabulous read! Set in 15th century Venice, with a boy who seeks to protect an ancient book that holds the secret to unimaginable power. Lots of intrigue, drama, danger and cooking. 

22. Vivaldi’s Virgins – Barbara Quick
Another wonderful book about Vivaldi and the girl musicians of the Pieta in Venice - full of atmosphere and beauty.

23. Miss Garnet’s Angel – Salley Vickers
This novel tells the story of a prim and proper Englishwoman who goes to Venice and finds her life transformed by the power of art and love. It made me want to move to Venice!

24. The Passion of Artemisia – Susan Vreeland 

A novel inspired by the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women to ever be admitted into the salons of Renaissance Florence. Read my Interview with Susan Vreeland for more.

INTERVIEW: Christopher Gortner, author of THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY

Friday, November 01, 2013

It is my very great pleasure to welcome Christopher Gortner, one of my favourite historical novelists, to the blog today: 

Christopher, are you a daydreamer too?

Yes, absolutely. I think most writers must be; inspiration always strikes in day-dreams.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Not initially; I wanted to be a fashion designer. I worked in fashion for over ten years, in fact, in various capacities, but writing eventually chose me. Since childhood, I’d always written stories, and made several serious attempts at writing a novel, but it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I decided to try my hand at an historical novel. Once I began, I was hooked. Still, it took over 13 years until I was eventually published.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in the US and raised in southern Spain; my mom is Spanish and my family moved there when I was six. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, and spend several weeks of the year in Guatemala, where my partner and I have a home. I love to read, do yoga, write, of course, and I am passionate about helping to rescue dogs at danger of being euthanized in high-kill shelters.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY is the second book in a trilogy based on a fictional man with a secret link to the Tudors who becomes Elizabeth I’s private spy. 

The concept for the trilogy  was inspired by the extensive spy network that William Cecil and Francis Walsingham developed to protect Elizabeth, and by the many anonymous men and women who dedicated themselves, and sometimes lost their lives, to safeguard her.  I wanted to set the first two books in the tumultuous time before Elizabeth takes the throne, as I’ve always been intrigued by the so-called “forgotten Tudors” who came after Henry VIII. 

It’s a time of great instability and change in England, especially after Edward VI dies and Mary assumes the throne. Mary herself is a tragic figure, who fell prey to her own circumstances and initiated a terrible reign of persecution. She’s a challenging, complex character for a novelist: a woman who was courageous and steadfast in her right to claim the throne, yet became a paranoid ruler determined to wrest her subjects back to the Catholic faith even as she suffered to fulfill her duty to bear an heir. 

I thought that setting this second book during the time when she and Elizabeth—half-sisters yet antithetical in their personalities and beliefs—became foes would offer some fascinating material to work with, as my lead character struggles to protect Elizabeth without betraying Mary, whom he has met before and respects.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
I research intensively for all my novels. I usually read everything I can find about my characters, the era in which they lived, and the world as they knew it. I also take trips to see extant sites associated with them. However, I am mindful that research can, in of itself, become an obsession, and at some point the actual writing has to start. Usually, I write once I feel I've a strong enough handle not only of the time and events surrounding my characters, but more importantly, who they are. 

Developing an emotional blueprint for each of my characters is key for me; I don't necessarily need to agree with the people I write about, but I must understand them. I have to know them intimately in order to inhabit them. I also develop a brief outline of major events I want to cover, though I tend to refer to it loosely. I like to have an idea of where I want to start and where I want to end up, yet let the writing itself guide me on the journey. I'm superstitious about too much planning; I fear it will drain the joy of discovering the story, of letting it unfold in its own way.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Dreams do inspire me, in that I sometimes find myself recreating imagery and scenery from my book and can overcome blocks I encounter while writing by, literally, "sleeping on it." But I don't keep a formal dream journal or anything like that. I think my dream life informs my waking state, like a faint dye permeates cloth.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
The characters always surprise me, particularly when they behave in ways that I did not anticipate. In this book, a major loss befalls my main character, Brendan, but it was unplanned. It just happened as I was writing it, and after I was done, I was a bit stunned by it. I even considered re-writing it to change the outcome, until I realized the loss fit the story I wanted to tell. In truth, it had to occur. I love it when that happens, even if it means I must say goodbye to a beloved character. As a writer, I feel I must be careful to always  “hear” my story as it unfolds and not force it in directions it doesn’t want to go. For me, the unexpected is often the sign that I’m on the right path.

Where do you write, and when?
I write in my study at home, usually from early afternoon to around 6 or 7 pm at night. I used to be a night-owl, staying up till the wee hours to write, but I had a full-time day job and writing was a luxury that I was willing to forsake sleep for. I was also younger and could thrive on far less sleep. Now, I'm older, and finally, after many years, I can write full-time, so I try to stick to a schedule. I do find that scheduling writing every day is important for me. Nowadays, writers face so many distractions, as well as obligations: engaging on social media has become a must for marketing yet presents a challenge in terms of time management. I've discovered that I can easily spend an entire day online and not write a single word of my current work-in-progress. If I'm not disciplined, my writing suffers.

What is your favourite part of writing?
When I reach that magical midway point. The research is over for the most part, and I've developed a keen understanding of who my characters are, and where they’re headed. All of a sudden, everything aligns. It ceases to feel like writing and more like I’m simply relating the story as it happens before me.  I relish that apparent loss of control; the way time ceases to exist, and I become submerged in the world I’ve created. It's truly a marvelous gift.

What do you do when you get blocked?
Get anxious, get frustrated, call my friends. Worry. Pace. But for the most part, I step away from the work and do something else. I let the book “steep” for a while. Sometimes, that’s all that needed - a bit of time away to let the story settle. I don’t often get blocked but when it happens, it can be alarming. It can happen at any time, too, so now I just try to breathe and remind myself, it has happened before and I get through it. The important thing, I’ve learned, is not to force it, because that is when I can veer wildly off course.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read a lot, more than 30 novels a year, in addition to my research. I fill myself with stories which I could never tell, that inspire and confound and make me envious. Reading other authors does for writers what attending a symphony played by other musicians does for a musician; you have to hear what others have to say and let it all seep in, to stir and refresh those areas where you’ve become too set in your ways. I’ve also learned that my well must be replenished on its own. I can't simply leap from one book to the next. It takes time for me to ease out of the book I’ve just finished, to let those characters fade and re-discover the neutral space I require to start the process all over again.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Lots of strong black tea, patience, and the willingness to make mistakes. I don’t let everything be perfect at first; I stumble around like a stranger in a foreign land and let myself find my bearings as I go. The first draft is rarely the best, but once I have it, it’s the launching ground for the story waiting just underneath it. I just have to chisel away the excess, polish and refine. Rewriting is what I love best. It’s all there - a mess, certainly, but there.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I have more than ten, but here goes: Daphne Du Maurier, Nikos Kazantakis, Isabel Allende, Pauline Gedge, Robin Maxwell, Jude Morgan, Patricia Finney, Colin Falconer, Judith Merkle Riley, Cecelia Holland – and you. 
(Bless you & thank you, Christopher!)


What do you consider to be good writing? 
When you cease to "see" it. Good writing disappears, so that all the reader hears is the story. I also consider good writing to be something that moves me. It doesn’t matter what I feel, as long as I feel something other than indifference.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write every day. Be persistent. Persevere. Be willing to let it fall apart and to do it all again. Never imitate. Accept criticism and let it teach you. Always remember that of all the art forms, writing is the most fluid. It can always be improved.

What are you working on now?
I’m finishing the third book in the Spymaster Chronicles, titled THE TUDOR VENDETTA, and beginning to draft a new project about a character whom I’ve always wanted to write about. Earlier in the year, I delivered my revised manuscript about Lucrezia Borgia to my editors for US and UK publication in 2015.

Christopher's blog - Historical Boys

BOOK LIST: C.W. Gortner's brilliant historical novels

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I can't recommend the historical novels of C.W. Gortner highly enough. He's one of the those authors you wish could just write faster. I've read all of his books and loved them all. Three are biographical novels illuminating the lives of three much-maligned queens of history. Two are fast-paced historical thrillers. All are fabulous. I hope you read and enjoy them too!

The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner 
Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit her country’s throne, is better known as Juana the Mad. I have always been fascinated by her (she was Katherine of Aragorn’s elder sister, just to help you put her into historical context.) 

She was the third child of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand of Spain, and lived through the tumultuous years of their struggle to expel the Moors and unify Spain. 

At the age of sixteen, she was sent to wed Philip, the archduke of Flanders, and heir to the Habsburg Empire. She found love and contentment in her marriage, and bore a number of children.
However, when tragedy strkes, Juana finds herself the new queen of Spain … and fighting for her land, her throne and her very sanity. 

An utterly fascinating and illuminating novel which brings the sombre grandeur of the Spanish court vividly to life. 

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner 
Catherine de Medici is usually cast as the villainess in history. In this biographical novel, C. W. Gortner brilliantly imagines her life from a young innocent pawn in the hands of her ruthless and powerful Medici clan, to the queen-regent of France, responsible for one of the most famous religious massacres in history.

For the first time, we hear Catherine’s story in her own voice and come to understand some of her motivations. An utterly brilliant and compulsively readable novel about one of the most maligned and misunderstood women ever to be queen.

The Queen's Vow: A Novel Of Isabella Of Castile by C.W. Gortner 
I have always loved Spanish history, which is just as fascinating and bloody as Tudor England, and so loved C. W. Gortner’s novel about Juana the Mad, the last queen of Spain. In this novel, Christopher turns his attention to Juana’s extraordinary mother, Isabelle of Castile, best known as the queen who paid for Christopher Columbus’s exploratory journeys.

Isabella of Castile was an extraordinary woman, who fought all her life to unite Spain and expel the Moors, and to enforce Catholicism in her land. She was responsible for the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and was ruthless in her dealings with her enemies. In this novel, C.W. Gortner again steps inside the mind of a strong, powerful and passionate woman and makes sense of her story. Utterly fascinating. 

The Tudor Secret (The Spymaster Chronicles #1) by C.W. Gortner  
In the summer of 1553, Brendan Prescott, an orphan who has been is reared in the household of the powerful Dudley family, is brought to court. He finds himself entangled in the court intrigues that swirl around the young king’s brilliant half-sister, Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of the beheaded Anne Boleyn. 

Soon Brendan finds himself working as a double agent for William Cecil, who promises to help him unravel the secret of his own mysterious past.
The plot moves at breakneck speed, with lots of unexpected twists and turns, but is still full of the rich historical detail and psychological insight that marks out C.W. Gortner’s usual historical fiction. 

The Tudor Conspiracy (The Spymaster Chronicles #2) by C.W. Gortner  
Another action-packed historical thriller from C.W. Gorter, THE TUDOR CONSIPRACY continues with the adventures of Brendan Prescott, Elizabethan spy and man of mystery. I really love this series – the writing is deft and lyrical, the plot is strong and ever surprising, and the combination of history and suspense and romance a potent mix. Love it!

You can read a longer review of The Tudor Conspiracy here


REVIEW: The Tudor Conspiracy by C. W. Gortner

Monday, October 28, 2013

Title: The Tudor Conspiracy 
Author: C.W. Gortner
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin 
Age Group & Genre: Historical Thriller for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

The Blurb:
Winter 1554. Brendan Prescott, spymaster to the Princess Elizabeth, has discovered that he is connected to the Tudors by blood as well as allegiance. Though his secret is known only by a few, it could be his downfall as he is called to London to protect the princess. 
Accompanied by his young squire Peregrine, he reluctantly leaves his sweetheart Kate behind - but in the city he discovers that no one is quite what they seem. What fate does Queen Mary intend for her sister? Is Robert Dudley somehow manipulating the princess, even though he is locked in the Tower? And should Brendan trust the alluring Sybilla, Mary's lady-in-waiting, who professes to be on his side?

As he tries to unravel the mysteries of the Tudor court Brendan's life will be put in danger many times, and along the way he learns more about his own past

What I Thought: 
Christopher Gornter is one of my absolute favourite historical novelists – I pounce on his books as soon as they hit the shops and generally devour them in a single sitting. He is best known for writing biographical novels about strong, fascinating and often maligned women such as Catherine de Medici and Juana the Mad, but has also written a series of fast-paced, action-packed historical thrillers set in the days of Princess Elizabeth’s youth. The first in the series was THE TUDOR SECRET which I absolutely loved – lots of twists and turns, intrigue, drama, romance, and a vivid portrayal of the young, soon-to-be Virgin Queen.

THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY is the second book in the series, and is as fresh and brilliant and beautifully written as the first. 

Here is my review I posted on Goodreads: 

The Tudor period was a time of turmoil, danger, and intrigue … and this means spies. Brendan Prescott works in the shadows on behalf of a young Princess Elizabeth, risking his life to save her from a dark conspiracy that could make her queen … or send her to her death. Not knowing who to trust, surrounded by peril on all sides, Brendan must race against time to retrieve treasonous letters before Queen Mary’s suspicions of her half-sister harden into murderous intent.    

THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY is 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. It follows on from C.W. Gortner’s earlier novel, THE TUDOR SECRET, but can be read on its own (though I really recommend reading Book 1 first – it was great too).

If you love historical fiction but haven’t discovered Christopher’s work yet, I’d urge you strongly to give him a whirl. I promise you won’t be disappointed. 

Christopher's website 


BOOK LIST - Books Read in August 2013

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

August is Book Week in Australia, and that means lots of authors, including myself, have been on the road, talking about our books at schools, libraries and literary festivals. With so much travelling and talking, there’s not much time for reading and so this month I managed only eight books – however, I discovered a couple of wonderful new authors and read the new work of a few old favourites and so it was a happy reading month for me. 

1. The Tudor Conspiracy – C.W. Gortner
The Tudor period was a time of turmoil, danger, and intrigue … and this means spies. Brendan Prescott works in the shadows on behalf of a young Princess Elizabeth, risking his life to save her from a dark conspiracy that could make her queen … or send her to her death. Not knowing who to trust, surrounded by peril on all sides, Brendan must race against time to retrieve treasonous letters before Queen Mary’s suspicions of her half-sister harden into murderous intent.    

The Tudor Conspiracy is 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. It follows on from C.W. Gortner’s earlier novel, The Tudor Secret, but can be read on its own (though I really recommend reading Book 1 first – it was great too). 

2. Pureheart – Cassandra Golds
Cassandra Golds is one of the most extraordinary writers in the world. Her work is very hard to define, because there is no-one else writing quite like she does. Her books are beautiful, haunting, strange, and heart-rending. They are old-fashioned in the very best sense of the word, in that they seem both timeless and out-of-time. They are fables, or fairy tales, filled with truth and wisdom and a perilous kind of beauty. They remind me of writers I adored as a child – George Macdonald Fraser, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Elizabeth Goudge, or Eleanor Farjeon at her most serious and poetic. 

I have read and loved all of Cassandra’s work but Pureheart took my breath away. Literally. It was like being punched in the solar plexus. I could not breathe for the lead weight of emotion on my heart. I haven’t read a book that packs such an emotional wallop since Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. This is a story about a bullied and emotionally abused child and those scenes are almost unbearable to read. It is much more than that, however. 

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. 

3. Park Lane – Frances Osborne
Park Lane is the first novel by Frances Osborne, but she has written two earlier non-fiction books which I really enjoyed. The first, called Lilla’s Feast, told the story of her paternal great-grandmother, Lilla Eckford, who wrote a cookbook while being held prisoner in a Japanese internment camp during World war II. The second, called The Bolter, was written about Frances Osborne’s maternal great-grandmother, the notorious Lady Idina Sackville. Married five times, with many other lovers, Idina was part of the scandalous Happy Valley set in Kenya which led to adultery, drug addiction, and murder. Both are absolutely riveting reads, and so I had high hopes of Park Lane, particularly after I read a review in The Guardian which said ‘Frances Osborne will be in the vanguard of what is surely an emergent genre: books that appeal to Downton Abbey fans.’ Well, that’s me! I should have been a very happy reader. 

I have to admit, however, that the book did not live up to my expectations. This was partly because it is written entirely in present tense, a literary tic which I hate, and partly because of the style, which felt heavy and awkward. 

The sections told from the point of view of the aristocratic Beatrice are the most readable, perhaps because this is a world that Frances Osborne knows well (she is the daughter of the Conservative minister David Howell, Baron Howell of Guildford, and wife of George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, which means she lives next door to the Prime Minister on Downing Street in London.) However, the sections told from the point of view of her servant, Grace, are less successful, and her voice did not ring true for me. Also, I was just getting interested in her story when she disappears from the page, popping up again at the end. 

The sections I enjoyed the most were those detailing the suffragettes’ struggle for the vote. These scenes were full of action and drama, and draw upon Frances Osborne’s own family history, with her great-great-grandmother having made many sacrifices for the women’s cause. I’d have liked to have known much more about their struggle and the hardships they faced (maybe I’ll need to write my own suffragette novel one day). 

4. The Devil’s Cave – Martin Walker
I really love this series of murder mysteries set in a small French village in the Dordogne. A lot of the pleasure of these books does not come from the solving of the actual crime – which is often easily guessed – but from the descriptions of the town, the countryside, and the food and wine (I always want to cook the recipes, many of which can be found on the author’s website). These books also really make me want to go back to France!

The hero of this series is the small-town policeman Benoît Courrèges, called Bruno by everyone. He lives in an old shepherd’s cottage, with a beagle hound, ducks, chickens, a goat and a vegetable garden. He’s far more likely to offer some homespun wisdom than arrest anyone, a trait I appreciate. There’s always a touch of romance, and a cast of eccentric minor characters who add warmth and humour.  

The first few books were lazy and charming; the tension is slowly growing in later books which I think is a good thing as the series may have grown just a little too comfortable otherwise. In this instalment – no 5 in the series – there is a dead naked woman in a boat, satanic rituals and chase scenes in an underground cave, a Resistance heroine to be rescued, a local girl led astray, and an omelette made with truffle-infused eggs and dandelion buds. A big sigh of happiness from me. 

5. Let It Be Me – Kate Noble
I bought this book solely on the cover – a Regency romance set in Venice? Sounds right up my alley … I mean, canal …

I have never read a book by Kate Noble before, but I certainly will again. Let It Be Me is clearly part of a series, as is often the case with historical romances, but I had no trouble working out who everyone is. 

The book was set in 1824, and our heroine is the red-haired Bridget Forrester. Although she is quite pretty, none of the men at the ball ask her to dance as she has a reputation for being a shrew. It seems she has been over-shadowed by her sister, the Beauty of the family. 

So Sarah is over-joyed when she receives an invitation to be taught by the Italian composer, Vincenzo Carpenini. After a series of troubles and complications, Bridget ends up going to Venice and before she know sit, finds herself part of a wager to prove that women can play the piano just as well as men. All sorts of romantic entanglements occur, with a wonderful musical leitmotif running through – a very enjoyable romantic read. 

6. The Sultan’s Eyes – Kelly Gardiner
I was on a panel with Kelly Gardiner at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and so read The Sultan’s Eyes in preparation for our talk together. Historical fiction is my favourite genre, and I particularly love books set in the mid-17th century, a time of such bloody turmoil and change. I set my six-book series of children’s historical adventure novels ‘The Chain of Charms’ during this time and so I know the period well. I absolutely loved reading The Sultan’s Eyes, which is set in Venice and Constantinople in 1648, and am now eager to read the book that came before, Act of Faith.

The heroine of the story is Isabella Hawkins, the orphaned daughter of an Oxford philosopher, and educated by him in the classics as if she had been a boy. She has taken refuge in Venice with some friends following the death of her father, after what seem like some hair-raising adventures in Book 1. An old enemy, the Inquisitor Fra Clement, arrives in Venice, however, and afraid for their lives, Isabella and her friends free to the exotic capital of the East, Constantinople, which is ruled by a boy Sultan. His mother and his grandmother are engaged in covert and murderous intrigues to control him, and it is not long before Isabella and the others are caught up in the conspiracies. I loved seeing the world of the Byzantine Empire brought so vividly to life, and loved the character of Isabella  - passionate, outspoken, intelligent and yet also vulnerable. 

7. The Wishbird – Gabrielle Wang
I love Gabrielle Wang’s work and I love listening to her speak, so I was very happy to be sharing a stage with her at the Melbourne Writers Festival.  Her new novel The Wishbird is a magical adventure for young readers, and has the added bonus of illustrations by Gabrielle as well, including the gorgeous cover. 

Boy is an orphaned street urchin in the grim City of Soulless who makes a living as a pickpocket. One day he has a chance encounter with Oriole, a girl with a ‘singing tongue’ who was raised by the Wishbird in the Forest of the Birds. The Wishbird is dying, and Oriole has come to the city to try and find a way to save him. She finds herself imprisoned for her musical voice, however, and Boy must find a way to help her. What follows is a simple but beautiful fable about courage, beauty, love and trust that reminded me of old Chinese fairy tales. 

8. Elijah’s Mermaid – Essie Fox
Elijah’s Mermaid is best described as a dark Gothic Victorian melodrama about the lives of two sets of orphans. One is the beautiful and wistful Pearl, found as a baby after her mother drowned in the Thames, and raised in a brothel with the rather whimsical name of The House of Mermaids. The other two are the twins Elijah and Lily, also abandoned, but lucky enough to be adopted by their grandfather, an author named Augustus Lamb. 
The voices of Pearl and Lily alternate. At first Pearl’s voice is full of street slang and lewd words, but as she grows up many of these are discarded. For the first third of the book, the only points of contact are the children’s fascination with mermaids and water-babies (Pearl has webbed feet), but then they meet by chance at a freak show in which a fake mermaid is exhibited. After that, their lives slowly entwine.
Although the pace is leisurely, the story itself is intense and full of drama and mystery. The Victorian atmosphere is genuinely creepy. I could feel the chill swirl of the fog, and hear the clatter of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, and see Lily struggling to run in her corset and bustle. The story’s action takes place in freak shows, brothels, midnight alleys, underground grottos, and a madhouse, and so the dark underbelly of Victorian society is well and truly turned to the light. Yet this is a novel about love and redemption, as well as obsession and murder, and the love between the twins, and between Elijah and Pearl, is beautifully done.  

This monthly round-up of my reading was first posted for BOOKTOPIA and if you want to buy any of these books, they have all the links you need.

BOOK LIST: My favourite novels set in Tudor Times

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

This week on the blog I have reviewed Nancy Bilyeau's novel of Tudor intrigue, conspiracy and romance, 'The Crown', and  later in the week I'll be interviewing her. 

I have to admit one of my absolute favourite periods of history is Tudor times - all the bloodshed, torture, lust and murder - what's not to love?

It was Jean Plaidy who began my fascination with this period of time. I loved all her books about Henry VIII and his wives, the young Elizabeth I, and Mary, Queen of Scots.

I must dig out all my old Jean Plaidys and read them again! I think it was her novels that really sparked by passionate love of historical fiction.

However, we have to credit Philippa Gregory with the current craze for Tudor novels. I really love her work! My favourites? 'The Queen's Fool' and 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. Brilliant storytelling!

I have also been really enjoying the murder mysteries by British writer C. J. Sansom, set during the reign of Henry VIII, and featuring a hunchbacked yet indomitable lawyer  Matthew Shardlake:

A few books I absolutely adore that you may not be familiar with are:

'The Queen's Own Fool' by Jane Yolen, which is a brilliant YA novel abut Mary, Queen of Scots:

'A Traveller in Time' by Alison Uttley which I first read when I was about eleven years old, and which I have revered ever since. Its a classic of children's time travel adventures, delicately done, about a girl who slips back and forth in time while staying in an old farmhouse, and finds herself caught up in the infamous Babington plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots:

Another book set in Tudor times that I enjoyed hugely recently is the historical thriller, 'The Tudor Secret' by C. W Gortner:

Happy Tudor reading!

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