One of Australia’s favourite novelists Kate Forsyth, author of The Impossible Quest, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and now The Beast’s Garden, continues her monthly blog with us, giving her verdict on the books she read in January.
Summer holidays! For me, a time to relax and read for pleasure. I took a stack of books away with me to the beach shack and read my way through them in complete and utter happiness – Kate Forsyth
by Jane Harris
The Observations is such a delightful read! It tells the story of a girl named Bessy who takes a job as a maid-of-all-work in a gloomy country house in Scotland in the mid 1860s. Bessy has a past she would rather forget, and so is grateful for the refuge her mistress Arabella offers her. However, she soon comes to realise that not is all as it seems in the house, and that an earlier maid has died in rather mysterious circumstances. With naïve optimism, Bessie sets out to find out what happened, and finds herself getting rather more than she bargained for.
The true pleasure of the book is Bessy’s voice – gutsy, wry, and vulnerable – and the clever way Jane Harris weaves her narrative threads together.
by Posie Graeme-Evans
Wild Wood is a dual timeline narrative that moves between the Scottish Borderlands in the 14th century and an unhappy young woman in the 1980s who finds herself compelled to draw the same Scottish castle over and over again. I love stories with parallel timelines, particularly with a good dash of romance, history and magic added in. And I also love books set in Scotland, so all the ingredients were in place for a really wonderful read.
I must admit I loved the scenes set in the past more – the story of the mute fairy wife, the battle-hardened warrior and the medieval castle were all so intriguing. The contemporary scenes did not work quite so well for me, perhaps because the 1980s is not a decade that really inspires me. However, the story of Jesse and her eerie connection with the past eventually drew me in, and the story really began to gallop along.
by Judith Flanders
Judith Flanders is best known as the author of brilliantly researched historical non-fiction about the Victorian era. I have quite a few of her books, and return to them again and again for my own research.
Writers’ Block could not be more different. It’s a darkly funny contemporary murder mystery set in a London publishing house. It made me laugh out loud once or twice, and I roared through it in a single sitting.
The Sunne In Splendour
by Sharon Penman
This book has been on my shelf for a very long time, but its sheer heft and weight meant I kept postponing picking it up. Its 880 pages long! However, so many people kept naming it as one of the best historical novels ever written, so eventually I took the plunge. I’m very glad I did. It’s quite brilliant.
Sharon Penman effortlessly weaves together an epic story of love, war, and revenge, bringing to life the enigmatic king, Richard III. Most people know Richard III from the Shakespeare play, and from the murder of the Princes in the Tower.
Sharon Penman believes him unjustly maligned and she does a very convincing job of making her readers think so too. Well worth the wrist strain!
The Lure of the Moonflower
by Lauren Willig
These books are a really clever mix of chick lit & Regency romance-spy-adventure. They are clever, funny, romantic and full of suspense, packing an awful lot of frivolous fun into their pages. I’m very sad to see the series end.
Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France
Retold by Adele Geras and illustrated by Fiona McDonald
Christmas Press has been quietly producing a range of exquisite fairy tale retellings with gorgeous illustrations for the last couple of years. This beautiful edition has the Jerusalem-born author Adele Geras retelling Beauty & the Beast and Bluebeard with illustrations by Fiona McDonald (who also illustrated my own contribution to the series Two Selkie Tales from Scotland).
The stories are simply and elegantly retold, and are carefully pitched to appeal to a younger reading age – no need to fear for a sensitive child’s sensibilities here! So far the series has included tales retold by Sophie Masson, Ursula Dubosarky, and me, with one coming soon from Duncan Ball. Other titles are in the pipeline. Together they will build to a library of some of the world’s most beloved fairy tales, with stories from Russia, Japan, Ancient Greece, Rome, and Ireland, as well as Scotland and France. A perfect gift for any fairy-tale-loving child!
Midnight is a Place
by Joan Aiken
Joan Aiken is one of my all-time favourite children’s writers. Her books were out-of-print for a while and I haunted second-hand bookshops in the hopes of building up my collection. My copy of this wonderful book was bought from the Glebe Library years ago, and still has its yellow cardboard filing card in an envelope glued inside the front cover. Happily, her books have all recently been re-issued with fabulous new covers and so are easy to get hold of now.
It’s difficult to exactly categorise Joan Aiken’s work. It’s historical fiction, with a Dickensian feel thanks to its brilliantly drawn characters (both comic and villainous), unusual names, and dark atmospheric settings. Her stories are fabulously inventive, and often have surprising elements in them (like pink whales). Some of the books have an alternative historical setting, with Good King James III on the throne of England, and the wicked Hanoverians trying to blow up Parliament House.
Midnight is a Place is the most realist of her novels, and quite possibly her darkest. It tells the story of a lonely boy named Lucas, who lives at Midnight Court, next to a smoggy industrial town called Blastburn. His guardian is a foul-tempered, brandy-drinking eccentric who won the great house in a card-game many years before. One day the orphaned daughter of the previous owner comes to live at Midnight Court. Soon Lucas and Anna-Marie are left destitute, and must fend for themselves in the tough streets of Blackburn.
There is one particular scene set in the carpet-making factory that I shall never forget – as a child, it burnt itself deep into my imagination. It is also striking for its refusal to restore the children’s lost wealth – instead they find happiness by making their own way in the world. Joan Aiken is one of the great children’s writers, and deserves to be much more widely celebrated.
She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite Novelists. She has been called one of ‘the finest writers of this generation”, and “quite possibly … one of the best story tellers of our modern age.’
Kate’s books have been published in 14 countries around the world, including the UK, the US, Russia, Germany, Japan, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Poland and Slovenia.
The Beast’s Garden
by Kate Forsyth
The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called The Singing, Springing Lark in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom.
In The Singing, Springing Lark, the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from … Read more