Kate Forsyth, one of Australia’s favourite novelists and the author of books including The Impossible Quest, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and The Beast’s Garden, continues her blog with us, giving her verdict on the best books she read in November 2017.
Kate Forsyth’s Reviews
Le Chateau is a romantic and suspenseful mystery set in a chateau in France, and so it ticks a lot of boxes for me. Sarah Ridout is an Australian author who has a Masters in Creative Writing from University College Dublin, and spent eight years living in southern France. The novel is rich in sensory detail about the French countryside, food and local customs, all of which I loved.
The protagonist of the book is a young Australian woman named Charlotte who is married to a Frenchman. She does not, however, remember him. Or their daughter, Ada. Or, indeed, any detail of her life in the past five years. An accident has robbed her of her memory, and now she must return to living at his family’s chateau and picking up the threads of a life she cannot remember. Strange menacing events frighten and unsettle her, and Charlotte does not know who to trust. Physically weak, emotionally fragile, she must try to find out the truth of what happened to her, before more harm is done.
The story reminded me of the Gothic romances by authors like Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart that I devoured as a teenager. A house full of secrets, a brooding atmosphere of darkness and danger, the exotic setting of a chateau in the sun-drenched south of France, eerie hints of some kind of supernatural threat, and a fast-paced suspenseful plot all add up to a real page-turner. I must admit I guessed the villain early on in the narrative, and so I would have loved a real humdinger of a plot twist at the end. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it hugely… Learn More.
I am a big fan of the Inspector Morse TV series, and its spin-off Lewis, and yet I had never read any of the novels by Colin Dexter which inspired the shows. I had heard that they were good old-fashioned murder mysteries with clever plots, which is something I am always hunting for, and so I thought I’d give them a go.
The first book in the series, Last Bus to Woodstock, was published in 1975, and so it reads like historical fiction now. The plot depends on a warning letter being hand-delivered because of the slowness of the English postal system; there are no mobile phones, or internet, or traffic cameras, or DNA testing. Inspector Morse has old-fashioned tastes in music (Wagner) and hobbies (cryptic crosswords) and very old-fashioned attitudes to women, who are all pretty typists with good legs. The casual misogyny can be a little hard to take (the conclusion that the murdered girl must have been promiscuous because she didn’t wear a bra, for example). However, the mystery itself is really clever and surprising, and I happen to love classical music and cryptic clues, and so I quite enjoyed the character of Inspector Morse, who is much lazier and bumbling in the novel than he is in the TV show… Learn More.
I love memoirs about brave adventurous people who move to Italy or France or Spain, and renovate an old house, plant a garden, cook fabulous feasts, fall in love and find themselves. Surely its my Sliding Doors life? Sometimes, when I’m meant to be writing, I look at castles for sale in Scotland instead. In fact, I do so far too often. Lately I’ve been gazing longingly at chateaus in Brittany. The book I am now writing is set there and so I can tell myself it’s research and not procrastination.
I stumbled upon this memoir one day while googling ‘Brittany chateaus for sale’ and, on a whim, I bought it. I’m very glad I did. It’s one of the most beautiful and moving memoirs I’ve ever read, and surprising in a number of ways.
Firstly, even though it’s subtitled A Memoir of Love and Loss, it is not a story about a woman moving to France, falling in love and living happily ever after. Marjorie Price does marry a Frenchman and they do buy an enchanting derelict farmhouse in Brittany, but her husband turns out to be a charming but controlling misogynist who refuses to allow her to paint or make her own decisions. His domineering behaviour escalates to violence, and Marjorie must find the inner strength to escape him and make a life on her own for herself and her daughter.
Secondly, this is not a contemporary tale. Marjorie left her native USA to travel to France in 1960. Her story is therefore set at a time of huge political and cultural change in the world. The scars inflicted by the Second World War are still deep, and the Vietnam War and the battle for civil rights are cutting new ones. Women’s rights are still being fought for, and Marjorie’s decision to travel on her own to Paris and try to make a life for herself as an artist is seen as shocking and unladylike. So the betrayal of her dreams by a misogynist who thinks women should only support their husband’s careers is just heart-breaking, and her struggle to make her own way doubly poignant.
Lastly, A Gift from Brittany has at its heart the story of an unlikely friendship between women. Marjorie is young, college-educated, American, and a single mother, struggling to make her way as an artist. Her neighbour Jeanne is elderly, illiterate, and lives in a cottage with no running water or plumbing. She has never ridden in a car, eaten in a restaurant, talked on the telephone, or seen the sea. She wears a shapeless black dress and a white cap pinned to her hair, as her ancestors have done for years. Yet she is funny, earthy, and unfailingly kind. She helps and supports Marjorie at every new challenge or crisis, and teaches her much about life and the world – even though she has never travelled more than a few miles from her home.
Jeanne is dead now, and so is her way of her life and all her stories and songs. Yet this memoir captures something of her warmth and wisdom, and gives us a poignant glimpse of an ancient vibrant culture that is now mostly lost. A truly wonderful book… Learn More.
‘Kit wasn’t the only one who thought that he was dead.’
So begins this wonderful story about a boy in the 1500s who is rescued from a plague-cart by the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. Living within the confines of the tower, gifted with the ability to speak with the king’s ravens, Kit lives in violent times. King Henry VIII rules England, and many of his enemies find themselves imprisoned within the tower’s dank walls.
One day the king’s young and beautiful queen, Anne Boleyn, finds herself accused of unspeakable crimes and imprisoned. Kit and the ravens find themselves drawn into a world of intrigue, treason, and bloodshed. Kit may not be able to save the doomed queen, but perhaps he can help save her baby princess…
Swiftly moving and suspenseful, this is an enthralling novel for children aged twelve and upwards, and a fascinating introduction to Tudor history. Loved it… Learn More.
When I was a little girl, my father was always going off adventuring. One day I asked my grandmother why he loved travelling so much, and she laughed a little and said, ‘oh, darling, it’s the gypsy in him.’
Now, I do not know if she was speaking literally or metaphorically but I’ve been fascinated by the Roma ever since. I used to dress up in a gypsy skirt and embroidered blouse, and call myself Mitzi, and my sister and brother and I were always camping out under the stars and cooking sausages on the campfire. As I got older, I began to collect books about the Roma and their fascinating and tragic history. This interest culminated in The Chain of Charms, a series of six historical novels about the adventures of two Romani children in the final weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s rule in 17th century England.
While researching The Chain of Charms, I tried numerous times to make contact with the Romanichal community in the UK, particularly the Finch and Smith families who were the descendants of the real-life Queen of the Gypsies I was writing about. I had no luck at all. In the end, after the books were written and published, I met by the purest chance a member of the Finch family who told me that there were a great many Roma in Australia. I was so interested to hear his story, and tried to research more, but once again found it difficult to make contact or open lines of communication.
So when I saw that Mandy Sayer – a writer I had read and admired for years – was working on a history of the Roma, I knew that I wanted to read the resulting book. I went along to her launch, where Romani musicians played and danced, and then later that week I began to read it.
Australian Gypsies: Their Secret History begins with Mandy Sayer’s own first encounter with the Roma, in Hungary, which sparked her fascination with their rich and secretive culture. Then she moves on to a brief summary of their history – their slow migration from India to Europe in the 11th-13th centuries, and their many years spent wandering and making a sketchy living as dancers, musicians, fortune-tellers, and horse-traders. Gradually the prejudice against the dark-skinned outsiders grew and persecution intensified, until the horrors of the Holocaust, where 1.5 million Romani were exterminated in death camps. I was deeply familiar with this history, thanks to my own research, but it is always interesting to read it again.
The narrative then moves to the history of the Romani in Australia, and in Mandy Sayer’s own personal experience in researching their lives and telling their stories. This was all new to me, and deeply interesting. I did not know, for example, that there were three Romani men on the First Fleet and that was one of them was James Squire, Australia’s first brewer. I really loved hearing the stories of the many different families who came to Australia hoping for a place of safety to call home, and the subsequent generations who have lived here since. Mandy Sayer’s account of the history of the Australian Roma is truly an enthralling untold story. I just wished that she had confessed how she came to win the confidence and friendship of people who are notoriously suspicious of the Gadje (non-Romani people), and perhaps a little more about the youngest generations and how they perceive their lives and culture changing and growing into the future. These are minor quibbles, however. The book itself is a brilliant piece of untold social history and will hopefully do much to break down any existing prejudices still remaining in our society… Learn More.
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… Learn More.
Struck down by bronchitis this month and looking for a heart-warming Regency romance to read, my friend Anna Campbell suggested Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. ‘It’s sometimes called the best Regency romance ever written,’ she told me. Well, that was good enough for me. I ordered it and, as soon as it arrived, sank back into my welter of pillows and began to read.
Now, I would never have bought this book from the back-cover blurb. It begins:
‘Sebastian Baillister, the notorious Marquess of Dain, is big, bad and dangerous to know. No respectable woman would have anything to do with the “Bane and the Blight of the Ballisters” – and he wants nothing to do with respectable women. He’s determined to continue doing what he does best – sin and sin again – and all that’s going swimmingly, thank you… until the day a shop door opens and she walks in…’
The thing is, I really hate alpha males. They are always rude, overbearing, patronising and sexually aggressive. I hate them in real life and I hate them in fiction. I’ve been having trouble reading much romance or young-adult fantasy lately because of the ubiquity of the alpha male. Give me a kind and clever man over these ruddy brutes anytime!
But there I was, trapped in my sickbed, desperate for some light-hearted diversion, and so I opened the book and read the first page. It was a letter from the author, addressed to ‘Dear Reader’, and it said, ‘as many of you know, we authors can be fragile creatures. Pan and wan, we toil in our garrets, talking to people who don’t exist. Our tender egos hoard the snippets of praise that come our way from time to time, saving them to get us through a Really Bad Writing Day …’
I laughed out loud. Pale and wan I was indeed, and much prone to talking to people who don’t exist. And, yes indeedy, a snippet of praise is sometimes all that gets us through.
And so I read the book. And I laughed out loud quite a few more times, and once or twice towards the end I had a lump in my throat too.
I don’t need to paraphrase the plot for you. Big bad beast of a hero meets clever unconventional heroine and, despite himself, falls in love.
It is all done with a deft, light hand, however, and a great deal of humour. And, most interestingly, it made me understand why so many women love a romance with a big, bad beast of a hero. The thing is, Loretta Chase shows us the hurt and pain behind this seemingly hard and confident man, and then she shows us how he is saved by the steadfast love of a good woman. Now the feminist in me has always both scorned and feared this particular cultural myth – how many women have found themselves trapped in abusive relationships because they hope the man can change?
Yet I do believe that people can grow and change, and that love has transformative power. I think it is important for us to believe in the possibility of love to change the world.
Because so much of the story dwelt on Sebastian’s back story, and the unkindness and lovelessness that made him the man he was, you can’t help cheering Jessica on and admiring her for never giving up till she has finally cracked his hard outer shell.
If you are someone who steers clear of romances because you cannot bear the breathless banality of the language, then you may need to skip some scenes (for example: “She never had to think, only let herself be swept endlessly round the ballroom while her body tingled with the consciousness of him and only him: the broad shoulder under her hand… the massive, muscular frame inches from her own… the tantalizing scent of smoke and cologne and Male…’ And yes, ‘Male’ was capitalised in the text.)
However, if you can forgive Loretta Chase those passages of purple prose, you will be rewarded with a love story full of heart, humour and that essential touch of poignancy that can make the romance genre such a rewarding read. Particularly when you are sick… Learn More.
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… Learn More.
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! … Learn More.
Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel aged seven & has now sold more than a million books worldwide. Her most recent book, Beauty in Thorns, is a reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the passions and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelites. Other novels for adults include Bitter Greens, which won the 2015 American Library Association award for Best Historical Fiction; and The Wild Girl, which was named the Most Memorable Love Story of 2013. Kate’s books for children include the collection of feminist fairy-tale retellings Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington, and The Impossible Quest fantasy series which has been optioned for a film. Named one of Australia’s Favourite 15 Novelists, Kate has a BA in literature, a MA in creative writing and a doctorate in fairy tale studies, and is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers. She is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the author of the first book for children ever published in Australia.
Beauty in Thorns
A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.
The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.
Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself...
About the Contributor
Tanaya has been a lover of books for as long as she can remember. Now, her book collection is a little out of control, mostly consisting of YA fiction and pretty hardcovers. When she’s not reading, she spends a lot of her time taking photos of books for her bookstagram account, @prettypagesblog. She also has a love of Disneyland, bullet journaling and cats.
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