Kate Forsyth, one of Australia’s favourite novelists and the author of books including The Impossible Quest series, 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 December 2017.
Kate Forsyth’s Reviews
I bought this novel at the airport, having finished the book I had taken with me to read. I had never read anything by Kate Furnivall before, and bought it because the cover and the blurb made it sound like the kind of book I would like to read: a story of love, danger, courage and betrayal set in Paris, 1938.
The story begins with the brutal murder of the father of seventeen-year-old twins, Romaine and Florence. The family’s Arabic gardener is guillotined for the crime, but the twin sisters know that he is innocent.
Eight years later, Florence is a rich socialite married to a Nazi sympathiser, and Romy is an impoverished, reckless, hard-drinking aviatrix who flies guns and supplies to the rebels of the Spanish Civil War. From that point on, the plot gallops along with lots of surprises and nail-biting suspense. The contrast between the characters of the sisters is fascinating, while their love and support for each other is – by the end – heartbreaking. I particularly loved Romy: wild, passionate, loving, haunted by the past and determined to, somehow, make amends. This is historical storytelling at its best, and I am very keen now to read more by Kate Furnivall… Learn more.
I’m giving the Inspector Morse mysteries by Colin Dexter a go, having never read them before. I started with book 1, which I enjoyed with reservations. I have had exactly the same experience with book 2. The mystery is interesting, with lots of unexpected twists and turns. It focuses on a cold case of a missing girl, who disappeared on her way to school at the age of seventeen. The detective working the case concluded she had run away with a man, but now that detective is dead. Only a few days later, the parent of the dead girl receives a letter from her telling them not to worry. Suspicions are raised, and Morse is assigned the case. He believes the girl is dead, and so he sets out to find the murderer. However, every time he thinks he has come close to solving the case, something happens to up-end all his suppositions.
I don’t find the character of Inspector Morse very likeable in these books. He seems to bumble round, leaping to conclusions, then trying to force the facts to fit his theories. He is also, I am sad to say, a misogynist with a taste for pornography. The depiction of women was my major problem in book 1, and it is even more marked in book 2. I understand that the book was published in 1976, and that it is aimed for a male readership, but it still makes me uncomfortable. The saving grace for me with this series so far has been the pleasure Colin Dexter takes with playing with language in his plots – Inspector Morse’s facility with crosswords and other word puzzles adds a welcome intelligence to the plot… Learn more.
I have been assured by Colin Dexter fans that the Inspector Morse series gets better as it goes along and so I read the third book in the series, though not without qualms. Published in 1977, the book is set in the claustrophobic world of the Oxford Examinations Syndicate and centres on the murder of a deaf academic. The case is as labyrinthine as the earlier two books in the series, but in this instalment Inspector Morse seems less like a bumbling fool and more like a man gifted with the ability to make intuitive leaps of deduction. He and Sergeant Lewis seem more in tune with each other, with Lewis providing the dogged methodical police work. And my major gripe with the series so far – Morse’s sexist attitudes to women – is a little less acute in this book (perhaps because there is only one female character). The books have an oddly old-fashioned feel about them, because of their lack of forensic evidence and modern-day technology, and also because of Dexter’s writing style. He was born in 1930, in the midst of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, and his books have the same feel of being a cerebral puzzle as writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (whose work I admire enormously). It is this aspect of Dexter’s work that I enjoy – the task of pitting my brains against Inspector Morse’s. I have to admit that Morse won. I had no idea who the murderer was until the very end, which offered a most satisfying twist. Of the three Colin Dexter books I have read in recent weeks, this was the most enjoyable. It is up to Colin Dexter fans to convince me to keep on reading the series… Learn more.
The War That Saved My Life is the favourite book of the daughter of a friend of mine. She has read it dozens of times. I am always interested in knowing what books kids are reading and loving (as opposed to the books adults think kids should be reading), and so I bought it with a sense of great interest and curiosity. It is set in England during the early days of World War II (a period of time I am always interested in), and tells the story of Ada, a poor girl from the East End who is evacuated to the country with her little brother Jamie.
Ada has a clubfoot. This is a congenital deformity which means that she was born with the sole of one foot twisted inwards and upwards, so that she must walk with the soft upper flesh of her foot pressed into the ground. A clubfoot can be corrected by surgery, but Ada’s mother chose instead to keep her daughter locked up in their one-room flat. Ada has never been outside, never seen trees or meadows or the stars, never been taught to count or read, never been loved.
When word comes that London children are to be evacuated, Ada seizes her chance and runs away. Or, rather, hobbles away. She and her brother end up being housed by Susan Smith, a woman who is crippled by grief. Together, Ada and Susan learn a great deal about their unknown inner strength, kindness and wisdom. Ada is given a crutch and is taught to read, and finds joyous liberation learning to ride (which reminded me of the great Australian children’s classic, I Can Jump Puddles, inspired by author Alan Marshall’s struggle to overcome his crippling poliomyelitis).
The War That Saved My Life is simply and sensitively written, the kind of book that leaves you with a big lump in your throat. It was a Newbery Honor Book in 2016, and became a New York Times bestseller. I loved it so much I went straight out and bought the sequel the day after I finished it. One of the best children’s books I have ever read… Learn more.
The sequel to Kimberley Brubaker Bradley’s Newbery-Honor-winning book The War That Saved My Life, this lovely children’s novel continues the story of Ada, crippled from birth with a clubfoot and cruelly mistreated by her mother. Ada and her little brother Jamie have found refuge in the country with Susan, a clever and sharp-tongued woman with a lot of love to give. She arranges for Ada to have the surgery she needs to correct her deformed foot, but the scars from Ada’s childhood are clawed deep into her psyche, and there is no surgery for emotional wounds. Ada must learn to trust others, and to understand the hidden hurts of those around her, all while living through the horrors of the Blitz. I had not thought the sequel could possibly live up to the power and beauty of the first book, but The War I Finally Won had me blubbering like a baby. These books are destined to be classics of children’s World War II evacuee stories, up there with Carrie’s War, Goodnight Mister Tom and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit… Learn more.
The five books in The Dark is Rising Sequence are among my most treasured books from my childhood. I have the old Puffin paperbacks, which cost my aunt $2.75 each when she bought them for my 11th birthday. I have read them so many times they are battered and creased and faded. I read them again this Christmas as part of an international reading challenge initiated on Twitter by British authors Robert Macfarlane and Mary Bird. Thousands of readers joined in to read The Dark is Rising, book 2 in the series, which takes place between Midwinter Eve (20th December) and Twelfth Night (5th January). Some read it in one big gulp (like me) and others read each chapter on the date that corresponded with events in the book (i.e 1-2 chapters a day). Readers shared their memories of the book, discussed the meaning of symbols and events, created original art, found kindred spirits. It was absolutely wonderful.
I went on to read all five books in the series:
Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the series, and was written by Susan Cooper in response to a publishing contest organised to honour the memory of Edith Nesbit, one of the great Golden Age children’s writers. She did not finish the manuscript in time to enter, and the book was subsequently turned down by more than twenty publishers, before being accepted by Jonathan Cape and published in 1965.
It tells the story of Simon, Jane and Barney who go to Cornwall on a holiday with their family and end up being caught up in a quest to find the lost Holy Grail. Drawing on Arthurian mythology but set in contemporary times, the book introduces the children’s Great-Uncle Merry, a professor at Oxford who ends up revealing mysterious powers. The book is more like an old-fashioned mystery than a traditional fantasy, except with eerie unsettling moments of darkness and magic, particularly towards the end.
The second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, was published in 1973. It tells the story of Will Stanton, seventh son of a seventh son, who turns 11 on Midwinter Eve, and finds his safe and comfortable world threatened by strange and eerie events. For Will is, he discovers, an Old One, destined to fight on behalf of the Light against the ancient and malevolent forces of the Dark. Merriman Lyon – the character of Great-Uncle Merry – returns as the Oldest of the Old Ones, and becomes Will’s guardian and mentor. Will needs to find Six Signs if he is to defeat the forces of darkness this midwinter and help fulfil a mysterious prophecy:
“When the Dark comes rising six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; Water, fire, stone;
Five will return and one go alone.
Iron for the birthday; bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning; stone out of song;
Fire in the candle ring; water from the thaw;
Six signs the circle and the grail gone before.
Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the sleepers, oldest of old.
Power from the Green Witch, lost beneath the sea.
All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.”
Of all the books in the series, The Dark is Rising is my favourite, perhaps because it was the first I ever read, perhaps because of the vividness of the setting (a small snow-bound English village that seems outwardly normal but is still shadowed with magic, menace and danger), perhaps because I loved the idea of an ordinary boy who finds himself the carrier of an extraordinary destiny. The book won a ALA Newbery Honor Book in 1974, and is often named on lists of the best books for children ever published.
Greenwitch, the third in the series, brings Simon, Jane and Barney back to the little Cornish village where they had discovered the lost Holy Grail. Jane watches an ancient ritualised offering to the sea and makes a wish that then helps the Light unlock the secrets of the Grail. Greenwitch is the favourite of many female readers of this series, because the key protagonist is a girl and she triumphs not because of any battle of strength, but because she is compassionate and empathetic.
The Grey King, the fourth book, returns to the point-of-view of Will. He wakes after a long and terrible illness with no memory of his role as an Old One and at risk from the forces of the Dark who seek to strike him own while he is vulnerable. Sent to Wales to recuperate, Will meets an albino teenager called Bran who has a strange dog like a wolf. Guided only by snatches of memory, Will and Bran must find the golden harp that will waken the Sleepers under the hill. This is my second favourite of the series, again because of the setting – the wild mountains and moors of Wales is brought so wonderfully to life – and also because of the sense of the great struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Grey King won the 1976 Newbery Medal.
Silver on the Tree is the final book in the series, and brings Will and Bran together with Simon, Jane and Barney and their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry. They are searching for a magical crystal sword which will enable them to cut the mystical mistletoe, the ‘silver on the tree’, in the final battle against the Dark. Drawing on Welsh mythology and stories of a drowned land, the suspense is heightened by the presence of a hidden enemy, someone who is trusted but betrays them in the end.
It was truly wonderful to re-read this series, which had such a powerful shaping force upon my imagination as a child. And a great deal of the pleasure came from sharing it with like-minded people. The twitter book club set up by Robert Macfarlane and Mary Bird intends to choose other great works of fantastical literature to read over the year. I’ll can’t wait to be a part of it… 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...