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 January 2018.
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 may not be 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 and 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. Learn more.
An assured debut by author Roxane Dhand, The Pearler’s Wife is a sweeping romance set in a little-known corner of Australian history, the pearling industry in the far north of Western Australia. The heroine, nineteen-year-old Maisie, is sent to Australia from England to marry a man she has never met. Her new home is called Buccaneer Bay, which sounds like something out of a pirate novel but is in fact a real place (the Buccaneer Archipelago was named after the English buccaneer and privateer William Dampier, who charted the area in 1688).
Maisie’s new husband is a cruel and ruthless man who treats his employees with reckless disregard. Lonely and bored, Maisie finds herself drawn to a British diver named William Cooper. The sensual tension between them, and the slow realisation of dangerous secrets hidden by her husband, add slow-burning suspense to the narrative. The claustrophobic setting of a small pearling town in 1912 is superbly evoked, and the story is full of action, drama and romance, making it perfect escape reading for a long, hot summer. Learn more.
Matt Merritt is a poet and the editor of Bird Watching magazine, and in this beautiful book he brings together his love of words and birds into one beautiful package.
I’ve always liked birds too. I do my best to tell magpies apart from currawongs, and I’d love to see an owl in flight one day. I also love the collective nouns for birds – murders of crows, murmurations of starlings and exaltations of larks, for example.
Matt Merritt writes with simple and lyrical elegance of his own fascination with gatherings of birds, weaving in personal experience with quotations from a 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem about wild swans, Shakespeare, Samuel Coleridge and other writers and poets.
Each chapter is a self-contained essay about a different kind of bird, so it’s an easy book to pick up and read and then put down and leave for a while. A lovely addition to my collection of books about the natural world. Learn more.
I loved Frenchman’s Creek as a teenager and read it again this month for the first time since. It’s a swashbuckling tale of love and betrayal, featuring a bored noblewoman and a bold pirate in the time of Charles II. Put like that, it sounds like a real bodice-ripper but Daphne du Maurier is far too clever and subtle than that. As always, her Cornish setting is wonderfully depicted and all her characters swiftly and deftly drawn. Lady Dona St Columb is beautiful, restless, and filled with longing for some kind of adventure or danger. She has left London and her husband and taken her children to the country estate in Cornwall. Slowly she becomes aware of a mystery. A French pirate is terrorising the coast. By accident, Dona meets him and falls in love for the first time in her life. But she is a wife and mother, and she cannot abandon her family for the thrill of life on the high seas. And the Frenchman attracts danger: the local people want him hanged and all who help him.
Like all Daphne du Maurier’s books, Frenchman’s Creek creates a slow but inexorable tightening of dramatic tension that makes it impossible to stop reading. Full of atmosphere and mood, with complex and believable characters that you cannot help but care about, this slender novel is a masterclass in writing romantic suspense. Learn more.
I’ve long been a fan of Jackie French’s historical novels for children, and so I was intrigued when I heard she had written a book for adults. The cover was gorgeous and the blurb told me it was set during World War I, one of my favourite historical periods, and so I bought it to read on my summer holidays.
The novel tells the story of Sophie Higgs, whose father made his fortune making tinned corned beef. When Sophie falls in love with the boy-next-door, her father decides to send her to England for the Season, to give her a chance to see the world and meet other men. She is to spend a few months with the mysterious Miss Lily first, however, to be taught how to be charming. The idea is not just to win themselves rich and aristocratic husbands, but also to use feminine wiles to affect change in the world. She and three other young women spent their days learning how to walk, how to sit, how to hold a discussion whilst eating, and how to placate and persuade.
There is a quote from various letters at the beginning of each chapter. The first reads:
“… that was when I realised that war is as natural to a man as chasing a ball on a football field. War is a scuttling cockroach, something that a woman would instinctively stamp on. Women bear the pain of childbirth, and most deeply feel the agony of their children’s deaths. Could one marshal women to fight against the dreams of war? But women have no power, except what they cajole from men.”
Miss Lily, 1908
As Sophie learns and make friends, the world lurches ever closer to war. Sophie and the other ‘lovely ladies’ must dig deep within themselves if they are to survive. And, meanwhile, Sophie falls in love…
It’s a big book but the pace rarely flags. Sophie is a captivating character, being determined, clever and kind. The historical setting is brilliantly rendered, and I just adored Miss Lily and her wry and wise reflections on life and society. I loved the book right up until the very end, when the romantic promise of the story failed to materialise.
This was partly because Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies is the first in a series, and so some narrative threads were left dangling. It was also, I think, because Jackie French did not want to give her readers too predictable an ending. A lot of writers avoid a happy ending because romantic love in novels has been so often equated with plots that are trite or sentimental or melodramatic. This is such a shame. The longing for love is such a universal human desire, and should be celebrated. I suspect that Sophie will find true love and happiness after many more suspenseful and dangerous adventures in Book 2 & 3. I hope so. Learn more.
This is a difficult book to review, because it is such a difficult book to categorise. Basically it’s a collection of columns written by the American writer Cheryl Strayed under the pseudonym Sugar. The columns are written in response to people with problems who wrote to ‘Dear Sugar’ for advice. In other words, Sugar is an Agony Aunt.
(In a complete aside, I was so fascinated by the history of the term ‘agony aunt’ I had to go and look it up. Did you know the first newspaper to offer life advice to readers was The Athenian Gazette, in 1691? And that John Dunton, the man who established it, once advised a woman afraid of a lonely old age to get herself down to the docks and hook up with a sex-starved sailor? And that Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was the agony uncle for his magazine, The Review, in 1704? And that the term itself was not used until the 1950s? No, neither did I…)
Cheryl Strayed wrote the ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column for the online literary magazine The Rumpus from 2010 to 2012, and garnered a strong following. I first heard about her when her advice to a young wanna-be author, ‘Write Like a Motherfucker’, made the rounds on the internet. I thought it was a brilliant piece of writing, and loved that she quoted Emily Dickinson, one of my favourite poets. Then, of course, her memoir Wild was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and released in December 2014. Suddenly Cheryl Strayed seemed everywhere.
Each of the columns in Tiny Beautiful Things are indeed advice offered in response to true-life dilemmas sent in by readers, but they are not at all like what I used to read in the back of Dolly when I was a naïve teenager. Firstly, the tone is warm, intimate and startlingly frank, as if the reader and Sugar had been friends for years and years. She shares stories from her own difficult past, including the death of her mother, her marriage breakup, her infidelities, and struggles with drug addiction. Some stories are funny. Most are poignant and even heart-breaking. I have been where you are, she seems to say. I know what is hurting you.
Here is one of my favourite quotes from the book:
“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.”
Here is another:
“You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
Tiny Beautiful Things is indeed beautiful, but not, I think, tiny. It’s big-hearted and big-thinking and warm and wise and sad all at once. Learn more.
Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel aged seven and 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...