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, gives us her verdict on the best books she read in September 2018.
The Anger of Angels
by Sherryl Jordan
I’ve never read any work by the New Zealand author Sherryl Jordan before, but I was drawn in with the promise of a beautifully written historical fantasy for young adults, set in a world much like Renaissance Italy.
The novel begins ‘I shovelled in a sprinkling of dirt, and it fell on the head of the corpse …’ From that moment on, the story races along with enormous pace and verve. The heroine of the story is Giovanna, the daughter of a court jester. She can juggle and throw knives, two skills that come in handy in a world ruled by autocrats. Her father, in the guise of a fool, has the right to speak the truth, but one day his words anger a neighbouring prince. As violence breaks out, war between the two neighbouring princedoms seems imminent. Giovanna sets out alone to try and avert the conflict. Behind her, she leaves her dying father and the young man with whom she is falling in love. Raffaelle knows first-hand the cruelty of the tyrant-prince, and it is too dangerous for him to return. Yet he risks his life by following her, hoping to help …
The Anger of Angels was just as vivid, compelling and romantic as I had hoped for. Giovanna is a wonderful heroine, quick and clever and kind, and I loved the slowly growing relationship between her and Rafaelle. I have always really enjoyed young adult fiction, but lately I have been finding books published in this genre too dark and dystopic for my taste. Although The Anger of Angels is filled with danger, intrigue and conflict, the overall message is one of strength and hope. Most importantly, Sherryl Jordan has a crucial message to communicate about the power of words: ‘they can break a heart, or give a reason to live. They can grant freedom – or begin a war.’
A truly beautiful book, brimming over with compassion and wisdom.
The Dark Lake
by Sarah Bailey
So many brilliant contemporary crime novels being published in Austalia right now! It’s like a new Golden Age of detective novels. And like the Golden Age of the 30s in Great Britain, many of the writers of this new great Australian flowering are women. In recent months I’ve read and loved books by Jane Harper, Dervla McTiernan, and Emma Viskic, and now I need to add debut author Sarah Bailey to the list. The Dark Lake really is bloody brilliant!
Set in a small rundown Australian town, the story centres on the murder of a beautiful young teacher, her body found floating in the lake strewn with red roses. Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock went to school with the dead woman, but she hides this fact from her boss and her partner as she is desperate to investigate the crime. Slowly Gemma’s obsession with her old school friend deepens, threatening to derail her life and destroy all that she holds dear.
This is the kind of book that – once started – you really can’t put down. As more and more secrets are revealed, and more and more of Gemma’s life exposed, the mystery of how Rosalind Ryan died becomes increasingly gripping. And the story has a very satisfactory ending, as all good crime novels must have. I can’t wait for Sarah Bailey’s next book now!
The Lost King of France: How DNA Solved he Mystery of the Murdered Son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette
by Deborah Cadbury
I have spent the last two years reading every book I could find on the French Revolution, as that is the setting of my novel-in-progress, The Blue Rose. It is such a fascinating period of history, I’ve really loved being deeply immersed in it.
Most people know the broad outlines of the story: the opulent royal court at Versailles, the uprising of the starving peasants, the storming of the Bastille, and the tragic deaths of King Louis XVI and his flamboyant queen Marie-Antoinette under the merciless blade of the guillotine.
Many people do not know that the royal prince, known as the Dauphin in France, automatically inherited the throne of his father upon his execution. Only eight years old, Louis XVII was kept imprisoned in a dank old medieval prison called the Temple tower. Two years later, he was declared dead. Some believed he had been murdered, others that he had died from abuse and neglect. Still others whispered that he had been rescued, smuggled out from his prison and a dying beggar-boy left in his place.
As time passed, it was these whispers that began to grow. There was no grave, no monument. And when the monarchy was restored in France, several young men stepped forward and claimed to be the true heir. The reigning monarch, Louis XVIII, the brother of the guillotined king, dismissed such claims but pretenders to the throne continued to win supporters. Almost one hundred years after the Dauphin is said to have died, Mark Twain has a con-man in Huckleberry Finn claiming he is the missing ‘dolphin’.
And two hundred years later, scientists have tested an old mummified heart – said to have been cut from the Dauphin’s chest by the doctor conducting the autopsy in the Temple tower – to try and prove, once and for all, if the boy-king died in his filthy prison or escaped, as so many people believed.
It’s an utterly intriguing account of a tempestuous period in human history, and how modern-day science can be used to solve ancient mysteries. I loved it.
Butterfly on A Pin
by Alannah Hill
I always loved Alannah Hill’s clothes. Gorgeous velvets, silks and lace, embroidered and embellished with flowers, put together with humour and whimsy and bravado. As a young journalist and writer, I could rarely afford these alluring, fantastical creations, but I used to rummage in the sales bins or buy second-hand, and throw them together with other op-shop finds and a pair of red dancing shoes.
I have a fine collection of vintage Alannah now, most of which I can’t fit into anymore. I’m hoping my daughter will inherit them and create her own unique look (probably with jeans and sneakers). I still like to hunt through the Alannah Hill sales rack for a pink silk cami, a red lace dress, or a flamboyant rose hairpin. A dash of Alannah can make any woman feel glamorous.
I met Alannah Hill a few times, when I worked in fashion magazines, and she was always funny, raucous, and dressed to the nines. She made every other woman look drab and dull. And then, about five years ago, Alannah walked away from the fashion industry, leaving her brand to be designed and managed by Factory X, the name behind such brands as Dangerfied, Gorman and Princess Highway. There were rumours of bitter infighting, but neither Alannah or Factory X has revealed what really went on behind the scenes.
When I saw Alannah had written a memoir and was a guest at the Sydney Writers Festival, I went along to hear her speak and then bought the book and asked her to sign it for me. Her story, Butterfly On A Pin: A Memoir of Love, Despair and Reinvention, tells the story of her poverty-stricken abusive childhood, her wild adolescence, her search for love and meaning, and the creation and loss of the iconic Alannah Hill brand. The writing is raw, honest, heartfelt, and poignant. I was deeply moved at times, discovering the hurt and heartbreak behind her manic energy and edgy flamboyance. It really is an astonishing story of survival and transformation, and makes my vintage fashion collection so much more meaningful to me now.
Also available in a gorgeous limited edition slipcase hardcover, packaged in a delux box!
The Wildes of Lindow Castle: Book 1 – Wilde in Love, Book 2 – Too Wilde to Wed, Book 3 – Born to be Wilde
by Eloisa James
Eloisa James is one of the world’s most successful romance writers, with twelve New York Times bestsellers under her belt.
She is also Mary Bly, a professor of English Literature and the daughter of the poet Robert Bly, of Iron John fame, and the short-story writer, Carol Bly. Mary Bly is married to an Italian cavaliere, or knight, and spends her summers in Florence.
So by day she lectures on Shakespeare, and by night she pens steamy bodice-ripping historical romances while her gorgeous Italian nobleman waits for her in their boudoir.
I don’t know why I find this so delightful. It’s like the plot of one of her own books, or a winsome, charming rom-com.
Her novels are both sexy and intelligent, funny and poignant, utterly predictable and yet still capable of surprising. Reading one is like drinking one of those utterly delicious, frothy concoctions that you get on holidays, with little paper umbrellas and a bright red candied cherry, that get gulped down in seconds and leave you waving your hand at the barman wanting more, right now, this very minute. And only after you’ve drank quite a few, very fast, do you realise what a kick is hidden beneath all that sweetness.
The Wildes of Lindow Castle is her latest series, focusing on the romantic entanglements of a large and eccentric aristocractic family. Book 1: Wilde in Love tells the story of Lord Alaric Wilde, second son of the Duke of Lindow, who made himself famous by writing about his exotic adventures in faraway places. Returning to England, his ship is met by mobs of screaming ladies. He escapes to his father’s castle, set on the edge of a dangerous marsh, only to find his notoriety follows him everywhere. The only woman not infatuated with him is Miss Willa Ffynche, who much prefers serious literature and Egyptology.
Book 2: Too Wilde to Wed is the story of Alaric’s older brother, Lord Roland Northbridge Wilde, who was jilted by his bride-to-be and so ran away to war. He returns to find his love working in the castle as a governess to his little sister and her little nephew, and the whole countryside sure that she has born him a child out of wedlock.
Book 3: Born to be Wilde explores the romance between Willa’s best friend Lavinia and Alaric’s best friend Parth. One is a frivolous but impoverished blonde who lives only for fashion. The other is a sober Anglo-Indian who has made his fortune in trade.
In all three, comic blunders and romantic entanglements abound. There’s the parson’s daughter who ends up in a madhouse, attempted murder in the marshes, a light-fingered mother addicted to laudanum, and a duke’s daughter who refuses to curtsey. Also, much rucking up of silk skirts and mucking up of satin breeches. It’s all great frivolous fun, and perfect holiday reading, cocktail glass in hand.
I’ve been a fan of Louise Penny since her first book, Still Life, was published in 2006. When I met her at the Perth Writers Festival earlier this year, I was astonished to see how many books she had published and how many I had missed. I thought I’d better hurry and catch up with what’s been happening in the world of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec.
Bury Your Dead is the sixth book in the series, and is set in Québec City, a lovely 16th century fortified town that is one of the oldest European colonies in North America. I really love the Canadian setting of Louise Penny’s books. They are so fresh and vivid, and I learn something new every time about Canadian history and life. Most of her books till now have been set in the fictional village of Three Pines, which – I joked to a friend recently – has had almost as many murders as Midsomer. Despite its extraordinarily high rate of murders, Three Pines is idyllic and makes me want to move there.
The change of setting to Old Québec was, nonetheless, welcome. I knew nothing about its long and bloody history, and found the history revealed in this novel fascinating. It is Winter Carnival, and the cobbled streets and slate roofs are thick with snow. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has not come to Québec City to join in the revelries, but to recover from an earlier investigation which had gone terribly wrong. The aftermath of that investigation haunts Gamache, but the details are only revealed slowly, through memory and flashback, and so the novel is really about two separate violent events, that reflect each other in surprising ways.
The murder in Québec City takes place in the Literary and Historical Society, an old stone library, where a historian’s body has been discovered buried in a shallow grave in the cellar. He had spent his career searching for the grave of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, which has been hidden for more than 400 years.
Meanwhile, Gamache’s second-in-command, Jean Guy Beauvoir goes back to Three Pines to reinvestigate the last murder which happened there, as Gamache has a terrible feeling that he had got it wrong.
So, stories within stories, deaths in the now and in the past, and a fallible detective who is nonetheless dogged and intelligent … Louise Penny writes top-notch crime fiction, and I’m really glad I’ve decided to read the whole series.
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, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum.
William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.
Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love.
Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.