Kate Forsyth is one of Australia’s most treasured storytellers. On today’s edition of What Katie Read, she gives us the rundown on all of the best books she’s been reading lately.
by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell
Charmain Clift and her writer-husband, George Johnston, took their young family to live on the Greek island of Hydra in the ‘50s, and became the epicentre of a group of other writers, artists and musicians whose lives and loves ebbed and flowed like the tides of the wine-dark sea. George Johnston wrote My Brother Jack on Hydra, and returned to Australia after it was published to much acclaim in 1964. It won the Miles Franklin award the following year.
I’ve read numerous books about their lives on Hydra since, but this is one of the most interesting.
Firstly, because it does not focus only on the tumultuous marriage and literary careers of Charmain Clift and George Johnston, but also looks at the lives of many of the other creative artists who ended up in Hydra, including singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his partner Marianne Ihlen. I was not familiar with their story and found it fascinating and illuminating. It also has a lot of fresh material like letters and diaries which I found really added to the book’s depth.
Secondly, the book is beautifully illustrated with photographs taken by LIFE magazine photo-journalist James Burke. These images gave me such an intimate and revealing look into every-day life on Hydra. Loved it!
by Sarah Bailey
I really enjoyed Sarah Bailey’s first crime novel, the atmospheric and brilliantly clever The Dark Lake. So I was really looking forward to seeing what she would come up with next.
Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock has moved to Melbourne to pursue her career, leaving her son Ben with her ex-partner in the small Victorian town where she grew up. She is lonely, but determined. Being a homicide cop is what she’s good at, and she’s determined to make a go of it.
Then a homeless man is brutally murdered in a dark and lonely alleyway. The crime is odd, but nobody seems to care much. It’s a quite different matter when a famous young actor is killed, in daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses. Amid a media storm, with dozens of potential suspects, Gemma and her partner are feeling the heat. But Gemma can’t get the dead homeless man out of her mind. The two murders could not be more different… and yet…
Although not quite as brilliant as The Dark Lake (which, to be honest, would be almost impossible!), Into the Night is a really adroit and intelligent crime thriller that relies on acute psychological insight for its twists and turns. Gemma Woodstock is a great protagonist – tough but still vulnerable, troubled but still believable – and I really hope there will be a lot more books about her in the years to come. Sizzling hot Australian crime!
by Naomi Novik
My eldest son put a pile of Naomi Novik’s books on my bedside table years ago and said, ‘you must read these, Mum, you’d love them.’ But I didn’t read them (I was busy, so many books, so little time, you know how it goes.) Her books got pushed to the back of the shelf, and spun over with cobwebs, and furred over with dust, and sank away out of sight under the weight of all the other books.
Then a writer-friend of mine, Anna Campbell, asked me on Twitter if I’d read Spinning Silver yet, and I had to admit no, I hadn’t, nor any of her books. Should I? I asked.
I think you’d love it, Anna tweeted back, and so I ordered it straightaway.
Anna was right. I loved it!
In fact, I think that needs a stronger verb and more exclamation marks. I adored it!!!
My favourite type of fantasy is silver-tongued. By ‘silver-tongued’, I mean imaginative, poetic, and intense. I mean wondrous, lyrical, and eerie.
Spinning Silver is all of these things, and more. Naomi Novik has taken the well-known ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ fairy-tale and made it into something new and surprising, and yet filled with archetypal power.
The story has a Slavic setting. The heroine Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish moneylenders… but her father is too humble and kind-hearted to be very good at it. Miryem sets herself to do what he cannot do, before the whole family starves. Turning silver into gold, she draws the attention of the cold faery ice-king… and finds herself bound to an impossible bargain.
Reducing the story down to this bare-bones outline cannot give you any sense of the compulsively powerful plot, the extraordinarily well-wrought atmosphere, or the boldness of Naomi Novik’s storytelling choices (multiple first-person point-of-view is fiendishly difficult to pull off, and yet she does it with such skill and bravado that I never once lost sight of who was telling the story). Needless to say, I have dug out her other books, blown the dust and cobwebs away, and intend to read them all very, very soon.
by Kate Cole-Adams
After a childhood accident, I was in a coma for more than six weeks. I subsequently had quite a few operations under anaesthesia, and one awful experience of half-waking up while still on the operating table. My memories of the experience – the lights, the hooded faces, the flashing knives, the agony, the strange sensation of being out of my own body – have made me curious for many years about altered states of being.
So I bought this book on a whim at Sydney Writers’ Festival last year. I dipped in and out of it over the following months, as I often do with non-fiction. Then I had the most strange and profound experience while undergoing a routine procedure in day-surgery (ok, ok, if you must know I was having a colonoscopy!)
I had been working on a new poem about labyrinths for a few days and had decided to write it as a Fibonacci sequence (i.e. syllables of 1,1,2,3,5,8). A I lay in my hospital gown on the trolley, waiting in the chill, bare hall, I thought about my poem. Reciting poetry to myself has always been one way I deal with the rising whine of anxiety I feel once I smell that awful hospital smell and hear those awful hospital sounds.
When I drifted into wakefulness some time later, I had the poem in the palm of my hand, a perfect marvellous spiral. I wrote it down when I got home, and needed to change barely a word.
This experience was so eerie I spent my convalescence reading Kate Cole-Adams’s book, Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion & The Mystery of Consciousness. On the one hand, it’s an examination of the history of anaesthetics, and some of the mysteries and problems associated with it. To my relief, it was written in such clear, limpid, and often lyrical language that I had no problem understanding it. The other aspect of the book was personal histories of those who have suffered and survived and been saved because of anaesthetics, including that of Kate Cole-Adams herself. These stories lifted the book out of the ordinary, along with her utterly beautiful prose:
‘Anaesthesia … Most of us can barely pronounce it. Yet it has allowed the body’s defences to be breached in ways previously unimaginable except during warfare or other catastrophe. Through the use of powerful poisons, it has enabled entry into the secret cavities of the chest and the belly and the brain. It has freed surgeons to saw like carpenters through the bony fortress of the ribs. It has made it possible for a doctor to hold in her hand a steadily beating heart. It is a powerful gift. But what exactly is it?’
An astonishingly intense and personal book about a science we now all take for granted.
by Adele Geras
It has everything – gorgeous English country cottages, a grieving widower finding new love, a young couple negotiating the difficulties of balancing work and family, and a beautiful real estate agent so busy fixing up everyone else’s lives that she has no time to worry about her own.
It’s the perfect read for anyone who’s a little tired or down-hearted, and wants a few hours of comfort and escape. The various romances are described with a light, deft hand, the pace is swift but smooth, and all the characters are given sufficient space to grow and win our sympathy.
Sometimes I think I should be employed as a story scout for film companies! This one would be a hit for sure.
by Kate Quinn
Some authors are must-buys, and Kate Quinn is now one of these for me. Her New York Times bestselling novel, The Alice Network, was one of my favourite books last year and I grabbed The Huntress the second I saw it. And it is just as good!
The book moves effortlessly backwards and forwards in time, between the points of view of Jordan McBride, a young woman in post-war American who dreams of being a photographer; Nina Markova, a reckless pilot from Siberia who joins the infamous Night Witches, an all-female squadron of bombers who fly at night, undetectable by radar in their flimsy wooden planes, and wreak havoc on Hitler’s armies; and war-weary British journalist Ian Graham who has become a Nazi hunter with one particular target always in his sights: the Huntress, a cold-blooded German woman who murdered his brother.
I had heard of the Night Witches before, but knew very little about them; and I’ve always been interested in the men and women who hunted down Nazis on the run after the end of the war. So The Huntress was always going to appeal to me.
It’s the shining quality of Kate Quinn’s writing that lifts her books out of the ordinary, however. Razor-sharp characterisation, whip-smart dialogue, and her deft handling of a complex plot with three separate time periods makes this one of my favourite reads of the year so far.
If you love character-driven thrillers set in World War II, this is definitely for you!
by Bridget Collins
Well, now it’s my turn to rave.
The Binding is one of those books that transcends genre. It should most probably be defined as historical fantasy, but the magic is so close to our own reality that its really only a couple of turns of the dial away from magical realism. It’s a love story, but so delicately developed it’s unlike most romances I’ve ever read. And it’s a book about the power of books, something that always draws me irresistibly.
The setting is very much like Victorian Britain, with hansom cabs and top hats. The story begins as a first-person narrative, from the point of view of a young man named Emmett Farmer. He’s been deliriously ill, and is having trouble recovering. A summons come: he has been chosen to be apprenticed to a Bookbinder.
Emmett doesn’t want to go. Bookbinders are regarded with superstitious distrust and suspicion. There is something unnatural about their craft, something uncanny. Emmett has no choice, however. He has a vocation, he’s been told.
The Bookbinder is an old woman who lives on the edge of the marsh. Local villagers think she’s a witch. Slowly Emmett comes to understand the craft of a Bookbinder is to take away people’s memories, to free them from the pain of the past. It’s a sacred calling, but one that can be dangerously misused. Emmett comes to realise that there is something he has forgotten, something vital, and that the Bookbinder has hidden away a book with his name on it.
I cannot tell you any more about the plot without spoiling it, but this is a beautifully crafted novel of love and loss, magic and memory, hatred and hope – I loved it.
by Kelly Rimmer
In her new novel, Kelly Rimmer weaves together two first-person points-of-view. One is set now, and the other in Poland during the terrible years of the Nazi occupation. I love dual timeline novels, but usually I prefer the story set in the past. This book is so perfectly balanced and the contemporary voice so strong and real, that I found myself loving both.
In the story set now, Alice has devoted her life to caring for her son, Eddie, who has autism spectrum disorder. She has put aside her own plans and, indeed, her own needs, to make sure that he is safe and managing the best he can in a world that overwhelms him. But Alice’s beloved grandmother is dying, and she has made one last request of Alice. Go to Poland, she says. Or, at least, that is what Alice thinks she says. Her grandmother has lost the ability to speak, due to a stroke, and Alice must try to understand what her Babcia wants, just as she is constantly struggling to understand her son.
Babcia has a box of cherished mementos: a tattered photograph, a tiny leather shoe and a letter. And she desperately wants Alice to return to Poland to find out what happened to those she left behind. In 1942, in Poland, Alina and Tomasz are sweethearts. They want to marry once the war is over. But war intervenes, and their village is overrun.
Alice travels to the village in Poland where her grandmother says she came from. But initially she finds it difficult to find more information about her grandmother. At this stage in the novel, I couldn’t put it down. I could work out some aspects of the mystery but not others. I was reduced to tears in places. As the two stories become one, the tension increases. What really happened to Alina and Tomasz in 1942? Can Alice find the answers she is looking for? Can her own family survive her absence?
What can I say about this novel? It’s a powerful reminder of both inhumanity and great courage. It’s also a reminder that sometimes risks need to be taken, assumptions tested, and different paths need to be found. I felt for Alice as she was torn between her desire to find the answers her grandmother needed and her wish to return home and look after her family.
A beautifully constructed novel. Highly recommended.
Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel aged seven and has now sold more than a million books worldwide. Her upcoming novel, The Blue Rose, is inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose, moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution. Other novels for adults include Beauty in Thorns, a Pre-Raphaelite reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, 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 fantasy series The Impossible Quest. 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.
The Blue Rose
Viviane de Faitaud has grown up alone at the Chateau de Belisama-sur-le-Lac in Brittany, for her father, the Marquis de Ravoisier, lives at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles. After a hailstorm destroys the chateau's orchards, gardens and fields an ambitious young Welshman, David Stronach, accepts the commission to plan the chateau's new gardens in the hope of making his name as a landscape designer.
David and Viviane fall in love, but it is an impossible romance. Her father has betrothed her to a rich duke who she is forced to marry and David is hunted from the property. Viviane goes to court and becomes a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette and a member of the extended royal family...