I came home from the ANZ Festival of Literature & the Arts in London with a whole bag of books and am slowly reading my way through them. Quite a few of them are by Australian writers who were speakers at the festival – it seems ironic that I had to travel 17,000 kilometres to discover books I could have bought at my local bookstore!
Here’s what I’ve read this month:
by Karen Foxlee
I really loved Karen’s mysterious and beautiful novel The Midnight Dress, and once I heard Karen speak about her new book Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy I knew at once that it sounded like my kind of book. I bought the gorgeous hard-back in London, and am glad that I did as the production is just exquisite.
The story revolves around eleven-year-old Ophelia who is smart and scientifically minded. She and her sister and father have moved to a city where it never stops snowing, as her father – who is an expert on swords – has taken up a position in a huge, dark, gothic museum filled with secrets and strange things. Ophelia sets out to explore, and finds a locked room hidden away in the depths of the museum. She puts her eyes to the keyhole … and sees a boy’s blue eyes looking out at her. He tells her that he has been a prisoner for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen and her clock is ticking down towards the end of the world. Only he can stop her … but first he must escape.
A gorgeously written and delicate fairy tale, Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy reminded me of some of my favourite children’s writers such as Cassandra Golds and Laura Amy Schlitz, who are themselves inspired by Nicholas Stuart Grey and George Macdonald.
by Mary Talbot & Bryan Talbot
Another book I bought in London was what I can best describe as a graphic memoir/biography. Told in comic book form, the story compares the life stories of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of the famous writer James Joyce, and that of the book’s author Mary Talbot, daughter of the foremost Joycean scholar, James S. Atherton.
Both narratives begin with the girls’ childhood and show their struggles to grow up in the shadows of difficult and demanding fathers. Lucia wants to dance, but is confined by the petty societal rules of her time. She ends up confined in a madhouse. Mary rebels against her father, and forges a life for herself. The book shows how she fell in love with a young artist and married him – he is, of course, Bryan Talbot, the illustrator whose incredible artwork adorns every page.The book is acutely intelligent but highly readable, illuminating both the heartbreakingly sad story of Lucia James and the work of two exceptional contemporary artists. Not surpisingly, Dotter of My Father’s Eyes won the 2012 Costa biography award.
by Helen Garner
I heard Helen speak in London and thought she was warm and funny and beautifully articulate, so I was very pleased to have her sign my copy of her first novel in sixteen years, The Spare Room. Published in 2008, the novel won a swathe of awards including the Barbara Jefferis Award. It reads more like a memoir, being told from the first person point of view of a writer named Helen living in Melbourne and being inspired by events that actually happened in Helen Garner’s life. However, no doubt many of the people and incidents have been changed during the writing process.
The story is driven by the narrator Helen’s fear and distress, after a dear friend who is dying of cancer comes to stay with her for three weeks while undertaking some kind of quack treatment. The writing is crisp and strong and poised, and the characters spring to life on the page with only a few deft strokes. I loved it.
by Kelly Gardiner
I’m been a big admirer of Kelly Gardiner’s gorgeous historical novels for young adults, Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, both of which are set in the mid-17th century, one of my favourite historical periods for fiction. Goddess is Kelly’s first novel for adults, based on the fascinating true life story of Julie d’Aubigny, a woman out of step with her own time (The court of the Sun King, Louise XIV, in Paris during the 1680s).
Raised like a boy by her swordsman father, Julie likes to dress like a man and will fight a duel with anyone who crosses her. One night she fights three duels back-to-back, winning them all. She elopes with a young nun and is sentenced to be burned at the stake, but escapes and becomes a famous opera star. The story of her adventures seems too incredible to possibly be true. The book is told in Julie’s voice – witty, intelligent and wry – and the whole is pulled off with wit and flair.
by Mollie Hunter
Mollie Hunter is a wonderful Scottish writer for children who is not nearly as well-known as she deserves to be. I have many of her books – some collected when I was a child and some (including a signed first edition) collected as an adult. I first read A Stranger Came Ashore when I was about eleven, after borrowing it from my school library. I’ve been looking for it ever since, but could not remember its name. Then, a month or so ago, I read a brief review of it on an English book blog and at once remembered how much I had loved it, and orderd a copy straightaway.
It’s a Selkie tale, set in the Highlands of Scotland sometime in the 19th century. The novel begins with a storm, and a shipwreck, and a handsome, young stranger washed ashore. As his sister begins to fall in love with the stranger, forgetting her childhood sweetheart, 12-year old Robbie Henderson finds himself becoming more and more suspicious. He remembers an old tale his grandfather used to tell him about seals that turn into humans, but cannot believe it could be true. Soon he is caught up in a dark and suspenseful adventure as he tries to save his sister. A Stranger Came Ashore was rightly acclaimed when it was published in 1975, winning many awards including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.
by Alice Walker
I saw Alice Walker speak at the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and bought The Color Purple which I had read and adored about thirty years ago (it was first published in 1982 – impossible to believe it’s been so long!) I read it all in one gulp and loved it just as much as I did when I was a teenager. I loved the movie too. This book will always be on my list of all-time favourite books.
Set in the deep American south between the wars, this is the classic tale of Celie, a young poor black girl. Raped repeatedly by her father, she loses two children and then is married off to a man who treats her no better than a slave. She is separated from her sister Nettie and dreams of becoming like the glamorous Shug Avery, a singer and rebellious black woman who has taken charge of her own destiny. Gradually Celie discovers the support of women that enables her to leave the past behind and begin a new life.
by Hannah Kent
I finally had a chance to read this brilliant historical novel by debut author Hannah Kent. Burial Rites been a critical and a commercial success, and deservedly so. The writing is so precise and vivid, and the story so compelling. I found myself stopping to read certain sentences again, just for the pleasure of the words: ‘it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow.’ Burial Rites is set in Iceland in 1830, the last year in the life of a woman condemned to be executed for murder. The use of real historical documents as epigraphs at the beginning of each section adds to the sense of truth and awfulness. A clever and truly beautiful book.
Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler
by Wendy Lower
Sifting through a second-hand bookshop in London, an English editor stumbled upon this self-published memoir of a young Jewish woman in Vienna and – enchanted by her romantic love story and vivid writing style – republished the book.
In 1938 Trudi Kanter was a milliner for the best-dressed women in Vienna. She was beautiful and chic and sophisticated, travelling to Paris to see the latest fashions and selling her hats to some of the most wealthy and aristocratic ladies of Europe. She was madly in love with a charming and wealthy businesseman, and had a loving and close-knit family. Then the Nazis marched into Austria, and everything Trudi knew was in ruins. She and her new husband had to try and find some way to escape and make a new life for themselves … and Trudi would need all her wits and panache just to survive.
Kate Forsyth is the bestselling and award-winning author of more than twenty books, ranging from picture books to poetry to novels for both children and adults.
She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite Novelists, coming in at No 16. She has been called one of ‘the finest writers of this generation”, and “quite possibly … one of the best story tellers of our modern age.’