One of Australia’s favourite novelists – Kate Forsyth, author of The Impossible Quest, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and The Beast’s Garden – continues her blog with us, giving her verdict on the best books she’s read over the past couple of months.
I’ve read an interesting mix of adult and young adult fiction, fantasy and history, non-fiction and memoir over these past couple of months; I’ve read books by some old favourites as well as discovered a wonderful new author whose book has leapt into my list of Best Books of the Year – Kate Forsyth
Kate Forsyth’s Reviews
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favourite books, that I like to re-read every few years. A retelling of the ‘Six Swans’ fairy-tale, set in ancient Ireland, it is a beautiful story of courage, love, peril and wonder set in a world where magic is only ever a hairsbreadth away from us all.
I always love a new timeslip adventure from my brilliant sister, Belinda. In The Lost Sapphire, a teenage girl Marli is reluctantly sent to stay with her father in Melbourne. Things began to get more interesting, though, when she discovers an abandoned house with a mysterious past, and makes a new friend, a boy with his own connection to the house.
Meanwhile, back in 1922, Violet lives the high life at the luxurious mansion but a forbidden friendship with her father’s Russian chauffeur opens up her eyes about the world and her own heart.
A wonderful story for girls who like to imagine what life was like in the past.
Maggie Stiefvater made her name with a series of teen werewolf romances that were a cut above the usual, with acutely realised characters and luminous prose. Lament is similarly a book about a teenage girl falling in love with someone not of her world, though in this book the romantic hero is an assassin sent from the faerie world to kill her. It’s a clever premise, and once again Stiefvater’s teenage characters feel real and alive.
The Somnambulist is a dark neo-Victorian Gothic romance, with lots of unexpected twists and turns. The 19th century atmosphere is so vividly realised, you can hear the horses’ hooves clopping and taste the fog on your tongue.
Phoebe Turner lives with her Bible-thumping mother and her young and beautiful aunt, who used to be a singer. A chance encounter at a music-hall changes Phoebe’s life forever, catapulting her into a world of dark secrets. She travels to Dinwood Court to work as a companion to a reclusive woman who walks the corridors at night. What she discovers there will change everything she thought she knew about her life.
The Winter Sea
by Susanna Kearsley
A parallel narrative set in Scotland, filled with spies and secrets and forbidden love, The Winter Sea (also published as Sophia’s Secret), is just the kind of book I love to read.
A young author named Carrie McClelland is writing a novel about the Jacobite invasion of England in 1708, but is struggling to bring her work of fiction to life. On a whim, she travels to Scotland for research and finds herself inexorably drawn to the ruins of an old castle that she knows had a key role to play in the rebellion. Slowly she finds herself drawn into the stories of the past, and makes a number of baffling discoveries that logic simply cannot explain. Meanwhile, back in the past, Sophia finds herself drawn into the dangers of the secret mission to return the Stuarts to the throne, risking everything to be with the man she loves.
I really love this period of history, and I also loved Susannah Kearsley’s deft mix of suspense, romance, and magic. Her books are smoothly and swiftly paced, and the heroines of both narrative threads are strong and interesting and likeable. I’ll be reading more of her work, that’s for sure.
I met Lauren Willig at the Historical Novel Society conference in Chicago a few years ago, and bought her first book The Secret History of the Pink Carnation on the strength of the cover and the blurb. Since then, I’ve read all sixteen of her books, which just keep getting better and better.
The Other Daughter is the story of Rachel Woodley, a poor young English woman who is devastated when her mother dies, leaving her an orphan. Clearing out her mother’s house, she discovers a news cutting with a photograph of her dead father. Except that the newspaper article is only three months old, and the man in the photograph is an earl. Photographed with him is his daughter, who is just the same age as Rachel.
Realising that everything she thought she knew about her life is a lie, Rachel sets out on an elaborate game of revenge and retribution. She assumes a false name, and slowly insinuates herself into her half-sister’s glamorous social circle. Her deception soon begins to have unexpected ramifications, including Rachel falling in love with her sister’s fiancé. The result is a suspenseful and romantic historical novel with great period detail and characters.
I have never read any of Kristen Hannah’s books before, and at first I was not sure if I was going to like this book (even though I love books set in the French underground resistance in World War II). Kristen Hannah’s style is very straightforward and the plot seemed quite predictable to me. However, as the novel progressed I found myself turning the pages faster and faster, and I had a little choke in my throat at the end.
It’s a story of two sisters in rural France, whose lives are turned upside-down by the Nazi invasion. They each react in different ways. Viann tries to protect her family and keep their farm safe, while Isabelle joins the resistance and fights to save as many as she can. Each of their choices led to heartbreak and sacrifice, as well as ultimately to redemption. A real page-turner!
I have always been interested in the Bayeux tapestry and made the trip to see it in its little French stone village this year. It really is a fascinating artefact, the world’s longest piece of embroidery and quite possibly the first real comic strip. It tells the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066, in a series of small scenes sewn with extraordinary vigour and humour.
I bought Carola Hicks’s book in Bayeux, and read it over the next few nights. It begins with the story of how the embroidery came about, and then the extraordinary story of its survival over the next three thousand years. It survived the French revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, years of being kept in a damp church cellar, and the Nazis who tried to steal it. A really lively and beguiling story about an utterly unique piece of art.
This beautiful little hardcover book was a gift from a writer friend of mine who knew of my fascination with William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites. It is an extended personal essay, in which A.S. Byatt shares with us her personal response to the lives of two men whose art and creativity echoed each other in interesting ways.
The first is William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement and a poet who refused to become Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate. Nowadays he is best known as the designer of beautiful intricate wallpapers and fabrics.
The second subject is Mariano Fortuny, the aristocratic Spanish fashion designer and artist who lived and worked in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.
They were not really contemporaries – Morris died in 1896 in London and Fortuny was born in 1871 in Granada – and they never met. However, A.S. Byatt finds interesting correlations between the two men, and the book is enriched with beautiful photographs of both of their work. I love books like this, which illuminate art and history and creativity in such interesting and unexpected ways, and which are themselves are work of art.
When I was in the UK, every bookshop had a window display with this gorgeous hardback novel by Sarah Perry. I had to buy it, and the story was just as lush and intricate and surprising as the cover.
The setting is Essex in the 19th century, where superstition and science collide in a series of events that destabilise and transform the lives of all the characters. Cora Seagrave is a young widow who has been damaged by the cruelty of her dead husband and who has lost all faith. Her son is odd and withdrawn and difficult to understand, but she loves him and does her best for him. Her best friend is a hunchbacked surgeon who is secretly in love with her. Cora, however, is attracted to the local rector, a married man who believes in God. Throw in a mysterious serpent, strange and wondrous events, murderous intent and miracles, and you get this absolutely marvellous book. One of the best reads of the year for me.
She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite Novelists. 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.’
Kate’s books have been published in 14 countries around the world, including the UK, the US, Russia, Germany, Japan, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Poland and Slovenia.
The Beast's Garden
A retelling of The Beauty and The Beast set in Nazi Germany.
The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark' in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,' the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail...