Kate Forsyth, one of Australia’s favourite novelists and the author of books including 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 read in March and April 2017.
“It’s been a busy few months for me but I always have time to read! Here are the best ten books I read in March and April with an interesting mix of fiction and non-fiction, adult and children’s books.” – Kate Forsyth
Kate Forsyth’s Reviews
The Bright Edge of the World
By Eowyn Ivey
I absolutely loved Eowyn Ivey’s first book The Snow Child and so I was very eager to see what she came up with next.
The Bright Edge of the World is set in Alaska, Eowyn Ivey’s homeland. It was inspired by the true story of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen who, in 1885, set out with a small group of fellow explorers to follow the Copper River deep into the Alaskan hinterland. Such expeditions had been tried before, but all had failed, thanks to the cold, the snow and ice, the wolves, and the hostile natives. Allen succeeded where everyone else had failed.
Eowyn Ivey takes this story of an intrepid explorer and spins out of it an enthralling tale of love, grief, adventure and magic. The story is told in letters and diary entries from multiple different points-of-view, a risky creative choice that she pulls off adroitly.
The primary narrators are Colonel Allen Forrester, who accepts a commission to explore the Wolverine River into the Alaskan wilderness, and his pregnant wife, Sophie, who is reluctantly left behind. But other voices include a soldier broken by war, a modern-day descendant of the Forresters who has inherited the cache of letters, diaries, postcards and photographs, and a museum curator interested in putting on an exhibition. The voices of each of the many different characters each ring true, an astounding feat of ventriloquism.
The Alaska of this novel is a vast place of cold, implacable beauty, mystery and strangeness. Only ‘a thin line separates animal and man,’ and ghosts and shapeshifters move amongst humankind. There is an old crippled Indian man who may also be a raven, and a child that died only to be impossibly reborn elsewhere.
Once again, Eowyn Ivey’s language is just exquisite. I cannot wait to see what she writes next. Learn more.
Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars
by Martine Murray
Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars is a small but enchanting book about a girl named Molly whose mother accidentally changes herself into a tree. Molly is left alone to fend for herself, but discovers that she has more friends than she realised.
I loved the character of Molly, who thought she just wanted to be ordinary but discovers that being herself is better. I also loved her fey and eccentric mother, who wanders the garden and woods looking for ingredients for magical potions, and Molly’s two friends, Ellen (whose normal life with a normal family is envied by Molly) and Pim (who is anything but normal). Each character is deftly and vividly drawn, and there is a charming mix of humour, whimsy and poignancy. Glorious. Learn more.
by Richard Fidler
I love listening to Richard Fidler on the radio. He is always so warm and funny and curious about people, and he has a knack for drawing out the personal and the unique in every story. I have also been increasingly interested in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), having read several novels set there in recent years. After hearing Richard speak about his book at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, I bought a copy and finally read it last month. Normally I read non-fiction slowly over a few weeks, reading several novels in between chapters. But Ghost Empire was so engaging and readable, I whizzed through it in just a few nights.
The book combines the personal memoir of a journey Richard and his son Joe made to Istanbul in 2014, with stories from the city’s long and bloody history. Constantinople was built on the foundations of Byzantium in the early 4th century and became the new capital of the Roman empire in 330 AD. From the mid-5th to the mid-13th century, it was the largest, richest and most powerful city in the world, and the guardian of the most sacred relics of Christianity, the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross.
For almost a thousand years the city was the centre of extraordinary true tales of greed, murder, violence and betrayals, and Richard entwines these stories with anecdotes from his own life and his life-changing journey with his son. The result is utterly fascinating. Learn more.
by Louisa May Alcott
When I was thirteen years old, I bought a battered old copy of Little Women from a school fete because it had a picture of a dark-haired girl reading a book on the cover. From the first line, I was captivated. I devoured the story of the four March girls in an afternoon. Like hundreds of other girls, I saw myself reflected in the character of Jo – wild, harum-scarum, and bookish. It is one of the few books that tells the story of a young woman wanting to be a writer and so it has always been very important to me.
My own daughter turned thirteen this month, and so I bought her a beautiful illustrated hardback edition of the book as part of her birthday present. Telling her why I had loved Little Women so much when I was her age made me want to read it again, and so I’m ashamed to admit I took the book back from her the moment she opened her present. It is now back on her bedside table, waiting for her to discover this classic tale of four sisters growing up poor in the time of the American Civil War. Learn more.
Jarulan by the River
by Lily Woodhouse
The ‘Jarulan’ of the title is a grand house on a river in northern New South Wales. Once flourishing, it is now in decline. Matthew Fenchurch, a man in his late fifties, is grieving the deaths of his wife and his eldest son, who was a casualty of the First World War. Matthew decides to build a memorial to the fallen, and asks his housekeeper to write to his scattered children and ask them to return to the estate for its commemoration. There is his other son, the drifter Eddie, and his daughters Louise and Jean. Eddie fails to respond, but the two sisters obey. Their arrival sets in train a scandalous love affair that will change the future of Jarulan forever.
A sprawling and surprising tale of love, grief, loss and change that crosses generations and continents, Jarulan by the River is poised, challenging and, at times, poetic in its descriptions of the Australian landscape. I could feel the heat and dryness and hear the constant rasp of the cicadas. The narrative moves from multiple points-of-view – Matthew himself, Evie the Irish maid who dreams of love, Nan the old housekeeper who has seen the family fracture and fall apart, Rufina the German nanny, Eddie who has fallen on hard times, and his half-Maori son Irving. At the centre of the tale, however, is the house and the ghosts and memories it contains. Learn more.
If Women Rose Rooted: The Journey to Authenticity and Belonging
by Sharon Blackie
I have never met Sharon Blackie but we are twitter friends, sharing a love of storytelling, fairy tales, mythology and psychology. Our common interests caused us to occasionally touch minds across the geography that divides us, and so I became aware of her book If Women Rose Rooted as she tweeted about it. The title is inspired by one of my favourite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke:
“If we surrendered/ to earth’s intelligence/ we could rise up rooted, like trees./ Instead we entangle ourselves/ in knots of our own making/ and struggle, lonely and confused./ So like children, we begin again…/ to fall/ patiently to trust our heaviness./ Even a bird has to do that/ before he can fly.”
It sounded like the kind of book I would love, and so I ordered a copy and began to read it as soon as it arrived.
If Women Rose Rooted is a beautiful, intelligent and unusual book. It combines a breathtakingly honest memoir about one woman’s journey towards wisdom, with tales drawn from Celtic mythology and folklore, and interviews with fascinating and inspiring women who are all working to live in harmony with the earth. Unashamedly political as well as spiritual, this is a book which celebrates the strength and power of women, and connects modern-day feminism with ancient gynocentric mythologies.
It is also beautifully written:
‘If women remember that once upon a time we sang with the tongues of seals and flew with the wings of swans, that we forged our own paths through the dark forest while creating a community of its many inhabitants, then we will rise up rooted, like trees. And if we rise up rooted, like trees … well then, women might indeed save not only ourselves, but the world.’
I’m hoping this book will become the anthem of our generation, encouraging all women to surrender to the earth’s intelligence and rise up, rooted, like trees. Learn more.
The Road to Ever After
by Moira Young
Moira Young is a Canadian-born author best known for an award-winning series of young adult dystopian novels. An uncorrected proof copy of The Road to Ever After was given to me whilst I was in the UK last year and I have only just got around to picking it up. It’s an enchanting and surprising read, and not at all what I was expecting given her earlier work.
The hero is a thirteen year old boy named Davy David who lives in a town under the sway of a severe and hypocritical pastor named Parson Fall. Davy is an orphan who spends his days drawing angels in the dirt with a stick. His only friend is a scruffy terrier who draws him into trouble. One day he meets an old woman who lives in a derelict boarded-up museum. Her name is Miss Elizabeth Flint, and she hires Davy as her chauffeur. She wants him to drive her home.
And so begins a magical fable of life and death, love and grief, transformation and transfiguration. Utterly simple and utterly profound, this is a strange but wonderful story of an unlikely friendship and a magical quest. Learn more.
A Letter from Italy
by Pamela Hart
Pamela Hart has been making a name for herself by writing vivid, compelling and gorgeously romantic historical fiction novels about the lives of Australian women during the First World War. Her first two – The Soldier’s Wife and The War Bride – were set in Sydney during and just after the war years. Her latest, however, is set in Italy, and was inspired by the true story of Louise Mack, an Australian journalist who became the world’s first female war correspondent.
The heroine in A Letter from Italy is a strong-willed Australian journalist named Rebecca Quinn who has followed Jack, her war correspondent husband, to the frontline of the war in Italy. He goes undercover in Albania, leaving Rebecca alone in Brindisi, an Italian port town about halfway down Italy’s boot-heel. She is determined not to be sent home, but women journalists are not welcome and so she must prove herself even while struggling to stay safe.
She begins to work with a talented Italian-American photographer named Sandro, racing to get scoops before any other journalist, and finding herself in the heart of the action. Meanwhile, Jack goes missing and Rebecca finds her emotions in turmoil. The pages seemed to turn themselves, and I found myself sneaking off to read when I was meant to be working. A really thoughtful and subtle historical romance with lots of brains and lots of heart. Learn more.
by Jessie Burton
Jessie Burton’s first book The Miniaturist took the literary world by storm a few years ago. It was a magic realist tale, set in 17th century Amsterdam, about a sugar merchant and his young wife, lonely and unsettled in her new home, and entranced by a miniature model of her own house that seemed to reflect and even predict events in her own life. I loved it, and so was eager to read what she wrote next.
The Muse is her second novel and is very different indeed, which I really like. It shows boldness and poise and faith in her ability to create something new. It has a dual timeline structure, telling the stories of two very different women. The first is Odelle, a black girl from Trinidad who came to London in the mid-1960s in the hope of becoming a poet and author. She is offered a job as a typist in a prestigious art gallery, and then meets a young white man named Lawrie at a party. These two events collide when Lawrie shows her a painting he has inherited from his mother, who had recently killed herself. The painting proves to be a lost masterpiece with a mysterious past.
The narrative then moves to the point of view of Olive Schloss, a young English woman who moves to Spain with her parents in 1936, despite the shadow of civil war. Olive longs to be an artist, but her father is a renowned art dealer and does not believe women can paint. She meets a young Spanish artist and revolutionary, Isaac Robles and his young half-sister, Teresa, and her comfortable life implodes.
I just loved it. Both narrative threads are expertly spun, creating a tale of love, art and deception that kept twisting in unexpected ways. A fabulous read. Learn more.
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 Grimms' Beauty and The Beast, set in Nazi Germany.
It's August 1939 in Germany, and Ava's world is in turmoil. To save her father, she must marry a young Nazi officer, Leo von Löwenstein, who works for Hitler's spy chief in Berlin. However, she hates and fears the brutal Nazi regime, and finds herself compelled to stand against it.
Ava joins an underground resistance movement that seeks to help victims survive the horrors of the German war machine. But she must live a double life, hiding her true feelings from her husband, even as she falls in love with him...