One of Australia’s favourite novelists Kate Forsyth, author of The Impossible Quest, Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl and now The Beast’s Garden, continues her monthly blog with us, giving her verdict on the books she’s been reading.
It has been a busy few months for me! Every June, I run a writers’ retreat and literary tour in Oxford and the Cotswolds (http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/writing-retreat-in-the-cotswolds) and I always set a reading list for my students. So many of the books I read during June were books that we talked about in class – books filled with history, mystery and magic.
by Karen Maitland
I’ve really loved Karen Maitland’s earlier books, which are probably best described as medieval supernatural thrillers, and so I was keen to read her latest book. The Vanishing Witch is set during the troubled reign of Richard II, and features a number of scenes set during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. One of the most striking aspects of Karen’s writing is the way she brings the 14th century world so vividly to life, with all its stench and dirt and fear. These are superstitious times, rammed home by small quotations of the time at the beginning of each chapter. Some are quite amusing, but others are truly chilling in their advice on how to identify witches or cure illnesses.
The story follows the entwining fortunes of two families. The first is that of Robert of Bassingham, a wealthy wool merchant, and his wife and two sons. The other is a mysterious widow with one grown-up son and a younger daughter.
Then Robert’s wife dies in mysterious circumstances and he finds himself entranced with the beautiful young widow and her family. Death follows death, as Robert and his sons find themselves drawn deeper into intrigue and witchcraft.
Vivid and suspenseful, The Vanishing Witch also has a wry-voiced ghost who watches and waits and plots …
by Kate Morton
The Forgotten Garden is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors, and a pleasure to revisit. It has everything I could possibly want: a foundling child, an old book of mysterious fairy tales, a maze that leads to a secret garden, a mystery to be solved, and a love story – it’s as if Kate Morton set out to write the perfect book for me.
The book is cleverly structured like a Russian doll, with stories within stories, histories inside histories. Modern-day Cassandra inherits a mysterious house in Cornwall after her beloved grandmother Nell dies. As she explores the house and its forgotten garden, she discovers that there was much about Nell she did not know – and indeed, that Nell did not know. For Nell was a foundling child, and does not know her own history.
At the heart of the novel is the old book of fairy tales written by the Victorian Authoress, Eliza Makepeace. Like so many old tales, Eliza’s stories have two levels of meaning … and if Cassandra can just decipher the secret the stories hide, she may find out the truth about her grandmother’s dark past.
I’m not alone in my love of Kate Morton’s books – millions of readers attest to her popularity – but if by chance you have not read this wonderful book, I’d urge you to grab it now.
by Kate Mosse
An utterly gripping murder mystery with gorgeous lyrical prose and the pace of a thriller, The Taxidermist’s Daughter was an absolute delight to read. Set in Sussex in 1912, the story begins with local villagers gathering in a churchyard to follow an old superstition that says, on that night, the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year will be seen.
Our heroine is Constantia Gifford. Her father once owned a world-famous museum of taxidermy, but now all that is left is a few decaying specimens. The family is haunted by secrets from the past. Connie has lost her memory, and her father takes his solace from a bottle.
In the morning, the body of a dead woman is discovered at the bottom of their garden. Connie must try to find out who is responsible, even as lost memories from the past rise to haunt her.
Haunting, beautiful, horrifying and absolutely unputdownable, The Taxidermist’s Daughter shows just what can be done with the historical mystery genre.
by Tracy Chevalier
Another old favourite by a favourite author. Falling Angels is not as widely known as Girl With A Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s most celebrated book, but is, I think, even better. It has a bold and unconventional structure, with a series of very short chapters told in first person from a multitude of different characters. Some of the chapters are only a few paragraphs; one is only two short lines. It breaks so many rules about narrative structure, but I think it is utterly brilliant and brave. The story itself is riveting. Two families that live next door to each other, in the shadow of a graveyard, in the tumultuous years of change between Queen Victoria’s death in 1910 and King Edward’s death in 1910. It also has one of my all-time favorite last lines.
by Sarah Waters
I have never read one of Sarah Waters’ books before. Now I want to gobble them all down as fast as I can get my greedy hands on them. Affinity is just brilliant. It tells the story of Margaret, a depressed young Victorian woman, who begins visiting the women’s ward at Millbank Prison as part of a do-gooder charity mission. She meets a number of different women, some incarcerated for acts that today would not be considered crimes. Among them is a beautiful young woman named Selina Dawes. Selina is a spiritualist. She was imprisoned after one of her séances went horribly wrong, causing the death of one woman and the psychological stress of another. Margaret finds herself reluctantly convinced of Selena’s clairvoyant powers, and draw to her beauty and fragility.
I don’t want to say much more, because the brilliance of this book is in its clever and surprising plot. I can say, though, with absolute conviction: READ IT!
by Lisa Chaplin
The time of the Napoleonic wars is such a fascinating period and there are still so many stories to be told. Lisa Chaplin (who is a friend of mine) has discovered the intriguing untold story of a group of British spies working undercover in France in the early 19th century, trying to prevent the French invasion of Great Britain.
At the heart of Lisa’s tale is a young English woman, Lisbeth, and her determination to win back her baby son who has been taken by his violent French aristocratic father. In order to gain the help of the British establishment, Lisbeth goes undercover in the house of the hot-tempered and brilliant American inventor, Robert Fulton (a real-life character), who is working on making the world’s first submarine. How far is Lisbeth prepared to go to win Robert Fulton’s trust and gain control of the submarine? This moral dilemma helps drive the suspense, as Lisbeth fights her attraction for one of the British agents, yet knows the only way to get back her son is to win Robert Fulton’s heart.
The Tide Watchers is a surprising and unusual historical thriller with a twist of romance that will appeal to anyone who loves books set in the 19th century.
I am also in the early stages of writing and researching a new novel, and so I read a great many non-fiction books this month on the Pre-Raphaelites. I am planning a book about Edward Burne-Jones and his famous Briar Rose series of paintings, and so much of my reading is centred on his work and that of his great friend and colleague, William Morris. The books are all so fascinating, I thought I’d share them with you.
Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel
by Lucinda Hawksley
Like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by the brief tragic life of Lizzie Siddal, whose face appears in so many early Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
She rose to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain and a pivotal figure of London’s artistic world, until tragically ending her life in 1862.
by Judith Flanders
The Macdonald sisters were a fairly ordinary mid-Victorian family. Their father was a Methodist preacher, their mother a chronic invalid. They moved often, following their father’s itinerant preaching routes, and so relied one each other for comfort and amusement. Attractive, lively girls, none of them was startling beautiful or brilliant, and yet they all made extraordinary marriages that led to extraordinary family dynasties. Agnes married Edward Poynter, president of the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts; Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most extraordinary painters of the era; Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling; and Louisa gave birth to the future prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. In a way, their stories are a prime example for the way in which class boundaries in the Victorian era was changing, allowing those with talent and drive to change their social status.
by Fiona McCarthy
This is a great big chunk of a book, but very readable, and magisterial in its approach to the life and work of Edward Burne-Jones, one of my favourite artists. Best of all, it shines a light on to the inner life of the artist, helping illuminate the forces that drove this complex and haunted man.
Pre-Raphaelites in Love
by Gay Daly
This is a great book for anyone who wants a really readable look into the passions and scandals that defined the relationships of the Pre-Raphaelites. There’s wife-swapping, suicide, trials for impotence, affairs with models, exhumation of dead wives, madness, and horse skeletons being boiled in front yards. Gripping stuff.
by Franny Moyle
Franny Moyle’s book was published in 2009, twenty years after Gay Daly’s Pre-Raphaelites in Love. So she has access to new research into the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as a greater freedom to talk about sex and drugs and rocking-and-rolling. Her style is racy and often funny, and lacks any kind of deep analysis or evidence. It was written as a tie-in with the BBC series of the same name, which very much focuses on the love affairs, rather than the art. It is, nonetheless, immensely readable and engaging, and is probably the best place to start if you want to know all the racy stuff abut the Pre-Raphaelites.
by Lucinda Hawksley
I have always been interested in the suffragette movement, and have long wanted to write about it. Lucinda Hawksley’s beautifully written account looks at the history of women’s fight to vote from the Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 all the way through to the change in British law in 1928.
Drawing on first-hand accounts such as letters and diaries, as well as newspaper reports of the time, the book is written in simple, lucid prose that is a joy to read. It was published on the centenary of the death of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who was dragged under King George V’s horse during the Derby horse race and killed.
After finishing it, I wanted to press this book into the hands of every young woman I met …and every young man. A really important book.
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. 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.’
The Beast’s Garden – Signed Copies Available!*
by Kate Forsyth
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, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.
Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a more…