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 read in November and December.
I spent quite a lot of time on planes this month, which meant I had plenty of time for reading (the best thing about spending so much time in airports and hotels!) I read eight books in total, with my usual mix of fiction and non-fiction (not counting research tomes!) – Kate Forsyth
The Light Between Us
by Laura Lynne Jackson
A fascinating memoir from a young American woman who first began to realise she had psychic talents when she was a child. Her story chronicles her struggle to understand her gift, her search to learn to use it wisely, and some anecdotes of the many people who she has helped along the way.
Simply and beautifully told, Laura Lynne Jackson has tried hard to find a new vocabulary for her strange and uncanny experiences (though the book is, of course, laden with phrases such as ‘the Other Side’ and ‘spirits crossing’, which may set off sceptics’ alarm bells).
Some of the most fascinating chapters are on the scientific tests she has submitted to in order to better understand and validate her gifts … and the book is filled with a quiet wisdom that will resonate even with those who do not believe in an afterlife.
The Goddess and the Thief
by Essie Fox
Alice was born and raised in India during the time of the British Raj, and so when she is sent to live with an aunt in England, she is uprooted from all she knows and loves. Her aunt is cold and unkind – much like the weather – and scratches out a living by holding séances.
When Queen Victoria’s beloved prince-consort dies, she consults with Alice’s aunt in a desperate bid to connect with her dead husband. Alice finds herself drawn into a conspiracy to steal the priceless – and cursed – Koh-i-Noor diamond. As the coils of obsession, desire, and murder tighten inexorably around her, Alice finds it impossible to know who to trust, or even what is real.
Dark, suspenseful, and lushly written, The Goddess and the Thief is an utterly compelling and uncanny Victorian mystery.
Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger
by Fiona Wright
Fiona Wright is an award-winning poet currently undertaking a doctorate in writing at University of Western Sydney. Each essay on its own is superbly crafted and exquisitely written. Some are deeply personal and gut-wrenchingly emotional, while others take her obsession with not eating as a springboard to explore other territories, such as issues of anorexia in Australian literature. Together they create an utterly extraordinary collection – intelligent, fierce and deeply informative.
The Lake House
by Kate Morton
A new Kate Morton is always cause for celebration! The Lake House is once again set in Cornwall, and moves between the mysterious disappearance of a child in 1933, and a policewoman’s struggle to overcome her guilt at being unable to solve the mystery of a missing woman in modern times.
Mysteries and secrets have always been at the heart of Kate Morton’s books, but with this one she takes a step closer to the crime genre. The result is as beguiling and suspenseful as always – the book is a massive 591 pages long but I whizzed through, the pages seemingly turning themselves. Now I can only wait in breathless anticipation for the next one!
A Profound Secret
by Josceline Dimbleby
Josceline Dimbleby has been one of Britain’s favourite food writers for a long time. A Profound Secret is a departure for her – it is the story of how an old portrait inspired her to dig deeper into her family’s past and its many secrets and mysteries. The portrait was of her great-aunt Amy Gaskell, and it was painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones. As a girl, Josceline was told her great-aunt had died young of a broken heart.
Deciding to find out more, Josceline uncovered a box of secret love letters between the famous artist and Amy’s mother, May. Both were married to others. Josceline also discovered the tragic truth of Amy’s early demise.
The book is as much about Josceline’s search as it is about what she discovered, and so it is as much a detective story as it is a story of a secret love affair.
by Rita Cameron
The tragic love affair of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his muse and model Lizzie Siddal has been surprisingly under-utilised in fiction. Most people know the basic storyline, however, thanks to numerous films and TV series such as ‘Desperate Romantics’. Lizzie was discovered in a milliner’s shop and became the ‘face’ of early Pre-Raphaelite art, modelling for quite a few of the brotherhood and becoming famous as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s painting of the same name. She and Rossetti had a tumultuous affair and eventually married, only for Lizzie to die of a laudanum overdose.
Rita Cameron has taken this basic storyline, and built it into a satisfying novel of art, desire and tragedy. The mid-Victorian setting is vividly created, and the inner world of Lizzie Siddal brought touchingly to life. For anyone interested in the story of Lizzie Siddal, this is a good place to start (I should probably say that I’m currently writing a novel about the Pre-Raphaelites too – but that mine will be very different!)
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
by Robert Macfarlane
The British travel writer Robert Macfarlane has been a new and wondrous discovery for me. He brings an incisive mind, a poet’s feel for language, and a deep knowledge of place and time to his writing. The Old Ways is about journeys he has taken – usually but not always on foot – through landscapes as diverse as Essex, Spain, Palestine and Tibet. Most of his walks are through British landscapes, though, and are rich in folklore, history and fascinating characters. It’s the kind of book where you want to keep underlining passages for their sheer and precise beauty – here’s just on example:
The whole foot is a document of motion, inscribed by repeated action. Babies—from those first foetal footfalls, the kneading of the sole against womb-wall, turning themselves like astronauts in black space—have already creased their soles by the time they emerge into the world.
Where Angels Fear To Tread
by E. M. Forster
Every month I try to re-read an old beloved book that I haven’t read in years. Where Angels Fear To Tread was my choice this month. It was E. M. Forster’s first novel, and is so small it is nearly a novella. It’s a quite exquisite work, however, laying bare the snobbery and insularity of the British middle classes before the First World War. It tells the story of how a dashing young widow named Lilia falls in love with a much younger Italian man and marries him, much to the horror of her former husband’s family, who think she has brought scandal and dishonour upon them. When a child is born and Lilia dies, her brother-in-law Philip and former companion Caroline Abbott set out to Italy to try and save the little boy …. only to set tragedy and heartbreak in motion. It is such a sad story, and so surprising too – a perfect little gem of a novel.
A lot of my reading time in the past month has been taken up with research for the new novel I am working on, but I always make time for reading for pleasure as well. This month my reading list includes some fascinating non-fiction, some tattered old favourites, and a few new books hot off the presses. Oh, and some poetry! I hope you find something here to inspire and entertain you.
– Kate Forsyth
Girl In Hyacinth Blue
by Susan Vreeland
One of my all-time favourite books by one of my all-time favourite authors, Girl In Hyacinth Blue tells the story of a painting in a series of interlinked vignettes moving backwards in time. The first is set in contemporary times, telling the story of a middle-aged man who has in his possession an extraordinary painting of a young girl which he believes is a lost Vermeer. He cannot prove it, however, for the painting has no provenance. And he cannot show it to any specialists, because the painting was, he believes, stolen by his father from a Jewish family in the Second World War.
The next vignette is told from the point of view of a young Jewish girl in Amsterdam, bewildered as her world is destroyed around her by the invasion of the Nazis.
Backwards in time each story goes, connected only by the silent presence of the painting, until we reach the 17th century and the story of the girl who sat as the model for the painting. Each story is told with a marvellous economy of style, giving us just enough to understand what has happened before the scene shifts to the next point of view, yet the overall effect is almost unbearably moving. A wonderful book.
Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa
by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Many people think of anorexia nervosa as a modern-day problem, but as Dr Brumberg shows in this biography of the disease, young women have been starving themselves to death from at least the 13th century onwards. The reasons that drive such an obsession change from century to century, but the tragic results are the same. Fasting Girls looks at cases from medieval martyrs to contemporary celebrities, always searching to illuminate the complex reasons that led to such self-destructive behaviour. Although Dr Brumberg is a historian, she draws upon medical and psychiatric studies of the times in her research, to create a truly illuminating look at the emotional disorder that has destroyed so many lives.
Career of Evil
by Robert Galbraith
It begins with the delivery of a severed leg to the office of private detective Cormoran Strike, addressed to his pretty and about-to-be-married sidekick Robin. What follows is a desperate race against time to find the murderer before he kills again … with Robin as his next target.
I’ve just been loving this series, which has the perfect mix of mystery, suspense, and character development.
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia & Bulimia
by Marya Hornbacher
First published in 1998, Wasted has recently been reissued with a new Afterword by the author Marya Hornbacher. Her eating disorder began at the age of eight and dominated her life from that point onwards, leading her to ever more destructive behaviours until it almost claimed her life. She was hospitalised and institutionalised, got better and relapsed, fought new battles, and relapsed again, and slowly and painfully inched her way back to health.
This is not an easy read – it is raw, brutal, honest, and frightening – but also brilliant, poetic, illuminating and very brave.
Charity Girl and Sylvester
by Georgette Heyer
My copies of Georgette Heyer’s novels are so tattered that they are in danger of falling apart, for they are the books I turn to whenever I am feeling particularly tired or unwell. They never fail to delight me, no matter how often I read them. Her touch is so light, her characters so deftly drawn, her situations so absurd and yet somehow so poignant too. I first read them as a teenager at my grandmother’s house, and must have read many of them twenty times or more.
Sylvester is one of my personal favourites – perhaps because the heroine Phoebe has written a book, which pitches her into all sorts of Scrapes and Scandals … and Charity Girl is almost as good, with its array of laugh-out-loud minor characters. If you love light-hearted Regency romances, then you’ll already be a Georgette Heyer fan … but if you’ve never read one of her books, please do so, now! You will not regret it.
by C.W. Gortner
Like many people, I have long been fascinated by the life of Coco Chanel, the famous French designer, and have read a number of biographies about her life. Christopher Gortner is one of my favourite contemporary historical novelists and – with his background in the fashion world – is ideally suited to bringing this enigmatic woman to life.
The first person voice rings startlingly true, revealing her steely determination to escape her childhood of poverty and abandonment, her passionate and impetuous nature, her loneliness and longing. Gortner does not shy away from the more troubling aspects of her life, such as her involvement with the Nazis in German-occupied France, and her hard-heartedness towards many around her. This clear-sightedness makes the book feel much more true than some of the biographies I have read – this is a must-read for anyone who has ever longed to know the story behind the creation of the iconic Chanel No 5. Perfume and the famous little black dress.
Why Kings Confess
by C.S Harris
Why Kings Confess is the latest in a series of historical murder mysteries set in Regency England, featuring as its amateur detectives a lynx-eyed viscount with a troubled past and a strong-willed bluestocking noblewoman, the daughter of the viscount’s greatest enemy. The plots are always devious and surprising, the setting is suitably dark and foggy, and the interplay between the characters is fascinating.
As always, if this series is new to you, start with the first, called What Angels Fear.
A Year With Rilke:
Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated & edited by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows
I first encountered Rainer Maria Rilke when a friend gave me a copy of Letters to a Young Poet when I was in my early twenties. It spoke to me very powerfully, and I went on to read many of Rilke’s poems and letters.
I re-discovered Rilke again when I was writing my latest novel The Beast’s Garden, which is a retelling of Beauty & the Beast set in Nazi Germany. I was drawn to read his work again because I remembered that Rilke was obsessed with roses, (a potent motif in the fairy tale) and wrote many poems about them.
As part of my journey of rediscovery, I bought A Year With Rilke. It brings together a collection of his writings – excerpts from poetry (both published and unpublished), letters, and diaries – each chosen to match a certain day of the year. The idea is to read one page a day, every day, for the full year. I have kept the book next to my bed to read, and did so most evenings. Occasionally I had to read two or three – or even ten – pages to catch up. It didn’t matter. The excerpts are each so small and so easily read, and sometimes I would read the same poem over and over again, trying to let it soak into my soul. Occasionally the reading for the day was so uncannily prescient, so necessary to what I needed to read just then, it seemed fore-ordained.
It’s a beautiful way to read his work – and a perfect way to be introduced to him.
The only complaint I have to make is that it is designed for an audience in the northern hemisphere and so some of the seasonal pieces (like the poem for March 21, which was ‘Spring!’) are out-of-whack for an Australian reader. But it’s a minor complaint – and I simply went back and read them again at the tight time.
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
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 … Read more