One of Australia’s favourite novelists Kate Forsyth, author of The Impossible Quest, Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl, continues her monthly blog with us, giving her verdict on the books she’s been reading.
by M.L. Stedman
This novel has at its heart a disturbing moral dilemma. A young woman married to a lighthouse keeper longs for a child of her own, but has lost all of her own babies. One day a boat washes up on their remote island. Inside the boat are a dead man and a baby, who is very much alive. The lighthouse keeper and his wife take in the founding child and, before long, Izzy begins to pretend the little girl is hers. The consequences of that decision will change their lives forever.
The 1920s setting of a small Western Australian town, and the remote island with its lighthouse, is brilliantly evoked. The loneliness of Tom and Izzy’s life on the island, the vast stretch of sea and sky, the comfort of its routines, all are brought vividly to life.
The story is simply but powerfully told, and the slow-building suspense soon has the pages turning fast. Each step the characters take, each choice they make, is utterly in character, giving the story the feel of an inescapable fate, like a Greek tragedy. The Light Between the Oceans really is a superb book, so tightly constructed that not a word feels out of place. I am very curious to see what M.L. Stedman writes next, as this is an astonishingly assured debut.
Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France
by Agnes Humbert
I’ve had this book on my shelves for a long time and finally picked it up to read over the summer holidays. Agnes Humbert was an ordinary woman in her late 40s when German troops invaded Paris in June 1940. She was an art historian, married with two sons, who loved to paint. After the Fall of Paris, Agnes began to scribble down her thoughts and feelings in a notebook. She would go mad, she wrote, if she did not do something to resist the Germans. She and a few friends began to meet, to make plans to defy the Germans, and to print a newsletter called Resistance. It was the first resistance group in France. Eventually they were betrayed, and Agnes was arrested and imprisoned in April 1941.
After a mock trial, the men in the group were all shot and the women were sentenced to five years hard labour. The diary ends at this point, and moves to being a memoir of the following horrific years. Agnes and her fellow prisoners were used as slave labour in such appalling conditions she almost died several times. Starved, beaten, and injured by the work, she somehow managed to survive.
After the work camp was liberated by the Americans in June 1945, Agnes set up soup kitchens for refugees and helped the Americans hunt down and prosecute war criminals. Her extraordinary strength, courage and humour shine though on every page, making it a very moving and heartwrenching tale to read.
by Joe Abercrombie
I was on a few panels with Joe Abercrombie at the Perth Writers Festival, and so I was sent his latest book to read. I had heard a great deal about him, as his books had been making big waves in the international fantasy scene. His first book The Blade Itself had sold for a five-figure deal in 2005 (or, as Joe likes to say, ‘a seven-figure deal if you count the pence columns’) and has sold, I am told, more than 3 million copies.
I just loved Half A King. It was tightly constructed, quick-paced, and surprising – qualities that can sometimes be rare in a fantasy novel. It was also beautifully written. I’m really looking forward to reading the next in the series, Half the World, and discovering his earlier book as well. A must-read for fantasy lovers.
by Miranda Richmond Mouillot
Miranda Richmond Mouillot is an American-born writer of European Jewish descent. Her grandparents Armand and Anna lived through the Nazi occupation of France and managed to escape into Switzerland. Miranda’s grandfather worked as a translator at the Nuremberg trials after the war, translating the words of such Nazi criminals as Rudolf Hess. The young couple then bought a tumbledown old stone cottage in a small village in the South of France … only for Anna to flee a few years later, taking their children. She and Armand never spoke another word.
Brought up in the shadow of the Holocaust and troubled by all that was never spoken, Miranda set out to find out what happened. Her journey led her back to the old ruined house in the South of France, to a new understanding of the damage war can do, and – happily – to love and a new life. It’s a beautifully written and unusual memoir which examines the impossibility of ever truly knowing what happened in the past.
by Antonia Hodgson
I met Antonia Hodgson at the Historical Novel Society conference in London last year and – after hearing her speak about her novel The Devil in the Marshalsea – had to buy it straightaway. I’ve finally had a chance to read it, and can strongly recommend it to anyone who loves a really top-notch, fast-paced, and atmospheric historical thriller.
The novel is set in London in 1727, soon after the death of King George I and before his son was crowned George II. Most of the action takes place in the sordid Marchelsea debtors’ prison. The story’s hero, the young, handsome and raffish Tom Hawkins, has been clapped in irons due to his predilection for wine, women and gambling. The Marshalsea is a dangerous place at the best of times, but a violent murder has just taken place within its walls … and Tom is sharing a cell with the prime suspect.
All the action takes place over just a few days, and the plot twists and turns with ferocious speed. I could not put it down once I started. It is without doubt one of the best historical thrillers I’ve ever read and a highly deserving Winner of the CWA Historical Dagger award for 2014.
by Andrea di Robilant
I first encountered Andrea di Robilant’s work some years ago, when I read The Venetian Affair, his account of the passionate and doomed love affair between one of his ancestors, the dashing Venetian aristocrat Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne, the half-Italian bastard daughter of an English baronet. Andrea di Robilant’s father had found a mouldering packet of their love letters in the attic of their family’s palazzo, many of them written in secret code. He spent years unravelling the mystery of the letters, but died before he could publish the story. His son Andrea was then a journalist and academic. He took on the task, and the result is an absolutely engrossing look into the closed and rarefied world of the Venetian Republic in the mid 1700s.
Andrea di Robilant has since published several more non-fiction books inspired by his extraordinary family’s history, and Chasing the Rose is the latest. It is, quite simply, an account of his search to find the history of a nameless silvery-pink rose that only grows in the abandoned gardens of the his family’s former country estate. His hunt takes him back in time, to the days of Napoleon’s occupation of Venice and his wife’s obsession with roses, and across the world, from Venice to Paris to China. It is a charming and utterly fascinating little book, and makes me wish my family had once owned a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice with mysterious letters in the attic and a mysterious, sweet-scented rose in the garden.
by Kim Wilkins
Kim Wilkins is one of Australia’s most accomplished writers, and Daughters of the Storm is the first in a new fantasy series set in a world very much like Anglo-Saxon Britain. The heroine of the tale is a ferocious female warrior named Bluebell. She has spent her life trying to overcome the liabilities of her flowery name, but she lives in a world where women cannot rule and her sonless father lies in an enchanted sleep. Bluebell must try and find the way to wake her father, while fending off all those enemies who circle the land, eager to take it for themselves. She can trust no-one but her own sisters … but they all have secrets of their own, secrets which could destroy all that Bluebells holds dear.
It’s a compelling story, beautifully told, and Bluebell is a most unusual heroine. It’s lovely to see Australian writers producing such world-class fantasy.
Hansel and Gretel by retold by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Nail Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell
Both of these exquisitely illustrated hardback editions are published by Bloomsbury, and written by Neil Gaiman with all his characteristic flair. The illustrations for Hansel and Gretel are dark and filled with foreboding and a sense of evil lurking in the shadows. The illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti created the artwork for an exhibit celebrating the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of the Hansel and Gretel opera, which in turn inspired Neil Gaiman to retell the story. It’s a haunting and powerful version, very close to that published in the original 1812 edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I also loved the potted history of the tale at the back of the book.
The Sleeper and the Spindle is even more beautiful and strange. In this retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Neil Gaiman has allowed his dark and macabre imagination to run free. Accompanied by the extraordinary illustrations of Chris Riddell – at times beautiful, at times funny, at times disturbing – the story twists the old tale in unexpected ways, to wonderful effect. This was my favourite of the two books, both because of its beautiful production and also because of the way the story is turned inside out. Magical.
by Tess Dunlop
The story of the codebreakers of Bletchley Park is a fascinating one, and there has been a flood of books and movies about them in recent years, including ‘The Imitation Game’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the mathematician Alan Turing.
Tess Dunlop’s book is a timely addition to the field of knowledge, as she has taken the unusual approach of tracking down and interviewing a number of women who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Their backgrounds and experiences were all very different, and give a well-rounded view of life at the park during that time. Some of the women came from aristocratic and academic backgrounds; most did not. Some worked in the code-breaking department; most did not. Many have never before spoken about what they did, bound by confidentiality agreements that only recently have been lifted.
Many of the women interviewed are now elderly, and so these first-hand accounts are important primary historical documents. Tess Dunlop is an award-winning historian, and this is a careful and observant account of Bletchley Park, beyond the better-known story of the breakers of the Enigma code.
by Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith is, of course, the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling. Like much of the world, I was interested to read her take on contemporary crime and so grabbed a copy in the airport one day.
I enjoyed it immensely. The characters are all interesting and well-drawn, and the actual murder mystery ingeniously plotted. I enjoyed the wintry London setting, and the interplay of human relationships between the one-legged private detective Cormoran Strike and his pretty red-headed assistant Robin. I really enjoyed the subtle poking of fun at the world of publishing, and loved the mix of humour and pathos. In fact, it’s one of the best contemporary crime novels I’ve read in a while. I’m now tracking down the first in the series The Cuckoo’s Calling.
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.’
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 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 Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realise that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realisation comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.
The Red Orchestra was a real-life organisation in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.
The Beast’s Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany.