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 September and October 2017.
Kate Forsyth’s Reviews
I first read My Cousin Rachel as a teenager, and decided it was definitely time for a re-read. This was partly prompted by the new movie starring Rachel Weisz in the title role, which I wanted to see, and partly because I re-read Rebecca last year and was absolutely thrilled by it.
I bought the book at Hartchards in the St Pancras International train terminal in London, ahead of a day trip to Paris, and was utterly absorbed in it from the first word. I was just beginning to worry that I was reading it too fast and would have nothing left for the return journey, when we arrived. I had not even noticed the kilometres slipping past.
My Cousin Rachel is told from the first-person point-of-view of Philip Ashley, a young English man who has been brought up on a large country estate in Cornwall by his cousin, Ambrose. Suffering in the cold damp English winters, Ambrose decides to spend some months in southern Europe for the sake of his health. He writes regularly to Philip, and soon informs him that he has met, in Florence, a family connection of the Ashleys, the widowed Contessa Sangalletti. It is not long before Ambrose begins to call this cousin by her first name, Rachel. By the time spring arrives, Ambrose and Rachel are married and living in Italy, much to Philip’s distress. Then another letter from Ambrose arrives. It is strange and paranoid in tone, and accuses Rachel of always watching him. Philip travels to Italy, but arrives to find Ambrose dead and Rachel gone. He suspects she has murdered Ambrose.
Philip returns to England, and within a few weeks his cousin Rachel arrives on his doorstep. Determined to hate her, he finds himself falling in love with her. As new pieces of evidence are revealed, Philip swings back and forth between trust and suspicion, adoration and animosity, and the reader swings with him, never quite sure of the truth of the matter.
It is a masterpiece of slow-burn suspense, and also, I thought, an early and shining example of what is now being called ‘domestic noir’ – books like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins which feature unreliable narrators, shifting ground, and crimes committed behind closed doors. Just brilliant! … Learn More.
I met Weina Dai Randel when I was in the US earlier this year, attending the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland. A gorgeous cover and intriguing premise worked their usual powerful force on me, and I added her novel The Moon in the Palace to the great pile of books I had to lug home.
The story begins when a Buddhist monk predicts that a five-year-old girl named Mei would one day be the mother of emperors and reign over the kingdom of China. From that moment, Mei’s father began to plot to have his beautiful little girl brought to the attention of the Emperor. Her father’s plans are disrupted by his unexpected death, but then Mei – now twelve years old – finds herself summoned to the court as one of fifteen maidens chosen to enter the Inner Court. From this moment, her life changes drastically. Separated from her mother, she must learn to negotiate through the intrigues and dangers of the life at the palace. The Emperor has many hundreds of concubines, most of which he has never seen. If Mei wants to become his Most Adored, she must use her wit as well as her beauty … and be very careful not to fall in love with another man …
The Moon in the Palace brings the claustrophobic world of ancient China to vivid life. Exotic, dangerous, brilliantly coloured and romantic, it’s an astonishingly assured debut and a fascinating story… Learn More.
I picked up this lovely little hardback at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, which claims to be the biggest bookstore in the world. It certainly seemed so to me! I wandered in it for hours and bought far too many books.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist and author with several books about birds under her belt. Mozart’s Starling – her fifth – was inspired by a beguiling anecdote about the 18th century composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The story goes that, in 1784, Mozart encountered a playful little starling in a Viennese shop who sang the theme from his Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. Charmed, he brought the bird home to be his pet. For the next few years, the starling lived with the Mozart family, inspiring and amusing the famous composer.
Apparently, nowadays, starlings are seen as a nuisance. They gather in great squawking flocks, decimate crops, and fight other birds for food and nesting sites. I didn’t know this when I bought the book. All I knew is that starlings sometimes fly together in vast swirling clouds of motion that have been given the glorious name, a ‘murmuration’. I have always wanted to see a murmuration of starlings (I’ve watched a few on Youtube and they are just astonishing), and I love Mozart’s music, and so I bought the book to discover more.
A combination of natural history, biography and memoir (one of my favourite genres to read), Mozart’s Starling not only examines the story of Mozart and his pet bird, but also Lyandra Lynn Haupt’s own experiment with raising a baby starling. Cheeky, charming and clever, Carmen sings and whistles her way into Lyandra’s heart, and, I must say, into mine… Learn More.
Kirsty Manning is an Australian journalist and author who has previously co-authored a book on gardens and cooking called We Love Food. These two passions are apparent on every page of her debut novel, The Midsummer Garden.
The novel travels back and forth in time between the stories of Pip, an Australian doctoral student in 2014, and Artemisia, a cook at the Chateau de Boschaud in 1487. The two are linked by the discovery of a small book of hand-written recipes hidden within a set of antique French copper pots given to Pip as a wedding gift. Artemisia is planning to marry also, although she must keep her romance a secret from the cruel Abbot Roald who would never give his permission. Pip’s marriage plans are also in danger of falling apart, as her studies into Tasmanian marine life do not seem as important to her fiancé Jack as they are to her.
As both women’s hopes and dreams unravel, the story travels to Spain and then to Italy as Pip searches for her true calling. This is a rich, sensual, and evocative novel, fragrant with the smell of crushed herbs and flowers, and haunted by the high cost that women must sometimes pay to find both love and their vocation… Learn More.
Deborah Challinor and I shared a stage at the Historical Novel Society (Australasian) conference in Melbourne a few years ago, and so I was keen to read some of her work. She’s a New Zealand author and historian who has written over a dozen books, quite a few of them set in Australia.
Behind the Sun is the first in a quartet following the adventures of four young women in the 1820s who are all convicted of various crimes and transported halfway around the world to the convict settlement of Sydney.
There is Friday Woolfe, a cheeky and irreverent prostitute, Sarah Morgan, a cool and intelligent thief, Rachel Winter, young and beautiful and far too naïve, and Harriet Clarke, a seamstress who stole some cloth in the hopes of saving her family from starvation.
Moving from the filth of Newgate Prison, to the hardships of the notorious convict ships, and arriving at last in Sydney, the four women find their friendship and courage tested to the limits.
Written with verve and zest, Behind the Sun has bright moments of humour and warmth and some very dark moments of cruelty and loss. The story races along at a cracking pace, but not once is historical veracity or vibrancy sacrificed for narrative momentum. A really great holiday read with some truly unforgettable characters… Learn More.
by Jesse Blackadder
A few years ago I bought a novel called The Raven’s Heart by a writer I had never heard of, Jesse Blackadder. I was partly seduced by the cover and partly by the subtitle, ‘The Story of A Quest, a Castle, and Mary, Queen of Scots.’ It sounded just like my kind of book! And it was. I adored it so much I wrote to the author and told her so. Jesse wrote back to say thank you and to ask me if I would be willing to launch her next book for her. Chasing the Light was inspired by the story of the first women to travel to Antarctica. I was intrigued enough by the premise to agree to read the book, and then – once I had read it and loved it – to launch it. So Jesse and I met for the first time at Chasing the Light’s book launch in 2013 and we’ve been fast friends ever since.
We’ve attended festivals together in both Australia and the UK, and last year spent a close-bonding week together as part of the Byron Writers Festival ‘Five Writers Road Trip’ around far northern New South Wales. Jesse told me that she was working on a novel inspired by a family tragedy that had had a powerful shaping force upon her life and her imagination. When Jesse was twelve, her two-year-old sister had drowned in their backyard pool. Jesse had tried to grapple with this catastrophe in her fiction before, but it had always been too raw, too close to home. As the 40th anniversary of her sister’s birth approached, however, Jesse had experienced a moment of epiphany. The story of Sixty Seconds had sprung into her imagination, demanding to be told.
Although it is inspired by true life, Sixty Seconds is a work of fiction. It begins: ‘The boy steps into this day like he owns it – like he is, in fact, God and has conjured this up with a sweep of his hand before breakfast: this achingly blue sky, this currawong sending out a ringing call from the verandah post, this water dragon sunning on a warm rock to loosen her scales, cocking her head and blinking a yellow eye in his direction.’
It’s a moment of easy joy and summery beauty, made heartbreakingly poignant by the tragedy we know is about to happen.
Sixty Seconds articulates what must be every parent’s greatest dread. The death of a beloved child, the grief and horror and guilt, ‘the seismic shift’, as Jesse calls it, which changes everyone’s life. Told in alternating chapters between the points-of-view of the boy’s father Finn, his mother Bridget, and his elder brother, Jarrah, the book moves forward from this point of shock, and shows how the ripples affect the whole community. Each voice is distinctively different. Jarrah speaks in first person, Finn in third person, and Bridget – most interestingly – in second person (and present tense). It’s a bold and unconventional narrative choice, but it works. Each chapter is very short, and so the fractured narrative structure of the book reflects the shattered family unit. As Bridget reflects, ‘the three of you – Finn, you, Jarrah – clinging to each other, rain-slicked, like shipwreck survivors. All looking in different directions.’
There is always a danger of melodrama and sentimentality when writing of tragedy, but Jesse never veers anywhere close. Her language is simple, direct and powerful. The story has tremendous pace, as the ramifications of the boy’s death reverberate through the grief-stricken family. Secrets are revealed, choices and mistakes made. At the heart of the novel is the question: can anyone recover from such a loss? If so, how?
The final chapters of this beautiful novel gave me chills all over my body, and such a lump in my throat I could not breathe. Both haunting and heart-rending, Sixty Seconds is as much a story about the redemptive power of love as it is about the terrible power of grief. I know some people will be afraid of reading it, afraid of how close it may cut to the bone. I can only urge you to read it anyway. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece… Learn More.
Someone who loves roses – as I do – is called a ‘rose-fancier’. I’ve always loved that term. On the one hand, it has connotations of something that is fancy or fantastical: dreamy, whimsical, capricious, voluptuous. On the other hand, the word implies someone who is a ‘fan’ or a ‘fanatic’ in the sense of being excessively and unreasonably enthusiastic, coming from the Latin term fanaticus, meaning ‘worshipping at a temple’.
This gorgeously produced and illustrated book by Jennifer Potter is the perfect gift for a rose-fancier. It tells the history, mythology and romance of the rose from its very earliest days, many millions of years ago. As the author tells us, ‘roses appeared on earth after the dinosaurs but long before man.’
Jennifer Potter is described as a horticultural historian (what a wonderful job that would be!) and was, until recently, a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at King’s College in London. The book moves through time and across geographies, from ancient Greece to Rome and thence through all of Europe, and from ancient China along the silk roads and the trade routes to Persia, and, eventually, to the United States. It is particularly concerned with the depiction of the rose in art and poetry. Jennifer Potter examines how roses flourished in the work of such diverse writers as Sappho, William Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein; and traces the history of roses in visual arts from the first depiction in Minoan Knossos frescoes 3,500 years ago to their overt symbolism in the 1999 film ‘American Beauty’.
The Rose is gorgeous to look at and utterly fascinating to read, whether you dip in and out or devour it all in just a few sittings, as I did… Learn More.
Paula Hawkins made her name with her debut contemporary suspense novel The Girl on the Train, which helped spark a new reading craze about ordinary people in dangerous situations that has been dubbed ‘domestic noir’. I was looking for a book to read on a long car journey and I had about three seconds to choose one while my husband drove around the block. I grabbed this one, confident I’d get a strong, dynamic, fast-moving story with a tricky mystery at its heart.
I was not disappointed.
Into the Water centres on the death of Nel Abbott, who was writing a book about the Drowning Pool, a place where witches had once been dunked and unhappy women had long sought escape from unhappy lives. Before Nel died, she had rung her sister Jules. Her sister, however, did not pick up. She had not spoken to her sister in many years. Now Jules has to deal with her own guilt and remorse, as well as a grieving teenage niece and the growing conviction that Nel had not killed herself.
Books like Into the Water hinge on long-buried secrets and misunderstandings. Part of the pleasure in reading is trying to negotiate through the lies and half-truths told by the characters. Into the Water has a great many points-of-view, which means the reader really has to concentrate to follow the story, and so it’s not an easy read. Neither is it a gnaw-your-fingernails-to-the-bone kind of suspense. It is, however, a dark, twisty, and surprising mystery that I read it in a single sitting. Even better, I did not manage to guess the murderer (which I had done with The Girl on the Train). I really enjoyed it and will be most interested in what Paula Hawkins does next… Learn More.
I was sent a proof copy of Nevermoor by the publisher, Lothian Books, as part of a massive publicity drive promising a magical and captivating children’s fantasy novel. The back of my proof copy lists all the advance buzz this book has garnered – publishing rights sold in 28 territories, film rights pre-empted by 20th Century Fox, a ‘multiplatform marketing and publicity campaign like never before.’
I, of course, love children’s fantasy. It’s one of my favourite genres to both read and to write. And I was interested to see if the book lived up to all the hype.
The first line is: ‘The journalists arrived before the coffin did.’
The opening scene then shows a black-clad man, Chancellor Corvus Crow, reading a statement to a mob of journalists in which he announces the death of his daughter Morrigan and assures them all that – now she is dead – there is ‘nothing to fear.’
Then Chapter One begins, three days earlier, with Morrigan discovering the kitchen cat was dead and that, as usual, she was being blamed. Morrigan is a cursed child, thought to bring trouble and misfortune everywhere she goes. She was born on Eventide, and so is pre-destined to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday – which is only three days away.
Luckily Morrigan is rescued on the eve of her death by an enigmatic man named Jupiter North with fiery red hair and a taste for elegant but brightly coloured suits. He whisks her away to Nevermoor, a world in another dimension, and allows her family to think she is really dead. Here she must take part in a series of trials in order to win a place in the Wundrous Society. If she fails, she will be sent back to her own world where nothing but death awaits her.
The comparison to Harry Potter is inevitable, and indeed Jessica Townsend has a great deal of the humour, whimsicality and excitement of the first few books by J.K. Rowling.
Anyone who has read as much children’s fantasy as I have will recognise many of the tropes Jessica Townsend employs – the unwanted child, the mysterious curse, the hidden world, the secret enemy, the dangerous competition …
Jupiter North reminded me of Willy Wonka, the magical umbrella flight parroted Mary Poppins (please forgive me the bad pun), while the battle between Saint Nick and the Yule Queen had strong echoes of the rather startling appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Does it matter? Not a bit. Nevermoor is brimming over with imagination and fun. Morrigan is a wonderful heroine – dark, moody, and wry – and the unfairness of her situation makes her very easy to empathise with. The story gallops along, and the setting is wonderfully vivid. I can understand why the movie rights have been sold. The scenes are all brilliantly cinematic and the characters – while undeniably one-dimensional – are also fresh and vital. A wonderfully assured debut from a young Australian author, Nevermoor sparkles with zest, wit and inventiveness… Learn More.
I am currently working on a novel set during the French Revolution, and so I am deeply immersed in books on the subject. As well as plowing through all the in-depth biographies and histories I can find, I am also reading novels set during the period. The Wardrobe Mistress is a new addition to the oeuvre, by debut author Meghan Masterton.
The book is told in first-person by Giselle Aubry, a young woman who is employed by Marie Antoinette to help look after her sumptuous wardrobe at the royal court in Versailles. Giselle is therefore perfectly placed to see the dramatic events of the French Revolution unfolding. Her uncle asks her to spy on the queen, so that the family may know how best to react to any news, and in a spirit of adventure, Giselle accepts the role. However, Giselle finds herself torn between sympathy for the heady new principles of liberty and equality, and empathy for the beleaguered queen and her children. This ambivalence is only complicated by her attraction to a young and handsome revolutionary, Leon. Somehow Giselle must navigate her way through these conflicting loyalties as the revolution escalates towards violence and bloodlust.
I love the idea of showing the Revolution through the eyes of an ordinary young woman. Giselle’s bedazzlement by the glamour of the queen and her desire to please her family ring so true for the time, as does her confusion and anxiety over the right thing to do. I loved all the descriptions of court life and the queen’s gorgeous clothes, and also how the fashions of the time became a political statement. Meghan Masterson does a brilliant job of bringing to life many of the cataclysmic events of those years, without weighing down the narrative with too many characters or too much historical explanation. The Wardrobe Mistress is perfect for anyone who is intrigued by the French Revolution and wants a fast-paced and romantic tale set during its tumultuous era… Learn More.
Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel aged seven & has now sold more than a million books worldwide. Her most recent book, Beauty in Thorns, is a reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the passions and scandals of the Pre-Raphaelites. Other novels for adults include Bitter Greens, which won the 2015 American Library Association award for Best Historical Fiction; and The Wild Girl, which was named the Most Memorable Love Story of 2013. Kate’s books for children include the collection of feminist fairy-tale retellings Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington, and The Impossible Quest fantasy series which has been optioned for a film. Named one of Australia’s Favourite 15 Novelists, Kate has a BA in literature, a MA in creative writing and a doctorate in fairy tale studies, and is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers. She is a direct descendant of Charlotte Waring Atkinson, the author of the first book for children ever published in Australia.
Beauty in Thorns
A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.
The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention.
Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself...