AWW17: Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

Silhouette of a woman with an umbrella black on a blue background with text Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.ARC Review & Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017: Book #2

Title: Beauty in Thorns

Authors: Kate Forsyth

Publisher and Year: Vintage Australia, 2017

Genre: historical fiction, retellings

A white pre-raphaelite style painting of a woman's face, from the nose down with sad lips pictured with a sepia sketch imprint of historical London behind the text. Blurb from Goodreads:

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, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum. 

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love. 

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

My Review:

An ARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The release of Beauty in Thorns is one that I’ve been looking forward to throughout 2017 and I’m delighted that I had the opportunity to read it for review ahead of its release. This book draws again on the historical background of fairy tales, not just their origins but also how those stories were used and told and celebrated throughout history. In that sense, Beauty in Thorns is unique in its retelling of Sleeping Beauty because it situates the story in amongst people using the story and celebrating it, rather than retelling the story of its origin. Beauty in Thorns is steeped in history and offers a window into the middle class where love, families, and being an Artist clash.

I found this a really enjoyable book to read, I fell into the prose immediately and enjoyed each page I turned, it was enjoyable and relaxing to read. Different than Forsyth’s previous book The Beast’s Garden which was a magnificent and necessarily uncomfortable read, I loved the pacing and how the story with all of the characters unfolded. There’s a drama to the storytelling that brings the characters and their motivations to life, from making the ‘right’ choice, to pursuit of one’s passion, the foibles and triumphs of love, of families and children and various achievements. I especially loved Forsyth’s focus on the lives of women in and how they influence and inspire aspects of history that are often accorded achievements of men. Often this is absent of the reality of the daily life setting which I feel makes the story and those achievements and aspirations all the more compelling. I was especially drawn into the yearning expressed by Lizzie and Georgie who wanted to pursue art for themselves and found it all but impossible.

Although this book is a gentle read, it does deal with difficult topics around mental illness, disordered eating, addiction, the loss of children, and the other realities of health in that era. The book deals respectfully with these topics as well as I am able to judge but I note this for anyone who would rather avoid them. However, that Forsyth does not shy away from these topics as part of the reality behind this re-imagining is part of what gives the narrative strength and depth, the characters lived for me and I laughed, loved, and mourned as they did.

I’ve long been a fan of Forsyth’s work, but with every new book there is something new and amazing to appreciate about her writing style and its evolution. I loved reading Beauty in Thorns, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, or the contemporary retelling of fairy tales, especially one not based in fantasy.

 

AWW17: Tyranny of Queens (The Manifold Worlds #2) by Foz Meadows

Silhouette of a woman with an umbrella black on a blue background with text Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017: Book #1

Title: Tyranny of Queens (The Manifold Worlds #2)

Author: Foz Meadows

Publisher and Year:  Angry Robot, 2017

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, queer fiction, portal fantasy

Two small figures in the foreground face a ruined building, with a castle in the distant background.Blurb from Goodreads:

Saffron Coulter has returned from the fantasy kingdom of Kena. Threatened with a stay in psychiatric care, Saffron has to make a choice: to forget about Kena and fit back into the life she’s outgrown, or pit herself against everything she’s ever known and everyone she loves.

Meanwhile in Kena, Gwen is increasingly troubled by the absence of Leoden, cruel ruler of the kingdom, and his plans for the captive worldwalkers, while Yena, still in Veksh, must confront the deposed Kadeja. What is their endgame? Who can they trust? And what will happen when Leoden returns?

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017. I’m also reviewing this book as part of the Read Diverse Books 2017 challenge and it qualifies as both an #ownvoices read as well as having characters who identify under the LGBTIQA+ umbrella. 

I love Saffron as a character and I really loved the way this middle book unfolded, and also rarely for a second book, the story is self contained and I was really satisfied with where it ended – no cliffhanger. You could read this, be satisfied and not *have* to read the third book if you weren’t interested. That’s really unusual for a second book in a trilogy and it’s well worth appreciating.

Also, while I found the first book An Accident of Stars slightly clunky in the writing and every so often I’d be thrown out of the story, this time, Meadows’ writing was much cleaner in style and I could just sink into the story without any struggle. Not only was I not thrown out, I found it very hard to put the book down because of things like sleep, an excellent recommendation to a book as far as I’m concerned. It’s worth noting that this is the second book in a the trilogy and I don’t think it can be read without the first one. I do think that you could read the first and second book though and be content with that as an ending and not *need* to read book 3, but if you’ve read the first two and liked them, there’s no reason not to jump in. I certainly can’t wait for the third book, it will be one of my most anticipated releases, that’s for sure.

In Tyranny of Queens I found myself more compelled by the characters and their plot, and I felt that all of the characters who featured as protagonists demonstrated growth and new awareness of themselves, their world(s), their relationships and in relation to the overall plot. I especially thought that we got to see more of a relevant and connected side to Gwen this time, we found out previously that she was in a group marriage situation with a son, but this happened mostly off screen. While we don’t meet her partners, the warm relationship she experiences with her son is one of my favourite relationships in the book.

I also loved watching how Saffron’s relationship with Yena grows – although for most of the book this happens separately and somehow I  could always feel them connected. It’s a tiny thing but I really loved it. I appreciated how Yena was responsible for being a Sister and a Daughter in both chosen and forced ways and that this was complicated by her feelings about her self, her experiences and the time she has spent away from the culture she was trying to embed herself back into. Another aspect of characterisation and plotting I appreciated was the way both Kadeja and Leodan as villains and victims were both portrayed in sympathetic ways, ultimately responsible for their actions but very human in how their actions had come about. Leodan is perhaps the more forgivable of the two having been manipulated by Kadeja, but her own pain and compulsion are engaging as well.

I love the various voices in this book, like the first book, Tyranny of Queens there’s a lot of diversity to go around, different cultures, different relationship patterns, sexualities, genders, showing engaging characters who also have mental health and disabilities to consider, older and younger characters, lots of different power dynamics.  I love all of this, and feel like the inclusion and sharing of these aspects was a lot more organic than in the first book. For those who are looking for a place where they may find their experience represented this is a good place to look, and for those who shy away from reading about their experiences centred it’s worth noting that it’s central to this entire book. It’s worth noting that in the beginning of the book it took me a little to remember who everyone was, what they were doing and what they were about but this did give way to enjoyment very quickly.

Lastly, I’m not always someone who enjoys portal fantasy but lately there’s been some excellent examples and both An Accident of Stars and Tyranny of Queens both count. The world-building is epic, the politics are intricate and layered with meaning and consequences. The relationships are complex and compelling as are many of the characters in their own right. The plot arc had me wondering how it would be solved one way or another and I’m curious to see how that plays out in the next book given how neatly this book ended. I can’t say enough good things about it, one of my favourite books of 2017.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017 Pledge Post

Silhouette of a woman with an umbrella black on a blue background with text Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.Once again I’m signing up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge! I love this challenge so much and have participated for several years. I have definitely been introduced to books I’d never have read otherwise, authors I’d not have discovered. This challenge has allowed me to read closer to home and appreciate the incredible talent we have here in Australia.

This yearn I’m making up my own challenge again, to read and review 15 books. I’d also like some of these to be from women with diverse backgrounds – queer women, Indigenous women, women who come from various cultural backgrounds. This is an area that in my overall reading I’m trying to improve on, mainly to do with being a white Australian person trying to own my biases and extend my reading outside my comfort zone.

As part of this challenge I’ll also be looking to finish the Journey Through the Twelve Planets project that I’ve been doing with Steph, there are 6 Australian women writer collections that still remain to be read.

If you’ve not come across this challenge before:

The AWW challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, living in or outside Australia, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only. (Our guidelines for what makes a good review can be found here.)