Category Archives: Reviews

Book Review: Odds on Death by Graeme Roe

Odds on DeathWhen I saw this in the specials bin it ticked the boxes: murder and horse racing in a UK National Hunt setting. Thrillers, however, are not renowned for character development – not that that impacted on the sales of The Da Vinci Code, however I found because of it I enjoyed this book as little as I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code.

By the end of the book I knew as little of the character and thoughts of protagonist Jay Jessop as I did at the beginning. Nor did I know what he and his wife looked like – I guess that is a nice challenge for my imagination.  In fact the only person in the book who seemed less one-dimensional than the others was jockey Amanda who rates a physical description in the novel. I suspect that because I’m female I’m more interested in learning more about the characters than male readers. I’m guessing guys will think this novel is great just the way it is.

The story starts off fast with two murders, includes a kidnapping, and a threat to Jay’s amazingly rapid rise up the horse training ladder. It stays fast. Like the Cheltenham Gold Cup it goes at a cracking pace. In parts that pace is too fast. Within paragraphs the action jumps from one location to another, which isn’t ideal. I’d prefer such a break in location to be marked with a new paragraph.

This book is the second in a series of four (to date) Jay Jessop Racing Mysteries by Graeme Roe. I do hope the first one, A Touch of Vengeance, gave more of a back story to the main characters than this one did; there’s a sentence here and there about their pasts, but Dick Francis gave his characters a lot more depth and creditable back stories. I suspect Roe is far more interested in the plot than the people in it.

So I’ve been rather damning about this book, but, you know what? I’m going to hunt out the first in the series. Not just to satisfy my mind about any character development and back story, but there is one standout about Odds On Death which gives it a real authenticity: horse racing. Graeme Roe is a former National Hunt jockey and horse trainer and it shows in the way he writes about life in a National Hunt yard and on the racecourse. He knows horses, he knows the industry, he’s ridden the courses his fictional jockeys and horses race on.

These days he runs a corporate communications company, and I suspect that has an impact on the way he writes. There’s the ‘Who, What, When, Where, How’ those of us in the industry learned was the basis of every media release, and that’s been used to good effect in this book. Plenty of information clearly and cleanly provided. The lack of character development and description lets this book down though; I read 371 pages about men and women who could, often, have been interchangeable and were, finally, just words on a page.

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Book Review: The Folly of French Kissing by Carla McKay

The folly of french kissingI was intrigued to find this book in the crime section of a bookshop last week; the cover looked anything but crime-like and hinted of 18-30s chick lit. The blurb on the back was promising, however. Judith Hay, the innocent victim of a scandal at the school at which she teaches, leaves her job and decides to try her luck living in the Languedoc. The village she settles in has quite a large British expat population, which causes friction with the locals, but it’s cheap and the weather is sunny and hot. Judith settles in and learns more about her fellow Britons – in fact, more than she’d like to know.

There’s no murder (quel dommage!) but you do hope that someone will clock the brutish and abusive Lance Campion or the bullish Bill Bailey on the head. That person could be the mild-manned bookseller Gerard, who has an alter ego in his head called Ged who metes out punishment to people to mistreat books (the paragraph in the novel describing Ged is one of life’s joys). But no, this is not about murder. It’s about secrets, nasty secrets, and Judith finds herself unwittingly in the middle of them. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

This book has an engaging and well-drawn cast of characters. It has intertwining plot lines, some of them touching very serious topics, and a true sense of place. Carla McKay writes authentically about the region as she has lived there herself. You can feel the summer heat, see the buildings in the village clearly through her eyes. There is a tendency to cliche with regard to the French, however. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed it except for a couple of things.

The time warp. One character, Jean, is trying to find her daughter who is in her mid-twenties. However, the daughter left school in 1984 apparently. As the book was published in, and apparently set in, 2012, this would make the daughter pushing 40 rather than 25. Her mother searches for her on Friends Revisited and Facebook, so we know that this is a 21st century book.

This editing anomaly leads me to the second, and more irritating, problem: Bad proofing. Honestly, there is no reason why a book should be published with so many errors. Commas placed where they ought not to be and missing where they should be. Quotation marks left out. The odd grammatical and spelling error.

Carla McKay is a journalist and as a professional writer should have ensured that proofing was carried out properly. I’m very tempted to read it again this time with a pen and a bottle of tipp-ex so it’s the pleasure to read it deserves to be.

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Book review: Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough

bittersweetWhat an apt title for this book. Bittersweet. It explains how I’m feeling right now, having just read the final chapter on my Kindle app. I love some of Colleen McCullough’s previous novels. I adored The Thorn Birds. And Tim. And the slightly whimsical The Ladies of Missalonghi. But I didn’t adore Bittersweet.

I may be the only reviewer who says this, and it’s probably un-Australian of me to say so, but I just don’t think it’s as well written as McCullough’s earlier novels. Characters have immense changes of mind and tenets without any prior inkling – unless the Kindle version was missing a vital piece or two.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book is the story of four sisters – two sets of twins, Edda and Grace, Kitty and Tufts (Heather) by the same father and different mothers – and the story takes place during the 1920s into the Depression in the 1930s, set mainly in the fictional NSW town of Corunda. Their father, a lovely bloke, is a Reverend at the local church but to avoid their overbearing mother/stepmother and gain some independence the four girls become live-in student nurses at the local hospital.

All good so far. McCullough’s done her research, and the 1920s setting is pretty authentic, down to the duties and treatments the young nurses deal with and the clothing they wear. We learn more about their characters, and their characters develop now they are living out of home in a nurses’ house at the local hospital.

The twins are polar opposites: Edda is strong and intelligent, Grace is weaker. Kitty is the glamour girl, Tufts the practical.

It’s no real surprise that Grace, who doesn’t like the dirtier duties of nursing, marries quickly, but I was rather stunned to read her accepting a proposal of marriage from a man at their first meeting. Yeah, OK, there’s love at first sight but this stretched even my romantic belief.

Kitty is pursued by a wealthy man and finally her scorn turns to love. She marries him, but two miscarriages don’t make up for the big house on the hill and her husband’s interest in politics. He’s a possessive chappy, too, and resents the time she spends with her sisters.

After having an illicit relationship with a local, Edda marries a titled man in a deal that will see her attain a medical degree in return for protecting his homosexuality. It’s actually a better deal than it sounds.

Tufts’ love is the hospital; her relationships with men are fraternal, and she becomes more successful in her career as the book progresses.

Things don’t go well for Grace when the depression hits and her husband loses his job. She’s living in the poorer part of town and won’t accept charity from the wealthy husbands her sisters have acquired. She’s determined to stay there and send her two sons to a local school. But wait! Out of the blue she does a 180 and decides she wants to live in a posh part of Sydney and send them to a private school, and asks Kitty’s husband to help her. That’s the change of character thing I’m talking about.

There are bursts of lovely humour through the book; at times the writing is lyrical and evocative. At others though, it’s a bit rushed, staccato; almost as if two people were writing it, not just one.

Plot and style bunnies aside, this is a story of sisterly love and strength; and ambition. These are strong women who are in many senses ahead of their time. Given the setting, the four protagonists and the author, I should have loved this one.

But I just couldn’t enjoy it the way I’ve enjoyed McCullough’s earlier books. I reached the final page and was looking for the next chapter, or at least a really memorable closing paragraph. Bittersweet, indeed.


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Book review: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The ChaperonsFictionalised lives of famous people can be hit or miss. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley), was well-researched and believable. I enjoyed it immensely, being rather a sucker for fiction set in Paris in the 1920s!

When I saw the cover of The Chaperone, with the unmistakable and gorgeous 3/4 profile of Louise Brooks on the cover, I grabbed it with both hands and eagerly turned to the back cover to read the publisher’s blurb. Disclaimer: I love Louise Brooks. For those of you who don’t know her, she was the most beautiful and talented film star in the 1920s, too intelligent to be entrapped in the studio system; too intelligent for her own good. Louise grabbed obscurity from the jaws of stardom more than once, but when her star shone it shone with incandescence. Nobody looked as good on screen. Nobody moved as naturally, acted with such subtleness, and said so much with her eyes. She was the queen of the silents. If you want to know more, search for her on YouTube.

The Chaperone is based on a fact: when she was fifteen, Louise Brooks travelled from Witchita, Kansas, to New York City to spend the summer at the Denishawn Dance School. Her ambition was to be a dancer, and she had caught the eye of the Denishawn team, who ran arguably America’s best modern dance school. Were she successful at the summer school, she would become one of the troupe, who travelled across the USA performing modern dance.

At fifteen Louise had to be chaperoned – never mind that she was way older than her years mentally and could run intellectual rings around people twice her age. In real life her chaperone was Alice Mills, described by Louise as ‘a stocky, bespectacled housewife of thirty-six’ according to Barry Paris’ excellent biography of Louise. In The Chaperone, Louise is accompanied to New York by Cora Carlisle, also stocky, also thirty-six, but fictional. The first three quarters of this book covers the pair’s time together in New York City, drawing upon fact whenever possible when it comes to Louise’s behaviour, believably fictionalising events and conversations.

Love Louise Brooks as I do, she is not the most likeable character in this book. I suspect she wasn’t in real life either, particularly as a young, haughty, occasionally obnoxious girl who arrogantly knew she was already the best dancer in Wichita and had every confidence of being accepted as part of the Denishawn troupe. (Had I been Louise’s contemporary and known her as a teen/young woman, she would have both ignored me and scared the hell out of me.) Cora is left feeling belittled by her young charge on several occasions. Louise is a handful; men already turn to look at her on the street; she is a born flirt.

Cora, in trying to control Louise, urges her to keep her virginity, and is stunned when Louise tells her she had lost it at the age of nine to a paedophile called Mr Flowers and since then has had an affair with her Sunday School teacher Mr Vincent.

As Louise has such secrets in her past, so does Cora.

While Louise spends several hours a day at dance class, Cora tries to unravel the truth about her own childhood. As a young girl she lived as an orphan in The New York Home for Friendless Girls before being sent on a ‘adoption train’ west with other children to find new parents.  While the Home still exists, the sisters who run it will not give her access to her own records. She has no idea who her real mother is, and wants desperately to find out, whether the truth is good or bad. The Home’s handyman, Joseph, agrees to help her access her file, and a friendship builds between them, turning into an affair over the course of the summer.

Cora has secrets that she hasn’t told Louise – or anyone except Joseph. She is married to a homosexual, Alan, who wed her to avoid suspicion about his sexuality. She has borne him a set of twins but they have slept in separate bedrooms since the twins were born. Alan is still seeing his lover of many years, Raymond, and an uneasy menage a trois exists between them.

When it’s time for Cora to return to Wichita Joseph and his young daughter Greta return with her. She tells Wichita Joseph is her half-brother, and tells Alan and Raymond the truth. Joseph and Greta move into the house with Alan and Cora, living in subterfuge and living a lie to the outside world. For me, the book gets less interesting and drags a little after Cora leaves Louise in New York. It becomes a family saga.

At this point, Louise Brooks largely disappears from the narrative; this is, after all, Cora’s story. From time to time she reappears: a mention of her films, a mention of gossip about her.

Louise returns to Wichita in the 1940s, broke and gin-soaked, and sets up a dance school which fails within months. The depiction of her, when Cora goes to visit her, is faithful to fact, hard and uncomfortable as it is. It is Cora who gives her a metaphorical kick and tells her to get out of Wichita and seek happiness. Louise, later, sends her a postcard from New York with the word ‘Thanks’ on it.

Cora’s life is a long one; she outlives her husband, her lover and one of her sons. I found the last chapter of the book, after Louise goes back to New York and leaves Wichita for the final time, a little like Barbara Taylor Bradford on speed, with several decades crammed into the chapter. The initial premise of the book – that trip to New York in 1922 – is well-scripted and crackles with the excitement of the jazz age in America’s biggest city. Cora and Louise go head to head and Cora shows determination you initially don’t expect from her; the (imagined) conversations between them both are far superior to the narrative of the years which follow. I would have liked to have seen the book end when Cora and Louise part company in 1922.

Cora witnesses several historical issues (e.g. prohibition, gay rights, racism, birth control) and many historical events, on which she invariably has an opinion, particularly in the part of the book set back in Wichita. In a way this detracts rather than adds to the story as some of these seem a little contrived as a plot device. If I want a history lesson, I’ll read a history book. A successful blend of history and fiction is subtle rather than obvious.

I suspect that Cora’s life was drawn out to the final end so Louise could once again weave into it. Cora learns in 1958 that Louise has drawn a cult following and is the toast of Paris and that she published a book Lulu in Hollywood in 1981. Cora’s own secrets remain secrets forever.

Overall, I enjoyed this well-researched mix of history-meets-fiction but did skip very quickly through the final chapters. Louise Brooks’ character has the sharp wit you expect her to have. Cora is initially an unlikely heroine compared to her glamourous charge but develops strengths and self-awareness of her own capabilities.

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Book Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

the scorpio racesIf I told you that the most exciting novel I’ve read this year is about man-eating water horses, and is actually written for the young adult market, what would you think?

I loved The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater so much I have read it twice in the space of a month. The first time I raced through it, devouring it, unable to put it down; the second time was a more leisurely read, appreciating the language, the characters, the nuances. I was swept into Stiefvater’s very convincing world of the island of Thisby, somewhere, it seems, off the Atlantic coast of Ireland.

For me the mark of a compelling novel is one that leaves you breathless at the end, believing wholeheartedly in the plot, the characters, the location; while I am reading it, I live in that world. Sometimes it takes me a few days to pick up another novel if one has made such a huge impact on me. The Scorpio Races is one of those books. It doesn’t matter that it was written for the teen market and I was out of my teens more years ago than I like to think about. A good novel is a good novel.

Here’s the official blurb on the novel from Maggie Stiefvater’s website:

“It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.”

Both Sean and Puck  – well-developed, finely-drawn characters – tell the story in the first person, in alternating chapters. This works superbly as I don’t think the book would be as engaging if it was in the third person or simply with one narrator and one point of view.

Thisby as a place is believable. Windswept, stormy, isolated, and the chosen land for the capaille uisce, the water horses, to emerge from the surf in October. Leading up to the Races there is a festival which Stiefvater makes more realistic with the invention of November Cakes, the island’s sweet delicacy. They don’t exist in the culinary world, but Stiefvater kindly provides the recipe for her creation at the end of the book. I sense some inbreeding in some of the characters, and Puck makes an observation that the eyes of the tourists are much closer together than those of the island people. It all adds to the reality of the world Stiefvater has created.

The capaille uisce themselves are drawn from legend and mythology. Stiefvater’s animals look like normal horses, but prefer a bucket of blood to a bucket of grain.  (It’s a lovely touch when Stiefvater talks about the pong of the water horses’ manure. Imagine a dog turd the size of a horse dropping-!) They are responsible for death and violence; they kill men for food, they are apt to view normal horses as a meal rather than a mate. There is savagery in their portrayal, but Thisby is such a place that Puck and Sean speak of the water horses’ behaviour in a matter-of-fact way. These people are island born and bred; they have grown up with death. Having said that, the horses, in their way, are nicer than some of the humans in this book.

This is a book with timelessness – the action could have taken place any time in the last forty or so years. There are no mobile phones, no computers. Few people on the island drive cars. The mainland, which calls a siren song to young adults looking for work or something more exciting, is only accessible by a ferry journey of several hours.

Had this book existed when I was a teenager, I suspect it would have become my favourite – well-thumbed, read over and over again. Pony book lover that I was, this is unlike any pony book I ever read. I’m not sure that it quite makes it into the pony book category, but blurs the categories between horses and fantasy.

My verdict? Bugger the vampire books – read this instead.

(I read this book on Kindle from Amazon).

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Book Review: Heroines on Horseback by Jane Badger

Heroines on HorsebackI fell in love with horses when I was eight, and this led me into a world of adventure, of gymkhanas, show jumping, champion horses and rogues, nasty rivals, girls who were given ponies, girls who lost ponies,  and most of all dozens of beautiful ponies and horses. Yes, I had  discovered pony books – in particular,  pony books from the post-WWII era.  I loved them. I still do, I’m not ashamed to say, and have retained most of my childhood collection and even *blush* added to it from time to time when a title by a favourite author has become available. I’m a big, horse-loving kid at heart.

So I was delighted to get my hands on the new release Heroines on Horseback – The Pony Book in Children’s Fiction, by Jane Badger. It’s a MUST for anyone who read pony books as a child.

Jane Badger lives in the UK, and is the world’s leading expert on this genre of fiction. She blogs about pony books, she reviews them, she sells them – find out more here.  If all you remember about pony books is the Pullein-Thompson sisters or Monica Edwards you may be stunned to know there are more than 700 authors referenced on Jane’s site, and thousands of books from the superb to the indifferent.

Heroines on Horseback looks at the evolution of horsy fiction for children from the days of Black Beauty (tissues, anyone? Just the mere thought brings a tear) through to modern series such as The Saddle Club with its soap-opera cliffhangers and standalone books such as the excellent and dark The Scorpio Races (I’ll be reviewing that soon too!), and touches on the horrible reality that these days pony books have pink sparkly covers that may belie the fact that what’s inside is worth reading. At the book’s heart is the period from the 1940s to the 1970s when the British pony book was at its height, selling a middle-class rural idyll fantasy to its pony-mad readers.

Jane is an objective and analytical writer. She reviews both authors and illustrators in this book. I’ll touch on illustrators first as illustrations can add to or detract from a pony book. Grab a copy of a pony book produced up until the 1960s and you’ll probably find it studded with illustrations. As a test, see if the horses in those illustrations match the horses described in the book itself!  Jane tells which ones don’t… you do wonder if the illustrators bothered to read the book they were illustrating very closely.

Older pony books were blessed with artists such as Lionel Edwards contributing beautiful artwork. Anne Bullen’s delicate ponies with their elegant dished faces graced several of the books on my shelves and I used to try and copy her style in my own teen drawings. Mary Gernat’s flowing lines were more timeless; you can look at them today and not date them to the 1950s and 1960s. What a joy to see so many illustrations from pony books reproduced throughout Heroines on Horseback!

Now Jane doesn’t review all 700 authors in this book!  She does, however, review the work, the style and the plots of some of the more popular including:

  • Josephine, Christine and Diana Pullein-Thompson, the prolific trio of sisters whose styles were quite individual in terms of language, characters and story style itself. Josephine more or less taught me how to ride by proxy before I even sat on a horse at age 11! I had read so many of her books I clambered aboard muttering “heels down, toes up, hold the reins in a bridge etc etc”. She was the most educational of the three, particularly with her Noel and Henry series in which the characters train their own horses.
  • Monica Edwards, with her well-drawn families and their horses in the Punchbowl Farm and Romney Marsh series. I confess to not having read much Monica Edwards; I suspect the school library didn’t have any when I was young, or I hadn’t found them if so.
  • Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books, written in the first person with a wicked flash of humour. You can’t help but like Jill with her all-absorbing love for her pony Black Boy, her best friend Susan and her nemesis cousin Cecilia.  Jill ages through the series and when she is finally offered a job with horses settles for the secretarial college and horses as a hobby, much to the disgust and disappointment of Jill’s readers.
  • Mary Gervaise and her G for Georgia series. I loved this series as a child as Georgia is not your typical horsey heroine. She’s frightened of horses and through the series gains confidence in herself as a person as well as a rider. Horses aren’t all-encompassing in this series; there’s not a gymkhana in every book and the stories are as much about Georgia’s relationships with her friends and family as with her pony Spot.
  • Judith Berrisford’s Jackie series, another I haven’t read for forty years and according to Jane I’m not missing a great deal if I don’t re-read them. Re-use of plots if not actual pages of text with the Berrisford books is not unusual! Jane Badger describes them as comfort reading. All I can remember is Jackie and her pal Babs getting into all kinds of strife.
  • Gillian Baxter, one of my personal favourites, who wrote her first first novel Horses and Heather when she was fifteen. My favourite Baxter books, the Bracken House trilogy, are about Roberta (Bobby) Morton and her chestnut mare, Shelta. There’s a hint of romance in a couple of her books as they are aimed at a slightly older teen audience (12-16 year olds). Romance in pony books was often frowned upon by the publishers (they took a dim view of Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Pony Club Camp when it was clear Noel and Henry fancied each other. Noel is female, by the way).
  • K M Peyton, whose Flambards books I adored and still do, even though they are not strictly ‘pony books’. Fly-By-Night and Sweet Rock however, are, but in typical Peyton style it’s not all warm and fuzzy happy families.  Her 1999 book Blind Beauty skims on the edge of pony bookness, being set in the racing world, but it’s a delight. And a tearjerker. You have been warned.
  • Patricia Leitch – including her Jinny series, written in the 1970s and providing readers at the time with a modern pony book and a modern family to which to relate. Heroine Jinny gradually tames and trains the ill-treated and wild mare Shantih throughout the series; I loved the interaction between Jinny and her friends and family, her mistakes, her hot-headedness and goodheartedness as much as her struggle to understand Shantih and her need for the mare to love her back.
  • Monica Dickens and her Follyfoot series. I have left my absolute favourite until last! These are not typical pony books; the first in the series, Cobbler’s Dream, was written for an adult audience in 1963 to highlight the cruelty horses suffer at the hands of man; and to raise awareness of the life – or otherwise – a working horse can expect after retirement. Cobbler’s Dream was the basis for the popular Yorkshire TV series Follyfoot, on which subsequent books in the series were based. The Follyfoot books aren’t as violent as Cobbler’s Dream; they are written for children and young adults but not dumbed down; they still feature horses who have been mistreated, and never does Dickens preach or talk down to her audience. Her characters are believable, her humour wry, her understanding of horses beautifully captured in these books.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dozens of authors are discussed including a few who aren’t British, among them Mary O’Hara, Marguerite Henry and Elyne Mitchell.

So what happened to the golden reign (or indeed rein) of the pony book? Through the 1970s and certainly by the 1980s pony books were regarded as elitist. How many families could afford to buy their child a pony and cover the ongoing expenses? Pony books from the post WWII era were typically about middle class families who lived in the country or moved to the country, and often the didn’t have very much money (this is all relative… not having much money often meant for some fictional families they only had one housemaid, or a daily cleaner). Times had changed. Girls still loved horses but the world of the 1950s and 1960s books was one a million miles away and no longer relevant. (And pony books were usually read by girls; there were occasional boys as lead characters but pony books traditionally had girls as their stars.)

The pony book has evolved from its golden heyday (hay day… can’t resist another pun!).  There are still some good books being written, but pony or horse books now have to compete with vampires, fantasy and being saddled (oops! Sorry.) with pink sparkly covers.

If you remember the pony books of your childhood, buy this book. It’s a must. It’s the definitive reference guide and will make you look on some of the books you read as a child and vaguely remember with more knowing adult eyes.  It may make you want to start collecting pony books all over again, chasing down that elusive out-of-print book to make up the final book in a series.

Jane will ship this book anywhere in the world – I’m in Australia and mine arrived within five days, and was read cover to cover in one more!

Finally, if you are after reprints of vintage books, Heroines on Horseback is beautifully published by Girls Gone By Publishers, who are reproducing some classic girls’ fiction from the golden age including Monica Edwards’ books.

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Book review: Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher series)

Unnatural HabitsSummer 1929 in Melbourne: hot, grimy and uncomfortable, and glamorous sleuth The Hon Phryne Fisher feels the heat in more ways than one when the action gets going in this, her 19th full-length mystery by Kerry Greenwood.

Phryne and her friend Dr Elizabeth MacMillian rescue naive reporter Polly Kettle from thugs in Little Lonsdale Street.  They learn that Polly’s ambition is to be an investigative journalist; she is on the trail of missing girls. Specifically, pretty blonde girls and among them three young unwed pregnant women who may have escaped the confines of a dire and harsh convent laundry for something considerably worse. It’s bad enough that their families have disowned them for being damaged goods.

Then Polly herself goes missing and it’s time for Phryne to step in.  Her investigations take her through the seedy and low elements of Melbourne; she meets the brothel owner for whom ‘the Paris end of Collins Street’ just might have been named, the manager of a discreet club for homosexuals, the lesbian owners of a successful communally-run fruit farm, and enters the dark, rigid world of a convent where compassion doesn’t exist. Phryne moves easily through brothels and clubs (and I do love the insight into the clandestine homosexual world of the 20s that weaves through this series), but what she sees at the convent leaves her shaken and angry, and an angry Phryne is the spirit of vengeance brought to life, as villains have found in the past.

The more Phryne delves into the disappearances, the more there is to unravel. Is Polly with the three unwed mothers? And are they with the other young women reported missing? And who is responsible for performing vasectomies on unsuspecting (but deserving) men?

In order to meet the mastermind behind the disappearing girls, Phryne has to become a blonde herself. Whether blondes have more fun is debatable but they certainly get into tight situations, as Phryne discovers. It’s lucky this particular blonde has a knife up her sleeve…

As always, Kerry Greenwood’s research is meticulous. Phryne Fisher may be extremely wealthy and enjoy a superb lifestyle, but her travels in Unnatural Habits take you to heartbreaking places, to slums, to children wearing flour sacks for clothing, to a nursing home for unwed mothers which is barely fit for cockroaches, to places where rights for women workers don’t exist, to a convent where young women are beaten for daring to speak. We are constantly reminded in this book that the good old days weren’t good for everyone.

Balancing the action is the interaction in Phryne’s home, where new resident Tinker is having trouble living in a house full of women. His character develops well throughout this book as he and the household learn to get on with each other.

Phryne has taken to calling Ruth, Jane and Tinker ‘minions’ in this book (and sometimes that includes Dot too). I found the term a little overused, but do suspect that Phryne uses it with warmth and irony.

I always enjoy Phryne Fisher’s adventures and this one was no exception; there are multiple mysteries within this book. The attention to detail with Phryne’s clothing and everyday living in the era is spot on, the laconic language of Bert, Cec and the policemen evokes the way my grandfather used to speak. Unnatural Habits is elegant, well-plotted (and in Phryne’s case well-dressed) escapism at its best, but also reminds me how far we have come with women’s rights, indeed human rights, since 1929.

I feel guilty for devouring this book as hungrily as I did. Given the love and effort gone into writing it I should have savoured it slowly and honourably, but I couldn’t put it down. Finished it at midnight last night. Now, sated, I will re-read it at some point while waiting for Phryne’s next adventure.

(By the way, did anyone else notice the editing error in the first half of p268 of the paperback edition?)

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Book Review: Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis

Guilty WivesTripe.

Page turning, but tripe.

I know thrillers aren’t known for developing three-dimensional characters, but the main characters in this book have two dimensions if they’re lucky, and then it’s only a sudden glimpse or two.  (Having just read The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard with its finely drawn family and beautiful prose, it was probably a mistake to start reading Guilty Wives, which was loaned to me by a friend, as the contrast in style, depth and pace is almost laughable.)

The premise: Four well-off women go to Monte Carlo for the weekend to misbehave and do so splendidly, drinking so much booze I’m surprised they can stand up, especially in heels. They get set up and arrested for murdering the President of France.

I haven’t finished reading this book. I’m half way through, but have read enough to know that I’ll finish it, because as a page-turner it fills that purpose albeit as word wallpaper. It’s rare that I don’t finish reading a book; the exception is The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, which put me to sleep by page ten, night after night, until I had to give it back to the library.

The book is written principally in the first person with scattered chapters written in the third. This can work if it’s done well; if the chapters which differ from the main narrative have a heading “XYZ’s Story” or “Part three – XYZ” you expect to see a narrative from a different character’s perspective. However, all perspectives are bundled in together, so you can see how and why things are happening; it makes me think the book would have been better written entirely in the third person as it interrupts the lead character’s narrative with scenes and information she couldn’t have been aware of.

This is the first James Patterson book I have read, and the only thing that intrigues me about this author is that the majority of his best-sellers are co-authored with someone else. In this case the co-author is David Ellis who has a legal and legal thriller background, which comes in jolly useful for the courtroom chapters. Why, if Patterson is ‘the world’s bestselling thriller writer’, as the blurb on the book’s cover says, doesn’t he write books by himself? Time? Can’t be arsed researching so bring in a subject matter expert to co-author? Apparently, “he has often said that collaborating with others brings new and interesting ideas to his stories”. Maybe he’s like me and gets plot-block.

I used to enjoy reading thrillers; I guess I’ve grown out of them. I love well-written mysteries – and yes, there’s quite a difference between a mystery and a thriller. I’m finding it hard to engage with Guilty Wives. I feel sorry for narrator Abbie, but the one-dimensional characterisation leaves this book lacking for me. I shan’t be seeking out any more James Patterson novels, with or without co-authors.

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Book review: Paving the New Road by Sulari Gentill

Paving the New Road by Sulari GentillIf politics in New South Wales were bonkers in 1933, they had nothing on Europe – as Rowland Sinclair, upper class but bohemian artist and unwitting sleuth – finds out in the fourth book in this series.

Against his better judgement – and to save his brother from undertaking this potentially dangerous mission – Rowland agrees to travel to Germany to spy on Colonel Eric Campbell of the New Guard, who is visiting Germany with the potential intent of bringing European Fascism to Australia. He’s also been asked to find out whether fellow Australian Peter Bothwell’s death in Germany was really of natural causes or something more sinister; after all, Bothwell was his successor in putting a spanner into the works of Campbell’s plans. It galls Rowland to think that his trip is funded by the right-thinking men he despises and that he is essentially working for the Old Guard, but he despises Campbell even more.

His friends sculptress Edna Higgins, poet Milton Isaacs and fellow artist Clyde Watson Jones insist on accompanying him, all of them armed with passports which give them new identities as art dealers on a buying trip – and some of the deliberately unsuitable pieces they buy along the way are simply hysterical; what the conservative Riverina Movement will make of them when they unpack the crate had me giggling like a fool.

Like the other books in this series, fictional characters mix with real people. This premise can be dangerous if done badly or sloppily researched, but Sulari as always has researched her real people and their behaviour very carefully.  Rowland and his friends are flown to London by Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (‘call me Smithy”); during their fourteen day journey they meet with the languid Somerset Maugham in Singapore.

In Germany, they meet and befriend a lonely and slightly mysterious girl called Eva, who is lovelorn over her “Herr Wolf”, a man who doesn’t have time to see her. Rowland presumes he’s a married man and Eva won’t tell, but you can guess who Eva is from the outset. Near the end of the book her surname is revealed to be Braun.

Journalist-cum-spy Nancy Wake assists Rowland in his quest. And there’s Unity Mitford, jumping out of the pages with more than a hint of madness and a nickname for everyone. As a commitred Mitford-phile myself, I think Sulari has nailed her well. Unity plays a key role in one particular event by playing a Mitfordesque practical joke on Campbell himself.

Edna is flattered by the attentions of tailor Alois Richter (who is VERY scathing about the abilities of one Hugo Boss, a tailor who has the contract to make uniforms for the SS, another giggling moment for me) who kindly lets the Australians stay in his lakeside house. A very girly comment here: Edna gets to wear some superb frocks!

But Germany, in the year or so since Rowland last visited, is changing. The Brownshirts are menacing and bullying. Fascism is rising faster than the sun. Books considered un-German or inflammatory (in the literal sense!) are being burned, the SA have taken to bullying even children, let alone the Jews; you can almost palpably feel the underlying hysteria of a people being  pulled along in the wake of a charismatic megalomaniacal leader.  (Who, by the way, doesn’t appear in the book himself.)  It’s a dangerous place to be, even if you’re apparently an art dealer. As always Rowland is mixing with dangerous people; he is captured by the SA, tortured, and comes as close to dying as he’s ever likely too.

And it’s not just the SA who wants him dead. There’s also somebody he trusted with whom he fights for survival. Injured, marred for life and presumed dead, Rowland needs to get out of Germany. If his loyalty to his brother Wil is key to him being in Germany in the first place, it’s another brother’s loyalty towards his own brother which can get him out.

The experience leaves Rowland, formerly insouciant and flippant about politics, interested in international politics; I wonder now where this series, and Rowland, will go. He and his friends have grown up a lot in this novel. Nazi Germany is a long way from laid-back Australia, and the contrast has had a sobering effect on them.

I do love the quotes which Sulari chooses to accompany each chapter. They’re from Australian newspapers and include this gem from the Courier Mail in 1933: “Even the kindergarten schools in Germany come under the influence of the Hitler regime. In a picture, received by air mail, young children – scarcely more than babies – are shown given the Nazi salute as they march past their school master.” Yikes! Makes you more thankful than ever for democratic government.

I read this book as an e-book using Kindle reader on my iPad; I have another of Sulari’s books as an e-book and confess that I do prefer reading them as paper books. However, I was in such a hurry to get my hands on this one I downloaded rather than drove to the bookshop.

Sulari Gentill has written about one of history’s troubled times with a beautiful mix of history, research and imagination. Fast-paced and authentic, this one’s a winner, whichever format you read it in.


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Book Review: Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey

Puberty BluesGabrielle Carey is often unfairly referred to as ‘the other writer’ of Puberty Blues (first published in 1979), overshadowed by the effusive Kathy Lette, who has written a series of laugh-out-loud best sellers. While Gabrielle might prefer a life with less publicity, she is no lesser a writer.

I first read Puberty Blues in 1981, and on re-reading it this year to coincide with the new Channel 10 miniseries based on the book, it’s hard to see where Kathy stops and Gabrielle begins, and vice versa. This is a seamlessly co-authored book about a no-holes-barred coming of age.

It’s Sydney in the 70s. To be correct, it’s The Shire in the 70s – the Sutherland Shire for those who are unfamiliar with the term; a parochial and rather picturesque waterside part of Sydney’s sprawl, south of the city. The Shire doesn’t really associate itself as being part of Sydney, it’s its own entity, but that’s by the by.

Debbie and Sue are thirteen and best friends. Like any teenage girls in their first year in high school, they are desperate to fit in, to be accepted, to be two of the cool kids. Most of all, they want to be part of the gang that hangs at Greenhills beach at North Cronulla, where the best surfers and the coolest chicks spend their lives on the beach. Long blonde hair, a deep suntan and a packet of Malboros are de rigeur.

They were the ‘uniform’ of “little white shirts, short-sleeved jumpers, thongs and straight-legged Levis covering little black bikinis“, signalling they are cool Cronulla girls and not “Bankies” from the western suburbs who wear flared Amcos. They are slaves to their surfie-chick lifestyle and slaves to the surfies, fetching the boys food such as Chiko Rolls but not eating themselves. “Girls never ate in front of their boyfriends. It was unladylike to open your mouth and shove something in it. We were also busting to go to the dunny but that was too rude for girls. Our stomachs rumbled and our bladders burst. It was a great day at the beach.” Women’s lib may have been turning around the lives and careers of their mothers, but surfie culture saw girls taking a back and very adoring seat to their boys. Being surfer chicks meant not going in the water oneself. Debbie and Sue are destined to sit on the beach, not even taking a dip on the hottest days; picking up a surfboard themselves is totally out of the question. They are subservient but they love it, they are living their teenage dream.

Cheating in an exam and not dobbing on other cheaters gets Sue and Debbie into the coolest gang, the one that sits at the back of the bus. “The best thing about being in the gang was that all the spunkiest guys on Cronulla Beach were in it. It didn’t matter what boy picked you, ’cause in the looks department, you never got a bummer.

They’re longing to lose their virginity – boys have already ‘titted them off’ and put hands down their pants, but they haven’t gone the whole way yet; they have, however, progressed to dry roots on Cronulla beach. But now it’s time for the “spreading of the legs and the splitting up the middle“.

Debbie is ‘chosen’ by Bruce, who is 17, and Sue by Danny. A kiss and “Will you go round wiv me?” is standard courting practice. The boys, note, choose the girls and not the other way around. The girls are delighted but also pragmatic about sex. “You had to ‘go out’ with a guy for at least two weeks before you’d let him screw you. You had to time it perfectly. If you waited too long you were a tight-arsed prickteaser. If you let him too early, you were a slack-arsed moll. So, after a few weeks, he’d ask you for a root, and if you wanted to keep him, you’d do it.”

For Debbie, Bruce’s panel van is the chosen venue; first attempts don’t go well. This is an underdeveloped girl who hasn’t even had her first period, but she is too embarrassed to admit it.

Parents and family barely feature in Puberty Blues. (In the 1981 film and in the current miniseries, parents and family play a much larger role) For teenagers, your gang and your friends are your life. We meet Sue’s mother Mrs Knight, briefly, as the girls and their friends and boyfriends huddle together in the family’s tv room downstairs. When Mrs Knight comes downstairs with a packet of chips the kids spring off each other, hastily zippering up Levis.

Debbie’s parents, who are apparently reasonably well-off with a three storey brick house and a swimming pool, disapprove of Bruce and his panel van with sex posters on the walls. She reverts to subterfuge, meeting him on the corner of her street instead.

Parents who read this book when it was first released were horrified to find out that this work of fiction was based on reality and the behaviour of kids in the Shire at the time. Underage sex, gang rapes, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol (Brandivino! My God, I’d forgotten it existed!). Debbie and Sue lie cheerfully to their parents about spending evenings at the movies as they wander through a world of sex and surfers. When I first read this book I was 19 and had endured a very strict North Shore upbringing; hell, I wasn’t allowed out in daylight at 13 or 14, let alone at night. I was at first envious of the freedom Debbie and Sue had, then sorry for them, as fitting in with the cool kids doesn’t always bring happiness.

Debbie is still mortified that every time Bruce tries to root her, he can’t get in; she’s just too small and he’s too big. Finally he drops her, and she ‘goes round’ with Garry instead, becoming real friends with him. After three months together she and Garry haven’t had sex and Debbie is concerned Garry will drop her. Finally she has sex with him at Sue’s parent’s holiday house.

But times are changing. The girls turn fourteen and suddenly marijuana is in fashion. “Garden hoses all over Sylvania started shrinking. If we didn’t bong it, we smoked it in a joint.” Garry, however, has gone one step further and discovered heroin although Debbie doesn’t realise it at the time. She finds him remote and unaffectionate, and then finds Wayne instead.

As her body develops Debbie discovers she enjoys sex after all, and she and Wayne use every opportunity to root. She finds out she’s pregnant and can’t tell her parents, but miscarries almost immediately, to her relief. As a reader I was surprised that something so major could be covered in less than a page and rather unemotionally at that. In fact the book rushes to a conclusion in the last third at a pace that suggests to me the authors just wanted to get it finished.

Seeing Garry stoned out of his brain in the street is a wake-up call for Debbie and Sue; if they keep getting stoned on marijuana themselves and work their way up to heroin this could be them. He is pale and thin, his surfie physique now a ‘soggy slouch’. “He lifted up his blank face and seemed to stare straight through me.”

“It stinks,” I said, stamping out my cigarette.



So Debbie and Sue pool their money and buy a surfboard. Practising with the nerds first on South Cronulla, they work their way up to Greenhills beach. Their gang drops them. Their boyfriends drop them. Girls don’t surf, remember? The girls have a brilliant time on the board that afternoon. The reader gathers they’ve decided they don’t need boys, drugs or booze to be happy, they want to do their own thing and be respected for it, and they walk away from the beach leaving the others there. The End. An epilogue reveals that other characters in the book end up on drugs, in jail or unmarried mothers. Debbie and Sue, however, drop out of school and write this book when they are 18. As school dropouts, they have done much better than their old friends, which is scary in itself as a concept.

What I did love about re-reading this book was the language. It’s the language of my own teens, the slang, the way everything was unrool and guys were spunks and you didn’t have sex or make love, you rooted (which confused Americans!). If you’re not Australian you won’t get it. Um, if you’re not of a certain age you mightn’t get it either. Maybe it should come with footnotes or a glossary!

It’s not a long book – in fact it took me less than two hours to read it – and the voices in it are authentic. It’s funny as hell. I would love to see the term ‘slack-arsed moll’ come back into usage! It’s also scary as hell; as a semi-autobiographical novel, you ache for what these girls go through.

While Debbie is the main narrator, the book switches occasionally from first person to third when an episode concerns Sue; this can be a bit annoying and I’m surprised it wasn’t edited more carefully to make it more fluent and flowing.

It’s a time capsule of the 70s, with sexist attitudes and behaviour, but the issues for girls these days haven’t changed much. There is still the pressure to fit in with peers, although these days it’s likely to be having the right smartphone or the right charms on your Pandora. There is still the pressure to have sex with boys, to take drugs. Teenagers still sneak out the window at night and roam the streets. For teens there will always be a subculture adults can’t comprehend, and Puberty Blues captures it beautifully. It’s unrool. Deadset.

(I read Puberty Blues as a Kindle e-book.)


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