Category Archives: Writers

Peter Twohig wins Ned Kelly Award

Huge congrats to Peter Twohig, whose delectable novel The Cartographer won the Best First Fiction category in this year’s Ned Kelly Awards for Australian Crime Fiction last night.

I loved this book. I will be reading it again at some point, as I always re-read those that I enjoy first time round.

Peter has written a second novel, the first draft of which he is reviewing at the moment. I can only imagine it will be equal to or even better than his first. ūüôā

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Australian Women Writers Book Challenge 2012

I’ve been taking part in the subject challenge, and here’s a list of the books I’ve read so far this year (I have linked to my reviews of some of these books):

There are probably more as I’m a voracious reader, but I wasn’t aware of the Challenge until a couple of months ago so didn’t keep a list earlier in the year. ¬†Undoubtedly I’ll be reading more books by Australian Women Writers as the year goes on, and will be posting reviews up here.

But for now, I’ll be marking my card in the Challenge as complete and Franklin-fantastic :-).

Update: 15 September 2012. Have now read and posted reviews of

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The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway’s paean to alcohol

The Sun Also RisesI like a glass of wine with dinner, often two. At dinner parties I’ve often somehow managed to drink a bottle of the stuff. But heading into the booze-fuelled world of France and Spain in 1926 leaves me reeling at Ernest Hemingway’s characters: it seems that none of them is ever truly sober. With prohibition in full force in the USA, Hemingway gives his characters ready access to wine and spirits, and boy, do they lap it up.¬†

I’ll backtrack here and admit I haven’t read any Hemingway since high school, when The Old Man and The Sea was on the reading list for year 9 or 10. I enjoyed the book; I liked his easy style of writing which while economical still managed to paint memorable pictures. A sentence beautifully crafted, emotive, expressive and descriptive, would jump off the page at me and I’d sigh in admiration. Why didn’t I read any Hemingway after that? I suspect I wasn’t interested in golden age fiction at the time.

Fast forward to now and I picked up The Sun Also Rises with mixed feelings. I knew there would be bull fighting in the book and that concept makes me, an animal lover, rather edgy if not squeamish. 

But from page one I was hooked. Here were wealthy expats from the US and UK, drinking their way across Europe with even more vigour than my fellow travellers on a Contiki 18-35s bus tour of the continent in 1985 (and that’s saying something). Hedonistic, uncaring of their impact on the locals, they are rude to the point of being obnoxious. You want to hate them but you find yourself intrigued by them, being drawn to them instead.

What a splash this book made when it was originally published! It polarised critics and readers. Having finally read it, and imagining the staid middle-class readers who might buy it or get it from their library in 1926, I can understand why  it had the impact it did. 

It’s not just the constant drinking and freedom these idle young rich people enjoy (or even disdain). Brett’s actions in particular must have horrified the matronly. Brett, Lady Ashley, is divorced and engaged, but not above having affairs with other men: Robert Kohn, whose heart she breaks, and Pedro Romero, a young bullfighter – a ravishingly pretty boy, barely twenty – with whom she runs away.¬†

Central character Jake is also in love with Brett but wisely hides it better than Kohn or Brett’s fianc√© Mike.¬†

Hemingway’s writing is brilliant. His Paris is so real you can hear and smell it, likewise his Pamplona with the fiesta in full swing is a hymn to Spain – in fact it’s more like a love letter. The car journey across the Basque country into Spain, the bus journeys within Spain itself, you can almost smell the dust – er, and the peasants. There’s a peaceful time in the middle of the frenetic journeying, drinking and arguing when Jake and his friend Bill head off trout fishing, and the sense of serenity is palpable in contrast.

The characters converse in a languid style which was probably fairly typical of their class at the time. Jake notes that the upper class British seem to have a limited vocabulary!

There’s freedom in this book. Brett lets lust rule her, the boys drink until they are senseless, Mike, estranged from Brett at the end of the book, bankrupt and penniless, assures Jake optimistically he’ll wander across the south of France and find some credit. (Actually Mike is a bit of a sad bastard… I think Brett could do better.)

I have no doubt professional critics will find a lot more in the book than I did; symbolism and themes and so on. I read for pleasure; I either like a book or I don’t. I don’t read to find hidden meanings nor do I belong to a book club where books and their characters are dissected into minute particles. For me The Sun Also Rises was about free spirits (no, not the kind in a glass, the characters paid for those), and it details beautifully an exciting time in exciting places. It is so engagingly written that I didn’t skip the bull fights but admired Hemingway’s choreographical descriptions of them.¬†

While it’s very much a product of its time in terms of attitude and language (the word n*gg*r is used but not as an insult, as an everyday noun) this book is a worthy time capsule and very much worth reading, for Hemingway’s prose as much as the tale itself.

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Cobbler’s Dream by Monica Dickens – book review


Anyone who starts reading Cobbler’s Dream expecting to find themselves in the world of tv’s Follyfoot (the 1970s YTV show was inspired by the book) is going to face a harsh reality. Yes, it’s about a rest home for horses and the dysfunctional group of people who work there, but this book wasn’t written for children, unlike Dickens’ later works based on the tv show (Follyfoot, Dora at Follyfoot, The Horses at Follyfoot, Stranger at Follyfoot). Familiar names are there though: Dora (a much chunkier, horsier girl than the tv version), The Captain (the Colonel for television), Slugger and Ron Stryker.

Dickens had strong humanitarian involvements and at the time of writing her 1963 book Cobbler’s Dream she was an active supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Cobbler’s Dream explores cruelty and sadism; images in the book are intended to shock the reader and raise awareness of the plight of mistreated animals.

For example in the first chapter a man and girl visiting the Farm meet “a farmer’s horse stolen out of a field, ridden all night by a gang of boys with a piece of wire in his mouth for a bridle, and left torn and bleeding in a gravel pit with half his tongue gone.” ¬†The girl looks sick when she learns this. The man is merely keen to move on and get to the pub for dinner. Dickens is pointing out the way society conveniently ignores that which is unpleasant to it.

The title of the book refers to a champion show jumping pony, Cobbler’s Dream, who is rescued in Chapter 2 by his groom Paul. The pony’s twelve-year-old owner has beaten the horse severely, enough to cause blindness in one eye. The family who own the horse intend to sell him to the knackers; Paul steals him and finds his way to the Farm. (In Cobbler’s Dream, the home of rest for horses is simply ‘the Farm’; the name Follyfoot was coined for the tv show and subsequent books.)

If there is cruelty, there is also sentimentality. This book uses plenty of hooks to engage the reader’s emotions, not least a scene where Paul finds a horse locked in a narrow shed, standing on a solid pile of manure with its head sticking out the roof: “‘Oh God.’ His heart was flooded with a surge of rage and pity so intense that he clenched his fists and stood there for a moment trembling, his eyes closed against tears. When he opened them, the hollow, suffering eye looked into his, and he knew that the horse was his child, his treasure, his dearest care.”

This can be an uncomfortable novel to read for animal lovers; man’s inhumanity to animals is described in more detail than in the successive books in the Follyfoot series. Despite one of the main characters being twelve years old (Callie), Cobbler’s Dream could give a twelve year old reader nightmares. As adolescent and young adult fiction, however, it ticks idealistic boxes and is a powerful reminder that we as a species are responsible for the welfare of others. Almost fifty years after initial publication, it provides a view of Britain that has long gone: pit ponies, circus horses, horses who work for a living pulling carts and vans. For the mobile phone generation, or readers graduating from The Saddle Club, this could prove to be a hard novel to get into, but it’s worth persevering. The characters are well-drawn and where there is darkness there is also light just a little further on.

Cobbler’s Dream is an episodic novel; there is no galloping towards a big climax, instead there are a series of peaks and troughs, of struggles and successes, of horses lost and horses saved, the final episode involving the title horse himself.

The Farm is also the saviour of unwanted people who, like the horses, end up calling it home: Paul, Callie and her mother Anna. All Dickens’ characters develop over the course of the book as we learn more of their back stories; there is no long description when we first meet them, their stories are woven effortlessly into the narrative.¬†They have no compunction about breaking the law to save an animal, either. Both Paul and Callie steal horses to give them a better life at the Farm.¬†The human story lines work around the animal ones and resolve by the end of the book.

Uncomfortable it can sometimes be, but Cobbler’s Dream is compelling reading. Dickens writes beautifully; at times economical, at times with that wry touch that makes you smile and admire her craft as a storyteller. ¬†Her love of animals and her knowledge of horses makes this an authentic book with a lot more depth than her¬†Follyfoot series which followed.

Cobbler’s Dream is currently out of print but you may find it online on eBay or second-hand booksellers – or even your local church fete or jumble sale. Other titles in the Follyfoot series are being progressively reprinted; it remains to be seen if Cobbler’s Dream is considered too ‘adult’ to be reprinted as a children’s book.


For more information on the Follyfoot books and TV series visit The Follyfoot Forum or fan tribute site.  This book review first appeared on The Follyfoot Forum in January 2012.

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Felix Francis and the Dick Francis brand

Buying Dick Francis booksI remember buying my first Dick Francis paperback. I was in Swane’s bookshop in downtown Sydney, an Aladdin’s Cave long since gone. I was twelve years old, in school uniform and feeling guilty and embarrassed about looking for books in the mainstream, grownup section of the shop.

I was a horsy girl, and until then had been satisfied with the efforts of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Mary Gervaise, Patricia Leitch and other books aimed at horsy teens. I was also a kid who read well beyond her age, and was a keen follower of the racing world, aided and abetted by my grandfather who’d put on bets for me at the Saturday races.

Pulling down Dead Cert (because the name sounded as if it were in the horse-racing genre), my eyes lit up. I all but salivated. This was just what I had been looking for!

I bought the book and promptly hid it. I read it only in private, worried that my mother would see me reading something aimed strictly at adults. I devoured it despite it not being the strongest murder mystery plot in the universe. It had been written by an ex-jockey (and I, being me, had a crush on one or two apprentice jockeys at the time, pretty boys they were too before age and wasting diets ravaged them) and I was delighted to think that a jockey could be so literate as to write a thriller novel like this one.

Dead Cert was Dick Francis’ first book, published in 1962, a few years after he had retired as a jockey. A week or two later, pocket money topped up and coins foraged from behind the sofa cushions, I headed back to Swane’s for more and bought Enquiry. The artwork on the cover was risqu√© so I had to cover it with clear plastic and put a sticker over the topless woman!

By the time I bought his most recent, High Stakes, a month later I’d told Mum what I was reading and she too got stuck into Dead Cert. From then on I happily and publicly collected all the Dick Francis books and to this day have the entire collection, in hardback and paperback. (See this resource here by a fellow Francis fan for a full list of novels and a synopsis of each.)

I was even lucky enough to meet Dick Francis years later at a book signing and have a brief conversation about writing while he scrawled on the flyleaf of his latest hardback for me. In the interim years Dick Francis had been a big influence on my own writing style – I spent my teen years writing truly awful horse racing novels that thankfully never saw the light of day. Not that the awfulness was Dick’s influence, that was entirely my own work.

Graham Lord in his unauthorised biography of Dick Francis (Dick Francis A Racing Life) asserts that the books were actually written by Dick’s wife, Mary, who was always recognised by Dick as doing much of the research on the books and ‘contributing to the writing process’. Dick left school at 15; Mary had degrees in French and English and worked for a publisher in her younger days. While this rumour was denied heartily by Dick’s publishers when the bio was released (and it’s since been confirmed by Dick’s son Felix that his parents co-authored the books), I suggest you make up your own mind. In fact, get yourself a copy of Lord’s book as it makes fascinating reading and his dissection of some of the prose and phrases familiar to Francis fans (i.e., “He sketched a farewell”) is priceless. You’ll find the book on eBay, Amazon, etc as it’s out of print.

Whether the author was Dick himself, Mary herself, or Mary putting into prose Dick’s plots and characters, the books have a consistent style and turn of phrase until Mary’s death and the first book released five years after that, Under Orders.¬†For me, the character development is stronger too in the earlier books – that could be coloured by my teenage delight at reading grown-up thrillers!

Under Orders was¬†eagerly snapped up by fans who thought that Dick, devastated at the loss of his beloved wife, had stopped writing for good. It features characters familiar to Dick Francis fans – private investigator Sid Halley and his family, who had featured in previous Francis novels. However, supporting character Rear Admiral Charles Rowland behaves very much out of character, dropping the f-bomb in front of a woman; in the first Halley book (Odds Against, 1965) the very proper Admiral would not even say ‘damn’. The writing style itself is slightly different to earlier Francis books too. It’s subtle, but if you know your Francis well you are aware of it. Dick’s younger son Felix Francis is thanked for his contribution on the dedication page, and for this longtime Francis fan it’s clear he had a strong hand in writing the book.

Since then Dick and Felix, a former school teacher and Dick’s manager, have¬†co-authored four books: Dead Heat, Silks, Even Money and Crossfire. By the time Crossfire was published the writing style of the duo was more akin to classic Dick Francis books but the books for me weren’t in the league of the Francis classics from the early days. Dead Heat¬†is the one I most enjoyed from these four, with a chef as the lead character, followed by Even Money (the first time I’d empathised with a bookmaker!). ¬†They are still enjoyable, but my test of a book is how soon I re-read it, and I haven’t re-read any of these four yet. The voice is slightly different, too. As with Under Orders, it’s subtle, but it’s there; some sentences appear beleaguered if not stilted.

Dick Francis died at the age of 89 two years ago today at the time of writing this post, leaving a legacy of fast-paced novels, villains with improbable names and plots both strong and on the weak side; well-researched thrillers that were set not only deeply in the racing world but on the fringes, with horses in the foreground or sometimes well hidden in the background.

What would happen now? Was Crossfire the last Dick Francis ever?

No. Felix has stepped up to the plate, releasing his first solo “Dick Francis novel” last year, Gamble.

Gamble doesn’t enjoy the tightest plot in the world, and the character development is a little on the thin side, conversation between the characters stilted on occasion. I’d figured out the hero’s girlfriend was ill long before he did. When Our Hero Nicholas misses a vital clue near the end of the book I felt an urge to shout out a pantomime-ish “He’s behind you!”. Or words to that effect. I was disappointed, overall.

Reading Felix’s first solo effort, I’m made aware that any “Dick Francis” book of the past certainly included the man himself in plot development to say the least, if not character development. Dick as a jockey with little education may have heavily relied on his wife or son to turn his ideas and rough drafts into readable reality; every Dick Francis novel a true collaboration. There’s something a little lacking in Gamble, but I’m curious to see if the next Felix Francis is an improvement. One would expect Felix to put his own stamp and voice on the brand; hopefully the confidence gained from acceptance of his first solo effort will see the next novel rollicking along like the 3.30 at Newmarket.

According to the official website the next novel features a tv racing presenter as the lead character and will be published later this year.  Expect a review of it here.

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Remember Me by Derek Hansen – coming of age gracefully written

Remember MeYou’re at a trivia night. You’re asked to name a writer who’s known as an Aussie but wasn’t born in Australia, and who worked in advertising before becoming a full-time author. You confidently write Bryce Courtenay and feel very smug but are devastated when the answer is revealed as Derek Hansen.

Derek WHO?

If you haven’t read any of Derek Hansen’s books, start now. I was given the superb collection of short stories, Psycho Cat, in 1997, and I was hooked on Hansen’s humorous and elegant prose. The man is a true storyteller (which is probably why he was a very successful ad man), and Psycho Cat was the inspiration for my own psycho cat story, The Million Dollar Cat. If you are very, very lucky you’ll find Psycho Cat at a church fete or second hand book shop. Fight for it if you have to.

In 2007 Hansen wrote a coming-of-age novel set in New Zealand in the 1950s – Remember Me. I sense it’s a fictionalised semi-autobiography. The hero, like Hansen himself, was born in the UK and moved to New Zealand at a very early age. The sense of time and place is very real, the twelve-year-old hero’s voice totally believable. What happens to the boy is fiction, but it’s so well-written, with irony and humour, that you believe it’s true.

Kids are kids: the hero and his friends refer to local nun Sister Gloria as Sister Glorious and dream about what she wears under her habit – that delicious Hansen sense of humour again. The dialogue between the gang of boys is a delight; the schemes they get up to and scrapes they get into are a reminder of my own 1960s early childhood, when parents weren’t helicopter parents, and you could get into all kinds of mischief and if you were careful, not get found out.

This is an enchanting book, written through the eyes of an observant child who discovers a wartime secret, writes about it in an essay and polarises the local community, making enemies, turning friends against each other and destroying the fabric of friendships and relationships.

During World War II a local fisherman, Mack, has an encounter with a U-boat which has drifted off course. The captain of the U-boat gives Mack freedom in return for a tank of diesel and total silence. Mack must never mention it, and he is true to his word. Until one night he lets his guard down and tells our hero the story, and the boy tries to find a happy ending for Mack, who has lived with being a traitor since that terrifying wartime day. With memories of the war still fresh in adult minds, let’s say things don’t go smoothly when the story gets out and a stranger lands in town. Not smoothly at all. Is there a happy ending though? You’ll have to read it to find out?

I love this book. I’ve read it twice so far and will undoubtedly read it again. Discover Derek Hansen – you’ll be glad you did.

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Captivating. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears

Foal's BreadI’m a fanatical reader. A fast reader. A reader who gobbles books, burps and looks for more. I am an insult to authors because they spend months if not years writing a book and I whizz through it with unseemly haste.

Last Christmas, however, I received a book I salivated over, took my time with, savoured. I made the glorious pleasure of reading it last for a week. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears totally captivated me.

Mears is an Australian author; she hasn’t been hugely prolific but what she has published is magical and Foal’s Bread is probably her best to date.¬†Heartbreakingly Mears suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, and writing this novel, her first in sixteen years, has taken her a long and laborious time.

Foal’s Bread, as the name suggest, is about horses. Specifically, it’s set in the years before, during and after World War II in northern NSW, on the high-jumping show circuit. High-jumping was banned in the 1950s but before then it wasn’t uncommon for riders to set their horses at obstacles seven feet high or even more. It was a spectacle, and part of carnival folklore now consigned to history along with the freak tent.

The heroine is equestrienne Noah Childs, who marries fellow high-jumper Roley Nancarrow. Noah is looked down on by Roley’s family but she’s tough mentally and physically. She has to be… for Roley gradually loses the use of his legs, and the dynamics of family and love change as a result, as do the dreams Noah and Roley have chased for years.

Mears has done her research extraordinarily well. She has caught the authentic language of the era, the slang, the drawl, the cadence, the very fabric of people living in the bush and in country towns in the mid twentieth century. You can smell the dust and grass, the sweat on the horses’ necks , the stench of beer at the bar at the local pub, the parched earth soaking in a thunderstorm. Her writing soars like a horse heading for an eight-foot jump – it has the freedom that she physically doesn’t.

This isn’t a sweet love story; it’s a harsh love story, a tough love story, with occasionally cruel images. It’s enthralling. Read it. You’ll have an exhilarating ride.

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Cat got your typewriter: Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs Murphy Mysteries

Not drawn by M GellatlyAccording to the cover, the Mrs Murphy series is written by Rita Mae Brown and her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. Inside most books you’ll find a note from Sneaky Pie herself asserting that she is the author. This clever feline has, with the help of her human, written 18 books to date in this quirky series. She’s a dab paw with a typewriter.

Heroine Mrs Murphy is a tabby (or tiger cat as she is described in the books, tiger cat apparently being American for tabby). She’s assisted in her crime-solving by corgi Tee Tucker and grey cat Pewter (aka the grey cannonball as Pewter is ruled by her ever-hungry stomach).

Because this is a cat’s fantasy series, for want of a better description, the animals’ conversations are reported in English and these clever beasties can also read and do many other things you don’t even want to think of your cat doing. Cats are pretty smart anyway. Would you want a cat who could read? You’d never hear the end of it! ūüôā

The series is set in Virginia in the present day, and the animals assist human heroine Mary Minor (aka Harry) Haristeen out of trouble; murder trouble, with Harry generally finding herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The cats and dogs are the true crime-solving heroes and heroines, often taking on the villain with tooth and claw. I wonder that their owner Harry doesn’t get sued by the victims!

They are well thought out mysteries, laugh out loud funny, beautifully improbable and highly entertaining. The books are illustrated with line drawings of the animals. Out of the artists who have provided the drawings I prefer the superbly talented Michael Gellatly’s delicate and realistic work.

The human characters grow with the series, and Harry newly divorced in book one, falls in love again with her ex-husband over the series until they remarry. Supporting characters – and there are several regulars – also grow and develop. However, each book can be read independently of another. Heroine Harry changes careers from postmistress to full-time farmer through the series; she’s a very energetic person and I almost feel guilty relaxing with one of these books as her days are long and full – this woman doesn’t seem to ever rest!

If you think you’re going to be reading a childish series full of talking animals, think again. These books are for adults, and adults with a broad sense of humour and fun at that. Um… children’s books do not feature felines with a propensity for profanity: “Give me that back, you striped asshole!”

Much as I have loved devouring this series (rather like Pewter with a ton of tuna in front of her), Rita Mae …er, Sneaky Pie … has a rather annoying way of pointing out the bleeding obvious to those among her readership who may not be particularly savvy or able to put two and two together with a degree of accuracy. This is an example: The conversation is between two characters is about horses and racing…

“She came within a hair of taking the Colonial Cup.” Fair cited a famous steeplechase race. (Sour Puss, 2006)

I think any reader who’d made it to page 113 in a book that also has a horsey flavour to it would have worked out for themselves¬†that the Colonial Cup is a race. Characters “cite”,”name” or “state” an explanation several times in each book. It’s the only downside to this series of ‘cozy’ mysteries with an edge all its own.

Overall, if you have imagination, a sense of humour, and a love of animals, I suggest you give this series a try. You can buy the first book of the series as an e-book on Amazon. Until recently the second was also available electronically. Owing to limited space in my bookshelves and limited funds in my bank account I sincerely wish the entire series had been available as e-books.

You may find a review of some of the books on this series here in the future – I’m sure I won’t be able to resist.

(Thanks to my lovely friend Genevieve for putting me onto this series!)

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Kindling an affection for Her Royal Spyness

Her Royal SpynessMy storage problems have led me to buying e-books as an alternative to the ‘real thing’; e-books are also cheaper and if I’m taking a chance and reading a book by an author whose work I haven’t read before, e-books are a low-cost way to discovering new joys.

Last year I found myself, by a circuitous route of Amazon recommendations, reading the description for Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen. The premise: It’s 1932 and Lady Georgiana (Georgie) is a minor and thoroughly penniless member of the British Royal Family, 34th in line to the throne. The daughter of a Duke and an actress, Georgie is sent from the family’s cold and bleak Scottish castle to London on a mission for her great Aunt, Queen Mary. HRH wants Georgie to be her eyes and ears at a house party at which the Prince of Wales and his inamorata Mrs Simpson will be in attendance. In essence she has to spy on the Prince of Wales. It’s either that or ¬†Georgie faces a very boring life being lady-in-waiting to the ancient Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s only surviving daughter or even worse marrying the cold fish Prince Siegfried.

Reluctantly Georgie accepts her mission and meets an unsuitable but delectable young man on the way. Oh, and someone dies. ¬†Unexpectedly. In Georgie’s own bathtub. Georgie gets rather too close to the killer as she tries to clear her name and prove she wasn’t the murderer. No more spoilers, you can read it for yourself to see if she is successful in her spying mission.

When I first started reading this, the first in the series about Georgie, I was disappointed to have some Mitfordisms presented to me in the second chapter. “Next thing we know you’ll be teaching Podge to say ‘mirror’ instead of ‘looking glass’ and ‘serviette’ instead of ‘napkin’.” Hmm, I thought; the author was clearly influenced by The Pursuit of Love and Love in A Cold Climate. I was prepared to dismiss the book as a copycat of Nancy Mitford’s upper class social comedies, but kept reading on.

Like most modern books set in ‘Golden Age’ time (between the two World Wars), you know instinctively from the language both of the prose itself and which the characters speak that while it’s been well-researched it’s a new book, written recently. It’s a good romp though; the first book in the series introduces the reader to Georgie’s friends and helps Georgie solve her penniless predicament, with the unlikely scenario that Georgie decides that in order to make money she will become a cleaner.

Deep and meaningful literature it isn’t and it isn’t meant to be either, it’s very readable and Rhys Bowen has a nice touch in cliffhanger chapter endings. By the middle of the book I was thoroughly engrossed in this version of 1930s London – a London probably a little cleaner and kinder than the original methinks!

Bowen has written five books in this series now, and there is character development along the way, but each can be read separately to the others. Amazon’s Kindle store had all five in stock so now they are on my iPad ready to be re-read when I feel like it.

If you have read and enjoyed Nicola Upson’s series set in the 1930s featuring novelist Josephine Tey as the lead character, you will probably enjoy Her Royal Spyness.

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A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill – Book Review

A Decline in ProphetsThis is the second book featuring Rowland Sinclair – an artist with bohemian tendencies born into a wealthy pastoral Australian family. Rowland has an unerring eye for finding trouble – or is it that trouble finds him? At the conclusion of the first book he and his friends fellow artist Clyde Watson Jones, seductive sculptress Edna Higgins and poet Milton Isaacs were setting sail on the Aquitania for Europe and North America, as Sydney in 1932 was a rather unhealthy place for Rowland to stay. He’d upset too many prominent – and criminal – people.

Once again Rowland finds himself embroiled in murders – two, this time aboard the luxurious ship – and his own life and that of Edna’s is put in danger on their return to Australia. Even worse, his very proper brother and other members of the Sinclair family are about to descend on his relaxed Woollahra mansion and Rowland has to juggle family issues and demands, be the feature of unwelcome newspaper headlines, dodge bullets and overall avoid ending up on a slab in the mortuary.

What I love about Sulari Gentill‘s books is her mix of fact and fiction: the books are very well researched, events and moods of the time and well-known people of the era woven in with the fictional Sinclairs. For example, Rowland and his friends spend New Year’s Eve with Norman Lindsay and his model wife Rose at a deliciously debauched party at Lindsay’s house in the Blue Mountains.¬†To my delight, Edna is escorted through New York nightlife by an up-and-coming British actor called Archie Leach (lucky girl!) after meeting him at a party hosted by moving pictures star Marion Davies. Sydney underworld figures Phil “The Jew” Jeffs, Frank “The Little Gunman” Green and prostitute Nellie Campbell also have encounters with Rowland. (These names will be familiar to viewers of the Nine Network’s Underbelly:Razor series, but for a more realistic, grittier take on Sydney’s wild times of the 20s and 30s I suggest reading Larry Writer’s Razor, the superb true crime book on which the series was based.)

Gentill’s books have a nod to Agatha Christie’s golden age fiction in more ways than one. As well as having a very readable, engaging style there’s wry humour in them. In New York, Rowland takes his friends to meet fellow artist Daniel Cartwright, who only ever paints his own self-portrait. I can’t help but share a laugh-out-loud moment here:

“Rowly,” Clyde’s voice was low and touched with disbelief. “These paintings… ¬†they’re all of him… Cartwright… all self-portraits.”

Rowland nodded. “Yes, Danny only paints himself.”

“What? Always?” Milton whispered, incredulous.

“Never knows him to paint anything else. I must say,” Rowland motioned towards the latest portrait, “he’s getting quite good at it.’

“Does it not strike you as odd?” Milton persisted.

“It’s bloody odd,” Rowland confirmed. “You should see his nudes.”

If the first novel in the series was centred around politics, this one is about religion. The Theosophist Society plays a major role with Rowland meeting its leader Annie Besant on the Aquitania, being interviewed as a suspect for one of its number’s murder on board the ship and being cast as the new prophet by an outcast member back in Sydney. In the blue corner, so to speak, is the bullish Catholic Bishop denouncing Rowland as evil and accusing him of putting his niece in the family way (and worse). Adding to the mix the Protestant-only Masonic Lodge was in its heyday in Sydney back then and prominent families such as the Sinclairs were, of course, members; something free-thinking Rowland would very much like to avoid but is dragged into by his brother Wilfred.

Back in the 1930s religion played a strong part in defining who you were. I remember my grandmother, who grew up in NSW country town Glen Innes, telling me that the Protestant kids didn’t talk to the Connie kids (the ones who went to the Catholic convent school) as a matter of course. They had been brought up that way. Entire towns could be divided with a Protestant and Catholic side of the main street! Religious bigotry was rife. So it’s no surprise that even within Rowland’s circle of friends religion is an issue that’s discussed – and plays a major part in the murders and solving them.

There are plenty of twists in this tale and the mystery is satisfyingly solved in a race against time. I was sorry to finish reading this book!

The only thing that irks me, just the tiniest, about this book is the constant referral to Edna as ‘the sculptress’. She’s described as ‘the sculptress’ every few pages (I was reading this as an e-book by the way due to my straitened storage circumstances). Maybe it’s to remind us what she does for a living as in this book she doesn’t work on any of her sculptures! Milton and Clyde aren’t regularly referred to as ‘the poet’ and ‘the artist’.

I’ve seen some cover art for Sulari’s next Rowland Sinclair novel and I’m wondering if a certain Gypsy Moth aeroplane will play a part in it. To find out why I think that, you’ll have to read this book!

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