Tag Archives: 1920s

Beware of the badly-written self-published novel

Have you ever started reading a book which was so appallingly edited and proofed, and had such an improbable plot line and flat character voices that you simply couldn’t put it down? You might be wasting several hours of your life you’ll never get back, but you’re not going to give up. Surely, surely, the book will get better as you read on?

On a whim I purchased two e-books last week as a result of the author posting on a Facebook group to which I belong. The novels – part 1 and part 2 of the same story – are set in the USA in the 1920s and feature silver screen siren Louise Brooks as one of the characters. I am a big Louise Brooks fan and the author’s blurb made the books sound rather fun.

I won’t name and shame the author or his books, but oh dear, the novels are awful!

Book 1 started well enough but it seemed the author couldn’t be bothered proofreading after a bit or is genuinely unaware of using punctuation when closing a quote mark. I gritted my teeth as all the characters spoke their rather stilted dialogue in this manner: “…I do not know about that” said Character 1. Where’s the comma? Missing in action! If I’d been reading the paperback versions (and oh yes, they are available as paperbacks, scarily enough) I’d have red-penned my way through the entire book, but that’s impossible on an i-Pad.

If the poor punctuation and lacklustre dialogue didn’t test my patience enough, the plots got sillier and sillier as our hero and his heroine battled mafia bosses and kidnappers (several times) in between more sex scenes than a Shades of Gray novel. And let’s not talk about the masses of gratuitous violence. Plot improbabilities include our hero falling for the daughter of his father’s employee, having never met her before despite their fathers working together for years, and her father being perfectly fine with the notion that the hero is shagging his daughter senseless without putting a ring on her finger. This is the rural USA in the 1920s. Dad would have been after them with a shotgun – but wait, our heroine is no slouch with a gun herself as she goes into action in yet another shootout. Our hero, while fearing for his life with bullets whizzing everywhere, spends a few seconds admiring her tight, sassy butt as she runs wearing jeans and pulling the trigger. Sigh. (Jeans? Unlikely. She would have probably worn women’s trousers in the 1920s.)

On the plus side the attention to detail in the novels when it comes to 1920s automobiles, aircraft, railway rolling stock, and 1920s Hollywood is superb. That’s the one plus. There are no others.

These two books represent the real danger of self-publishing, especially if the book doesn’t have an editor aside from the author himself. I suspect that’s the case here. An editor would have told the author the novels are simply a poorly-written sex fantasy with unbelievable and improbable plots and characters. Without a LOT of work these books shouldn’t see the light of day, at least as a paid product on Amazon. Given they feature real life characters such as Louise Brooks and Billie Dove they could be submitted to a fanfic site and hopefully pounced on by beta editors for the author to rework before they go live.

If you are considering self-publishing a novel, please find an editor and a proof reader. Your local Writers’ Society should be able to point you in the direction of a reputable editor. Editors aren’t cheap, but they are the difference between sales and good reviews, and no sales and bad reviews.

As for my review of this book? I didn’t leave one on Amazon. It would have been too scathing. The next e-book I buy will be from a respected and well-known novelist.

3 Comments

Filed under Musings

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.

7 Comments

Filed under Reviews

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

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?)

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris WifeParis in the 1920s, and an intimate glimpse into the lives of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. Okay, so it’s fiction, but Paula has done her research and drawn on correspondence between the couple as well as biographies and other material to write a compelling novel about real life characters.

Jazz age Paris was a far cry from the US midwest where Hadley grew up. In this novel we meet other people such as F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound who led the pack of literary expats and Bohemians living in Paris at the time, drinking heavily, living loudly.

Hadley and Ernest are a strong couple together; Hadley believes their love can survive all. It survives Hadley losing a suitcase containing the only copies of all of Hemingway’s work. It survives an unplanned baby and the changes that brings to the household. But it doesn’t survive the younger woman. Hadley is several years older than Ernest; she’s a self-proclaimed Victorian in an era and society that was thoroughly, relentlessly modern,  and self-doubts about herself creep in gradually throughout the novel as the Hemingways move in higher, more glamourous circles.

It’s a fact that Hemingway left Hadley for the younger, modern, more vivacious Pauline, who became the second of a total of four Mrs Hemingways. And they were just the women he married, not the sum total of all he slept with.

Hadley, however, was his rock when he was trying to make it as a writer. She married him when he was 21, a young man still having nightmares about the War, far more vulnerable than the legendary Hemingway of later years. She is funny, and brave, and likeable as a character. If she is Hemingway’s rock, he is the person who brings her out of herself, encourages her to grow.

Hadley calls herself The Paris Wife, the early wife. She was married to Hemingway for almost five years when the pressure of coping with him sleeping with Pauline became too much for her. Faced with the suggestion of moving back to the USA and living in a menage a trois with Pauline, Hadley, heartbroken, tells Ernest he can have a divorce.

This novel explores a story that has been well-documented before, including by Hemingway himself in A Moveable Feast, but has a vibrant emotional depth to it, told in Hadley’s very believable voice. Paula McLain has captured the era well from Paris through Spain and back to the South of France. Reading this book has spurred me to on get a copy of A Moveable Feast, to read Hemingway on Hadley and their time together in Paris.

If you’d like to read more about this novel and how Paula McLain came to write it, visit the official website.

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews

Fabulous Phryne – Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood – a review

Cocaine BluesWith the ABC tv series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries bringing a Hispano-Suiza load of class to the telly this year, ten of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series of books have been re-released with covers that tie in to the tv episodes. It may sell more of them – and Essie Davis is perfect, truly perfect, Phryne to the life – but Beth Norling’s original artwork is a delight, so I’m sticking to the original cover art here.

The tv show has been a big success for Aunty, but as any reader of the Phryne books knows, you can’t cram one of the books into 57 minutes. For anyone who has viewed the tv show and hasn’t read the books, discovering them will open up a treasure trove of pleasure. I’ve been enjoying them since 1990 and now have my husband hooked on them too.

So we’ll start at the beginning, Cocaine Blues, in which Phryne arrives in Melbourne in 1928. She’s a Melbourne girl from birth but the War which removed many of the males from her family tree saw her impoverished father and family elevated to the nobility and a big house in England when Phryne was twelve. She’s a woman who can mix with the nobs and the nobodies; she’s lived in both circles.

Phryne agrees to travel to Australia at the request of a friend of her father’s, worried about his daughter Lydia who has had mysterious bouts of illness. Could Phryne find out more? Is Lydia in danger? Bored with London society and chinless wonders, the trip seemed like a good idea and would put 12,000 between Phryne and her family  (and the chinless wonders).

It doesn’t take long for Phryne to make the acquaintance of red-ragger taxi drivers Bert and Cec, and persuade troubled young woman Dot Williams not to knife her errant boyfriend. (Incidentally, Dot is Dot Bryant in this novel… she mysteriously becomes Dot Williams in later novels. Oops.)

In her first adventure Phryne helps Bert and Cec track down an illegal abortionist, has an affair with a delectable young Russian dancer, breaks a cocaine ring and in doing so discovers Lydia isn’t the innocent woman she appeared to be. Phryne, at one point, fears for her life. It’s a long way from polite dinner parties in London. From the decadent Windsor Hotel to seedy back alleys, Phryne triumphs with panache and silk underwear.

Phryne is rich. She can afford the finest and if you think you’ll find that off-putting, think of something else. Her wealth gives her the freedom and power to investigate and also to help others.

This book is divine escapism. The light wit throughout nods politely to Dorothy Sayers, queen of golden age crime, and Kerry Greenwood has researched her chosen year very well.  All the Phryne books are carefully researched, and you can rest assured that the gorgeous clothes Phryne wears are very much 1928 and that the Melbourne described is the Melbourne that was.

The language is the language of Australia in the 20s – you won’t find people saying “OK”, for example. Bert and Cec in particular use the vernacular of the time, e.g. ‘bonzer’.

The mystery itself, while a good one, almost plays second fiddle to Phryne herself, to Melbourne in 1928, to characters like Bert and Cec and Dr MacMillan.

If you have enjoyed watching Phryne on television, give yourself a real treat and read the books – starting from the beginning. You’ll have another 20-odd to look forward to!

6 Comments

Filed under Reviews

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 fiancé 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.

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews, Writers

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!

12 Comments

Filed under Reviews, Writers

Musings on a Golden – or gilded – Age

Phryne Fisher image

Image from phrynefisher.com

I find myself delving into fiction written in the first half of the 20th century as a way to relax and switch off the 21st. Mobile phones, computers, and the overall constant urgency that our lives are full of these days gets to me after a bit. I need to escape. So the 1920s and 30s in particular beckon. Maybe it’s the clothing. Maybe it’s the rise of the flapper, with her bobbed hair and her strident feminism. Maybe it’s the music. The pace of life was certainly slower and I feel myself calm down in the company of Mapp and Lucia, Fanny Logan and her Radlett cousins, or Lord Peter Wimsey. Toss in some Agatha Christie and Scott Fitzgerald for good measure, early Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh… I am also the proud owner of three Girls’ Own Annuals from the 20s, complete with knitting patterns, recipes, very high-moralled articles (which I skim) and serial novels (which I devour).

I also enjoy reading recently-written novels set in the 1920s. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series is wonderful escapism, and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, while technically set in the early 1930s, is another I enjoy. Both of these are mystery series as I do love a good murder or two.

There’s a real difference in the tenor of novels actually written in the 20s and those modern books set in the 20s however. Times have changed and the political correctness we are inured to is very evident in modern novels. Vintage fiction can be sexist and racist, and while I condone neither in the big scheme of things, that’s the way things were back then. That’s the way people thought, and you have to accept that when you read these books. They are very much a product of their time.

Modern novels get around it; our heroine comes across a character being sexist or racist and pulls them up on it. How dare he call that man a Chink (or insert whatever racist term you like)? In the vintage books, this wouldn’t happen. Our heroine would probably refer to said victim in the same way, albeit possibly with a nicer tone in her voice. The humour can be waspish and brilliant, but any author who wrote such works today would be crucified by the mass media.

I suspect that modern novels set in earlier times wouldn’t get published unless a modicum or indeed large dollop of political correctness crept in there. Is this gilding the way people behaved almost a hundred years ago? Is it a slur on the authenticity of the period in which the book is set? And have we really become too po-faced in our acceptance of older fiction and the time and place it was written in? (Think of Enid Blyton’s Noddy, banned for years.)

Historical fiction tells us an enormous amount about the community and accepted behaviour and language of the time. That time existed and while we’ve moved on to a more complex age in just about every sense it’s that ring of authenticity, that behaviour and language which is audacious by today’s standards, that makes these books thought-provoking, compelling reading.

Oh yes, and it was the cocktail era. It’s been a long day. Time for a Sidecar.

1 Comment

Filed under Musings, Writers