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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: 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: 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.

“What?”

“Everything.”

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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Review: The Cartographer by Peter Twohig. Fast, furious and funny.

The CartographerModern Australian society saddens me. Kids aren’t allowed climb trees any more in case they fall and injure themselves. You can get arrested for letting your eight year old walk, alone, 200 metres to the newsagent to pick up the Sunday papers or buy himself some sweets. Gone are the joys of being a primary school kid and riding your bike, alone, to school. Is my generation one of the last where kids had freedom and the great outdoors in which to let their imaginations run wild?

A chapter or two into first-time novelist Peter Twohig’s The Cartographer and I was filled with joy. The hero, a kid whose first name we never learn, is a right little ratbag with a vivid imagination and a penchant for getting into rough and often dark places. Literally dark. This kid likes drains. Bless him.

It’s Melbourne in 1959.  Our young hero is eleven, and still burdened with the guilt of his twin Tom dying the year before in an accident with monkey bars at a local playground. Our hero couldn’t lift up the bars to save his brother’s life, and part of the kid’s character is twisted up in his brother’s character as well. He thinks and acts for both of them, despite Tom no longer being around.

While exploring a house with a wild, jungle garden, the kid watches a murder take place. Now most kids these days would be scarred for life and sent straight to counselling, but our little hero’s imagination and curiosity view the deed with an almost scientific dispassion; his quick wit and quick actions save his own life when the murderer discovers the kid is watching the whole scene unfold.

And that’s where the action really starts. A little later when the kid sees another murder take place I was thinking it was all a bit too much and a bit too far-fetched; chases through drains and tunnels, through the back streets of Melbourne’s seedier suburbs, the kid outthinking and outrunning the baddies. I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the action and violence and wished the kid would spend a week living like a normal child his age, you know, sitting at home with a comic book and taking pot shots at tin cans with an air rifle.  But then I kept reading, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Imagining himself as a super hero – The Cartographer, who uses his journeys to build a map of Melbourne which is subterranean as well as on top of the ground – the kid eludes the murderer.  His map grows as does the danger he is in. Around him a web is slowly closing though; the kid is at the centre of something bigger than himself, through no fault of his own.

There are some superb laugh out loud bits in this book which relieve the tension. And tense it is; beautifully crafted cliffhangers keep you turning the page when you really meant to stop five chapters ago.

There is also authenticity, in the trams, the tv shows, the movies, the sweets and lollies, the very life of late 50s Australia. There’s a larrikin sense of freedom in this book and in its young hero. The kid’s family – his mother, estranged father, grandfather – are people you’ll know if you’re an Aussie of a certain age. Everyone has met people like them in their youth.

There is also harshness typical of the kid’s generation; in the murders, in the matter of fact way the kid talks about the deaths he has seen and the death of his first dog, the breakup of his parent’s marriage.

And there’s darkness; physical darkness in the drains but I think echoed in the kid’s head as he copes with murders, crooked cops, and being truly himself.

In the end, after rollicking chase after rollicking chase, after little snippets of information fed delicately to make a complete picture, I adored this book and the ‘voice’ of its hero. You can buy it at all good bookstores or find out more about it here at The Cartographer website. There are also a number of scary questions on the official website for book clubs, which make me feel completely dumb for enjoying this book as I did; as an action-packed coming of age comedy drama about a kid with a dead twin and a brilliant imagination.

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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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Love in the Years of Lunacy by Mandy Sayer – a review

Love in the Years of LunacyI regularly read Mandy Sayer’s weekly column in The Australian, delighted by her take on life, her past, her chihuahua. When Love in the Years of Lunacy was published last year I was at the bookshop with cash in hand, intrigued to discover how Mandy’s wry style would cover Sydney during WWII.

Here was familiar territory – my Mum talks about dancing at the Trocadero, with its revolving bandstands. It’s 1942 and heroine Pearl is a sax player in a jazz band at the Troc . Her twin brother Martin, also a saxophonist, moonlights in an all-black club which caters for American GIs stationed in Sydney – let’s not forget that under American segregation laws at the time these soldiers wouldn’t be welcome at the Trocadero or most other hotels, restaurants and clubs. Anyway, Pearl sneaks into the club with Martin to play with the band and meets handsome black GI, sax player extraordinaire James Washington.

Initially James gives Pearl sax lessons – and yes, you’re waiting for the play on word about sex lessons. That too. They flaunt convention by going out together but when James seeks permission to marry her, his CO has him transferred to Queensland. Ah, the White Australia policy. To say nothing of the Americans not wanting black and white to mix. How we take our multicultural world of today for granted!

Pearl attempts suicide; her doctor sends her for twelve weeks’ rehab in his private clinic and Pearl listlessly allows herself to be wooed by him. He’s a creepy bugger (my words); oily, very possessive. I couldn’t believe she agreed to marry him. He’s even convinced her to give up sax playing and she is a husk of her former self, malleable to his moulding of her.

Meanwhile Pearl’s twin Martin has joined the Army band corps and while he’s home on leave tells Pearl he met with James in Queensland. His orders come in and to his dismay his next posting is to New Guinea. At the same time, Artie Shaw’s jazz band is in Sydney. Pearl comes alive again. She dresses up in Martin’s uniform, hiding her hair, in an attempt to meet up with Artie’s band – and she bumps into James who is also in Sydney. She learns James is also being posted to New Guinea and learns that she loves him as much as she ever did, and he her.

Pearl and Martin hatch a plan for Pearl to follow James, swapping their identities. Martin – at least I presume it was he and not Pearl herself – crops Pearl’s long blonde hair to a crew cut. I was a little surprise this detail wasn’t covered with a paragraph as  women in those days didn’t sport such short hair. It would have been a bit traumatic for Pearl I would have thought; perhaps the excitement of planning to see James would have been foremost in her mind.

Anyhoo the long and short of it is that Pearl gets away with her deception. She’s posted to New Guinea in the Army jazz band. Unbelievably she manages to keep her identity a secret from the other band members even when sharing a cabin on the boat to New Guinea. To me, this second half of the book is less believable than the first, less strong. However well-researched (and it is!) the New Guinea adventure didn’t resonate with the Sydney half of the book. That is probably just me though.

Band member Charlie discovers her secret when he makes a pass at her believing she’s queer, as he is, but he keeps her secret. The band plays at several jungle venues throughout New Guinea, drawing ever closer to James’ remote posting.  There are deaths, there are illnesses, and there is James, who has since deserted, leaving a stray dog he has befriended behind him. Now he is even further away and Pearl and the diminishing band, plus the dog, play to fatigued soldiers; Pearl never gives up hope. She has come this far, exhausted, almost alone now, covering herself in pig fat to keep the insects away, and she knows that somehow she’ll find him.

Does she?

This is a love story. What do you think?

As for whether there is a happily ever after, I’ll leave that for you to read for yourself.

Despite not enjoying the second half of the book as much as the first, I’d recommend this one. It captures the mood of Sydney during wartime – my mother confirms that. She was a teen during the war and while she didn’t move in the Kings Cross and jazz circles Pearl did, the authenticity is there she says.

For me, the music sings throughout the book. I’ve always loved swing and jazz music from the 40s, and the music itself is almost a palpable character. Mandy Sayer is a jazzman’s daughter, and her love for the music, and the musicians, shines through.

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Thrill City by Leigh Redhead: Review

Thrill CitySimone Kirsch. There’s a name to conjure with. It will come as no surprise to learn that she is an ex-stripper turned private investigator. What else could she be with a name like that? Simone is the ballsy, bolshy and very funny creation of Aussie writer Leigh Redhead, and Thrill City is the fourth in the Simone Kirsch series.

In this case I haven’t started reading a series at the beginning. I am almost ashamed to say I picked up this book for a fiver when my local bookshop had a surplus sale on. Sad for author Redhead, as a fiver won’t earn her much in the way of royalties and her author photo shows she has a cat to feed, but good for me as I was hooked from page one and will be buying and reading the other books now .

Thrill City is a roller coaster of a book. The action doesn’t stop; it’s almost too fast-paced as Simone gets into strife and out of it again in her search to find missing client writer Nick.  It’s a Girl’s Own Thriller, with laugh out loud moments (particularly from Chloe, Simone’s best friend, moaning about the state of her very pregnant body and how she’ll cope with sex afterwards).

For all the almost unbelievable action Simone is a believable and likeable heroine. She’s fallible, far from perfect. So far from perfect her relationship with copper Sean is in tatters by the end of the book.

Leigh Redhead’s Melbourne is gritty and real. I’m a Sydneysider and love visiting Melbourne; I have family there. As I read this book I kept squawking, “Ooh! I know that place!” with delight. I may be a little more wary wandering around St Kilda after dark now though.

This is a great book to take on holiday. It’s pure escapism. Lying on the beach in a place that’s too blissful and perfect for words? Drag yourself back to a bikies’ den in Broken Hill. Longhaul flight and the movies are boring? Be on the run with Simone, dodging bullets.

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know, I’m glad I’ve discovered Simone Kirsch.

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