Tag Archives: historical

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: A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

A Few Right Thinking Men

Image nicked unashamedly from the author's site but I hope she doesn't mind

I’ve mentioned before my love of Golden Age fiction or fiction set in that era, and was wandering around the excellent bookshop in the Qantas terminal getting ready to fly to Adelaide last Friday when I saw a paperback that intrigued me; the artwork on its cover was 1920/30s inspired, so I picked it up, scanned the back cover, realised it was a murder mystery set in Sydney in 1931 and thought: “Yay!!  That’s my flight read!”

The book in question is A Few Right Thinking Men by Australian author Sulari Gentill.

It moves from the unlikely but somehow believable world of bohemian artists living in a posh Woollahra mansion to the country town of Yass in southern NSW. Now Yass I know quite well; my grandmother was born there, and I was intrigued at Sulari’s version of Yass in the early 1930s, where a rather disturbing, and disturbingly large, group of what we’d now call rednecks held a rebellious meeting against the NSW Labor government of the time.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, save for explaining a bit of confusion. In the preface to chapter one, Rowland Sinclair’s death is reported. Now… Rowland Sinclair is the hero so I was a bit bemused until his uncle with the same name came on the scene (and was nastily bumped off shortly afterward, hence the murder mystery).

Rowland the hero mixes with real-life characters from the time in an effort to solve the mystery of his uncle’s murder. Sulari’s research is thorough and rings of realism. The book is set in the Depression and moves between Rowland’s privileged and very moneyed world to that of the battlers with understanding, empathy and realism. My family – my grandparents and their two young daughters – moved from country NSW to Sydney when the Depression hit, and the entire family lived in one room in a Woollahra mansion which had been converted to flats. It was easy for me to reconcile stories I’d heard about Sydney at the time with Sulari’s book, and find an authenticity in it.

Some of the characters and actions seem larger than life; but then the book touches on real events and people here and there and as a reader you discover that Sydney – in fact NSW – was polarised at the time (what’s changed, you may ask. That’s another story!). Think of De Groot, riding through the crowd on his horse and slashing the ribbon on the Harbour Bridge at the official opening. He’s in the book, so is the New Guard and Old Guard, and assuming Sulari’s research is as thorough as it appears they were a right nasty bunch of right-wingers. Admittedly the threat of Communism was seen as being very real back then, and this book is as much about politics as it is about the bohemian world of the artist and his friends, the family antagonism as Rowland and his brother face off on either side of the political wall, and let’s not forget the murder. Premier Jack Lang was seen by many as flying a flag that was just a bit too red. 1930s Sydney was a rough, tough place; it needed rough, tough politics to survive at a time when money, food and jobs were scarce. Between Lang’s Labor and the New or Old Guard was truly between a rock and a hard place.

Sulari has chosen a wealthy man as the hero in the tradition of many Golden Age writers or modern writers setting their work in that period. The nearest modern and local comparison I can give you is Kerry Greenwood’s elegant and titled Phryne Fisher, the lovely 1920s Melbourne sleuth. Making your hero or heroine well-heeled allows them to move freely through society; it allows the author to set them in enviable surroundings, the type of place readers enjoy mentally escaping to. It’s more empathetic for us 21st century softies than having a hero stuck in the dinginess of a Darlinghurst two up, two down with a lean-to kitchen out the back, a permanent smell of cabbages and no money for the tram fare or no entree to posh places to nab a snobby villain. Like Phryne Fisher, Rowland Sinclair has a superb car at his disposal – escapism at its finest, in many senses of the term (particuarly Rowland’s!).

In many ways the real hero of the book is 1930s Sydney; Rowland’s character isn’t as developed as it could be – I don’t know him well yet, he’s not the close friend a hero can be at this stage – but I suspect more about his earlier life, and a stronger character development, will emerge as time goes on. While I empathised with Rowland during my 1930s romp around NSW I felt I didn’t get to ‘know’ him as well as I’ve got to know other lead characters. This book is the first in a series the author is planning. I’m looking forward to reading more and watching this intriguing series, and its lead characters, develop.

This book has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book 2011.  I wish the author good luck – good crime in a well-researched vintage setting is a winner for me!

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The Cryink Game

Finally, a new short(ish) story: Holly’s first job in 1970s suburban Sydney isn’t just answering the phones, it’s dealing with a dodgy overbearing builder who wants to marry her off to his son.

“What’s a Palamar?” Rosemary squinted at the note; it had grubby fingerprints on it and smelt of garlic, clearly the work of Franco the foreman whose spelling was a phonetic reproduction of his accent.

Rhoda and I peered over her shoulder. “Palamar comming 10AM toomoro.”

“I suppose we’ll find out at ten tomorrow,” Rhoda said brightly.

“Palamar, palamar,” mused Rosemary, staring out the window into the muddy mire that was the backyard cum building site. Franco and the boys had left for the day and as usual they had simply downed tools and walked off, leaving shovels, trowels and other equipment in a still life.

Her eyes widened. “Pa-LA-mar! It’s a plumber!”

You wouldn’t believe how excited three people could get over this announcement but working with the builders was like dealing with an alien life form or translating an ancient Egyptian cuneiform. There were rare moments of brilliance in communication. Continue reading

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Isabel Shakes Her Spear

This time it’s a trip to Shakespeare’s England.  Isabel ain’t your usual demure Tudor miss. She’s struggling to become a writer in a male-dominated world, even if it means cross-dressing, swilling beer and lighting farts. And the man of her dreams only had a bath last week… Warnings: Sex scenes, bad language, terrible liberties with history. 18+

Isabel tossed in her sleep. She was having the dream again.
Isabel sees the woman from behind. She is sitting in a peculiar chair, one spindle from the seat going down onto a brace affair with five wheels on the bottom. She is tapping her fingers on little grey squares and the glowing rectangle in front of her is throwing up words. The machine makes squawking noises every so often.
The woman sighs and scratches her head, then arches her back. She is wearing clothes like Isabel has never seen, a plain jersey and, of all things, trousers. No ruffles, no tight hose. She is dressed like a man in these cerulean blue trousers yet dressed like no man Isabel has ever seen. Her dark hair is loose and hangs to her shoulders. Continue reading

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She Loved Riding Sidesaddle

Well bred but impoverished Edwardian girl Henrietta needed a rich husband. Sebastian wanted a nubile young wife with money to match her charm. It’s up to Cyrus P. Brownknowes III to arrange things….but he didn’t take falling in love into account!  Warning: Sexual scenes, bad language. 18+

Lord Sebastian Smallcock, Earl of Buttox, cleared his throat. “I must find a wife, Brownknowes. A rich one.”
Cyrus P. Brownknowes III, from New York, New York (as you might have guessed) was full of ideas. “Well, Seb -”
“Ahem.”
” – er, Lord Smallcock, you could get an ad made for television…”
“This is 1912, Brownknowes. Television won’t be invited for another thirty odd years.” Continue reading

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Guinevere and the Knights on the Round Table

What REALLY went on in the Dark Ages? Was King Arthur reallly pissed all the time? Was his sister Morgan really a lesbian? Were Guinevere and Lancelot really having it off?  The introduction of gerbils to England and more is covered in this historical masterpiece! Warning: Sexual scenes, bad language, homosexuality, implied cruelty to gerbils. 18+

“He loveth me ….”
“AAAARRRGGGHHHH!”
“….He loveth me not!”
“AAAARRRGGGHHHH!”
“He loveth me….”
“AAAARRRGGGHHHH!”
“….He loveth me not! Pustulent pox, it always endeth up as “he loveth me not”!” Queen Guinevere, spoilt teenaged queen of England, glared malevolently at her husband Arthur’s head torturer, a robust, muscly, hairy man clad in tight black leather trousers and a black mask on his face. It turned her on just watching him work. Continue reading

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Love Without The Lights On

Hopelessly interbred Kate discovers the joys of first love during the Second World War in an English village so secret even its name is censored. Sexual references, bad language. 18+

Overhead the lumbering Lancasters limped back to the airfield, one with a portside engine on fire, one wavering perilously, almost falling from the sky, but most were intact. They just looked – weary.
Kate Harpington-Smythe looked eagerly at each tired ‘plane, hunting for the name on the nose. And there it was! K for Kate! Algy’s ‘plane! If she looked carefully she fancied she could see Algy, the tail-end Charlie, waving at her.
She waved frantically in return, her heart thudding absurdly. He was safe!
Kate helped out on a volunteer basis at the canteen at the airfield at Upp*r F*ttock (the name was top secret, and censored), which was how she had met Algy in the first place. Continue reading

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