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Book Review: The Folly of French Kissing by Carla McKay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review: Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough

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

I maybe the only reviwer 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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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.

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Australian Women Writers: 2012 Challenge

awwc2012Having happened upon the Australian Women Writers Challenge AFTER it has started I’m now keen to get involved and play catch up.

There are soooo many talented Australian women writers writing today and in the past; where do I start?

I’ll be reviewing books by Sulari Gentill and Gillian Mears, in fact I already have. New crime author Ellen Mary Wilton gets a review for her first crime novel Hysteria in the Wisteria, there is a wealth of Kerry Greenwood books (some of which I have read so often I can quote from), Mandy Sayer’s Love in the Years of Lunacy and many more on my bookshelves and iPad which I’ll be reviewing before the year’s end.

I’m hoping to have between ten and fifteen reviews here as part of the Challenge this year. I read a LOT of books – it’s finding the time to write up the reviews that’s going to be the hard thing.

This is going to be a fun journey. I hope to read many other reviews as well as books along the way! Somehow I think I’m going to be too busy reading to write much fiction of my own. C’est la vie.

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