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Book review: Paving the New Road by Sulari Gentill

Paving the New Road by Sulari GentillIf politics in New South Wales were bonkers in 1933, they had nothing on Europe – as Rowland Sinclair, upper class but bohemian artist and unwitting sleuth – finds out in the fourth book in this series.

Against his better judgement – and to save his brother from undertaking this potentially dangerous mission – Rowland agrees to travel to Germany to spy on Colonel Eric Campbell of the New Guard, who is visiting Germany with the potential intent of bringing European Fascism to Australia. He’s also been asked to find out whether fellow Australian Peter Bothwell’s death in Germany was really of natural causes or something more sinister; after all, Bothwell was his successor in putting a spanner into the works of Campbell’s plans. It galls Rowland to think that his trip is funded by the right-thinking men he despises and that he is essentially working for the Old Guard, but he despises Campbell even more.

His friends sculptress Edna Higgins, poet Milton Isaacs and fellow artist Clyde Watson Jones insist on accompanying him, all of them armed with passports which give them new identities as art dealers on a buying trip – and some of the deliberately unsuitable pieces they buy along the way are simply hysterical; what the conservative Riverina Movement will make of them when they unpack the crate had me giggling like a fool.

Like the other books in this series, fictional characters mix with real people. This premise can be dangerous if done badly or sloppily researched, but Sulari as always has researched her real people and their behaviour very carefully.  Rowland and his friends are flown to London by Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (‘call me Smithy”); during their fourteen day journey they meet with the languid Somerset Maugham in Singapore.

In Germany, they meet and befriend a lonely and slightly mysterious girl called Eva, who is lovelorn over her “Herr Wolf”, a man who doesn’t have time to see her. Rowland presumes he’s a married man and Eva won’t tell, but you can guess who Eva is from the outset. Near the end of the book her surname is revealed to be Braun.

Journalist-cum-spy Nancy Wake assists Rowland in his quest. And there’s Unity Mitford, jumping out of the pages with more than a hint of madness and a nickname for everyone. As a commitred Mitford-phile myself, I think Sulari has nailed her well. Unity plays a key role in one particular event by playing a Mitfordesque practical joke on Campbell himself.

Edna is flattered by the attentions of tailor Alois Richter (who is VERY scathing about the abilities of one Hugo Boss, a tailor who has the contract to make uniforms for the SS, another giggling moment for me) who kindly lets the Australians stay in his lakeside house. A very girly comment here: Edna gets to wear some superb frocks!

But Germany, in the year or so since Rowland last visited, is changing. The Brownshirts are menacing and bullying. Fascism is rising faster than the sun. Books considered un-German or inflammatory (in the literal sense!) are being burned, the SA have taken to bullying even children, let alone the Jews; you can almost palpably feel the underlying hysteria of a people being  pulled along in the wake of a charismatic megalomaniacal leader.  (Who, by the way, doesn’t appear in the book himself.)  It’s a dangerous place to be, even if you’re apparently an art dealer. As always Rowland is mixing with dangerous people; he is captured by the SA, tortured, and comes as close to dying as he’s ever likely too.

And it’s not just the SA who wants him dead. There’s also somebody he trusted with whom he fights for survival. Injured, marred for life and presumed dead, Rowland needs to get out of Germany. If his loyalty to his brother Wil is key to him being in Germany in the first place, it’s another brother’s loyalty towards his own brother which can get him out.

The experience leaves Rowland, formerly insouciant and flippant about politics, interested in international politics; I wonder now where this series, and Rowland, will go. He and his friends have grown up a lot in this novel. Nazi Germany is a long way from laid-back Australia, and the contrast has had a sobering effect on them.

I do love the quotes which Sulari chooses to accompany each chapter. They’re from Australian newspapers and include this gem from the Courier Mail in 1933: “Even the kindergarten schools in Germany come under the influence of the Hitler regime. In a picture, received by air mail, young children – scarcely more than babies – are shown given the Nazi salute as they march past their school master.” Yikes! Makes you more thankful than ever for democratic government.

I read this book as an e-book using Kindle reader on my iPad; I have another of Sulari’s books as an e-book and confess that I do prefer reading them as paper books. However, I was in such a hurry to get my hands on this one I downloaded rather than drove to the bookshop.

Sulari Gentill has written about one of history’s troubled times with a beautiful mix of history, research and imagination. Fast-paced and authentic, this one’s a winner, whichever format you read it in.

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On course, actually. Miles off Course by Sulari Gentill

Miles off Course by Sulari GentillThe third Rowland Sinclair novel by Sulari Gentill sees high adventure in the high country of southern NSW, an area the author knows well.

It’s 1933 and artist Rowland is enjoying a Blue Mountains break with friends Clyde, Milton and Edna when he learns that his family’s trusted employee Harry Simpson has vanished. Harry’s been kidnapped, and Rowland finds himself in danger as he heads to the bush in search of Harry.

It seems that Harry’s kidnapping is part of a bigger plot and once again NSW politics – as crazy then as it’s ever been or is – is part of it. One way or another, Rowland’s in trouble up to his neck and finds himself captive with Harry deep in the bush… miles from anywhere, miles off course.

This is a rollicking read, galloping along with the pace of a stock horse on the top of a hill. As with her two earlier books Sulari Gentill has researched the era thoroughly, from clothing and food and mannerisms to the seething boiling pot of politics and the delicate subject of treason. A visit to Clyde’s family in rural NSW, for example, is beautifully drawn; the working-class cottage and the slight awkwardness with which rich Rowland is received by the family is a delight and full of attention to detail.

Sly grogger Kate Leigh makes an appearance as does author Miles Franklin – I do love the way Sulari introduces real characters into her books. Even better is the beginning and end with conversations between Norman Lindsay and his wife; I laughed out loud.

And Rowly makes his feelings for Edna very clear, without realising he’s doing it. You’ll have to read the book to find out the how, why and when for this moment!

I picked the villain quite early; the oily little bugger just didn’t seem right, but I didn’t pick the WHY. The unravelling at the plot near the end was thus very satisfying and much bigger than I expected. I was sorry to finish the book and it certainly deserves a re-reading by me sometime soon, when I can savour it and read it more slowly rather than avidly gobbling it.

In the meantime, Sulari Gentill is working on the fourth book in the series which takes Rowly, Milton, Clyde and Edna to Munich in 1933. I foresee some spectacular action!

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A Decline in Prophets by Sulari Gentill – Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Always?” Milton whispered, incredulous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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