Tag Archives: women

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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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!

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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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