Monday, October 29, 2012

{review} the rowland sinclair series

Sulari Gentill A Decline in Prophets (2011) 
Sulari Gentill Miles Off Course (2012) 
Sulari Gentill Paving the New Road (2012)

Rowland Sinclair, Milton Isaacs and Clyde Watson Jones lined up at the foot of her bed, all leaning against the rail as they asked about her health. Annie Besant regarded them warmly. It was a particularly Australian habit, she observed - to lean. Australian men seem to lean whenever possible - against walls, posts, chairs… Australians had the ability to relax in any company or circumstance - they would face Armageddon itself leaning casually on a fence.
Sulari Gentill's 'Rowland Sinclair' series goes from strength to strength. She is such a refreshing new voice in Australian crime writing: no brutalized female corpses; barely a hint of sex; lots of solid historical background (and some wonderful bits from old newspapers), memorable characters, classic locations, and a sprinkling of little historical and literary riddling to tease the reader. I reviewed her first book (A Few Right Thinking Men) here, and have recently devoured the next three in the series. 

The second in the series is A Decline in Prophets. I was wondering how Gentill would manage her large cast of regular characters, and a highlight of this book was how she took her time to flesh out the groups' dynamics. Their witty badinage is a delight. We discover our hero Rowly - semi-voluntarily exiled from Australia after his disastrous run-in with the New Guard - travelling in style on RMS Aquitania, along with a group of Theosophists (including Annie Besant), a hot-headed Catholic Bishop, various eligible young ladies, and - of course - his faithful coterie of Clyde the artist, Milt the Red poet, and Edna, sculptress and unattainable love of Rowly's life. The action shifts - with murders aplenty - from the luxuries of life onboard to New York (where Edna makes a hit with one Archie Leach) then back to Sydney. Mysterious pregnancies, mad prophets, ambiguous suicides, Masons, mortuary chapels, dodgy poetry, and lots of fun and games. Can the gang make it safely back to lovely Woollahra with a murderer hot in pursuit? And has Rowly pushed his conservative elder brother's tolerance of his Bohemian lifestyle too far this time? A Decline in Prophets won the 2012 Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Novel by an Australian woman.

The third in the series, Miles Off Course, is, I think (and at the moment!), my favourite. It has such a wonderful Australian setting, moving from the sophisticated high life of the rich in the Blue Mountains to the harsh life of the stockmen who graze their animals in the 'High Country' of the Snowy Mountains. Rowly is sent by his brother Wilfred (a 'Mycroft', and one of my favourite characters - perhaps I relate to being the oldest sibling?) to track down a missing stockman. Harry Simpson is no ordinary stockman - an Aboriginal hand who grew up with the Sinclairs, he is far more than an employee to the Sinclair men. Rowly's stint roughing it in the High Country is more than welcome to him for other reasons: someone is gunning for him - could he be the next high-rolling victim of a spate of abductions? If the travelling snake circus doesn't get him first… This book also has the single best opening line I have read in the last decade. 

No 4., Paving the New Road, offers a change of scene for Rowly and his mates; it is also rather more brutal than its predecessors. It is quite an achievement on Gentill's part to create a veristic 'What If?' as she transports her gang of Bohemian Australian artists to Munich, 1933: "it was decided that they would pose as art dealers. Art was a language they could all speak." Rowly agrees to go to Germany to sabotage the plans of his old enemy Eric Campbell, the New Guard politician who would bring Fascism to Australia. Campbell is touring with members of the British Union of Fascists, whose members include the repellent Unity Mitford (with whom Rowly makes rather a hit). Along the way, Rowly also makes the acquaintance of a young blonde lady called Eva who works for a photographer and has a very secret boyfriend… Gentill does a lovely job manipulating people, events (and dates) to place her hero at the centre of an Australian-led fight against Fascism. There's a lot of humour in this book, despite the grim subject-matter and the knowledge of what is to come for the world. Where will Rowly and co. be in 1939? At the rate Gentill is producing these books, that won't be long! (Two incidental points: does "taught-haired" = tow-haired? And how freaky is it to discover someone you know has given his name to a character. My equilibrium is still awry.) 

If you liked this... for crime-loving history-nerds? It is hard to avoid comparison with Kerry Greenwood's 1920s' heroine Phryne Fisher, who is rich, strong-minded, and (er... unlike Rowly) not always a lady.


Monday, October 22, 2012

{review} in praise of older women

I asked her to show me the apartment, but it impressed me only as a blue and green background to her figure, until we came to a huge round bed. Paola let me kiss and hold her, without responding; but when I began to unbutton her dress, she tried to push me away with her elbows and knees. The tight dress frustrated her efforts as much as I did, and at last I succeeded in releasing her breasts, which swelled up as they emerged from the brassiere. Neither of us had spoken, but when my head bent over her white bosom she remarked, with a tinge of malice in her voice, ‘I’m frigid, you know.’ What was I to do, standing against her, with her bare breasts cupped in my hands? ‘I’ve just come from a revolution,’ I declared manfully, but without showing my face, ‘you can’t scare me.’
(I've always wondered where you get sheets for round beds. This is a problem I have with erotica - my mind tends to stray to the practical. You know... How? Why? Good Lord is that even possible?!)


This is an odd book - a coming-of-age story with pseudo-autobiographical touches. It is an exploration of the protagonist's sexual development elaborated through vignettes of his experiences - from being a (virgin) pimp to the US Army as a teenager in post-World War 2 Eastern Europe, to his life in the States as a refugee academic after fleeing the Hungarian revolution. 

The protagonist is preoccupied by his lack of sexual experience, a situation he attempts to right by pursuing girls his own age - with a notable lack of success. Perhaps his move towards older women can be viewed somewhat cynically, but his encounters - often a little bizarre, and rarely turning out in his favour - are tenderly described. The protagonist is no fetishist.
This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women – and the connection between the two is my proposition. I’m not an expert on sex, but I was a good student of the women I loved, and I’ll try to recall those happy and unhappy experiences which, I believe, made a man out of me.
Praiseworthy (!) lines: "But I worked hardest of all studying Latin. For some reason I was convinced that I would never amount to anything if I didn’t know Latin." 

Rating: A quiet, well-written and tender erotic classic that never quite engaged me. Is this because or in spite of my being pretty much in the relevant age-group now?! 

If you liked this: older women? Hmmm… Colette's Chéri, I think {REVIEW}.

Monday, October 15, 2012

{review} joanna & ulysses

May Sarton Joanna and Ulysses (1963)

Not look back. For a month she was to give herself to joy, to paint, to think, to feel youth, buried so long, rising up in her like sap into the branches of a battered tree.
I think I cried almost all the way through this novella. It is beautiful - writing, themes, donkeys, everything. Joanna is a thirty year old Athenian. She has been looking after her father since she was fifteen - since that day her mother died during the German occupation of Greece, in circumstances which devastated the family. 

Joanna dreams of becoming an artist and snatches at a chance for a month to herself on the beautiful island of Santorini. She will paint and eat and sleep and discover a 'renascent self': "somewhere deep down inside her there was a being who was not the dutiful daughter she had forced herself to become."

Santorini offers an escape and a chance to be selfish about her own needs. But Joanna does not factor in discovering Ulysses, an overworked and neglected donkey, who will transform her life. This all sounds a bit Eat, Bray, Love, doesn't it? It is hard to say why it isn't, but it really is one of the most sad, lovely books I have read this year and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 
The young man slouched toward her, and spoke in an angry, whining singsong, "He might last to the top," he said, "We'll work him till he drops, and that's that. Do you think we are rich?" He spat again, "We can't afford to keep a sick animal. If he dies, all right, kaput!"
Joanna flinched before the German word. The memories of cruelty and violence swept over her, cruelty about which one could do nothing; she experienced again the corroding poison of helplessness before violence. She felt suddenly weak, as weak as the donkey. The donkey had no strength, it seemed, even to wag its tail at the flies. It waited, just barely able to stand, its head drooping a little. The patience and suffering of the donkey were awful.    
It is also SO nice to read a book where a spinster makes it to the end and things turn out happily!

If you liked this... This is the first May Sarton book that I have read, but it won't be the last by any means.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

{misc.} - - - - - speare

Poor old -----speare. 
Did his works go out that window? 
I would definitely have sacrificed Virgil first.
Wonderfully pretentious library from here via here)
I wonder if I could get away with a nicely gilded "BIGGLES" somewhere...

Monday, October 8, 2012

{review} swimming home

Deborah Levy Swimming Home (2011)


Swimming Home belongs to one of my personal favourite literary 'genres': short books set in France. I have experienced many happy instances of this, both 'authentic' - Chéri {REVIEW}, Zazie in the Metro {REVIEW}, Bonjour Tristesse, Le Silence de la Mer - or Anglophone (e.g., Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes {REVIEW}).

Swimming Home is a disturbing little book - one knows that it will never end well, but precisely how badly will things go? While I was reading, I kept thinking how familiar it all sounded: dysfunctional family holiday, adulterous father, distant mother, daughter vs. menarche, Maenadish mentally troubled interloper, hot sun, dangerous roads, poetry and loss (artistic, financial and personal).

To assemble such an overtly significant set of quasi-archetypes does run the danger of reworking cliché or rewriting tragedy-with-a-capital-T. Interestingly, I read Bonjour Tristesse just after I finished Swimming Home, which probably enhanced my sense of how familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt in the hands of an exceptional writer.

The writing of Swimming Home - the language, the repetitions, the ambiguities, the characterisation - lift it beyond the slightness these hackneyed themes might suggest. I thought it a very successful attempt. Its little tragedies do linger on in the mind. 

And it was short. Did I mention that?! ;-) Will this be the year that a short book wins the Booker?

If you liked this... there's that little French book list above. I am thinking about Vercors (aka Jean Bruller), because Le Silence de la Mer was a set text in my French class at university, and was thus the first 'real' French novel(la) I ever read. He also wrote a 'fox into lady' response to David Garnett's wonderful Lady into Fox, called Sylva. Anyone read that? 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

{wishlist} cecil beaton

Want, want, want...

Cecil Beaton Theatre of War
the book accompanying 

Wren officers framed by 
Sir Christopher Wren's Colonnade 
at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, 
London, 1941 (source)

Monday, October 1, 2012

{review} aesop's mirror

Maryalice Huggins Aesop's Mirror (2009)
However wrong, it is always harder to feel sorry for the rich.

After my unhappy encounter with object biography in the form of The Hare with Amber Eyes (in sum: not a fan), I was a bit wary of another object bio. However, I wanted to read Aesop's Mirror because I had worked on Aesop as a graduate student. It suffers from rather a lot of the same thing that turned me off The Hare -- namely too much personal voice at the expense of the object, and an overemphasis on the amateur's delight in basic research -- but the story that the voice tells is an interesting one. 

An antique restorer with a special interest in mirrors stumbles on a very large figural mirror at a Rhode Island estate auction. It depicts, in vivid Rococo style, Aesop's fable of the Fox and the Grapes (which I am told by wikipedia is a story illustrative of cognitive dissonance). The mirror's history was murky (oh dear, I sense some mirror puns coming up) but Maryalice Huggins had a feeling that this find was special. At the same sale she also spent US50,000 dollars on a broken down couch which subsequently was on-sold after restoration for US190,000 dollars. One gathers that her eye for antiques is rather good.

Huggins sets out to track down the provenance of her mirror. Could it really be an important lost English piece by eighteenth century master carver Thomas Johnson? Or is it a product of a pattern-book, and nevertheless still - indeed, more - important as a very early piece of homegrown American carving of the 1830-1840s? The experts cannot agree at all, and Huggins has quite a battle on her hands against a number of the prejudices that automatically arise about something that just does not fit into the canon: as a major work on early American (fake) furniture advises, "Rare is an offensive four-letter word. Unique is an abomination." (source

Some of the experts she consults truly are beastly, but I felt a little uncomfortable in places with her remarks on the snobbishness of scholars towards her enthusiastic enquiries. (I can certainly sympathise: in the area of antiques, vast sums of money can be made courtesy of a scholarly stamp of authenticity.)

Huggins and her mirror (source - I'll be so pleased if anyone 
can answer the question on this link too)

Huggins' book explores a wide range of interesting topics, which as someone who knows zero about Rococo mirrors and the American antique industry, I found quite fascinating. The mirror itself, somewhat ironically, becomes less and less significant to the story as Huggins explores who might have owned it, and from where it might have come originally. She connects the mirror to the Brown family (of Brown University fame), and her archival research enables her to piece together a remarkable - albeit speculative - history involving furniture, Grand Tours ("The outset of the Franco-Prussian War sorely affected her shopping"), and even Charles Parnell, the Irish nationalist. The theme of the mirror, however, remains relevant:
The antiques business was changing, and I was growing a little tired of the politics and the market in general. The theme of the sour grapes now hit home. I half convinced myself I didn't want the mirror anymore and began not to care if I ever saw it again. The fruits it bore, the allure of its former owners, I believed no longer interested me. There was always something else to fall in love with.
This, for me, was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book - the object becomes a burden and a responsibility and a cause of some professional ill-feeling, yet it had such an effect on Huggins that, in the end, although she has sent it for auction, she feels only relief that it is passed in and returned to her care:
Despite the use of technology in determining value, art's effect cannot ever be explained factually. It is really very simple. If a piece has life, people respond to it... After years of investigation, there was really nothing to be proved that could enhance the experience of seeing something I found beautiful. Everything I needed to know about the Fox and Grapes mirror, I knew the moment I first saw it.
So...? I liked the bold speculation backed up by historical research, even if it was pretty speculative. I learned a lot about early American furniture, Rhode Island society, mirrors and the dirty side of the antiques trade.

Anyone read any good object biographies lately? I think I'm hooked...

{READ IN 2018}

  • 30.
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  • 26. The Grave's a Fine & Private Place - Alan Bradley
  • 25. This is What Happened - Mick Herron
  • 24. London Rules - Mick Herron
  • 23. The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White
  • 22. Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed - Alan Bradley
  • 21. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
  • 20. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
  • 19. Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley
  • 18. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
  • 17. Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd
  • 16. The Long Arm of the Law - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 15. Nobody Walks - Mick Herron
  • 14. The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
  • 13. Portrait of a Murderer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 12. Murder is a Waiting Game - Anthony Gilbert
  • 11. Tenant for the Tomb - Anthony Gilbert
  • 10. Death Wears a Mask - Anthony Gilbert
  • 9. Night Encounter - Anthony Gilbert
  • 8. The Visitor - Anthony Gilbert
  • 7. The Looking Glass Murder - Anthony Gilbert
  • 6. The Voice - Anthony Gilbert
  • 5. The Fingerprint - Anthony Gilbert
  • 4. Ring for a Noose - Anthony Gilbert
  • 3. No Dust in the Attic - Anthony Gilbert
  • 2. Uncertain Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 1. She Shall Died - Anthony Gilbert

{READ IN 2017}

  • 134. Third Crime Lucky - Anthony Gilbert
  • 133. Death Takes a Wife - Anthony Gilbert
  • 132. Death Against the Clock - Anthony Gilbert
  • 131. Give Death a Name - Anthony Gilbert
  • 130. Riddle of a Lady - Anthony Gilbert
  • 129. And Death Came Too - Anthony Gilbert
  • 128. Snake in the Grass - Anthony Gilbert
  • 127. Footsteps Behind Me - Anthony Gilbert
  • 126. Miss Pinnegar Disappears - Anthony Gilbert
  • 125. Lady-Killer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 124. A Nice Cup of Tea - Anthony Gilbert
  • 123. Die in the Dark - Anthony Gilbert
  • 122. Death in the Wrong Room - Anthony Gilbert
  • 121. The Spinster's Secret - Anthony Gilbert
  • 120. Lift up the Lid - Anthony Gilbert
  • 119. Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert
  • 118. The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
  • 117. A Spy for Mr Crook - Anthony Gilbert
  • 116. The Scarlet Button - Anthony Gilbert
  • 115. He Came by Night - Anthony Gilbert
  • 114. Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Anthony Gilbert
  • 113. Death in the Blackout - Anthony Gilbert
  • 112. The Woman in Red - Anthony Gilbert
  • 111. The Vanishing Corpse - Anthony Gilbert
  • 110. London Crimes - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 109. The Midnight Line - Anthony Gilbert
  • 108. The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert
  • 107. Dear Dead Woman - Anthony Gilbert
  • 106. The Bell of Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 105. Treason in my Breast - Anthony Gilbert
  • 104. Murder has no Tongue - Anthony Gilbert
  • 103. The Man who Wasn't There - Anthony Gilbert
  • 102. Murder by Experts - Anthony Gilbert
  • 101. The Perfect Murder Case - Christopher Bush
  • 100. The Plumley Inheritance - Christopher Bush
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
  • 97. The Mind Readers - Margery Allingham
  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
  • 77. No Man's Land - David Baldacci
  • 76. The Escape - David Baldacci
  • 75. The Forgotten - David Baldacci
  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
  • JULY
  • 73. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth
  • 72. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth
  • 71. The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth
  • 70. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth
  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
  • 68. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth
  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
  • 64. The Narrow - Michael Connelly
  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
  • JUNE
  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 58. The PM's Secret Agent - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 56. Princess Elizabeth's Spy - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 55. Mr Churchill's Secretary - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 54. A Lesson in Secrets - Jacqueline Winspear
  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
  • 51. Hit List - Lawrence Block
  • 50. Six Were Present - E. R. Punshon
  • 49. Triple Quest - E. R. Punshon
  • MAY
  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
  • 47. Brought to Light - E. R. Punshon
  • 46. Strange Ending - E. R. Punshon
  • 45. The Attending Truth - E. R. Punshon
  • 44. The Golden Dagger - E. R. Punshon
  • 43. The Secret Search - E. R. Punshon
  • 42. Spook Street - Mick Herron
  • 41. Real Tigers - Mick Herron
  • 40. Dead Lions - Mick Herron
  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
  • 37. So Many Doors - E. R. Punshon
  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
  • 34. A Murder is Arranged - Basil Thomson
  • 33. The Milliner's Hat Mystery - Basil Thomson
  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 24. Ragdoll - Daniel Cole
  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore
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