‘The Unmourned – Book Two, The Monsarrat Series’ by Meg and Tom Keneally, 2017. A review by John Cook.

Meg and Tom Keneally, daughter and father, are on a roll with their crime series set during the early days of Australia’s colonial settlement. The Unmourned is the second of a projected 12-book saga recently optioned by December Media, the production company behind that “other” historical TV crime-drama series, The Dr Blake Mysteries, set in the 1950s.

Given Dr Blake’s forensic investigations were conducted against the backdrop of his domestic arrangements with his astute housekeeper, Jean, there’s a continuity here. Ticket-of-leave gentleman convict, Hugh Monsarrat, also has a canny housekeeper, the small but redoubtable Mrs Mulrooney of the excellent tea. Irish by birth, Mrs M is not above flicking her employer with the end of a kitchen towel when he proves too slow to keep up with her quicksilver thinking. It’s another interesting master-servant relationship, although without the frisson of romance.

We’re also in a very different time frame, one in which female convicts are relegated to the first, second or third class depending on their social status, and housed accordingly in the Paramatta Female Factory: an institution that simultaneously serves as a prison, a marriage bureau for men seeking cheap domestic help, and an employment agency.

The prison-by-any-other-name is also a lucrative business for the abominable superintendent, Robert Church, who has been capitalising on the women’s labour while skimming their rations and raping them. The Unmourned opens with Church being unceremoniously murdered by an unknown assailant who spears him through the eye with an awl. He definitely had it coming.

As the authors inform us later, while the Paramatta Female Factory did indeed exist, and was the template for 11 similar factories that operated around Australia at that time, Robert Church is a fiction, although the “real” superintendents were not always above reproach.

As in the best historical crime series, archival evidence provides the structure for a story that riffs on a history that is also poignantly personal. In a telling coda, we learn that Meg Keneally’s great-great grandmother was one of 5000 women who went through the Paramatta Female Factory, transported from Limerick for stealing clothing.

Having recently relocated from the penal settlement of Port Macquarie to Parramatta, Monsarrat is directed by his new government employer to investigate the murder of Church. Everyone involved appears convinced that a troublesome female convict, Grace O’Leary, is to blame. Just in case she is innocent, Monsarrat is sent to interview the suspect before she is dispatched to the gallows.

In the commission of this task, Monsarrat is once again reliant on Mrs Mulrooney, whom he knows to be a far more astute judge of character than himself, and one much better equipped to talk to all the unfortunate women involved. They make a fine team.

One of the most interesting aspects of this tale is the attention to literacy and language. Monsarrat’s most in-demand skills are his ability to take shorthand and his copper plate penmanship. Even more significant is the fact that the prime suspect, Grace, is the author of many letters that exhibit her command of the official discourse while protesting the treatment of the women.

There is, as Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney discover, much more at stake than murder. Not surprisingly given its origins, this is a series that takes social justice very seriously.

Robert Church is the man whose murder sets off the second adventure of Hugh Monsarrat, newly freed convict and clerk to the governor’s secretary in the still young colony of New South Wales, and the woman who is ostensibly his housekeeper but really his best friend, Hannah Mulrooney. As Superintendent of the Parramatta women’s prison (known as the Female Factory) Church took full advantage of his position’s power by starving, abusing and sexually assaulting the prisoners as well as siphoning off whatever he could to line his own pockets. Literally no one, not even his beleaguered wife, mourns his death and it would be easy for the case to be quickly dealt with if not for the fact that the prime suspect appears, at least to Monsarrat, to potentially be innocent. But everyone else, including his own boss, believes Grace O’Leary, an outspoken leader among the female convicts, guilty of the crime. Monsarrat, ably assisted by Mrs Mulrooney, has only a few days and a limited amount of official tolerance for his shenanigans, to conclude his investigation.

It is always with some trepidation I approach a book I am really hoping to like because, as happened last month, it can be disappointing. But Meg and Tom Keneally did not let me down with this second instalment of their historical crime series set in colonial Australia. Although I enjoyed this novel’s predecessor, last year’s THE SOLDIER’S CURSE, very much I thought this one even better. The story here is more complex and so ultimately a more satisfying tale to unravel. Given the murder victim’s reputation there is no shortage of suspects and even if they aren’t involved in the crime many of them have secrets they’d prefer to keep hidden. Trying to ascertain which of the many secrets provided a motivation for murder keeps our amateur sleuths, and this reader, guessing until the very end.

Even Mrs Mulrooney has something to hide and its revelation provides a turning point in her relationship with Monsarrat, though not in the way the person who reveals the secret anticipates. These two characters and their relationship – something of a surrogate mother/son one I suppose – is another highlight of the novel. Monsarrat is forced to confront his core beliefs as he comes against situations in which his own freedom, something he values very deeply, is threatened if he continues down a certain path. It’s not immediately obvious which choice he will make and it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to avoid a third foray into fairly brutal penal life so there is real tension in seeing this thread unfold over the course of the story. Mrs Mulrooney continues to grow in confidence as she writes her first letters to her son, thanks to Monsarrat’s teaching. Her observations about the difficulties involved in learning to read and write offer an excellent insight into her practical and astute character

“…I would have to say that the letters won’t behave themselves. They keep insisting on doing different things in different words. There is no logic to it, no organisation. If I ran a kitchen the way the English language runs itself, it would be in ruins.”

Despite these problems Mrs Mulrooney in turn becomes a writing teacher as well as a friend to some of the inhabitants of the Female Factory. What we learn of her personal history, including her connection to the events which occurred at Vinegar Hill in 1798 only endears her further to Monsarrat (and readers).

Once again the Keneally duo has wrapped a terrific story around a fascinating and credible depiction of life in Parramatta in 1825. The physical aspects of the setting are vividly brought to life as are the psychological and emotional elements that must surely eventuate in a place where most people are either criminals (or ex-criminals) or their captors. The power imbalances and opportunities for abuse and ill-treatment seem endless and it’s almost a miracle that some people, like Grace O’Leary, retain their humanity in the face of it all.

I can wholeheartedly recommend THE UNMOURNED to fans of historical crime fiction but would even suggest it to those who’ve not tried this sub genre before. The book has humour, a touch of romance, and intelligently explores our social and political history while introducing memorable characters and telling a ripper yarn. What more could you want?

(BCC library has 44 copies + ebook and audiobook )

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘The End of Billy Knight’ by Ty Jacob, 2014. A review by John Cook.

Ty Jacob is a nom de plume for Jarod Gulian an American who has migrated to Martinborough at the bottom of the South island of NZ. There he and his partner (CJ) have, since 2006, been taming their 20 acres of largely olive trees though there are other farming aspects in their mix (see fhttps://jaredgulian.com/ for more info). He has written about his farming endeavours and that work is due for world-wide release this year. Nothing he tells us about himself and his experiences, prepares the reader for this book.

It is set in the US in the late 80s to 90s with some references to small town life but overwhelmingly centering on the homosexual world of West Hollywood (and Miami) and its denizens – almost exclusively on those involved in all forms of the sale of sex and mostly on the porn industry. A lot of homosexual men are heavy users of pornography and have a sizeable curiosity about who makes it, when, how and the activity that surrounds it. The handsome disturbed country boy who comes to LA seeking glamour and a good time is a tattered genre of its own and this tale commences with it. What becomes unusual is that it follows the lives of two very different characters – Billy Knight who has it all as a handsome talented bottom who is destined to stardom in the video field with its accompanying money-making opportunities (dancing and escort work) and Sacha, a classic overweight drag queen who carves out her place as a large personality in a relatively small niche as a stage performer.

The book provides lots of detailed information about their lives, activities and those who surround them – it is quite valuably informative in that sense. There is also a deal of sex and description of sexual activity but this is quite well done. What sets this apart from those that are similar, is the relationship between the two.

Sasha is a great supporter for Billy in all his endeavours and the pair share teir digs for a long time. However, there is no sex between the two and Sacha initially contributes more to the household in all senses. It is inevitable that Sacha’s feelings are going to stray into the sexual but Billy makes it clear that nothing in that respect is going to happen. This is the point in the story that most lacks credibility. Billy is no innocent and lives in a world that should surely have attuned him more acutely to Sacha’s feelings, but he doesn’t until the denouement. That is a long way to go as this is a book of 454 pages – definitely not a one-handed novel – and there are plenty of twists and turns as Billy gradually develops a taste for a long-term relationship and even a life outside the porn industry. Sacha sees a new direction in directing porn, initially just videos of the denizens of Venice beach, then at-home solos. He desperately want to be a director with a big name production house and works and schemes to that end wit some success and involvement of Billy. One of the fun aspects of this story for the cognoscenti is to guess who the real life persons, videos and production houses are matched with the fictional.

Clearly something has to give as tensions grow between Sacha and Billy and it does – again part of the fun lies in anticipating what direction it might take and what the conclusion may hold. That I leave to you in this thoroughly entertaining novel. All I can say is that I looked back on some of my gym trainers in a new light.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘The King’s Assassin: the fatal affair of George Villiers and James I’ by Benjamin Woolley, 2017. A review by John Cook.

Image result for the kings assassin benjamin woolley

As an aficionado of Tudor and Jacobean history, I could not fail to be attracted to this story. I have long been aware of the existence of George Villiers, later Duke of Buckingham, as a key figure in the reign of James VI (Scotland) and I (England). He was something more, however, as he was a ‘favourite’. This is a fascinating term employed regularly to label someone who might be a relatively unlikely individual who gains a close association with a monarch and becomes involved in their power plays sometimes in overweening or inappropriate ways. It often acquires a tinge of scandal as there may be rumours of a sexual association as in the case of Piers Gaveston ‘under’ Edward II and William Bentick, Ist Earl of Portland ‘under’ William I of Orange. George Villiers is just such a case whether, or to what degree, one considers King James to have been homosexual. I must confess I was not aware in such considerable detail as presented here, that he might directly or indirectly (even accidentally) have been involved in that King’s death. Certainly, ‘assassin’ seems a somewhat unwarranted term to use.

Some readers might be a little surprised at the intimate language used in communications between James and his beloved ‘Steenie’ and the lengths he would go to in order to support and maintain him. However, I am reminded of the somewhat lushly poetical language male Victorians sometimes used when corresponding with their intimate friends. This goes that extra mile, however.

Woolley is not a ‘professional’ academic historian with his training/experience inclining to creative writing for radio, TV and the screen. His bibliography inclines to topics that are often tangential but are themed especially in early sciences. As such, his book ‘The Herbalist’ focuses on the life of Thomas Culpeper (not the executed one – a relative only) who was an apothecary, natural therapist and Republican leading up to the English civil war. Research for this book has obviously taken Woolley into the very early practice of modern medicine with Culpeper’s antipathy to William Harvey, developer of the theory of bodily circulation. This is all relevant as there is a great deal of coverage of issues of health throughout this work. This is natural enough for a time that saw plague as well as conventional illnesses. It is also, however, central to the main thrust of the book, which is that, at the end of a long career as a political creature to James I, Villiers acted either negligently or deliberately to contribute to the death of the ailing James and ensure the succession of the ill-fated Charles I.

The book is therefore an interesting insight into the daily lives and machinations of James’ court after he arrived in England to encounter a swarm of young Englishmen ‘on the make’ in terms of political and financial advantage as well as, perhaps, in the sexual sense as well. George Villiers’ life is presented in great detail (lots of supporting research and clever use of extensive resource material) and often in very lifelike ways. I enjoyed this aspect immensely as well as gaining an insight in James’ character particularly in his declining years and the formation of the habits and attitudes that were to so soundly underwrite the fall of Charles  I (who like Henry VIII and George V was a second choice as monarch).

Not an entirely easy book to read but very satisfying if your interests lie with historical biography.

(5 copies in BCC library)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘Serving in Silence?: Australian LGBT servicemen and women’ by Noah Riseman, Shirleene Robinson, Graham Willett, 2018. A review by John Cook.

Image result for serving in silence ? book

This publication neatly bookends my reading about LGBT Australian servicemen. It commenced with occasional items in collections of memoirs published over the years about mostly WWII service and was supplemented by the now-pilloried Donald Friend’s diaries which were quite open about his activities in service in Australia and to the North. Yorick Smaal and Graham Willett’s work on New Guinea and the Pacific Islands  more recently expanded this in great detail and put it into an historical context. Still, ringing my ears were the words of that RSL icon of my earlier years Bruce Ruxton -“I don’t know where all these gays and poofters have come from, I don’t remember a single one from World War Two.”

This head in the sand attitude without reference to Bruce’s lack of attractiveness (even in that position) was clearly typical of many who were genuinely unaware of same-sex attraction and activity and/or wanted none of it in the armed forced for the usual  regularly stated morale oriented reasons.

This book picks up post 1945 and does an excellent job of tracing the gradual changes in public awareness and willingness to accept those movements matched with the usual likewise political unwillingness despite the emergence of those individuals and groups that have promoted engines of change and used them to keep the ball rolling as this was gradually internalised within the ADF.

The Introduction orients the reader and then follows a series of presentations based on a selection of interviews undertaken by the team focussing on the last 25 years. The credentials of the authors are impeccable as historians and activists.

The book is remarkable for the genuine insights it gives into the family history of each recruit and their motivations in seeing service as something they genuinely aspired to and wanted as a life goal. Each has a story to tell of the process of enlistment, selection, training and assignment covering roles from basic service to quite high levels of operation in all of the Forces. It is remarkable to hear their stories of how they worked in environments that ranged from the fiercely hostile to greater acceptance in more recent times. Time and again the interviewees were aware of closeted personnel operating beside them and sometimes a degree of acceptance from lower ranks.

What stands out are the tales of witch-hunts (particularly in the RAAF – shades of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his aircraftsmen) and the behaviour of senior levels of the Navy when dealing with Matt Cone.

It is uplifting and reassuring to see how often the drive to organise and resist has eventually had dramatic positive results. A good learning read for all.

(BCC library has 5 copies)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘How Do We Look? The Eye Of Faith’ by Mary Beard, 2018. A review by John Cook.

Image result for how do we look the eye of faith   Image result for mary beard

I am a great fan of Mary Beard, now Dame (OBE now DBE) arising from her expertise as a Don with high specialisation in Ancient History and the art of Rome and Greece (Professor of Classics at Cambridge since 2004). She has published widely and also appeared in TV programmes that seek to popularise her interests through an understanding of the everyday – viz ‘Meet the Romans with Mary Beard’, ‘Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard’ ‘Ultimate Rome’, Julius Caesar Revealed’ and now ‘Civilizations’ a nine part series with co-presenters Simon Schama and David Olusoga in which she presents two episodes. I look forward to it, partly on its own merits and as an historical comparison with the magisterial Sir Kenneth Clark. Key to understanding her approach is that understanding history is very much a case of interpreting it in the context, understandings and motive of those who have produced it and viewed ir – it is not holy writ in isolation. She is a strongly principled feminist who brooks no fools and peddlers of historical inaccuracies and controversies on the Net. Her blog ‘A Don’s Life’ regularly receives up to 40,00 hits per day. She is quite the phenomenon.

As I understand it, this book is something of a spin-off from the new TV series. It is not long and is very well illustrated with carefully selected items that are the basis for her musings and theorising. It is quite easy to read with a series of smallish chapters loosely linked but contributing to her central thesis. In Part 1 she visits Mexico, Spain, Egypt, India and so on looking at such items as Olmec carvings and the colossi of Amenhotep III and begins her examination of objects born in a context and then constantly re-evaluated in unexpected ways that grant them new meaning. That process is further developed in Part Two: The Eye of Faith where questions of art in religion are raised and considered in a number of faith contexts. In her Afterword: Civilisation and Civilisations She states

‘…the problems of a European or western focus are not simply ‘solved’ by including non-western art. Here too a lot depends on who is looking and in what context. Paradoxically to cast a white western gaze over the art of the world – even to shoehorn it into a ‘history of art’ whose framework was ultimately devised by Winckelmann – risks becoming almost as ethnocentric a project as restricting that gaze to Europe. I am nevertheless convinced that we gain more than we lose in making the attempt to look more widely. In working on this project my own eyes have been opened to different ways of seeing.’

I shall continue to enjoy the ABC’s production ‘Everyone’s a Critic’

(BCC library has 5 copies)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘City Of Devils’ by Paul French, 2018. A review by John Cook.

Image result for city of devils paul french

I have to confess to personal experiences that drew me to this book. My first experience of China was in 1981 and I remember Shanghai vividly. That was a time when the first glimmerings of the new China were emerging but the fabric of Shanghai was largely as it was after the Japanese were expelled by the Communist regime with an overlay of dreary 1950’s housing buildings and some few grandiose monumental ones. I was impressed by the evident remnants of buildings in the old French Quarter where I stayed and even found myself eating with table cutlery stamped ‘Le Cercle Sportif’. My reading had made me aware of the period in the 1930s until the final advance of the Japanese put an end to one of the great trading entrepots of the world and a byword for unbridled capitalism, vice and sheer opportunism. The Park Hotel was still in place and I dined at the top where the urinal had a plate glass window overlooking the city. It wasn’t hard to begin to imagine what those improbably wild days were like. Many people today would have a little familiarity acquired through seeing Speilberg’s ‘Empire of the Sun’ movie with its evocation of the last days and that brilliant soundtrack.

Paul French is quite an expert of this era with notable publications on Peking as well. The detail of lives presented in this book must employ some touches of fiction but the supplied references are very substantial indeed. His book ‘Midnight in Peking’ is a best seller and is to be made into a TV series. That could well be an outcome for this work as well though handling the gritty darkness could prove difficult. This book is noir with no apologies, with a constant presentation of hectic music, clubbing, all kinds of criminal activity ranging from the commercial through all kinds of thieving, extortion, labour abuse, prostitution, street crime and corrupt deals with whomever might have some power. There is also plenty of racism at work at all levels. There were some forces for law and order present but they were often woefully underpowered (deliberately) and sometimes white-anted.

While there is an amazing range of people who are introduced, French focuses on two men (this book is largely about men though there are some fascinating examples of women who suffered or survived in this environment). They were Joe Farren, a Jewish ecapee/dancer from Vienna who built an empire around clubs and casinos that saw him rise to dizzying heights and ‘Lucky’ Jack Riley an all-time American adventurer and jail escapee who originally founded his wealth and power by importing and controlling virtually every slot machine in town. How he decided to do this and the process that followed in a book on its own. It certainly reminds one to consider the role these machines continue to play in our own country. The dynamic between these two men is the backbone of this book as they also fall prey to the predominant mixture of survival and avarice.

There is so much going on in this book yet I managed to keep most people separate while I must give a mention to Don Chisholm who managed to combine a publication ‘Shopping News’ that presented local scandal (when not bribed) along with promoting the latest fashion purchases available in the cantonment. The book presents some extracts from his rag. He later became a mouthpiece for Japan.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is intense and capable of outrage. It opens up the boiler-like circumstances that surround this brief period and reveals the viciousness and degradation of which the human character is capable when opportune with some occasional flashes of decency. I found its treatment of the Japanese invasion including the systematic use of Methamphetamines quite shocking. I think many Australian readers need to be more aware of what happened in Shanghai, Nanjing and Manila (amongst others) during this period.

I don’t want to frighten readers off though they do need to be forewarned. This an absorbing excellent read with its challenging content rewarding if you accept that challenge.

(BCC library has 10 copies)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘The Apology’ by Ross Watkins, 2018. A review by John Cook.

 

The Apology - Ross Watkins

Ross Watkin is a known quantity as an academic (PhD) in Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast and having illustrated and published books for children and adults. He will be promoting this book in Brisbane on Aug 29 at the Mt Gravatt BCC library and I shall be present.

The starting point for this book is the nightmare of all gays and lesbians in teaching positions – an allegation of sexual impropriety. Reviewers have likened this starting point and the treatment which follows to ‘The Slap’ – something with which I agree and disagree. The basic structure may be similar but I found the treatment closer and somewhat more interesting and less sensationalist. Certainly as the title indicates, it is less the initial allegation that is the focus rather the process of reactions and possibility of forgiveness and apology.

That focus remains mostly within the confines of one extended family and there is quite a variety of themes and aspects of human behaviour exposed. This, for me, bordered on being a fault as it felt a little like too many were being squeezed in. On the other hand, most often there is good reason for them to be present for their explanatory power – a good example being the treatment of arson.

Adrian Pomery is the recipient of the allegation and what flows is entirely predictable. He turns to his family and detective brother for help and support and while it is available, there are other problems and ‘skeletons’ that complicate the process. Certainly there is little black and white here, rather gradations of motive and involvement that are well and sensitively pursued. Apart from the student making the allegation, there is the treatment of the school setting and Adrian’s family including wives and children including one young trans – it was at this point I felt a little cluttered by this element though it was carefully explored.

As the title indicates, there is an apology to be made but the development keeps the reader guessing as to whose it will be. I thought this was a key strength of the book as it kept me guessing as to what the resolution, if any, might be. The writing is well-paced and enjoyable, easy to read and reflective of its time, place and persons represented. I liked phrases such a school ‘full of bullshit artists in blazers’.

The highlight for me was the sensitive treatment of the boy who makes the allegation. More of us need to be prepared to go beyond such allegations and the pain they undoubtedly generate to explore where they might be coming from. Forgiveness might be to much to ask for as a given point in time, but understanding is something for which we can all strive.

(BCC library has 15 copies)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized