Welcome to Sally's monthly book reviews! This won't be quite like most review columns, because it's going to consist entirely of selected books I have read each month. Some of them will be new, some will be old favourites, or maybe obscure, but in each case I'll be telling you where I got my copy and (if possible) the year of publication.
I am female, Australian, married with teenaged children, and am forty years old. I have been reliably informed that I have weird taste. I'm not sure what that means, but I long ago decided (about the year I left High School) that life was too short to read the following;
(*) Books I'm not enjoying after Chapter 3.
The fiction I do like includes well-written romance, character-driven science fiction and fantasy, some novels, well-plotted adventures, mysteries and who-dunnits and a good many children's books, usually British or Australian. On the non-fiction side, I read books about animals and birds, books about names, flowers, gardens, gemstones, some biographies or autobiographies (usually of writers), a bit of social history and some books which relate to the crafts of writing and television drama.
So - that's my reading habits. If you share them, or simply like a stickybeak into other readers' opinions, maybe you'll enjoy my column. The reviews will reflect my opinions, rather than incontrovertible facts, so I won't often bother to qualify my comments.
Selected Books for January, 1998
DR WHO; THE DISCONTINUITY GUIDE, by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping. Virgin Publishing, 1995. 357 pages. I got my copy from Galaxy Book Shop in Sydney, a couple of years ago.
As the authors admit, any new entry into the Dr Who field has to justify its existence in some way, and I reckon this one does a good job. I’ve read it from cover to cover twice and enjoyed - and admired - it both times. Beginning with the first ever episode of the venerable series, the authors cover the entire history. Readers like me marvel at their persistence and dedication and - occasionally - wonder how on earth they managed to trace all the little bits of information. Others might wonder why they bothered. Each segment begins with the roots of the story concerned. Everything from the Old Testament to Shakespeare to Alien and Sherlock Holmes is cited, not suggesting plagiarism, but simply as a salutary reminder that all stories grow from the sum of the writer’s knowledge married with imagination. Next come gleeful lists of fluffs (where actors struggled with recalcitrant dialogue), glitches, where the plots or the acting went awry, and wonderful examples of technobabble. The best and worst bits of dialogue are cited, overall appeal discussed, and continuity, with suggested explanations for contradictions, is covered with style and wit.
That’s it. Don’t expect cast lists or complete run-downs of the plots. Do expect to laugh aloud sometimes. Not tongue-in-cheek, not an apologia, not an attack, but a clear-eyed appreciation of a series that helped shape the imagination of a generation. A worthy companion to such titles as The Nth Doctor and Dr Who, the Book of Lists.
DANGER IN THE WINGS|
For three years I learned history as a primary school subject. All I really remember (apart from the interminable explorers of Australia) is the making of the Union Jack and a biased account of the Cavaliers and Roundheads. For four years I learned history as a high school subject. Apart from the interminable explorers of Australia, (revisited every year) I learned a little about the Vietnam war and a little about the first and second world wars (mostly at ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day) and something about Federation and the convict system.
From Geoffrey Trease, whose books I read for the sheer joy of a good story, human characters and a fluid prose style, I learnt about ancient Rome, Greece, Vikings, Pepys, Garibaldi, Renaissance Italy, Venice, Elizabethan England, Bonaparte’s times, King Alfred, Imperial Russia, the Crusades. I read and re-read the books I could find and re-read them still. I have to say the Mr Trease succeeded where my schooling failed - in making history interesting. How I wish he’d written something about Australian history! I had to wait until I was in my 30s to find that interesting.
Geoffrey Trease was born in 1909, and I was delighted to find his story-telling powers not one bit faded in his most recent book - DANGER IN THE WINGS. Dan, the young hero, is the son of a wealthy Boston merchant on the eve of the War of Independence. Stage struck after seeing a troop of English actors, Dan sets off to spend 6 months in England learning his trade. While he does so, the political situation worsens.
Finally, after all these years, I know just WHY the American colonies wanted to break with Britain. Finally, I understand the reason for the Boston Tea Party. Finally, I understand how Sheridan’s writing differed from Shakespeare’s - and a whole lot more besides. Thanks, Mr Trease. You didn’t let me down.
A TALE OF TIME CITY, by Diana Wynne Jones.
Published by Methuen in the UK in 1987.
Like most of DWJ's books, this one requires close attention if you're going to understand everything that's happening. It's not among her very best, but that still leaves it head and shoulders over most of its genre. The story opens with a very strange kidnapping on a railway station during 1939.
Vivian Smith is an evacuee from London, going reluctantly to stay with her unknown Cousin Marty. Instead, she ends up in Time City, a place which exists outside time and space. Ordinary plot so far, but her kidnappers are 8 and 12 years old and they believe her to be a legendary being known as the “Time Lady”, a danger to their city. When they discover their mistake, events have already begun to change in the 20th Century. The story includes all kinds of echoes of myths and legends; four caskets which are also, mysteriously, polarities which hold the city in place. There are strange guardians, weird happenings - but there are also homely details like young Sam's addiction to butter pies and Sempitern Walker's pre-ceremony rages and Elio the android's lack of taste. The fabled “Faber John”, is, if I’m not wrong, an echo of “Prester John”, and young Vivian is as dangerous and as innocent as an unknowing typhoid carrier. Many of DWJ’s favourite themes are present; hidden identities, characters who function on more than one level, and plot twists that defy a single reading.
At 285 pages, A Tale of Time City is considerably longer than most modern children's books, it is also a little unusual in that the protagonists are considerably younger than the probable readers.
MYNAHS, by Otto von Frisch, published by Barron's,
New York, in 1986. This is a translation of a book called
DER BEO, published in Germany in 1981. I bought my
copy in the Mall Newsagent, Devonport, in late 1997.|
Mynahs is a modest little square paperback of 72 pages, embellished with sketches, diagrams and coloured photographs. I bought it because, sharing my life with four self-opinionated cockatoos, I was interested in these other talking birds. The book is logically set out, describing the habitats and different kinds of mynah, giving hints on housing, feeding, behaviour and problems. The author, a mynah owner himself, talks about his own pets and experiences. The writing style is friendly without being excessively chatty, and I enjoyed it very much. One quibble; being an American edition of a fairly old German book, most of the information on prices, availability etc is outdated and probably useless to Australian readers.
WICKED IN SILK, by Andrea Young, a "Scarlet" book from Robinson Publishing, UK, 1996. I bought my copy by mail order from Bookmark Books in Queensland late last year.
This one is a fairly long romance - 390 pages. It's a laugh a minute as Claudia Maitland, the heroine, poses as a kissogram girl to extract money from her lazy cousin. The fun really hits the fan when Claudia ends up working for Guy Hamilton as a minder for his difficult teenage daughter during a stint in Arabia. Claudia's unspoken comments are sprinkled through the book in italics, and I often found myself laughing aloud. It's a little bit naughty, in a very British way - and I have it on reliable authority that Ms Young was asked to tone it down a little in her next romance title so as not to offend some readers. I'll be sorry if she did. Just as televisions have an On/Off switch, so books have covers that can be closed.