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July, 1998

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Welcome, once again to my reading corner. This month, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, including three titles which come close to being the best of their respective genres.


Australian book, (A)
US/Canadian book (US) or (C)
British book (B).
Other book - (O) .

YA = Young Adult. C = Children’s NF = Non Fiction.
F = Fantasy N = Novel M = Mainstream R = Romance
CR = Crime. T = Thriller. H = Historical.

The Wind off the Small Isles, Mary Stewart. (B), R,A
Rose Cottage, Mary Stewart. (B) R, Mystery.
Night Train to Memphis, Elizabeth Peters, (B,US)M,T,R
Envoy, Shanna Jay, (A) SF,R,N.
Summer of Fear, Lois Duncan (B,US) YA,F,T
Gallows Hill, Lois Duncan, (B,US) YA,F,T,R
How to Write and Sell Your Personal Experiences, Lois Duncan. (U.S.) NF.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1968. 96pp.
This copy came from the library, but I own most of Mary Stewart's non-Arthurian books.

I thought I knew all of Mary Stewart's work, so I was surprised to come across this title at the library. It's a very small format hardback, and at only 96 pages, considerably shorter than most of her adult fiction. Knowing nothing of it but its title, I supposed it was set in the Hebrides, but not at all - the setting is Lanzarote.

All Mary Stewart's books have a strong sense of place. Greece, England, France, the Scottish islands, are only a few of her settings. I had heard of Lanzarote before - it was used for the location filming of one of the Peter Davidson Dr Who stories - but until I read this book, I had no idea where it was. Now I know it's close to the Canary Islands, but that, unlike most of the islands in its vicinity, it's dry, volcanic and covered with solidified lava and ash.

The story is a simple one. Perdita, the narrator, goes to Lanzarote with her employer, author Cora Gresham. While on the island, Cora finds her dream house. This turns out to belong to a playwright, who just happens to employ Cora's son Michael. The house is the scene of a 19th Century elopement, and in the course of a few frightening hours, Perdita discovers the fate of the long-ago lovers - and almost shares it. Oh, and of course she falls in love with Michael.

Having said this, I would recommend this book to any student of literature as a curiosity. It’s short, but it has so many similarities with her other, longer works. For those who admire her style, this is a flawless example; vintage Stewart in miniature, with all her familiar ingredients.

Characterisation is not Stewart's strongest point. Or maybe, like Dick Francis, she has found a suitable mould and simply doesn't bother to change it! All Francis's heroes, whether wine merchants, jockeys, trainers or merchant bankers, have the same tone of voice, the same self-deprecating humour, the same understated decency. They're all attractive to women, but not exactly fighting them off with clubs. Stewart's heroines are their female counterparts. A little less humour, and a little younger, but that’s about it. Most Stewart heroines are in their early to mid twenties, most work in some fairly genteel occupation. Many of the earlier heroines smoke, but lately they seem to have given up.

Stewart’s heroes are not very individual either; they tend to be nice men, often literary in their leanings, gentle but able to fight for right (and their ladies) if necessary.

Perdita, the narrator and heroine, is the same character over again. She is particularised by a passion for swimming and skin-diving; a plot necessity for this story. Michael, her hero is the generic Stewart hero, a swimmer, a hopeful writer. As in "This Rough Magic", and "Touch Not the Cat", each chapter is prefaced with a line of poetry, taken, in this case, from John Keats' "The Eve of St Agnes".  The back-story (that of the eloping lovers and their fate) follows these quotes, and of course I’m wondering what came first - the setting, the poem or the back-story. As in “Touch Not the Cat", “Thornyhold” and some others, there’s a breath of fantasy. In “Touch Not the Cat”, Briony and her lover Rob are psychically linked; for much of the book neither Briony nor the reader knows the identity of Briony’s well-known but unrecognised soul-mate. In this novella, Michael “knows”, without much evidence, that Perdita is trapped in a collapsing lava tunnel and hurries to her rescue.

The warmth and sounds, the taste of salt, the smouldering volcanoes, all these come through very clearly. The sense of place is very strong. So is the suffocating darkness in which Perdita finds herself. The back-story,  as in “Touch Not the Cat”, is linked to the present, through journals, research, and, finally, through a silver rosary. Actor Sir Julian Gale, who plays quite a big part in “This Rough Magic”, is mentioned in passing here; so is the play he was concerned with in the other book. As far as I know (and I could easily be wrong) this is the only case of cross-linked characters in Mary Stewart’s non-Arthurian books.

So, that’s the story on this novella. Perhaps because of its brevity, the modern romance has rather too-slight foundations, but Mary Stewart’s books are not romances in the modern sense. I’ve never been able to categorise them, really. Many of them have thriller elements, but the lovely warm literate style and the beautifully observed settings tend to be more memorable than even the tensest moments. Even murders - and some of her books do have these - fail to cast much of a pawl on the reader. It’s odd, really - and I can’t imagine a new Mary Stewart-type writer popping up in modern times. More’s the pity.

ROSE COTTAGE, by Mary Stewart. Published by Hodder & Stoughten, Coronet Books, 1997. 234 pp. This is a library book, but I have a collection of Mary Stewart’s work myself.

Rose Cottage is the latest book by Mary Stewart, who was born in 1916 and whose first book, Madam Will You Talk, was published in 1954.

Ms Stewart’s latest three books, Stormy Petrel, Thornyhold and Rose Cottage, show an interesting change in her plotting style. Thornyhold and Rose Cottage have a touch of magic, but on the whole the three are much gentler and milder than her earlier work. The mystery element is there, but the thriller element has gone. The protagonist of Rose Cottage is Kate Herrick, a young woman widowed in the last months of the Second World War, after only five weeks of marriage. The book is set in 1947.

The initial set-up for the story is quite elaborate, as Kate visits her ailing grandmother in Scotland. Back in her English village, Gran is cook at the local Big House. The family have moved to Scotland for the duration of the war, and now decide to stay there, leaving their English house to be turned into a motel. Gran will stay with them, and her old grace-and-favour home, Rose Cottage, will be sold off as part of the deal.

Gran asks Kate to go back to Rose Cottage and fetch some family treasures from the old safe. There is no-one else to do it; Kate’s unmarried mother, Lilias, is long-dead. Kate returns to Rose Cottage and meets her old friend and schoolmate, Davey. Back in the village, she finds herself a little uncertain of her role. Is she Kate Herrick, comfortably-off widow, or little Kathy Welland, who used to do the dusting at the Big House? Memories rise as she packs up Rose Cottage. Memories of Lilias, her flighty mother, of her strict Aunt Betsy, whose unbending ways sent Lilias from her home. The discovery of flowers on the unlamented Aunt Betsy’s grave, a newly dug patch of ground behind the cottage and the rifled state of the little safe are mysteries that seem to tie back to the two great uncertainties of Kate’s life,  the identity of her father and the exact circumstances of her mother’s death. One by one, the mysteries are solved, old wrongs righted, an old love rewarded, and by the end of the book Kate has given up her plans to return to London.

Rose Cottage is an attractive book, and The Times reviewer who detected “a sunset touch” was very perceptive. Perhaps it was wise of Mary Stewart to set her story in the past; her heroines are really not creatures of the 1990s. And no - Kate/Kathy does not smoke!

NIGHT TRAIN TO MEMPHIS, by Elizabeth Peters, Judy Piatkus Books, UK, 1994. 353 pp. A library book, but I hope to get my own copy soon.

This is the fifth (I think) in the Vicky Bliss series of mysteries from Elizabeth Peters. Dr Bliss is a blond art historian, a native of Minnesota and nearly six feet tall. Like Jacqueline Kirby and Amelia Peabody Emerson, Ms Peters’ other series heroines, Vicky’s story does progress. She mightn’t seem to age much from her original mid-twenties, but she remembers, and refers to, previous cases. One of the fascinations of Vicky’s books is her on-off relationship with “Sir John Smythe”, the gentleman thief. At least, that’s what John thinks he is. John made his first appearance in “The Camelot Caper”, a non-Bliss book, starring as the heroine’s cousin - and villain. He was an engaging character then, and remains so now. John’s thefts are usually bloodless and his favourite habit is replacing antique jewellery with clever fakes. A declared coward and pacifist, John still sometimes, and reluctantly, rescues Vicky when the bad guys get her!

In the book before this one, Vicky, who remains staunchly anti-marriage, managed to wring out an admission of love from John. This didn’t keep him from vanishing shortly afterwards, of course! Neither did Vicky hold much brief for the fact that he’d decided to try a legitimate job for a change! However, in the interim he has been sending small gifts and reminders. When these cease, Vicky becomes convinced that John is either in danger or up to something new. In an apparently unrelated move, she is invited to travel as guest lecturer on a Nile cruise. Once on board, she spots John - apparently on his honeymoon!

Nothing is as it seems, and the book’s plot (which deals with a plan to rob the Cairo Museum) twists energetically back and forth like an electric eel. Plot and counter-plot, disguises, narrow escapes - they’re all there. The book is of interest in many ways. The romantic element is much stronger than usual, and the villain is the nastiest piece of work I’ve ever met in fiction. The links with the former series entry (“Silhouette in Scarlet”), are very strong. Vicky’s character remains as likeable as ever (she’s much less irritating than Jacqueline Kirby), and that of Schmidt, her buffoonish German boss, is given much more definition. Vicky and John, and the reader, come to understand and value Schmidt as he deserves. John’s character is also brought more clearly into focus, and the ending is delightful. There can’t be many stories where a heroine and her lover sit totting up statutes of limitations and trying to decide which country will give one of them the shortest prison sentence...

The style is witty - quite often, I laughed aloud. I have only one reservation about “Night Train to Memphis”. With its strong links to the past, its unusually serious attention to the central relationships and the tying up of many loose ends (for instance, Vicky finally learns John’s real name),  I’m afraid it may prove to be Vicky’s swan song.

ENVOY, by Shannah Jay, 1994. Published by Pan Australia, 434 pp. This copy was a gift, but I’d have bought it anyway. It’s out of print, but anyone who wants a copy can order it directly from SA Jacobs, 121 Leslie Street, Mandurah, W.A. 6210.

Some long novels take a bit of getting into. Not this one! I was hooked from the first page, probably by  the energetic style of the writing. I remained hooked, and read the novel over a weekend, suspending various other activities to do so.

Science fiction is one of my favourite genres, particularly when mixed with romance, appealing characters and interesting societies. This one had it all.

The place is a planet in the far distant future; a place with a single continent containing two countries. These countries, Shavla and Deora, have been at war for generations, and now the Confederation has sent two mediators to bring peace - in any way they can. The mediators are Terran, backed by technology from another race which has lived in perpetual peace. Two envoys are chosen, and these two are isolated on an uncontested island with the mediators. The interaction of these four will decide the fate of the planet.

The best outcome is a voluntary peace. To this end the envoys must be educated and gently led to a point where they can not only admit that peace must and can be made, but to a point where they can persuade their governments. The terms are stark enough; if mediation fails, peace will be enforced under an occupation. If mediation works with one nation and not with the other, then the dissenter will be physically screened off from its enemy.

The stages of mediation are complex and many, and the set-up and plot fascinating in their own right. However, it is the growth achieved by Channa, the Shavlan envoy and her developing relationship with Mediator Joran that is the main focus of the story. As Channa moves from an outwardly hidebound military commander to a very human and strongly individual woman, so other relationships shift and change. The Deorin envoy,Van Makass, is shown mainly through Channa’s  eyes, and the change in her perception says more about her than about him. Lilla, the other mediator is quite lightly sketched. Channa’s parents, living apart in different Factions yet retaining affection for one another, are a fascinating couple. I want to know more about Channa’s brother, and about her cousin. The villain is sadistic - it’s a good touch that he is Shavlan, and that danger arises from within Shavla rather than from its traditional enemy.

The book is quite a long one, yet there are no slow stretches,  not a gram of padding. I want to know more about almost everyone and everything. If pushed, I’d compare Envoy with some of Anne McCaffrey’s best work, but it is in no way derivative. I’ve never read anything like it.

SUMMER OF FEAR, by Lois Duncan.
Published by Scholastic. The copyright note is 1976, but my copy is dated 1982. 199 pages.

I bought this copy second-hand at a market. I’ve read Summer of Fear before from the library. It probably isn’t one of Lois Duncan’s best books, but I find it interesting because she speaks of it as a “landmark book” in her non fiction title How to Write and Sell your Personal Experiences..

Lois Duncan specialises in YA thrillers, and many of you will be familiar with her work through the recent movie I Know What You Did Last Summer. As usual, the book has been considerably altered during its transformation to the big screen. The bad language and violence, so graphic on-screen, are respectively missing from and a bit milder in the book.

Apparently, there is also a film of Summer of Fear. I’ve never seen it, but I recall the author commenting with some amusement that the little dog character, Trickle, had been changed by scriptwriters into a horse. As she points out, this change meant that the scene where heroine Rachel buries her dead pet had to be deleted from the story.

Summer of Fear is a story about witchcraft. Teenager Rachel is ready to be kind and sympathetic when her orphaned cousin Julia comes to live with her family in Albuquerque, but from the beginning Julia doesn’t fit in. Rachel’s dog Trickle hates her and is banished from the house. Later, Trickle dies and Rachel suspects (and later proves) that Julia bewitched him.

Slowly, Rachel’s brothers, boyfriend and parents are won over by Julia. Only Rachel and an elderly friend remain sceptical, and when the Professor suffers a much-too-convenient stroke, Rachel realises Julia is not only dangerous, but lethal. Is the girl her cousin at all? If not, who is she and what does she want?

The answers to these questions are quite chilling. In an ending that pre-empts by a couple of decades techniques used in the X-Files and the Burning Zone, “Julia” escapes and disappears. In the qualified happy epilogue, we see Rachel, now an adult, reading a newspaper report that makes her suspect the witch has wormed her way into another family’s fabric.

GALLOWS HILL, by Lois Duncan. Published by Penguin Books, 1997, 227 pp. I bought this copy new, from the Devonport Bookshop in 1998.

I have read several of Lois Duncan’s books, and although I really prefer her non-fiction, I do admire her for her long and successful career and her devotion to producing generally good, and always interesting, thrillers.

Gallows Hill is a better book than Summer of Fear, and is one of the few fiction titles Duncan has produced since a family tragedy some years ago.

Sarah can’t understand it when her capable school-teacher mother suddenly gives up her job and moves across country to a small, isolated town called Pine Crest. Rosemary’s ostensible reason for the move is to be close to Ted Thompson, the married (but separated) teacher she has met at a seminar. Ted’s teenaged daughter and young son live with their mother, but small-town morality persuades Ted to keep up his own apartment, even while functionally living with Rosemary.

Sarah is annoyed at the change in her situation. She dislikes Ted, his daughter Kyra, and Pine Grove. The school is cliquey, and no-one makes any move to include Sarah in social events. That is, until Eric, the local golden boy and jock, persuades her to tell fortunes at the school fair.

Reluctantly, Sarah agrees, and, with the help of information collected and fed to her by Kyra, she makes a creditable showing. Only when she really does see something in her crystal ball does she begin to get nervous and call the whole thing off. There are disappointed clients waiting, and Eric and Kyra begin a new scam - private readings in Ted’s empty apartment. Kyra feeds more and more private and often sensitive information, and eventually, Sarah is accused of using black magic.

She can’t believe it, but by now matters seem to take on a life of their own. The Salem Witchcraft Trials are given as a term paper subject, and as Sarah digs up more information she begins to have nightmares. Everyone is acting irrationally, and the only stable force in her life, apart from her pet cat, is Charlie, the overweight and philosophical boy whom Sarah helps with his paper run after he breaks his arm.

Charlie believes in Karma and reincarnation, and although Sarah resists the ideas, she is finally forced to wonder if he might be right. And if he *is* right, are they really doomed to reinact the terrible events at Salem centuries ago?

This is an accomplished thriller, full of interesting details about witchcraft, history and Eastern philosophy. Charlie and Sarah are both attractive characters, and if Kyra and Eric seem to wobble a bit on the line between villainy and normal teenage behaviour, it’s easy to believe they are being influenced by the past. The whole scenario of cheer-leaders and jocks, Hallowe’en and small-town intolerance and spite seems a bit foreign, but the book was written and set in America, after all. One of Duncan’s best.

Published by Writer’s Digest, 1979, revised edition 1986. 237 words.

I’ve had this book for some time, and it’s one of my favourite “how-to”s. Lois Duncan, an accomplished author with a long and successful career, proves that she can write non-fiction as well (better, in my opinion) as fiction. Her tone of voice in this book is friendly and very likeable tone, and the reader learns a lot about Lois and her family as they appear in anecdotes used to support the techniques and suggestions she makes in the book.

The title says it all, really. Lois shows just how personal experience can be streamlined, altered and shaped into saleable prose. There’s a lot about technique, some marvellous advice about shaping articles and stories, and close examination of several different markets. Greeting card verse is covered, so are confession magazines, women’s slicks, novels, inspirationals and children’s books. I’ve read the book several times, (probably more often than any of her novels) and I still enjoy it. This said, I have to add that much of the advice is very misleading for writers who aim at non-American markets.

In case that sounds harsh, I’d better point out that I am fully aware the book isn’t new. That’s clear enough from the amusing chapter on learning how to write with a word-processer! Nevertheless, it wasn’t so very old in the mid-80s when I tried to use some of her marketing tips myself. The major problems come down to market share.

Having tried greeting card verse, I learned that most of ours is imported from overseas. Confession markets in Australia (unlike those in the U.S.) often require the author to sign a declaration that the stories are true. The most glaring problem when applied to Australia is Lois’s statement that children’s books and YA novels are wonderful money spinners because they stay in print for decades....  Some of her 1950s titles are still in print and still selling. Try to find even one such title from a contemporary Australian author! Even books published in 1996 are unlikely to be still in print by now.

So, much as I enjoy this book and applaud some of the technical advice, I’d suggest that anyone who is lucky enough to find a copy should read it as a memoir and check with other, more recent sources before putting any of the advice into practice. A good recent source is Jennifer Bacia’s CHAPTER ONE, which I will review next month.

Sally Odgers

Festivale Australian online magazine
copyright © Festivale 1997 All rights reserved
ISSN 1328-8008
Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Box 972G, Melbourne GPO VIC 3001 Australia

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: Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia : copyright © Festivale 1999 All rights reserved
Filed: July-1998

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