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August, 1998

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Welcome, again to my reading corner. This month, there are fewer books than usual, because (a) I’ve been away for a while and (b) two of the longest books I read were ones I’ve written myself and, much as I’d love to review them on-line, I’ll really have to leave that to someone else. A third book, which I was enjoying, I managed to leave behind in Victoria.

The books I did manage to get read and reviewed include non fiction for adults and children, a fantasy, a romance/thriller and a wonderful encyclopaedia of fantasy.

Now for something new that is related to books and reading. From time to time I’ll put the URL of any particularly interesting net sites I come across. I probably won’t mention large commercial sites, but sometimes I chance on something that someone out there is keeping as a pet. Watch this space!


The above URL is a collection of clickable images. I was quite fascinated by some of them, especially the one that looked like three vampires and a tomb. KEY TO SALLY’S CODES.

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.

Ancient Egypt, ed. Dr George Hart, (A), NF,C.
Stars and Planets, ed David H. Levy.(A), NF,C
The Little Book of Big Questions, Jackie French, (A), NF,C.
Stonestruck, Helen Cresswell, (B), C,F.
Shadowed Promises, Vickie Moore, (A) R,T
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute and John Grant. (B), NF.

ANCIENT EGYPT, (Discoveries Series, edited by Dr George Hart.) A Little Ark Book, Allen & Unwin, 1995. This paperback edition 1998. RRP. $14.95 64 pp.
This is a review copy, but I would have read it anyway.

I had high expectations of “Ancient Egypt”, and I wasn’t disappointed. This book is a wonderful resource for projects, and a good quick read for anyone, child or adult, who wants an entertaining overview of the place and its people. There’s plenty of information, and it’s easy to find. The book is broken into four segments, and covers such diverse subjects as family life, defence, clothing, mummies, the gods and the building of the pyramids.

At the back of the book is an extensive index, a glossary and a table showing the dynasties of Ancient Egypt. There are large coloured pictures on every page, and the information is delivered in small, easily digested paragraphs and panels.

An excellent resource, and a good jump-off point. Armed with the information from “Ancient Egypt”, the reader has enough facts and knowledge to pursue more detailed data from other sources.

STARS & PLANETS, (Discoveries Series, edited by David H. Levy.) A Little Ark Book, Allen & Unwin, 1996. This paperback edition 1998. RRP. $14.95 64 pp.
This is a review copy but again, I’d have read it anyway.

Like “Ancient Egypt”, reviewed above, “Stars & Planets” is a clear, well-presented resource for projects. It is also interesting in its own right. The introductory segment covers many of the famous astronomers, such as Copernicus and Brahe, the concepts of astronomy and astrology and some of the theories about the origin and nature of the universe.

The next segment takes the planets and major moons, giving information on size, shape, nature and the background of discovery and naming of each body. Asteroids, comets and eclipses are also covered.

Stars and galaxies and other matters outside the province of our solar system are covered in Section 3, and Section 4 showcases telescopes, space exploration and imaginary worlds. Facts and figures, an index and glossary follow. Pictures throughout the book are plentiful, colourful and informative.

The writing style is clear and matter-of-fact, and children as young as eight should be able to understand much of the information. Older children, teenagers and adults should find this a good starting point in any quest for facts, figures and pictures of space and the universe.

THE LITTLE BOOK OF BIG QUESTIONS, by Jackie French, illustrated. by Terry Denton. Allen & Unwin, 1998. RRP 12.95. This is a review copy but again - yes, I’d have read it anyway..

The big questions are the kind we all ask in childhood. They’re the kind we all want to ask in adulthood, but usually don’t, because we know there are no final answers. Jackie French doesn’t try to give definitive answers, and she’s not afraid to say she doesn’t know. In some cases, she gives examples of the different answers or beliefs provided by different people and cultures.

The style is conversational and friendly, and Terry Denton’s cartoon illustrations add to the fun. I really enjoyed the Australian flavour of the book, and also the brief visits to Jackie French’s home and family.

Sample questions include; ‘What happens when you die?’ ‘Are there aliens?’ ‘What would happen if a meteor hit the Earth?’ ‘What about dinosaurs?’ There are enough questions and answers - definite, indefinite, qualified and assorted, to keep you happy for quite some time and if some of them leave you with the eerie feeling that we really don’t know very much for certain, at least you’ll have some ammunition for the next time someone asks you what happens when the immovable object meets the irresistible force.

‘Dunno, but some people think...’

STONESTRUCK, by Helen Cresswell. Viking UK, 1995. HB. 185 pp.  This copy was borrowed from the library.

Helen Cresswell is well known as a British writer for that in between mid-to-upper primary level. She’s been writing for a long time, and some of her works, such as “The Piemakers”, have the status of minor classics. At her best, she compares well with Natalie Babbit.

Apart from fantasy, Cresswell wrote a series of books about the Bagthorpe family. These depended heavily on humorous characters with son Jack the only “ordinary” person in the entire family.

Apart from the occasional venture into teen fiction, as in “Dear Shrink”,  Helen Cresswell seems inclined to stay at this upper primary level, with major characters usually aged around eleven or twelve. “The Moondial”, “The Secret World of Polly Flint” and now “Stonestruck” are more serious than some of her works, with the protagonists facing troubled periods in their lives.

“Stonestruck” is set during the early years of the Second World War, with the heroine, Jessica, evacuated to Powris Castle in Wales after her house is bombed in the Blitz. Her father is at the Front, her mother is off to drive ambulances in Belgium and Henry, the cat, is missing (presumed dead?) since the bombing. Jessica’s school is to be sent to Wales in any case, so her mother sends her on ahead.

Once at the castle, in the kind but casual care of the elderly, childless Lockets, Jessica finds herself drawn into the mystery of the Green Lady and the tragic and frightening “stonestruck” children - timeless children who play an endless game of tag in the grounds of the castle. Any child who wishes him or herself away from the area is inclined to become the Green Lady’s victim, condemned to join the terrible game, first as quarry, later as one of the hunters. This game will continue, it seems, until Harry and his sister Beth, first victims of the Green Lady, are rescued or doomed.

There is a half-way stage during which children can be saved, a stage when a kind of doppelganger exists. The whole thing is bound up with a long-held superstition in the village that “children should never be counted twice”.

The story opens quite promisingly, and Cresswell’s style, as usual, is pleasant and flowing, but in my opinion there are several flaws in “Stonestruck” that aren’t present in the best of her work. Much is made of the fact that Billy, one of the “vackys” or evacuees from the village, slips away from the train and is never counted; thus he is able to live rough and avoid being placed with a family. A fair bit is made of the fact that Billy and Jessica saw one another briefly in London, but I can’t see the significence of this, nore does he seem sufficiently interesting to carry so much of the story.

Billy and Jessica are both in danger of becoming stonestruck, but it seems that Jessica has been somehow programmed to end the whole affair. Who has chosen her for this role is never made clear. At the end of the book, I had too many questions. Why are children allowed at the castle when it is so dangerous? Why is poor little Trevor so mistreated at his billet? He becomes stonestruck, and is rescued, but there’s no hint that his lot will be any better.

How much power does the “Green Lady” have, and who is she? How is Beth, the child in the tower, rescued? What happens to the cat? Why doesn’t Lockett, who was almost stonstruck in his youth, speak up much sooner? And so on. One or two of these questions I might have accepted, but there are just too many. It makes me wonder why an experienced and accomplished writer would make such mistakes and, more to the point, why her editor didn’t insist on a fairly extensive rewrite!

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, though, and one flawed book doesn’t make a good writer bad. I’ll be interested to read her next work, for at her best she can be very good.

SHADOWED PROMISES, by Vickie Moore, Scarlet Books, UK, 1997. PB, 388 pp.

This one was a gift from a net-friend.

If you like murders, madness, mayhem, mystery and romance all mixed together, have a look at “Shadowed Promises”. Any book that opens with a psychic prowling around an old castle with a sceptical lawyer in tow - and a wonderful old grandmother who threatens to whack him with her cane if he doesn’t shut up - is going to attract my attention. When you mix in an old legend (which actually exists) a name I’d never heard before (Theorosa), a tomb, a pair of elderly lovers, and a really creepy bit where ankle-strap shoes contain skeletal feet, my attention is going to stay caught. The heroine is accused of murder (being a psychic she knows too much), the lawyer is reluctantly drawn to believe her innocent, the cops won’t listen, a nut is prowling round in the underground tomb. People get hit on the head, fall into bed, in and out of love, yell, scream and throw things. It’s all great fun - a modern melodrama with all the right ingredients.

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASY, by John Clute and John Grant, published by Orbit, 1997. HB, 1049 pp.

I bought this book from The Devonport Bookshop late last year.

This encyclopaedia is a big book, with over a thousand pages. It certainly packs a lot of information inside. The print is small-to-medium and densely packed, and there are no illustrations.

Having said this, I’d better point out that I’m not complaining. I love pictures, but there’s a time and a place and what I wanted - and what I got - this time was loads of information on one of my favourite subjects.

Despite the density of the book, the entries are clear and easy to find. The book is in alphabetical order from beginning to end, with no chapters or categories. Characters, authors, books and films are listed. So are concepts, broadly cross-referenced wherever necessary. The tone is intelligent but readable and there isn’t a dry patch anywhere.

To give an indication of its scope, I’ll reel off the entries on selected pages.




In each case there is a note clarifying the role of the writer, actor, book etc in the larger scheme of fantasy literature, folktale and film. Major writers are covered in detail, major books and series reviewed at length. Concepts are pursued relentlessly with some subjects meriting essays of around 1500 words or more.

Since all sources of fantasy (myth, novel, saga, film, play, TV series, legend, etc) are covered, the result is much more comprehensive than might be expected. I would have liked to have seen more on Australian sources and recent TV series, and perhaps a little less on well-known and well-trodden classics, but you can’t have everything. Altogether, a wonderful foundation and resource for the library. Now all I need is a good Australian encyclopaedia to add that which is missing from this one!


The wish above has been granted, and the book concerned will be reviewed next issue!

Sally Odgers

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Filed: Aug-1998

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