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November, 1998

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I’ve had a lot of good reading in October and November, and here are the pick of the books. Again, the selection seems to lean heavily on my favoured themes, but as I’ve observed before, one book leads to another and one author to a complementary one, in a kind of chain reaction. I had some feedback about the September review of the splendid MUP encyclopaedia, and on my URL recommendation; thanks, Paul and Hazel!

Remember, if you want to be notified when the site changes, you can register with netmind.


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.

* *= Featured Review.

URLs of the month:

This one is another really good book finder. All sorts of out of print bargains are available for the picking; just remember that sometimes the catalogues aren’t updated daily so it’s possible your treasure might have been bought by someone else already. Never mind; there’s a free “want list” for your consolation.

Two more interesting URLs include a book page by Australian Hazel Edwards. That one is at http://www.newwebcity.com/hazel/edwards.htm.

Finally, there’s Moya’s Web Jewels at http://moyra.com/jewels/index.html. That site is gorgeous to contemplate, even if you’re not making a web-site.

Here goes ...

*Deep Secret*, by Diana Wynne Jones. (B, F, R)
Operation Seabird, by Monica Edwards (B, C.)
Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones (B/US,F, YA.)
The Cliffs of Night, by Beatrice Brandon (US R,T)
The Labours of Hercules, by Agatha Christie. (B, CR.)
Switchers, by Kate Thompson. (B, C, F)
Hospital, by Polly Toynbee, (B,NF)
Your Book of Surnames, by Pennethorne Hughes. (B,NF,C)
I Found it at the Flickers, by John-Michael Howson. (A,NF)
The L-Shaped Room, by Lynne Reid Banks. (B,MN)

by Diana Wynne Jones.
Victor Gollancz, London, 1997.
HB 383 pp.
A library book, but I’m trying my darnedest to get a copy.

I believe this is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ best books ever, which makes it all the more annoying (and surprising) that I haven’t been able to find a copy to buy. Obviously, I’ll be forced to order it.

DWJ is usually classed as a children’s writer, and certainly some of her books have child protagonists. More often, though, they’re either young adults or characters who could really be any age. Deep Secret, however, is adult fiction. There is a slight difference, I suppose, between it and her YA but it isn’t very marked. Sex is mentioned two or three times in a glancing fashion, and there is one case of swearing. And of course the characters are viewed in an honest and not necessarily kindly light. But DWJ always does that.


I have four really tasty books lined up for next session, but before I leave this column and dive into them, I’d like to put in a suggestion for those readers who, like me, sometimes find it difficult to obtain the titles they want. There’s a circular problem out there in the book shops, and the echoes go back to writers and publishers and forward to readers. It’s called “perceived demand”.

Consider this scenario. A reader who enjoys Australian fantasy, British SF, fantasy romance, time-travel novels, non-series romance etc walks into a book shop. S/he doesn’t see any of the books s/he wants. S/he (a) walks out again or (b) buys a best seller because it’s there and s/he’s desperate for something to read.

The message gets back to the publishers and authors and booksellers that no-one wants Australian fantasy, British SF, fantasy romance, time-travel novels, non-series romance etc, therefore these genres either die out or become less and less easy to find.

Perceived demand comes from three sources. Readers who can’t find their preferred books *ask* the bookseller where these books are shelved. If there are none in the shop, this buyer *requests* that they be ordered. Now. Chapter and verse, genre, author, publisher or ISBN.

This alerts booksellers to the fact that the reader wants that book or kind of book and wants it badly enough to order it. The orders go back to the publisher who is also alerted to the demand.

Third, readers can try writing to publishers and asking for their favourite genres. Tell the editors you want Australian fantasy, British SF, fantasy romance, time-travel novels, non-series romance etc Don’t write to the unfortunate authors; they have no power over this perceived demand at all.

If enough letters went to enough publishers and if enough readers made requests to enough booksellers, you, the reader, would stand a much better chance of being able to find the books *you* want to read. Please - don’t seethe quietly or do without. Don’t bemoan the dearth or death of your favourite genre or sub-genre or non-genre fix. Lift perceived demand and try to make it happen! Of course, if your taste runs to best sellers, and/or award winners, don’t bother with the above. You’ll be well catered for already.

The plot would be very difficult to paraphrase, and it has so many twists and turns that the result might spoil the book for you, so I’ll concentrate on the elements and themes. Basically, it’s about a Magid (human magician) named Rupert Venables, the youngest of three magic-working brothers. There are many Magids throughout the multiverse. Their task seems to be that of guiding the worlds in the right direction without too much overt action. Every time one dies, another must be trained in his/her place.

Earth is one of the Naywards worlds (i.e. not very accepting of magic) and the whole multiverse is tending Naywards. That’s a problem. The Koryfonic Empire, of which Rupert is official Magid, is about to self-destruct. The emperor has been assassinated and the heirs are missing. Another problem. Closer to home, Rupert’s friend and Magid Mentor, Sam, is dying, leaving Rupert with the task of finding and training the next Junior Magid.

How Rupert solves, or tries to solve, these problems forms the backbone of the book, but there’s an awful lot more to it than that. Maree Mallory, a disastrous trainee vet, is one of the Magid candidates. She had no idea of her possible destiny, nor does her “cousin” Nick, a handsome, intelligent and extremely selfish teenager. Nick’s horrible mother Janine doesn’t help, but Nick’s father, an author, is instrumental in bringing together many of the plot strands at a fantasy convention at the Babylon Hotel.

Rupert is a loner, and in the course of the story he comes to realise that he really wants to become more “human”. Most of the story is told in first person through his written report but as honesty is a prerequisite, the events are truthfully presented. He’s a fascinating character, aloof, striving, and ultimately successful, despite his deep sense of failure. He falls in love, painfully, but he does win his lady in the end. All the major characters have personality flaws, many of them imposed on them by circumstance or by active malice from the opposing forces of evil. It’s a real joy to see characters striving to overcome these flaws, and usually succeeding.

Some of the themes involve a magical journey to Babylon, using the old rhyme as instructions and spoken map, unknown and switching identities, music, gods and goddesses, magical creatures, the nature of creation, fantasy, influence, love and hatred.

The magical journey hints at the same kind of self-knowledge used by Margaret Mahy in The Changeover. The concealed identities idea has been used in other DWJ books, including Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, A Sudden Wild Magic and Hexwood. Jones is so skilled that, despite a knowledge of these books, I didn’t see it coming.

Music pops up in the Scarlatti and Bach which Sam uses to entertain himself while trapped in a disembodied state in Rupert’s car, and of course Howl uses a lute in Howl’s Moving Castle. Then there’s the quartet in Fire and Hemlock, and the musical battle involving Tom, Polly and Laurel in that book.

Gods and goddesses are involved in The Homeward Bounders and in The Time of the Ghost. In Deep Secret there is a particularly un-user-friendly thorny bush goddess.

Centaurs are involved as they were in A Sudden Wild Magic, and in fact this book takes place in the same fictional universe as Mark, the protagonist of “Magic” is mentioned here. I believe it’s the same as the Hexwood world as well. The idea of humans and centaurs being siblings or cousins impinges on the themes used in Dark Lord of Derkholm (q.v.).

All these themes, plus many others, help to weave Deep Secret into DWJ’s own private multiverse. There are a few loose ends, and a number of characters I wanted to learn more about. Look out for Andrew, Si, the quacks and some phantom birds... maybe they’ll surface in another book sometime soon. I hope so!

One warning; this is one of DWJ’s more complex narratives, and though I’ve read it twice I know there’s a lot more I need to understand. If you don’t mind a read that leaves you slightly bewildered, windblown, scorched and utterly *crushed* because you can’t write like that - try Deep Secret... and let me know how you get on!

On a slightly different note; I do admire the cover. It’s one of the most striking illustrations I have ever seen.

by Monica Edwards.
Collins, London, Children’s Book Club imprint.
This edition, 1958.
HB 256.
Purchased through mail order at Bibliofind.

What can I say about this one? I read it to death in my childhood and made many, many attempts to buy my own copy during the 1960s and 70s. However, this was one of Monica Edwards’ books that never seemed to be available in Australia and the state library retired its copy to places unknown and so I was bereft... until now!

I was absolutely delighted when Operation Seabird turned up in Bibliofind and even more delighted when I actually had the copy in my hands. Set in the village of Westling (actually Rye Harbour) in Sussex, the storyline deals with the four Romney Marsh friends, Tamzin, Rissa, Meryon and Roger, becoming involved in seabird rescue after an oil spill. Sounds topical, doesn’t it, and yet this book is older than I am... (and that’s saying a bit!)

Monica Edwards died earlier this year, but her legacy to people such as myself is enormous. From Monica, I learned that horse stories could be so much more, that characters could grow and change, yet remain forever themselves, that a fluid style and some quiet humour would always recommend a book to me. I learned that good characters *could* be interesting, that honesty and trust cuts both ways, that relationships sometimes shift. I learned about fifes and flutes, Siamese and Burmese cats, ponies, dolphins, seabirds, fishing, knitting, smuggling, yew trees, deer, Normandy, Sussex, Surrey, Martello Towers, printing, exchange students and the undertaking business. And a whole lot more.

I believe it is due to Monica Edwards and a few others like her that I became a writer in the first place. So - I finally have my own copy and I’m glad to report that it’s just as good as ever.

By Diana Wynne Jones.
Greenwillow Books, New York, 1998.
HB, 345 pp.
I bought this one, sight unseen, through Amazon.

Now, I don’t usually buy through Amazon, because I believe in supporting my local book shops. However, having found it impossible to find a copy of Deep Secret (q.v.) locally, I placed an order with Amazon for Dark Lord to be sent to me as soon as it was released.

Having wrestled the copy, with difficulty, from my son, I dived right in. I wasn’t disappointed, either. This is one of DWJ’s YA novels, and it takes place in a world that is invaded, periodically, by “pilgrim parties” from Earth. These are arranged by Mr Chesney, a singularly unpleasant character who goes about with a demon in his pocket. Each year, one of the local magic-workers must act the part of “Dark Lord”, or villain, and be ritualistically and questically “killed” for the entertainment of the pilgrims. Others act the parts of wizard guides, sorceresses etc.

To add to the interest, pilgrim tickets cost a mint, and some pilgrims are privately marked as “expandables”, which means their relatives have paid for their tickets and expect them *not* to return.

This year, the lot of the Dark Lord has fallen to Derk, a wizard who would much rather spend his time in perfecting his unusual animal collection. Derk practises magical gene splicing, and consequently, only two of his children are fully human. These two, Blade and Shona, have ambitions to be a mage and a bard, but Derk, having not enjoyed his own college days, is reluctant to let them leave home. The other children of the family are griffins named Kit, Callette, Elda, Don and Lydda, who combine the genetic heritage of Derk and his wife Mara with other material taken from lions and eagles.

As well as the children, Derk has been at work on such projects as winged and talking horses, flying pigs, Big Cows, enhanced geese and carnivorous sheep. All these creatures play their parts in the wild adventure that follows.

As usual with DWJ, the plot is so convoluted that it’s impossible to describe, but the elements and themes include demons (as in Castle in the Air), gods, (as in Deep Secret and Homeward Bounders and Time of the Ghost), reluctant heroes (as in Howl’s Moving Castle and Hexwood), concealed identities (as in Archer’s Goon, Howl, Hexwood, Deep Secret) and mixed motives. There’s also a wonderful dragon and some fascinating and atypical elves and dwarfs.

Relationships and destinies are dealt with in some depth, and the ambivalent family relationships at Derkholm are a masterpiece. The story gallops along with more ingredients than the average trilogy, there is humour and rather more tragedy than usual, including a set-piece where brother is pitted against brother in a terrifying gladiatorial combat. Misery and guilt are starkly depicted as both Derk and Callette suffer after Kit is shot down during one of the staged battles.

This is a wonderful book, if not one of DWJ’s very best. Despite some fascinating characters and situations, there are quite a few dangling plants (such as the news that other - possibly “natural” - griffins exist in another country) which aren’t developed. I hope this means there might be a sequel or companion in the works, because the Derkholm world is an interesting one and quite a few of the characters, especially Kit and his griffin siblings, could bear developing into protagonists.


by Beatrice Brandon
Doubleday, 1974, this edition NEL, 1975.
PB 271 pp.
Bought through Bibliofind.

There are several interesting things about The Cliffs of Night. For one thing, I read it first as a magazine serial. This is in the long ago of the ‘70s when I hadn’t yet developed an aversion to serials (I hate waiting for the next episode, and often seem to miss bits through non-delivery etc). I enjoyed it immensely but couldn’t buy a copy locally. Subsequently I reread it from the library. With the current push towards selling off old hardbacks to find funds for buying new ones, I’ve been afraid of losing access to it, so I was delighted to find copies readily available second hand through Bibliofind and ABE.

Another interesting point about this romantic mystery-thriller is that it seemed to be one of only two books by the author, Beatrice Brandon. The other is The Court of Silver Shadows, which was once represented by a single copy in our library system but has now vanished. I did wonder why such an accomplished writer should pop up and then vanish so suddenly, but have found out that (a) she was a he, and (b) he’s dead, which explains, after a fashion! Beatrice Brandon’s real name was Robert W(ilson) Krepps (1919-1980), and he also wrote in different genres under other names. Before I leave this subject, I’ll mention three similar cases of writers rising suddenly, fully fledged, then vanishing again. One was Jenny Oldfield, who wrote The Ship from Simnel Street, The Thirteen Days of Christmas and Creed Country. Then there was Elizabeth Marie Pope, who wrote The Sherwood Ring and The Perilous Gard and Tim Kennemore, who wrote Wall of Words, The Middle of the Sandwich and A Fortunate Few.

To return to The Cliffs of Night; it is the story of Grania Kirk, an American television actress who is suffering from burn-out and so goes to her ancestral Ireland for a holiday. Here, she is almost immediately embroiled in the doings of Quinn Griffin, a charming man who claims to be a drug-squad detective, and three mysterious strangers hiding out in the ruins of a tower by the Cliffs of Mohr.

Part thriller and part romance, this book has a lot of the elements I enjoy. The style is readable, reminding me a little of that of Madeleine Brent - who is also a he writing as a she - and I like the Irish setting. I like the hint of supernatural, and the tie-in with Celtic myth, I like the archaeological and musical background, and I like the dog.

For a while, I tied together the dog, the Irish-American background, the music, the characterisation and style and came up with the theory that Beatrice Brandon was actually Anne McCaffrey writing under a pseudonym. I was wrong, of course, but the clues were all there. The novel has dated a bit, but I still enjoy it as an old favourite. The Cliffs of Night is available from Bibliofind and/or ABE, for the cost of about $2-$6 US.

by Agatha Christie.
Collins, UK, 1947. This edition 1985.
HB 320 pp.
This is a library book.

The Labours of Hercules is a collection of 12 short stories by Agatha Christie. These stories feature Hercule Poirot on the eve of his retirement to the country to grow marrows. He decides to take just twelve more cases, and each of the twelve must bear some resemblance to one of the mythical Labours of Hercules. You won’t get to see Poirot disarrange his moustache by wrestling with a lion or a hydra, but the analogies are there in the cases. The stories are light-hearted and quite fun; ideal reading for a bus trip or bedtime enjoyment when you don’t have the time to finish a novel.

by Kate Thompson.
Random, UK, 1997.
PB. 199 pp.
I bought this one at Birchalls, in Launceston.

This is a very good fantasy thriller which I think may be a first book. Kate Thompson is certainly an accomplished author, but there are just a couple of less-sure touches that make me think her output down the track will be even better.

Briefly, teenaged Tess is a “switcher”, a person who is able to physically change herself into any kind of animal while retaining most of her human mentality. While in animal form, she does find herself conforming to some animal habits; for example, when a squirrel, she discovers an obsession with storing nuts for the winter, despite knowing she won’t be in squirrel form to collect in the frosty months.

This aspect of the story intrigued me, because in my own book, Translations in Celadon (HarperCollins 1998) the heroine is a horse for some of the time and has to struggle against horse-habits.

Since I wrote “Translations” about three years ago, and never read Switchers until this year, I was interested to find another author with similar thought processes. Perhaps I’d better add that aside from this twist, the two books are unalike in plot, character, theme and setting.

Tess’s ability is inborn. There are no magic spells, no curses involved. She has simply discovered the talent at an early age and continued to use it - in private - ever since. The story opens as she encounters, for the first time, another switcher. To her dismay, she learns that the ability to switch will end on her fifteenth birthday. Kevin is a strange boy, who admits to being estranged from his family and to spending most of his life as a rat. He faces his imminent birthday with dismay, for he will be forced to choose a form - human or animal - and stick to it forever. The two switchers get involved in a quest of world-shaking consequences as a new ice age is about to descend on Earth. Kevin’s deadline adds to the suspense as it seems he might be trapped forever in animal shape at the icy Pole.

It’s a good, original story with interesting plot and characters, and some moments of humour. While travelling in rat form, Tess learns rat talk and syntax and, having lived with four pet ratties for some months, it seems very accurate to me!

The two shaky bits I mentioned are the pieces of novel told from the point of view of pilots and army officers, in which the characters are almost caricatures, and the ice monsters themselves. Also, I found the reactions of Tess’ parents to a long and unexplained absence didn’t ring very true; if she’d been my daughter I’d have been tempted to keep her under permanent surveillance rather than giving her a chance to do it again! But then - there would have been no story.

HOSPITAL, by Polly Toynbee, (B,NF)
Hutchison, London, 1977, Arrow edition 1979.
PB, 279 pp.
I bought this from Evandale Market.

I’ve read one other book by Polly Toynbee, so I was quite pleased to find a copy of this one. It seems that Polly, a journalist, spent several months in a London hospital interviewing patients and following different health-care professionals on their rounds. In some cases, she was able to choose a particular case history to follow.

The book was written in the mid 1970s, but the constant worry about strain on the National Health and lack of funding makes it sound very modern. Hospital is organised in a number of sections, beginning with “birth”, continuing through children’s ward and then branching out to follow a surgical patient from admission to release and then a nurse and a consultant about their rounds. A kidney transplant patient is documented, there’s a session at Casualty and, finally, in the geriatric area.

There’s enough human detail to make the stories interesting, and enough reported conversations to give the feel of a medical soap. Everyone is presented as a real person; the nurse gets sore feet, the surgical patient is afraid of the after effects of a possible mastectomy, the reader gets to know a kidney transplant patient who later dies.

Underneath the reporting style is a kind of anger, sensed by the author from the professionals and passed on to the reader, and also a feeling of the helplessness and dependency experienced by the patients. There are no easy answers, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that everyone involved in the stories was fighting a rear-guard action and the whole system was about to collapse.

I would be interested to read a follow-up, written in the 1990s!


by Pennethorne Hughes.
Faber and Faber, London, 1967.
HB, 60 pp.
I bought this at a library sale.

A lovely little book for anyone interested in surnames. Pennethorne Hughes (splendid name!) has written in a conversational style and pokes his enquiring nose into all kinds of facts and theories. This is no list of names with two- or three-word derivations, but an examination of living names and how they came to appear.

Once you know that “kin” or “kins” is a diminutive, and that Adkins or Atkins means “the little one of Ad(am), the way is clear to all kinds of fun and games with your name and your neighbour’s. “cock” or “cox” meant “young man”, so “Wilcock” is the same name as Williamson. Then there are sarcastic nicknames by which a short man might be surnamed “Long”. And sur- (as in near, or on) and the River Tees in Britain, give the surname “Surtees”.

There are surnames from places, from occupations and from bad jokes, and best of all there’s a list of Fourteenth Century names taken from an actual register and printed in three columns; in the original script, in a modern printed script, and in the translation by which those people would be known today. For example; Will(elmu)s Irmonger would now be known as William Iremonger. Rad(ufu)s Steph(an)i would be Ralph Stephens. Joh(annes) de porta would be John Gate and Sibilla de ponte would be Sybil Bridge. Absolutely fascinating, and I wish it had been ten times as long!

by John-Michael Howson,
Horwitz Grahame, Sydney, 1985.
Hardback, 188 pp.
I bought this one at a library sale.

One of the funniest books I’ve read for ages, this is John Michael Howson’s memoir of his long-time association with the “flickers”. As an unashamed B-Picture nut, John-Michael seems to know it all, to have seen it all, and to have participated in quite a lot of it, either in reality or by association and imagination. There are loving descriptions of ancient horror movies, of flickering images watched from half-under the seat, of his disillusionment with the biography of ice queen Sonja and the terrible Joanie, the kid from down the street who was a real-life drama-queen much given to tantrums and “close-ups” achieved with the aid of an empty picture frame.

J-M writes of the terror and sadness he felt when taken to see “worthy” classics such as Bambi and The Wizard of Oz, and of becoming addicted to his weekly dose of terror. Then there’s the chapter on “Animal Crackers” that had me laughing out loud.

According, to John-Michael, “Cujo did more damage to the farmlands of America than Cyclone Tracey did to Darwin”, and “in ‘The Black Cat’ the slithering Siamese slinked around potential murder victims, its purr a death rattle.... Simone Simon and Nastassia Kinski turned into panthers and prowled the city looking for prey (or an acting coach) in both versions of ‘The Cat People’ while Lillian Montevecchi turned herself into a Jaguar (the cat, not the car) and was worshipped by fearful Mexican peasants in ‘The Living Idol’.

Maybe not so funny taken out of context, but the proliferation of alliteration and wry comment really hit the spot for me.

Best of all, John-Michael’s comments are always tempered with mercy; he gives due credit and homage to the A-and-B-grade actors who brought him so much fearful pleasure and particularly to Chips Rafferty, Aussie icon, who suggested he ought to retain his interest in “the flickers”.

Recently I read that “to the surprise of his friends” J-M had produced a book of short stories. All I can say is, it doesn’t surprise *me*.

The book is illustrated with stills from little-known movies, and with pictures of J-M in costume with some of his more dramatic friends.

By Lynne Reid Banks, Chatto and Windus, 1960,
This edition Penguin Books, 1966.
PB, 269 pp.
I bought this from Latrobe Market.

I first read the L-Shaped Room years ago, and it’s stuck in my mind as one of the few straight novels I ever actually enjoyed in my teens. On re-reading, I find it’s dated pretty badly, but it remains a good read. Actress Jane Graham is twenty-seven and pregnant when her strait-laced father ejects her from his home. Jane effectively punishes herself by moving into the bug-ridden L-shaped room in a run-down boarding house. Here, she meets Negro musician John and Jewish novelist Toby, and an odd triangular relationship develops. John, an unacknowledged homosexual, is fond of both Jane and Toby, but when they become lovers John’s friendship turns to disgust. All is resolved on that front, Jane finds peace through her Aunt Addy’s efforts and is reconciled with her father. The book ends on a minor key as Jane leaves the L-Shaped Room and wonders whether there is any future for herself and Toby.

The attitudes towards single parents, waitresses and gays are very dated, so the book has to be read now as a kind of period piece.

There are two sequels, Two is Lonely and The Backwards Shadow, and the backwards shadow of these two books casts a bit of a pall on a re-reading of Room. As one of Edward Eager’s characters once remarked of Louisa Alcott’s “Good Wives”; the Laurie-Amy pairing isn’t popular because, “everyone *knew* Laurie was meant for Jo!” The same can be said of the end of the L-Shaped Trilogy. The Jane-Andy pairing is, to some readers, second best. ‘Everyone *knows* Toby is meant for Jane!

Sally Odgers

Festivale Australian online magazine
copyright © Festivale 1998 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: 1-Nov-1998

Last tested: -1998

Last updated: 22-Nov-1998Last compiled: 31-Mar-2010
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