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January, 1999

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Welcome to Sally’s latest batch of book reviews. There have been some interesting titles this time around, including an e-book and some top-class non-fiction. URLs of the month:
http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Cafe/4095/shelf.html This one is a site for romance readers hosted by Tina Pavlik. There are lots of excerpts, biographies and all kinds of links. Good fun for readers who like to “meet the author” as well as reading the book. 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.

* *= Featured Review.

Here goes ...

* Mostly Max *, by Max Fatchen. (A, NF)
Isn’t it Romantic?, by Ronda Thompson. (US, R)
The Tides of Time, by Zana Bell. (NZ, F).
A Vicarage Family, by Noel Streatfield. (B, autobiographical novel.)
How Did Sex Begin?, by Rudolph Brasch. (A, NF).

by Max Fatchen.
Wakefield Press, 1995 PB. 214 pp.
This copy was a very welcome gift.

Mostly Max is a collection of pieces, or “musings” as the author calls them, which were published in the Advertiser over several years. All except one of the pieces is set firmly in South Australia, Max Fatchen’s home state. The sections range from Seaside Scenarios to Country Cousins, from Cricket, to Diet to Kids, and Max has some gently humorous and pertinent observations to make about them all.

“You might say I belong to the aspidistra-dignified guesthouses of the past,” says Max in a piece on “Guesthouse Glamour”, but he is also well up with current topics.

Max is a master of puns and the exact word, bringing his scenes vividly before our minds’ eyes. In a piece on barley harvesting, he has this to say; “The Admiral is escorted by the head dog, a kind of canine petty officer, chin-resting its exalted muzzle on the utility door”. Can’t you just see that dog?

And here are his comments on his love-affair with airline meals... “...my appetite is already developing an edge like a Damascus sword..... the hostesses are watching me with dread and whispering; ‘Here he comes, the terror of the tarmac, Tyrannosaurus Max, the economy-class carnivore’.”

Dunnies, waist-hip measurements, coffee, polar-bears, spiders, fish, rest-stops, jam... Max has stories about them all. His style is a little like that of Clive James, but kindlier. His similes are as apt, his observation as acute, but he is more mellow, and there is never a wince or a barb behind the smiles. And his poems, as always, are delightful, whether romping bush ballads, cricket anthems, or festivals of fun and food.

“Mostly Max” is a book for lazy summer Sundays, for reading at the beach, for trains and just-one-more before bed. A delightful book, and one to read again - and again. It comes as no surprise to hear that Max’s part of the country has celebrated “Max Fatchen Day”!

by Ronda Thompson.
LionHearted, Nevada, USA, 1998.
PB 347 pp.
I bought this one directly from the publisher’s on-line site.

Isn’t it Romantic? is fun. It’s fast-moving, bouncy and amusing, and it also has heart. Basically, it’s about Katrine Summerville, a widowed romance writer with a daughter, and Trey Westmoreland, a divorced journalist whose ex-wife didn’t want children. Sounds like a match made in heaven, but Trey disapproves of romance and his evil review of one of Katrine’s novels three years ago has left no chance of a meeting, let alone a romance.

Only - Trey’s editor is annoyed because Trey’s review has cost the newspaper a great many female readers. He and Katrine’s editor get together and hatch a devilish scheme; the romantic novelist and the romance-hating journo must go out on four public dates and write a series of articles about their reactions. Trey, coerced into a situation he resents, sets out to sabotage the dates.

There’s nothing subtle about their first outing. Trey turns up grubby, greasy and mounted on a motorbike. From then on, it’s all downhill and Trey ends up mud-wrestling a (female) midget while Katrine leaves on the arm of a tattooed bikie.

Later, Trey goes all out in the romantic stakes, wickedly mimicking one of Katrine’s less refined heroes by tearing apart his dinner with his bare hands and chucking the chicken bones into the hearth. On another date they get arrested, along with Trey’s ex-wife who has slunk back onto the scene. Then there’s the time they help Charlie the cabby and his wife deliver their baby in the back of the cab. Between these glorious set-pieces, (will she kill him or kiss him?) runs a serious thread; Katrine and Trey both have unhappiness in their pasts and Katrine’s daughter, Shelly, has fallen for Trey in a big way. Through his influence, she looks like getting some childhood at last!

There’s seduction and mayhem, a punch-up or three, an amazing condom hunt and more. It’s over the top, but somehow you’re in there cheering for the characters and more likely to smile or laugh aloud than squirm. The author obviously had a lot of fun with her characters, even to setting up Trey to look like the perfect hero and to bear a romantic-hero type name.

Isn’t it Romantic? is great fun, about as un-mushy as you’re likely to get. The cover is very pleasing, too; it made me smile to look at it. LionHearted is a comparatively new company which publishes both paper and e-books. Anyone who'd like to pay them a visit should try the URL below. http://www.lionhearted.com


By Zana Bell. Published by Scholastic, NZ, 1996.
PB, 220 pp.
A library book.

After a fairly slow start, The Tides of Time shapes into a quietly entertaining novel. Basically, teenaged Jaz has returned from a six week visit with her divorced father to find Mum and her man Dave have moved from Auckland to a quiet bay. There’s a beautiful view from Jaz’s new window, but that’s about the only compensation for Jaz. The only real compensation for the reader is the legend of Mount Manaia. Jaz is sulky and resentful, and although the author needs to set the scene as the foundation for the rest of the story, it does get tiresome - for the adult reader, anyway. And Jaz’s mother has the a bit of making mawkish and quite stilted remarks.

Having said all that, I’m glad I persisted, because once Jaz goes tearing off, falls and hits her head and wakes in the 1880s, things get a whole lot more interesting. Jaz is found by tall, intelligent Martha, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a delicate deceased mother and a charming drunken father, Jack. Martha is a quietly compelling character whom I liked at once, and Jack, although not admirable, comes across well. It’s believable that Jack, feeling guilty about his wife’s death, should leave Martha to fend for herself and the farm while he works at a boatyard and plays cards. It’s also believable that he should accept Jaz’s presence in his house with equanimity. He believes Martha’s tale that Jaz is looking for her kin.

During Jaz’s sojourn in the past, she climbs Mount Manaia, attends a local dance, and helps build a boat. Nothing very dramatic happens, but as she learns to ride and handle tools, and in turn teaches Martha to swim, her character grows and changes in a very credible fashion. Martha half-believes her tales of the late 20th Century, but Jaz’s difficulty with long dresses go some way to convincing her. There’s a bit too much tell-not-show and some rather disconcerting switches of viewpoint, but the picture of New Zealand in the 1880s is an engaging one, and so is the tenacious character of Martha. The author hasn’t taken the easy way out, either. Jaz isn’t totally reformed (she will still roll her eyes at Dave and her mother) and Jack is beyond help. In the end, Martha will leave him to save her own future.

A nice, quietly domestic time-travel with some fact built in. I’ll look forward to Ms Bell’s later work, when a few of the technical problems should be smoothed out.


by Noel Streatfield,
Collins, UK, 1963. This edition 1995. PB, 317 pp.
I bought this one from Angus and Robertson, Devonport.

I’ve read a great many of Noel Streatfield’s books over the years, beginning with “Ballet Shoes”. I think the only one I didn’t enjoy was “The Growing Summer”. I also, many years ago, read her biography of Edith Nesbit, “Magic and the Magician”.

Streatfield’s books spanned a long period, with the early ones set in the 1930s, and some later ones (notably the “Gemma” series) set in the ‘60s. Her very last book, supposedly (and very optimistically) to be part 2 of a new series, was set back in the early days of the century. She must have been in her eighties when it was written, and it was very disjointed.

I have nineteen of Noel Streatfield’s books, but I have never known much about the author herself. “A Vicarage Family”, which she, in her foreword, terms “an autobiographical novel”, fills in many of the gaps. The book traces the life of “Vicky Strangeway” from twelve to sixteen, ending during the first year of the Great War. Names were changed, Noel says, and a cousin who stayed with her family for some holidays was transformed into a permanent part of the household, but apart from this, “here is the truth as I remember it”.

The picture of Vicky shows a rebel, the second child in a family of four surviving children. Father comes over as a gentle, saintly vicar who cannot understand why his own family cannot be as contented as he and his siblings were. Mother is often hasty, sometimes unfair, preferring her children when they are young or ill. There is an elder artistic sister, “Isabel” who is asthmatic, and a younger, musical sister “Louise” who is the beauty. The youngest child, and only boy, Dick, is a good, diligent child who thrives on order. “John”, the cousin, is a sensitive teenager who dreads the Indian service expected of him by his father.

Other characters, grandparents, servants, parishioners, teachers are drawn into the novel as well. The story is told in the third person, including some conversations and thoughts that must have been reconstructed or extrapolated years afterwards. The events unfold quietly, gardening, moving house, getting up plays and entertainments, visits, holidays, troubles and education. At first the months go by in detail, but later the book picks up speed and birthdays come and go rather suddenly.

Viewed as fiction, the book is flawed, with its uneven pacing and the untied threads, events and reasons hinted at but never quite made clear. Louise and Dick reiterate often that they intend never to be parted, yet Louise also intends to marry young and have many children. What happened to them? There is a hint that Dick inherited his grandfather’s house many years later, but that’s all. It seems that Isabel never made it to art school, but she did survive into adulthood. Even Vicky’s future is very unclear. She became a writer, but when? Presumably she didn’t marry, perhaps because John, to whom she was much attached, died in the war. Father died many years later of angina, but what about Mother?

In a novel, these things would be left properly to the future, but since this is supposed to be a true account, and since so much was foreshadowed, it would have been nice if Noel had rounded things out in an epilogue. Instead, the books ends very abruptly with the news of John’s death.

Apart from the account of Vicarage and village life in this period, and hints to show how the author’s character was formed, the main interest lies in the characters and events later echoed in the novels. Fathers and grandparents or nannies feature quite strongly in Streatfield’s books, but aside from those in the “Gemma” series, “Party Frock” and “The Painted Garden”, it’s difficult to recall any satisfactory mothers.

The themes of strong-natured, talented, often misunderstood children repeat so often that it’s easy to wonder if Noel was reflecting her sisters’ undeveloped gifts or compensating for the fact that her own talent, for writing, was much less showy.

One interview between Vicky and her headmistress (another strong-natured but maddeningly incomplete portrait) may be particularly telling; “(Your essay) was shown to me,” says Miss French, “Although naturally you will have to earn your living in some other way, for only the exceptionally gifted can earn it as an author, writing could supplement whatever you are able to earn.”

Did “Vicky” ever work at any other position? Noel Streatfield doesn’t say, and for all its details and ruthlessly honest appraisal of “Vicky’s” failings and strengths, the hints and echoes of “A Vicarage Family” raise at least as many questions as they answer.

HOW DID SEX BEGIN? by Rudolph Brasch. Angus & Robertson, Australia,1973. This edition 1995. PB. 259 pp. This copy was a gift.

The tone of this extraordinary book, both learned and playful, is encapsulated perfectly by the author’s dedication to his wife who as his ‘“editor in chief” has “actively shared with me in every phase of preparation.’

Dr Brasch also avers that the whole enterprise began with a joking suggestion made by an editor and taken seriously by writer and researcher. Considering its subject matter, “How Did Sex Begin?’ is an unusually informative and entertaining read, completely non-salacious and often very funny. Dr Brasch - and I can picture him with a fine, scholarly grin on his face - works his indefatigable way through fifteen chapters with titles like “Courting”, “Superstitions in Sex”, “Family Relations” and “Talking Sex”. Each chapter is broken into small sections... “The Fig Leaf and (false) Modesty”, “Polygyny”, “Full of Beans” and “Devilish Consummation Hazards”. Sex in all its guises and history is displayed, from obscene pottery to Biblical love poetry masquerading as allegory.

Each fact or theory is shown against its proper historical and/or social background, and some items are pursued right back to Latin, Greek or Hebrew roots. According to Dr Brasch, mistranslation and misconceptions, (deliberate or not) of various texts and actions have led to a very shaky understanding of the motives of our ancestors, and everyone from earlier scholars to Freud comes in for a good-natured roasting.

‘How Did Sex Begin?’ demystifies a somewhat mystifying subject, and does so in a very readable manner.

Sally Odgers

Festivale Australian online magazine
copyright © Festivale 1999 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: -1999

Last updated: Feb-1999
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