size="5">Sally's reading corner
Welcome to the last of my summer reading. This
month I've read three top notch non fiction titles, two of
them from Allen and Unwin. Then come a refreshing Australian children's book, a highly original YA, a fun romance, three books by one of my favourite authors, a novel by a promising new English writer and the first of four novels written by Ethel Turner's daughter.
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KEY TO SALLY’S CODES.
Australian book, (A)
|URLs of the month:
http://carmen.murdoch.edu.au/community/dps/convicts/ This one is a fascinating site with all kinds of lists and facts pertaining to convicts transported to Australia.
http://image.altavista.com/cgi-bin/avncgi This is a site where you can search for photographs of all kinds of things; great for projects and research.
This Month's Books
*Tombs, Graves and Mummies, edited by Paul G. Bahn.*(B, NF). *The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones.* (US/B,NF.) Insects and Spiders, by George Else. (A, C, N/F) Extraordinarily Ordinary, by David Rish. (A, C-humour.) Wyrd, Sue Gough, (A, YA, N) Shadow Under the Sea, Geoffrey Trease. (B, YA, T) Curse on the Sea, Geoffrey Trease (B, YA, H) The Arpino Assignment, by Geoffrey Trease, (B, YA, H) Married to Sinclair, by Danielle Shaw. (B, R) Owl Light, by Maggie Pearson. (B, C/F) The Ship that Never Set Sail, by Jean Curlewis.
* *= Featured Review
*Tombs, Graves and Mummies*,
edited by Paul G. Bahn.
First published by George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd in 1996, this edition, Phoenix UK, 1998. Sturdy paperback, 213 pp. $35.00.
This is a review copy; one I was delighted to receive from Allen and Unwin.
A few weeks ago, I was watching a television series called "Meet the Ancestors". This was a fascinating documentary series from the UK, and dealt with archaeology, history and bones. I thought it was wonderful and was very aggrieved when it ended only a few episodes after I discovered it.
That series has nothing to do with this book, but perhaps it explains why I was so thrilled to find more information on similar subjects.
Tombs, Graves and Mummies is the most wonderful collection of essays and pictures about important archaeological finds and reconstructions. Many different writers contributed, but the editor has pulled the fifty essays together into a harmonious whole. Every piece showcases graves, bones, or vanished civilisation, and there are photographs of treasures, mummies, artefacts and reconstructed faces and scenes.
The sections deal in turn with Bones, (early humans) Graves (Neanderthal burial through to the Romanovs), Cemeteries, (Mesolithic burials through to the remains of Custer's army), Tombs, Corpses and Mummies. The subjects range from the famous (such as Tutankhamen, Pompeii and Danish Bog Bodies) to the obscure, and from the very ancient to the eerily modern. See the bones of arguably the oldest human ever discovered. Discover what happened to the Franklin Expedition and look at what might well be an accurate portrait of Philip, father of Alexander the Great. A modern Danish woman poses in a Bronze Age costume, fantastic treasures and robes are uncovered from sand and stone. The beautiful, the macabre, the dignified and the pathetic; all are arrayed, along with a slice of good old-fashioned fascination and awe.
This book would make a wonderful gift for anyone interested in archaeology, genealogy, social history, jewellery, costume, and exploration. It offers an extensive index, maps and diagrams and many, many hours of fascinated reading.
*The Tough Guide to Fantasyland,*
By Diana Wynne Jones,
Published by Daw Books, New York, 1998. This book seems to have been published before in Britain in 1996 by the Cassell Group. PB, 302 pp.
I bought my copy from Amazon.
Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favourite authors, and I have tried, and failed, to get hold of a copy of her previous non-fiction title, The Skivers' Guide. Having obtained The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, I noticed a few unusual points. For a start, the paperback has a strangely rough cover. It isn't embossed, exactly, but the general impression is that it has been coated in some kind of then dusted with very, very, very fine sand.
Then, its content has a close relationship to DWJ's novel Dark Lord of Derkholm, which I reviewed in an earlier column. The concept of tours run by some powerful Management, with prearranged events, challenges and disasters for the tourists, is carried through, but in Tough Guide it's presented from the perspective of a handbook designed for use in our world by prospective tourists.
The third point is linked to this. There is nothing in the book, blurb, back pages, introduction, or notes, to connect it with its companion novel. There is also no hint that the author is a distinguished fantasyland creator herself. This doesn't detract from the book, of course, but it seems odd that the publishers have neglected such an opportunity to maximise sales.
As for the content of the book, it is an alphabetical guide to the hazards and adventures a tourist to fantasyland is likely to meet on a tour. It is implied, though never stated, that "tourist" means "reader", "tour" means "novel" and the references to second and third tours mean the remaining volumes of a trilogy. The entries consist of words and concepts such as Caravans, Enchantment, Missing Heirs, Necromancy, PanCeltic Tours, Runes, Smells, Swords and Waybread. Each item is dealt with in an explanation ranging from a few lines to several pages, and the whole is peppered with florid phrases which are dubbed (OMT) or Official Management Term. Such phrases include Reek of Wrongness, Songs of Aching Beauty and In Her Toils, and will be recognised, with a slightly appalled grin, by most readers.
Various characters are mentioned, including the Small Man, the Talented Girl and the Gay Mage. Their characteristics and roles are outlined, ostensibly so the tourist-to-be will recognise them and know what to expect in the way of behaviour. Any reader of fantasy will soon recognise the types and comments, but any author of fantasy is likely to feel some discomfort even while smiling, particularly after recognising a plot twist or assumption he or she has used.
This leads to the questions; "Am I being unoriginal, here?" "Am I using stock situations and stereotypical characters?"
After these comes the even more uncomfortable question; "If I dare to depart from these givens, will my novel even be a fantasy novel?"
So, the besieged castle always has a secret passage through which the tourists-questers-viewpoint characters will be able to escape. So, that small, slender youth on the tour will always be a disguised heroine and possibly a missing heir as well. So any greasy-haired Stranger is bound to be a spy, and any unnamed Companion will probably meet a sticky end. So, any Cook will always have a filthy temper. There are hundreds of these assumptions, most of which can be applied to a great many novels, but if a fantasyland tour (or novel, or trilogy) lacks these encounters and events and characters, will it disappoint the tourist/readers? Will it even be published at all?
I suppose it's a little like romance fiction. There are certain givens from which the writer may not depart. If s/he does so, the book ceases to be a romance. However, it probably won't be a mainstream novel either and, as such, will fall awkwardly between two horses and never find a publisher.
Despite these uncomfortable reflections, which probably afflict and affect writers rather than readers, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a fun read. Here, for example, is what the guidebook has to say about Thrones....
From Page 261...
"Thrones are the elaborate seats that Kings, Queens, Evil Wizards and emperors sit in. They are usually of metal or stone.... Stone thrones tend to be carved into animal shapes or austerely simple. Both kinds must be chilly and uncomfortable. It is therefore surprising how many rulers spend their leisure hours sitting on their Thrones, alone in the Throne Room, often wearing their Crowns as well. This is a convenient habit: when you are ready to overthrow an Evil King or Wizard, you at least know where to find him.
Hmm. Does that remind you of too many scenes where the protagonists of a novel have burst into the palace and found the King/Queen/Wizard etc seated on a throne? Alone? Waiting, like an actor, for the cue to begin a scene?
Insects and Spiders,
Edited by George Else.
I've read (and reviewed) other titles in this series, and they're always well worth having. Attractive layout, splendid coloured illustrations and clear, informative text; these books have it all. If anything, INSECTS is even better than the Planets one I had last time; maybe because insects some in such an infinite variety. If you want info on mouthparts, mid air refuelling, insect eggs, grasshoppers' knees or how to tell a butterfly from a moth, this is definitely the book for you. Fine for projects, or young (and not so young) bug-watchers, a wonderfully entertaining read for anyone from Primary School upwards.
The Discoveries Series should definitely be in every school library, and would make a popular addition to the home library as well. As a sturdy paperback, it will stand a great deal of reading. I could heartily recommend this series to any parent, grandparent or teacher who wants to entertain and intrigue child readers (and borrow the book for themselves!)
By David Rish.
I loved Extraordinarily Ordinary. OK, nothing startling happened, it isn't Worthy Fiction, and it doesn't set out to Prove a thing. It's just a good, gutsy, funny read for kids of around 12 years old. It's definitely a book for kids rather than teenagers, and as such, adults can happily read it too. It's fun. Even without knowing the author, the reader can visualise his wickedly delighted expression as he piles incident on incident, and extracts the expected (and some very unexpected) results. Can an underachiever pick up his socks? Can a vanished sibling be found? Is Emily psychic? Simon, Jess and George think so, and they go to hilarious lengths to prove it.
The story is told by Jess, the only girl in the Zebras. Are the Zebras a club, or a reading group at school? A bit of both, it seems, but it's certain they named themselves... "because Z comes at the end of the alphabet", or so the author tells me! The Zebras even have a totem in the shape of orange icypoles. Here's Jess, to give you a sample of what to expect...
From Page 109... "Flora (George's baby sister) toddled over and grabbed hold of my leg, giving it a slobbery hug. I picked her up. 'Hello, Flora; hello George; hello Simon, hello Mrs G,' I said. 'You forgot to say hello to that ant,' said George, pointing. 'Hello ant,' I said. 'And that other ant,' George said. 'Hello,' I said. 'And all the other ants in the entire world,' George said. 'Hello by infinity,' I said. 'That fly on the veranda post, you haven't said hello to it,' George suggested, hopefully. 'George,' I said. 'Yes?' 'Put a sock in it.'
Into this permanent freewheeling conversation of friendship comes reserved, silent Emily. Can she really foresee the future? That's what the Zebras to know... so of course, they hypnotise her to find out! That's not all that happens, and Extraordinarily Ordinary will carry you along on its cheerful coat-tails right to the final page.
by Sue Gough.
This funny, irreverent, touching novel begins at yet another meeting between the UN and the leaders of the Middle East. Dr Renouf, the diplomat charged with holding this meeting together, begins to reminisce... to the time when she, as a teenaged street kid, joined a march that echoed the infamous Children's Crusade.
While the young Trace Renouf scrabbles for meaning in King's Cross, two young archaeologists have unearthed the mummified body of Berengaria, princess, uncrowned queen of Richard the Lion Hearted, mother of a lost and unacknowledged prince, and finally, mother superior of an unusual nunnery. Berengaria's story is told in modern, contemporary prose, highlighting her difficulties as an intelligent woman in a time when most women were expected to behave like obedient pawns.
The book in which Berengaria's wisdom is secreted comes finally into the keeping of the women of Mandala Farm, a kind of modern commune. However, an ancient evil has been reincarnated and Berengaria's old enemy is stalking the archaeologists, the book - and Trace, who has participated in a much-hyped Sponsored Walk and is now left high and dry..
The narrative threads are drawn together in alternative chapters, and the often tragic stories are laced with dark humour. It's an extraordinary book, and one which manages to blend genres to an astonishing and successful degree. It's a historical novel, a mystery, a thriller, a gothic, a modern teen story, a political allegory, a fantasy, a satire and a novel of character, all at once. The characters are vivid, tough or weak, funny, resilient, accepting. All this is packed into a short novel which moves from France to Australia to the Holy Land and back and carries the reader along in the breathless rush.
Shadow Under the Sea,
Geoffrey Trease is best known for his historical novels and entertaining non-fiction, but he also wrote several modern novels. There were the five "Black Banner" books, about Bill Melbury, and set variously in Cumberland, France and Oxford, and two "Maythorne" books. Apart from those, I have read only three other contemporaries of which Shadow Under the Sea is the longest.
A stylish thriller set in the Soviet Union during the heady days of glasnost, Shadow Under the Sea begins when Kate, an English student, is assisting her father by acting as interpreter in a Russian clinic for handicapped children. Kate meets three young Russians, and when they stumble on an archaeological treasure, they attract the enmity of the sinister General Shulgin; a man who flourished during the bad old days and wants them back again. It's all great fun, and, as always, Geoffrey Trease kept a firm rein on his plot and characters while giving a vivid picture of Yalta and a slice of history-in-the-making.
The Arpino Assignment
Like Shadow Under the Sea, reviewed above, these two novels come from the latter end of Geoffrey Trease's long career. They are both historicals, and both rank up there with his best. The first is set in Italy during the Second World War, just around the time of the fall of Mussolini. Private Rick Weston, by virtue of being half Italian, is sent behind enemy lines by the Special Operations Executive to make contact with the Italian Resistance. It's a taut thriller, as Rick makes uneasy approaches to folk he knew as a child, never knowing if they might turn him in to the Gestapo. His commanding officer is captured, and Rick makes mistakes which bring danger to himself and to the people who help him. Ultimately, he triumphs in the battle, but there's more of the war to come.
The second book, Curse of the Sea, is set in Scotland in 1633. Rob, a boy actor, travels from London to his father's childhood home in Scotland where he encounters some of the court of King Charles, who has gone on a royal progress for a second crowning. Rob is more interested in the Masque written by Ben Jonson, and in Barbary, the grand-daughter of a wise-woman who patches up his injured leg. Published in 1996, Curse on the Sea deals with some plot components Trease wouldn't have used in his earlier work. Barbary is illegitimate, and the product of rape, and is determined not to suffer the same fate as her mother. Her grandmother is mostly respected, but Barbary is denied passage on a ferry and, in a fit of anger, curses the ship. A freak (and historically attested) storm blows up and kills many of the passengers. Barbary is blamed.
Hunted as a witch, with her grandmother dead, Barbary has no other option than to join Rob on his journey back to England where she becomes an orange girl in the theatre until they can marry. There are no easy answers in Curse on the Sea. Death and ruin come impartially to good and bad characters, and virtue isn't always rewarded. Rob's grandmother and aunt are welcoming, but his strict fundamentalist grandfather is appalled to learn of Rob's profession. Trease, in what may have been his final novel, had the courage to show that sometimes, turning your back and running away are the only viable options.
It was good, on reading these late works by an elderly author, to find his powers remained as strong as ever.
Married to Sinclair,
by Danielle Shaw.
Married to Sinclair is a romance, but in common with the rest of the Scarlet series, it's generous word count gives enough room for fully developed secondary characters and subplots. Jenny, the Scottish heroine, is "married to Sinclair"; the family company. Her dedication to business and family interests ruin her engagement, so she throws herself ever deeper into her work. Of course, another romance is waiting, and the man in question is a designer who comes up with a new line of products for Sinclair. All is not plain sailing, though, for Paul is engaged in an on-again, off-again marriage with the willful Gina, and has two small children. When Gina becomes briefly embroiled with Jenny's brother Ian, the story comes to the boil, as the beleaguered Paul tries desperately to do the right thing by Jenny as well as his children.
Interesting characters, a smoothly flowing plot and a nicely drawn background make this one of the most engaging romances I've read in a while. A secondary romance between Jenny's wheelchair-bound assistant Stevie and her own hero makes a pleasant counterpoint to the main story.
by Maggie Pearson. Hodder, London, 1996. PB. 249 pp.
I bought this copy from Chickenfeed, in Devonport.
Owl Light was one of a bin full of books I sorted through at the local Chickenfeed shop. I'd never heard of the author, but the blurb was intriguing, so I bought it, among half a dozen others, on spec. I'm very glad I did! Maggie Pearson is a British writer, probably quite new since I'd not heard of her, but she has a delightful style. In many ways this novel reminds me of early Jan Mark titles. The plot concerns badgers, badger-baiting, journalism, an independent granny, a family transplanted to the country, a local "odd" family and a possible werewolf. The characters are beautifully drawn, and there are touches of subtle humour. What pleases me most is that Ms Pearson doesn't feel the need to dot every i nor to cross every t.
For example, the large, rather unruly Stittle family includes children named Mia, Madonna, Rutger, Harrison, Dolph, Dustin, Michelle and the adopted Lemmy, married to Mia "as soon as they were both old enough". Apart from the throwaway line that Mrs Stittle "likes movies" her choice of names isn't further explained. The delightful touches are too numerous to mention, and the plot is rock solid. Subplots weave in and out in harmony, and every small touch adds to the whole. Hal, the hero, and his sister Ellie must be around eleven and eight years old, but their ages are never given. Hal is old enough to be embarrassed when five-year-old Madonna Stittle knocks him over and sits on him, yet young enough to be afraid of the dark. Ellie is old enough to be practical and determined, yet young enough to come to Hal when something startles her in the night. Their ages are really immaterial. This is a book for all ages and all readers who enjoy a fine style and a good story.
The Ship that Never Set Sail
By Jean Curlewis.
The Ship that Never Set Sail is the first of four books written by Jean Curlewis, the daughter of author Ethel Turner, before her early death.
Brenda is fourteen years old, and in secret training as a sea-going adventurer. A delicate, quiet child, she has always lived a rich fantasy life, plying the seven seas with a companion known as John. Her brother, Jerry, has no ambition for adventures, so Brenda is forced to put herself through a kind of training course. Along the way, she meets a middle-aged man with similar tastes, and they enjoy a friendship in which the difference in their age and fortune is scarcely important.
When his mother dies, Mr Brown leaves his resentful sisters, throws up his boring job and goes to sea, just as he has always dreamed. For a time he writes to Brenda and sends her gifts from foreign ports, but the reality of his great adventure is sobering. He has left his move too late and no longer has the physical strength to enjoy or survive a life at sea. This sad ending of Mr Brown's dreams (and the implication that he should have stayed in his boring, narrow existence) is an odd thing to find in a book whose general tone is hearty and cheerful.
As Brenda grows up, she encounters two possible love-interests; Lloyd, who enjoys camping and sailing and might be supposed to be her soul-mate, and Jimmy, a university student and fledgling politician. Jimmy falls for her heavily during a college dance, but he has been so busy joining every club and shining in every social and sporting sphere that he fails his exams and is forced to forget his ambition to be a lawyer and enter the family firm in a lowly position. Brenda meets him in his guise as a clerk, and is disdainful and hurt...
Lloyd falls in love with Brenda too, but in true heroine tradition she opens her mouth to accept his proposal and then finds herself refusing him instead. Meanwhile, Brenda's home-body sister Margaret marries a naval officer, and her unadventurous brother Jerry is offered a chance to sail to the Antarctic as an expedition photographer.
The Ship that Never Set Sail is a character study and a romance, but most of all it is the story of dreams; dreams lost, realised, replaced and redeemed. The ending, in which Brenda gives up her dreams of adventure for marriage with a businessman, is one that sits oddly with modern taste; however, the ironic tone that recurs throughout the book makes it at least a believable fate. And perhaps, like Mr Brown, she would be better to keep her dreams in the realm of imagination.
The following brief extract gives a taste of Jean Curlewis' style, and demonstrates her saving grace of humour... and the social snobbery of the 1920s.
From Page 198. Jimmy is serving a loquacious customer when he sees Brenda, the girl he once impressed with his high political ideals...
"Jimmy winced... he glanced again at Brenda. her face was expressionless, but he could feel the scorn behind it like a whip-lash. Explain to her. A thousand devils of pride in his heart shouted "Never." So she thought this of him - well, she should have reason to. Jimmy, late of the (University) Dramatic Society, smirked a little. He gave one glance at young Seelsby at the perfumery counter and immediately out-Seelsbyed him. "I can do you a very nice line in fasteners at three three-farthings the card," he said smoothly.
That's it for the summer, folks. I already have a heap of books on my To Be Read pile. These include a book about dugongs and other sea mammals and a pleasant-looking book called Cow Parsley and Cow. Meanwhile, if anyone would like to comment on my reviews, or to suggest a novel or a site URL for next time, you are welcome to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my home page at http://www.angelfire.com/hi/mygoodbooks. Sally Odgers
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