size="5">Sally's reading corner
Welcome to the first month of Autumn reading.
I have a real mixed big this month, and for once
I seem to have avoided the bandwagon effect of
reading too many books by the same author. All
the same, there are some familiar names here,
mainly because I'm the loyal sort of reader. If I
find a good author or a good book, I'll be back for
URLs of the month:
This one is a wonderful assortment of poems by famous "school poetry book" poets. A great site if you're looking for full texts of poems and remember only a line or so. Best of all, there are other poems by the same poets - the ones that never made it into the collections.
This is a site where you can check out electronic books written by Aussie and NZ writers.
KEY TO SALLY’S CODES.
Australian book, (A)
THIS MONTH'S BOOKS:
*The Real Thing, by Catherine Alliott (B,N)*
*THE REAL THING,*
By Catherine Alliott.
I bought this book through Bibliofind after the author was suggested by a friend.
The Real Thing was suggested to me by a friend who is a fellow fan of light-hearted but well-written fiction. She remarked that Catherine Alliott’s work was “supposed to be something like early Jilly Cooper”. Indeed, the lipstick-pink cover reinforces that notion, with ‘Move over Jilly’ written under the title.
The Real Thing is a lot longer than any early Jilly Cooper novel I ever read, and is set within a comparatively short time-frame. The action (apart from a fairly brief flash-back) takes place in around a month, and since this is a first-person novel, the length isn’t bulked up by frequent switches of viewpoint or excursions into what some other character is doing.
My initial impressions were that the author was trying too hard. On the first page, there seem to be just too many loud verbs... shot down, glazed, curdled, demanded, yelped, hissed... The passage below is taken from this page.
“God Laura, what am I going to do?” My hands left my dark curls and began to wring desperately. “In precisely two hours time, seventeen four-year-olds will be thundering through that door,” I pointed a quivering finger, “demanding white rabbits, puppet shows and hideously twisted balloons, and all I’ll have to offer them are some Marmite sandwiches and a few bowls of Hula Hoops. I’ll be lynched!”
This style, which reads like a parody of Cooper’s, calms down quite a bit after the Chapter One, or maybe I just got used to it, but the first few pages were certainly hard work. Once Tess’s character is established as an attractive thirty-year-old wife-and- mother who is a bit prone to dramatisation, she becomes rather more likeable. She is married to lawyer David, a kind, erudite sort of man, and has a son and a daughter of six and four.
Every year, Tess and her family go to a holiday house (which belongs to Tess’s father and uncle) in Scotland for a month of fishing, sunning and winding down. With them go Tess’ parents, her sister Laura (plus Laura’s current man), an aunt and uncle, Cousin Penny and her husband and daughter. It’s a family tradition, but this year, for the first time, Tess is about to re-encounter her first lover, Patrick, son of the local laird. Tess and Patrick have unfinished business, because her father parted them abruptly twelve years ago.
Patrick is an artist, but the death of his father has brought him back to Scotland. Soon after his arrival, Tess’ husband David returns to London and the scene is open for Tess to consider an affair... There’s also an encounter with an amorous ghillie, the strange affair of Penny (once a “walking gland” now a sleekly loyal wife - or is she?), the sad case of Laura’s limp would-be lover and the problem of the pretty Australian au pair. Penny’s father dies and everyone returns to London for the grand resolution of most, if not all, of the subplots.
The story is involving, and it’s certainly a diverting portrait of a wife looking back into the realms of “if only”, but there are a few sour notes that keep The Real Thing from being the light-hearted romp it should have been. One is the playing out of the “Your daddy ain’t your daddy but your daddy don’t know” plot twist. Jilly Cooper did this one in her novel Emily, and given the similarity of Alliott’s work it jars a bit to see the same trick played again.
Next, and more serious, I think, is the fact that I never could quite get a handle on Penny. I kept thinking I had her down pat then she’d do something out of character. Fair enough, people don’t always act in character, but this kept pushing me right out of the story. Similarly, Tess mentions often, and loudly, that she doesn’t have a job because she wants to bring up her children herself, but she doesn’t seem to spend much time in their company, and why does she need an au pair?
Lastly, and most seriously, was the Problem of Patrick. I won’t go into this here since it would give away the end, but it’s sufficient to say his character is set up to raise certain expectations and he acts within that character through the bulk of the book. He expresses views and makes suggestions that match his given persona, and then, right at the end of the novel, he reacts in a fashion that seems utterly foreign. If he hadn’t done this the book would have been difficult to bring to a close, but when another character remarks sagely that he’d “suspected this all along”, I thought - hey - what? Never, in any of the Patrick scenes the reader is privileged to see is there any reason to “suspect this”.
All this aside, Alliott tells a lively story, and I intend to read at least one more of her novels to see if this slightly off-centre handling is typical or if it affects just this one book. She has, after all, had three best-sellers so there must be something there...
WIVES, FRIENDS AND LOVERS,
by Jean Saunders.
I bought this copy from our local Bellingers’ shop.
To my mind, Wives, Friends and Lovers is a much better book than The Real Thing. Maybe it’s unfair to compare them, but there are valid reasons for doing so.
Both are romances that don’t follow the general line, both are studies of love, both inhabit the realm of “popular women’s fiction”. Both contrast the lives of three connected women of roughly the same age, and both are British publications. This time, though, in place of sisters Laura and Tess and their cousin Penny, we are presented with schoolmates Laura, Penny and Gemma. Yes. There’s a Laura and a Penny in each book. Another similarity.
The prologue takes place in 1985, as the girls prepare to leave their all-female boarding school for the last time. They’re fast friends who happen to be rather an “odd trio”. Penny is the only daughter of a very wealthy and undemonstrative family, and her major interest is horses. Laura is a tenant farmer’s daughter who is contented to return to the family farm, and, when her mother dies, to continue keeping house for her father. Gemma, the third girl, is an aspiring pop singer, an orphan who has been brought up by her grandmother.
Penny is cool and naturally superior, Laura sweet and unsophisticated and Gemma brittle and a bit of a good time girl, yet Jean Saunders makes their friendship seem utterly believable. Never, for an instant, did I get the feeling - hang on - this is wrong - this wouldn’t happen - while reading this book. Instead, I was held all the way through, fascinated by the true but shifting friendship between the girls as they mature.
If the book belongs to any one character, it is Laura’s, and Laura is the one who makes an ecstatic early marriage. The birth of her twins plunges her into post-natal depression, her father’s death devastates her, but she has her husband’s love behind her all the way. In some ways, it is her schoolgirl role of “peacemaker Laura” that causes her problems as she outgrows her younger self. With a husband and children to depend on her, she comes to resent being drawn into the dramas of her unmarried friends, and to feel guilty for that resentment.
Gemma’s singing career is believably portrayed, as she rises to the brink of fame then slides back down again. During the years the novel spans, Gemma’s relationships are as spasmodic as her career, but there are constants in her two good friends (with whom she has a yearly reunion), her seedy but basically well-meaning agent and an accompanist who has many of the hallmarks of a bad lot, but who turns out to be her salvation in more ways than one.
Penny seems to have an almost emotion-free life. At every reunion the other two wonder if she has found a romantic interest, but Penny retains her devotion to horses. At times she finds things a little too easy, but when love comes during a skiing holiday, it hits her like an avalanche. Tragedy comes to Penny soon afterwards, and because life has been so streamlined she is scarcely equipped to deal with it.
The love affairs in this triple-stranded novel are different enough from one another to avoid any sense of repetition, and other relationships, between Laura and her dad, Gemma and her agent Rube Steiner and Penny and her parents are lightly but truthfully drawn. Other characters, including Penny’s chauffeur, the riding instructor who briefly tempts Laura and the calculating star-maker Desmond La Farge, are also well portrayed, but it was the shifting dynamics of the central friendship which fascinated me throughout the book. Gemma and Penny, brilliant with talent and inherited wealth, occasionally scratch at one another, but Laura, calm Laura, must always stand in the middle and restore their three-part harmony. There is genuine love between these three women, tempered with believable spots of jealousy and resentment, and the conclusion, that long-time friendship may not deserve paramount place in a woman’s life, is quite unusual.
Jean Saunders has written a great many novels; perhaps this is why she has produced such a seamless and engrossing story. Whatever the reason, when I examine this book together with “The Real Thing”, I can only shake my head and wonder why the wrong one, the flawed one, became the best seller.
THE REVENGE OF SAMUEL STOKES,
by Penelope Lively.
Penelope Lively was a very well-regarded author of children’s books (and others) during the 1970s and ‘80s. I’m not sure if she is still alive, but it seems likely that the bulk of her output was during those two decades. Some of her titles, including The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, Astercote, The Driftway, A Castle of Bone and Year King attained the status of near-classics, well reviewed, discussed and present in most school and public libraries. Most, if not all, of her novels for children and teens were fantasy, ranging from light-hearted ghost stories to complex and complicated psychological fantasy. I’ve read a great many of her books, and while she has never been one of my top ten writers, I could always rely on her to provide an interesting read.
The Revenge of Samuel Stokes is one of her lighter books, with pre-teens Tim and Jane and Tim’s rather child-like grandfather battling it out with the irascible ghost of a landscape gardener who objects to the raising of a new housing estate over what was once the site of his greatest triumph. Tim and Jane live in the new estate, and watch with interest and some alarm as a long-gone lake re-emerges and floods their gardens, brick walls build themselves overnight and smells of roast venison emanate from the washing machine.
Together, the children and Grandpa make contact with Stokes, and although they don’t manage to get rid of him entirely, they do shift his attention to another part of the country - where the whole cycle promptly begins again. The style is cheerful, but the author intrusions make it seem very old fashioned now.
COW AND COW PARSLEY,
by Judy Cornwell.
I wanted to like Cow and Cow Parsley. I really did. I liked the title, loved the cover picture and was drawn by the fact that the author is also an actor - and one of the stars of British comedy Keeping Up Appearances. There was quite a lot to like in the novel too. The style is literate but not high-brow, Isabelle, the heroine, is a reasonably likeable character, and the setting in a British village is charming. The picture of the villagers who rally around the newcomer and include her in all their festivals and traditions is also charming. Maybe a bit too charming. The situation, and the character of Isabelle, remind me more than somewhat of The Precious Gift, a book by John Bowen, and there are also touches of Lynne Reid Banks I’m not suggesting Ms Cornwell has borrowed anything from those books, just that the general impression and the relationships between some of the characters strike a chord.
Cow and Cow Parsley is a painting Isabelle has given to her husband, Chris, as a present. She buys it because she likes it, Chris is more interested in its monetary value. They have a son, Marcus, who is away at boarding school against Isabelle’s wishes, and Isabelle spends a lot of time with her friend Daphne.
Chris develops an obsession that civilisation is collapsing. He decides to sell up and move his family to a remote village. Isabelle is appalled, but is transplanted to a house called “Nodens”. Here, inexplicably, she finds herself coming into lactation. More odd things happen, as the salt-of-the-Earth villagers make her welcome. Chris has to go overseas again on business, but Isabelle settles in quite well without him. She makes friends with a kind of white witch named Bridget, and with Lugh, the rather fey artist who painted Cow and Cow Parsley and who gives her a pair of gloves.
Gradually, Isabelle realises that the village is preparing for a cataclysm, harvesting, storing, making a shelter in an old mine to pass the time of darkness until it will be safe to re-emerge. She has dreams which require interpretation and falls in love with Lugh, who is much younger than she. Chris dies off-stage, but by now Isabelle is thoroughly absorbed by the villagers.
I think my chief problem with this novel is that I didn’t really understand, or believe, what was happening. The background of Celtic mythology, the three-in-one woman (goddess?) of which Isabella forms a part along with Bridget and her unborn daughter, the deity which is Lugh - it’s just a bit too much for me. I could have accepted it, I’m sure, if I’d liked the characters better. If they’d seemed strong enough, important enough, to be truly mythic beings. Maybe I just didn’t get a proper handle on Lugh, but I never did get a feeling that I knew him or even liked him very much. There were a great many events and comments which evidently meant something important, but which I never understood. Those gloves, for example. I’m sure they had significance. And Chris’s obsession; he dragged his unwilling wife to this place, then went away and was killed. Did he really have a presentiment of what was going to happen, or was he just the instrument by which Isabelle was brought to Nodens? And his little tree; that was killed by Isabelle’s dog. What was the point of that?
I guess I can only say this book was interesting... it made me think, but ultimately (perhaps because I lack some background knowledge) I was disappointed and confused.
By Ethel Turner.
I have been wanting to read Nicola Silver for many years, ever since reading about it in Brenda Niall’s book Seven Little Billabongs. For quite a while, I assumed a copy would turn up somewhere, especially as other books by this author are quite freely available. Eventually, I started hunting through Bibliofind and other book-finder sites. I found two copies, but both were first editions, and consequently quite expensive. Since I collect books for their contents and not their intrinsic value, I hoped to find a “reprint reading copy in fair condition”.
Eventually, I found a third copy, yet another first edition. This one, though, was missing a (non-text) page, so I was able to buy it at a very reasonable price.
Nicola Silver is the story of a clever fifteen-year-old who lives high on a hill with her parents and siblings. Rhys is around 24, and has returned lame from the war. Now he works for his dictatorial father who is trying to terrace the hillside and plant a lemon orchard. There are two younger children as well. Mrs Silver is a good cook, but she is a pale, timid shadow beside her husband.
Mr Silver is harsh and unloving. He believes in the virtues of hard work and has decreed that each of his children must carry one hundred large stones up the hill each day for the walls he is building. This task takes two hours and on the day of her fifteenth birthday, Nicola rebels.
The birthday tea is underway when Father enters and asks why Nicola hasn’t carried the stones. She explains that she wanted a holiday. Her father punishes her by doubling her task for tomorrow. When she objects, he triples it, when she refuses to answer him, he quadruples it. Finally, Nicola finds herself with the mammoth task of carrying five hundred stones in one day, ten hours’ work without food.
It is difficult to know what to make of Mr Silver. He is certainly obsessed and harsh, but his son Rhys insists he is always just. The punishment for wrong-doing always fits the crime, and he never asks his children to do work beyond their strengths. It is implied that Nicola might have been granted a day off from stone-hauling if she’d asked. A bit more light is shed on his character later in the novel.
Nicola has almost finished her mammoth task when a car comes to grief on a sharp hill corner. Inside is Conan, a rather idle young man whose life Rhys saved in France. His sister Cwen is thrown over a ledge by the impact, and Rhys rescues her. Now the visitors owe Rhys twice over, and when Conan begs him to come back to the city for a visit, Rhys (who is in love with Cwen) asks that Nicola should be given the chance instead.
Whisked away from stone-heaving for her first trip to the city, Nicola is horrified. Not only is she disobeying her father, but she knows her clothes are quite unsuitable. Fortunately, Rhys has provided her with his savings, so Nicola goes shopping and buys herself a wardrobe. Conan looks forward to showing “the kid” the sights, but her company makes him reassess his own aimless life and (no surprises here for any student of Ethel Turner) he falls in love with her. He decides it will be two years before he can “speak”, and vows to spend those two years in self-improvement.
Nicola returns home and is incarcerated in the basement by her father. He is calm and cold, and explains that she is to spend the same amount of time “in prison” as she spent while AWOL. Using old exercise books and wrapping paper, she occupies herself by writing a series of imaginary letters. These she smuggles out and, when the home-made ink begins to fade, allows her grandmother to read. By devious means, the book is published. Mr Silver banks the money in Nicola’s name, but burns her book. He tells her he will also burn any others.
By the time Nicola is seventeen, Rhys has left the hill and is working in partnership with Conan and engaged to Cwen. On Nicola’s birthday, her father is absent, so little sister Robin begs leave to dress up in the gifts Nicola brought from the city. Mrs Silver puts on the silk her daughter gave her, breaks down and confesses her misery to Nicola. Nicola suggests her father is a weak man who acts harshly to compensate... to their horror Mr Silver has returned. Calmly, he compliments his wife and asks for a private word with Nicola.
Terrified, Mrs Silver refuses to leave, and Mr Silver explains Conan has asked to marry Nicola and he has sent him away. Nicola rushes down the hill to Conan, who promises to try to reason with her father.
The two are on their way to do so when a sudden landslide wrecks the house and kills Mr and Mrs Silver.
Until this sudden and peculiar ending, (which I assume was written to solve an insoluble problem) the story shows unusual coherence. Many of Turner’s books (and those of her contemporaries) were very episodic in structure, but in Nicola Silver every incident clings to the main plot. There are several interesting points about this book. For one thing, a whole sub-plot, apparently concerning the discovery of Nicola’s half-sister, was expunged by the publisher on the grounds that illegitimate siblings were an unfit subject for a “flapper” novel. I think I know who the sister would have been, as Cwen has a sophisticated actress friend who seems to have no real role in the story. But - whose daughter would she have been? If Mrs Silver’s, then some of Mr Silver’s obsession about the evils of the city and pretty clothes is explained. If Mr Silver’s, then perhaps he might be punishing himself and his other children.
So, what is wrong with Mr Silver? Most of what he says seems reasonable by the standards of the day. His children are fed and clothed, and he doesn’t beat them. They work hard, but not beyond their capabilities. Locking up after an escapade was a common punishment, so was the turning away of suitors for youthful daughters. Burning Nicola’s book points to something harsher, and when he overhears her assessment of his character, his mild response seems to drive his wife to blind terror.
Is he a wife-beater? Does she have some reason for fearing he might snap and kill or injure Nicola? Is he insane, deeply depressed or just plain cruel? I think the explanation probably lies in the missing sub-plot, but if anyone else has a theory or facts about this peculiar character I’d love to hear them.
The third oddity is minor; what kind of a name is “Cwen”? I’ve never encountered it before, but there’s no suggestion in the text that it’s unusual. Finally, there is a short passage which I believe explains the Mystery of the Lack of Reprint Editions Conan, while trying to improve himself to be worthy of Nicola, considers his three heroes. There is Garibaldi, a romantic figure whom Nicola also admires, then comes Henry Ford, who brought affordable cars to the masses - and finally, the hero whom I suspect might have kept this book from being reprinted. The Italian, Mussolini!
SEPTIMUS AND THE MINSTER GHOST,
by Stephen Chance.
The story starts with Alisdair Cameron, the dean’s son, seeing a light in the church. Very soon, though, the focus switches to the real protagonist, Septimus Treloar. That’s the Reverend Septimus or, as one of his less than reverent friends puts it, “the Septic Reverend”. Septimus, who has the battered face of a prize fighter and the instincts of the soldier and policeman he once was, must be one of the most unusual heroes ever to grace a children’s book. He starred in four novels during the 1970s, and really, there is almost nothing to mark them as children’s book. They lack sex and profanity, but so do a great many detective stories. They are probably shorter than most adult novels, but the complexity of their plots make no concessions.
There have been adult protagonists in children’s books before, but most of them have been of the comic-book hero type (Biggles), or else in the folk tale tradition (Mrs Pepperpot), or maybe child heroines who have grown up in the course of their series (Pollyanna, Anne Shirley).
Young Alisdair tells Septimus about the lights in the church, and soon Septimus is investigating what appears to be a full-scale haunting. The new Archdeacon is almost convinced, but is it a coincidence that the trouble started not long after this cleric arrived? Ghost-busting in the minster can be dangerous, and a persistent reporter causes all kinds of troubles before all is revealed - at least, to Septimus and the reader. Most of the other characters never discover the whole truth.
The four Septimus titles are available in some libraries, and can be discovered second-hand. A good read for anyone who likes an old-fashioned, humorous and fairly bloodless whodunit.
by Lorraine Marwood.
The thirty-two poems which make up Skinprint are tart, easily-tasted observations of farming and country life. Whether the poet-narrator is recalling her shy childhood when she learned to whistle from an equally shy shepherd in “Lanoline Road”, or detailing the difficulties of passing on city-born messages to a working farmer in “Taking Phone Messages”, or considering the inner dreams of tractors in “Farm Machinations”, she finds exactly the right words to share the mood.
The hard work and heartbreak are there in the sadness of drought, (“Drought Sticks”) and salinity, (“From a Ring-Barked Kitchen”), but the poet doesn’t neglect the joys of life in “Mulberry Tree” or the enjoyment children derive from mastering a task as shown in “Hosing Work” and “Paper Making”.
Then there’s the sheer sensuous enjoyment of eating a fig, with all its long rich history behind it...
...”This is the taste of blessing all Mediterranean sweetness and sandalled Damascus road ...”
There is the quiet comfort of “I Saw”, where the narrator experiences a momentary glimpse of ...
“my great grandfather... Same grizzled hair and thick circular glasses, same tenacious hold on the steering wheel as he had in life...”
and the unsettling “We are Coming”
“...Secrets? Whisper them, we’ll lock them in our inner ear, tunnelling them underground and wait till we strike gold...”
Skinprint is a rich collection with no soft centre, no easy answers but a vein of joy not denied by its clear-eyed observations of its world.
DARK OF THE MOON,
By Maggie Pearson.
Dark of the Moon is a sequel to Owl Light which I reviewed in an earlier column. It is at least equal to its predecessor, building on incidents and characters established in the first book. This time, Hal’s sister Ellie plays only a small part in the action, most of which centres on Hal and the Stittle family, present and past.
Maggie Pearson takes well-trodden plot ingredients and blends them into something different and original. There’s a ghost, time-travel and the threatened closure of the local church, a secret code and a treasure hunt.
Local identity Miss Letty Harding dies, but Hal sees her ghost. It seems bewildered, but quite obviously it wants him to do something. Hal thinks he knows what when he learns of the authorities’ plan to close the local church and bus the congregation to a nearby village. Hal has a nightmare featuring an earlier attack on the church. He “sees” the stained-glass windows being smashed and the long-lost statue of Our Lady being destroyed.
Confused and upset, Hal is drawn back to the days of the English Civil War, where he is befriended by the Stittle family, as prolific and individual in the past as they are in the present. Lemmy Stittle, the werewolf, is present in both times, but he is older in the past, and the intriguing idea comes to mind that he is growing backwards through time. Hal tells Weaver Stittle that the Roundheads are coming to smash the church, and the weaver takes him to the Lady of the Manor, another Letty. Hal believes he’s achieved what he was sent into the past to do, supposing that if the church is protected in this time, its unbroken stained glass and other beauties will save it in the future. Then he discovers that Letty and Stittle are much more interested in saving the harvest than the church...
Hal meets Sir John, Letty’s brother and the love of Hope Stittle, who is chained up as a madman for speaking against the king. He tells John of the coming destruction, but is whisked home before he can act on various hints John has dropped. Among these hints are a code employed by John and Hope...
Back in the present, the modern Stittles are mobilising for trouble. Hal and Gran put their heads together and, following clues left by John, find the Lady statue hidden in Miss Letty’s old home. Hal thinks this will save the church, but the authorities want the statue for the cathedral... it is left to the modern Stittles to make an illegal move which completes the pattern begun by Hal’s time in the past.
The plot is commonplace enough, but the execution is masterly. There are many light touches, including this description of the items in a cupboard under the stairs, with its neatly circular metaphor...
“Every home has a place like this: a kind of black hole, where people dump things they can’t quite bring themselves to throw in the dustbin. Things like leaky wellington boots and warped hockey-sticks... and little Cyril’s hobby horse that got broken and was confiscated after he hit his sister over the head with it. There they linger, on the event horizon, between being and not-being.”
|So, that’s it for this month, and time to plunge into
another lot of reading.
Festivale Australian online magazine
copyright © Festivale 1999 All rights reserved
Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Box 972G, Melbourne GPO VIC 3001 Australia
e-mail the editor