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May, 1999

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Welcome to my reading corner! As I suggested in last month's column, I managed to run to earth more books by Catherine Alliott, and was happy to be proved correct in my suspicion that her other titles must be better than the one I had already reviewed. So, two more Alliott titles this month, a book on the career of novelist Mary Stewart, an old favourite from my childhood, and some other odds and ends. There are fewer titles this month than usual because two of them were very long and I've been too busy writing books myself to read as much as I'd like!

URLs of the month:
The Tassie Road Planner

The Tassie Road Planner! this is for anyone who wants to play a road-trip through Tasmania, which happens to be my home state. Good fun, and it tells you just how long it will take you to get from Point A to Point B.

Carol Covers Covers

This is a site where Carol Covers Covers. Great fun, if you enjoy analysing just why a book cover does or doesn't work.


KEY TO SALLYíS CODES.

Australian book, (A)
US/Canadian book (US) or (C)
British book (B).
Other book - (O) .

YA = Young Adult. C = Childrenís NF = Non Fiction.
F = Fantasy N = Novel M = Mainstream R = Romance
CR = Crime. T = Thriller. H = Historical.

THIS MONTH'S BOOKS:

*Mary Stewart, Lenemaja Friedman. (US), NF.*
The Old-Girl Network, Catherine Alliott (B), R,N.
Rosie Meadows Regrets, Catherine Alliott. (B) R,N.
A Home among the Gum Trees, John Nicholson. (A),C,NF.
The Stone of Offering, Stephen Chance, (B), C, CR
The Knight of Stars and Storms, Terry Deary. (B), C/H..
Spiderweb for Two, Elizabeth Enright. (US), C.
Second Best Bed, Fenton Bresler. (B), NF.


*Mary Stewart

By Lenemaja Friedman.

Published by Twayne Publishers in the Twayne's English Author Series, 1990. HB, 137 pp.

I bought this book through Bibliofind, from John T. Zubal Inc.

I really enjoy books about authors, especially if the authors have written books that I know and enjoy. Many author biographies disappoint me, not because they're uninteresting or poorly written, but because they give a great deal of space to the author's life and comparatively little to the world of his or her books. Ideally, I enjoy an author study which tells me something of the author, a good deal more of the books and which also concentrates on the interests and circumstances that led the author concerned not only to write books, but to write these books in particular.

If such a study were done on the late Monica Edwards, it would immediately join up the dots which led her to write one series set on and around Romney Marsh and a second series in which a family takes up a derelict farm in Surrey. Similarly, any study of Arthur Ransome brings his Swallows and Amazons series into focus. A study of C.S. Lewis shows why he wrote the Narnian series. In some cases the settings or the prototypes of the characters have been well-known to the authors for years, in other cases they have been influenced by their own reading matter. Charlotte Bronté's Jane Eyre may seem an amazing book for a shy, spinster to have written, but in tone and subject matter it fits in with the gothic novels which preceded it. Monica Edwards took her own life and background in childhood and adulthood and used it as a basis for her novels, while Charlotte Bronté took her reading matter and used that. The analogy isn't perfect, for Charlotte was a governess at one time and I doubt if Monica Edwards ever sailed with smugglers, but it's close enough.

Mary Stewart, by Lenemaja Friedman, is more of an author study than a biography or critique. Mary Stewart's life story is sketched in the first chapter, and most of her romantic suspense novels and Arthurian books are examined. Each novel is put into its proper historical perspective, and most of them fall naturally into groups. The plot of each is described, along with some attention to repeating themes such as "the chase", a device Ms Stewart uses often. Pace and character are examined, and Ms Friedman seems to agree with my own conclusion (see earlier reviews in Sally's Reading Corner) that Mary Stewart's heroes and heroines are, essentially, the same characters repeated from book to book. Perhaps the first-person narrative style of almost all the novels has a lot to do with this, and perhaps the tone of voice the heroines adopt is Mary Stewart's own. It wouldn't do to assume too much of this, though, for a very similar tone can be found in the first-person heroines of Madeleine Brent's eleven romantic-suspense novels. Apart from the fact that Ms Brent's novels are set in the late Victorian era and most of Ms Stewart's in the "present" during which she wrote them, the characters have a great deal in common; women of good sense and bravery, with loving hearts and a strongly protective streak. Perhaps Ms Stewart is just such a woman, but Ms Brent's real name is Peter O'Donnell.

Ms Friedman agrees with me, again, in choosing the two novels which stand out from the rest. Touch Not the Cat has a complex plot, a much stronger love interest and a different kind of hero, while The Ivy Tree hinges on a clever double-blind deception which might have seemed even better to me if I hadn't read Josephine Tey's Brat Farrer first. One novel on which we appear to disagree is This Rough Magic, one which Ms Friiedman considers lacks a in strong romantic scene. I've always found the sexual tension between Max and Lucy very strong, especially in the fireside scene after the dolphin's rescue.

A large part of the book concentrates on the four Arthurian novels which I've never read. Again, the plots are detailed and the pace and characters examined and this time there is an extra dimension as Ms Friedman contrasts Mary's versions of Arthur, Guinevere and Merlin with those of Thomas Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Since The Wicked Day, the last of the four Arthurian novels, was published in 1983, there have been other Stewart novels, including Stormy Petrel, Thornyhold and Rose Cottage. Of these, only Thornyhold (1988) was published in time to be mentioned in this book and then just briefly with the remark that it belongs with the suspense novels (first person, mystery, contemporary) but does not follow the same patterns. Certainly these three are much gentler and less suspenseful than the earlier titles, and I wonder why Mary Stewart has chosen to follow this path. With the exception of a novella, The Wind off the Small Isles, The Gabriel Hounds was the last of the suspense titles to be published prior to the Arthurian novels, appearing in 1968. After that, among the Arthurian cycle, comes Touch Not the Cat, in 1976. This is, in many ways, the strongest of the suspense novels and has the strongest romantic thread and relationship. It would have made more sense to me if Mary had continued to develop this strength in her contemporary fiction, but instead, after a gap of another dozen years, she seems to have retreated to less intense themes and slighter plots and characters. Perhaps she put so much into the Arthurian cycle that she had little left for less heroic tales, or perhaps the slighter titles are simply a not-so-subtle protest against the increasingly explicit nature of romantic fiction!


THE OLD-GIRL NETWORK

By Catherine Alliott.
Published by Headline, 1994.
PB, 503 pp.
A library copy.

The Old-Girl Network is the second Catherine Alliott novel I have read. It seems considerably better constructed than The Real Thing, which I reviewed last month, and again the style and situations are very reminiscent of Jilly Cooper. This time we are offered batty Polly McLaren, secretary to brusque ad-man Nick Penhalligan. The entire office plays when the cat is away, and Polly seems to live precariously in a world of underwear dripping over the bath, long, boozy lunches, tarty clothes and an infuriatingly off and on love affair with the elusive Harry Lloyd Roberts. Then red-headed American Adam Buchanan arrives, in search of his vanished girl-friend Rachel, who went to the same school as Polly and who is now apparently being hidden away by her fierce father.

Polly enlists the old-girl network to find out where Rachel is hidden, but why is Rachel so ungracious when found? And what is she doing with a red-headed baby boy? Suddenly, Romeo turns out to be Othello, and Juliet is as cranky as can be. Nick and his nice brother Tom fall over themselves to help Rachel and of course Polly ends up in a Cornwall farmhouse on the grounds that what she knows can hurt her and she'd sing like a canary if the villain so much as waved a stick of celery in her direction. Nick's actress girlfriend swans in and Tom's riding-school girlfriend almost swans out, Harry gets involved with Polly's flat-mate's vampish younger sister and Nick's mother turns out to be a rather mad painter. Nick's lady warns off Polly (just as Matt's lady warns off Imogen in Jilly Cooper's novel Imogen).

By now, you're probably getting some of the picture? Actually, apart from one rather unbelievable patch where a man enters an occupied house and snatches a baby without alerting any of the occupants, and a somewhat sudden death, the plot moves much more smoothly than that of The Real Thing. Polly is scatty, a bit tatty but basically likeable, but the whole setting seems very 1980s to me. Maybe the manuscript was written several years before it achieved publication?

If you're a fan of the mad-cap heroine and a breathless kind of plot with slapdash humour, The Old-Girl Network is well worth reading. There is a sequel called Going Too Far.


ROSIE MEADOWS REGRETS,

by Catherine Alliott.
Published by Headline, 1998. PB, 441 (big-format) pp. A library copy.

My third Alliott, and the latest to be published. In some ways, Rosie Meadows Regrets is an improvement on The Old-Girl Network. The heroine, Rosie, is rather more likeable than Polly because she lacks the slightly grubby dizziness. The situation here is involves an persistent under-achiever who has always felt overshadowed by her masterful elder sister and brother, and so has always aimed lower than she could and should.

At the beginning of the novel, she's been married to Harry Meadows for three years and is the mother of two-year-old Ivo. Harry (whose courtship persona was big and comforting in a teddy-bear-like fashion) has proved to be one of Rosie's bigger mistakes as she realises that she has married the "fat boy", the butt of his social circle, who was suffering the male equivalent of being left on the shelf. Finally, after one particularly horrendous party, Rosie decides to leave Harry. She makes her arrangements, but finally ends up on one last marital duty-visit to her parents. Harry refuses a divorce and makes some nasty threats, Mother is mortified that her well-connected son-in-law might be off the menu and big sister Philly is delighted Rosie has woken up at last. Harry eats a final meal of mushrooms then the Meadows family departs for London. Rosie takes over a weekend cottage her best friend has been renting from sculptor Joss Duvane. Meanwhile, Harry... dies suddenly of fungal poisoning.

Rosie, who has fantasised occasionally of just such an occurrence, is shocked rather than miserable, but she and Ivo build a pleasant-enough life in the cottage. There is an amorous vet, her sister is nearby and such little hitches as a visit from her friend's drunken husband and a huge debt left by Harry don't seem too terrible now she is free. Joss the sculptor is a great source of comfort and support, especially when Rosie discovers his hidden softer side. She helps care for his three precocious children while his flighty wife Annabel is away... then Rosie is accused of Harry's murder and a brief encounter with a supermarket delivery boy takes on sinister overtones.

The plot is a mass of red-herrings, with characters moving in and out like figures in a complicated dance. One of the nicest aspects to the story is the relationship Rosie has with Ivo; unlike Tess in The Real Thing who constantly reiterated that she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother yet showed no desire for her children's company, Rosie genuinely enjoys spending time with Ivo.

Leaving aside the plot, the set-up for the central romance is very, very similar to that of Jilly Cooper's book Harriet. Below are the similarities;

HARRIET.
Writer Corey is estranged from actress wife Noel. He has a cheerful housekeeper named Mrs Bottomley. His children are Jonah, sensitive and intelligent, and the precocious Chatty. Into this menage comes Harriet, an unmarried mother with a baby named William. As Nanny, Harriet endears herself to the children, housekeeper and to Corey, but then wife Noel reappears on the scene and warns Harriet off by informing her that Corey finds her devotion embarrassing..

ROSIE MEADOWS REGRETS.
Sculptor Joss has a health guru second wife who spends most of her time on the lecture circuit. He has a cheerful housekeeper named Vera and a waif-like Nanny named Martha. His children are Toby, sensitive and intelligent, and the precocious twins Emma and Lucy. Into this menage comes Rosie, a widow with a baby named Ivo. As frequent baby-sitter and relieving nanny, Rosie endears herself to the children, housekeeper and to Joss, but then wife Annabel reappears on the scene and warns Rosie off by informing her that Joss finds her devotion embarrassing...

These central set-ups are very alike, but fortunately the rest of the plot veers off in completely different directions. Unlike Harriet, Rosie has no handsome rat of a boyfriend, and unlike Noel, Annabel isn't the biological mother of the hero's children. Any suggestion of adultery is nicely avoided by a plot device which was planted cunningly at the beginning of the book. One person - Rosie's sister - does seem to change character rather suddenly, but if the reader accepts that it's Rosie's perception that has been blurred by hero-worship and childhood memories, the whole thing stands up pretty well.

If Ms Alliott is indeed paying tribute to Cooper novels, (which I suspect she is) it will be entertaining to find out which one she "does" in her next book.


A HOME AMONG THE GUM TREES

by John Nicholson.
Published by Allen & Unwin, 1997. PB. 40 pp. A review copy.

This pleasant book, with the sub-title of "The Story of Australian Houses", has been both written and illustrated by John Nicholson. This is an advantage, because it means that text and illustrations tally exactly. For all-round achievement of exactly what it sets out to do, this book deserves an A. Clearly and simply, it sets out to follow the history of Australian dwellings from Aboriginal bark huts to the houses of today.

Differences in building materials and styles and the reasons for these are covered thoroughly, and the book also includes a lighthouse, a tree-house, underground houses and houses on stilts. Skyscrapers, a hospital and even the pylon of a bridge appear. So do cross-sections, plans and artist's impressions, and some explanations of building techniques.

The only item I found to be inaccurate was a small piece on Australian weather, which mentions that southern weather is "boiling hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter". I live in Tasmania, and our climate is cool temperate - without extremes.

This tiny quibble aside, I could heartily recommend A Home Among the Gum Trees to any interested reader. It's simple enough for primary school children and also a very good read for adults.



THE STONE OF OFFERING

by Stephen Chance.
Published by Thomas Nelson Inc, 1977. HB, 191 PP. A second-hand copy I bought through the Internet.

The Stone of Offering is one of the four Septimus mysteries produced by Stephen Chance. This is an American edition, but it retains its English spelling and text. Like its companions, Stone offers a good yarn with interesting characters and a touch of philosophy. Again the protagonist is the soldier-turned-policeman-turned-parson, Septimus Treloar, and again the story opens with a chapter written from someone else's viewpoint. This time, the action takes place in Wales, where Septimus has come on a walking holiday. The valley is in danger of being flooded by an electricity dam, and the locals are opposed to the idea of losing their homes - some of them for the second time. There has been trouble between the opposing parties, but just as Septimus arrives on the scene the sabotage and slanging battles seem to be taking a back seat to an altogether more sinister attempt to frighten the "English invaders" away.

A fish, a fire and a slate dagger are evidence of a bizarre sacrificial slaughter, which is quickly followed by the similar ritual deaths of a bird and a lamb. It seems that someone is re-enacting a tale from the old "Red Book" and Septimus fears that the next victim will be the "white child" that follows fish, bird and lamb in a children's rhyme.

With a fistful of suspects, including a young Welsh national, a scholar, a bereaved man facing his second dispossession, and a fey "natural", Septimus races against the weather, the terrain and his own age to find the culprit before a weird game becomes a murder.

Although it is nominally a children's book, there is no reason to keep this capable thriller out of the general library.


THE KNIGHT OF STARS AND STORMS,

By Terry Deary.
Published by Orion Children's Books, UK, 1998. PB, 190pp. I bought this one from Birchalls Bookshop in Launceston.

This British novel is part of the Tudor Terror series. I was first attracted by its cover, a sumptuous mixture of green, blue, gold and pink. It depicts a storm-tossed galleon with a boy's face in the foreground. The boy is wearing a Tudor ruff, and the picture is BORDERed with coins; a striking and accurate taste of the plot within.

Sir James Marsden and his family are in debt to an unscrupulous creditor when one of their new trading ships sinks, leaving them with insufficient time to pay back a loan. Will, the teenaged protagonist, wants to be an actor, while his father expects him to follow in the family coal business. The family is fleshed out with assorted relatives and then there is Meg the serving girl, whose powerful personality and assumption of worth lead to her being treated as an equal by most of the other characters. She also wields a mean herring when attacked by pirates!

Sir James, Will and Meg set sail in the remaining ship in a desperate attempt to shift enough cargo to make the payment before the horrible Miles Glub can foreclose. Glub joins the expedition, and it becomes obvious he is out to stop them any way he can, while Will is scheming to leave the ship in London and join a company of players...

This is the main thread of the story, but Sir James enlivens the voyage by recounting the tale of his own youthful voyage with Sir Francis Drake. This tale, told in serial fashion during the voyage, occupies almost half the book and offers a fair bit of history as well as a counterpoint to the "present" voyage. The ends tie together when Sir James visits Drake's widow to claim a dividend promised him years before.

By the end of the book, Will has come to see his father through more understanding eyes, the villain is routed by a clever and rather devious trick which echoes the routing of Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. The chapter titles are all Shakespearean quotes. The curious structure takes a little while to pick up, but the book is a quick, amusing read, with action and adventure. The language is fairly modern, but not jarringly so, and if the characters and motivations are lightly sketched they work very well in this context. I wouldn't quite say Terry Deary is Geoffrey Trease's natural successor... but at least he's keeping the enjoyable historical novel alive for interested younger readers.


SPIDERWEB FOR TWO,

By Elizabeth Enright.
First published by Henry Holt (US) in 1951, this edition by Penguin Books in 1997. PB, 209 pp. Bought with one of those "free book" coupons.

I read Spiderweb for Two some years ago, and quite enjoyed it, so when the chance came to buy my own copy I did so, completing my set of the Melendy family books. The simple plot concerns a series of riddles left for the two youngest Melendys, Randy and Oliver, when their three elder siblings go to boarding school. Each riddle leads to another, giving the children a year-long treasure hunt. Clues are hidden in such diverse places as an old hiking boot, an oriole's nest and the ice-cube tray in the deep-freeze, and some of them, frustratingly, have been moved from their original positions. A hunt for a cave leads the pair out in the night when the cave they needed is actually in the pages of a novel. The "ice" clue leads to an attempt to chop off a frozen waterfall with an axe and Oliver gets lost in a pokeweed forest while attempting to follow a clue on his own while Randy is ill in bed. The searches are interspersed with stories told by other characters. The book, with its furnaceman and housekeeper, Father's typewriter and the surrey and working horses, is dated, especially by its tacit acceptance that a nine-year-old can go out alone for an entire day, come home long after dark and casually befriend a strange adult on the way. If read as a period-piece, though, it remains a pleasant and engaging story. My only quibble (apart from the doubtful lessons on child safety) is in the ending; it seems to me that the prize at the end of a year-long treasure hunt should have been something more momentous.


SECOND BEST BED,

By Fenton Bresler,
Published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1983. HB, 158 pp. i bought my copy from a library sale.

Fenton Bresler tells the entertaining story of wills from the days of Nero forwards. The history is sometimes curious, sometimes pathetic or funny. Some complicated wills are detailed, and some that were deceptively simple. It seems that even the seemingly-obvious can be anything but clear once the will is under scrutiny. "All for Mother" was the entire text of one will, but did the deceased mean his own mother, his mother-in-law or his wife, whom he always addressed as "Mother"?

There is the case of the man who could enjoy his wife's money while she was "above ground". He solved this one by having her interred in a coffin above the ground. Wills have been written on an egg shell and on a ladder and part of a tractor, and the last words of the deceased have set some very hairy cats among the family pigeons.

A lively and entertaining read over all, but the title comes from one of the best-known of all wills; that of William Shakespeare. In it, he left his "second best bed" to his wife Anne, an act which Mr Bresler holds to be scornful. I have read a very different interpretation of Will's will elsewhere, in which it is held that the "second best bed" was the marital bed, while the "best bed" was seldom used, and slept in only by guests. Thus Will's message to Anne could be viewed in a much more kindly light.

So, thatís it for this month, and time to plunge into another lot of reading.

Sally Odgers


Click on Sally's name for her contributors page and contact information.


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