size="5">Sally's reading corner
There’s some great non-fiction, including the Australian sci-fi/fantasy encyclopaedia I promised last issue and a new biography of Jane Austen.
URL of the month: http://www.bibliofind.com
KEY TO SALLY’S CODES.
Australian book, (A)
The Loch Ness Mystery Solved,
by Ronald Binns with R.J. Bell. (B, N/F)
The MUP ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF AUSTRALIAN
SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY,
edited by Paul Collins. Melbourne University Press, 1998. PB, 188 pp. $34.95
This one is a review copy, which was very lucky for me, as I had intended to buy one anyway! If your local bookshop doesn’t have it, it can be purchased from the URL below. http://www.thewell.com.au/98_wellsearch.cgi
This a handsome book, both inside and out. The bulk of the entries are simply alphabetical listings of authors and editors with dates, biographical notes, and bibliographies for each. All genre books and (where possible) short stories have been listed.
Aside from the author items, there are also entries for magazines and concepts (i.e., “Future Science Fiction” and “Futurist”). Some entries are cross-referenced, so I had no trouble finding who and what I wanted. Living authors were invited to contribute their own details. Since science fiction and fantasy titles very often “cross over” between the children’s, YA and adult markets, they are all included here on an equal footing.
This is very much an encyclopaedia rather than a book of literary criticism, so, although prizes and awards are noted, value judgements on the books of living authors have not been included. In the case of deceased authors, the editor and assistants have sometimes made some critical and/or admiring comment on the representative body of work.
This book is a great buy for anyone interested in science fiction and fantasy, and particularly for any reader who enjoys good science fiction or fantasy literature, but who has sometimes, like me, despaired of finding information on any Australian authors or titles. Oh! And New Zealand sci fi and fantasy is dealt with in a long separate article. The paperback edition of this title has a stout gatefold binding, which is just as well, because I can see it and me having a long, friendly and potentially dog-earing acquaintance. (See also Bruce Gillespie's article on Australian SF)
THE LOCH NESS MYSTERY SOLVED,
by Ronald Binns with R.J. Bell.
Open Books Publishing, UK, 1983.
HB 228 pp.
As one of Josephine Tey’s characters sagely observed in her classic historical detection novel, “A Daughter of Time”, the record can be “set straight” any number of times, but many people will simply go on believing the version they heard originally; especially if it happens to be more sensational than the truth. Ms Tey’s character was referring to both “the Tonypandy Massacre” and the murderous tale of Richard 111, but the comment is equally apt for such modern myths as the Amityville horror and, it seems, for the Loch Ness Monster.
Having always been a fan of the weird and unusual, I’ve read a lot about Nessie in my time; but this book is very different in tone from most of those other articles and stories. Neither gee-whiz nor savage, Ronald Binns seems to have begun his pursuit in hope, and in his regretful conclusion he’s just about convinced himself - and me.
There are ten chapters, plus preface and index etc, and these trace the monster (in detailed but readable prose) from its setting through early sightings and theories to surveillance and science. Famous sightings and photographs are examined in detail, and discrepancies in original and amended eye-witness accounts and drawings are shown. Obvious frauds are mentioned, certainly, but apart from these it’s easy to see how editing, retelling and comments taken out of context have so distorted source material that new frauds (often unintended) have sprung up. Some of the best material, in my opinion, is in the photographs, originals and retouchings displayed side-by-side, along with photographs taken by the authors to demonstrate their own theories.
Whether you’re a sceptic, a believer or an open-minded monster buff like me, this book will provide you with a good deal of good-natured food for thought.
STARSHIP TROOPERS, by Robert A. Heinlein, New English Library, 1959.
This edition 1982. pb, 223 pp.
I bought this copy second-hand some time ago.
When the movie version of Starship Troopers burst out earlier this year, I was, as usual, interested to see what kind of film a well-known book would make. Most of Heinlein’s books contain a great deal of philosophy and internal dialogue (or monologue, in the case of his first-person novels) and this one is heavier on the philosophy than most. A lot of Heinlein’s preoccupations seem dated and politically incorrect now, and certainly the overt approval of what amounts to a very paternalistic and elitist style of government isn’t in tune with what most people claim to believe today. Only - I wouldn’t be too sure. Isn’t there some little part of many of us that really *wants* to believe that one-strike-and-you’re-out will work to cut the crime rate? Isn’t there a little kernel that is longing to believe in something as whole-heartedly as Johnny Rico believes in his rights, his duties and his men?
As it happens, I find it difficult to come right out and say what Heinlein did or didn’t believe. The philosophies expounded in his early ‘40s and ‘50s titles certainly differ enormously from the work he was producing in the ‘80s. He generally had at least one strong-minded major character who may or may not have been acting as Heinlein’s own mouthpiece; to believe that authors’ intentions and beliefs are invariably transparent and apparent in their works is to do them a disservice. Authors are creators and may perfectly well use characters to argue both sides against the middle and to produce viewpoints that may or may not be their own.
On the surface, Starship Troopers is the story of Us and Them; “them” being bugs - an alien, insect-like race with ideas of universal domination. It’s also the story of a young man’s journey from high school to adulthood, as he joins the MI almost by default. He hopes to become a citizen through national service, but (of course) finds out there’s a lot more to his chosen life than uniforms and glory. The tone might have been pretty gung-ho, but actually, the book reads more like satire as Johnny tells us a lot more than he realises.
There’s a lot of military history thrown in, moral philosophy and theory. The intriguing thing is, (at least to me) that Heinlein used actual events and historical characters as examples, then blandly carried on into his own future by inventing the history and characters to follow.
So much for the novel. If you’ve seen the movie, but not read the original, you may be interested in what has been altered. Some of the characters have been conflated (including Du Bois, Rico’s moral philosophy teacher and Lt. Rasczak. In the film teacher and lieutenant were one, played by Michael Ironside, in the book they were definitely two different people. Other characters were radically altered. “Dizzy”, a major female character in the film, is mentioned very briefly in the novel, dies on Page 22 - and is male. The whole sub-plot of Rico’s girlfriend and the pilot instructor is missing from the novel, Rico’s father survives but Carl gets killed. The characters of Zim and Ace are played pretty much as was, but for me the interesting thing was seeing how the moral slant of the novel was kept pretty much intact, with the irony played up even more to bring it further into line with ‘90s attitudes.
Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award in 1959, and remains a good example of Heinlein’s denser, more philosophical works. For readers who prefer more human or heart-warming stories, I’d recommend The Door Into Summer (time travel) or Double Star (politics). For anyone who really enjoys huge, sprawling novels containing everything but the kitchen sink, have a go at Time Enough For Love and its quasi sequel The Number of the Beast. They’re very self indulgent but Heinlein must have had a fine old time trailing red rags and crunching up sacred cows - not to mention giving the reader a forcible tour through his own reading history...
PLOT IT YOURSELF, by Rex Stout.
Bantam Books, 1994, first published by Viking in 1959.
pb, 196 pp.
I bought this copy from the local newsagency. It’s part of a set of reissued novels with introductions and comments by Susan Dunlap, released under the umbrella of “The Rex Stout Library”.
I’d never read a Nero Wolfe mystery before, but I was pretty well aware of Wolfe’s salient characteristics through repeated reading of H. Keating’s book on fictional detectives. Despite the title, this isn’t some early attempt at a choose-your-own-adventure type of book, nor a how-to for aspiring writers. It’s a murder mystery which happens to deal with authors and publishers. There are other books dealing with death in literary circles. Isaac Asimov did one, so, more recently, has Jennifer Rowe. This one interested me, though, because the solution to the mystery was directly tied up in literary style. The plot deals with a committee of writers, agents and publishers who hire Wolfe to break a plagiarism racket. As Susan Dunlap remarks in her introduction, the puzzle is all, with the characters (except for Archie and Wolfe themselves) lightly sketched. Since the reader makes no emotional connection with the murderer and/or murderees, it isn’t a book that stays lodged in my memory, but it’s certainly fun; especially for a fan of books of classic detective fiction and stories based in the publishing world.. In his refusal to leave the house except on very rare occasions, Nero Wolfe reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s detective Wendell Urth. I’m pretty sure Wolfe predates Urth, but I happened to encounter the Asimov character first.
There are a great many Nero Wolfe mysteries, and though I enjoyed this one, I probably wouldn’t bother to chase up the others. Although I admired the plot and Stout’s industry, I’m more interested in character-driven novels.
THE WATCH HOUSE, by Robert Westall
First published by Macmillan, UK, 1977, this paperback edition Puffin, 1987. 202 pp.
I bought this copy from a market.
I’ve always wondered at the reasoning that saw Robert Westall’s books published for the children’s book market. Some of his titles are classified as “adults” or “general”, but most come under the junior umbrella. So far as I can see, the only real difference lies in the ages of the protagonists.
Having said this, I’ll add that Westall’s teenagers never seem very “teenaged”. When I began reading The Watch House, I thought, at first, that Anne, the heroine, must be about ten or eleven years old. Later it emerged that she is a teenager. Pat and Timmo, her friends, are slightly older teens, but they come across as young adults. This peculiarity is one shared by K.M. Peyton in her “Flambards” series. Christina, at twelve, is the same person she will be at twenty-five, and it isn’t necessarily a disadvantage to the reader. In this case Anne needed to be young enough to be “dumped” by her mother on her old nanny and also to be the subject of a custody battle, but also old enough to be allowed a certain amount of personal freedom.
The setting is a lifeboatmens’ watch house at Garmouth, and the story concerns an unusual haunting. Anne spends a lot of time in the watch house museum, but as she tries to help by dusting the cluttered exhibits, she becomes aware of scrawled, ill-spelled messages in the dust. “An help”. These seem to be directed at her, and so she begins to investigate. So far, so usual, but alongside this ghost story develops the description of a last push to save the watch house museum from the effects of crumbling cliffs and erosion. Along the way, Anne meets various interesting characters, including Timmo, self-styled eccentric genius, his sometime friend/girlfriend Pat and two tennis-playing priests, Protestant Father Fletcher and Roman Catholic Father da Souza. All these characters play an active part in the ghost story when the initially rather wistful haunting suddenly turns nasty. The explanation for this is one of the most original spins on the ghost story that I’ve ever read. Particularly effective if the exorcism attempt in which the priests, whose rivalry isn’t always as friendly as they might wish, must work together in a fusion of faith and energy.
HOW THINGS WORK, by Alison Porter and
Eryl Davies, Allen & Unwin, 1998.
PB 63 pp, $14.95.
This is a review copy.
How Things Work is part of the “Discoveries” series. It is big and bright and appealing, with clear text, diagrams and photographic illustrations. In easy but informative language, it explains the development and workings of such things as computers, video recorders, windmills, solar cells, X-Ray machines, satellite communications, cars and space shuttles. The information contained is ideal for projects and assignments for upper primary and high school, and also for the enquiring general reader. I found one piece of information that has been eluding me for months! As well as diagrams and explanations, there are practical projects to be tried.
I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how things work and doesn’t want to search for hours for simple information.
JANE AUSTEN, by David Nokes.
Published by Fourth Estate Paperbacks,
UK, 1997. PB, 578 pp, $24.95.
A review copy, one I was delighted to receive.
This is a biography of Jane Austen, but in form and even in content it goes a long way beyond most of its kind. There are four parts, and 14 chapters, and these build a fascinating picture of Jane Austen, her family and her times. David Nokes has chosen to go right back to the best sources of material, Jane’s own letters, unbiased parish records and the like. He has treated the reminiscences of her family and friends with considerable caution and some cynicism, observing that Jane’s family seemed to be at pains to present her in a saintly light. Sometimes, he quotes published comment by a relative alongside comment from Jane herself, underlining the falseness of the picture that has been first encouraged and then allowed to continue.
In some cases, Nokes mentions incidents which could be interpreted in different ways, and tracks down obscure comments from Jane that seem to show some of her ironical pronouncements or actions were taken at face value by people who should (and probably did) know better. For example, much was made by her brothers of the fact that her favourite reading matter was a long and moralising novel in several volumes. It seems obvious that Jane did indeed love this saga, simply because it gave her such a rich target for parody and lampooning!
So, the saintly little Jane, beaming goodwill at all the world, didn’t exist. In her place, Nokes gives the reader a much more interesting person, a woman who was witty, imaginative, and sociable, devoted to her sister and a few others, but who could sometimes be cruel to those she thought of as her inferiors by birth or intelligence. Since most of these cruelties took place in comment in private letters to her sister Cassandra, it is doubtful that her victims ever knew about them.
This streak of callousness seems to have run through the family, for an uncle and one of her own brothers were afflicted with some kind of mental retardation. Once it became clear that these two would never be “normal”, they were farmed out and virtually (except for payment of their board) forgotten by their family.
The biography is treated very much like a novel, beginning in India with Jane Austen’s uncle writing to his wife and supposed daughter in England. One by one, the family members are introduced, and, in a very novel-like fashion, followed through the ins and outs of their relationships and actions.
There are photographs and sketches of some of the characters (all contemporary) and a very detailed index. One thing which is missing, and which I felt was badly needed, was a family tree. The Austens and their relatives formed a bewilderingly large family, and the habit of naming succeeding generations after their ancestors makes it difficult to remember who is who. There are two women called “Philadelphia”, one is Jane’s father’s sister, the other some kind of cousin. She is named “Phylly Walter” but I would have to go back through several pages to find out exactly who she was. There are two “Cassandras”, Jane’s mother and sister, and at least two “Janes”, Jane herself and her aunt (?) Jane Leigh-Perrot. Then there were the George Austens- some Jameses and Edwards, a brother who changed his name to “James Austen-Leigh” after he was adopted by wealthy relatives, and the relative who became “Mr Leigh-Perrot”, presumably to enable him to inherit property or money. There was a “Betsy”, daughter of Philadephia, who was later known as “Eliza”. Her godfather was actually her father, and she married a French count who died in the Terror. She then kept company with two of Jane’s brothers, James and Henry. Oh, and one of the Austen boys was known as “Fly”. Was he really Frank or Edward?
Struggling with all these people meant I looked longingly through the book - three times - hoping for a family tree. When I re-read this biography, which I surely will, I shall create one myself, adding to it as I read, so take warning; have a pen and paper close by when you embark.
Altogether, a fascinating, enlightening, confusing read, and one which should delight any Austen fan not too firmly wedded to the myth of Saint Jane. Details on the novels and their genesis and progress were very welcome.
A PLACE FOR ME, by Robert Westall.
Pan Macmillan, 1993, PB 199 pp.
I bought this one earlier this year from Farrell’s Bookshop, Mornington.
This is another Robert Westall novel, and this time the age of the protagonist is established almost immediately. It is Lucy’s last day of school, and, at just eighteen, she is sad to say goodbye to one of her teachers, Mr Betts. This attachment is important later in the novel, for when Lucy gets home, her widowed father presents her with a briefcase full of money and tells her to vanish. He works in a governmental department and claims to have discovered significant discrepancies in statistics. He is about to blow the whistle and doesn’t want Lucy involved.
Scarcely believing it, Lucy must go and make a new life and a new identity for herself, but then two packages arrive. The danger is real, and before the end of the novel Lucy and her father are almost killed. Lucy, a self-confessed “mouse” must try to make herself over into a twenty-something businesswoman. The details of how she achieves this give an original spin on the “witness-protection” and “new identity” theme.
I have just three quibbles; it seems suspiciously easy for Lucy to open bank accounts in a false name (maybe it is easier in the UK?) and at one point she seems to make a decision on very shaky reasoning. The third quibble is entirely subjective; I find it difficult to accept that an eighteen year old would call (and refer to her father and deceased mother as “Daddy” and “Mummy”.
Nevertheless, this, like all Westall’s books, is fast-moving and involving, and full of incidental information about the antique business.... and that’s a thought! If dealers really buy stock for their shops from one another, is it any wonder antiques are expensive?
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