Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dead and Kicking

This is the third in a series of books written by Geoff McGeachin about Australian photographer and spy, Alby Murdoch. In Vietnam to shoot stills for a movie he takes a photo of friends which includes, in the background, an image of a man in a cyclo. This photo sets off a series of events resulting in the death of a colleague and attempted murder of Murdoch and his two friends in the photograph as they attempt to locate the man in the photograph who everyone believed had died thirty years previously. Who is trying to kill them and why? The action packed plot takes Murdoch to Hong Kong, Thailand, back to Vietnam, Macau and finally to Canberra and the Northern Territory until Murdoch, with the aid of assorted friends who rescue him along the way, is able to resolve what is happening. This entertaining tale told with humour is well worth reading.

Drawing on archaeology

Bringing history to life is the subtitle of this book of archaeological illustrations by Victor Ambrus. The artist's original claim to fame was as an illustrator of children's books being awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal  in 1965 and 1975. Since 1994 Victor Ambrus has been the illustrator on the Time Team television program where his role is to pictorially interpret the finds and times explored in each program in order to show how people lived. The book contains a collection of his reconstruction drawings and sketches for programs recorded between 2001 and 2005.

In the book's introduction Mick Aston discusses the importance of the show using an illustrator to portray the daily life of the people who lived at the sites being evacuated - "In these days of computers and graphics packages, some have questioned the role of the traditional artist working with pencil, paper and watercolours.  ... Even the most sophisticated computer graphic illustrations cannot capture the feeling and detail that Victor puts into his pictures."

This collection of illustrations helps document thousands of years of British history from prehistoric times to World War II.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sarah Thornhill

This book is the sequel to Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River, about William Thornhill and his family establishing a settlement on the Hawkesbury River in the early 1800s. This book is a continuation of the story told from the the viewpoint of  Sarah Thornhill, William's daughter. Born and bred in New South Wales the independent Sarah sets out to establish her own life but discovers that untold family secrets can impact on the lives of future generations.

As in The Secret River much of the story revolves around the relationships between the settlers and the Aboriginal people living in the area and as in The Secret River a variety of reactions are shown to the tensions that develop. In Sarah Thornhill this thread is expanded to include the attitudes towards Sarah's niece whose father was Sarah's brother, Will, who married a Maori when he was sealing in New Zealand.

Once again this is a beautifully written work of fiction set in New South Wales from the 1830s. The reader, as well becoming involved in Sarah's story, is encouraged to consider the many challenges faced and decisions made by Australian pioneers. Many of the challenges in regard to race relations continue today.

Go to The Lieutenant and The Secret River for my post on the earlier books in this series.

Kate Grenville's website contains summaries and detailed additional information about her books.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Northanger Abbey

Recently we visited the exhibition at the Jane Austen Center in Bath which provides information about Jane Austens's visits to Bath at the end of the 1790s and again in the early 1800s when she lived in the city for several years and also about the two books that she set in Bath, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Back in Australia I decided to reread Northanger Abbey, a book that I had studied at school in the mid 1960s. This was Jane Austen's first novel but although it was sold to a publisher in 1803 it was not published until after the author's death. It is the story of seventeen year old Catherine Morland who accompanies Mr and Mrs Allen, friends of her parents, to Bath in order that Mr Allen can receive treatment for gout. Bath was very different from the quiet village in which Catherine lived and she was soon introduced to the social life available in the city as well as making new acquaintances including the Thorpes and the Tilneys. During her time from home Catherine learns about friendship, real and imagined, as well as the importance of  accepting the realities of life rather than entertaining the romance and horrors as decribed in the gothic novels that she enjoyed so much such as Mrs Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho.

Jane Austen's books have been analysed in great detail and Northanger Abbey is no exception. Janine Barchas in Mapping Northanger Abbey, published in the Review of English Studies in 2008, discusses some of the historical elements the author included in the book. The article concentrates on the theme of mistaken identity when John Thorpe and General Tilney believe that Catherine will inherit the fortune of the Allen Estate. Ralph Allen was a wealthy Bath landowner in the 1700s but when the novel is set it is uncertain who the new owners of the estate are except that they are members of the Allen family living in the country. Barchas argues that the inhabitants of Bath would know the Allen story and appreciate the misunderstanding made by characters in the book.

Jane Austen's descriptions make it possible to trace the locations where some of the events in the novel take place and when in Bath we visited some of the sites frequented by the characters. As a major tourist location from the 1700s many maps of Bath as well as guidebooks were published and as copies were found among books owned by the Austen family the author was probably familiar with them. Barchas discusses how Jane Austen may have based the descriptions of Blaise Castle on a Bath garden folly called Sham Castle. She also refers to the possibility of the author choosing the surname of a well known mapmaker of Bath for the character who promised to show Catherine one site but takes her to another location. This idea is expanded further in another article by Janine Barchas, The real Bluebeard of Bath,  published in Persuasions in 2010. While Thorpe promised to take Catherine to Blaise Castle north of Bath there are ruins of a Gothic castle - Fairleigh Hungerford Castle  - nine miles south of Bath. Bacchus suggests that Jane Austen may have used the abbey near the castle as the basis for her descriptions of Northanger Abbey and stories of Fairleigh Hungerford Castle for Catherine's imaginings of what may have occurred there.

As a seventeen I enjoyed reading Northanger Abbey but I enjoyed the book more this time around, especially appreciating the humour throughout the book. I look forward to rereading the other works of Jane Austen.

Monday, September 12, 2011


In Sideshow: dumbing down democracy  former politician, Lindsay Tanner, argues that politics in Australia has been reduced to politicians aiming to look as if they are doing something whilst being careful not offend anybody. He contends that this is the result of the interaction between the media coverage and political actions.

In the late 1960s those of us studying Australian political science at ANU were asked to consider whether the media could be seen as the third arm of political decision making along with the parliament and the courts. In 2011 it can definitely be argued that media coverage shapes the way politicians make decisions and also present those decisions to the public.

Tanner provides examples from his own experience as well as from the literature written on this topic to illustrate his points. Political decisions are often made or altered in reaction to opinion polls or to the views of interest groups whose views are expressed in the media whenever a topic is raised. Political announcements are often shaped by the media and presented quickly to ensure that it looks as if the government is doing something, when often they are not, in order to diffuse a situation. The television program, The Hollow Men, Tanner suggests, provided graphic coverage as to how this works.

Media prefer to publish stories that have images, rather than reports of facts. The media also tends to prefer to publish headlines and grabs of information using parts of quotes, often taken out of context, that dramatise a story or give it a particular slant. Tanner argues that at press conferences journalists have a set of predetermined questions aimed to collect a response to go in the almost written article. This is the age of celebrity and political leaders are expected to be celebrities and to entertain. Politicians also play the media game when they want a view expressed to further a cause.  

Tanner discusses the 'dumbing down' of the media as they try to maintain their circulation or audience. He argues that television news and public affairs programs on commercial TV have become entertainment with little or no serious news content. Even 'serious' newspapers are looking more to entertain than to provide detailed political reports and news stories.

The book provides an interesting insight into the state of political processes and the media from the viewpoint of someone who has existed in and sometimes worked the system.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Cold Comfort Farm

First published in 1932, Stella Gibbons has created a cast of largely morbid characters inhabiting a family property in Sussex, Cold Comfort Farm. The book was written as a parody of rural novels popular at the time. Nineteen year old Flora Poste lives in the city but when her parents die from the Spanish flu and leave her with little money she contacts relatives to locate a new home. The only invitation received is from her cousins at Cold Comfort Farm. Flora survives this culture shock by deciding to change the lives of the people she meets in this country environment. References are made to a wrong done to her family previously but this is never explained. Neither do we learn what Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed when she was young. The book is populated with amusing characters and events. It is best read in one sitting.

Smokin' seventeen

A continuation of the crazy escapades of Stephanie Plum and friends by Janet Evanovich. When the Vincent Plum Bail Bonds office is being rebuilt bodies are found in shallow graves on the site followed by the discovery of other bodies at other locations. What is the link between these deaths and why are some of the bodies labelled, 'For Stephanie'? Before the finish of the book three people are trying to kill Stephanie and Grandma Bella has put 'the eye' on her. Meanwhile her relationship with Morelli and Ranger continues while her mother tries matchmaking between Stephanie and a former high school football star. Throw in a dancing bear plus bail absconders that need to be returned to the court system and you have another typical Stemphanie plum adventure.