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February, 1999

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Welcome to Sally’s latest batch of book reviews. There have been some interesting titles this time around, including an e-book and some top-class non-fiction. URLs of the month:
http://www.flowersbypat.com/flowlang.html This is “The Language of Flowers”, a good guide for anyone interested in the real reasons behind “saying it with flowers”. A related site, accessed from this one, shows photographs of the flowers.


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

YA = Young Adult. C = Children’s NF = Non Fiction.
F = Fantasy N = Novel M = Mainstream R = Romance
CR = Crime. T = Thriller. H = Historical.

* *= Featured Review.

Here goes ...

The Cats of Punchbowl Farm, by Monica Edwards. (B,NF)
Carpenter’s Mermaid, by Daphne Clair. (NZ/US R,CR)
Party Frock, by Noel Streatfield. (B, C)
Faithful Jenny Dove and other Illusions, by Eleanor Farjeon (B)
Seven Little Billabongs, by Brenda Niall (A, NF)
Jennifer, J, by Ethel Turner. (A, C.)
Urn Burial, by Robert Westall, (B, SF.)

THE CATS OF PUNCHBOWL FARM, By Monica Edwards. Michael Joseph, London, 1964. (I believe there is a later edition available from ISIS Books.) HB, 124 pp. I bought this copy via the internet, but have read it often from the library.

This is the second of Monica Edwards’ four non-fiction titles for adults. The first was “The Unsought Farm”, published in the 1950s. I wanted that book for years, and when I finally ran a reprint copy to earth last year, I was disappointed. Highly episodic, it wasn’t nearly as good as the three that followed. It did, however, shed some light on the beginning of the well-beloved Punchbowl Farm series, as some of the events and characters obviously had their genesis in real life.

Having now read all (I think) of Monica Edwards’ published works, I can say quite confidently that she was a better novelist than non-fiction writer, and that those of her books that are very hard to find are often not as good as those that are better known. Despite this comment, I have read, reread and thoroughly enjoyed “The Cats of Punchbowl Farm” and its successors “Badger Valley” and “The Valley and the Farm”.

“Cats” follows the fortunes of a progression of Siamese and Burmese cats through the author’s Surrey household. It begins with serene blue-point Freyni, otherwise knows as “Sogs” or “The Flag-Tailed Cheese Cat”, and continues with neurotic seal-point Vashti, “The Siamese Gun-Cat” and with flighty Thistledown, “The Eccentric”. These are the matriarchs, and Thistledown, at least, is matched with husbands Simba, Simba 2 and Cheetah in rather fast succession.

I can sympathise with the author who, as as a breeder, preferred not to interfere too much with nature. Therefore, she kept her toms free-range which led to all kinds of trouble. If her experiences are typical, Oriental toms seem inclined to vanish, fight and/or become so ferocious that de-sexing or permanent caging is the only answer. The splendid Mr Forsyte rounds out the Siamese parade, and then come the Burmese, Burma (who vanished), Pardos and Hula, still current at the time the book was written.

Interspersed with the cat tales come snippets of farm life and author-business, family quirks and the German and British farm students who come and go. Again, as in the other non-fiction titles, slight real-life events are displayed that were later incorporated as full-blown dramatic happenings in Monica Edwards’ fiction. Then come the photographs of the feline stars of the show... a pleasant, often humorous book, especially for lovers of cats and British countryside.

CARPENTER’S MERMAID, by Daphne Clair. Published by New Concepts, 1997. e-publication, 349 pp

Carpenter’s Mermaid is both romance and mystery. The “mermaid”, a young woman who calls herself “Copper Jones”, is washed up on the beach of a deserted island somewhere in the vicinity of Fiji. Deserted, that is, except for adventure writer Dart Carpenter, who has had himself left on the island to pursue a Crusoe-like life for a year. He has been there nine months already, and the last thing he needs is a beautiful, distracting woman.

Many of the ingredients of traditional romance are here; the handsome loner, the beautiful, fragile woman, suspicion, passion and sacrifice. The first half of the novel takes the form of an island idyll; the protagonists part, and the storyline moves away from genre romance. Daphne Clair’s fluid style and knack of drawing appealing characters keeps the interest up as viewpoints switch between Copper and Dart. One mystery is solved in Copper’s life, but others remain, and before the end of the story she is in grave danger. A really unpleasant villain and a nicely-drawn writers’ agent add interest to the proceedings. The island scene comes to sparkling life. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a well-crafted romance with a little bit extra!

In one way, “Carpenter’s Mermaid” differs from any other book I’ve ever reviewed. It’s an e-book, published electronically by New Concepts. It’s available as either a down-load or as a handsomely packaged diskette, and can be either read right on-screen or printed off to read as a paper copy. Physically, I found it easy to read, printed in large clear font and well-produced. It cost less than the average paperback and, being written by an experienced and well-published author, it was well worth the money and the experience of reading in a different medium. One interesting point is that the U.S.-based publisher has allowed Daphne Clair’s NZ spelling and syntax to stand unchanged.

PARTY FROCK, by Noel Streatfield Published by Collins, UK, 1946. This edition, 1952. HB, 255 pp. I bought this copy from Mr Chocolate’s Book Company.

Party Frock is the story of a family of children, and their live-in cousin, who stage a pageant just after the second world war. The idea begins in a small enough fashion, after Selina, the cousin, receives a party frock and shoes from an American aunt. The war is just ending, and with the continuance of rationing, there are no teenage parties. Selina is afraid she’ll grow out of the frock before ever having the chance to wear it.

The children convene a family conference, and everyone makes suggestions. Eleven-year-old Sally wants to put on a ballet, with Selina as the girl who dreams the events. John’s idea is for a pageant, incorporating the ballet and other dramatic scenes. Having received qualified approval from their parents, the children approach Colonel Day, the owner of the Abbey - the local “big house” - for permission to use the Abbey grounds. Since the Days are selling the Abbey, they decide to allow the pageant to stand as a kind of farewell.

Over the next months, scenes are written and actors approached, but the first simple rehearsals at the Abbey bring about a change. Philip, the Days’ nephew, has been invalided out of the Airforce and, as a stage producer before the war, he decides to while away his convalescence by taking an interest in the children’s production. This begins with cutting out speaking parts and adding action and characters and, bit by bit, the pageant builds into a huge affair attracting almost two thousand visitors to the village.

The novel’s conflict comes from the constant trouble with finding coupons and money for costumes etc, persuading adults to take their parts seriously, disagreements between the children themselves, and Philip’s tendency to regard the pageant as his own.

The children’s control and their own parts and importance are constantly lessened as the affair grows, and I, at least, can wince with Sally when her solo in her own ballet is reduced to four bars of music by a new choreographer arranged by Philip. Mrs Andrews, Sally’s mother, is also a character who earns my sympathy. Her husband blithely assumes she will be able to “find” the materials for hundreds of costumes.

All the children, from thirteen-year-old John down to four-year-old Benjamin are well-rounded characters, with Selina, living with her cousins while her parents are interned in Hong Kong, as the main focus. The adults, aside from Philip and the Andrews parents, are broadly drawn, with cheerful cockney Mrs Miggs, refined Miss Lipscombe, the doctor’s receptionist and the impossibly vague vicar, Mr Laws as prime examples.

This has always been one of my favourites among Noel Streatfield’s books, probably because of the pageant background. It’s interesting to see the surprisingly modern treatment of Philip Day while wondering, as an aside, just how many meals Dr Andrews will serve his children in the course of the novel! It’s also interesting to compare the tone of a book written so soon after the war with novels such as Michelle Magorian’s “Back Home” which are set in the same period but written so much later.


by Eleanor Farjeon
Published by Michael Joseph, UK,1963.
HB, 160 pp.
I bought this copy through Bibliofind, from Mad Hatter Books, in Auckland, NZ.

I suppose we all have our favourite short stories, just as we have favourite books, or films. The thing with short stories, though, is that often they’re in anthologies so they’re neither as easy to find nor to catalogue as a novel might be.

For some reason, my favourite short stories are nearly all ghost stories, and at least three of them gave me no end of trouble when I was trying to track them down for a second reading. I knew one was by Robert Westall, and I knew its title, but which collection was it in? I must have ordered five or six Westall collections from the library before I relocated “The Girl Who Couldn’t Say No”.

Then there’s Jean Stubbs’ “His Coy Mistress”. I know I read that in an anthology, but which one? It still eludes me because I can recall neither the title nor the editor of the anthology. The third one was particularly difficult to place. I couldn’t remember the title, and I wasn’t sure of the author. I thought (correctly, as it turned out) the story was by Eleanor Farjeon and that the heroine was called Jenny, but where did I read it? Aiden Chambers has a habit of collecting ghost stories, so I ordered some of his collections. No Jenny. I asked a Farjeon expert on the ‘net, who suggested it might be in the collection called “The Little Bookroom”. I doubted that, but I checked Bibliofind anyway.

Mad Hatter Books had a copy, so I e-mailed the owner and asked her if the book contained a ghost story about a weeping ghost called Jenny. No, it didn’t, but she did have a book in stock called “Faithful Jenny Dove”... I was pretty sure that was the story I wanted, so I bought the book. The moral of that story (if there is one) is that if you like short stories and enjoy one in particular, make a note of its source! Oh, and *ask*!

Mad Hatter Books didn’t have Jenny in their catalogue, but it was in the shop.

Now, to the book itself.

Faithful Jenny Dove and Other Illusions is a book of short stories. I don’t think they’re children’s stories, exactly, although they’re quite suitable for general reading. They’re not all ghost stories, either, but each deals with an illusion of some kind.

Jenny Dove didn’t disappoint me at all on second reading. Her story is told with grace and charm, it has romance, pathos, happiness and tears. Jenny, the narrator, is sixteen when her true love goes away to war. Before he leaves, they vow to be faithful to one another, and Jenny promises to see every sunrise from the Cross where they parted. When she hears of Robert’s death three years later, she dies of a broken heart, but the next morning, as she puts it, she is up and waiting at the Cross as usual... smiling as she promised Robert she would be.

After some time, Jenny meets another ghost, the Young Squire, who weeps for a faithless sweetheart each sunrise. The two of them become dear companions, but Jenny is horrified when the Squire tells her he is to retain his new “life” only until he meets a faithful woman. In a well-meant deception, she allows him to think her faithless as his own sweetheart was.

All is well, until ten years later when Robert returns, after all. He sees Jenny and now it seems it is her turn to fade away... Jenny wants Robert to be happy again, she wants her old best friend to be happy, she wants her own sweet friendship with the Young Squire to continue, but it isn’t until she spots a loophole in the conditions of haunting and contrives a bit of matchmaking that the future of all of them is assured.

The other stories in the collection, briefly, are “The Lamb of Chinon”, about a Frenchwoman whom a feverish boy mistakes for St Joan of Arc, “Spooner”, a story that mixes a cat, a dog, some cousins, the Wars of the Roses and cricket into a ghost story, “-And a Perle in the Myddes’ and “The Shepheard’s Gyrlond”. These last two are odd, to say the least. One is about reincarnation, when a modern man named Tom Thacker comes to realise he was once the choir-boy companion of boy bishop Nicholas Cope.

One snowy Christmas Tom meets Nick’s ghost. Poor young Nick is delighted to see Tom, but sadly regrets dying during his reign as boy bishop as this means he was buried among solemn men rather than with other children.

The piece of mischief that led to Nick’s death also led (supposedly) to the loss of a gold owche (brooch) which was part of his bishop’s regalia. For this loss Nick is doomed to spend a month each Christmas in search of the “owche”.

As Tom Thacker is drawn into the long ago events, he comes to realise that Nick’s true tragedy is not the time he spends seeking the owche, but the eleven months of boredom in between. Like Jenny Dove, Nick is a ghost who relishes his ghosthood... and then Tom finds out the truth about the owche and faces a dreadful dilemma. Tell the truth and effectively kill off Nick, or hide the truth and let Nick’s “life” continue?

Much of the story is told in archaic English which tends to slow things down for the reader. This, and the feverish quality of Tom’s friendship with Nicholas, sits very oddly with modern stories but the plot and the solution are ingenious.

The final story, “The Shepheard’s Gyrlond”, is a mock-biography of an imaginary Elizabethan poet, complete with annotations and scraps of verse. An English version of the “Ern Malley” affair, perhaps?


(The World of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce)
by Brenda Niall.
First Published by Melbourne University 1979
This edition by Penguin Books, Aust, 1982.
PB, 219 pp.
I’ve had this book for quite a while, but the discovery of some Ethel Turner titles on Bibliofind led me to re-read it.

To anyone interested in the growth of Australian children’s literature, the sub-title says it all. Here, in an intelligent and entertaining fashion, Brenda Niall examines the complete works of Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner. Biographical sketches introduce the writers as people and professionals, then the novels are examined in depth.

The themes, characters, setting and tone employed by these two writers are all showcased and are compared with one another and with other books of their time. Discrepancies and inconsistencies are pointed out, and sometimes the reason for them is suggested or explained. Most strikingly, the novels are examined in context, and displayed against their own social and literary background.

The careers of Bruce and Turner overlapped for a few years, and comparing their lives and books brings some fascinating similarities and contrasts to light.

Mary Grant Bruce was born in Australia, but died overseas, Ethel Turner was born in England but died in Australia. Both were happily married, both lost a much-loved child. Both approached writing from a highly professional stand-point, and both shared, at some point, a publisher and reading public.

Mary Grant Bruce was the champion of Victorian country life, while Ethel Turner preferred Sydney city life. Bruce wrote adventure stories and kept her characters emotionally low-key. “Mateship” is the greatest virtue in hero or heroine.

Ethel Turner wrote melodrama and domestic comedy. Her plots tended to be episodic, and she concentrated on character and emotion. Bruce’s main characters scarcely changed throughout the long Billabong series, while Turner’s grew up and altered. Both authors tended to change names and ages without much regard to continuity, but both created fictional worlds and people much-loved in their time and remembered with affection even now. It seems unfair to judge the tone and content of the novels from our modern standpoint, and Brenda Niall has written a fair and well-balanced assessment.

More information on these two remarkable writers can be found in Ethel Turner’s Diaries and a biography of Mary Grant Bruce called “Billabong’s Author”.


by Ethel Turner
Published by Ward, Lock, 1922. HB, 249 pp.
I bought this book second-hand some years ago, and recently re-read it.

For a book published in the early 1920s, Jennifer, J has an unusually modern-sounding theme. Fidelia Firth, wife of a journalist and mother of several children, decides to leave her family in Sydney and return to England to finish her interrupted univserity education at Oxford. The journey must be made by sea, so there are no visits home. Fidelia leaves her eighteen-year-old daughter Marta, who is attending Sydney University, in charge of the family.

Marta is more interested in scholarship than housekeeping, sixteen-year-old Sheila and her twin brother John have their own concerns, so the actual organisation of the family and the care of a vague and unworldly father and two younger children, devolves to fourteen-year-old Jennifer.

Jennifer is an energetic eccentric, and manages pretty well on the whole, dealing with a curiously amoral housekeeper who pilfers food and clothes, helping keep the accounts and organising meals.

Other subplots include - the courting of Sheila by a middle-aged poet who has come to Australia with his novelist sister to recover from nervous exhaustion - Jennifer’s creation and furnishing of her own study in the crawl-space of the roof - a mystery concerning lost postal orders - the family’s coming to terms with the death of eldest son, Ewan, in the war - Jennifer’s near death from a gas leak and her growth as a cartoonist.

The novel departs from modern conventions in several ways, prticularly in the treatment of the main theme, Fidelia’s leaving the family to further her education. She studies hard, but miserably fails her exams, and the moral is pointed by the inclusion of a brilliant fellow student who is single and who would obviously trade all her intelligence and scholastic ability for a family like Fidelia’s. Spinster Aunt Amy, too, is depicted as a figure to be pitied. She comes to help out but the children’s lack of expressed gratitude disillusions her.

Other departures come in the episodic structure of the novel, and the suddenness with which some episodes are introduced. Since Aunt Amy washed her hands of her relatives and departed in tears, it is something of a shock to see her suddenly resident in a mountain motel with two of her nieces. It is also a shock to be informed, well into the novel and without prior hints, that Sheila is a psychic.

There is a good deal of shrewd character observation in Jennifer, J, and some funny dialogue. Its strange mix of traditional and modern make it an interesting read, and led me to wonder how Ethel Turner would have handled her themes if she had been writing today.


by Robert Westall.
Published by Viking Kestrel, 1987. HB, 157 pp.
A library book.

Urn Burial is a very accomplished science-fiction thriller, set in the fell country of England. The main character is Ralph, a modern shepherd in his late teens, who works for a rather lazy farmer. Ralph’s half-exasperated care for the sheep, and his friendship with the sheepdogs, Jet and Nance, forms a nice counterpoint to the strong main story.

Ralph discovers a cairn up on the fells and, when he opens it, finds the embalmed body of a strange cat-like creature. A helmet and weapons show the creature to have been a warrior, and when Ralph tries on the helmet, he learns something of “Prepoc’s” life and times through a kind of memory play-back.

Opening the tomb brings Ralph into danger, for it releases a signal which attracts the savage dog-like Wawaka, (Prepoc’s enemies) back to our world.

The space-opera plot is played hard and fast, with every move bringing consequences, often calamitous, for Ralph. A kind old postman to whom he entrusts a parcel dies horribly as a result, his mother and girlfriend, Ruby, are menaced by Wawaka, a sheep-dipping day is horribly interrupted by hovering alien ships. Ralph is kidnapped by the Wawaka and then meets some of Prepoc’s people, modern peace-keepers ashamed of their warrior past.

Urn Burial is relatively short, but it packs a lot of incident, philosophy and character into its 157 pages. This is Robert Westall at his tough, human, imaginative best.

Sally Odgers

Festivale Australian online magazine
copyright © Festivale 1999 All rights reserved
ISSN 1328-8008
Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Box 972G, Melbourne GPO VIC 3001 Australia

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: Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia : copyright © Festivale 1999 All rights reserved
Filed: 1-Nov-1998

Last tested: -1999

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