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Book Reviews Girlsown

The New School at Scawdale : Angela Brazil

The New School at ScawdaleThe New School at Scawdale by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for Angela Brazil and The New School at Scawdale is a very distinctively Brazil book. It drifts rather pleasantly from set piece to set piece but doesn’t really do much with what it has. Back in the day Angela would have been all ‘here’s a Nazi spy!’ and ‘here’s a long lost relative!’ and ‘hey, here’s a mysterious castle’ or some such, but The New School at Scawdale simply moves on.

None of this is, however, to say that it’s a bad book. Far from it, The New School At Scawdale is almost the epochal Brazil text. It’s jolly, and vibrant, and the girls roar with character. There’s that distinctive reluctance to use the word ‘said’ – characters frown, expostulate, ejaculate, quaver, demur and wail (p110, all) and my vocabulary shoots up immensely as a result. There’s that brief bit where we all bang on about Nature For A Bit, and there’s that other brief bit where An Accident Is Swiftly Averted. There’s also some curiously distinct elements that sing with detail; the most notable of these is a visit for two girls to the BBC which is rendered with a knowledge that must come from a real life experience. It’s an odd note in this text that’s almost twenty or so years past where it should be, and yet it’s a note that makes this almost more real. It’s rather intriguing in its own tiny way and yet, once it’s done, it’s very definitely done.

The New School at Scawdale is a treat, but it’s nowhere near her best. It’s pleasant, it’s jolly, and it’s lovely but really it’s just a year in the life of Aileen Carey. The incidents are beautifully written, and the characterization is fiercely vigorous, but it’s not brilliant. But then, even when she wasn’t brilliant, Brazil was still sort of amazing.

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First Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

First Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #1)First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And so my Blyton marathon reaches another great classic, her series of school stories set at the deliciously described Malory Towers. It’s a school set nebulously on the Cornish coast somewhere, but the detail is what makes this school sing. Turrets. Towers. A swimming pool that’s crisp and refreshing on the hottest of days. A central court with a sunken theatre, roses, and Arcadia found. It’s Darrell Rivers’ first term and, as is the way with the school story, we follow her on her journey into acclimatising into her brave new world. It is an acclimatisation full of pitfalls, of temper, and of high-jinks and of friendship, surprisingly, enduringly formed. It is lovely.

Malory Towers is so, so good. Blyton can write, she writes with what I can only describe as a ferocious readability. There’s not much artifice here, no narrative dodging or sleight of hand. This is story, handed out wholesale, and it’s great. Blyton can write and she can give story, and she will give you story whether you want it or not. There’s something quite brilliant about her when she gets like this. It’s unafraid, unabashed, unrelenting storytelling that’s equally terrifying and equally addictive.

It’s worth nothing that, in the edition I read, the slapping incident between one pupil and another now involves shaking, though the attempted drowning beforehand remains curiously intact and unedited. I’m struck, really, about the tone of editing here. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong decision to this incident, but I’m conscious really of how I read the original incident when I was a child. It was so dramatic to me, so gobsmackingly awe-inducing, precisely because of the slapping. And whilst I’m so very conscious of that, I’m equally conscious of the necessity to understand the needs of current readers and different sensibilities. A quandary. What would you do with the relevant incident? I’m not sure it’s a call I can easily make.

But enough of editing and of nerdly niggles, and back to this wonderful book. It’s epochal, really, because it does what it does with such genuine aplomb. There’s almost too much to enjoy. Everything and everyone feels rooted, real. This is storytelling, pure and simple, and because Blyton is so determined to make this work, she does. There’s such latent power in literature like this.

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The New Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The New Chalet School (The Chalet School, #14)The New Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a moment in this book, relatively early on, where Joey is advised to rub butter on a bruise and it is a moment which fascinates me to this day. Would the butter have to be salted or unsalted? How much of the butter would suffice? Is this really a thing or is it Elinor M. Brent-Dyer having one of her hallucinations? A part of me wants to google whether this is true medical science, and yet an equal part of me doesn’t want to find out.

And so we come to The New Chalet School, a book that is legendary to me for the quality of its small details; a book so full and rich of minutiae that it’s almost not a children’s book at all, but rather something that feels almost like reportage. It’s too real, at this point, this series to me, it is a book that is so thoroughly real that reading this, and the resolution of one of the key sub plots, is almost painful. It’s perhaps one of the few moments in the series where Brent-Dyer delivers a lesson on morality and behaviour that is hard; truly hard, to read, and coming after a sequence defined by happenstance and pratfalls, feels even harder. It’s horrible, really how the subplot is resolved, and I think it’s one of the few moments where Brent-Dyer becomes a hard, and almost cruel author.

(A sidebar: Happenstance and Pratfalls will be my new band name)

But; coupled with that, as ever, is a novel full of glory, and it’s so hard to digest, these wild shifts of tone and style. Brent-Dyer handles the girl’s slow realisation that Mademoiselle is not going to get well with a warm, light and kind hand and again, in contrast, I return to that subplot and the way it’s wrapped up and the hard, hard tones in which it is delivered. A novel of contrasts; the New Chalet School, and yet one I love. I do, despite it all, I do. I don’t think I can’t.

A hard, complicated book to resolve, and I don’t think these are words that I easily associate with the Chalet School. But – here, I do, and this book is fascinating to me and rather important because of that. But. Yes. A review of stutters this, and of contrasts, and of an author who is so very good and somewhat terrifying, somehow, with the skill she has.

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A United Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A United Chalet School (The Chalet School, #15)A United Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full of the vibrant light and deft skill that characterises her early Tyrolean work, A United Chalet School sees Brent-Dyer working at the top of her powers. She’s on her way here to the great heights and nuances of The Chalet School In Exile, and A United Chalet School has much to praise within its pages, with not just some delicious character work on part of the staff but more of the great Betty / Elizabeth pairing.

It is the second half of the term which began in The New Chalet School and thus, United sings somewhat oddly if you come to it in isolation. There are references to events which occurred in the New term and they are references which baffled me for years until I finally got my hands on a copy of New and figured them out. There’s also not much in the way of length to United as originally it was all part of the same book as New. Making United into a separate novel does eke out the tension of the Saints / Chaletians pairing in a suitably commercial manner but I’m not sure there’s much else to justify making this a standalone book and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything which satisfactorily explained this to me. A mystery! We’ll chalk it up to the same person who did all those hideous edits later in the Armada paperbacks!

In the brief space that United exists in, not much happens. There are two or three key incidents and, by themselves, they do not seem to take up much space nor concern. But this is Brent-Dyer and right here, right now, she is so very good. She understands her girls and her circumstances so perfectly that it is achingly good to read. The punishment delivered for a prank (and the prank itself) is deliciously done and speaks of such a sympathetic knowledge of girls and how they feel.

It’s a slim book, United, but quite potent in its way. I will never tire of the coach scene, nor the moments where Miss Wilson takes command, nor that moment where Miss Annersley steps to the forefront (oh!). They’re all relatively small moments but in actuality they’re so big. This is writing that is. It’s fat writing, thick writing, layered writing that presents a simple moment but makes that moment ache with resonance. A United Chalet School is slender but so very sonorous. I rather love it.

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The Chalet School at War : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School at War (The Chalet School, #17)The Chalet School at War by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s easy for me to be flippant about the Chalet School and, to be frank, it is a mode I adopt quite often when discussing this bizarre, brilliant and all too frustrating series. But it is not easy for me to be flippant about The Chalet School at War; a book full of ache and of pain and so, I shall not.

I didn’t think I felt like this about The Chalet School at War. I remembered it being slightly leaden, a piece of filler coming after the great The Chalet School in Exile, mostly considering of Welsh people being very Welsh, Gwensi being boring and only enlivened by the great friendship split between two key middles. That was, alas, about it, and so when I came back to it, I don’t know what I expected.

I do know that I did not expect this, this book that as ever with Brent-Dyer when she was at her fiery best, this book that is about one thing and yet wholly about another. Originally published in 1941 and titled ‘The Chalet School Goes To It’, The Chalet School at War is a book about love. It is a strange thing to apply, this sentiment to a series which resolutely stayed away from pashes and the like, but it is a sentiment I apply most wholeheartedly.

This book is about love.

This book is about family and ties and people being split from their homes and realising that none of that matters if they are together. This book is about women, banding together in the darkness and being brave and hopeful and furious against this war of men’s making. This book is about England and her ‘mettle being tested’ in these dark, dark times and it is a message to the readers that says – you will live through this. You will survive. You will endure. And this book is about marriage and happily ever afters; some given with near-tangible authorial grief to characters who are ‘too dear and sweet to spend their lives teaching’.

This book is about pain.

My God, it is so very much about pain.

The war is on, there are girls still inside Nazi Germany (not all Germans, Brent-Dyer reminds us, are Nazis, and again this fine distinction in this wild and so often ridiculous series makes me gasp at how good she could be). There are girls forced to live a life that they have not chosen with people that they have not chosen. There are women trying to do the best for the children in their care and there are these children who are growing up in these tumultous times and clinging to simple things. Hope. Honesty. Respect. Everything embodied in that painful, jagged little league of hope that’s called ‘The Chalet School Peace League’

And all of that is delivered in this school story about vegetables and about inter-form arguments and babies and I didn’t see it coming. Quite often, with Brent-Dyer, when she is this good, I don’t see it coming and it’s only when I finish and close the book that I realise what’s just happened. It’s only then that I remember just how outstanding an author she could be.

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The Sixth Form at St Clare’s : Pamela Cox

The Sixth Form at St. Clare's (St. Clare's, #9)The Sixth Form at St. Clare’s by Pamela Cox

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to my local charity shop, I recently picked up a batch of the Pamela Cox fill-in titles for both St Clare’s and Malory Towers and was a bit fascinated to see what I thought of them. I’d registered that they existed but had never, quite, wanted to read them. It’s hard to quantify why I didn’t but I think it had something to do with the whole fact that, well, Enid Blyton is so resolutely Enid Blyton that thought of somebody else trying to be Enid Blyton blew my mind a little bit.

And these books do feel like they are undercover Enid Blyton titles. There’s something interesting in how Cox’s name doesn’t appear on the front and instead we see that familiar signature of Blyton’s on the cover. It feels a little like these are packaged as Blyton books rather than, say, a book written in the St Clare’s series but by another author. And that’s interesting to me. Do we buy these books as St Clare’s books, or Blyton, or Cox? What sort of pre-reading do we come to these books with; these books that both fit and don’t fit into the Blyton school story canon?

The Sixth Form at St Clare’s is one of the books that I felt a greater affinity with and that was primarily because I was already acquainted with the characters. I already loved them, really. My reading of the Malory Towers fill-ins (they’re the story of Felicity Rivers and her journey through the school) have been substantially different in that I have had to let go of the fact that I want them to be about Darrell and Sally and Alicia. I want that story. And there’s a necessary reading process of grieving for that.

So here we are with Pat and Isobel, the don’t care O’Sullivan twins, and it’s all rather lovely. There were a few plot twists which felt far too modern and a little off-canon (I found the ‘coming to the sixth form with your problems’ plot, very problematic), and certain of the new girls didn’t quite gel with the context of the series as a whole.

But I did enjoy it. I enjoyed it because I’ve always wanted this story. I’ve always wanted to know what happened – and Cox is very good at delivering that. She knows her series and she knows the motifs of it so well, Mam’zelle Dupot and Mam’zelle Rougier, Miss Potts, midnight feasts, Miss Theobald being awesome (Carlotta being awesome…). It’s a lovely book. And I think the key for my enjoyment of it was to acknowledge what it wasn’t, and understanding why it wasn’t that, and then appreciating what it was.

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The Glass Bird Girl : Esme Kerr

The Glass Bird GirlThe Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of books out like this at the moment (no bad thing -ed). The school story with a hint of mystery seem to be having a little bit of a resurgence (like I said, no bad thing -ed) and that’s clearly no bad thing at all (finally -ed).

The Glass Bird Girl is a very beautiful little book. From the precise eloquence of that title, through to the old-time feel of it, it’s a book that harks back to the classics of the genre and one which both plays with and pays tribute to the genre itself.

The first in a series, it tells the story of Edie who’s been sent by her uncle to Knight’s Haddon School to keep an eye on the daughter of one of his clients. Anastasia, a Russian princess, is finding school hard and there’s something afoot…

It’s a book which I liked a lot but also had a few troubles with. It’s a reticent book which, I grant, fits the nature of the beast but it’s also one that is not quite easy to grasp onto. I liked it, as I say, but there were moments when I felt quite removed from it. I wonder if a part of that is due to the nature of it being an opener to a series (and thus, having to set A Lot Of Things Into Place), but it’s something I’d like addressing in the next title in the series.

What is clear, is that Kerr is an eloquent, graceful writer and she does something I will always admire and pay tribute to. She’s written a book where school girls are school girls and where adults are mysterious, fallible, and three-dimensional. It’s always good for a school story to acknowledge the fact that the adults are people too because it invariably adds weight to the text of itself. It gives the story, the world, import. And Knight’s Haddon is full of truth, of import and of weight. I loved that about it.

This is a perfect book for those readers who are looking to graduate on from something like Malory Towers or St Clare’s onto something a little more mature and challenging. Kerr writes in a lovely, eloquent and accessible manner (though some of the ‘home’ scenes are little difficult to reconcile with the grace of the ‘school’ story itself). A book of two halves! It’s a good job the school part works so well.

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An introduction to the school story – ten titles to begin your reading journey

So you know I have a bit of a thing for school stories, right?

Just in case that comes as a bit of an awful surprise to you, you’re either new (in which case, hi!) or haven’t been paying attention (in which case, remedial prep for you and Antoinette will bring ‘anchovy’ toast to your study later).

So, to clarify, I do enjoy the school story and the girl’s boarding school story genre in particular. Here’s a thing I wrote about why you should read the genre itself but what I want to do in this post, is tell you about a few titles (nb: in no particular order) which I think will serve as an excellent introduction to the girl’s school story.

I’ve picked titles from The Dawn Of Time and also some very contemporary books and over a fair few differing age groups and I have, I know, omitted a few very popular authors. It’s one of the problems and joys of lists of this nature. What does, however, unite all of these titles is that they are great and lovely things and I have hugely enjoyed them all. I hope you have the chance to do the same.

And do let me know what you’d add as number ten?

(My thanks to @nonpratt for inspiring this post! She wrote an excellent book btw, fyi and all that.)

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Everything else Girlsown

Happy Birthday Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

It’s hard sometimes to quantify the influence that Brent-Dyer has had on my life. Clearly there are the obvious factors, such as my longing for every doctor to be both good in a crisis and rather dashing (and also a solid lump of comfort), and the fact that I now know enough German to order coffee and cakes and that I need to be careful of how much a cup of coffee costs in Swiss stations.

But on a more serious note, I think it’s in the way that she told me that children’s literature could do great and magnificent things.

I believe, very much, in the power of literature. You find your voice through reading. You find yourself through reading. You find yourself and your voice and you find out who and what you can be. I read children’s literature for a long time, but it was only in the past few years that I came to realise, and to be able to verbalise, how important that is.

And that, so much of that, is built on Brent-Dyer and her school of nations, her families of a hundred or more children with different coloured hair and eyes, her St Bernards, her ‘girls which keep falling off of mountains’ and of a voice that spoke in the darkness of world war two of acceptance, forgiveness, and truth.

The Chalet School was a multilingual school. A multi-faith school. A school where girls were allowed to be bold, and brave, and who they were and who they could be. That empowerment still astounds me. The way that Brent-Dyer, even in her painful, tired, last books was so concerned with letting her girls grow up and be strong, confident woman (and not spineless jellyfish).

She has given me so much. She has given me the support to write books about girls. About girls, and about women, and the golden, brilliant, lovely relationships between them. She has given me moments that have still, somehow, never been surpassed in my reading life. She has given me other moments which have made me cry and fold and hunt for my own vibrant orange handkerchief to stem my tears.

This is what a good author can do. Heck, this is even what a bad author can do and Brent-Dyer had her moments of both. This is what an author can do when you connect with them. This is what happens when you read and the gap between the page and you narrows to the extent that

This is why I believe that books are an opener of doors. That they are a gateway to the world and to beyond. This is why I will fight for the right for people to read, and to read what they want. It is for moments like this when I think back to the Chalet School that I dropped in the bath by mistake and patched it back together with tape and panic. It is for moments when I think how a reader can be made. How they can be formed. How they can be built and how they can be helped and how they can be saved, even by a woman who I have never met  and who has been dead for 18,827 days.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, you and I, and it is right to raise a glass every now and then.

Thank you EBD.

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Book Reviews

Murder Most Unladylike : Robin Stevens

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells and Wong, #1)Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You may know by now that I have a thing for school stories. School stories are one of the great joys of children’s literature in that they do what they do so well. They tell a story in a frame which is familiar to the majority of children, and they do it with a sort of glorious constancy irrespective of date of publication. There is a part of me that wants to see Murder Most Unladylike read with books like The Princess of the Chalet School or Beswitched because it fits so comfortably and solidly into the genre. Because it is, quite possibly, the start of a very new and very lovely and very contemporary spin on the school story, despite the setting of 1930s England and tea houses and pashes.

Murder Most Unladylike is a (Daisy) Wells and (Hazel) Wong story. It’s a sort of hybrid of Angela Brazil meets Agatha Christie all mixed up with some Sherlockian tips and winks that made me snuggle down and read with a contented smile. It is a jacket potato on a winters day book; warm, satisfying, filling.

And can I tell you what I loved most about it? What made me actually adore and fall in love with it? It is Stevens’ kind and funny and lovely writing which features references to pashes and to Angela Brazil, but does it with a sort of love and respect and belief in the genre and what it can do when it’s done well (which it is here, very much so).

This is such a glorious book and it is one which has reinterpreted the school story for the contemporary reader and opened it up with a swift moving and accessible plot line. In Star Trek terms, it is the next generation as compared to the original series. It is very, very gorgeous. Daisy is glorious. Hazel is awesome. I want more, please. It’s as simple as that.

Murder Most Unladylike is published on June 5th by Random House, I would suggest we all save the date, yeah? I think that Wells and Wong are very definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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#kidbkgrp School Stories in Children’s Literature

Last night #kidbkgrp discussed school stories in children’s literature. Now, I admit that this one might have been a little self-indulgent as a topic (Team Chalet, yo), I was fascinated to see the range of reccomendations that came up. I think there’s something really interesting in how so many people plumped for say Chalet School in Exile and Prisoner of Azkaban as their desert island book – both books were spectacular highs in their respective series, and in the case of Exile, quite remarkable that it even got published.

I love school stories. I love what they are and what they can do. And I loved hearing all the chat last night. Thanks for coming along.

Here’s the storify of last night and here’s a link to the previous chats.

And that’s it for 2013! This is the part where I usually tell you about the next one that’s coming up, but I don’t know yet …. so I need your help!  Let me know what you want to chat about and how you want to chat about it (like, say, gender in children’s books or an open reccomendation surgery….). And finally, thank you for chatting! If you haven’t felt able to join in, but want to, let me know what would help you to join in? I would love to have you along for next time..! 🙂

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Book Reviews

First Term at L’Etoile : Holly & Kelly Willoughby

First Term at L' EtoileFirst Term at L’ Etoile by Holly & Kelly Willoughby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It will come as no surprise to you that I enjoy a school story. It’s a genre that is ripe and perfect for the reader to embrace, being as it is a reflection of a world experienced by pretty much all of us. And it’s one of those genres that keeps giving; it can be translated into pretty much any context you require, can be span into any time period and also has a fairly handy excuse for a massive cast (because, you know, they’re all there). I talk a bit more about the joy and the potential of the school genre here.

Can you tell I don’t know where to begin with this book? Can you tell that I am dodging an actual review of it somewhat? I imagine you can, because it’s screamingly blatant to me, and so we must actually begin.

Firstly: it is promising. Honestly. It’s a bit school story by numbers, but that construct is a construct for a reason and that reason is because it works. We have protagonist twins, a sidekick called Sally, a scholarship girl and a Gwendoline. And all that’s good. It’s handled in a light, fun way with a lot of love for the genre. Which is nice.

Secondly: it is a little too twee at times. I think something like the excellent Alice-Miranda at School books balance the needs of this age-group against actually giving them a good story. There’s a few too many coy asides from the author to the reader, and whilst that is good, I hope it’s pulled back in the succeeding novels. Girls of this age are smart, clever, individual readers and whilst I know a lot of them that would love this, they’d love it in a very transitory way.

Thirdly: The School is called L’Etoile. The pupils call themselves the L’Etoilettes. Please say that final bit aloud (possibly run it past a French speaker) and I think you might understand one of my key issues with the book.

Fourthly: Despite all of this, it’s actually not that bad. I mean it. There’s some major issues (see 2 and 3) but these are issues that could be resolved in the following books. I wonder whether a lot of this is self-consciousness and nerves in a way, and I hope it’s something that is addressed because this book has promise. Honestly. During the better moments, it’s delivered with a breezy lightness that is undoubtedly appealing. It just needs work.

Fifthly: So. Yeah. About that L’Etoilette thing.

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The Blue Lady : Eleanor Hawken


Blue Lady front coverThe Blue Lady
by Eleanor Hawken

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is the best school story I’ve read this year.

I tweeted about this book and that feeling still stands. There’s something about The Blue Lady, that dark meshing of The Craft and the close, almost Stepfordian potential that the genre always has. Because that’s the thing about boarding schools, they hold secrets. Every school does but there’s something about the forced insularity of a boarding school that heightens that tension. You are forced to be in a community, sometimes against your will, and you’re adopting a world that is not your own. It is the Chalet School meets 1984: you are assimilated into this society or you are not.

Hawken plays with that, very gorgeously, throughout this book. St Mark’s College is layered in secrets, thick and ghostly secret stories and spaces, shadowy and terrifying. Frankie arrives to this world, and she gets lost in it, drawn in by the entrancing and exciting Suzy.

I loved this book. There’s genuine edge here, and Hawken makes you shift from protagonist to protagonist, never quite sure who to root for or who to feel heartache for. It’s a powerful, shivery book that I’d massively massively recommend for school story fans, scary story fans and anybody who thinks they’re brave enough to learn about the truth of the Blue Lady.

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Sunday round up and reflections

It’s that time of the week again! Here’s a catch-up of things in the world of children’s literature that you may have missed. Warning, it includes rants, farting and school stories. Well, would you expect anything less of me? 😉

1. Several new school stories have been released this week. They’re middle grade and the start of a series and all look really interesting. Here’s a preview of “Stars” by Laura + Luke Jennings and here’s a preview of “First Term At L’Etoile” by Holly & Kelly Willoughby. I’ve had a look at both and I really like the Enid Blyton-y meets Alice-Miranda meets Noel Streatfield overtones of them. They’re both very much on my TBR pile now.

2. In the world of interesting articles, these caught my eye. Laura Lam, author of Pantomime, writes a fascinating article on “The Grey of Gender : Intersex and Gender Variant / Non-Binary Characters in YA”. It does include mild spoilers for Pantomime itself (which I review here) so if you’re wary of spoilers stay away until you’ve read it. It is very much worth reading!

In this piece (“Get rid of the parents!”), Julia Golding wonders why there are so many orphans in children’s literature. It’s a thought-provoker for sure, and one worth having a think about.

3. Review wise, I had a look at Azzi In Between (an award winning graphic novel), the vibrant Geek Girl, and The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair. I also had an in-depth rant about an aspect of Girls’ Own books which really bothers me and had a look at paratextual theory in Egg. That’s a review of a comic about refugees, a review of YA about models,a rant about turn of the century boarding school stories, a look at a MG about musical farting and an in-depth post on picture book theory. How’s that for an eclectic week!

If you’d like to catch up on previous round-ups, you can view them here. See you next week!

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Book Reviews Girlsown

The Girls of St Cyprians : Angela Brazil

The Girls of St. CypriansThe Girls of St. Cyprians by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I posted last night on Twitter with some degree of hysteria that The Girls of St Cyprians was now available on Project Gutenberg. This, for those of you that haven’t experienced this title, is a Very Good Thing.

Angela Brazil is an experience, really, what with her ‘expostulated’ and her ‘declaimed’ and her pathological need to avoid the word ‘said’ and her distinctly racist moments(oh hello, The School in the South). Sometimes I have to skip the worst of these (viz said racism and also the interminable ‘let’s hear a local legend whilst we skip through the meadows’ / ‘oh here is my inheritance in the form of a mislaid will’ chapter) but that’s all part of the experience of my modern reading of an author who was writing over a hundred years ago. It is, however, something I acknowledge whenever I read her, and something that I balance against that reading.

Here, in The Girls Of St Cyprians, Brazil is really rather on form. St Cyprians engages in a series of competitions with several other local schools in “A kind of Olympic contest? Oh, what sport!” It’s an unusual topic for Brazil and it’s one that she gets her teeth into. Though it is ultimately Mildred Lancaster’s (sensitive musical genius Mildred!) story, and the story of her talent, it reads like more of an ensemble piece once

What’s particularly interesting in The Girls Of St Cyprians is how it reflects several of Brazil’s key tropes. Girls are hearty, happy and well-rounded. Mildred, with her gift, gets a little authorial interjection the moment that she appears: “[her appearance] suggested that highly-strung artistic temperament which may prove either the greatest joy or the utmost hindrance to its possessor.” Mildred’s also not quite the paragon some of Brazil’s other heroines tend to be, and this is lovely to read. Obviously Mildred gets her act together by the end of the book otherwise she would not be a Brazil heroine.

If you’re interested in the representation of gifted and talented characters in children’s literature (with a lot of focus on Girlsown books because, well, it’s me), I have a reading list of titles here and an archive of related posts here.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Dimsie Moves Up : Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dimsie Moves Up (Dimsie, #2)Dimsie Moves Up by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the world of Girlsown literature, there’s a concept of ‘the big four’. These are authors who formed the cornerstones of this genre: Elsie “Abbey” J Oxenham, Elinor “Chalet” M.Brent-Dyer, and Angela “Let’s use all the speech tags in the world” Brazil.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce is the final part of this equation. And this is my first, ever, Dimsie.

(At last! At last! Sound the trumpets, release the hounds, let loose the dogs of war for I have read a Dimsie!)

It’s sort of strange coming to a series when you’ve almost read it through other books. The Girlsown genre really isn’t that diverse (she says, ducking her head) and once you’re familiar with the main tropes, you are more than familiar with them and how they tend to reoccur in various states. It is in how they’re presented, how they’re played with, that the newness comes and the diversity kicks in.

So what is this world of Dimsie? Dimsie Moves Up is the second in the series which presents a slight problem in itself because you’re coming to characters which are already established. If you’ve not read any before it does take a while to catch up, and yes there are moments when the time scales do seem incredibly flexible. It also took me a while to work out who I should be invested for, and why, which partially reflects the nature of the genre as well (Lord knows, if you pick up a late Chalet School you will not have a CLUE who half the people are).

But what’s brilliant is the matter-of-fact reality about Dimsie and her chums. She is a lovely character, but she’s resolutely believeable at the same time. There’s a sort of common sense about her which is (alas) pretty special in the genre. She’s not too brilliant, she’s not too priggish, she is just a really nice kid. And I think that’s probably where the strength of this book lies, in the nuances between Dimsie and her form (and in the AMAZING Anti-Soppist League).

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Bride leads the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Bride Leads the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #31)Bride Leads the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a soft spot for Bride Leads the Chalet School because it’s one of those books where Important Things Happen. This is one of the ways that the Chalet School is almost impenetrable should you enter it at the wrong point. There are books full of the exploits of daughter X of pupil Y who married Doctor Z and Oh No Not That Time When Julie Lucy Had Peritonitis. This is the book in which the latter happens and in a sort of very wrong way, it’s a massive relief to get there at last. After reading “oh no, you don’t want to remind them about the time when poor Ju nearly died” and “Oh she’s going to die because she got hiccups” for what felt like a thousand books, I finally get to read about the saga.

Other things happen in Bride Leads The Chalet School. We’ve lost the wonderfully named Loveday Perowne who gets to go off to the *best* future. We gain the practically legendary Diana Skelton to the school. And even though she’s recycling the school merger plot, Brent-Dyer recycles it to great effect.

What’s also pleasing in this book is being able to see more of the Bettany house. Mollie and Dick Bettany are some of my favourite characters and the sidelining of them to India at the start of the series always feels like I’m being cheated out of them. I love being able to see the Bettany family just being their family. It’s always a pleasure to see Brent-Dyer just ease herself into familial surroundings rather than throwing people off mountains and into crevasses. When she was good, she was very good and caught the relationships between people perfectly. And the Bettany moments are full of that.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

A Genius At The Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Genius at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #38)A Genius at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It strikes me as curious that I’ve never actually reviewed this until now. Nina Rutherford is very much a fascination of mine and so this is a book that is very much overdue a review.

Brent-Dyer once wrote a book populated solely by gifted and talented characters (The School by the River). And she did this with great success. The School By The River is a school story with a Ruritanian twist and possesses some of the most attractive characters ever to feature in the school story genre (I’m looking at you Molly). It’s strange then that in her main series, her big life-defining series, Brent-Dyer featured gifted and talented characters with almost palpable reluctance. Of course we have people like Joey, Margia, Jacynth and Nina herself but they are notable in their rarity. The Chalet School was a series built on fitting in and ‘being a real Chalet School girl’ rather than being some icon of God-Given talent. And I think that’s where this book struggles. Nina is so patently a cipher for her talent, a functionary device (have a think about how many of the ‘new girl’ books actually feature their names) that any character development is put quite patently on hold.

And yet I find A Genius At The Chalet School rather remarkable, because Brent-Dyer does something quite strange here. She delivers a plot of glorious linearity but ties herself up in knots through the spectacular un-linear nature of the new girl herself. Nina doesn’t fit in. She can’t and never will. She is a foreign object in a community that does not know how to deal with her and her wild talent.

So yes, this book is pedestrian. Spectacularly, brain dribblingly, so at points. But it’s also fascinating because of the way the Chalet School ideology is displayed, challenged and contravened all due to the presence of this new girl who really is quite unlike anyone else.

Here’s a longer piece I wrote on Nina and genius in the Chalet School series. It elaborates on some of the points mentioned above. Also this is a post I did about the nature of genius and giftedness in the wider GirlsOwn genre.

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Follow Me Down : Tanya Byrne

Follow Me DownFollow Me Down by Tanya Byrne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So I need to tell you something, and it’s something you may need to sit down for. I like school stories. I really, really do. I know right? It shocked me too. There’s something about the genre (something that I explore more here) that appeals to me and I think it is this. The school story is a tiny, tiny thing, set in tiny tight places with fixed boundaries and rules and demands and yet, when done well, it can be about everything in the entire world.

Byrne’s second novel after Heart-Shaped Bruise (my review of that is here) was something I’d been looking forward to ever since I heard on the Twitter that she was setting it in a boarding school. There’s not enough modern boarding school stories in this world, books that explore this genre and fling it at the shadows and bring you along for the ride.

Follow Me Down is something that I greatly, greatly laud because it does that. Byrne’s competence is unmistakeable and even managed to keep me hooked in, me who is hideous at figuring out ‘the twist’ in things and has to flick back a thousand chapters (always) to figure out what’s going on. Byrne’s got a really lovely solidity to her work, a thickness to her worlds that make them believable and make them very, very potent.

And what I really loved is that this is like the after-dark edition of a genre I rampantly love. It steps away from the double entendres and the genre mocking so many other titles seem to do, and it gives us a real and dark and powerful world where people cannot escape the things that burn them. Love, loss, obsession, lies. It’s all here and there’s nowhere for it go other than round and round until everyone’s caught up in it.

Byrne’s really good, you know? And everything should be set in a boarding school from now on. Everything. It should be a rule.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Prefects of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Prefects of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #62)Prefects of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There’s a sort of addictive quality to the Chalet School series when you reach this point; an awareness that the best books are many moons behind us and somehow all that’s left is melodrama and farce, but it’s a melodrama and farce that you just can’t quite give up yet.

And then, suddenly it’s over and all you can do is go “Oh … is that it?”

All good things come to an end, and the Chalet School outlived its natural end point by many many books. This final installment is tired and more than a little bit sad when you look back and consider the epic wonders we’ve lived through to get here. And we’ve lived through a lot together. A disproportionate amount of hot doctors, Joey-will-get-well moments, St Bernards, and the eternal oh heck look it’s a natural disaster moment. I love these books. I just do not love this saggy, deflated ending. And, to be fair, it’s a deflation that doesn’t start here but rather kicks in somewhere around A Future Chalet School Girl.

Prefects comes straight after Althea Joins the Chalet School, so the opening chapters will baffle you if you’ve not read Althea. (“Pink worm? What’s this about a pink worm? And SPEEDBOATS?). There’s also a mildly confusing (and somewhat sudden) friendship between Jocelyn Marvell, Althea Glenyon and Erica Standish in a sort of “cameo-of-the-last-few-books” moments.

It’s the final term of the Maynard triplets, and Len in particular is stuffed with a particularly thrilling sounding future. If you’ve not read it, I won’t spoil, but I will offer counselling once you read the offending moment in question.

Other things of note in this book include an incredibly bizarre moment where a gang of youths head towards the San with intention of kidnapping a millionaire’s daughter who’s a patient there. The racket they make wakes everyone up in the school and they all get into a bit of a tizzy. It’s an incident worthy of mention primarily because of the fact that Mary-Lou randomly arrives at the school in the middle of it, after having apparently hitched a lift up with the police. In the middle of the night. With the intention of bobbing over to Freudesheim and asking for a bed. There are moments when you can understand why Jack Maynard does what he does in The Chalet Girls Grow Up.

Can you tell I find this title a rather depressing experience over all? There’s a sense of everybody being farmed off and packaged up for their respective fates, and an increasingly anachronistic feel to the schools very presence. This isn’t what I signed up for, and it’s not why I love these books so much. I’m going to read myself some The Princess of the Chalet School to recover.

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The Chalet School and Richenda : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Richenda (The Chalet School, #44)The Chalet School and Richenda by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a lot of love for this one, even though it’s left me with the following ailment. Whenever I’m introduced to somebody with the surname of “Fry”, I automatically think “Fry. Are you related to Elizabeth Fry, the great reformer?” Damn you EBD, damn you and your stubbornly addictive books.

Anyway, this is towards the end of the series so quality’s a bit pap but that’s a given, as is the fact that Joey will Sort Things Out (despite having to have an operation!) and somewhere in there, we’ll have Highjinks Involving The Middles. The main plot of Richenda is rather straightforward (she says…) Basically, Richenda’s dad is a bit overly severe, sends Richenda off to school as a punishment because she touches his priceless vase, Richenda gets all matey with the trips and Len in particular, ends up being nearly blinded by an obnoxious small child and ultimately things all end up okay between her and her dad. Like I said … straightforward. I love this period of the books, where the quality dips but the plots go bananas (see evidence a – Redheads at the Chalet School)

One of my other favourite parts of this book comes during the flooded river scene. I love how it’s time for the big girls to earn their keep and so the magnificent Joan Baker and Nancy Wilmot basically get to save the day because of their size. This is a rarity in Chalet School lands, and for Joan in particular (who never really gets to become a real Chalet School girl).

Not the best, but not the worst (I’m looking at YOU Althea Joins the Chalet School).

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Overviews

Why read? The School Story

There are a whole world of genres in children’s literature, and there are new ones being created each and every day. In these posts, I’ll be focusing  on some of the key genres and both introduce them and offer some top hints on where to begin.

My first in this occasional series is very close to my heart. Behold the school story genre!

Image: theirhistory (Flickr)

The appeal of school stories can come from both the mimicking and distancing of real life. Education is something nearly everybody experiences, albeit in different forms. Reflecting this common experience onto literature allows the reader to both empathise with characters and also allow a sense of wish fulfilment to occur. In the book the mean girl might get her comeuppance, the awkward kid save the day, or the school is racked by a series of pranks. In the real world, it might be a very different scenario. The kid might be lonely, bullied or just unable to talk yet in the quick brashness of schools. Books set in schools can show behaviours and strategies to help in dealing with this and also implicitly support the child by reinforcing the very simple fact that they are not alone.

There’s also something rather glorious about the structure of school stories. They occur very much in their own world that’s been separated from the ‘real’ world of the reader. It’s rare, for example, to read one that doesn’t begin with a journey. This can range from taking the train from Platform 9/34, the boat across the Tiernsee, or getting sent to England from the wilds of Africa. The journey element helps to remove the book school from the reader and their daily trials and tribulations. This source of escapism would prove to be something of a poignant source of comfort during World War Two. The school story was thriving, vigorously so, and some of the best of the genre were produced during this era. Have a look at the Chalet School in Exile for some superbly ideological bravery and also Owen Dudley Edward’s magnificent ‘British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War‘ for more info.

School stories have had a little bit of a resurgence in the past few years. Stemming initially from the dominance of the Harry Potter series, this has boiled down into a host of books hitting the market. You can track everything I’ve written on school stories here and this includes reviews of The Paladin Prophecy, the Alice-Miranda books and also a vast amount on my Mastermind specialist subject which is early 20th century school stories. Commonly referred to as GirlsOwn literature, this covers authors such as Angela Brazil and my darling Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.

Other key authors in the genre include the indefatigable Enid Blyton for her redoubtable ‘Malory Towers’, ‘The Naughtiest Girl’ and ‘St Clares’ books. Despite being published a good seventy odd years ago respectively, they still remain popular and St Clares, as I discovered recently, has a peculiarly prevalent life as the series (and FILM!) Hanni und Nanni.

If you’re interested in a list of school story recommendations, have a look here. The FCBG (Federation of Children’s Book Groups) hold a regular Twitter chat on various different topics. It’s always fascinating, and you’re guaranteed to end with a list of titles you need to get hold of instantly.

TL:DR?

– School stories reflect the commonality of school, the dominant impact of education upon the majority of children  and offer a way of both dealing with, and escaping it. Because they’re awesome.

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Girlsown Theory

The Chalet School and Sickness

Once upon a time there was a fictional school with a predilection for near-death incidents. These ranged from the understandable (clinging onto a precipice in the middle of raging floods, climbing a mountain and er hanging off a precipice, or falling into a frozen lake – no precipices involved in that one) through to the sublimely fantastical (standing in a draught, staying up all night, the hiccups).

The Chalet School, were it to have existed, would have been in possession of both massive PR bills and massive insurance liabilities. Brent-Dyer managed to rationalise a lot of her incidents by reinforcing the links between the school and the sanatorium but by the end of the series, there’s definitely a sense of illness overload and a vast amount of deja-vu on the part of the reader. We’ve done this a thousand times already and so, it’s sad to say, the later characters and the more dramatic incidents just don’t have the same impact if they would have occurred in the Tyrolean years.

So what’s the actual point of having these illnesses, this intense urge to throw oneself over the nearest precipice / into the nearest lake (I’m looking *right* at you Emerence Hope)?

A lot of it I think initially rose from historical context. Brent-Dyer was born in 1894 and so was witness to the flu epidemic of 1918. At the age of 24, after having experienced all the first world war had to offer, she then witnessed an epidemic that swept an already weakened world.

Additionally, and I’d recommend you read Helen McClelland’s excellent biography of Brent-Dyer for more on this and her life in general. Brent-Dyer lost her brother to meningitis – an incident which comes across as horrific as by all accounts it was only days from diagnosis through to death.

In a way, Brent-Dyer was writing what she knew; that slim line between health and illness, life and death. Death is something she can’t have ever been far from. There’s a dreadful poignancy in some of her earlier deathbed incidents. I’m thinking of the one where Joey gets sung back from the dead by Robin and The Red Sarafan. Despite the awful schlock of the singing, you can’t help but read into Brent-Dyer’s near forensic description of the sickroom and wonder if a lot of this came from her own personal experience. It’s in the way she zooms right into the detail, the one little thing that sticks in your mind (the orange handkerchief of Dick comes to mind) that speaks of experiencing these situations. The episode is, as a whole, a little bit heartbreaking.

The other element I find incredibly poignant in the Chalet School and it’s treatment of illness is the lack of death that occurs. We have some very, very severe incidents and accidents which occur and to be honest it usually just results in a bit of character redemption or a doctor husband (which is pretty much the same thing tbh).

The only explicit deaths which do occur in the series (and I think they can be counted on one hand which in a cast of several hundred characters is sort of bonkers) occur because of prolonged invalidity / illness. I think the main death which impacted on me, one of the few *big* deaths which occurred  was Mademoiselle Lapattre. There’s an intensity here which doesn’t ever quite reoccur in the series; perhaps only briefly when talking about Jacynth and her Aunt. Consider how Mademoiselle’s death is treated in comparison with Luigia di Ferrarra who died in a concentration camp during the war. Luigia gets a retrospective couple of lines in the CS and the Island delivered with a think about it kids attitude, whilst Mademoiselle, quietly sliding away from life, gets a heartfelt and intense and huge part of the story. There’s something scary about the bigness of normal life continuing amidst all of the madness of the war and it combines to deliver a huge book that punches way above its weight.

So I wonder if Brent-Dyer maybe scared herself with Mademoiselle? Maybe she got scared by how big it got – and how much it dominated her books which had heretofore only ever flirted with this sort of thing. Maybe there’s something in how Brent-Dyer only flirted with going that far only a couple of times ever again? The Joey incident in Exile is stunning; grey, heart-breaking, but it’s not just the reader who lets out a big sigh of relief at Jack’s eventual reappearance  it’s the narrator as well. I find it fascinating how he pops up nonchalantly at the end of the book with a sort of ‘I’m just here for the last few pages’ attitude. And I wonder if somehow, someway, it all boils back down to Brent-Dyer realising something fairly amazing about writing.

She could kill these characters. But she could also save them. These books were where she was in control. Not the outside – not the illnesses that swept down the streets of South Shields – nor the bullets of the battlefield. I wonder if her treatment of sickness (and also her decision to directly address Nazism in her work) was something to do with power. Writing is the ultimate act of power – and also of redemption. The love she had for Joey is evident, and paralleled with that she clearly felt for her real-life ‘little sister’ Hazel Bainbridge. Perhaps these books were the only place she could actually be in control and save her characters from the harshness of the world outside.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #6)Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sixth in the series, rich with the gorgeous detail of the Tyrol and the sheer thrill of the early titles, Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School is spectacular. It’s sort of a blueprint of everything the Chalet School series could be when it was on form.

Following the now traditional concept of new term, new girls, this term sees Eustacia join the Chalet School. Eustacia is sort of different. She’s an ‘arrant little prig’. It took me a long time to actually figure out what that means but it’s not good. Even the narrator hates her.

Eustacia’s time at the Chalet School isn’t brilliant. She breaks rules left, right and centre – and does it with an insouciant aplomb. And, perhaps inevitably, she ends up making enemies of all and sundry – even the darling of the series Joey Bettany.

If you’ve previously read any of the Chalet School series, you’ll know this sort of behaviour is Not On and Not Becoming Of A Chalet School Girl and Eustacia is Ripe For A Reformation. Eustacia’s reformation is pretty damn spectacular, even in a series obsessed with near-death incidents.

This book is brilliant, but it’s one you sort of can’t judge with anything remotely approaching logic. Basically, it’s like the Chalet School gone a little bit nuts. It’s amazing.

For another perspective on Eustacia, I’d recommend you read this from the excellent Fantastic Reads.

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The Paladin Prophecy : Mark Frost

The Paladin Prophecy (The Paladin Prophecy, #1)The Paladin Prophecy by Mark Frost

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s always hard to know where to begin with a book that was as contradictory an experience as The Paladin Prophecy. The author, Mark Frost, has an excellent pedigree. He co-created Twin Peaks, wrote one of the funnier superhero films ‘The Fantastic Four’ and the not as bad as you think it might be sequel ‘The Fantastic Four : Rise of the Silver Surfer’. He knows his craft.

However I’m not sure that this is his book, not yet.

The Paladin Prophecy is the first in a series and is the story of Will West. Will has lived his life by his father’s rules. Stay off the radar. Play it safe. Don’t get noticed. But when Will slips up. He does a test – and he aces it. Aces it to the extent that he’s on the radar both of a shadowy group of men driving black sedan cars and also an exclusive school. His life’s never going to be the same again.

It’s a big book, and one that doesn’t really get going for a while. When it does actually get going, it’s great. I loved the school, at points reminding me of Hogwarts, the X Mansion, and that one from the Secret History by Donna Tartt (thank you to everyone on Twitter for reminding me of this title!). I loved the characters in the school – and really loved the library scenes.

But I didn’t really love Will, and I think that’s maybe a problem. He was too good to be true for me; too brave, too smart, and too Mary-Sue(ish). I can give Frost a little bit of leeway for this because this is the first book in a series (it has to be with *that* ending) and maybe Will develops more in the second books. It’s just that right now Will really didn’t really do anything for me.

I’m more than aware this might be a personal thing, and I’m aware that there’s people who’ll love this. Where I do think this book shines is in the sidekicks (Dave!) and the world-building. It’s great there. I love the concept and there are parts of it which I swallowed whole. Where I think it struggles a little bit is right at the core, with Will and his personal journey. I don’t know if I ever felt like I really knew him – and whilst that might be a perfectly character trait, it all felt a little too studied and self aware for me.

I hope this changes in the next book and I think that Frost is more than capable of delivering it. I’ll be keen to see how this series evolves because all of the building blocks are there. They’re just a little loose at present.

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My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece : Annabel Pitcher

My Sister Lives On The MantelpieceMy Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece is one of those ‘big’ books that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a while. I always get a bit wary of reading a ‘big’ book because I don’t know how I’ll feel about it and whether it will live up to the hype.

Ten year old Jamie lives with his sister, Jas, and his Dad. And his other sister, Rose, who is dead and lives on the mantelpiece in an urn. Rose died in a terrorist attack in London. And now, five years after it happened – Dad drinks, and Mum left them. Upon the move to a new school, Jamie begins to question his life, try to figure out what’s going on with his family and try to make sense of his loss.

I think, and please do correct me I’m wrong, that this is one of the few books dealing specifically with London bombs and terrorism in England. The incident that killed Rose is not the July 7th bombings but the parallels are unescapable and as such this book may require some sensitivity if being used with families / individuals affected by the events.

Jamie tells his story in a lovely, honest manner. His voice is so engaging that it’s hard not to fall in love with him. I felt the front cover of the edition I read (9781445886831) was perhaps a little self-consciously winsome but this was cancelled out by the book trailer I found on Youtube. I have a lot of issues with book trailers usually but found this one really good and nicely put together.

Pitcher deals gently with a difficult subject. I found some of the adult characters a little thinly drawn but, bearing in mind that this is written from Jamie’s perspective, it’s more than understandable. I loved how his relationship with Jas was presented, and I did cry at the ending. Very much.

My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece is one of those books that, irrespective of all the hype, you shouldn’t be afraid of. It’s a heartfelt and sympathetic look at racism, death and the strong heart that binds families together even when it all looks to be going wrong.

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The Girl Savage : Katherine Rundell

The Girl SavageThe Girl Savage by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stiffly written at points, and beautifully in others, The Girl Savage is a book of peaks and troughs. Ultimately it’s an awkward read but one that retains a powerful sense of heart throughout. It is, as you may gather, somewhat confusing.

Wilhemina Silver (Will) has lived in Zimbabwe all her life with her widower father. Will lives a wild life in the bush; falling off horses, climbing trees, and in one particularly memorable incident, biting the head off a tick. It’s only when her father falls ill, and ultimately dies, that her life changes.

Because this is when Cynthia, her father’s girlfriend, makes her presence felt. Cynthia sends Will away to school in England and Will, naturally, struggles to fit in to her new world. Will she sink or will she swim in her new surroundings? And what will the schoolgirls make of the ‘girl savage’ in their midst?

Like I said, this book is a bit difficult. I felt it wasn’t sure what it was meant to be at points; whether an elegy to Africa, a fairytale of circumstantial events, or a fish out of water tale and I think it may have been stronger if it had been more defined. Whilst the Africa sections are very beautiful (they are word-pictures at points) and clearly written with a lot of love, some of the other elements fell a little flat. The school itself didn’t appear until a good halfway through the book and ultimately formed very little of the book as a whole. This meant that whilst yes, girls can be bitches,they were bitches really without any particular defined sense of context. I struggled, for example, to work out the time period this book is set in; wondering if it was historical at some points before realising at others that it was quite modern.

Will herself had a strong, unique voice, and I could hear her very well. She does slide into slightly Mary-Sue territory at times, but I never lost sense of her as a character. Whilst she is slimly defined, and almost more defined by her relationship with others, it is a technique that works well here with her voice. I loved it when she spoke; the stumbling mixture of Shona and English, capped off with an edgy Ja?

So there’s a lot of love in this book, a strong powerful heart, but also a lot of awkwardness to contend with. If you’re interested in the school story genre, do read this as the sort of fairytale nature of school isn’t one that’s explored that much these days. If you’re looking for a more fish out of water tale, I’d maybe plump for something like Pippi Longstocking / Opal Moonbaby instead.

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The Unforgotten Coat : Frank Cottrell Boyce

Unforgotten CoatUnforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Frank Cottrell Boyce writes magic. I am of no doubt that pretty much everything he publishes in the realm of children’s literature will be thought of as utter classics in the years to come. And, to be frank, they should be sung and danced about now for his books are magical classics already.

I love Millions. Millions is my desert island book of choice.

But I think The Unforgotten Coat might come very close to usurping it.

The Unforgotten Coat of the title belongs to Chingis, one of two Mongolian brothers, who Julie knew as a child. They turned up at her school one day, and Julie still remembers every moment of her time with them. In flashbacks, Julie tells us the story of how Chingis asked her to be their “Good Guide”; a sort of guide to the new culture they found themselves in. Julie even taught them football – by borrowing next door’s ball, and then when that didn’t prove enough, borrowing next door’s boy.

But there’s something very wrong with the two brothers. Chingis tells Julie how he and Nergui are being chased by a demon – a demon who “makes things vanish”. And it’s Julie’s slow discovery of the truth about the demon – and about the boys themselves – that forms the sad, painful truth of this story.

Conceptually, this book is beautifully packaged. It’s part of the story itself; pages are lined as in like an exercise book, and it’s interwoven with polaroid pictures that form part of Chingis’ narrative. It’s superb work and needs recognition.

Cottrell Boyce writes this book with a very brilliant simplicity. He has the gift of insight; we are wholly able to lose ourselves in Julie and can’t help but feel her confused pain when the book comes to a resolution. I loved this book. It’s quick to read, but the impact of it is huge. It is a bold, emotional story that hits you very deep.

I’d like Frank Cottrell Boyce to stop being so good now please.

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Everything else

Ghost Knight : Cornelia Funke

Ghost KnightGhost Knight by Cornelia Funke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Please note that this review refers to the Orion edition (October 2012 – 978 1 4440 0823). You can see a picture of this edition here and I very much recommend you do take a look – the front cover is just gorgeous and the overall look is probably one of the loveliest packages I’ve seen for a while.

And now, down to the review!

Cornelia Funke is one of those names that needs very little introduction. She’s an international standard bearer for children’s literature and fantastical adventure in particular. In Ghost Knight, she takes a slightly different tack and roots her story in the solid base of a boarding school in Salisbury. New boy Jon Whitcroft, sent away to school whilst his mother stays at home with the much loathed “Beard” – her new partner. Jon’s time at school starts on a very difficult note – and that note is that he’s seeing Ghosts.

Ghosts who want to kill him.

It’s up to Jon and his new friend Ella to solve the mystery of why the ghosts want Jon so much. And it’s Ella who introduces Jon to William Longspee – a Knight who’s sworn to protect those in need of aid. The thing of it is, that William Longspee is also a ghost…

Written originally in Funke’s native German, this book is translated by Oliver Latsch. I always think that it’s important to acknowledge the work of a translator when working with books originally written in a different language. The writing in Ghost Knight is definitely for a slightly younger audience. I found the sentences very complete in themselves; it’s quite a precisely written book which means it’s going to be very accessible to a lot of people. There are a few moments which may require explanation – there’s a couple of references to “bastards” for example, used in the parentage meaning of the word and not as a swear-word.

I had a little bit of an issue with the occasional interjection of “today” Jon into the narrative. Something like this, where you know the narrator is telling it from an adult perspective (so survived any trauma they experienced in the story because you know they grew up), sometimes removes tension and immediacy from the story. This was probably the only thing that knocked off a star for me and I’m aware it’s a very personal issue of mine.

On a whole though Ghost Knight is full of riches. The illustrations by Andrea Offermann are to die for. They’re plentiful and strewn throughout the book in a mixture of double page spreads, single pages, and winding up the side of paragraphs. They’re dark and powerful and intensely evocative. I loved them. I want more books like this, books that make you catch your breath when you open them. The production of this book is brilliant and I can’t see it not appealing to people.

The story itself is very lovely. I really enjoyed the relationship between Jon and Ella. It’s ace to have a boy lead in a school story. He’s a bit of a dork around Ella (ZOMG A GIRL) but when it comes to it, he’s brave and noble and kind of awesome. And I loved how he grew throughout the story. Funke writes boys really, really well and I think that’s an awesome gift.

What I also enjoyed about this book is that I can see it spiralling off into a thousand follow up activities. English history is full of stuff like this, kings hidden in carparks and grey ladies in theatres, and using Ghost Knight as a springboard for a ghostly treasure hunt might end up in something sort of amazing. I don’t think you can go wrong with a book like this, I really don’t.

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Girlsown Overviews

Children’s literature, food, and frenchwomen

Food is a central theme in children’s literature and school stories in particular. It’s something which has stayed eternally present from the cookery lessons of  the Chalet School, the roundness of Billy Bunter through to the chocolate frogs of Harry Potter. Food is a magical device and it’s particularly magical when used in the school story.

As part of my blog birthday celebrations, I thought we’d have a look at three of my favourite foodiest moments in school story history.

‘Angela lifted the toast on to the table. “I got Antoinette to make anchovy toast for us,” she said’                                 Fifth Formers of St Clares by Enid Blyton.
Image: wallyg (Flickr)

Why has this moment had such an indelible impact on me? I think because it’s one of the key moments in St Clares, a very ‘prank-aware’ school, that food and pranks combine. Fifth Formers at St Clare’s was published in 1945, right at the end of the Second World War. Food was being rationed. The school story was increasingly becoming an idyll of escapism. Right from the train / plane / bus journey to the relevant school, through to their exotic locales (Austria, Islands, romantic manors in the countryside), these stories were havens to the increasingly under attack populace.

The scene in question involves Angela, one of the snobbier girls in the school, and the new girl Antoinette. Angela is under fire from most of her form-mates for using her prettiness and letting the younger girls run after her in a manner unbecoming to that of a senior. Antoinette, the young sister of Claudine – a member of Angela’s form, is a girl who decides to not follow the attitude of the other young girls. Asked to make anchovy toast, Antoinette swaps the anchovy paste for bootpolish, and spreads the toast with this. Angela and her friends are of course sent to Matron for a cautionary dose and Antoinette has wangled her way out of ever doing jobs for Angela again.

There’s obviously several levels in this incident. A little bit of class commentary – the upper class Angela getting her comeuppance – and a level of the younger child winning out against the elder one. But what I really love is the final moment of the episode which involves Antoinette being so upset (oh, don’t worry, she’s really not!) she is given a square of chocolate from Matron in order to calm her soul. Brilliant. How can you not root for Antoinette throughout all of this?

“But there is no need to cook it,” said Thekla calmly. “It is smoked—see!”And she held it so that that they saw the rind was a rich red-brown.                                                                                                                                                                                  From: The Chalet School and the Lintons by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer                                                                                          Image: Hendry (Flickr)

And then there’s Thekla. Thekla von Stift makes her first appearance in Exploits of the Chalet Girls (1933) and has a stormy time before ending as one of only two girls the Chalet School ever expels. She seals her fate when she decides to have a go at Joyce Linton in the effort to break up the younger girl’s friendship with Joey Bettany.

Thekla’s defining ‘foodie’ moment comes in The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934) . Joyce, tearaway new girl, has decided to throw a midnight feast to which everybody has to bring something. We have sardines, and cake, and all the normal foodstuffs you’d expect schoolgirls to be able to procure.

And then Thekla brings “raw smoked bacon” which she calmly chomps down on in the middle of the midnight feast.

It’s an amazing moment that reinforces Thekla’s rampant role as ‘Other’ in the series and one that has lasting impact. The midnight feast ends up with illness for Thekla and Mary Shaw, and Joyce Linton, the instigator, “almost dies” with a billious attack. A bilious attack that’s very much helped on its way by Thekla’s calm eating of the bacon.

I love this. Despite Thekla’s obvious awfulness, there’s something rather epic about a stolid Prussian snob eating bacon in the middle of the night.

Image: Great British Chefs (Flickr)

What’s the thing you want most after a shock? A hot sugary cup of tea? Nope.

You want an omelette aux fines herbes cooked by a Frenchwoman who has a bit of a crush on you. This is the fate of Joey Bettany  in The Chalet Girls in Camp (1932). Following an incident in the book which Joey, naturally, is heavily involved in, she is recovering back in camp. Simone Lecoutier (who’s always had a bit of a pash for Joey) decides to cook an omelette aux fines herbes to aid the recovery process.

It’s an incredibly romantic moment. The Chalet Girls have been camping in the Baumersee; an area of intense beauty and full of all the magic Brent-Dyer could possibly imbue it with. Simone is a neat, nimble-fingered, French woman of great charm and the image of her making an omelette  on the camp-fire, seasoning it with herbs, flipping it in the pan, whilst her beloved best friend is recovering from shock is something that borders on almost sensual.

I think I’m going to have to do a follow up post on this! I mean, I’ve not even begun to talk about Guernsey cut and come again cake, watered down wine, garlic cloves vs normal cloves, ginger beer, chocolate frogs  …. 😉

(I am indebted to @wonderlanded for sourcing me the Thekla quote – many thanks!)

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Girlsown

Choose Your Own (GirlsOwn) Adventure

Image: kthread (Flickr)

As part of my blog birthday celebrations, I decided to write a Choose Your Own Adventure style story and I decided to set it around a birthday party in the fictional school of St Swithin’s. You take the role of a new girl and, as the story progresses, have to decide how to navigate the social nuances of schoolgirl life!

I am heavily indebted to this post for technical guidance and inspiration. Writing a story like this is hard – they get so big so quickly! 😀 But I am very pleased I persevered and it was sort of fascinating for me to see the way it developed. It did get a little Star Wars-ish at points (will you choose the way of the Jedi or the Sith?) during the development phase, but I hope that’s not translated too much to the final version.

So – here we are. Hyperlinks are underlined and there’s one or more on each page (apart from the ‘Your Adventure Ends Here’ pages) and that’s how you navigate through the story. Hopefully it works and you enjoy The New Girl At St Swithin’s !

PS – Let me know if you can guess which bit in the story was inspired heavily by Enid Blyton!

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Book Reviews

Secrets, Lies and Locker 62 : Lil Chase

I picked up a proof of this at a conference I attended and I really didn’t know what to expect. Lil Chase didn’t ring a bell with me, but I decided to take a punt. And Oh My God, I’m so glad that I did.

Maya, new girl at Mount Selwyn High, is assigned Locker 62. It’s the locker of secrets. Unused for years, it’s become the repository of anything unsayable at school and everything in that locker is dynamite. And now, following a decision by the school to give her that locker, all of this is in Maya’s hands.

OOH ERRR.

(Crikey).

Secrets, Lies & Locker 62 is Clueless meets Mean Girls meets Harriet The Spy. It’s so good. I just utterly devoured this.

Chase writes with  a perceptive, funny edge and gets right to the depth of her characters. Maya’s brilliantly realistic and when she decides to Do That Spoilery Thing she does, it’s scarily accurate. This is what people do. Sometimes people behave like idiots. Maya also ends up facing big things in this story and her reaction to this is very beautifully judged. I had a total wibble at the end.

I also really loved how Chase handles friendship. Teen Girl Friendship is terrifyingly complicated and the whole Best Friend thing just adds a new level of complicated. Dealing with all that is hard; there’s the subtle social nuances of relationships and an accidental diss or a bitchy comment can just add a spark to an already combustible situation. And then, sometimes, when you’re the New Girl, it’s even harder. The dynamic between Maya and her friends is perfectly judged and again, scarily perceptive.

Go. Pick this up. You’ll get a fast, funny and freakishly real story that finishes (can I stuff this sentence with any more words beginning with f?) on a fabulously feel-good  (looks like I can!!)  note.

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Girlsown Theory

The nature of genius in GirlsOwn Literature

Margia Bettany. Maidlin di Ravarati.Mildred Lancaster.

Three characters, from three distinctly different authors. The one thing they have in common (apart from starting with the letter M..)? They’re all gifted and talented characters in their respective books.

Genius in GirlsOwn Literature is a curious thing. It’s almost precluded to be gender specific due to the dominance of female characters in these books. Being female in a GirlsOwn book tends to mean you’re part of the status quo. You fit in. You’re part of the dominant species.

But then, when you’re gifted, when you’re a genius, you become something very different.

You become something quite incomprehensible in a literary construct full of parity and equality. You become something very dangerous indeed.

You become Other.

Consider Veronica Wells. A dancer of incredible ability, prima ballerina assoluta, she’s skilled in an art which involves a curious dichotomy. She has such an intense passion for simply living and being, and yet her lifework is to obey an artform which consumes that individuality through asking practitioners to maintain the rules and standards and movements set in stone by a host of dancers before them.

The gifted dancer in GO literature is a contradiction. She is both controlled and uncontrollable. She is action and music; woman and dancer, line and note.

 “…there’s only one Veronica. She lives every role she dances. She possesses such extraordinary musicality that she can tell by the way a note or chord is played exactly what it means. She’s – she’s just the essence of music!” Jane Leaves The Wells (1989b:70)

Veronica is everything, and she sings from the page.

Until, one day, she stops.

“Whether it was that her life was dedicated to her art – even her marriage coming second – or that she naturally couldn’t lead a gay, sophisticated life, but must practise every morning, and go to bed early each night when she wasn’t on the stage, the fact remains – the pale oval face, with the big dark eyes and sweet sensitive mouth, was still that of a child.” (73)

There’s a tension here, an immediate distancing of her gift from her marriage. Veronica Weston, the dancer, is not Veronica Scott, the wife and mother. Her life is a series of roles and, as the series progresses, there’s a strange feeling that she’s comfortable in none. Is this the impact of her genius? To be permanently a child, longing solely for a daughter (viz. the Vicki / Nona swap)  who can continue her artistic legacy?

Veronica’s experience, Hill’s patent discomfort with letting her character “grow up”,  is in severe contrast to the fate of Damaris, the titular dancer of A Dancer From the Abbey. Damaris is marriage fodder, nothing else, and the brunt of what always seems to me to be a very severe attitude from Elsie Oxenham.

“’I should say that she would be wrong to deny her gift its full expression just for the sake of ease and comfort; to settle down at home and enjoy herself [comments Mary-Dorothy, a friend of the family] But if she loved some man, I’d say she was right to give up even her dancing for him. I’d think it was wrong to let her career spoil the happiness of two lives … ‘You can’t deny that Damaris is one-sided. At present only her artist part is being developed. We shall see where she ends.’” A Dancer From the Abbey (1959:65)

I still can’t read that without my jaw dropping. Even the un-named narrator joins in at one point: “Would Damaris really be strong enough to turn from her career, if Mary Damayris had a great triumph?” (1959:222)

The novel is concerned primarily with whether Damaris marries and leaves the stage. To be frank, it’s obvious where she’ll end up and sure enough Damaris quits dancing to get married.

So is that it? Is that all giftedness is?

Not in a Noel Streatfield novel. Streatfield allowed her gifted and talented characters to use their gift in a practical setting and explore alternative options to a more traditional career path. Ballet Shoes sees Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil achieve highly in the fields of dance, acting and engineering. Circus Shoes sees Peter and Santa find a home for themselves and their abilities in the circus.

Children in a Noel Streatfield novel are viewed at the same level as adults. The preponderance of orphans (and therefore the absense of parents) allows the child to engage in adventures without adult authority. Talent is a positive catalyst for development upon both the individual and the wider world.

So are there moments when talent is a distancer? When it pushes the child away from others, and forces them into isolation?

I think so, and I think The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer provides one of the most cogent examples of this.

“…I think that, if God prospers the work, we may give two more such [geniuses] to mankind in Tamara and the little Jennifer. Theirs [sic] is the divinity that makes the difference between Talent and Genius. They will pay for that divinity again and again in bitter tears, deep sorrows, and griefs [sic] such as are known only to the few. It must be so, or they could not have the gift. For most of us, there is steady work, and a lesser knowledge of woe. But none of us can make the most of what God has given us unless we do our best to live as he would live … no man – nor woman either – has ever been great who did not yield up self and evil. No one has ever been great who has not first suffered greatly. And no man comes to greatness except another hold out to him first a helping hand?” (1999:221)

Brent-Dyer was never one for beating around the bush and here she is perhaps at her most coherent and emphatic through the mouthpiece of Signor Mirandos as he addresses one of the “bad” girls at the school – Emily. Signor Mirandos mentions Jennifer Craddock, central heroine of the novel, and refers to her gift in a most intriguing manner.

Jennifer is not gifted. She is a genius. But she is not gifted in her own right. She is gifted from God. Brent-Dyer’s very clear about the role of religion here and it’s clear that the giftedness is not owned by the child. They are merely caretakers of the gift. These children have achieved Godhood and therefore become worthy of worship in their own right. They’re no longer children and indeed, as the book processes, the difference between “gifted” Jennifer, and “normal” Jennifer, become near-palpable.

This ‘divine giftedness’  is something which is made explicit in  The Girls of St Cyprians by Angela Brazil. Mildred Lancaster, playing at a public occasion, is described thusly: “She had got at the heart of the musician’s meaning and those who listened felt that throb of pure delight which can raise common-place lives for the moment to the level of the skies.” The Girls of St Cyprians (1969: 70)

Mildred comes to a moment of realisation about her talent (and, to be honest, it’s a realisation that only Angela Brazil could have written): ” [She had] a rare and special talent such as God gives to but very few in this world – a talent to be taken humbly, and rejoiced in, and treasured zealously, and cultivated carefully … it seemed to her that, in spite of her lack of lands, she was not
quite portionless [sic]. God’s gifts to His children were not all alike…to another the genius that has the power to create for itself. Which was the nobler bequest she could not tell, but she knew that after all she, too, had an inheritance.”

Gosh.

So Giftedness, if we mention God, seems to shift into a sort of indentured servitude where the “holder” of the gift spends their time trying to repay and live up to the divine gift upon which they have been bestowed. There’s also an element of rationalising the gift; the child is no longer “other”, they are merely blessed and can be effectively managed within society providing we are all aware of this gift.

So what’s the point of genius? Why even have it in your GirlsOwn book at all if it’s such a difficult beast to manage?

Because this is reality. These characters, with their furious anti-establishmentism force us to question who we are. We define ourselves in relation to others. Joey Bettany, when presented with Nina Rutherford, vehemently defines herself as “not a genius”. Joey is “normal” (LOL). She fits in to the world she is a part of.

And that’s what they do. Mildred, Margia, Maidlin, Nina, Damaris et al, they make us question and realise who we are. We read their great giftedness, their talent and their skills, and we define ourselves alongside them. GirlsOwn Literature is at heart about growth, about becoming who you are and not “spineless jellyfish”.

Some of us sing songs. Some of us play music. Some of us do an arabesque that can bring tears to your eyes.

We’re all human.

And the warped literary mirror of giftedness, genius, talent, whatever you may call it, allows us to realise that to stunning effect.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

New Beginnings at the *insert name here* School

This post is part of Playing By The Book’s blog carnival: “I’m looking for a book about…”. Every month bloggers convene on a given topic and this months is: (Starting) School.

The concept of the new pupil arriving at school is a common conceit amongst school-stories. Whether ranging from gym-slip time-slip classics such as Charlotte Sometimes and the more recent Beswitched , (and, fyi,  here’s another excellent review of Beswitched) through to the vivacious charms of Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones, it’s a theme that reoccurs time and time again. And no wonder – every new pupil is a guaranteed source of tension, story and excitement as they all bring their own stories through to the fixed world of the relevant school and the reader is left to wonder if the new girl will, or won’t, conform to the status quo.

For this post, I have to go back to my specialist topic and review one of the Chalet School books.

The School at the Chalet is the first in the series (1925) and is perhaps one of the greatest (along with The Chalet School in Exile) of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s books. The essential premise is that the orphaned Bettany siblings, Madge and her twin, Dick and their younger sister, Joey, have been left in the lurch following the sudden death of their guardian. Dick is due back to work overseas, Joey is “delicate and shouldn’t live in a wet climate” and something needs to change in order to ensure the safe future of the Bettany women. That something is  Madge and her plan to start a school in Austria:

“.. I shouldn’t want a large number, not at first at any rate-about twelve at most, and counting Joey. I should want girls from twelve to fourteen or fifteen. I would teach English subjects; Mademoiselle La Pâttre would come with us, and she would take the French and German-and the sewing too. Music we could get in Innsbrück.”

Things progress, and shortly thereafter the two Bettany sisters and Grizel, “the second pupil with a bit of a permanent chip on her shoulder” Cochrane, arrive in Austria and open up the Chalet School in the most romantic and evocative location possible: “Higher and higher they climbed, now and then stopping at a tiny wayside station, till at last they reached the great Alp, or rather Alm, as they are called in the Tyrol, and there before them, dark, beautiful, and clear as a mirror, spread the Tiern See, with its three tiny hamlets and two little villages round its shores, and towering round on all sides the mighty limestone crags and peaks of the mountains.”

Image credit: kaibara87 (Flickr)

What I love about this book is the wild range of characters. We have a world of new girls; English, Austrian, French, and all of them are palpably different. There’s shy, emotional Simone; the hail fellow well met Joey, the stubborn John Bull-esque nature of Grizel and the tall quiet grace of Gisela and Bernhilda, Tyrolean mountain girls. Brent-Dyer was ahead in her genre and colours her books with a warm multicultural respect and genuine love for Austria. This school may be English but that comes to mean something very different than say that Angela Brazil bit where she goes off on a eugenics-esque rant.

This is a book that might be very good to share with families facing international travel and also those engaged in alternative educational methods. Whilst there is one relatively scary incident at the end, it’s one of those incidents which sort of doesn’t lend itself to a morbid ending. It’s also notable for the strong multicultural warmth and the genuine faith in the startlingly realistic girls. I would also reccomend this to those readers who are devouring Malory Towers and St Clare’s – it’s a little stylistically different due to age (there’s mention of fires in bedrooms which *totally* baffled me as a child) but it still stands up very strong in comparison.

And, the best bit, is that this title (in direct comparison to some of the others) is very easily available. I checked on Amazon and there’s a load of copies available from 1p. It’s also one of those books that turns up more often than not in charity shops so it’s worthwhile keeping your eyes open. You’ll be picking up a book that quite often, to be honest, reads as if it was written yesterday instead of nearly 90 years ago.

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Book Reviews

The Attic Term : Antonia Forest

The Attic Term (The Marlows, #9)The Attic Term by Antonia Forest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The penultimate in her series featuring the Marlow family, Attic Term is split mainly between Ginty and Lawrie / Nicola. They’re back at school. The twins are planning their form entertainment and Ginty is telephoning A BOY in those moments when people think she’s in the bathroom, the corridor, running an errand and, what’s worse, is that she’s phoning THAT THERE BOY from the secretary’s office.

This is a bit of an odd book to review for me as I’ve never been able to read this series in depth or sequentially. I adored Autumn Term, I had a bit of a baffled moment during that one Marlow book where (I think Nicola maybe?) got eyed up by a Dodgy Man With Obvious Ill Intentions, and that one with the sailing boat to France (?) was kind of epic but really confusing because I’d just read Autumn Term and then there’s several of the other titles I’ve never read. My Marlow knowledge is, at best, patchy.

What I can say with some clarity is that The Attic Term is a beautifully written book. Forest, despite the occasional stentorian mention of DRUGS, writes with a very sharp clarity. She’s quite superb in writing girls; girls who are bordering on adulthood or others who are just revelling in their younger sister status. Forest also is superb in writing girls and their interactions in that curious feudal system known as the boarding school. The moments when the girls are discussing something are a joy to read; the language is snappy, bright, and flows just as quick conversation does. It’s visceral writing that’s almost underwritten in a way; she makes her point, just, barely, and allows the words to make the impact rather than surrounding them with a host of speech tags, adjectives and window dressing. This is the sort of thing that keeps bringing me back to Forest, that kind of curiously mature skill to her writing which lets me pass up her DRUGS YOBS OMG moments because I’m so keen to see what she does next.

I find Forest an education in writing and I think, it’s particularly acute, when we see the notes of growth in the family throughout the series. Even I, with my patchy knowledge of the Marlow family, can see it and I sort of love the relationships throughout. (And one of the things I really love is the way everybody’s always “OH ANNE GET A GRIP”)

There’s a lot of churchiness in this book and it’s something I feel frankly unable to comment on with any veracity. What I did find myself doing was something I do when Brent-Dyer gets her church on, I sort of slide past it. There’s a lot I can forgive / disregard when a writer is this damn good.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Tales in School : Jacynth Hope-Simpson

Tales in School: An Anthology of Boarding-School LifeTales in School: An Anthology of Boarding-School Life by Jacynth Hope-Simpson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m always a little bit suspicious of anthologies. It seems that either they pull out the best bit (and then cut it), or the worst bit (and then over-extend it), or the most random bit (and then wallow in it for an eternity). You’re very much at the risk of the whim of the collector; an individual who you may not even have heard of, let alone understand their rationale for selection. Anthologies, it may be said, are fraught, fractious children.

But, now that I’ve said all that, Tales in School is rather good. The excellently named Hope-Simpson has chosen extracts which illustrate different parts of the public / boarding school experience. What is very pleasing is the mixture of authors. We have pieces by Talbot Baines Reed, Charlotte Bronte, Elinor M.Brent Dyer laid alongside work from Rudyard Kipling, Rupert Brooke and Winston Churchill. It’s a striking, and pleasantly refreshing mixture to read when one remembers the rather gender biased nature of the school story genre.

And this unusual group throws up some very lovely gems. Two in particular stood out for me; Hugh Walpole’s stunning “The Match Against Callendar” and “Arrival at school” by Horace Annesley Vachell. These two were very early on in the collection and by two authors I know nothing about and they were both really really good. I’ll be hunting down the full versions of both (“Jeremy at Crale” and “The Hill” respectively). One of the other highlights for me was the very brief but very eye-opening description of the weekly bath endured by Susan Ranson whilst evacuated to Canada and attending a school run by French Canadian Nuns.

I think Hope-Simpson handles the shape of this anthology as a whole very well. There were only a few pieces I flicked over (sorry Charlotte Bronte, I still can’t come to terms with you just yet). I actually found a lot of the extracts focused on the boys schools very moving. They functioned both as fiction and almost as historical artefact and I was reminded of the quote: “”The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton”. There’s something very British, and very poignant about these extracts and that is underlined by the name of some of the contributors.

Tales in School is one of those anthologies that is still worth a look due to both the eclectic selection of authors and also the curious critical weight it still levies. I’d also be very interested to consider whether such an undertaking would still be possible today and what the shape or content of it would be. Sadly I have the sneaking suspicion that the concept of the anthology itself is rapidly becoming outmoded.

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Book Reviews

The Alice-Miranda Books

Back in April / May, I had the utmost pleasure to review the first two books in the Alice-Miranda series. These books by Australian author Jacqueline Harvey are very lovely stories all about the eponymous Alice-Miranda and her adventures.

In the review of the second book, I mentioned that I planned to pass these on to a daughter of a friend of mine. She’s already exhausted St Claire’s and Malory Towers so I couldn’t imagine a better home for the first two Alice-Miranda books.

And here’s what she thought (plus a little post-script from her Mum!)

“Dear Jacqueline  Harvey, your Alice-Miranda books are great! It was so exciting when Auntie Gee got kidnapped in Alice Miranda on Holiday.  I was also  curious to know why Miss Grimm was so angry and never came out of her office in Alice-Miranda at School.  From Daisy P aged 7”

Mum – She can’t wait for the next one!!

Thanks Daisy P! It’s another thumbs up for Alice-Miranda! 😀

Categories
Book Reviews

Hollow Pike : James Dawson

Hollow PikeHollow Pike by James Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Debut YA author James Dawson has written a sort of surprising novel here. Initially I read Hollow Pike with a horrendously blase attitude. Witches. Yawn.

But then, it so got me. Dawson’s produced a sexy (that front cover is very indicative of the style within) and dark novel which had me laughing out loud with glee at the simple audacity of the Big Twist. I won’t even attempt to spoil it but the eventual location for the Big Bad? Genius.

It’s written from the perspective of teenager Lis London who’s just moved to Hollow Pike following bullying at her old school, and Lis swiftly makes friends at her new school. I actually really enjoyed how ‘non-sterotypical’ these teens were and how they actually existed as characters instead of just foils for Lis. (God knows if non-stereotypical is a word but I’m sticking with it).

There are elements of everything here: Scooby-Doo mysteries, The Craft, Scream, and a heavy dose of Mean Girls. And then it takes it all and flings it up North in a desperately weird little town full of Wait, Did I Just See That Or Did I Imagine It moments. Ace.

The attitude that I started this book with? Wrong.

The attitude I finished this book with? Curled under the quilt at midnight, “just reading a few pages more”?

So very right.

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Girlsown

Angela Brazil and the Case Of The Verb Vendetta

File:A Popular Schoolgirl - book cover - Project Gutenberg eText 18505.jpg

Angela Brazil taught me a lot of things. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a camp fire and a well meaning lady of suitable class to ‘pash’ on. Don’t go for a walk in the countryside without a handy story on the local mythology. And never ever drive a motor car when you’ve not taken off the brake.

I admit that a lot of her work borders on bonkers now but Angela Brazil retains a very special place in my heart primarily for her mean vocabulary. Take this extract of the first 10 pages from The Luckiest Girl In The School.

sighed Mrs. Woodward / suggested Percy / volunteered Winona / objected Winona / said Percy / replied Mrs. Woodward / she asked her brother / replied that light-hearted youth /  said Winona / she said / interrupted Winona / ejaculated Winona / she exclaimed / wavered Mrs. Woodward / he declared / exclaimed Percy / groaned Winona / flared Winona / teased Percy / said Letty / retorted Winona / said Percy blandly / declared Winona aggrievedly.

Ten pages of solid stuff (with naturally a brief dalliance to describe Winona’s appearance, local flora and fauna) and Brazil practically kills herself before having to use “said” again. It’s amazing. It’s like she has a vendetta against verbs of one syllable.

Brazil is an education and one I recommend most heartily. If she does nothing else, she’ll help out your vocabulary. But do feel free to skip past the interminable “Teacher Regales A Local Legend Whilst The Girls Are On A Nature Walk” chapter – I really won’t judge you as I’ll be doing the exact same thing!

There’s a nice biography of Brazil available here and a ton of her books are available via Project Gutenberg.

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Everything else

Alice-Miranda On Holiday : Jacqueline Harvey

Alice Miranda On HolidayAlice Miranda On Holiday by Jacqueline Harvey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second in the Alice-Miranda series, Alice-Miranda on Holiday is (as the title suggests) focused on Alice-Miranda’s holiday from school. She’s back home at her beautiful house Highton Hall, full of luscious meals and exciting high-jinks, and (hurrah!) there’s skullduggery afoot!

If you’ve read the first in the series (which I reviewed here,you should have a good idea of what to expect. If this is your first exposure to Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones, you’re in for a treat. She’s a bright, funny Opal Moonbaby meets Pippi Longstocking meets Eloise-esque heroine of only seven and a half years old.

In Alice-Miranda On Holiday, Harvey takes the sensible direction of introducing and fleshing out a plethora of supporting casts. It’s useful to have a list of who’s who in the back pages (although I do wonder if it might be more useful to have this in the front as unless you’ve read these books before, you discover the cast-list after you’ve finished the book rather than using it to help you keep track throughout).

Harvey’s got a bright, fresh style of writing these books and it’s obvious that she’s found her groove. Alice-Miranda On Holiday is a rollicking modern Enid Blyton type story full of adults being silly (silly adults!), kids eating glorious sounding meals, and (metaphorical) red herrings sprinkled liberally throughout it to keep you guessing as to what’s going on. These are fun, fun books and I’m officially a fan.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Alice-Miranda At School : Jacqueline Harvey

Alice-Miranda at SchoolAlice-Miranda at School by Jacqueline Harvey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones’ first term at Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale Academy For Proper Young Ladies and it’s all a little bit peculiar. The headmistress hasn’t been seen for ten years, there’s no flowers in the garden, and the staff are on the edge of a nervous breakdown. And, when Alice-Miranda is set a series of impossible tasks that she must pass in order to stay in school, it becomes very clear that there’s something a bit rotten in the state of Denmark and it’s up to Alice-Miranda to discover what.

I’m a big fan of school stories so I was excited to discover the Alice-Miranda books. It’s written by an australian author – Jacqueline Harvey – and is the first of a contracted ten book series (the next four are already available).

School stories are, I think, a bit of a difficult genre to write these days. They’re a little bit archaic and either require a bit of JK Rowling up (chuck in a load of spells and emphasise the fantastical nature of the story) or a bit of Jacqueline Wilson type social commentary (emphasis very much on the ‘reality’ of life for these children caught in this unreal state).

There is a third option however: you can embrace the school story and write something that is very much aware of what it is. This is Alice-Miranda. I loved the self-aware nature of this book; how the headmistress was An Ogre With A Secret, how the Bad Tempered Girl Was Really A Good Egg, and how the cook Baked Luscious Cakes. Alice-Miranda is most unapologetic in what it is and I did love it for this.

Harvey writes with a fast, breezy style that I think would work well with the nines and under. Alice-Miranda at School is 261 pages and has 40 chapters which makes for a swift, and achievable read. It’s also very nicely structured and Harvey has several of her chapters follow a similar pattern (ie: encounter, resolution, coda) which introduces a strong rhythm into the book. I’d imagine this might be a book that could work very nicely into being read aloud.

Alice-Miranda herself is lovely. And she does make you smile. I loved how she was very much herself throughout and, even though the Alice-Miranda version of ‘herself’ is rather extraordinary, enjoyed the positive message this would send to a reader.

I always think it’s good if, when reading a book, I know exactly who I’d give this to. And with Alice-Miranda, I knew from day one. It’s going to a girl who’s exhausted the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books – and is boarding school obsessed.

And,  just to clarify, that girl is not me 😀

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Categories
Girlsown

The Chalet School : If There’s A Mountain, We’ll Try To Jump Off It

I wondered once,  somewhat facetiously, how much the insurance premiums would be for the Chalet School. There are very few titles in the series that don’t have some sort of life-threatening incident. It’s one of the hallmarks of the Chalet School for me, that sort of insouciant disregard for Common Sense and staff members with the sudden ability to backflip from speedboat to speedboat. If you add to that Grizel’s predisposition for trying to kill Len, we have ourselves one hell of a series that shifts from the melodrama to gritty socio-political commentary with barely a pause.

So I decided to infographic some of my more favourite incidents. I’m a little bit obsessed with infographics at the moment (I am teaching myself how to make them for work as I think there’s a lot of potential in them for library purposes) and I thought I’d practice with some for the blog. The below were all done via easel.ly.

I will have missed some of the accidents (and must acknowledge my massive debt to this awesome list) but I do hope you enjoy what are, quite certainly, the first ever Chalet School infographics. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go off and infographic what happens to all the Minettes.

Categories
Girlsown

The Girls’ Own Blog Carnival: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer round

 

Hello! This is the final round up of posts for the Girls’ Own Blog Carnival round on Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. I will add (most welcome) latecomers to this list – so please keep an eye on it! 🙂

I’d like to thank the bloggers who took part in this round. Although it’s small, it’s very perfectly formed and the quality of these bloggers deserves a world of attention and appreciation so please feel free to RT and share with all and sundry.

  1. Chalet School locations : Bosherston Lily Ponds” by Bert of Make and Bake With Bert.
  2. The New Mistress at the Chalet School” by Ali at Fantastic Reads
  3. “Still, grey and to all appearances … curled up in the corner lost with the Chalet School” by Knit Two, Pointe Two, Bake Two Together
  4. On Elinor M. Brent Dyer” by me.
Categories
Girlsown Theory

On Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

“The world of juvenile literature is made the poorer by the death on Saturday of Miss Elinor Brent-Dyer, whose 56 “Chalet School” stories, set in the Austrian Tyrol, attracted a huge readership from all over the world – not only of children but adults also.” 

(The Times : 1969)

Poorer. I like that. It speaks of riches lost and a genuine, palpable sense of something being taken away. Brent-Dyer was pretty awesome. Yes, she slunk into self-parody at the end of her career but when she was at her full strengths as an author, her books stand squarely in the camp of world-class.

I’ll be the first to admit that the later books in the Chalet School series are sort of  hysterical. I’ve just read the Summer Term at The Chalet School and the list of incidents are as follows: randomly running into your guardian whom you’ve never met before on Oxford Street, some eeeevil modern girls who just need a good wash,  a  train crash, fire, adopting a potential orphan, a girl trips over which leads to a broken bone in her foot, a bee-perfume swarming thing, a sort of meteor strike, a violent storm, a  landslide / earth opening double whammy, and a DISAPPEARING FRINGE.

(Amazing, right? And I’ve not even got to Althea Joins The Chalet School where Miss Ferrars goes all Terminator and backflips from speedboat to speedboat… )

I read the later books with a kind of loving attitude. I give them leeway. And a lot of that is due to the heights Brent-Dyer achieved in her earlier work. I will forgive a lot from an author who produces some of the most ground-breaking work of her generation – one of which I’ll discuss at some length here as part of my entry into the Girls’ Own Blog Carnival.

The Chalet School In Exile is outstanding. First published in 1940, it slammed into a heavily suffering world. The impact of the Second World War was massive at this point and being felt by everybody. Exile provides a complex, provocative and frankly challenging counterpoint to the events occuring in the wider, non-Chalet School world. It addresses reality and it makes no bones about it.

“I’m afraid of Germany’s demands on Austria. I think she’s going to try to bring Austria into the Reich. It’s very likely … I doubt if Miklas and Schuschnigg would involve their country in what could only prove to mean appalling bloodshed” (1951:18)

“Hitler is speaking of including all the German-speaking peoples on the continent in the Reich … you’ll never get a monomaniac to see anything he doesn’t want to see. And I distrust his methods.” (1951 : 19)

You can see by those page references that it doesn’t take long for Brent-Dyer to start making her point. And it’s subtle, and delicate and bloody brave to be doing this in the middle of wartime. Her point is careful and comes to emphatic clarity during the next few pages.

“The girls themselves had held a meeting … they had solemnly formed a peace league among themselves and vowed themselves to a union of nations whether they should ever meet again or not.” (1951 : 33)

This is the birth of the Chalet School Peace League. And I can’t even begin to fathom how stunning it is to be writing this when she was writing it.

 “We, the girls of the Chalet School, hereby vow ourselves members of the Chalet School League. We swear faithfully to do all we can to promote peace between all our countries. We will not believe any lies spoken about evil doings but we will try to get others to work for peace as we do. We will not betray this League to any enemy whatever may happen to us. If it is possible, we will meet at least once a year. And we will always remember that though we belong to different lands, we are members of the Chalet School League of Peace.” (1951:35)

A couple of things to note about this. Firstly an equivalent to this these days might have been something like JK Rowling pausing to acknowledge the invasion of Iraq or 9/11. Secondly this is, what people in TV call, breaking the fourth wall. It’s a term which harks back to the theatre where people performed in a three walled space (ie: the stage) and the audience formed the fourth wall. Acknowledging the presence of the audience is when you “break the fourth wall”. Here Brent-Dyer, through careful usage of gender-free language (note how only the first sentence is gendered – remarkable for a series with a distinct female bias ), and the usage of ‘We’ as opposed to ‘I’ creates an all encompassing effect to the Peace League vow. It is a statement that is as much addressed to the reader as it is to the Chalet School girls.

The Peace League was a way for women to ‘fight’  – and for children to ‘fight’. Brent-Dyer is clear throughout Exile that women, and the school, are at the mercy of masculine power. Madge Russell expresses this succinctly:

“Must I finish it [the school] just because a set of men have gone quite mad?” (1951:64)

The subtle differentiation of power continues throughout Exile. Jack Maynard, Brent-Dyer’s perhaps most perfect man in that she allows him to marry her beloved Joey, refers to the Peace League quite specifically as “your League” (1951:189) despite only moments earlier having heard his wife refer to it as “our League” (1951:189) Jack fights with his physicality on the front line and Joey fights with her words and ideology. Women fight with words and men fight with fits. Nowhere is this more clearly stated then by Joey Bettany upon the safe arrival of old friends who had escaped from a concentration camp.

“they had contrived to escape, thanks to the help of three men whose names they flatly refused to give. ‘Oh, why not?’ cried Joey. ‘I wanted to pray for them, seeing it’s the one thing I can do in the circumstance” (1951:186)

The subtlety of Exile does not end there. Brent-Dyer also explicitly draws a difference between Nazism and Germans. Not all Germans are Nazis and not all Nazis are Germans.

‘Gottfried! It isn’t you : it’s the Nazis. We don’t blame you ; we don’t even blame the German people for all this.” (1951:84)

“‘It isn’t the Germans who are doing it,’ said Robin. ‘It’s the Nazis.'” (1951:118)

“‘You see,’ said Gertrude … ‘I’m not English. I’m a German – I was a Nazi. You can’t want me here when you know that’. The man grinned cheerfully. ‘We don’t war with women and kids,’ he told her” (1951:145)

“I don’t hate Germans – I’m too sorry for them, poor wretches!…” (1951:169)

Perhaps the most subtle message of all in Exile is the  experience of Gertrud(e) Becker. She joins the school as a spy, tasked with discovering their secrets. Her Damascene conversion into Real Chalet School Girl  is inevitable and occurs with an elegance that is superbly handled.

“…the Chalet School atmosphere was working more and more strongly in the German girl. She noted how careful the girls were to speak as kindly as they could about her country. She saw how they did everything in their power for peace, hushing the younger ones when they talked about ‘horrid Germans’ and, by word and deed, setting an example in tolerance that could not fail to have an effect” (1951:137)

‘I’m not [a Nazi] now-I couldn’t be. Not after they torpedoed us like that. Besides, the School made a difference’” (1951:145)

Gertrude is iconic rather than realistic. Once she is converted her story is complete. Gertrud provides us with an empowering cipher – an image of a redeemed Nazi and hope for ‘British’ ideals being triumphant.

The Chalet School in Exile possesses an impact and an immediacy distinctly lacking in any others of the series.. It represents a distinct shift in school story writing and the adoption of an ideology which bears resonance and weight to the present day.

And that’s why I’ll forgive Elinor M. Brent-Dyer marrying off Len to Reg. I’ll forgive her for the whole torturous “You can eat White Bread now” maxim to Grizel (SHUT UP JOEY WE HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME). I’ll even forgive her for bloody Mary-Lou.

When she was good, Brent-Dyer was world-class. Game-changing. And so very very brilliant.

(Even if she did do that whole OH NOES WE HAVE A PINK WORM IN THE ENGINE thing in Althea).

Categories
Girlsown

The Girls’ Own Blog Carnival: First round up

I am so pleased to be able to share with you two early submissions for the Girls’ Own Blog Carnival on Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.  I will do another sweep of posts tomorrow (1st April) and post an update then. For now, please enjoy these amazing posts on Brent-Dyer and do leave a comment!

Bert of Make and Bake With Bert posts a gorgeous post on Chalet School holidays – focusing specifically on the location of Bosherston Lily Ponds. I adore this post; it’s amazing to actually see where Carola rescued Signa with the aid of Handy Local Doctor (a Chalet School trademark) and it’s also lovely to see how accurate Brent-Dyer was in describing an area.

Bert also made these gorgeous banners and images which I can’t help but fawn over each and every time I see them!

My second post that I’m so pleased to be able to share with you is from Ali at Fantastic Reads. She’s written a guest post before for me on the similarities between Eustacia and Eustace and I was thrilled to see another piece from her for the GO Blog Carnival. Her review of The New Mistress at the Chalet School is a beautiful discussion of the only book in the Chalet School series written from the new teachers’ perspective.

If either of these posts or the lovely banners have inspired you  – it’s not too late to get involved! 🙂 Further info on the Carnival available here or tweet me.

Categories
Girlsown

It is a truth universally acknowledged…

… that Summer Term at the Chalet School is a little bit pants. Train crashes! Swarming wasps! Impoverished orphans! Craters!

But oh, this illustration is superb. The edition I’m reading is a very tattered old hb (on loan from library) and so I’ll apologise for the picture quality. If I had a scanner, I’d have scanned it in but you’ll have to do with a photo.

And now that I’ve done that, please enjoy and LOL at Joey’s hair! Pastry missiles! The EARS of the schoolboy! The UTTER DRAMA OF THE SCENE!

 

“Erica bit firmly into a pastry roll and a large dollop of whipped cream shot out of the further end.”

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Highland Twins at the Chalet School : Elinor M Brent-Dyer

The Highland Twins at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #16)The Highland Twins at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to always think that The Highland Twins at the Chalet School was one of the poorer books. Coming so soon after the dizzy heights of the Chalet School In Exile, I always found Highland Twins at the Chalet School a little – well – cheesey.

But now, after a re-reading of the hardback edition, I feel I need to make an apology to it. Highland Twins at the Chalet School is actually, very quietly, one of the strongest titles in the series.

Following the nearly now-traditional format of new girl, new term, the eponymous Highland Twins Flora and Fauna (sorry, Fiona) McDonald are experiencing their first term at the Chalet School. The twins, having grown up on a remote Scottish island, have very little experience of the world outside their home. Thrown into a furious maelstrom of wartime hardship, schoolgirl feuds, and tragedy, the twins have to come to terms with a whole new world (and a new fantastic point of view).

The hardback edition is worth seeking out if you can as there’s a whole new subplot featuring Elisaveta which has been rampantly cut out of every paperback edition I’ve ever come across. It’s strange, really, as if there’s any peculiar joy about the Chalet School series it is to be found in the encyclopedic recounting of old girls’ exploits. Although, if you do manage to grab the hardback, you’ll have to cope with some spectacularly hideous phonetic spelling every time one of the Highlanders speak. It’s quite something – there’s a whole word of “nefer” and “iss” and “haf”

What makes Highland Twins at The Chalet School work, and indeed all of Brent-Dyers wartime Chalet School books, is her focus on personal responsibility. Nazism, and the evils therein, are resolutely and (quite amazingly considering the national psyche at the time) portrayed as individual choice. There is a moment where two old girls arrive at the Chalet School having escaped from Germany and the recounting of their experiences is an emotional surgical strike. Nazism is described as a disease, a sickness which has infected Germany, and there is always a careful distinction between Nazism and the everyday German.

The other part of Highland Twins at the Chalet School which has a deceptively sharp impact is Fiona’s ability with “the sight”. This is the part that always hit me as superbly cheesey despite the dramatic emotional contexts she utilises her abilities in. But upon this re-reading, I was struck by the almost symbolic usage of her skill. There’s a moment where Fiona does something massively important for an individual (I’m trying desperately not to spoil anything here) and it’s hard not to read a certain wistful angle to this entire episode.

If you’re into the Chalet School, you’ll read this regardless. But if you’re not, I’d genuinely recommend this period of books (starting off with The Chalet School in Exile) as a worthwhile stepping on point. These are books which are almost hiding as children’s books whilst presenting some massively serious and provocative ideologies that still bear weight today.

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Categories
Girlsown

The Twin’s at St Clare’s

I can’t get over this. I really can’t.

Their voices! Their clothes! The way it mixes Mysterious Cities of Gold with Downton Abbey! The differentiation between the twins! ANIMATED MISS KENNEDY!

And – Oh! –  the theme tune!

Was this ever made into an English version?

Categories
Book Reviews

Climbing a Monkey Puzzle Tree : Karen Wallace

Climbing a Monkey Puzzle Tree

 

Climbing a Monkey Puzzle Tree by Karen Wallace

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The trope of a new girl experiencing her first term at school is not a new trope. It is a conceit that pretty much forms the backbone of the school story genre.

Climbing A Monkey Puzzle Tree by Karen Wallace has something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a strange, near-shapeless, story upon story set in the 1960s and told by Canadian Nancy Cameron, new girl to the terribly British and austere Woodmaston House For Girls.

Nancy’s first term does not go simply. There’s a lot of darkness in this novel and there’s an edge to it that gives it a palpable sense of discomfort. It is not an easy read. And yet there’s also some very beautiful, brilliant touches that speak of the sparsely elegant story-teller Nancy (Wallace?) is destined to become.

I find it revealing that Wallace refers to herself having “lasted about eighteen month[s]” at boarding school on her official website. The phrasing of that statement suggests it was a somewhat difficult time. Climbing A Monkey Puzzle Tree is not a run of the mill school story.

What it is is a complicated, dark, sardonic, wry, psychological, (painful) account of growing up in the 1960s at boarding school. But it is also, I think, an important addition to a genre that is all too prone to the easy (“I’m a real Chalet School Girl now!”) conclusion.

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Categories
Girlsown

Eustacia and Eustace

The lovely Ali from Fantastic Reads has done a post which I am ridiculously pleased to be able to share with you today.  If you’ve not checked out Fantastic Reads, may I heartily reccommend it? Ali knows her children’s literature and her reviews and posts are always an utmost delight to read. 

Now – to back injuries and dragons! 

Eustacia and Eustace

     Image: childrensbookshop.com

I am a fan of school stories. In particular I am a fan of the Chalet School, the fictional school first set up in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s, trilingual and international both in its pupils and staff, and in its education.  I longed to enrol as a pre-teen attending a suburban comprehensive in the 1980s.

Eustacia goes to the Chalet School, first published in 1929, was never one of my favourites, but is a book that, on recent re-reading, I realised I remembered almost every detail except one very important plot detail which I will outline later.

It is a book I find quite troubling. Eustacia Benson is the daughter of an elderly professor of Greek and a Doctor (of what we are not told) who had “great theories on how to bring up children” (what these are we are not told).  At the beginning of the novel both parents die suddenly, and Eustacia is left to the care of her married aunt who is the mother of five sons. Like Mary from The Secret Garden, Eustacia, an “arrant little prig” as she is described in the first line, upsets her cousins by telling tales. In desperation, she is sent to the Chalet School by her aunt and uncle.

However, although it is hoped that European girls will be more sympathetic to Eustacia’s old fashioned ways (for example, she refuses to wear climbing breeches because they are “unmaidenly”), her tale telling, self-conceit and self-righteousness makes her unpopular in the school; in particular she and Joey Bettany (prefect and protagonist of the early Chalet books) clash. Eventually Eustacia decides to run away from school and gets caught in a flood. She is rescued but has damaged her back. “Stacie” as she is called after her accident remains in a wheel chair for several novels.

On re-reading the novel, I was struck by the amount of punishment Eustacia undergoes. She is shaken several times. She is banned from the library for a month; for a book-loving girl, surely a terrible ordeal. She is ignored and snubbed, and finally terrified and temporarily disabled by her night on a mountain.  Madge Russell, the owner of the school and Joey’s sister, describes Eustacia’s character, reformed through suffering, as having been buried deep inside her, but now they’ve “got those layers scraped off” Stacie can appear.

Image: barnesandnoble.com

The image of sloughing skin reminded me of Eustace Scrubb from C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I realised why Eustacia’s punishment made me so profoundly uncomfortable. Again, a child is being punished for his intellectual, “advanced” parents. Again, the punishment is physical (Eustace is turned into a dragon; Eustacia is bed- then wheelchair-bound). Again, the language of redemption and deliverance is used as both are “born again”. Both Brent-Dyer and Lewis are profoundly Christian writers; in fact Cadogan and Craig in their study of girls’ fiction, You’re a Brick, Angela accuses the Chalet School books of “religious sentimentality”.  This smacks of both bullying, inverse snobbery and self-righteousness on the part of both writers.

I mentioned an important plot detail that I had misremembered. Eustacia is rescued by a rescue party made up of the school’s neighbours, and not by Joey Bettany, as I had thought. Joey is laid up after having had a tooth extracted. However, my mistake can be explained by Joey’s remarkable feats of rescuing: as Cadogan and Craig point out, in the first five Chalet School books, Joey rescues the lives of “six girls and a dog”! This is, however, one of the aspects of Chalet School stories I love so much; separated from boys and families, girls get an opportunity to be heroic. Long live the Chalet School!

Categories
Book Reviews

Daniel and Esther : Patrick Raymond

Daniel & EstherDaniel & Esther by Patrick Raymond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel & Esther is rather brilliant. I came across it after doing a post on children’s books set in and around Dartington Hall. I have a personal connection to this place (it’s where I attended university) and it was, in summary, amazing. Insular, rural, and obnoxiously creative, Dartington was another (wondrous, wondrous) world.

Daniel and Esther is a slim, strange, little novel. It’s understated, quiet, and it’s so very beautiful. It’s a story that, in a way, is about everything and nothing all at the same time. Set at Dartington Hall school, a progressive artistic unusual school, and in the time leading up to the second world war, it tells the story of Daniel and his love for Esther, a fellow pupil.

It’s underwritten. Beautifully, almost poetically, so. “Both of us had come to a stop. I let my shoulder fall another inch nearer and she did the same. A moment later our shoulders were just touching, as if they’d drifted together in a crowd. We stayed like that for a long time. Neither of us was frightened any more. The minutes crept past like giants on tiptoe until I lost count of time”.

And yet, even with this level of textual restraint, this nuanced near-mournful sense of the moment and love of the pastoral, Daniel and Esther has a curiously heavy impact. It is elegiac at points, and bitterly aware of the impending war. The idyllic warmth and innocence of Dartington cannot continue in such circumstances and, somewhat fittingly, Raymond resists the temptation of providing a neat and convenient ending.

This book, I fear, may haunt me. The love, the heat and the intense power of this near-illusory book combine to create an awkward, unsure narrative that punches deeper and harder than it seems to initially deliver.

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Girlsown

The Chalet School and Genius

“That’s what comes of being a genius, my dear. You be thankful you aren’t one. It makes you a sickening nuisance to your friends and relatives at times!”

Excitements at the Chalet School 

Nina is unlike any other girl to join the Chalet School community. She’s really got no choice in being so unique. Her introductory book is called A Genius at The Chalet School. It’s a technique rarely deployed by Brent-Dyer and only in situations where, perhaps, we are asked to view “new” characters through certain already established social stereotypes (viz. The New Mistress at the Chalet School and The Princess of the Chalet School as opposed to more generic, open titles such as The New Chalet School and The Chalet School Wins the Trick)

The title influences us before we have even reached the central text of the narrative.  The new girl is a Genius (capitalisation most intentional).  She is identified primarily by her function. We read her as a genius before we read her as Nina.

“We’ve got a musical genius this term. Did you know, Mrs. Maynard? She’s Nina Rutherford. I heard her practising in Hall last night and I was simply stunned. I never heard any other girl play like that. It was marvellous! I felt as if my efforts were just a schoolkid’s strumming beside that.A Genius at the Chalet School

What is fascinating however, is how her genius is treated within the Chalet School world. Brent-Dyer takes several opportunities to expound upon the concept of genius and, through the mouthpiece of authorial-favourite Joey Maynard, begins to elaborate upon the inherent difficulties that those “afflicted” with genius will experience in a boarding school context. The following extract is taken from the first prefects meeting in the term:

“…you always have to pay heavily for a very valuable thing and the geniuses of this world pay very heavily for their gifts … it’s like a lever, propelling you along one straight path and it won’t let you side-track – or not for long, at any rate. Sooner or later, you have to come back to it, and no one and nothing can ever really come between it and you. That’s why so many geniuses make unhappy marriages. They’re so absorbed in their art and it means so much to them that they have very little time for anything else. You see it’s an obsession and obsessed people are never quite – well – sane … they’re lopsided. And the ordinary happinesses [sic] of life can never be theirs.”A Genius at the Chalet School

Poor Nina. She’s screwed before she’s even begun. This is the moment where a Genius at the Chalet School becomes really interesting for me. This is big stuff. The parallels between genius and madness are palpable. The ‘narrow focus’ of genius propels the bearer towards a less than fulfilling existence. And, it cannot be escaped, that this fulfilled existence conceptualised by Joey does include love and therefore, marriage.

Through using Joey to provide the dominant ideological point of view regarding genius, Brent-Dyer is imbuing her with an authority that is very much absent from any other character in the series. Joey plays a specific and unique role in the Chalet School series. From acting as the school’s first pupil, she never quite releases her ties with the school and ultimately acts as an embodiment of the Chalet School both physically and psychologically. What Joey says is accepted as truth. It is the nearest we get to direct authorial intervention in the text.

But then, what do we make of musical Margia Stevens? Bright, bold and brilliant Margia who remains, as far as I can tell, a musician and single and not particularly lopsided? Are there levels of genius in the Chalet School and are Margia and Jacynth Hardy (sad shy Jacynth!) fated to never achieve the greatness of Nina? It’s interesting to note that both of these other musical virtuoso’s are very deliberately never presented as geniuses. Margia, commonly accepted as one of the more brilliant of Brent-Dyer’s creations, remained a highly-talented individual and yet distinctly removed from genius. She has a “mania”, a “passion”. But she does not have overt Genius (and if she does, it’s been cut out of the pb texts which are my primary references).

Jacynth Hardy is however extremely gifted and one of the few characters who come close to playing a similar role to that of Nina. Matron, another voice of authority both internally and externally to the narrative, is the one to bring it to light: “…if Jacynth is a genius – or near-genius – as Mr Manders implies…”  Gay Lambert at the Chalet School 

And yet, and this always strikes me as such a sad moment, the affirmation of Jacynth’s talent is immediately negated. Matron, a woman of practical skills and hard fact, seems to doubt her authority in assessing this intangible quality of genius.  Matron defines Jacynth as a genius and then, near-instantly, retracts her statement. Jacynth is not viewed as a genius because she is not accepted universally as such. Her genius and talent is not socially recognised in the Chalet School and therefore comes across as being of distinctly less importance than the ability of Nina. This is confirmed, again, by Joey Maynard:

“Jacynth was very highly gifted, but from what I can gather, Nina is even more so. And all her previous training has helped to deepen her idea that her art must come first and foremost and I doubt if there can be very much done about it now” A Genius at the Chalet School

 It’s perhaps notable that Nina, in a cast of eventual-thousands, is unique in her extreme creativity. The school story does not react well to difference. The Chalet School in particular takes overt pleasure in creating ‘the Real Chalet School Girl’ model of behaviour and, as a direct consequence of this, ‘genius’ cannot easily thrive in such a context. It’s perhaps why we see so few many of the Chalet Girls engage in extreme creativity, despite a lot of them having obvious proclivities towards such an aim (Amy and her poetry, Samaris and her flute etc).

And it’s why, despite being one of the perhaps most overtly linear books to read (new girl comes to school, gets a grip, turns into good egg), I find A Genius at the Chalet School really rather remarkable.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

You’re a Brick, Angela! : Cadogan and Craig

You're a Brick, Angela!: The Girls' Story 1839-1985You’re a Brick, Angela!: The Girls’ Story 1839-1985 by Mary Cadogan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’re a Brick, Angela! is an encyclopedic review of girls’ books between 1839 and 1985 and is practically essential for anybody interested in the study of children’s literature.

Cadogan and Craig provide a sweepingly brisk overview of the girls’ story – and they’re not particularly tactful when it comes to discussing their likes and dislikes. They deliver some stinging judgements that border on the vitriolic. X is ridiculous. Y is awful. Z is frankly nasty. Whilst I’m never afraid of people offering an opinion (heavens above, I’m doing it right now), comments like these in a book of this weight just jar. A book published in 1885 and read by somebody in 1885 and then in 1985 will naturally have different reactions. It’s rare that Cadogan and Craig acknowledge the role of the reader being as equally important as the role of the text – and I feel this is a key deficit in this book.

It’s a shame because both Cadogan and Craig write knowledgeably and fascinatingly. Their discussions of the Girls’ Own papers, for example, are superbly interesting and I found the sections on Angela Brazil to be a joy to read.

I do recommend this book but it’s one that needs to be read with confidence in your own critical abilities. And maybe a pinch of salt.

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Everything else Girlsown

Meet the family (confessions of a book collector)

My books! My lovely lovely books! Behold the heart of my Temple of Solitude! The left hand side is all Brent-Dyer, and a few Lorna Hills on the bottom. When you’re a book collector, you remember where so many of them came from. It’s almost as important as the book itself.

My Chalet School collection is worldwide. I picked up Tom Tackles the Chalet School in Auckland (hyperventilating that I’d crossed the world to find a book I’d been after for ages), and I picked up my Armada paperback double of Jo Returns and New in Heathrow of all places. Running for a flight, I saw it on the bookshelves and I screeched to a halt. Caroline the Second came from Reading University archives (which I do reccomend if you’re a school story nut, they have some fabulous things there).

An obsession grips you when you’re book collecting. You stare out the child in the shop and will them to PUT THE BOOK DOWN (in my defence I was only twelve). You want to complete the series. You need to do it. And then, once you’ve done it, you move on to the next. You move on to the EJOs, the Angela Brazils and even, in a fit of confused longing, you hit a May Wynne and an Ethel Talbot or two.

(The one on the far right is a very bashed up Abbey Girls compilation which my Grandad once decided to duct tape together. My reaction to this suggestion is not appropriate to be shared).

And, just because I love her, here’s some Angela Brazil. The spines! The way they feature girls with lustrous locks! “Oh jimminy,” expostulated Elizabeth, “These books are just perfection!”

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Charlotte Sometimes : Penelope Farmer

Charlotte Sometimes (The New York Review Children's Collection)Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Charlotte, new student at a boarding school, has one of those days we’ve all had when we’re new somewhere. Exhausted, nervy, confused, she goes to bed and wakes up in the same school forty years earlier. Turns out she’s swapped places with a schoolgirl of that time – Clare – and somehow they keep shifting places …

I’m rubbish at writing synopses so I apologise for the fact that the above sounds distinctly bald. Charlotte Sometimes really isn’t. It reminded me of Adele Geras’ Egerton Hall trilogy (I’ve written about these amazing books here) and also of Phillipa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. There’s a very lyrical dreamlike quality to all of these texts who deal, in some way or another, with issues of self and identity. Growing up. Becoming who you’re meant to be. Finding out how you become an individual.

Sometimes children’s literature is missold in a way. It’s presented as children’s literature but in reality it deals with issues that cross age, sex and arbitary reading divisions. I know that there are depths of content and meaning that I’m going to have to go back to Charlotte Sometimes for. I could feel them at the edge of my reading and I love that – that tangible sense of a text having more than what I’m currently reading.

Charlotte Sometimes is a book I’m astounded I’ve never come across before. It’s quietly beguiling, elegantly written and fog-bound in mystery. Sometimes when you read things, you put the book down and step away and drop it out of your head immediately. I don’t think this will be happening soon with this one.

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Girlsown

Antonia Forest : Livejournal

I do enjoy having a rummage around the internet. Look at yonder fab Antonia Forest Fans livejournal site thingy:- http://trennels.livejournal.com/  I am pretty much in love with this because, at time of writing, the last post is this which is all sorts of awesome:- “I just bought a copy of The Player’s Boy – why is the apostrophe not after the s? Or is Nicholas somehow the Boy of one Player rather than of the company?”

Amazing x a million.

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Beswitched : Kate Saunders

BeswitchedBeswitched by Kate Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My love for school stories is fairly blatant. I’m a sucker for the Chalet School and have spent many happy hours at St Clares and Malory Towers. I even bought Wild Child on dvd just so I could check out how that boarding school compared. So I was really happy to pick up Beswitched as it seemed to combine a lot of my loves – plus I’d heard a lot of positive things about in on various mailing lists.

Flora Fox, modern schoolgirl, is caught in a magic spell on the way to her lovely modern shiny boarding school. It pulls her back in time to the more prosaic surroundings of St Winifred’s – 1930s boarding school.

Beswitched is a really charming little book. I admit I was pretty firmly predisposed towards loving it because of my school story obsession but I did enjoy it. Unfortunately it was over a little too swift! Flora’s growth as a character is believable and I really liked how she was slowly but inevitably drawn into loving her 1930s experience as this sort of paralleled my own reason for loving this genre of books.

There were a few excellent moments where Flora forgets that she has great knowledge of the future. And, to echo Uncle Ben, with great knowledge comes great responsibility. This is something that Flora particularly comes to understand as she realises that World War Two is just around the corner…

The supporting cast is a little bit drawn on cliche but again that’s part of the genre that Saunders was working with. School stories do tend to draw the characters a little sketchily (primarily because they are usually so many of them!) so when we do get character development – such as the sub-plot between Flora and Consuela – these moments are much appreciated.

I felt that perhaps it wasn’t quite what I was expecting as a novel but I appreciate that that’s because I’m soaked in this genre. I also have to admit that the presence of the fox on the front cover totally passed me by until I started to write this review (Flora FOX .. get it? Took me a while…).

It was however ultimately a very diverting and pleasant read. I don’t imagine I’ll be going back to it though and that’s why it’s a 4/5 stars for me. It missed that *magic* that draws me back to school stories as a rule.

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Girlsown

Twins in Girlsown fiction

Somebody/ies on Livejournal have put together a nice  essay on twins in girlsown fiction (EBD, EJO, Enid Blyton, Drina etc)  – part one here and part two here.

On another note Livejournal still doesn’t float my boat.

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Everything else Girlsown

“I take it we’re engaged? Like it darling?”

So. You may have heard that a certain couple is getting married tomorrow. As I’m never going to be the one to refuse the opportunity to jump onto a bandwagon, here are four of my favourite marriages /partnerships / expressions of love from children’s literature. Love, as one great sage once said, love changes everything.

1. My first couple is  Jo March and Prof. Bhaer from Little Women. Their proposal says it all really. It’s all awkwardly blunt  and really rather resolutely stripped of romance. Yep, it’s a little cheesey now, but if you consider it in the context of the day, for a man to prostrate himself emotionally before a woman, it’s kind of groundbreaking.

“‘Jo, I haf nothing but much love to gif you; I came to see if you could care for it, and I waited to be sure that I was something more than a friend. Am I? Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?’ he added, all in one breath.


2. Roy and Silo from And Tango Makes Three are my second couple of choice. This is one of the books that regularly appears on the most controversial lists. Slightly ironic really as, to be honest, it’s primarily just about Penguins. And Tango Makes Three actually is one of the most relevant picture books we’ve had recently. Families don’t come in a 2.4 scenario anymore. They come in all shapes and sizes and it’s right that literature reflects this. Plus, it’s ridiculously heartwarming. and anything that makes me cry over penguins automatically equals win in my (excuse the pun) book.

“We’ll call her Tango,… because it takes two to make a Tango”


3. This is one not between humans, but between a lot of people and a horse. I’ve spoken about my love for War Horse  before but it fits here as well. It’s ironic that a book about war and death and tragedy should feature such intense love throughout. From Albert taking solace with Joey, knowing that the horse is the only one who understands him in a changing world, through to Joey and Topthorn’s heartbreakingly beautiful relationship, this book makes me bend and break each and every time.

But any fear I had was overwhelmed by a powerful sense of sadess and love that compelled me to stay with Topthorn as long as I could. I knew that once I left him I would be alone in the world again, that I would no longer have his strength and support beside me. So I stayed with him and waited. 

4. My final choice moments are pretty much every proposal from the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. From Len’s wince-worthy capitulation to the dorkish Reg (“I take it we’re engaged? Like it darling?” NO LEN JUST SAY NO, IT’S LIKE WITH PEER PRESSURE AND THE DRUGS AND YOU’LL REGRET IT NO END) and through to Grizel finally being awarded with her doctor after being a nightmare to all and sundry for the past kazillion years (although I do have sympathy for her having to put up with Joey’s splendidly inane white bread theory). And then there’s the classic below…

Madge would have tried to console her; but Jack Maynard gave her a shock. Holding Joey very tightly to him, he said in tones there was no mistaking, “Never mind, my darling. It’s all over, and Robin is safe. . .”

And before the stunned Madge could gasp out any ejaculation, Joey sobbed, “Oh, Jack – what a – solid lump – of comfort you – are!”

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Girlsown Theory

“We want to make strong, helpful women of them – not spineless jellyfish!”

Jo returns to the Chalet School sees the beloved headmistress, Mademoiselle Leppâtre, discovered unconscious in her room and rushed to the Sonnalpe for an emergency operation.

If it fails she’ll die.

It’s not the first time that the reader of the Chalet School series has been presented with illness. In fact there are times when the early Tyrolean books verge on pastiche with their regular occurrences of severe illness, life-changing accidents and death-defying moments.

However this is the first time that an adult becomes ill with such stunning and heart-wrenching effect. You see, adults in a school series are secondary creatures. They are rocks around which the story is built but the story is not about them. It’s about the new girl, or the girl with the secret or the antics of the lower fourths. Adults tend to populate the background.

Not so in the Chalet School. It’s a revolutionary series in many ways (the ground-breaking anti-Nazi polemic of The Chalet School in Exile being one example) and pushes the boundaries of what series fiction as a form can do.  It presents death, illness and the troubles of life with a candour which is rare to see.

And, most intriguingly, the Chalet School tells us of the adults. You can read the early books in many ways. The constant joys of Anne Seymour putting her foot in it. The growth of Joey from an obstreperous middle to a woman that even the author fell in love with a little and couldn’t let go. But then, with an even-handed touch, we learn about unsure Ivy Norman and her personal history that makes her so nervy about dealing with Joyce and Thekla. We follow the journey of Hilda Annersley from a young mistress into one of the cornerstones and – in some ways – the heart of the series.  We learn their names. I can’t stress how important this was, and is, to me as a reader. We learn that the adults – the teachers – they’re real people.

And I think that’s why the illness of Mademoiselle Leppâtre catches me every time. And it’s why, when Jacynth learns of the death of her Aunt and Miss Wilson comforts her, I sob each and every time I read that scene. Because I know Miss Wilson’s backstory – I know about Cherry –  and that adds to the moment in ways I can’t quite comprehend. It makes it real. I know how much everyone loves Mademoiselle because I love her too. And I love Miss Wilson in that moment. And I love Miss Annersley when she advises that the children should know if a family member is ill. Because I know that she’s lived through it.

It’s a series where it’s not about pure blunt didacticism. It’s not “do as I say”. It’s “do as I do”. As Matron says, when discussing whether to tell the girls about Mademoiselle, “We want to make strong, helpful women of them – not spineless jellyfish”.

And she’s not just talking about the pupils at this point. That’s a message to the reader in a book, first published in 1936, which still bears resonance today.

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Girlsown Theory

“Gosh, odds bodkins!” expostulated Jemima : The very curious tale of the British Boarding School story

There’s something distinctly British about the boarding school story. It struck me the other day on my commute home. For some reason I had Sally from Malory Towers stuck in my head. Good old solid loyal steadfast Sally (poor sod!) was always doomed to be second fiddle to Darrell’s central role. And then I got to thinking a little further. I’m not poorly read, in fact I’m actively studying children’s literature, but it struck me that I do not know of a non-British boarding school story.

The genre itself has evolved substantially from Angela Brazil’s fixation with class and letting her girls study abroad without actually coming into contact with any of those foreigners. Even though they’ve dated (most frightfully so!), Brazil’s canon is breath-takingly impressive. Slipping away from the more didactic style of writing which had been very popular, she wrote for the reader (including plenty of thrills, and illicit tucker) and left an indelible mark on the genre of the school story.

Naturally, there were others, both writing beside her and following avidly in her wake. The obvious popularity of Brazil’s work started a boom in the genre. Sadly a lot of these writers have fallen by the wayside now but there’s still charm in these old works. Ethel Talbot is a name that I didn’t know but, noting the similarities of frontispiece and other peritextual elements, I recently picked up a copy of Jan at Island School. It was lovely. There’s a distinct pleasure in reading a book which still bears the mark of the thrill of incipient emancipation felt by these writers. They don’t quite burn the bra just yet but these books were the baby steps of a generation forced to independence by the impact of World War Two.  This sort of thing is quite obvious in the roles of characters such as Miss Theobald – a divinely wise woman who imparts pearls of wisdom to her charges.

And there is something quite splendidly British about them. Even modern reinventions such as Harry Potter have the distinctly patriotic Hogwarts (what with the latinate mottos and noble ghosts), where the train to gets it leaves from the indelibly British location of Kings Cross. Think of Trebizon with the obsession over tennis and boys, not necessarily in that order. It seems that the image of the sports mad, gung-ho girl is a resolutely British one (I’m immediately thinking of one such girl who ‘bowls across the playground’ in one of the Follyfoot novels and knocks the bullies out of the way of Callie due to her physical impact).

I hope you’ve gathered by now that I truly love these books. The Chalet School will always have my heart but there’s something about them all that I find perfect. For me it is heavily due to the distinct identity of the genre. Play up, play up and play the game and all that. I also couldn’t imagine them being produced by any other society – and come to think of it, is the boarding school a very English concept? What are attitudes like elsewhere? Do wade in and let me know – I’m happy to be corrected!

For now, I think, the words of Angela Brazil sum up the best of the genre and what made her, and her fellow ground-breaking authors so legendary in their time: “I am still an absolute schoolgirl in my sympathies”