Book of the Week, children's books

Book of the Week: The Chalet School Wins the Trick

As mentioned yesterday, very much a week on my sickbed last week with a lot of rereading going on, which left an interesting array of options for today – so I’ve setttled on a sort of re-read – I’ve read the abridged version of Chalet School Wins the Trick before, but never the original version, so here we are, another week another Girls Own pick! Apologies for the slightly gloomy/shadowy picture – it’s so overcast here you would not believe

The Chalet School Wins the Trick is number 46 in the series and in many ways could be considered Peak Chalet School Tropes. But I’ll come back to that. First, lets have the plot: Just before the start of term, Miss Dene catches a group of children trying to start a campfire in the middle of the school’s best cricket pitch. She sends them along their way – but the group swear they’ll get their revenge on the school. Thus the summer term is marked by a series of pranks pulled by the quintet affecting the pupils, the staff and ex pupils.

So if you were playing Elinor Brent Dyer Bingo, this would get you a full house. We have: Joey saves the day, Mary Lou Butts in, Joan Baker being “not the right type”, sick parents/relatives at the San where the children don’t know, very weird medical treatments (a scalded arm into a vat of flour), lots of unaccompanied Child Wandering, a fete, a death of (another) parent, women’s careers being thrown over because of housework and the all time great – a massive continuity fluff within the same book. I think the only thing its missing is Joey singing someone out of an illness/coma!

As with so many reviews of Girls Own stuff that I write, this is not a book that you can easily get hold of – and nor do I recommend you to, unless you’re already interested in the oevre. It was one of the rarer books – it is from 1961, so fairly late in the series and so it had less time to be reprinted than the earlier ones. And it is full of references to escapades in previous books, which might get tiresome if you haven’t read them. If you’ve never read a Chalet School book, you should probably start with Chalet School in Exile – which is probably EBD’s best book – grappling with how to deal with a British school in Austria as the Nazis swept through Europe and what women and girls could do about it. It’s not your normal school story. Other than that, you could always start at the beginning.

Recommendsday

Recommendsday: November Quick Reviews

We’re into December now and I have lots more Christmassy books to tell you about, but today I’m sticking with the quick reviews – because after all, everyone needs a break from Christmas at some point in December!

Better than Fiction by Alexa Martin

As previously mentioned, Alexa Martin wrote some of my favourite American Football romances, and this is her second standalone rom-com. Drew has inherited her beloved Grandmother’s book store in Colorado, and feels way over her head as a self-proclaimed non-reader. Jasper is an author who comes to the store to do a reading and event and who decides to try and change her mind about books in return for her help with his settings for his new novel. I’m not usually a fan of people tryng to turn others into readers – or telling them that they just haven’t found the right things to read yet, but this actually manages to make it work. Drew and Jasper are engaging characters and the gang of old ladies are a delight. Plus Martin makes hiking in Colorado sound so beautiful that even I started thinking that it might be fun – and I *hate* hiking

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra*

Cover of Mercury Pictures Presents

This tells the story of Maria Lagana, an Italian in Los Angeles in the 1940s. I really like stories about the movie industry, and stuff set in World War Two and this is both of those – split between Mussolini’s Italy and California, it looks at the immigrant experience in America in war time and the risks that people will take to survive and the sacrifices people will make for the people they love. If you’ve read non-fiction (or fiction) about the studio system or the Hollywood blacklist, this might well be of interest to you.

Chester House Wins Through by Irene Smith

And finally another from my Book Con haul and this makes it onto this list as it’s a massive curio really – a book about a girls school where there is rivalry between the day girls and the boarders. That’s not unusual in itself – but here, the day girls have their own house and are deeply unpopular with the rest of the school for not pulling their weight and for behaving badly in town. It’s also from the late 1960s so it has a side order of society changing and girls wanting to go out and do things in the evenings and not be so protected. So far, so interesting, except there’s a lot of talking about doing things, and not a lot of actual doing on the page. The day girls do turn it around, but it has to be said that there’s not a lot of likeable characters here. One for the Girls Own collectors really.

Happy Wednesday everyone!

Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Set in Boarding schools

Long time readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for Girls Own books – particularly those set in boarding schools. I’m fairly sure that I would have hated boarding school in reality but I love reading about them – particularly the ones set in the first half of the twentieth century. A result of this is that I do love an adult book set in a boarding school and showing the other side of things. So for recommendsday today, here are some adult books set in schools of various types.

Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

Let’s start with a classic murder mystery. An exclusive girls school is thrown into chaos when an unpopular games mistress is found shot dead in the sports pavilion. This is a Hercule Poirot novel, but he actually only appears very late on in this – which has school politics and international espionage among the options for the motive for the murder. I remember first reading this as an early teenager – around the same time as I was reading all the Girls Own books and being sort of horrified at the idea of a murder at a boarding school. It’s a much later Poirot novel – for all that I didn’t realise that when I first read it and the TV version of it is really quite different because it had to be moved back to the 1930s. Worth’s look if you’ve never read it.

Poison for Teacher by Nancy Spain

It’s only a few weeks since I picked Death Goes on Skis for a Book of the Week, so it’s perhaps a bit naughty to be picking Nancy Spain again, but I think if anything I liked this even more. Miriam and Natasha find themselves undercover at a boarding school to try to work out who is trying to put the school out of business. But while they are there, a teacher is poisoned and it all gets complicated. This has awful children, horrible teachers, seething rivalries – professional and personal – and a staff play that causes nothing but trouble. It’s really, really funny.

Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

Also funny, but without any murders is Angela Thirkell ’s Summer Half, which I still think is one of the funniest of all of her Barsetshire books. It has a serious teacher getting himself engaged to featherbrained girl who is clearly going to cause him nothing but problems and everyone in the book is hoping that he’ll some how manage to escape. Schools – and teaching – has changed a lot since this was written but it’s all still recognisable.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Let’s jump forward to the more recent past. Preplis about a scholarship student at a fancy New England Boarding school. Yes, I wanted to smack some sense into Lee for at least the second half of the book, possibly longer but that may have been because I could see some of the elements of my own character in her – the ones that I try hardest to overcome and she’s making no effort to do so, (or because she doesn’t try and make the most of the opportunity that she made for herself) But this did feel like a very realistic and truthful portrait of what life in a modern (ish) co-ed boarding school might have been like – in the time immediately before computers and mobile communication took over. This was Sittenfeld’s debut, and although I’ve enjoyed other books of hers more (the first or hers I read was Eligible, I’ve read almost all of her backlist and buy the new stuff as it comes out) but if you haven’t read it it’s worth a look.

I recently read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English – which is about a scholarship girl at an English country boarding school – which wasn’t for me, but I think others will like it- my problems was around not liking any of the characters enough to go with them while they made stupid decisions all over the place! And to finish I’m going to throw a few mentions in to stuff I’ve written about recently that also fits in here: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust from Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, which sees our heroine stuck in a boarding school in Canada. And then there is Murder in the basement which was a BotW six months ago, and so I can’t really write about at length again – yet!

Happy Wednesday!

Children's books, Series I love

Bank Holiday Bonus post: Verity goes to a Book Conference

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about this here, but actually, I can’t help myself.   At the end of July I went to the Sixth Bristol Conference on Twentieth-Century Schoolgirls and Their Books.  If you’ve been hanging around here for a while you’ll know that one of my big bookish passions are school stories – and one of my most enduring loves are the Chalet School series.  And this was a gathering of over 100 people who love all the same books as me to listen to talks about them, chat to people about them and yes, buy more of them.

Wills Hall quadrangle

As it’s the centenary of the end of World War One, the theme this year was War and most (although not all) of the talks had that as a theme linking them together.  Now I am quite a young enthusiast in the genre – the last run of Chalet School paperbacks came out when I was in secondary school and they were one of the last classic series left in print – so I discovered a lot of new authors at the conference – and was able to pick up books by some of them.  You may have spotted some of my purchases popping up in Week in Books and Book of the Week posts.

My book purchases!

What was really, really wonderful was meeting up with people who love the same things that I do.  I think I had underestimated how wonderful it would be to be able to talk to other people who have read the same books that I have.  I mean all of my friends – and most of my work colleagues  – know that I love reading and read a lot (some of them even read this blog) and we have conversations about books, but I never really get to talk about this bit of my bookish life because I’m meant to be a grownup reading adult books – and no one has read a lot of these books any way even when they were younger.

Saturday night dinner in the Hall

So I guess what this boils down to is find yourself opportunities to go and hang out with other people who are into what you’re into.  You’ll make some friends, learn some new things and have a marvellous time.  I’ve already got the next conference (in 2020!) in my diary.

Happy Bank Holiday!

Children's books, children's books, Forgotten books, Uncategorized

Book of the Week: Dimsie, Head Girl

For this week’s BotW, we’re back in the world of the boarding school books that I love so much, after I happened upon this on the collectible shelf of the charity shop last week for the bargain price of £2.  My love of the Chalet School, Drina books and boarding school and ballet books in general is well known, but I’d never had a chance to read any of the Dimsie series – which was out of print by the time I was old enough to read them.  This is the sixth book in the series, and so probably not the best place to start, but I’m not one to let a trifle like that stop me!

Colour illustration from the front of Dimsie, Head Girl
Who hasn’t felt a bit confused when reading a Girl’s Own book? The illustration is lovely though.

Dimsie is a prefect at Jane Willard Foundation, and the start of this book sees the prefects shaken by the unexpected departure of the head girl Erica and her replacement with the dreamy second prefect Jean.  The title gives it away that Jean’s reign may not be a long one, but it’s a lot of fun watching how it all unfolds.  Dimsie is a butter-inner, slightly lacking in tact, but utterly devoted to her school.  When she sees that Jean isn’t pulling her weight in the way that she should be, she tries to set the Head girl on the right track.  When one of the new prefects proves to be too officious and inflexible in her dealings with the younger girls, it’s Dimsie who tries to sort the situation out.  To be honest, I’m surprised she wasn’t Erica’s replacement in the first place – except for the fact of course that that if she had, the author wouldn’t have had a book!

It wouldn’t be a boarding school book without the Middles causing trouble – here it takes the form of insubordination to the prefects, illegal pet keeping and midnight feasts.  What more could you want?  And yes, this is a slightly higher level of spoilers than I usually give out – but to be honest, I can’t  imagine that many of you are going to be able to lay your hands on a copy of this!  Which is a shame really, because it’s not half bad – some of it is funny in a way the author didn’t intend but that’s one of the joys of reading a book written for children in the 1920s now!  It does have some of the usual problems of outdated language and a very homogeneous cast, but that’s sadly to be expected in a children’s book of this era and it’s by no means as bad as some.

My copy of Dimsie, Head Girl
Im inclined to think that this was a proper bargain for £2.

This was my Dorita Fairlie Bruce book, and I suspect it won’t be my last – I’ve already been playing on the used book websites to see if I can find more.  Because of course what I need at the moment is more books.  Of course it is.  The big worry is if it sends me off down another rabbit hole of classic school story authors that I haven’t read.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week, Children's books, children's books, new releases

Book of the Week: Mistletoe and Murder

I know, you all looked at my list of books I read last week and just knew that this was going to be my pick for BotW didn’t you?  So sue me.  Today feels momentous and a little terrifying with what is going on in the world, and what better way to take your mind off what may or may not be about to occur than a charming children’s novel about school girls solving mysteries.

Mistletoe and Murder
A Christmas book in early November? Bite me.

Long standing readers will be familiar with my love of Robin Stevens’ Wells and Wong series (see here, here, here and here) and Mistletoe and Murder (which incidentally shares its name with a Daisy Dalrymple mystery which is also very good) is the fifth installment in the series and sees the girls spending their Christmas holidays at Cambridge visiting Daisy’s brother.  But of course the girls can’t help but run into an investigation – this time in competition with their rivals at the Junior Pinkertons.  But soon suspicious accidents have turned deadly and the girls are in a race against time to figure out who did it and why.

I’ve said before that these books are the perfect blend of Agatha Christie and St Clares stories and I stand by that – they’re brilliant and inventive and I wish they’d been around when I was the “right” age.  I practically gobbled this up in one sitting, which was a mistake  because I’d already read the Halloween short story and now I have to wait months and months and months for the next one.  This would make the perfect Christmas book for the young reader in your family – or the big kid if you’re like me.  It’s the perfect escape from the trials and tribulations of the grown-up world.


But if you’re not into middle grade fiction (more fool you) and still want some escapism, I can also heartily recommend Gail Carriger’s latest novella – Romancing the Inventor – in which we see one of the most beloved side characters in her steampunk world, Madame Lefounx, finally get over the pesky Angelique and find love again.  It probably works best if you’ve read the Parasol Protectorate series, will work even better if you’ve also read the Finishing School series.  I loved it – it’s a great, fun love story with some guest appearances from old favourites.  What more could you want?

Robin Stevens’ Wells and Wong books should be available where ever children’s books are sold (if they’re not, ask them why), but here are links to Mistletoe and Murder on Amazon, Kindle, Waterstones, Foyles and Kobo.

Romancing the Inventor is one of Gail Carriger’s self published works – so it’s not quite as available in the shops, but you can get it on Kindle and on Kobo or special order it in paperback from AmazonWaterstones and Foyles.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week, Children's books, Young Adult

Book of the Week: Judith Teaches

Gosh this was so hard this week.  My favourite book I read last week was one I read to review for Novelicious (which is returning to the internets in full force very shortly) and my rules dictate that I can’t make that my book of the week here as well.  My second favourite book of last week was the second Corinna Chapman book – and my rules dictate that I can’t pick that because I picked that series last week.  So after that it’s not so much Book of the Week as Book I Quite Liked of the Week.  And that’s not really in the spirit of the thing.  I was prepared to cheat if I managed to finish one of the books I had on the go on Monday morning, but I didn’t so I couldn’t justify that either.

So what I’ve decided to do is write about Judith Teaches by Mabel Esther Allen – which I read last week and which interests me on a few levels.  Judith Teaches was part of a series of career books for girls published by Bodley Head in the 50s.  Various different authors wrote the books which each feature a different career suitable for young ladies to do before they got married (and had to give up working to look after their husbands).  Other titles in the series cover jobs like floristry, farming and modelling as well as some  becoming a doctor or being a veterinary student.

Judith Teaches by Mabel Esther Allan
My newly reissued paperback copy of Judith Teaches. Check out the retro!

Judith Teaches covers the first year of the teaching of Judith and her friend Bronwen who get jobs at a secondary modern school straight out of training college.  They have a friend who is already teaching at the same school who they share a flat with, and although the book mostly focuses on Judith you hear about the other girls lives as well.  The three are clearly Nice Well Brought Up Grammar School/Boarding School girls who have a bit of a culture shock with the pupils at their new school (dirty! desperate to leave school to go work in the factory! not interested in reading! can’t spell!) and some of these sections feel very of their time.  But it does cover the potential ups and downs of teaching in a way that would have given the school girls that it was aimed at a realistic look at what they might be letting themselves in for – not all the children will be clever, not all the other teachers will be friendly, it will be stressful and tiring and you won’t be able to please everyone – in a way that you don’t get in boarding school books (which as regular readers will know Mabel Esther Allen also wrote along with my beloved Drina books).

I don’t think I knowingly read a career book as a child – unless Shirley Flight, Air Hostess counts – as the only ones I ever remember seeing were about nursing and that only interested me (as a weekend job, while being a teacher during the week) for a few days when I was about 6, so I’m not sure how representative this is of the genre, but Judith Teaches gave me several interested hours of reading – and a few wry smiles.  It also made me realise how far the world has come for women in 50 years.  After all, no one’s going to expect me to give up my job if I get married and I don’t think anyone would think I’m over the hill yet.  There’s still a long way to go – but I like to hope that my sort-of-nieces who are at primary school today won’t need a book to tell them that they could be a doctor if they wanted to.

Anyway, Judith Teaches has just been republished by Girls Gone By if you’re geeky like me and want to have a peruse for yourself.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week, children's books, Young Adult

Book of the Week: Carry On

I know it isn’t that long since I had Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl as BotW, but I loved this so much I couldn’t not pick Carry On – the book about the characters that Cath was writing about in Fangirl.  But you don’t need to have read Fangirl to understand Carry On as they’re separate entities – and there’s no cross over (or at least I didn’t notice any) between the story of this and the fan-fiction that Cath wrote in Fangirl (Rowell has said that this is Canon not fan fic).

So good that I read it on the train at 4.30 in the morning.
Paperback copy of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

So, Simon Snow is returning to Watford School of Magicks for his final year.  But his girlfriend has broken up with him, his mentor wants to move him to safety away from the school and his roommate-cum-arch-nemesis hasn’t turned up – which Simon would be loving except that he’s a bit worried about him.  Then there’s the ghosts that keep turning up and the fact that the Evil Magic that’s trying to destroy the world (and particularly Simon) is still out there.

Now if this sounds a bit familiar to you, in Fangirl the Simon Snow series had a similar sort of world impact that the Harry Potter series did/does – so yes, it’s about a school for Wizards, and a Chosen One and his friends.  But it’s also not the same.  Magic works differently, the Baddie is different and the general dynamic is different and it’s not going to all work out the same (I don’t think that’s a spoiler).  As I was reading this I was reminded of how much I loved the Harry Potter series when it first came out, and how much fun there is to be had from a YA series about a Chosen One and which doesn’t feature a dystopian future world where everything has gone to pot.  And its been hard to find books like this – or at least I’ve found it hard.

I raced through this – reading pretty much 400 pages of it in practically one sitting (I stopped for dinner and Olympics) because I wanted to know what happened.  I suspect Harry fans may have a love/hate relationship with it – I wouldn’t describe myself as a super passionate fan* but I really liked it.  In fact I wish there were more books about Simon and Baz and their time at the school.  It did what I want an adventure-y thriller-y book for children/youngadults to do – it has a strong core group of characters with strengths and weaknesses (who compliment each other but also don’t always agree), who have challenges to overcome.  There is peril and adults are around but some of them are the problem and the rest might not be able to fix it.

I can’t guarantee that if you like Harry Potter you’ll like this, but equally I don’t think you have to like Harry to give this a try – if you like chosen one stories, quest stories, adventure stories then this one may well be for you.  And it should be everywhere.  My copy came from Tesco, but it’s also on Amazon, Kindle, Waterstones, Foyles, and Kobo.

*I own all the books (some in German and French as well), I reread Azkhaban fairly regularly and the other early books to a lesser extent, but don’t reread the end ones as much.  I’ve seen most of the films (but not the last one), I haven’t bought the script for Cursed Child, but I have tried to buy tickets to see it and I haven’t been to any Harry theme parks or attractions.

Book of the Week, books, children's books

Book of the Week: Curtain Up

I’m back in the world of children’s books for this week’s BotW and Noel Streatfeild’s Curtain Up or Theatre Shoes as it’s called in the US and some newer editions here. I was sure that I had already read this – but it turns out, I hadn’t and it had been sitting on my children’s book shelf unread.  A travesty.

copy of Curtain Up
The book has a plastic protective cover, so the photo isn’t great – but it’s so pretty I had to have a photo!

So, Curtain Up tells the story of the Forbes children – Sorrel, Mark and Holly.  Their mother is dead, their father is missing in the Second World War.  They had been living with their grandfather, but when he dies, they’re sent to live with their other grandmother – part of their mother’s family who they’ve never met.  When they arrived in London, they discover that she is an actress and that she intends for them to follow in her (and their mother’s) footsteps and make a career on the stage. They’re not all happy about this – and life with their grandma is very different from what they’re used to and the book follows them as they get used to their new life – and discover some new interests along the way.

If you read any Noel Streatfeild as a child (or an adult) it will probably have been Ballet Shoes,the story of the three Fossil sisters – Pauline, Petrova and Posy – and you’ll re-encounter these three (albeit at a distance) here, along with their theatre school. It’s a fun and sweet story which features rationing and wartime problems as well as the workings of the world of child actors. I love this sort of story – although today’s children may find bits of it strange – unless they’ve done the Home Front at school already!

I think my favourite Streatfeild may still be White Boots (Skating Shoes) but that’ may be because there are a lot of books about dancers and the theatre and not many at all about figure skating (I wish I could have been a figure skater, but even if my mother had sent me for lessons my flexibility, athleticism, build and height would’ve ruled me out pronto) but all the “Shoe” books I’ve read are great stories, well told that children can wish they were a part of, and adults can enjoy as well.

You should be able to get a copy of Curtain Up – probably badged as Theatre Shoes from any book shop with a good children’s department, Amazon have copies under both names –  new copies of Theatre Shoes, a Kindle edition and second hand copies as Curtain Up. I suspect the bigger second hand book shops would be able to help too.  Happy reading!

Authors I love, Book of the Week, Children's books

Book of the Week: Chiltern School

This week’s Book of the Week is Mabel Esther Allen’s Chiltern School.  Regular readers will already be aware of my love of the classic school story and this one last week was a real treat for my sleepy post-nightshift brain.

Chiltern School tells the story of Rose Lesslyn – who has lived with her grandparents since her mother died and her father moved to work abroad to get away from his pain (as people frequently seemed to do in books in this era).  Her father decides that she needs to go to school – much to her grandmother’s dismay – and she’s dispatched from her home on the Isle of Wight to a rather progressive (for the 1950s anyway) school in the middle of the Chiltern hills.  There she struggles to fit in but eventually finds her feet, makes friends and (re)discovers a hidden talent.

Chiltern School was written in the 1950s – and sold to a publisher, but never published until Allen published it privately in the 1990s.  And she was only able to do that because of the success of a reissue of another of her series – the Drina books in the 1990s.  The Drina series (the subject of one of my very early posts on the blog) were written under one of her pen names – Jean Estoril.  I had no idea about this until I read the forward of this book – I’d bought it because I’d really enjoyed another of her (many) other books The View Beyond My Father (about a young blind girl escaping from her domineering father in the 1910s) back in primary school days.  I was thrilled to discover that my love of the Drina series in the early 90s had meant that Allen had money to do this in her old age – and that someone who’s books I’d liked so much had written so much more than I thought!

And Rose does have similarities to my beloved Drina (that series started 7 years later). Both live with their grandparents – with a stern grandmother and a kindlier grandfather, although both of Drina’s parents are dead as opposed to just one of Rose’s (there are a lot of dead parents in children’s books of this era).  And trying not to give too much of the plot away here, Drina doesn’t know about her background at the start of the series but later choses to keep it secret – while Rose knows but doesn’t tell.

Both also feature the Chilterns – Drina’s ballet school has a boarding department there, where she stays in Drina Dances in Exile (the green book as it always is in my head because of it’s cover) and where she returns to several times in later books to visit friends.  Now since reading Drina, I have acquired a boyfriend who comes from that part of the world – so I got an extra level of enjoyment from Chiltern School’s mentions of places that his family live or have lived and where we have been.  And the area is a big feature in the book – it’s beautifully described – you can practically feel the wind rushing through your hair as Rose and her friends cycle around.

It’s not perfect – it is of it’s time and is not as diverse as you would (hope to) find a children’s book written now would be.  But Allen’s writing style is charming and every readable – this is a fun romp that will make you wish you could have gone to boarding school (in the 1950s) with Rose and all her friends.  That is if you couldn’t be a ballerina and be Drina…

My edition was published by Girls Gone By – who as I’m sure I’ve said before – specialise in republishing classic children’s stories that are now out of print.  They do the same for my beloved Chalet School and for authors like Lorna Hill, Malcolm Saville and many more.  Check out their website and see if they’ve done any of your childhood favourites.

I went straight on from this to Allen’s Ballet Family books (bought in the same spending spree back at the start of the year) which appear to have been published under Allen’s name and then reissued under the Estoril pseudonym in the 90s to capitalise on the success of Drina.  I don’t know how I missed them at the time – but they are a cross between Drina and Lorna Hill’s Jane goes to the Wells – with a ballet school that’s not The Royal Ballet and a family of 4 ballet students – who’s mother is still a ballerina.  And I really want to go back and reread the Drina series too.

Happy reading this week!