The Crew of the Belinda by Jane Shaw

Standard

  This is the last of the three Girls’ Own books which I got cheap the other week.  It’s quite entertaining, but it’s just ridiculously silly.  We’ve got a fairly typical GO scenario in which the children’s mum died when they were young, their dad is an absent-minded professor who’s decided at the last minute to spend the school summer holidays on some work thing, and the children have been dumped on a relative.  In this case, it’s a rather prissy auntie, who’s going to come and stay.  The children, three girls, aren’t keen on this idea, so the two youngest – aged not, say, 7 and 8, but 14 and almost 16 – decide to burn the house down to keep the auntie out.  As you would.  They actually get as far as pouring paraffin over everything before they’re stopped.

After this, they decide to rent the house out (presumably having got rid of the smell of paraffin).  This idea works.  But then, whoops, they’ve got nowhere to live.  Never thought of that.  But then, wa-hay, the eldest remembers a houseboat on Loch Lomond, which an uncle who’s gone away to sea said was theirs to use any time.  Hurrah!   Oh, but they haven’t got any money, because the absent-minded dad forgot to make any financial arrangements and the tenants aren’t paying up front.  Never mind.  They can make money by charging people to borrow their books.  Sorted.

So off they go.  After this, the auntie is barely mentioned again.  Presumably she arrived, found that the house was occupied by complete strangers and her nieces had vanished without trace, shrugged her shoulders, and went home.  The housekeeper, who knew about the paraffin and the letting, has left the girls to it and gone ahead with her plans to spend the summer with her own family.  Good for her!   Most GO housekeepers would have felt obliged to take the girls with them, to stay with an apple-cheeked sister or cousin who would ply them with vast amounts of food for which no payment was expected.

They then arrive at the boat, and get caught up in a forgery plot which involves people hiding counterfeit £5 notes inside books on boats and tins in the loch, and leaving caviar pots lying about.  This last is a red herring.  The caviar pots do not, in fact, belong to the local squire, but to someone who works for him.  And then their dad turns up.   Oh, and there’s a cat.  And a friend from school.  And her brother, who keeps playing tricks on them because he’s narked that they’re using their own houseboat, which he wanted to pretend was a Viking longship.  And an incident in which they go to church, pretend to put money in the collection bag, and one of them gets her hand stuck in it.

I’m still wondering what happened to the auntie.  And why they didn’t just tell her that they’d been invited to stay with friends for the holidays.

Oh well.  It was so utterly ridiculous that it made me laugh.  So it gets marks for that.  But it doesn’t really get marks for anything else!

 

 

Wish for a Pony by Monica Edwards

Standard

   This is a book aimed at fairly young children: I think I’d probably have enjoyed it most when I was about 7 or 8.  Our two heroines, Tamzin and Rissa, aged 10/11, are very keen on ponies and both long to have one of their own.  However, their families can’t afford them – although it’s *not* one of those annoying books in which comfortably-off kids carry on as if they’re practically on the breadline!   They offer to help out at a local riding school which is temporarily operating in their seaside town during the summer holidays, and have lots of fun and a few adventures/misadventures riding the ponies along the beach.

In the middle of it all, there’s a shipwreck.  The author, as a teenager, witnessed a shipwreck, in which a close friend (possibly her boyfriend) was killed, and, for whatever reason, chose to include one in this book.  Happily, everyone survives in this case, although the ship itself goes down.

Then, rather conveniently, the family of a girl who was injured in a fall from her pony decide that they want the pony out of the way but don’t want any money for it, so, hey presto, Tamzin gets her pony.  It seems rather unfair that Rissa doesn’t get one as well, but Tamzin does say that she’ll share.

I did read some pony books, especially the Jinny series, as a kid, but I preferred school stories, mystery/adventure books, and (despite being a fat clumsy oaf who only managed a few months of ballet lessons before giving up on the grounds of being useless!) ballet books.  However, I think I’d have quite liked this one – but, as I’ve said, I think it’s for fairly young children.

 

Exile for Annis by Josephine Elder

Standard

This was a very enjoyable pre-war (published in the late 1930s) school story centred on an issue covered in several “Girls’ Own” books – big schools versus small schools.  Our heroine, Annis, a very realistic and very well-characterised girl in her mid-teens, was removed from her London high school due to needing “country air” after an illness, and sent to the sort of small private school on which she’d always looked down, and a “crank school” – run by a farming couple, on their farm – at that.

The conclusion eventually drawn by Annis, and presumably by the author, was that it was good to start off at a big school and learn discipline, but that you were then better off at a small school where you were treated as more of an individual.  The author did cheat a bit, though, because the small school conveniently had all sorts of neighbours who were experts in particular subjects and just happened to have the spare time in which to teach at the school, and nearby local sports clubs which were happy to let the kids use their facilities for PE lessons.  In reality, most of the very small private schools, which don’t really exist any more, were run by people who had little specialist knowledge of any subject or close contact with the wider educational system.

That’s not a criticism: they were mainly single women who needed to earn a living and for whom there weren’t many other options.  And people living in rural areas wouldn’t necessarily have had the same access to a high school education as someone like Annis, who’d been living in a big city, and then there was, of course, the issue of money; so the choices weren’t always there.  But, anyway, it was a well-written book.  The school stuff was nicely done, and we also saw Annis becoming friendly with Kitty, one of the numerous offspring of the couple who ran the school.  No preaching, no major morality lessons, no-one having to suffer in order to see the error of their ways!

A sub-plot was that Ruth, one of Kitty’s numerous siblings, didn’t seem to like Annis being around, and insisted that Annis not be invited to accompany the family on holiday, even though Annis hadn’t done anything to earn her enmity.  It turned out that Ruth had a twin brother who’d suffered some sort of brain damage at birth and was physically and mentally disabled, and that the family kept him hidden away and, following a bad experience with a friend some years earlier, Ruth was frightened of Annis finding out about him and thinking that the family were all weird.

That was quite a challenging subject for a pre-war children’s book.  There are, of course, all sorts of true stories, although more with the upper-classes than the middle-classes, about ideas of “taints in the blood”, and people being forbidden to marry a partner who had a mentally disabled or mentally ill relative.  The language used would seem a bit odd today, but it was quite well-handled, with Kitty explaining that her brother’s condition didn’t affect any of the others, and Annis getting on well with him and not being at all fazed by his disabilities.

Another issue was that this was a mixed gender school, and had a fairly equal mix of male and female teachers – very unusual in school stories.  It wasn’t really much of an issue, though.  Everyone seemed to get on fine.  It was pointed out that not many girls took advanced science, but no-one seemed to have a problem with Annis doing so.

Then there was the issue of bullying.  Everyone picked on a fat kid called Peter.  I felt extremely sorry for him – I know all about being picked on for being a fat kid.  Anyway, Annis told him to smile a bit more and only eat three sweets a day, and, hey presto, suddenly no-one was picking on him any more and everyone was mates with him.  Not exactly very realistic, but it was nice to see an author showing sympathy for a fat kid.  There was also an unpleasant girl called Sheila, who started off being horrible to everyone, then had everyone being horrible to her, then conveniently left.

There were also a lot of dogs and horses.  I don’t mind horses, as long as I don’t have to get too close to them.  However, if I’d had to live with someone who had dogs, or go to a school where there were dogs around, I would have run away and refused to come back.  But, at one point, when nasty Sheila’s big dog attacked one of Annis’s hosts’ small dogs, the small dog (who was rescued and seemed absolutely fine by the next chapter) was descrived as “cheerful, cheeky little …” … which made him sound quite cute and lovable.  But then I thought about how even cheerful, cheeky, little dogs bark, yap, snap and generally disturb everyone, so I’m sticking to what I said about running away!

All in all, this was a bit simplistic but generally very enjoyable.

 

 

 

 

Break The Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli

Standard

This was published in February 2020 but set during the Tokyo Olympics.  Now, I usually only read books which are, as my blog name suggests, “set in the past” (this one was for a Facebook group reading challenge).  Setting a book only a few months into the future wouldn’t normally be much of an issue, but, of course, in this case it was – and the author couldn’t possibly have known what lay around the corner, any more than the rest of us could.  These are the Olympics which we should have had.  For a start, they’re in 2020.  And the events take place in front of capacity crowds, with the athletes’ loved ones there to share the moments with them, with medals being hung around the winners’ necks by VIPs and with team-mates hugging each other in celebration or consolation.

Reading all that was rather strange.  However, it shouldn’t detract from the actual plot, which was about a team of young female American gymnasts getting ready to head for the Olympics, only for it to emerge that their male coach had been abusing two of them and that he’d been abusing other girls, too frightened to speak out, over a period of many years.  Obviously everyone will be aware that this is based on real events within US gymnastics, with over 350 young women affected.

It’s a challenging topic for a book for a teenagers, but the author’s handled it very well.  The protagonist, Audrey, is not one of those affected, but learns that she was almost certainly going to be the abuser’s next target.  So we’re slightly removed from what’s happened, and there are no actual scenes of abuse being perpetrated, but no words are minced and it’s made very clear what’s gone on.

Tied in with this is another main plotline, that, at just 16, our girl Audrey (funny how names come back into fashion – no-one under 50 was called Audrey when I was a kid) is being forced to retire due to a chronic back injury.  And, because it is a book for teenagers, there’s a romance, and there’s a lot of emphasis on the girls in the team falling out but then being reunited and pulling together.

It’s really very good.

It is a difficult subject, though.   BBC 1 showed a three part series earlier this year about child abuse in British football in the 1970s and 1980s.  It struck very close to home, with local lads like Paul Stewart and David White talking about what had happened to them.  How many other sports have been affected by this?   A review into safeguarding in professional tennis has just been introduced.  And, of course, it’s not just sport.  Over the last few years, there’s been one child abuse scandal after another.  It’s horrific, and it was brave of the author to cover this subject in her book.

We start off with the trials.  Then it’s announced that one of the qualifiers has failed a drugs test.  Everyone’s stunned.  And then it turns out that the coach had been abusing her, she’d told him that she was going to the authorities, and he’d tampered with her test results in an attempt to discredit her.  And the other coaches went along with the faked test results.  Later, it turns out that he’d been abusing another member of the team too.  And others come forward.

At the Olympics, the shock of it all, and the fact that the team’s initially divided over whom they believe, means that, despite being favourites, they fail to win a medal in the team event.  But Audrey pulls them all together, and they succeed in the individual events.  And all the other competitors, and everyone in the crowd, shows that they believe the girls who’ve come forward, and that they support them.   It’s a bit too “tidy”, but, OK, it is a novel.

I’m not an expert in gymnastics, but the author goes into a lot of detail and it does all seem to be pretty accurate.  And so is everything she says about top level sport in general – the physical and emotional pain involved, as well as the great rewards.  Audrey will be retiring at just 16.  She will probably have issues with her back for the rest of her life.  And there are questions over whether or not the injury could have been prevented had the coaches cared a bit more.  And, after all those years of work, one mistake, or one bit of bad luck, and dreams could be shattered.  I watch a lot of sport.  I’ve seen so many ups and downs.  I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the athletes themselves.

Random point.  How long have leotards been referred to as “leos”?!  Or is this an American thing?  And, just to add to the confusion, Audrey’s boyfriend is called Leo!

One more thing.  The book tries really hard to be diverse.  Audrey is half-Korean.  Of the other three girls in the main team, one is white, one is black and one is Hispanic.  Kudos to the author for doing that, but … it gets a bit much when, say, we’re introduced to their new coach and immediately told that she’s “a white woman”, etc.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to show that you’re including characters of different ethnicities, except in cases where it’s clear from their names, without actually saying so, but it felt a bit clunky sometimes.

This is a very 21st century “young adult” novel.  Incidentally, don’t think the term “young adult” even existed when I was in the age group for which the book’s aimed.   And, as I’ve said, it’s really very good.

 

 

 

 

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin (Facebook group reading challenge)

Standard

  Hands up – I thought I’d hate this, but I actually quite liked it.  I don’t mean that I had anything against either the author or the book, but this is a genre which I normally avoid like the plague – “dystopian novels”.  However this month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a “young adult dystopian novel”, so that’s what I did.

I don’t really get the appeal of dystopian novels, I have no idea why anyone over the age of about 8 is now referred to as a “young adult”, and I thought that Ryan was a boys’; name and was rather bemused to discover that Ryan Graudin was a woman, but never mind.  Anyway, if I was going to put myself through reading a dystopian novel, I was going to find one which was at least vaguely historical; and that’s how I came to this one – which is set in an alternative universe in which the Nazis have won the Second World War, taken over the whole of Europe and Africa, and divvied Asia up between themselves and the Japanese, whilst the US has stayed out of it.  The American author has completely and utterly ignored the existence of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom were playing an important role in the fight against the Axis powers, and pretty much ignored Central and South America too: that really annoyed me.

Our heroine, Yael – and I’m afraid that I was nearly at the end of the book before it finally dawned on me that the name had been chosen because of the Jael and Sisera Bible story – escaped from a concentration camp as a child, and now, in 1956, is part of the Resistance movement and plans to assassinate Hitler.  OK, I was with it this far.

As a result of being the victim of experiments carried out by a Dr Geyer, who is presumably based on Mengele, she can “skinshift” to make herself look like anyone else who’s nearby or whose photo she’s seen (it’s originally explained that she can “shift” into their face, although presumably she can also shift into their height, weight, voice etc). Right.  This was getting rather … er, well, not my kind of thing.

And, as Hitler rarely goes out in public, the only way she can get close to him is to kidnap a young female motorbike champion, “skinshift” into her identity – fooling everyone, including the said rider’s brother and ex-boyfriend (which seems pretty unlikely, although I suppose I bought the Blake/Krystle/Rita storyline in Dynasty back in the day!) – , and win a prestigious Berlin to Tokyo motorbike race which for some reason goes via North Africa (it’s not quite clear how come she’s suddenly become an expert biker), which will mean that she gets to dance with Hitler at the champions’ ball, and can then shoot him.

No, me neither.  “Skinshifting”?  Hitler at a motorbike champions’ ball?   Incidentally, I absolutely hate motorbikes.  Horrible noisy things.  But it was actually rather entertaining.  However, that wasn’t so much the dystopian stuff as the descriptions of the places through which the race went, and the rather inventive attempts of the competitors to nobble each other – everything from drugging water bottles to shoving people off boats, to transmitting tranquillisers by kissing.  Oh, and they all got kidnapped by the remnants of the Red Army at one point.  On a more serious note, we heard about Yael’s memories of the concentration camp and the loss of her mother (her father was never mentioned, for some reason) and friends.

At the end, she did actually get to dance with Hitler, and shot him.  You’d think that, at a ball attended by both Hitler and Emperor Hirohito, there’d have been some sort of security checks to ensure that no-one was carrying guns, knives or anything else, but apparently not.  Only it wasn’t Hitler – it was a skinshifting doppelganger.  But, because people thought Hitler had been killed, uprisings started everywhere.

I did actually get quite into it, which surprised me.  The “skinshifting” was a step too far, though, especially as surely there was no way that she could have fooled the brother and ex-boyfriend of the person she was impersonating – who, incidentally, was totally forgotten about, having been kidnapped and locked up but with no mention of how she was to manage for food and drink and so on!    I shall be sticking to normal historical novels in future, but, hey, each to their own, and if people enjoy reading dystopian novels then good luck to them!

Alison’s Easter Adventure by Sheila Stuart

Standard

 This is a really nice, if rather formulaic, children’s adventure/mystery book, published in 1950.  Some baddies have stolen a load of treasure.  Our heroine Alison and her brother Niall, during their holidays from boarding school, uncover the baddies’ identities and find where the treasure’s hidden, beating the authorities to it.   There’s someone in disguise, and an old house with a hidden passage, and various mysterious goings-on – because, if you were snooping round a house, obviously you’d help yourself to a load of chocolates from an open box and make it really obvious that someone had been there!

You get the idea.  But it’s a lovely book.  It’s set in the Scottish Highlands.  There’s a lot of reference to wearing kilts, and everyone goes fishing and plays golf all the time.  The authorities are represented by the children’s uncle/guardian, so they’re all on friendly terms and there’s no sneering at the police.  There’s a lot of dashing about in cars and boats, but nothing completely unrealistic – Ruritanian princes being sacrificed to sun gods, that kind of thing 😉 –  happens.  It’s just a nice old-style children’s book, and it holds up very well over 70 years after it was published.

 

The Chalet School Returns to the Alps by Lisa Townsend

Standard

  This, the latest Chalet School “fill-in”, is a lovely book.  It covers three topics within the series which I’ve always felt merited more attention – Nancy Wilmot’s apparent personality transplant between her schooldays and her teaching days; the story of Sue Meadows, who’s in a rather Victorian position as “companion” to her sick cousin Leila Elstob; and, albeit briefly, Leila’s friendship with Con Maynard.  The characters are true to how they appear in the “canon” books, the style is very much like Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s, yet it avoids those traits of Elinor’s which grate on people slightly – Joey Maynard is helpful rather than overbearing, nobody preaches, and there are very few references to Nancy’s weight!   My only gripe is with the rather odd cover picture.

However, this is yet another “fill-in” which, rather than filling in, runs parallel to an existing book – in this case, The Chalet School and Barbara.  Several of the scenes are those already seen, just told from a different viewpoint.  I’m not criticising the fill-in authors in any way, but wouldn’t their talents be put to better use in writing more original stories?  There’s all sorts of scope for spin-off books about a number of characters, or for sequels to the La Rochelle books.  Or, if GGBP want to stick to school stories, how about a book set at the Carnbach branch of the school?

That’s not to take anything away from this book, which is highly recommended if you are a fan of the Chalet School fill-ins.

The original series is rather prone to inconsistencies, affectionately known as “EBD-isms”, and one of the many is that Nancy Wilmot, who as a schoolgirl was described as lazy and had a particular dislike of maths, returns as a maths mistress, and is so efficient and hard-working that, by the end of the series, she looks set to become the next headmistress.  The obvious explanation is that, like so many people of her generation, she was changed by her experiences during the war, and that’s what Lisa Townsend shows here.  We also see Nancy’s close friendship with Hilary Graves, nee Burn, which, although it is mentioned in The Chalet School and Barbara, seems to be forgotten thereafter – rather like Peggy Burnett and Rosalie Dene being cousins, and Phoebe Peters being Reg Entwistle’s childhood mentor!

One of the biggest strengths of the Chalet School series is that we see the viewpoint of the staff as well as the girls, and we see Nancy having some issues fitting in, and being concerned that she’s not seen as a “proper” Old Girl because she’d been at St Scholastika’s.  The issues arising from the merger of the two schools were an issue in The New Chalet School, but the series jumped two or three years so they were never mentioned again.

There’s a vast amount of fanfic about Nancy, but most of that centres on her relationship with Kathie Ferrars.  As this book’s set long before Kathie arrived at the school, that obviously doesn’t come into it, but it’s good to see more attention being paid to someone who becomes such an important character.

The other main character in the book is Sue Meadows.  I’ve always found Sue’s story interesting – she’s in Switzerland as a “companion” to her sick cousin Leila Elstob, and her fees are being paid by Leila’s mother, who seems concerned only about Leila and not about Sue.   It’s something different, but it’s never really explored.  Also interesting is Leila’s friendship with Con Maynard, who sadly gets very few storylines.  Even with that one, we get Con being summoned to the San, and a lot of talk about how it might affect her, but  it then all seems to be forgotten, and we never hear of the two girls seeing each other again!  The friendship isn’t really gone into here, but we do see the triplets getting to know Sue and then getting to know Leila.  Sue’s story is gone into in far more detail – we learn that her parents are in America due to her dad’s job; and we see what a complex situation it is, with both Mrs Elstob and Sue genuinely frightened by Leila’s medical condition but Sue’s needs being neglected as a result.

It all fits together very well, along with a sub-plot about Mary Woodley, the girl who bullies Barbara Chester.  It really is a very good book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I just think that, now that most of the “missing” terms have been “filled”, it might be better for GGBP and the authors to go in the direction of writing about something new, rather than writing about events which EBD’s already written about.  But that’s in no way a criticism of either this author or this book – it really is a lovely book.

 

50 Years of Mr Men – Channel 4

Standard

Who was your favourite?   My favourite Mr Man was Mr Tickle, because I loved the fact that he could reach downstairs and get food out of the kitchen without getting out of bed.  I dread to imagine what that says about me.  And my favourite Little Miss was Little Miss Splendid, which is weird because she’s extremely annoying 😁.   We had the books.  We watched the cartoons.  And we even had a tape of Mr Men/Little Miss songs, which we made poor Mum and Dad play in the car.

Matt Lucas, who presented this programme to mark the 50th anniversary of the Mr Men books (the Little Misses didn’t appear until 10 years later), is a year older than me, so pretty close in age.  Our generation grew up with the Mr Men and Little Miss books, but I love the way that kids in primary schools today seem as keen on them as we were.  The Mr Men and Little Misses are so cool 😊.

I’m not sure that I really need to see Matt dressing up as Mr Bump, or visiting a house which was full of Mr Men memorabilia, but it was fascinating to hear about the history of the books, from the Hargreaves family and from some of the people involved in making the original cartoons.  And the amount of merchandise available is astounding.  All from Roger Hargreaves from Cleckheaton trying to amuse his young son, who’d asked what a tickle looked like.

I actually felt a bit sad hearing about the Hargreaves family selling the “brand”, to a Japanese company, and I gather that it’s since been sold on again, to a Korean company, but it’s nice to know that Roger’s son Adam is still involved.  Amazingly, the books were self-published in the early years, because publishers didn’t fancy them!

Mr Greedy and Little Miss Plump have apparently been accused of fat-shaming.  And Little Miss Bossy has apparently been accused of promoting negative stereotypes about women.  You just knew that something like that would have happened, wouldn’t you 🤦‍♀️?   But, in general, the books are as popular now as they’ve ever been.  Happy 50th birthday to the Mr Men!

 

The Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene (Facebook group reading challenge)

Standard

I was an ardent reader of the Nancy Drew books from about 1983 to 1987, and have just been revisiting them for a Facebook group reading challenge.  I found a cheap three-in-one on Amazon, but was confused by the first two, The Secret of the Old Clock and The Bungalow Mystery, as they didn’t feature Nancy’s two friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.  It transpired that those were two of the first four books, and that George and Bess hadn’t appeared until the fifth book.  The third one (actually the 43rd in the series), The Mystery of the 99 Steps, which did feature George and Bess, was one I read as a kid, and it was amazing how it all came back to me!

I hadn’t realised how complex the history of the series was.  As a kid in the ’80s, I’d just go into W H Smith or wherever and choose a book off the shelves.  Each mystery was self-contained, and everyone stayed the same age, so it didn’t really matter whether you read them in order or not.  I had no idea that the series dated right back to 1930, although it didn’t appear in the UK until the early 1970s, and I certainly had no idea that “Carolyn Keene” was a syndicate, not an actual person.

And I don’t remember being aware that “The Nancy Drew Files” appeared as a spin-off series in 1986.  I may have read a few of those books, as they apparently heavily featured chloroform and I remember that Nancy seemed to do a lot of “blacking out”, but they also, so Wikipedia informs me, did away with Burt Eddleton and Dave Evans, George and Bess’s boyfriends, and I definitely remember them featuring a lot, along with Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.   I loved the fact that Bess, the “plump” girl, not only got to be involved in the cool detective gang but also got to have a nice boyfriend – such a contrast to other “plump” girls in children’s books, such as Alma Pudden, who were basically just figures of fun.

The stories are completely bonkers, of course!  Why on earth would anyone leave their last will and testament in a safety deposit box taken out under an assumed name, and leave the details of the name and location in a miniature notebook hidden inside the back of an old clock?  Would it really be so easy to kidnap an heiress’s new guardian and impersonate him in order to steal all her money – surely someone would have accompanied a young girl to make sure that everything was OK?  Not to mention one of France’s leading financiers believing that an alchemist had found a way to turn everything into gold, and Nancy Drew and her dad somehow getting involved in it all because of a neighbour who remembered falling down some steps at a chateau as a child.

But it’s all good fun!   And the idea of a girl detective must have been pretty groundbreaking in 1930.  In the many Enid Blyton mystery/detective/adventure books I read, written much later, there were mixed gender gangs, but it wasn’t unusual for the boys to go off and do the dangerous stuff, leaving the girls behind.  And Nancy was so cool, driving around everywhere in her “convertible”.  OK, the Five Find-Outers et al were much too young to drive, but even in, say, some of the Lorna Hill books, where the main characters were in their late teens or early 20s, no-one had their own car.

A great deal of debate apparently now rages about Nancy   Not so much in the UK, where she isn’t such a cultural icon – although I was amused to hear Charity Dingle in Emmerdale mention her recently – but certainly in the US.  Does she represent feminism?  Or does she symbolise conservative Middle America, living in well-to-do River Heights?  There are even Nancy Drew conferences, and women from Hillary Clinton to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg have cited her as an influence.  Wow!  I can’t say that I ever thought about the books that deeply – I wasn’t very old when I read them, to be fair –  but I did love all the adventures that Nancy had.  And, of course, you knew that she’d always solve the mysteries in the end.

There was even a TV series about her and The Hardy Boys, in America, in the mid-1970s – starring Pamela Sue Martin, in her pre-Fallon Carrington Colby days, and Parker Stevenson, in his pre-Billy Hazard days.  I didn’t know any of this: I’ve had a wonderful “Wiki walk” this morning!  I don’t think it ever made it over here, though.  I remember there being a film a few years back, but it didn’t sound very good and I didn’t bother seeing it.  But I did love those books, back in the day!  It’s been fun revisiting them.

The Evangelical Books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

Standard

I bought this three-in-one – Nesta Steps Out, Beechy of the Harbour School and Leader in Spite of Herself – for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completeness: I am *not* in the habit of reading any sort of evangelical books, and, having read Beechy before and found it pretty horrendous, I didn’t have high hopes of the other two books.  However, they really weren’t bad at all, and even Beechy wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered.

For the most part, they were, albeit very short, fairly standard EBD school stories – everyone looking trig and trim, accidents on expeditions, rushing around in the mornings, overly efficient matrons, et al.  It felt as if the preachy religious bits had just been shoehorned in to appeal to the Sunday School prize market, rather like Diana Barry shoehorning a reference to the Rollins Reliable Baking Powder Company into Anne Shirley’s “Averil’s Atonement” 🙂 .

Like Anne’s story, these would have been rather better with the shoehorned-in bits taken out, and I suspect that EBD may well have preferred them that way, but maybe they serve as a useful reminder that, unlike some of their heroines, most of our favourite Girls’ Own authors weren’t from wealthy families, and were writing books to pay their bills.  If that meant shoving in a few preachy comments, or, indeed, accepting that the books were going to be abridged when republished, then that was what they had to do.  Unlike fictional characters, most people do not get swept off their feet by rich doctors or conveniently inherit fortunes from hitherto unmentioned godparents or great-uncles/aunts!

The problem with Beechy of the Harbour School is that the shoehorning goes way overboard.  The basic plotline is a fairly standard story, about a girl, Beechy, whose mother has recently died, starting a new school and inadvertently making an enemy of another girl, Olive.  There’s a thunderstorm, Beechy is frightened, and Olive makes fun of her.  This is followed by what looks like it’s going to be a classic EBD scene – a showdown in which Olive bursts into tears in the Head’s study.  But then the Head gives Olive a lecture on how “your sin against Beechy is far less grievous than your sin against God … you have been dishonouring Christ throughout the term”.  On top of that, Beechy then informs the Head that “If only I had had the courage to tell you all … that I had become a Christian … I ought to have been praying … Next term, I mean to start as I intend to go on, and let everybody know that I belong to Jesus.  I don’t think I’ll ever be so afraid in a storm again”.

Er, yes.  The Head telling Olive to be a bit nicer, and Beechy being embarrassed for making such a fuss, would have done fine!  And been considerably more convincing.

In Nesta Steps Out, we’ve got a girl with a very bad temper.  Unlike Margot Maynard of Chalet School fame, she’s determined to try to control it … rather like Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers.  Also like Darrell, she’s got a bosom buddy called Sally – which is unusual for EBD, who usually prefers gangs to bosom buddies.  And there’s a nasty teacher, who falls into a river … but it turns out that she’s not that nasty, just in a bad mood because she’s being obliged to give up her job to go and keep house for a widowed brother.  Nesta does try to keep her temper, and it only gets a bit preachy, with various references to praying for help.  So this one isn’t bad.

Leader in Spite of Herself gets off to a very preachy start, with one girl bursting into tears for very little reason, like a heroine of a 19th century American religious novel, and a prefect lecturing two girls bitching about a classmate on how all their words were offered up to God so they should be more careful about what they said.  However, it does get better.  Standard plot, nasty new girl doesn’t fit in, classmates dislike her but two of them then decide to make an effort with her, encouraged by our “leader” Rosemary, one of the prefects, and all’s well that ends well.

Replace the preachy bits with simple references to trying to be nice to other people, and it would have been quite a good book.  And that’s how I felt about all of them.  But, whilst I may be wrong, I do get the feeling that, unlike the likes of Martha Finley and Susan Warner, EBD herself would probably have preferred the books to be like her other school stories, with people seeing the errors of their ways without all the overt preaching stuff.  However, these books were presumably commissioned, and, as I said, they’re an important reminder that our favourite authors were living in the real world and sometimes had to play to the market rather than just their own personal choices.