Pippa in Switzerland by E E Ohlson

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You’re spending your school holidays (the school isn’t named, but, as we keep being told that it’s near Brighton, it’s presumably Roedean) in the Bernese Oberland, where, having sorted out your sister’s love life (after her estranged boyfriend just happened to show up in the same place) and some random woman’s marriage, you climb a glacier – wearing your Guide uniform, as you never wear anything else.  You and your friend get lost in the fog, and take shelter in one of those huts which are always so conveniently placed in Switzerland and Austria, but two lads are in there already.  Are they Swiss?  No.  They’re two Etonians on holiday, and the uncle of one of them is mates with your sister’s new fiance.  Of course.  Luckily, you and your friend are carrying a huge picnic basket, so you share all the food.  Then, when the fog clears, you carry on climbing.  That’s just one part of the book, but you get the general idea.

I think that we’re *meant* to find the “irrepressible” Pippa irritating, with her constant minding of other people’s business, her complete failure to see her faults as pointed out by other people and her bizarre insistence on wearing her Guide uniform wherever she goes, but the book was actually very entertaining in a totally OTT jolly spiffing sort of way!   And it only cost me £1, and it was certainly worth £1.

 

The School Knight-Errant by Sibyl B Owsley

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This, published in 1933, started off seeming like one of those books which poke gentle fun at their own genre.  Vivian, a boarding school pupil and Guide, was an avid reader of schoolgirl magazines, always convinced that the gardener’s boy is a duke in disguise and that two innocent people having a chat are plotting dastardly deeds.  I thought it was all going to be a series of adventures which weren’t adventures, but then, unusually for a Girls’ Own or Boys’ Own book, we went off into the story of Betty, one of the school maids – not a sycophantic cipher, but the daughter of an intelligent, hard-working skilled craftsman who was out of work due to the effects of the Depression.  Betty, also a Guide, and Vivian became friends, and no-one seemed to find that odd.

There was then an admittedly rather far-fetched plot in which Betty’s sister bought a second-hand book which turned out to be worth a fortune and saved the family’s bacon, and then a slightly less far-fetched plot in which Vivian, after wandering off from a Guide camp in search of a Scout camp involving one of Betty’s brothers, had her bike damaged by horses and then came across an invalid girl who wanted to be a “Post Guide” – I never knew that you could be a Guide or Scout by post if you couldn’t actually join a company, but what a nice idea.

So it was all rather an odd mix of genres – the valuable book plot was more than worthy of one of Angela Brazil’s less likely novels, but the bringing into a GO story of Betty’s family, and the showing of how the Depression pushed a lot of hard-working people into poverty, and how Betty and her family were no different to the boarding school girls and their families, just born under an unluckier financial star, was unusual and very laudable.  An interesting book.

Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

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On Judy Bethune’s first day at a new school, she catches a burglar at half five in the morning and rescues two girls from certain death by drowning in the afternoon.  A few days later, she rescues two children from a cottage buried under a collapsed cliff.  As you do.  She follows this up by rescuing the local squire when he’s fallen into his lily pond.

Then the train on which she and her friend are travelling breaks down; they have to get off; they head to the nearest post office to wire the friend’s parents to tell them what’s happened; and, as they’re heading back towards the railway line, they find a secret passage down which is hiding a gang of criminals, including a little old lady whom they met on the train, who is actually a smuggler in disguise.  As they try to escape from the tunnel to alert the police, it caves in, and, whilst attempting to dig their way out, they find a load of extremely valuable jewellery which highwaymen stole from one of Judy’s ancestors in 1715.  The smugglers tie them up, but they manage to break the cords and get away, complete with the jewellery, which is then sold to enable Judy’s uncle to give up his job and buy their ancestral home.  Just the sort of thing that could happen to anyone.

Yes, all right, it sounds absolutely ridiculous – but the story dates back to the 1930s (although, confusingly, my copy, which is from the 1950s, refers to the Queen rather than the King) and even some of Enid Blyton’s books from the 1950s show the boys at the centre of all the derring-do whilst the girls stay somewhere safe.  So books like this, showing girls being brave and daring and carrying out heroics, are actually a pretty big deal when put into context.  Even if it is so bonkers that it reads like a spoof.

Judy is an orphan, whose guardian is an uncle who teaches classics at a girls’ school somewhere on the English coast … I think it’s meant to be Essex, because the school’s called St Oswyth’s, but it’s not actually specified.  The uncle is given a dog’s life by his pupils.  Judy lives on the Orkney Islands, with Mrs McKay, an old schoolfriend of her late mother’s.  When Mrs McKay has to go abroad due to a family crisis,  Judy takes herself off to live with her uncle, and is enrolled at the school.  There, she hopes to make lots of friends, as she’s previously lived in a tiny fishing village where there were hardly any girls of her own age.  And she wants to start a Guide pack, as she was a very keen Guide in the Orkneys – although, as we’ve already been told that there were hardly any teenage girls there, this doesn’t make a lot of sense – and learnt all her rescuing skills that way.

However, most of the nasty cliquey girls at the school, as well as making poor old Mr Bethune’s life a misery, aren’t keen on either Judy or the idea of Guides.  But Judy’s heroics win them over, and a Guide pack is started.  And they go on a jolly camp – once the local squire grants them permission to camp on his land, after Judy’s rescued him from a  lily pond.  Then she and her friend head off by train to spend the holidays with the friend’s parents, and all these adventures happen.   OK, you get adventures in most books in this sort of genre, but I think that that was the most far-fetched series of events I’ve ever come across.

Absolutely bonkers, but very readable!   It certainly wasn’t boring 🙂 .

How To Be Brave by Daisy May Johnson

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This book, written by Daisy May Johnson of Didyoueverstoptothink,  talks a lot about a) scones and b) the Chalet School, which is good.  Obviously.  It even makes the excellent point that school maths lessons might actually be useful if they focused on how to calculate the best jam to cream ratio for putting on your scones.   It’s partly a traditional boarding school story – new girl goes to boarding school, makes friends and enemies, etc – albeit over two generations, the first part being about the mother and the second part about the daughter.  But in general it’s more akin to something like The Demon Headmaster, as the baddie who was the mother’s school nemesis becomes an evil headmistress in the daughter’s day, responsible for everything from making kids eat sprout cakes to kidnapping.

The mum becomes an absent-minded scientist, which got me thinking that there are several absent-minded scientists in the traditional GO genre, but that they’re all dads.  I’m thinking in particular of Professor Richardson in the Chalet School books and Quentin Kirrin in the Famous Five books.   So we’re striking a blow for feminism in this book 🙂 .  The said mum is obsessed with ducks.  There’s a strong duck theme in the book!

If you’re looking for a traditional boarding school book, this isn’t it, as I’ve said; but it’s certainly got elements of one, as the girls bond together to overcome the baddie.  And there’s also quite a bit of Blytonesque code-breaking, mystery solving and adventure, which isn’t traditional school story stuff but is definitely traditional Girls’ Own stuff.   There’s also a lot of involvement from the narrator, including numerous footnotes in every chapter, which won’t be to everyone’s taste but is quite amusing and made me laugh.

I’m totally out of touch with what young girls read these days, but I’m pretty sure that I’d have loved this when I was 7 or 8.  Congratulations to Daisy May Johnson on having her first book included on the list of nominations for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, alongside the likes of Malorie Blackman, Anne Fine, Hilary McKay and Benjamin Zephaniah, and thanks for a very entertaining read.

 

 

The Crew of the Belinda by Jane Shaw

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  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

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   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

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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

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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)

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  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

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 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.