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.

 

 

A Guernsey Girl at the Chalet School by Amy Fletcher

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This is an excellent wartime-era Chalet School “fill-in”.  As much as I love the Chalet School books, I *am* sometimes to be found grumbling in discussion groups about the characters not really “doing their bit”.  So I’m delighted to see Amy Fletcher addressing that issue in this book, set in the spring term of 1945, in which we see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the local community and some of the adult female characters without jobs doing important voluntary work with the Red Cross.

It’s very much a Chalet School book, though, with weather-related mishaps, plans for a Sale, prefects’ meetings, and ridiculously unlikely coincidences.  Oh, and there’s a parrot, which is a bit more Blyton or Ransome than Brent-Dyer, but it’s a very cool parrot.  However, it’s specifically a wartime Chalet School book, and it’s obvious that a vast amount of research has gone into it.

The “Guernsey girl” – no, not “Jersey girl”! – is Jacqueline Le Pelley, who’s mentioned briefly in two of the “canon” books.  At one time, no-one seemed to talk much about the occupation of the Channel Islands.  It was years before I realised that a lot of children evacuated from the islands had spent the war years in our local area, especially Oldham and Stockport.  However, in recent times, it’s become the subject of a lot of attention; and, without wanting to post any major spoilers, we learn a lot about the experiences of Jacqueline’s family.

This includes her mother’s work with the Red Cross. As much as I love the Chalet School books, I do get rather irritated by aspects of the wartime ones.  In Exile and Goes to It, admittedly, people seem to be trying to do their bit for the war effort, bot not after that: why do we not see Madge getting involved with the WI or the Red Cross, or the Chalet School Guides doing any sort of war work?  And, when people are doing their bit, it doesn’t always make sense.  Why on earth have Shiena MacDonald, primary carer for her two young sisters, and Sylvia Leigh, primary carer for her niece, been directed into the Forces, rather than doing one of the many other forms of war work?  Robin even suggests that Joey, who at the point in question has three children under the age of four, could be conscripted!

It’s at least acknowledged that Sylvia Leigh wasn’t called up until Lavender was fourteen, but Bride Bettany remarks that she was able to “get off” war service until then, and the unknown Jean McKenzie suggests that Joey take in Flora and Fiona to avoid having working-class evacuees from inner city areas billeted on her. And, at one point, someone – Nell Wilson? – even moans about how inconvenient it is that young women are doing war work rather than applying for jobs as Chalet School maids!  Yes, I’m sure that there were people who thought like that, but it hardly fits with the ethos of the Chalet School.   Or, indeed, the general ethos: many women who were exempt as they had children under fourteen volunteered to do their bit anyway.  It was during the Second World War that “school dinners” became a thing, because so many mothers of school age children were out at work during the day.  I wouldn’t particularly expect the mothers of the Chalet School girls to be signing up to work in munitions factories, but I *would* expect them to be doing the sort of voluntary work which Amy shows here.  I like to think that Madge was busy doing all sorts as part of the WI, but, if she was, Elinor M Brent-Dyer never tells us about it!

Elinor’s insistence that every single Austrian and German character is anti-Nazi just isn’t realistic.  Nor is the apparent absence of food shortages.  And don’t get me started on how the main reaction to Bob Maynard being killed in action is a lot of moaning about the inconvenience of Jack inheriting Pretty Maids!

Rant over!  I love the Chalet School books to bits, and I admire Elinor M Brent-Dyer greatly for her brave writing in Exile, highlighting the way in which the Nazis were persecuting Jews such as the Goldmanns and political opponents such as Herr Marani, but aspects of the war books really do get on my nerves!   What we see here is much more how I like to think of the characters of the Chalet School world behaving

We see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the community, and hear quite a lot about the challenges posed by rationing.  There’s also a chapter devoted to the death of Hilary Burn’s fiance.  TBH, I think that EBD just forgot that she’d mentioned that Hilary was engaged: some years after the war, Hilary becomes engaged to and eventually marries Phil Graves, and what happened to the first fiance seemed to be a mystery until a reader actually asked about it!   But his loss is covered here.  We don’t actually see Hilary hearing the news, but we hear some of her thoughts later on.  The stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on response, which sees Hilary returning to work within a few weeks, fits with the times – and also with Hilary’s character, as it’s pointed out that people deal with grief in different ways.

I was sorry not to see more of Grizel in this book, but that’s just my personal feeling.  I was also sorry not see more of Madge.  We see quite a bit of Jo, but much of that’s in the context of Charles Maynard being ill: we don’t see Jo barging into the school uninvited, or being consulted about difficult pupils with whom the staff and prefects are apparently unable to deal without her, which can get rather irritating!  Daisy; who’s one of my favourite characters, is Head Girl in this book and a friend of Jacqueline’s, so she plays a big role.

More typical Chalet School plotlines include a group of girls getting lost in the mist and, you guessed it, finding a hut to shelter in, and work being done for the Sale.  So it is very much a Chalet School book, but it’s a wartime Chalet School book.  The war permeates everything.  And that’s how it would have been.   There can’t have been any pupil who didn’t have friends and relatives on active service, living with the constant fear of hearing bad news, and this book does reflect that, as well as the general effects of was on everyday life.

There’s one other storyline which is specific to the wartime era, and that’s the introduction of Anna Steiner, a young Jewish Austrian girl who’s come to Britain on the Kindertransport.   She isn’t a pupil at the Chalet School.  Hmm, now that’d would have been an interesting storyline.  My old school, along with some others locally, made a number of places available on scholarships to Jewish girls who’d come to Britain as refugees … but I suppose that what worked for a day school in Manchester would probably not have worked quite so well for a boarding school in rural Herefordshire with a strong Christian ethos.  Anyway, Anna is staying with a family in the area, and we see some of the Chalet School girls going round to meet her and to talk to her in her native German.  However, there’s an utterly ridiculous coincidence as it turns out that Anna is from Tyrol and that her elder sister was best friends with the sister of one of the Chalet School characters.  But, hey, those sorts of coincidences happen an awful lot in the Chalet School books, so I suppose it’s authentic from that viewpoint!

Unlikely coincidence aside, the inclusion of the character of Anna Steiner is a lovely idea, and fits in very well with The Chalet School in Exile.  Some of the wartime Chalet School books just don’t: it’s hard to think how you go from the girls rushing to help a defenceless elderly man being attacked by a Nazi mob to talking about “getting off” doing war service.  But everything about this one does.  And yet, although it’s so different to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s wartime books, it always feels like a Chalet School book.  Bravo, Amy!   A very, very good book.

 

 

The Ballet Family Again by Mabel Esther Allan

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What a snotty book is this?!   All right, you expect a bit of snobbery in GO books, but I do *not* expect metropolitan elitism, especially in a book written by someone from the Wirral!   According to the late Ms Allan, who was from “over the water” in Wallasey, all women over 40 who live in Lancashire (specifically Rochdale, but all urban and industrial areas in general) are fat and have “worn” faces.  Oh well, that explains where I keep going wrong, doesn’t it?  Apparently, if I moved to a posh house in an expensive part of London, employed a Swiss housekeeper, and changed my name to Delphine or Pelagia, or possibly Tarn (Tarn is a name?  And, BTW, Pelagia is the name of a fish factory in Grimsby), I might become slim and glamorous.  Oh, and better-educated, and capable of much more interesting conversation.  Although probably not, because the Ballet Family’s cousin Joan Bradshaw only escapes her fate because of her genetic connection to them on her mother’s side.  Was MEA for real?!   All this might have sounded quite funny if said in a comedy sketch by the late, great, Victoria Wood, but it was obviously meant entirely seriously.  How flaming rude!!

She did redeem herself a bit by showing Joan writing a ballet set in Manchester during the Forty Five (had she been reading Harrison Ainsworth?), and calling it “Farewell, Manchester” after the song.  The first time I ever came across that song was in the letters page of the Manchester Evening News, when I was about 13, and I was rather annoyed to find that there was a historical ballad about Manchester and no-one had ever told me about it!   I think she’d got a bit confused about the route which the Jacobites took through Lancashire, though, and it was also quite frustrating that she didn’t seem to realise that Russian surnames have separate masculine and feminine forms.  However, I have to admit that I had no idea that “Lochaber no more” was an 18th century Scottish song: I thought it was just a line by The Proclaimers 🙂 !

It might not have been a bad book if it hadn’t been for all the snobbery, but I really couldn’t get past it.  I shall be sticking to Lorna Hill for ballet books.  Her characters are always delighted to get back up north!  Meanwhile, I shall go and try to lose some weight and ameliorate the worn appearance of my face by chasing the whippets and clearing the coal out of the bath …

Had it not been for the metropolitan elitism – honestly, it’s bad enough that it’s been causing divisions in the country for years, without coming across it in a GO book written nearly half a century ago! – this might have been quite a decent read.   It was about, as the title suggests, a family who involved in ballet.  It was nice to see a ballerina who’s in her 40s, married with children and still the star of the show, rather than everyone over 20 being shoved into a corner, and it was also good to see children who chose not to be involved in their parents’ professions being allowed to go their own ways.  There were some realistic storylines about teenage friendships and romances, and a bit of gentle mocking of GO tropes which was genuinely quite funny – girl falls in river but tells the admirer who rushes to save her that she’s quite capable of getting herself out, girl has accident and undergoes a personality transplant but it only lasts five minutes.

But all the snooty stuff about Joan, the cousin from Rochdale, just did my head in.  Andy Burnham was joking the other week about massing the troops at Knutsford Services.  If he ever does, LOL, he might want to hand out copies of this book to remind people what they’re marching about!!

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

The Chalet School Returns to the Alps by Lisa Townsend

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  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.

 

All Change at Blainstock Stables by Jemma Spark (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Oh dear.  Note to author – stop overthinking things so much, please.  Just write your story.  It’d be much better that way.  If you want to write a book about a girl who lives in a Scottish castle and rides ponies, just do so.  It’s fine.  There really is no law against either living in a castle or riding ponies.

I’m not sure quite what went on with this book, but it felt as if the author was stressing about being attacked by virtue signallers, for writing something as innocent as a children’s pony book.  So she’d shoved in some completely irrelevant conversations about, for example, the protests about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War – which, given that the book was set two years before Australia really *got* involved in the Vietnam War, made even less sense than it would have done otherwise.  And claimed that the castle stables would be “a new social order”. ( The characters were opening a riding school/livery yard, not storming the Winter Palace).

Then she’d shown her main character writing books about her life and saying that it was very unfair of people to have a go at her just because she lived in a castle, thus proving the point that … , er there wasn’t a point to prove anyway, so maybe she’d have done better just to have stuck to the pony story.  And, to cap it all, shown the said main character of her book criticising the readers of *her* own book for over-analysing children’s books.  It all just seemed to get tied in knots.  Do we have to do this?   As I said, it really isn’t a crime to live in a castle or to ride a pony.

Now, despite never having ridden a pony in my life (unless donkeys on Blackpool beach count), I always rather liked pony books as a kid.  Newsflash – most kids do actually like books about people whose lifestyles are not identical to their own.  So I thought that this would be good fun.  We’ve got a girl who lives in a Scottish castle, where there is a cook (in the 1960s), the family have “a private income”, there are lots of ponies, and people go off to gymkhanas etc.  But, shock horror, a lot of the family’s money is stolen by an evil agent who runs off to South America.  So our girl Jill has to start running a riding school/stables business.  So far, so good – surprisingly traditional GO stuff for something published in 2021 and set in 1963/64.

Unfortunately, the author seems to have got a bit panicky that she was going to be accused of writing about “privileged, entitled people” living in their own little world, which is apparently now regarded as a heinous crime.  To be fair, even when I was a kid, teachers used to go mad about us reading “Girls’ Own” books.  One of my primary school teachers even complained to my mum and dad that I read too many Enid Blyton books.  I was known from a very early age as the class bookworm, but apparently that was no good unless I was reading the “right” sort of books.  I ignored her.  Incidentally, I also watched Grange Hill, but no-one ever complained that that didn’t include anyone who lived in a stately home.

So, at one, rather random point, the book completely diverges from the main plot, and wanders off down Virtue-Signalling Avenue.  We are informed that the stables are going to be a “new social order” in which servants are not treated as servants.  Were people still referring to “servants” in the 1960s, incidentally?   We also get the characters, out of nowhere, discussing veganism, animal welfare, Stalinism (in 1963/4?), the Bristol Bus Boycott, Aboriginal rights and demonstrating against Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.  Given that Australia didn’t really get involved with the Vietnam War until 1965, this was remarkably prescient of them: however, it’s rather odd that they didn’t appear to notice that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  Or did the author deliberately omit that because she thought she’d be “cancelled” for showing people expressing sadness over the death of a white male from a well-to-do family?  And we are informed that our castle-dwelling heroine Jill is a member of CND.

I’m not saying that any of this stuff is unimportant.  But it had absolutely nothing to do with the story.  Lorna Hill’s Annette Dancy trying to sabotage a fox hunt, when she lives in a community in which hunting is part of the way of life, or Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Verity-Anne Carey being reminded that not all Germans were Nazis, in a multinational school in 1947, works very well.  But, in this book, it all just seems to have been shoved in as some kind of virtue-signalling to placate people who think that living in a castle and owning ponies is some sort of sin.  It isn’t.

What’s even stranger is that the author obviously completely gets that.  Because (keep up, folks!) Jill is, in the middle of everything else, writing books about her own life, and is finding that people have turned nasty when they learn that she’s moved into a castle (which has only happened fairly recently, as it belongs to her new stepfather) and has joined the privileged classes.  She suspects that they will be actually be pleased to learn about the absconding agent.  We are reminded that there is nothing wrong with belonging to the privileged classes, and that all that matters is being a good person.  Yes.  We know that.  Why not just stick to the stables story?

And, just to confuse things even further, there are a few sarcastic comments about old and middle-aged ladies who over-analyse children’s pony books.  What, like me?!

Oh, and then, at the end, the author finally seemed to remember that it was supposed to be a pony story, and wrote a very long and detailed description of a children’s riding competition, involving a load of children whom we’d never met before.

Seriously, this would have been a lot better if the author had just stuck to writing the story about Jill and her friends/business partners setting up their business!  That was what I was expecting. The idea of this month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book about someone going into business, and I got this one on a 99p Kindle download because I didn’t want to spend a lot.  It’s part of a series, and it would probably have been better if I’d read the other books in the series first, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering.

It’s a 120-page book, presumably aimed at kids, but the author just seems to have tied herself in knots over it all – which is a shame, because the characters were quite attractive, and the idea of setting up the riding business at the castle was a good one.  Next time, just ignore the virtue signallers and write your pony book, eh?!  If people don’t like it, they are quite at liberty to read something else.

 

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

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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.