The New House at Winwood by Clare Mallory

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This book combines the trope of a new headmistress making changes with the building of a new boarding house, apparently constructed and filled remarkably quickly.   Some of the girls don’t like the changes, and refuse even to set foot inside it, or to play its teams at sports.   It’s mostly the older girls, which seems remarkably immature of them.  And the younger girls all appear to love fagging for the older girls – really?!  Also, some of the names are rather odd  – Adair, Miff and even Winsome.

Having said all that, it does work pretty well.  The characters are well drawn, and the story of the ongoing feuding and its development comes across quite convincingly even though it seems a bit pathetic that girls of 17 would make such a fuss about the new house.   Of course, in the end everyone makes up and the school becomes united.  Not bad.   And I found this copy very cheap on Amazon, so I’m rather chuffed about that!

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Maeve of the Chalet School by Helen Barber

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I know that a lot of people will be getting this as a Christmas present, but I can’t really post spoilers because it’s set during the same term as both The Chalet School in the Oberland and Shocks for the Chalet School.  I personally would rather have had a book set during the “unfilled” term when Marilyn Evans was Head Girl, but that’s no reflection on this book.

It’s not a typical Chalet School book, in that there are no accidents, epidemics, weather-related incidents or troublesome new girls, and it’s not a typical “fill-in” in that most of Maeve’s friends, and their form mistress, are only minor characters in canon (the original series).   However, it’s a very good read, just the thing for cold December nights!   And it’s pleasantly devoid of Joey “butting in” or being  consulted about school affairs whilst on the other side of the Atlantic, but, hooray, does feature Madge comforting Maeve.  It could have done with a bit more action, though.

A lot of the focus is on Mollie Bettany’s illness.   Chalet School fans will already know how things turn out, but of course the characters don’t.   How the Bettany family cope with that is quite moving.   

Other than that, there’s a drama/detective club, which isn’t very exciting.   And a reference to Peggy’s new friend Lucy.  Have I missed something.  Who is Lucy?!

It’s a nice book, though, and finishes on a nice festive note.   I’d still like to see a book about that term with Marilyn as HG, though!

Malory Towers Christmas special – CBBC

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  This had nothing to do with the books, but it was a very enjoyable bit of festive fun.  I’m so pleased that the TV adaptations have been popular enough to merit a Christmas special.  I grew up in the days when the educational Establishment disapproved of Enid Blyton books, so it’s wonderful to see the iconic stories being rehabilitated into popular culture.   It’s also interesting to see the much-maligned character of Gwendoline Mary being fleshed out and made more sympathetic.

This was just a two-part special in which, for various reasons, the characters featured in the main series ended up spending the Christmas holidays at school, but it carried on the themes of friendship, togetherness and teamwork, which are what the TV adaptations have really emphasised.  And Matron sorting out a broken-down car, and saying that she (like my grandma) drove ambulances during the War (no need for rescue by passing males!), was a nice touch.  It won’t work for purists, because it had nothing to do with Enid Blyton’s writings, but the spirit of the stories was there, and it made for a really lovely hour’s watching.

Dust Up at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley

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This is the second book in the series which began with Three Twins at the Crater School.  The two sets of twins and their friends are now part of the group called The Crew, like that (rather forgettable!) gang in the later Chalet School books.  And we learn that the school’s founder left to marry the head of the Sanatorium.  Of course she did.  Several other mistresses (mistresses, not teachers) have also left to marry doctors.  Of course they did.  In fact, there’s a sister/mother school in Tyrol.  The founder hasn’t got a sister, as far as we know, but the “butting in” role is fulfilled by former Head Girl Rowany de Vere, back at the school after she failed to get into Oxford.

We learn that the colony on Mars has been there for 150 years, and that those on the “First Ship” are venerated rather like those who were on the Mayflower.  There’s a lot of talk about Pioneers, and at one point there was a Long Winter – although there’s no mention of anyone called Ingalls or Wilder 😉 .Not many women carry on working after marriage because, we also learn, Martian society is still rather patriarchal, with careers for married women not being a thing.  And sport for women isn’t really a thing either.  At the same time, Martian women are supposed to be strong, because the colony would never have survived otherwise.  Definitely a bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder there.

It looked as if that was going to be the main theme in this book – the role of women, and the GO trope of the tomboy.   A lot of attention has been paid to this in recent years, since the Malory Towers musical which suggested that Bill Robinson was non-binary or transgender.  Bill turned up with a horse, and possibly inspired the chapter in which the Crater School’s Ella-Stephanie, known at home as Stevie, turns up with a camel.  And there’s Tom Gay at the Chalet School, whose father raised her to be a “gentleman”.  Stevie’s father, a widower in a male-dominated pioneering community, has also raised his daughter more as a boy than as a girl.   But there’s no suggestion that Bill, Tom or Stevie identify as anything other than girls, whereas George Kirrin of the Famous Five is always delighted to be mistaken for a boy.  It’s a big “in” topic … but nothing really happens in this book.  Ellen-Stephanie is determined to be girly and ladylike, but pals up with Pete, who insists on being known as that rather than by her proper name, and is into traditionally boyish things, but that’s about it. Nothing really happens.  Mind you, it never does with Bill or George either.

There’s also a half-Russian girl, Catherine/Ekaterina.  Rowany finds out that Ekaterina/Catherine’s dad wants her to spread Russian propaganda at the school.  But she doesn’t.  Then she runs away.  But all this is in the space of a couple of chapters: we don’t really see her trying to get close to people for her own purposes, as the Chalet School’s Gertrud Beck did.

There’s a storyline about ghost stories and sleepwalking, which is very Chalet-esque. And there’s a big dust storm.  And a Nativity Play, with the issue of an Earth calendar not really working on Mars – and that ends it all on a happy note, with everyone feeling jolly and Christmassy.

I did enjoy the book, but it feel rather bitty.  There are a lot of different elements to it, none of which really extend through the entire course of the book, and it keeps jumping about between them.  It might have been better to have kept the focus on fewer characters, and saved some of the storylines for another book.  But still, it was entertaining enough, and I hope that we see more books in this series.  I think we will.

 

Three Twins at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley

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OK, folks, welcome to the Chalet School on Mars.   I usually avoid sci-fi like the plague, but I gave this a try because it was a school story; and I have to admit that I rather enjoyed it.   The school-on-Mars thing is apparently part of a genre called “steampunk”.

In this universe, Mars, or the Red Raj, is part of the British Empire, and some of the pioneers settling there, and other Britons there temporarily, want a boarding school for their daughters.  Our school, the Crater School of the title, is on the shores of a lake, there’s a sanatorium nearby, girls have to curtsy to the headmistress, and no-one dares mess with the Head Girl or the matron (well, nun, but effectively a matron).  People are “wise in their generation”, “suit their actions to the word”, make a “long arm” to reach things, are fined for using slang and have mishaps with the stationery cupboard.  There’s even a rack-and-pinion railway. This will all sound rather familiar to Chalet School fans, and it’s meant to.

But there are monsters in the lake.  And they eat people.  This is not Briesau, Guernsey,  Armishire, St Briavel’s or the Gornetz Platz.  However, when it comes to escaping from the said monsters, we’re back in familiar territory – difficult climbs and conveniently-placed huts.  And, actually, the monsters are hardly mentioned: no-one seems very bothered about them.  For the most part, it’s pranks, escapades and spy stuff, and general school story issues about settling in at a new school and making friends.

Going back to climbs and huts, there are shepherds, of course.  But, whilst most of the characters are British, the shepherds are Basques, who settled on Mars after fleeing persecution.  Being a historian, I’ve driven myself mad trying to work out when the book’s set.  I should probably accept that it doesn’t necessarily work like that in a sci-fi universe, but I can’t!  It’s not clear to which period of Spanish history the talk of persecution refers.   What we do know is that the colony on Mars dates back to at least the 1840s, because we’re told that Mars sent food to Ireland during the Potato Famine.  There are references to a recent war, but it’s a war that only exists in this universe, between Britain and Russia (which held Venus, which apparently couldn’t be settled, but wanted Mars) – the Great Game War which never happened in reality.  Russia is still ruled by a tsar, and Britain by the “ancient undead Queen” – Victoria. And Russia occupies the moon/moons, presumably once held by Britain, and the father of two new girls is a Lord Haw Haw type figure, broadcasting Russian propaganda over the radio.

There are no mobile phones or computers, inkwells are still in use, and the janitor remembers using candles for light. And one of the Crater School girls has Dolores Ibarruri as middle names.  So …  maybe this is the 1950s, like the Swiss-era Chalet School books?  Or, well, maybe you aren’t meant to worry about time in a sci-fi novel, as I’ve already said.  Probably the latter.  Heigh-ho!

Apparently, this is a sub-genre of sci-fi, called steampunk.  I think I’ve seen adverts for steampunk festivals, but I thought they were something to do with heritage railways.  However, it appears not.  It’s to do with sci-fi involving Victorian technology.  Or something like that.  And what it isn’t is spoof-writing: it’s all meant to be taken seriously.

The three twins are one pair of twins and another girl whose twin is at a different school.  That’s quite an interesting idea: twins loom large in the Chalet School books and in Girls’ Own books in general, but I can’t think of a book in which same sex twins are sent to different schools.  All three have Russian heritage, but it later transpires that their grandparents fled the pogroms.  That, depending on which wave of pogroms it was and how old they were at the time, would fit with this being set in the 1950s, but makes it very odd that the first set of twins have Russian names – Tatiana and Natasha – and say “We’re Russians”.

The two girls with the Haw Haw-esque dad haven’t seen him for years, as their mother took them to Mars to hide from him, but he sends Russian agents to kidnap them.  They’re easily spotted due to their red hair – another nod to the Chalet School – but other girls step in and outwit the kidnappers.  Hurrah!  And the separated twins are reunited: the one originally sent elsewhere is allowed to become a Crater School girl.  Hurrah!

I don’t know anything about steampunk fandom, so I’ve got no idea whether or not a crossover with school stories in general and or the Chalet School in particular is likely to work for the people in it.   However, there’s already a second Crater School book out, so that seems positive.   The whole concept is very strange, but it did actually work quite well for me.

Cherry Tree Perch by Josephine Elder

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This is the second of the three “farm school” books, and the title comes from a cherry tree with two “perches”, where Annis and her best friend Kitty go for a bit of peace and quiet.  We’re told that there are various “dens” around the school grounds, used by individuals or groups of friends, and that everyone else respects that they’re someone’s do not disturb territory.   That sounds wonderful!   The lack of privacy is the worst thing about most fictional schools.  As a little kid, I used to think how wonderful it would be to go to the Chalet School or Malory Towers, but the lack of any sort of private space would have done my head in very rapidly.

There are several dramatic-ish incidents, including several small fires and a grand show, but there’s no big storyline, just a generally entertaining read about a summer term at the Farm School – the fruit-picking (which, oddly, all seems to take place at the same time as year), animal husbandry, pony riding and lessons.  The book emphasises over and over again how wonderful the Farm School is: the teachers are all wonderful (we’re told that they’re *not* perfect, but they’re praised to the hilt), the lack of rules doesn’t seem to cause any problems (although this is tackled in the final book of the trilogy) and helping on the farm is a far better use of time than anything which kids at ordinary schools might do.   But at least there’s plenty of emphasis on the need for hard work and passing exams, which there isn’t in some school stories.

There are some ups and downs in Annis and Kitty’s friendship, mostly involving Kitty’s admiration for newcomer Miss de Vipon, on whom Annis isn’t so keen.  That’s perhaps the theme of the book, the need to learn to share, be that people or things.

It turns out that the fires are being started by Kenneth, Kitty’s brother who has what would now be called special needs.  That storyline doesn’t sit very well with modern sensibilities, but the book’s over 80 years old, and Annis shows great understanding in accepting that he meant no harm, and hushing it up in case people started saying that he should be sent to an institution.

Annis accepts Miss de Vipon in the end, but Miss de Vipon obligingly moves away, and Annis and Kitty’s friendship continues on its way.  And the final chapter also includes a scholarship win and an engagement.

I’ve really enjoyed the Farm School series.  It’s not going to become a big part of my life, but these are three very enjoyable books and I’d recommend them all.

Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder

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This is one of the sequels to Exile for Annis,  set at the Farm School which is one of several unconventional fictional schools inspired by Summerhill School.  The school has expanded, and amongst the new pupils are Hans and Johanna, two children brought from Germany to Britain on what we now call the Kindertransport.  Both they and the other new pupils initially struggle to fit into life at the Farm School, and, whilst of course everyone settles in in the end, what happens is quite interesting and thought-provoking.

The timing with the Kindertransport’s actually a bit out, because they arrive at the start of the 1938/39 academic year, three months before the transports began.  That can be forgiven, though.  The book was published in 1940 and, with most children’s authors either writing spy stories or ignoring the war and the build-up to war, this book, with its focus on refugees, would have been something different.

We see contrasting attitudes from the children.  Johanna is happy and grateful to be in Britain, but Hans is initially suspicious of the British due to hearing Great War stories whilst growing up; and, the children being from a wealthy family, he resents the fact that they no longer live in a big house with servants and luxuries.  That’s very interesting.  It’s not unrealistic that a child might have felt like that, but I think that an author today would be afraid to present a refugee in a negative way for fear of a backlash, even though it’s explained that Hans is reacting like this because he’s afraid and unsettled and struggling to come to terms with what has happened to him and his family..

Meanwhile, Annis has been elected as the first female president of the school.  The book is very supportive of women’s rights: Annis learns to drive, and insists that girls should be allowed to play whatever sports they like.  We also see that several female former pupils have gone on to university, and that Annis herself is hoping to go to Cambridge, to study sciences.  We also get arguments in favour of food and drink using only natural ingredients, with mutterings about not wanting beer produced in test tubes: that again seems like a very modern view in a book from over 80 years ago.  Comments about “peasants” and “gippos” are more dated.  I’m not trying to judge the book by today’s standards, just interested in the views on these issues, especially given what an “in” topic women’s sport, in particular, is at the moment.

Other than Annis, no-one actually seems to do very much schoolwork!   They’re either doing farmwork, learning to ride, watching hop-pickers or playing sport.   Very little time seems to be spent in lessons, something which the new pupils find strange and objectionable. To be fair, people with exams coming up are excused from some of the farmwork, but they still seem to do an awful lot of it.  But then there’s trouble when some of the new kids don’t want to get stuck in.

Of course, everyone eventually decides that the school is wonderful, but I’m not sure how realistic it is that people would have sailed through external exams after so little preparation.  And there’s a happy ending for Hans and Johanna.   But it’s not a simplistic book: there’s a lot in it to make the reader think.   The idea in a lot of Girls’ Own books is that everyone should learn to fit in and subjugate their own interests to the common good, but, using beehives as a metaphor, Annis suggests that that would be like living in a totalitarian state, and makes it clear that a balance has to be found between personal interests and group interests. But that’s easier said than done: they run into trouble with packing the apples because there are no rules about it and not enough kids volunteer.   But then is it OK to miss group work to pursue, say, a talent for art?

It’s a very interesting book, which goes a lot deeper than some school stories do.  Of course, all turns out well in the end, but it takes a while to get there.

Jennings Goes To School by Anthony Buckeridge

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   This is the first Jennings book and my first Jennings book, read for a Facebook group challenge.  I enjoyed it, but not so much so that I’ll be rushing to buy all the others.  The book sees Jennings and his friend Darbishire starting at prep school and having to get used to the written rules, the unwritten rules and the slang.  In sitcom style, Jennings takes everything very literally, there are a lot of mistakes with words, and various misunderstandings result.

It was genuinely funny and I enjoyed reading it.  And I loved our boy saying that he wanted to play for United.  But, as I said, I don’t particularly feel the need to read the rest in the series – although I can see why people do.  Genuinely funny.

Mill Green school stories by Alison Prince

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  I read these in the 1980s, when they were first published, and suddenly felt a random yearning to read them again.  They’re written by Alison Prince, who was a scriptwriter for Trumpton.   Brief pause to recite the names of the Trumpton firemen.  OK, back to the point.  The early books were advertised as being similar to Grange Hill; and I think Armada’s reasoning was that, because of the success of Grange Hill on TV, young readers wanted school stories set at co-ed, comprehensive day schools, rather than the traditional school stories set at single sex private boarding schools.  They never quite caught on, though, which was a shame because they really weren’t bad at all.

Mill Green is a fairly new and probably fairly small (it only seems to have one form per year, although, confusingly, one book suggests that there are 800 pupils!) school in an unspecified part of the UK – I think it’s Northern England, but it doesn’t say and they aren’t many clues.  The school itself is in the middle of nowhere, with pupils travelling in by bus from nearby towns and buses.  The bus trips are a big part of the day, which was very much the case at my school but which you obviously don’t get in boarding school novels.  They focus on a group of first years, who later go into the second year, with older kids only really featuring as bullies picking on the younger kids.   A small number of teachers also feature, notably Mr Potter, our gang’s form master; and parents feature in minor roles.

The books wouldn’t win any awards for the quality of writing: the  word “said” appears umpteen times on every page.  However, the main characters are appealing, and the stories, whilst only short, make for entertaining reading.  They aren’t particularly moralising, as traditional school stories are, nor hard-hitting as some of Grange Hill’s are, but they’re strong enough to keep the reader’s attention.  Each book involves a school project/extra-curricular activity, plus a bit of a mystery.  There’s a slight feeling of the Five Find Outers about solving the crimes and mysteries.  In the first book, the school’s trying to promote gardening/farming in the grounds, and there’s an arsonist on the loose.  In the second book, the school’s putting on a pantomime, and there’s a new girl who clearly isn’t what she claims to be.  And so on.

There are only five books in total.   I enjoyed them in the 1980s and I enjoyed reading them again.   But, whilst American books set in “ordinary” schools – Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, etc – seem to go down well, these just didn’t catch on in the way that boarding school books did, and it wasn’t because of a lack of marketing by Armada.   Maybe kids in the UK just prefer reading traditional school stories.

There are five in all:

Mill Green on Fire
Mill Green on Stage
A Spy at Mill Green
Hands off Mill Green!
Rock on, Mill Green

They’re very 1980s, with a lot of the emphasis being on the technology of the time.  I don’t know what kids of the 2020s would make of that!   But they’re really not bad, as I’ve said, and it’s a shame that they never became more popular.  I’ve enjoyed revisiting them..

 

How To Be True by Daisy May Johnson

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This, written by Daisy May Johnson, is a sequel/companion novel to How To Be Brave.  The main character is Edie Berger, the French girl who featured in the previous books as one of Calla North’s best friends.  It’s written in the same quirky way, with a lot of footnotes and a lot of comments from the narrator, but most of it’s set not at the school but during a school trip to France –  in which the girls become involved in trying to catch an art thief, and, in doing so, hear about Edie’s grandmother’s wartime history.

This involves a German family called Mercier.  That’s a very French-sounding name for a German family, but I did wonder if there was a tribute being paid to Odette Mercier of the Chalet School books, as the grandmother’s first name is Odette.  Maybe I’m overthinking things!    The Chalet School, Malory Towers and several other Girls’ Own books are referenced, though.  And how’s this for a 21st century twist on things? – rather than being abroad on colonial or missionary service, or, as Trebizon updated things for the late 20th century, having been posted to Saudi Arabia, Edie’s parents are absent because they’re “activists” and are off protesting.

The style of Daisy May Johnson’s books is very much her own, and her books, unlike traditional girls’ boarding school stories, don’t take themselves seriously in the slightest, but they carry the traditional Girls’ Own messages of friendship, teamwork, and good winning out over bad.  And it’s wonderful that people are still writing boarding school books for children.  In my day, in the 1980s, teachers didn’t really approve of our reading school stories, and it was held that boarding school books were too “elitist”.   Kids were supposed to want stories about comprehensives, like TV’s Grange Hill.   Alison Prince wrote a series called Mill Green, set at a school rather like Grange Hill: the books weren’t bad, but they never really caught on in the way that Malory Towers, St Clare’s, the Chalet School etc had done.   Now there seems to have been a swing back towards boarding school stories.  I think J K Rowling can take a lot of the credit for that, but it’s good to see other authors getting in on it too.

This is currently on a Kindle special offer, so, if you fancy reading it, it’s a good time!   Thank you to Daisy May, and long live boarding school stories!