Malory Towers (Season 4) – CBBC


It’s lovely to see this back for a fourth series.  It’s obviously proven to be a hit – so take that, all ye Blyton naysayers, especially the primary school teachers who used to moan about how much time I spent reading her books!

In the book, new girls Clarissa, Connie and Ruth are in the same form as Darrell & co, but the BBC have put them in the First Form with Felicity, June and Susan.  It’ll upset purists, but I can see why they’ve done it.   I can’t think of any mention of any other girls in that form, other than Jo who doesn’t appear until a later book, and it’d look a bit daft to have a form with only three girls in it!

Also, Darrell’s been made head of the entire Lower School, not just her own form, which gives her authority over Felicity and should make for some interesting sibling interaction.  But I assume that we’re still going to get the “canon” storylines of Connie’s behaviour towards Ruth, Gwen’s wish to be friends with Clarissa. and Darrell losing her temper.

Incidentally, Enid Blyton really muddled her form systems in the fourth book of the series!  We’d had the First Form, the Second Form and the Third Form, but then suddenly we had the Upper Fourth, with Ruth talking about moving up into the Lower Fifth.  Er, no.  If you’re using the Upper IV, Lower V system, Upper IV is the third year and Lower V is the fourth year, and the first and second years are Upper III and Lower IV respectively!  In this adaptation, they were just referred to as “the Fourth Form”!

Anyway, as I said, it’s great to have this back, and I look forward to watching it all!


Carry On by Rainbow Rowell


  I’m not really into “magic school” stories.   I did enjoy the Mildred Hubble books, but I’ve never read any others that I can think of, not even the Harry Potter books.  However, this was part of a reading group book challenge.   So I read it.  And I just didn’t get it.   There was very little background information about the characters, and all sorts of creatures kept being mentioned with no explanation as to how they fitted into the world of the book.   It was as if I’d started the book in the middle, but I hadn’t.  And this was definitely the first in the series, although two of the characters apparently appeared in one of the author’s other books.   It just didn’t flow.

The general idea was that magic was passed down through families, and that the children of those families attended a special magic school, in Watford.  That was the school’s name – Watford.  With all due respect to Watford, which is a perfectly pleasant name, it doesn’t exactly scream “magic” in the way that “Hogwarts” or “Miss Cackle’s Academy” does.   However, Simon Snow had emerged from a children’s home as the most powerful magician there.  But no information at all was given as to how this had come about.   There were three other main characters – Simon’s room-mate Baz, who was from a very well-to-do family but had been bitten by a vampire and was now a vampire himself, Simon’s best friend Penelope, and Simon’s ex-girlfriend Agatha.  Their world was under attack from something called the Humdrum, and there were mentions of numpties, goblins, merwolves and assorted other creatures, with no explanation as to how they fitted into anything.   It also emerged that Baz’s mother had been murdered, and that the pupils were trying to find out why.

It was all just so confused.   Bits of information came at random.   Some never came at all.  It was meant to be a young adult book, so maybe the author was bothered that too much explanation would make it sound as if the book was aimed at younger kids, but it just didn’t hang together.  Also, it kept using “spell” (as in magic spell, not as in to spell a word) as a verb instead of a noun, which really annoyed me.   I’m sure some people will love this book, but it really wasn’t for me.

The New House at Winwood by Clare Mallory



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!

Maeve of the Chalet School by Helen Barber




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


  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


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


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


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


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


   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.