Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

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I’m afraid that I was rather disappointed by this book.  I was quite excited by the idea of a book set in a girls’ day school in Manchester.  From the location, I think the school’s based on the old Central High School.  It had closed down by my day, but I know people of my parents’ generation who went there, and obviously I know Manchester city centre and the other locations mentioned.  If anyone reading this *does* decide to try this book, then yes, Boggart Hole Clough is a real place, and that’s its real name!   And, yes, Lewis’s was a real shop … it was a lovely shop, and I can’t quite believe that it’s been twelve years since it closed down.

And I knew that there was a supernatural element, but I thought that that might work quite well.  A lot of teenagers are interested in the supernatural.  I know that some girls at my school did try using ouija boards, although that was possibly due more to the Morrissey song than anything else!  However, unfortunately, the style of writing in this book was rather poor, and the storyline was rather weak and didn’t really hang together.

The book’s had some good reviews, so maybe I’m missing something; but I just wasn’t very impressed by it.

It started off as a poor man’s Judy Blume book, with a lot of talk about X being friends with Y, X and Y not liking Z, parents and teachers thinking that X was a bad influence on Y, and so on.   The protagonist, Sally, was friendly with a girl called Pamela, who was seen as being a bit rough.  They didn’t get on with a girl called Sylvia, and Pamela played a nasty prank which caused Sylvia a lot of distress.  However, there was also some talk about ghosts in the toilets (why would ghosts be in school toilets, of all places?), and Sally started to think that Sylvia had a doppelganger, because she was sure that she’d seen her in two places at once.   Then, apparently under the influence of the fake Sylvia, Pamela took her own life by jumping off the school roof.  Sylvia had a nervous breakdown and left school.  It was clear that something was very wrong with both girls’ home lives, but we never really found out exactly what.

We then fast forwarded through Sally’s university years, to a time when the school had closed down and the building had been converted with flats, and Sally had reunited with Rob, her old boyfriend from her schooldays.  And, whaddaya know, he was living in one of the flats in the old school building.  Sally moved in with him, but kept thinking that she could feel a supernatural presence there.   Rob tried to help by tracking down Sylvia, and it ended up with Sally tripping down some stairs to her death, and Rob and Sylvia getting together.

Sorry, but I didn’t get it.  I think we were meant to feel that the portrayal of Sally’s terror and her uncertainty about what was real and what was her imagination were very powerful, but it just didn’t work for me.  Oh well, we can’t all like the same things!

The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.

 

St Clare’s fill-ins/sequels by Pamela Cox

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Oh dear, I was no more impressed by these than I was by the Pamela Cox Malory Towers books.  Maybe I’d have loved them if I’d read them when I was about 7, but I’m not convinced.  Alison O’Sullivan (whom I always liked) being followed about by a girl from a lower form, OK, and an aristocratic girl pretending to be a commoner, OK, but an Irish girl turning up at the school, talking in a comedy Irish accent and bringing her pet goat with her was a step too far!   Seriously, a pet goat?  I suppose we should be relieved that it wasn’t a pet pig.  And as if Miss Theobald would have allowed someone to bring a goat to school.

And they just didn’t sync with the original books.  The books are set in the 1940s.  No-one in Britain in the 1940s went around talking about “the guys at school”, and upper middle class girls in Britain in the 1940s did not refer to their parents as “Mum and Dad”.

Maybe the idea was to make the books “accessible”, but I never get the “accessible” argument.   When I was reading school stories at the age of 8 or so, no-one in my world went to schools like the Chalet School, with its glorious mountain scenery, or Malory Towers, with its seawater-fed swimming pool, or indeed to any boarding school at all, but that was what made the books attractive.  I didn’t want to read about kids like me, living on housing estates, going to schools with gravel playgrounds at the side of busy main roads – I wanted something a lot more exotic!   And what’s “accessible” about inappropriate language?  Would you show characters in a book in the 1940s using mobile phones and watching films on Netflix?!

I didn’t find them very well-written, either.  Everything was just a bit wooden.

On the plus side, they were light reading, and entertaining in their way.  But some fill-ins/sequels written by different authors stand up quite well by comparison to the original books, and these, unfortunately, don’t.  There’s better Enid Blyton fanfic available online.

 

The School on the Moor by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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OK … this is an ordinary school story, from 1931, which bizarrely turns into a cross between Escape from Alcatraz and Raiders of the Lost Ark before reverting to being, er, an ordinary school story!   It’s quite a well-written book, but the mixture of genres is a bit bizarre.

Our heroine is Toby, short for Tabitha.  What is it with boyish “shorts” in Girls’ Own books?  I mean, what’s wrong with “Tabby”?!  Toby is the new girl.  It’s a little bit different from standard school stories in that i) Toby is in the VIth form and ii) she is a day girl at a boarding school.  Oh, and there’s a bit of animal stuff thrown in as well – Toby has a pony, and an anthropomorphic dog (which, again, seems rather odd in a school story) rejoicing in the name of Algernon.

It starts off in a standard sort of way.  Toby has a boyish name, and a widowed father, and has never been to school before.  She’s keen to get in with the in crowd, and hopes to do so by virtue of playing well in a tennis match … but her hopes are thwarted by someone else’s misdeeds, and she can’t clear her name without sneaking.  Of course, it all comes out in the end: Toby’s name is cleared, she gets her place on the tennis team, and she gets to be everyone’s friend.

There’s a sub-plot about a girl who wants to go to art college but can’t afford it, and, of course, that all ends up happily, thanks to Toby.  And there’s a prestigious prize, which, needless to say, Toby wins.  And there are some naughty younger girls, and a bully who, thanks of course to  who else but good old Toby, meets her just deserts.

So that’s all standard stuff, and all makes for good reading if you like school stories.  However, we’ve got two very odd sub-plots thrown in.  One involves Ursula Grey and Lesley Musgrave, who feature in the Dimsie books but are now in their 20s, Lesley being one of Toby’s teachers and Ursula being a famous cellist.  A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor jail (the school’s in that area), and it turns out that he is Lesley’s brother and Ursula’s fiance, and has been wrongly convicted.  Of course, he comes across Toby, who, rather than screaming blue murder, can tell just from looking at him that he’s as pure as the driven snow.  She, Lesley and Ursula arrange for an old school chum of his, who has a small private plane which can be landed on the moor – as you do – to rescue him and fly him off to relatives in Africa.

On top of that, Toby thinks that the Ark of the Covenant is hidden on Dartmoor.  Now, I thought that the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be in Ethiopia.  Yes, I know that Indiana Jones went looking for it in Egypt, but that was presumably just because it worked better for the purposes of the film.  But apparently there’s a legend that it was taken to Tara.  That’s *the* Tara, the one in Ireland, not Gerald O’Hara’s plantation.

I have to confess that I’d never heard of this idea, but, according to the “oracle” that is Wikipedia, “Between 1899 and 1902, adherents of British Israelism dug up parts of the Hill of Tara in the belief that the Ark of the Covenant was buried there, doing much damage to one of Ireland’s most ancient royal and archaeological sites”.  I mean, we all know that the Holy Grail is buried somewhere near Glastonbury, right?  And that the descendants of Aeneas, the “hero” (he’s such a wimp!) of the Aeneid, came to Britain?  And were the ancestors of King Arthur, whose sword is probably also somewhere near Glastonbury?  Evidently a very popular place, Glastonbury.  I went there a couple of years ago.  Nice vegetable pasties.

Anyway, this idea obviously *did* exist, and Dorita Fairlie Bruce had obviously come across it.  So Toby has heard some sort of local story that, rather than being taken to Ireland, the Ark was taken to Dartmoor.  And she thinks she’s found it.  I suppose it makes about as much sense as some of the things that happen in the Enid Blyton “Secret” and “Adventure” books, but it just doesn’t fit into an ordinary school story at all.   Not quite as bad as someone vanishing into space in a Chalet School book, but not far off.

However, at this point, Dorita Fairlie Bruce does return us to reality, and it turns out that what Toby has found are some items removed from a local church in the mid-17th century, and hidden to protect them from Cromwell’s troops, and that the local story which Toby has heard has got tangled up with the Lost Ark thing because the bloke who hid the church stuff was, like the prophet who’s supposed to have hidden the Lost Ark, called Jeremiah.  If anyone’s actually reading this, are you still with it?  It’s really not the kind of thing you expect to come across in a school story!

The sub-plots were crazy and really didn’t belong in the book.  It would have been enough to have said that Toby had come across some buried treasure which turned out to be from the Civil War period, and the escaped prisoner storyline wasn’t needed at all.  But it’s always nice to learn something new, and I really had never come across that idea of the Ark being in Ireland before!  So, er, there you go!

 

 

Dilly Goes To Ambergate by Margaret Biggs

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Girl from orphanage (a word which seems a little dated even for the 1950s) is given a scholarship to a posh school by a kind trustee.  This one (and this is another Margaret Biggs one-off book, the third of three which I’ve read close together!) sounds as if it *should* be a GO trope, but it actually isn’t.  The only other book I can think of which uses this storyline, and even then it’s college rather than school, is Daddy Long Legs.  How I adored that book when I was a kid!  Now, I find Jervis Pendleton’s behaviour exceedingly strange and really rather creepy.  But anyway.

I quite enjoyed this book.  Dilly, the main character, was very believable, and so were the other girls, the teachers, and the various other characters such as the kind trustee.  However, the plot was just a bit too twee, for lack of a better word.  Dilly, like Amanda at Malory Towers, went swimming in the sea, nearly drowned, and was rescued by a girl whom she’d previously disliked.  She was wrongly accused of stealing something, and then cleared.  She dramatically scored the winning goal in a lacrosse match, despite having suffered an injury and fainted on the pitch.  Despite never having ridden before, she soon became such a wonderful rider that she almost won a competition, but threw it to allow a friend a longed-for moment of glory.  And, of course, she fell foul of snobs, but won them over.

By the time I got towards the end end, I was starting to feel that the book should have been called Dilly Pulls It Off, because it was starting to feel like a spoof.

And then, at the end, the kind trustee and his wife, whose daughter had become Dilly’s best friend, decided to adopt Dilly and give her a family of her own.  Someone writing in Edwardian times might have got away with it, but it was all just a bit too tropey and predictable for a book written in the 1950s.  Good characterisation, silly plot!

Bobby at Hill House by Margaret Biggs

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This is another one-off school story from Margaret Biggs.  It’s a collection of tropes of the genre; but they’re put together very well, and the characters all come across very well.

We’ve got:

  1. The girl who’s known by a boyish “short” – our heroine is Bobby, short for Roberta.
  2.  The girl who’s sent away to school due to a change of circumstances at home – Bobby’s guardian gets married, and his wife decides that she can’t cope with looking after a teenage girl.   Unusually, with fictional boarding schools usually being in the countryside, Bobby is sent from Cornwall to London: Hill House is in Highgate.
  3.  The new headmistress who shakes things up – Miss Bennett relaxes a lot of rules and gives the girls more choices in what they do.
  4. The girl who thinks she’s a cut above the others – Julia’s family have been involved with Hill House from the start, and she isn’t impressed by the changes.
  5. The girl from a poor background who thinks that others will judge her as a result – this is Stephanie, known (see plot point 1) as Steve rather than as Steph or Stephie.  Mind you  Stevie Nicks isn’t Steph or Stephie either, but the book predates Fleetwood Mac!
  6.  The girl with no confidence, who turns out to be absolutely brilliant at something  – this is Davida, known (see plot point 1 again!) as Davey, who turns out to be a brilliant pianist.
  7. The unexpected long-lost eelationship – it turns out that Miss Bennett and Bobby’s guardian’s wife are old schoolfriends who have lost touch.
  8. The nasty teacher – Miss Merton, who eventually leaves.
  9. The teacher who marries a pupil’s widowed father – Miss Bennett gets together with Julia’s dad.
  10. The childhood sweetheart – it’s hinted that Bobby will eventually marry Flip (Philip), John’s other ward … which is a bit icky because, although there’s no blood relationship, they’ve grown up together as siblings.
  11. The happy ending – everyone starts to get on.

That sounds as if I’m being sarcastic.  I’m really not.  It’s a lovely book, and the tropes are all fairly realistic ones – no-one turns out to be a princess in disguise, or runs away and falls over a cliff, or anything like that!    Not bad at all.

 

 

Christmas Term at Vernley by Margaret Biggs

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Most school stories, apart from the early ones written by Angela Brazil et al, are series, but this one’s a one-off.  Probably for that reason, it’s not particularly well-known; but it really isn’t bad at all, and it’s quite original.  There are a few real tropes in it – one of our heroines rescues someone who’s fallen through the ice (this is in the Home Counties, not Jo March’s New England or Jo Bettany’s Tyrol, but, hey, there have been winters when it’s been cold enough to skate in the Home Counties!), and the other one confuses salt with sugar – but the main plotline is something refreshingly different.

The school is divided into two houses, and one of the houses always wins everything, whilst the other one never wins anything.  It seems rather unlikely that, year on year, one house should be better at academic work, sport, and even organising firework displays on Bonfire Night …  but, as we see all too often with football teams, you do get these crises of confidence which not even a major change of personnel seems to help to solve.

In the term in question, Judy, the new house captain of the house which always loses, is determined to change things, as is her younger sister Philippa.

There are various adventures – some at the school, some at the nearby village (in which all the locals seem remarkably keen to help out the schoolgirls, even giving a “penny for the guy” when they’re ordinary working folk and the girls are from very wealthy families), some on a school trip to London and some when our two heroines go out for tea with their brother.  Then, needless to say, the losing house wins out in the end, at the last minute, and the girls from the two houses become friends rather than just seeing each other as rivals.

So there’s nothing really unexpected, but at least none of it’s unrealistic – apart from the bit where they accidentally set off a load of fireworks indoors but somehow manage not to set the place on fire – and the characters are all very believable.  And it’s rather enjoyable.

It’s quite a shame that it isn’t part of a series, although a lot of the characters would have been leaving at the end of the academic year anyway, but it’s a pretty good one-off school story.   Not an all-time classic, but a lot better than many individual books in series which are memorable.  I’ve got another two books by this author, and am looking forward to reading them.

Terry’s Best Term by Evelyn Smith

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This is a gentle school story from the 1920s, in which not much actually happens … but, somehow, it doesn’t need to happen.   None of the pupils turn out to be the long-lost daughters of dukes, no-one gets caught in a blizzard, and no-one even scores a dramatic last minute winner in a lacrosse match.  In fact, there aren’t any sports events.  Or concerts.  And there aren’t really many lessons.

The main point of the story is that Terry (Teresa) wants to make friends with Julia, the new girl who’s moved in next door and who also attends the same school as her.  Terry’s family live in the Square House and Julia’s family live in the Round House, which sounds like something out of Play School, but never mind.  There’s a fruit sale, and there are a few incidents with Julia’s horse.  And Terry, Julia and Julia’s brother all save up to buy a car together.  As you do.  The two girls are as interested in the mechanics as the boy is, and no-one finds that odd – which is quite impressive, considering that it was deemed a huge big deal in the mid-1980s when Kylie Minogue played a female car mechanic in Neighbours!  Oh, and, at the end, there are some burglaries, but the police rapidly apprehend the burglar, and all his victims are immediately reunited with their stuff.

It sounds boring, but somehow it isn’t.  It’s just nice and gentle.

 

Malory Towers sequels by Pamela Cox

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I’ve now read all six of these, having read the first one a while back.   They’re readable, but I’m not overly impressed.  I’m not sure that Malory Towers particularly lends itself to sequels, because its “world” just isn’t big enough.  We only know the basics about the girls’ home lives, and the action all takes place on or near the school premises.  There aren’t even any school trips.  Pamela Cox does try to address that issue by placing Bill and Clarissa’s riding school close to Malory Towers and showing the girls spending time there, but it hardly compares to the Chalet School girls’ walks in the mountains or even the Kingscote Guide walks.

The books are about Felicity Rivers and her friends, although Daphne Hope also features in the later ones.   There are midnight feasts, “treeks” being played on Mam’zelle Dupont and various sagas about nasty new girls and mysteries over who’s responsible for things disappearing, plus plenty of tennis and lacrosse matches, but where Malory Towers scores is its realism in showing that people are actually having to work and pass exams, and there’s none of that in these books.  Incidentally, has anyone ever understood the form system at Malory Towers?  It should be either I, II, III etc or Upper III, Lower IV, Upper IV etc, and it seems to be a weird hybrid!

Some of the storyline are OK, but some of them are plain silly.  Gwendoline Lacey returns, to teach deportment and other finishing school type stuff.  Excuse me?   Malory Towers wasn’t into that sort of thing.  Girls were there to have fun and learn to be strong, reliable women etc, but they were also there to work and pass exams, not to learn to be debutantes.   Even worse, Jo Jones returns, using her middle name and her mother’s maiden name, and none of her old classmates recognise her because she’s lost weight and is wearing glasses!    There’s also a story about a long-lost grandma, which is more Angela Brazil than Enid Blyton.  And a teacher who is spying on the girls, and blackmails someone who was expelled from a school at which she taught previously into telling her what’s going on.  Why would a teacher want to spy on pupils?   It’s hardly as if they’re concealing state secrets!

I sound as if I’m being very critical.  I don’t mean to be: it’s just that Malory Towers is a bit of a cultural icon, and it’s strange reading these books which aren’t quite Blyton’s Malory Towers.  They’re not a bad read, but they’re not super-wonderful either.

 

 

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 🙂 .