Book of the Week: Dimsie, Head Girl

For this week’s BotW, we’re back in the world of the boarding school books that I love so much, after I happened upon this on the collectible shelf of the charity shop last week for the bargain price of £2.  My love of the Chalet School, Drina books and boarding school and ballet books in general is well known, but I’d never had a chance to read any of the Dimsie series – which was out of print by the time I was old enough to read them.  This is the sixth book in the series, and so probably not the best place to start, but I’m not one to let a trifle like that stop me!

Colour illustration from the front of Dimsie, Head Girl

Who hasn’t felt a bit confused when reading a Girl’s Own book? The illustration is lovely though.

Dimsie is a prefect at Jane Willard Foundation, and the start of this book sees the prefects shaken by the unexpected departure of the head girl Erica and her replacement with the dreamy second prefect Jean.  The title gives it away that Jean’s reign may not be a long one, but it’s a lot of fun watching how it all unfolds.  Dimsie is a butter-inner, slightly lacking in tact, but utterly devoted to her school.  When she sees that Jean isn’t pulling her weight in the way that she should be, she tries to set the Head girl on the right track.  When one of the new prefects proves to be too officious and inflexible in her dealings with the younger girls, it’s Dimsie who tries to sort the situation out.  To be honest, I’m surprised she wasn’t Erica’s replacement in the first place – except for the fact of course that that if she had, the author wouldn’t have had a book!

It wouldn’t be a boarding school book without the Middles causing trouble – here it takes the form of insubordination to the prefects, illegal pet keeping and midnight feasts.  What more could you want?  And yes, this is a slightly higher level of spoilers than I usually give out – but to be honest, I can’t  imagine that many of you are going to be able to lay your hands on a copy of this!  Which is a shame really, because it’s not half bad – some of it is funny in a way the author didn’t intend but that’s one of the joys of reading a book written for children in the 1920s now!  It does have some of the usual problems of outdated language and a very homogeneous cast, but that’s sadly to be expected in a children’s book of this era and it’s by no means as bad as some.

My copy of Dimsie, Head Girl

Im inclined to think that this was a proper bargain for £2.

This was my Dorita Fairlie Bruce book, and I suspect it won’t be my last – I’ve already been playing on the used book websites to see if I can find more.  Because of course what I need at the moment is more books.  Of course it is.  The big worry is if it sends me off down another rabbit hole of classic school story authors that I haven’t read.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week: Mistletoe and Murder

I know, you all looked at my list of books I read last week and just knew that this was going to be my pick for BotW didn’t you?  So sue me.  Today feels momentous and a little terrifying with what is going on in the world, and what better way to take your mind off what may or may not be about to occur than a charming children’s novel about school girls solving mysteries.

Mistletoe and Murder

A Christmas book in early November? Bite me.

Long standing readers will be familiar with my love of Robin Stevens’ Wells and Wong series (see here, here, here and here) and Mistletoe and Murder (which incidentally shares its name with a Daisy Dalrymple mystery which is also very good) is the fifth installment in the series and sees the girls spending their Christmas holidays at Cambridge visiting Daisy’s brother.  But of course the girls can’t help but run into an investigation – this time in competition with their rivals at the Junior Pinkertons.  But soon suspicious accidents have turned deadly and the girls are in a race against time to figure out who did it and why.

I’ve said before that these books are the perfect blend of Agatha Christie and St Clares stories and I stand by that – they’re brilliant and inventive and I wish they’d been around when I was the “right” age.  I practically gobbled this up in one sitting, which was a mistake  because I’d already read the Halloween short story and now I have to wait months and months and months for the next one.  This would make the perfect Christmas book for the young reader in your family – or the big kid if you’re like me.  It’s the perfect escape from the trials and tribulations of the grown-up world.


But if you’re not into middle grade fiction (more fool you) and still want some escapism, I can also heartily recommend Gail Carriger’s latest novella – Romancing the Inventor – in which we see one of the most beloved side characters in her steampunk world, Madame Lefounx, finally get over the pesky Angelique and find love again.  It probably works best if you’ve read the Parasol Protectorate series, will work even better if you’ve also read the Finishing School series.  I loved it – it’s a great, fun love story with some guest appearances from old favourites.  What more could you want?

Robin Stevens’ Wells and Wong books should be available where ever children’s books are sold (if they’re not, ask them why), but here are links to Mistletoe and Murder on Amazon, Kindle, Waterstones, Foyles and Kobo.

Romancing the Inventor is one of Gail Carriger’s self published works – so it’s not quite as available in the shops, but you can get it on Kindle and on Kobo or special order it in paperback from AmazonWaterstones and Foyles.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week: Judith Teaches

Gosh this was so hard this week.  My favourite book I read last week was one I read to review for Novelicious (which is returning to the internets in full force very shortly) and my rules dictate that I can’t make that my book of the week here as well.  My second favourite book of last week was the second Corinna Chapman book – and my rules dictate that I can’t pick that because I picked that series last week.  So after that it’s not so much Book of the Week as Book I Quite Liked of the Week.  And that’s not really in the spirit of the thing.  I was prepared to cheat if I managed to finish one of the books I had on the go on Monday morning, but I didn’t so I couldn’t justify that either.

So what I’ve decided to do is write about Judith Teaches by Mabel Esther Allen – which I read last week and which interests me on a few levels.  Judith Teaches was part of a series of career books for girls published by Bodley Head in the 50s.  Various different authors wrote the books which each feature a different career suitable for young ladies to do before they got married (and had to give up working to look after their husbands).  Other titles in the series cover jobs like floristry, farming and modelling as well as some  becoming a doctor or being a veterinary student.

Judith Teaches by Mabel Esther Allan

My newly reissued paperback copy of Judith Teaches. Check out the retro!

Judith Teaches covers the first year of the teaching of Judith and her friend Bronwen who get jobs at a secondary modern school straight out of training college.  They have a friend who is already teaching at the same school who they share a flat with, and although the book mostly focuses on Judith you hear about the other girls lives as well.  The three are clearly Nice Well Brought Up Grammar School/Boarding School girls who have a bit of a culture shock with the pupils at their new school (dirty! desperate to leave school to go work in the factory! not interested in reading! can’t spell!) and some of these sections feel very of their time.  But it does cover the potential ups and downs of teaching in a way that would have given the school girls that it was aimed at a realistic look at what they might be letting themselves in for – not all the children will be clever, not all the other teachers will be friendly, it will be stressful and tiring and you won’t be able to please everyone – in a way that you don’t get in boarding school books (which as regular readers will know Mabel Esther Allen also wrote along with my beloved Drina books).

I don’t think I knowingly read a career book as a child – unless Shirley Flight, Air Hostess counts – as the only ones I ever remember seeing were about nursing and that only interested me (as a weekend job, while being a teacher during the week) for a few days when I was about 6, so I’m not sure how representative this is of the genre, but Judith Teaches gave me several interested hours of reading – and a few wry smiles.  It also made me realise how far the world has come for women in 50 years.  After all, no one’s going to expect me to give up my job if I get married and I don’t think anyone would think I’m over the hill yet.  There’s still a long way to go – but I like to hope that my sort-of-nieces who are at primary school today won’t need a book to tell them that they could be a doctor if they wanted to.

Anyway, Judith Teaches has just been republished by Girls Gone By if you’re geeky like me and want to have a peruse for yourself.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week: Carry On

I know it isn’t that long since I had Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl as BotW, but I loved this so much I couldn’t not pick Carry On – the book about the characters that Cath was writing about in Fangirl.  But you don’t need to have read Fangirl to understand Carry On as they’re separate entities – and there’s no cross over (or at least I didn’t notice any) between the story of this and the fan-fiction that Cath wrote in Fangirl (Rowell has said that this is Canon not fan fic).

So good that I read it on the train at 4.30 in the morning.

Paperback copy of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

So, Simon Snow is returning to Watford School of Magicks for his final year.  But his girlfriend has broken up with him, his mentor wants to move him to safety away from the school and his roommate-cum-arch-nemesis hasn’t turned up – which Simon would be loving except that he’s a bit worried about him.  Then there’s the ghosts that keep turning up and the fact that the Evil Magic that’s trying to destroy the world (and particularly Simon) is still out there.

Now if this sounds a bit familiar to you, in Fangirl the Simon Snow series had a similar sort of world impact that the Harry Potter series did/does – so yes, it’s about a school for Wizards, and a Chosen One and his friends.  But it’s also not the same.  Magic works differently, the Baddie is different and the general dynamic is different and it’s not going to all work out the same (I don’t think that’s a spoiler).  As I was reading this I was reminded of how much I loved the Harry Potter series when it first came out, and how much fun there is to be had from a YA series about a Chosen One and which doesn’t feature a dystopian future world where everything has gone to pot.  And its been hard to find books like this – or at least I’ve found it hard.

I raced through this – reading pretty much 400 pages of it in practically one sitting (I stopped for dinner and Olympics) because I wanted to know what happened.  I suspect Harry fans may have a love/hate relationship with it – I wouldn’t describe myself as a super passionate fan* but I really liked it.  In fact I wish there were more books about Simon and Baz and their time at the school.  It did what I want an adventure-y thriller-y book for children/youngadults to do – it has a strong core group of characters with strengths and weaknesses (who compliment each other but also don’t always agree), who have challenges to overcome.  There is peril and adults are around but some of them are the problem and the rest might not be able to fix it.

I can’t guarantee that if you like Harry Potter you’ll like this, but equally I don’t think you have to like Harry to give this a try – if you like chosen one stories, quest stories, adventure stories then this one may well be for you.  And it should be everywhere.  My copy came from Tesco, but it’s also on Amazon, Kindle, Waterstones, Foyles, and Kobo.

*I own all the books (some in German and French as well), I reread Azkhaban fairly regularly and the other early books to a lesser extent, but don’t reread the end ones as much.  I’ve seen most of the films (but not the last one), I haven’t bought the script for Cursed Child, but I have tried to buy tickets to see it and I haven’t been to any Harry theme parks or attractions.

Book of the Week: Curtain Up

I’m back in the world of children’s books for this week’s BotW and Noel Streatfeild’s Curtain Up or Theatre Shoes as it’s called in the US and some newer editions here. I was sure that I had already read this – but it turns out, I hadn’t and it had been sitting on my children’s book shelf unread.  A travesty.

copy of Curtain Up

The book has a plastic protective cover, so the photo isn’t great – but it’s so pretty I had to have a photo!

So, Curtain Up tells the story of the Forbes children – Sorrel, Mark and Holly.  Their mother is dead, their father is missing in the Second World War.  They had been living with their grandfather, but when he dies, they’re sent to live with their other grandmother – part of their mother’s family who they’ve never met.  When they arrived in London, they discover that she is an actress and that she intends for them to follow in her (and their mother’s) footsteps and make a career on the stage. They’re not all happy about this – and life with their grandma is very different from what they’re used to and the book follows them as they get used to their new life – and discover some new interests along the way.

If you read any Noel Streatfeild as a child (or an adult) it will probably have been Ballet Shoes,the story of the three Fossil sisters – Pauline, Petrova and Posy – and you’ll re-encounter these three (albeit at a distance) here, along with their theatre school. It’s a fun and sweet story which features rationing and wartime problems as well as the workings of the world of child actors. I love this sort of story – although today’s children may find bits of it strange – unless they’ve done the Home Front at school already!

I think my favourite Streatfeild may still be White Boots (Skating Shoes) but that’ may be because there are a lot of books about dancers and the theatre and not many at all about figure skating (I wish I could have been a figure skater, but even if my mother had sent me for lessons my flexibility, athleticism, build and height would’ve ruled me out pronto) but all the “Shoe” books I’ve read are great stories, well told that children can wish they were a part of, and adults can enjoy as well.

You should be able to get a copy of Curtain Up – probably badged as Theatre Shoes from any book shop with a good children’s department, Amazon have copies under both names –  new copies of Theatre Shoes, a Kindle edition and second hand copies as Curtain Up. I suspect the bigger second hand book shops would be able to help too.  Happy reading!

Book of the Week: Chiltern School

This week’s Book of the Week is Mabel Esther Allen’s Chiltern School.  Regular readers will already be aware of my love of the classic school story and this one last week was a real treat for my sleepy post-nightshift brain.

Chiltern School tells the story of Rose Lesslyn – who has lived with her grandparents since her mother died and her father moved to work abroad to get away from his pain (as people frequently seemed to do in books in this era).  Her father decides that she needs to go to school – much to her grandmother’s dismay – and she’s dispatched from her home on the Isle of Wight to a rather progressive (for the 1950s anyway) school in the middle of the Chiltern hills.  There she struggles to fit in but eventually finds her feet, makes friends and (re)discovers a hidden talent.

Chiltern School was written in the 1950s – and sold to a publisher, but never published until Allen published it privately in the 1990s.  And she was only able to do that because of the success of a reissue of another of her series – the Drina books in the 1990s.  The Drina series (the subject of one of my very early posts on the blog) were written under one of her pen names – Jean Estoril.  I had no idea about this until I read the forward of this book – I’d bought it because I’d really enjoyed another of her (many) other books The View Beyond My Father (about a young blind girl escaping from her domineering father in the 1910s) back in primary school days.  I was thrilled to discover that my love of the Drina series in the early 90s had meant that Allen had money to do this in her old age – and that someone who’s books I’d liked so much had written so much more than I thought!

And Rose does have similarities to my beloved Drina (that series started 7 years later). Both live with their grandparents – with a stern grandmother and a kindlier grandfather, although both of Drina’s parents are dead as opposed to just one of Rose’s (there are a lot of dead parents in children’s books of this era).  And trying not to give too much of the plot away here, Drina doesn’t know about her background at the start of the series but later choses to keep it secret – while Rose knows but doesn’t tell.

Both also feature the Chilterns – Drina’s ballet school has a boarding department there, where she stays in Drina Dances in Exile (the green book as it always is in my head because of it’s cover) and where she returns to several times in later books to visit friends.  Now since reading Drina, I have acquired a boyfriend who comes from that part of the world – so I got an extra level of enjoyment from Chiltern School’s mentions of places that his family live or have lived and where we have been.  And the area is a big feature in the book – it’s beautifully described – you can practically feel the wind rushing through your hair as Rose and her friends cycle around.

It’s not perfect – it is of it’s time and is not as diverse as you would (hope to) find a children’s book written now would be.  But Allen’s writing style is charming and every readable – this is a fun romp that will make you wish you could have gone to boarding school (in the 1950s) with Rose and all her friends.  That is if you couldn’t be a ballerina and be Drina…

My edition was published by Girls Gone By – who as I’m sure I’ve said before – specialise in republishing classic children’s stories that are now out of print.  They do the same for my beloved Chalet School and for authors like Lorna Hill, Malcolm Saville and many more.  Check out their website and see if they’ve done any of your childhood favourites.

I went straight on from this to Allen’s Ballet Family books (bought in the same spending spree back at the start of the year) which appear to have been published under Allen’s name and then reissued under the Estoril pseudonym in the 90s to capitalise on the success of Drina.  I don’t know how I missed them at the time – but they are a cross between Drina and Lorna Hill’s Jane goes to the Wells – with a ballet school that’s not The Royal Ballet and a family of 4 ballet students – who’s mother is still a ballerina.  And I really want to go back and reread the Drina series too.

Happy reading this week!

February Half Term Picks

Happy Half term everyone.  Well if you have a half term.  I’ve got two overtime shifts coming my way and the most I can hope for is slightly emptier commuter trains as parents stay home to look after their children.  But if you do have some free time – maybe you’re even headed away for a few days – here are a few recommendations from me, that I think might make your break even better.

The Little Shop of Happily Ever After by Jenny Colgan

Yes! There’s a new Jenny Colgan book just in time for half-term.  I read it at the start of the week (thank you NetGalley) and fell in love. But then it’s a book about a book-a-holic librarian who starts her own mobile bookshop after getting made redundant. I’m not sure a book could tick more of my boxes if it tried. Maybe if the heroine had a thing for both Angel and Spike from Buffy, or a passion for watching figure skating and motorsport. But that withstanding this is so much fun.  Nina’s adventures as she makes the move from Birmingham to the Scottish Highlands and learns about herself are perfect holiday reading.  This will be everywhere – I’ve already seen it in the supermarket, but here are the traditional links just in case. Amazon, Kindle, Foyles, Waterstones, Kobo.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Escape to New York High Society in the 1950s as Truman Capote takes the world by storm and gathers a group of women for his inner circle.  Follow the trials and tribulations of his life and those of his “swans” over the next 20 years.  The narrative flips between the two time periods and unless you know more about Truman Capote’s later writing than I do, you’ll be trying to work out what it is that he’s done that they’re so annoyed about.  If you liked the glamour of Mad Men and like novels of scheming and intrigue this could keep you intrigued all week. The book paperback comes out on the 24th, but there is a hardback at the moment but the Kindle price was quite good (under £5 at time of writing) – Amazon hardback, Amazon paperback (in case you want to pre-order), Kindle, Waterstones, Kobo.

The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells by Virginia Macgregor

In pretty much any other week, this would have been my Book of the Week, but it had the mis-fortune for me to read it in the same week as Lauren Henderson’s The Black Rubber Dress.  Virginia McGregor’s second novel tells the story of what happens when Norah returns to the family she walked out on six years earlier.  But a lot has changed while she’s been away.  It’s got flawed adults, idealistic teenagers and the adorable Willa who was only a baby when her mum walked out. This is only in hardback at the moment – but I think it’s going to be THE bookclub book when it comes out in paperback, so get ahead of the game and read it now. Amazon, Kindle, Foyles, Waterstones, Kobo.

All Aboard (The Canal Boat Cafe 1) by Cressida McLaughlin

I loved Cressida’s Primrose Terrace series last year and her new serialisation The Canal Boat Cafe makes a really go start with All Aboard. Summer’s returned to the cafe that her mum used to run on a narrowboat.  There are secrets and conflicts and possible romances. And although you don’t have all the answers at the end of part one, it feels like it finishes at a natural break in the story. McLaughlin is confident enough in her story and her characters that she doesn’t end on a big old cliff-hanger out of no-where to make you buy part two because she knows you’ll be intrigued enough to come back for more. This is only in e-book – but it was a bargain 99p at time of writing on Kindle and Kobo,

The Case of the Blue Violet by Robin Stevens

This is one for you if you’ve got a pre-teen that you want to keep quiet for a little while.  Unless like me you’ve got a bit old boarding school story habit.  This is the first Wells and Wong short story and it’s a fun way mini-case that doesn’t involve a murder.  It’s also told from Daisy’s point of view instead of Hazel’s which makes it a bit different too.  And if you haven’t tried Stevens’s 1930s boarding school adventures yet the children that you buy books for haven’t got into Stevens’s 1930s boarding school adventures yet, this may be their gateway.  And you’ve got more three full-length adventures to read before book 4 comes out at the end of March. Another e-book only – Kindle and Kobo.

And finally…

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention last week’s BotW The Glittering Art of Falling Apart – which would make a great read if your on a sunlounger somewhere or enjoying the après-ski. Two women, one in 80s Soho, one in pretty much now trying to save a country house. But what do they have in common? Read the full review here and try not to get OMD’s Enola Gay stuck in your head!  And I mentioned The Black Rubber Dress earlier – it really is very, very good – if you like your murder mysteries smart, funny and 90s cool you’ll love it.

Happy holiday reading and spare a thought for me as I try and weave my way through the ambling and weaving half-term visitors to London on my walk from the station to work and back!