‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Six

Chapter Eleven: The Dovecote at Monk’s Culvery

Patrick is on his way to Monk’s Culvery, via the secret priest tunnel. Presumably the Culver family were also Catholics in the “penal times”, allied with the Merricks, hence the tunnel and the monk reference in the estate’s name. And did you know that “culver” means dove (“Middle English from Old English culufre from Vulgar Latin columbra from Latin columbula, diminutive of columba, dove”)? So Maudie Culver comes from a long line of pigeon people.

Patrick feels “bold and gay” to be trespassing and possibly stealing pigeons, but “the cause was irreproachable”. Still, he can’t help hearing in his head Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s poem about Gallipoli:

“I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die:
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.”

Just to make things even more dangerous, Patrick’s brought with him a throwing knife owned by his dodgy eighteenth-century cousin. Hmm, and we already know that a corpse (or possibly just a badly-wounded person) is going to appear soon on the storeroom floor…

Patrick very courageously climbs the high Dovecote wall (it’s a good thing Peter didn’t take on this task) and manages to break in through a tiny door. He climbs down to the floor and unfortunately falls asleep, which is not surprising given he was up before dawn. Also unfortunately, his watch has stopped working (“as it invariably did when he forgot to wind it”) so who knows how long he stays asleep. When he wakes, he doesn’t find any drugs, but does find a number of Scandaroons, who are most unhappy about a stranger messing around in their house.

Meanwhile, in the storeroom attached to the pigeon lofts, Jukie is talking with Espresso, the Thug’s “premier flutter propagator”, who is feeding a chick half-cooked egg from his own mouth, ugh. Espresso has “skin the colour of milky coffee” because his father, a pigeon expert, is from the Persian Gulf. Jukie mentions he’s grateful that Espresso’s Da put the Thuggery in contact with the Boss Man, allowing them all to make money from drug smuggling, but Espresso says that no, Jukie and the pigeons at Monk’s Culvery were the way his Da “eased in with the Boss Man” and the “big loot”. This is a disquieting surprise to Jukie. I should mention that Espresso appears to be hiding something from Jukie, but he does seem like a nice kid, as far as the Thugs go.

Then Skidskid arrives. He was supposed to be watching Patrick’s house but got spooked by mysteriously moving trees, “woody weirdies ’n they don’t shift while you’re watchin”. Jukie tells him to stay off the drugs. (Clearly none of them is familiar with Macbeth. Jukie, your reign is almost over.) Jukie also explains to the others how the Boss Man put two of his addicted thugs in the “boneyard” – just in case the threat of violence isn’t menacing enough in this chapter.

The Thuggery realise, via a nifty electronic landing-board indicator, that someone or something is disturbing the pigeons in the Dovecote. And as they go to investigate, they’re met by Kinky and friends with their own tale of woe. The Thuggery, thoroughly alarmed, run on towards the Dovecote. Watch out, Patrick!

Chapter Twelve: “Who Do Not Wish To Die”

Ominous chapter titling here. Jukie enters the Dovecote alone and Patrick does pretty well in hand-to-hand combat with him, even managing to grab the harness and drug capsule Jukie had just taken from a pigeon. Patrick bolts out the door and only gets caught because he trips and The Thuggery catch up. Jukie stops them stomping Patrick to death (“We need him conscious cause we need to quiz him”) and they march him back to the storeroom. Patrick does manage to conceal the drugs in his waistband and lie about this convincingly and the Thuggery waste some time trying to find the drug capsule in the dusk.

They also take Patrick’s knife off him and “Patrick thought it had probably not found itself in such congenial company since Cousin Ambrose was turned off at Tyburn”. (I only know the significance of Tyburn due to The Hanging Tree. Thanks, Peter!) Jukie starts to offer his captive a cigarette, but then decides Patrick is too square to smoke:

“You wouldn’t, do you, noddy-boy?”
“No,” agreed Patrick. In fact, he did, occasionally, depending on whom he was with. But this time he wasn’t sure he might not be being offered reefers.”

Ooh, Patrick, you’re so cool! “Depending on whom he was with”! Does he even have any friends, let alone smoking friends? He does know what a reefer is, maybe from eavesdropping at the coffee shop. Although I just looked it up and Reefer Madness came out in 1936, so I suppose the term had been around quite a while by the mid-sixties:

They also have a very disturbing conversation about Lawrie while waiting for Red Ted aka Rigid to return. Apparently Rigid is a ladies’ man:

“…mebbe he’ll give the chicklet a real live whirl. If she’s willin’ of course. ’N then again mebbe even if she’s not.”

They’re talking about raping a thirteen-year-old girl there. Patrick is horrified for a moment:

“Then it occurred to him that even Lawrie would hardly be fool enough to let herself be picked up by a Thug; and even if she hadn’t sense enough she’d still be too scared.”

Firstly, Lawrie was foolish enough and secondly, the Thugs don’t care about consent so it wouldn’t matter how scared she was, and thirdly, she’s a very naïve child, years under the age of consent. This is horrible to read, made bearable only because we know that Lawrie is safe.

Then Rigid returns with the news that Lawrie escaped him and is at the police station. When they ask Patrick what she could have told them, he “politely, insufferably” explains she would have showed them the pigeon, harness and “more truly than he supposed”, the drug capsule.

Panic among The Thuggery! Kinky leads the others in rebellion against Jukie. Jukie will stay to loose the birds the next morning; the others will flee, taking their share of the loot. But Kinky wants Maudie’s share as well, which Jukie refuses to give him, and Mr Luke reveals Kinky’s plan to overthrow Jukie as Top Boy. In the mayhem, Jukie flings Patrick’s knife at Kinky’s back and Kinky collapses. Patrick is the first to reach him:

“[Patrick’s] hand found an inexplicable thing to do. It went into his pocket and found his rosary … He put the rosary into Kinky’s hand and Kinky grasped it and his hand together … Patrick swallowed, crossed himself and stayed beside him, crouching.”

The others drag Kinky’s body into the storeroom, realise he’s dead and freak out. They rush off on their motorbikes, while Jukie takes the time to remove Kinky’s money from his wallet (“He can’t never use it”) and leads Patrick out to the garage to his own beloved motorbike. Sadly for Jukie, it’s been “most exquisitely taken apart”, then put back together, with the nuts thrown in the compost heap, according to a note the Thugs have left him. (What, they managed to disassemble and re-assemble a motorbike in five minutes?) So Jukie steals Maudie’s car and tells Patrick to get in.


Why? Jukie doesn’t have time to coax or force him into the car. All Patrick has to do is walk away, then call the police or wait for them to arrive. But no, Patrick gets in the car with the drug-dealer he’s been trying to bring to justice, due to a “maverick sense of sympathy”. Or due to Antonia Forest wanting Patrick and Jukie to have a deep and meaningful conversation before Jukie’s inevitable demise.

Oh, it also turns out Espresso has stayed to let the pigeons free the next morning and he disobeys Jukie’s order to get in the car. So at least Espresso will be around when the police arrive and hopefully he’ll explain whatever secret he’s been concealing.

Next: The Flyaway

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Five

Chapter Nine: Character Part

While Peter is racing around the countryside being shot at, Lawrie is on the train to Colebridge, dressed as a hot chick but being very Lawrie:

“…she liked to have active adult males as her travelling companions, not because they were more entertaining but because if there were an accident they would naturally devote themselves to seeing that Lawrie, being women and children, was rescued first.”

Lawrie might soon need rescuing because Red Ted, one of The Thuggery, is in her carriage. But it seems he doesn’t recognise her due to her dishy appearance. In fact, he’s showing off for her benefit and she’s flattered. Lawrie joins him in some minor rebellion against a couple of old folk and is pleased when the woman calls her a “painted little piece”.

Kate has noted that I should pay attention to the songs, so I will report here that Red Ted’s transistor radio is now playing Marching through Madrid – so at this moment, Peter’s bike is being steamrollered in the tar. Possibly it’s also a nod towards the travelling Lawrie is currently doing (and that Peter is not going to be doing on his bike). Then comes You’ll Never Walk Alone (be brave, Lawrie) and Another Spring (Lawrie is no spring chicken, she says she’s fifteen and a half! But she’s only thirteen, right? If Ginty turned fifteen in January, no more than two months earlier, the twins must be thirteen and Peter is fourteen.) Then as the train stops, it’s P.S. I Love You and Red Ted makes his move with this very romantic line:

“What’s new, slicklet chicklet? Do we rove to the caff and have ourselves a ball?”

How could any girl resist? Lawrie, now using her future-professional-actress name Sophia Lawrence, accompanies Red Ted to a coffee bar where she gazes with contempt at the amateurish make-up of some of the other chicks and feels “blissfully, shiveringly happy” at being part of Red Ted’s gang. Then she and Red Ted go off to the cinema. (Song: She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah – well, yes, she does.)

But it’s that scary science fiction film, and Red Ted murmurs, “You chuffed I made Jukie make you my watch this noon ’n night?” and Lawrie suddenly remembers he’s a Thug and she’s meant to be taking the pigeon to the police. It does seem completely in character for her to have got so caught up in playing a role that she forgets reality. And her acting skills do come in handy – she convinces him she’s only going to the loo and (after a brief panic attack in the cubicle) escapes by breaking through a window and dropping into an alley. Where she’s picked up by the police.

Somehow, things always work out for Lawrie, no matter how ridiculously she behaves.

Chapter Ten: Telling the Tale

This is just like the time Lawrie got caught without her bus fare in The Marlows and the Traitor. The police see a “scruffily dressed girl” and refuse to believe she’s Lawrence Marlow, the respectable daughter of a navy captain. She certainly doesn’t help herself by giving her stage name and being smeared in make-up, but surely she sounds exactly like what she is, an upper-middle class girl from a posh boarding school. Admittedly, the pigeon story is a bit far-fetched and she has lost the drug capsule, but she does have an actual pigeon with suspicious harness and a cigarette packet with a written threat. For a moment, it seems the Inspector will be able to verify her identity from the library books, but the librarian reports that the books were borrowed by “D. Gates” of Westbridge, not a Marlow of Trennels Old Farm. It’s Doris the maid (why are her books at Trennels?), but Lawrie does her usual bursting-into-tears thing and can’t explain properly.

Fortunately, Mrs Marlow happens to phone the police station right then, looking for her missing daughter, and she and Peter soon turn up to say exactly what Lawrie has said:

“The only difference was, [the Inspector] obviously believed Peter.”

It is sadly often the case, even now, that authority figures pay more attention to a male speaker than a female speaker. Even when the female speaker is a lot more coherent than Lawrie.

The problem is that Patrick seems to have disappeared. The Inspector decides to send the Marlows home and get the Culverstone sergeant to investigate further, but just as the Marlows are leaving, there’s another phone call. Miss Culver’s housekeeper’s daughter has found a boy’s body in the storeroom under a rug! They’re too frightened to look at his face and don’t even know if he’s dead, but he’s clutching a rosary with the initials P.M.A.M.! And Peter identifies this as belonging to “Patrick Michael Anthony Mary”!

I don’t know what’s more ridiculous, that the two women at the Culver place can’t even look at the boy (what if he’s bleeding to death and needs urgent first aid?) or that one of Patrick’s names is Mary. (It can’t be, can it? Is the ‘Mary’ just a reminder on the rosary to pray to Mary Mother of God?)

I don’t think the body is Patrick. I think it’s a Thug. I don’t know why he’s got Patrick’s rosary, though. Maybe he ripped it from Patrick while they were fighting.

Then another significant song comes on the radio: There’s a Hole in My Bucket. Which prompts Peter to look in Lawrie’s mackintosh pocket, which has a big hole in it, which means the drug capsule has fallen into the lining of her mackintosh (along with a lot of other things Lawrie has lost). Finally, the police have their evidence!

Peter, by the way, calls Lawrie a “prehistoric aborigine” when he discovers this. Nice one, Peter, you’ve managed to be sexist, classist and racist in one book.

Next: The Dovecote at Monks’ Culvery

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Four

Chapter Seven: The Costume for the Part

Lawrie and Peter walk home to have “dinner” (wouldn’t the Marlows be posh enough to call it “lunch”?) and the children again fail to inform Rowan, Ann or Mrs Marlow about all the criminal activity going on. Lawrie then dawdles about, re-doing her make-up, in the hope she’ll miss the train to Colebridge. She probably looks a bit like this (the Before, not the After):

Mrs Marlow is not impressed and tells Lawrie she’s not going anywhere until she scrubs off all that face paint and puts on her nice skirt and coat:

“I won’t have people supposing I’d let a child of mine run around looking as you do at this moment. Now do as I say.”

Mrs Marlow is in a very grumpy mood in this book. Perhaps she’s fed up with being left in the country to raise half-a-dozen children while her husband’s sailing around the world. (Maybe she’s afraid he has “a half-hitch in every port”?)

Meanwhile Ann has discovered Peter has packed the wrong library books to take to Colebridge Library (which is their cover story) and is fussing about repacking the books in Karen’s old music case. (Which also contains a dead and decaying pigeon, which isn’t even in a waterproof bag, ugh.) But Peter and Lawrie manage to escape, complete with pigeon and scandalous make-up, and talk loudly about their fake plans all the way to the station, for the benefit of the spying Thuggery. Lawrie just makes it onto the train, looking, she hopes, like a “James Bond kookie” and Peter goes off to be a decoy.

Chapter Eight: Old Man Kangaroo

I wasn’t familiar with Old Man Kangaroo, but it’s one of Kipling’s Just So stories, about how a kangaroo was chased by a dingo for a whole day. Anyway, Peter plans to ride his bike around the countryside, leading the Thuggery on a merry dance, but they’ve stolen his bike. Without much thought, he takes Ann’s magnificent new bike. He soon finds that three of the Thugs have accidentally-on-purpose thrown his bike into a newly-tarred road in front of a steamroller. Matt Carter, leader of the road gang, makes the Thugs try to extract the bike from the tar, ruining their fancy Ted clothes. The Thugs are temporarily powerless because “Matt Carter and his gang were nine, all larger and stronger than the Thuggery and all armed with pickaxes, spades and sledge-hammers”.

Peter then loudly announces to Matt that he’s found something, which he’s taking to Miss Culver. This is the start of a genuinely exciting, if somewhat implausible, chase scene. Soon the Thugs are shooting at Peter (“Anyone’d think they wanted to kill him!”), so he abandons Ann’s bike and hides in a ditch. The wimpiest Thug, Mr Luke, aka Yeller Feller, actually finds Peter but lets him escape.

Then Peter overhears a disquieting conversation between Kinky, Siberia and Mr Luke while Kinky destroys poor Ann’s bike. Kinky is planning to kill Peter by drowning him in the gravel pit pool, which will help Kinky’s campaign to overthrow Jukie as Number One Boy. Mr Luke is not happy about this, but is battered into submission by the others. Peter climbs through a disgusting drain into a stream and wades all the way to the sea, where he left his canoe. He plans to paddle back home, but he’s overturned by that pesky hidden tree root and then the Thuggery re-appear, still shooting at him. (Are they carrying about some sort of automatic rifle? Wouldn’t that be a bit conspicuous? They don’t seem to need to stop to reload their ammunition. Also, no one else seems to notice all the gunfire. Rural Dorset is a lot more like the Wild West than I ever imagined.)

Peter manages to dive underwater and swim to the opposite bank but the Thugs catch up. The Thugs are still firing what is now called “the air gun” (which apparently can kill people: “Air weapon injuries commonly involve teenage boys”). Then Kinky has the great idea of climbing along the top of the lock gate to reach Peter – but Peter opens the gate! And Kinky and his gun fall into the water! And Kinky can’t swim! And then Siberia falls in, trying to rescue him! Ha ha ha.

The Thuggery are indignant that Peter isn’t being more helpful (“It’s yore fault ’e’s there!”) but he does give them a few hints before sauntering off towards Trennels, wondering how he’ll ever be able to afford to buy Ann a new bike. Unfortunately, he’s not home yet and oh no, the Thuggery have dragged themselves out of the river and they want revenge.

Peter is being really brave here. He’s also too exhausted to run away, but when he sees the Thugs with their flick knives in the lane, he prepares to sacrifice himself to save Patrick, “in the traditions of the service”. But just as he prepares to go down fighting, Matt Carter and his steamroller Sarah come to the rescue:

“They an’ their knives an’ their three to one! Nuthin’ but dirty Teds, the pack of ’em! Sarah an’ you an’ me’ll show ’em! An’ they don’t jump out of the way we’ll flatten ’em!”

Hooray for Peter! Peter wins! Yeller Feller, “made bold by the passing of danger”, yells a vague threat about “tomorrow”:

“But of course, once in every lifetime, tomorrow never comes.”

Next: Character Part

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Three

If you’re interested, here are some Hep Cat teenagers in a coffee bar. They are not actually Thugs, though.

Chapter Five – A Brush with the Enemy

Peter and Lawrie go home to breakfast. Lawrie is dispirited by the idea that she’s not dishy, so she gets out her theatrical make-up. Peter is startled by the transformation of his little sister into a coffee-bar Jezebel, but the rest of the family politely ignore her (although Lawrie hopes that she’s shocked innocent, pious Ann). There’s a bit of a family argument over whether they should go to the cinema in Colebridge and we learn that the choice is The Magnificent Ambersons at the Regal, which they’ve all seen, or Cobweb! at the Majestic. Cobweb! “could only be science fiction” and Lawrie is scared by “monster tentacles”, so that’s out. Ann plans to collect nature samples for a Guiding project and Rowan is scranleting at Cold Comfort Farm. (There have always been Marlows at Trennels! Poor Rowan. But Ann’s the only one who’s sympathetic about the way Rowan’s life is turning out.) Lawrie doesn’t really want to get involved in Peter and Patrick’s pigeon plan, so says she’ll just stay at home, but her mother snaps:

“You surely aren’t going to spend the whole week-end moping round the house just because Nicky’s staying with Miranda?”

As Lawrie thinks, it’s NOT FAIR. But she obediently trails after Peter and Patrick as they take the pigeon to the local policeman, Tom Catchpole. (No one thinks to tell Mrs Marlow, the only parent around, about the drug-smuggling pigeon. But I suppose it’d be a very short book if they told her and she called the police and the mystery was solved.) Unfortunately, The Thuggery are trailing the children, so they come up with the plan that they’ll give the pigeon evidence to Lawrie and she’ll ride off on Peter’s bike if they get jumped; meanwhile, Patrick and Peter will talk loudly about going to Colebridge when they’re in the village shop and Patrick will pretend he just wants to ask Tom about a lost watch.

The Thuggery, who travel with a loud transistor radio playing with-it music such as Cliff Richard and The Shadows, chuck a cigarette packet at Lawrie, mimic Patrick’s posh accent and stand about looking menacing in front of Tom’s house. But Tom isn’t there – he’s been lured away by a fire in St Mary’s Church. Oh no! Of course, the children don’t leave a message with Tom’s wife or stash the evidence with her, because that would be sensible. On the way back, the Thuggery taunt them with enigmatic phrases:

“Have a drag, herbert!”
“Belshazzar it, herbert!”

This is not enigmatic to Peter, who (unlike Lawrie) was paying attention in Sunday School. So was I, so I know that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar and his death was foretold by mysterious writing appearing on the wall during a feast. I’m not convinced the Thugs would know that, but I guess there’s going to be a warning on a wall somewhere. As Patrick says,

“But why write on the wall? Wouldn’t paper be easier?”

Peter explains the Thuggery are “hairy characters” and “Natural born Piltdowners”, but “not actually dangerous”. (If they’re not dangerous, this is going to be a fairly boring thriller, so I assume this is Peter being clueless about other people, yet again. Also ‘Piltdown Man’ was revealed to be a fake in 1953, so does Peter mean the Thugs are frauds or that they’re primitive humans?)

Then there’s a discussion about whether Maudie Culver is part of the drug-smuggling. Jukie claimed she was “digging the integrity racket”, but Jukie’s a known liar. Patrick says that when he and Jon visited her pigeon lofts, she complained about not winning pigeon trophies because she refused to cheat, which suggests she is honest. But there was also a local scandal when a pigeon clock was tampered with to help her win a pigeon race, except the cheating was discovered and blamed on the Thuggery. Then Miss Culver ostentatiously banned herself from racing for a year. Patrick says it reminds him of:

“Those super-pious types at Mass who cross themselves each time they genuflect and say their rosaries very very slowly with their eyes half-shut. And bet your life they’ve got an old age pensioner doing the garden and they’re paying him a bob an hour if he’s lucky.”

I think he means Maudie would never break the law and wants everyone to know it, but she’s lacking in human compassion. Except she’s employing underprivileged boys when no one else in the village would give them a second chance (assuming they have criminal histories as minors). However, Peter thinks she might have planned the clock-cheating and then when she got caught, she did the self-penalty to cover up her guilt.

I find it hard to believe Maudie Culver is the brains behind a drug-smuggling racket, but her tirade at Peter certainly shows she’s unpleasant and possibly a bit deranged.

Chapter Six: Communications Cut

When the three children arrive at Patrick’s house, they find The Thuggery have trashed the stables and scrawled “HAVA DRAG” all over the walls. Patrick doesn’t reveal the true culprits to Sellars, the Merricks’ groom, because Sellars is “much too ancient to risk involving him”. Antonia Forest does some foreshadowing here by saying Sellars, a “wiry hard-as-nails sixty-year-old” is outraged by this when he hears about it a week later. And however old he is, a rural working man has to be tougher than Patrick and Peter.

Peter realises that HAVA DRAG means “smoke a cigarette” and Lawrie fishes the Thug’s cigarette packet out of the bin. In it, a Thug has written a violent threat to Patrick’s “daddy-o” in London. This all seems a very round-about way of threatening someone and even if the London drug gang are hardened professional criminals, there’s a big difference between them slashing one another with razors and actually murdering a Tory MP.

And while I’m on the subject, I don’t think transporting drugs by pigeon is a very clever idea. Firstly, a single pigeon can only carry a very small amount. Secondly, carrier pigeons often get lost or attacked by birds of prey or shot by boys like Peter or found by the wrong person. This is starting to sound even more ridiculous than the post-war Nazi spies in The Marlows and the Traitor.

Peter now reveals himself to be a pigeon expert, because his friend Selby’s Belgian grandfather keeps prize pigeons and by an AMAZING COINCIDENCE, Peter happens to know that the dead pigeon is a Scandaroon, which is good at flying over water. So the criminals are bringing the drugs from the Continent by boat and using the Culver Scandaroons to avoid Customs officials. Except Patrick has been to the Culver lofts and swears he never saw any Scandaroons there.

At this point, Patrick decides to phone his father (FINALLY), but the phone isn’t working. In fact, all the phones in the district have been cut off, which they find out when Rowan arrives to ask to use the phone because some louts have mutilated the poor Marlow cows. She drives off to get the vet. They should have told Rowan about The Thuggery and the pigeon! She’s a responsible adult (or near-adult).

And then the children discover they’ve lost the drug capsule. Peter put it in Lawrie’s pocket without telling her and now it’s gone. So they have no evidence of wrong-doing to show the police – EXCEPT FOR THE TRASHED STABLES AND THE WRITTEN CIGARETTE PACKET THREAT AND THEIR THREE EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS OF THE CAPSULE BEING ATTACHED TO THE HARNESS AND OF JUKIE THREATENING REGINA. But apparently, the only way they can tell the police is if they find a capsule-carrying Scandaroon at the Culver place.

At this point, Patrick remembers his great-aunt Eulalia has written a detailed description of the Culver dovecote, a huge weird building separate to the pigeon loft. By an AMAZING COINCIDENCE, Eulalia published it privately and sent it only to her family members and there’s a copy in the room where they’re sitting. It’s a very long description. (An illustration would have been nice here, original publishers of this book.) Also by AMAZING COINCIDENCE, there’s a secret tunnel that leads from the secret priest’s room to the Culver place, so Patrick can sneak off and find a Scandaroon in the dovecote without any Thugs seeing him. Meanwhile, Lawrie will take the pigeon and harness to Colebridge police station and Peter will distract The Thuggery by looking for the lost capsule and leading them in a merry but futile chase.

Hmm. A plan that depends on Lawrie being sensible and brave does not seem like a very good plan to me.

Next: The Costume for the Part

‘The Thuggery Affair’, Part Two

Chapter Three: A Gentleman of the Fancy

As they walk back to Patrick’s house, Peter notices they’re being trailed by Jukie. “Don’t look now,” he tells Lawrie, “who immediately did, in all directions”. Oh, Lawrie. But they get back safely and Patrick fusses around with Regina. Peter sensibly points out that Regina was released for a reason, but Patrick says it’s all sorted now – he’ll just write to the British Falconry Society and find a full-time falconer to keep her during term-time in London. Yet somehow Patrick couldn’t have done this six months ago. Antonia Forest is just making this up as she goes along, isn’t she?

Patrick also realises he needs Regina’s bells, which he gave to Nicola, but Lawrie is scandalised by the idea that anyone should take them from Nicola’s special private box without Nicola’s permission:

“Patrick saw he was up against one of those family taboos which, as an only child, struck him as both infantile and incomprehensible.”

But I’m with Lawrie. If you come from a family with eight siblings, the small bits of privacy you possess have to be respected by everyone. Patrick has never had to share anything, so he doesn’t understand this. But Peter, “who should have known better”, says he’ll take the bells from Nicola’s box and take the blame. However, Peter has something more important on his mind. He asks to see the dead pigeon Regina is still gnawing on, looks at the ring on its leg, is about to say something … when Jukie struts in.

(Before I go on with the plot, I have to say I love the vivid little bits of descriptions, such as Bucket “comfortably spatchcocked under the table”! Can’t you see that image exactly in your mind?)

Anyway, Jukie demands to see the dead pigeon, Peter tosses it at him, Jukie fumbles and misses, and there’s a bit of macho posturing between the three boys while Lawrie is ignored, to her resentment. Jukie retrieves the pigeon’s leg ring and claims it’s from Red Rocket, a champion flyer, so Patrick’s “daddy-o” will have to pay lots of compensation. This is disputed by Peter, who says the pigeon was a blue chequer, and Patrick, also sceptical, makes sure he reminds Jukie that it’s Miss Culver’s pigeon, not Jukie’s. Jukie walks off, not quite as comfortably as he entered, and Peter drops his bombshell. There was another dead pigeon which he scooped up in his mackintosh and “this one’s the one with the message”!

Dramatic chapter end there. Also, I assume the title of this chapter is making fun of the notion that a boy like Jukie could ever be a gentleman. There’s a bit where Lawrie is wondering about his accent and realising he’s “true north country” and “sham Yankee” with a bit of imitating Miss Culver.

Chapter Four: “…Poor Airy Post”

The poor dead pigeon is wearing a little leather harness attached to a capsule. They discuss whether they should take it straight to the police or MI5 and Patrick is surprised that “spies should be the very first thing you think of” and even more surprised when he sees the meaningful looks the Marlows exchange. Interesting. Because only a couple of months ago, Peter had apparently repressed all memory of the time he was kidnapped by a spy. Patrick also points out that it’s extremely unlikely Maudie Culver is passing information to the Communists because she’s such a “blot-blue Tory” and what information would she have anyway?

Unfortunately, while they’re debating this, Jukie sneaks back in. (Bucket is too busy being a spatchcock to be much of a guard dog.) Jukie tries to scam them into paying him, not Miss Culver. He’ll swap the leg rings for an ‘inferior’ pigeon in the loft, Patrick’s daddy-o won’t have to pay hundreds of pounds compensation and Patrick can give Jukie some money in return. This doesn’t work because firstly, Patrick has no motivation to lie to his father (and Patrick doesn’t even have to say out loud that a hundred pounds is nothing to a rich MP). Secondly, Peter is unexpectedly knowledgeable about pigeons and explains you can’t swap pigeon rings on grown birds.

But then Jukie sees the pigeon with the harness:

“Plainly, he knew only too well what it was: plainly also, this was an attempt to get bird and harness into his hands: only, if he were to preserve the fiction that it wasn’t a Culver bird, he couldn’t be too insistent.”

As Patrick refuses to hand the pigeon over, Jukie is forced to retreat without it, but he leaves with the threat that if they go to the police, his thugs will come round and dig Regina’s eyes out. Peter and Lawrie are suitably intimidated but “Patrick’s face could have been used as a model for a mask labelled murder”. Jukie gives Patrick a look of “surprised respect” and scoots off.

Now, I know Patrick’s confidence comes from his class and wealth, but I’m on Patrick’s side here. Anyone who threatens to mutilate an animal deserves murderous looks and more.

Patrick obviously can’t leave Regina in the hawk-house so he takes her into the house and hides her in a very cool secret room that was used to hide priests in the “penal times”. Peter is a bit annoyed that Patrick had always denied any “Secret of the Moated Pile”, but Patrick explains that when they were young, he really did believe that Catholics were under siege and that Protestant Marlows couldn’t be trusted. Even though a priest was turning up at their house every Sunday to say Mass:

“Every Sunday I thought this would be the day for the brutal soldiery to burst in the front door.”

Honestly, where did he get this from? I can’t imagine his father would have encouraged this sort of thinking. Maybe Mrs Merrick? She doesn’t seem super-Catholic, though.

The children then decide to open the pigeon’s capsule, even though Patrick is sure it’ll just say something like “Dear Jukie Meet Me At The Palais 7:30 Saturday Your Ever-Loving Chick Sandra.” This leads to an exchange about their own love lives.

Patrick asks Peter, “And what do you make do with? A half-hitch in every port?”

WHAT does this mean? The Navy’s famous for male homosexuality, but I’m not sure that fits here and surely they wouldn’t talk about that in front of Lawrie? Peter denies he has any social life and says Patrick, at day school in London, has “more chances than the rest of us … Surely you date the chicks?”

Lawrie and Peter are teasing him, thinking this is unlikely. Why? He’s fifteen (or sixteen now?) and supposed to be good-looking, although admittedly, his social skills aren’t very good. I don’t know what dating norms were for public school boys in London then. Do we know which school he attends? I am imagining Westminster, but maybe he goes to a Catholic school. Anyway, Patrick blushes, thinking of Ginty, then flippantly says, “A different chick every night of the week, actually” and changes the subject to the capsule.

Which turns out to contain a mysterious white powder! It’s bicarb of soda, which the pigeons carry about in case they have a sudden stomach upset! (Okay, that bit made me laugh out loud.) No, maybe it’s arsenic or strychnine or a secret Kremlin explosive or … or cocaine! Which Lawrie actually tastes, because she’s an idiot. Peter is reluctant to go to the police because they “mustn’t sneak”, but Patrick says drug-smuggling is “worse than most murders”:

“Really, it is a kind of physical blackmail, isn’t it? You chat people into taking the stuff, you make them so dependent on it they have the heebie jeebies if they can’t get it and then you make them pay the earth to keep getting it.”

I think he’s got most of his information from reading Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Then he has another revelation – Jukie’s name doesn’t come from “jukebox”, as they’d thought, but “junkie”. As Patrick solemnly explains to the others, “Junkie – in their language – means drug addict.” Okay, I laughed out loud at that bit, too. So far most of the slang has been barely recognisable to me, but the one word that I do know – because it’s now part of everyday language – is the word that Patrick and Antonia Forest carefully explain to us.

By the way, Patrick understands Ted-speak because he regularly visits a London coffee-bar which is always “crammed with the kiddoes and the chicks yapping away and being with it like mad.” The image of Patrick trying to look like a cool cat in a café is also pretty funny to me.

Anyway, they decide to take the capsule to their local policeman, Tom Catchpole, in order to be nice to him and also because his young wife is “dishy” and a “smasher”. Way to go with the sexual objectification of women, Peter and Patrick.

Next: A Brush with the Enemy

‘The Thuggery Affair’ by Antonia Forest

This is the sixth book in Antonia Forest’s series about the Marlow family. I’ve really enjoyed most of them so far, especially the school books, but all I know about this one is that it involves drug-smuggling pigeons, thugs who speak incomprehensible slang and no Nicola. It sounds like some bizarre children’s version of A Clockwork Orange and the cover is even worse than that of Peter’s Room. In other words, I have very low expectations for this book, but it could be an interesting failure. We shall see.

'The Thuggery Affair' by Antonia Forest

Chapter One: “There’s a Hole in your Boatie”

This chapter begins with a half-page sentence to rival Henry James – eight commas, two semi-colons, one colon, five em-dashes, one set of parenthesised comments, and by my count, eighteen clauses. Antonia Forest seems to be declaring up front that if a child reader can’t cope with an enormously complicated info-dump of a sentence on the first page, that reader might as well give up now. I think it’s meant to show Lawrie’s tangled thought processes, but this could have been demonstrated just as effectively by adding about ten full-stops.

Anyway, we learn that it’s half-term (so, February? March?) and Lawrie, Peter and Patrick are trying out the canoe that the boys built at Christmas after all the Gondalling. Nicola is staying with Miranda in London and Ginty is visiting her grandmother in Paris. Lawrie is sulking about being abandoned by her twin, although when Nicola quite reasonably points out that she wouldn’t object if Lawrie had gone off with Tim, Lawrie says, “But that’s diff’rent.”

Lawrie is such a brat, but I can’t help laughing at her melodramatics. A couple of pages into the chapter, she’s weeping to herself as she imagines being the heroine of BOATING TRAGEDY IN HOGGART’S LOCK (“Mrs Marlow, mother of eight, said with tears in her eyes: “I am prostrated with grief. Lawrie was my favourite child…”).

Lawrie’s fantasy isn’t so far-fetched, because the canoe is rapidly filling with water, nearly crashes into a hidden tree root and ends up sinking when they reach the sea. They are also hours too late to see the ducks fly overhead and Peter is annoyed because he wanted to shoot some fowl. (I can’t believe no one has confiscated his rifle yet! He killed Jael with that rifle! Patrick is being a lot more forgiving than I would have been.) Peter is also doing his very irritating regional dialect thing. At least he refrains from shooting one of a pair of swans. (Isn’t shooting swans illegal in England because they belong to the Queen? Or is that only on the Thames?) The boys drag the canoe out of the mud and leave it on the promontory, then they all start squelching their way home.

Oh, the other thing is that Patrick reveals he’s home alone, with his parents still in London. He only made a fuss about coming to the country because he thought his sort-of-girlfriend Ginty would be at Trennels. Because they clearly don’t write to one another or phone or communicate in any effective way. So I guess their romance hasn’t progressed much since Christmas.

Chapter Two: “Two Pigeons Flying High”

As they walk home, they encounter A Thuggery of Teds, seven juvenile delinquents led by a boy called Jukie. For some reason, the Thuggery are employed by Miss Culver, a tweedy, church-going local woman, to look after her prize pigeons. Neither Patrick nor his parents can stand Miss Culver. It’s unusual for tolerant Mr Merrick to take a dislike to anyone, but

“…he says she stands four-square and looks him straight in the eye and talks to him man-to-man and it frightens him to death. And ma says she’s a natural-born bully.”

Miss Culver also had the nerve to tell poor dead Cousin Jon (before he died, obviously) that he should get rid of his hawks, because they preyed on her pigeons. Plus, her pigeons are “horrible little freaks” who’ve been overbred with “so much wattle on their bills they can’t see to fly”. But before the children can discuss this further, a flock of pigeons flies overhead, Peter tries to shoot one and Patrick suddenly intervenes because he realises there’s also a falcon in the air. And it’s Regina! The falcon he was forced to release six months ago because he couldn’t take her to London with him! And dear old Bucket recognises her, “his tail fluttering in ecstatic welcome”. Awww!

Unfortunately, Miss Culver turns up and tries to shoot Regina because the falcon has just killed and started eating one of the Culver pigeons. Patrick stands in her way and Peter raises his own gun, with “the situation … rapidly becoming stark, staring bonkers”. Fortunately, Miss Culver realises she’s pointing her gun at the only son of the local MP:

“It would have been one thing apparently, thought Patrick hilariously, for Gunslinger Culver to pepper a peasant but quite another to murder a Merrick…”

She calms down a little, gives him a warning about keeping his hawks away from her birds, and is about to walk off when Peter characteristically puts his foot in it. She explodes with rage:

“He was incredulous; he was fascinated; the hope grew that perhaps she would end her – was tirade the word? – by flinging down her glove and challenging him to a duel.”

Lawrie thinks it’s most “funny-peculiar” for a grown-up to behave like this when grown-ups are supposed to stop fights, not start them. Although I’m not sure how respectable Miss Culver can really be when she employs the Thuggery? I think we’re meant to be suspicious of her from the start, based on her “grotesque” physical appearance. Mind you, in previous books, Antonia Forest has heartily disapproved of women who wear fashionable clothes and make-up, so female characters can’t really win in this world, whatever they do.

Anyway, it’s nice that Regina’s back. She flies onto Patrick’s fist and they head for home, Patrick’s eyes “blazing with triumph and pleasure”.

You might also be interested in reading:

The Thuggery Affair, Part Two
The Thuggery Affair, Part Three
The Thuggery Affair, Part Four
The Thuggery Affair, Part Five
The Thuggery Affair, Part Six
The Thuggery Affair, Part Seven

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘Falconer’s Lure’ by Antonia Forest
‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest

Five Feminist Books

Happy International Women’s Day! I thought I’d mark the occasion by recommending some feminist books. Social media has its uses and there are lots of interesting feminist blogs and online forums, but sometimes you just want a well-argued, well-edited volume written by someone who knows what she’s talking about.

I do try to keep up with the latest books from young feminists (for example, I’ve read Princesses and Pornstars by Emily Maguire, Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford and How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran), but I often find myself underwhelmed by these books. They tend to be memoirs, heavy on anecdotes from the lives of the authors and their friends, but skimpy on historical facts, scientific evidence and feminist theory. There is nothing wrong with books about the personal experiences of women, but when these authors are white, heterosexual and famous, their experiences don’t necessarily have universal appeal or relevance. Still, these particular authors aren’t writing for me. Hopefully, the young women (and men) buying those books find them thought-provoking and life-changing. And if those readers ever decide they want to learn more about feminism, they could try some of these feminist books from the last fifty years:

1. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)

'The Female Eunuch' by Germaine Greer

You cannot possibly claim to be well-informed about feminism if you haven’t read this book. Despite Germaine Greer’s scary reputation, this is really not a difficult read. It’s a clever, provocative, funny, infuriating argument about how and why women have been oppressed for centuries, backed up with hundreds of cultural references. It’s not her best book and it contains plenty of statements I disagree with, but it’s a great introduction to her work.

2. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem (1983)

'Outrageous Acts' by Gloria Steinem

While Germaine Greer was busy being a bolshy intellectual, Gloria Steinem was disguising herself as a Playboy Bunny in order to infiltrate the toxic world of men’s clubs. This book is a collection of some of her best-known magazine articles, including I Was a Playboy Bunny, If Men Could Menstruate and In Praise of Women’s Bodies, as well as essays on Marilyn Monroe, Linda Lovelace and Alice Walker. Ms Steinem’s focus is American political and social life, written in a warm, funny, inclusive manner, although there are also essays on international issues including female genital mutilation and the politics of food. Those who think intersectional feminism was invented in the last five years might find their beliefs challenged by this book.

3. Stiffed by Susan Faludi (1999)

'Stiffed' by Susan Faludi

Susan Faludi is an American journalist best known for her 1991 book Backlash, but Stiffed is a great read for those who falsely believe that feminism only benefits women. Ms Faludi began by investigating a group of male domestic violence perpetrators who’d been ordered to attend counselling. Her initial assumption was that “the male crisis in America was caused by something men were doing unrelated to something being done to them.” What she eventually discovered, after years of interviews with male factory workers, athletes, military cadets, sports fans, porn stars, evangelical husbands and more, was that many men felt betrayed after losing jobs, skills and life roles in America’s post-war cultural upheaval, but were unable to work together to form a male equivalent of the women’s liberation movement. Her research is meticulous, but it’s the men’s personal stories that make this so fascinating.

4. Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine (2010)

'Delusions of Gender' by Cordelia Fine

This is a book to press upon people who believe that girls are inherently emotional and chatty and unable to read maps, while boys are innately superior at rational thinking, designing bridges and running the world. Dr Cordelia Fine, an Australian cognitive neuroscientist, analyses the current research and produces a compelling argument that there is very little difference between male and female brains, with the small cognitive variations that do exist easily explained by the different social and cultural worlds experienced by girls and boys from birth. This is often a very funny and entertaining read, especially when she’s taking potshots at Simon Baron-Cohen, but there’s a hundred pages of footnotes and bibliography to back it up.

5. Bluff Your Way in Feminism by Constance Leoff (1987)

'Bluff Your Way in Feminism' by Constance Leoff

You probably won’t be able to find a copy of this, but it’s a little gem of a book, rocketing through five thousand years of feminist history, from Aristoclea and Sappho, through Aphra Behn and Susan B. Anthony and Simone de Beauvoir, to Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou. There are also lots of hilarious feminist quotes, useful explanations about the different types of feminism, and a handy glossary if you’re confused about terms such as ‘biological determinism’ and ‘parthenogenesis’.

You might also be interested in reading:

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

‘Lies Sleeping’ by Ben Aaronovitch

'Lies Sleeping' by Ben AaronovitchI’d been saving this latest installment of the Rivers of London series for the holidays, when I’d have time to enjoy it, and it was worth the wait. Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel about Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard – part of an ongoing series of novels, novellas, short stories and comics. Ben Aaronovitch has said that he’ll keep writing the books “till I die or people stop reading them”, and while the last few novels have been enjoyable, they have felt a bit chaotic, with concluding chapters that raised more questions than answered them. Fortunately, in Lies Sleeping, the author chooses to focus on one major story line that has been present since the start and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. There are still villains to be thwarted, but it’s good to see justice done.

It’s difficult to discuss this book without giving away plot details, but here are my vague, spoiler-free thoughts.

Things I loved:
– I am not usually a fan of fight scenes, but I absolutely love all the bits where Nightingale unleashes his power, whether he’s blasting his enemy through the ceiling or ‘persuading’ a suspect to answer his questions.

– There’s plenty of fascinating London history, going back to the Romans, and it’s actually related to the plot, rather than simply being Peter getting distracted by architecture. Not that I ever mind Peter rambling on about history. The more history, the better.

– Peter’s narration is always so much fun (“I was pleased to discover that the patented acid-resistant soles of my Doc Martens were also vampire resistant”) and I love when his geeky fanboy knowledge comes in handy for interpreting, say, Dwarvish runes (“From the films, though, not the books”).

– Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja doing … what she does.

– That there was finally some acknowledgement of the immense psychological stress that affects anyone involved in Folly business. You know things are bad when both Seawoll and Nightingale are urging Peter to see a therapist.

– I also liked that there was some discussion of religion, with Peter discussing how he’s an atheist, even though his girlfriend is literally a goddess. I’d really like to hear Guleed’s thoughts on this.

– Seawoll co-operating with Nightingale! And Stephanopoulos being so heroic!

– That thing that happens involving Molly! The backstory was awful, but the end was so lovely.

– All the callbacks to previous books, which gives me hope that my still-unanswered questions will eventually be addressed in a future book.

And things that made me go hmmm:
– Abigail. For all the same reasons I didn’t like her characterisation in The Furthest Station. At one stage, Aaronovitch mentioned a spin-off YA series starring Abigail and I really hope he doesn’t go ahead with that. I know this is a fantasy series, but Abigail is meant to be a regular London kid and yet she’s turned into SuperPerfectAbigail.

– There are always plot holes in these books, which I usually ignore, but there were a few scenes when things obviously happened to create interesting conflict or prolong the narrative, not because they made any sense, and that’s annoying.

– I was also annoyed that readers need to have read all the related novellas, comics and associated works to understand everything in these novels. I’ve read three of the five (or six?) comics, so I picked up some references, but there were other bits where I felt I was missing something. For example, has there been an explanation of the foxes in one of the comics? (The foxes were great, by the way, just confusing.) And the religion discussion takes on a different meaning if you know that Max is an acolyte of Beverley’s, not just her handyman. The problem is that I far prefer the books to the comics, because the comics are the old-fashioned kind, full of Ladies With Implausibly Large Breasts Who Tend To Wear Skimpy Clothes Or Be Naked For No Apparent Reason, alongside a lot of Violent Gentlemen With Excessive Muscles. I don’t want to have to read more of the comics, but now I suppose I’ll have to, and that makes me grumpy.

– I cannot see how anything good can come of Nightingale’s offer to teach magic to that particular character whom Peter correctly labels “entitled”, although I suppose it could lead to exciting magical battles down the track.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to the next book, due in June. If you’ve read this and have any thoughts, please do comment below – just assume there’ll be spoilers in the comments.

My Favourite Books of 2018

Well, that was a year. A year in which a lot of my favourite reads involved escapism and humour, because the real world was not an especially fun place to be. I read 54 books that were new to me (I don’t count re-reads). About a third of these books were adult non-fiction, a third were adult fiction, and the remaining third were books for children and teenagers. Here are the books that I liked the most in 2018:

Adult Fiction

'Behind The Scenes At The Museum' by Kate AtkinsonBehind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson was a brilliantly funny account of a Yorkshire childhood, related by a not-entirely-reliable narrator with a lot of eccentric relatives. I don’t know how I managed to get this far in life without reading any Kate Atkinson novels, but clearly I need to read the rest of her work. I also enjoyed whimsical, meandering Winter by Ali Smith, another new-to-me writer whose work I need to explore. I have read most of Alan Hollinghurst’s books and The Sparsholt Affair was optimistic and heartwarming (not words I ever thought I’d use to describe a Hollinghurst novel), a beautifully observed story about the families that gay men and lesbians construct for themselves.


'Girt' by David HuntThe Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, the hilarious story behind one of the worst movies ever made, was a truly fascinating read. I also enjoyed Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt, a very silly and mostly accurate history of the first decades of colonial Australia, and How Not To Be A Boy, Robert Webb’s funny, thoughtful memoir about a boyhood spent absorbing toxic messages about masculinity.

'Depends What You Mean By Extremist' by John SafranI also liked John Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Safran gets to know Muslims who support ISIS; Muslims who hate ISIS but also hate Jews, Christians and gay people; Jews who hate Muslims; white supremacists who aren’t as white as you’d expect; anarchists who hate racists but think anti-Semitic violence is okay; and conservative Christians who hate Muslims even though there doesn’t seem to be much practical difference between their belief systems. While most of these extremists come across as confused attention-seekers with no real ability to threaten society, Safran makes the serious point that most Australians – secular, rational, democratic Australians – don’t understand “the mindset of the devout: magical thinking, seeing patterns in the world, a sense that there are no coincidences, a determination that friends and strangers must be saved, karma and providence”. This was a timely read, full of Safran being his usual annoying but hilarious self.

Children’s Books

'The Terrible Two' by Jory John and Mac BarnettFor some reason, none of the Young Adult books I read this year captured my interest. I’m sure it was me, rather than the books, which were mostly well-reviewed and award-winning. I had more luck with books aimed at younger readers. I liked The Endsister by Penni Russon, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest. I also enjoyed the first book in The Terrible Two series by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell, with well-drawn characters, a clever plot and lots of humour.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on Memoranda posts this year, with special thanks to the Antonia Forest fans who make such thoughtful contributions whenever I do a Forest read-along. I haven’t been blogging much lately due to um, life, but I hope to get back into it now that I’m on holiday. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it and Happy End of 2018 to everyone else!

‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang

“I used to think being successful meant having enough to eat, but now that I was getting free lunch at school, I wondered if I should set my standards higher.”

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (Australian cover)

It’s 1993 and ten-year-old Mia Tang has migrated from China to America with her parents. They’d hoped for a better life in the Land of the Free, but they’re reduced to living out of their car and taking whatever badly-paid casual jobs they can find. It seems like a miracle when Mr Yao, the owner of a motel near Disneyland, offers them accommodation plus wages if they’ll manage his motel. There’s even a swimming pool! But ‘coal-hearted’ Mr Yao exploits them mercilessly, penalising them for infractions of his ever-changing rules (and he definitely doesn’t want Mia or anyone else actually swimming in the pool). Mia’s parents exhaust themselves with the constant cleaning, laundry and repairs, while Mia appoints herself front desk manager, dealing with missing keys, stolen cars and belligerent drunks. Things are even worse for her at school, where her teacher criticises her English and Mr Yao’s nasty son encourages the class to laugh at Mia’s cheap clothes. Mia’s only schoolfriend Lupe, a Mexican immigrant, is convinced the two of them are stuck on a “rollercoaster” of poverty that they can never get off, but Mia, with the help of the motel’s permanent residents, finds a way to improve the lives of her family and friends.

The author does an admirable job of addressing some heavy topics – including racism, immigration and poverty – in an accessible way for middle-grade readers, but Front Desk is also an engrossing and entertaining story featuring a smart, creative heroine. Mia is far from perfect, but she has a good heart and she learns from her many mistakes. The other characters are similarly nuanced. Mia’s mother loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but her ambition combined with their desperate circumstances can make her ruthless. Mia’s father is more sympathetic, but he’s fairly inept. Mia’s teacher, though well-meaning, is clueless about Mia’s struggles. Both Mr Yao and a Chinese-American security guard hold appallingly racist views about African-Americans. And even Mr Yao’s horrible son, bullied by his own father, finds the courage to be compassionate when Mia needs his help.

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (US cover)It’s especially nice that books and writing (and an enormous thesaurus) are the key to most of Mia’s eventual successes, whether she’s penning a threatening letter to the exploitative boss of an illegal immigrant friend or she’s writing down her family’s story to win a class competition. I must admit that the novel’s conclusion seemed implausibly optimistic and saccharine to me, but by that stage, I was so happy to see good triumph over evil that I didn’t mind too much. The author, Kelly Yang, provides useful notes at the end of the book, explaining that Mia’s story is based on her own experiences helping her migrant parents run motels in California in the 1980s and 1990s. She notes that these immigrants were “particularly vulnerable to exploitation and hardship. No group of Chinese immigrants before or since came with quite so little and gave up quite so much.” Front Desk offers a strong argument in favour of #OwnVoices, because it rings with authenticity. Its messages about immigration and racism are sadly relevant today, but don’t be put off, thinking this is all Serious Discussion of Worthy Issues – it’s simply a good, fun, heartwarming story.