What I’ve Been Reading: #OzMG

I’ve been reading lots of interesting middle grade novels lately and by an Amazing Coincidence, they’re all by Australian authors.

'The Detective's Guide to Ocean Travel' by Nicki Greenberg

The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel is by Nicki Greenberg, best known for her teen-friendly graphic novel versions of literary classics such as Hamlet and The Great Gatsby. Her latest book is a detective story for middle-graders, set in the 1920s on a real-life ocean liner, the RMS Aquitania. Pepper Stark, daughter of the Captain, is very excited to be allowed to sail to New York with him and she promises to be on her best ladylike behaviour. But when an American starlet’s diamond necklace goes missing, Pepper evades her governess and bands together with some new friends to solve the mystery and save her father’s reputation. This novel is full of vivid descriptions of the ship and its routines, with special attention paid to the elaborate meals prepared for the first class passengers. The author clearly did a lot of careful research. I did find the characters were flat and stereotypical and the mystery takes quite a while to develop. However, the concluding chapters are exciting and fast-paced with some clever plot twists. This will appeal to middle graders who are proficient readers, interested in history (particularly those obsessed with the Titanic) and who enjoy Agatha Christie-style mysteries.

'Huda and Me' by H Hayek

Huda and Me is a funny, lively debut novel by H. Hayek, based on her own large Australian-Lebanese Muslim family. Twelve-year-old Akeal, his mischievous little sister Huda, and their five siblings are left at home under the care of a family friend, ‘Aunt’ Amal, when their parents travel to Lebanon. Unfortunately Aunt Amal is completely horrible to all of them except their adorable baby brother, so Huda hatches a plan to escape and Akeal is reluctantly dragged along. Akeal is an endearing narrator — thoughtful, caring and able to draw on hidden reserves of strength when his family is in danger. This book is rightly being celebrated for showing some of the diversity of modern Australian life and depicting the challenges young Australian Muslims can face (for example, in one scene, an Australian boy tries to pull off Huda’s hijab and Akeal bravely stands up for his sister).

However, this book reminded me that diversity in publishing does not mean pushing one particular, progressive viewpoint, but rather, publishing a range of books that reflect all aspects of society, including conservative, patriarchal, religious viewpoints. There is nothing subtle about this author’s message. All the male characters — Akeal, his father, their elderly neighbour, the male flight attendant, a security guard at the airport, a taxi driver who offers the children his own home-cooked lunch — are strong, compassionate heroes who are good at their jobs and always do the brave, right thing, even if it sometimes means disobeying the rules. (The boy who abuses Huda rapidly repents when Akeal confronts him, then he helps Huda and Akeal escape.) The villains — deranged Aunt Amal and a belligerent female flight attendant — are all women who don’t have children. Girls can be as feisty as Huda until puberty, this book suggests, but after that they need to be excellent at cooking (like Huda’s twin sisters), proficient at hair, make-up and beauty treatments (Huda’s eldest sister), then get married and have at least half a dozen children (Huda’s saintly mother, who is so passive that when she finds out her beloved children are in danger, her response is to cry and leave her young son and husband to sort out the problem). According to this book, girls who don’t fulfil their God-given destiny to become housewives and mothers will either turn into crazy baby kidnappers or ice-hearted, child-hating career women. Do I agree with these anti-feminist messages? Obviously not. Would I give this book to young readers? Sure, it’s a fun, Dahl-esque read with good male role models. But I’d then give those readers one of the many middle-grade books that show that girls can also grow up to be strong, compassionate and competent, whether they choose to marry and have children, or not.

'Elsewhere Girls' by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman

For example, Elsewhere Girls by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman, an enjoyable time-slip adventure, in which thirteen-year-old Cat from Sydney finds herself in the body of a teenage girl in 1908, who just happens to be Fanny Durack, future Olympic swimming champion. There’s lots of amusement as Fanny, living in 2021 in Cat’s body, tries to make sense of mobile phones, microwave ovens and aeroplanes. Meanwhile, Cat is horrified by her new life as one of ten siblings living above a Surry Hills pub, where it takes an entire day to do the laundry and girls aren’t allowed to swim in front of men. The authors acknowledge their debt to classic time slip novels, including Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, one of my favourite books. There is some serious commentary in Elsewhere Girls on how much life has improved for girls and women, but this is aimed at middle-graders so it avoids the more grim, confronting realities of life in Edwardian Sydney slums (unlike Playing Beatie Bow, in which poor Abigail gets kidnapped and locked in a brothel). Elsewhere Girls is recommended for about twelve years and up, particularly girls interested in history and feminism.

'Footprints on the Moon' by Lorraine Marwood

Footprints on the Moon by Lorraine Marwood is set in more recent history, in 1969. In her first year of high school, Sharnie is dealing with a lot — her best friend turning into a Mean Girl, the death of her beloved grandmother, and family conflict due to her elder sister Cas protesting against the Vietnam War. Sharnie makes a new friend who is grieving over the death of her brother, a war conscript, and the two friends join forces with Cas to celebrate the moon landing and protest against the war in a creative way. This is a verse novel, a collection of beautifully written poems with careful use of metaphor and moon imagery, arranged in narrative form. It’s well researched and has an important message, so teachers and literary award committees will love it, but I must admit I found it a bit dull and worthy. However, I’d recommend it for thoughtful young readers dealing with the death of a grandparent or those who are interested in the moon landing.

'Are You There, Buddha?' by Pip Harry

Are You There, Buddha? by Pip Harry also has a narrator in her first year of high school, also dealing with a range of problems, but this was a delight to read. Bee’s mother has abandoned her to live in an Indian ashram, her best friend Leon is showing worrying signs of having a crush on her, her well-meaning stepmum keeps meddling in her life, a Mean Girl at swimming practice is making life difficult … and worst of all, her body is changing, with stretch marks, new breasts and the dreaded start of periods. Bee is such a lively, funny, sweet narrator, always trying to do the right thing, although not always succeeding. I especially liked the realistic depiction of menstruation — cramps and blood stains and trying to insert a tampon for the first time and the inevitable bad timing of the start of a period (an especially annoying thing for Bee because she’s a competitive swimmer). The only odd thing about this book is that it’s described as a verse novel, but to me, it just seemed like a book written in clear, simple prose with odd punctuation, with sentences broken up to create more white space on the page and make it more appealing to reluctant readers. There’s nothing particularly poetic about the language:

“I open the door
and he tips
a pile of picture books
on the floor.”

So, I don’t think it’s a verse novel but it is an excellent read. I’d recommend it for girls (and boys) aged about ten years and up.

'Dragon Skin' by Karen Foxlee

Finally, Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee is an exquisitely written novel, a sad, gritty but hopeful story about a ten-year-old girl living in outback Australia in dire circumstances. Pip’s mother’s boyfriend is abusive and her only school friend has died. Then Pip finds a tiny, half-dead dragon by the waterhole and her quest to save ‘Little Fella’ and return him to where he came from changes her in profound ways. She makes new friends and ultimately moves on to a better life. The descriptions of Mount Isa are beautiful, each character is real and interesting, and the publishers have produced a gorgeous hardcover edition with lovely cover art, endpapers and line drawings. I’ve no doubt this book will win all the awards. However, it’s definitely for thoughtful, mature readers and is possibly a book that will appeal more to adult readers than child readers.

What I’ve Been Reading

How can we be a quarter of the way through 2022 already? Is it the multitude of terrible things happening throughout the world that is causing me this difficulty with time perception? I have at least been reading a bit more this year, both for education and escape. Here are my favourites so far.

'Unfollow' by Megan Phelps-RoperUnfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper was an inspiring memoir by a young woman who escaped a notoriously homophobic, misogynist, anti-Semitic, anti-everything cult founded by her grandfather. From the age of five, Megan was an obedient and devoted Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) member, holding up ‘God Hates Fags’ signs outside the funerals of American soldiers, picketing outside her own school and college, then running the church’s social media campaign. It isn’t surprising that she followed the church’s beliefs, because nearly everyone in her large extended family was a member of WBC. What is surprising is how she managed to leave WBC at the age of 26, cutting herself off from the family she still loves, to become an activist and educator dedicated to combatting extremist beliefs.

There were two things that helped her leave. Firstly, WBC, unlike other American cults, allowed its children to be educated in the public school system and encouraged them to go to college, where Megan was often socially isolated, but was at least exposed to other beliefs and learned some critical thinking skills. WBC members were also encouraged to use social media to get publicity for the church’s bigoted preaching. Megan writes of her “profound gratitude to Twitter … Instead of booting me from its platform for ‘hate speech’, as many had demanded, it had put me in conversation with people and ideas that effectively challenged beliefs that had been hammered into me since I was a child.” In fact, she ends up meeting and eventually marrying a man who had spent years debating against her on Twitter. She despairs of the “division of the world into Us and Them” in the Trump era and points out that in the age of the internet, “we cannot reasonably expect to halt the spread of an idea, whether good or bad … the answer to bad ideas is to publicly reason against them, to advocate for and propagate better ones”. Megan comes across as a thoughtful, ethical person who, despite her traumatic upbringing, has a lot of compassion and empathy, and she argues convincingly against #NoDebate and Cancel Culture.

'The Edible Balcony' by Indira NaidooI also liked The Edible Balcony by Indira Naidoo, a guide to growing fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables for those of us who don’t have backyard gardens. Indira managed to produce 70kg of produce in her first year of balcony gardening and this is a good beginner’s guide, with great photos and illustrations, handy tips and some delicious-looking recipes. It must be noted that although Indira claims her Sydney balcony is “small”, it is 20 square metres (about five times the size of my own balcony), and is north-facing, with its own water supply and a building concierge who looks after her plants when she’s away. She also has the advantages of farming friends who provide her with fresh manure, a vertical garden system supplied for free because she’s a celebrity, and access to ABC TV’s gardening gurus. Still, this book provided me with inspiration as I was re-establishing my own balcony garden, following last year’s building reconstruction works. Here are some before and after pictures of my balcony:

Before: my balcony in April 2021
BEFORE: My balcony in April 2021 as reconstruction started and the scaffolding went up
After: My balcony in January 2022
AFTER: My balcony in January 2022. I’m growing mint, rosemary, parsley, marjoram, lavender, lemon thyme, spring onions, two types of chives, three types of lettuce and two types of basil.

The Edible Balcony provided valuable food for thought. For example, I’d always considered tomatoes to be too difficult to grow on a balcony, but Indira successfully grew tomato varieties in pots, so that could be a project for me next summer. Conversely, I now think a little lemon tree might be a bit too ambitious for me, after reading about all the pest problems Indira had. Still, her remedy for powdery mildew (diluted milk sprayed on leaves) worked a treat on my afflicted mint plant, so thanks, Indira!

'Sugar Town Queens' by Malla NunnIn fiction, I enjoyed Sugar Town Queens, the latest YA novel from Malla Nunn. This is a fast-paced story about a mixed-race girl growing up in poverty in a Durban township. Amandla’s mother is white and her father is missing; they live in a one-room tin shack but her mother regularly comes home with wads of cash; and her mother has strange delusions and gaps in her memory. Amandla, with the help of her friends Lil Bit and Goodness, discovers the truth about her mother’s wealthy family and tragic past. The romance seems shoe-horned in and the conclusion is unrealistically upbeat and Cinderella-ish, but I really liked the depiction of strong relationships between the girls and women in the story, with schoolfriends, neighbours and grandmother working together for truth and justice. (I think When the Ground is Hard is a much better book, though.)

'Cat Problems' by Jory JohnFinally, Cat Problems by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith, is a charming and funny picture book about the very difficult life of a household cat who has many problems, all of which he complains about loudly. He has to deal with a sunbeam that moves; a noisy vacuum cleaner; dry cat food instead of wet; and another cat that persists in sitting “in my spot … in my other spot … now you’re in my THIRD spot.” A squirrel outside the window explains how difficult life is for wild animals outside but Cat is unimpressed (“How can I eat this very talkative squirrel?”) Then he stalks off to complain about the paucity of sunbeams at night. The fuzzy illustrations and mimimalist backgrounds are very appealing. Recommended for anyone who’s ever lived with a cat.

My Favourite Books of 2021

I usually post about my favourite books of the year by Christmas Eve, but this week, I was somewhat distracted due to a) the hospital where I work going into Red Alert and having to evacuate our floor to make room for extra COVID beds, just after we’d finally moved back to our usual offices, at a time when most staff had gone on much-needed holidays or were in COVID isolation, why did I agree to work this week WHY, and then b) being identified as a COVID contact, developing symptoms and going into isolation on Christmas Eve.

This was a fitting end to a year in which my state experienced catastrophic floods, an earthquake, a mouse plague, our Premier resigning due to a corruption scandal, and of course, there was that ongoing pandemic with lots of exciting new viral variants. Also, the apartment building where I live needed urgent repairs that included demolishing and rebuilding all the balconies, so I’ve been living in a dark, noisy, dust-filled construction site for the past eight months.

Remember this time last year, when we were all looking forward to 2021?

At least I read some good new books. My favourite novels for adults were The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng. I also found Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody informative and helpful (although alas, I did not make much writing progress this year, see above). My favourite books for children and teenagers included When the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn, The Cricket Term by Antonia Forest and Maddie in the Middle by Julia Lawrinson. I may have read some other good books this year. I can’t remember. I can’t even recall my phone number at the moment.

Fortunately, I have a pile of library books to keep me entertained during my COVID isolation period:

Library books Christmas 2021

I hope you’ve had a good reading year, despite all the challenges that 2021 has brought us, and that you’re having a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

What I’ve Been Reading

My author website and blog have had major technical issues over the past month, but everything’s now restored with a new web hosting service, so hopefully there won’t be further problems. FitzOsborne Press is also back with a new website, for those who’d like to buy a copy of Dr Huxley’s Bequest for Christmas/New Year/winter vacation/summer holiday reading.

I’m also very relieved that my local library is open again and I’ve been reading some good books (also some not-very-good books, but I don’t blog about them).

'When the Ground is Hard' by Malla NunnWhen the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn was a fascinating YA novel set in a Christian boarding school in 1965 Swaziland. Sixteen-year-old Adele, the daughter of a Swazi woman and a white South African married man, is a sweet, rule-abiding student until she’s abandoned by her mean-girl friends and forced to share a room with angry, rebellious Lottie. The two girls’ growing friendship is beautifully portrayed as they face profound challenges, including a fire at school and the disappearance of a classmate. There are grim, constant reminders of how class, race and sex determine who has power in their society and there are no easy resolutions to Adele’s problems, but female friendship and family bonds are celebrated and Adele’s kindness and optimism are shown to be strengths. Malla Nunn is best known in Australia for her adult crime fiction, but she has another YA novel out now, Sugar Town Queens, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

'Room for a Stranger' by Melanie ChengI also enjoyed Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng. This is a thoughtful, empathetic novel about two vulnerable people — an elderly white woman living alone in her Melbourne house and a lonely university student from Hong Kong who is struggling with his studies — who are brought together through a homestay program. The writing is incisive but compassionate, the story is moving without lapsing into sentimentality, and even the minor characters are multidimensional. I read this in a single day because I was so invested in how things would turn out. I’d previously liked this author’s collection of short stories, Australia Day, but this novel, her first, is even better.

'The Apothecary' by Maile MeloyFinally, The Apothecary by Maile Meloy was an enthralling, fast-paced fantasy set in Cold War England in 1952. Fourteen-year-old Janie has been forced to leave her Hollywood home because her screenwriter parents are under suspicion of being Communist sympathisers. Arriving in London, Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his teenage son, and soon she’s caught up in an international conspiracy to save the world from destruction, led by a secret society of alchemists who can freeze time, become invisible and transform into animals. It did seem as though the publishers weren’t sure whether this was young adult or middle grade fiction – the main characters are fourteen, there’s romance and kissing, and there’s a lot of discussion of Cold War politics, but the illustrations make it look like middle grade and the serious moral dilemmas aren’t explored in any depth. I also must point out that despite enjoying most of this book, the final few pages really annoyed me. Without being too spoilery, the good guys do something to Janie that completely removes her agency and is a terrible invasion of her privacy and dignity, so that they can escape the bad guys. Worse, when Janie finds out what they’ve done, she isn’t angry — she giggles. I can understand why the author thought this was a neat magical ending. But why on earth didn’t her editor point out that this destroyed the Girl Power message of the rest of the book and suggest some changes that gave Janie some choice in the matter? It bothered me enough that I’m not inclined to read the next two books in this trilogy, but if anyone has read them and liked them, please do let me know. This was otherwise a really engrossing adventure with an interesting historical setting.

‘The Cricket Term’, Part Six

This is a LONG post but I wanted to finish off the book.

Chapter Nine: The Prosser

Nicola’s hand has healed, with a cool scar that is “miles bigger than Peter’s titchy one” and Miss Cromwell gives them all their exam results. Unfortunately, very few of Lower IV.A actually read their exam paper instructions, even though Miss Cromwell warned them to do so, and they failed to notice a tricky bit that said that the first section was worth very few marks compared to the later sections. Most of them just worked from start to finish, so even Miranda and Meg Hopkins end up with scores in the forties and thirties. This is horrendously unfair, think the class, but I’m with Miss Cromwell on this one. Better they learn this lesson now than during their O or A levels.

However Nicola, who wasn’t even in class when everyone else got the warning, actually read her paper properly and so Nicola is top of the class this term. Combined with her good marks throughout the year, this means she wins the Form Prize! And maybe, possibly, this will get her closer to the Prosser … except then Berenice, Meg Hopkins’ friend, tells them that poor Meg is very distressed because her horrible father stops speaking to her whenever she doesn’t come first or second in class AND the school had told Meg’s parents she was in the running for the Prosser, which is now in doubt for her, so her father may never speak to her again. Miranda asks Janice if the “trap-for-heffalumps bit” will really rule Meg out of the Prosser and Janice says probably not, if the teachers have already decided. Poor Nicola’s hopes fade again.

Still, at least she gets to go into town to choose her book prize and have coffee with the other prize winners. Ann even lends Nicola her boater, against school rules. Ann is being very sensible and mature here, because she’s also had to give up Guides due to turning sixteen and she donates her uniforms and all her badges to the school. Nicola thinks she should at least keep her badges to show her grandchildren, but Ann says “Who says I’ll have any grandchildren?” Maybe she’s planning to become a nun. She does keep her silver trefoil Guides badge, though.

In Wade Abbas, Nicola has £2 to spend on any book she likes, “as long as it’s suitable for presentation on Speech Day”. I looked up how much that would be now and it seems to be worth about £20, which would now buy her two new paperbacks or one not-too-expensive hardcover from Waterstones. Nicola notes that the new books in the shop that look interesting cost more than £2, but fortunately, they’re allowed to look through the second-hand books, too. Ah, the sheer joy of being given some money and able to choose a book of your own and knowing it’s a special prize book! In a fit of nostalgia, I went looking for my school prize books from when I was about Nicola’s age. Here we are, I chose Alison Lurie’s The Language of Clothes, which I still love:

School prize bookplate, 1984

(It was very disappointing to get to senior school and realise they gave out boring scrolls instead of books for prizes, even for School Dux.) Nicola searches for ages, then finds a beautiful 1834 two-volume set of the Iliad, in Greek with notes in Latin, so old it’s priced at 7/6. Miss Cartwright is amused by the selection, asking if Nicola thinks she’ll ever learn to read them, but agrees that they’re splendid. As the two of them are walking to the coffee shop, Nicola asks how Marie Dobson is and it’s revealed that MARIE IS DEAD! She had flu that affected her heart and seemed to be getting better but then she suddenly jumped up “to switch on Top of the Pops” and her heart stopped.

I very much doubt that a teacher would know or repeat the Top of the Pops bit – I think it’s just so that Antonia Forest can emphasise how shallow and stupid Marie was. I am offended on Marie’s behalf. This was the sort of thing on Top of the Pops at the time, although I suppose if the school thinks The Mask of Apollo is scandalous, they’d have a fit about Freddie Mercury in skin-tight satin trousers, singing about a call-girl.

Anyway, Nicola is understandably shocked about poor Marie (“Marie wasn’t—not—not enough of a person to die”) and so are the rest of Lower IV.A. This section is beautifully written, psychologically astute and very funny:

“…they felt required to be sorry and speak well of the girl: two things not honestly possible. Propriety, however, and an alarmed awareness that if Marie could die, so could any of them, had led most people to abandon honesty, as if a little harmless insincerity would propitiate the fates.”

After much arguing, the girls all decide on the wording for a letter signed by the whole class to send to Marie’s parents. Tim eventually agrees to sign it, but is very cross about the whole thing:

“Stupid girl…I just don’t see why she had to die. It’s so unnecessary. I always think dying’s unnecessary.”
“It wouldn’t be so bad if we’d liked her,” said Nicola gloomily.
“You mean you want people you like to die?”
No. Just I’d rather be properly sorry if I’ve got to, if you see what I mean.”

Lawrie hates it so much (“I don’t see why they had to tell us anyway”) that she disappears up a tree and won’t come down until they agree to stop talking about the subject.

Poor, pathetic Marie. That’s the end of her, then.

After that, it’s Speech Day when Nicola will find out about the Prosser. Her mother, Karen, Chas and Rose are late because their car broke down, so Nicola can’t find out before the ceremony if she really will be leaving school. Poor Nicola is sick with worry as she sits through the speeches. She does get to go on stage to collect her prize, and the Classics don is very impressed with young Karen’s sister (“such a pleasure to find someone as young as herself with a genuine interest in the classics”) and Nicola feels a bit of a fraud (“now she’d have to learn Greek to make it true”). Perhaps Edwin Dodd can teach her.

Then they announce the Prosser Award and it goes to … Lawrence Marlow. WHAT?! Because they think she’s going to become a famous actress and they were impressed with her maturity in giving up the role of Ariel because she couldn’t do it justice! Lawrie, typically, hasn’t been paying any attention during the speech and has no idea what’s going on.

Then the school sings Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A girls’ school, singing that, of all hymns. That’s it. I’ve had it with this ridiculous school.

Chapter Ten: The Play

When Mrs Marlow is congratulated on her talented daughters, she says, “Nicola, perhaps, though I’m told it was something of a fluke. Lawrie, I’m afraid, has just been rather lucky—”

I’ve totally had it with Mrs Marlow, too. It was NOT luck with Nicola. She STUDIED and she READ THE INSTRUCTIONS and she DESERVED HER PRIZE.

Chas says, “Lawrie is Lucky, but Nicola is Nicer”, which is true.

Poor Meg Hopkins. Even though Nicola realises Lawrie’s award allows all the Marlows to stay at Kingscote, she thinks she’d rather Meg got the award than undeserving Lawrie. Then Miranda, sick with nerves before the play and unable to eat (the dress rehearsal was a nightmare), asks Nicola to keep her father company at dinner, because he likes Nicola. So they go off to Wade Abbas’s fanciest hotel and have champagne and discuss his personal collection of mourning ornaments, then she watches the play with him. Miranda doesn’t get on with her mother, but her father seems very nice. In fact, all the mothers in this series are pretty awful – either actively awful, like Esther’s mother and the Marlow grandmother, or passively awful, like Mrs Marlow. Mr West is nice and so is Patrick’s father.

The play looks magnificent and Miranda and Jan and everyone else in the cast are amazing. Rowan turns up to pick up Mrs Marlow, Karen and the children in the Landrover and has a chat to Jan. After Jan leaves, Rowan explains Jan’s father is a surgeon, so couldn’t make it, and Jan’s mother is mysteriously never mentioned (either dead, mad, crippled, run away or in jail, possibly). Chas liked “the pirates” in the play and Rose felt sorry for Caliban and couldn’t understand why everyone hated him, but Nicola explains:

“There just are people like that and you can’t like them–” Like Marie Dobson.

Which is a bit unfair on Marie. It’s not as though she went around trying to rape people, the way Caliban did. Although the Kingscote production probably edited that out.

Nicola finally gets to have a brief chat with her mother, who is vaguely apologetic. She says Rowan made her tell Nicola about having to leave school and she couldn’t relieve Nicola’s worries earlier because Miss Keith only told her about the Prosser that afternoon. All these adults are totally useless.

I suppose Miss Cromwell’s all right. Nicola sees her, an Unstrange Shape, in the driveway and attempts to explain why she’d been on the roof that day, but Miss Cromwell already knows. (Maybe Miss Cromwell really was on the roof, as the cover illustration showed?) She also already knows about Meg’s awful father, but none of the teachers have been able to change his horrible behaviour so far.

Back in the dorm, Ginty’s sulking because she wasn’t in the play and Lawrie is having a tantrum because her prize is a collected Shakespeare First Folio when she wanted separate plays. When Nicola agrees to swap it for her Idiot Boy share, Lawrie changes her mind, then has a sobbing fit because she wanted to play Caliban… Honestly, how can the teachers possibly have given her a prize for being mature and self-aware?

Chapter Eleven: The Cricket Final

Actually, it’s the school diving cup first. I think there have been way too many sports competitions by now. In their divisions, Nicola comes third, Miranda fourth, Lawrie sixth, Monica second and Ginty bombs out. Her friends say it’s nerves, but Ginty claims she deliberately did badly so that Monica would win, because Monica had dropped out of the play for her. Unsurprisingly, Monica is not happy about this. Ginty’s friends don’t seem very nice, except for Monica.

Evil Lois wins her diving division, then the Sixth Formers get ready for the cricket final. Lois is doing her usual ‘Oh, I pulled a muscle’ trick in case she plays badly in the cricket and Janice calls her on that. Janice also thinks it would be quite fun if the Lower IV.A win and Lois is furious at the very notion that “those ghastly brats” might triumph. I get the feeling Lois is going to get her comeuppance soon.

Lower IV.A bat first and the twins open the batting because they’re used to fast bowling from their brother and Rowan. They face down Evil Lois’s fierce bowling and Janice’s less-fierce bowling for a whole hour and score fifty-two runs. I liked Janice’s comment later: “The first hour, whoever you bowled to, there was the same face, daring one to do one’s worst. It felt quite uncanny.” Lawrie is eventually bowled out, but Nicola stays in until they get to 91, then valiant Pomona and Berenice plod along for a while, to Lois’s immense frustration, till they’re all out for 106.

Then it’s the Sixth Formers turn to bat. They really only have Lois and Janice who are any good, and Nicola manages to bowl and catch Janice out for a duck. Then Esther, bless her, manages a hat-trick, although “petrified by success, her remaining balls could have been safely hit by an energetic seven-year-old”. The rest of the Sixth batters are rabbits, with Lois making sure she does all the batting and calls all the runs. Finally it’s just Lois and useless Val Longstreet, and Nicola can’t bring herself to bowl out the Head Girl on her last day at school. It looks like the Sixth will get enough runs to win, but wait, Lois has slogged the ball, Nicola runs to stop it, Val gets confused about whether she has to run another or not, Nicola hurls the ball at the wicket and takes out the bail … and Lower IV.A wins! Hooray for Nicola! Evil Lois is defeated at last!

Lois refuses to join in the reminiscing of the other Sixth Formers on their last day ever in the Common Room and sulks in a corner. I suppose we should feel sorry for her, because it doesn’t seem likely she’ll ever improve. But who knows, maybe she will?

Chapter Twelve: Breaking Up

There’s one final assembly, when Nicola gets to collect the Cricket Cup. Then she reads a letter that Edwin has sent. It turns out the “A.M.” martyred at Tyburn was Anthony Merrick, and that young Nicholas, the actor, married Bess Burby or Burbage. This reminds Nicola that Crommie had mentioned an actor called Richard Burbage AND he was listed in Lawrie’s First Folio. So she goes off to the library to find out, where she meets Janice. Janice says she’d nearly “shouted with rage” about Lawrie getting the Prosser, but explains it was probably Keith’s way of stopping other parents complaining about yet another Marlow getting it – Lawrie’s theatrical talent is so unusual, you see. Janice also mentions she loathes Keith and hasn’t much liked school. She says, “I don’t much care for being shut up with hordes of other females”, which does not sound very lesbian of her, so poor Miranda probably won’t get to bump into Janice at Gay’s The Word or the Gateways in ten years time and begin a passionate lifelong affair. Janice is supposed to be studying science, but her elder brother has turned into a hairy pop star and is no longer joining her uncle’s solicitor firm, so she’s thinking she might do that.

Janice also explains that Richard Burbage was the Elizabethan version of Olivier and Gielgud — the first Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Prospero. So if Nicholas Marlow married his daughter, then Lawrie is his descendant. But best not to tell her that.

Miranda comes in to ask Janice for her address so she can write to her. NOOO, MIRANDA, DON’T! It’s over! Say a dignified farewell, then find someone else, for your own sake!

As Nicola is rushing off to meet Miranda on the roof, she runs into Lois and they are forced to interact. Lois says “we do rather seem to have got across one another…well—it’s been rather a pity, that’s all.” Urgh! Nicola says “Good-bye, Lois” (no good luck) and that’s it, although she reflects that it’s been interesting knowing Lois — not good, but interesting.

And that’s THE END.

I liked this. There was a bit too much sport to make this my favourite book of the series, and Ginty and Lawrie were both completely awful, but there was lots to enjoy. My favourite bits were:

– Miranda and Nicola’s friendship
– that Nicola and Tim seemed to get on fairly well in this book
– the girls’ reactions to Marie’s death
– Miss Cromwell! She’s pretty good, for a Kingscote teacher
– Esther’s developing confidence and Pomona being so reliable and unflappable
– everything Janice did, but especially the conversation with Miss Craven and Evil Lois, with Janice stirring away…

It doesn’t look as though I can buy The Ready-Made Family from GGB, due to COVID, and I’m not enthusiastic about the next two Marlow books, because reliable sources tell me they’re not very good. I was planning to read the whole series, but my experience with Rivers of London has taught me it’s better to end on a high note. So I think this might be my last Antonia Forest read-through at Memoranda. Thank you to everyone who’s commented on these posts and special thanks to Kate C for introducing me to these books. Multos gratias!