‘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.

Non-Fiction

'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.

What I’ve Been Reading: Novels by Women

'The Gathering' by Anne Enright

The Gathering by Anne Enright was an engrossing novel about a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and specifically, about the terrible consequences of covering up abusive behaviour. It was often frustrating to read because the narrator was so unreliable – how can we hope for justice when we can’t be sure of the truth? – but this is entirely consistent with how a child’s memory of trauma works. The back-and-forth timeline was effective, if occasionally confusing, and the prose was visceral and vivid. It gave me nightmares, but I’m glad I read it and I think it was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.

'Winter' by Ali Smith

Winter by Ali Smith was even more confusing, but provided a more pleasant reading experience. It’s a meandering, whimsical piece of writing about an elderly woman who is being followed around her Cornish mansion by a disembodied head. Sophia and Head then find themselves hosting some unwelcome family guests at Christmas. It’s not a conventional narrative, but it’s often very funny and the author has a lot of thoughtful things to say about politics, art, feminism, climate change, family relationships, social media and much, much more. I was struck by how contemporary this book was – it was published last year and contains references not just to Brexit, but Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts, the Grenfell Tower fire and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

'Clock Dance' by Anne Tyler

I don’t think Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is her best novel, but it’s enjoyable and thoughtful and ultimately satisfying in a way I didn’t expect. Much like Ladder of Years, it’s the story of a middle-aged woman with a horrible husband and unappreciative offspring, who travels to a new community where she makes friends and is valued for her kindness and home-making abilities. It has a few too many self-consciously quirky Baltimore characters and is a little too willing to avoid some dark topics, but I liked it very much.

'Bluebottle' by Belinda Castles

Finally, Bluebottle by Belinda Castles was an intriguing read. It’s another dysfunctional-family-forced-to-confront-past-trauma story (Are there any happy families in novels? Would there be any point in writing about them?), but this one is set in the northern beach suburbs of Sydney and contains some beautifully vivid descriptions of the sea and beach. The cover suggests it’s a thriller, but while there is tension in the narrative, it builds slowly and the Big Revelation is not exactly a surprise. I was more interested in the skillful depiction of some believably flawed characters doing their best to cope with a terrible situation. (Although I do think the author let Tricia off too lightly. I despised Tricia.)

‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’ Shortlisted for Young People’s History Prize

Dr Huxley’s Bequest has been shortlisted for the Young People’s History Prize in the 2018 NSW Premier’s History Awards. The other shortlisted books are The Fighting Stingrays by Simon Mitchell and Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus by Stephanie Owen Reeder, both of which look fascinating.

'The Fighting Stingrays' by Simon Mitchell

'Marvellous Miss May' by Stephanie Owen Reeder

Dr Huxley’s Bequest has also been added to the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge list for Years 7-9. There’s a good list of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) book recommendations for students in Years 3-9 here.

Plus, National Science Week starts tomorrow and Children’s Book Week is the week after that and then it’s History Week. SO MUCH EXCITEMENT!

If you’ve enjoyed Memoranda’s Antonia Forest discussions …

If you’ve enjoyed the Antonia Forest discussions at Memoranda, you might also be interested in these posts about twentieth century children’s books.

'The Years of Grace', edited by Noel StreatfeildI was entertained and educated by The Years of Grace (1950), edited by Noel Streatfeild. As the jacket states,

The Years of Grace is a book for growing-up girls who are too old for children’s books and are just beginning to read adult literature. It is a difficult age – difficult for parents and friends, but more difficult for the girls themselves. What are they going to do when they leave school? How should they dress? What is a good hobby? How can they make the right sort of friends? The problems are endless, and here in The Years of Grace is to be found the wisdom of many of our greatest writers and most distinguished people of our time.”

Noel Streatfeild must have realised that there was a lucrative market for this sort of thing, because she followed this up with Growing Up Gracefully in 1955. This guide to good manners for young people includes chapters on ‘Manners Abroad’, ‘When and When Not To Make A Fuss’ and ‘Don’t Drop That Brick or The Gentle Art of Avoiding Solecisms’ and it is even more amusing than her first etiquette guide.

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

Readers who enjoy children’s adventure books may be interested in discussions about Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Finally, here are some links to blog posts about the biographies of children’s writers T. H. White and Dodie Smith.

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Seven

Chapter Eleven: The Dispatch is Delivered

One last bit of Gondalling, in which they finally arrive in Angora. Again, the plot doesn’t make much sense. Jason goes straight to the King because “the matter is of deepest urgency”, but when they meet, Jason doesn’t say a word about the evil Regent’s plots. Instead, he has a nice meal, then when he leaves, Rupert hands over the forged document and claims that he escaped before the Gaaldines could torture him. Rupert goes back to join the other Guards and is horrified to realise they’re about to go and meet the Angoran King, so Rupert’s treachery will soon be revealed. He must quickly kill Jason and escape to Gaaldine, although he wonders whether he’ll be safe there.

This is the point where Ginty says “Let’s get up and act this properly”, suggesting that sometimes their Gondalling was sitting and talking, and sometimes they acted it out.

Rupert/Patrick goes to kill Jason/Lawrie, who is shocked at Rupert’s betrayal but tells Rupert to “shoot me quickly and make your getaway” (in a way that Lawrie would never do). But just as Rupert is about to fire, the others rush in, now aware of Rupert’s treachery. Jason says Rupert must be taken home and tried as a traitor, which means he will burn at the stake. Rupert urges the others to shoot him now, but Malise/Peter says he couldn’t do that, indicating his broken arm from the battle (and Peter actually has a broken collarbone now, so the Gondalling foretold that) and Nicholas/Nicola says Rupert/Patrick deserves to burn (for Rosina, the geese and not caring when she fell off Buster). Rupert announces he will shoot himself and the children break out of Gondalling to discuss this.

Peter says suicide is “too easy” and Nicola wonders how Rupert can do that if he’s Catholic. Ginty wants to save Rupert by sending him into exile “and we could all go into voluntary exile with him”. But Peter thinks Rupert deserves to burn for being a “coward and traitor”. Patrick loses his temper and points out that Malise Marlow, the Civil War ancestor who supported Charles, actually betrayed his own side when the Royalists were losing and showed the Parliamentarians how to get into the Royalist castle. And then Patrick’s Royalist ancestor, Anthony Merrick, was captured and shot.

“There was a moment’s violent silence, loud with old betrayals and antique feuds and ancient enmities. And then Nicola said, ‘Lumme, what a heel!’ and the long dead things went back to their own place. Peter, very pale, said nothing.”

Then Patrick raises an actual pistol to his head to shoot himself, Nicola is frightened to see he’s wearing his Rupert face and, “panic-stricken”, bashes his wrist with the actual sword she’s carrying. The pistol falls and discharges, shooting a hole in the window beside Lawrie’s head and nearly hitting Rowan, who’s outside in the spinney. Because of course, when Peter checked the old pistols were safe, he didn’t do it properly. Didn’t I say that Peter and guns should never be allowed in the same place? Everyone hastily re-arranges the scene so that when Rowan arrives, they all look completely innocent, the pistol having fallen off the wall accidentally (although Lawrie is “quietly bleeding to death into her trousers pocket”). Rowan is not convinced, but can’t prove anything and at least she takes all the guns away. I’m just remembering when Peter was carrying around a pistol earlier, in case they met the neighbourhood drunk, and he playfully held it to Nicola’s head – imagine if it had gone off then. He’s so irresponsible!

Nicola, thoroughly fed up, announces she’s leaving Gondal, despite Lawrie saying she can’t, they need her and it’s “four to one”:

“I don’t care if it’s a billion to a quarter,” said Nicola, discarding family democracy at the same time as she put on her macintosh. “I think the whole thing’s quite mad. And I think those Brontës of Gin’s must have been absolutely mental, still doing it when they were thirty, nearly!”

Then Peter, who never wants to hear the word ‘Malise’ again in his life, banishes the others from the Hide. He takes the Malise paper and farm journals and “stuffed the whole thing away at the very bottom, underneath everything”, which is exactly how Peter always responds to trauma. Then he ponders how everything in the Hide transmogrified itself:

“The sovereigns had become farthings: Malise had turned from hero to villain: even the holiday itself had changed from whatever he’d planned into this Gondal nonsense: whatever Mr. Tranter might say, it did look as if Ted Colthard’s grandfather had–well–you never knew–”

Yes, Peter, let’s put all the blame on the devil on the roof. It couldn’t possibly have gone wrong due to your own character flaws.

Then there’s a nice scene between Nicola and Rowan, in which Rowan is leaning on a gate, “Saying ‘Aarrh’ to the crops. It makes them grow,” and Nicola discusses her plans for the rest of the holidays:

“Then I think I’ll have elevenses and then I’ll get Buster and go for a ride. And tomorrow, if that’s all right with you, I’ll come up to the lambing pen.”

Good for you, Nicola. And I hope the rest of your holidays are much better than the first bit.

Lawrie blames everyone else, but she’ll be fine, Gondalling away by herself in her bedroom. Patrick and Ginty are the most upset by the abrupt end of Gondal. Ginty says, “You could sort of find out how people feel when things happen to them, couldn’t you?”, which is what fiction does and suggests Antonia Forest isn’t completely against Gondalling. And Patrick says:

“I wish we could have gone on long enough to find out [what Rupert decided] … once we really got going, what was happening to Rupert felt much more important than anything that was happening to me … we could have gone back to before all this happened and seen why Rupert got like this … Anyway, it was much more fun being Rupert than me.”

So Gondalling did seem to have a psychological benefit for Patrick – it allowed him to consider how other people thought and felt, which is not something he seems to have done before this. After all, the only real danger they faced from Gondalling was due to Peter’s irresponsible attitude to guns. A winter holiday of escapism is not going to cause much harm to most children.

Ginty and Patrick are very sad that “from now on ordinary everyday life will have to serve”, but I don’t have too much sympathy for them, because they both have youth, good health, good looks, lots of money, servants and their very own ponies. And the book concludes with Patrick suggesting, “Let’s get The Idiot and Catkin and go for a ride.”

THE END

I can absolutely see why Victoria University has chosen Peter’s Room as a set text for their children’s literature course. Apart from being an enjoyable read, there’s so much to explore within the text, especially about the role of fantasy and fiction in children’s (and adults’) lives.

My personal favourite bits were the discussion about the Brontës, the talk Rowan and Nicola had about careers, and the scene with Nicola, Buster and the fox. I found the Gondal bits fairly tedious. I can see why they had to be there, but did they have to be so badly written and clumsily plotted? Of course, the children were ‘writing’ those bits and wouldn’t be expected to be brilliant at it, but I wondered if the clumsy prose reflected Antonia Forest’s opinion of High Fantasy. Did she like Lord of the Rings and Narnia and those sorts of books? I’d guess not from this book. I also got the impression that despite her stern warning about the dangers of Gondalling, she’d had a fair bit of daydreaming experience herself. And after all, she lived inside the imaginary world of the Marlows for decades.

The next Marlow book is The Thuggery Affair. Oh dear. Perhaps it’s not as bad as it sounds…

‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Two
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Three
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Four
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Six