Books read in August

One of my projects for 2012 has been keeping a list of books I read each month.  At first I was just posting the list and a couple of thoughts if the books seemed to warrant it, but every month that post grows longer.

So, begging patience from anyone who already sees this on Dreamwidth, here are my books for August and corresponding thoughts:

VIII – H M Castor
Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia – Matthew Dennison
The Poisoner’s Handbook – Deborah Blum
Alchemy and Meggy Swann – Karen Cushman
The Colour of Earth – Kim Dong Hwa
I Want My MTV – Craig Marks
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – Laurie R. King
A Monstrous Regiment of Women – Laurie R. King
A Letter of Mary – Laurie R. King
The Moor – Laurie R. King
O Jerusalem – Laurie R. King
Am I Black Enough For You? – Anita Heiss

The round-up:

VIII is a YA novel covering the life of Henry VIII. As such it breaks a bunch of sometimes-written rules of YA, in that the main character ages well past the target audience’s age bracket and does things they might not have direct experience with, like marriage, divorce, spousal murder, ruling England, declaring war on France and Spain, etc. I don’t think breaking that rule guideline was the reason why the book sort of floundered after Anne Boleyn died, though — it’s more that (as happens so often), the first two wives got all the characterisation, so after the beheading it felt more like a series of sketches about an increasingly unpleasant character. The first half, though, was really good.

I wanted to read Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia since I found it in Hill of Content back in 2010, but couldn’t bring myself to pay $50 for the hardback. LIBRARIES, MAN. It was a good, clear biography with an increasingly hilarious hate-on for Robert Graves and I, Claudius and the general historiographical hatchet job on Livia. It could have done with some closer editorial attention, though, with unintentionally hilarious sentences like, “Augustus himself had given birth only to Julia.” There’s also an irritating trend through the book of praising Livia by putting other prominent Roman women of her era down.

Alchemy and Meggy Swann: decent middle-grade fiction about a disabled girl who comes to live with her father, an alchemist, in Elizabethan London. I was really impressed with Cushman’s use of the slang and songs of the era, and the portrayal of Meggy’s physical limitations.

The Colour of Earth is the first part in a manhwa trilogy. (That’s the Korean graphic novel and comic form, I discovered when I went straight from Amazon to Wikipedia.) I was pretty mixed — the art is gorgeous, but I kind of finished it going, “And this is three whole books about a mother and daughter who have no existence beyond their romantic dreams?” And then there was an afterword explaining that it’s notable for its unusually feminist and layered portrayal of women. How to scare Liz off an entire genre in one easy move! (I did like the relationship between mother and daughter, I just kept waiting for them to have a conversation that wasn’t about men or romance or sex.)

I Want My MTV is an oral history of the network, with various employees and celebrities sharing their memories and experiences. Parts of it were quite interesting, lots of it made me want to throw things, and the repeated complaints that it’s all terrible now made me want to go and watch Pimp My Ride. Boomers v Gen X: no one wins, least of all Gen Y.

THEN, because I had a cold and was feeling sorry for myself, and also because the book I wanted to read is unavailable in Australia, I started re-reading the Mary Russell novels. Which are only intermittently objectively good, but I love them. And I also love the way Sherlock fans on Tumblr express OUTRAGE that any character could be written as a match for Sherlock Holmes, LET ALONE A WOMAN. The misogyny wasn’t cute when it was coming from neckbeards; it’s downright ugly coming from women.

Finally, the month’s winner for book I liked most is Am I Black Enough For You? by Anita Heiss, which is part-memoir and part exploration of Aboriginal identity, expectations, stereotypes and more. (I especially enjoyed the chapter on Indigenous cultural expressions, copyright and cultural appropriation.) Heiss is an academic, writer, poet, activist and author of commercial women’s fiction. You know, chick-lit. In this case, chick-lit about educated young Koori women with jetsetting lifestyles and complex romantic lives. (I’ve been circling her novels for a while, torn between, “But I don’t really like chick-lit!” and “But if it had a different label you’d snap that up in an instant!”)

Heiss was also an applicant in the Andrew Bolt racial discrimination case last year, for which I was part of the transcription team. (In fact, nearly a whole page of Am I Black Enough For You? is a quotation from transcript I did myself! SHUT UP, I WAS VERY PROUD OF OUR WORK THERE! There were fair amounts of research involved, and also it was 90% rage-typing!) I don’t think I’ve ever before had a chance to read about a case I worked on from a party’s point of view, and it was informative and interesting.

I was also interested that Heiss discusses race and racism in terms that the internet (okay, Tumblr) claims is unacceptable, which was a handy reminder that fandom’s attitude towards discussing race is strongly US-centric and not universal. (Not that I discuss race much, online or elsewhere, but I read a lot.) One of the problems Heiss discusses is identity policing from people, black and white, who say she is too educated, urban, middle-class, etc, to be “really” Koori. Given that a few months ago, fandom was being told Korra, a brown-skinned fictional character, is “really” white because she has … well, any privilege at all — that rang pretty strongly. That identity-erasure was at the heart of the entire lawsuit last year, so I was kind of fascinated and horrified to see the Andrew Bolt Approach being taken up by people who are ostensibly anti-racist.

From politics to cartoons, and I still managed to get one nail painted! Saturday morning accomplishment: ACHIEVED!

[ETA:  One thing I meant to say in this post, and forgot, that if you’re writing, or thinking of writing, anything involving Aboriginal people, cultural works, characters, etc, Am I Black Enough For You? also contains a wealth of information about authors, reports and guidelines to check out.  I mention this because a major supporting character in Le Novel, who will have the POV if I ever get to the sequel, is a twelve year old Koori girl, and I’m really glad to have all these resources for the avoidance of offence and stereotypes.]

And if, by chance, you want to look at earlier posts, check out my books tag on DW.

First Term at Malory Towers – Chapter 7: Darrell–And Gwendoline

Where did we leave off?  Oh yeah, Gwen made an overtly bullying move towards Mary-Lou, causing Darrell to lose her temper and slap Gwen four whole times!

To the modern reader, what Darrell does is wrong because physical punishment is generally considered inappropriate and bullying.  In the 1940s it was mostly inappropriate because punishing Gwen was not Darrell’s job, and the issue of the slapping itself is a second one.  This seems obvious, but I do think it’s important to point out, because one does see contemporary reviewers becoming really angry that there’s no Very Special Moral about Not Slapping People.

TL;DR, Darrell hulks out sometimes.

HULK SMASH! (From The Avengers)
What I love about the internet is that I googled “hulk smash gif tumblr”, and this was my first result.

Katherine — she’s the head of the dorm, remember her?  You might not, because she’s not remotely obnoxious — calls a first-form meeting!  A FIRST-FORM MEETING!  That’s North Tower only, because apparently no one from the other towers — or even other forms — were present for this incident.  I mean, so I assume, because you’d think one of those “almost grown-up” sixth formers would have had something to say if the first formers started drowning and slapping each other.

Gwendoline had gone up to her dormy, to get some cold cream for her red-streaked legs. They didn’t need cold cream, of course—but she meant to make as much fuss as she could! She had always been jealous of Darrell, and she was jolly glad she had got something against her. Coming up and apologizing like that—she didn’t mean a word of it, Gwendoline was sure!

Portrait of Gwen in four sentences.

The general consensus in the form is that Darrell needs to apologise for slapping Gwen, and, as a secondary but important consideration, she should apologise to Katherine for cheeking her.

Mary-Lou’s post-traumatic girl-crush wars with her shyness:

Mary-Lou was firmly convinced that Darrell was a heroine. She had suffered such agonies under the water, and had really and truly thought she was drowning—and then along had come strong, angry Darrell. How could Katherine judge her anyhow but kindly? Mary-Lou didn’t dare to say any more, but she sat with a worried, anxious look on her face, wishing she could speak up for Darrell bravely and fearlessly. But she couldn’t.

The consensus is that if Darrell won’t apologise to Gwen — and Alicia, for one, is fairly cynical about it (‘How I should hate to have to say I was sorry for anything to darling Gwendoline Mary!’) — they’ll send her to Coventry, which is an old-fashioned way of saying they’ll give her the silent treatment and exclude her from the social interaction of the class.  Which is a pretty common bullying technique among adolescent girls, but hey, different era.  Right?

Luckily Darrell chooses that moment to make an entrance:

…the door opened and Darrell herself walked in. She looked surprised to see the girls sitting about, silent and serious. Katherine opened her mouth to speak to her, astonished to see Darrell looking so calm.

But before she could say a word, Darrell walked right up to her. ‘Katherine, I’m most awfully sorry I spoke to you like that. I can’t think how I could. I was in such a temper, I suppose.’

Don’t laugh, but as a child who also had a terrible temper, I basically learned how to apologise from Darrell Rivers.  I mean, now my therapist says I apologise too much and need to practice asserting myself, so maybe I took it a bit too far into Mary-Lou territory.  But I do think this is the source of my great love for characters who know they’re in the wrong and admit it.

‘That’s an awful fault of mine,’ said Darrell, rubbing her nose as she always did when she felt ashamed of herself. ‘My temper, I mean. I’ve always had it. I get it from Daddy, but he keeps his temper for something worth while—I mean he only loses it when there’s some really big reason. I don’t. I go and lose it for silly little things. I’m awful, Katherine! But honestly I had made up my mind when I came to Malory Towers that I wouldn’t lose it any more.’

The girls, who had looked coldly at Darrell when she had marched into the room, now regarded her with warm liking. Here was a person who had a fault, and who said so, and was sorry about it, and didn’t attempt to excuse herself. Who could help warming to a person like that?

Okay, but I’m retching just a little.  Things I hate:  using third person omniscient to tell us how great the main character is.

(Physical description watch!  Darrell’s “black curls” are mentioned!)

Mary-Lou is virtually melting, until Darrell goes and puts her foot in it again:

‘Of course,’ went on Darrell, ‘I still think that Gwendoline did a beastly thing to Mary-Lou—and I think it’s a pity too that Mary-Lou doesn’t pull herself together so that spiteful people like Gwendoline can’t tease her.’

Mary-Lou crumpled up. Oh! Darrell thought her feeble and weak and frightened. And she was too. She knew she was. She knew that a strong person like Darrell could never really like a stupid person like Mary-Lou. But how she wished she would!

Oh, honey, you just need some self-confidence.  And a girl-crush on a person who doesn’t think you’re a bit pathetic.

Gwendoline opened the door and came in, looking like a martyr. She had undone her hair so that it lay in a golden sheet over her shoulders again. She evidently fancied herself as an ill-used angel or something of the kind.

She heard the last few words Darrell spoke, and flushed red. ‘Spiteful people like Gwendoline can’t tease her!’ That was what she heard.

‘Oh—Gwendoline. The next time you want to give anyone a nasty fright, choose someone able to stand up to you,’ said Katherine, her voice sounding rather hard. ‘And please tell Mary-Lou you’re sorry you were such a beast. You gave her an awful fright. Darrell has apologized to you, and you can jolly well do your bit, now!’

‘Oh—so Darrell said she apologized to me, did she?’ said Gwendoline. ‘Well, I don’t call it an apology!’

‘You fibber!’ said Darrell, in amazement. She swung round to the girls. ‘I did.’ she said. ‘You can believe which you like, me or Gwendoline. But I did apologize—straightaway too.’

Katherine glanced from Darrell’s hot face to Gwendoline’s sneering one. ‘We believe you,’ she said, quietly. Her voice hardened again. ‘And now, Gwendoline, in front of us all, please, so that we can hear—what have you got to say to Mary-Lou?’

Gwendoline was forced to say she was sorry. She stammered and stuttered, so little did she want to say the words, but, with everyone’s eyes on her, she had to. She had never said she was sorry for anything before in her life, and she didn’t like it. She hated Darrell at that moment—yes, and she hated that silly Mary-Lou too!

GWEN, WHY YOU GOTTA MAKE THINGS SO AWKWARD FOR EVERYONE?  She’s the reason newbies are told to LURK MOAR before they start participating in forums!

Irene, who shares my feelings about AWKWARD SOCIAL ENCOUNTERS, flees to a music room.  Escapism, baby!  That’s the stuff!  The others sit around and dissect the events of the last two chapters, and agree that Darrell >> Gwendoline.  And I gotta agree — it’s a real shame that Gwen has never been taught how to admit when she’s in the wrong, even to herself, and that she’s apparently never encountered, say, positive social modelling through novels.  But I know which one I’d prefer to share close quarters with for most of the year.

Gwen sets out to write an angry letter to her mother about Beastly Darrell and Those Terrible Girls.  Katherine, faintly amused, says fine, she will also write to Gwen’s mother.  Predictably, Gwen storms off in a sulk.

To end the chapter on a lighter note, Alicia finds herself in a bit of a quandary.  Right before the slapping incident, she swam the length of the pool underwater.  Now…

‘I told you. I can’t seem to get the water out of my ears,’ said Alicia. ‘They feel blocked. I say—I do hope I shan’t be deaf tommorrow! I did go deaf once before when I swam under water for ages!’

‘Oh, Alicia! How funny it would be if you really did go deaf tommorrow in Mam’zelle’s class!’ said Darrell, heartlessly. ‘Oh, dear. I can’t imagine what would happen!’

‘Well, I can!’ said Alicia. ‘Let’s hope my ears get right before the morning!’


I haven’t written much this week — I’m even behind on Malory Towers! — because I have this terrible cold.  The first symptoms, early this week, were Feeling Sad And Also Not Writing, which is basically the opposite of cool.  Then I spent most of yesterday sleeping.

But today I feel well enough to leave my bed!  Later I might even do the dishes and the next Malory Towers post!

In the meantime, here’s a great interview with my friend Zoe about fat activism and the extremely sketchy links between obesity and various “lifestyle” diseases.  (Fact: due to various health conditions, my mother has been chronically underweight for most of her adult life.  AND YET she has diabetes II, which the media tells me is God’s way of punishing fatties for not being thin!  Amazing!)

Zoe’s the friend I go to when I need to be told that, no, I’m not too overweight to wear galaxy leggings, what are you talking about, Liz, don’t be stupid!  And when I said to her, “Hey, the doctor tells me I’m pre-diabetic and should lose some kilos, and this doctor is pretty cool and not fatphobic so I’m taking him seriously.  How can I frame weight loss talk without being horrible?” she gave me tips.

(She’s also my partner in A Certain Inappropriate Animated Villain Crush.  *eyedart*)

First Term at Malory Towers – Chapter 7: Darrell Loses Her Temper

After the “deafness” incident, Alicia gets “a good scolding and extra prep” from Miss Potts:

‘If Alicia shows any further signs of deafness, send her to me,’ said Miss Potts, coldly. ‘I can always cure it at once.’

She walked off. Mam’zelle began to breathe quickly. ‘The bad girl, Alicia—She has pulled my foot,’ said Mam’zelle, who sometimes got a little mixed! ‘She has hoodie-winked me! Never again will I believe her, the bad girl.’

Foreigners — SO HILARIOUS, am I right?

Meanwhile, Darrell’s fawning gets her promoted to full gang membership, with Mary-Lou taking her place as hanger-onerer.

Gwendoline was jealous of the way Alicia and Betty, recognized leaders in the first form, had made friends with Darrell. After all, Darrell was as new as she herself was. And she, Gwendoline, was much prettier, and had, she was sure, much more charm of manner.

She took Sally Hope into her confidence. ‘I don’t like the way Darrell Rivers pushes herself forward all the time, do you?’ she said to Sally. ‘Thinking she’s so marvellous! Chumming up with Alicia and Betty. Not that I would if they asked me.’

Sally didn’t look very interested, but Gwendoline didn’t mind. She went on grumbling about Darrell. ‘She thinks she’s got such good brains, she thinks she plays such a marvellous game of tennis, she thinks she’s so good at swimming! I’ve a good mind to show her that I’m twice as good as she is!’

‘Well, why don’t you?’ said Sally, bored. ‘Instead of showing everyone you’re twice as bad!’

Sorry, I just realised that Sally is Mai from Avatar.  NO WONDER I LOVE HER!

As far as we know, Sally is not a goth knife-throwing ninja. Alas.

Gwen would quite like to be Azula, but sadly isn’t actually a prodigy.  And I have to say, I wouldn’t rate her chances at military conquest:

‘All right,’ said Gwendoline grandly. ‘I will just show you, Sally. I haven’t really tried before, because it didn’t seem w orth it. I didn’t want to come to Malory Towers, and Mother didn’t want me to either. It was Daddy that made me come. I did marvellously with my governess. Miss Winter, and I could do marvellously now, if only I thought it was worth while!’

Alicia came up and heard this curious speech. She laughed loudly.

‘You can’t play tennis, you can’t swim, you squeal when your toe touches the cold water, you don’t even know all your twelve times table, baby! And then you talk of it not being worth while to show what you can do! You can’t do a thing and never will, whilst you have such a wonderful opinion of yourself!’

Much as I have my standard Alicia-side-eye in place, I like that Gwen’s flaw here is not that she’s good at stuff, but that she doesn’t care to improve.

(Question: did anyone actually learn their twelve times tables?  I didn’t!  For me, 12 x X = (10 x X) + (2 x X).  LOOK, IT GETS ME THE RIGHT ANSWER, OKAY?)

So here’s where Gwen becomes actually horrible.  She hates swimming, right?  Well:

There was only one person worse than she was, and that was poor Mary-Lou. No one teased Mary-Lou too much. It was too like teasing a small, bewildered kitten. Gwendoline saw her floundering about near her, and because she knew Mary-Lou was even more afraid of the pool than she was, she felt a sense of power.

She waded over to Mary-Lou, jumped on her suddenly and got her under the water. Mary-Lou had no time to scream. She opened her mouth and the water poured in. She began to struggle desperately. Gwendoline, feeling the struggles, spitefully held her under longer than she had intended to.


Darrell takes a strong stance against drowning classmates.  She rescues Mary-Lou and threatens to treat Gwen the same way she just treated Mary-Lou.  Gwen beats a hasty escape, and then:

‘I’m not going to duck you. you little coward!’ she cried. ‘But I am going to show you what happens to people like you!’

There came the sound of four stinging slaps and Gwendoline squealed with pain. Darrell’s hand was strong and hard, and she had slapped with all her might, anywhere she could reach as Gwendoline hastily tried to drag herself out of the water. The slaps sounded like pistol-shots.

Much as everyone probably secretly wanted to see someone slap Gwendoline, no one is impressed.  Especially not when Darrell, angry at being told off by dorm-head Katherine, looses a verbal volley as well:

Still blazing, Darrell rounded on Katherine. ‘Some-body’s got to teach that cowardly Gwendoline, haven’t they?’

‘Yes. But not you,’ said Katherine, coolly. ‘You put yourself in the wrong, slapping about like that. I’m ashamed of you!’

‘And I’m ashamed of vow!’ burst out Darrell, much to everyone’s amazement. ‘If I were head-girl of the first form I’d jolly well see that girls like Gwendoline learnt to swim and dive and everything, and left people like Mary-Lou alone. See?’

No one had seen Darrell in a temper before. They stared. ‘Get out of the pool,’ ordered Katherine. ‘Go on, get out. It’s a good thing no mistress saw you doing that.’


Everything that follows is important, so Imma just gonna do a whole lot of typing:

Hateful Gwendoline! Horrid Katherine! Beastly Malory Towers!

But before she reached the top of the cliff and came to the little gate that led into the grounds of Malory Towers, Darrell’s anger had all gone. She was dismayed. How could she have acted like that? And she had absolutely meant always to keep her temper now. and never let that white-hot flame of rage flare up as it used to do when she was smaller.

Very much subdued, Darrell went back to the school, dried herself and changed. She had been publicly scolded by Katherine. Nobody had backed her up at all, not even Alicia. She had shouted at the head-girl of her form. She had behaved just as badly to Gwendoline as Gwendoline had behaved to Mary-Lou—except that it must have been sheer cruelty that made Gwendoline almost drown Mary-Lou, and it was anger, not cruelty, that made her slap Gwendoline so hard. Still—anger was cruel, so maybe she was just as bad as Gwendoline.

She felt sorry she had slapped Gwendoline now. That was the worst of having such a hot temper. You did things all in a hurry, without thinking, and then, when your temper had gone, you were terribly ashamed, and couldn’t manage to feel better until you had gone to say were sorry to the person you had hurt, and whom you still disliked heartily.

Darrell heard somebody sniffling in the changing-room. She looked to see who it was. It was Gwendoline, dole-fully examining the brilliant red streaks down her thighs. That was where Darrell had slapped her. Gwendoline sniffed loudly.

‘I shall write and tell Mother,’ she thought. If only she could see those red streaks—why, you can see all Darrell’s fingers in this one!’

Darrell came up behind her and made her jump. ‘Gwendoline! I’m sorry I did that. I really am. I was just so awfully angry I couldn’t stop myself.’

Gwendoline was neither generous nor gracious enough to accept such a natural apology. She drew herself up and looked at Darrell as if she smelt nasty.

‘I should hope you are sorry!’ she said contemptuously. ‘ I shall write and tell my mother. If she thought girls at Malory Towers would behave like you do, she’d never have sent me here!’

And that’s where the chapter ends.

I have lots of feelings about this, and they’re all kind of mixed up, being the feelings I had when I was nine, and the feelings I have now.  So let’s sort them all out with the aid of … Young!Liz!

“Hello, younger self.”

“Are you my future?”

“Yep!  Check out this great hair we’re going to have!”

“…I’m going to get fat?”

“I feel that ‘plump’ is a more accurate way to describe my state of well-padded overweightness.  Anyway, you’re wearing leggings as pants.”

“…That’s bad?  They’re comfortable!  Look, I’m wearing this cool shirt with shoulder pads, too!”

“And an Alice band and a ponytail!”


“Okay, so you need to stop thinking of fatness in pejorative terms, and I need to stop judging people on ultimately harmless fashion choices.  Anyway, younger self, I wanted to talk to you about Malory Towers.”

“Oh, I love Malory Towers!  I wish I was a student there!”

“I know you do, honey.  Let’s talk about that time Darrell slapped Gwendoline.”

“Wasn’t that amazing?  I mean, no, it was terrible!  She shouldn’t have done it!  But it made me like her better, because I have a horrible temper as well.”

“Me too!  Remember that time we told our brother he ruined our life?”

*happy mutual memories*

“On the other hand, Younger!Liz, we never slapped one of our classmates.”

“Um, we kind of did, Older!Liz.  Remember that time in third grade when we thought our best friend Martha had gone to class without us?  So we thought it would be a really fine, grown-up sort of gesture to hit her with our school hat?”

“Oh God, yes.  And she cried, and we realised right away what a horrible thing we’d done, so we cried–”

“And then those older girls tried to comfort us, and we went them away because we were a bad person!”

“I didn’t want to remember that, Younger!Liz.  Thanks a lot.”

“I know!   It’s terrible!  But that’s how Darrell felt.  Only she had a proper reason to be angry.  And she apologised instead of crying.”

“I don’t like the way she just expects Gwen to accept her apology.”

“But, Older!Liz, isn’t that what people do?  I mean, you have to accept apologies.  If they’re real.  How do you know when an apology isn’t real?”

“Trust me, kid, you’ll know.  But how does Gwen know it’s a real apology?  She’s never been around people her own age before!”

“You’re confusing me, Older!Liz.  I don’t think you’re reading the story right.”

“I’m definitely applying a twenty-first century ideology to a mid-twentieth century novel.  Can we at least agree that the way Gwendoline treated Mary-Lou was entirely uncool?”

“It was very wrong.  Wow, I can’t wait until I know how to use ‘ideology’ in a sentence properly!  Do you have a flying car?”

“No, but I have a computer that fits in my pocket and is also a phone.”

“I’m going to grow up to be a millionaire!”

“Um, yeah.  Sure.”

Okay, so it turns out my younger self isn’t all that helpful.

First Term at Malory Towers – chapters 6: Alicia’s Little Joke

Okay, I’m only doing one chapter here because a lot happens in the next one, and also I got about five hours’ sleep last night, and concentrating isn’t really happening.  STAY TUNED.

I don’t, for the record, hate Alicia.  She’s a charismatic character, and the text isn’t always on her side.  And, at times, she’s genuinely funny.

I just don’t love the way she targets her pranks at Mam’zelle, Wacky Foreigner, or teachers who can’t fight back.  People talk a lot about the Weasley twins as bullies, but while some of their pranks go too far, generally they’re targeted at either their peers, or adult authority figures who are generally so humourless as to be ridiculous, or who have enough sense of humour to appreciate the absurdity, even as they’re taking house points.

Not so with Alicia!  To be honest there comes a point where I don’t understand why Mam’zelle Dupont hasn’t had a nervous breakdown, or at least gone off with Mam’zelle Rougier and the St Clare’s French teacher and formed an Angry Frenchwomen Union.


Darrell had good brains and she had been taught how to use them. She soon found that she could easily do the work of her class, and in such things as composition was ahead of most of the others. She felt pleased.

‘I thought I’d have to work much much harder than at my old school,’ she thought to herself.  ‘But I shan’t! It’s only maths I’m not so good at. I wish I was as good as Irene at maths. She does things in her head that I can’t even do on paper.’

So, after the first week or two, Darrell relaxed a little, and did not worry herself too much about her work. She began to enjoy amusing the class a little, just as Alicia did.

You can imagine Miss Potts’ joy at this development.  DARRELL, YOU ARE SO MUCH BETTER THAN THIS.

Meanwhile, the money Darrell’s parents are spending on this education: KIND OF POINTLESS, I GUESS.

Betty Hill went much further than Alicia. Darrell sometimes wondered if there was anything she would stop at. There were two mistresses that Betty and Alicia played up to. One was Mam’zelle Dupont, the other was a quiet, gentle mistress who took needlework, and sometimes took prep, time at night. Miss Davies never seemed to realize that Alicia and Betty could play tricks on her. Mam’zelle did realize it, but was taken in all the same.

So basically these girls are sociopaths.  Then we get a highly amusing story about a time Alicia managed to torture Mam’zelle AND a mouse AT THE SAME TIME!

Darrell, being a good lackey, encourages Alicia to perform some kind of hilarious prank.  Alicia draws inspiration from her brothers:

‘Roger pretended to be deaf,’ said Alicia. ‘And everything old Toggles asked him he pretended to hear wrong. When Toggles said “Johns, sit still in your chair!” Roger said “Give you a cheer, sir? Certainly! Hip, hip, hip, hurrah!”‘

See, just pretending to have blocked ears, that’s kind of eh.  Impromptu wordplay?  That, I can get behind.  Usual Alicia-related caveats applying.

Mam’zelle. all unsuspicious of this deep-laid plot, entered the first-form classroom smiling brightly the next morning. It was a beautiful summer day. She had had two letters from home, giving her the news that she had a new little nephew. She had on a new brooch, and had washed her hair the night before. She was feeling in a very good temper.

She beamed round at the class. ‘Ah, my dear girls!” she said. ‘We are going to do some very very good French today, n’est ce pas? We are going to be better than the second form! Even Gwendoline will be able to say her verbs to me without one, single, mistake!’

It’s not specifically mentioned, but I can only assume that this is Monday morning.  Because damn, Mamzelle’s day is about to go downhill!

For starters, her expectations of Gwendoline are way too high.

Gwendoline looked doubtful. Since she had been at Malory Towers her opinion of her governess at home had gone down. Miss Winter didn’t seem to have taught her half the things she ought to have known! On the other hand, thought Gwendoline, she had raved over her hair and blue eyes, she had praised the sweetness of Gwendoline’s temper, and said how graceful she was in all she did. That kind of thing was most enjoyable to a person like Gwendoline. But a little more learning would have been very useful to her at Malory Towers.

I’m not actually convinced of the sweetness of Gwendoline’s temper, but I’m going to assume Miss Winter was well-paid for saying so.

Luckily for Gwen, Alicia’s cue comes up.

‘Alicia! What is wrong with you?’ cried Mam’zelle. ‘Can you not hear?’

‘What do I fear? Why, nothing, Mam’zelle,’ said Alicia, looking slightly surprised. Somebody giggled and then smothered it quickly.

‘Mam’zelle said “Can you not hear?”‘ repeated Betty in a loud voice to Alicia.

‘Beer?’ said Alicia, more astonished, apparently, then ever.

I really do love that whole exchange.  IT GOES ON!

‘Tell me, have you a cold?”

‘No, I’ve no gold, only a ten-shilling note,’ answered Alicia, much to Mam’zelle’s mystification.

‘Mam’zelle said COLD not GOLD,’ explained Darrell at the top of her voice.

‘You know—COLD, the opposite of HOT,” went on Betty, helpfully. ‘Have you a COLD?’

‘HAVE YOU A COLD?’ roared the class, coming in like a well-trained chorus.

‘Oh, COLD! Why don’t you speak clearly, then I should hear you,” said Alica. ‘Yes—I’ve had a cold, of course.’

‘Ah—then it has affected your poor ears.’ said Mam’zelle.

‘How long ago was this cold. Alicia?”

Darrell repeated this question at the top of her voice, followed by Betty.

‘Oh—when did I have it? About two years ago,’ said Alicia.

Sadly, though, Malory Towers’ classrooms aren’t soundproofed, and Miss Potts, taking maths in the room next door, is unmoved by Alicia’s affliction and punishment is threatened.

First Term at Malory Towers – chapters 4 and 5

These chapters are so short, I’m going to take them two at a time from now on.

Chapter 4: Miss Potts’ Form

All the school met each morning for prayers.

I’m pretty sure this is the only time that’s mentioned, and it’s the only hint that Malory Towers is anything other than a secular school.

Darrell is amazed that her class is so big it contains 25 or 30 girls!  Contemporary school teachers, this is your queue to laugh/sigh.

We catch a glimpse of the other French mistress, Mam’zelle Rougier:

She was skinny, tall and bony. Her hair too was done up in a little bun, but at the back instead of on top. Darrell thought she looked bad-tempered.

In the classroom, Gwen commits yet another faux pas:

‘Bags I [a desk] by the window!’ said a fat girl and plumped herself down there.

‘Bags I one too,’ said Gwendoline. But the fat girl stared in surprise.

‘You’re new aren’t you? Well, you can’t choose your own seat, then. New girls have to take the desks left over when the old girls have chosen the ones they want.’


Darrell hangs back like the good social conformist she is, and gets a seat with Alicia and Alicia’s BFF/partner-in-crime, Betty.  Betty is from West Tower.  I’m pretty sure there’s a line in a future book about the school’s firm refusal to transfer her to North Tower, on the grounds that the school would fall into anarchy.  Anyway, this is the only cross-house friendship we see.

Betty and Alicia are kind of the Fred and George Weasley of the series, only less funny.

Miss Potts lays down the law:

‘Last term there were one or two girls who seemed to like to be bottom every week,’ she said. ‘Leave that place to the new girls, please, and go up a few places! I never expect much of new girls their first term – but I shall expect quite a lot of you.”

A few girls went red. Miss Potts went on talking. ‘I don’t really think I’ve any brainless girls this term,’ she said, “though I don’t know much about the new girls, of course. If you are brainless and near the bottom, we shan’t blame you, of course—but if you’ve got good brains and are down at the bottom, I shall have a lot to say.’

If Professor McGonagall was the head of Hufflepuff instead of Gryffindor, she’d be Miss Potts.

To modern eyes it seems strange that students as young as twelve are being ranked like this, and weekly.  When I was at school, rankings like that didn’t appear until the second semester of year 12, when they were linked to university placements.  (If anyone cares, I was in the top five for all my subjects except maths.  And that’s genuinely impressive, since I had surgery and missed a long stretch of school!  But I think I was, like, third from the bottom in maths, and that was in a cohort of a couple of hundred.  GO TEAM ALGEBRAICALLY CHALLENGED!)

Miss Potts is predictably unimpressed with Gwendoline’s hair, which spills all over her desk as she grapples with some maths problems.  She has to plait it … or get her mother to have it cut short in the school holidays.

“AS IF!” says Gwen.

Well, actually she thinks, “As if Mother would dream of cutting off her beautiful fine sheet of hair.”  But wouldn’t the series be great if Gwen was actually Cher Horowitz?  (SPOILERS!  A spoilt, superficial but basically good-natured American girl does come to Malory Towers in the third book!  Sadly, she learns an important lesson about Being More English, and at no point is accused of being a virgin who can’t drive.)

Among Gwen’s many failings, she can’t plait.

This was another thing that puzzled me as a kid, because for the longest time I couldn’t plait either.  My mum was raised by her dad, so certain feminine skills like plaiting and braiding just passed her by.  In the end, I sat down with my Barbie one Saturday morning and taught myself how to make a plait.  And that was only because the other girls at school would come in with very elaborate braids, and I wanted to learn how to do that.  (I never did figure out braiding!)

Gwen’s basically home-schooled, and her education didn’t include hairstyles.  Seems a bit rough to judge her on that, but then, I save most of my judgement for her mother and governess, who seem to have been so busy weeping over the imminent separation that they didn’t tell Gwen that a neat ponytail will suffice for school.

Meanwhile, Darrell is attempting to befriend Sally:

Sally Hope was sitting on the grass alone, no expression at all on her closed-up face. Darrell went over to her. ‘What do you think of Malory Towers?’ she said. ‘I think it’s fine.’

Sally looked up primly. ‘It’s not bad,’ she said.

‘Were you sorry to leave your other school?’ asked Darrell. ‘I wanted to come to Malory, of course, but I hated leaving all my friends. Didn’t you hate leaving all your friends too?’

‘I don’t think I had any, really,’ said Sally, considering. Darrell thought that was queer. It was hard to get anything out of Sally. She was polite and answered questions, but she didn’t ask any in return.

“Ambiguity” isn’t something one really associates with Enid Blyton’s writing, but I’m always intrigued by Sally’s declaration that she had no friends at her old school.  Is she saying she was a complete loner who despised human company?  Or, perhaps, did she have a circle of friends, but they all drifted away when she entered what’s obviously a difficult phase of her life, and now she wonders whether they were truly friends at all?

Darrell plaits Gwen’s hair for her, and gets NO THANKS WHATSOEVER in return.  Oh, Gwen, social skills aren’t actually beneath you.

Chapter 5:  The First Week Goes By 

We belatedly meet some more of Darrell’s schoolmates, including Mary-Lou, the class scaredycat:

Mary-Lou was a scared mouse of a girl. She was frightened of mice, beetles, thunderstorms, noises at night, the dark, and a hundred other things. Poor Mary-Lou. No wonder she had big scared eyes. Darrell, not easily scared of anything, laughed when she saw poor Mary-Lou rush to the other side of the dormy because she saw an earwig on the floor.

THAT’S NOT VERY NICE, DARRELL.  Also, after all these years I finally googled “earwig”, and they look like this:

For some reason I was expecting something more … earlike. In a wig.

And, okay, I can think of more hideous insects, but ew.

We meet Irene, who is an absent-minded genius.  Notably she’s a mathematical and musical genius — two fields are related, but the maths is not exactly traditionally feminine.

There’s also Emily, who sews, and … well, she sews.  She’s sew great.  And there’s Jean, who is Scottish and therefore good with money.

Mam’zelle disliked Jean because Jean was scornful of Mam’zelle’s enthusiasms and emotions. Jean herself never went into ecstasies about anything.

Welp, that’s the Scottish taken care of!

And there’s Violet, the most pointless character ever created:

Violet, a shy. colourless child, very much left out of things because she never seemed to take any interest in them. Half the form never even noticed whether Violet was with them or not.

THEN WHAT IS SHE HERE FOR, ENID?  Aside from presumably making up the numbers in the dorm.  You know that episode of Buffy where a girl is ignored so hard she becomes invisible?  That’s Violet.  I don’t think she’s ever mentioned again in the series.

But maybe Violet is secretly a ninja assassin, and Darrell just doesn’t notice because she’s too busy nursing an epic girl-crush on Alicia:

She knew a great deal about Alicia, but then, so did everyone, for Alicia poured out everything that came into her head, she chattered about her brothers, her mother and father, her dogs, her work, her play, her knitting, her opinion of everything and everybody under the sun.

Alicia had no time at all for airs and graces, pretences, sighs, moans or affectations. She was as downright as Darrell, but not so kind. She was scornful and biting when it pleased her, so that girls like Gwendoline hated her, and those like scared Mary-Lou feared her. Darrell liked her immensely.

‘She’s so lively,’ she thought to herself. ‘Nobody could be dull with Alicia. I wish I was as interesting as she is. Everyone listens when Alicia speaks, even when she says something unkind. But nobody pays much attention when I want to say something. I do really like Alicia, and I wish she hadn’t got Betty for a friend. She’s just the one I would have chosen.’

Oh honey.

I actually like that Darrell spends much of this book kind of failing at everything.  Blyton’s school story heroines either come in with a terrible attitude and Learn A Valuable Lesson, or they come in with a good attitude and Succeed.  So it’s nice that Darrell’s success isn’t instant, even though it means lots of paragraphs about how great Alicia is, and how she smells like Christmas, and she does joke shop commercials … in Japan, and one time she punched Gwen in the face.  And it was awesome.

This was a cover to a 1998 edition. SUCH A GREAT DECADE.

(I have made a TERRIBLE DISCOVERY!  Whilst searching the internet for a picture appropriate for a Mean Girls macro, I realised that I’m doing this BACKWARDS!  The St Clare’s books were published from 1941-45, and THEN Malory Towers appeared!)

One interesting bit:

No one seemed to like two girls called Doris and Fanny. ‘Too spiteful for words.’ said Alicia, who of course, could always give an opinion immediately about anyone or anything from Winston Churchill down to the little boy belonging to the Tower House cook. ‘They’re frightfully pi.’

‘What do you mean, pi?’ said Gwendoline, who hadn’t apparently heard that word before.

‘Golly—what an ignoramus you are!’ said Alicia. ‘Pi means pious. Religious in the wrong way. Thinking they’re wonderful and nobody else is. Trying to stop people’s pleasure. They’re a sickening pair. Always on the prowl and on the snoop.’

It’s good to see the Christian Right was around and doing its thing in the mid-1940s.  I’m sorry, however, that we don’t get to hear Alicia’s opinion on Winston Churchill.

One of the tropes Blyton loves in her school stories is the class prankster, who plays increasingly elaborate jokes on teachers and, occasionally, fellow students.  The Fred and George type.  Alicia is the prank player, Darrell is the egger-onnerer:

‘If they try any tricks on me, I’ll try a few on them!”

‘Oh, do, do,’ begged Darrell, who had a great weakness for jokes and tricks. She didn’t always dare to do them herself, but she was always ready to back up any one else who did.


One of the most memorable features of Malory Towers is its swimming pool:

One of the things that Darrell liked best of all was the big swimming-pool down by the sea. This had been hollowed out of a stretch of rocks, so that it had a nice rocky, uneven bottom. Seaweed grew at the sides, and sometimes the rocky bed of the pool felt a iittle slimy. But the sea swept into the big natural pool each day, filled it, and made lovely waves all across it. It was a sheer delight to bathe there.

The coast itself was too dangerous for bathing. The tides were so strong, and no giri was allowed to swim in the open sea. But anyone was safe in the pool. One end was quite deep, and here there were diving-boards and a chute, and a fine spring-board for running dives.

I used to think this was unrealistic and probably dangerous, but then I read about the ocean baths of New South Wales.

So the first week passes, and Darrell is the most popular of the North Tower new girls.  But the chapter ends with FORESHADOWING!

‘Oh, my.’ said Darrell. ‘I love it. If every term is as nice as this, I shall be thrilled!’

‘Ah, you wait,’ said Alicia. ‘Everything’s always all right at first -but when you’ve had a wigging or two from Mam’zelle, and been dosed by Matron, and kept in by Potty, and slated by Miss Remmington, and ticked off by one of the older girls and…!’

‘Oh stop!’ cried Darrell. ‘Nothing like that will happen, Alicia. Don’t try and frighten me!’

But Alicia was right, of course. Things were not going to be quite so smooth and easy as Darrell thought!

First Term at Malory Towers – Chapter 3: First Night and Morning

Um, Miss Blyton?  I think you’re working too hard on your chapter titles.  I don’t want you to strain something there.

We have a brief description of the dormitory, where the girls all have different-coloured eiderdowns on their bed, and the sound of the ocean can be heard from the window.  And, luxury of luxuries, the wash basins have cold and hot water!  (No mention is made of actual bathrooms.  Do students at boarding schools not bathe? BECAUSE THESE GIRLS SWIM IN SALT WATER!  Is this where that stereotype about the British having terrible hygiene comes from?

Then there’s this amazing piece of writing:

The girls were busy unpacking their small bags. Darrell opened hers. She shook out her night-dress. She took her face-flannel, her tooth-brush and paste.

Dear Miss Blyton, I really do think it would have been okay to have a longer sentence in the middle there.

On the other hand, repetition is supposed to be a useful tool for children learning to read, so maybe Enid knew what she was doing.  Kind of awkward, though.

Gwendoline is still experiencing culture shock:

One of the girls looked at her watch. ‘Get into bed, everyone!’ she ordered. She was a tall, dark girl, quiet in her manner. Everyone but Gwendoline scrambled into bed. Gwendoline was still brushing out her fine golden hair. She was counting as she brushed it.

‘Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six

‘Hey, you new girl—what’s your name—get into bed!’ ordered the tall dark girl again.

‘I’ve got to brush my hair a hundred times each night,’ protested Gwendoline. ‘Now I’ve forgotten what number I got to!’

‘Shut up and get into bed, Gwendoline Mary,’ said Alicia, who was next to Gwendoline. ‘Katherine is the head of our dormy. You’ve got to do what she says.’

Gwendoline starts to cry, and Alicia threatens to spank her with a hairbrush.  Occasionally people claim that there are actual spankings in Blyton’s school series, but for the record, there are only ever threats.  (There’s one exception, in this very book, but it’s debatable whether it’s a “spanking”.  More like an outright assault.  No hairbrushes are involved, anyway.)

There was silence in the room. Sally Hope gave a little sigh. Darrell wondered if she was asleep. The curtains between her bed and Sally’s were pulled back. No, Sally was not asleep. She lay with her eyes wide open. There were no tears in them, but her face looked sad.

‘Perhaps she’s homesick,’ thought Darrell, and thought of her home too. But she was too sensible to be silly about it, and too excited to be at Malory Towers to miss her home. After all, she had badly wanted to come, and here she was— and she meant to be very happy and have a lot of fun.

I really like Darrell, and I like her attitude, and the way this foreshadows that prioritising fun is going to be a problem for Darrell soon — but Sally is a million times more interesting as a character.

Gwendoline was the only one who tried to keep awake. What had Mother said to her? ‘You’ll feel dreadful tonight, I know, darling, but be brave, won’t you?’

So Gwendoline was determined to lie awake and feel dreadful. But her eyes wouldn’t keep open! They shut and soon Gwendoline was as fast asleep as the others. And at home her mother was dabbing her eyes, and saying, ‘Poor little Gwen! I shouldn’t have sent her away from me! 1 feel she’s awake and crying her heart out!’

But Gwendoline was giving little contented snores, dreaming happily of how she would queen it over the girls here, be top of her form, and best at all games.

Gwen and her mother really are terribly annoying in their perpetually-victimised-drama-queen roles, and I’ve met and disliked women like that in real life too.  But I’m not convinced that Gwen’s dreams of success, however self-serving and unrealistic, make her a bad person.

Morning comes — no insomniacs in this dorm, apparently! — and Darrell is “proud to put on her brown tunic with its brown-orange belt, just like all the other girls wore. She brushed her hair back and put in two slides to keep it tidy.”

Could it be that the “trendy” current covers are the most accurate?

This raises the question, so why do we have all these years and years of covers depicting Darrell with very short hair?

Alicia has very short hair — as Gwen is about to point out:

Gwendoline left her hair loose over her shoulders.

‘You can’t have it like that,’ said Alicia. ‘Not in school, Gwendoline!’

‘I’ve always had it like this,’ said Gwendoline, an obstinate look coming over her pretty, silly little face.

‘Well, it looks awful,’ said Alicia.

‘It does not!’ said Gwendoline. ‘You only say that because your hair is short and coarse.’

In fairness, loose hair was always a big no-no when I was at school.  I doubt head lice are much of a problem at Malory Towers — Matron would never stand for it — but this is a pretty common rule.  (Which I just typed as “rool”, because apparently it’s past time for lunch around here!  #sugarlow)

Alicia is unfazed by Gwen’s hair critique:

Alicia winked at Katherine, who was coming up. ‘Better let dear Gwendoline show offher long, fine-as-silk hair, don’t you think so?’ she said, in a bland voice. ‘Miss Potts might be delighted to see it like that.’

‘My governess, Miss Winter, always liked it like this,’ said Gwendoline, looking pleased.

‘Oh—haven’t you been to a school before? Have you just had a governess?’ asked Alicia. ‘That explains a lot.’

Spoilt AND unsocialised!  And completely lacking in sarcasm-detection!

‘Ready, Darrell? That’s the breakfast gong. Tuck your sheet in well. That’s right. Gwendoline, fold up your nighty. Look at Sally—there’s a new girl for you! Everything done to time, nobody’s got to chivvy her round!’

Sally gave a little smile. She hardly said a word. She did not seem in the least shy, but she was so quiet and self- possessed that Darrell could hardly believe she was a new girl. She always seemed to know exactly what to do.

SALLY, YOU GUYS!  *hearts in eyes*

Also, here we have a rare instance of Alicia saying something nice to Gwen.  I think that’s the first time so far.

In the dining hall we meet another significant teacher:

‘That’s Mam’zelle Dupont,’ whispered Alicia. ‘We’ve got two French mistresses at Malory Towers. One’s fat and jolly and the other’s thin and sour. We’ve got the fat and jolly one this term. They’ve both got simply awful tempers, so I hope you’re pretty good at French.’

Blyton and weight is fascinating.  Stay tuned.

Mam’zelle Dupont was short, fat and round. She wore her hair in a little bun on top. Her eyes, black and beady, were never still. She wore a black frock that fitted her perfectly, and well-fitting black shoes on her tiny feet.

She was short-sighted but she would not wear glasses. She had instead a pair of long-handled glasses, called lorgnettes, which she wore dangling on a long black ribbon. These she used when she wanted to see anything at close quarters, holding them to her eyes with her hand.

I could swear there’s a future book that describes Mam’zelle has having large, flat feet, but I might be confusing her with Mam’zelle Rougier, or the Mam’zelle from St Clare’s.  There’s a certain amount of interchangeability.

But I really like this character sketch.  She’s French, so naturally she’s chic and vain, but it’s nice that the teacher who’s specifically described as fat also seems to be well-dressed and attractive.  Though I’m not sure about “beady” eyes, and I spent much of my childhood wondering why so many white people in books had black eyes, when in real life it seemed like only black people and Asians had eyes that dark.

It’s traditional in each book that the new girls visit the headmistress, and she gives them a speech is is repeated or recalled word for word through the whole series.  Miss Grayling:  not actually that spontaneous.

Miss Grayling asked them their names, and spoke a few words to each girl. Then she addresed them all solemnly.

‘One day you will leave school and go out into the world as young women. You should take with you eager minds, kind hearts, and a will to help. You should take with you a good understanding of many things, and a willingness to accept responsibility and show yourselves as women to be loved and trusted. All these things you will be able to learn at Malory Towers—if you will. I do not count as our successes those who have won scholarships and passed exams, though these are good things to do. I count as our successes those who learn to be good-hearted and kind, sensible and trustable, good, sound women the world can lean on. Our failures are those who do not learn these things in the years they are here.’

This is a pretty admirable goal for a school, but I find myself curious about the “few words” Grayling speaks to each girl.  “Hey, nice brown and orange outfit!  Ooh, Gwendoline, I like your hair!”

Then Miss Grayling spoke again, in a lighter tone. ‘You will all get a tremendous lot out of your time at Malory Towers. See that you give a lot back!’

‘Oh!’ said Darrell, surprised and pleased, quite forgetting that she had thought she wouldn’t be able to speak a word, “that’s exactly what my father said to me when he said goodbye, Miss Grayling!’

‘Did he?’ said Miss Grayling, looking with smiling eyes at the eager little girl. ‘Well, as you have parents who think in that way, I imagine you will be one of the lucky ones, and will find that the things I have been speaking of will be easy to learn. Perhaps one day Malory Towers will be proud of you.’

SPOILERS: Malory Towers will be proud of Darrell.


Whatever they might do, in the years to come at Malory Towers, each girl wanted, at that moment, to do her best. Whether or not that wish would last, depended on the girl.


(In fairness, Gwen’s father is a fairly sensible sort, and tries quite hard to rein in her sillier tendencies.  Of course these are encouraged by his wife and Gwen’s governess, because women are irrational and don’t know what’s good for them, and Miss Winter is of a lower social class than the Laceys, and you know what those people are like!

But at the same time, there’s a certain amount of deliberate alienation going on, as Gwen’s mother takes sides with her against her father.  It becomes really, tragically obvious in the final book, at Gwen’s cost.  She doesn’t really come from a functional family by any means — Gwen is like if Lydia Bennett was an only child.  In 1946.  At a boarding school.  That’s not going to end well.)

(Spoilers: Gwen doesn’t elope with anyone.  It’s not that kind of series.)