Book response: Losers in Space by John Barnes

(I’m kinda hesitant to call my book posts “reviews”.  That suggests a level of detachment and professionalism that I can’t really guarantee.  Sometimes I just want to feelsplode all over the internet.  Hence “response”.)

Losers in Space by John Barnes

I have no qualms at all in admitting that my creative writing background is in fan fiction.  Been writing fic since I was 12, been participating in the community since I was 16.  It’s a useful way to learn valuable skills (with the general exception of worldbuilding, unfortunately).  Not only is the internet chockers with guides to How To Write Fic But Good, but if you break the rules, people will tell you about it.  Nicely, most of the time.

Most of fan fiction’s rules can be broken, and at least someone out there will find the result entertaining.  The exception, in my experience, is this:

Never, ever, ever put author’s notes in the middle of the story.

That’s a common rookie mistake, and except in parodies of bad fic, I’ve never seen it executed well.  It’s the kind of thing that has me backspacing right out of a story.  (In this age of downloading longer fics in epub or Kindle format, it’s jarring enough to hit the otherwise acceptable end-or-beginning-of-chapter-notes.)

Until I read Losers in Space, I had never seen the mid-story author’s note appear in published fiction.  And I’ve still never seen it executed well.

Losers in Space is a YA science fiction novel set in the 22nd century, when famine, war and social divisions (and, apparently, any culture that’s not American) has been replaced by a system where work is optional, the UN provides everyone with a comfortable upper middle class income, and a tiny minority have the opportunity to become “eenies” — people whose talent or fame entitles them to much greater wealth and privilege.

The catch is, it’s not hereditary.  On reaching adulthood, the children of eenies have to demonstrate that they’re entitled to enjoy the lifestyle of their parents:  through talent, through academic achievement, or by becoming really, really famous.

As the book opens, a group of wannabes — picture the Hilton sisters, a few lesser British royals and maybe some washed up K-pop stars — set out to become famous by stowing away on a ship to Mars.  Sure, they’ll be in trouble when they’re caught, but they’ll be sooooooo famous.

The problem is, one of them is a sociopath.

Sounds pretty great, right?

In the foreword  author Barnes makes a big deal out of this being hard SF.  But he doesn’t want lots of exposition-heavy dialogue or infodumps, so he’s going to explain the sciencey stuff and some of the social background via … author’s notes shoved into the story.  They’re labelled as “notes for the interested”, and he claims it’s possible to skip them if you’re not interested.

I don’t have a science brain, so yes, I skipped over the impenetrably mathematical or scientific notes.  Problem is, there was also a lot of significant worldbuilding stuff in the notes.  And the characters still had a lot of conversations revolving entirely around technobabble, while much of the social context was limited to the notes.

I honestly can’t believe an editor let this happen!  I wanted to get out my red pen and start correcting it, or maybe cut up the book and rearrange it so it worked better.  It was just straight up bad.  I feel like the worldbuilding should have been incorporated into the story, and most of the science notes could have been removed completely.  Maybe posted on the author’s website for interested readers. It got so that I resented every page I had to flick past.

I was also unconvinced by a lot of aspects of the worldbuilding, which was fairly heavy on the cliche. It was interesting, but not necessarily plausible.

What kept me reading were the plot and the characters, which were equal parts interesting and frustrating.  Needless to say, the stowaway plan goes terribly wrong, and the teens have to fend for themselves, discovering new reserves of intelligence and competence, whilst also dealing with the sociopath in their midst.

I honestly can’t put my finger on what it was about the plot that bugged me, on account of how it was continually being interrupted by author’s notes.  The pacing occasionally lagged, but mostly I think the problem was that the characters never completely gelled for me.

For example, at the very beginning, as we’re introduced to our characters, the narrator gives a quick summary of their personalities: morose social climber, whiny self-pitier, desperately socially awkward, creepy pervert, sociopath, etc.  But many of these traits are quickly forgotten.  A couple of characters have really pleasing arcs as they evolve from the unlikable people they were into productive members of society, but most of them, as soon as they begin to interact with the heroine, show hardly any sign of their introductory traits.  They seem to be completely different people.  And while the heroine marvels several times that she never appreciated her peers before, the turnaround is unconvincing.

I also had a lot of trouble with the hero, because I couldn’t quite shake the first impression of him as a creepy pervert who essentially makes fanvids from pornography and always has a camera on the girls.

Meanwhile, the villain is supposed to be a charming sociopath, except at no point is he actually charming.  I’ve had some dealings with sociopaths in my life, and generally they sneak up on you.  I mean, one of the key aspects of sociopathy is the ability to pass for a normal person, leaving trails of people in your wake wondering if they’re the ones who are crazy.  Derlock (…I KNOW) doesn’t do that.  He’s just straight up evil.

It’s a compelling kind of straight up evil, though, and part of the reason I kept reading was to see him get his comeuppance.  SPOILERS:  (highlight to reveal, and I apologise if this doesn’t work for you!) He doesn’t.  He gets away with everything until the epilogue, in which it’s briefly mentioned that the heroine had him killed.  

One curious thing about this book is that it has a bunch of reviews on GoodReads praising it for breaking out of the YA dystopian SF mould.  It’s true that Losers in Space is a bit different from the recent run of YA SF, but … not dystopian?  This is a world where a crime is the intellectual property of the criminal, meaning that a rapist or murderer will be exonerated if he can demonstrate sufficient media interest in his “work”.  There’s a scene where the girls explain this law to the boys, who have never heard of it.  The girls, on the other hand, had a special class about it, because it puts them all at risk.

Suffice to say, a lot of the “thank heavens it’s not dystopian” reviews are coming from blokes.

It’s details like that — a literal rape culture — that kept me reading, because I was continually seeing the seeds of a much better book between the lines.  Genetically engineered animal with human intelligence?  GREAT!  He’s a pink elephant named Fwuffy with a phonetically-rendered speech impediment?  UM.

So, yes, it’s all a bit mixed.  ON THE OTHER HAND, I couldn’t put it down (except when I hit an author’s note), and I’ve just had 1200 words worth of thoughts about it.

Other stuff

  • This future is not white.  One character is described as a “pink-headed Caucasian throwback”, from which we can assume that he’s the only white kid in the group.  The heroine was genetically engineered for very dark skin. 
  • Nevertheless, of the nine people depicted on the cover, four are white, and the central girl, presumably the heroine, has light brown skin.
  • Hey, I like to keep track of these things.
  • Very few of the characters have mothers in their lives.  This seems to be a future where fathers get custody.  The heroine’s mother essentially abandoned her for reasons which aren’t fully explained.  But remember, not a dystopia.
  • The heroine’s father is an actor who has made his name as a leading man.  Most of his movies seem to be remakes of early to mid 20th century films, which are quoted several times.  It’s a nifty trick for creating a body of pop culture that’s familiar to the audience, or so I thought when I Arthur C. Clarke did it in 2010.  I was also eleven at the time.

Books, podcasts, and I am not actually stalking Tansy Rayner Roberts

I’m not!  Because that would be creepy, and also illegal, and also it would involve a higher level of effort than I’m accustomed to.

But when I was at ChicagoTARDIS, there was a certain amount of SHOCK and DISAPPROVAL when I said that I didn’t listen to the Galactic Suburbia podcast.  I was given to understand that it’s my duty as an Australian feminist genre fan to give it a burl.

So I downloaded the last two episodes of 2012, and gave them a listen this week — well, I’m still partway through the November 22 episode — and, yes, everyone was right.  This podcast is clever, informative, highly relevant to my interests, and I’ve been remiss in not listening to it before.

In fairness, I only listened to my very first podcast just recently.  And my second.  And now my third, fourth and fifth.  (I’ve stopped counting now.)  There came a point a few years back where I stopped listening to the radio because the announcers were all inane — yes, even on Triple J, hallowed youth station though it is — and technology enabled me to choose my own music.  I figured that a podcast would be similarly irritating background noise.

Yes, I was wrong.  For my morning commute, when I want some kind of mental stimulation but am too sleepy to read, podcasts are perfect.  Of course, my commute is 20 minutes and most podcasts seem to go for about an hour, but, you know, we’re coping.

And a good thing, too, because now there’s a new podcast in town, and her name is Verity.

Verity is a feminist Doctor Who podcast, and frankly, a ridiculous number of the contributors are my friends.  I listened to the first episode yesterday, and it was great.  It was positive and affectionate while acknowledging faults, and the breadth of opinion meant that I got to agree with someone most of the time.  It was a very nice way to spend a couple of train journeys.

Now, both of these podcasts feature Tansy Rayner Roberts, whose short story collection Love and Romanpunk has been sitting on my bookshelf for, oh, a year and a half.  And she has a fantastic essay in Chicks Unravel Time, and she said clever things on panels at Continuum last year!

Then, on Wednesday, just as I was beginning my great podcast adventure, one of my BFFs tweeted about reading and loving Love and Romanpunk.  (She reviews it here — I studied in the same Classics department, as does my brother now, although I’m fairly sure she’s the only one who got to design collapsible boats in class.)

Well, that was it.  Clearly I had no choice but to read it.  So I spent the second day of the year lying on the couch, absorbed in “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, which effectively hooked me for the rest of the stories.  If anyone else looks at the Julio-Claudians and sees literal monsters, this is totally the book for you.

Jan 4: download the new issue of Apex Magazine.  (I subscribed.  You should, too!)  And look, there’s a reprint of Roberts’ story “The Patrician”, from the same collection!

I am not stalking Tansy Rayner Roberts, but it’s possible that her works are stalking me.

I’m actually okay with this, since one of my goals for 2013 is to read more Australian authors.  I went a bit overboard working out reading stats for 2012, and one of the results was that, of the 141 books I read, only 19 were by Australians.  That’s pretty shameful.  So yes, for 2013 we’re reading more Australians, more short stories, more in general.  NOT THAT IT’S A COMPETITION.  (It’s totally a competition.)

The problem is, there are so many good books!  Here’s my to-read pile:

So many books...
So many books…

Most of these were purchased in the US, and I’m still working through them.  And this is without factoring in the ebooks I haven’t read yet!

I really need one of those jobs where people pay me to read.  But, like, books that I choose, not that my boss chooses for me.

Free book! With writing in!

Not pictured: MY FACE
IN THE PAPERY FLESH

You know what’s pretty exciting?  Holding a book that contains stuff you wrote.  Maybe you get used to that after a few books, I don’t know.  Wouldn’t mind finding out, but at the same time, this is pretty awesome.

You know what’s even better?  Holding a book that contains stuff you wrote … and knowing it’s full of EVEN BETTER THINGS.

So while I was at ChicagoTARDIS I got the other contributors present to sign a copy.  And now I’m giving it away!

WHAT: One copy of Chicks Unravel Time autographed by editors Deborah Stanish and LM Myles, cover artist Katy Shuttleworth, and contributers Lynne M Thomas and, um, me.

HOW: Leave a comment to this entry, describing one thing you love about Doctor Who.  For example, “I love Doctor Who because Jo Grant is funny and clever and I think she’s very underrated as a feminist companion,” or, “I love Doctor Who because bow ties are cool.”

WHEN:  I’ll choose and announce the winner next Saturday, a week from now.

OTHER RULES:

  1. I’ll ship anywhere that Australia Post will let me.
  2. Winner will be selected by a random number generator.
  3. Entries that put down some other aspect of the series will be disqualified.  For example, “I love Doctor Who because Amy Pond is useful and clever, not like those other companions,” or, “I love new Doctor Who because it has actual characters instead of screaming women in miniskirts.”  That stuff just makes me a bit cross.

ChicagoTARDIS

I’m baaaaaaaa-aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!  Didja miss me?  Come on, at least pretend you noticed I was gone.  Unless, of course, you were following my adventures on Tumblr or Twitter, in which case it’s probably like I never left, and you’re possibly quite sick of me.  Hmm.

ANYWAY, since I originally started this blog in the wake of Continuum 8: Craftonomicon, and my appointment as programming whosit for Continuum 9, I thought I’d post my ChicagoTARDIS thoughts here.

ChiTARDIS was my very first fan convention for a specific fandom.  I got to meet a bunch of old friends, some of whom I didn’t even know were attending, and I made a bunch of new friends.  I was a bit creepy at the back of Burn Gorman’s head (he just had a very crisp haircut!) and passed Anjli Mohindra in the ladies room, where she was worried she wouldn’t make a good impression on fans.

Programming-wise, I … well, I spent a lot of time in the lobby.  And the bar.  And at Target.  This isn’t so much a reflection on the program itself, but more that it seemed a bit silly to travel all this way, meet people in person for the first or second time, and then not spend time with them.

Having said that, the only panel I really regret missing was Fond of the Ponds, with L M Myles and Deborah Stanish, which was apparently 55 minutes of pure Pond-love.  Most of the panels I did get to involved people being wrong in outrageous ways, like on the companion departure panel, where it was claimed that Martha achieved nothing in season 3 (she just saved the world, no big deal), and that Romana II was useless except for making goo-goo eyes at the Doctor.  (I just … look, some woman went and wrote a whole essay about season 17 and how it’s quite good, and basically turns Romana into the Doctor, and you should totes go and buy this book.)

One panel that was PERFECT and WONDERFUL in EVERY POSSIBLE WAY was the Chicks Unravel Time panel.  Well, there were some questions about whether or not the title is an attempt to reclaim a sexist slur, which I found odd, because when I was a teen in the late ’90s, “chick” was just the feminine of “dude”, no slur intended.  Bit past the point of reclamation, y’know?  But the women asking the questions were older, so I think this is a generational thing.

Anyway, that panel was wonderful, and people seem to like the book (it has three Amazon reviews, you know!), and we got to talk about the parts we enjoyed most.  I said something completely incoherent about Tansy Rayner Roberts‘ essay about the Trial of a Time Lord season, which … well, I attempted to watch it once — I own the box set and everything — but now I want to give it another go.  In fact, the whole book makes me want to watch all of Doctor Who, even the bits I previously didn’t like.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, the other panel I was on was called It’s Stopped Being Fun, Doctor … But I Can’t Stop Watching!  About that thing where you’ve completely fallen out of love with a show, but you keep watching it.  And blogging about it.  And — my personal pet peeve — going into other people’s squee posts to tell them how much it sucked.

I figured it was going to be a panel fraught with disagreement.  What I didn’t expect was that the fifth panellist wouldn’t even turn up, leaving me as the only woman on the panel, and the youngest by about a decade.  I spent most of the panel being interrupted, contradicted and mansplained at, and when I couldn’t get words in, I settled for pulling faces.  Did you know that Star Trek: Voyager only became good in the fourth season because then the writers had a pretty girl to motivate them?  Of course the show wasn’t already improving in its third season (the normal trajectory for a Star Trek spin off) — no one was watching then.  Well, no men, apparently, who are the only viewers that count.  (In fairness, I think that was Brannon Braga’s attitude as well.)

And, to bring the discussion back to Doctor Who, a story driven by characterisation is … inherently bad?

It was very strange.  But I did learn a lot about panel moderation, ie, you need to have it.  So that’s good!

After that panel, my friends swept me away to the bar.  NEVER TO EMERGE, except for food and sleep and hanging out in the lobby.

IN CONCLUSION, ChicagoTARDIS was a really interesting and overall positive experience.  One day I’d like to get to Gallifrey, where apparently the programming is stronger but the lobbycon is less comfortable.  But more than Gally, I’d really like to one day be in a position to see my international friends more than once every couple of years.  Money in exchange for labour seems so inefficient…

First Term at Malory Towers – chapters 13 and 14

Chapter 13: Half-Term at Last!

For some reason, every time I think of HALF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERM, I’m reminded of this comic.  I’m sorry, I can’t help it.

The girls became very excited at the beginning of half-term week. Many of them would see their parents on the Saturday—and Miss Remmington, the games-mistress, had suddenly decided to have a small edition of the Swimming Sports for the benefit of the parents.

I presume the other teachers were all like, “Thanks, Remmington, couldn’t you have thought of that, like, at the beginning of the term?  Are we not busy enough?  If there’s one thing that teenagers are good at, it’s last-minute organisation!”

Darrell’s pretty excited by HALF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRM, but first she’s in for a shock.  This is one of those schools where students’ class rankings are routinely read out for all to hear, as if that’s not deeply humiliating and potentially demotivating … and Darrell’s doing kind of badly.  Like, Mary-Lou-and-Gwen-type-badly.

Darrell goes off to see Miss Potts, to let her know that her parents are paying good money for this education, and they expect the school to produce the goods ask what happened.

‘Let me see—what were you? Quite a long way down,’ said Miss Potts, pulling the list to her and looking at it. ‘Yes, that’s right. I was surprised and disappointed, Darrell. You did so well in the first two weeks.’

‘But Miss Potts,’ said Darrell, and then stopped. She didn’t know quite how to say what she wanted to say. She wanted to say that she had much better brains than at least half the form, so why was she so low? But somehow that sounded conceited.

Here’s the first edition’s illustration of this scene:

Miss Potts, man. She’s so great.

How fierce is Miss Potts, eh?

However Miss Potts, who was very quick-minded, saw her difficulty. ‘You have come to ask me how it is you are nearer the bottom than the top when you could so easily be among the top ones?’ she said. ‘Well, I’ll tell you, Darrell. There are people like Alicia, who can play the fool in class and waste their time and everyone else’s, and yet still come out well in their work. And there are people like you, who can also play the fool and waste their time—but unfortunately it affects their work and they slide down to the bottom. Do you understand?’

DEAR MISS POTTS, WE HAVE A MESSAGE FOR YOU FROM POTTERMORE:

This whole scene is pretty key to the series and Darrell’s character, so I’m just going to type it all out:

Darrell flushed very red and looked as if she could sink through the floor. She nodded.

‘Yes, thank you,’ she said in a small voice. She looked at Miss Potts out of her clear brown eyes. ‘I wouldn’t have been so silly if I’d known it was going to affect my place in the form,’ she said. ‘I—I just thought as I had good brains and a good memory I’d be all right, anyhow. Daddy and Mother will be disappointed.’

‘They probably will,’ said Miss Potts, taking up her pencil again. ‘I shouldn’t copy Alicia and Betty too much if I were you, Darrell. You will be a finer character if you go along on your own, than if you copy other people. You see, what you do, you do whole-heartedly—so if you play the fool, naturally other things will suffer. Alicia is able to do two or three things quite well at one and the same time. That certainly has its points—but the best people in this world are the whole-hearted ones, if they can only make for the right things.’

‘I see,’ said Darrell. ‘Like my father. He’s whole-hearted. He’s a surgeon and he just goes in for giving back people their health and happiness with all this heart—so he’s marvellous.’

‘Exactly,’ said Miss Potts. ‘But if he split himself up, so to speak, and dabbled in half a dozen things, he would probably not be nearly such a remarkable surgeon. And when you choose something worth while like doctoring—or teaching— or writing or painting, it is best to be whole-hearted about it. It doesn’t so much matter for a second rate or third-rate person. But if you happen to have the makings of a first-rate person and you mean to choose a first-rate job when you grow up, then you must learn to be whole-hearted when you are young.’

Darrell didn’t like to ask Miss Potts if she thought she had the makings of a first-rate person in her, but she couldn’t help hoping that she had. She went away rather subdued. What a pity she hadn’t been whole-hearted over her work and got up to the top, instead of being whole-hearted over playing the fool with Alicia and Betty, and sliding down towards the bottom.

Note that Miss Potts isn’t wholly thrilled with Alicia as a person either.  SO THERE.  #TEAMPOTTY

I’m also a little charmed that Blyton — because surely she’s speaking through Miss Potts here — regards teaching and the creative professions as deserving the same respect as medicine.

Gwen, meanwhile, is looking forward to HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM because it’s a chance to, um, rub her governess’s face in it?

How small she would make Miss Winter feel, when she talked of her lessons and how wonderful she was at everything!

Wow, Gwen.  Wow.

Sadly, Mary-Lou’s mother can’t make it, so she’s stuck with Gwen, and Gwen’s ego for the day.  BUT WAIT, A WILD DARRELL APPEARS!

Darrell’s all, “Hey, Mary-Lou, you should totes spend the day with me and my family.”  And Mary-Lou’s like, “I’d love to!  But how will I tell Gwen?”

‘I think you’re a bit hard on her,’ she remarked, in her forthright Scots voice.

“Forthright” is such an odd adjective in this context.  Yes, Jean is outspoken and honest, but is her voice outspoken and honest?

‘Well, it’s all for her good,’ said Darrell. ‘If I can make her have a little courage, she’ll thank me for it. I said those things purposely, to shame her into going to Gwendoline and asking her.’

‘You’ve shamed her all right, but not in the way that will make her pluck up her courage.’ said Jean. ‘You’ve given her the kind of shame that puts people into despair!’

You know, I really haven’t given Jean enough appreciation in these posts.  Let’s change that.  JEAN, YOU GUYS.  SHE’S PRETTY EXCELLENT.  She turns up, says sensible and often funny things, and then leaves.  Like Irene, only her hat is being Scottish, not a genius.

Meanwhile, Mary-Lou’s developing a full-blown anxiety disorder, not at all helped by Gwen:

‘Fancy Darrell having the cheek to ask you, after I’d asked you!’ she said. ‘I’m glad you had the decency to refuse, Mary-Lou. You’d surely not want to go off with a girl like that, who thinks you’re such a poor worm?’

‘No.’ said Mary-Lou, and couldn’t say any more. If only she could have said yes, boldly, right out! But she couldn’t.

I SYMPATHISE, MARY-LOU.  My therapist sent me away last week with instructions to be mindful of situations where my first instinct is to do my best impression of a welcome mat.  It’s surprisingly hard!  And that’s just being aware of the instinct, not actually doing anything to assert myself!

HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERM arrives at last, and Darrell is in high spirits.  She’s even singing!  She’s in such a good mood that she impulsively invites Sally to join her for the day.

‘I’d rather not, thank you,’ said Sally, in a stiff little voice, and went on up the cliff without another word.

BURN.

All this rejection is getting a bit awkward for Darrell because her mother is particularly keen to meet her friends, and it’s starting to look like Darrell doesn’t actually have any.  Finally, she invites Emily — you remember Emilly?  She’s really into sewing — and Emily happily accepts.  This is lucky, because after that, there was only Violet, and that would first involve remembering her existence.  Which, obviously, Blyton doesn’t.

Chapter 14: A Really Lovely Day

HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMM!  Are you sick of this joke yet?  Well, tough, I’m not.

Things the narrative notes about Darrell’s parents:

  • their car is “plain and black”
  • Darrell’s father drives it himself
  • Darrell’s mother is “pretty, amusing and sensible”

That last comes from Emily, who is almost forgotten in Darrell’s excitement at seeing her parents.  Mrs Rivers doesn’t quite know what to make of Emily, who’s a lot quieter than she expected of one of Darrell’s close friends.

She did not know that as yet Darrell had no definite friend.

RUB IT IN, WHY DON’T YOU?

I also like Emily’s take on Mr Rivers:

…and as for [Darrell’s] father, well, any one would trust him at sight, thought Emily, gazing at his determined, good-looking face with its big dark eyes and intensly black eyebrows, just like Darrell’s but bigger and shaggier.

Mr Rivers was based on Blyton’s second husband, remember, so this is an especially sweet tribute to the man.

BY WAY OF CONTRAST, of course, we have Gwen’s mother and governess.  (Gwen’s father has chosen to absent himself from proceedings, because it’s not like Gwen could do with a stronger and stricter presence in her life, right?)

She saw Gwendoline with two women—one obviously her mother, with bright golden hair like Gwendoline’s and a rather babyish, empty face. The other must be Miss Winter, the governess, thought Darrell. What an awful person!

Poor Miss Winter was not really awful. She was plain and poor and always eager to agree with everyone. She adored Gwendoline because she was pretty and graceful, and did not seem to see the selfishness and spoilt ways of the silly little girl.

I feel like everything about Miss Winter’s life can be summed up in that one sentence — she has few resources of her own, but as long as she’s agreeable to the Laceys, she has security and an income. It’s not a good position at all.

Speaking of bad positions, Mary-Lou is stuck listening to Gwen’s OUTRAGEOUS WEB OF LIES:

‘I’m almost the best at tennis in our form,’ she heard Gwendoline say. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if I’m put into a match-team, Mother!’

‘Oh, darling—how clever you are!’ said Mrs. Lacey, fondly. Mary-Lou stared at Gwendoline in surprise. Why, everyone knew Gwendoline was a real muff at all games!

‘And Mam’zelle is very pleased with my French,’ went on Gwendoline. ‘I believe I might be top in that. She says I have a splendid accent.’

Miss Winter glowed. ‘Oh, Gwen darling! Isn’t that lovely now? I did my best with you, of course, but I was always afraid it was rather a poor best, because I’ve never been to France.’

Mary-Lou longed to say that Gwendoline was always bottom in the French class, but she did not dare to. How could Gwendoline stuff her people up with such a lot of lies? And how could they believe them?

‘Are you going to go in for the swimming-match this afternoon?’ asked Mrs. Lacey, looking fondly at Gwendoline, who today had her shining golden hair loose down her back, and looked, so her mother thought, like a real angel.

‘No, I thought I wouldn’t, Mother,’ said Gwendoline. ‘It’s best to give the others a chance. After all, I’ve done well at so many things.’

SO GREAT.  SO GREAT.  I guess the class rankings aren’t put on display for the parents.

But it’s okay, because Gwen has a Darrell-shaped comeuppance!

Then Darrell spoilt it all! She passed by with her mother and father, and Mrs. Lacey was struck by her good looks and happy smile.

‘There’s a nice girl, dear!’ she said to Gwendoline. ‘Is she one of your friends? Let us speak to her.’

‘Oh no, she’s not a friend of mine,’ began Gwendoline, but Mary-Lou, delighted at this praise of Darrell, was calling to her. ‘Darrell! Darrell! Mrs. Lacey wants to speak to you.’

Darrell went over to Mrs. Lacey and was introduced by a glowering Gwendoline. ‘And are you going to go in for the swimming-sports?’ asked Mrs. Lacey, graciously. ‘I hear dear Gwendoline is not, bless her.’

‘Gwendoline! Oh, she can’t swim a stroke!’ said Darrell. ‘We always yell at her because she takes five minutes putting one toe into the water. Don’t we, Gwendoline?’

This was all said in good humour and fun—but Gwendoline could willingly have pushed Darrell over the cliff at that moment! She went very red.

Mrs. Lacey really thought that Darrell was joking. She laughed the tinkling laugh which she thought was so pretty. ‘I suppose if Gwendoline entered she’d beat you all!’ she said. ‘As she does at tennis—and lessons, I suppose.’

Darrell looked in astonishment at Gwendoline, who was glaring at her, crimson in the face. ‘Gwendoline’s been stuffing you up, I expect!’ she said with a laugh, and went off to join her own party.

‘What a very outspoken, blunt sort of girl,’ said Miss Winter, puzzled and worried.

FORTHRIGHT, MISS WINTER.  LOOK IT UP.  (I had to.)

It turns out that not even Mary-Lou can be bullied into saying that Gwen is great at sport.  I like to picture her looking around wildly, going, “LOOK OVER THERE!” and jumping in the pool to escape.  Though actually she just remembers an urgent appointment with Mam’zelle.

BACK TO THE MYSTERY OF SALLY.  Mrs Rivers spots her and wants a word, as she has a message for her from Mrs Hope.  But Sally pretends not to hear Darrell call, and hides in the bushes. Only not really:

She plunged down into a path that led through some bushes in the drive and disappeared.

Darrell’s invitation to Emily backfires, as she and Mrs Rivers bond over embroidery, which Darrell can’t stand.  Ooops.  But we move on to one of Blyton’s characteristic food descriptions:

Cold chicken and pickles—pickles! There was never a pickle to be seen at school. Little cardboard containers full of fresh salad and mayonnaise sauce. Delicious! Jam-tarts and slabs of chocolate ice-cream. What a lunch!

And, naturally, ginger beer to wash it down.  I must be hungry, because that sounds to me like the perfect meal.  PICKLES.

Then they go back to the school for the swimming, and more hilarious Gwen shenanigans:

The swimming-sports were exciting. Mrs. Rivers was delighted with Darrell’s strong swimming, graceful diving, and fearlessness. She was one of the best of the small girls. Some of the big girls were extremely clever in their diving, especially Marilyn, the sixth-form games-captain. Everyone cheered her as she did a graceful swallow-dive from the topmost board.

‘And can you do all these things, darling?’ Darrell heard

Mrs. Lacey ask Gwendoline. Gwendoline, who was near Darrell and a few others, looked round warily, wishing her mother wouldn’t ask such awkward questions in public.

‘Well—not quite all,’ she said, and Miss Winter patted her fondly on the shoulder.

But all this is secondary to the important matter of Sally: What The Hell Is Up With Her?

‘Mother! There’s Sally Hope again!’ said Darrell suddenly, catching sight of Sally’s head in the distance. ‘I’ll get her in a minute. By the way, you never told me how that mistake about Sally’s baby sister happened—the one you said she had got, and hasn’t.’

‘But Darrell dear—she has got a baby sister!’ said her mother in surprise. ‘I’ve seen her!’

‘Well—whatever does Sally mean!’ said Darrell. ‘I really must get her and find out!’

END CHAPTER ON A DRAMATIC NOTE