Tomes from the Olden Times: The Third Form at St. Clare’s…

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So today’s Tomes from the Olden Times – the feature in which I re-read a book from my ancient past and pass on some insightfully insightful insights into the experience – has gone off the rails a little bit.   The reason for this will become apparent as you read on. I did intend for this to be the crème de la crème of Tomes of the Olden Times posts; a real ripper that shot you straight back to childhood and in a way, that could still happen. It did for me while I read this offering. And afterwards, it has left me wondering if I don’t have some kind of early onset senility. But anyway, on with the show!

Today’s tome is The Third Form at St. Clare’s, part of Enid Blyton’s wildly popular boarding school stories (the other of course being Malory Towers, in which I also indulged long ago), featuring twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan as the main players. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The holidays are over and twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan are dying to get back to school. The big question on everybody’s lips is, who will be head girl? But a terrible accident and an hilarious school play show the true leaders in the third form, but they also show up the cheats and cowards.

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Sounds like a typical Enid Blyton adventure, right? Well, my friend, I thought so too. But herein lies the confusion. This title is, in fact, NOT part of the original series, but an add-on penned by Pamela Cox as a way to flesh out the original Blyton series.

Shocked?

So was I. Not so much by the fact that another writer had been called in to modernise Blyton’s work, but by the fact that I would have sworn blind that I had read this book as a kid. And yet I couldn’t have, because it was written in 2000. This was the bit that had me scratching my head and trying to remember the number for the Alzheimer’s hotline. As I was reading this story, I even deluded myself that I knew how it was going to turn out (due, of course, to my incredible ability to recall children’s literature). I predicted correctly, but I suspect that this was because the story follows the expected Blyton formula, rather than the fact that I had read it before (which I obviously hadn’t).

Confused yet?

Yes, me too. So it turns out, on further research, that for some reason Blyton didn’t stick to the one-book-per-year formula found in most boarding school series (including her own) for the girls of St. Clare’s but instead wrote three first form stories, one second form story, skipped third form altogether, wrote one apiece for forms four and five and left sixth form out. Cox was brought in around the time of the series’ latest re-release to pen tales for the missing form years and it was one of these gap-fillers that I managed to pick up in my search for a blast from the past.

On the surface, everything appears as it should be. All the familiar characters are there, including wild circus gypsy girl Carlotta (who was a favourite of mine back in the day) and the book obviously reads enough like a Blyton to have tricked me into thinking I had already read it. There are a few little signs along the way that the story has been brought into the new millennium, with mention of coffee shops (Egad! Surely tea is the only reputable beverage in an English boarding school!) and a few turns of phrase that didn’t ring quite true to the old stories. There are also the old favourite plotlines of practical jokes, midnight feasts and sending people to Coventry.

I did feel that the retribution of the girls toward one particular wrong-doer in the story read entirely differently in a contemporary setting though. As the entire form decide to punish a girl for her underhanded behaviour by sending her to Coventry (ie: completely ignoring her and actively excluding her from membership of the form group), I did get a strange sense that this scene might come off seeming far more sinister to modern-day youngsters than Cox might have bargained for. As a youngster, when I had read such a scene in Blyton’s works, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eyelid and probably cheered along at such justice being done to an obviously guilty party but on reading it with the current social climate in mind, the scene felt uncomfortably like mass cyberbullying of the sort that sends young people to mental health wards or, in some tragic cases, suicide. It’s probably lucky that the St. Clare’s girls didn’t have access to social media or things could have gotten completely out of hand.

Overall, I think Cox has done an admirable job in penning a story that could slot right into the series without a second thought and young contemporary readers discovering Blyton’s school stories for the first time will no doubt be thankful that the series has been given these additions.

As a “Tomes from the Olden Times” pick, this turned out to be an incredibly disorienting experience. I feel mildly cheated that I haven’t actually re-read a St. Clare’s book and so now I have to go and seek out another one (although I suspect I’ll jump ship back to Malory Towers – you know where you are with the Malory Towers girls).

I’d love to know from any of you though: What are your favourite St. Clare’s moments? And have you read any of Cox’s new additions? What did you think?

Until next time,

Bruce

Tomes from the Olden Times: Heaven Cent…

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Afternoon there intrepid book-wranglers!  It’s about time I delved back into those books I read as a youngster, into the books that have shaped my reading journey.  I used to call this spot “Retro Reading” but as other blogs are using that title, I’ve decided to rebrand my nostalgic wanderings as (cue deep, booming voice) “Tomes from the Olden Times”.  The image above is particularly relevant for today’s pick, because it features an animated skeleton.  Animated as in sentient and capable of movement, not animated as in cartoonish. Although…

Allow me, if you haven’t already made its acquaintance, to introduce you to the Xanth series, by shelf-bracingly prolific author Piers Anthony.  The series (one of many….and I mean MANY) series that Anthony has authored, features the magical world of Xanth, that lies in geographically the same area as our Florida, but is entirely separate from it.  One of the main features of Xanth (apart from its magicality) is its fondness for punnery.  Puns abound.  They’re everywhere.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the title of the first Xanth book (indeed the first Piers Anthony book) I ever encountered:

Heaven Cent

Heaven Cent is book number eleven in the Xanth series.  Why did I start with eleven? Your guess is as good as mine.  Perhaps I was eleven when I first picked it up.  Regardless, this book follows nine year old Prince Dolph as he sets out on a quest to find the missing Good Magician Humphrey, chaperoned by the aforementioned animated skeleton, Marrow Bones.  If you are wondering who these characters might be and how they fit into the world, I can assure you that in all honesty, it really doesn’t matter.  As I said, I started with book eleven, and I followed the story just fine.  Dolph and Marrow encounter various challenges along the way, including that of Dolph becoming betrothed to two girls simulataneously and everything ends happily (as, I was to find out later, often happens in the land of Xanth).

I particularly chose this book as a Tome of the Olden Times because it is chock full of puns and obvious humour and a pretty basic storyline.  I had loved this series as a kid, but I could simply not imagine how an adult could stick with such a book for 300 plus pages, let alone do this repeatedly over a VERY long running series.  So I was very interested to see what my feelings were for this pivotal childhood book as an adult.

The long and short of it is….it held up okay.  Admittedly, I read this story multiple times as a kid, so it was like revisiting an old friend.  Weirdly though, there was nothing more that I got out of it as an adult than I had as a kid.  There were no jokes that I discovered anew that had gone over my head as a younger reader, no insightful twists that I had blithely skimmed over in childish innocence.  Essentially, I felt that while I had grown and matured over the years, the book was exactly the same read for me now, as it was then.  I did not expect this turn of events, but in some ways it’s kind of reassuring.  The book (and the whole series really) would make great candidates for my Utopirama reviews, in that nothing truly bad ever happens and things always right themselves in the end.  In that regard, the Xanth series would be a great choice for those times when you want something light on drama, and heavy on fantasy and punny humour.

A word of warning however.  I read a lot of Piers Anthony as a kid, and as an adult, I have come to the conclusion that he must be a bit of an oddbod.  While Xanth is pretty harmless, there are plenty of other books of his that are spectacularly inappropriate for children (but I read them anyway…why? Who knows).  I remember absolutely LOVING his Mode series (which I’ve since found out has continued past the last book I read many years ago) as a young teen and it features suicidal ideation, self harm, a very dubious romantic relationship clearly involving a minor and a whole lot of other guff that really, I probably shouldn’t have been reading at that age.  I suspect that should I pick that one up again as an adult, there would be plenty of new and interesting material that my kid-brain missed the first time around.  I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good thing. I’ll let you know if I decide to give it a second airing.

So if you’re looking for light and fluffy, stick with Xanth.  If you’re looking for hot and heavy, Mr Anthony can furnish you with some of those sort of tomes also.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from any of you who have read these books, to find out what you think of them!

Until next time,

Bruce

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Retro Reading: Finders Keepers…

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Today’s Retro Reading offering is, for me, a quintessential book of childhood.  I first encountered it as a school-aged stone, through a teacher’s (inspired!) choice for a classroom read-aloud.  I remembered it fondly and was very excited to dip back into it as a grown stone.  finders keepers

Finders Keepers by perennial Australian author Emily Rodda, (she of Deltora Quest and Rowan of Rin fame), follows the exploits of Patrick, a young lad who is contacted through a computer game and invited to take part in a mysterious game show and win fabulous prizes.  After accepting, Patrick is pulled through “the Barrier” separating our world from…well…another very similar world…and is tasked with finding three objects that have slipped through the Barrier and been lost by their owners.  Cue all the fun and suspense that goes along with any adventure in which a child is continually thwarted by perfectly ordinary problems – such as not having anyone to drive him to the shop where he suspects one of the objects may be found.

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I am happy to report that re-reading this book produced everything I remembered and adored about it the first time round.  Emily Rodda possesses a remarkable ability to draw the reader in to the world she has created, even when crafting everyday domestic conversations or describing the simple problems faced by her young protagonists.  In Finders Keepers, she weaves suspense through the story beautifully and has crafted her characters – particularly Patrick and Estelle – in such a genuine way that one finds oneself glued to the page and cheering them along.

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This story also features some riddles – a bit of a Rodda signature move – which are quite fun to solve and would appeal to its target audience.  Finders Keepers, having won the Childrens Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award for Younger Readers in 1991, was followed up with The Timekeeper, and later made into a television series.  You can see a bit of it at the link below.  Incidentally, if you’re a fan of early 1990s fashion and culture in Australia, you’re in for a treat!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3Mnh_eJ54M&list=PL7A4147BF2FB6412F

This book is a perfect choice for any kid aged 8 and above.  Actually, seven-year-olds would probably get a kick out of it too.  It really is one of those rare gems that comes along and sticks in your memory, and is well worth hunting out, particularly for readers outside Australia who may be discovering it for the first time!

finders keepers 3As has been my wont recently, I have included all the different versions of cover art that I could lay paw on…my favourite is the first as it is the one I remember. The last one pictured (with backwards hat boy) is my least favourite…I think it makes the main character look like an individual lacking the capacity for independent thought….or any thought, really.  Do not let this distract you, book Finders – I challenge you to seek out this book, even if you have to cross the Barrier to get to it!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

Retro Reading: The Brothers Lionheart…

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Today I present to you a book that I have been forced to categorise (since my most recent reading) as a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a very attractive dust jacket. I first encountered The Brothers Lionheart by perennial favourite Astrid Lindgren (she of Pippi Longstocking fame), as a reasonably young gargoyle. If memory serves I would have been around 9 or 10 years stony standing and was deeply involved in a “medieval” phase – which has been acknowledged as a highly important developmental period for gargoyles and other stone-creatures alike.  It was first published in the original Swedish in 1973, and had its first outing in English in 1975.

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The story centres around young brothers Karl and Jonathan Lion, who die within weeks of each other and are reunited in Nangiyala, which appears at first glance to be an afterlife consisting of simple country living, such as one might have experienced during “the time of songs and sagas” as Lindgren puts it.  Shortly after Karl’s arrival in Nangiyala however, it becomes apparent that a creeping evil is descending on the valley where the boys reside and the story really takes off when Jonathan vanishes while on a secret mission into the heart of enemy territory.  Essentially, the plot unfolds as your basic good townsfolk versus tyrannical despot type of story, until we leave the boys as they gain entry into a second afterlife-y place called Nangilima.

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Right. Now as soon as this book popped unbidden back into my head n years after first reading, I immediately added it to my “to read retroactively” list as the thought of it was accompanied by a lovely warm feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment in the story.  Weirdly, as I re-read it, I also remembered that I was not able, as a youngling, to read this book in one sitting due to a feeling of dis-ease that seeped into my young mind with every turn of the page.  In fact, after some really focused reminiscing, I acknowledged that while I remember borrowing this book out from the library multiple times, I did so only because I found the book too discomfiting to finish in one reading.

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As a grown stone re-reading this story, I could see why it made my young self a tad unsettled.  For a start, it’s chock-full of death. The two main characters die not once, but twice; the second time in a way that I found, as an adult reader, a bit disturbing.  There’s plenty of terror and tyranny in the story as well – dissenters being carted off to a secret prison, traitors revealed amongst trusted company, and so forth.

I think though that this book is one of those tricky ones that can be interpreted at a much deeper level if first encountered as an adult.  Prior to re-reading, I had fond memories of my experiences with this book, with only vague undertones of something a bit frightening lurking within the pages.  As an adult reader, I’m now a bit unsure as to whether I like the story or not, and what sense or message I can take from it, and this might be a little unfair.

Soooooo…….do I recommend this one for young readers or not? I think I’ll have to err on the side of a guarded recommendation. It’s an engaging and action packed read, but “Macy the Shopping Mall Fairy” or “Captain Underpants” this book ain’t.  There are deeper themes presented here than one would normally find in children’s literature and for that reason I would recommend this book as a read-aloud, or for young independent readers who are fairly mature and/or sensitive in their outlook on life and books.

I would love to hear from anyone else who encountered this book as a youngling, and how their recommendations would pan out now.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Retro Reading: Books about Puberty…..

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Yes, it’s that time again – time to link arms with a trusted confidante (ie: me) and take a stroll down memory lane. BYO mosquito repellent and hayfever medication.

Recently I have been contemplating that most treacherous of life events – puberty.  A younger colleague of mine has just begun on this road to adult gargoyle-hood and is most vexed at the appearance of mould where there was no mould before.  It was while I was advising him of the necessity of a meticulous morning-and-evening cleansing routine to keep this problem in check, that I decided I should re-read some classics related to this special time for young gargoyles and fleshlings alike.

To that end I selected two that I remembered well (or at least I thought I did…): the perennial favourite Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume and Pig City by Louis Sachar.

are you there godIt may come as a surprise to those of you who have read Are You There God?…., but on re-reading I had absolutely no recollection of any of the content pertaining to Margaret’s investigations into different religions. None, whatsoever.  How could this be? I wondered – clearly, this was an important part of the main character’s growth and development throughout the plot.  It’s even mentioned in the title, for goodness sake.

It was about this time that I began to suspect that on my initial reading, drawn by content arguably more interesting to a young buck undergoing certain important life changes, that I may have skipped the bits about religion and flicked through to the advice about increasing one’s bust…..Yes, dear reader, I believe that I may have been guilty of skipping large chunks of the story in order to get to the spicy bits! Surely, though, this small infraction can be forgiven – as creatures of stone, gargoyles have a vested interest in busts (of the artistic, sculptural variety) and advice as to how to make a bigger one could be just the ticket for a gargoyle without a lower half to take a step up in the world, so to speak.

In re-reading Pig City, you will be pleased to know I did not uncover any nasty surprises about content I had forgotten, for this book was certainly on high rotation in my reading list at that time.  Strangely though, I had forgotten all about the book itself until I recently overheard something that jogged my memory and I felt an immediate need to search it out.

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The story follows the sixth-grade school year of Laura Sibbie and friends as they grope their way up, down and across the social ladder through the creation of various clubs.  The initiations and subsequent fall-out of these friendships make up the bulk of the story, and very entertaining it is too.  This is a much milder take on the beginnings of adolescence than that presented in Judy Blume’s work – the characters still have the charm and innocence that Blume’s more wordly girls do not.

Having had its first outing in 1987 though, I wonder how much the events in Pig City mirror the experiences of today’s children in grade six and seven.  I can’t help but feel that the squabbles depicted here would nowadays be more likely to occur in a younger age group than the technology-savvy, know-all-about-it pre-teens of the post-noughties.

I must say, having re-dipped the toe into books about this life event, I feel I must seek out more as the embarrassing predicaments in which the characters find themselves are really quite fun to read about.

Any suggestions from fellow bloggers about classic “growing up” reads to tackle?

Until next time,

Bruce