The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon

The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon was first published in 2011 by Faber and Faber. The setting is London’s British Museum to begin with, but it isn’t in a Britain as we know it because Christianity has never taken over from the Norse religion, Thor, Woden et al are still worshiped. It’s a Wodenist culture.

Freya is a twelve year old girl whose parents have split up and have joint custody of her, she’s having a tough time coping with living in two different locations – and with her father’s work patterns. He has a new job as a guard at the British Museum and Freya is having to stay at the museum during his shift. While wandering about on her own she’s drawn to the display of the Lewis Chessmen, most of which were taken to London despite being discovered on the Isle of Lewis. The room houses treasures from a Viking silver hoard, and when Freya fiddles with one of the exhibits she’s catapulted into an adventure which features the Norse gods and the chess pieces which have come to life.

Oh, Mum, if you could see me now, thought Freya, as she stepped off the trembling rainbow into the realm of the Gods.

This was an enjoyable adventure, written by the author of the very popular Horrid Henry series (which I’ve never read). The book has some lovely illustrations by Adam Stower, some of which you can see here.

You can see images of the Lewis Chessmen here.

I love the Berserker, he’s the one chewing on his shield, he just makes me laugh!

berserker

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor

 An Edinburgh Reel cover

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor was first published in 1968. I’ve been reading a fair few books set in historic Edinburgh recently and this is another one. The setting is mainly around the Royal Mile, six years after the battle of Culloden, so 1752.

Christine has left her family home of Strathdallin in the Highlands to go and meet her father in Edinburgh, it’s her first visit to the capital and she’s not impressed as the place stinks. So although her family home at Strathdallin had been trashed by the Redcoats after the battle and there are only a few rooms left standing and the roof is leaking, she’s still homesick for the place. Living in a couple of freezing rooms at the top of a tenement building doesn’t suit her at all, despite having friendly but much better off relatives living in the same building.

John Murray, her father has spent most of the past six years in France after he managed to escape from a prison hulk after his capture, he knows that he had been betrayed by another Scotsman after Culloden but doesn’t know his name. He’s still a loyal Jacobite and is determined to get back at whoever betrayed him.

When Christime first sees her father she’s shocked that the he doesn’t look at all like the handsome tall man that she remembers. She must only have been nine years old in 1745 and she has grown while her father seems so old and shrunken, he has permanent health problems because of his treatment by the English and his estate has been seized by the government, so they are penniless.

Christine is worried for her father as he’s in danger of getting dragged into another Jacobite plot and ending his days kicking on the end of a rope.

This was a great read, very atmospheric with a wee bit of a romance too. I’m sure that Iona McGregor got it exactly right when she has the wealthy Edinburgh inhabitants getting all teary eyed and sentimental over the songs sung about ‘The Chevalier’ – despite the fact that most of them hadn’t been supporters of the Jacobites during the Rising.

This book was apparently aimed at children aged 11 and over, but like all well written books it’s appreciated by people of all ages.

Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag volume 6 by Louisa May Alcott

I recently finished reading Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag volume 6 by Louisa May Alcott. It’s a collection of short stories so it’s obviously a mixed bunch of tales and as always with these things some are better than others, but they were all worth reading. I read it on my Kindle and downloaded it, free from Project Gutenberg here.

L.M. Alcott was a woman ahead of her time. From her writing in these short stories she was obviously anti-slavery but also anti-caged birds and anti-whaling. While reading The Whale’s Story I experienced one of those strange moments when I saw that the tale was being told by a Right whale (deceased) from Greenland. Just a couple of hours earlier I had been reading an article about how a very rare Right whale had been spotted very far from where it should have been. Until then I had never even heard of Right whales!

You can read a wee bit about Alcott’s life here.

Dimsie Goes to School by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dimsie Goes to School cover

Dimsie Goes to School by the Scottish author Dorita Fairlie Bruce was first published in 1920 with the story taking place in 1919. It was originally titled The Senior Prefect. My copy was published in 1932.

It begins with the ten year old Daphne Isabel Maitland better known as Dimsie travelling by train from her west of Scotland home to her new boarding school at Westover, a coastal town in the south of England. She’s accompanied by her older cousin Daphne who is a prefect at the school.

There’s a bit of a mystery as to what has happened to Dimsie’s mother as she has disappeared and only communicates with her soldier husband through solicitors, but Dimsie is unaware of this. There’s a new headmistress at the school and many of the girls are upset by the change, especially when she cuts their hockey practice time by half, reasoning that they don’t do at all well in their exams. However she starts lessons in domestic science which hadn’t been taught there before. This is a good idea given that it’s just after World War 1 when the lack of servants became such a problem for middle-class households.

Although the war has ended it’s still very much part of the book as air-raids and coastal trenches are mentioned as well as shell-shock, and Dimsie’s father is a colonel in the army.

There’s talk of spies, counterfeit money, a strike and even a problem with burglars in the neighbourhood and rumours fly around, aided and abetted by Nita, a nasty piece of work who takes aim at Daphne with a view to getting her sacked as a prefect. The characters of the two Maitland girls shine through it all though with Dimsie in particular becoming popular with just about everyone, the addition of some well written Scots dialect was enjoyed by me anyway.

I found it interesting that it was written in 1919 and that first marking of armistice day is described as ‘the rejoicings’. That struck me as being really strange as today more than one hundred years later it’s always a very sober affair. I think a lot of people in 1919 who had lost family members in the war would not have felt much like celebrating and in a girls’ school there would have been girls who had lost fathers and brothers in the war.

Whatever, this was a really entertaining read and I think it was better than any by Angela Brazil that I’ve read and she was the most popular writer of school stories, but maybe that was just because she wrote so many of them.

HITTY Her first hundred years by Rachel Field

 HITTY Her first hundred years cover

I was very surprised to receive a copy of HITTY Her first hundred years by Rachel Field as an unexpected gift from Wilhelmina an online friend from the D.E. Stevenson website. I must admit I had never even heard of the book but it was a very enjoyable comfort read, perfect for these pandemic times. The book was first published in 1929, is illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop and it won the John Newbery Medal.

Hitty is a wee wooden doll with peg joints, made out of a piece of mountain ash – or rowan as we call it in Scotland – a kind of wood which is magical as it keeps witches away, so she feels special, she’s only six and a half inches tall. It begins with Hitty sitting in an antique shop with a cat for company and she goes through her past life recounting the many adventures that she’s had along the way, and there are many. It seems that some of her little owners weren’t all that careful with her. She begins her family life with the Prebles of Maine where she’s given to seven year old Phoebe, it’s a very happy home but the sea-faring father needs a cook before he can take his ship to sea again and his wife has to step up and do the job, which means that the children go to sea too, including Hitty.

She’s shipwrecked, abducted by crows, stuffed down the back of a sofa, falls out of a car – you name it and it happened to Hitty – or just about. Almost every adventure ends up in a change of family for her where she experiences spoiled wealthy children and poor families, she goes up and down in society and also goes in and out of fashion. This is an entertaining memoir which also follows the changes in society over 100 years.

Having been ‘born’ in 1829 Hitty’s 200th anniversary is coming up fairly soon, I’m wondering if anyone is going to take up the baton and write about the years from 1930 to 2030. I do hope so!

Thanks for sending me this one Wilhelmina.

The School on the Moor by Angela Brazil

 The School on the Moor cover

The School on the Moor by Angela Brazil was first published in 1939. Brenda is 13 and she and her brother Denis are living with their Aunt Madge and Uncle Harry while their father is working in India, their mother is already dead. When Uncle Harry gets a job in Argentina the children have to be sent to boarding schools as Aunt Madge will be going with him, it’s not something that they’re looking forward to, they’d rather stay with Grannie but that won’t be possible. So Brenda is sent to a school in Cornwall while Denis is sent to Portsmouth.

I can’t say that I found this book that entertaining, maybe the prospect of war was weighing on the author’s mind at the time. The schoolgirls seemed to spend a lot of time getting up entertainments for people and each other, and none of them was particularly enthralling, I found the whole thing to be very predictable. Thankfully it’s a very quick read.

Oh well, there have to be some duds in life so that we can appreciate the stars!

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott 20 Books of Summer

An Old-Fashioned Girl cover

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott was first published in 1870, but six chapters had been published in a magazine the previous year.

It’s the story of Polly who is the teenage daughter of a rural church minister and his wise and sensible wife, money in that family isn’t plentiful, so when Polly travels to Boston to visit her friend Fanny she finds herself in a situation she hasn’t been in before. Fanny’s family is a wealthy one, living in a grand house with servants. Material things are obviously very important to them, but when compared with Polly’s family and upbringing Polly can see that the money and easy life hasn’t made Fanny’s family happy. In particular Fanny’s mother is immature and lacking in any common-sense, her children are argumentative and spoiled spendthrifts. Fanny’s father sees Polly’s kindness and warmth as being a good influence on his family, but really he’s just a provider of money as far as they’re concerned. Fanny’s mother reminded me in some ways of Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, she shrieks and takes to her bed when she gets bad news and evidently only married her husband for his money.

This book covers several years, taking Polly and Fanny into their early 20s. Polly is determined to be independent, she’s working as a music teacher to help her brother get through college financially. Teaching small children turns out to be much more difficult than she thought it would be. There’s romance of course and it’s quite obvious how things will end up for Polly. She’s determined to marry someone that she loves rather than ‘an establishment’. I thought of Lizzie Bennet and Pemberley!

This was an enjoyable read, I know that if I had read this book when I was a youngster I would really have identified with Polly, and not being a wild consumerist or interested in designer labels, make-up and nail bars I still do identify with her really. I found this book to be a bit too preachy and just a wee bit too sentimental, but that was the fashion of the time. I don’t think there’s a sequel to it, which is a shame, I would have liked to read more about Polly as she aged.

Thanks for sending me this one Jennifer.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer.

Two Joans at the Abbey by E.J. Oxenham

 Two Joans at the Abbey cover

I bought Two Joans at the Abbey by E.J. Oxenham a while ago under the impression that it was a boarding school setting, I enjoy those quaint 1920s- 50s books written by authors such as Angela Brazil and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. Anyway it turned out that it wasn’t. I was of course attracted to the name Joan! It was first published in 1945.

In no time flat my head was fair jangling with the use of so many names of characters with names beginning with ‘J’. I cannot imagine why the author thought this was a good idea. Joan and Janice were great friends when they were at school, now they have children of their own and they have each given their daughter the name of their best friend. So we have one child Joan who is variously called Joan, Joan-Two, Littlejan then there are Jansy, Jandy Mac, Jen, there’s a John, Jack and even the baby is called Jimmy. Thankfully the cat is called Mrs Black!

Janice and her daughter Joan (or was it the other way about?) are visiting Joan elder and oh well – you know what I mean – at the old abbey where they live. But very quickly Janice gets a telegram telling her that Aunt Mary is seriously ill, so she has to go to visit her in Scotland, leaving Joan-Two behind. The young girls become great friends but are somewhat ‘cheesed off’ that when their mothers were their age they had been able to uncover lost bits of the abbey, there’s nothing left for them to discover it seems.

Of course they do stumble across a ‘new’ old building, but in doing so put themselves in great danger. I ended up liking this quaint adventure story with all its old-fashioned charm, although the author rambles like crazy here, there and everywhere.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by e.l. konigsburg

 From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler cover

This book was first published in 1967 and it won the Newbery Medal. I was lucky enough to be given it by Jennifer and until I received I hadn’t even heard of the book but it was just perfect reading for these strange and unsettling times.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg begins in a suburn of New York City where Claudia, the eldest of four children is thoroughly fed up with things as they are. She has three younger brothers who never have to do any chores around their home, not that all her work is appreciated, in fact they try to make her life even more difficult.

Claudia decides that the time has come for her to run away, the only problem is that she has very little money, she can’t save her pocket money as she must have her hot fudge sundae treat every week. Her plan will only work if she can persuade her brother Jamie to go with her as he is a tightwad and consequently has quite a stash of money saved.

She doesn’t want to stay away from home too long, just long enough to make her parents worry and pay her more attention in the future. She’s not keen on roughing it so plans to stay somewhere where they can be fairly comfortable and she chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Claudia and Jamie manage to dodge the museum guards for days and they are able to wander around the museum and sleep in a 16th century four poster bed. Claudia has it all worked out, they bathe in a fountain and manage to eke out their money and even wash their clothes at a launderette. Then Claudia becomes obsessed by a new exhibit of a statue of an angel – is it by Michelangelo or not?

This is a lovely book and I so empathised with Claudia’s situation at home, a common one for girls of my and Claudia’s age back in 1967. Although this is a lovely light read it also shows how the siblings become aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and they learned to appreciate each other more.

The Tree That Sat Down by Beverley Nichols

The Tree That Sat Down cover

The Tree That Sat Down by Beverley Nichols was first published in 1945 and it’s the first of his books for children that I’ve read. Having said that – there are parts of this book that are probably aimed more at any adults who might read it.

Beverley Nichols describes it as ‘a fairy story and it’s a real old fashioned one, full of magic spells, wizards and transformation scenes. Maybe some of the characters have a modern touch … the witch for instance keeps a vacuum cleaner to assist her with her spells, but otherwise it joins all those other magic tales which begin once upon a time.’

The setting is a woodland where Judy and her granny have opened a shop to cater for the needs of the woodland animals – yes, it’s all very anthropomorphic. But then Sam and Old Sam open another shop nearby, with the intention of fleecing all the animals, conning them out of their money, and at the same time ruining Judy’s shop.

I enjoyed this book which is on one level a children’s fantasy tale and on another is a vehicle for the author to get some things off his chest, such as his feelings about how animals are treated by some humans, the over-commercialisation of society and mad consumerism – and his attitude to war.

Did you ever hear of such impertinence? It is an insult to the noble and peaceful family of Sheep. It is the Humans who go about in herds and don’t think for themselves! Look at the way they make War! Sheep would never be so foolish, nor would any other animal. Did you ever hear of a herd of sheep or any other animal leaving their homes and their pastures, and going off to fight say, a herd of zebras whom they’d never even met, just because some silly sheep had told them that the silly zebras wore striped coats, and that anybody who wore striped coats must be their enemy? That is exactly what Humans are doing all the time. Look at their dreadful way of waging war in the air. If I have a fight in the air it is because I am attacked. I fight for my life. But what would you think of me if I were to take a rock and fly off with it to a farmyard and just drop it into a basket of eggs.That is what Humans call “bombing”. They all do it, and they think it is wonderful, and they give medals to the Humans who break the most eggs. To me, it is all sheer folly and wickedness. I have very little hope for the Human race … very little. It will take them at least a million years to reach the level of animals … and long before then, I am afraid they will all have killed each other off.’

It’s fair to say that the previous six years of war seems to have left the author exasperated and a bit depressed I think. This is the first book in a trilogy, the other two are The Stream That Stood Still and The Mountain of Magic. I intend to get around to reading those ones – sometime.