The Eleventh Orphan by Joan Lingard

The Eleventh Orphan by the Scottish author Joan Lingard was published in 2008 and she dedicated this one in memory of her grandparents who inspired her to write the characters of Ma and Pa Bigsby.

They have a pub in Victorian London called The Pig and Whistle where they have a very full home due to the ten children that they’ve adopted. When the local policeman turns up with another homeless child in tow Ma Bigsby isn’t keen to take her in, she always said she wouldn’t take on any more than ten children at a time. Elfie, short for Elfrieda is eleven years old, and has been in trouble with the police for thieving, another thing that puts Ma off, but when she is told by PC O’Dowd that Elfie has a painting of The Pig and Whistle in her bag Ma decides to take her in. Elfie knows nothing about her parents, not even their names, but she does have a bag full of clues that might lead her to her father anyway, she knows her mother is dead.

Ma sets to work cleaning up her newest waif and Pa begins to educate Elfie as she can’t read, teaching the children is Pa’s main job, but he also has to keep Elfie and Ivy apart as they hate each other at first sight. But there’s a lot of love within this blended family which is nurtured by the wisdom and common-sense of the parents.

This is really well done, an entertaining read for adults as well as children. It’s the first in a trilogy.

The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden

 The Dolls' House  cover

The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden was first published in 1947 and it was the first book that she had written for children, but my copy is from 1963 and it has some lovely illustrations by Tasha Tudor.

The setting is just after the end of World War 2, when there was a chronic shortage of toys, and the dolls which belong to Charlotte and Emily Dane are having to live in draughty shoe boxes. They dream of living in a proper dolls’ house, especially Mr Plantaganet the father of the family of dolls.

They’re quite a mixed bunch of dolls, some broken and drawn on and Mr Plantaganet has had to put up with the most abuse over the years. He had been a Scottish doll originally, but years ago a child had ripped his bagpipes off him, causing damage. Tottie is the cheapest doll, she is a tiny wooden farthing doll (you got four of them for a penny) and she is the oldest of them and can tell them all of the original owners who were great-aunts of their Emily and Charlotte.

When there’s a death within the extended Dane family there’s the inevitable house clear out and Mr Plantaganet’s wishes come true as Emily and Charlotte are given an old dolls’ house which had been languishing unloved for generations in an attic. The girls set to work and make the house fit for the dolls, everything is wonderful until a very conceited doll arrives from a specialist cleaners, her name is Marchpane and she upsets everything and everyone. She thinks she is above everyone else as she’s made of kid leather and china.

This is a lovely tale which was obviously written to teach children what are the important things in life. There are quite a few adults who could learn a thing or two from it!

I love the cover of this book with its beautiful Georgian house, which even has a dog kennel for the toy dog in the story.

The Escape of the King by Jane Lane

The Escape of the King cover

The Escape of the King by Jane Lane was first published in 1954. I read some of her historical fiction back in the 1970s, but hadn’t read any which were aimed at children as this wee one is. It’s a quick but fairly entertaining read at just 156 pages. Jane Lane started writing books for children when her young son asked her to tell him stories from history.

In The Escape of the King she fills in the gaps between the known history of King Charles II’s flight after his army was defeated at the Battle of Worcester when the much larger rebel army of Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads trounced the Royalist Cavalier army. Apparently all the events in this book are true and the characters are real. Jane Lane says that she just invented the conversations thoughts and feelings of the people involved.

All the Roundheads are looking for Charles, and when a £1,000 reward is put up for Charles alive or dead it seems like his escape from Worcester is an unlikely prospect, but well disguised as Will Jones – a peasant – and walking by night from safe house to safe house, when necessary hiding in holes that had previously been used by Catholic priests in houses owned by people who had been sticking to the ‘old religion’. He had some very close calls but of course did manage to reach the coast and hitch a ride on a ship to France and safety.

I must admit that I only recently realised that I had imagined his escape wrongly, as in that well-known part of the story when Charles II hid in a tree to avoid capture, I had assumed that it was a hollow tree he was in as it was supposed to be an oak tree, and they can be hollow. Now of course I realise that he was hiding up a tree, within the branches! It’s a mystery to me why teachers always said he was in a tree. In fact I’m sure I even asked a teacher about that at the time and she was the one who thought it might have been a hollow oak – oh well – you live and learn!

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild was first published in 1936.

 Ballet Shoes cover

Matthew Brown is an elderly palaeontologist who spends most of his time travelling the world collecting fossils which he sends to his home in London which is run by his great-niece Sylvia and her old nanny. He manages to pick up three young girls over some time in differing circumstances, the last one being a small baby, and takes them home with him where Nana and Sylvia have the task of bringing them up.

It’s a difficult state of affairs for Sylvia as her uncle, known as GUM, leaves her some money and takes off on his travels again. As the girls (Pauline, Petrova and Posy) grow up the financial situation is very precarious as GUM stays away for years and doesn’t send any more money, for all they know he might be dead as they haven’t even had a letter from him for years.

The girls are all determined to help Sylvia and when they are enrolled in a stage and dancing school they are able to contribute to the family budget. Bizarrely it’s never mentioned that Sylvia might be able to get a job to help out!

I enjoyed this one, the character of Petrova was especially good as she was so different from the usual girls of that time, she was keen on cars and how they worked and was happiest when up to her ears in oil and car parts. Despite having little interest in the performing arts she was still keen to pull her weight and earn money for the family.

I think this is the fifth or sixth children’s book that I’ve read by Streatfeild and she does seem to have been slightly obsessed with the stage and performing. The only one of her books that I have unread in the house is Saplings, one of her books for adults, it’ll be interesting to see what that one is about. Have any of you read it?

My copy of Ballet Shoes is a modern Puffin book. Although these editions have nice clear print I must admit that I generally prefer the designs of the old Puffin books.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

 The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle cover

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi was published in 1990 and has won several children’s book awards. You really have to suspend your disbelief while reading this book in order to enjoy it as the whole thing is most unlikely, but that didn’t stop it from being an enjoyable read.

It’s 1832 and thirteen year old Charlotte Doyle is in a crowded dock in Liverpool where she is to board a ship bound for America. Her father had arranged for her to be in the company of two families who would also be passengers and would look after her, but when Charlotte boards the Seahawk she discovers that those families have changed their plans, and she is alone on the ship, apart from a crew of mainly ragged ruffians.

Captain Jaggery is a cruel master and it isn’t long before Charlotte witnesses his harsh command. The only person that Charlotte befriends is the ship’s cook, but he is the target of Jaggery’s cruelty, with disastrous consequences.

Charlotte ends up becoming a member of the crew, casting off her dainty frocks in favour of the more practical clothing of a sailor boy and in no time she’s crawling up the masts to the crow’s nest as if she has been born to do it – you see what I mean about having to suspend your disbelief!

Things go from bad to worse when Charlotte is accused of murder – but all’s well that ends well. I can imagine this one being very popular with young girls hankering after adventure – vicariously.

Henrietta’s House by Elizabeth Goudge

 Henrietta's House cover

Henrietta’s House by Elizabeth Goudge is another reprint from Girls Gone By Publishers. I enjoyed this one more than her book Smoky-House which I read fairly recently. The book was originally published in 1942 and it’s a sort of fantasy. At the beginning of the book the ten year old Henrietta is excitedly waiting at a railway station for the arrival of a train carrying her adopted brother Hugh Anthony. He’s a bit of a handful, older than Henrietta and has been sent to boarding school in an attempt to make him more civilised. The setting is Torminster, a cathedral city which was apparently based on Wells.

Most of the tale takes place over one afternoon. It’s Hugh Anthony’s birthday and he’s having a birthday picnic with some relatives and adult friends. The setting is the forest and the various guests are making their way there in separate vehicles, mainly horse drawn carriages – a victoria, a landau, a governess cart and one car which has shocked the country folk and would terrify the horses. They split up and everyone gets lost on the way to the forest, some even ending up underground. During the journeys the characters of them all are improved as they realise what the important things in life really are. This book was just a bit too churchy for my liking, I suspect that that will be the same with all Goudge’s books, but it definitely has its charming moments.

For me this one was very much of its time with heavy emphasis on the food being prepared for the picnic. Well if food is strictly rationed as it was in the UK during World War 2 and right into the 1950s, people fantasised about what they couldn’t have, and feasts featured heavily in books of that era, especially children’s books such as C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series.

The Runaways by Victor Canning

The Runaways by Victor Canning was first published in 1972 and it’s the first part of his Smiler trilogy. It was made into a film for US television in 1975. The book is about 15 year old Samuel Miles, his mother is dead and his father is away at sea most of the time, so his older sister and her husband look after Samuel while his father is absent. ‘Smiler’ as he is known is a bit of a handful for his sister, but there’s no malice in him.

However, he ends up being wrongly convicted of stealing an old lady’s handbag and is sent to a borstal for young offenders, he manages to escape only to be recaptured by the police on a stormy night. On the way back to the borstal he takes a chance to escape again and manages to fend for himself in the barn of a house which has nobody living in it.

Smiler isn’t the only one being hunted down. A cheetah has escaped from the famous Longleat Wildlife Park. It was the storm that gave Yarra the opportunity to escape when a tree was blown over. She heads for Salisbury Plain, much of which is used by the army for training. Unknown to the two escapees they take cover in the same barn, with Smiler being in the loft and so begins a wonderful relationship between the two.

This was a great read, aimed at older children or Young Adults as they say today in publishing. It’s very well written with some really likeable characters and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

I was sent a digital copy of this book by Farrago Books via Netgalley. Thank you.

Party Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

The Victorian Chaise-Longue cover

Party Shoes by Noel Streatfeild was first published in 1946. The setting is wartime England, beginning at the end of 1944. Selina is living with her aunt and uncle who have six children of their own. The Andrews family have taken her in as her parents are prisoners of war in Japan.

When a parcel arrives from America for Selina it turns out to be a beautiful long cream organdie dress with a blue sash and satin shoes. It’s totally impractical for use in a small English village. Selina just has nowhere to wear it to, and she fears that she’ll have grown out of it before she gets the chance to wear it.

Selina and her cousins decide to organise a pageant where they can all do a ‘turn’ and Selina can wear her dress while doing the prologue and epilogue. It was supposed to be a very short pageant just featuring the children but the whole thing snowballs with the arrival of Squadron Leader Philip Day who has arrived to stay with family, he’s recuperating with a damaged arm. Before the war Philip had produced stage-plays and is well known in theatrical circles. In no time just about everyone in the village and some nearby villages is involved with the production which has singing and dancing and all sorts going on, including the ballet dancers from a well known school of dancing.

At times the children resent how their idea has been hi-jacked by adults and I must say I quite agreed with them. One slight drawback about Streatfeild being able to write such believable child characters is that inevitably I’ll be really annoyed by one like Phoebe who seemed always to be on the verge of tears if not actually crying, but this was an entertaining read. I enjoyed the way the wartime problems featured in the story with clothes being a particular headache for the women who after five years of clothing coupons and rationing were having a hard time clothing their children, never mind making outfits for a pageant.

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!


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.