Curtain Up by Noel Streatfeild

Curtain Up cover

Curtain Up by Noel Streatfeild was first published way back in 1944. The island of Guernsey had been home for the three Forbes children Sorrel, Mark and Holly. Their father had retired from the Navy when their mother had died, but when war was declared their father had immediately re-joined the Navy and the children moved into their eccentric grandfather’s home. He is a clergyman who is far more interested in writing a book about the animals that appear in the bible than he is about the existence of his grandchildren.

When a telegram arrives saying that their father was ‘missing’ they live in hope that he has been taken prisoner and hasn’t drowned. But then grandfather dies and the children are sent to live in London with their mother’s family who are strangers to them. They’re devastated to be leaving their schools, the one stable thing in their lives.

Things get even worse when they discover that their mother had been part of a large family of well-known actors and actresses, and it’s assumed that the children will go to an acting/dancing school. The children had no idea that their mother had been from an entertainments background and they’re not exactly thrilled by the idea.

This was quite an entertaining read which follows the main rule of children’s books – get rid of those annoying parents as quickly as possible. I can imagine that many of the original 1944 child readers would have been enthralled by the storyline which has the children eventually auditioning for BBC radio.

As you would expect – all’s well that ends well.

Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff

Bonnie Dundee cover

Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff was first published in 1983 and it’s a Puffin book. Previously I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books for adults and I found this one to be well written and informative, very early on in the book I learned that a lorimer was a maker of spurs and horse accoutrements. I had just thought of lorimer as being a surname.

Young Hugh Herriott is an orphan and is living in the Highlands with his mother’s family. His mother had more or less been cast off by her family as she had married a travelling artist against their wishes. Hugh’s grandfather had taken him back into the family but Hugh was very much an outsider, just tolerated by the rest of his relatives. It is a turbulent time in Scotland (when isn’t it?) and religious zealots in the shape of Covenanters are being hunted down by government soldiers. A close encounter with some redcoats makes Hugh realise that he’s happier on the side of the redcoats than with his Covenanting family. If you thought that ‘redcoats’ were always English think again, there were plenty of Lowland Scots in that army.

In truth it’s seeing Claverhouse (Viscount Dundee) that pushes Hugh to leave his family and eventually he finds himself as part of Claverhouse’s household which leads him to follow him into battle. Things had come to a head when the Catholic King James succeeded to the throne on his brother Charles’s death. When James’s wife gives birth to a son the Protestants at court are determined to bring William of Orange over from Holland to push James out, William’s wife is a Stewart and of course they are Protestants. Some deluded people are still fighting this religious mess – it’s what has caused all the trouble in Ireland.

So begins the Jacobite cause with James eventually legging it to France after Claverhouse or Bonnie Dundee as he was nicknamed pays the ultimate price. If you want to learn a bit of Scottish history painlessly then this is an ideal read, a bit of an adventure tale woven into historical fact, and very atmospheric.

I’m fairly sure that Sutcliff’s mother must have been Scottish as she’s very good at writing Scots dialect, and her mother’s name was apparently Nessie – another clue I think. Rosemary Sutcliff spent most of her life in a wheelchair which makes her ability to write such great descriptive scenes all the more impressive as her own experiences must have been sadly narrow, especially as she lived at a time when access for disabled people was not great.

This is one of those books that you continue to read, knowing what the outcome must be – but daftly hoping for a better one.

The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden

The Peppermint Pig cover

The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden was first published in 1975 and it’s one of the Puffin books that I bought fairly recently. It won the Guardian Award for children’s fiction. This book isn’t for the faint hearted as at the very beginning there’s a description of how Granny Greengrass had her finger accidentally cut off by the butcher. Then it’s mentioned that puppies used to have their tails ‘docked’ by having them bitten off by the groom at the Manor House.

The father of the Greengrass family is got rid of very quickly as after an incident at his work he decides that he should travel to America where his brother lives, in the hope of forging a new life for his family – eventually. The children and their mother end up having to leave their home in London and travelling to rural Norfolk to live with aunts until the time comes for them to leave for America. Life there is very different from London, they end up having a pet piglet, the runt of a litter which was offered for sale to their mother for a shilling.

In no time the piglet is house-trained, he’s clever and naughty and great fun, the children love their peppermint pig which is apparently what the runt of a litter is called. The piglet grows quickly, as the children were so fond of it I really thought that this was going to have a happy ending – but I was wrong!

The blurb on the back says: A charming and perceptive story by the author of Carrie’s War.

I imagine that it probably turned a fair few children into vegetarians – for a while anyway!

Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton

Bedknob and Broomstick cover

Until I picked this book up in an Aberdeenshire secondhand bookshop recently I had no idea that Bedknob and Broomstick had been written by Mary Norton (of The Borrowers fame). It was first published in 1945 and although I’ve only seen short excerpts of the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, I think it’s fair to say that it must be very loosely based on the book. It was obviously written in wartime although it doesn’t really come into the story, the three children Carey, Charles and Paul have been sent to live with an old aunt who lives in Bedfordshire. This must have been a normal experience for many children in those days as fathers were off in the services and their mothers were also doing war work. It fits the perfect children’s book scenario, get rid of those annoying parents.

The house is old and square with a large hall and the children are quite intimidated by it. They’re also rather shy of their aunt and the old housemaid, but the garden is wonderful and even has a river running through it. The children have a whale of a time, they’re well behaved and all their days are alike – until they meet Miss Price. She’s an elderly lady who gets about on her bicycle, she’s very ladylike and teaches piano for a living, but in her spare time she’s a bit of a white witch. She’s really just a beginner at it and when the children find her in pain lying on the ground in local woodland it transpires that she has sprained her ankle as she has fallen off her broomstick!

She obviously needs more practice. Miss Price needs the children to keep quiet about her witchcraft, the locals wouldn’t understand, so she puts a spell on Paul’s bedknob so that when he twists it the bed will wheech them all anywhere in the world – or even into the past.

This book is aimed at children over the age of eight – I think I fit that description!

Flame – Coloured Taffeta by Rosemary Sutcliff

Flame-Coloured Taffeta cover

Flame – Coloured Taffeta by Rosemary Sutcliff is a Puffin book which was published in 1986. It was probably aimed at pre-teen children, but I intend to work my way through all of the author’s books – eventually.

The setting is the mid eighteenth century and the coastal south-west of England between Chichester and Selsey Bill. It was a time of on and off war with France and just five years after the failed attempt by Charles Edward Stewart to get the Jacobites back on the throne of Britain.

Damaris is a twelve year old girl who lives with her father and aunt on a coastal farm, an area which sees lots of smuggling activity, not that they call themselves smugglers, they’re known as Free Traders. Damaris is sure that she heard a gunshot during the night and she’s afraid that one of her local friends might have been shot, so she goes out searching her father’s farmland and discovers a young man, a stranger who has been shot in the leg.

She needs the help of her friend and neighbour Peter to get the wounded man draped across her horse and they take him to their hideout in a tumbledown cottage nearby. He’ll have to share the place with the wounded fox that they’re nursing back to health.

But have they done the right thing, is he a smuggler or is he perhaps a spy from France?

This is a very quick read with just 120 pages and it also has well detailed illustrations by Rachel Birkett.

I enjoyed this one, but then I do like stories featuring smugglers as many people do. I’m not sure if that’s a particularly British penchant/weakness or if it’s more universal. What do you think? Pirates are another weakness of course, maybe it’s just that ‘bad guys’ seem more interesting!

The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfeild

The Growing Summer cover

The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfeild was first published in 1966 but my copy is a 1973 Puffin reprint and has illustrations by Edward Ardizonne. It was serialised for children’s TV in the 1970s.

If you’re a children’s author the first thing you have to do is get rid of the parents quickly because as we all know parents put a dampener on adventures. In no time flat the four children of the Gareth family are dispatched to Ireland to stay with their Great-Aunt Dymphna. Their father had gone to Australia for a year and had become seriously ill there so their mother went out to join him. Dymphna is a complete stranger to them but they have no other relatives to look after them and Dymphna feels it’s her duty to take them in.

They soon discover that she’s very odd, in fact the locals think she’s a bit of a witch. It’s just that Dymphna is really just a wee bit ‘away with the fairies’. She’s steeped in a certain type of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland, Edward Lear, Kipling, G.K. Chesterton and such and enjoys quoting bits from them.

Dymphna’s house is a big ramshackle place full of broken furniture and ornaments, she loves nothing more than a sale of stuff that nobody else wants, but she thinks that by taking the children in she has done her bit, she expects them to look after themselves, wash their own clothes, buy and cook their food – and as their mother had done everything for them at home they were pretty clueless apart from being able to boil eggs. An unexpected visitor that they have to keep quiet about causes them even more problems.

I enjoyed this one and wish I had seen the TV serial of it which was made by London Weekend Television in 1968.

One of those strange coincidences that crop up amongst readers is that the poem below also featured in the Angela Brazil book (For the Sake of the School) that I read just before reading this one, and I had never come across it before.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a hunting,
For fear of little men.

by William Allingham

Night Birds on Nantucket by Joan Aiken

Night Birds on Nantucket cover

I’m making my way through this Joan Aiken series featuring Dido Twite. This was the first of the series that I picked up at a secondhand bookshop, an original Puffin book which cost all of 25p when it was published in 1966, but as it comes third in the series I had to find and read the first two before getting around to this one.

I was attracted to the book because of the back cover blurb:

Here is a new adventure for Dido Twite (the enchanting heroine of Black Hearts in Battersea), waking from a long sleep to foil Miss Slighcarp, the wicked governess, in her plan to assassinate King James III by long-distance gun – and her greatest ally is a pink whale called Rosie.

Who could resist that craziness?!

Dido has been rescued from the sea by a whaling ship and slept for ten months, being fed on whale oil and molasses while she slept. When she wakes up the sailors have just caught a whale and are dealing with it (not a pleasant description) and Dido is sorry to hear that they can’t take her back to England immediately, they’re going in the opposite direction. The ship’s captain has a daughter on the ship, Dutiful Penitence is about the same age as Dido but is pining away after the death of her mother on board. Dido succeeds in making Pen take an interest in life again and together they get mixed up in another Hanoverian plot to kill King James III.

The long distance gun is so powerful it will blow Nantucket back as far as Atlantic City – a horrific thought apparently!

It’s a daft but fun read.

The Edge of the Cloud by K.M. Peyton

The Edge of the Cloud cover

The Edge of the Cloud by K.M. Peyton is the second book in the Flambards series and was first published in 1969.

Christina is now eighteen and she has been living with her uncle and her two male cousins who are a bit older than her. Her uncle is determined to marry Christina off to her eldest cousin Mark and so keep Christina’s money in the family. Her uncle and cousins are cash poor but do have a large house and estate where horses and hunting are the only things of importance. Christina is in love with the younger cousin Will, and unlike the rest of the family he is terrified of horses and riding, flying aeroplanes is his obsession.

Christina can’t get her hands on her money until she is twenty-one and she and Will can’t get married until then either, as Uncle Russell will never consent to their marriage, so they run off to stay with Aunt Grace where Christina has to help her with the sewing by which she earns her living. Meanwhile Will has managed to get a job as a mechanic at an airfield and is living in a shed, it’s not what he wants, he dreams of becoming an aeroplane designer and flying them. Eventually he does begin to teach other people to fly and earns much needed money by taking part in air displays, looping the loop and such like.

Christina is terrified of flying and of course lives in fear of Will being involved in an accident, neither of them can understand the other’s fear of riding/flying. Inevitably accidents occur.

This book is set in 1913 when flying was all new and wildly exciting. A note at the beginning of the book states that the first loop the loop was demonstrated in England by Pegoud in September 1913. The first British pilots to loop were B.C. Hucks and G. Hamel later in the year. Forty-eight British pilots were killed in various accidents from the beginning of flying in 1910 up to the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Edge of the Cloud won the Carnegie Medal in 1969 and the trilogy won the Guardian award in 1970. It was published by Penguin as a Puffin Book so was meant to be read by older children, but it’s a good read for children of all ages.

I loved the Flambards series when it was shown on TV years ago, that was aimed at adults. There isn’t much in the way of horse riding in this book but if you’re keen on early aviation you might find this one interesting.