A couple of months ago I read and reviewed the first of Pamela Cox’s Malory Towers books, New Term at Malory Towers. I wouldn’t say I loved it, though I thought it was a decent attempt at an Enid Blyton book.
The new girls
We meet Lucy first, a pleasant girl who has her own horse and has already palled up with horse-mad Julie. Then we meet Esme. Actually, Felicity and Susan saw her first, before we were introduced to Lucy, but it was just a glimpse of a tall willowy girl with beautifully arranged blonde curls. She was getting out of an American car, so my initial thought was that we have another Zerelda on our hands. Anyway, when the girls meet her properly it turns out she looks a lot like Lucy. So much so they are mistaken for twins, though Lucy is quite boyish while Esme is very feminine. Actually they are cousins, daughters of identical twins. So as well as Zerelda we have a bit of the two Harries there as well.
The identical cousins are very surprised to see each other, and the initially nice Lucy turns quite nasty.
Esme is a bit like Zerelda – without the wish to be an actress. She wears lipstick and mascara until Miss Peters instructs her to wash it all off. She puts in curlers before bed and is determined not to ever mess up her hair or get red-faced by doing any sort of exertion. She’s not actually American, she’s just lived there for the past four years. Despite spending her first nine or so years in England with a British mother (and an American father) she is just like Berta of Five Have Plenty of Fun in that she says twenny for twenty and wunnerful for wonderful.
Then there is a newer girl, Eleanor of the fifth form, who joined the school the previous term. She is disliked by most of the lower forms as she is cold and bossy. Eleanor pops up now and again to antagonise the third formers, mostly June who she really doesn’t like, and she plays an important role in solving the mystery of who is stealing from Bill and Clarissa’s stables.
There is so much of the new girls that Felicity is barely mentioned in the first few chapters, beyond her arriving at the school, and she only pops up now and again through the rest of the book with a wise comment or order as head girl.
The main storylines
The storyline that features on the blurb of the book is that someone is stealing from Bill and Clarissa’s stables (Five Oaks) and doing other bits of mischief.
A cash box is stolen, and Merrylegs is let out. A fire is set (as a distraction) and Julie’s pony is stolen. Bill’s reins are cut so that she falls from Thunder and breaks her arm. Some of the third formers turn detective and nose around looking for clues, while others go to help out with the mucking out etc.
The detective work is pretty basic – just nosing around and asking obvious questions, but then it is a boarding school book and not a Find-Outers story. There is only one clue found – a blank note – which, once the significance is worked out, reveals more or less everything and it is left to the police.
I worked out who the culprits were from the outset – something I almost never did with the Find-Outers, even the ones I first read as an adult.
Let’s look at the facts (you might want to scroll past the bullet points if you don’t want to know whodunnit).
- There’s a rival stables right next door.
- The rival stable owner keeps coming by or sending his grooms by to ‘help’ as he is worried about Bill and Clarissa.
- The rival stable owner’s niece is stabling her horse at Five Oaks as there is ‘no room’ at her uncle’s stables.
- The niece is uncharacteristically nice to Julie after her horse goes missing, and speaks to her in a shaking voice.
- An unnecessary extra clue is that Felicity doesn’t trust the rival as he’s always smiling and therefore seems sinister.
A large part of the book however is dedicated to girls not getting on, arguing, making up, and various deep insights into their plans.
In a very similar vein to last time, Amy and Bonnie are in a bit of a triangle, this time with Esme rather than Veronica. Bonnie likes Esme straight off, but Amy doesn’t. Bonnie encourages Esme to flatter Amy, which she does, and Amy ‘falls’ for it, allowing Esme into their little group. They then spend a lot of time trying to turn her into one of their sort of English school girls. They (Amy mostly) get her to bin all her makeup and brush out her curls (Amy’s motive is unclear here, is she genuinely trying to help her fit in, or is she jealous of her glamorous made-up look?), and try to teach her to pronounce things properly.
The mostly absent Felicity pops up with a wise comment:
‘I think it would be best if Esme didn’t copy anyone at all,’ said Felicity thoughtfully. ‘Her own personality is very pleasant and unique, and it would be a terrible pity if she lost her individuality through trying too hard to be something that she isn’t.’
And Esme must have picked up on it psychically as she does pull away from Amy’s influence a bit. She realises that she actually quite likes sports, and does well at tennis.
The Esme/Lucy thing gets a lot of pages too. There’s a whole long backstory why their families fell out. In short, their fathers bought a business, but were both strong-willed and couldn’t agree how to run it and they fell out. The mothers and daughters took their husbands’/fathers’ sides and thus they all fell out, and Esme’s lot moved to America. Esme’s telling of it goes on for four pages alone. Then the other girls talk about it. Lucy talks about it. The girls talk about how to get Lucy and Esme to make up. Lucy and Esme work out a way to get their respective parents to make up. That part is actually reasonably interesting, as it involves a fake drowning.
June forms the last plot element. She has a whole bit to herself as she goes off in the night as part of the plan to expose the stable culprit, and she learns the value of teamwork through solving the mystery (and spraining her ankle). She actually has a big attitude adjustment near the end of the book when she decides not to play in a tennis competition. She knew she wasn’t fit enough for it after spraining her ankle, but wanted to play anyway. Then she realised she was being selfish and it would have been better for another girl to play on behalf of the school. All very noble but she comes across rather pious almost, I think I prefer the don’t-care June better! I wonder if she will retain this persona in the rest of the books, or if she will struggle and misbehave a bit still. Maybe she will do an Amelia Jane and promise to be better and go back on it each time.
‘So, you see, June, we both played a part. It was teamwork!’ [said Bonnie].
‘So it was!’ said June, looking brighter.‘Well, I’m beginning to think that there’s rather a lot to be said for teamwork!’
Tricks and jokes
It wouldn’t be a Malory Towers book without some tricks. As usual June leads the trick planning, though she goes a bit overboard this time.
Reminiscent of the invisible chalk of Second Form at Malory Towers, June has got some, well, invisible chalk. Only this chalk is visible at first, then becomes invisible, whereas the previous stuff was invisible then became visible later. They use it to great effect on Mam’zelle Dupont, who takes it so well when Miss Potts rumbles the trick, that there is no telling off let alone a punishment.
The chalk is then seems to turn into invisible ink which is placed in someone’s bag as a trick, but it becomes important later when a ‘blank’ note is found at Five Oaks. (This ink can be read in the dark by torchlight… of course).
June (along with Freddie) also put insects in Bonnie’s pencil case, replaces Amy’s expensive talc with itching powder, spoil Susan and Felicity’s tennis practice with a trick ball, and put a frog in Esme’s bed. It’s not like June to pull a load of thoughtless tricks though. She might pull a prank on someone who has really annoyed her but this seems like indiscriminate nonsense.
She also jumps in the pool fully clothed on the first day, as a sort of dare. I’m not sure June’s daft enough to do that.
The silliest one is when she ties Eleanor’s shoe laces to the tennis court fence. Eleanor is so distracted by Freddie pointing at nothing that she doesn’t notice both sets of laces getting tied. She is also too stupid to slide her feet out of her shoes so she can go round the other side of the fence to untie them, instead of trying to do it through the tiny gaps. Amanda then has a go at her for distracting June’s tennis practice, and she storms off without even punishing them.
So what’s my issue?
I really want to like these books. I don’t dislike them, and they’re not awful. They just don’t live up to Blyton’s writing.
This one suffers from far too much ‘tell’ and not enough ‘show’. Several times we don’t see key action (like Bill’s fall from Thunder for example) as it is either described to us in conversation, or as an afterthought in the narrative, when again, it is quickly described. As another example, we know that Julie loves horses. Why? Because Pamela Cox describes her as horse-mad and her school friends talk about how much she loves her horse and talks about him all the time. We don’t see her acting horse mad very often, nor does she speak about her horse apart from once of twice.
There is also still an awful lot of internal thoughts of the various girls filling up the pages as well.
Some authors probably lean on the telling side more than others, I just find it’s more interesting to ‘see’ something happen rather than be told it happened. Blyton was skilled at showing us, often in fast, punchy narratives that sped us through a lot of action, so these new books struggle to compete.
Some random thoughts
As always when reading I pick up on lots of little things that don’t really fit into any neat headings.
It took several pages for me to confirm the girls are still in the third form, this is the end of the school year we were reading about in the previous book.
The girls’ ability to leave Malory Towers remains important, as it means they can go to the stables. It is revealed that the lower school must go out in twos or larger groups, though. We also find out that the girls have a summer uniform of orange and white checked sun dresses with white collars.
Five Oaks is said to be ‘only a few minutes away’, and there is another stables bordering their land. A third stables is also mentioned nearby. Malory Towers own stables are overflowing with school girls’ horses, which is why so many end up at Five Oaks. There didn’t seem to be that many horses in the original books.
Miss Grayling must not challenge Esme on her makeup when she comes to her for the new girl talk, though I now think that she obviously didn’t say anything to Zerelda either, as it is their respective form mistresses that give them a dressing down the first day of classes. Similarly Matron clearly twigs that June has not just sprained her ankle in the morning, as she claims (it’s far too bruised and swollen to be a brand new injury) but says nothing.
In a nice nod to the original books Mr Rivers has to wait for Felicity and Susan to get in the car, rather than Felicity and Darrell. Darrell is mentioned as being unable to come to half-term but her mother is going to send her some photos of Felicity’s diving performance.
We also learn something more of Bill’s family. Two of her brothers, Harry and John, have gone into the army and come to help her out.
There is a theory from some fans (and some non-fans) that Bill and Clarissa are in a relationship, but this book has them in separate bedrooms.
Language wise it still retains the old-fashioned flavour. I did notice that your/their/her people is used seven times, several of them in the same chapter which seemed a bit much. I also came across Bonnie interpolating a word here and there. From the context I understood it to mean the same as interjecting but I’m not sure it’s a word I’ve seen before, certainly not in a children’s book. Is it commonly used now?
It might just be my (slightly dodgily obtained) copy of the book but Bluebell Wood is referred to as Blueberry wood on one occasion. I’m not certain that’s a mistake made by the author or publisher as my copy has several formatting errors (quite a lot of missing spaces between punctuation etc).
In another un-June like moment, she makes a big deal about her hurt ankle. What seems to be several days (at least) after spraining it she declares her ankle will never stand a half hour walk to a picnic. I sprained my ankle (and tore ligaments) so badly at 35 weeks pregnant that I ended up with a highly stylish toe to knee boot from A&E. Less than a week later I was walking (in regular walking boots) around St Andrews, and a few days after that 20 minutes to my aqua aerobics class and back! Anyway, it’s probably only so that the girls can make a big deal of surprising her with a ride on Jack to the picnic.
When Julie’s pony is recovered it is said that The police found him stabled at [spoiler removed]. He has been well looked after, and not ill-treated in any way. It’s a children’s book and we don’t want a happy ending marred by a tortured horse but it’s a bit saccharine. The culprit is willing to set fires and endanger people and horses, but looks after a stolen horse perfectly? It would have looked more natural if he was found in a shed, but we are reassured that he did at least have food and water.
So there you have it, a mixed bag. Some interesting stuff, decent ideas, just poor execution?