My Lockdown Books: Thirty Four

Tally Hamilton is furious to hear she is being sent from London to a horrid, stuffy boarding school in the countryside. But Delderton Hall is a far more unusual and interesting place than Tally ever imagined and then there’s the exciting school trip to the kingdom of Bergania.

Prince Karil hates his life in the Berganian palace and is only truly happy when he escapes to the dragonfly pool, a remote spot in the forests. When Karil meets the feisty English girl who brings the promise of adventure, his life begins to feel better. But this is 1939 and the prince soon has to look to Tally for survival as well as friendship . . .

If asked for my favourite children’s book by Eva Ibbotson, I will always give The Star of Kazan as my response.  But The Dragonfly Pool is also excellent.  In spite of its subject, it has a lighter feel to it than The Star of Kazan; perhaps it has an element of fairytale to it.  Whatever the reason, I enjoy it and would recommend it to you.

 

 

18th December

I came early to John Buchan’s thrillers courtesy of my mother who insisted that I watch the BBC adaptation of Huntingtower in 1978.  I’m very glad that she insisted and that I acquiesced as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and Huntingtower remains to this day my favourite of John Buchan’s novels.  Needless to say some of the plot went over my head but the fast-moving adventure was great fun.  And I loved the contrast between the solid Dickson McCunn and the mischievous Gorbals’ Diehards.  It’s hard to know now what I remember from television and what from countless readings of the book but wherever the memories come from they are happy ones.  And I was thrilled last year when the Diehards made a re-appearance in Robert J Harris’ The Thirty-One Kings.

Not long before her death, I was privileged to be invited to meet Eva Ibbotson in her Newcastle home. I had a fascinating time, discussing her books and her life.  One thing she said has stayed with me all these years.  I complimented her on her writing which I find immeasurably good and spoke about how effortless it was to read.  She replied that it could take her hours to get a sentence exactly right and that I shouldn’t imagine that writing was anything other than hard work.  Now I knew that in my head, of course, but I think that was when I first really understood the effort that goes into superlative writing.  I took two of her books with me to get signed, one children’s and one adult.  In the latter category I selected Madensky Square set in Vienna just before the First World War.  It’s told by Susanna, a dressmaker, in the form of a diary and beautifully evokes a slice of Viennese life.

2nd December

Persuasion is Jane Austen’s most mature novel. It has always been my favourite of her books and the older I’ve become, the more I’ve appreciated it. Anne Eliot is a much more complex character than Austen’s other heroines. In the course of the novel we see her develop from a somewhat self-deprecating, confined woman to a happy and self-confident one. Whilst Captain Wentworth is the catalyst for this, he is not responsible for the change – that comes from Anne herself. She has learnt from her own mistakes as well as from other people’s and is a stronger person for it. I’ve always hoped that Captain Wentworth realises that he is not getting the bride he would have had seven years earlier…

In The Star of Kazan, Eva Ibbotson fashioned a jewel! With a deft touch she created memorable characters: Annika, a girl in love with life and Austria; Ellie and Sigrid, servants defined by duty and generosity; the eccentric professors for whom they work; the glacial Edeltraut von Tannenberg. And Vienna. The warmth and fondness with which the author describes Vienna make me feel as though I’ve been there – although I never have. It is a wonderful evocation full of waltzes, Sauerkraut, the not-so-blue Danube, the Prater, Lipizzaner stallions and affectionate laughter at the city’s idiosyncrasies. Vienna is integral to the novel. It is more than a setting in time and place. It is a main character. The Star of Kazan is a delight. Eva Ibbotson’s gentle irony and subtle humour enhance a beautifully crafted and well-managed plot. There is no extraneous detail; like an expertly conducted symphony, everything comes together in a satisfying Viennese conclusion.

Eva Ibbotson’s Final Fling

The delightful people at Scholastic sent me a proof of the late Eva Ibbotson’s final book.  I almost couldn’t bear to read it, knowing that it would be the last new book by her I’d ever read.  However, once I started it I couldn’t put it down. 

The book is called One Dog and his Boy and is for younger readers.  You will, of course, want to read it for yourself so I won’t tell you about the story.  I’m tempted to say that the story doesn’t matter anyway.  That’s not true, naturally, but it’s the quality of Eva’s writing that once again stands out for me.  The book is written in her distinctive style: subtle and gentle but still somehow making very pointed remarks about people.  And she paints pictures in the mind seemingly effortlessly.  As with everything else she’s written, it is a joy to read.

Eva Ibbotson

I was very sad to hear, belatedly, of the death of Eva Ibbotson.  The world of fiction for children, teenagers and adults is a poorer place now.  I looked forward to the publication of  her beautifully-crafted novels with great anticipation and re-read older titles avidly.  Her books read as though they were effortless  but I know that that is not true.  Eva wroted and re-drafted and honed every sentence until her language was as close to perfection as it could be.

That she was never awarded the Carnegie Medal is a huge regret for me.  It will be interesting to see if books that won Medals instead of Eva’s stand the test of time.  I think that her Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan will.  I’ve written about the latter previously and I have no reason to change my opinion that it is a jewel of a book.  Read it or Madensky Square over Christmas and you will be transported to Vienna at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  You may not wish to leave.

More Desert Island Books

A while back I promised that I’d write more about the newer children’s books I love.  As my bookshelves prove, there are many of them but there are a few in particular that stand out for different reasons. 

 

One of them is Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, a Canadian.  This is a book I had to read whilst judging for the Carnegie Medal and my heart sank when I saw it.  It appeared to be yet another sci-fi/fantasy mixture, two of my least favourite genres.  But one should never, of course, judge a book by its cover and when I finally steeled myself to read it, I was enchanted.  It’s set in an alternative past (it feels Edwardian) on an airship – a very enclosed community – and tells the story of Kate and Matt who are first-class passenger and crew.  It’s a fast-paced adventure but it’s also a character study and has a great supporting cast.  I loved this so much that, when the sequel, Skybreaker, was published, I rushed out to buy a copy.  And now I’m excited because there’s a third book due out in May.

 

I’ve mentioned Linda Newbery elsewhere in this blog, I know, but her books are so good that I can’t apologise for that.  I discovered Linda’s books in my early years as a school librarian and loved them immediately.  In my view, Sisterland is an outstanding teenage novel and it was a strong contender for the Carnegie Medal.  Linda has a tremendous ability to create memorable characters and to cause them to interact believably.  In Sisterland she cleverly depicts a variety of relationships, some of them overlapping and all containing an element of tension.  Without it ever becoming an issue-driven novel, it looks at the nature of prejudice and explores the reactions of various characters to it.  I have to say, though, that the first time I read the novel that wasn’t what I thought about.  I simply enjoyed the story.  Whenever I see Linda, I nag her about writing a sequel.  I know she’s never going to but it doesn’t stop me wishing she would!

 

That I would include here something by Eva Ibbotson was never in doubt; the problem was always going to be which her books.  As I’ve said before, I love them all but in the end I chose The Star of Kazan.  It’s a jewel!  With a deft touch she has created memorable characters: Annika, a girl in love with life and Austria; Ellie and Sigrid, servants defined by duty and generosity; the eccentric professors for whom they work; the glacial Edeltraut von Tannenberg.  And Vienna.  The warmth and fondness with which the author always describes Vienna make me feel as though I’ve been there – although I never have.  This is a wonderful evocation full of waltzes, Sauerkraut, the not-so-blue Danube, the Prater, Lipizzaner stallions and affectionate laughter at the city’s idiosyncrasies.  Vienna is integral to the novel.  It is more than a setting in time and place.  It is a main character.  The Star of Kazan is a delight.  Eva Ibbotson’s gentle irony and subtle humour enhance a beautifully crafted and well-managed plot.  There is no extraneous detail; like an expertly conducted symphony, everything comes together in a satisfying Viennese conclusion.  It truly is a masterpiece and I’m still a bit put out that it didn’t win the Carnegie Medal!

 

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

I’ve been reading books by Eva Ibbotson since I was about sixteen.  Whilst browsing the adult fiction in Elgin Library (by this time I was a member of both Lossiemouth and Elgin Libraries) I happened upon A Countess Below Stairs, took it home, read it and loved it.   A few years later, I had a summer job with Moray District Libraries and I spent the first money I earned on all of Eva Ibbotson’s adult novels then available.  Yeadon’s bookshop in Elgin ordered them in specially.

But it wasn’t until much later, when I was working as a school librarian, that I read her children’s books.  They were a great find.  I’ve been reading, and raving about, them ever since.  I like them for lots of reasons but mostly, I think, for the quality of Eva Ibbotson’s writing.  She uses language so well; she almost doesn’t need to describe how someone is feeling or the atmosphere of a situation.  You can feel mood and emotion in the way she puts words together.

I was excited when I read about The Dragonfly Pool and gutted when Macmillan didn’t send me a proof copy.  However, I bought a copy as soon as it was published and then hoarded it for a few days.  I almost couldn’t bear to read it because then it would be over.  Strange?  Well, maybe.  But that’s how I felt.  Was it worth all this high drama?  Of course.

I’m not here to recount the story for you.  Go to the library and borrow a copy if you want to know what happens.  I am here to tell you that The Dragonfly Pool is every bit as good as anything else she’s written (well, The Star of Kazan might be slightly better…).  And again it’s the way that Eva Ibbotson crafts the English language that makes the book so memorable.  She makes her readers feel the innocence and freedom of the English boarding school and contrasts that with the lurking and pervading evil of Nazi-ism in Bergania before returning us to England and exposing us to Tally’s (the main character) despair.

Eva Ibbotson never has to point any of this out to us.  She shows it.  She also shows us places we’ve never been and never can be so clearly that we feel that we know them.   Whenever I talk about Eva Ibbotson’s writing I almost forget to mention that she writes cracking stories filled with believable characters.  She does, of course.  But I might read her books even if they didn’t have great plots just for the joy of living in her sublime language for a while.