My Lockdown Books: Thirty Seven

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel is a book I had to read and my heart sank when I saw it. I was judging for the Carnegie Medal and it was on the long leet.  This appeared to be yet another sci-fi/fantasy mixture, two of my least favourite genres.  But one of the non-negotiable requirements of being on the judging panel was a commitment  to read everything…

And 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 and tells the story of Kate and Matt who are first-class passenger and crew respectively. It’s a fast-paced adventure but it’s also a character study and has a great supporting cast.

Now, I use this as my example to young people of how the only way you can judge a book is by reading it.  Had it not been for the Medal I’d have missed this entirely.  As it is, I enjoyed it very much and then went on to spend my own money on the other two books in the trilogy!

16th December

Elsie Oxenham was one of the Big Three school story writers in the early and middle part of the twentieth century, the others being Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Elinor Brent-Dyer of whom you will have already read! I collected her books for a long time after discovering them as a teenager. Much as I enjoyed reading them, there was something about many of them that made me feel slightly uncomfortable. And I am afraid that it was Elsie Oxenham’s unthinking snobbishness. In their attitude to class and wealth, they have dated much more than Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s or Elinor Brent-Dyer’s books. And yet they are still enjoyable. I recently decided to sell off my Oxenham collection, keeping only a few. And one of these is The Secrets of Vairy. It’s part of a small set of books related to the main Abbey series and is set on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a completely ridiculous story but I love the setting and the way the characters interact. I borrowed it from a fellow collector when I was sixteen and for years it was the Oxenham I aspired to own. Having waited so long for it, I have no intention of getting rid of it.

Airborn 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 use my story of discovering it when I’m helping children choose new authors. It’s always worth trying a new book.  You never know; it might become one of your fifty favourites!

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel

I’ve been waiting years to read this book, having loved the first two parts of the series, Airborn and SkybreakerStarclimber tells the story of the first space exploration – but you have to bear in mind that these books are set in an alternative past.  Having said that, this third part is much more firmly grounded in time and place.  There are references to Mrs Pankhurst and the Suffragettes, the King and Canada.  The series always felt like it was set in the Edwardian period so I’m glad to be confirmed in that.

I raced through Starclimber and thought that it was both better and worse than its predecessors.  I think the plot is more satisfactory; it’s tighter and has fewer moments of high drama.  In the earlier books, there was sometimes a slightly imbalanced feel to the plot.  This one develops well and believably in context.  But I think that the changing relationship between Matt and Kate isn’t handled as well.  It ebbs and flows and at times it disappears altogether.

But that’s a minor gripe.  I thoroughly enjoyed  Starclimber and it was well worth waiting for.  I hope that there will be further books in the series –   Kenneth Oppel is rapidly becoming my second favourite Canadian author.

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!