Tag Archives: Eva Ibbotson

War and other plagues

When our [insert adjective of your choice here] Prime Minister last year kind of suggested that Covid was like fighting a war, we mostly felt he was wrong. Because a virus is not like a human being with a gun. The ‘fight’ is not the same. But he wanted to be Churchill, leading his people to victory, while forgetting that this would mean actually leading, which is a job.

So for me to write about war on this Bank Holiday Monday, is not the most cheerful of things. But more than once I have been gripped by a sense of déjà vu, how war-like Covid actually is. After all.

It started when I read Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift after Christmas. Set largely in 1938 and 1939 we know the whole time what is coming. So do they. The war, I mean, not how many years it would take out of their lives, or who would be victorious, or if they would even be alive at the end. [SPOILER] Most of the main characters are still there in 1945. But they have had to put their normal lives on hold.

When your husband’s away fighting, your hopes for a baby will have to take a back seat. Maybe there won’t/can’t be a baby after, perhaps because he didn’t come back, or because you perished in a bomb raid. Or something more sedate. Six years seem short seen from a distance, and when you know the outcome. But back then, you couldn’t just say you’d had enough and you would jolly well enjoy life as though there wasn’t a war on. Just because you want to, or feel you need to.

A similar thought appears in a book I will review later this week, where the young man in the Navy in 1943 thinks that surely by next Christmas he will be able to spend it at home, with his mother. Not an unreasonable thing to wish for at all. He’s already had a long wait for normality, and really wants for there to be no more fighting or being in danger, or living away from those who matter most. Still not a case of ‘I want it so I will have it.’

Almost fourteen months into the pandemic (longer if you count the true beginning, ignored by the PM), we are all fed up. We’ve had enough. It’s ‘unreasonable’ that we should have to put whatever it is we wish for on hold for even longer. But it’s interesting how the predicted three weeks of lockdown appeared to be such a very long period when we went into it last March, and how – relatively – quick it’s been, fourteen months on.

We’re tired. Maybe unwell. Many have died. Jobs have been lost and society is not the same as before. People have had to wait to do a great many things. Perhaps they are still waiting. Some want to go to Ibiza so badly they can’t wait. Or just to the pub. Maybe you want to go and see someone important to you, a long way away. Perhaps you have the wrong passport. If you have a passport.

I’d like to go to my other place. Technically I am allowed to. I mean, I would be allowed in. But not everyone in the Bookwitch family would be. So I wouldn’t go for fun. Not even to see if the house is still standing. It’s the people I miss. I’m in no hurry. Now that it’s been this long, I will just wait some more. The most surprising thing has been that it’s so hard to read. Or to watch anything at all worthy. But puppies on the small screen are a good distraction.

The Morning Gift

I 95% adored this adult novel by Eva Ibbotson. It came highly recommended by several people whose taste I respect, and my knowledge of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books backed this up.

To begin with I sat back and basked in the way Eva put her words together, how she described the background to what happens in The Morning Gift. The plot is good and the characters loveable and interesting and the setting in prewar Austria/Vienna was enough to make me want to go back there.

We meet the family of the heroine, Ruth, who is 20 when the real action begins in 1938. Prior to that we’ve learned how her parents met and how the well off Viennese intelligentsia lived. We also meet the British hero, Quin, who is everything you want from the romantic, but also kind, intelligent, rich man in your life.

When the Germans take over in Austria, the family flees to England, but due to a technical mishap Ruth does not manage to leave. Enter Quin, who obviously wants to help, and in the end this help has to take the form of a marriage of convenience.

If you’ve read romantic fiction before, you will know what to expect, except here you can expect it in a wittier and more intelligent shape than average. This is Eva Ibbotson we’re talking about.

You know it will end well, even though we are just coming up to the beginning of the war. You know that London in 1938/39 will lead to six years of a very bad time, and these are Jewish refugees we’re talking about. Added to which is the lack of acceptance by white English people who are not too keen on foreigners.

So the war is perhaps 2% of my ‘negative rating.’ The other few percent, well, this is set – fairly realistically, I would say – in the 1930s, and the book was published in 1993, written by someone who had experience of prewar London. Had I read it back then, I’d not have seen much of a problem when Ruth and Quin finally ‘get together’ properly. But now, in 2021, this is #metoo territory. And, well, I felt uncomfortable.

It quickly returns to most of its charm again, and all is well. Only, the degree Ruth worked so hard to get, is no longer needed once there is a happy ending. Not even in this modern version of a time when that would have been the norm (or so I imagine).

On the other hand, how can you not love a heroine who knows herself; ‘Would you like me to stop talking? Because I can. I have to concentrate, but it’s possible.’ So is reciting poetry – in German – to a sheep.

A literary lift

When the time came to hand out the Christmas presents, I barely noticed that the Resident IT Consultant slipped away for a brief time. (No, he did not don a red outfit and long white beard.) He suggested that if I checked my emails, I might find a Kindle book email there. I did. And I did. Apparently this is the way. You buy and the recipient takes delivery almost instantly.

It wasn’t wrapped, though. I have to say that.

*It* was the complete works by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Apparently ‘why buy one book when you can buy them all?’ is the reigning idea. Indeed. My thanks to Amanda Craig, whose Guardian article Books to Bring Cheer caused a bit of book buying at Bookwitch Towers. Rather craftily I asked for some books for me, and then divided things up by giving the Resident IT Consultant one I wanted to read too. What’s his is mine, or some such thing.

Whereas Daughter can think up ideas by herself, for us. Everything I’ve happened to mention gets noted. Which accounts for the Tom Stoppard collection. And my craving for codewords to solve has now received a real challenge. One for every day! What I want to know is whether I will be allowed to solve the one for, say, 13th May on a later date in May?

A grown-up Eva Ibbotson and a new book by Sally Nicholls complete my book presents.

My other pile of books supported the family Christmas gathering. We had a Boxing Day worldwide party, starting in Texas and ending in Moscow. As with everything else in 2020 it was on Zoom, and I was determined to get my chins under control. Hence the lifting of the laptop with the help of literature.

It was nice. People who didn’t often see each other, even before lockdowns became widespread, were able to join in. Before the day was over there had even been an online crossword for one new recruit. Otherwise we’d all spent the day on the Hungarian Accountant’s Russian quiz. (I know. He’s moved.) It was quite a devious one, and I seem to have outwitted the Resident IT Consultant. (There was a trick question. Or two.)

Thank dog for these books

Occasionally one needs to revise lists – or piles – of suggested books for reading. It’s all got to do with frame of mind of the intended reader.

So, apparently, I caused a sleepless night recently, because I told Daughter to read a book. What I really meant was a chapter, maybe two. But oh, no, someone read the whole book. It was One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson. She’s always reliable when you want something good and heart warming.

I’d steered away from one truly excellent book, purely because when I quickly checked it out for first page appeal, the very lovely author could be found killing off the mother. So, no.

But I knew I had other dog books. There is a Morris Gleitzman which is close to the Ibbotson. Too Small to Fail, it’s called, and it’s seemingly about camels. But don’t let that worry you. And Going Home, by Cliff McNish, is sure to please anyone soppy about soppy dog books.

And I got out a couple of other ones, plus there is one that has done a disappearing act. It’s bound to be somewhere.

We’re also terribly grateful to the kind friends on social media who have acquired themselves a puppy. They post endless photos of said puppies and we can enjoy them with our own slippers intact.

Keep those puppies coming!

Refugee reads

The other night, I was suddenly reminded of Anne Holm’s I Am David. This lovely, lovely story has always been on my ‘journey book’ list. But it is also a refugee kind of story. And worth reading again.

I won’t lie. A publisher presented me with a list of their refugee books, and many of them are excellent. But I will let my mind wander of its own here, and see what I come up with. It will probably mean I forget a really important one, but…

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr. I see from the comments that Judith wanted a cuckoo clock. It brings a whole more human scale to the refugee issue.

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, told by Enaiatollah Akbari to Fabio Geda. Enaiatollah who’s a real refugee, but who was also refused a visa to come to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Oh, those fears that everyone will want to come and live here illegally…

Like the poor souls we meet in Eoin Colfer’s and Andrew Donkin’s Illegal. All that suffering.

Life in refugee camps is no picnic, and The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon is a hard read. Necessary, but harrowing. Or you can read books by Elizabeth Laird and the Deborah Ellis stories from Afghanistan.

In No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton the refugees have arrived, but don’t know if they will be allowed to stay. You need to adapt, but with no guarantee that it will be worth it.

A Candle in the Dark by Adèle Geras is almost happy by comparison. It’s Kristallnacht and Kindertransport territory, but when we read that book we believed we were improving year by year. Yes, it was bad back then, but no more…

Like the true story told by Eva Ibbotson, by one refugee about another. Still makes me want to cry.

The Star of Kazan

I re-read this after 14 years. I loved it then, but loved it more this time. Which just goes to show that returning to a good book is usually the right thing to do.

The Star of Kazan reads like Eva Ibbotson’s love letter to Vienna. I knew it had all the loveliness you always get in an Ibbotson novel, but I’d forgotten both the romance and all that humour.

Eva Ibbotson, The Star of Kazan

And I remember I thought it was less about Vienna than I’d expected. Now I see how much of the city there is in the story, even when the main character, Annika, is not there.

Set in Vienna before WWI, it is lovely, peaceful and sounds just perfect. Annika is a foundling, growing up with two servants and their three professor employers. She works hard, is friendly to everyone, and has two very good friends nearby.

That’s when her ‘real’ mother turns up and takes her away. Living in darkest North Germany, it is rather Jane Eyre-ish. There is an awful half-brother, a cousin, and a ‘gypsy’ boy with a gorgeous horse and a three-legged dog.

Once the necessary bad stuff has happened, this book will give you all that you need and had hoped for. Possibly more.

Remembering Dina

I remember the morning well, even though it’s been ten years. I was with my new laptop at the Apple shop in Manchester’s Arndale for our weekly lesson. I’d got myself up on the barstool and was opening the laptop while waiting for my Genius.

That’s when I noticed the new email in my inbox, and because I could see the beginning of it, I had to read it there and then, despite realising it wasn’t the right place to do so.

It was from Adèle Geras, breaking the news that Dina Rabinovitch had died a few hours earlier. And even though it wasn’t unexpected, it still was, and very upsetting. I’d admired Dina so long, and had willed her to live. And so had she, obviously.

After the lesson was over, I went home and blogged about Dina. It wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last. There was always plenty to say about this wonderful children’s books reviewer at the Guardian. Someone who interviewed like I could only dream of doing. Her ‘duel’ with Eva Ibbotson on which of them was the most ill, for instance.

Well, Dina won that one.

Less than three weeks before, I’d hoped to meet Dina for the first time. She was supposed to be doing an event, but became too unwell to go through with it. I went [to London] anyway, and had a different sort of day, instead, and Dina was interested in hearing what I’d done. I looked at the Tate Modern, and I went to the National Theatre. When I think back to that day, I see it as Dina’s gift to me, somehow.

Then there are the friends found through her blog, which I’ve written about before. Dina did so much, for so many.

And now it’s ten years since she died. I realise her little boy is no longer little. I hope her children are well, and happy.

Dina Rabinovitch

Middle grade, YA or New Adult?

Can we make our minds up, please? What is a YA book? In my post on 22nd March, which was based on an excellent list of YA novels, someone left a comment saying that despite being of almost YA age, she doesn’t read many YA books because they are all the same and mainly romances.

I’m thinking she’s only found the Twilight brigade. Even the publicity emails I get from publishers, trying to interest me in yet another one, tend to be a little same-y. But mostly those books have moved on and turned into New Adult books. Or I think they have. Basically they are today’s Mills & Boon but cooler. And M&B were (are?) read by young people as well as elderly ladies.

And then you could go the other way, and complain that YA books are far too childish. In that case you’ve been sold another middle grade book. Which is a shame, as the words middle grade describes a certain kind of age group very well, even if it sounds a little American to some of us.

But whatever you think, you’re – probably – not going to want sexy vampires if you are ten years old, and whereas you never grow too old for a really good middle grade story, some readers will not find enough action or ‘sex’ in a book by Eva Ibbotson or Rebecca Stead, say.

Publicists are there to sell books, so will to some extent say what they need to sell a book, whether or not it is true. But I feel they are doing the books a disservice by giving them the wrong label. Calling everything YA, when it isn’t, will turn readers off.

The Ibbotson fan may grow up to like dystopian romances a few years later, but the 20+ reader who is already too old for those, will assume YA is not for them, when there is a whole host of ‘ageless’ YA books out there.

YA is not the only attractive term for a good book. At least it shouldn’t be. I feel it’s a shame that readers miss out because of labelling.

Journey to the River Sea

When I came upon the audiobook of Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, as I was unpacking the children’s books a few weeks ago, I looked around, wondering where the ‘real’ book was. And then it hit me; I didn’t actually own a copy. I had borrowed it from the library to read (you can tell this was a long time ago, can’t you?), and returned it when I was done.

But I did buy the audiobook, because I thought it was such a marvellous story that Daughter might want to read it. This was when she was still a reluctant reader, while fully enjoying audio books. And Son was in full audiobook mode as well, although he did read too. We had a few years during which we as a family consumed an awful lot of cassette books, including the odd chewed-up tape. I remember this, as Eva Ibbotson’s book was one that got entangled, much to my horror. (Luckily the people who made it were happy to supply a spare cassette, meaning I didn’t have to buy it all over again.)

I remember buying a copy of the book to give away, too, so it’s not as if I was being particularly economical about it.

So there I was, filling my shelves with books, and no Journey to the River Sea. I looked at the cassettes, and I looked at the empty gap among my Eva Ibbotson books, and knew I needed to own this one.

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea

What’s more, I felt it needed to be the original cover; the cover of the book I had read, and none of the newer looks. But now that you can buy used books online, it is at least possible to choose your edition, and for a reasonable price.

The gap has been filled.

(As a matter of interest, has anyone who knows this book come across an ‘adult version’ of it? Some time after I’d first read it, I discovered an adult novel by Eva that sounded similar, so I read that too, and realised she must have written it first, since it had practically the same plot, only a little more grown-up. I’m glad she re-wrote it, as the children’s story is far superior.)

The Christmas book ad

The advertisement for books for a child for Christmas; which books should it contain? I was happy to stumble upon an ad that seemed to recommend good books. And it did… but it was from The Folio Society, which sells expensive editions.

And what they suggested were classics. The kind the giver and/or their parents, and grandparents, used to read. When you see a suggestion like that you often think that’s all there is. Or you are likely to, if the only ‘new’ book you’ve heard of is Harry Potter, who will soon be joining The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and Wendy, The Hobbit, Ballet Shoes and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales as a classic read.

The kind of book well-meaning adults go on and on about.

At the other end of the scale you have the books ‘everyone’ has heard of, but which don’t necessarily need advertising to sell. Jacqueline Wilson, Horrid Henry, David Walliams, Wimpy Kid. They are all fine! But like the books above, they are obvious choices.

Could we have an ad like The Folio Society’s ‘Best books for kids this Christmas’ that might mention slightly less famous books (and that could also mean the recipient is less likely to have a copy already), but ones that are so very good in a general sense that few children would dislike them if they got them for Christmas?

As The Folio Society ad says, it’s good to leave children alone to read. I’d just like them to have something more recent than what grandad liked when he was a little boy. Considering the books in the ad, they will be aiming at the age group between seven and twelve, roughly?

So, let’s see. Eva Ibbotson. Very reliable choice. What do we think of Michael Morpurgo? I find he is less of a household name among mature buyers than you’d think. Perhaps one of his less famous titles. Philip Pullman. Again, some of his less well known books, so not HDM.

I’m rambling, and you are thinking I’m picking famous names. But away from our select and relatively small group of adults who like children’s books and know about them, I hear people chatting about my big heroes as though they are minor players or newly discovered small fry. Good, but not gods. I have to stop myself from bashing their heads in. (Figuratively.)

Morris Gleitzman. Anything, really. Judith Kerr. Michelle Magorian. Jan Mark.

How am I doing? I’m avoiding picking those authors whose work might be best aimed at a particular age or sex to be successful, however excellent.

By the way, do children still enjoy The Wind in the Willows? Or is it now more of an older person’s choice, rather like Roald Dahl?