Journey to the River Sea
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001).
Born in Vienna in 2025, Eva Ibbotson had to move to England in 1935 when Hitler came to power. That experience — of being uprooted — was drawn on directly for novels like The Morning Gift (about a girl from a secular Jewish family escaping Nazi Germany) and indirectly, I suspect, for Maia, the young protagonist of Journey to the River Sea.
Who has not imagined what life might be like if one was an orphan forced from their familiar environment? Ibbotson experienced the displacement while the fictional Maia is a genuine orphan — not impecunious, it is true — who at the beginning of the 20th century has to travel away from her boarding school to live with distant relatives.
How to be Brave by Daisy May Johnson. Pushkin Children’s Books 2021.
Good Sister Christine nodded. “People who tell you what not to read are generally not good people,” she said.
‘The Secrets of Good Sister Christine’
When a book begins ‘This is a story about three things’ and lists them as being brave, an Amazonian duck, and footnotes, you know this is no common or garden novel. Yes, if you’re a fan of Enid Blyton, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and have expectations that How to be Brave will be in the mould of classic girls boarding school fiction, you won’t be disappointed — but it’s so much more than that.
It’s a satisfying tale of how adversity of all kinds is overcome, but in place of the magic associated with fantasy we have a kind of heightened reality — because The School of the Good Sisters at Little Hampden has no ordinary curriculum and no ordinary teaching staff: here the subjects on the timetable include not just cooking but also welding, survival skills, helicopter maintenance and sundry surprising topics, and the teachers here happen to be what’s called a Blessing of Nuns.
In addition the school has two extra advantages in its favour: it has a library stocked with the most appropriate literature — books by Eva Ibbotson, Noël Streatfeild and Elizabeth Goudge for example, even The Lord of the Rings — and shelves, cupboards and drawers storing cakes of every kind, exquisite pâtisseries and biscuits including pink wafers. And of course architecturally it has all the best bits of Malory Towers, Hogwarts, and The Turrets.
Jon Walter: Close to the Wind
David Fickling Books 2015 (2014)
Dominating this book — on its cover and in the text — is an ocean liner. The first part narrates the hopes and fears attending her boarding, the second part narrates the trip and the third the aftermath. As a metaphor for refugees in transit it has taken on added resonance these days, what with the crises over migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa, the Channel Tunnel from France and through Turkey into Europe from Syria (and we mustn’t ignore other international situations, such as the boat people struggling to get to Australia).
In truth of course the situation with regard to refugees is that — as with the poor in the Gospel accounts — they are always with us: to humankind’s perpetual shame there will always be migrants (whether branded as economic or illegal) as also asylum seekers fleeing persecution or war in hopes of a safe haven.
The refugees in this story are fleeing a volatile situation in an unnamed country, perhaps in Eastern Europe or the Balkans (maybe somewhere like Albania), at an unspecified period but in relatively recent times (perhaps the 1990s). The narration largely focuses on Malik Kusak (with his mix of Arab and Polish names) and, for a while, his grandfather (whom he calls Papa, perhaps because that’s what Malik’s mother called him). They have fled from home to a sea port; here they are hoping to meet up with Malik’s mother and travel to safety on board the last humanitarian ship to leave the country, fittingly called The Samaritan. But as is the way of things — especially during conflicts — not all goes according to plan, and Malik finds he is sailing dangerously close to the wind even before he sets foot on deck.
With a title doubtless designed to recall those wanted posters from the wild west of America, Innes’ novel is about an equally lawless region, Italy in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. And yet it opens, not in the dry, fly-ridden south of that Mediterranean peninsula but on the cold, wet North Cornish coast.
Intriguingly, the star turn opening the show is a wreck. Specifically a landing craft, an LCT Mark 4, stranded on Boscastle beach not far from King Arthur’s Castle at Tintagel. And it will lead to a quest in which narrator David Cunningham will play the chivalrous knight seeking a damsel in distress.
But not before he, his business partner and his crew of two have black marketeers, gun runners, resurgent fascists, gangsters, a forger and a rapist to cope with, and a ruined infrastructure to negotiate.
This immensely readable YA novel is a delight: it presents like real-life contemporary fiction but is littered with almost impossible coincidences; it feels like a piece of fantasy at times but is unrelenting in its portrayal of societal realities; it’s peopled by individuals who one moment may be stereotypical and the next become complex and unpredictable.
Stanley Yelnats has been accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. His sentence is to go to Camp Green Lake, a correctional institute where boys are expected to dig regulation-sized holes to build good character.
And yet all is not as it seems: we are already alerted to the fact that Stanley didn’t commit a crime, that — suspiciously — his name is palindromic, that the institute is neither green nor by a lake, and that everyone there is a metaphorical square peg who will never fit the round hole they’re expected to dig.
Martha Wells: Emilie & the Hollow World
Strange Chemistry 2013
Having run away from her straitlaced relatives orphan stowaway Emilie has found that she is not on the conventional steamship she expected; instead she finds the vessel under attack, a gentleman who is part scales and part fur, and a totally unconventional voyage that takes her under the sea to unknown lands.
For this is a not your average Edwardian adventure tale of derring-do; this is a steampunk novel where Jules Verne meets Edgar Rice Burroughs or H G Wells hobnobs with Rider Haggard, and this is a world both like and yet unlike our own.
Because, as the title tells us, it is a planet where we discover a world within a world: the earth of this universe is hollow.
R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)
There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.
Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?
Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.
Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North Engravings by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books 2008
A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel. Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.
But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.
H Rider Haggard King Solomon’s Mines
Reader’s Digest Association 1996 (1885)
Haggard wrote this as a reaction to Stevenson’s Treasure Island(1883); he believed he could write a more exciting novel, leading him in King Solomon’s Mines to produce an action-filled first-person narrative that sold sensationally well on its eventual publication in 1885. In some ways the quest plot is similar — a group of adventurers sets out, map in hand, to a previously unknown destination, surviving natural dangers, privations, battles and treachery along the way — but where Stevenson’s narrative is epistolary, deliberately archaic (it was set a hundred years before the author’s time) and occasionally backtracked in time Haggard’s storyline is contemporary, follows Time’s arrow, and is mostly told in breathless prose. It set the tone for the numerous Boy’s Own stories that were to follow in its wake.
Enid Blyton Five Go Adventuring Again Illustrated by Eileen A Soper
Hodder Children’s Books 1997 (1943)
The second in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, Five Go Adventuring Again as before features siblings Julian (12), Dick (11) and Anne (10), together with their eleven-year-old cousin Georgina– hereinafter George — and her dog Timothy (also variously referred to as Tim, Timmy and a ‘peculiar-looking’ and ‘terrible mongrel’). Published the year after Five on a Treasure Island but set during the Christmas holidays of the same year, this outing for the quintet also involves intrepid youngsters, unbelieving grown-ups and a few dastardly villains.
Circumstances dictate that the trio again spend time at Kirrin Cottage by the sea where, not unexpectedly, trouble finds them. In 1943 Britain was still at war, though you’ll find no reference to the conflict bar the fact that a secret formula is close to being stolen by enemies of the state. Continue reading “Secrets galore”→
Benjamin Lee The Frog ReportPuffin Books 1978 (1974)
Jonathan Jessingford is the least regarded in his family: the youngest, and short-sighted to boot, he is either tolerated or patronised by his older siblings — sister Jenny and brother Daniel — by his parents Frank and Ada and by his teachers, especially Mr Grindley. But the last shall be first, as the saying goes; and Jonathan proves his mettle when called upon.
This is the early 70s when anxiety about external threats were ever in the air — Cold War spies, terrorists — but also where dull old Dullington Bay on England’s South Coast is the last place you’d expect trouble. Mr and Mrs Jessingford have gone up to London to see a play, leaving the three children alone at home on a dark and windy night to manage by themselves. As we all know and expect, this is a recipe for disaster. A night-time walk and crumbling cliffs are just the beginning, an illegal immigrant coming ashore just the thing to incite the action proper. What is family friend and GP Dr Bill Lancaster doing on a windswept beach? What’s Commander Tagg’s game? Who is Professor Jan Stepanov? And what is Jonathan’s crucial role in all of this? Continue reading “Slight but entertaining”→
Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes
Introduction by Gore Vidal, afterword by Michael Meyer
Signet Classics 2008 (1914)
Everyone must have their vision of Tarzan, whether courtesy of the two feature length animations, comics, book covers or the numerous celluloid stars who have strapped on the loincloth, from Elmo Lincoln through Johnny Weissmuller (who, when he got too old and fat, became Jungle Jim in a TV series), Gordon Scott (“my” Tarzan), Jock Mahoney, Ron Ely (TV and feature film) and Christophe Lambert (an appropriate choice as French is Tarzan’s first spoken human language). Or maybe you’ve come across him in the parody George of the Jungle, an animated TV series which aired in the 60s, spawned a feature film and now a remake to coincide with the centenary of Tarzan of the Apes first book publication. Until lack of height, physique and any practical sense told me otherwise, I’m sure I was not alone in fantasising life as an ape-man, despite the absence of a convenient jungle.
Anthony Hope The Prisoner of Zenda
Puffin Classics 1994 (1894)
“I wonder when in the world you’re going to do anything, Rudolf?” said my brother’s wife. “You are nine-and-twenty,” she observed, “and you’ve done nothing but—”
“Knock about? It is true. Our family doesn’t need to do things.”
The behaviour of Rudolf Rassendyll, younger brother of Robert Lord Burlesdon, appears to live up to his family motto, which is Nil quae feci (roughly translated as ‘I’ve done nothing’). But by the end of The Prisoner of Zenda Rudolf’s actions have belied that motto – at least according to this account supposedly penned by the young man himself.
Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel is based on the notion of the doppelgänger, a plot device familiar from A Tale of Two Cities and many other novels and films. The bearded Englishman, found resting in a Ruritanian forest, is observed to be a lookalike of the dissolute heir to the throne, also called Rudolf — small wonder because they share a common ancestor in the 18th-century King of Ruritania Rudolf III as well as the tell-tale shock of dark red hair. It’s been suggested that Hope was inspired by the visual similarity of royal cousins Czar Nicholas II and King George V, but whatever the truth of the matter the result is a singularly exciting tale of derring-do. Despite its slow opening, the setting up of the coincidences at the beginning is essential, and Victorian readers were as avid for royal gossip, even of the fictional kind, as their modern counterparts.
Chesil Beach in Dorset is a spectacular bank of pebbles stretching for nearly twenty miles along the Dorset coast, running in a north-easterly direction from south of Weymouth. Behind it for part of its length is a freshwater lagoon called the Fleet. I have happy memories camping near Fleet village with my young son in the early nineties, exploring the area and visiting Portland Bill and Weymouth. But it hasn’t always been known solely as a holiday area: in the 18th century smuggling was rife, as elsewhere on the British coast, and Moonfleet portrays — with only a little romanticism — the kind of activities in which smugglers were involved in this part of Dorset.
Written fifteen years after Treasure IslandMoonfleet superficially resembles that earlier adventure story: both are set in the 18th century, both have a young protagonist falling under the spell of a charismatic father-figure, both involve a search for ill-gotten treasure — the location of which is indicated by the chance discovery of a document — and feature an inn and an overseas voyage, though one features pirates and the other smugglers.
But there are differences: for example, while Treasure Island includes first-person narrative from Dr Livesey as well as Jim Hawkins, Moonfleet is told entirely from the point of view of John Trenchard, who is just fifteen when the story opens; and though Stevenson sets his tale in fictional locations (I don’t count Bristol because its description lacks any real local colour) Falkner bases his settings on real localities with fictional names — Moonfleet is East Fleet, the Snout is Portland Bill, the castle on the Isle of Wight is Carisbrooke — though I’ve not yet been able to discover if Ymeguen near the Dutch town of The Hague is entirely made up.
Julia Lee The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth
Oxford University Press 2013
November 1958. As the cabin door opened on a grey autumnal evening at Heathrow I had a Proustian moment – not that my ten-year-old self would have described it thus: in wafted November mists, with highlights of leaf mould, coal fires and, possibly, paraffin heating. I hadn’t experienced these scents since Coronation year, the intervening period and my previous early years having been spent in Hong Kong. These awakened memories — coming so soon after so long in a humid climate — were enough to disorientate me, a confusion that remained for quite some months afterwards.
I was thus able to appreciate the disorientation that young heroine Clemency Wrigglesworth felt after a lifetime in Victorian (or possibly Edwardian) India when she eventually fetched up in England, disembarking from a P&O liner in Southampton. At least I didn’t have the added disadvantages of being a recently-bereft eleven-year-old orphan with nothing to their name except a single ticket to England, inadequate clothing and some tantalising correspondence. Continue reading “No mercy for Clemency?”→
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.