Book Review: Winter Holiday

Winter Holiday is the fourth novel in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome*.

*The third book, Peter Duck, is one of the metafictional books of the series because it is a story created by the children and narrated from their perspective. As it’s metafiction, and doesn’t affect the overall narrative, I haven’t read it yet.

‘“We started a Polar expedition.”’

In Winter Holiday, John, Susan, Titty and Roger return to the Lake District during the Christmas holiday period. They make new friends: Dick, a keen astronomer, and his sister Dorothea, a keen author. The usual summery landscapes have been transformed into a sparkling white, icy wonderland. The Swallows and Amazons unite with Dick and Dorothea to embark on a Polar Adventure.

‘“The idea was that as soon as we could we’d go to the North Pole over the ice.”’

Winter Holiday is instantly different to the other books in the series. Although the book is set in a familiar setting, Ransome’s stunning descriptions really do transform the landscape:

‘Dorothea saw the white snow deep across the sill. She leapt out of bed and ran to the window. There was a new world. Everything was white, and somehow still. Everything was holding its breath. The field stretching down to the lake was like a brilliant white counterpane without a crinkle in it.’

‘The snow seemed to have spread downwards from the tops of the hills until everything was covered. It lay like a slab of icing on a slice of cake long the stone wall on the garden.’

‘And then there was this magical brightness in the air.’

Activities such as ice-skating and rescuing a “polar bear” (sheep) strongly contrast with the children’s summer holiday adventures, and setting this against a crisp and snowy backdrop make it feel like an exciting new location to explore.

The original characters are built upon and new characters are introduced, expanding the friendship group.

Roger is his usual mischievous self, trying to wrangle extra chocolate rations or drench himself in snow, Titty’s budding friendship with Dorothea was lovely to see, and I liked the introduction of Dick and Dorothea. Dorothea was keen to write up a story of their adventures, and Dick was keen to learn signalling and sailing from the others.

Also, I felt the pace of Winter Holiday took longer to advance than perhaps the other books did. I was keen for the children to start their adventures and begin the “polar expedition” but this didn’t happen until towards the very end, which was a shame.

Having said that, the ending was enjoyable; the threat of unstable ice, snowstorms and extreme conditions was a reminder that sometimes, the children’s recklessness has dangerous consequences, reminding me that they are, after all, still children.

Overall, I did like reading Winter Holiday – given its winter themes, it’s the perfect book to read around the Christmas break – and I especially look forward to seeing more of Dorothea’s character in the series.

– Judith

 

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Book Review: Room

Jack is five. He lives in a single, locked room with his Ma.

Room is a fascinating book by Emma Donoghue.

‘Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.’

It is told from the perspective of Jack, a young boy who has had no experience of the outside world. All Jack has ever known is Room; it is the place he was born and the place he has grown up. To Ma however, Room is captivity.

As the book is told from Jack’s perspective, the childlike narration is instantly apparent. For example, everything is personified and viewed through the lens of a five-year-old’s imagination such as Room, Bed and Wardrobe. Some of the sentences purposefully lack complete grammatical sense, as Jack struggles to understand certain words, figures of speech, and abstract concepts. This brilliantly reflects not only children’s use of language, but how specifically a child with stunted development uses language.

I was at first worried this style would make it difficult to follow the plot, but I was quickly proved wrong – I struggled to put Room down and read it in just a few days.

“One of the most profoundly affecting books I’ve read in a long time” 

John Boyne, Author of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Reading from Jack’s perspective was authentic and enriching. The switch between Jack’s reported speech and his private thoughts implicitly revealed information about how Jack and Ma came to be in Room. For example, Jack believes that while Ma was in Room, he was sent to her from Heaven, while the reader can quickly work out the truth of what happened. This implicit way of reporting certain events mirrors how parents at times avoid telling their children upsetting news, or the whole truth, to try and protect them.

My Photo [Room]
Room was adapted into a film in 2015, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Photograph via letterboxd.com

Jack is such a creative individual; he loves reading, hearing, and telling stories that teach him not only about Room, but a semblance of what the outside world is like. Ma has told him about real people, make-believe people, real things and make-believe things in an attempt to help Jack understand. However, this creativity is underlined with sadness; working out what’s real and what isn’t becomes overwhelming and confusing when Jack learns the truth. He is forced to relearn things, as well as learn brand new things because it is apparent the reality of the world clashes with the reality of Room.

‘“You know how Alice wasn’t always in wonderland?”

[…] 

“Well, I’m like Alice,” says Ma.

[…] 

Why’s she pretending like this, is it a game I don’t know?’

Jack’s emotions and thoughts are always so clear and raw, and so watching the deterioration and sadness of his mother’s mental health through his eyes – who has been holding herself together in Room for so long for the sake of him – was incredibly sad.

Room was a tense, gripping and emotional read. Despite having seen the film, and knowing the outline of the plot, I was constantly kept on edge by Donoghue’s writing and couldn’t wait to read what happened next.

I strongly recommend Room; I’ve never read a book like it before, and I doubt anything else I ever read will come close.

 – Judith

Book Review: Starclimber

Starclimber is the final book of the Airborn trilogy by Kenneth Oppel, a series of young adult steampunk books, set in a world where the aeroplane has not yet been invented. You can read my review of Airborn, the first book, here and my review of Skybreaker, the second book, here.

As the title may suggest, Starclimber is an adventure into outer space. The protagonists Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries board the Starclimber ship and journey to the stars. Kate is determined to escape the constrictions of upper-class society, as well as prove there is life beyond Earth, and Matt wants to prove his worth both as an “astralnaut” and a man worthy of Kate’s affections.

Starclimber begins with another exciting opening – every start to the Airborn series has been full of action and interesting characterisation – but unfortunately, the plot was pretty much the same to its predecessors Skybreaker and Airborn. In my Skybreaker review, despite my praise for Oppel’s storytelling, I said my expectations were for the next book to breakaway from the same narrative, with the same character stereotypes and narrative arc. Sadly though, my expectations weren’t met.

There is danger, there is adventure, there is a traitor, there is conflict between Matt and Kate, there is a discovery of a new species, there is a friend to provide comfort and comic relief; all of which has happened before. This was a little frustrating because although I knew I was reading a new book, it felt like reading the same story again!

Speaking of Matt and Kate, Kate develops into a horrible young woman. She claims she is criticised for being independent and headstrong, and so joins the suffragette movement to empower herself. Yet, this is not the Kate de Vries which has been presented to the reader at any point. Throughout Starclimber, Kate is nothing but rude, haughty and selfish. Yet when Sir Hugh Snuffler, Kate’s scientific rival, displays these same characteristics, he is met with disapproval by the other characters, and is subsequently made the butt of all the jokes.

To me, this came across as if it’s perfectly acceptable for women to be rude … because of feminism, but men aren’t allowed to be rude … because the author said so.

In my first review, I criticised Airborn for using the word ‘tingle’ to describe absolutely everything Matt felt. In Starclimber, the word ‘chuckle’ was used far too frequently – 24 times to be precise – in a short span of pages, so I would read the word ‘chuckle’ every 3 pages or so. This is a word I particularly have a grudge against anyway, so it was really quite difficult to convince myself to continue reading the story!

However, despite my annoyances with the characters, and their incessant chuckling, I did really like the plot of Starclimber.

Its action sequences felt the most dangerous and exciting out of any of the series, perhaps because space is still so unknown to today’s readers; anything can happen, and the risks of space travel are still immense. I thought Oppel’s designed method of space travel, rising up a reinforced, electrified cable, was a really creative way of imagining old-fashioned space travel.

Furthermore, the ending was sweet, and tied up the series really well – so often nowadays stories get dragged out by unnecessary cliff-hangers and more sequels, so it was nice that this series had a definitive ending. In a way, I’m sad there aren’t any more books, but I also think the stories work well as a trilogy, and to add more would spoil that.

If you’ve read Airborn and Skybreaker, I recommend Starclimber. If I had to choose a favourite of the series however, I’d probably choose Skybreaker.

– Judith