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: 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

Book Review: Swallowdale

Swallowdale is the second book in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome.

John, Susan, Titty and Roger return for another summer adventure, camping in the hills and sailing in the Lake District. However, when the explorers are shipwrecked; the Swallows and Amazons are left in a new place, to make a new camp and new expeditions.

I really enjoyed Swallows and Amazons but, unfortunately, Swallowdale took a little longer to engross me. I’m not sure why this was – perhaps my attention was initially lacking, or the story didn’t gather pace in a way I expected.

The style of Ransome’s writing is as witty and wholesome as it was in the first book – the rather random “voodoo” scene midway through Swallowdale is particularly ridiculous, but incredibly amusing.

I liked the settings of Swallowdale more than those of Swallows and Amazons. I think, given the shipwreck, the fact the child spent more time exploring on land as opposed to sailing helped me visualise surroundings more easily.

The descriptions were wonderfully vivid, and poetic in places too, reminding me (again) of the children’s adventure series The Famous Five – right down to the inclusion of both a “cave for a larder” and “bracken for bedding” (convenient).

I liked the introduction of new characters, as well as cameos of characters from the first book.

The conflict of Nancy and Peggy versus their Great Aunt, a woman averse to the idea of young girls with rough-and-tumble natures, touches upon the theme of gender I raised in my last review. Nancy and Peggy’s determinedness to have adventures with their friends, “despite” the fact they’re girls, is a great challenge to stereotypical expectations of girls at the time.

Whilst on the topic of characters, my love for Roger has increased enormously after reading Swallowdale. He is the smallest, sweetest, most boisterous (and most accident-prone) and I loved both seeing what he got up to, and watching Susan and the others keep a careful eye on him. I can’t wait to see him grow and develop throughout the rest of the series.

To echo thoughts from my first review, I think Swallowdale is a great sequel – it’s a fun, light, heart-warming read and I look forward to getting stuck into the next book in the series.

If you didn’t read this book as a child, I encourage you to read it.

If you did read this book as a child, I encourage you to read it again.

 – Judith