Monday, February 25, 2008

Eva Ibbotson

The Beasts of Clawstone Castle
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 10+

Madlyn and Rollo are not, at first, happy to be sent to spend the summer at their Great-Aunt and Great-Uncle's rundown castle in the north of England. But Rollo, who loves animals, soon falls in love with the herd of otherworldly, white cattle who live on the castle grounds. And Madlyn personally takes charge of the campaign to save Clawstone Castle from falling into the clutches of a greedy gravel magnate, who wants to turn it into Suburban Sprawl.

It's going to be tough to fight off the grasping Lord Trembellow. He knows how to manipulate the system. And he also has enough money to create a tourist trap that steals all the business from Aunt Emily and Uncle George. So Madlyn does what any reasonable child would do: she holds auditions for a haunting, and hires several ghosts who, with a bit of practice, could be quite terrifying.

But then something dreadful happens to the white cattle. Something even more mysterious than dreadful...until somewhat later, when it becomes even more dreadful than mysterious...and the only hope for saving Clawstone Castle lands in the lap of three small children (counting the caretaker's son) and a bevy of oh-so-helpful ghosts.

Once again, Eva Ibbotson chases away a child's fear of things that go bump, with a story full of warmhearted silliness and people who are much scarier alive than dead. It can also be very gratifying to kids who care about animals, the fate of political refugees, and the preservation of historical buildings. Light reading to be sure, but who hasn't needed something bright and bubbly now and again?

by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 10+

"Why some people become ghosts and others don't is a mystery that no one has ever solved." Ain't that the truth! But from the beginning of this tale, there is no mystery about it: you're in for a weird, funny, spooky adventure full of lighthearted fantasy, dark humor, and a thrilling battle between creepy-crawlies and a true villain.

The Wilkinsons were an average British family - Mum, Dad, Grandma, and angst-filled teen Eric, and their pet budgie - until a German bomb came down and turned them all into ghosts. For some unknown reason, Mrs. Wilkinson's sister Trixie, who died along with them, didn't become a ghost. So while the Wilkinsons quietly haunt the ruins of their house, they keep hoping to find out what happened to Trixie. On the other hand, they manage to adopt the ghost of a little girl who has lost not only her way, but her memory. They call her Adopta.

So it seems like more than a coincidence when, after being forced to move to London to haunt a knicker shop, the Wilkinsons discover an agency called Adopt-a-Ghost, a.k.a. Dial-a-Ghost. It's like an employment agency, matching ghosts who need to be relocated with homeowners looking for a good haunting. Two clairvoyant old ladies take it on themselves to help all kinds of homeless revenants, from the nice middle-class Wilkinsons to the horrendous Shriekers.

At about the same time, horrid schoolmaster Fulton Snodde-Brittle has a problem. After one relative after another has died under bizarre circumstances, it finally looks like his turn to inherit the ancestral estate, Helton Hall. But then the lawyers discover another heir in line ahead of him... a dear little orphan boy in fragile health, named Oliver Smith, who is taken out of the orphanage where he is loved and has friends to play with, to the spooky old mansion where he must live alone except for his nasty cousin Fulton and Fulton's wife, Frieda.

Fulton and Frieda bring Oliver to Helton Hall, but they have plans. They decide to scare the little boy to death, which shouldn't be too hard. First they prime him by telling him scary ghost stories at bedtime. Then they leave him alone in the house on Friday the 13th, having hired the most horrible ghosts in the world - the Shriekers - from Adopt-a-Ghost.

Little do the Snodde-Brittles know that the little old ladies at Adopt-a-Ghost got their signals crossed. The instructions for the Shriekers somehow got switched with those for the Wilkinsons. And so the kind, middle-class family of ghosts find themselves at Helton Hall, putting frightened little Oliver at ease and making friends with him.

Meanwhile, the nuns of Larchford Abbey, who were expecting a nice quiet family of ghosts, end up with a family of terrifying spectres who would like nothing better than to harm a child. The mismatch is obvious from both sides' point of view: the ghosts don't want "all that awful gooey goodness" clogging their pores, and the nuns of course are mortified by the havoc the Shriekers wreak.

The Snodde-Brittles are disappointed that Oliver hasn't been frightened to death, but they soon demand that the Shriekers be sent to Helton after all. This seems to be the ghastly old schoolmaster's last hope to do away with Oliver... but the Wilkinsons have ideas of their own. What remains of the story is a confrontation between good and bad ghosts, and payoff for good and bad living people - for the Snodde-Brittles, who get the scare they truly deserve, and for Oliver, who finally has a family of his own.

Oliver is an adorable child, in the tradition of orphan heroes that stretches from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. And this is an adorable story, full of quirky humor, silly spooks, and fractured magic. Ibbotson spins a wickedly weird tale, yet with compassion toward all her characters. And the idea of a ghost employment agency is as fun to think about as the little thing - the very little thing - that starts everything going wrong.

The Great Ghost Rescue
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 10+

This is an another adorably silly book from the author of Which Witch? - a tale of light-hearted black humor, if you can imagine that. It begins with Humphrey the Horrible, who really isn't very horrible. Humphrey is a little boy ghost whose family haunts a moldering English castle, and his hag mother and "gliding kilt" father are a bit disappointed in their youngest son's lack of scariness.

But Humphrey becomes a hero, with the help of a living schoolboy named Rick Henderson, when a plague of modern development threatens to destroy the habitat of the ghosts of England. In a wacky sort of environmentalism, young Rick decides a ghost preserve is in order, and takes his case straight to the prime minister. But that solution almost happens too easily. No one is counting on the donor of the old ruins for the ghosts to live in, to be a nasty man with a nasty plan to destroy all the ghosts in England. But does the nasty man's plan take Humphrey and Rick into account?

Cute as the story is, certain occult-sensitive readers may like to be advised that a little bit of witchcraft appears in this book.

The Haunting of Granite Falls
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 10+

If you have read any of her other books, you already know that Eva Ibbotson has a flair for turning nightmares into sparklingly witty, heartwarming stories. Wicked witches and wizards, fierce ghosts, evil adults plotting against innocent orphans, and gruesome monsters turn into objects of gentle irony, hilarious word-play, and outright absurdity. And some of them even turn out to have a heart of gold!

The ghosts in this story are no exception. They happily haunt a Scottish castle, until the laird of the keep – an 11-year-old orphan named Alex, who was practically raised by the ghosts – realizes that he has to sell the castle. Parting from Alex is hard enough, but now the ghosts have to find a new place to live. Snubbed by the upper-crust ghosts who haunt a nearby mansion, the Carra spooks return to their old home to find that it has been pulled down!

Surprise! The new owner of Carra Castle, a Texas oil magnate named Hiram C. Hopgood, has had Carra pulled down stone-by-stone, shipped to Texas, and reassembled there. He wants a safe place to live with his delicate daughter Helen – but he doesn’t want ghosts to frighten her. Nevertheless, when the ghosts find their way back to their old home, they aren’t the ones who give Helen the scare of her life. Leave that to a band of villains who are willing to rob, kidnap, and even do murder, to raise funds for a neo-Nazi political party.

By himself, poor Alex is no match for these thugs. But bring a family of faithful, Scottish spooks to Granite Falls, Texas, and then see what happens! I won’t say any more except that this is one of Ibbotson’s best stories, full of danger and excitement and silliness and love. It has some of her quirkiest characters, some of her wickedest spoofs (such as an audience at a film festival who can’t tell the difference between special effects and the real thing), and a very satisfying storyline. It also teaches one valuable lesson: it is not necessary to attempt to make a haggis when entertaining a guest from Scotland.

Island of the Aunts
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 10+

Etta, Coral, and Myrtle - along with their widower father, a mad cousin, and two other sisters - came to the Island as girls. They led a simple life, working hard to help the hurt animals that came to them from the sea. But now their father is 103 years old, and the cousin is as mad as ever, and one sister is in a Hong Kong jail for braining a restauranteur with a wok in order to protect an endangered species, and the other sister (even worse) got married and had two bratty children, making Etta, Coral, and Myrtle aunts.

And they're not getting any younger either. The work of caring for all the creatures-- both the ordinary oiled birds and the extraordinary creatures like mermaids and selkies-- has gotten to be too much for them. They need someone to help them, and to carry on when they are gone. Finally the three aunts decide to find three children who really need to be kidnapped-- the kind who are unhappy and unloved, but who can be trusted to work hard and love the Island as much as the aunts do.

Their scheme is amazingly simple. Posing as "useful aunts," who fill in for parents and guardians who don't have time to be with their kids, they comb the under-loved-child population of London searching for just the right kids. Etta finds a hurting little girl named Minette who is tired of being sent back and forth between her divorced parents, who constantly dump their hate for each other on her, and who both refuse to let her have a night light. Coral, for her part, snatches a Brazilian boy named Fabio, who hates his cold, disdainful English grandparents only just less than the boarding school where they mean to make a perfect English gentleman of him-- you know, that kind of English boarding school, which is so horrible (particularly for a little Brazilian boy) that the thought of going there makes him physically ill. Literally.

So far, the plan would have gone off perfectly. Only Myrtle messes things up, snatching a spoiled rich kid who only cares about money and who uses his mobile phone to alert his cutthroat-businessman father to what has happened. Now the police are closing in, and worse, Lambert Sprott's father is closing in with a heavily armed yacht and a scheme to exploit the amazing creatures that have found shelter on the island.

But (magical creatures alert!) Sprott hasn't reckoned with an enraged Selkie (a creature that can take the form of a human or a seal)...a fiercely philosophical Stoorworm (a wingless, aquatic dragon)...a mother Boobrie bird and her nestlings...a close-knit family of mermaids...not to mention Fabio and Minette, who have come to love the Island, the aunts, and their creatures.

Even so, with superior firepower and a fast boat, Sprott might get away with it. And more is at stake than just the freedom and happiness of a handful of old ladies, children, and weird creatures. More is at stake, even, then the lives Sprott is prepared to destroy for his own greedy purposes. The very life and health of the oceans is at stake, in the form of a creature who personifies the healing and reviving forces of the sea.

So it's yet another story about some lovely but miserable children who find unlikely, even magical happiness - and the evil people who try to take it back from them. It portrays a variety of magical beasts in rich detail, but the magic of the characters is what I fell in love with. Expect lots of danger, a bit of courtroom drama, and some soft-spoken social criticism pointed at the types of parents, grandparents, and schools that make children miserable, and the diseased culture in which they flourish, and at the foolishness of the way mankind treats the oceans and the creatures that live in them.

It's not awfully preachy, though. I like this story. I think you would too. Have I ever steered you wrong?

Journey to the River Sea
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 10+

This book, which won the 2001 Smarties Book Prize and came within striking distance of the Whitbread and Carnegie awards, lives in a different place from the author’s other stories, such as The Island of the Aunts and The Great Ghost Rescue. Instead of a fantasy about witches, wizards, and ghosts, it is a historical novel set in between the jungles and the Amazon River of Brazil. (If you’re wondering about the title of the book, it’s a reference to how big the Amazon is.)

It begins with an orphan girl named Maia, who is sent from her beloved English boarding school (itself an exotic feature in a book set in the 19th century) to live with her very tiresome relatives near the city of Manaus, on the river Negro in Brazil. Another unusual touch is the fact that her stern governess, Miss Minton, is the only person in the house that Maia can confide in. Certainly not her crooked uncle, who is obsessed with his ghastly collection of glass eyes, or her insect-hating aunt, who is disturbingly (or disturbedly?) bent on keeping up the pretence that they all still live in England. Least of all can Maia trust her twin cousins Gwendolyn and Beatrice, who are about as unlike Fred and George Weasley as any twins could be (except they are greedy little monsters, you must admit).

Maia lives a life somewhat like that of Harry Potter with the Dursleys. Her family has taken her in grudgingly, and seem to care more about the money than about the girl that comes with it. Maia’s talents, though not in the magical line, are resented and, were it not for Miss Minton, would soon be squashed out of her. And when the air inside the Carters’ house grows too close for her to stand, Maia escapes to a magical world none of her relatives understands. A world of dangerous beauty, heartbreaking secrets, adventure and discovery. There, in defiance of “civilized” customs, Maia finds friends she loves and a marvelous world to explore.

But the best of her friends is a boy whose past is catching up to him. And with the aid of the Carters, a pair of nasty detectives from England, intend to shove the civilized world down the boy’s throat, whether he will or no. It is up to Maia, Miss Minton, and a has-been child actor whose changing voice got him booed off the stage thousands of miles from home, to save Finn from being groomed as the lord of a great English manor...a fate more terrifying to him than alligators, pirhanas, poisoned darts, and malaria put together!

Think of it as A Little Princess with rubber trees. OK, don’t. It’s better than that. The story will alternately warm you, chill you, raise your blood pressure, and provoke thought and discussion about historical and social issues. Plus, it’s loaded with gorgeous forests and the exotic appeal of history and foreign cultures.

Not Just a Witch
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 10+

From the author of Which Witch? and The Secret of Platform 13, among other enchanting stories about ghosts, witches, and wizards, comes this equally delightful story about a neglected boy, an evil-detecting “dragworm,” and a well-meaning witch who wants to make the world better by turning bad people into animals.

Heckie is an animal witch. She loves animals, and she specializes in magic that has to do with animals. So when she graduates from the school for good witches, she opens a pet store in a quiet little town with a zoo, and starts turning a few particularly evil citizens into animals. And because the animals aren’t evil, she wants to make sure they’re well cared for; so they end up living in the zoo too.

Meanwhile, Heckie and her best friend Dora, a stone witch (whose magical gifts enable her to turn bad folk into amazingly detailed statues), have had a falling out. But in spite of the fact that they aren’t speaking to each other, they end up in the same town, doing the good work separately.

Enter the foul Lionel Knacksap, a heartless manipulator who has a fiendish plan to make loads of money. It involves breaking the hearts of two lovelorn witches (at the same time, the cad!), turning a lot of innocent people into stone and/or endangered animals, and performing some atrocious cruelty to animals. It also involves giving a nice orphan boy a knock on the head, poisoning the hearts of two best friends against each other, and being a general nasty customer.

Fortunately, it’s hard to keep two good witches down, and two best friends apart for long. Also, it never pays to go up against the winner of an ugliness contest, the owner of a dancing cheese, the inventor of a balloon fueled by the hot air in political speeches, and a woman who grows giant vegetables. Prepare to giggle, gasp, and cheer as the Wickedness Hunters put paid to a fairy-tale villain in modern costume.

I can’t help it. I just have to quote the About the Author blurb from the inside back cover of this book. It says that Ms. Ibbotson learned that children love stories about witches, wizards, and ghosts “because they are just like people but madder and more interesting.” If you believe that, or if you enjoyed the books of Roald Dahl, I think you will love this book.

The Secret of Platform 13
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 8+

This story by the author of the Carnegie Medal runner-up Which Witch? has an awful lot in common with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It has a gateway to a magical world located in a railway platform at Kings Cross Station. It has a little boy who has been brought up by a nasty couple from infancy, treated like the hired help or worse while they spoil the dickens out of their fat, obnoxious son. And it has wonderful people from the magical world, coming to find a long-lost boy and tell him about the place where he really belongs - where he is really important and loved - and where he has a magical destiny of his own.

But let's not point fingers. It was published in 1994, three years before Philosopher's Stone. And lest you think J.K. Rowling ripped off the idea, the similarity goes no further than the carefully-worded description above. There are, after all, many more differences than similarities between the two books.

There is a magic doorway, called a Gump, that opens for only nine days, every nine years. It leads from a disused platform in London's Kings Cross Station, to a sandy cove where a ship awaits, ready to ferry travelers to a beautiful, mist-shrouded isle full of magical creatures. The island is ruled by a handsome king and a beautiful queen, who are overjoyed by the birth of a precious baby boy. But when the Prince is only three months old, the Gump opens and his nurses take him to the sandy cove for an adventure. One thing leads to another, and the baby falls into the clutches of a horrible, childless woman named Mrs. Trottle just as the Gump is about to close again.

Needless to say, nine years of calamity and sorrow dampen the beauty of the hidden Isle. Then, as the Gump is about to open again, the King and Queen choose a handful of rescuers to go to London and fetch back the lost Prince. They choose an elderly wizard named Cor, a fey named Gerkintrude who helps green things grow, a gentle giant named Hans who has been made invisible for the trip, and a very ordinary-looking hag girl named Odge.

Aided by the ghosts and magical denizens of London, they soon find their way to the Trottle home and encounter a good-looking, honest, cheerful, sensitive boy who they would be honored to bring back as their Prince. But the complication is, he isn't the child the Trottles have raised as their own. They have been sent to fetch Raymond Trottle, and the likeable boy is just a kitchen boy named Ben. The rescuers' disappointment grows when they discover that Raymond Trottle is a horrid, fat, spoiled child who doesn't really want to go to the Island, and whose vile "mother" will stop at nothing to keep him safe.

Of course you'll have figured out, long before anyone else does, that Ben is really the Prince. But everyone goes to so much trouble to "rescue" Raymond that by the time the truth comes out, it may be too late.

Packed with magical people of all different kinds, loaded with lovable (not to mention a few loathable) characters, full of wit and charm, and laced with danger and suspense that will make your heart go thumpity-thumpity, this story should win over many a Harry Potter fan. And it turns out, after all, to lead in quite a different direction from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I suppose the change of Platform makes the difference.

The Star of Kazan
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 10+

Annika was abandoned as an infant, in a little chapel in the mountains. Two domestic servants, Ellie and Sadie, found her during their day off, and brought her back to the big house in Vienna where they cooked and cleaned for three unmarried professors. Now, at age twelve, she is a loving, helpful girl who works hard around the house and whose imagination brings sparkle to the lives of her friends.

Then Annika unknowingly sets a train of events in motion, simply by showing kindness to a dying old lady. Suddenly a glamorous noblewoman named Edeltraut von Tannenberg appears at the professors’ home, with legal documents proving that she is Annika’s mother, and begging her to come back with her to live at her castle in northern Germany.

At first this seems to be the fulfillment of Annika’s girlhood dreams. But not everything at the manor of Spittal is as it should be. Annika misses the work, the warmth of Ellie’s kitchen, the love and companionship of her adopted family and friends. She finds herself colder and hungrier than she ever dreamed of being, in a crumbling castle in a cold, forbidding swamp. Strange things are going on – problems and plans that no one will tell Annika about.

The sharp divide between noble and common families puts Annika in an agonizing position, forbidden to do the work and go to the parts of the house she is most used to, and forced into unexpected relationships. She suddenly has a half-brother who dreams of going to military school and who is ruthless to servants and animals; and she also finds joy in the companionship of a half-Gypsy stable boy, a three-legged dog, and a very special horse.

But then things begin to unravel at terrifying speed. The dog finds something in the lake that Annika last saw at the death bed of an old lady in Vienna...the stable boy, falsely accused of theft, runs away with her half-brother’s horse...and just as clues to a ruthless conspiracy begin coming to light, Annika is shipped away to a dreadful school from which no escape seems possible. Saving her will require the combined cleverness and daring of all of Annika’s friends in Vienna, regardless of their social class. Yet even if they do get her out of that hellish school, how can they keep her safe from her own mother?

Inspired by the author’s childhood memories of Vienna, this book is a rich, thrilling, romantic adventure full of varied scenery, memorable people, historical color, and good old-fashioned suspense. The classic plotline of a poor, innocent child being done out of a fortune by a conniving adult has worked in so many ways from Charles Dickens to Joan Aiken. And now, in the hands of the author of Journey to the River Sea and The Haunting of Granite Falls, it is revived in a new form. Crisp dialogue, fast-paced action, the looming threat of well-known historical events, and characters who dare to cross the sacred line between high-born and low-born, make this story a modern gem, set in the engaging, magical world of pre-World War Vienna.

Which Witch?
by Eva Ibbotson
Recommended Age: 12+

I found this cute-looking book and thought I would try it, see if I could take any of Ibbotson's other stuff. I'm still not sure. [HINT: This was the first Ibbotson book I ever reviewed.]

Which Witch? is billed as something fans of Harry Potter will like. It does have witches and wizards in it, but they're depicted in a very different way, a way that, though humorous and fanciful, may give certain parents good reason to object to exposing their kids to it. In this story a very handsome, bachelor wizard named Arriman the Awful, who since birth has been groomed to be a great dark wizard, begins to grow weary of smiting and blighting. He would like to give it all up and retire to write a book, but he feels a certain responsibility toward the powers of darkness, so he doesn't feel he can quit unless another evil wizard shows up to take over for him. So he goes to a gypsy fortune-teller and she tells him that the wizard he's looking for is on the way.

Well, he waits for about nine hundred ninety days, and then takes his secretary's advice (his secretary is a man named Mr. Leadbetter who is perfectly ordinary, except that he has a tail). He decides to take a wife and produce an heir of his own. He invites all the local witches to a contest to see which of them can do the most powerful and darkest magic, sort of like a Miss Witch pageant, in which the winner (scored by 3 judges) will be his wife.

Of course he wasn't counting on most of the witches being hideous, nasty hags. And one of them is an evil enchantress who wears the molars of her previous 5 husbands on a necklace. But there's a beautiful white witch in town, too, named Belladonna, who is so white that everywhere she goes flowers spring up and songbirds appear. She has healing powers and can talk to animals. That kind of witch, and she's in love with Arriman.

Belladonna enters the contest, already brokenhearted because she knows she'll never win, she'll never be able to do a piece of dastardly dark magic powerful enough to win Arriman's love. She's determined to try, but what really keeps her going is her desire to comfort Arriman who is increasingly stressed out by the marriage prospects before him. But along comes a little orphan boy named Terence whose pet earthworm, Rover, seems to give Belladonna tremendous dark powers...

It's a witty, ironic story in which all those nasty old crones have a certain niceness about them, down deep; in which, for all their enjoyment of hideously dark magic, only one of the characters seems truly and dangerously evil; in which people who love each other are frustrated at their inability to do bad things to win each other's heart; and in which good people feel guilty about being good and hope to become more evil in the future. The sort of thing, in short, that can make children laugh and adults squirm at the same time.

It also has some cute monsters in it, including a three headed sea lion that should be on anti-depressants, a sword-swallowing ogre named Lester, a baby Kraken who squeaks "Daddy!" and slops water all over Arriman's house, a genie with a head-cold, a cataleptic ghoul, and a ghost who wanders around hitting himself on the forehead, tortured with guilt over the 7 wives he murdered. The story includes some wicked spells, such as a bottomless pit and a family that gets sealed up inside three trees, old auntie mermaids, an affectionate octopus named Doris, romance, poetic justice, and lots of humor.

EDIT: Some other titles by Ibbotson that I have not yet reviewed are pictured in this post.

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