Saturday, August 23, 2008

the star of kazan

is my new favorite. It's by Eva Ibbotson, who has written many books for children, most of them fantasy, including The Secret of Platform 13, which came out a few years before the first Harry Potter book and has some similarities. Lidia is a big fan of this author. Ibbotson has also written romance novels. I am not a romance fan, but I really enjoyed A Company of Swans and posted about it here.

The Star of Kazan is A Little Princess meets The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in pre-WWI Vienna. I suppose you could call it "historical fiction," but it is so much more. It is, as one reviewed described it, "a sumptuous feast." Part of my enjoyment of this book came from how much the heroine, Annika, is like my Lidia. Annika is smart yet unpretentious and she loves to cook. Though her head is often in the clouds, she is happiest when accomplishing something of value. She is a pragmatic dreamer. It's almost as if Ibbotson knew Lidia and based this character on her!

Here is a quick plot synopsis by Eva Mitnick of the Los Angeles Public Library: Abandoned as a baby, Annika is found and adopted by Ellie and Sigrid, cook and housemaid for three professors. Growing up in early-20th-century Vienna, she learns to cook and clean and is perfectly happy until a beautiful aristocrat appears and claims to be her mother, sweeping her off to a new life in a crumbling castle in northern Germany. Annika is determined to make the best of things, and it takes a while for her to realize that her new "family" has many secrets, most of them nasty. With the help of Ellie, Sigrid, the professors, and friends old and new, Annika escapes from a ghastly fate and learns to face the truth about her relatives. Winding like a braid through this story is a mystery involving a chest of worn costumes and junk jewelry left to Annika by an old woman she has befriended. This is a rich saga in the tradition of Frances Hodgson Burnett, full of stalwart friends, sly villains, a brave heroine, and good triumphing over evil.

I'm not sure I can even express all that I loved about this book. The setting lives. Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925, but her family migrated to England when Hitler came to power. Her passion for Vienna comes through in the book.

The good characters, though believably flawed, are very endearing. This book says so much that is so true about human nature. The characters accomplish feats of daring that you never would have supposed them capable of, and yet their actions are always consistent with who they are. There are many implausible moments in the book, and yet it's all so believable. This proves to me that a book can have an exciting and even outrageous plot and yet still be considered character-driven.

The tone of this book reminds me of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It's irresistibly innocent with some generous doses of sly irony. And it is so funny. Very subtly. Funny in the quiet way that people are funny. Again, there are dead-on observations about human nature. I was just thumbing through the book looking for some examples but it's not the same when you take them out of context.

A gypsy boy is a main character in this book. I begin to think every good book should have at least one gypsy boy.

The Star of Kazan was published in 2004. I looked up the 2004 Newberry winner. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Ok, so I did like that book. But why no love for The Star of Kazan? Why not a Newberry Honor at least?


Gabriela said...

Sounds great! I'll have to get this on my next trip (3 weeks,yeah!).

That bookstore in your last post looks AWESOME. I love bookstores, especially unique ones.

Anonymous said...

Llooking forward to reading it!

Auntie lee said...

We'll check it out.

Mama Ava said...

Oooh this sounds good. Cameron liked her fantasy ones--this doesn't look like something he'd be interested in, but I'm a big fan and I'll add this to my list...which will keep growing here.


Loved the Wild Rumpus pics, although I find Red Balloon has a better selection--but not nearly the great ambiance!

Ave said...

I'll look for it on audio, good recommendation.

Mama Ava said...

I just found this in my school library--hooray! Along with several other Ibbotsons I hadn't read.