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The first review of this book says a lot of what I would want to say about the plot, and very comprehensively too so I don't intend to repeat that!
What I would really like to get across is how fantastic this story is for pre-teenage girls and mums to read together. I'm not talking about reading aloud necessarily - though that would work too - this was one of those books where my daughter was reading it at bedtime, then I would sneak in after lights-out and nab it for myself! She would, needless to say, quickly reclaim it next morning!
The main character, Maya, is a strong female lead, and gave us plenty to talk about - and it's great to find books which honestly appeal to adults as well as children. I like to have an idea of what my daughter is reading, but in this case it was a genuine pleasure.
Eva Ibbotson's writing is of the haunting, stay-with-you variety and this book sent me on a search for many of her others. Read it - I'd be amazed to find anyone who didn't love it!
I first came across Eva Ibbotson at the age of four, when I had an audio tape of a wonderful story called the Secret of Platform 13. I was delighted, then, when nearly ten years later Journey to the River Sea cropped up in the Carnegie Medal reading list at my school, and quickly became a firm favourite with myself and all of my friends.
Journey to the River Sea is set in Brazil, at the time of the Rubber Barons of the Amazon. At the centre of the story is Maya, the orphan of two adventurous archaeologist parents, living in a reputable girls' school in London when she receives a summons from her Uncle Carter to come and live with his family in the Amazon. With the company of formidable governess Miss Minton, she journeys from England to Belem and to the rainforest city of Manaus, where the Carters and their vicious twin daughters live in a strange colonial patch of England, with their new world kept very much at arms length.
But instead of being afraid of the wild country, Maya embraces the wondrous natural environment around. She rejects the sterile confines of the Carter's fake Little England in favour of the light, life and magic of the Amazon, and in doing so encounters a rush of brilliant characters: Professor Glastonberry, the daft academic head of Manaus museum; Clovis, a boy actor yearning for England and home; and Finn Taverner, orphaned son of an explorer who refuses to claim the academic inheritance that is his birthright.
So runs the plot, as far as I am willing to describe without giving anything away. There are enough twists and turns to keep ay reader engaged, with a good balance of humour and serious events to prevent you feeling either bored or patronised. But the true genius of the book lies in the rendering of background. From the winter crispness of the English countryside, through the faded grandeur of Manaus and every vivid colour and texture of the rainforest, Ibbotson puts you right at the heart of the landscape. The power of the imagery is such that there are some pictures - the golden roof of Manaus Opera House, for example, or the secret, green hued creeks passable only by canoe - that cling to the memory long after most books have already faded entirely.
Journey to the River Sea did not win the Carnegie Medal in 2001 - it was beaten by an awesome Terry Pratchett book, the Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. But despite its unmedalled status, there is nobody to whom I would not recommend this book. To a child (probably from 10 upwards, or any confident reader) it is a magical adventure story, a window on a different world both geographically and historically. To an adult, either new to the story or familiar with it, it is a distillation of that sense of adventure which I think everyone has - the desire to travel, to learn, to experience new things.
I hope this review will convince you to read this book - it is one that truly deserves a wider readership. If you are looking for escapism, there is none better. This has long been (and seeing as I'm now 20, will probably remain) my standard of what a children's book should be.