Auntie Robbo by Ann Scott Moncrieff: a review of a forgotten gem

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My wonderful, all things Scottish loving, bookish friend Mel made me aware of Auntie Robbo by Ann Scott Moncrieff through the Scotland Street Press Instagram account. She said that it felt like  “a very Milena-like book” and oh how well she knows me! I’m a passionate auntie, I love reading children’s adventure stories from the 1930s/40s plus I have a love of Scotland too. There is also a rather lovely personal aspect to the republication of Auntie Robbo as Jean Findlay, the founder of Scotland Street Press, is actually Scott Moncrieff’s granddaughter, who wishes to delight a new generation with Robbo and her grandnephew Hector’s adventures. Like Scott Moncrieff, My Omi (German grandma) was also a talented storyteller and I so wish her stories had been published to make the world that little bit richer too. So, to get to the point, I of course said yes to a proof copy and to taking part in the blog tour.

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Synopsis: This is the story of eleven-year-old Hector, who lives with his rather quirky great aunt Robbo (Robina) in the Scottish countryside near Edinburgh. Their lives are turned upside down when an ominous woman presenting herself as Hector’s stepmother arrives, causing great aunt and nephew to escape to the Highlands, where they also pick up three homeless children along the way. Plenty of adventures ensue as they travel the Scottish landscape, hoping to stay ahead of the dreaded Merlissa Benck, who is determined to get her own way.

For me, the challenge of reading this book lay in consciously not reading from an adult perspective and not analysing everything to high heaven as I usually do but letting the joy and the adventure take over and remembering what it was like to read as a child. There was so much to enjoy:

I adored Auntie Robbo: I hope that I have her spirit, quirkiness  and energy when I am in my 80s and that my nieces care for me as much as Hector does. She is like an old version of Pippi Longstocking (a childhood heroine of mine)  with that same zest for life, the same heart of gold and the ability to cause confusion, chaos and disapproval from other adults wherever she goes. I think it’s fabulous how Scott Moncrieff challenges the stereotypical image of what being old looks like and the way she illustrates just how much an older person has to offer a child.

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The relationship between Robbo and Hector: This is deep and tender and very much on an equal footing. They care for each other and this is portrayed so beautifully: Hector very much looks out for Auntie Robbo in her more eccentric moments and Auntie Robbo in turn makes sure Hector is loved and installs an awesome love of nature and independence in her nephew. Here I must also mention Hector himself, who is also quite special; rather than being a typical boy character as found in many stories of the period, he is sensitive, intelligent, compassionate and often introverted. I loved him.

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The joy of nature and pride in Scotland: The description of the natural world that Robbo and Hector adore and explore has been written with such love and in a way that totally transported me into the story’s landscape. Scott Moncrieff’s  love of the sea shone through especially brightly for me.AR Cover Image 1

The sheer adventure of it all and the simplicity and freedom of a slower time: I think that this really appeals to me as an adult as well as the child within;  it is what I wish for my nieces and younger, tech-savvy generations in general  – to rediscover the natural landscape, to wholeheartedly enjoy themselves, to experience that sense of freedom and let their imagination roam free. Plus, I love it when children save the day in an adventure 😊AR Cover Image 1 (2)

The comedy: This book made me chuckle at several points and the dry sense of humour really added character to the narrative. To name just one example: what’s not to love about a disgruntled one-horned goat out for revenge?!

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The suspense: the atmosphere Moncrieff build up in the second half of the book when the setting changes is a delight and would certainly have made me read under the covers past my bedtime as a child – I can’t really say more without spoiling the reading adventure.AR Cover Image 1 (2)

A book of its time: With my adult hat on I will say that it is a book of its time, just as all books of the past are, and this is worth noting if you plan on sharing Auntie Robbo. The pace is slower than today’s middle grade fiction tends to be and sometimes the language feels more complex/more adult orientated than today’s children generally come across (and this  is by no means a criticism but something to be aware of).

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My final thoughts:  I think Auntie Robbo is very much a forgotten gem and I hope that this republication will allow it to be as enjoyed and loved as it deserves to be. My nieces are over at the weekend, I think its time they got to meet Auntie Robbo 😊

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{I think this is a rather lovely photo of Ann Scott Moncrieff}

Stories from the Homefront

I adore history and am especially interested in the two World Wars. I think a large part of this is because I have such strong connections with both Germany (I am German) and the UK (I have lived here for most of my life). Therefore, I have a rather interesting perspective, trying to come to terms with my native country’s past but also knowing that not all Germans were the enemy – there was a German resistance movement, there were people who helped Jews, some people feared for the lives of their loved ones to the extent that keeping them safe took priority. Indeed, there was suffering on both sides of the channel. Alongside this, I have grown up with the British perspective of history. I have learned about the fear, loss, sacrifice, sheer resilience and stubborn determination experienced on this island I call home. I believe that good historical fiction brings history to life, it engages on a very human level; here are two recent reads that did just that.

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Reasons why I picked up The Night Raid:

  1. It is set in Nottingham where I live.
  2. One of the main characters is Dame Laura Knight, a war artist, originally from Nottingham, who I have always wanted to find out more about.
  3. I am very interested in the role of women during the war and this book promised strong female characters.
  4. I am really interested in learning about the everyday life experienced by people in war time and the plot focuses on this.
  5. I saw that the author, Clare Harvey, would be in Nottingham to talk about her book and I love hearing authors talk about their work.

The story focuses on two young women, Violet and Zelah, working in a munitions factory in Nottingham. Both have pasts they are trying to escape, both are trying to find a way forwards in this world where women are very much holding life together. Commissioned to paint a propaganda portrait of women workers in the factory, Dame Laura Knight becomes a part of this factory life too, facing her own demons along the way. The lives of these three women become intertwined in ways that changes each one of them forever.

Why I loved reading this book:

The Nottingham setting is very special: Clare Harvey has lived in Nottingham herself and her writing feels very genuine. I could really imagine the city during wartime and it was clear that Harvey put a lot of time and effort into making the setting as accurate as possible. It is historical fiction, and there is creativity in terms of events and timelines, but the essence is very real.

Dame Laura Knight: I had heard of her in general terms, I knew she was commissioned to paint propaganda art, but that is as far as I had got. This book made me want to immerse myself in her work (a lot of it is available to view online) and Harvey writes in her author’s note that a particular piece, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, was an inspiration point for her. I loved the connection of art with fiction very much. I now want to read more about Dame Laura, who comes across as such a strong, complex woman, with an incredibly individual voice. I know that she wrote an autobiography so this is where I shall begin.

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Very human, rounded characters: It is easy to connect and invest emotions in The Night Raid characters. Each has a very personal story to tell and Harvey writes in a way that makes you genuinely care about what happens to them.

An emotionally engaging plot with a twist that I didn’t see coming: It isn’t a fast paced page turner and it is very much a character piece, however the plot itself flows really well ,coming together piece by piece, using the viewpoints of four characters. As for the twist – let’s just say I had a tear or two in my eye!

I went to the Waterstones author evening with Clare Harvey here in Nottingham and it was such a wonderful experience. She is an author, who has a genuine interest in her audience and I loved how animated she was. When you see how much an author has invested in her characters, it gives the whole reading experience an extra layer of meaning.

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It was love at first sight with Letters from the Lighthouse. Isn’t the cover gorgeous? I have a bit of thing about lighthouses (it is my dream to live in one) so this, combined with the topic at hand, was a perfect match for me.

Olive and her brother Cliff are evacuated to the Devonshire coast, when living in London becomes too dangerous due to heavy bombing. The children become involved in a mystery that will see them discovering a dangerously brave rescue mission and indeed playing their own part. It is also a story about war time communities and the treatment of both evacuees and refugees; prejudice, acceptance, friendship and loss are all explored beautifully. And there is a handsome, mysterious lighthouse keeper to boot;)

Why I loved this book:

The writing itself: Emma Carroll has a really rich, engaging, often beautiful and very honest writing style. Her words transported me to the Devon Coast and made me travel back in time. Simply gorgeous. I really like how seriously she takes her readers, not shying away from difficult issues, many of which are just as present in today’s society.lighthouse-clip-art-lighthouse-clipart-0-clipartix-free

The quirky characters: I especially loved Esther, the German girl who came over on the Kindertransport and is then evacuated with her class to the coast. She is prickly, feisty, hard to read and struggles to connect with others. Yet she is also so brave and resilient and there is a huge heart hidden away. Then there is mysterious Queenie, whose clocks have all stopped and show the same time ( She refuses to fix them).lighthouse-clip-art-lighthouse-clipart-0-clipartix-free

The war time detail: It is well researched and its presence is detailed yet not to the extent of information overload; just how I like it. I think children reading this book, will experience enough to be hooked and that they will be inspired to find out more about this period in history.lighthouse-clip-art-lighthouse-clipart-0-clipartix-free

The rather wonderful mystery: I really enjoyed how this played out as the book progressed, I loved the codes involved and I can’t really say much more 😉

Letters from the Lighthouse is book that I know I shall read again and that I will certainly recommend to my oldest niece – I like the idea of an auntie niece book club.