When their usual summer rental on Cape Cod falls through, the Penderwick sisters – Rosalind, Skye, Jan...more Originally published on The Librarian Next Door:
When their usual summer rental on Cape Cod falls through, the Penderwick sisters – Rosalind, Skye, Jane and Batty – end up in the Berkshire Mountains in a cottage on a gorgeous estate called Arundel. In addition to exploring the gardens, escaping from one very annoyed bull and keeping the family dog, Hound, from fleeing his pen, the Penderwicks also befriend Jeffrey Tifton, the son of Arundel’s owner. With Jeffrey at their side, the Penderwicks can imagine and do anything. But Jeffrey’s mother, Mrs. Tifton, is cold and unfriendly, warning her son to stay away from the wild and uncouth Penderwicks. Unfortunately for Mrs. Tifton, it’s four Penderwicks against one; odds are, they’ll win out.
While I’m a big fan of many young adult novels, I don’t usually read a lot of middle grade stories, simply because I’ve always found plenty to read in my genres of choice. But my reading pen pal, Meredith, sent me The Penderwicks for my birthday this year and I’ve waited for just the right summer day to read it. One lazy weekend in August, when the weather was perfect, I sat outside on my balcony and picked up Jeanne Birdsall’s perfect summer story. Charming and sweet, with just the right amount of zaniness, The Penderwicks has a slightly otherworldly and nostalgic quality to it. It just may be the most perfect summer book for younger audiences (and it’s won a boatload of awards to prove it, including the National Book Award).
There isn’t one thing that makes The Penderwicks delightful. Indeed, I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly what makes this book so special. It reminds me of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. There’s the small town aspect, the bonds between sisters and friends aspect, and even the wild imaginations on the loose aspect. Another part of it, for me at least, is the details. The Penderwicks isn’t a very lengthy book, but in a short amount of time, Birdsall manages to create a highly visual, quintessential New England. From the grandeur of Arundel to the quaint coziness of the Penderwick’s rented cottage, readers can easily imagine five young people traipsing across a field, with the dog trailing behind. There’s also Mr. Penderwick’s Latin ramblings, Harry’s tomatoes, and Churchie’s gingerbread, all easily pictured.
But the best part of The Penderwicks are the Penderwick girls themselves. Each is so fully and completely developed as her own person, with her own personality. There’s Rosalind, the oldest and coping with the experience of older boys for the first time. There’s stubborn Skye, with her love of math (she does algebra for fun!) and her constant need to apologize for something she did. Jane’s imagination often runs away with her and life is, more often than not, material for one of her books. And, of course, there’s youngest sister Batty, with her unwavering devotion to Hound and her love of all things animal. The Penderwicks delights in the interactions between these sisters, whether they’re bickering over who’s in charge of Batty (it’s always the OAP, or Oldest Available Penderwick) or rallying together to help Jeffrey. My own sisters are so much older than I am, that I found myself a bit wistful at their adventures.
I love when books can delight and surprise you, and I love when friends make suggestions for books that I might otherwise not try. Pen pal Meredith gets all of the credit for getting me to read The Penderwicks (she’s a library, so of course, she’s super-smart about these things), but thanks to Jeanne Birdsall, it was the Penderwicks themselves that made me fall in love with the book once I started reading. It’s the perfect summer book for anyone, but especially for girls with big imaginations and even bigger hearts.(less)
This might be my favorite in the series so far. There's just something about two people completely mismatched who end up in love. I also really love t...moreThis might be my favorite in the series so far. There's just something about two people completely mismatched who end up in love. I also really love the thieving little Pippi. What a character - literally and figuratively. (less)
Hands-down, without a doubt one of the best books I've ever read. Incredibly thrilling, literally heart-poun...moreLove, love, love, love, love, love, love.
Hands-down, without a doubt one of the best books I've ever read. Incredibly thrilling, literally heart-pounding, exciting, and just plain fun. I'm re-reading Books 1 and 2 of the HG series prior to Mockingjay's release (just a little over three weeks and counting.....!!!!!!!) and now, of course, I'm all impatient to read Mockingjay.
If you have not read this book, you are seriously missing out. (less)
Once upon a time, Claire Beauchamp Randall made a choice: she chose to stay with Jamie Fraser, her 17th c...more Originally posted on The Librarian Next Door:
Once upon a time, Claire Beauchamp Randall made a choice: she chose to stay with Jamie Fraser, her 17th century husband and forgo returning to her own time. But that choice didn’t come without consequences. As Claire and Jamie make their way to Paris, with the covert goal of stopping Charles Stuart’s attempts to retake the English throne, intrigue, danger and uncertainty lie around every corner. In France, Claire and Jamie learn to navigate the treacherous royal court of the Louis XV, make friends with both Jacobites and Georgian loyalists alike and, armed with Claire’s knowledge of the future, try to change the course of history. Every step of the way, Claire and Jamie fight for each other, their unborn child and the future of their family – all the while trying to avoid the notion that the best chance for the Fraser family’s survival may not be in the 17th century.
In my review of Outlander, I described the first part of Claire and Jamie’s story as “epic storytelling of awesome” – a description that applies just as well to the second book in Diana Gabaldon’s series, Dragonfly in Amber. This novel doesn’t start when you think it will, it doesn’t end when you think it will and at every point in between, Gabaldon takes readers on a wild, crazy, beautifully vivid ride through French and Scottish history. Though the book has been published since 1992, I’m still wary about revealing spoilers, but I will say that I found Gabaldon’s framing device for this second book particularly effective. I loved the way it sort of hugged the book from both the beginning and the end, making it feel as if you got lost in a memory.
There’s so much good about Dragonfly in Amber, but for me, the core of this story and these novels remains Claire and Jamie. Their relationship is what holds the story together and gives readers a way into a world they may not know about. In Outlander, when Claire chooses to stay with Jamie, she does so knowing exactly what (and who) she’s giving up, but she also doesn’t stop being who she is – a woman from a 20th century perspective and her own ideas and opinions, things that are sometimes in opposition to the social mores of the time.
I love that Jamie accepts and loves Claire for exactly who she is. He doesn’t try to force her to change, but at the same time, he also recognizes a need for Claire to fit in, but not stand out – something that’s not easy for a woman used to a very different life. The push and pull of their relationship is so wonderfully nuanced and complicated. Claire’s choice didn’t make things magically perfect and easy; their marriage still requires work, understanding, forgiveness and communication. Gabaldon writes all of this so well and so believably, I kept forgetting where and when they were.
One of the other things I really liked about Dragonfly in Amber was this idea of whether knowledge of the future means we can or should try to change it. Claire wants desperately to save the people she now knows and loves in Scotland from a terrible fate, but doing so would alter the course of history and she has no way of knowing what the consequences of that action would be. At the same time, she goes to incredible lengths to ensure some things do still happen (Jack Randall’s survival) to protect Frank back in the 20th century – even though this causes a great deal of conflict with Jamie.
Gabaldon raises some interesting questions because of Claire’s actions. She knows what will happen if Charles Stuart is successful, but she made a choice to stay in the past. Is she bound to live within the dictates and history of this time? Are the efforts of just one person even enough to change the outcome of a battle that will affect thousands? What’s the greater good in this situation? Gabaldon doesn’t necessarily provide answers, or easy ones when she does; instead, she lets the story unfold in real time, with the reader reacting right alongside Claire and Jamie.
Dragonfly in Amber is one of those books that took me forever to read – not because I found it slow and uneventful, but because I kept rationing it out in small doses; I knew that the faster I read, the sooner it would be over and I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to stay with Claire and Jamie as long as it could. Luckily, even though the novel did eventually end, I knew there were several more chapters of this epic story still waiting for me.(less)
In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, you’re either Pretty or you’re not. In a dystopian future America, every 16-year-old has an operation on his or her birt...moreIn Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, you’re either Pretty or you’re not. In a dystopian future America, every 16-year-old has an operation on his or her birthday to become Pretty. Everyone is Pretty, uniformly so. Tally Youngblood, the heroine of the story, is desperate to be Pretty. She’s been counting down the days until her birthday, when she will finally be just like everyone else. But before Tally can become Pretty, she meets Shay. Shay doesn’t want to be Pretty – she wants to run away and risk her life to find a group of outcasts far away from the cities. When the officials in Tally’s city force her to make an impossible choice – find and betray Shay and the outcasts, or never become Pretty herself – Tally discovers that being Pretty might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Uglies is the first in a trilogy (with a fourth companion book) and it’s been on my radar for awhile. As I’ve slowly started reading more and more YA dystopian novels, I knew that I wanted to make sure I read this as well. I had also heard a lot of good things, both about the series and especially about Scott Westerfeld. Alas, Uglies and me was not to be. Maybe my expectations were too high or maybe I was just distracted by other things, but I just couldn’t get into this book like I thought I would and I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped to.
I found it very difficult to like Tally. Her obsession with being Pretty turned me off and I found myself wanting to slap some sense into her. I tried to see her world from her perspective, understand why she would think the way she did, but I found it very hard to relate to her. I just couldn’t get past her obsession with physical appearance. Even after she makes her way to the Smoke and begins to realize that she might not want to go back home, I had a hard time sympathizing with her. She let other people influence her decisions throughout the course of the entire novel and when she finally woke up and realized she needed to do the right thing, I felt that it was too little, too late. I discovered that I didn’t really care about her story – I wanted to know more about the secondary characters. And when you don’t really care about the main character, it’s hard to feel engaged with the book.
The one thing I did like was Westerfeld’s creation of an alternate future. In his world, cities are isolated from each other, but the Pretty operation is standard across the country. Interestingly, there’s also a current of environmentalism, in that the cities are all very high-tech, but keep their technology confined. Outside of the cities, nature grows wild and many city-dwellers find it horrifying to see trees cut down. I wish Westerfeld had developed this theme more, because I found that part of the book much more interesting than the debate over Pretty versus Ugly.
I really wish I had liked Uglies better, but I didn’t. As it is the first in a trilogy, I may try to read the next book, just to give the series a chance, but overall, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies were merely an okay, somewhat disappointing book.(less)
In Second Helpings, Jessica Darling is back for her senior year, but so are her problems. She can’t...more (originally published on The Librarian Next Door.)
In Second Helpings, Jessica Darling is back for her senior year, but so are her problems. She can’t seem to shake her so-called friends, the Clueless Crew. She’s facing pressure from her parents about choosing a college. Her older sister is having a baby, which shouldn’t affect Jess at all, but of course it does anyway. And then there’s Marcus Flutie, the guy Jess can’t stop obsessing about even though she’s vowed to do just that. Hyper-observant, wickedly funny and perfectly crazy, Jess is not about to stop recording her life. It’s for historical purposes only, after all.
A lot of people I respect and admire told me, again and again, that I HAD to read Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series. So I did – or at least, I’ve started to. The first two books in the series detail Jessica’s sophomore, junior and senior years of high school. The third covers her four years of college, while books four and five present a post-collegiate “adult” Jess to the world.
I admit – it took me a little while to get into the first book. Jess’ journal entries and borderline stream-of-consciousness writing aren’t the easiest things to get used to. She jumps around from idea to idea and, at first, I was afraid I was going to end up giving up on this series. I stuck it out and I’m glad I did, because I’m enjoying it so far.
Jessica is intelligent, funny, snarky, sarcastic, completely mental and angst-ridden, full of delicious little quirks and habits. She’s exceptionally observant and often feels like she doesn’t fit in with her peers. She sees and understands so much more than the average teenager, and yet she also misses so much because she’s so set on seeing what she wants to see. Jess is simultaneously smarter than us and exactly like us. Her journal entries, once you get used to them, have an easy, fluid conversational tone that makes you feel like you’re getting away with reading your best friends diary.
Many of the secondary characters, however, do come across as flat and one-dimensional, especially in the first book. But as the series progresses, they start to grow and add depth, which makes me think their initial “flatness” has more to do with Jessica’s first-person narration than anything. I wish Jess herself showed more growth and maturity during the series. Her observations about the people around her are so spot-on, but she lacks that same awareness of herself. The Jess in the first book is very similar to the Jess in the second book, without much change to show for it. I do hope, though, that this is the kind of series that improves as it goes on.
There are two supporting characters who get the most page time. Hope, Jessica’s best friend who moves away, only shows up at the end of Second Helpings, and yet you still feel like you know her well. Jessica’s letters to Hope and her constant reflections on their friendship bring Hope to life, even though readers rarely gets to see her. Meanwhile, Marcus Flutie is the mysterious loner guy who dominates Jessica’s thoughts and obsessions. Everyone I know who has read this series LOVES Marcus Flutie, so I’m a bit ashamed to admit – I’m not convinced of his appeal. I want to like him, but there’s a part of me that’s still not convinced. He does appear to genuinely care for Jessica, but I often found myself wishing he’d stop playing games. Even in the second book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Marcus was hiding a lot. But who knows – maybe I’ll be a Flutie convert by the end of the series.
I’m definitely glad I took my friends’ recommendations and start reading Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series. Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings are laugh-out-loud funny, smart, witty and entertaining. I hope the rest of the series can live up to the standards set by the first two books.(less)
Maddy and Rogan are 14-year-old first cousins and deeply in love, despite the obvious taboo. Their great-...moreOriginally posted on The Librarian Next Door:
Maddy and Rogan are 14-year-old first cousins and deeply in love, despite the obvious taboo. Their great-grandmother was a famous actress and they are the only relatives who seem to have inherited her talent. At school, they are cast in a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Rogan is brilliant, but wild; Maddy is insecure, but glamourous. As both begin to explore and understand their talent, they start to grow further and further apart, not knowing what the future may bring.
Nearly every review I’ve read for Illyria has raved about the book, especially about Hand’s writing – and rightly so. It’s a highly visual, imaginative, beautifully written book with incredibly vivid images and rich details that bring the story to life:
Our attics were full of ruined costumes, tattered moth’s-wings of burned velvet and lace that had been court gowns; crinolines reduced to hoops of whalebone; black satin disks that, when smacked upon a cousin’s unsuspecting head, burgeoned into top hats; lady’s gloves that still smelled like the ladies who had last worn them; sinister puppets and jointed dolls used as models for the wardrobe mistress. (pg. 3)
Hand’s writing has a haunting, fleeting, almost magical quality to it, almost as if there’s a haze that covers the story. Nothing interferes with your understanding of the story, but it takes on a blurry sort of feel, like you’re viewing a world that’s not quite real and not quite fantasy, but somewhere in between. The plot is more or less secondary to the writing and the characters – what happens next isn’t nearly as important as what’s happening right now.
Still, despite rave reviews and despite the wonderful, lyrical writing, I can’t quite bring myself to say I liked Illyria. I definitely didn’t hate it, but I don’t think I can say I liked it and honestly – I’m not sure why. Maddy and Rogan are well-developed and interesting, intensely and obsessively focused on one another, but I never quite warmed up to them. Sometimes I wanted to hug Maddy, other times I wanted to slap her silly and tell her to grow up. Sometimes I was dazzled and enchanted by Rogan, other times he annoyed me endlessly.
I finished Illyria feeling uncertain and a little unsettled (which is not bad, but it’s also not good). Hand’s gorgeous writing builds up tension and emotion at the beginning of the book. Everything is heightened – the language, the situations, Maddy and Rogan’s attraction. For the first two-thirds or so of the book, you have this sense of something growing and getting stronger and stronger. But, suddenly, the story seems to peak and everything that comes after that point just feels flat. The end of the book doesn’t have the same intensity as the first part and, for me, it was a bit of a letdown. The magical, hazy feeling was gone and the last few pages felt rushed.
Maybe the problem is that I wanted more – more development of the fantasy themes (the toy theater makes brief appearances but is never fully explained or integrated into the story), more background and information about Maddy and Rogan’s family, especially Aunt Kate and more about Maddy and Rogan’s themselves – why they were the ones to carry on the family legacy, why it was their talents that sparked the story. I finished the book wanting so much more because I felt like something was missing.
I would, however, encourage you to read it for Hand’s writing alone. And since I seem to be one of the very, very few people who did not rave about Illyria, there’s a pretty good chance I have no idea what I’m talking about. Read it for yourself and make up your own mind. (less)
Back in January, Pride and Prejudice celebrated its 200th anniversary. Jane Austen blogger Laurel Ann of...more Originally posted on The Librarian Next Door:
Back in January, Pride and Prejudice celebrated its 200th anniversary. Jane Austen blogger Laurel Ann of Austenprose decided to host a year-long Pride and Prejudice celebration (because, why not?) and I’m participating. As part of this Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge, I’m reading and watching several P&P adaptations, but it seemed wise to start at the beginning. Thus, I recently re-read Austen’s very own Pride and Prejudice for probably the 100th time (give or take a few).
It’s surprisingly difficult to find new things to say about a novel as classic and timeless as Pride and Prejudice. Everyone knows the story so well and it’s been part of our literary culture for so long that I would be more surprised to find someone who didn’t know anything about it. So then – where to begin?
To start, one of things I enjoyed the most about this particular re-read was Austen’s wit. She was certainly known as a clever and talented writer, but I sometimes feel that her sense of humor is overlooked, especially in a novel like Pride and Prejudice when everyone wants to focus on the love story aspect of it. And it certainly is that, but Austen was also wonderfully sly and astute. The funnier moments (for me, at least) come not from the overly ridiculous Mr. Collins or the outlandish Mrs. Bennet, but from Lizzy and Darcy’s verbal tete-a-tetes and even, on occasion, from Mr. Bingley. The banter between the two main characters is a large part of why the book works so well; it still stands up, even after all this time.
I’ve always found it interesting that Pride and Prejudice was originally an epistolary novel, told entirely in letter format. In its finished form, letters still play an important role in the novel. A letter heralds the arrival of Mr. Collins, Darcy’s letter to Lizzy after his disastrous proposal is a key turning point in the book, and letters signal both Lydia’s downfall and the possibility that all hope for Darcy and Lizzy might not be gone. As someone who consistently expresses herself better in written format, I like this idea that letters can allow characters to say what they might not (or can not) otherwise say. In particular, Darcy’s letter has always struck me as being one of the (if not the) most vital parts of the story. A man of few words, Darcy and Lizzy may never have had their chance if Darcy hadn’t taken the risk of giving Lizzy the letter, despite the social constructs of the time that would have considered such an action scandalous.
There are, of course, bookshelves filled with books written by countless Austen scholars, all of whom have studied Pride and Prejudice for years and all of whom can probably talk about the book far more eloquently than I can. A most beloved novel for two centuries, it’s not difficult to see why so many readers are still so enamored with this story.(less)