The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

Of all the children’s books that I’ve read in recent years it’s Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy that takes me back to the stories of my childhood. There is an ineffable something about Birdsall’s chronicle that goes beyond the words that she uses to tell it.

The four Penderwick sisters range from age 4 to 12. Rosalind is the the eldest of the motherless brood and it’s obvious that she’s the eldest, protective as she is of her sisters, and attuned as she is to the vagaries of their moods and personalities. Batty is “the littlest,” and the shyest of the lot who never goes anywhere without her orange and black butterfly wings. The closet between her room and Rosalind’s is to her a “secret passage.” Skye, the second eldest, is orderly, organized, and also hot-tempered. Jane is the dreamer and the writer with a flair for the dramatic.

Now, if Rosalind had been the first to discover that tunnel, she would have noticed that it was too neatly trimmed and prickle-free to be there by mistake, and she would have figured that someone used it often and that someone probably wasn’t Mrs. Tifton. If Jane had been the first, she, too, would have realized that natural forces hadn’t formed that tunnel. Her explanation for it would have been nonsense—an escape route for convicts on the run or talking badgers—but at least she would have thought about it. But this was Skye. She only thought, I need a way through the hedge, and here it is. And then she plunged.

the penderwicks book 1There’s also a cottage with “a front porch, pink climbing roses, and lots of trees for shade,” a dog called Hound, a cook called Churchie who bakes gingerbread that makes everyone “forget that they had [just] eaten breakfast,” and a boy called Jeffrey who the four sisters befriend. The sisters and Jeffrey get into all kinds of scrapes. Their hijinks involve a bull, two rabbits, and also a soccer ball (unfortunately, not all at the same time). At the same time the adults in the story know their proper place and lie low till they are truly needed. In short, this is the sort of story you wish you had lived through.

While there is an overarching plot that involves everyone, each of the children also have their own mini adventure that is easily absorbed in the narrative whole. These individual storylines firm up the reader’s sense of the characters and the world that these characters occupy.

Birdsall gets children and understands their dynamics with one another. (I can’t shake off the feeling that there really is a bunch of Penderwicks out there). The sisters love one another and find strength in each other but there’s also a bit of chafing at being part of a sisterhood.

Here’s Skye and Batty, who’ve always been a little uneasy around one another, walking back home, after a particularly nasty exchange with Mrs. Tifton, Jeffrey’s mother:

“I have a question.” Batty was peering up from under the brim of her rain hat.

“What?”

“Am I odd? Is there something wrong with me, like Mrs. Tifton said?”

Skye knelt down on the wet grass and looked right into Batty’s eyes. “No, you stupid idiot, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfect. Mrs. Tifton doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely positive.”

“Oh,” said Batty.

“Do you have any more questions?”

“Not right now.”

“Then let’s get you home to Daddy.” Skye took hold of Batty’s hand and held it all the way back to the cottage.

The resolution of the central conflict is so in keeping with the spirit of the tale. No precociousness or sudden burst of brilliance, just a little courage and muddling through the best you can (with some help from Mr. Penderwick). The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy is kind, funny and has a good old-fashioned warmth to it that will linger on long after you’re done reading it.

A MOOPS was a Meeting Of Older Penderwick Sisters. Rosalind, Skye, and Jane called it MOOPS to keep Mr. Penderwick from knowing what they were talking about. Batty wasn’t supposed to know either, but she knew about MOPS, which was a Meeting of Penderwick Sisters, because she was always invited to them.

The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

I agree with JennyThe Lives of Christopher Chant is waaayyy more fun than Charmed Life. It has tons more plot, and the almost constant presence of a kick-ass goddess (who seems to be Indian from the sounds of it!) forms a nice counterweight to the boy magician. Plus, the world building is much bigger in scope. Literally. As gets revealed in this book, there are 12 series of worlds in the Chrestomanci series. The way to reach these worlds is through the appropriately named The Place Between, also known as The World Edge which is “like a leftover piece of world.”

So, I’m trying to figure out why I enjoy reading Diana Wynne Jones so much. Part of it is that reading her stories feels like I’m watching a play—so vivid are her characters, and the world she conjures that I’m plunged into her universe straightaway.

the-lives-of-christopher-chantShe also seems to get kids really right. Christopher’s anxieties ring true, as does his fascination with cricket, or the way he wants to please his uncle—the one adult who takes an interest in him, or the way his conscience pricks him about not fulfilling his bargain with the goddess.

Speaking of Christopher’s anxieties, I have to share this bit that seems to me such a good example of Wynne Jones’s perspicacity:

He understood that Mama cared very urgently about his future. He knew he was going to have to enter Society with the best people. But the only Society he had heard of was the Aid the Heathen Society that he had to give a penny to every Sunday in church, and he thought Mama meant that.

Christopher made careful inquiries from the nursery maid with big feet. She told him Heathens were savages who ate people. Missionaries were the best people, and they were the ones Heathens ate. Christopher saw that he was going to be a missionary when he grew up. He found Mama’s talk increasingly alarming. He wished she had chosen another career for him.

This mash-up of stray strands of thoughts into a worrisome whole is decidedly hilarious (and rings painfully true!). The book is filled with such episodes of situation comedy.

Here’s another bit that tickled me, and struck me as wholly British in its wryness.

“No, Christopher,” Papa panted sternly, looking strange and most undignified, with his coat flapping and his hair blowing in all directions. “A gentleman never works magic against a woman, particularly his own mama.”

Gentlemen, it seemed to Christopher, made things unreasonably difficult for themesleves in that case.

And then there’s the details that Jones fills her stories up with (something that I mentioned in my review about Charmed Life as well). There’s an “ordinariness” about these details—these descriptions—that makes them just so delightful to read about. And so plausible! As if, (for example), it would be the most natural thing in the world for a couch to scoot over if it’s feeling a little moody. The day-to-day-ness of her magic is charming in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced before. Compared to Diana Wynne Jones, Harry Potter’s world feels a bit fanciful!

I’ll end with this nice piece of description of how Christopher dashes about (well figuratively speaking that is) to ready a room for a girl:

Christopher summoned fire for [the room], almost in too much of a hurry to notice he had got it right for once. He remembered a saucepan and an old kettle by the stables and fetched those. A bucket of water he brought from the pump by the kitchen door. What else? Milk for the kitten. . . . Teapot, tea—he had no idea where those came from, and did [she] drink tea? . . . What then? Oh cup, saucer, plates. He fetched the ones out of the grand cabinet in the dining room. They were quite pretty. She would like those. Then spoon, knife, fork. . . . Christopher fetched what must have been the whole kitchen cutlery drawer with a crash, sorted hastily through it and sent it back.

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life

The first thing that I love about a Diana Wynne Jones story is this feeling of being immediately sucked into another world as soon as I start reading. She plunges one directly into a scene with characters (metaphorically) flailing their arms around, and talking to each other, and going somewhere, and this sense of motion and activity immediately drops me into another world. She dispenses with descriptions for outright action. Or at least that’s what I felt as Charmed Life opens.

Charmed Life is about a boy who’s forlorn and clings to his sister, Gwendolen, even though it’s obvious that his sister could not care two hoots about him. One could tell right from the beginning the way this would all turn out though I do so wish that Gwendolen hadn’t turned out to be such a witch! And I’m not using witch in a magical sense here! Why couldn’t DWJ have endowed Gwendolen with any redeeming characteristics? Or rather why was Gwendolen’s naked ambition portrayed as being all witchly? And again I don’t mean that in a magical way!

Charmed_Life Diana Wynne JonesOk, I understand that what she was doing was BAD but I’d sure have liked to understand more of where she was coming from, you know? (though Janet does make up for some of it. Oh, and also the fact that Gwendolen seems to have gotten the happy ending that she would have wished for).

But anyway even though one could sense the direction in which the wind was blowing it was still SO MUCH FUN TO READ IT ALL!

And that brings me to what I’m beginning to think is a Diana Wynne Jones specialty. She has this way of EXCELING at the details that make up the bulk of a thing. They’re just so INTERESTING to read about! For instance, in Charmed Life Gwendolen makes all the surrounding trees uproot themselves from their regular spots and come squash themselves right next to the house. And well the way DWJ goes about describing it is just so vivid and fun:

Feeling tired and Mondayish, Cat dragged himself out of bed and found he could not see out of the windows. Each window was a dark crisscross of branches and leaves—green leaves, bluish cedar sprays, pine needles, and leaves just turning yellow and brown. One window had a rose pressed against it. And there were bunches of grapes squashed on both of the others. And behind them, it looked as if there was a mile-thick forest. “Good Lord!” he said.

“You may well look!” said Mary. “That sister of yours has fetched every tree in the grounds and stood them as close as they can get to the Castle.”

I think FUN is the word I would associate the most with Diana Wynne Jones. It was palpable in Howl’s Moving Castle and Castles in the Air too (the two other DWJ books that I’ve read).

I’m already thinking of her as a comfort read, and for sure, for sure, for sure, my children are going to have DWJ thrust into their hands at some point or the other! I’m very much looking forward to making my way through all of her books.

With Charmed Life there were ample of instances where I wanted to shake Cat (isn’t that an awesome name for a boy?) and tell him to wake up to the reality of what was going on but I guess a boy’s got to do what a boy’s got to do and follow his own meandering path, and take his own roundabout way, till he reaches the point where he decides that enough is enough.

Here’s another bit that I enjoyed:

He just hoped she would not reward him by making gingerbread men. As a rule, gingerbread men were fun. They leaped up off the plate when you tried to eat them, so that when you finally caught them you felt quite justified in eating them. It was a fair fight, and some got away. But Mrs. Sharp’s gingerbread men never did that. They simply lay, feebly waving their arms, and Cat never had the heart to eat them.

Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse

I came across Merrie Heskell’s The Princess Curse on LizMc2’s blog. Her description of the book as “a middle grade fantasy . . . involv[ing] a young woman discovering her power and her relationship with a powerful older man” reeled me right in!

The story’s a retake on “The 12 Dancing Princesses” fairytale. I’m not very familiar with the original tale except for the knowledge that the titular princesses are cursed to dance the night away. Thankfully, my lack of knowledge of the original had no bearing on my enjoyment of The Princess Curse which does have enough loose ends for there to be a sequel!

Reveka, the 13-year-old heroine, is exactly the kind of 13-year-old girl that I love to read about: smart (and self-aware enough to know that she’s smart), spunky, and scheming. She also has a limited store of patience, is full of confidence that borders on cockiness, and usually acts like an express train going on full steam—in other words, she reads and feels like a teenager. She dreams of having a herbary, and being “the herbalist for an entire abbey” because as she puts it:

[C]onvent was the best choice for me. A place where I would have all the time I was supposed to be devoutly praying to think about herbs. I didn’t really care for all the silence and singing and obedience—but my own herbary!

See what I mean about being smart and scheming? I want to be friends with this girl!

Also, the rich and varied description of all the herbs made me want to start a herb garden of my own! Immediately!

Reveka lives and works as an apprentice-herbalist at a castle with 12 princesses who mysteriously disappear each night. Attempts to investigate their whereabouts have resulted in either the said investigator disappearing completely or being put into a slumber from which nobody wakes up. There’s a prize for “breaking the curse” which our girl has her eyes on.

I love how we can see Reveka’s evolution as a character even in something as simple as her desire to break the curse: while money is the reason that Reveka becomes interested in the curse, very soon it takes on more personal tones as her co-apprentice gets caught in the curse’s tentacles.

The force at the center of the curse aka “the villain” is fleshed out and multidimensional rather than being rendered in a single color (in that it reminded me of another “evil villain” whose evilness had more to it than appeared on the surface). Same goes for Haskell’s description of the “Underworld” which is neither “dead” nor simple.

Reveka also has a complex relationship with her father. I don’t think I’ve seen father-daughter relationships as one of the main foci of a YA story and I really like that Haskell weaves this into her narrative: a pivotal point in the story hinges on Reveka’s love for her father. Of course, neither Reveka, nor her father, are very good at expressing their love for each other.

My one quibble with the book is the resolution of the curse and Reveka’s final decision which seemed a little too fatalistic, and too abrupt, and also a little troubling. I understand it’s the author’s prerogative to build her world the way she/he deems it fit but I find it troubling that [SPOILER ALERT—HIGHLIGHT TO READ FURTHER] the survival of the underworld hinged on Reveka’s acceptance of herself as a bride to Dragos. Till that point, I seriously thought that our whiz-kid would find a herb-based solution while her romance with Dragos would proceed on its own pace without there being a forcing of hands, so to say.

Despite the quibble, I think it’s a story worth reading. Here’s one of my favorite bits:

I jumped when the door banged open and Pa’s voice asked, “Have you seen Mihas? He hasn’t been around all day.”

“No, I haven’t seen your apprentice.” Brother Cosmin answered.

“Wait—where’s Reveka? Did she go off with him?”

“Go off with him?” Brother Cosmin repeated, sounding surprised.

Pa’s voice was grim. “He’s got something of a crush on her.”

I buried my face in my hands. Why did Pa know this?

“Why would you think that means she’d go off with him?” Brother Cosmin asked.

A good question, Brother Cosmin! Why would Pa think that I’d be interested in a cowherd’s stupid crush and take up a dalliance with the boy—to the point of neglecting my work and letting Mihas neglect his? . . .

“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Brother Cosmin said. “She’s about as interested in Mihas as she is in my donkey. Which is to say she might stoop to giving him mashed juniper berries for his colic, but that’s about all the notice she pays either of them.”

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

I didn’t know anything about “The Goose Girl,” a Grimm Brothers’s fairy tale on which Thorn is based but I was hooked enough by the comments of one of my favourite book bloggers to dive right into it.

Alyrra is a princess who doesn’t feel anything remotely like a princess. When circumstances conspire to strip her off her princess-ly position, she’s terrified at first, but grows to embrace her situation with élan. I love how the plot lends itself so easily to Alyrra’s growth into a confident young woman. Her be-coming into the fullness of who she is, felt real, and was completely believable unlike another princess, from another first time author.

Thorn_CoverFnlRevFNLF_low_resAnd yes, this is a first time author by the lovely name of Intisar Khanani. She’s also self-published, so if the book interests you, and you are able to, please do go directly to her site and buy the book from the link she offers!

Power and the ability to wield justice (or injustice) are at the heart of the book. Alyrra has already experienced cruelty at the hands of her brother, a king-to-be, and as a goose girl, living with the hostlers and the common thieves, she comes to see how the decisions of those in power affect the lives of everyone around them. She would rather continue being a goose girl, away from the machinations of the court, but being who she is, she cannot fail to see the role she could play in affecting those decisions.

Of the many things to like about this book, the one I liked the best was how the “battle” between Alyrra and the “evil witch” plays out at the end of the novel. At its core, the resolution is about seeing what is at the heart of the “evil witch.” No magic is involved unless you count empathy as a magic in itself (and I do, especially in today’s world). The way that Alyrra handles it seems in keeping with what she has been becoming through the course of the story. And I have to say if Miss Khanani hadn’t allowed Alyrra to develop the way she did, it could all have gone horribly wrong.

The romance between Alyrra and the prince was handled deftly as well—gentle and allowed to unfold at its own pace. The only snag, a very slight one was. . . the children’s literature feel to the story. That’s not even really a criticism, just something that I felt towards the end, something I wasn’t really expecting to encounter.

On the whole, I’d recommend this book to everyone who loves a good story. I’d especially tell the adults to get this book for that special teen in their lives who loves himself or herself a good fantasy!