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

I picked up my copy of The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy (by Jeanne Birdsall) used, at Goodwill or a garage sale. It’s been sitting on my shelf for almost two years, waiting until the perfect moment to be read.

This weekend brought the perfect moment.

I was in the mountains with my extended family for a family reunion. We gathered at my grandparents’ cabin and renewed our bonds with each other by splitting into groups and re-making Johnny Lingo. In our downtime, we went boating and rode the jet skis. I enjoy going on the boat and jet skis occasionally, but it’s not my favorite thing. I was content to let everyone else have a turn and only headed out when one of my kids begged me to take them on a ride.

Instead, I would relax on the deck and visit with aunts, uncles, cousins, and/or their children. Or else I would read.

Thus arose the perfect moment to read about Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty Penderwick. I loved them from the first page. Ms. Birdsall’s writing reminds me very much of Elizabeth Enright (Thimble Summer, Gone Away Lake) and Maud Hart Lovelace (The Betsy-Tacy books) and yet is still fresh and modern.

Even better, she has two other Penderwick books already written! I can’t wait to discover them.

This is definitely going on the ‘read-aloud’ list.

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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

This isn’t a new book; on the contrary, it’s an old classic. I skipped class in high school to go and see the drama department’s matinee of Flowers for Algernon that they were putting on for the elementary school kids. (Why I couldn’t have paid the five bucks and seen it at night is still a mystery.)

My perspective now is surely different than it was then. Not only am I now an adult myself and better understand some of the nuances of adult relationships, I also have a child with a disability. While autism (which is what my son has) and mental retardation (which is what the hero of this book, Charlie Gordon, has) are two different animals, I still easily related some of the struggles between the two. The book, written in the late 50s, shows how society has changed in the way disabilities are looked at and also the way those who have disabilities are treated. Beyond that, though, is a great, tear-jerking story. It’s beautifully written, and one that, though I picked it off the library shelf on a whim, I will be culling Goodwill for to put on my own library shelf.

Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

I stole this picture of the book cover (very cool cover, no?) from Kiersten White’s website, although she makes it sound as though her blog is the real place to be. Since I’m having trouble remembering to feed my children three meals per day (is lunch really necessary?) I haven’t blog-surfed for awhile, but after reading her book I’m pretty sure I’d like what I found there.

Paranormalcy was fast, fun, funny, and [quickly thinking of another ‘f’ word . . . ] fantastic. I had picked it up a few weeks ago, but every time I went to read it I ended up grabbing something else instead. I’ve become a bit burned out on the whole YA paranormal genre–I mean, I liked the Twilight series just as much as the next person, but the glut that flooded the market there for awhile made me long for regular old teenagers without any special abilities.

So . . . I was intrigued by the cover and the premise, but I couldn’t bring myself to start reading it for the longest time. Once I started it, though, I burned through that puppy in a matter of hours. As I said before, fast, fun, funny, and fantastic. (Hm. That joke was okay the first time around, but not so much the second time.)

Our heroine, Evie (short for Evelyn, naturally) works for the International  Paranormal Containment Agency. Besides being tough, smart, and pretty, she has a tazer. Which is enough for your average reader to completely fall in love with her, right?

Evie “tags and bags” various paranormals–werewolves, vampires, the occasional hag–and lives at the IPCA center with her best friend (who happens to be a mermaid–thank goodness for language-translating technology, right?). Evie’s own special talent of seeing through glamours makes her assistance invaluble. But when a new paranormal is captured, and large numbers of paranormals are turning up dead, Evie makes a discovery about her own classification that makes her question everything her life has been built on.

Again, the spoiler thing. I don’t want to say too much. I will say that I loved all the characters; they rang completely true. Beyond that, the entire book was fresh (ooh, another ‘f’!) and had a twist to the standard paranormal fare that I completely enjoyed. The book was serious and scary, but not dark. Evie always has hope, even when things look bleakest.  I love that about a main character.

Another thing I love is that the second book, Supernaturally, is out in less than a month. In fact, the only thing I would like better is if the entire series was already written so I wouldn’t have to wait.

[I just checked out Kiersten’s blog despite needing to pack for a three-week trip to my homeland. It’s hilarious and awesome. Add some paranormalcy to that and you’ve got her book: um, Paranormalcy.]

Sean Griswold’s Head by Lindsey Leavitt

(Picture stolen from Lindsey Leavitt’s website.)

I hadn’t heard of Lindsey Leavitt two months ago; I read Sean Griswold’s Head and rapidly inhaled all the other books she’s written (of which there are two, and of which I may post another review in the coming weeks) within a two week period–and that was only because I had to wait for one on the hold list in the library.

Sean Griswold’s Head is Young Adult Literature at its finest. Payton, the narrator, has a wonderful voice. It’s distinct, it’s believable, and it’s real. Her reactions and her growth in the book are spot on.

In the book, Payton discovers–in a not-so-great-way–that her beloved father has MS. It’s not only Payton’s journey into looking deeper at the relationships she has, but her ultimate acceptance of what she can and can not do about things that happen in her life.

I am purposely vague when writing reviews because I hate reading reviews where the story gets spoiled, SPOILER ALERTS notwithstanding. But I feel like I can say a few of the things that I loved about this book:

  • There are no mean girls. When I was in high school, there wasn’t a clique of popular, mean girls who tried to spoil everything for everybody else. Our cheerleaders were not only nice, they were super nice. Instead of having a stock mean girl character, Ms. Leavitt pulls some other interesting characters out of her head that make the story that much more believable.
  • There is a brother her best friend tries to flirt with. Having five brothers of my own, I know that this does indeed happen–but generally only with newer friends, since the friends that knew my brothers in junior high weren’t all that impressed with them later.
  • There aren’t mean girls, but there is a fight with her best friend. And she has to agonize over the resolution. I like it.
  • A mangled cat toy given as a gift. Need I say more?
  • And then, there’s Sean’s head. And Sean. Ahh. Seriously, you need to read this book.

Wait, did you read that last sentence? Seriously, you need to read this book. You can thank me later.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This is one of the best books I have read in a really, really long time.

It’s the story of Guernsey (which is not only a type of cow), an island in the English Channel, during the time of rebuilding right after World War II.

I had no idea the Germans had invaded the Channel Islands during World War II. (Come to think of it, I don’t even know that I was aware of the Channel Islands at all, my English Channel knowledge being heretofore limited to the Chunnel and people swimming and/or flying across it.)

Not only did this book open up the heartbreaking circumstances that occurred during the war, it also had a great story. It’s a gentle story, with normal people and how they reacted to all that was going on, with a charming, lovable heroine and a mysterious co-heroine.

It’s told exclusively through letters, and the authors did an absolutely amazing job. Letters are a hard way to tell a story, and it’s difficult to get each letter to sound like it’s from the character it’s supposed to.

Heartbeat by Sharon Creech

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This book, just like that last one I reviewed, resonated with me.

Unlike the last book, though, the cast of characters is simple and it only took me an hour (or so) to read.

Sharon Creech has another book out, Love That Dog, that I also love and that’s written in a similar style to this one.

Heartbeat is almost a long poem. The way Ms. Creech used the rhythm of the narrative poem, along with the words, truly made the book seem to have a heartbeat. I didn’t notice it while I was reading it, though, as much as afterwards. When I thought about the book, I seemed to think about it in a foot-pounding, heart-beating rhythm.

It’s hard to explain, and I think if I tried I wouldn’t get it right anyway, but she told such a perfect story in such few words, tying together running, art, family, friendship, aging, birthing, and eating an apple into a beautiful circle.

Just thinking about it makes me want to draw a picture (because I don’t run).

Summerland by Michael Chabon

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I realize I’ve been neglecting this blog. What can I say? Stuff happens, and I’ve had a lot of ‘stuff’ that has happened to me throughout the past ten months that hasn’t been all that pleasant and didn’t exactly fit into my life plan. Which, interestingly enough, is one of the reasons I ended up liking this book so much.

Don’t get me wrong: this book is weird. It isn’t my normal fare, and I didn’t understand a lot of it. (There’s some part of my brain that shuts down after 12 different kinds of magical creatures are introduced. I can’t help it. So the shmucks put into the story after that get quickly dropped into ‘supporting cast’ and I hope for the best.) However, I think one of the great tests of a book is how it resonates. This book completely resonated with me.

Ethan Feld is our hero, a 10- or 11- or 12-year-old boy who lives alone with his father on an island off of Washington state. His mother died a year previously, so they moved from Colorado to a property where his dad had the space to perfect the mini-zeppelins he had invented. Anyway, the book goes on (and on and on–it’s pretty long) where Ethan–who is not really very good at baseball–is the champion needed to save this world along with the three others that are connected to it. In the end, it comes down to (you guessed it!) a baseball game.

There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but the part I liked the most is near the end. Ethan can’t find any of his friends and he seems surrounded by evil henchmen (although I guess they would actually be called ‘henchwolves’ and other things like that, since they weren’t men) and he is completely exhausted. In his hands, he holds the last thing that keeps the four worlds from collapsing, a baseball bat carved from The Tree. He tries not to fall asleep, but he’s just so very tired.

It’s this moment when Coyote (the bad guy) sends in his weapon: the ghost of Ethan’s mother. She’s crying, and she comes to Ethan, and this is what happens:

“Her sobbing ceased, then, though its ghost or echo shook her frail body from time to time. He could feel the bones through her skin, just as he had when she lay dying in the hospital in Colorado Springs, those hollow angel bones of hers. The sweetness of that bitter memory, of her embrace, of holding her again and hearing her voice, filled his heart so full that all the old healed places in it were broken all over again. And in that moment he felt–for the first time that optimistic and cheerful boy allowed for himself to feel–how badly made life was, how flawed. No matter how richly furnished you made it, with all the noise and variety of Something, Nothing always found a way in, seeped through the cracks and patches.”

Just as Ethan is about to give in and hand the bat over to his mother, it catches on an injured part of his hand. The pain wakes him up enough to realize that it isn’t really his mother, simply La Llorona posing as her. Ethan yanks the bat back and she goes away, and then this:

“The grief of his mother’s death was returned to him, then; it resumed its right and familiar place: a part of life, a part of the story of Ethan Feld, a part of the world that was, after all, a world of stories, tragic and delightful, and, on the whole, very much the better for it. The memory of Dr. Victoria Jean Kummerman Feld was Something, unalterably Something, a hodag’s egg that no amount of Nothing could ever hope to touch or dissolve.”

The writing is completely mesmerizing, and I think the resonance comes because that beautiful writing and that complicated story have, at the core, truth. There were so many truths for me, at this time of my life. The truth that life is full of tragic and delightful parts; the truth that even when you feel inadequate you still need to give it the best you’ve got; the truth of good friends; the truth that painful experiences become a part of our own personal stories and that without them the story isn’t the same; and the truth that sometimes pain gives us the power to do what we need to do.

Read this book. See if it resonates with you.