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I have been nervous about the Freddy books for about a decade now; that is how long it's been since I'd read any of them. At least. I grew up with them, as some relative or other tucked a couple into a holiday box one year, and the library had a circulating selection. I remember really liking the ones with the Martians and the others are kind of blurry, so I had the fear one always has about childhood books: did this, while I grew up, receive a visit from the Suck Fairy? And did she bring her friends the Racism and Sexism Fairies along for the ride? I was so nervous about the Freddy books that I put off rereading the ones I own for about five years due, solely, to that nervousness. They are exactly the kind of thing that turns out to be awful when you grow up a depressing percentage of the time, and given that they were written in the 1930s through 1950s, well, the awful could have been spectacularly hideous.

I went through the library today and reread a lot of the ones I knew as a kid and read one, Freddy Goes to the North Pole, for the first time.

Thankfully, they aren't terrible. Whew. They are not brilliant, and they vary in quality extremely; you can see Brooks teaching himself to write them as he goes. They do not have consistent worldbuilding to the point where they do not have worldbuilding at all. They do not have consistent memories of things that happened in previous books, even.

But they are and remain charming, cute little books about a farm full of talking animals who, as a farm full of talking animals would inevitably be, are bored with farm work and therefore do anything else that comes into their heads. Freddy, the protagonist pig, has been a detective, an editor, a politician, a travel agent, a rocket scientist, a terrible poet (sadly a consistent feature)... the list goes ever on and on. The whole is set in a sort of bucolic-to-the-point-of-comedic-exaggeration whitebread extremely-stereotype-American small town which manages to get away with its strains of anti-Communism, rabid patriotism and general dislike of politicians by being such a caricature that you cannot possibly take any of its politics seriously. I am not capable of taking anti-Communist sentiments as intended as a real statement when they are expressed by a sheriff who hands off the key to the jail to his prisoners every weekend to make sure they don't feel unloved and rejected by society. I'm just not. Nobody can make me.

As an adult, I am capable of noticing which precise great English poems Freddy has plagiarized and turned into travesties of themselves in the service of his, uh, art. (Put down the Kipling! And back away slowly!) Apart from that, the books really haven't changed a bit, although I have no idea what anyone would think of them now who didn't read them as a kid.

The new-to-me-today is an odd duck among them, one of the ones that is more out-and-out fantastical, which is not the usual direction of this series. I don't think it works very well, but this is only the second and Brooks is still finding his feet. The animals decide to found a travel agency for other animals, in which they show them around various sights of interest in exchange for farm labor, and consequently all find themselves free to take a very long vacation; a party decides to go the North Pole. When it is not heard back from, another party goes... and discovers, in fact, Santa Claus. Whose shop has been taken over by the crew of a whaling ship who want to make it more efficient, which is making everybody miserable. The animals have to find a way to get the crew to go home without hurting them, since they generally mean well. Along the way they save a couple of orphans, have a genuinely tense confrontation with a wolf pack, and totally disregard everything about the way the climate on the way to the North Pole actually is (seriously, they all sleep on the ground under feather beds every night and it's just fine). It's an incredibly peculiar book.

As with all other Brooks, some animals talk and some don't, and some animals who talk eat other animals who talk, even knowing they talk, and some people are willing to eat even animals they know talk while other people are perfectly willing to treat the animals exactly as they would human beings, and the inconsistency of all of this multiplies by about ten thousand when you throw in Santa Claus, a crew of whalers, abused children, a fake treasure map, and lots and lots of filked Tennyson and Walter Scott. This specific novel doesn't quite gel, in that it's more a series of peculiar set-pieces than a coherent anything, but I can't disrecommend it, because it's certainly different.

And as I said, the series in general holds up, especially the ones with the Martians, because Brooks turns out to be way better at SF than fantasy, once you just take the talking animals as one of those things that happens sometimes. Which in fact is how everyone takes it. So, while these are not the sort of kids' books that turn out to be treasures that were totally beyond one's comprehension at the time (Keith Robertson's Henry Reed books turn out to be hilarious in ways I had never dreamed possible), they are the sort you can read happily and reminiscently without feeling sick to one's stomach. This makes me very cheerful, because, well, that's a whole chunk of childhood.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I have been nervous about the Freddy books for about a decade now; that is how long it's been since I'd read any of them. At least. I grew up with them, as some relative or other tucked a couple into a holiday box one year, and the library had a circulating selection. I remember really liking the ones with the Martians and the others are kind of blurry, so I had the fear one always has about childhood books: did this, while I grew up, receive a visit from the Suck Fairy? And did she bring her friends the Racism and Sexism Fairies along for the ride? I was so nervous about the Freddy books that I put off rereading the ones I own for about five years due, solely, to that nervousness. They are exactly the kind of thing that turns out to be awful when you grow up a depressing percentage of the time, and given that they were written in the 1930s through 1950s, well, the awful could have been spectacularly hideous.

I went through the library today and reread a lot of the ones I knew as a kid and read one, Freddy Goes to the North Pole, for the first time.

Thankfully, they aren't terrible. Whew. They are not brilliant, and they vary in quality extremely; you can see Brooks teaching himself to write them as he goes. They do not have consistent worldbuilding to the point where they do not have worldbuilding at all. They do not have consistent memories of things that happened in previous books, even.

But they are and remain charming, cute little books about a farm full of talking animals who, as a farm full of talking animals would inevitably be, are bored with farm work and therefore do anything else that comes into their heads. Freddy, the protagonist pig, has been a detective, an editor, a politician, a travel agent, a rocket scientist, a terrible poet (sadly a consistent feature)... the list goes ever on and on. The whole is set in a sort of bucolic-to-the-point-of-comedic-exaggeration whitebread extremely-stereotype-American small town which manages to get away with its strains of anti-Communism, rabid patriotism and general dislike of politicians by being such a caricature that you cannot possibly take any of its politics seriously. I am not capable of taking anti-Communist sentiments as intended as a real statement when they are expressed by a sheriff who hands off the key to the jail to his prisoners every weekend to make sure they don't feel unloved and rejected by society. I'm just not. Nobody can make me.

As an adult, I am capable of noticing which precise great English poems Freddy has plagiarized and turned into travesties of themselves in the service of his, uh, art. (Put down the Kipling! And back away slowly!) Apart from that, the books really haven't changed a bit, although I have no idea what anyone would think of them now who didn't read them as a kid.

The new-to-me-today is an odd duck among them, one of the ones that is more out-and-out fantastical, which is not the usual direction of this series. I don't think it works very well, but this is only the second and Brooks is still finding his feet. The animals decide to found a travel agency for other animals, in which they show them around various sights of interest in exchange for farm labor, and consequently all find themselves free to take a very long vacation; a party decides to go the North Pole. When it is not heard back from, another party goes... and discovers, in fact, Santa Claus. Whose shop has been taken over by the crew of a whaling ship who want to make it more efficient, which is making everybody miserable. The animals have to find a way to get the crew to go home without hurting them, since they generally mean well. Along the way they save a couple of orphans, have a genuinely tense confrontation with a wolf pack, and totally disregard everything about the way the climate on the way to the North Pole actually is (seriously, they all sleep on the ground under feather beds every night and it's just fine). It's an incredibly peculiar book.

As with all other Brooks, some animals talk and some don't, and some animals who talk eat other animals who talk, even knowing they talk, and some people are willing to eat even animals they know talk while other people are perfectly willing to treat the animals exactly as they would human beings, and the inconsistency of all of this multiplies by about ten thousand when you throw in Santa Claus, a crew of whalers, abused children, a fake treasure map, and lots and lots of filked Tennyson and Walter Scott. This specific novel doesn't quite gel, in that it's more a series of peculiar set-pieces than a coherent anything, but I can't disrecommend it, because it's certainly different.

And as I said, the series in general holds up, especially the ones with the Martians, because Brooks turns out to be way better at SF than fantasy, once you just take the talking animals as one of those things that happens sometimes. Which in fact is how everyone takes it. So, while these are not the sort of kids' books that turn out to be treasures that were totally beyond one's comprehension at the time (Keith Robertson's Henry Reed books turn out to be hilarious in ways I had never dreamed possible), they are the sort you can read happily and reminiscently without feeling sick to one's stomach. This makes me very cheerful, because, well, that's a whole chunk of childhood.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
If most writers were to write a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, I should look at them doubtfully, over my glasses, and try to be polite in the face of my doubts, and worry about whether or not to read the thing, and so on.

But this is Hilary McKay, and she wrote Saffy's Angel. Which is one of the best children's books of the past decade or so and stands proudly with writers like Elizabeth Enright.

So I knew that this would be a good book, as indeed it is. What I didn't know was whether it would be a reasonable sequel to its predecessor, whether it would have anything to do in tone and character development with the things that happen in that book.

Yes and no.

This is a story about what happens at Miss Minchin's Seminary after Sara Crewe leaves it behind. Because she had friends and enemies there, and left them lacking a scullery maid, and went off very suddenly, and this is the sort of event that changes a place forever. Things cannot go back to the same dull round after you have had A Plot Occur.

And indeed, in this book they do not. Ermengarde, who was Sara's particular friend, misses her and is greatly distressed by having been left out of the last bit of the plot of the previous (which I hadn't really noticed, but, indeed she was). Lottie, who was Sara's particular charge, can no longer be told what to do by anyone or anything. Lavinia, who was Sara's particular enemy, sees her as having managed a jailbreak, which means that the school is a jail: and in looking around for ways out of the jail the thought that occurs to her is labeled, in grand colors, Oxford.

It's a book about mourning, and wondering whether one was really ever necessary to the person one mourns for, and coming to life again in the ashes. As that, it works, and it follows its model, for A Little Princess is very much a novel of and about grief, and the stages of grief, and coming back from that.

It is, also, in an approximation of Burnett's style which is reasonable without containing the preachy aphorisms Burnett goes off into sometimes. But McKay does not have Burnett's gift for the single exact enlivening sentence-- at least not with the Victorian sort of adjectives she is here required to use, for that is a gift I have seen her have elsewhere, with contemporary language.

The thing is, though-- look.

I am a feminist. I am fond of books about women. I am fond of books about women and girls learning who they are and what they can be. This book is full of that. I enjoy it wildly.

In fact it is, for the time it takes place, possibly unconvincingly full of that. I know it's a children's book, I know it's meant to end happily, but this is a book in which every woman of any interest to the reader sees whether she is in a trap and if so figures a way out of it, every single one of them. In short, this is not a tragedy at all: and in the original, there is still death. I look at the way things work out in this book, and the plot, and the plot says 'hard work will make everything absolutely fine', and that is not what the first book says; it says 'hard work and kindness will make everything fine, except what is by nature unfixable'. In the world in which these young women go to seminary, the trap of the female role was, sometimes, unfixable despite rage and pain and all the work in the world. I would have liked that acknowledged, because if I had read this particular book as a girl myself, I would have thought that if things weren't coming right that meant I wasn't working hard enough. Sometimes all the hard work and all the dreams and all the kindness in the world do not change a reality that is a harsh one. Sara's father really died. In McKay, even Miss Minchin breaks her chains, finally.

In short, the first, despite having been written in a notably sentimental age by the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, is darker, and I think a great children's book needs at least an undertone of darkness. The reason A Little Princess lasts is the darkness, the loneliness, the grief, and the attic, and the portrait of what kindness can and cannot do for those.

Which McKay has known before, in her Casson books, and will probably know again. It is difficult to have things come out ambiguously or complicatedly when you are working with material you have loved as a child. This is perhaps why I do not like her Sara. Her Sara is, well, not enough older; hurt has its aftereffects, doesn't it? Not as much here.

So I would say this is very good, and very readable, and does not make me wish to throw things, but it is not a Great Novel as the first was (not that one expected a Great Novel, but one could hope). Still, it is nice to know what happened to and at Miss Minchin's, at the end.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
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If most writers were to write a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, I should look at them doubtfully, over my glasses, and try to be polite in the face of my doubts, and worry about whether or not to read the thing, and so on.

But this is Hilary McKay, and she wrote Saffy's Angel. Which is one of the best children's books of the past decade or so and stands proudly with writers like Elizabeth Enright.

So I knew that this would be a good book, as indeed it is. What I didn't know was whether it would be a reasonable sequel to its predecessor, whether it would have anything to do in tone and character development with the things that happen in that book.

Yes and no.

This is a story about what happens at Miss Minchin's Seminary after Sara Crewe leaves it behind. Because she had friends and enemies there, and left them lacking a scullery maid, and went off very suddenly, and this is the sort of event that changes a place forever. Things cannot go back to the same dull round after you have had A Plot Occur.

And indeed, in this book they do not. Ermengarde, who was Sara's particular friend, misses her and is greatly distressed by having been left out of the last bit of the plot of the previous (which I hadn't really noticed, but, indeed she was). Lottie, who was Sara's particular charge, can no longer be told what to do by anyone or anything. Lavinia, who was Sara's particular enemy, sees her as having managed a jailbreak, which means that the school is a jail: and in looking around for ways out of the jail the thought that occurs to her is labeled, in grand colors, Oxford.

It's a book about mourning, and wondering whether one was really ever necessary to the person one mourns for, and coming to life again in the ashes. As that, it works, and it follows its model, for A Little Princess is very much a novel of and about grief, and the stages of grief, and coming back from that.

It is, also, in an approximation of Burnett's style which is reasonable without containing the preachy aphorisms Burnett goes off into sometimes. But McKay does not have Burnett's gift for the single exact enlivening sentence-- at least not with the Victorian sort of adjectives she is here required to use, for that is a gift I have seen her have elsewhere, with contemporary language.

The thing is, though-- look.

I am a feminist. I am fond of books about women. I am fond of books about women and girls learning who they are and what they can be. This book is full of that. I enjoy it wildly.

In fact it is, for the time it takes place, possibly unconvincingly full of that. I know it's a children's book, I know it's meant to end happily, but this is a book in which every woman of any interest to the reader sees whether she is in a trap and if so figures a way out of it, every single one of them. In short, this is not a tragedy at all: and in the original, there is still death. I look at the way things work out in this book, and the plot, and the plot says 'hard work will make everything absolutely fine', and that is not what the first book says; it says 'hard work and kindness will make everything fine, except what is by nature unfixable'. In the world in which these young women go to seminary, the trap of the female role was, sometimes, unfixable despite rage and pain and all the work in the world. I would have liked that acknowledged, because if I had read this particular book as a girl myself, I would have thought that if things weren't coming right that meant I wasn't working hard enough. Sometimes all the hard work and all the dreams and all the kindness in the world do not change a reality that is a harsh one. Sara's father really died. In McKay, even Miss Minchin breaks her chains, finally.

In short, the first, despite having been written in a notably sentimental age by the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, is darker, and I think a great children's book needs at least an undertone of darkness. The reason A Little Princess lasts is the darkness, the loneliness, the grief, and the attic, and the portrait of what kindness can and cannot do for those.

Which McKay has known before, in her Casson books, and will probably know again. It is difficult to have things come out ambiguously or complicatedly when you are working with material you have loved as a child. This is perhaps why I do not like her Sara. Her Sara is, well, not enough older; hurt has its aftereffects, doesn't it? Not as much here.

So I would say this is very good, and very readable, and does not make me wish to throw things, but it is not a Great Novel as the first was (not that one expected a Great Novel, but one could hope). Still, it is nice to know what happened to and at Miss Minchin's, at the end.
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Review of the book I read on July 28th.

Joan Aiken, over the course of a long and illustrious career, wrote so many books that I have lost track of them, but is probably best known among my acquaintance for the Dido Twite series, a YA alternate-universe Victorian-era-except-she-didn't-reign fantasy romp that charms everyone else much more than it charms me. She also wrote Gothics, which I haven't read.

My problem with Joan Aiken is an unusual one, so unusual that it took me some time to identify it. I realized immediately that I found her work boring, but I couldn't figure out why, because on the surface it is just the sort of thing I ought to like.

The problem is that we think the same way. Someone will mention a plot point in one of her novels, and I will say 'but that was so dull, it was obvious that that was going to happen from page six', and the person will stare at me. And after several years it became obvious that it is not that her plots are predictable, it is that it is always what I would have done if I were plotting the book, and so I expect it and therefore find it predictable.

Therefore I have kept reading Joan Aiken, because on two separate occasions now I have run across things of hers which do do exactly what I would have done in the circumstances, but which are so much more impressively executed than I was expecting that I know they are better than I could have done them. And that is a rare treasure, if you have ever run into someone who thinks the same way you do, to get to see them do something better sharper shinier more. It gives the reading effect of eucatastrophe: I thought this would be the same old thing, but it isn't. It is almost as pleasant as surprising oneself.

The first of the two Joan Aiken things I like is The Stolen Lake, which I will defend against all comers as the most insane Arthurian novel ever written, and desperately treasure. I don't want to tell you anything else about it. It is too gloriously weird.

The second is the short story 'The Land of Trees and Heroes', which, as it is an Armitage family story, has been reprinted by Small Beer Press in this collection, The Serial Garden, along with all the other Armitage stories.

The deal with the Armitages is that, while they were on their honeymoon, Mrs. Armitage worried that their life might be boring, and wished for magical and exceptional things to happen to them. But only-- well, mostly-- on Mondays, so as not to make too much of a mess. The first and seminal Armitage story, which Aiken wrote at the age of sixteen (it reads as though she'd been a pro for decades) is called 'Yes, But Today Is Tuesday', in which the Armitage children inform their parents that there is a unicorn in the garden and this is incredibly confusing and upsetting because it is, in fact, Tuesday. The world has therefore slipped its natural courses. Unicorns are fine on Mondays, but Tuesday is just beyond the pale...

At their best, the Armitage stories, which Aiken wrote throughout her multi-decade career, walk a thin and lovely balance between the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are taken completely for granted and the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are, well, extremely peculiar. The Armitages are perfectly capable of dealing with anything whatsoever, as long as it happens on a Monday and everyone gets turned back into their natural shapes before teatime. This must have been an influence on Diana Wynne Jones, I can't see it not being.

At their worst, the stories fall off one side or the other of that tightrope. When everyone is too blasé about magic, there's little sense of danger, and when they're too confused, there's little sense of the unflappability that really makes the humor. But at least half the stories do walk that line adequately.

And 'The Land of Trees and Heroes' throws in the numinous. It is, as far as I can tell, an Armitage retelling (with alterations) of At the Back of the North Wind, without the bad poetry and Victorian philosophizing. It's funny (there is one segment that makes me laugh every single time), mythic, odd, pragmatic, and manages to feel nothing at all like E. Nesbit (which, by virtue of subject matter, it should; I love E. Nesbit but sometimes she is a magnetic force).

So I bought the collection for that one story, really, but it is a good collection, a good read-aloud book for a rainy night, full of wizards who practice eminent domain, church fetes to buy new wands for retired fairies, and the unicorns eating the azaleas. And, thank heaven, it is never, ever twee; sometimes flat, but never over-sentimental, purple, or treacly.

Maybe in another decade or so I'll run into another Joan Aiken I like.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Review of the book I read on July 28th.

Joan Aiken, over the course of a long and illustrious career, wrote so many books that I have lost track of them, but is probably best known among my acquaintance for the Dido Twite series, a YA alternate-universe Victorian-era-except-she-didn't-reign fantasy romp that charms everyone else much more than it charms me. She also wrote Gothics, which I haven't read.

My problem with Joan Aiken is an unusual one, so unusual that it took me some time to identify it. I realized immediately that I found her work boring, but I couldn't figure out why, because on the surface it is just the sort of thing I ought to like.

The problem is that we think the same way. Someone will mention a plot point in one of her novels, and I will say 'but that was so dull, it was obvious that that was going to happen from page six', and the person will stare at me. And after several years it became obvious that it is not that her plots are predictable, it is that it is always what I would have done if I were plotting the book, and so I expect it and therefore find it predictable.

Therefore I have kept reading Joan Aiken, because on two separate occasions now I have run across things of hers which do do exactly what I would have done in the circumstances, but which are so much more impressively executed than I was expecting that I know they are better than I could have done them. And that is a rare treasure, if you have ever run into someone who thinks the same way you do, to get to see them do something better sharper shinier more. It gives the reading effect of eucatastrophe: I thought this would be the same old thing, but it isn't. It is almost as pleasant as surprising oneself.

The first of the two Joan Aiken things I like is The Stolen Lake, which I will defend against all comers as the most insane Arthurian novel ever written, and desperately treasure. I don't want to tell you anything else about it. It is too gloriously weird.

The second is the short story 'The Land of Trees and Heroes', which, as it is an Armitage family story, has been reprinted by Small Beer Press in this collection, The Serial Garden, along with all the other Armitage stories.

The deal with the Armitages is that, while they were on their honeymoon, Mrs. Armitage worried that their life might be boring, and wished for magical and exceptional things to happen to them. But only-- well, mostly-- on Mondays, so as not to make too much of a mess. The first and seminal Armitage story, which Aiken wrote at the age of sixteen (it reads as though she'd been a pro for decades) is called 'Yes, But Today Is Tuesday', in which the Armitage children inform their parents that there is a unicorn in the garden and this is incredibly confusing and upsetting because it is, in fact, Tuesday. The world has therefore slipped its natural courses. Unicorns are fine on Mondays, but Tuesday is just beyond the pale...

At their best, the Armitage stories, which Aiken wrote throughout her multi-decade career, walk a thin and lovely balance between the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are taken completely for granted and the kind of domestic comedy in which odd magical happenings are, well, extremely peculiar. The Armitages are perfectly capable of dealing with anything whatsoever, as long as it happens on a Monday and everyone gets turned back into their natural shapes before teatime. This must have been an influence on Diana Wynne Jones, I can't see it not being.

At their worst, the stories fall off one side or the other of that tightrope. When everyone is too blasé about magic, there's little sense of danger, and when they're too confused, there's little sense of the unflappability that really makes the humor. But at least half the stories do walk that line adequately.

And 'The Land of Trees and Heroes' throws in the numinous. It is, as far as I can tell, an Armitage retelling (with alterations) of At the Back of the North Wind, without the bad poetry and Victorian philosophizing. It's funny (there is one segment that makes me laugh every single time), mythic, odd, pragmatic, and manages to feel nothing at all like E. Nesbit (which, by virtue of subject matter, it should; I love E. Nesbit but sometimes she is a magnetic force).

So I bought the collection for that one story, really, but it is a good collection, a good read-aloud book for a rainy night, full of wizards who practice eminent domain, church fetes to buy new wands for retired fairies, and the unicorns eating the azaleas. And, thank heaven, it is never, ever twee; sometimes flat, but never over-sentimental, purple, or treacly.

Maybe in another decade or so I'll run into another Joan Aiken I like.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Links to the reviews I posted during the recent LJ outage. I am not reposting, but anonymous and open ID commenting are open over there (though I would appreciate some kind of name signed to anonymous comments so as to be able to maintain continuity of conversation).

Day 325: Trilogy, H.D.. Poetry, unfairly overlooked lesbian author.

Day 326: Paying For It, Chester Brown. Graphic novel. Interesting but highly problematic memoir about prostitution from the perspective of a customer.

Day 327: Faerie Winter, Janni Lee Simner. Good YA fantasy by a friend of mine.

Day 328: The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Unfairly obscure Argentinian science fiction indirectly responsible for the movie Last Year at Marienbad.

Day 329: Earth X, Alex Ross and Jim Krueger. Graphic novel. Dark Marvel Comics AU with a very interesting take on Captain America.

Day 330: Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As Ghosts, Ursula Vernon. Fifth in Vernon's fun series of illustrated kids' books; not a strong entry.

And the two since made it through crossposting.
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Review of the book I read Monday, July 25th, yay almost being caught up. My goal is to be caught up before I have to go to Otakon this weekend and fall drastically behind again.

Well, this latest installment of Ursula Vernon's semi-graphic-novel Dragonbreath series is at least better than the immediately previous, Lair of the Bat Monster, which just didn't have any spark to it. This one suffers from being set in a very confined space, and from not having very much of the truly spectacular weirdness which is Vernon at her best. In fact, the story beats of this one are all pretty much predictable as soon as you know what genre she's working in, and I was moderately annoyed by that.

Anyway, Danny Dragonbreath and his friends go trick-or-treating. One of his friends is his usual sidekick, Wendell, and the other is Christiana, who is such a confirmed skeptic that she doesn't even believe that Danny is a dragon instead of some kind of big lizard or something. They get tricked by the school bully into going into a house that's supposed to be haunted, and hey, what do you know, it is.

The best things about this are the running jokes about Wendell's and Christiana's parents, who are devoutly bent on being Educational At All Times and have consequently made their children dress for Halloween as a hydrogen atom and a salmonella bacterium. Also, Ursula Vernon draws a reasonably creepy evil clown. But most of this is the party of friends wandering through the house and being scared, and it just kind of gets old after a while. Where by after a while I mean pretty quickly.

Still, as I said, it's better than the last one, so maybe this series is looking up again. The next one is apparently set at a summer camp. That has potential.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A pleasant, rambling, and delightful little book based on Chinese folktales. The author's description of its genesis in the afternote begins: "By the age of eleven, I had fully disregarded my Asian heritage. My wise mother, knowing that any kind of forced cultural exposure would lead to scorn, silently left half a dozen Chinese folktale and fairy-tale books on the bookshelf. Unable to resist the pull of a new book, I very quietly began to read them."

This is a book steeped in its author's obvious happiness in her work, in her material, and in the way she gets to pull stories that she loves into a single thread.

I'd heard some of the stories-- the one about the painting of a dragon which is so good that the artist has to leave out the eyes, and then when the eyes are put in it comes to life; the general idea of the peaches of immortality; the waterfall which can transform a fish into a dragon if the fish can leap up it. Some I had not, and some are no doubt original. The protagonist, Minli, comes from a very poor village which is overlooked by a mountain on which nothing will grow because it is the heart of a dragon mother who has been separated from her children. Minli decides to travel to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to change her fortune, and in the process wanders through a great many stories about the moon, destiny, the nature of happiness, and the wicked deeds of a particular evil magistrate.

Many of the shorter stories are told separately as interjections in the text, which are told in a very oral style, inserted when some character tells a story, and this is part of what lends it the pleasantly rambling feel, these things that feel like digressions and aren't, necessarily. This is a text that is willing to take the scenic route to get where it is going, and which wants to remember that it does have oral roots. I think it would probably go well aloud.

I just simply liked this. It's sweet-natured, not overly preachy, and fun, and you get to sit there wondering how she's going to tie xyz disparate element in when it appears, and it all does wind up in a neat and prettily planned convergence. There's a lot of cool stuff-- talking lion statues, dragon pearls, kites flown on the threads of destiny-- and the whole is illustrated with the author's own (detailed and precise) full-color drawings. If you need a book to give to someone in elementary school any time soon, this would be a very good bet.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A pleasant, rambling, and delightful little book based on Chinese folktales. The author's description of its genesis in the afternote begins: "By the age of eleven, I had fully disregarded my Asian heritage. My wise mother, knowing that any kind of forced cultural exposure would lead to scorn, silently left half a dozen Chinese folktale and fairy-tale books on the bookshelf. Unable to resist the pull of a new book, I very quietly began to read them."

This is a book steeped in its author's obvious happiness in her work, in her material, and in the way she gets to pull stories that she loves into a single thread.

I'd heard some of the stories-- the one about the painting of a dragon which is so good that the artist has to leave out the eyes, and then when the eyes are put in it comes to life; the general idea of the peaches of immortality; the waterfall which can transform a fish into a dragon if the fish can leap up it. Some I had not, and some are no doubt original. The protagonist, Minli, comes from a very poor village which is overlooked by a mountain on which nothing will grow because it is the heart of a dragon mother who has been separated from her children. Minli decides to travel to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to change her fortune, and in the process wanders through a great many stories about the moon, destiny, the nature of happiness, and the wicked deeds of a particular evil magistrate.

Many of the shorter stories are told separately as interjections in the text, which are told in a very oral style, inserted when some character tells a story, and this is part of what lends it the pleasantly rambling feel, these things that feel like digressions and aren't, necessarily. This is a text that is willing to take the scenic route to get where it is going, and which wants to remember that it does have oral roots. I think it would probably go well aloud.

I just simply liked this. It's sweet-natured, not overly preachy, and fun, and you get to sit there wondering how she's going to tie xyz disparate element in when it appears, and it all does wind up in a neat and prettily planned convergence. There's a lot of cool stuff-- talking lion statues, dragon pearls, kites flown on the threads of destiny-- and the whole is illustrated with the author's own (detailed and precise) full-color drawings. If you need a book to give to someone in elementary school any time soon, this would be a very good bet.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
The third of Ursula Vernon's illustrated-novel Dragonbreath series, which I have been reading out of order, and by far my favorite to date.

Danny Dragonbreath and his iguana friend Wendell are having a perfectly ordinary school lunch, or are attempting to, when Wendell's hotdog bites him. They take this in stride-- it is, after all, only fair-- until Wendell starts growing hair all over his body and becoming eerily hypnotized by the moon.

At which point the problem becomes what to do about hotdog-induced lycanthropy. Horror movies and folklore just don't cover this specific issue.

From there we get a fast-paced romp which is a loving homage to the classic werewolf movie and various other forms of horror, a story sufficiently silly that I cannot figure out how it could possibly scare anybody, and a never-ending source of great one-liners. (When Danny and Wendell are sneaking out of a house late at night, and Wendell is very carefully hiding behind bushes and creeping from tree to tree, Danny points out that there aren't any adults nearby, and they haven't seen any ninjas in this neighborhood for months, so get over it. This moment is so perfectly Ursula Vernon that it summarizes something for me, as does the bit in which calling the number on the package that the hotdogs came in actually produces useful information, even though there is no handy source of holy water mixed with mustard when they hear that that could be helpful.)

In short, this is even more deranged than the one with the ninja frogs, and it's silly and sweet and will make you smile. I am sad that the fourth one, with the bat monster, was so message-driven and hammerfisted, because the third is a good example of what this series can be when Vernon is doing her best with it. Hopefully it will get this good again; I know she's got like six more planned.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
The third of Ursula Vernon's illustrated-novel Dragonbreath series, which I have been reading out of order, and by far my favorite to date.

Danny Dragonbreath and his iguana friend Wendell are having a perfectly ordinary school lunch, or are attempting to, when Wendell's hotdog bites him. They take this in stride-- it is, after all, only fair-- until Wendell starts growing hair all over his body and becoming eerily hypnotized by the moon.

At which point the problem becomes what to do about hotdog-induced lycanthropy. Horror movies and folklore just don't cover this specific issue.

From there we get a fast-paced romp which is a loving homage to the classic werewolf movie and various other forms of horror, a story sufficiently silly that I cannot figure out how it could possibly scare anybody, and a never-ending source of great one-liners. (When Danny and Wendell are sneaking out of a house late at night, and Wendell is very carefully hiding behind bushes and creeping from tree to tree, Danny points out that there aren't any adults nearby, and they haven't seen any ninjas in this neighborhood for months, so get over it. This moment is so perfectly Ursula Vernon that it summarizes something for me, as does the bit in which calling the number on the package that the hotdogs came in actually produces useful information, even though there is no handy source of holy water mixed with mustard when they hear that that could be helpful.)

In short, this is even more deranged than the one with the ninja frogs, and it's silly and sweet and will make you smile. I am sad that the fourth one, with the bat monster, was so message-driven and hammerfisted, because the third is a good example of what this series can be when Vernon is doing her best with it. Hopefully it will get this good again; I know she's got like six more planned.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Review from July 3rd.

You get two books today, because I found Jill Paton Walsh's Birdy and the Ghosties and Matthew and the Sea Singer together at the library and they're both short. Jill Paton Walsh really came to my attention when [livejournal.com profile] papersky gave me a copy of Knowledge of Angels, a staggeringly brilliant medieval theological fantasy which is one of the few books I know that really captures the way in which people in the past simply did not think the way people in the present think. In the process of my mentioning to [livejournal.com profile] sovay that everyone in the world ought to read Knowledge of Angels, [livejournal.com profile] sovay looked up Walsh's bibliography. I discovered I'd had The Green Book read to me in elementary school and had read about six of her others, in that way where one reads things as a young teenager and promptly forgets the title and author but can recite sentences word-perfect a decade later. Then [livejournal.com profile] sovay discovered that she'd been looking for the titles and author of Birdy and the Ghosties and Matthew and the Sea Singer for the last twenty years, because they were formative, so I read them.

Wow.

You can read each of these in about ten minutes, even if you aren't me, because they are very short, but they will stick with you. They have the kind of language that feels hewed out of solid oral tradition, found or grown rather than designed, and yet constructed with a layer of novelistic care as well as the classical pattern of the folktale. If I am reminded of anything, which I'm not, really, it's Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, except that these are for anybody from about the age of four up.

Birdie, Bird Janet, lives with her mother and father in a hut where a road meets a river and the river meets the sea. Her father is a ferryman, mostly rowing across the river but sometimes taking people to the nearest sea island. In Birdie and the Ghosties, Birdie learns that she has second sight (delightfully and pragmatically expressed as looking at everything twice), which becomes useful when her father gets asked to ferry three ghosts across to the second sea island, the one that wasn't there until that morning, and Birdie has to sit in the bows to even out the weight of the boat. Her father can't see the ghosts at all. This is one of those books that has a surface plot, which is perfect, and then another set of things going on which are more concealed, which are also perfect, and which rose up and smacked me on the last page so I had to sit blinking and contemplating for longer than it had taken to read the book. Astonishing.

Matthew and the Sea Singer is slightly less complex, but funnier: Matthew is an orphan Birdie buys from a cruel master, who is taken by a sea queen because he has a voice that sounds like heaven. She won't give him back unless they teach one of her sea creatures to sing just as well as he can, which is not an easy proposition; for one thing, it has to stay wet, and the parson is the choirmaster, and nobody's quite certain it's right to have it flopping about in the font like that... According to [livejournal.com profile] sovay this one is a real folktale, although not one I'd heard before. It's also basically perfect. I can't figure out how either of these books could possibly be improved on. They have good illustrations, even, watercolor over pen-and-ink with a slightly smudgey feel that works well for both funny and numinous.

These are utterly spectacular and I urge you not to miss them if you like folktale retellings at all even a little bit. They're out of print, but I had no trouble at the library, and it was the town library, not the university, so they shouldn't be that hard to track down. Buying them, on the other hand, well, going to have to work on that, I think. It will be worth it.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Review from July 3rd.

You get two books today, because I found Jill Paton Walsh's Birdy and the Ghosties and Matthew and the Sea Singer together at the library and they're both short. Jill Paton Walsh really came to my attention when [community profile] papersky gave me a copy of Knowledge of Angels, a staggeringly brilliant medieval theological fantasy which is one of the few books I know that really captures the way in which people in the past simply did not think the way people in the present think. In the process of my mentioning to [personal profile] sovay that everyone in the world ought to read Knowledge of Angels, [personal profile] sovay looked up Walsh's bibliography. I discovered I'd had The Green Book read to me in elementary school and had read about six of her others, in that way where one reads things as a young teenager and promptly forgets the title and author but can recite sentences word-perfect a decade later. Then [personal profile] sovay discovered that she'd been looking for the titles and author of Birdy and the Ghosties and Matthew and the Sea Singer for the last twenty years, because they were formative, so I read them.

Wow.

You can read each of these in about ten minutes, even if you aren't me, because they are very short, but they will stick with you. They have the kind of language that feels hewed out of solid oral tradition, found or grown rather than designed, and yet constructed with a layer of novelistic care as well as the classical pattern of the folktale. If I am reminded of anything, which I'm not, really, it's Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, except that these are for anybody from about the age of four up.

Birdie, Bird Janet, lives with her mother and father in a hut where a road meets a river and the river meets the sea. Her father is a ferryman, mostly rowing across the river but sometimes taking people to the nearest sea island. In Birdie and the Ghosties, Birdie learns that she has second sight (delightfully and pragmatically expressed as looking at everything twice), which becomes useful when her father gets asked to ferry three ghosts across to the second sea island, the one that wasn't there until that morning, and Birdie has to sit in the bows to even out the weight of the boat. Her father can't see the ghosts at all. This is one of those books that has a surface plot, which is perfect, and then another set of things going on which are more concealed, which are also perfect, and which rose up and smacked me on the last page so I had to sit blinking and contemplating for longer than it had taken to read the book. Astonishing.

Matthew and the Sea Singer is slightly less complex, but funnier: Matthew is an orphan Birdie buys from a cruel master, who is taken by a sea queen because he has a voice that sounds like heaven. She won't give him back unless they teach one of her sea creatures to sing just as well as he can, which is not an easy proposition; for one thing, it has to stay wet, and the parson is the choirmaster, and nobody's quite certain it's right to have it flopping about in the font like that... According to [personal profile] sovay this one is a real folktale, although not one I'd heard before. It's also basically perfect. I can't figure out how either of these books could possibly be improved on. They have good illustrations, even, watercolor over pen-and-ink with a slightly smudgey feel that works well for both funny and numinous.

These are utterly spectacular and I urge you not to miss them if you like folktale retellings at all even a little bit. They're out of print, but I had no trouble at the library, and it was the town library, not the university, so they shouldn't be that hard to track down. Buying them, on the other hand, well, going to have to work on that, I think. It will be worth it.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
So, as you may recall, a little while ago I stumbled across the extremely peculiar nature diaries of Opal Whiteley, who may or may not have written at seven an extraordinarily detailed and completely bizarre account of her life and the country around her house. In the comments, [livejournal.com profile] sovay asked if maybe Whiteley had been influenced by Emily of New Moon, and then said, wait, Whiteley's book came out and was a huge bestseller in 1920 and Emily of New Moon came out in 1923...

Having read Emily of New Moon this evening, I will personally swear an affidavit before anyone you like that this book is, in fact, what happened when Montgomery read Whiteley. I haven't read Montgomery's diaries, which might prove or disprove the hypothesis-- anyone who has read those, feel free to step in-- but damn, it's amazing, if you put Anne of Green Gables in a blender with Whiteley this is absolutely what you get coming out the other side.

Emily is a smart and sensitive child sent to live with relatives after the death of her father. She is determined to be a writer, in the face of non-comprehension and/or active hostility from her family, and the book is very funny about her juvenile poetry, best describable as sub-Tennyson. It's obvious, though, that she does have the talent and perseverance to go somewhere with it. The portions of the book not concerned with writing are about farm, friends, possible romantic interests (of whom one seriously skeeves me out; it is not reasonable at thirty-five to decide to wait for a twelve-year-old and I have this horrible suspicion she's actually going to marry him *headdesk*), and a rather incoherent and vaguely supernatural plot about a local scandal.

The portions of the book concerned with her writing involve the aforementioned poetry, but also large stretches of letters to her dead father, quoted in full, and all I have to say about the spelling, subject matter, number of fairies mentioned, and protagonist's attitude towards animals, sunsets, and moderately large rocks is: Whiteley, Whiteley, Whiteley. Oh, it's somewhat more conventional in grammar (how could it not be), but seriously, she names trees in the same style. Given Whiteley's fantasies about perfect dead parents who wanted her to be intelligent and learned as opposed to her real family who wanted her to be obedient, this could almost qualify as fanfiction were it not that that story is also so very much the framework Montgomery was already working in.

I have mixed feelings about a lot of Montgomery-- the pacing of Anne of Green Gables is nonexistent, and she knew what she wanted to write and stuck to it (over and over), but The Blue Castle is a perfect little book, one of the greatest romance novels and female escapes-from-domestic-Hades I have read. This one is better-paced than Anne but has, as I mentioned, a plot element I find skeevy, and has a thin overlay of twee that wanders in and out (too much about those cutesy-Victorian-type flower fairies). I do always have a soft spot for portraits of girls who are going to grow up to be writers, to do the work of that, and who are not judged for it by their narratives. This is a readable book, pleasant enough, but I'm not sure I'd have finished it if it weren't for the Whiteley aspect, which led to a whole meta-level of sheer pleasure at watching Montgomery work. I really need to find out whether there is evidence of this as an actual textual connection. Then I need not to accidentally write a comparative literature dissertation.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
So, as you may recall, a little while ago I stumbled across the extremely peculiar nature diaries of Opal Whiteley, who may or may not have written at seven an extraordinarily detailed and completely bizarre account of her life and the country around her house. In the comments, [personal profile] sovay asked if maybe Whiteley had been influenced by Emily of New Moon, and then said, wait, Whiteley's book came out and was a huge bestseller in 1920 and Emily of New Moon came out in 1923...

Having read Emily of New Moon this evening, I will personally swear an affidavit before anyone you like that this book is, in fact, what happened when Montgomery read Whiteley. I haven't read Montgomery's diaries, which might prove or disprove the hypothesis-- anyone who has read those, feel free to step in-- but damn, it's amazing, if you put Anne of Green Gables in a blender with Whiteley this is absolutely what you get coming out the other side.

Emily is a smart and sensitive child sent to live with relatives after the death of her father. She is determined to be a writer, in the face of non-comprehension and/or active hostility from her family, and the book is very funny about her juvenile poetry, best describable as sub-Tennyson. It's obvious, though, that she does have the talent and perseverance to go somewhere with it. The portions of the book not concerned with writing are about farm, friends, possible romantic interests (of whom one seriously skeeves me out; it is not reasonable at thirty-five to decide to wait for a twelve-year-old and I have this horrible suspicion she's actually going to marry him *headdesk*), and a rather incoherent and vaguely supernatural plot about a local scandal.

The portions of the book concerned with her writing involve the aforementioned poetry, but also large stretches of letters to her dead father, quoted in full, and all I have to say about the spelling, subject matter, number of fairies mentioned, and protagonist's attitude towards animals, sunsets, and moderately large rocks is: Whiteley, Whiteley, Whiteley. Oh, it's somewhat more conventional in grammar (how could it not be), but seriously, she names trees in the same style. Given Whiteley's fantasies about perfect dead parents who wanted her to be intelligent and learned as opposed to her real family who wanted her to be obedient, this could almost qualify as fanfiction were it not that that story is also so very much the framework Montgomery was already working in.

I have mixed feelings about a lot of Montgomery-- the pacing of Anne of Green Gables is nonexistent, and she knew what she wanted to write and stuck to it (over and over), but The Blue Castle is a perfect little book, one of the greatest romance novels and female escapes-from-domestic-Hades I have read. This one is better-paced than Anne but has, as I mentioned, a plot element I find skeevy, and has a thin overlay of twee that wanders in and out (too much about those cutesy-Victorian-type flower fairies). I do always have a soft spot for portraits of girls who are going to grow up to be writers, to do the work of that, and who are not judged for it by their narratives. This is a readable book, pleasant enough, but I'm not sure I'd have finished it if it weren't for the Whiteley aspect, which led to a whole meta-level of sheer pleasure at watching Montgomery work. I really need to find out whether there is evidence of this as an actual textual connection. Then I need not to accidentally write a comparative literature dissertation.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I have liked Caroline Stevermer lo these many years, because she was kind enough to write a fantasy novel set at my (dearly loved) college, lightly disguised. That said, my favorite of her books is the spectacular When the King Comes Home, which gives you an entire novel's worth of beautifully accurate details about the life of a painter in a vaguely Italian Renaissance fantasy world and then takes your breath away when you see where all those details have been leading.

But I have never been terribly fond of the epistolary Regency-ish-with-magic romances she writes with Patricia Wrede, Sorcery and Cecelia and so on. They aren't bad, I find them cheery, but they don't stick in my head.

This little book is unusual because it's a singly-authored children's piece set into the timeline of that romance series, and can be read entirely independently of the others. I can't recall the last time I've seen a series do that, where there are the main ones, for adults, and then a related children's book over here somewhere...

Anyhow, Frederick, who is an orphan, gets a place as a servant in the household of a prominent wizard, and discovers that the curse an enemy put on his master several years ago has not, in fact, been adequately vanquished. You may handily extrapolate the rest. It is a completely competent read, with pleasant if typecast characters, a piece of folklore I did not quite expect to turn up handled well, and some good description of the evil thing. I finished it twenty minutes ago, and had to look up the main character's name; that should tell you. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you like. For me it is the sort of thing that goes by neither unpleasantly nor too affectingly, rather like a familiar train ride-- the weather may change, and the houses out the window may have been renovated slightly since the last time I was in the area, but the same stations are there in the same order.

Honestly I would mostly recommend this either to Sorcery and Cecelia completists, or else to people who have reread Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones too recently to read it again and would like to read something of the same sort that is not actually as good or original but has all the same scenes about housework. I have no idea what a kid would think of it as I really can't extrapolate what I'd have thought of it as a kid-- it was simply not the sort of book I read back then. But it is certainly perfectly innocuous.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
I have liked Caroline Stevermer lo these many years, because she was kind enough to write a fantasy novel set at my (dearly loved) college, lightly disguised. That said, my favorite of her books is the spectacular When the King Comes Home, which gives you an entire novel's worth of beautifully accurate details about the life of a painter in a vaguely Italian Renaissance fantasy world and then takes your breath away when you see where all those details have been leading.

But I have never been terribly fond of the epistolary Regency-ish-with-magic romances she writes with Patricia Wrede, Sorcery and Cecelia and so on. They aren't bad, I find them cheery, but they don't stick in my head.

This little book is unusual because it's a singly-authored children's piece set into the timeline of that romance series, and can be read entirely independently of the others. I can't recall the last time I've seen a series do that, where there are the main ones, for adults, and then a related children's book over here somewhere...

Anyhow, Frederick, who is an orphan, gets a place as a servant in the household of a prominent wizard, and discovers that the curse an enemy put on his master several years ago has not, in fact, been adequately vanquished. You may handily extrapolate the rest. It is a completely competent read, with pleasant if typecast characters, a piece of folklore I did not quite expect to turn up handled well, and some good description of the evil thing. I finished it twenty minutes ago, and had to look up the main character's name; that should tell you. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you like. For me it is the sort of thing that goes by neither unpleasantly nor too affectingly, rather like a familiar train ride-- the weather may change, and the houses out the window may have been renovated slightly since the last time I was in the area, but the same stations are there in the same order.

Honestly I would mostly recommend this either to Sorcery and Cecelia completists, or else to people who have reread Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones too recently to read it again and would like to read something of the same sort that is not actually as good or original but has all the same scenes about housework. I have no idea what a kid would think of it as I really can't extrapolate what I'd have thought of it as a kid-- it was simply not the sort of book I read back then. But it is certainly perfectly innocuous.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This is the third of Jeanne Birdsall's books about the Penderwick family, but they each stand independently.

There are four Penderwick sisters, ranging in age from old enough to be Responsible For Everybody to an energetic five. They also have assorted relatives, a dear friend who is trying to cope with a terrible family situation, and a very memorable very large dog.

This book involves the three younger sisters and their aunt going to Maine for two weeks vacation, which means terrible spasms of guilt on the part of the oldest at not going along to Be Responsible, and terrible fear on the part of the next one down about her responsibilities as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). It's one of those books which does not seem tightly plotted but actually is when you get there, and which is full of the correct sort of small observed detail and the correct sort of mayhem of the type that happens on that kind of vacation (I was highly amused that the person who falls off the seawall was the aunt, and not any of the children).

Despite the fact that the first Penderwick book won the National Book Award, I could never really warm to it, or the second, but I kept feeling that Birdsall had something, and that at some point either she or I might click into seeing what it was. I am not sure which of us has changed, but this book was beautifully paced, had a great sense of place about a part of Maine I am fairly familiar with, and reminded me strongly of Hilary McKay's Casson family books, which is high praise (Saffy's Angel is a book I press copies of on people, for their own good). If you like non-cloying, friendly, gently funny family stories about genuinely nice people who have real and interesting problems without being overwhelmed by drama, this is a good entry in that genre. I still don't entirely believe in one of the middle sisters' writing habits, because she feels to me more like an example of the way people think children who want to be writers behave than of the way children who want to be writers do behave, but this didn't break the book for me, and anyhow my sample size of kids who want to be writers has been small and mostly consisting of me, so maybe it is more naturalistic than I suspect.

I suppose I should reread the first two and see whether they actually aren't as good, or whether I was in the wrong mood, or both. This one I can recommend unequivocally.

(I also see via flist that Hilary McKay has written a sequel to A Little Princess. Well. That will be interesting...)

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This is the third of Jeanne Birdsall's books about the Penderwick family, but they each stand independently.

There are four Penderwick sisters, ranging in age from old enough to be Responsible For Everybody to an energetic five. They also have assorted relatives, a dear friend who is trying to cope with a terrible family situation, and a very memorable very large dog.

This book involves the three younger sisters and their aunt going to Maine for two weeks vacation, which means terrible spasms of guilt on the part of the oldest at not going along to Be Responsible, and terrible fear on the part of the next one down about her responsibilities as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). It's one of those books which does not seem tightly plotted but actually is when you get there, and which is full of the correct sort of small observed detail and the correct sort of mayhem of the type that happens on that kind of vacation (I was highly amused that the person who falls off the seawall was the aunt, and not any of the children).

Despite the fact that the first Penderwick book won the National Book Award, I could never really warm to it, or the second, but I kept feeling that Birdsall had something, and that at some point either she or I might click into seeing what it was. I am not sure which of us has changed, but this book was beautifully paced, had a great sense of place about a part of Maine I am fairly familiar with, and reminded me strongly of Hilary McKay's Casson family books, which is high praise (Saffy's Angel is a book I press copies of on people, for their own good). If you like non-cloying, friendly, gently funny family stories about genuinely nice people who have real and interesting problems without being overwhelmed by drama, this is a good entry in that genre. I still don't entirely believe in one of the middle sisters' writing habits, because she feels to me more like an example of the way people think children who want to be writers behave than of the way children who want to be writers do behave, but this didn't break the book for me, and anyhow my sample size of kids who want to be writers has been small and mostly consisting of me, so maybe it is more naturalistic than I suspect.

I suppose I should reread the first two and see whether they actually aren't as good, or whether I was in the wrong mood, or both. This one I can recommend unequivocally.

(I also see via flist that Hilary McKay has written a sequel to A Little Princess. Well. That will be interesting...)

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