The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall

penderwickO how I love the Penderwicks! Jeanne Birdsall has totally tapped in to the perfect feeling of families I loved reading about when I was a kid (and consequently assumed when I had my own family that we would all be just like the families in The Saturdays and Gone-Away Lake and guess what? We’re not.) It’s amazing how perfectly she is writing something that feels completely old-fashioned, but is not. You won’t find a Penderwick child playing Wii, oh no. A Penderwick is exploring the woods, playing imaginative games, being a kind and loving sibling, and talking to animals. I’m afraid that the Penderwicks are basically what I want my kids to be.  Anyway, I had read the previous 3 Penderwick books as they came out and just this past month our family listened to the first book together on audio. We are now in the midst of listening (and reading aloud) the second book (Penderwicks on Gardam Street.) Consequently, it was a bit confusing to be reading about dear Batty being 4 years old and then switching over to what I was reading, in which Batty is now the main character, turning 11, Rosalind is off at college, and Skye and Jane are teenagers. The action is focused mostly on Batty, with a bit of Ben (who has only just been introduced in the chapter we’re on in Gardam Street as a toddler neighbor) and a new baby sister, Lydia. There is also a good bit of focus on Tommy, Nick, and Jeffrey.  Tommy and Nick are the neighbor boys and Nick is off in Afghanistan. In this latest book there are actually some heavy themes going on-Nick’s return from service and how that affects everyone, and even more-Batty’s grieving over the death of beloved Hound.  I admit that Batty’s grief over Hound hit too close to home for me (as we approach the 1 year anniversary of the death of my beloved dog, Pippin) and there were tears aplenty as I read this.
It was solid, touching, had humor, and was a great installment in this family series. I don’t know if my kids will want to treasure and re-read these books, but I feel inclined to buy a boxed set as soon as this new one is in paperback too. Oh-and if I wish that my kids could be like the Penderwicks, then I also wish Paul and I were like the Penderwick parents-calm, unflappable, lovable, and with really cool jobs.

The Ladies of Missalonghi by Colleen McCullough

I forgot to write about this when I read it right on the heels of The Blue Castle. As soon as I started the book it all sort of came back to me and I enjoyed it just as much as the first time I read it. And this time, having just read Blue Castle, I can indeed see what all the hubbub was about (and I have to think that if those books were published today, with all the social media, they just wouldn’t have even published Missalonghi, instead pointing out how it is a copycat story.)  Missalonghi is almost exactly the same story as Blue Castle. Some things, of course, are different. But it’s hard to believe that it’s a coincidence. But here’s what I have to admit–I like McCullough’s version better! Shorter and with much more wit.
In a nutshell, impoverished and homely Missy lives with her mother and aunt. They are at the mercy, as are all the single women in the family, of the unkind patriarchy that presides over their town. Poor Missy is doomed to continue her miserable life. They live at the edge of a wilderness and one day a stranger comes to town, having just bought that parcel of land. I loved the description of just how long it took to hack one’s way into the bush to get to his camp. The townspeople assume he’s up to no good and spin wild stories about him, but Missy is captivated.
A very short and quick read, clever and with plenty of comeuppance.  One thing I had forgotten was what a rather forbidding note the book ends on.
I think you can recommend this charming book to almost anyone.

The Mermaid’s Sister by Carrie Anne Noble

mermaidFantastic! What a wonderful tale, beautifully told like the most excellent fairy tales, legends, and stories are. Clara and her sister, Maren, live with their part faerie Auntie on a mountain. They have had a wonderful childhood and such a loving, if unusual, family. In addition to Auntie Verity there are Scarff and O’Neill, who travel in an exotic caravan and visit the mountain but a couple of times a year. Verity and Scarff have often told the tale of how Clara and Maren came to Verity-Maren in a big seashell and Clara by a stork.  Her seashell origins and ability to swim and remain underwater for an hour make it be no surprise when she begins to transform into a mermaid.  Eventually all agree she must be brought to the ocean, her true home.  But O’Neill and Clara have a challenging journey, including kidnapping, enslavement, a mad huckster, and more.  There is also a love story here as O’Neill is especially devoted to Maren and Clara is torn between her own secret love for O’Neill and her own devotion to her sister.
This was a wonderful story. I truly loved it, everything from the descriptions of Maren as a mermaid, to the setting of a traveling show with sinister characters. (And, refreshingly different from everything else I’ve read lately!)

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

blueAlthough I’m a big L.M. Montgomery fan (Anne of Green Gables meant so much to me and yes, I’ve even traveled to P.E.I. to see her sights), I had never read this book before. A friend gave it to me for Christmas and I was even more interested to read it after I read in Colleen McCullough’s obituary that she had received criticism for similarities between her book, The Ladies of Misssalonghi, and this.[I had read Ladies of Missalonghi many years ago and really liked it, though I could only remember a few details and not the actual plot.  I’m afraid after reading The Blue Castle I still don’t remember the plot of Missalonghi, so I’m looking forward to re-reading it.]

Anyway, The Blue Castle.  Valancy Stirling-such a name! is 29 years old and has lived a miserable life.  It won’t take many pages before you can perfectly imagine her dreary existence and feel damp and cold within your own bones. She has a large family that rules her, never lets her forget that she is an ugly old maid, and does not allow for any gaiety.  They are preposterously terrible and Valancy lives with it.  Then one day she gets a terrible diagnosis that prompts her to cast her family aside and live life to its fullest, which includes taking up with people that everyone looks down on. And oh! how Valancy prospers! It’s all very magical and romantical (as Anne might say) and she is living life like a woodland nymph.  There are secrets and surprises that are not too surprising and all works out as it should.

I enjoyed this tremendously, though I can acknowledge that the whole thing reads as if it were written by Anne Shirley herself, perhaps at age 13.  Heady dreams about what a romantic carefree life would be like, romantic dreams that show a certain naivete (the limits of physical contact are an arm around the waist, a whisper in the ear), declarations of love that include calling one a “jolly chum”, and flowery, flowery prose. It’s a little bit mockable. But I love that kind of stuff and it was fun to read, very quick, and I loved seeing Valancy blossom (as usual in these sorts of things she has a “queer beauty”, and people routinely say that she is not pretty, but those who appreciate her see that she has an unusual beauty that makes her unique and striking and possibly not quite human) into someone who had love in her life.

Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof

smallA charming feel good story. I think you can tell right from the get-go the happy ending this story is headed for, but how it gets there is a delight.  I very much enjoyed the style in which the story was told, though I’m hard pressed to put my finger on what exactly that style is. The setting is a small college town/campus (which was nothing like my college, but I kept picture it there anyway) with a few professors and their odd habits as colorful characters. Tom is an English professor who is well liked, quiet, ordinary, people speak nicely of him because he’s stuck with his completely crazy wife for 20 years. He lives with her and his mother-in-law and accepts that this is his life.  But then complications-welcome?-arise. First there is Rose, the new employee at the college bookstore. He feels an instant spark with her (and she with him), but even stranger is that his crazy wife Marjory seems to have a moment of clarity upon meeting her.  Then there’s the bombshell of a letter Tom receives.

Tom’s life is definitely upended, along with pretty much everyone around him.  This is a very warm story with lots of feel good moments.

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard

stayThis was a  beautiful story, nicely told between standard writing and then the inclusion of the main character’s original poetry.  Emily (no actual relation to Emily Dickinson) is off at boarding school (in Emily Dickinson’s hometown) for a fresh start away from the terrible memories, looks, and stories after her boyfriend killed himself in the school library in front of her.  A fresh start is difficult and Emily is deeply scarred by the tragedy and coming to terms with it.  However, a powerful need to write poetry, along with a growing friendship with her roommate, K.T., help her through it.  I appreciated that though this was a bit sad, it was not an overwhelmingly sad or depressing book.   And how could I not love a boarding school story which includes a brief shout-out to the The Secret Language-the very first boarding school book I read and loved? The bits about Emily Dickinson, along with Emily’s original poetry, are beautifully incorporated. This was a lovely story.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

oveWhat an absolutely wonderful story! I loved this and am so glad my mom passed it along to me. (Apparently, according to the back cover, it’s a European sensation already. It is from Sweden.)

Ove is a grouchy old man, set in his ways, horrified by the modern world around him and all the idiots in it.  So fed up with this world is he, that he is determined to kill himself. But, like with everything else, he will do it the proper way. Except his plans are thwarted by those idiots of the world, specifically some noisy new neighbors. And a bedraggled cat.  As the story spins out flashbacks to earlier years build the picture of how Ove came to be the man he is today, of how love was in his life, and how his little neighborhood has changed but been in a part of it all.  It all fits together perfectly.  And for someone who is so patently unlikable, Ove really is a character who you side with, your heart feels for, and you wish nothing but the best for.  I also really enjoyed the gaggle of secondary characters who refuse to let Ove’s gruff exterior stop them from caring for him.

Funny, touching, and warm, this is a beautiful story about life (and brand loyalty to Saab.)

*I would recommend this to those who liked Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.