At the start of Black Hearts in Battersea, Simon, who was an endearing supporting character in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has just arrived in London, where he’s planning to attend art school. He’s meant to live with Dr. Field, a minor character from the last book (who also paints, and who recognized Simon’s artistic gifts immediately upon meeting him), but something’s fishy: finding the place where Dr. Field said he was living is more of a challenge than Simon thought it would be, and when he gets there, everyone he meets says Dr. Field doesn’t live there and never has: they all claim not to know the man at all. But it’s definitely the right place: Simon remembers Dr. Field talking about his landlord being named Mr. Twite, and the first person Simon meets is Dido Twite, a grubby kid who’s apparently Mr. Twite’s daughter. And not only that, one of the empty rooms on the top floor has a view that exactly matches the view that Dr. Field talked about having from his window. Simon figures he’ll rent a room from the Twites so he’ll be there if Dr. Field comes back, and also figures he’ll go to art school as planned in the meantime.

On his way to school, he sees Sophie, a girl he knows from his early childhood in Yorkshire: apparently she lives in London now, and is a lady’s maid to a woman who turns out to be the Duchess of Battersea. Simon and Sophie end up meeting again, and Simon ends up meeting more of the Battersea clan, too: he becomes friends with both the Duke and the Duke’s nephew, Justin, who’s an orphan whose parents died in the Hanoverian wars. (This book is set in an alternate England where a Stuart monarch is still on the throne in the 1830s.) Between Sophie and Justin and the Duke and art school and Dido, Simon has plenty to keep him busy while he’s trying to figure out where Dr. Field might have gone. He suspects, though, that something must have happened to the doctor: he was expecting Simon, and wouldn’t have just left without telling Simon where he’d gone.

As it turns out, Dr. Field’s whereabouts have something to do with both the Twites and the folks at Battersea Castle: I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it becomes clear by the book’s third chapter that there’s some kind of political intrigue afoot. Watching Simon and Sophie figure things out and try to set things right is fun, and I like that more of the alternate-England in which this series is set is explained in this book, but I think I liked the atmospheric delights of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase more. I do like some of the set-pieces in this book though: Aiken’s description of an excursion that Simon, Sophie, Justin, and Dido take to Clapham Fair is a total delight, with rides and games and a fire-breathing dragon and a fortune teller. And I appreciated the wintry mood/images at the end of the book, an England that’s all snow drifts and icicles and wolves, the Thames frozen over.

I can’t remember if I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase when I was a kid or not, but when I bought a copy of Black Hearts in Battersea in a used bookstore on my Christmas vacation, I figured I’d better read/re-read this book before starting that one: they’re set in the same world, though I hear The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is pretty much a standalone story. The edition I checked out from the library was missing the note explaining that the book takes place in an alternate England of 1832, where the king is James III and Britain apparently has both a Channel Tunnel and a wolf problem. The book opens with those wolves, or at least, with the threat of them: it’s winter, and snowy, and night is approaching, and with it the possibility of hungry wolves. Willoughby Chase, a big house full of warmth and light, is a contrast to the dark and drear outside. And inside is Bonnie, who’s excitedly waiting for her cousin Sylvia to arrive by train from London: Sylvia’s been living with their Aunt Jane, who’s older and frailer than Bonnie’s parents (and poorer, too, though she’d never ask her rich brother for help), and is now coming to Willoughby Chase to live. Bonnie’s parents are leaving, though: her father is taking her ailing mother to someplace warmer in hopes that her health will improve, and so the girls are to be left in the care of one Miss Slighcarp, a new governess who’s also a distant relative, who arrives at the house before Sylvia does. Though Bonnie excitedly shows Miss Slighcarp “the oubliette where Cousin Roger had slipped, the panel which concealed a secret staircase, the haunted portico, the priests’ hole, and other features of her beloved home,” the governess is not, alas, particularly interested in either children or architecture (8).

From very early in the book, it’s clear that Miss Slighcarp is bad news, and before the book is half over it becomes clear why she’s come to Willoughby Chase, and from there things only get worse for Bonnie and Sylvia. Spoilers ahead, though these were on the back cover of the edition I read, so I knew about them going in: Miss Slighcarp sends the girls to a bleak/Dickensian school for orphans, from which they manage to escape with the help of Bonnie’s friend Simon (who lives in the woods of Willoughby Chase and raises geese). Having accomplished the escape/rescue, the children have to figure out how to reclaim Bonnie’s home from their dastardly governess.

I read this book in its entirety over the course of a very cold holiday Monday, and it was a delight to read while wrapped under a blanket, drinking tea. The children-in-peril/scheming-and-villainous-adult-relative plot was largely predictable but also really satisfying, and I liked the friendship between Bonnie and Sylvia—an early scene when they go ice skating together on a frozen river is great, and it’s sweet how they look out for each other when they’re at the horrible school. Simon and his geese are great as well, and I like how there are some good/helpful adults, to balance out the awful ones. I can’t decide whether I want to read this book again, more slowly, or if I should forge straight on to the next one.

In Dragon’s Green, the first book in her Worldquake middle-grade fantasy sequence, Scarlett Thomas introduced us to Effie Truelove, a young True Hero just discovering her magical abilities, and to her also-magical friends/classmates (Lexy, Maximilian, Raven, and Wolf), and to the shape of the world in which they live, where a lot of magical power is bound up with books and stories. In The Chosen Ones, the second book of the series, we get to see Effie learn more about herself and magic, and we also get to see her friends getting themselves and each other in and out of peril. There’s a whole lot of plot, but the short version is that evil publisher Skylurian Midzhar is planning to use some bookish magic to give herself and her fellow villains a whole lot of power; it’s up to Effie and her friends to foil that plan.

The Chosen Ones, like Dragon’s Green, is smart and lots of fun: Thomas is an English professor, and it shows: there’s one part where Effie and her friends are given a close-reading assignment as homework, and a great moment where Skylurian explains that she and her colleagues “at the Matchstick Press have always been subscribers to the theory of the Death of the Author” (350). Which isn’t to say that the only delights of The Chosen Ones are the bookish moments: the mix of moments of action and moments of reflection really worked for me, as did the way the story shifts between Effie and others (mostly Maximilian, who goes on a few adventures of his own, and Raven, whose ability to communicate with animals gives her some early knowledge of crucial plot points). I also liked the mix of magic and other things: Effie isn’t just learning about saving the universe, but also about friendship and sadness and how to take care of herself and how to let others help her when she needs it, too.

I’ve been loving Jeanne Birdsall’s books about the Penderwick siblings since I read the first one back in 2008, and this finale to the series was as delightful as I had hoped it would be. In The Penderwicks at Last, the focus is mainly on Lydia, the youngest Penderwick, who is now eleven: this makes sense, since these are middle-grade novels/it’s appealing to have a protagonist who’s the same age as the target audience. But all the other Penderwicks make appearances, too, as do other beloved (and not-so-beloved) characters from the earlier books.

At the start of the book, Lydia is waiting for her older sister Batty to come home from college, and we learn that the whole family will be going to Arundel, the estate in the Berkshires where the Penderwicks rented a cottage for the summer in the very first book. Arundel now belongs to honorary Penderwick/close family friend Jeffrey Tifton (rather than to his rather prickly mother), and he’s told the oldest Penderwick, Rosalind, that she can have her wedding on the grounds. This is super-exciting for Lydia, who’s been hearing about Arundel for years but has never been herself, so she’s delighted that she and Batty (and the family’s two dogs) will be the first to arrive, with the rest of the siblings and her parents following behind in stages. When they get there, Lydia finds that Arundel is as enchanting as she had hoped—and there turns out to be a girl her age, Alice, who’s the daughter of Cagney (who we met in the first book—he was Arundel’s gardener) and his wife Natalie, who’s an artist. Alice is a bit grumpy because her brother Jack is off having adventures with a cousin in Canada, and Lydia’s not sure they’ll be friends, but after a tentative start to things, of course they are, and it’s sweet to read about the summery fun that Alice and Lydia have together, whether they’re festooning a Great Dane with yarn and ribbons, watching Alice’s family’s chickens, splashing in a stream, or reading Lewis Carroll to a sheep.

Speaking of sheep and chickens and that Great Dane, I love how Birdsall writes about animals, dogs especially. There are so many funny and sweet animal-focused moments in this book: I particularly love the Penderwicks’ younger dog, Feldspar, who is always finding some random object and claiming it as his new favorite thing/carrying it around everywhere. I also like how Lydia is as good with people as Batty is with animals: she’s perceptive and emotionally intelligent, and capable of dealing with/seeing the humanity in just about everyone, even the disagreeable Mrs. Tifton.

I like Diana Wynne Jones a whole lot, in general: I feel like her books are a reliable blend of magic, inventiveness, well-developed characters, humor, heart, and satisfying plots. The Game, alas, feels lacking in terms of characters (and therefore heart), and the plot feels a little formulaic. But even though I feel like this book doesn’t live up to my standards for Diana Wynne Jones books, it was still a fast and fun read.

At the start of the book, we meet Hayley, who normally lives with her grandparents but has just been sent to a castle in Ireland to live with her aunt. The castle is overrun with other members of Hayley’s extended family—it’s normally just one other kid and his mom who live there, but Hayley arrives during the one week a year when almost all the other aunts and cousins come to visit, too. It’s a contrast from Hayley’s usual life as an only child, and Hayley feels “bewildered and in disgrace” at having been sent away from home (7). She reflects on how she ended up being sent to Ireland, which has something to do with her grandmother’s strictness and her grandfather’s job, though she doesn’t really know what he does, “except that it seem[s] to involve keeping up with the whole world” (22). She does know that it’s something to do with the mythosphere, which he explained to her almost by accident one day, and which is represented by the image of the globe encircled by threads that weave together into skeins. Hayley’s grandfather explains that the mythosphere is “made up of all the stories, theories and beliefs, legends, myths and hopes, that are generated here on Earth” and that it’s “constantly growing and moving as people invent new tales to tell or find new things to believe” (30).

After learning about the mythosphere, Hayley is delighted to find that she can actually travel to/through it, which is what ends up getting her sent to Ireland: her grandmother is not pleased, and says her uncle Jolyon won’t be pleased, either. In Ireland, Hayley travels to the mythosphere again, this time with her cousins as part of a game they play every year, and she learns more about what the mythosphere is and how her family is connected to it, though there are a lot of pieces of the story that become clear only gradually. Hayley learns things about her absent parents, though, and her aunts and cousins, and why her uncle has always wanted to keep an eye on her, and there are quests and adventures that first seem just to be for fun but then turn more serious, and there are bits of myth and fairy tale and story. It all feels like it has a ton of potential, but I wanted more from this book.

Partly I wanted there to be more satisfying descriptive passages than there were, though there were some (including a great section about Hayley’s first trip to the mythosphere). I wanted more of the castle in Ireland (though the description of a flood that happens the night Hayley arrives is pretty great), and more of Hayley’s grandparents’ house (which is tantalizingly described as being full of radios and televisions and computers). I also wanted there to be more of a sense of Hayley and her family members and how they relate to one another: there’s a bit of that, when we learn about how Hayley’s grandfather has taught her about stars and planets and atoms, or when Hayley’s cousins teach her about how things ended up the way they are, but I wanted more. I did appreciate Hayley’s delight, when she’s at the castle, at being able to choose her own clothes for a change, and being able to dress in practical/comfortable attire, and the freedom she feels when she realizes no one cares if she looks neat and tidy or not.

Side note: the edition of the book I read has some added bits at the end about mythology and planets and the zodiac, and one of the things it says is that the “most-well known” mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets (Pluto included) is “Mother Very Easily Made Jam Sandwiches Under No Protest.” Wait, what?! Is that a British thing? Because the one I learned was definitely “My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets.”

At the start of The Prince and the Dressmaker, which is a charming middle-grade/YA graphic novel, everyone’s preparing for the Paris event of the summer: there’s a ball being thrown in honor of Prince Sebastian, who is sixteen, and whose parents want to match him up with a princess from some other royal family so they can live happily ever after and ensure the continuation of the royal line. Nearly everyone is swooning over the idea of the ball, but at least one young lady, Sophia, has no interest: we see her and her irate mother trying to get a new gown made in a hurry, because Sophia ruined the gown she was meant to wear to the ball by going riding in it. Frances, a young seamstress, is in charge of the new dress. “Make me look like the devil’s wench,” Sophia tells her, and Frances decides to give Sophia what she wants (6). Everyone’s scandalized by Sophia’s outfit, and Frances is on the verge of being fired, but then a new opportunity arrives: at least one person liked the outfit that Frances made for Sophia, and that person now wants to hire Frances as a personal seamstress.

Frances’s new boss, it turns out, is Prince Sebastian, who is maybe genderfluid, or just likes dresses: he explains that sometimes he sees his reflection in boys’ clothes and is fine with it, but sometimes it feels all wrong. He’s been wearing his mother’s dresses in secret for ages, but has decided he wants to sometimes wear dresses in public, as well: he asks Frances to make him a dress inspired by “marmalade and preserves” without telling her that it’s for a beauty pageant being put on by a jam company. He wins, and his alter-ego, Lady Crystallia, becomes the talk of Paris, with her daring and gorgeous dresses. But he’s anxious about his secret life being inappropriate for a future ruler: he worries about what the public would think, and what his parents would think, and assumes he’d never find a female romantic interest who would be OK with it. This causes tensions with Frances, though: everyone in the royal household knows that she’s his seamstress, so Sebastian tells her she can’t publicly declare that she makes Lady Crystallia’s dresses, too: he’s sure that if people knew, they’d put two and two together and he’d be outed.

Things get stressful for everyone, and then things get better, and oh, there’s also a sub-plot about a fictional version of the first department store in Paris, which is having a fashion show to announce its line of women’s clothing, and Sebastian and Frances both learn about being true to themselves, and everything works out in the end. This was a fast and fun read, and I appreciated the art—especially the citrus-marmalade-inspired dress Frances makes, and also some other really gorgeous bits, like the misty and moody grey/green/blue early-morning-street-scene panels when Frances goes to work for the prince. I didn’t love this book as much as some people on Goodreads seem to have, but I think that’s partly because I generally like graphic memoirs more than graphic novels, and also because I’ve never been super into fashion/fancy dresses myself. (If there’d been a whole book about Sophia, the “Make me look like the devil’s wench” girl, who goes to the ball in her scandalous outfit and happily eats dessert by herself while everyone stares, I might have been more into that.)

At the start of Kat and Meg Conquer the World, it’s near the start of the school year and Kat, who’s in tenth grade, has recently moved from Ottawa, where she grew up, to Edmonton, where she and her parents are now living with her grandfather, who’s frailer than he used to be after a fall and subsequent hip surgery. Kat doesn’t really know anyone at her new school yet, and she’s an introvert who has anxiety/panic attacks: she’s happier spending her lunch break in the library playing Legends of the Stone, the MMORPG she loves, than eating in the cafeteria with her classmates. Meg, meanwhile, has always lived in Edmonton, and is an extrovert who’s happy giving high-fives in the hallway to kids she doesn’t even know. Meg has ADHD, and worries that it’s making her lose friendships and relationships: I love this, from early in the book, in a passage where Meg is thinking about a newish friend who’s maybe already getting tired of her (or, ahem, is maybe just not the best fit): “She’s always asking me if I’ve remembered to take my meds, like she thinks they’re some magic pill that’ll cure me of me. Ugh, blah, and sigh” (7). Meg doesn’t play Legends of the Stone (LotS for short), but is a big fan of a YouTuber called LumberLegs who posts videos of himself playing it. Kat is a LumberLegs fan too, so when she and Meg end up as partners for a multi-month science project, it doesn’t take long for the two of them to discover their shared fandom, which is a jumping-off point for a close friendship.

I really like how this book centers on characters who are dealing with a lot of issues (mental health stuff, family stuff, school stuff, friendship stuff, relationship stuff) without it being an “issues book” or heavy-handed. I like that Kat and Meg’s friendship is at the center of the story, and I love so many things about that friendship. I like how their very different personalities sometimes cause tension, but how they both keep trying to work things out, and I like how each of them tries to keep the other’s experiences and preferences in mind, even when those preferences feel completely foreign. I like how Kat (who’s white) pays attention when Meg (who’s black, in a school with few other black kids) shows or tells her things about race/racial privilege that Kat has maybe never really considered before, and also how Kat tries to be a good ally and think about issues of race/doesn’t expect Meg to teach her everything. I like how Kat and Meg are always trying to be there for each other, even when they’re not sure how best to do that.

And while Kat and Meg’s friendship is the central great thing about the book, I like so many other relationships in it, too: the way Meg interacts with her half-siblings, the way Kat worries about not knowing how to be close to her grandfather, Meg’s feelings about her estranged ex-stepfather, an online friendship Kat has through LotS, the sweet moments and hard moments Meg has with a boy she dates—all of them felt fully realized and full of heart, like this book itself.

The Westing Game (which I read and loved as a kid) opens with an intriguing set-up: there’s a new five-story apartment building on Lake Michigan, and its 6 apartments (and 3 business/retail spots) are rented to a list of pre-selected tenants. The building has a view of a mansion, the Westing house, which is said to have been empty for the past fifteen years: its owner, Sam Westing, is rumored to be dead. But the tenants all (well, almost all) have some connection to Westing, and the house apparently isn’t totally empty: on Halloween, about two months after the tenants move in, they see smoke rising from one of the mansion’s chimneys. The next day there’s a newspaper headline saying Westing has been found dead, and a number of the apartment building’s inhabitants, plus a few more people connected to the building, are summoned to the Westing house. where they’re paired off, and each pair is given a $10,000 check and a set of clues. They’re told they are all potential heirs to the Westing fortune: they just need to solve the puzzle to win the game.

It’s fun to read about the various characters’ attempts to figure things out, their false starts and wild guesses and missteps, but what’s more fun is to watch them work together, or not. And the mystery of Westing’s death isn’t the only weird thing happening: there’s been a string of thefts in the building, and then bombs start going off, so there’s a lot to be figured out. The narrative switches its focus from character to character, but Turtle Wexler, a smart junior-high-school kid who’s (understandably) grumpy that her mother has always treated her differently from her (beautiful and obedient) older sister, Angela, is at the center of a lot of things, in a really satisfying way. It’s hard to say more about this book without giving away too much (it is a mystery, after all), but I like its quirkiness and strangeness, how it brings together a cast of disparate characters in a way that somehow totally works.

I know I read and liked at least the first two of Louis Sachar’s “Wayside School” books when I was a kid, but I hadn’t thought of them in ages. Then I read this piece by Jia Tolentino on the New Yorker website, in which she describes the first one, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, as a book with “a surfeit of heart and an absence of sentiment,” and describes the style of the trilogy as being like “Shel Silverstein with hints of Barthelme and Borges.” Clearly I needed to go get the first book from the library. I read it over the course of two days and found the absurd humor of it pretty pleasing, though I probably liked it more as a kid than I do as an adult.

The book consists of thirty chapters/stories, each of which is named for one or more of the students and teachers at the imaginary school of the title (mostly the students and teachers from one particular class). The school is a bit odd: it was meant to have thirty classrooms on one floor but it was accidentally built sideways, with one classroom per story: “The builder said he was very sorry” (9). The builder is also sorry for having accidentally skipped from the 18th floor to the 20th, but the school’s loss is the reader’s gain: one of my favorite chapters in the book is about that missing 19th floor. Wayside School is odd in other ways, as well: in the first (and very memorable) chapter, a mean teacher turns students into apples; in another chapter, we get to ponder what ice cream that tastes like a particular person might be like. There are creepy bits and kind of mean bits and clever bits. Highlights for me included a chapter where illiterate bank robbers try to rob the school and a character gets revenge on the boastful kid who sits behind him, a chapter where a kid who draws a lot of pictures very quickly during art class learns about the idea of quality over quantity, a chapter in which a kid goes up and down thirty flights of stairs more times than he would like, a chapter with a mysterious interrogation in it, and a chapter in which a student says she’s too distracted by her itchy mosquito bites to do math. That mosquito-bite chapter features this, which I find so charming/funny/great:

“But we have all kinds of arithmetic,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without carrying, addition with carrying, and carrying without addition.”
“I don’t care,” cried Dana.
“We have that, too,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without caring. Now, stop carrying on.” (52)

The last time I read The Dark Is Rising was more than ten years ago, in summer, and while I always love this book, there’s an extra magic in reading it during the time of year in which it’s set, in the dark and cold days of midwinter, with the festive pleasures of Christmas all around me in real life as well as in the book. This time around I probably read it a bit slower, too, because for the first two-thirds of the book I was pacing my reading for the Twitter readalong (#TheDarkIsReading), though after Christmas I couldn’t keep from just reading on: I finished the book on December 26th, totally unable to ration out the last third until the action of the book ends on Twelfth Night.

The Dark Is Rising is a fantasy quest narrative, a Chosen One narrative, and the story of a centuries-long battle between Light and Dark, all of which are fine and satisfying things, but what makes this book, for me, is the rest of it: how well-written it is, and the sense it gives of landscape, of place, and of the daily life of a large and happy family in an English village, all the ordinary sweetness of Christmas, even as the Dark threatens the everyday peace of village life. I love passages like this:

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering. (79)

Other choice Christmas phrases: at one point Cooper writes about the “enchanted expectant space” of Christmas morning (127), and then, later on Christmas Day, writes about church bells in a storm “chiming through the grey whirling world around them, brightening it back into Christmas” (139). So good.

I think it’s hard to talk about the fantasy/quest elements of the book without spoilers, or without getting bogged down in detail, so I’m not really going to try, but I will say that I love that part of the fantasy involves time-slips, where the protagonist/hero, 11-year-old Will, finds himself in the past on a number of occasions. I like the sense of history that those scenes bring, and the sense of the vast expanse of time.