It’s been fourteen years since I last read this book, the first in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, so I figured I was due for a re-read. It’s set in Cornwall on the Drew family’s August summer holiday, so it’s a summery book in that sense—there’s a seaside carnival and beach excursions and sunburns—but it’s also a quest narrative, and a page-turning adventure story about good versus evil, with an Arthurian element too.

At the start of the book, Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew arrive in the village of Trewissick with their parents: they’re spending four weeks in a rented house with a family friend they call their Great-Uncle Merry, and they’re delighted to learn that the house comes with a sweet dog named Rufus. They’re expecting a normal fun seaside holiday, though they know that Great-Uncle Merry is maybe a little eccentric, and that strange or interesting things somehow always seem to happen when he’s around. On a rainy day, the kids explore the house and find something very old and very interesting, which leads them on a quest for something even older: but they’re not the only ones trying to find it, and the other people who are looking for it are somehow allied with forces of evil, as their Great-Uncle Merry is somehow allied with forces of good. Danger and adventure ensue, and the second half of the book was pretty unputdownable for me, even having read it before and knowing how it would all end.

I love this description of the day the kids explore the house:

The thunder rolled quietly, far out over the sea, but the rain fell with grey insistence, blurring the windows as it washed down outside. The children wandered aimlessly about the house. Before lunch they tried going for a walk in the rain, but came back damp and depressed. (16)

And I love Merry’s description of fairy tales:

Once upon a time … a long time ago … things that happened once, perhaps, but have been talked about for so long that nobody really knows. And underneath all the bits that people have added, the magic swords and lamps, they’re all about one thing—the good hero fighting the giant, or the witch, or the wicked uncle. Good against bad. Good against evil. (72)

At the start of Turtles All the Way Down, Aza Holmes’s best friend, Daisy Ramirez, is talking about a news story: a local billionaire was about to be arrested on bribery-related charges, but he disappeared just before the raid. Aza, it turns out, used to be friends with one of the missing guy’s two sons: they went to camp together when they were eleven. Later, they hear on the radio that there’s a $100,000 reward for information leading to the missing guy’s whereabouts: so of course, they decide to try to solve the mystery and get the reward. Which, of course, reunites Aza with her old camp friend, Davis Pickett, who she totally had a crush on when they were kids, and who turns out to be a sweet and sensitive guy now.

So the story is about Aza and Davis and Daisy and regular high school stuff—dating/not dating, tensions between friends, etc.— and also about Davis’s missing dad—and also about Aza’s mental health. She has OCD and has been struggling her whole life with intrusive thoughts, particularly around bacteria/the possibility of a fatal bacterial infection, and there’s a lot in the book about how she feels stuck in her own spiraling thoughts, trapped in a body that kind of terrifies her. I like the way the book is a mix of Aza’s narration and her exchanges via text with Davis and blog entries he writes that she reads; I like the way they’re trying to figure out intimacy when both of them also have other stuff going on in their lives that makes that challenging.

Spirals are a recurring image in the book—spiraling thoughts, this Raymond Pettibon painting, the spiral of our galaxy: I liked this quote a lot, from one of several times when Davis and Aza look at the night sky together:

In the moonless darkness, we were just witnesses to light, and I felt a sliver of what must have driven Davis to astronomy. There was a kind of relief in having your own smallness laid bare before you, and I realized something Davis must have already known: Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out. (284)

I’ve been meaning to read this book since it came out, and am glad I finally got around to it. It turned out to be a perfect book to finish on a day when I was home sick with a fever: so sweet, so compelling, and it totally made me cry. Also, my boyfriend, who doesn’t read YA at all, read this book before I did (I had initially checked it out from the library before a business trip last month and didn’t get to it in time) and he liked it a whole lot too, which I think says something about John Green in general and this book in particular.

I read and loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a kid, and I’m happy to report that it definitely stands up to an adult re-read, one in which I feel like the things that stuck out to me are different from the ones that stuck out when I read it as a child. The book starts with a letter from one Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, of Farmington, Connecticut, to her lawyer, to explain a change she wants made to her will. But then the story shifts to Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, a pair of siblings from Greenwich. Claudia, who is nearly twelve and is the oldest of four kids (and the only girl) has decided she’s fed up of her ordinary home and school life, and particularly of the way she feels like she’s taken for granted. She’s decided she wants an adventure, so she’s decided to run away, and to invite her brother Jamie, who’s nine, to come along. But she doesn’t like being cold or uncomfortable, so she’s chosen to run to someplace warm and dry: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

I’d forgotten just how sweet and smart and funny this book is. The pieces I remembered most, from reading it as a kid, were the parts about the running away itself, and the museum mystery that ensues: I remembered Claudia’s preparations, and how she and Jamie hid at the museum, and how they found themselves trying to figure out if a newly-acquired statue, which might have been carved by Michelangelo, actually was done by him. (It’s the statue that brings them to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: the statue used to be hers, until she sold it at an auction and the museum acquired it for a bargain price.) But I’d forgotten, or never fully appreciated, the parts about how Claudia and Jamie come to feel like a team, or about how Claudia is starting to figure out who she is and what interests and motivates her, outside of her role as her parents’ dutiful daughter. (I love this: “Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats” (39).) Also, I definitely have more of an appreciation for the bits of humor and observation about NYC. Like this: “Her mother’s Mah-Jong club ladies called it the city. Most of them never ventured there; it was exhausting and it made them nervous” (7). Or this: “If you think of doing something in New York City, you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have that same thought. And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it” (50). There’s also a great passage that talks about the different kinds of people that Claudia and Jamie see at the Met on a Wednesday afternoon, from art students to older women passing time before a Broadway matinee.

I also love this bit of wisdom from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself, when she’s telling Claudia that at the age of 82, she doesn’t feel a need to learn something new every day, and that she actually isn’t sure that’s such a good idea in general:

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow. (153)

“There is no place in my life for sentimentality,” Taylor Markham thinks, near the start of Jellicoe Road. It seems true when she says it: she’s 17 and has been at the Jellicoe School for years, and now she’s “the one-in-charge” in the Territory Wars that happen for six weeks, in which students from her school face off against local kids (the Townies) and boys from a Sydney military school (the Cadets). The Jellicoe School is pretty much home for Taylor, though she also has lived in a nearby house that belongs to a woman in her early 30s named Hannah, who’s been taking care of Taylor since her drug-addicted mom abandoned her in a 7-11 bathroom when Taylor was eleven. But Taylor’s story isn’t the only one we get: there’s also a story from decades before that starts with a car crash on Jellicoe Road: we quickly learn that this other story is a book that Hannah’s writing, but Taylor wonders if it’s more than that, too.

At the start of the book, I found the dual narratives somewhat off-putting, and had a hard time getting into the book generally: it felt like there was a lot going on and it didn’t all flow together, and I wasn’t really into some of the moments of magical realism. But by the end, I was sitting on my couch in tears, so I’d say Jellicoe Road won me over, magical realism and all.

What makes the book work for me, mostly, is Taylor, and how she grows over the course of it. She’s so closed-off when the book starts (understandably, given her childhood): she has a hard time trusting people and tells herself she isn’t particularly interested in changing that. But of course that isn’t totally true, and on some level she knows it. I like how we get to see Taylor becoming friends with other kids from her school, and becoming close to the leaders of the Townies and the Cadets as well (especially the leader of the Cadets, a kid named Jonah she knows from a few years back). And I like how we get to see her learning more about Hannah and her mom and the other kids who were part of their close-knit circle of friends, back when they were kids and teenagers, and how she starts to understand some things about why her mother has done the things she’s done.

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.)