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.”

I’d read some of the twenty-one pieces in Calypso before, since some of them appeared in The New Yorker, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this book at all: I feel like a David Sedaris essay generally stands up to a re-read. A back cover blurb from Marion Winik at Newsday captures the appeal perfectly: “His personal essays,” Winik writes, “are put together so carefully that none of the seams show; they often ingeniously build to a sneak attack of wisdom or poignancy in the final lines.” These pieces are about family and loss and middle-age and mortality and being a flawed human interacting with other flawed humans, and they manage to be funny and moving and totally engaging: my boyfriend and I were reading this book at the same time, and we both kept commenting on what a pleasure it was.

In this book, Sedaris writes about family clashes and connections and missed opportunities: about worrying he’ll get on his family’s nerves when they visit him and his partner in England, or arguing with his dad about politics, or shopping with two of his sisters in Tokyo, or the last time he saw his sister Tiffany (who later committed suicide), or how none of his siblings ever confronted their mother about her alcoholism. He writes about the differences between his partner’s family and his own, and about easy beach-house conversation during board games, or while lounging in the sun. He writes about how his father is (mostly) easier to get along with in his old age than he was earlier in his life, and about how it feels like they don’t really know how to talk to one another, though they bond over jazz. He writes about personal experiences ranging from an adventure in tumor removal to his obsession with his Fitbit (the Fitbit piece, “Stepping Out,” is totally one of my favorites in the book), and about what business travel in the US is like, and about a fox that had been visiting his backyard in West Sussex. He writes about same-sex marriage, and about ghosts, and about insults people use in other countries. Throughout, I found myself grinning and laughing and nodding in recognition: I read this book over the course of four days and kept looking forward to when I’d be able to pick it up next.

(Note: though Eileen Myles used the pronoun “she” at the time this book was written, they now use the singular “they,” so that’s what I’m using here.)

Near the end of Inferno (which is split into three sections, each one loosely corresponding to a section of Dante’s Divine Comedy), Eileen Myles writes that “poetry is most of all a mastery of places, not the world but the weather of the states that form in your life and what you read and how things were taken and what came back” (260). That’s also a pretty good description of this book, which is an autobiographical novel about the narrator’s coming of age as a writer and a queer person. It’s also about New York in the late 1960s and 1970s (and onward), and it’s smart and wryly funny and really satisfying, maybe especially the first section, which mostly alternates between the narrator’s experience in a literature class at U Mass Boston and a story about going out on a double date of sorts with a near-stranger and two visiting Italian businessmen, fairly early in the narrator’s NYC life. The second section is partly structured as a grant application, partly as a series of vignettes about being a writer (among other things); the last section is another series of vignettes, about being a writer and sex and life.

I love Myles’s descriptions of New York: “Millions of little covens. It’s not a big city at all,” they write (51). Or, later in the book: “It’s the way New York is: all the realities blinking next to each other” (203). Myles captures a feeling of possibility related to being young in the city and to being a writer and to being queer, and that feeling is probably all the more pronounced because of the way that New York’s openness contrasts with the narrator’s Boston-adjacent childhood and adolescence. Myles writes this, about Catholic school: “the nuns enclosed the world with sanity and god. The rules flowed up and down the calendar and around the clock and in the day the sky, the world was rules—known by god the nuns said” (8). And then Myles writes about the city, about “being completely open to the world” in a “temporary way,” “notebook open to all the light coming in” (33). I also love this, about poetry readings at the West End bar by Columbia: “The light poured in from Broadway behind the poet so you could see it was winter and the trees were skinny and the cars on Broadway were moving fast and a reading was going on. The world was a movie” (53).

(I also totally love the sweet and tender and observant way Myles writes about their dog Rosie in this book—I’d already wanted to read Afterglow, Myles’s “dog memoir”, and now I’m even more excited about it.)

I found some of the fourteen essays in this collection more compelling than others, but, overall, I like Chew-Bose’s voice and the way she writes about memory/family/personal history and larger issues like race and the experience of being a first-generation North American. I liked “Summer Pictures,” about going to the movies in the summertime, a whole bunch – how Chew-Bose writes about the “sense of ceremony” that an excursion to the theater brings, and how sitting in the cool dark in the summer heat feels like “playing hooky,” “pretending that adulthood is no match for summer’s precedent” of freedom (189, 191). I liked “Tan Lines,” about summer heat and family stories and Chew-Bose’s childhood summer awareness of her body, her brown-skinned body in a largely-white place, and also the way Chew-Bose writes in this piece about summers now, about moments sitting on rooftops in New York City, trying to read, feeling “indebted to the car passing below blasting that song” (183). I liked “Since Living Alone,” in which Chew-Bose writes about figuring out who she is in her own space, by herself, not defined in relation to others: this, from that piece, is great:

I count living alone as, in a manner of speaking, finding interest in my own story, of prospering, of creating a space where I repeat the same actions every day, whetting them, rearranging them, starting from scratch but with variables I can control, or, conversely, eagerly appeal to their chaos. (173)

I also really liked “D as In,” about having a non-Anglo name in a mostly-Anglo place, and about considerations of privilege related to race and to names, and “Moby-Dick,” about reading in the library and the way moments from books can line up, pleasingly, with the outer world. And I liked the meandering/digressive structure of the long first piece, “Heart Museum,” which is about the heart and life and wonder and everyday ordinariness and families and how art affects us and friendship and heartbreak and sense memories and more.

I don’t know what to say about Concluding other than that I agree with the quote from Deborah Eisenberg on the cover of the edition I read: “Uncanny, gorgeous, enigmatic.”

Concluding takes place over the course of a single day at an all-girls boarding school for future state servants, somewhere in England, in a vague and vaguely dystopian future. Two of the school’s students have gone missing, and the question of what exactly happened to them is an element of the book, but maybe not the central one. The book more closely focuses on one Mr Rock, a retired scientist of some sort who lives in a cottage on the school grounds with his granddaughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who’s 35 years old, is dating one of the school’s male teachers and recovering from a nervous breakdown. Rock is (rightly) worried that the school’s principals, Edge and Baker (well, mostly Edge) are scheming to get him out of the cottage, and the question of what’s going to happen to Rock is kind of the central question, but it isn’t exactly, either.

The characters of Concluding go through the book talking to each other and mishearing or misunderstanding each other, and those misunderstandings and lapses in communication or connection are maybe the central thing about this book. But what I like most about Concluding is the way it captures the rhythms of a day, the way it shows various characters doing all the ordinary (or slightly out of the ordinary) daily things: having breakfast and talking about the weather, taking an afternoon nap, getting ready for tea, getting ready for the school’s annual Founder’s Day dance. I like the descriptive passages, too, especially the ones about light and shadow, the way light divides or transforms a space, or about motion: starlings swirling through the sky at dawn and dusk, or this, from just before the dance starts: “what had been formless became a group, by music, merged to a line of white in pairs, white faces, to the flowers and lighted ballroom, each pair of lips open to the spiralling dance” (179).

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.

In an author’s note at the start of the book, The Iliac Crest is described as “a novel delving into the fluid nature of gender dis/identifications,” “set in a time in which disappearance has become a plague,” and a book in which “borders are a subtle but pervasive force” (vii). That all sounded pretty exciting to me but, alas, I didn’t end up loving this book. I think the problem is just as likely to be with me as with it: maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for this kind of vague and allusive story; maybe I would have appreciated it more if I knew more about Mexican history and literature; maybe I like weird books more when I feel like I have more to somehow hold onto. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like this book, just that I didn’t quite connect with it as much as I’d hoped to.

The start of the book felt promising: an unnamed narrator thinks back to a stormy night, a knock at his door. He’d been waiting for an ex-lover to arrive, but the woman outside is a stranger. It’s raining; she’s soaked; he lets her in. He recounts their meeting as a moment in which he saw her and wanted her, but then backtracks: “that’s not how it went,” he says: “I did not feel desire but fear” (6). The woman, who has introduced herself as Amparo Dávila, tells the narrator she knows him, but not in any way we can make sense of: “I know you from when you were a tree,” she says (8). And then the narrator’s ex arrives, and promptly faints. The stranger who introduced herself as Amparo Dávila stays with the narrator and his ex (he calls her the Betrayed), nursing her back to health, though it’s the narrator who’s a doctor: he’s busy at work, though, at a nearby hospital for the terminally ill. The narrator worries about the weird situation at home: he wonders if the stranger and his ex know each other; if they’re plotting against him somehow. He worries more when he realizes the two of them are speaking what seems to be a private language: it’s nothing he’s ever heard or can make sense of. The plot gets more complicated, with a missing manuscript and questions of identity and disappearance; in addition to saying she knows him from when he was a tree, the stranger also tells the narrator she knows his secret. “I know you are a woman,” she says, though the narrator is pretty sure he isn’t (40). Things get weird in various ways, with the narrator hunting through the hospital archives, looking up Amparo Dávila in the phone book, and getting into trouble with his boss. Maybe things have always been weird: the narrator’s story of how the Betrayed came to be called that has something of the feeling of a fable. The narrator reads about Amparo Dávila’s writing and notes that it’s full of “wickedness, the fantastical, the inescapable”—and at least some of those elements are present in this book, too, go figure (53). There are dreams and images that are like dreams, and adding to the dreamy atmosphere is the ocean by which the narrator lives and works: the ocean and its shifting light, the ocean and its shifting weather.

I think my favorite part of this book, though, is a multipage list near the end of things that can be done from a hospital bed, maybe because it’s funny and concrete and fairly straightforward, a little bit of relative clarity in the midst of a story that felt intriguing but also bewildering, though I realize that the feeling of being adrift may be part of the point.

I find Charles Finch’s mysteries to be a reliable pleasure, and Home by Nightfall lived up to my expectations. It’s set in the fall/winter of 1876, in London and in Sussex. Detective Charles Lenox finds himself investigating a pair of (unrelated) crimes: one in the city, and the other in the country village where he and his brother Edmund grew up. In London, a famous German pianist has gone missing: he played a show, then went to his dressing room, and then, apparently, vanished into thin air. In the village of Markethouse, where Lenox goes to keep his brother company, the crime is equally mysterious: an insurance salesman comes home to see a creepy drawing chalked on his stoop and swears he also sees a figure in the window, but when he goes inside, no one’s there and nothing seems to have been taken. The next day, though, he gets an urgent telegram summoning him to a nearby town; when he gets home, he finds that a bottle of sherry has been stolen, though everything else (including his collection of gemstones) is exactly where it should be.

I like the way the book’s action switches between the city and the country: it has a momentum that worked for me. I also, as I always do with this series, appreciate the many bits of historical detail that are included, and I really like Finch’s style overall. I like the way we get to see Lenox interacting with his wife and daughter and brother and friends, not just solving crimes, and I like the descriptive passages about going horseback riding early on a misty morning in the country, or about the pleasures of coffee or tea or cake or ale, or about “the secret regularity that exists within [the] commotion” of London’s busy streets (8), or about the canary circus that Lenox takes his daughter to see.