Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Review: The Penderwicks at Last by Jeanne Birdsall (2018)

In this long-awaited conclusion to the Penderwicks series, which is set 15 years after the first book, the entire Penderwicks clan has returned to Arundel to celebrate Rosalind's wedding to Teddy Geiger. Lydia, the youngest Penderwick, is eleven years old, and is thrilled to finally visit the magical place that has been the subject of so many stories told by her now grown-up sisters, who range in age from 19 (Batty) to 27 (Rosalind). While wedding preparations unfold around her, Lydia befriends Alice, the daughter of Cagney Pelletier and his wife, Natalie, and the two girls do such things as flee from nosy Mrs. Tifton, whom Jeffrey did not consult before offering Arundel for the wedding, babysit the dog of Batty's ex-boyfriend, and take care of some chickens.

When I first read The Penderwicks nearly ten years ago, I gave it a very enthusiastic five stars. Here was a timeless book about sisters having adventures together, solving their own problems, and mostly looking out for one another. It was my exact cup of tea and I drank it down eagerly. The following sequels varied in quality: I liked The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, but found The Penderwicks at Point Mouette too contrived, and then enjoyed The Penderwicks in Spring, but felt it didn't match the tone of the first three books. This final book, however, is the biggest disappointment of the four sequels, and it sends the series out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The biggest problem, I think, is with the original four characters. In every book of the series prior to this one, one of the original four girls has still been young enough to take center stage as the protagonist of the story. Readers feel at home in those books because even though the characters are a bit older in each new title, readers have built up a relationship with those characters over the course of the series and have a vested interest in learning what happens to them. Because those beloved characters are now all adults in this book, they are suddenly just not that interesting. They all have adult worries about careers and marriage that kids just don't care about, and we are no longer inside any of their heads.

Worse, because they have been kids in the previous books, their adult selves feel very hollow and inauthentic, as though only the most stereotypical vestiges of their personalities actually followed them to adulthood. I kept thinking about those obligatory sit-com episodes in which the characters imagine what they will be like in the future. The actors get dressed up as older versions of themselves, utter a few catchphrases from beneath their fake white wigs and everybody laughs at how silly they look and sound. As I read passages about the older Penderwick girls, I kept finding myself thinking that each one felt like she was pretending to be an adult and not doing a very believable job of it. In that sense, reading this book was like reading a book-length Harry Potter epilogue.

The other big problem, unfortunately, is with Lydia. She only made her first appearance in the fourth book, in which she was only two years old, and she is completely unknown to the reader at the start of this book. While she does have some qualities that supposedly set her apart from the other Penderwicks, such as the fact that she supposedly likes everybody she meets, these are mostly superficial and do nothing to develop her as anything other than the vehicle by which the reader is able to check in on Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty as adults.  She essentially spends the whole book trying to recapture what her sisters have told her about Arundel and asking questions meant to remind readers of events that have gone before. (This is especially weird because at every opportunity Batty claims not to remember things, like wearing wings, that I think most average people would remember from their childhoods.)

Without a strong main character, and with the four original characters off to the sidelines posing as grown-ups, there is nothing to distract the reader from the usual tropes that appear in the other books of this series, which, in the past, have been made less annoying by the book's other good qualities. These include Mrs. Tifton's utterly stereotypical and incredible continuing disdain for the Penderwicks after essentially not seeing them for fifteen years, the sheer number of unnecessary characters, including Alice's brother and a host of dogs whose names are impossible to keep straight, and the last-minute decision by one of the other sisters to also get married along with Rosalind. Also problematic is the fact that the book spends all its time building up to a wedding, and then not one word is written about the actual wedding ceremony. I also absolutely hated the references to the "patriarchy."  That gave the book a political flavor that was decidedly absent from the others of the series, and which is grossly inappropriate for the 8-to-12-year-old audience.

All in all, this book is just one story too many about these characters. While it is nice to know what happened to them all as adults, it is not necessary to devote an entire book to explaining it. Honestly, a single chapter at the end of the fourth book which described the wedding would have done the trick - that even could have been from Lydia's point of view and it would have been a fun novelty instead of the major liability it is for this book. It was an interesting idea to have the characters age so much from book to book, especially since so many years went by between books, but I also think there is a reason more authors don't take this approach. This fizzling out at the end of the series was almost inevitable, simply because kids want to read about kids, not nostalgic adults who used to be the kids they loved to read about.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Few of My Favorite Character Names

Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic is Best Character Names. I've posted before about some of the really ridiculous names I've discovered in children's books; today, I'm sharing ten of my favorite names from books of all types. (Books that are the first of a series are marked with *.)


Anastasia Krupnik 

from Anastasia Krupnik* by Lois Lowry

The beauty of the first name coupled with the geeky sound of the last name really sums up Anastasia's adolescent experiences throughout this series. It's the perfect name for a precocious young woman who makes a lot of mistakes as she comes of age.

Atticus Finch 

from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This is a great name simply because of the way it sounds. It suits the professional image of the Southern country lawyer and is memorable without being laughable.

Aurora Teagarden 

from Real Murders* by Charlaine Harris

Cozy mystery character names are often either too plain to remember or so over-the-top I can't help but laugh. This one strikes a good balance between normal and memorable. I'm not as crazy about "Roe" as a nickname, but I can deal with it.

Cherry Sue 

from Poppleton* by Cynthia Rylant and Mark Teague

I love everything about this colorful and friendly llama who is the next-door neighbor of title character Poppleton (who is a pig.) This name suits her vibrant personality and positive outlook on every situation.

Hazel Motes

from Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

Since so much of this book has to do with sight and the importance of seeing clearly I've always liked that O'Connor sometimes refers to Hazel as "Haze" and that a "mote" is mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount as something one takes out of his brother's eye after removing the beam from his own. This is a name that seems random on the surface, but clearly has a deeper significance.


Kinsey Millhone 

from A is for Alibi* by Sue Grafton

This is the perfect name for a detective, and I like the family connections represented by the first name. The name as a whole is unusual, but not unbelievably odd.

Nancy Blackett 

from Swallows and Amazons* by Arthur Ransome

I like this name for the great joke it represents. Nancy's real name is Ruth, but she calls herself Nancy because she fancies herself a pirate, and pirates have to be "ruthless."

Peaceable Sherwood 

from The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope

This name is another one that is just really fun to say. The character himself is a larger-than-life knave, so he needs a good playful name to accompany his personality. I also love the last name's nod to Robin Hood.

Praiseworthy 

from By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman

Praiseworthy is a butler who sails to California to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. I can't think of a better name for a resourceful and proper butler than an adjective that tells us exactly what he is like.


Sumner Lee

from That Summer by Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen's books can sometimes get a little bit out there with their quirky character names, but this one walks the line really well between unusual and outright odd. I like that Sumner is close enough to Summer that the title of the book could be about him, just as much as it is about the special summer the main character, Haven, remembers her family enjoying with him.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The RAHM Report for 5/21/18

What I Finished Reading


I read for Bout of Books every day this week except Friday and ended up finishing six books. That's down quite a bit from the first few times I did Bout of Books, but up from my recent average of 3-4 books per week. I'm already looking forward to the next Bout of Books in August! Here's what I read, and the Goodreads rating I gave to each book:

  • Wild Blues by Beth Kephart (digital ARC) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    This book was beautifully written just like the author's previous YA title, This is the Story of You. My review will be published on May 30. 
  • Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles (read on Open Library) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I have The Aurora County All-Stars sitting on my nightstand but I wanted to read the series in order so I borrowed this first book from Open Library. It was mostly very sweet, but I was caught a bit off-guard when the main character made a reference to strip poker. It was so out of place.  But I liked the book overall. 
  • By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman (hardcover) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I was not crazy about this book at first, as the Gold Rush is not a topic that has ever really grabbed my interest. But this tale of a boy and his butler sailing to California to seek their fortunes ended up being a really fun (and funny) adventure story. The 1967 film adaptation - Disney's The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin - was entertaining, too, though the ending deviates quite a bit from the book.
  • The Penderwicks at Last by Jeanne Birdsall (ebook) ⭐⭐
    This was such a disappointment. My review will be up on Wednesday of this week.
  • The Princeton Impostor by Ann Waldron (paperback) ⭐⭐
    This was a strange cozy mystery. Everything about it was very tame and gentle most of the time, but then sometimes there would be 2 or 3 f-bombs on the same page. It didn't bother me, but it struck me as odd. The dialogue also felt stilted and the mystery dragged. This was the last book of the series, but the only one I've read, and I won't be seeking out any others.
  • Send in the Clowns by Julie Mulhern (audiobook) ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    Though I was initially put off by the audiobook narrator's mispronunciation of calliope as "callie opie," that wound up being the only mistake, and the word wasn't used again after the first couple of chapters. I did enjoy spending another book with Ellison, who was her usual witty and snarky self, and I do generally enjoy Callie Beaulieu's narration. 

What I'm Currently Reading

I have really only looked at the first page of each of these, but this is what is on my reading list for this week:


  • Sixpence in her Shoe by Phyllis McGinley
    I borrowed this essay collection about the American housewife in 1960 after my husband sent me an article about her from The National Review. There are now 5 people waiting behind me and my loan ends on Saturday, so this is my top priority for the next few days.
  • Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles
    This is the book that comes between Love, Ruby Lavender and The Aurora County All-Stars, and it is also checked out to me from Open Library. I expect to be able to read it in just a couple of hours.,
  • Lakeside Cottage by Susan Wiggs
    The weather is finally warm, so I'm ready for a light summery read. I hope to at least get halfway through this one this week. 
  • The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
    I've been meaning to start this for weeks. I will definitely do so this week. I've had a good long break from Three Pines and I'm eager to go back!

I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Book Review: Dandelion Cottage by Carroll Watson Rankin (1904)

Bettie (12 years old), Mabel (11), Jean (14), and Marjory (13) are four young girls who are neighbors and best friends. When they discover that an empty cottage has been standing on the property of their local church since long before the church even existed, they long to fix it up as a playhouse. Fortunately, Mr. Black, one of the church wardens, is fond of the girls, and he agrees to let them have the house in exchange for their hard work pulling the dandelions that have grown up around it. The girls complete this task and go on to turn the ramshackle building into a very admirable playhouse. When new neighbors move in next door, however, Dandelion Cottage is suddenly under attack, and the girls must work to save it from being taken away from them.

This book, which I bought in hardcover, but which is also available on Project Gutenberg, is an utterly charming story of friendship, resourcefulness, and fun. The four girls each have their own distinct personalities, and these create much of the tension in the early parts of the story as they work out how best to use the little cottage. The girls also have many small adventures as a result of spending time in the cottage, including hosting an overnight guest, planning a dinner party, and protecting the house from the bratty daughter of the new neighbors. The story is a wonderful testament to the ingenuity of kids and the value of using their imaginations to make their own fun.

My oldest daughter is only four, but she already reads on a second or third grade reading level, so I am constantly thinking ahead to books that will be challenging enough for her in the next few years that will also be age-appropriate in terms of content for a child of six or seven. Though the characters in this book are significantly older than that, the conflicts they face and the details of their home decorating are exactly the kind of thing that will appeal to her, and there is nothing in the book at all that I would consider inappropriate or beyond her understanding. The text, meanwhile, is just descriptive enough to pose a bit of a challenge to a reader at a fourth or fifth grade level. I think it will be a perfect choice for her to read independently as her reading ability progresses, but it could work just as well as a read-aloud. The story moves quickly, and the chapters are the perfect length.

To my great excitement, this book turns out to be the start of a four-book series! The sequels are also available from Project Gutenberg: The Adopting of Rosa Marie, The Castaways of Pete's Patch, and Girls of Highland Hall. I imagine that anyone who has loved the Betsy-Tacy books, The Railway Children, or even The Boxcar Children will be as pleased as I was to discover this wonderful little quartet.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Book Review: Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant (ARC)

Flora Smallwood and her parents live in Rosetown, Indiana, home to Flora's favorite used bookstore, Wings and a Chair, her new friend Yury, who has moved from the Ukraine and shares her love for vintage children's books, and her oldest friend, Nessy, who has been by her side since the girls were five years old. Flora loves Rosetown, but she does not love the feelings of uncertainty surrounding the recent death of her dog, her parents' separation, and the start of fourth grade.  Thankfully, however, in idyllic Rosetown, nothing terrible seems to last too long.

This gentle novel set in 1972 and 1973 is perfect for sensitive readers who like quieter, more introspective stories with minimal conflict and definite positive resolutions. Though there are problems facing Flora in this book, they are mostly the problems of everyday life as a nine-year-old, and each of these ends up on a hopeful note.

Rosetown itself is much like the little towns that often serve as backdrops to cozy mysteries, and all the little shops and their proprietors really appealed to me. While no small town is ever this perfect in reality, it can often feel that way to the kids who grow up there, and I think Rylant really does a nice job of highlighting Flora's all-encompassing love for her hometown, which makes it appear idyllic in her young eyes.

I was also thrilled to see a reference to the "new" Cricket magazine, to which Flora's teacher suggests she submit a story. Unfortunately, after reading Ms. Yingling's review, I learned that Cricket didn't begin publication until September of 1973, while Flora's teacher shows her a copy already printed in April. This doesn't ruin the story, but it is annoying, especially because the publication date of the first issue is readily available on Wikipedia and because pushing the whole story just one year into the future could have solved the problem!

Because of Flora's love for vintage and used books, this book is particularly appealing to me and my family, and I am probably biased in its favor. Even so, I think there is a lot to like about this book, especially for third and fourth graders who are ready for novels with descriptive language but maybe don't want to read about the concerns of middle schoolers just yet. I have been lamenting the loss of this type of short and sweet middle grade novel in recent years; I hope this book represents the beginning of its return.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The RAHM Report for 5/14/18


Bout of Books


Bout of Books 22 is this week! I'll be updating daily on Twitter and will share my progress for the entire week here next Monday.

What I Finished Reading


  • Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant (digital ARC)
    This is a short and sweet, gentle novel set in a small idyllic town in the 1970s. I enjoyed the way it was written and the fact that the main character enjoys vintage books and used bookstores. My review will publish to the blog tomorrow.
  • Post-Mortem by Patricia Cornwell, audiobook read by C.J. Critt
    I read this eight years ago according to my Goodreads account, but I had no memory of it, so I decided to listen to the audiobook. It was very good, especially toward the end when the truth started to come out. I'm planning to listen to the second book soon.
  • Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum by Laura M. Berquist
    I skimmed the second half of this book since middle school and high school curricula won't be relevant to me for another 8 or 9 years, but I found the author's approach to homeschooling very compatible with my plans. I'll have a full review up on Goodreads later this week. 
  • The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil (review copy)
    This is a YA romance novel with a few things in common with John Green's Turtles All the Way Down. It was very slow to start, but was surprisingly emotional as it went on and the two main characters got to know each other. Review coming soon. 
  • Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea by Lynne Rae Perkins (digital ARC)
    Like this author's All Alone in the Universe  and Criss-Cross, this is another realistic fiction book where it feels like not much happens. The writing is very strong, but not every is going to gravitate toward the story. My review will be up in a week or so, hopefully.


What I'm Currently Reading


  • By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman
    I keep forgetting that I'm reading this. I will really try to remember to finish it this week.
  • The Happy Hollisters at Sea Gull Beach by Jerry West (ebook)
    I'm reading this one with my four-year-old. She loves it, but I think the first two books were better.
  • Wild Blues by Beth Kephart (digital ARC)
    I loved Beth Kephart's YA novel, This is the Story of You, so I could not pass up the chance to read this new middle grade book involving a prison break in the Adirondacks. I've read four chapters and the writing is just beautiful. I have a feeling this will be the book I focus on the most this week. 
  • Send in the Clowns by Julie Mulhern, audiobook read by Callie Beaulieu
    I just started the audiobook of this cozy mystery. It's good so far, except that the narrator keeps pronouncing the word "calliope" as "callie opie" and it's completely distracting. 

I'll be linking up today with Unleashing Readers/Teach Mentor Texts and Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?



Thursday, May 10, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope (1974)

Kate Sutton and her sister Alicia are ladies-in-waiting to Princess Elizabeth, sister and (eventual successor) to Queen Mary I. When Alicia commits an act of foolishness, Kate is blamed for it and subsequently banished to Elvenwood Hall, also called the Perilous Gard. Here Kate meets Sir Geoffrey Heron, the man who has been charged with looking after her, as well as Geoffrey's brother, Christopher. Christopher has been blamed for the disappearance and presumed death of Geoffrey's young daughter Cecily, but Kate recognizes immediately that the circumstances under which she went missing do not follow logic. As she and Christopher investigate further, it becomes clear that tales of the "fairy folk" living beneath the Perilous Gard are not just stories, but factual accounts. Fairies have taken Cecily, and though her return brings great relief to Christopher and Kate both, it marks only the beginning of their own great trials in fairyland.

This novel, which received a Newbery Honor in 1975, is a complex blend of history, mystery, romance, and English folklore (especially the ballad, Tam Lin). Though the characters are strong, it is really the plot that drives the story, and I was hooked on the mysterious aspects of the book from the first moment Kate laid eyes on Elvenwood Hall. The writing, though not especially flowery, is still quite descriptive, and it gives the reader very concrete and memorable images of important moments in the story.  There is also a strong sense of suspense throughout the book, and while this is temporarily relieved at some points, the unsettling feeling remains even through the perfectly ambiguous ending, which just compounds the emotional impact of the whole story.

In terms of content, I would say this is primarily a book for middle school and maybe even high school readers. The romantic elements are minimal (and marriage is always their end goal), but I do think these situations are most likely to be appreciated by kids who are past the "kissing is gross" phase of childhood.  There are also a ton of historical references and allusions to folklore that most kids won't know, regardless of age, (I didn't know most of them myself!) but which middle school kids are most likely to grasp if they seek them out, or have them presented to them by an adult. There is also a lot of subtle commentary on paganism and Christianity that I don't think younger kids would be ready to grapple with, but which would spark lots of interesting discussion amongst eighth graders. For my own kids, I'll plan to use this book when we study the Medieval/Early Renaissance for the second time, during the Logic stage of the Classical Trivium. This should roughly line up with the start of middle school (6th grade), and hopefully it will be a nice complement to the factual historical texts we'll be using.

Elizabeth Marie Pope only wrote two books: this one, and The Sherwood Ring. Personally, I think I connected more with The Sherwood Ring because its fantasy elements were so straightforward, and I felt more comfortable with its American History references because they were more familiar to me. Personal preference aside, however, The Perilous Gard is probably the better book from a critical standpoint. The writer's craft is more finely honed in this second novel, probably owing to the 16-year gap between the two books, and it just feels like the story has more depth that would reward multiple re-readings. The Sherwood Ring is more of a romance novel with fantasy elements, whereas The Perilous Gard ties many threads together into a story that is not easily pigeonholed into one category.