Judged by Jo • Find her on her blog
First of all, I am SO EXCITED to be participating this year and am very grateful to Beth for putting up with my scatterbrained procrastinating self.
Before I get to the actual recap/comparison/judging, I thought I’d start this post off with a few disclaimers:
1) I am (some would say very) pregnant with my first child.
2) I haven’t read the previous round’s judging yet.
3) I came to know our illustrious bracket-mistress through a mutual love of Megan Whalen Turner’s novels.
4) That same love propelled people who shared our love to recommend that I read Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones (may she rest in peace) and Tam Lin by Pamela Dean in college. I listened to their recommendations and loved both books. (I recommend you read them too.)
5) Those same recommendations came along with one for a certain novel that I was lucky enough to be tasked with judging this round, but it was not readily available at the time and so I actually had not read it before learning that it was one of the two books I would be judging. “You will love it,” they said, all those years(!) ago. “It is right up your alley,” they said.
And so, as you might be guessing, Steph and Andree did me a great favor but perhaps did you, the bracket-filler, a great disservice, as even without picking up either book I had a very strong suspicion which one I would pick to be a winner. That potential winner’s competitor would have to be the strongest of contenders to overcome not only my initial bias but also the potential winner in and of itself. And while the competition was strong, and perfectly lovely in its own way, it sadly (if you were rooting for it) was not that strong. If it’s any comfort, I do have some slightly more objective reasons for why it was not the stronger of the two books!
So, with that out of the way, onto the books themselves!
Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay
I have tried about four times now to come up with a succinct summary of this book, but none of them quite did it justice. It is, in many ways, a fairy tale, the sort of story that has a lot of very unlikely events and characters but imbues them with coherency and truth, so that in the midst of all the improbabilities you find yourself laughing and sighing and nodding at the reality of it all.
So, let’s just say it’s the story of the Casson family, wherein the parents are artists living separate lives and the children, left to their own devices, have each developed their own neuroses and also have to thus learn to conquer them with or without the help of others. There’s Cadmium, afraid of her own ability to succeed; Indigo, the lone brother, afraid of heights and Caddy’s driving; Rose, who thinks making art out of food and mailing it to their father is a good idea; and Saffron, whose name doesn’t appear on the color chart with the others, who’s adopted, and feels left out as a result. There’s also Bill and Eve, their parents, and Michael darling the driving instructor, and Sarah the girl in the wheelchair down the street, and Sarah’s parents, a headmistress and a Stereotypical English Man.
The titular part of the plot involves Saffron (and Sarah’s) quest to find an angel that resided in the garden where Saffron’s parents lived before their death. Given that the girls live somewhere outside London and the garden was in Siena, Italy, their journey to it involves considerable planning, and it is not one they could make on their own. Even beyond the surface obstacles of “how are two thirteen-year-olds going to travel through three countries,” though, finding Saffy’s angel ultimately requires the cooperation of all the children, and in the process all of them more or less discover strengths they didn’t know they had, empathy they hadn’t known to have, and (as cliché as it sounds) the importance of family, birth or otherwise.
The book is written in a sort of madcap way, choosing the most important bits and pieces but not always stringing them together, which suits the madcap nature of the characters. Most of the strength of the novel lies in the characters of the children. Caddy in particular is a hoot, and I will admit that I cared slightly more about her driving lessons with Michael than about Saffy’s quest for her angel. (Only slightly. But then, I loved Michael as passionately as Droopy Di.) The only child who eluded me was Rose, who (perhaps by virtue of having overcome impermanence so early on) was quite confident in herself the entire time and whose quirks were thus a little more confusing. I also lost track of how old she was supposed to be; looking back on it, maybe she was supposed to only be five years old? But that doesn’t really make sense to me either. Anyway. The supporting cast is also generally strong—Sarah’s parents in particular are absolute gems, and did I mention my love for Michael?—and the way the friendship between Saffy and Sarah develops and grows, especially at the end of the novel, is just beautiful.
And then there’s Bill and Eve, the Casson parents.
This is where disclaimer #1 comes into play—a LOT of my recent thoughts and concerns in my everyday life have had to do with parenting, and being a mother, and making sure my marriage is strong going into the transition into parenthood and remains strong as we parent together, and raising children, and taking care of children. And frankly, I could not stand Bill and Eve. I mean, McKay gives us a lot to work with there, a lot that probably either goes straight over kids’ heads or else gives them niggling insights into Being a Grown-up that will coalesce when they think about or read this book when they’re older. I appreciate that of course Eve is the actual artist of the two, that Bill is so completely out of touch with his family that he turns them into something they’re not in his head, but at the same time I could not figure out why they were still married. And I’m all for making marriages work! But I couldn’t really come to terms with the fact that Bill was still hanging around with them. (That is not meant as praise of his character at all; he’s actually useless, probably the worst of the bunch. Which makes his sticking-around-ness all the more bewildering.) And I appreciate Eve’s artistic nature, but reading about their house horrified me. I know it’s a fairy tale and things are exaggerated and that marriages are messy sometimes and people are fallible, but I had no sympathy for Eve or Bill and just felt very, very sorry for their screwed-up children.
That being said, I enjoyed their screwed-up children, and the zaniness of the story, and I laughed aloud many times, given what a short book it is. I enjoyed the ways the book examined friendship and family, determination and devotion, though ultimately I thought the ending was a bit flat, especially the epilogue. On the one hand, it shows how everyone’s come together, how Saffy’s family isn’t just the family she’s had all along but has room for new people, too; but the very end, with Caddy and the statue, is sort of…okay, what’s the point? I’m not surprised she fixed the angel (though Caddy isn’t particularly the artistic one, and maybe that’s part of the problem), but ending the book on that note instead of the family/home note (broken angel and all—because Saffy’s family is broken too, even as it’s hers) was sort of a build-up to nowhere. Rather like Crime and Punishment, I think this book suffers from that desire to tie up that last thread and in so doing loses a bit of its grip on its own narrative. (Though at least this epilogue had Michael darling.)
I’ve never read anything by Hilary McKay, though the parts of the dust jacket that I did read were full of her praises and I can understand why. That it is so hard to untangle the plot from the themes of the book speaks I think to its strength and its goodness, but in the end neither quite came together enough for me to feel as though it all made sense.
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Pope
This book is a little easier to describe; it’s a Tam Lin retelling, set in Tudor England. Our Janet is this time Kate Sutton, a maid of honor to the exiled Princess Elizabeth, whose sister is not quite so sensible as our heroine and manages to get Kate exiled from the princess’s exile to a remote castle in the north of England. At the Perilous Gard, long the holding of a family literally called the Wardens, Kate finds herself caught up in the mysterious disappearance of the current lord’s daughter, thought to be murdered at the hands of his younger brother. Of course, this being a remote castle by a “holy well” in the north of England in the 1500s, the answer is actually the Fairy Folk, and it all goes downhill from there.
(I will say I greatly enjoyed the twist on the Tam Lin ending, partially because I was amused that it was much easier to comprehend than Fire and Hemlock. Though I didn’t have much trouble with Fire and Hemlock when I read it. Anyway.)
The writing is lovely, descriptive without being overly flowery, not poetic or particularly gorgeous but still very vivid. The style is much more traditional than Saffy’s Angel, and again I really did enjoy the madcapness of that one—the style of each of these books suits it, helps it tell the story it’s telling without drawing too much attention to itself.
I admit, when this novel started off with Kate’s sister Alicia, I was a little bored. But that’s mostly because I’ve grown out of the stage where I thirst for stories about the plainer/more “boring” of two friends/sisters (stories which thus require the other friend/sister to be glamorous and silly), preferring a little more complexity when it comes to depictions of traditional gender roles as played out by members of that gender. At sixteen (or heck, even twelve), however, I would’ve been all over that.
And soon enough Alicia went away and then the book became everything I love: Tudor England, an old castle with a Great Hall, an absent lord, his snarky and stubborn (and hot) younger brother, an even stubborner heroine with a hugely practical streak and a head for spatial acuity that I envy, villains who are evil not so much because they’re a cliché but because they have chosen their own profit over that of others, Fairy Folk, a stone-cold Lady, banter, adventure, and a dash of most excellent theology.
I loved Kate. I mean, I enjoyed Saffron, and watching her grow, but Kate is a presence, a force to be reckoned with simply by being herself. And unlike so many, many YA books today, the book doesn’t waste time talking about how great she is, or pointing out how different she is from other girls (I mean, it points it out, but it’s more Kate’s self-perception; the book doesn’t blather about how great it is that she’s not like other girls); it doesn’t enumerate her strengths and her flaws, or break point-of-view by going all meta about her sense of who she is. The book simply sets her before you and then lets her go, and you go along with her, and she is brilliant, beautifully realized and entirely her own.
I loved hating Master John. I loved what happened with Susan. I loved the Lady, but I loved Gwenhyfara even more. I really liked Sir Geoffrey! And Christopher. Oh, Christopher. I loved Christopher. I can’t describe him so well as Kate—words are failing me—but he is every inch her match, and reading about him was a sheer delight. (This surprises no one.)
I loved the way she juxtaposed the conversations between Gwenhyfara and Kate and Christopher and Kate, the pacing of that whole section. I loved the weight in all its terror. I loved watching Christopher and Kate fall [even more] in love, loved their conversations, their rapport, loved the way he described loving her in the end. I loved Kate’s musings on who the Fairy Folk were, how such things come to be, and also I loved EVERYTHING ABOUT THAT CONVERSATION BETWEEN KATE AND THE LADY ABOUT GOD. And using the name Christopher and the legend and DID I MENTION THAT CONVERSATION BEING MY BREAD AND BUTTER BECAUSE IT WAS BRILLIANT, especially the conclusion, the twist of it, and I loved Kate, did I mention loving Kate?
At the end of this novel there was a moment where I thought the story might weaken itself, and I read on worryingly, because it had gotten so much right it seemed odd that it would get this wrong. It’s when Christopher and Alicia come to Perilous Gard together, and of course in two seconds Kate goes from so proud of her pretty dress to being crushed that her sister is here and beautiful and calling her out of style and also apparently making eyes at Christopher. Again I was a bit impatient with this, all “all right, how are you going to resolve this misunderstanding” as obviously Kate and Christopher belong together forever and ever, and then the Lady shows up to offer Kate a spell to make Christopher love her. And obviously Kate is going to reject it—
but the way in which she rejects it matters, and she rejects it well, and that in part goes along with the sheer genius of naming the chapter “The Changeling,” because of course Kate is not a changeling child and yet she has changed, even while remaining true to her wonderful self. She’s more confident, more sure of herself, even in the face of potentially losing that which she has fought so hard and at such cost to save. And it’s a beautiful moment—and then, a page or two later, once she knows it’s hers and she thinks back on the Lady’s offering—and how the People always speak the truth—her realization about the true nature of the offering is just—simple, and brilliant, and perfect. Like the novel itself.
As I said at the outset, in many ways this matchup was entirely unfair. The two books are very different; drawing a straight comparison between them would be an interesting exercise, but not particularly relevant to my judging. The most important similarity between them, I think, is how each has a very strong sense of exactly what it is—they’re both well-written, with solid characters and good prose and a plot that sucks you in and has you rooting for it, even when you’re pretty sure you know what’s going to happen.
And Saffy’s Angel really is a great book, and a book I would recommend, minor flaws aside. I laughed a lot, read several portions of it out loud to my husband (mostly concerning Mr. Warbeck), and developed a very deep affection for most of the characters involved. But I had trouble with Saffy’s parents, and in the end the book didn’t quite come together, lovely though it was.
On the other hand, The Perilous Gard is my favorite kind of book, history and magic and dresses and snarky heroes and stubborn heroines, good writing, people falling in love all at once but also over time, vivid villains, strength at the end of all things, and just a dash of stimulating philosophical conversation. It is a book I will curl up with on a rainy day to revisit, a book I’m already planning on buying my best friend as a graduation present, the only one of the two books that got me capslocking. Years ago people told me I would love it; they were right then, and they’re still right now.
And so, surprising no one, the winner of this round is The Perilous Gard.
1. I have absolutely nothing positive to say about the epilogue of Crime and Punishment. SAYING RASKALNIKOV ONCE RESCUED ORPHANS FROM A BURNING BUILDING DOES NOT SUDDENLY MAKE HIM A NICE GUY OR HIS CHARACTER OKAY, FYODOR.)