Round 2, Match 4: Sorcery & Cecelia vs. The Wrinkled Crown

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Judged by Jo • Find her on her blog


Greetings all!

First of all, a HUGE shoutout to Beth and Katie for making it possible for me to participate this year! Last year I was a scatterbrained pregnant lady, and now I’m a sleep-deprived mom with a teething baby, and keeping up with a calendar has never been my strong point on a good day. So THANK YOU! I’m so excited to be back!

This year I have the pleasure of judging two mostly-MG books, one written the year I was born and the other the year my daughter was born, which is a nice kind of symmetry and also an indication of how very different they are. Without giving away my decision, I can honestly say that I don’t particularly think either of them deserves to win the entire competition, though at least one of them is a lovely fun little read that had me giddily twitching trying to keep my laughter to myself while the baby napped. The other is an ambitious but deeply flawed work that might have made it into the next round had the ending not made me want to throw my tablet across the room.

Oops, have I said too much?

Onto the books! Spoilers abound, natch.

First, The Wrinkled Crown by Anne Nesbet tells the story of Linnet (best friend Sayra, not Green Finch, and that’s the last time I’ll make that joke I promise), a just-turned-twelve-year-old from the village of Lourka in the wrinkled (read: magical) hills. Lourka is known for its lourkas, some kind of stringed instrument that only boys are allowed to make and which under-twelve-year-old girls must ABSOLUTELY NOT TOUCH, unless they wanted to be taken to Away by The Voices. Linny, having a strong predilection for music, is literally tethered to another girl named Sayra to prevent her from Doing The Thing.

Of course, she not only Does The Thing, she Makes The Thing, and a not-so-throwaway comment about their tetheredness from Sayra, spoken in the wrinkled hills where stories come true, results in the Voices taking Sayra instead of Linny. Sayra’s best hope can be found down the hills in the Plain, which is a not-wrinkled place full of science and medicine and maps. With help from Sayra’s beau Elias, Linny sets out to rescue her friend.

Or maybe I should say The Wrinkled Crown is the story of Linny, a girl who sets out to rescue her Taken best friend Sayra but instead gets embroiled in the politics of the Broken City, a half-wrinkled, half-Plain town split by a river and also by its citizens’ differing outlooks on how wrinkled or Plain the world should be. Linny and her lourka arrive looking like something straight out of legend—of course, because Linny is from the place where stories come true—and must find the Crown of the first Girl with the Lourka in order to make the Broken City whole again. But in the midst of world-shattering chaos, she also has to rescue her friend Sayra.

But also there’s this guy called the Tinkerman, who wants to go to Away so he can tap into it to power the Plain’s electric grid, but also his name is Arthur Vix so sometimes the narrative calls him that. Also a magical arms dealer basically sells Elias to a group of anti-Plain rebels called madji and he ends up working with them. And there are Voices who are really more the absence of voices, and also Linny’s mother is from the Plain but got stuck in Lourka but anyway her sister Mina is at the exact opposite end of the world from Away but she has the medicine to rescue Sayra so they have to go see her, and

and

and.

Somewhere in The Wrinkled Crown’s mess of two novels stuck together is a good, solid narrative. (Even the title is misleading—it relates almost entirely to the Broken City plot and has approximately nothing to do with the search for Sayra.) When I first started the book, I was almost instantly excited—Sayra and Linny’s relationship is absolutely lovely, and I am ALL ABOUT strong sister bonds (especially between best friends) and also girls who are irresistibly drawn to Doing The Thing, and I was even excited about Elias and Linny having to learn to work together and balance their jealousy of each other with their desire to rescue Sayra. The whole set-up of the novel is well-paced, and the descriptions of the absent Voices are chilling. And Linny’s mother, preparing to send her away? And Linny, determined to be brave and recognizing that part of it is not letting herself think about all the things that can go wrong? Heart-rending.

And then instead of heading down the hills, Linny and Elias head up the hills and into a line of action that goes nowhere fast, which is basically what could be said of many of the lines of action (I hesitate to call them “plots”) in this book. That section exists to get a silk rose back into Linny’s hand, which ends up being pretty unnecessary. The entire Broken City politics-reclaim-the-Crown-festival-Girl-with-the-Lourka-also-there-are-madji (which is such a vague Orientalism-ish word and totally unnecessary) bit, while gripping (in parts) in its own way, ends with Linny tossing the crown into the crowd and then running away because she still has to, you know, rescue Sayra. And then at the end of the novel there’s talk of the whole village of Lourka going down to fix it, like a bright neon blinking sign screaming SEQUEL, which is when I really put the book down in disgust.

And even the subplots go nowhere. There’s a certain sense that the author is trying to put Linny through a series of failures for some purpose, but the purpose remains obscure and the effect on this reader is just pure frustration. I slogged through the whole Broken City bit (which wasn’t a slog at the time, but developed into one when it became it was ultimately going to have jack to do with rescuing Sayra) only to travel to the far end of the Plain to get the antidote from Auntie Mina, only to have the freaking Tinkerman DRINK THE ANTIDOTE, thus rendering the whole trek to Auntie Mina pretty much pointless. It maybe wouldn’t have been so frustrating if a) the author didn’t insist on ruining the Tinkerman’s creep factor by also giving him a regular name, b) the sheer number of villains in this story who had nothing to do with rescuing Sayra wasn’t overwhelming, and c) –and this one is particularly important—the actual villains who took Sayra in the first place—the Voices, so chillingly and wondrously described—WERE NEVER EXPLAINED. I can only! Care about so many things at once!

I reached the end of the book, and after the last page there are acknowledgments, since the thing to do in books these days is shout-out all your important fancy author friends (I don’t actually know if that’s true in this instance, but it’s a thing I see fairly regularly in YA work and it just feels like—that’s why you have a dedication page, you know? Acknowledgments are when you’ve spent a decade doing research on a historical figure for a biography and you need to thank all the archives that gave you access to people’s letters and the like). The first people Nesbet thanks are various editors and beta readers, and I literally started shouting NO, NO DO NOT THANK THESE PEOPLE, THEY DID NOT DO THEIR JOB.

As I told my husband, I would sum up the general feel of this book as one of a first draft whose editors then treated it as though every sentence and every scene and every plot was essential and therefore untouchable. The style in particular was incredibly loose, and not in a way that felt intentional. Random mid-paragraph interjections in present tense or second person occasionally worked but mostly felt jarring, like the author wanted to make a point outside of Linny’s point of view and so went ahead and made it, regardless of whether or not it contributed to the novel’s coherency. (Though as I’ve said, coherency is not the novel’s strong suit.)

Example:

The river’s edge became busier the farther she went, and although her heart pounded a little as more and more people showed up on the streets or even brushed by her, she calmed down some once she realized that no one took notice of her. To them she was just a girl hurrying on some errand, not a fugitive from the madji. Not the Girl with the Lourka. It is a pleasant feeling, being anonymous in a city.

It’s not that difficult to change that last sentence into “She decided it was a pleasant feeling, being anonymous in a city,” or something along those lines, but as it stands I had a literal visceral reaction to that sentence. Mostly because I have been anonymous in a city. It is a pleasant feeling to be wandering about Florence with a general sense of where you are and that somewhere else in the city is at least one person who knows you are there and cares about you. It is not a pleasant feeling to get off the bus in Paris and realize you have no idea how to get where you need to go, haven’t spoken French in a week, and are almost certain that absolutely no one you know is currently in the city too. It’s the kind of feeling that you could end up dead in Central Park and no one would think to look for you for at least a couple of days.

But if I’d just been given the sentiment from Linny’s point of view, I would have disagreed with her and moved on. Or been a little relieved for her, given the danger presented by non-anonymity, and moved on.

Speaking of, Linny really is a treat, although I wish a little more had been done about her sense of her own wickedness, which ebbed and flowed but really could have been a neat character thing, à la Briony in Chime. But she’s very brave and keeps trucking ahead and I liked her a lot. (Debbie’s description of her, now that I’ve finished and peeked at her judgment, is spot-on.) I also liked Elias a lot, which meant I was not entirely pleased with the fact that he disappeared for at least five chapters and only got maybe one mention in all of them, which, again, coherency.

And some of the writing truly is gripping. Nesbet demonstrates a gift for describing the somewhat indescribable. Individual scenes stand out: the opening, like I said, but Linny’s travel through the tunnels, and standing at the edge of the Plain Sea (you must think that’s a hell of a long time; personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird). The ending, with reclaiming Sayra and Linny stopping the electricity with her hands and their whole walk back home, had some really lovely bits in it as well. The worldbuilding, with the juxtaposition of wrinkled and Plain, started out a bit clunky but smoothed into something more developed. And the underdeveloped themes of storytelling and music/art vs. logic (but of course not vs. at all) had some interesting potential, and all the characters who kept getting introduced and then dropped (aside from the Tinkerman, who got to come back whyyyyyyyyyy) had hints and tidbits of great characterization.

There’s a lot to love in this book, and it’s certainly very ambitious. But at some point if you’re winding down your book talking about rewriting the story and thus trying to imply that you’re trying to write a book that is in some way about storytelling, it would help to decide what story you actually want to tell. Both stories (rescue-Sayra and Broken-City) have enormous potential! The worldbuilding gives you all sorts of fun things to play around in! But instead of keeping me turning pages in excitement, the meandering lack of focus led to me skipping ahead to see if anything was going to come of what I was currently reading. The longer the story dragged on, and the more things kept happening but ultimately not mattering in a way that kept the story going, and the more people kept getting introduced only to disappear again (Eliaaaaaaaaas) and remain a vague afterthought for pages at a time (including Sayra!)…well, the more frustrated I became.

And then I got to the sequel-bait ending, and I was over it.

So sorry, The Wrinkled Crown! You wanted so very much to be good. You tried so very hard, and in some places you did actually achieve something not just enjoyable but also thought-provoking. But in the end, I wanted to throw you against the wall, but I was reading you as an ebook so I couldn’t. Farewell, and may your sequel be turned over to an editor with an eye for pacing.

I have much less to say about Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, Being the correspondence of two Young Ladies of Quality regarding various Magical Scandals in London and the County by Patrician C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. I first read it fifteen years ago and haven’t read it in at least a decade, but it was almost as charming and engaging as I remember. That is to say, the first time I read it, I devoured it (and its sequel, when it arrived) and read it several times and felt VERY STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT ALL THE CHARACTERS, and this time around, slightly jaded by a few college English classes, I pretty much felt the same.

As is only proper, it’s an epistolary novel (and the source of all my attempts to co-write novels in this fashion, though as I’m a terrible correspondent, none of them have worked out), telling the intertwined story of two cousins in Magical AU Regency England. Cecelia is stuck at home in the country while her cousin Kate accompanies Kate’s sister Georgina on her first Season in London. (It is also Kate’s first season, but as the less pretty sister her Aunt Charlotte is much less concerned about her.) Kate finds herself embroiled in a magical rivalry in London, while Cecelia pieces together the rest of the scandal from her father’s house. Intrigue, magic, impossibly odious and mysterious gentlemen of fortune, pretty dresses, waltzes, false betrothals, attempted murder, and classical Greek follow.

It is not an ambitious novel. It sets out to tell two interlocking stories and succeeds brilliantly, tying up all its loose ends as it goes. Kate and Cecy are both delightful and individual, as are their eventual love interests, Thomas and James. The secondary characters, from Aunts Charlotte and Elizabeth to Georgina to even Patience Everslee, are fully fleshed out, and overall there’s the impression of a much larger world in which this one particular story is occurring. The style is a little loose at times—this is definitely more Heyer than Austen—but it still left me walking around the house saying things were “charming” and “smashing.” And the magic is fun, if a little more Victorian than Regency.

And also there is Thomas Schofield, whom I absolutely adore, even if he is maddeningly stubborn. I love that both Kate and Cecy have exactly zero patience for the boys’ attempts to shut them out or keep them from participating. I also love the friendship between Thomas and James, which is mostly hinted at rather than directly stated but still has that deep essential affection and the bonds of War (HOW MUCH DO I WANT TO READ ABOUT THEIR ADVENTURES WITH WELLINGTON, VERY MUCH). I like that Dorothea and Georgina are both given development and depth, that they’re different within their trope of The Belle of the Ball, and that little time is wasted bemoaning the fact that they are prettier than Cecy and Kate. (Well, some time is spent on it, but it’s not wasted, as the development of Kate and Thomas’s Most Adorable romance is mostly an under-the-table thing.)

And when I read this book, I had fun. I did have to expend a little bit of energy just wondering how Aunts Elizabeth and Charlotte were related to the girls, and there are a few questions (where are their mothers?) that go mostly unanswered, but overall I could immerse myself in the story and it always delivered on its promises and protected my trust and investment without letting me down. Also I squealed over Thomas (and to a lesser extent James). And giggled. And enjoyed all the little cultural and historical tidbits, and loved that the girls were a bit vain as well as being clever, and was entirely satisfied by the ending. And I’m not saying a story has to have a romance to keep my interest, but sometimes it helps.

Another judge might decide to reward ambition over simplicity and flashes of genius over steady, solid writing; but I am not that judge. Had The Wrinkled Crown been able to pick a story—even if it had managed to end with bringing Sayra home, instead of teasingly reminding me that AN ENTIRE CITY HAD BEEN ABANDONED AND WHO EVEN HAS THE CROWN NOW AND WHAT ABOUT THE DAM AND SERIOUSLY, WHY DID YOU CALL THEM MADJI, IT’S JUST, WERE YOU GOING FOR AN ARABIC THING? BECAUSE NOTHING ELSE IN THE NOVEL IMPLIES AN ARABIC THING IN THE SLIGHTEST, AND IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE AND FEELS AT BEST VAGUELY APPROPRIATION-Y—it would have almost certainly won. Sorcery and Cecelia, while mostly perfect for what it is (versus last year’s The Perilous Gard, which is actually perfect in every way), doesn’t have the makings of a champion. But it accomplishes what it sets out to do in every way, and it’s fun, and that’s enough for me to declare it the winner.


Congratulations to Sorcery & Cecelia, which moves on to round 3!

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Round 2, Match 3: Mine for Keeps vs. The Penderwicks in Spring

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Judged by Hallie • Find her on Goodreads


This year I got quite lucky in the four possible books for my match-up, as all were, in a sense, family stories. I’d have thought this was evidence of Beth’s arcane criteria for bracketing, back in the days before I learned how she actually chose brackets. There was even a little bonus happy because they broke down as an old book against a very recent one in each first round pairing; serendipitous symmetry is the best. Of course, I spent a lot of time thinking about this, somehow managing to forget that A Ring of Endless Light is both for older readers and more fantasy than not, although I’d still consider it to be more of a family story than many YA novels. The grouping, less perfect than I’d originally thought, was only of any relevance to me, anyway, as I was reading my bracket books and waiting to hear which two I’d get. It is significant, all the same, that yet another MG family story, Binny in Secret, was the first book I read for this year’s Battle, because it was in my head (as a practically perfect book of its type) while I read Mine for Keeps and Listen, Slowly, and reread all four Penderwicks books

I’d heard of Jean Little, of course, but knew nothing about Mine for Keeps before I read it. A dog (as long as it’s not included for the multiple-tissue value of its death); a kid with a disability learning to fit into a new school; family – sounded great. It did have a lot of charming elements, not limited to the dog, or multiple dogs, as it turned out. Sally is much braver than she or others realise, and the adult reader can marvel at how she’s expected to adjust while going from a boarding school for children with disabilities to living at home and going to the local public school, with very little help. It’s rather fascinating to see how things have changed regarding disabled kids in public schools, something I also appreciated in last year’s Izzy, Willy-Nilly. It’s very obvious that the author had a strong knowledge of cerebral palsy, and manages to get in good explanations of what a disease like that can look like, with even a few laughs along the way. Sal’s younger sister is given the explanation by the doctor but doesn’t fully understand and tells her dad to be careful so he doesn’t ‘break [Sal’s] brains more’. That said, I was thrown quite badly out of the story early on, when Sal’s mother behaved in a way I found hard to understand. On Sal’s first morning home, her mother, knowing Sal wouldn’t be able to dress herself in clothes with zips or buttons, which is all she’s ever had, tells her to get dressed by herself and leaves her to have a meltdown. After Sally has lost it completely, frightened and overwhelmed and feeling abandoned, her mother comes in and tells a story about how the family had christened her ‘Scarey Sarey’ when she was four and too scared to go into the lake. Only then is it revealed that her mother has got her new clothes that are easy to put on without the help she has always needed. So, set your kid up to feel overwhelmed and helpless and then mock her – if gently – and then show there wasn’t really anything to be afraid of, so she can learn the lesson about independence being within her grasp. Why not just tell her before making her feel so helpless? Similar things happen several times, with both parents acting very Mother/Father Knows Best, but actually being far less wise and teaching far less useful lessons than they’re supposedly doing.

The other, related problem I saw was the way the narrative handles the bullying that occurs in the story. The mysterious Piet actually hits kids much younger than himself, including Sally’s brother Kent, but that’s glossed over. When Kent bursts out, ‘I don’t care, he doesn’t have to pick on kids half his size!’ their father calls Kent‘s behaviour ‘babyish’, because he didn’t ‘think of the other person’s point of view’. What Sally experiences in school is also horrible, and it all happens under the eye of her kindly and wise teacher, who never does anything to stop it. In fact, his only action is to tell Sally – essentially – that she has to take it because Elsje had had ‘the saddest face’ a year ago, when she first came to the school. This is so many kinds of wrong. It’s wrong to give the lesson that compassion for someone who has had a hard time should make you accept whatever that person does. It’s wrong for a teacher to allow any child to be excluded and bullied, let alone a child with a disability who’s been dumped into a mainstream school for the first time in her life. And it’s so wrong that Elsje forces another child to behave in a way she knows is wrong, because things hadn’t been great for her in the past. This is quite a didactic book, and I felt the lesson imparted here was not the one it purported to teach: that kids should try to understand other people’s behaviour, no matter how unkind or unfair. Sally, who has a serious disability, can become an independent adult so it’s fair enough to chide her into expecting very little help with these terrifying new situations. On the other hand Elsje and Piet, who had arrived in Canada from Holland a year before, are treated as if this were a handicap from which they couldn’t recover, so shouldn’t be expected to behave decently. That wasn’t a lesson I found useful to anyone, no matter how positive the message about a disabled child’s being capable of becoming independent is in theory.

I mentioned the mental comparison that was going on with Binny during my potential bracket reads, and this was an instance of particularly clear contrast. The bullying Binny receives in her new school is upsetting, and the fact that no adults step in and smite the wrongdoers (in an appropriate manner, of course! I’m not looking for Dahl. Ever) makes it more upsetting. There is a real difference between the two instances of bullying, however, and the difference lies in the fact that the narrative excuses the bullying Sally receives, while it doesn’t excuse what happens to Binny at all. We’re so firmly in Binny’s head that we understand how she gets knocked, both literally and figuratively, senseless to the point that she doesn’t just apologise to Clare for ruining her presents for her mother. Binny is so miserable and full of dread about her new school that finding Clare there is the final straw and she can’t make it right then by apologising either. So Clare thinks she doesn’t care and Binny says the awful thing about Clare’s mother and Clare turns everyone against her and crucially, Binny decides not to tell her mother because she doesn’t want to worry her (more). No adults see, so nobody can stop the bullying, and it’s awful, because bullying is. But does that mean that only awful people are capable of bullying behaviour? No, and McKay does a wonderful, painful job of showing how it can happen without excusing the behaviour. Clare’s eventual acknowledgment of how badly she’d treated Binny is ultimately more satisfying than her being punished would have been.

In contrast to the new-to-me Mine for Keeps, the Penderwicks are old friends. I had the time, and miraculously happened to find the first three books (this is the second Battle with my books in boxes, and I am so ready to be living like a normal human being again, surrounded by my books!), so reread them before getting to my reread of Penderwicks in Spring. The things we do for Beth, right? It was almost as much fun as reading them for the first time, although seeing the chaos to come was, in places, more painful than when it happens with a degree more surprise. I was interested to see the subtle hints of Skye’s terrible misunderstanding about Batty’s role in their lives right from the beginning, although I’d missed them completely on the first read. And ‘Marianne doesn’t like flannel’ has now permanently gone on my mental list of all-time great lines. (It’s in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure.) I was tempted to keep up the old friends analogy, and talk about how you can love them dearly with all their flaws and imperfections, while seeing those clearly, but it’s probably a mistake. The flaw is something I didn’t spot at all while reading the book, utterly immersed in poor Batty’s misery, and desperately worried for her. It wasn’t until Stephanie Burgis pointed it out in her Goodreads review that I saw it, and I’m not pleased with myself about that. Birdsall gives us a superb depiction of a child’s inability to reason or question when hearing her sister say that she was unwanted, and the cause of their mother’s death. Whatever causes that vulnerability to self-blame, and indeed, to the combination of childish egocentricity and inappropriate taking of responsibility, some kids have it, and Batty is one. The problem, however, is that her father later says that Skye ‘needs to think about that too – how banning [Jeffrey] affects the rest of us.’ Later again, when Skye talks to Batty, she says she has to apologise ‘for making Jeffrey go away’. Unpack the heart-breaking scene at the centre of Batty’s crisis and you’ll discover it makes no sense at all. Skye insists she has to tell Jeffrey what happens ‘when people fall in love’, but what it actually is is what happens when a mother is pregnant and has cancer. This, of course, is utterly irrelevant to Jeffrey’s insistence on ‘talking love’ to Skye when she’s told him she doesn’t want him to. It’s a bit of authorial manipulation that is less noticeable because the consequences of the scene are depicted brilliantly. All the same, it does seem that a more logical reason for Skye to tell someone that she blames their mother’s death on Batty could have been found.

A family book like this is a slightly unusual thing; for all it’s ‘realist’ and indeed, sometimes painfully grounded in the harsh world in which mothers die of cancer and people are stalked and parents (or mothers) act with inexcusable selfishness, there’s a sense in which the world is slightly fantastic as well. (Melissa gets credit for saying this first, in our pre-Battle discussion!) This slight unreality is seen most obviously in the occasional whopping great coincidence (the next-door neighbor at the beach in Penderwicks at Point Mouette) or extreme convenience (Iantha’s turning up next door with an equally tragic, but baggage-free, loss of spouse, at just the right time for both to be ready for marriage #2) or just-too-perfect-to-be-true characters (Iantha. Also Martin, but really. Iantha). It’s also a world in which everyone is pretty extraordinary. Jane is destined to be a great writer; Skye will probably follow Iantha into astrophysics, if there’s nothing more rocket science for her than that; both Jeffrey and Batty are exceptional musicians. Even the dogs are extraordinary examples of canine perfection, and while Hound was much missed, weren’t Duchess and Cilantro fun? That’s fine and often delightful, but is a problem when a character who has been presented as just about perfect is supposed to be speaking wisdom and is very much not. In this case it’s Martin (the father), and while nobody could blame him for not catching Skye’s misunderstanding of the circumstances around Batty’s birth and her mother’s death, I do blame him for saying that Skye should have thought of the others before sending Jeffrey away. If Jeffrey doesn’t hold to his promise not to be pestering her with romantic talk, Skye has the right to send him away – or at very least to expect the father who wants her not to, to protect her from being pestered. The scene in which everyone is in the kitchen for Skye’s birthday and Iantha sorts them all out, including firmly telling Nick to stop teasing Rosalind about Oliver, makes a good contrast. (On the other hand, Oliver’s behaviour to two-year-old Lydia is quite horrible, and I’d have expected either Iantha or Martin to have looked at that more seriously.)

This strange way in which the family blames Skye for not thinking how the rest of them will miss Jeffrey instead of blaming Jeffrey for not keeping his promise (‘you’re so beautiful, you know’ is NOT an excuse for anything when the person doing the beauty has told you ‘no’, very clearly), recurs, though perhaps less problematically. Rosalind and Tommy’s break-up wasn’t as a result of Rosalind cheating or anything; in fact, she says that it was Tommy’s idea. But Jane says that they all miss Jeffrey and wish Skye would ‘do something’ with Rosalind chiming in that she simply can’t ‘make him stay away for ever’. Ben then says that Rosalind ‘made Tommy stay away forever’, which Skye agrees is true. If Tommy is incapable of remaining friends with the other Penderwicks after a non-acrimonious break-up, I’d say that was his fault, not Rosalind’s responsibility. I’d be happy enough to see Rosalind and Tommy end up together eventually (NOT ditto for Skye and Jeffrey), but it should be because they want to be together, not so the family can keep Tommy as honorary-brother: a status that Nick manages without a romantic pairing with a Penderwick girl, and why wouldn’t he?

This criticism is very much in the backhanded compliment camp: because I love the book so much, I mind a great deal when it veers off true. Certainly there was never any doubt which book I’d be putting forward. The Penderwicks in Spring is a wonderful, warm and deeply moving MG family book. It’s not perfect, and I really hope that the final book pulls back from some of the directions it has gone in, but I’m still awaiting that final book with great eagerness. If there’s another big jump in book-time, I’m expecting amazing things from Lydia. (First pre-teen translator for the United Nations? First teen president of the United Nations??) There’s sadness at the fact that it’s the end of the series, and yes, some unease, but whatever happens, it’s a series I love, and this is a book I love. Battle on, Oh Penderwicks!


Congratulations to The Penderwicks in Spring, which moves on to round 3!

Round 2, Match 2: The Goblin Wood vs. Jellicoe Road

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Judged by Andrée • Find her on Goodreads


For whatever reason, it feels like there are a fair number of polarizing battles this time around. Maybe I’m wrong, and it’s no different than previous years, but it does seem to me that there have been more than a couple of battles where it wasn’t even close. This is one of them.

Unexpectedly, Jellicoe Road and The Goblin Wood are weirdly similar. I know (I know), but they kind of are. They’re both pretty much lightning rods of tragedy, they both feature stubborn and isolated heroines who are determined to go it alone, and they’re both very meticulously structured – though I’d argue that Goblin Road contains two stories running in parallel, while in Jellicoe Road the stories run in parallel, before converging and coming full circle. I was really impressed with the plotting of both. They’re both extremely well laid out.

The Goblin Wood is fast-paced and very clever. As I mentioned, it tells two simultaneous stories. The first is Makenna’s, who after witnessing her mother’s murder, becomes the saviour of the goblins against a common enemy. She just wants to create a safe place for them all. She’s clever and resourceful and tough, and absolutely devoted to protecting those who depend on her from the powerful priests who view their very existence as a threat. Makenna is a great character – a brilliant tactician, but also a bit cold and closed off to all humanity because of her responsibilities and how cruelly she’s been hurt in the past. She’s allied herself with the goblins, and is determined to save them, even if it means hurting (or killing) a few human settlers along the way.

And then there’s Tobin, a disgraced knight who falsely confesses to crimes he did not commit to save his brother’s life. His only chance at salvation is to kill Makenna, because the safe place she’s building for her goblins is also the only safe place for Tobin’s people, who are in turn desperately defending themselves against barbarians further south. The reality is that there isn’t enough land. The book provides perspectives from both sides of the planned invasion, and demonstrates that while Tobin and his people are invading the goblin wood, they themselves are also being invaded and (like the goblins) are just trying to find a safe pace. You understand both characters’ choices and why they make them every step of the way, as they both struggle with how far they’ll go to protect those they love. The parallel structure is interesting, and one of the strengths of the book.

Jellicoe Road is harder to describe. Like Makenna, Taylor, the protagonist, has had some truly terrible things happen in her past. Her father’s dead; her absentee mother’s a drug addict; her childhood memories are fragmented, and she doesn’t really trust anyone enough to let them get close to her (not the girls in her House at school, not her guardian, not anyone). And to top things off, she’s essentially appointed general in the “territory wars” between the kids from her school, the local Townies and the Cadets. In much the same way that Makenna is the Goblin’s general, Taylor’s students are her responsibility. Of course (it is YA after all), she also shares an intense past experience with the leader of the Cadets, Jonah Griggs. But Taylor’s isn’t the only story going on – her story is profoundly affected by what happened at the school 20 years earlier.

Jellicoe Road isn’t a perfect book. As Roslyn said in her review, you do wonder about some of the choices the adults in Taylor’s life make to keep her so in the dark. Plus, the reader is dumped in the world with no warning, or explanation, and while it’s 95% effective, sometimes at the start I had trouble figuring out who people were. I especially had trouble keeping the characters in the flashbacks straight. The flashbacks feature a group of five close friends, but they’re also fairly short in length, so I think I never really figured out exactly who was who until 100+ pages in (and even then not all the time).

Jellicoe Road is a book with a lot of characters, and most of them have absolutely heaps of personal trauma. The school itself is clearly a place where a lot of troubled kids, or kids with nowhere else to go, find a community. I meant it when I said both books are lightning rods of tragedy. But Jellicoe Road (magically) manages to tell the stories of its characters without becoming soul-numbingly depressing. It’s emotional; the reader invests and empathizes, but I never felt like I was, I don’t know, drowning in teenage angst. The book just tells the story of its characters. It captures their stubbornness, their humanity, their anger, and their loyalty. And if it shows you the cruelty in the world, it shows you the good in people to.

I think that’s where Goblin Wood falls down for me. It’s really, really cleverly plotted, and there are so many things about it that objectively I should have loved (fun fantasy premise, strong female lead, PARALLELS, Cogswhallop becoming Makenna’s deputy, etc.). But my expectations going into this battle were completely overset. Unlike a lot of people, I would have expected to be biased in favour of MG fantasy (lack of romance isn’t an issue in that genre for me) over potentially overwrought teen angst. Goblin Wood is not a bad book by any means, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. I found it upsetting, and not in an effective way. Maybe I need a bit of light mixed in with my tragedy, or maybe I just need a slower build. Goblin Wood (I assume for suspense-building reasons) bounces from crisis to crisis, pinging back and forth between the two main characters and their drama, without pausing for breath. It felt like the characters were constantly in impossible situations.  I was stressed out reading it. I needed the narrative to breathe. I needed the relationships to be given time to feel real. I buy the individual growth of each character, but I don’t buy the growth of their relationships.

Tobin sacrificed everything for his brother, but paradoxically I never got the impression that they were that close based on their (brief) interactions. And given that one of the main points of Makenna’s narrative is her realizing that she doesn’t always need to go it alone, I think it’s a problem that I don’t buy Tobin’s final decision where she’s concerned. I needed them to interact more.  And I expected a book about goblins to be just a bit more… fun. Instead, it’s dark and full of tragedy. And the sadness, while making me anxious, also didn’t resonate with me. It felt superficial. I think I agree with the people who commented after the first round that they wanted it to be almost more YA. I think the book is at times missing the depth that it might sometimes need given the subject matter.

In contrast, Taylor slowly letting people into her life was beautifully done. All of the relationships felt genuine, and all of them are constantly in flux (as real relationships often are). I feel like Jellicoe Road is a very emotionally true novel (mild spoilers ahead for the rest of the paragraph). I actually disagree with Roslyn about the degree to which Taylor’s past experiences are hidden from her and its plausibility. While I don’t necessarily think it’s a justifiable as a course of action, I really feel like I understand the character who would do it, the same woman who as a little girl sat perfectly still for hours so that her baby brother didn’t have to see his adored mother dead.

Jellicoe Road isn’t a novel that had me sending a frantic private message to Beth because I was completely emotionally overset, but it is a novel that I will love quietly, about a community and a family I will remember. I really, really enjoyed everything about it. I choose Jellicoe Road, no contest.


Congratulations to Jellicoe Road, which moves on to round 3!

Round 2, Match 1: Crown Duel vs. First & Then

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Judged by Katie • Find her on Goodreads


Confession: I didn’t really want to re-read either of these books. I like them both, but I’ve already read them and there are so many books out there competing for my attention! But I also didn’t want to judge them without re-reading them, especially as I had no idea which book I was going to choose. Fortunately, I did enjoy my re-reads! And I’m finding my decision both surprising and surprisingly easy.

You see, I think both books are rather messy with flashes of brilliance. Like a lot of my friends, I really struggled with the first half of Crown Duel only to fall in love with the second half. And First & Then feels a little incomplete, but wow, does it pack some emotional punches.

So that’s where I was at heading into my re-reads.

I re-read Crown Duel first and the first half of the first half (I could say “first quarter” but that actually feels less clear!) worked better for me, but I grew pretty impatient with Mel as the first half went on. She’s so misguided and stubborn. And, sure, I can appreciate that in an intellectual way, but my life is kind of stressful right now, and I just wanted to get to the fun romance!

And then I did! I prefer the court setting of the second half. I’d be all for more fantasies than are about court, not battle. And I like how determined Mel is to improve herself and figure out what’s right. And, of course, the courtship by letters.

However, I could’ve done without the plotty aspects. I had to go back and re-read (re-re-read?) some of the ending because my brain isn’t up to following much right now (on the plus side, I also got to re-read the ring reveal twice!). It was hard to follow who was involved in which plot to take the crown and what exactly said plot involved.

By contrast, First & Then was such an easy, breezy re-read. Some of what bothered me on my first read didn’t bother me this time through, particularly the constant Jane Austen references at the beginning. (There is a whole lot of “if this were Jane’s time…”) Devon referring to the freshman as “prostitots” still makes me cringe a lot, but at least she seems to somewhat learn her lesson.

And, you know, as much as I’m sad that there are so many unexplored stories here (Marabella! Emir! Rachel!), I will GLADLY take that over the bland minor characters that populate most books. (Crown Duel, let me take a moment to say, does not fall into this category. However, some of its most minor characters did blur for me a bit.) Everyone feels like a real, distinct person. And then there’s Ezra. Wonderful, misunderstood Ezra. And Foster being so wonderfully himself and he and Devon forming a real, loving, realistic relationship.

And, oh, the moments of brilliance in this book. Ezra’s counting to 300 is something that’s really stuck with me. And all the people who showed up at the end! It reminded me of how wonderful people really can be.

In short, First & Then was the book I needed to read right now. I don’t think I would pick it against Crown Duel every time. In general, I love fantasy more than contemporary fiction, but at this particular point in my life, the political maneuvering and plottiness of Crown Duel were a little too much for my poor overworked brain. First & Then is a simple story in a lot of ways, which makes it easy to follow. Add that to the compelling characters, and it drew me in and let me forget about my life for a little bit. And that counts for a lot.


Congratulations to First & Then, which moves on to round 3!

Round 2 Roundup

What a round it’s been! Thanks to all of you for participating in the conversation! I’m not going to recap all the different discussions that took place because we’d be here for ages. I’m just going to say FRIENDSHIP and FAMILY and WOMEN and leave it at that. And a very special thank you to the fabulous second round judges for writing the pieces that sparked these discussions!

(Also, if you were too busy to participate – just want to say that I noticed you weren’t there and I missed your viewpoint! Hope you have time to join us for the three remaining matchups.) (Only three matchups left! I can’t believe it. This battle has been going by so quickly.)

Interestingly, 83% did correctly predict two of the final four books, but the rest of the mock brackets are in complete shambles – which is as it should be, I think!

Round 3 starts tomorrow and contains four fantastic books. I say this all the time (because it’s true!) but I really don’t envy the judges. GOOD LUCK, you two!