Review: Binny for Short, Hilary McKay

Oh I sure do like Hilary McKay, and I will tell you why. I like Hilary McKay because she doesn’t worry about inventing characters who don’t act and feel the way you tend to think likable characters should act and feel. Michael from Saffy’s Angel can’t be bothered with animals. Rose refuses to politely compliment her father’s art if she doesn’t think it’s any good. Binny from Binny for Short does not feel as sad as she knows she should feel about her father dying, even though he was a good father and she loved him.

Binny for Short is about a girl called Binny. After her father dies, her family is no longer able to keep Binny’s beloved dog Max; and Max goes to her grandmother, then is disposed of (to a loving family) by her awful Aunty Violet. Binny’s wrath about this is uncontainable, and although she works hard to be good to her mother, she holds a terrible grudge against Aunt Violet. It only gets worse when Aunt Violet dies and leaves her Cornwall cottage to Binny’s family. Guilty about her aunt’s death and still resentful of her for taking Max away, Binny makes an enemy of the boy next door, Gareth, and tries to sort out her new life in Cornwall.

Oddly, Binny for Short is more melancholy than the Casson family series, even though Binny is in a totally organized, non-dysfunctional family, and even though it has a happy ending. I checked in with my mother about whether I just found the book melancholy because melancholy things were happening that week, and she agrees that no, this is quite a melancholy book. Binny’s feelings about Max are hugely, unendingly sad, and she is full of anger and guilt. I love Hilary McKay for taking children’s feelings seriously, by the way. Children’s feelings are serious! Even as an adult, understanding the adults’ thought process re: Max, and the reasons that everything went down the way it did, I identified completely with what Binny was feeling all the way through.

Like the Casson books, Binny for Short is funniest when dealing with characters who are sort of matter-of-factly amoral, like Binny’s small brother James (prone to taking off his clothes in public to prove that he’s not a girl) and her sister’s best friend’s brother (does no favors for recent half-orphan friends of his sister). Rose Casson is this way in a lot of areas of her life (but not in many other very important areas! of course!), and it’s what makes her such a fun character to read.

Lovely Legal Sister bought this book from the UK for Mumsy’s birthday, and I sneakily read it when I was home for a visit. If you are based in America, you won’t regret buying it early from the Book Depository (the UK cover is much nicer); or you can wait until it comes out in the US on 23 July 2013. And if you haven’t read the Casson books, the first of which is Saffy’s Angel, may I also highly recommend that you get on that? You won’t regret it. You haven’t missed the window.

A discontented blog post about quite a quantity of books

My sister kindly met me at the public library on Saturday and lent me her library card.  She also gave me a baseball cap, which she assures me I should use any time I visit the public library because it will ward off the attentions of creepy old dudes.  I did not take the baseball cap, nor was I bothered by creepy old dudes, but I mostly frequented the children & YA sections, which maybe is not where the creepy old dudes hang out.  I checked out loads of books, and none of the ones I have read so far have filled me with joy.  I am plainly reading the wrong books.

Hilary McKay’s The Exiles and The Exiles at Home

Not as good as the Casson books.  In particular, The Exiles was not as good as the Casson books.  The eponymous kids are not as fun and sympathetic as the Cassons, and I identified passionately with the paucity of books the poor girls were experiencing, though not to the enhanced enjoyment of the Exiles books themselves.  Only two books each for a summer vacation, they had.  It’s iniquitous to deprive children of books to that extent.  The Exiles at Home was touching, because the protagonists wanted something I also wanted them to have, and it made me cry.

Noel Streatfeild’s When The Sirens Wailed

Merciful God, this book was depressing.  Normally Noel Streatfeild’s books have fully realized children characters, but this did not.  Normally they allow a certain degree of stability for the children as far as housing is concerned, but this did not.  It was a vivid depiction of England’s suffering during World War II, and it made my heart sad.  Except occasionally there would be a particular detail that charmed me, like when all the boys in the village where the kids got evacuated were told to turn the street signs in the wrong directions, and the girls in the village were taught to tell Germans lies about how to get to London.  That sounds awesome.

Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth

The conclusion is inevitable.  Zombies are not for me.  Here I have seen all these reviews all over the blogosphere in love with The Forest of Hands and Teeth.  If I do not love it, what conclusion can be drawn?  Only that zombies, they are not for me.  Zombiepocalypses.  I do not love them.  Zombies are not all about redemption.  Dystopia and branding of sentient aliens and human women, I’m all over that (that was spoilers for something but I’m not saying what and thus it doesn’t count).  Zombies, no.

Trying to Get Some Dignity: Stories of Triumph Over Childhood Abuse, Richard & Ginger Rhodes

Yeah, I know.  There was no way this was going to be not depressing.  I was reading it for research, and it didn’t even tell me anything I didn’t already know.  I should have confined this weekend’s research to books about gender roles in fairy tales.  Because there is nothing at all depressing about gender roles in fairy tales.  If there’s one uplifting subject of study in this world, it’s gender roles in fairy tales.

Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories

Oh yes, and I read this as research too, not at the library but at Bongs & Noodles, in a comfy armchair in the Christian Inspiration section because it was the only free chair, and not really read it but more zipped through looking for things that I would find useful.  For a book about evolutionary psychology, I found this book to be surprisingly understandable, and of all the books herein mentioned, On the Origin of Stories is the one with which I was least discontented (by far).  My favorite thing that I wrote down for myself to remember from this book is that people find stories most memorable when the characters of the stories cross ontological boundaries.  That is an interesting fact.

Noel Streatfeild’s Tennis Shoes

I read this the night before leaving home, and I stomped around the house for a while carrying on about how disappointing I found it. I did find it extremely disappointing.  The father pressures his kids into playing tennis because he wants them to be tennis champions for the glory of England, and none of them are particularly fantastic at it.  There is no excuse for such blatant badness as there was in Tennis Shoes!  She wrote it in between two of her most excellent books, Ballet Shoes and Circus Shoes (or The Circus is Coming as it was also titled)!  Why, Noel Streatfeild?  Why?

Does it count as a reading slump if you are reading loads of things, and they are simply failing to satisfy you?  Also: Given my extreme dissatisfaction, might it not make sense to order Monsters of Men after all from England?  And just buy it again when it comes out here in the fall so that I will have matching copies of the whole series?

Saffy’s Angel and Indigo’s Star, Hilary McKay

Oh I just love Hilary McKay.  She has written these Casson books, which are among the most endearing books I have ever read.  I organize my bookshelves (more or less) by how much I couldn’t do without the books, with the books on the right being the absolutely most essential ones, and then getting less and less essential moving to the left.  And the Casson books, despite being a recent discovery, are on the far right of my children’s books section, along with the likes of The Ordinary Princess and Peter Pan and Indian Captive, which I read when I was tiny.  So there you go.

Having had a stressful week of (joyously successful) job interviewing and hospital visiting, I ditched Cat’s Eye and switched over to reading Saffy’s Angel and Indigo’s Star.  They are lovely.  Clever me for discovering them.  The Casson family consists of two artist parents – Bill, who is always taking himself off to his studio in London, and Eve, who buys squashed paint tubes and does all sorts of different things that Bill says are “Not Exactly Art”, and their children, all named after paint colors – Cadmium (Caddy), Indigo, Saffron, and Permanent Rose.

One day Saffy discovers that her name, Saffron, is not on the paint colors chart, and this proves to be because she is really Eve’s twin sister’s daughter, born in Italy and only transferred into Eve and Bill’s family when her mother died in a car accident.  And years later, when their grandfather dies, they discover a note attached to his will that says “For Saffron.  Her angel in the garden.  The stone angel,” and Saffy, fierce and lonely, becomes determined to find it.  And Caddy is learning to drive, and trying to pass her exams, and being in love with her driving instructor Michael, and Indigo is learning not to be afraid of heights, and Saffy makes friends with Sarah, a girl in a wheelchair who lives close by.

When I last read The Ordinary Princess, and I said that it sounded like it could be saccharine?  But every time it could have been saccharine, it stopped being saccharine and be awesome instead?  Same is true of Saffy’s Angel.  It isn’t saccharine because it’s wry.  When Caddy and Rose and Indigo decide to go to Wales to look for Saffy’s angel, Caddy says she can’t because she can only do left turns; and Rose fetches a map and says “Wales is left!  Look!  It’s left all the way!”  Which is exactly how I view the world.  Everything is either left or right.

Also, I like it when Caddy is studying for her exams, and not wanting to read Hamlet (I totally sympathize):

“He was a prince,” said Caddy.  “Of Denmark.”

“I’ve been there,” said Michael, sounding very pleased with himself.  “I went to a concert in Denmark, years ago!  In a sea of mud.  Never stopped raining for three days.  Terrible place, Denmark!”

“Hamlet went mad.”

“So did a lot of us.”

“And his girlfriend drowned.”

“Not surprised at all.  Wettest place I’ve ever seen.”

“She was called Ophelia.”

“And she couldn’t swim?”


“Poor old Oph.”

“Yes,” agreed Caddy, beginning to feel a bit better, “and poor old Ham, in all that mud.”

Other reviews of Saffy’s Angel: Book Nut, ten cent notes, Framed and Booked, Semicolon

And then Indigo’s Star is about Indigo being bullied by British schoolchildren and making friends with an American boy called Tom who plays guitar and goes up on high places, and does not miss his family in America, and wants a new black guitar that he does not have the money for.  Rose, missing her father, writes him letters intended to be terrifying and make him come home.  And she gets glasses, right at the start, and I love it when she gets glasses:

Rose had the sort of eyes that manage perfectly well with things close by, but entirely blur out things far away.  Because of this even the brightest stars had only appeared as silvery smudges in the darkness.  In all her life Rose had never properly seen a star.

Tonight there was a sky full.

Rose looked up, and it was like walking into a dark room and someone switching on the universe.

The stars flung themselves at her with the impact of a gale of wind.  She swayed under the shock, and for a time she was speechless, blown away by stars.

And then there are bits that I like because I have a big family and sometimes conversations get exactly like this (also the reason my family continues to love While You Were Sleeping – because the way that family talks is exactly how my family talks when we are all together eating dinner):

“There’s your breakfast, Rose!”

“It looks just like hot concrete,” observed Rose.  “I’ve got to describe a day in the life of an Ancient Egyptian.  What shall I put?”

“Is this your holiday homework?” asked Sarah.  “Don’t do it, Rose!  Eve will write you a note to say it’s iniquitous to give eight-year-olds homework in the school holidays!  You will, won’t you, Eve?”

“I could never spell ‘iniquitous’, Sarah darling!”

“Hot concrete,” said Rose mournfully, prodding her porridge.

“Write this,” ordered Saffron.  “‘The Ancient Egyptians are all dead.  Their days are very quiet.’  Porridge is meant to look like hot concrete.  Eat it up.”

“Full of vitamins,” remarked Eve hopefully, scratching another gluey chunk out of the saucepan and shaking it into a bowl.

Heeheehee.  Hilary McKay is great.  I have read very few alive-authored British children’s books anywhere near as good as Hilary McKay.  Which is why I didn’t mind that there is written a sequel to A Little Princess even though normally I absolutely hate for people to try to write sequels to books that I like a lot (I mean, different people, other than the original author – I am not opposed to sequels qua sequels!).  I concluded that if anybody could ever write a sequel to A Little Princess and have it not be awful, it would be Hilary McKay.  But I will let you know when it comes out.

Other reviews: Book Nut, bookshelves of doom, Library Queue, and I can’t imagine why more people haven’t read it!

Forever Rose, Hilary McKay

They are turning into the sort of people I used to call Grown Up and I cannot stop them although I would if I could. I would slow them down anyway. Sometimes I want to shout “Wait for me! Wait for me!”

Like I did when I was little and they walked too fast.

They always turned back then, however much of a hurry they were in, but I do not think they can turn back now.

So I do understand.

Oh, excellent book! Even though it made me a little sad, because it is the last in the series, and because Rose is sad and lonely for a tremendous portion of Forever Rose, and probably because I am growing up much too fast myself and graduating frighteningly from college quite soon.


It is my considered opinion that Hilary McKay should be much more popular in America than indeed she is, because her books are really charming and clever and funny and friendly. I stumbled on Saffy’s Angel while nosing around Amazon trying to find another smallish book to get my mother for Christmas, and I can really only shake my head in amazement at my good fortune, because the library had it (so I checked it out and screened it), and the bookshop had it (so I bought it and wrapped it and gave it to Mumsy), and then there were four more, eventually. Four. That’s lucky.

Forever Rose starts out sad. Everyone is gone. Caddy is gone and won’t say what happened to Michael, and Indigo has a job, and Saffron has lots of classes, and Tom is in New York and Eve is in her shed and Bill is in London and Michael is back in town and won’t look at Rose when he sees her in the street. That makes me sad just to contemplate. (Michael’s last name, incidentally, is Cadogen. Who knew?) Besides which her teacher is canceling Christmas and David is having a Crisis and her boring friend Molly has a mysterious idea she won’t tell anyone about.

But I liked it a lot, even if the ending was just the tiniest teeny bit too neat (ha, literally), because I like happy endings particularly when they are the endings of friendly books like these ones about the Cassons. And of course I will always read it again. Probably out loud to my future children.

I must also say that this book came to me via a very long and circuitous system of transport of my aunt and uncle’s friends. My aunt Gina, who is good at getting things, arranged for someone in England to buy Forever Rose (it not being out yet in America), and that person brought it to New York and handed it off to someone else and they handed it off to someone else and then to someone else and finally back to Gina. And then me. For Christmas. That’s a lot of labor, and I was much less inventive when helping my father buy it for my mother.

P.S. My mother says that if Forever Rose had not already been wrapped when it reached her, she would have read it. That made me feel much less guilty about reading the copy that I ordered for Daddy to give her, so I confessed all. I had been feeling quite guilty about it actually, but I had to, because it was right there, in my room, so eminently desirable, and I didn’t think I’d be getting it for Christmas myself! and normally I only read books I’m giving as gifts to Indie Sister or my very clever friend because I know they do the same with gifts to me and it’s fine, but I simply could not resist.



I knew she was preggers!