Young Adult Books

$26.99 hardcover, $2.99 ebook editions, available now 

 Rating: 3.5* of five 

  The Publisher Says: A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret. Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages. When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he's given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days. But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn. An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours. 


My Review: I am defective. There are so many good lines in this book, aperçus and aphorisms and nostrums for your soul, and they're just terrific!
“Sometimes our prejudices color our thoughts when we least expect them to. If we can recognize that, and learn from it, we can become better people.”
“Just because you don’t experience prejudice in your everyday doesn’t stop it from existing for the rest of us.”
“Your voice is a weapon. Never forget that.”
See? That's quality stuff right there! Author Klune makes sense, and aims it at the vulnerable, the different, the othered-by-the-mobs. I laud this, I support his aims and his aim. 

Author Klune is very well-thought-of in the QUILTBAG writing community, deservedly so, and is always able to deliver a quality story that hits the proper beats, satisfies the story-hunger we all have as humans, and makes the very best out of his queer cast's longings. He does it again here! I promise you, if you're in the mood for a feel-good story of genuine lovingkindness defeating po-faced meanness, you have come to the right place. 

But I don't want to read it. I've stopped and started and stopped and started and, frankly, I just can't. I read the book in four months. It can take a day to read a 400pp novel I'm really into. 

Four months. 

I don't want to read about kids. I don't care about adults who rescue kids...I think I might resent the numerous adults in my own life whose actions were the opposite of saving me...but whatever deep psychological things the book smacks into smarting, I just didn't enjoy reading it. I hope you will, though. 


Tove Jansson
Square Fish
$7.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Moomintroll learns that a comet will be passing by, he and his friend Sniff travel to the Observatory on the Lonely Mountains to consult the Professors. Along the way, they have many adventures, but the greatest adventure of all awaits them when they learn that the comet is headed straight for their beloved Moominvalley.

My Review: Dear little Moomintroll, who lives in a blue Moominhouse (for all Moominhouses are blue, you know) with Moominmamma and Moominpappa and his adopted sibling Sniff the little beast, has a perfect day of pearl-diving, cave-discovering, and comet-spotting behind him. It is the Muskrat, a philosopher and a nay-sayer par excellence, who lets Moomintroll in on the comet's likely collision with the earth, and gets little Moomintroll worried enough about the consequences to send him, with Sniff in complaining attendance, to the Lonely Mountains to find the professors in the Observatory so they can tell him if, and when, and preferably where, the comet will hit the earth.

Many adventures come the way of the travelers, who are fortified with all the goodies that Moominmamma can think of to pack. These include Sniff's favorite lemonade, and Moomintroll's woolly trousers in case it's cold in the Lonely Mountains (it is, but the trousers were thrown to the crocodiles to keep them from eating Moomintroll and Sniff, which worked, but left Moomintroll cold on the way to the Observatory, though not on the way back because the comet was making the earth so hot by then).

And Moomintroll meets his true love, the Snork Maiden, on the way. Oh, how sweet the Snork Maiden is! All green and fluffy, with a gold ring on her paw and a flower behind her ear!

Everyone, like Snufkin the wanderer and the Snork and his sister the Snork Maiden, and even the stamp-obsessed Hemulen, come back to Moominvalley to be safe in Moomintroll's (well, Sniff's if you want to be fair) cave with Moominmamma and Moominpappa when the comet hits the earth on October the seventh, at 8:42pm (and maybe four seconds), like the professors at the Observatory said it would.

But it doesn't, though it gets close, and it scares the whole family silly, and then they see the sea (which evaporated, cause it was so hot, and all Moominfolk love the sea so they missed it, and the octopus that tried to eat Moomintroll when they were walking across the sea-floor is back under water, thank goodness) so they know the world is all right.

The end.

Magical. Marvelous. Delightful.

And the best oath in the whole Universe, the one I'll swear by for the rest of my life, is on page 10: "May the ground swallow me up, may old hags rattle my dry bones, and may I never more eat ice cream if I don't guard this secret with my life." Seriously! I ask you! Could *you* break such an oath?!

If not for the LibraryThing 75ers's Fantasy February, I wouldn't have revisited this beautiful little parable about friendship, freedom, creativity, and love. I am so so glad I did. Tove Jansson, a designer and illustrator and cartoonist like her mother, created the sort of delight-filled universe I wish I could give to every child. Moominfolk are known and revered all over the world, and Jansson's native Finland has a Moominworld theme park! I wanna go! Operas have been written. Cartoon series have been made. Translations of the books into Ukrainian, into Urdu, into Japanese! Dolls! Artworks! It's Moominmadness!

And you can get in on the fun by buying an eight-dollar paperback book. So tell me, what are you waiting for?


THE WEDDING: An Encounter with Jan van Eyck

Out of Print; available at online booksellers galore

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Is the bride pregnant? Why does the groom look so old? What's reflected in the mirror? The Arnolfini Wedding is surely the most hotly debated painting of the Northern Renaissance—and one of the most beloved. In this historical novel, E. M. Rees weaves a rich story of love and honor that answers the questions about this great picture. At her first visit to the Duke's court, young Giovanna Cenami falls in love with a mysterious stranger employed by the famous Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. But Giovanna's romantic dreams are shattered when her father tells her she must marry a rich merchant to save them all from financial ruin. When she decides to pursue her own dreams, defying her family, she finds herself in grave danger of losing her reputation, her honor—and perhaps her life.
The Arnolfini Wedding is one of the most famous and most debated paintings in the world.

My Review: I just spent two very busy days, but made a little time to read The Wedding. It's a YA novel based on the famous Jan van Eyck painting The Arnolfini Wedding. Watson-Guptill, primarily an information publisher, did a series called "Encounters With Art" in which YA writers are asked to imagine stories based on or featuring famous works of art that are intended to illuminate (pun optional) the nature of painting and sculpture as storytelling media. Since humans are storytelling apes, this idea interested me.

Ms. Rees tells the story of young Giovanna, the bride in the painting, as she comes of age and discovers love and duty in her very different world. She falls in love with an unsuitable young man, a la Romeo and Juliet, during her first-ever night out as her father's arm ornament at a Burgundian court shindig in her new home of Bruges (recently arrived from Paris after her mother's death). While there, she also meets Jan van Eyck who asks for permission to paint her portrait. Her trip to van Eyck's studio is made still more exciting than it would be anyway by the...gasp!...appearance of the unsuitable love object!

Hijinks ensue. She marries dutifully, but wisely, knowing as she now does about the heart wanting what it wants, or else it doesn't care. The marriage lasts for forty years. Love? NEVER lasts forty anythings longer than maybe days.

Is this a book of brilliant writing? No indeed. Is it an entertaining book? Yes indeed. I like the idea of the series very much, and I liked the way Ms. Rees imagined the world of Bruges in the 15th century, and the way she wove fact and fancy together was deft and engaging. I recommend it withtout making a fuss about it.


Lauren Myracle

Amulet Books
$16.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When her best guy friend falls victim to a vicious hate crime, sixteen-year-old Cat sets out to discover who in her small town did it. Richly atmospheric, this daring mystery mines the secrets of a tightly knit Southern community and examines the strength of will it takes to go against everyone you know in the name of justice.

Against a backdrop of poverty, clannishness, drugs, and intolerance, Myracle has crafted a harrowing coming-of-age tale couched in a deeply intelligent mystery. Smart, fearless, and compassionate, this is an unforgettable work from a beloved author.

My Review: Cat's friend Patrick is a faggot. Everybody knows it in their little Southern town, and the usual crew of fucking redneck assholes make Patrick's life a hell of taunts and pranks. Cat does what she can, but she's a girl, and nobody helps her.

Then one day, Patrick gets beat almost to death. Oh dear say the police the town faggot's been beat up tsk now who did that? Then they go eat donuts.

Cat sets out to solve the hate crime. She has her ideas about who did it. She bases them on the past behaviors of all the tormentors, and she bikes around town collecting clues, and she gets her brother to beat some richly deserving asswipes up, and she falls in love with the only decent boy in the state.

When the crime is solved, it's not a *huge surprise to the experienced reader, but it's still satisfying. Myracle doesn't let one single person off the hook, but by the same token, she demonizes no one and ridicules no one.

I have a hard time being as critical of this book as I feel honesty requires. I approve of its message, I like the whole set-up of a girl deciding that NO she WON'T sit down and stop rocking the boat, friendship means something in this world or we're well and truly lost.

The design is beautiful, from jacket to chapter-open art, to text design. The book looks handsome and important. The message is good. Why then is Krampus the Kristmas Kobold pooping on it with a 2.5-star rating?

They might be deployed in service of a plot that wins my hearty approval, but the elements of the story are stereotypical, wooden, and not freshly observed, described, or conceived. The dialogue is cutesy-folksy, or simply tin-eared, veering occasionally into wince-inducingly condescending. The positive portrayal of Jesus freakishness and regretting your sins equalling an obligation on the part of your victims to forgive you makes me boiling mad.

It's just not a good book. It IS a good story. But, oh how mean it feels to say this, but here goes: But Myracle's either a lazy writer relying on a bag of tricks that's served others a little too often before they get their latest airing, tatty and stringy and musty, here, or else is just not a very good writer at all.


William Kamkwamba & Bryan Mealer

Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Dial Books for Young Readers
$17.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba's Malawi village was hit by a drought, everyone's crops began to fail. Without enough money for food, let alone school, William spent his days in the library . . . and figured out how to bring electricity to his village. Persevering against the odds, William built a functioning windmill out of junkyard scraps, and thus became the local hero who harnessed the wind.

Lyrically told and gloriously illustrated, this story will inspire many as it shows how - even in the worst of times - a great idea and a lot of hard work can still rock the world.

My Review: Four stars for the delightful story of a young man who does NOT allow cuts in education funding caused by economic crisis to interfere with his learning, for the clear benefit clearly ascribed to the public library donated by the US Government, for the tale of a vision pursued and a piece of the world changed because of it, and for a man telling his story so that no one can feel it can't be done.

The half star is all down to the lovely mixed-media illos by Elizabeth Zunon. The young man's face and his family's presence in soft pastels contrasted with the three-dimensionality of the maize, the sun, nice a counterpoint it made.

Friend Joe Welch praised this book, so I'm happy to credit him with the shove to read it. My mood improved markedly after reading the book and absorbing its implication that a person can indeed change his world by simply refusing to allow negativity to stall him. Mr. Kamkwamba, thank you for making an old man's day brighter.



Carol Rifka Brunt

The Dial Press
$25.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this striking literary debut, Carol Rifka Brunt unfolds a moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends and find that sometimes you don’t know you’ve lost someone until you’ve found them.

1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

An emotionally charged coming-of-age novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a tender story of love lost and found, an unforgettable portrait of the way compassion can make us whole again.

My Review: Maybe it's the fact that I saw too many families like Finn the fag painter's to think Danni, his homophobic scum-bitch of a sister deserves any sympathy at all, while I was an AIDS volunteer in the early 1980s. Maybe it's my age and gender making me pretty much not in sync with the awkward coming-of-age of a plowhorse girl with a pretty sister.

Maybe it's just that I'm a mean old man.

I wore down fast in this debut novel, whatever the reasons, and while I yield to no one in my appreciation of Carol Rifka Brunt's phrase-making prowess, I found myself reading more for the lines than the story. I haven't thought that books about AIDS were groundbreaking since the 1980s. I haven't thought that gay uncles being their niece's pals were daring since then, either. I don't care much for the coming-of-age genre anyway, but read this because it has a lot of pretty writing in it. And in that way it lived up to the billing! In spades! What a pleasure it is to rock along the river of Brunt's words. She is a strong craftsperson of language.

Straight people probably like the story more than I do. No issue there, it's not written for a gay audience. So I give it stars for sheer word-pleasure.


Dodie Smith

Out of Print; current editions are all abridgements, or based on the damned Disney craptastic cartoon. Heinemann's 1956 edition had 288 pages, shorter is worse, for once.

Rating: 5 stars out of five, because I still love the memory of being rescued

The Book Description: Pongo and Missis had a lovely life. With their human owners, the Dearlys, to look after them, they lived in a comfortable home in London with their 15 adorable Dalmatian puppies, loved and admired by all. Especially the Dearlys' neighbor Cruella de Vil, a fur-fancying fashion plate with designs on the Dalmatians' spotted coats! So, when the puppies are stolen from the Dearly home, and even Scotland Yard is unable to find them, Pongo and Missis know they must take matters into their own paws! The delightful children's classic adapted twice for popular Disney productions. Ages 8-11
(This is from a 1996 Barnes and Noble edition)

My Review: Mine wasn't an especially happy childhood. The particulars don't matter all that much, what does is that I was on my own in an adult emotional landscape a long time before that was a good idea. I am lucky beyond luck that I seem to have been born with a love of reading. Both my parents and both my older sisters read to me a lot when I was a kid, which doubtless had a lot to do with fanning the flames of my obsession with books; but there was never a sense in me that there was something else I'd rather be doing, even watching TV.

My mother and I, after the aforementioned sisters left us and my father was removed from our world, had all sorts of books in our house. I was the only kid I knew with a 6-foot-tall bookcase of my own books in his room when there was one digit in my age. And it saved my sanity, that stuffed story-world, so many many times.

One of the books that spoke to me on every level, which I discovered in the Allandale branch of the Austin Public Library, was this book. I was nine, I was miserably angry and unhappy, and I didn't know that anything was wrong. I found this book, this fabulous perfect rescue fantasy of authority figures who don't know their butts from their elbows but who know that they love, and want, their charges to be safe, and who go to extraordinary lengths to make it happen...well! That sounded peachy keen to my abandoned boy self. So I checked it out, and I read it. And I read it. And read it.

Easily a hundred times over the next two years.

No authority figures rescued me. I found some who loved me, but none could, or would, see the emotional hell I was in. When I was about twelve, the fantasy stopped satisfying my need and instead made its unsatisfied nature worse. So I stopped reading the book.

This christmas I decided to read the book again, just to see if there was as much here as I remembered, and to look at the pages with adult eyes.

I can't see it with adult eyes. Just as that desperate child full of reinflicted pain and rage. Oh the poor thing, I'd think, no wonder he re-read the book so often, look at this, or this...everything, really. It was a perfectly ordinary kid's book of its day, misogyny and elitism and racism permeating it with an almost industrial strength stench. But it also rang, and rings, true: Rescue me! It's a cry many kids don't vocalize but they do feel. Sometimes, for the lucky ones, they find stories to crutch them onwards towards adulthood.

For me, this was one fine, sturdy crutch. I still love it, and I still thank Dodie Smith for it, with all its time-and-place flaws. It's wonderfully parenthetical in its style and it's simply deliciously fantastically comfortable and comforting in its plotting.

A grateful salute, then, Miss Dodie Smith, from a forty-plus year distance, from a young redheaded fat kid lost in so many ways, for writing him a star to guide him. I'm here today because you did.


Catherynne M. Valente
Feiwel & Friends
$16.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

With exquisite illustrations by acclaimed artist Ana Juan, Fairyland lives up to the sensation it created when the author first posted it online. For readers of all ages who love the charm of Alice in Wonderland and the soul of The Golden Compass, here is a reading experience unto itself: unforgettable, and so very beautiful.

My Review: Magic is real.

Hello? Are you all right down there? Nothing broke in the fall, did it?

Magic, as I was saying, is real. Magic, not the stupid majgicqk of the boring nonillion-ologies of million-paged forest-rapers about the Queen of the Orc's long-lost son's Qwest to Fynd the Hynd or whatever. That shit should be banned. Or very very heavily taxed.

Ahem. Trying to find polite again.

So yes, September is magic, and Fairyland is magic, and Valente is a sorceress whose incantation is this book. The real deal, laddies and gentlewomen, le pur sang, descended from the right hand of the lawrd (which always sounded vaguely naughty to me, but I'm incurably low-minded). This YA fantasy novel is what y'all who need magic should aim yourselves towards like lodestones to the pole. Look no further, this is it.

Seriously, should I call someone? This falling down while gasping is a smidge alarming.

September is Ravished from her mother and her life, goes on a quest to find a Spoon for a Witch, meets the Magical Helper and overcomes the Magical Foe, and in the process saves Fairyland, grows into a wise woman, and goes home for a nap. That's the plot. Basic government-issue story.

So why am I, YA-averse and phauntaisee-phobic, giving it five stars? Because. It's magic. The real deal. Every one of us begins life in a universe of unbounded possibility and slowly but surely submit ourselves to the chains and locks and gears of adulthood. Fairyland, that state of unbounded possibility, recedes from us as each nasty rule and wicked, spiteful decision made by or against us does its grim work.

We use our unique, indescribable, polymorphous magic tools to sever and close and shut off, just as September is gulled into thinking she must do to uncouple Fairyland from reality, from our world of machines and banks and school. We're taught that the painful and nasty process is necessary, will save us and everyone we love, is right and just and correct. So most of us mangle and chop away, thinking the pain is growing up and growing wise and becoming adult.

Some few of us, like September, are given a moment of magic, and see the process for what it really is: Death with slow rotting, oblivion enough to be bearable but shot through with the awareness of the loss we've been tricked into suffering at our own hand. And some fewer still retain, magically, access to that other and better world. They come and they go, leaving us trapped souls for just long enough to be noticeably changed on their return, if we're sharp and attentive. Which, to my utter shock (not), most of us do not.

Valente's work, in the main, is polished prose telling interesting stories. Her adult tales will repay your reading time, and even (for many who Don't Read Such Things) be a revelation of quality work taking place in fields far from the ordinary haunts of dull adults. Seek that out, do, and firmly squelch the lip-curling until one full book has passed before your eyes.

But here? This? This is magic. The real deal. Approach it slowly, with a heart open and a mind clear, and it will enfold you in its warmly feathered, hard-muscled wings, and bear you away to that place you cut off so long ago. March in with your expectations set on stun, your ideas loaded like rocks in a slingshot ready to let fly, and your experience will resemble that of the US Army in Afghanistan: What hit me? Ow! Stop that! Ow!

I speak from (happily changed) experience.


Cecil Castellucci

$17.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 2* of five

The Publisher Says: A startling, wonderful novel about the true meaning of being an alien in an equally alien world.

"We are specks. Pieces of dust in this universe. Big nothings.

"I know what I am."

My Review: Mal lives on the fringes of high school. Angry. Misunderstood. Yet loving the world -- or, at least, an idea of the world.

Then he meets Hooper. Who says he's from another planet. And may be going home very soon.

Seventeen-year-old narrator has teen angst over his alcoholic mother, his deserter dad, and his sense of life's futility, believes he's an alien abductee, and then meets an actual alien. Or just a wacko homeless dude. See, the alien/wacko joined the kid's alien contactee group. assuming this meant that the participants could get him a ride home as his ship was irreparably damaged on entry into Earth's atmosphere.

Where the ship is, no one asks. Why he has no help beacon, no one asks. But I anticipate.

Then one day, alien dude gets word that someone will pick him up if he'll meet them out in the California desert, not that far from where the action takes place. Narrator dude (if we're ever told his name, I've forgotten it) drives alien dude into the desert, wagging along a couple of misfit non-friends.

Alien dude *is* an alien, and will even take narrator dude away with him, but because the girl misfit showed narrator dude her tits he decides to stay on earth. The end.

I hated this book from p4 on. At that point in the narrative, the kid is in the shower room with a bunch of guys who don't like him, gets called gay, and muses that "being gay might be better" than being what he is: Unpopular and miserable.

You lost me, lady. You've used The Dreaded Gay as your point of reference for baseline badness. Now, the book is a YA book, so one doesn't necessarily expect narrative refinement from it, but this sloppy and cheap trick is an automatic fail.

Why no one wonders what happened to the ship that delivered alien dude to earth is beyond me. If it was totally destroyed, why wasn't he? Why, when narrator dude was wavering about the alien dude's truthfulness, didn't alien dude just take him to the ship's remains? Or show him the communications device he gets contacted on? By the time narrator dude decides to believe him, that's when he gets this ultrasupercool sounding star chart, which for some reason isn't mentioned but twice, and exactly never does it occur to narrator dude to take it to the SETI people and sell it for oodles of money, despite the fact that there are 27 intelligent species marked on the map. For that matter, what kind of BLITHERING IDIOT is the alien dude for giving such a thing to an Earthling?!

So from distasteful homophobia to disrespectful mishandling of SF's sacred tropes, this book gets a "boo hiss" from my green reptilian lips.


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