Young Adult Books


Red Wombat Studio (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now



Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Fourteen-year-old Mona isn't like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can't control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt's bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona's life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona's city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona's worries...


My Review
: First, read this:
Nobody said anything to me, and they didn’t exactly stare, but they knew I was there, and I knew that they knew, and they knew that I knew that they knew, all in a creepy, crackling tangle of mutual awareness.
“You didn’t fail,” I said. “They wouldn’t let you succeed. It’s different.”
When you're different, even just a little different, even in a way that people can't see, you like to know that people in power won't judge you for it.

What I'd like you to know is that I cherry-picked those lines for their content, not their felicity of construction or their stand-out euphony. That should give you an idea of the quality of Author Ursula Vernon's (pseudonymously known as Kingfisher) prose overall.

Why would a grouchy old fuffertut like me buy a (Kindlesale, to be fair) copy of a library book he's already read? Because he plans to re-read it. Yep...I want to have it so that I won't need to fuss my drawers procuring it when I am most in need of a laughing, weeping, cheering-my-fool-lungs-out read that doesn't have the effrontery to wink at me or let me know it's clever-clever. Story gets told, ideas get presented, world gets saved, and just keep the sourdough starter firmly in place or it'll get weird ideas.

Simple enough, surely.



Knopf Books for Young Readers (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 ebook & trade paper, $16.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: New York Times bestselling author David Levithan tells the based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS.

While the two increasingly dehydrated and sleep-deprived boys are locking lips, they become a focal point in the lives of other teen boys dealing with languishing long-term relationships, coming out, navigating gender identity, and falling deeper into the digital rabbit hole of gay hookup sites—all while the kissing former couple tries to figure out their own feelings for each other.


My Review
: Were I a teen, I'd be over the moon about this interlocking-loves narrative. I'm not, and I haven't been in a very very long time (the Bee Gees charted the last year of my teens), so my muted response to the teen-angst "does he/doesn't he/will he/won't he" stuff is pretty much assured.
“Love is so painful, how could you ever wish it on anybody? And love is so essential, how could you ever stand in its way?”

Others have commented on the dead gay men of my generation being the collective narrators with everything from tolerant smirks to outright derision. I am not a fan of second-person narration. At All. However much I don't like that narrative choice, I do feel the acknowledgment of those gone before is a net positive choice. We, the AIDS generation, largely vanished after the disease decimated us because there weren't descendants or loving memories in families for far, far too many of us.
This is what you do now to give your day topography--scan the boxes, read the news, see the chain of your friends reporting about themselves, take the 140-character expository bursts and sift through for the information you need. It's a highly deceptive world, one that constantly asks you to comment but doesn't really care what you have to say. The illusion of participation can sometimes lead to participation. But more often than not, it only leads to more illusion, dressed in the guise of reality.

Author Levithan doesn't hold with the vanishing of memory. He addresses this issue head-on and makes it a vibrant part of his narrative. This pleases me. I feel it as a chance for those gone to have The Talk with their spiritual descendants despite being incorporeal.

So all the stars for including the ancestors in present-day life.

But I'm old and cranky, so I'm retracting some stars for artificial inclusiveness. Not every point on the spectrum must needs be in every story. It could be my age showing (not a word, you) but it feels to me as though I'm being hectored. Again, not a teen, but as a teen I suspect I'd feel the same way. (Like I did about The Outsiders's preachiness all those years ago.)
You can give words, but you can't take them. And when words are given and received, that is when they are shared. We remember what that was like. Words so real they were almost tangible. There are conversations you remember, for certain. But more than that, there is the sensation of conversation. You will remember that, even when the precise words begin to blur.
We wish we could have been there for you. We didn't have many role models of our own—we latched on to the foolish love of Oscar Wilde and the well-versed longing of Walt Whitman because nobody else was there to show us an untortured path. We were going to be your role models. We were going to give you art and music and confidence and shelter and a much better world. Those who survived lived to do this. But we haven't been there for you. We've been here. Watching as you become the role models.”

Got a gay nephew? Cousin? Give him this book. Face down the outrage of the parents and show him he's not alone, not the first, and not bad/wrong/weird. I wish like hell this book had been around in 1972, instead of written by a man born then.


$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.



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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