Category Archives: Young Adult

The Musician’s Daughter – Susanne Dunlap

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Theresa’s world is shattered on Christmas Eve when members of her father’s orchestra bring his broken body home. Her 8-year-old brother is devastated; her pregnant mother goes into shock. Murder is not unusual in eighteenth century Vienna but Theresa’s father was supposed to be performing with concertmaster Franz Josef Haydn at the court of Prince Esterhazy, not wandering on the banks of the Danube by a Gypsy encampment. His valuable violin is missing; Theresa removes an odd gold pendant from his neck.

No one has any answers for her but Haydn gives the family his own Christmas bonus from the prince and hires fifteen-year-old Theresa to help him write down his music. Theresa’s father had a secret life his family was completely unaware of—Haydn has a secret that will end his career and his own clandestine political activities if it is discovered. He is losing his sight. Because Theresa is a fine musician, trained by her father, she can transcribe Haydn’s singing into orchestration. But her hopes of using her viola to earn a living by teaching music are dashed when her mother sells the instrument to pay for her brother’s apprenticeship with a luthier.

There is far more peril around the musical performances of a court than might be expected. A wealthy uncle who could provide a dowry for Theresa is a dangerous blackguard. The Roma people Theresa encounters when she braves a trip to their camp to find out how her father was killed are not crude and threatening—they are talented, intrepid and in debt to her father. They also recognize the mysterious gold necklace that Theresa now wears.  She comes quickly to rely on a young musician who tries to help her while protecting secrets of his own—and realizes she is attracted to him. Haydn knows more than he is telling. The more she finds out about her father the deeper the mystery and the greater the menace.

The Musician’s Daughter is a fast-paced, historical YA with a daring and self-aware heroine who pushes back against the conventions of her time. She wants to know why her father died. She wants her own choice for marriage and she wants to play the violin—the instrument she loves best. She opposes all the forces arrayed against her quietly but insistently. The portrayal of the society that makes no allowances for a young woman’s ability and gifts reminded me of Rita Charbonnier’s Nannerl, Mozart’s big sister who was a musical prodigy, denied her talent and opportunity because scarce resources would always be given to a brother. In fact, Charbonnier is included in the author acknowledgements so there may be a cabal of novelists out there, righting history’s wrongs against talented women, real and fictional. We can only hope. Meanwhile, I’m passing this book to my seasoned in-house YA critic. I suspect we will agree that it was worth the read.

The Musician’s Daughter   Susanne Dunlap | Bloomsbury U.S.A.   2009

See related post: Mozart’s Sister



The Lighthouse Land – Adrian McKinty

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The Lighthouse Land is a science fiction first-of-series by Adrian McKinty that is probably tagged as a YA novel. It’s not in the angst and sex tradition of formula Young Adult lit so it will work for younger children, too, and I enjoyed it—one of those ageless stories that are just great escapist reading.

Jamie O’Neill hasn’t spoken since the cancer specialists removed his left arm, saving his life, and his father decamped from Manhattan to the West Coast to live with his girlfriend. His mom moved the two of them to a ratty Harlem apartment with cheapo rent, spotty heat, a resident bully and holes in the ceiling, to make ends meet. Ends don’t often meet—the medical bills aren’t covered by insurance and dear old dad is a deadbeat with a new house and a new wife. So Jamie has nothing at all to say.

Then mom inherits a tiny island off the coast of Ireland with an ancient lighthouse, a half-submerged causeway to the mainland, a title and a modest trust. Jamie bids farewell to his elderly chess partner and good friend from the local library, Thaddeus, and the adventure begins. It’s a real adventure. Their new cottage is safe, solid and comfortable; the lighthouse is a thousand-year-old ruin that predates the Vikings; a friend from the regional high school is a math whiz and a cool guy; and Thaddeus has given Jamie a laptop that speaks typed conversations aloud so he can communicate better until he finds his voice again.

All would be well in this new adventure, until the boys discover a secret room at the top of the lighthouse tower with a strange golden device that might be the fabled magical Salmon—and it is, of course, and it is also a port key that opens a wormhole to another planet in a galaxy with two moons and a civilization in peril. Jamie, the future Laird of Muck Island, is a descendent of the Ui Neills, the last of the Irish kings. On a clandestine visit to the distant land, he discovers that the daughter of a local leader has been waiting in a lighthouse on a coastal island for the legendary Ui Niells to return to help her people deflect a raid from barbarians who arrive in massive ships made of glaciers.

The Lighthouse Land is a great quest with all the requisite strategic planning, hopeless lack of battle technology to defeat the invaders, kids on their own facing down enormous peril, the beginnings of a love interest, time running out (not to mention the inexplicable battery on the wormhole-creating Salmon), outrageous attempts to frighten and defeat the iceship marauders, and a few strange tokens of an endangered world with odd animals and appealing, human-like people. Jamie and his friend Ramsay are in as much danger as the people they are trying to save. More to come in this saga—it’s a trilogy—and I suspect the second and third books will be as entertaining to read.       

The Lighthouse Land (Lighthouse Trilogy)    Adrian McKinty | Amulet Books   2007

Body of Water – Sarah Dooley

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Body of Water is a YA book that could work as well for middle grade readers. It deals with homelessness, poverty, disaster and the meaning of friendship. Sarah Dooley opens her novel with the devastating fire that destroyed the Goforth-Shooks’ trailer in their trailer park. Ember, twelve, her seven-year-old sister Ivy and her mother and father are safe but Ember’s dog, Widdershins is missing and they have saved nothing from the fire.

The family is Wiccan or Pagan—mom reads Tarot and dad has converted, which effectively alienates him from his devout Christian mother. Their beliefs do nothing to endear them to their neighbors in the trailer park either. One of those neighbors likely set the fire—and it may have been Ember’s best friend Anson. They go overnight from poor-scraping-by to poor-living-in-tents-in-a-campground with one set of clothes each. Ember’s donated sweat pants and tee shirt don’t fit, her bra is two sizes too small and the ancient penny loafers she finds in the discard box in a church basement give her blisters.

Her heart is broken but she has to keep up a front for Ivy and for the mother and father who find no work. There is a daily scramble for loose change to pay the campsite fee and buy bologna and donuts to fill up empty bellies. Ember floats in the campground lake, a manmade recreation feature that drowned a small town, as a way to leave the reality of her life behind and grab a few moments of peace. She determines never to make another friend and spins the tallest tales to keep the other kids in the campground at bay.

Every week her college student brother picks her up outside the camp for a clandestine visit to the ruins of her home. She hunts for Widdershins in vain and salvages scraps of junk from the ashes to prepare a spell that will curse the boy who set the fire. Ember manages to function pretty well, despite her self-imposed isolation and the circumstances, but as the summer winds down she is drawn into very cautious friendships with a few other kids. One family won’t admit it but they seem to be living in the campground fulltime, just like the Goforth-Shooks.

Body of Water explores many of the simpler rituals of Wiccan belief and makes an indirect case for empathy and tolerance. The family is in denial and in terrible straits. Everyone keeps important secrets from each other. Ember misses her old best friend and her beloved dog. The resolution of the dilemmas isn’t neat and comforting. Some very good surprises happen and some changes come about reluctantly. Nature and the elements aren’t finished with the Goforth-Shooks and they are still nomads at the end of the book—although more hopeful ones this time. Ember rediscovers her open heart and chooses blessings over curses.

The sadness of the circumstances in the story is offset by the resilience of the children. But it reads like a true tale and so stands as a fictional indictment of how we ignore and marginalize people who are victims of disasters. Body of Water humanizes the inconceivable challenges of a poor kid who maintains a strong sense of self despite a relentlessly hostile and indifferent world.

Body of Water   Sarah Dooley | Feiwel and Friends   2011

Switched – Amanda Hocking

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Amanda Hocking has gotten a lot of ink for her non-ink success writing paranormal romance novels for e-readers and self-publishing and marketing them online. She’s also become a millionaire in the process and landed a hefty advance from a legacy publisher. So I read the first volume of her Trylle series in paperback. Switched tells the story of Wendy, a misfit who was nearly killed by her own mother at her sixth birthday party. She is a difficult, surly child and teen who gets kicked out of every school she attends and has grown up fatherless, with a mother confined to a mental asylum and a doting big brother and aunt who go to considerable lengths to protect her.

It’s a very lively story with plenty of violence, smoldering eyes, emotional conflicts, near-fatal misunderstandings and magical trappings. Wendy discovers that dear old homicidal mum isn’t really mum at all—something the woman has insisted since the infant was handed to her in the hospital. Wendy has been switched with a boy who disappears. She is a changeling, and something else—she is a troll.

Hocking says she researched what was selling in an effort to teach herself to write best sellers. She seems to have settled on a good strategy. Reliable YA readers tell me that Switched is a typical paranormal romance with a predictable plot. I thought the characters were flat and clichéd. Those shortcomings seem to make the book no less satisfying to its legions of avid fans. So, huge kudos to Amanda Hocking for pulling off a literary and financial coup.

Switched is readable but there are strange lapses of spelling and grammar that should have been smoothed out by the editors at St. Martin’s—here’s a quote from an educated member of royalty who is portrayed as one of the elite: “She looked at Finn, but gestured to me. ‘This is her?’ ” (sic) That was not meant as some type of colorful idiom. It was just horrible, incorrect English. Came a few paragraphs after a glaring misspelling. Even the open to the book is poor English, obviously so. “A couple things made that day stand out more than any other. It was my sixth birthday, and my mother was wielding a knife. Not a tiny steak knife, but some kind of massive butcher knife glinting in the light like in a bad horror movie. She definitely wanted to kill me.” (sic)


I wasn’t a fan of Twilight—thought it was a terrible example of how to be a vapid female and fall in love with and pursue an abusive and deadly male. Read a couple of the books to try to figure out their appeal and decided they were just stupid. Despaired of the state of intelligence of millions of teenage girls. Nasty bitchy clique books fall into the same discard pile. Now I’ve read the source of much Internet buzz and a personal fortune. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be but Switched does nothing to relieve my cynicism.

The English language is so magnificent and there are such powerful storytellers out there. Pandering to the least common denominator may be the way to amass a pile of money. But that’s all it is. Maybe Hocking will develop more sophisticated storytelling now that she doesn’t have to crank out a new book every couple of weeks—and maybe St. Martin’s press will gift her with a more rigorous editor.

Switched (Trylle Trilogy)   Amanda Hocking | St. Martin’s Griffin   2012

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight – Jennifer E. Smith

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The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is a YA novel that, incredibly, has no suicides, drug addictions, depression-inducing bullying, vampires or werewolves at the heart of the plot—or anywhere on its pages. Jennifer E. Smith’s book is also readable, if somewhat relentlessly introspective. The narration is first-person—a 17-year-old girl who examines her fears and emotions incessantly, and a tad tiresomely, but manages to navigate from start to finish at a reasonable pace anyway.

I suspect the obsessive self-examination is a teen tendency I have mercifully forgotten so it probably makes sense to the intended readers. And the story is not bad—a real fairytale with a handsome, witty prince who rides to the rescue, an attractive and beleaguered heroine who is stubborn, plucky and smart enough to know when to change her mind, and settings and events worthy of a Disney princess animation. There is a missed flight, an overnight change of venue from New York to London, a charming wedding, a graveyard and a few other locations that reflect upscale finances and a remove from gritty reality. Very aspirational.

The crux of the story is the validity of the concept of love at first sight in a world of divorce, remarriage, confused loyalties and sudden infatuation . The book is an extended experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis, find out how to deal with love and loss when neither is simple or pain-free, and resolve the conflicts of the heart. The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is very sweet, funny and entertaining. In the YA world of today, that’s really a refreshing change.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight   Jennifer E. Smith | Little, Brown and Company   2012

Finding Miracles – Julia Alvarez

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Milly—Mildred Milagros Kaufman—doesn’t talk about the fact that she was adopted as an infant in a country ripped apart by war. She’s a teen in a small Vermont town and her sister Kate, kid brother Nate, mom and dad are all the family she wants. But when a new boy arrives at Ralston High, a refugee from that same country, Milly can’t avoid her own discomfort with the questions his presence raises.

Julia Alvarez has written a journey of discovery for Milly and all internationally adopted kids who don’t know their biological origins in Finding Miracles. It’s a young YA book, complex issues simplified enough for easy comprehension. Milly struggles to deal with Pablo, her own ambivalence about knowing more, and the shifting emotions in her family as they befriend Pablo’s family and hear the tragic stories of political murder and genocide. Wealthy Grandma Kaufman, the perpetually unhappy Happy, is a temperamental diva and Milly is sure she doesn’t consider her a real member of the family.

But people and things are not exactly what they seem in this story and the events and characters shift, reconfigure and expose both open hearts and uncomfortable truths. Milly discovers her own courageous voice, sets out to visit the land of her birth with Pablo’s family, and grows up, testing friendships and family ties as she comes to terms with the terrible history that determined her life–and the warm people who value and love her.

Finding Miracles tells about loss and a lot of it is ugly. But the adventure contains plenty of laughter, hope and affection, too. Cultures are contrasted and presented evenhandedly. Different generations find common ground. Happy finds her happiness at last and generously shares it with the rest of the family. Milly reclaims Milagros as her name as she makes her peace with being a child of two traditions and celebrates her own colorful life. And she falls in love, of course, with two countries and one boy and the miracles that make her exactly who she is.

Finding Miracles  Julia Alvarez | Alfred A. Knopf   2004

angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging – Louise Rennison

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angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging is obviously a YA title. It’s also a very funny book. Louise Rennison must be trapped in adolescence to nail a mid-teen girl’s stream of consciousness so spot on. The girl whose consciousness we inhabit for the space of this novel is British and her idiom is public school Brit but written so clearly that you miss nothing if you happen to be an ignorant Colonist. So the humor is freely available and the protagonist, Georgia Nicolson, is a wit.

Georgia and her friends are preoccupied with various boys who do and don’t pay attention to them, expend a lot of effort to disrupt their classes and exasperate their teachers, visit a boy who gives free snogging lessons in his bedroom when his parents are not home, obsess over body parts that do not add up to perfect, attempt to subvert the unattractive uniform policy at their school, spy on the girlfriends of their oblivious heartthrobs and generally act like teenage girls in a losing battle with hormones, siblings, feral pets and irritating parents.

A big nose is cause for despair.  A friend who might be seeing your hoped-for-against-all-odds boyfriend is an instant enemy. A professor explaining atoms with the help of a couple of billiard balls is ripe for ridicule. A rescue cat that might be part wild animal likes to play rough with the neighbor’s pet guinea pig. Boys’ hands, seemingly detached from their brains and all awareness, come to rest on key pieces of anatomy. Briefly and without comment. Hilarity rules practically all the time because anything might start a highly-contagious case of the giggles. Parties are fraught with peril because anyone might show up with or leave with anyone and you could get a spot on your chin or smile too broadly and make your nose look bigger or accidentally shave your eyebrows off while trying to pluck them in preparation for the gorgey bloke you could snag at the party.

Georgia survives somehow. Her parents are longsuffering, if not always clued-in. Her three-year-old sister is cute and only pees in Georgia’s bed occasionally. Her best friend shares her travails with two impossibly good-looking blokes in the same family. Her dad goes to New Zealand when he becomes redundant and she might have to move. Life is never dull. But it’s always ripe for a good one-liner and Georgia does not lack in the humor department.

A shout-out to my friend Carol who raved about Rennison’s books and told me I was missing a good laugh by not reading them. And to my uber-literate teen who told me to read them a couple of years ago when I bought her a few—and who lent me this one. angus (the feral cat), thongs (uncomfortable) and full-frontal snogging (mostly imagined) might take you back to the heady daily drama of navigating adolescence along with your fabby friends in a world of shirty swots, prats, tossers and gorgey porgy could-be-a-boyfriend boys. Funny enough even for naff grown-ups. Borrow it from your kid.

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson (Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, Book 1)
Louise Rennison | HarperTempest  1999