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The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

4/5. Middle grade. Every year the townspeople leave a baby to die in the forest to appease the evil witch. The evil witch, who has no idea why they keep doing this terrible thing, finds the babies new and happy homes in other lands. Until the one baby that she accidentally enmagics…and keeps.

A lovely, sad, charming book. It's all miniature dragon who thinks he's absolutely enormous! Sweet-tempered swamp monster named Glerk! Found family! Oh also women imprisoned for their madness grief and predators who consume sorrow and centuries of oppression coming to a head.

A little bit Patricia Mckillip and a little bit Kat Valente, and a lot about being . . . oppressed is not quite the right word. Crystallized in time. Held back by parents who think they know best, or by actual oppressors. And the sometimes explosive escape.
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When the Moon Was Ours

2/5. A girl with a complicated past grows roses from a wound in her wrist; the local "witch" girls want the roses for their own ends.

Well, on the plus side, this is a great example of a book where representation works so much better when it's not done on the 'one and only' model. There are two trans characters in this book who are in very different places in re their identities, their bodies, and their transitions. And because there are two of them, it is so much easier to take each of them where they are, as a person, rather than – unfairly but inevitably – as some sort of comment on trans people in general, or transition in general, or or or.

On the other hand, this book is 70% symbolism by volume, with a plot tossed over top. These are not the proportions I like my fiction to have. I spent this whole book like, "Wait, that wasn't a metaphor, the pumpkin literally turned to glass? Oh-kay . . . what does that mean? What do the paper moons mean? What about the – oh, for fuck's sake."

Either this novel really ought to have been novelette length, at most, or it is so so so so not for me. Or both.
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Kinda Like Brothers

3/5. It's all well and good for our protagonist's mom to take in foster babies. But the most recent baby comes with the baggage of an older brother, and that just doesn't work for our protag thank you very much.

I think this was a disabilityinkidlit rec? It had to be a rec from somewhere because I don't pick non-specfic YA lit without a prompt these days. But this is great. Well, okay, it's cringily great. Our protagonist is terribly eleven – he's convinced everything is criminally unfair and he's a little shit roughly 90% of the time, with the other 10% being overwhelming sweetness. And he's eleven, and this book is super honest, so there's enough social embarrassment going on here to make me use my one-minute audio skip button more than once.

But really, it's great, particularly if you have a thicker skin than I do. Non-traditional families of all sorts, relationships that don't fit a tidy box, complicated adults doing their best. And there's a lot in here about being a community of color, from the overt – a totally wrenching scene in which an older man teaches a roomful of pubescent black boys how to act when they are stopped by the cops because it might save their lives one day – to the more subtle work embedded in the unfolding of everyone's backstories. I'd definitely buy this for a kid.

P.s. The commercial audio is A+++. John Clarence Stewart is hilarious and pissy and sad and just perfect.
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The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World

4/5. Middle grade novel prequel to the popular comic. My wife loves the comic but hasn't read this. Below is a rough transcript of my commentary to her:

Ahaha, Squirrel Girl has just happened to a bunch of LARPers. . . . Aw, her parents are adorable. So supportive! They remind me of your parents when you came out*. . . . Aw, her deaf new best friend is crabby and adorable. . . . For the record, the villain's name is The Micromanager, just so you know. . . . Aw, she is adorable. . . . Oh now she's chatting with a bad guy about his poor life choices and how he really should be wearing a seatbelt when he's driving like that. . . . Ahahaha, she is texting with The Winter Soldier. Oh, now she's texting with Tony Stark about how she needs help from someone smart and resourceful, and she asked him for Bruce Banner's number, I'm dying, I'm dead. Ahaha she is trash-talking and her trash talk is that the villain "is going downtown without a bus pass."

There was also a longer conversation in there about how it seems that Squirrel Girl exists in a different genre than most of the other people around her. It's actually really interesting – the closer a person gets to her like her parents or her bestie, the more they become realized in Squirrel Girl's genre. That is, aggressively, unstoppably cheerful with a streak of zany. Whereas people in the background – like the mean girls at school – exist in a more typical high school novel whose rules Squirrel Girl doesn't so much ignore as just never notice. My wife says the comic has a similar function in the wider comics universe – Squirrel Girl is a streak of off-beat color in a grimdark sea. And that's the joke. And the not joke.

I loved this.

*She came out when she went home over her first winter break in college and when she got back to her dorm there were congratulations flowers waiting for her. How cute is that?
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Signal to Noise

2/5. In 2009, Meche goes home to Mexico City upon her father's death. In 1988, Meche and her friends discovered that she could do magic with her father's record collection.

Oh man, I so wish I could recommend this, because parts of it are really good – the portrayal of several different and contrasting kinds of poverty, for one. But the structure here so completely did not work, I feel like it should be an example in someone's class. The 1988 story is tense and mean; Meche's parents' marriage is imploding, and her friend group is splintering around teenage hormones and bad decisions, and the magic takes Meche to some pretty dark places. She does things – everyone does things – that are scary and awful (I actually kind of hoped at one point that the twist of this book would be that it was Meche's villain origin story). And the 2009 story moves in the opposite direction, to a slow kind of grace and forgiveness. Except that turn to hope at the end is structurally placed right along side the destruction at the end of the 1988 strand and it just . . . nope. It does not work. The two strands slide off each other, and the gulf of years in between is a blank. Could it have worked? Oh yeah. It could have been good, too. But it doesn't, and I was so frustrated by the structure that it dulled the enjoyment of so many of the small vignettes in this book, and the love of music.
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Illuminae

3/5. Is anyone else old enough to remember the documentation challenge from SGA Flashfic way back in the day? That's what this is. A story of two teenagers, who happen to be exes, who survive the destruction of their illegal colony and flee the planet with the evil corporate ships chasing them, but then the zombie plague starts running through their ships like wildfire. Except this is told entirely in documents – interview transcripts, chatlogs, various military files, intelligence summaries, AI data, etc.

This is about 80% extremely effective space horror/fight-for-your-life and about 20% facepalmy teenager terribleness. I do, however, want to pause to say that the commercial audio of this is excellent. It's a multi-voice production, with people playing parts so the chat logs sound like conversations. But the real power of the production is in a few, tiny sections, put in purely for the emotional impact. Like the excerpts from a casualty list near the beginning, or fragments of the messages a couple dozen people we never actually meet send out into the dark when they know they are about to die. The audio bleeds one voice into the next for the reading, so it's just this wall of – yeah. It works.

Much of the book works. It's awful and scary and grim as our heroine begins to suspect she is being lied to, and the plague heats up, and the ship AI starts to go . . . a little weird. But it's sprinkled through with such poor choices. Like blurring out the profanity – it's supposed to be an ironic commentary on the blah blah blah. It's mostly just irritating. And the teenagers are so cringily teenagers. Like, I kept telling myself it was good writing that they're so melodramatic and emo and ridic, but that didn't mean I rolled my eyes any less.

Still. This book got me in the end. The last quarter is so … harrowing is the only word I have. This is what young adult is allowed to be now, after Hunger Games. I do think that massive spoilers for the end )
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Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell

3/5. Sweet young adult about the princess born with a clubfoot who goes on the run with her handmaiden and an apprentice dragonslayer after her cousin tries to take control of her tiny holdings.

Perfectly middle grade, which means pitched just right for the age range and a little too simple for my complete enjoyment. And I object a little bit to the heroine's journey in this. She is ready to give up her kingdom because so many of her subjects dislike her disability and treat her badly because of it, and the book takes her on a journey to discover that she was wrong and some of them really do love her anyway. And I just . . . I'm not really interested in these (extremely popular) narratives. I mean, if a person with disabilities perceives ableism in her community and is harmed by it, I don't think she's the one who needs to go on a journey of self-discovery, you know?

But this book surprised me in the last third. Dragons lurk throughout its pages, alternately frightening and pathetic, but I wasn't sure what the dragons were really for. Then they were for something, and that something was a metaphor about feminism and power and anger and restraint. Nice landing, is what I mean.
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Serpentine by Cindy Pon

2/5. YA about the sixteen-year-old foundling girl serving as handmaiden in a wealthy household, except whoops she's half serpent demon.

Dislike. I should have liked this – it's an Asian setting rather than medieval europe, there's a secondary lesbian romance subplot! – but I just . . . didn't. But it's the sort of dislike where I sighed a lot in boredom and kept asking questions about the paper thin worldbuilding, and not the sort that would, say, make me not want teenage girls to read this.
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Shadowed Summer

3/5. Fourteen-year-old girl in a tiny Louisiana town accidentally calls up the spirit of a young man who went missing years ago, and she and her friends set out to find out what happened to him.

Slim and quick young adult, notable for a beautiful sense of place. Not just tiny town, not just Louisiana, but also summer as a place. And fourteen as a place; on the brink of sexuality and not particularly thrilled about it. There's a not really love triangle that's zero fun for anybody – our uninterested narrator and her boy crazy best friend and the boy who may like the wrong one of them – and the book is about how hard all of that is, and how to stay friends through it.

Also notable for actually startling/frightening me. The blurb made it sound like a gentle ghost story, but this ghost is not gentle. This ghost is angry.
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Dogsbody

3/5. The one where Sirius the star is cast down to live as a dog, and gets adopted, and stuff.

Point one: yes, JK Rowling absolutely read this book at a formative time, wow, good to know.

Point two: I read this when I wanted something fluffy and soothing. It's DWJ! It's about a dog! My wife is fond of it! I asked no questions. This was a mistake.

This book is not fluffy. It is, in fact, a study in cruelty, in the overlapping ripples of it as people and creatures are awful to each other in succession. Sirius is mistreated in various ways, as is his nominal owner, a young Irish girl. The book is contrasting various kinds of cruelty – deliberate, absent-minded, childish copycat without understanding – and like. It's a good book! But boy I didn't enjoy any of that.
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Crooked Kingdom: A Sequel to Six of Crows

4/5. Sequel to Six of Crows. More of that – crew of misfits and thieves takes several runs at getting what they're owed.

This is prickly, difficult, very grown up for YA. On the surface it's about these hardened teenagers who have reluctantly come to care about each other, compounding and healing their respective damage as they work through a series of complicated cons. Beneath that, this is a book about consequences. The action and the echo. What grows up in the shadow you cast. How what you put out in the world is what you get back, but twisted. How the wealthy and powerful in that city are no different than the gutter rats trying to swindle them; how the two are an inevitable consequence of each other.

The heart of the book, for me, is a quiet scene, the sort of thing that movie producers like to ruin with music but that ought to be played to silence. Two people – one a girl turned to crime after she escapes the brothel she was sold to at fourteen, one a boy driven by revenge and his screaming touch phobia after he survived a plague in a pile of corpses. The two of them talking quietly and edgily about how they feel about each other and, exquisitely painfully, touching each other just a little bit. This book turns on that holding point.

Audio note: This is a multi-voice production with excellent casting, particularly for the women. And is tragically ruined by the fact that no one thought to coordinate the voice actors so that they pronounce proper names of major characters in remotely the same way aaaaaaargh. Painful.
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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

4/5. The story of September, who climbs out her kitchen window and rides the wind to fairyland, then comes home, and goes back, and comes home, and goes back, and gets stuck.

So I generally do not do well with books that get popularly described as "lush." E.g., I recently twice failed out of Sofia Samatar's first book because oh god, the boredom. Lush and me, it's not so good. And it seems like everyone calls Valente's work "lush." So I've avoided it for over a decade.

But these books? These books are wonderful. Intricate and dense; full of appropriately fairyland whimsy that has a lot of weight behind it. As if the ever-proliferating fairyland rules are each the ingredient to a magic spell of byzantine complexity, and it will only make sense if you twist your brain around 270 degrees and stand on one foot and think about it in the moonlight. But in a good way!

I've already talked about these books a bit by way of disliking Seanan McGuire, who was doing some of the same stuff but not nearly so well. But I want to say, more directly, that this series is principally about being a child out of place and subject to inexplicable forces – a child displaced to fairy, or a troll displaced to Chicago. It matters, very much, that this book is set in the 1940's when our heroine's mother, like the other women of her generation, is going to work for perhaps the first time. It matters that September knows she should not eat in fairyland, but manages to complicate and muddle the rule beyond recognition. It matters that the displaced troll becomes a hero among his schoolyard peers for discerning the rules of their world and writing them down. "All children are changelings," this series says near the end, encapsulating five books into one thematic statement. Yes. That.

These are beautiful and wonderful and wise and sad and weird and I really love them. And fine, they're fucking "lush" okay.
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Wizard's Holiday (Young Wizards Series Book 7), Wizards at War (Young Wizards Series Book 8), A Wizard of Mars: The Ninth Book in the Young Wizards Series

3/5. More Young Wizards, with a definite science fictional turn in these three (well, more interplanetary travel and cosmic whatsits, anyway – the esthetics of the series remain solidly fantasy).

I liked these, but in a measured way. The series matures with our heroes, whose power is settling down into its adult channels after the exuberance of earlier, and they have to learn to live with that and develop the talents they have. I should find this excellent, and I do, but it was around this point in the series that I started really thinking about the philosophical underpinnings.

The enemy – The Lone Power – is supposedly the champion of entropy, of things running down. And the work of wizardry is to fight entropy wherever found. There's a lovely interview with Duane at the end of one of the early audios -- High Wizardry, I think -- in which it becomes clear that this is a reflection of her view of the world. And it's not mine. Entropy in this series wears the face of the Lone Power, who is alternately frightening and pathetic. And who, we know from book one, is ultimately losing. But he is specifically not the face of evil, even if the things he does are appalling. And there is something uncomfortably slippery in this notion of entropy, something very whoops, guess that just happens, which I think ducks the problem of the active evil that so many people choose to put out into the world. Like in one of these books, for example, the world teeters on the brink of war and mass violence, but it all stops when the kids deal with the magic mcguffin evil cloud. Which implies all sorts of things about world history, according to this universe, that I don't like.

I don't know, I can't get this out right. But essentially I think the philosophy of this series is a bit confused about personal responsibility, and for all its time with the Lone Power, it isn't really equipped to grapple with active malice.

It can grapple with other things, though. The philosophy of these books gets more difficult and adult when Nita's mother gets cancer; Nita's reaction to that and to the Lone Power bring a richness to this idea of bad things just happen. But it still doesn't really satisfy me.
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A Wizard Alone (Young Wizards Series Book 6)

1/5. Aaaaand then this happened.

Hoo boy. Plenty of people have taken this book to task over the years, and I was forewarned. But it still left an awful taste in my mouth.

So, in book six, Nita is working through depression after the death of her mother, and Kit is tasked with helping a new young wizard who is autistic. And it's . . . very sincere and trying so hard, and flavored with the usual kindness of this series. And all so absolutely pervaded with toxic ablism that you can't swallow any part of it without choking a bit.

It's not just the overtly ablest ending spoilers ), and it's not just the way the book parallels depression and autism in frankly weird and off-putting ways. It's the whole *gestures* the whole thing. The imagery used to talk about autistic communication. How at first everyone thinks what they're receiving is extra-terrestrial in origin. How this book implicitly and explicitly treats autism as alienness. As not human.

Duane has rewritten this book, too, and to her credit she apparently spent a fair amount of time absorbing the criticisms of autistic and adjacent readers. But given certain events in the rest of the series, I have a hard time believing she would be able to extricate the overt ablism from the book. It's just too deep.
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So You Want to Be a Wizard (Young Wizards Series Book 1), Deep Wizardry (Young Wizards Series Book 2), High Wizardry (Young Wizards Series Book 3), A Wizard Abroad (Young Wizards Series Book 4), The Wizard's Dilemma (Young Wizards Series Book 5)

4/5. Adventures of Nita and Kit, pre-teen wizards in suburban New York.

I have been reading this series slowly for six months. I don't really go in for savor when it comes to books – it's just as good going down fast, fight me! – but once in a while I do. The first five are really strong. They're tense, beautifully-imagined stories of young people riding the first wild wave of power, and learning to use it wisely.

The first book is particularly accomplished, which is unusual for a series. It takes Kit and Nita to an alternate, dark AU New York; the creepy creepy image of the nest where the evil sentient helicopter raises its tiny evil helicopter babies has lingered. As has Nita, holding the book of life in which all truths are written, and lifting her pen, and making a mark. The structure serves these books well; Kit and Nita's greatest victory is the thing they accomplish first, and the rest of the books play out the consequences that echo up and down through time and causality.

Note: Apparently Duane has been editing and re-releasing these books with a modern update, since she has been writing them for thirty years and the 80's stuff is very 80's. I read the originals, and do not regret that decision at all. Frankly, I think her insistence on adding, like, cell phones to make these accessible to modern readers is misplaced, and sort of insulting. Are these early books very 80's? Sure. Is it startling to read about parents allowing their pre-teen children to take the train into NYC alone for a day? Uh, yeah. But I think I – and modern teenagers – are capable of understanding.
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Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Book 1)

3/5. Bland paint-by-numbers fantasy about the girl who is taken to court after discovering her hidden power that might save them all. Boy am I glad I read Six of Crows, Bardugo's fourth book, first. That one is complicated and scary. This one – her debut -- is derivative in the dull way, not the fun way. And it's never good when the love interest is in deathly peril and I start vigorously cheering for his death, because that could only improve things.

I mean, I guess it's a demonstration of how fast a person's writing can improve?
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The Wig in the Window

3/5. YA about the tween girls playing spy games at night who happen upon their neighbor acting suspicious.

Fair warning, I have had a huge Too Like the Lightning* hangover for a week and no book will satisfy me. This one is cute, and full of women! Like, brim full – every major relationship is between ladies of various ages. But it hit a lot of my embarrassment squick, subcategory kids doing terribly inappropriate things for good reasons that adults loudly disbelieve. Auuuuugh.

Still, if I had a tween girl in my life, I'd get her this. …And subsequently make sure she did not have a rope strategically tied to get out her window at night.

*Yes, yes, I read it. I have thoughts! …Someday.
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Six of Crows

4/5. Fantasy heist caper where the team of lowlifes and outcasts has to break someone out of the unbreakable prison, also politics.

"Caper" seems like the wrong word. Far too cheerful for this tense book that manages to balance grimdark with humaneness better than anything I've read in a while.

One of those books that I think is classified as young adult only because the protagonists are under eighteen. (Well, and because YA is often more lucrative). Because this is otherwise an entirely adult book about adult themes – the costs of survival, the rigged game of life when you don't hold power, being the dupe, being the one duping. I really liked this. The heart of this book is partly the heist, but it's mostly the team, and its interlocking sets of relationships, romantic and otherwise. It would be a wild oversimplification to say that this book is about hardened people coming to care for each other, because it is vastly more messy and satisfying than that. But if simplification you must have, there you go.

Oh, and did I mention half of the team is composed of persons with disabilities? Because it is.
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Mars Evacuees

5/5. Twelve-year-old girl is evacuated to Mars as the war with the aliens drags on. Then all the adults on the Mars base disappear.

Oh gosh, burble burble, this is woooooonderful. It's about war and fear of loss and actual loss and – go with me here – it is hilarious. The obvious comparison is The True Meaning of Smekday, which I also loved, and yeah, that's valid. Plucky and sarcastic kids accidentally reaching across the gulf of a species war to make a friend. But this book is also doing very different things. Like, in case this is relevant to anyone's interests, girls in space! Female friendship! Lady fighter pilots!

Also, this is going to make people who haven't read this book go "buh?" but the brilliance of this book, and the seriousness of it, are in its lightness. This book makes the education of child soldiers funny and endearing, okay, in a way that lifts you up and breaks your heart. It is this beautifully controlled but pell-mell first person narration, constrained by our narrator's youth and fear, illuminated by her irreverence. And it trips along, making you laugh and worry and laugh again. And then it stops, and takes a breath, a perfectly placed beat that makes you stop and clench your hands and say, oh very quietly.

It is just really, really good.
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Love Is the Drug

4/5. A student at a near-future Washington D.C. prep school wakes up after a party with no memory of what happened to her, and with the world in the grip of a pandemic flu virus.

This, on the other hand, is wonderful, and deserves to be hyped a lot more. It's not really science fiction, more near-future sociopolitical thriller with some speculative elements. But the flu is not really the point, and the thriller plot is so not the point (if you haven't figured that out by a quarter of the way through, this may be the first book you've ever read). No, the point is the heroine, who is struggling with competing models of how to be black in America, and working through the use and abuse of power on her and by her, and falling in love with a drug dealer.

This is the rich, complex book that her Summer Prince fell short of, in my mind. Which is partly her – she got a little less overdramatic, a little more controlled. And partly about how I'm getting really sick of specfic books about race that have to take the world at several steps remove from ours to be about race. This book really doesn't do that; it's not about race "through the lens of" or about race "reimagined." It's about this black girl and her black family and her friends and boyfriends and what they do to survive. Fuckin' applause.

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