The middle book in the Harper Hall trilogy, Dragonsinger, is not only a book that was very important to me as a child (young girl who loves music but isn't allowed to play it because her parents don't understand her and she runs away and eventually her True Worth is recognized -- actually, that's all the setup, in the first book, Dragonsong. Dragonsinger is the one where she actually gets to the Harper Hall and gets to find out if she really measures up to her dreams, and whether there's a place for her in this world of high-strung musicians (okay, that was a pun, but it was a very little one and I'm still sleepy, so it's not my fault), but is also the best McCaffrey book, in my humble opinion. It's very tightly plotted; the entire book takes place in seven days, and the pacing is excellent.
Things keep happening; they build on each other in logical sequence (and if the logic isn't immediately evident to you, that's because it's not to Menolly, and it all comes clear in the end, which gives you the added pleasure of getting to go back and reread all those bits you didn't get and say, "ah! I know why this is going to happen....just hang in there, Menolly..."); there is suspense and mystery and revelation and great lines that I can still quote (I can probably quote huge passages, actually), and I still get weepy at bits, after what must be the 50th rereading. McCaffrey's work often suffers from wander-itis -- it rambles, and gets slow, but not in this book.
Okay, I'm not sure how I ended up writing a McCaffrey rant. Kids' books are dangerous!
I did want to address one other thing Columbine mentioned. He's apparently distressed because people are reading his new novel, "Aedie" and coding it as sf, and he thinks of it as fantasy. And he went off on a big rant about what's wrong with fantasy, and how Tolkien imitators have dragged it down (which I think is mostly bunk, and would gladly give him a long list of superlative fantasy written by authors who aren't scared off by that kind of thinking), and I think he's totally missed the point.
Look, he's got a young kid, on a dystopian Earth of the future (natural resources stretched to the breaking point by overpopulation) where they have met aliens and are apparently getting along with them okay and in fact most of the populace seems to take that for granted. Then the kid (very smart and misunderstood, of course) gets picked to go to the alien homeworld, in a spaceship, where he attends an alien school, learns an alien language, deals with alien cultures and different biology.
That is not a McGuffin, Columbine. I think you're not understanding the term. A McGuffin is a single gizmo, a funny thingamabob, like a time machine. It could possibly be something other than a technical gizmo -- but it can't be your entire setting! That's your setting! That's what codes this for the readers as science fiction, and that's what you've written, and I really don't understand why you're so resistant to that term.
In fact, this is the area where I feel social science fiction really shines: first contact (which this qualifies as, since the aliens and humans have really only had very limited contact up until this point), where both the aliens and humans misunderstand each other a lot, and eventually end up learning something about each other and themselves. This is quintessential sf: if you cut all the examples of this kind of story out of sf, you've leave a huge gaping hole in the field.
Okay, I'm going to stop ranting now. I didn't sleep well and I haven't had my tea yet, and I'm clearly feeling contentious. I'd better get civilized before I do any of the other things I planned to do today: moving some of my boxes over with the help of Carol from my writing group, reviewing a book on hijras for CS, writing the CS newsletter, reading and evaluating someone's novel, and grading student papers. Pretty much all of those seem to be things that I ought to be in a decent mood for. Too bad I don't have any weeding to do. I could really enjoy hacking at some weeds.