Saturday, May 28, 2011

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

closeNow here’s the way to write a book in a folksy way without being irritating! The beginning tells it all: “The last place I thought I’d be when this day began is where I am, which is in a car. Mama’s car to be exact, and she’s driving headstrong through downtown Memphis with an Elvis impersonator on our tail.” 12-year-old Foster tells my favorite kind of story – funny/sad, and there’s plenty to be sad about. After Foster’s dad was killed in Iraq, her mom got mixed up with the wrong kind of guy, the aforementioned Elvis impersonator, in fact, and now they have to run away in the middle of the night. Things get even worse when Foster realizes when they finally stop running that she doesn’t have the pillowcase she keeps her special things in, including her dad’s dogtags. Luckily, Foster has a lot going for her, too. To begin with, she’s an amazing baker who’s determined to become the youngest Food Network star to have their own cooking show. She and her mom are really close, and she seems to make friends wherever she goes. She even makes friends with the aging reclusive movie star Miss Charleena, who is the first person in their new town of Culpepper to realize that Foster can’t read. They strike a bargain: Foster will teach Miss Charleena to cook, and Miss Charleena will teach Foster to read. When her favorite Food Network star, Sonny, is out of commission from a motorcycle accident, Foster (with the help of her new friend Macon, a future filmmaker who just got his first camera phone) sends him a recording of herself doing a special cooking show just for him. By the time Sonny sends her a letter back, she can pretty much read it herself! Review by Stacy Church

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Danger Box by Blue Balliett

dangerThis is the latest book by the author of the wonderful Chasing Vermeer, and it’s sequels.  I didn’t love everything about it (in fact, I almost quit reading during the first chapter because I found it annoyingly vague) but once I got into the real story, it pulled me right in.  First of all, I’m always interested in a book that’s told in the present tense, “I’m pulling the Danger Box out from the back of the toolshed.  Now I’m crouching by the rakes and hoes.  It’s a windy June night, and the shadows from the kitchen light are bumping and chasing.”  And Zoomy is a great character.  He lives with his grandparents, who love him despite his strange habits (incessant finger-tapping and list-making), and medical condition (pathological myopia).  In fact, his grandmother always seems to know what he’s feeling, and how to make him feel better.  It’s a pretty folksy tale, not always a favorite for me, but, for the most part, the author makes it work.  Zoomy’s life is completely changed by two things: his psychopathic father reappears in his life, and he makes his first friend, Lorrol, a girl he keeps running into at the library.  Zoomy’s dad, Buckeye, left behind a wooden box, and when they decide to open it, they find an old journal inside.  Zoomy begs to be allowed to read it, and of course, trying to figure out what it is opens the door for all kinds of discoveries and adventure.  There’s arson, theft, attempted murder…All in all, a good read.  Review by Stacy Church

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Zora and Me by Victoria Bond & T. R. Simon

zoraThe jacket flap doesn’t do this book justice. I was expecting some far-fetched story about shape-shifting alligator men, but instead found a beautifully-written coming-of-age story about 2 young black girls growing up in the south around the turn of the century. It’s a little confusing unless you already know when Zora Neale Hurston lived, so I suggest you read the biography at the end of the book first. There’s also a timeline of her life. What a great beginning, too: “It’s funny how you can be in a story but not realize until the end that you were in one.” This story starts with the death of a young black man who thinks he can wrestle an alligator. Zora and Carrie witness the terrible event, and Zora comes out with a story a few days later of seeing a man turn into an alligator. Zora is a natural born storyteller, and whether her stories contain a grain of truth or not, she captivates her audiences. This particular story leads to some almost dire consequences when Zora insists that a local recluse is the half-man, half-gator. There’s another murder, and plenty of action (Carrie almost falls to her death over the side of Blue Sink, the same swimming hole where the first death took place), besides some really terrific writing. I enjoyed everything about this book. Review by Stacy Church

The Clockwork Three by Matthew J. Kirby

clockworkI found book very confusing. I kept expecting it to be fantasy, but it really read like historical fiction set around the turn of the century. The historical detail is wonderful, but nothing about it seemed to be fantasy. Well, maybe the green violin that Guiseppe rescued from the harbor that, when he played it, seemed to bring magic to his music and dance to the feet of everyone listening. There are 3 main characters, and, of course, their lives intersect, and therein lies the charm of the story. They each live with terrible circumstances: Guiseppe is beaten by his padrone (owner), and lives in fear of being locked in the rat cellar if he doesn’t earn enough money; Frederick is haunted by his memories of bad treatment at the orphanage, and tormented by the question of what happened to his mother; and Hannah watches her once active stonemason father waste away from some unknown illness, too ill to work to support his family, and no money for medicine to save him. The whole story sort of hinges around a hidden treasure Hannah overhears her evil employers talking about. She’s determined to find out where it is, even if she has to lose her job to do it. Frederick is trying to build an automaton so he’ll be accepted into the guild with the title of journeyman, and he’s determined to find out what happened to his mother. Guiseppe wants to earn enough money to buy a ticket back to Italy so he can reunite with his brother and sister. They end up helping each other, and providing each other with something none of them have ever had –good friends. Back to the question of the book being fantasy. There is the matter of the piece of clay Hannah steals from the museum with the tag “golem” on it, which, when inserted into the automaton, not only makes it functional, but gives it heart. The only other thing is the green violin, which really does bring magic to Guiseppe’s playing. I’ve heard that some reviewers are referring to this book as being steampunk. I’m not sure about that, but here’s the Wikipedia definition of steampunk: “In general, the category includes any recent science fiction that takes place in a recognizable historical period (sometimes an alternate history version of an actual historical period) where the Industrial Revolution has already begun but electricity is not yet widespread, with an emphasis on steam- or spring-propelled gadgets.” You can decide for yourself if the book fits that classification or not. All in all, it’s a good read, although I found the ending very rushed and the wrap-up of the plot forced. Review by Stacy Church

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A True Princess by Diane Zahler

trueThe author, Diane Zahler, spins a beautiful fairytale with golden threads of magic, adventure, and romance all intertwined. A True Princess is based on H.C. Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea, but contains traces of other folktales and ancient Norse myths also.  Lilia arrives in a basket floating down a millstream, just like the hero in The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs by the Brothers Grimm. The babies in both stories are rescued and adopted by families.  Lilia is very different from the children in her adopted family.  She is not good at performing even the simplest tasks of cooking or cleaning.  She has trouble staying awake to do her chores because she never gets enough sleep on her hard, lumpy farm bed.  When she overhears her foster parents planning to get rid of her, Lilia decides to take charge of her own life.  Something urges her to follow the river to the North Kingdom, where she might have come from.  As Lilia journeys northward, she is joined by her brother and sister and the loyal family dog.  Thus begins their adventure together through the magic Bitra Forest, the realm of the elf-king, who captures them.  How Lilia outwits the elf-king and bravely rescues all the children from his evil spell is a marvelous story. A True Princess is a fairytale filled with adventure, betrayal, and heroic deeds, as a young girl with a brave and loving heart finds her way home.  Review by Trudy Walsh

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Saraswati’s Way by Monika Schroder

saraswatiAkash lives in India.  When his father dies, the family gives him away to work off their debt at the landlord’s quarry.  Life at the quarry is very hard, and the only way Akash survives it is by holding on to his dream: to one day go to a wonderful school in New Delhi.  Since Akash had been a very good student with a gift for math, he plans his escape from the quarry very carefully.  With twelve-year-old Akash we travel through India as he makes his way toward New Delhi.  When he finally arrives, the crowded city overwhelms him.  Will he survive life on the streets among thieves and drug dealers?  With tenacity, Akash clings to his dream and prays to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge.  In the end, Akash realizes that he has to take charge of his own life and not wait for a god or goddess to rescue and reward him.  Saraswati’s Way is a powerful novel set in modern India.  Monika Schroder describes beautifully what Akash experiences.  The author also tells us, through the enthusiastic voice of young Akash, what reading a book can do for you: “It’s like going to different places without leaving where you are.”  Review by Trudy Walsh