Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

12-year-old Foster and her mother are leaving a bad situation and end up in the small town of Culpepper, West Virginia. They think it's just a temporary stop in their journey, but they end up staying there, little by little carving out a space for themselves among the quirky and colorful residents of the town.

I'm not sure why I haven't read everything Joan Bauer has written yet, because every time I read one of her books it knocks my socks off.  What I love about this one is that it deals with some very specific, hard-hitting issues, such as abusive relationships and learning disabilities - but not in a Problem Novel, message-y sort of way. Yes, there are serious issues that Foster is dealing with, but they are part and parcel of the story, and they never take precedence or become Lessons for the Reader. The book is about Foster, and she is such a delightful character with her passion for cooking, her strength and resilience, and her vulnerability. I wanted to reach into that book and give that girl a hug as I read, and she often made me laugh out loud.

It's a sweet and funny book, and I think it would appeal to fans of Sharon Creech and Susan Patron. Bauer doesn't shy from unpleasant truths, but she doesn't overplay them either. It's all about Foster, and her story is a riveting one. This is a great summer read, sure to inspire readers to grab a bowl and an oven mitt and pull out the cupcake tins. You might not want to read this one on an empty stomach!

Close to Famous by Joan Bauer (Penguin Group US - ebook edition, 2011)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

The same day that Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives to start her new life in London, a woman is brutally murdered mere blocks from Rory's new boarding school - and in the copycat style of Jack the Ripper's first murder. Rory tries not to pay too much attention to the murders, disturbing as they are. She is excited about living in London, meeting new people, and trying to figure out exactly why she agreed to play on the field hockey team.

But the murders continue to happen, and the media frenzy surrounding them soon has everyone in London caught up in the horrible events. When Rory believes she has seen the man responsible, she gets caught up in them too - and in a terrifying, unexpected way.

Part murder mystery, part ghost story, this creepy, gripping tale gets under the reader's skin and won't let go until the very end. The setting is an evocative backdrop, and Rory is a likable teen whose strong narrative voice carries the reader through the events of the story. While the book ends in a satisfying conclusion, there are enough unexplored areas that readers will be pleased to learn that a sequel, The Madness Underneath, has already been published. My fourteen-year-old daughter read and enjoyed this one, and I expect I won't get to the second book until she finishes it first.

Books in the Shades of London series:
1. The Name of the Star
2. The Madness Underneath

The Name of the Star (#1 in the Shades of London series) by Maureen Johnson (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011)

Also by Maureen Johnson:
Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith

This one is another summer reading pick at my library this year. It features Precious Ramotswe from McCall Smith's adult mystery series that begins with The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, presenting her very first case.

Precious lives in a village in Botswana and is an intelligent, observant little girl who thinks she might like to be a detective when she grows up. When children's cakes start disappearing from their lunches at school, suspicion immediately falls on a little heavyset boy who loves sweets and always walks around with candies in his pockets. Precious knows that just because he likes desserts doesn't mean he's the thief, and she sets out to find out who the real culprit is.

This is a sweet, simple story with large print, illustrations and lots of white space that will be appealing to new chapter-book readers. I like the setting, which is atypical of most children's books. While it doesn't offer much complexity of character, it gives a nice picture of the African village where Precious lives without long boring descriptions.  Most important, it shows the many ways in which the lives of these children in Botswana are just the same as those of children all over the world.

The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe's Very First Case by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor, 2012)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Insatiable by Meg Cabot

I checked this book out from my library's digital catalog because it was available, I needed ebooks to fill up my reader before going away, and Meg Cabot can be depended on for a decent read. I knew nothing about the book before I started reading - and I like it that way.

This one turned out to be a funny take on paranormal vampire romances. Our heroine is Meena Harper. She works as a writer for a soap opera, and she is very annoyed when her bosses decide that they need to jump on the vampire bandwagon and add a sexy vampire romance to the show. She thinks the idea of a supernatural angle is ridiculous (although she possesses her own supernatural ability). Meanwhile, her Romanian neighbor has fixed her up with a relative from out of town: a real-life modern-day prince. She's prepared to hate the man, but he turns out to be fascinating, charming, and...remarkably like the type of sexy vampire her bosses want her to write into the soap opera script.

This is a fun, humorous, light read. When I saw the direction the book was taking, I found myself expecting Cabot to take her parody a little further than it actually went - it seemed to waver between utter silliness and taking itself just a little too seriously - but it was a fun vacation read all the same. I didn't realize this book was part of a series (pretty silly of me, now that I think about it - what's not a series these days?), and at this point I don't think I feel the need to continue with the next book.

Book in the Insatiable series:
1. Insatiable
2. Overbite

Insatiable (#1 in the Insatiable series) by Meg Cabot (William Morrow, 2010)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Helen's Eyes by Marfe Ferguson Delano

This book is one of the nonfiction summer reading choices at my library this year, so I thought I'd take a look. I don't review much nonfiction here but wow, I really enjoyed this one. I've read a lot about Helen Keller over the years, but not so much about her teacher, particularly Annie Sullivan's early life, which was incredibly difficult. She was a child of Irish immigrants and grew up in extreme poverty in Massachusetts. She was physically abused by her father, and lost much of her vision after contracting an eye disease called trachoma. After her mother died, her father abandoned her and her two siblings, and she ended up in a poorhouse, many of whose inmates were mentally ill, diseased, and violent.

How this child ended up with an education, not to mention the creative thinking skills and determination to help a child as difficult as Helen Keller is an extraordinary tale. This book's targeted audience is the younger set (I'd say starting at 5th or 6th grade), but it certainly held my attention and is a great way for people of any age to learn more about these two extraordinary people. I loved the inclusion of so many images from the time as well as text from letters, diaries, and quotations from people who knew her and Helen. It's not always a happy story, but it's a real one, and an inspiring one, too.

Helen's Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan by Marfe Ferguson Delano (National Geographic Society, 2008)