Sunday, August 25, 2013

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer Smith

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith is a sweet but not particularly memorable young adult romance.

When Ellie answers an email sent to her by accident, she doesn't have any idea that the person she's writing to is teen heartthrob Graham Larkin. The two teens fall into conversation, and there's definitely a spark of romance there, even though neither really knows who the other person is. But when Graham ends up filming in Ellie's small town, the teens meet face to face and Ellie has to deal with the realities of dating a celebrity -- even though she has her own reasons for wanting to stay out of the media.

This was a nice enough story, but not one that measures up to the promise of Smith's last YA romance, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. Teens who can't get enough of this genre will certainly enjoy this book, and there's certainly plenty to like -- it's just not quite as excellent as I was hoping it would be.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman is a wonderfully wacky little story about a dad who runs to the corner store to get some milk, and has a few adventures on the way home. Poor old Dad is abducted by aliens, travels through time and space with a stegosaurus, sails with pirates, and faces everything from ponies to piranhas. Fortunately, the milk gets home safely (along with Dad), and it may even have saved the world somewhere along the way!

I really wasn't sure what to expect from this book -- I generally like Gaiman's writing for children, though I am ambivalent about his other works, so I approach anything new with a cautious sort of curiosity. In this case, I got a pleasant surprise. I gulped this brief book down in one sitting, and it made me smile and even laugh more than once. Fortunately, the Milk is delightful, and I think it will work particularly well as a read-aloud.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Circus Galacticus by Deva Fagan

Circus Galacticus by Deva Fagan is a fun read about a space-traveling circus.

Beatrix Ling has problems. As if it wasn't bad enough that her astronaut parents died in a rocket explosion, leaving her stuck in a boarding school full of mean girls and harsh teachers, now there is a mysterious man creeping into her room at night, trying to steal the one thing her parents left in her care. When her hair inexplicably turns bright pink, Trix knows she is in for even more trouble than usual. But before the headmistress can catch a glimpse of Trix's new 'do, Trix stumbles through a mirror at the Circus Galacticus, which she is visiting on a school field trip. And that's when she learns that the Circus Galacticus is no ordinary circus . . .

I'm not sure if it was the mostly-black cover or the circus-inspired title font, but this book languished on the "New Books" shelf at my library for some time. I was intrigued by the description on the back of the book, so I took a chance on it, and I'm glad I did. This book is a lot of fun to read. It's a little bit typical in spots (outsider orphan, bleak boarding school, then the orphan is whisked away to a life of adventure where she is accepted and valued and gets a chance to save the universe/her friends/etc.) but enjoyable nonetheless. The best part, in my opinion, was the description of Trix's life on board the Big Top as she makes new friends, experiences new food, and learns how the circus operates and finds a place within it. There's no romance, but there's a hint of the possibility of future romance, making this book just about right for the upper elementary or middle-school reader. The plot has a couple of weak spots of the sort you would expect in this type of story -- some things are not fully explained, and some things are a little too conveniently coincidental, but it's forgivable because the story as a whole is so much fun.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia is the sequel to the Newbery Honor book One Crazy Summer, picking up just where that book left off.

After a wild summer in Oakland with their poet/activist mother and their friends at the Black Panther day camp, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are on their way back to Brooklyn. After a summer of freedom, it's hard to remember some of their grandmother Big Ma's rules for proper behavior and not making a "grand Negro spectacle" of themselves -- but after a mad scamper through the airport, they get a sharp reminder that they are not in Oakland any more. Now that they're back in their neighborhood in Bed-Stuy, starting a new year of school, it seems like things should be getting back to normal . . . and they are, but they aren't. Pa is dating someone, and while he seems happier than Delphine ever remembers him being, she's not convinced that a stepmother is a good idea. Doesn't her father still love their real mother? Uncle Darnell is back from Vietnam, too, and that should be good, except that Uncle Darnell spends all his time sleeping on the couch, wakes up screaming from terrible nightmares, can't seem to find a job, and is far from his old self. And Delphine herself is starting sixth grade, and she notices that some of the girls are starting to be interested in boys in ways that they weren't before. She still feels responsible for her sisters, even though they don't need -- or want -- as much of her attention as they used to. Delphine feels like she is growing up fast, but each letter she gets from her mother ends with the same post-script: Be eleven.

As in One Crazy Summer, Williams-Garcia does an excellent job with dialogue and character development. I didn't think the plot in this book was as strong as in the last book, or as closely tied to the political upheaval of the time, though there were certainly plenty of pop culture references. Still, readers who liked One Crazy Summer should pick up P.S. Be Eleven, as they will enjoy following the girls' continued story.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

One for the Murphys by Lynda Hunt

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a touching story about the transformative power of love.

The social worker picks Carley Connors up from the hospital and takes her to a foster home. Carley has visions of Cinderella-esque drudgery or being made to sleep in the basement and live on saltines and ketchup, but she finds herself completely unprepared for the kindness and welcome that she receives from the Murphys. Julie Murphy, the mother of the family, takes Carley into the heart of the family, even though Carley is hard, prickly, and obviously emotionally damaged. Over the course of the novel, both the Murphys and the reader learn the tragic truth of what led to Carley's placement in foster care, and they see Carley grow as she learns, for the first time in her life, what a functioning family looks like. Will Carley be able to stay and become part of the Murphy family forever?

I'm warning you now, this is a bit of a tear-jerker. Hunt does an excellent job of portraying Carley's emotional struggles, and by the end of the book the reader really feels Carley's dilemma. I also appreciate the complexity of the secondary characters -- despite their almost idyllic home life, the Murphy family is not perfect, and even Carley's mother is not a one-note baddie (though she is one of the less-developed characters, since she is seen only through Carley's memories for most of the book). Readers who enjoy emotionally evocative stories of children who triumph over difficult situations will find a lot to love in this story.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave by Deron Hicks

Secrets of Shakespeare's Grave by Deron R. Hicks is a juvenile mystery with a contemporary setting, but a Shakespearean twist.

Colophon Letterford's family has been in the publishing business for centuries -- and, unlike her older brother Case, Colophon loves everything about the family business. When a shady figure from a distant branch of the family poses a threat to everything Colophon holds dear, she knows some drastic action will be necessary. Then she meets Julian, the black sheep of the family, who has devoted his entire life to finding a legendary family treasure (which nobody else in the family believes exists). Working together, Colophon and Julian follow the clues to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Can Colophon and Julian find the family treasure in time to save the family business?

I can see fans of other juvenile mysteries enjoying this book, though there's less of the danger/competition aspect that one finds in many juvenile mystery series. As an adult reader, there were times when certain plot points strained credulity, but I think the book's intended audience would get more enjoyment out of it than I did. And that's not to say that I did't like the book -- I did. I'm just not sure I'd recommend it to other grown-ups . . . but I'll definitely recommend it to kids!

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)