Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Bites: Expectations Failed and Expectations Exceeded Edition

Here's a set of 3 quick reviews in an attempt to catch up on all the reading I've been doing summer vacation!

Island's End by Padma Venkatraman

Uido is thrilled to be chosen as her tribe's next oko-jumu--spiritual leader.   Living on their beautiful and isolated island, the community's connection to and understanding of spirit world is critical to their survival.  But while Uido is excited with her new role, others (like her older brother and her best female friend) do not respond as positively.  Meanwhile, strangers from another island have begun to visit their shore, bringing with them gifts that tempt the tribe to leave in search of different life.  When Uido's little brother becomes deathly ill, she will have to use all her abilities to save him while also finding a way to bring her tribe into the future without losing their past.

I picked up Island's End earlier this month as part of a hunt for middle grade/young YA books with young female protagonists taking traditionally male roles.  The summary blurb sounded as though it might fit into my general theme and the setting was unique and intriguing.  However, I found that my overall reaction to this novel was disappointment.  Venkatraman writes elegantly, providing rich and loving descriptions of Uido's world, bringing the lush island's diverse landscapes and Uido's visions of the spirit world to life for the reader.  The series of events portray the issues of cultural growth and shifts and the need to balance the values of long established traditions with survival in the modern world without harshly villifying or deifying any particular group.  Yet despite the technically exciting events that form the plot, the novel's pacing felt a bit off to me.  The climax and conclusion felt rushed, especially since the situation had the potential to be very thrilling.  Finally, I also had a little trouble feeling fully connected to Uido despite her first person narration.  Overall, the interesting setting didn't add up to an equally thrilling story.  

Deadly by Julie Chibbaro

Prudence Galewski wants something more out of life.  She wants more than her education in feminine refinement offered by Mrs. Browning's School for Girls and more than the meal ticket of a job as proper governess, secretary, or (ideally) wife that education will buy her.  Prudence is not like other girls; she's fascinated by the human body, by the emerging science of disease, and by the reasons that some people survive illness or injury while others do not.  When she takes a job as secretary at the growing Department of Health and Sanitation, Prudence gets her chance to be part of something bigger than her own limited daily grind.  Soon Prudence finds herself entangled in the Department's revolutionary and complex investigation of New York's quickly spreading typhoid outbreak.  

I'm a lifelong fan of historical fiction so I was intrigued by Deadly from my first glance through the inside flap summary.  A novel exploring the lesser known details of a significant historical event through the eyes of a unique protagonist?  Yes, please! In some ways, Deadly lived up to my hopes.  Prudence is an exciting protagonist, a young Jewish woman in early 1900s New York City with an interest in science and a determination to challenge the status quo.  As a librarian at a girls' school, I'm a big fan of interesting stories about women in science.  The diary format works well generally, especially because Prudence's anatomical sketches are woven into the novel as well.  The elements of real historical events including the experimental methods of the Department of Health and Sanitation to track the spread of disease and the experiences of the real 'Typhoid Mary' are fascinating and provide a decent amount of tension throughout the narrative.  However, despite all of these positive aspects, I would have difficulty recommending this one to a large number of students.  The pacing occasionally felt off, especially during the conclusion.  The narrative wound up too abruptly and much of the potential excitement was lost.  The promising premise just didn't pan out into a consistently interesting reading experience.  I might recommend this to some historical fiction fans or young scientists.                

Close To Famous by Joan Bauer

Foster McFee has big dreams: she dreams of becoming the next big celebrity chef and having her own inspirational cooking show.  Her mom Rayka dreams of using her big voice for more than backup singer gigs and they both dream of finding a new life after Foster's dad's died in Iraq.  But so far, neither of their dreams seem to be working out.  After fleeing Memphis in the middle of the night to escape Huck, Rayka's mean Elvis impersonator ex-boyfriend, the McFees find themselves starting over in the tiny town of Culpepper, Virginia where nearly everyone seems to have a big, unfinished dream.  Now, Foster's undefeated optimism and exceptional baking skills will truly be put to the test as she works to make her--and everyone else's--dreams come true.

As my username here may indicate,  I have a pretty big cupcake obsession.  I spend as much time trolling my favorite baking blogs and messing around in my very tiny kitchen as I do reading YA novels or prepping book talks.  So I was obviously drawn to Joan Bauer's newest middle grade novel from the moment I spotted the cover.  However, I soon found that the story and the character were even more delightful than the baked goods on the cover!  Foster is a great young protagonist whose narration illustrates her unique combination of optimism and realism;  she's already experienced some really difficult, frightening, and discouraging parts of life but although she recognizes that happiness and personal success aren't easy, she remains firm in her belief that both are possible.  Foster's embarrassment about her dyslexia and her worries about her mother are achingly real; she jumps right off the page as a wonderfully complex and likable middle school heroine.  The plot is full of interesting little twists and turns and emotional highs and lows; the supporting cast of characters are quirky and diverse, as usual with Bauer's work.  I thoroughly enjoyed Close To Famous and am working on a book trailer of it to share with my 7th graders this fall!        

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