Saturday, February 8, 2020

Catch a Falling Star by Kim Culbertson

When superstar Adam Jakes rolls into the small town of Little, California to film a Christmas movie in the middle of summer, native Carter Moon is unruffled.  Happy in her small town, working in her parents' cafĂ©, Little Eats, Carter's never gotten caught up in all the hoopla about Hollywood.  Adam is an overgrown child star fresh out of rehab and also looking to rehab his image after a very scandalous public break-up with a Disney starlet.  When Adam's manager stumbles over the only dark spot marring Carter's simple small town life, he sees an opportunity he can't pass up.  Soon Carter is playing a role of her own, small town love to Adam Jakes.

I have to admit, I've got a real weak spot for a well done YA romance.  My favorites are the ones that don't let the main character become a lifeless puppet of the love story, and Catch a Falling Star definitely doesn't.  Carter comes off as a real, genuine person who is struggling to find her place in the world, but doesn't know it yet.  Easily content with her life and its routines, happy to help those around her and watch the night sky with her friends, she doesn't ambitiously imagine a life for herself in some unknown elsewhere, but her parents want her to open her eyes to a world that's a little bigger than Little.

As Adam and Carter's scripted courtship deepens to something more than staged photo ops and  publicity stunts, the pair start to open each other's eyes to different ways of life.  Adam's worldly ambition plays nicely off Carter's small town contentment, and it's satisfying to watch both characters realize that maybe there's a sweet spot in between where they both could land.  In addition to likeable, if flawed, characters, Culbertson's small town summer setting leaps off the page.

Catch a Falling Star is a great coming of age story for both characters taking on themes of what it means to grow up and carve out a place for themselves in the world.  I loved this page turning read with a little extra substance!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read this one, perhaps because it’s such a slim volume that seems to get swallowed up in the overabundance for my bookshelves.  

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is the beautiful, poetically rendered story of Japanese picture brides, lured to the American west coast in the early 20th century by promises of a new life and young husbands made wealthy in a nation where the “streets are made of gold.”  The reality of the life they find is much different, filled with grueling work, devious men, ignorance, and racism.

Otsuka tells their stories as a collective, using the first-person plural “we” throughout the book, and what could easily become an irritating conceit is instead wielded with power to tell the story of many in few words.  While there may not be a specific character to latch on to, Otsuka manages to beautifully capture the essence of a whole experience, nimbly passing from woman to woman, from the farm worker, to the laundress, to the maid until she has drawn out the breadth of their experience.  A powerful story, beautifully told.  Highly recommended.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

I had such high hopes for this book at the start.  The Chelsea Girls gets off to a very fast-paced start as Hazel, a perennial Broadway understudy lands in Italy to join the USO Tour, and she is catapulted immediately onto the stage.  The action doesn't let up as Hazel and her new friend Maxine find themselves coming to the aid of a German boy suspected of being a spy.  Hazel and Maxine's days with the USO tour are rendered with the sort of alternating mystique and heartbreak that you might expect of adventures in a new place, but one that is broken by war.

However, when the war ends and the two return to the states - Maxine to a burgeoning career in Hollywood and Hazel to New York City and her mother's oppressive disappointment, the story seems to lose some of its spark.  The Chelsea Hotel and its denizens are well-wrought but Hazel's entrance onto the scene and her "inspired" career in writing and directing is too easily come by to the point of feeling contrived.

The two friends reunite to stage Hazel's Broadway debut, but there are forces at work that stand to rob Hazel of her fifteen minutes of fame.  The communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee puts Hazel in a different kind of spotlight, and leading lady Maxine's behavior becomes more and more bizarre until everything comes to a head on opening night.  Unfortunately, both female main characters seem to grow more wooden instead of less as the story progresses.  Hazel's responses to her circumstances seem to be ill-placed, not occurring when would seem natural but being delayed and then awkwardly inserted for dramatic effect.

Despite its failings, though, The Chelsea Girls successfully tackles an era of history that is often glossed over.  Davis captures the paranoia running rampant in politics during the McCarthy era, the fear that an offhand remark could ruin a life, and the witch trial-esque interrogations where the only option seemed to be to name names or be taken to be a communist yourself.  Between that and a well timed twist that I definitely wasn't expecting, I'd still recommend this book.

(Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for review consideration.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I read voraciously when I was a kid.  I miss younger me and how easy it was for me to get engrossed in a book and the admirable pace I could devour them.  The Westing Game was one of my very favorite books read, of the very many books I was capable of reading back then, and so when I happened across a copy, I wanted to see if the magic was still there.  Short answer, no, it appears I've aged and my reading tastes have changed a good deal since I was in middle school (shocking, I know!), but it was still fun to revisit one of my old favorites.

As The Westing Game begins, a large group of tenants is moving into their new home, upscale apartment building Sunset Towers. Little do these tenants know, as they come to inhabit their new abode, that their being brought together is anything but coincidental.  On a hill near Sunset Towers lives the mysterious Samuel Westing, paper magnate and the town's namesake.  Well, at least he did live there until his life was ended by some nefarious means.  From beyond the grave, however, Mr. Westing wants to play a game of inheritances, one that will reveal his murderer is too close for comfort.  The Sunset Towers tenants are his heirs, but one is also a murderer, and only one will win Mr. Westing's game and a staggering inheritance.

What ensues is a fast-paced mystery with a 16 murder suspects who each have their own secrets.  Younger me would have loved the many moving parts and the elaborate puzzle Raskin creates.  Even having at one point read the outcome, I couldn't guess at the truth.  Older me was a little baffled by the shear abundance of characters. In such a short book, it feels impossible to get a picture of any of them that is more than the briefest of caricatures.  Older me prefers character development over a briskly moving plot, apparently.

Nonetheless, The Westing Game is a classic of children's literature, and it's aged surprisingly well.  To read it, you'd hardly guess it was first published over 40 years ago.  The shin-kicking perennially neglected but good-hearted Turtle Wexler makes a great heroine for kids to root for.  As for the adult characters, it's funny to read this book as an adult and realize how recognizable some of these caricatures are from life - the self-important judge, the single-minded track star, the know-it-all intern, the bashful bride who wanted something more from her life, and the insecure person whose continuing efforts to get noticed by her peers make her that much more forgettable - they're all here.

The Westing Game is a clever, fun book that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to a new generation.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Abeo Kata lives a charmed life in Port Masi, a city in the fictional country of Ukemby.  Her mother was a model and her father is a well-compensated employee of the government treasury.  After her grandfather dies and her father brings her widowed grandmother to live with the family in Port Masi, Abeo's perfect childhood begins to crumble.  Her father's job is in jeopardy as he stands accused of embezzling, her little brother's health is failing, the family car is broken down, and the house is springing leaks.  While Abeo remains sheltered, her father finds himself being crushed by the weight of this reversal of fortune such that when his mother suggests the old custom of giving Abeo as trokosi to appease the gods and save the rest of his family from ruin, he gives in to the pressure, and Abeo's new, tortured life as a slave of the gods begins.

McFadden's storytelling really shines at the beginning of the book when she is drawing out the idyll of Abeo's childhood.  Well loved and ignorant of the troubles beginning to brew among the adults in her life, Abeo is insulated in her perfect life.  The childlike joy Abeo feels on adventures with her visiting aunt Serafine makes it all the more potent when her perfect life is torn away and she is enslaved at the religious shrine.

After that, things get kind of strange.  McFadden's writing style is blunt and simple.  The book reads quickly moving from plot point to plot point with little embellishment.  In fact, McFadden's writing is so straightforward at times it seems nearly artless.  In the parts where Abeo is enduring torture at the ends of the "priests" at the shrine, this comes across as stark and affecting. However, in later parts of the book, it seems to gloss over the details of Abeo's recovery, oversimplifying the struggle of recovering from unspeakable trauma.

There are parts of this book that really shine.  It is a compelling, unputdownable read on the surface.  However, it doesn't seem to stand up to much reflection.  Under scrutiny, it doesn't seem to come together all that well as a whole and the unusual writing style doesn't seem altogether appropriate to the story being told.

(My copy provided by the publisher via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.)