Saturday, February 18, 2012

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass

Rating: ****
Genre: Realistic fiction, mystery
Pages: 289
Jeremy Fink's dad died when he was eight years old. One month before his thirteenth birthday, he recieves a mysteriously heavy box with four keyholes. Engraved on the lid are the words THE MEANING OF LIFE: FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY.
The keys are not included.
Jeremy and his only friend, a kleptomaniac redhead named Lizzy, search flea markets, offices, and antique stores in effort to find the keys. Their search is fruitless, even before one of Lizzy's plans backfires and they're caught breaking and entering during their search for the keys. How can Jeremy find the keys in time for his birthday if he's forced to spend the rest of the summer making deliveries for a pawn shop owner as community service? But Mr. Oswald isn't exactly what he seems, and neither are the packages. And why is he letting his chauffer drive Jeremy and Lizzy around in his limo to deliever them? Even worse, all the hippies, scientists, preachers, fortune tellers, and tattoo artists they meet in the process seem to have a different meaning of life.
Jeremy is a very interesting character, though I can only describe him as nerdy and socially awkward. Halfway through the book, I stopped and made a list of Ways Jeremy Fink is Lame. He collects mutant candy, keeps a life size hobbit cutout in his room, doesn't see why anybody would need more than one friend, devotes an hour each night to studying the mysteries of the universe, and refuses to venture four blocks from his own home.
Then I realized if I knew enough about him to make such a list, he must therefore be a very unique and fully developed character. Wendy Mass has done her job well.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Palace Beautiful by Sarah Deford Williams

Rating: ***
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
Pages: 240
When Sadie and her sister Zuzu move into an old Victorian house, they make several discoveries. First is their neighbor Kristin Anne Smith, a girl Sadie's age who insists on being called Belladonna Desolation. Next they find a secret room in their attic with Palace Beautiful scrawled above the doorway. Inside the palace are an heirloom necklace, an old family photograph, and the diary of a girl named Helen who lived-and maybe died-during the 1918 flu epidemic. The three girls are drawn by Helen's journal, especially when her lives start to parallel their own. Did Helen survive the influenza, or (Bella's theory) is she haunting them as a ghost?
Bella is by far the most interesting character. She wears ankle-length black dresses on a daily basis, gives Sadie a chandelier crystal after knowing her for about thirty seconds, and then asks Sadie if she thinks she's "bold and mysterious". This causes conflict with her Martha Stewart wannabe mother, who grounds Bella for a week because she's worried about what the neighbors will think.
Sadie, a budding artist, also has a unique way of seeing the world. There's no plain white or pink in her mind. A building is old world white, a bowl is nail poish pink. Each chapter heading names a color that appears in the following pages. Sadie categorizes people based on the story they heard about the origin of the universe immediately after being born, which I found weird and slightly annoying. Great dog people are shy and filled with sorrow, like herself. Cabbage patch people are stubborn, like Zuzu. Red bird people, such as Bella, fill the gaps in other's lives.
Aside from Helen's journal entries, the story is set in the 1980's, though you wouldn't know it except for a few references to celebrities, the time gap between Helen's life and theirs, and one scene where Sadie and Bella listen to records. Ah, quaintness.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison

Genre: Fantasy
Series: Trilogy
Pages: 355
     When Tanya's ability to see fairies lands her in trouble, she's shipped of to her grandmother's for the summer. In addition to being large and decaying, the place is crawling with fairies. While doing her best to avoid them, Tanya and Fabian, the caretakers' son, make some startling discoveries about the mysterious disappearances and secret tunnels connected to the house. But some secrets are better left hidden...
     The author was able to toss in a lot of random ingredients-tunnels, magic, disappearances, an old fortune teller living in the woods-and make it work. It's great for fantasy and intrigue, but I was expecting more twists and turns. For example, Tanya's father never appears in the story. Tanya mentions she has one, but only her mother appears-and that's only to drop her off at her grandmother's. I kept expecting some mysterious backstory. Then there's the title. Thirteen treasures do appear, but they don't play a relatively large role in the story.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: *****
Pages: 338
Calpurnia Virginia Tate, Callie Vee to everyone but her mother and Granddaddy, is the only girl in a family of six brothers. In 1899, that means endless hours of knitting socks at home and lessons on Use of Hankie and Thimble at school. She can't even check out a copy of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species from the library without her mother's permission.
Unfortunately, Calpurnia is beyond her time. She's clever enough to lure earthworms to the surface by dumping a bucket of water on the same patch of dry ground four days in a row-and then sell them to her brother by the dozen. She writes a letter to the newspaper telling them to measure the temperature in the shade instead of the middle of the street. After all, who stands out in the sun unless they're scampering to another patch of shade?
As her interest in the natural world develops, Calpurnia wants to focus her attention on the finch population and her Confederate veteran turned businessman turned naturalist Granddaddy's stories. Unfortunately, her mother is determined to turn her into a proper lady. On top of it all, her oldest brother has started dating-and three of her other brothers are in love with Lula, her best friend.
The independent woman vs. docile lady conflict is nothing new. I'm actually starting to get sick of it. But Calpurnia's spunk and dramatic (if a tad melodramatic) emotions invest this novel with a power rarely seen in debut novels.