Thursday, February 23, 2006

Middle-Grade Fiction: Peter and the Starcatchers

I just finished reading PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. I had finished my last book and was searching the house for my next conquest. I have a stack of books I want to read on the bookcase in my bedroom but none seemed to fit my mood. I wandered into my son's room to check his bookcase. We receive a lot of middle-grade books to review, so he always has a stack of new arrivals. Actually, he usually plows through each book as soon as it arrives, and I'm usually lagging behind. I ended up ignoring some of the review possibilities to read this one just for fun.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS is a prequel to J.M. Barrie's PETER PAN. As the story goes, Ridley Pearson (a popular fiction writer) was reading PETER PAN to his daughter one night, and she asked him how Peter got to be Peter Pan. That got him thinking, and he ended up teaming up with Dave Barry to create their version of how Peter Pan came to be.

The book was just what I was looking for: an enjoyable escape. I loved how the book filled in the gaps of the well-known tale of Peter Pan, explaining why he can fly, how he got to the island, and how he made an enemy of the famed pirate. I thought that Ridley and Barry's imaginative pre-story was just right and fit J.M. Barrie's famous tale well. In fact, reading this book made me want to read the original PETER PAN, as I'm embarrassed to admit I'm only familiar with the Disney and Hollywood versions.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS is an excellent book for middle-grade readers (and grown-ups, too!), building on a well-loved character and filled with adventure, magic, and a touch of Dave Barry's signature humor. It was a pleasant and satisfying read.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Memoir: Riding the Bus With My Sister

One of my book groups recently discussed RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER, a memoir by Rachel Simon published in 2002. I had heard a lot about this book - buzz, as they say - over the past couple of years. The book received a lot of critical acclaim and was made into a TV movie starring Rosie O'Donnell. It was especially prominent in the media locally here in Delaware, since the author is from Philadelphia. With all of this attention, I was interested in reading the book but somehow never got around to it - maybe because it had been over-hyped.

There was a good reason for all that hype. RIDING THE BUS WITH MY SISTER was entertaining, compelling, and informative. It met my highest standard - I was sorry to finish the book and didn't want it to end.

Simon's memoir focuses on her relationship with her mentally handicapped sister, Beth. Beth lives in a nearby city and spends her days riding the buses. This odd preoccupation baffles Rachel and the rest of her family. The book begins with Beth asking Rachel to accompany her on the buses periodically for a year. Simon alternates between the present, as she's riding the buses with Beth and learning about her world, and the past, when they and their sister and brother were children. This approach brings great insight to the lives of both Rachel and Beth and connects their past experiences to their present relationship and their different lifestyles.

Besides Beth and Rachel, the bus drivers are the other stars of this memoir. Both Rachel and the reader grow to understand Beth's attraction to the buses as we're introduced to some of her favorite drivers. They're philosophers, teachers, and friends, filled with compassion and insights that are unexpected in the mundane world of bus riding. It's fascinating to see the warm and supportive community that Beth has found among "her" drivers.

I was also fascinated to see a glimpse of the lives of people with mental handicaps. I've never known anyone who's mentally handicapped, and it's a topic rarely discussed in the media. I appreciated the inner look into the world of group homes, social services, and the insider's view of prejudice.

The memoir is not merely a story of riding buses and handicaps, though. Rachel shares her innermost thoughts and feelings, as well as memories of a less-than-ideal childhood, so that we join her on her personal journey of growth as she learns important life lessons from Beth and the drivers. This book reminded me of why I like memoirs so much.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Welcome to My Reading World

I love to read and to write, so I thought I'd enjoy writing about the books that I read.

I've always loved to read, since I first mastered GO, DOG, GO! and devoured NANCY DREW books a few years later. As an adult, though, my reading tastes began to seem somewhat stale to me a few years ago. I read a lot of suspense novels, some popular mainstream fiction that my mother lent me, and not much else. My reading list has expanded considerably in the past couple of years, due to several positive influences.

The most exciting change has been my involvement in two book groups. I love the variety of books I now read as a part of these groups and enjoy discussing what I've read. It's exciting to share wonderful books with other book lovers.

I also have more time to read now than I used to. This is one of the very few positive outcomes of my battle with a debilitating chronic illness these past five years. I need to rest each day now and am unable to do much of anything on the worst days. I used to get depressed when I "crashed" and had to spend the day lying down, but now I try to view these unplanned down days as a chance to lose myself in a good book.

Finally, my freelance writing has taken an unexpected turn this past year as I've begun to write reviews for FAMILY FUN magazine. I review all sorts of family fare - movies, music, toys, and games - but I most enjoy writing reviews of books. My 11-year old son is also an avid reader and is thrilled with my new career. Together, we pore over publisher's catalogs and choose what books we want to test next. We're grooming my 8-year old son into a book lover as well.

So, my reading list is now an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, with a good dose of middle-grade children's books added in. I read the selections for my two book groups, books that my son has enjoyed that might work for a review, and anything in between that catches my eye. I still throw in an old favorite thriller author here and there as well.

In this blog, I hope to share my thoughts and ideas about the books I'm reading. For starters, here are some of the books I've most enjoyed in the past 6 months:

- RUNNING WITH SCISSORS by Augusten Burroughs - a compelling and astounding memoir
- YA YAS IN BLOOM by Rebecca Wells - the humorous and heart-warming sequel to Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
- THE BOOK OF JOE by Jonathan Tropper - a unique story with memorable characters
- MY SISTER'S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult - a haunting, multi-faceted novel by one of my favorite authors
-THE RELUCTANT TUSCAN by Phil Doran - a humorous and poignant combination travel book, memoir,and love story
- THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho - a brief novel that won me over with its insights
- LAUGHING BOY by Oliver La Farge - a 1929 Navajo love story

From now on, I'll add entries to this blog about the books I'm currently reading. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the books I'm reading, as well as books you've loved.