No Castles Here was A.C.E. Bauer's first novel, and I liked it even better than Come Fall. No Castles Here features 11-year-old Augie Boretski, a boy who is small for his age and not much of a reader. He lives with his mother in a run-down neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey, and seems to spend quite a bit of his time dodging Dwaine, who delights in bullying him. One day Augie takes refuge in a shop, only to discover that it is a bookstore. He finds a book that has a changing picture on the front cover. The stories in the book are the source of magic in this otherwise realistic tale, and I love how they interweave themselves into Augie's world.

I also enjoyed Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George. This story is very similar to Ivy and the Meanstalk, in that the heroine is plucky and the dragons are friendly. The orphaned heroine, Creel, has a talent for sewing and embroidering, and she dreams of opening her own dress shop. However, her aunt has a different idea: she wants Creel to be rescued from the clutches of a hungry dragon by a noble (or at least rich) young man, so that the family will be saved from poverty. This plan, unfortunately for Creel's aunt, is foiled by the fact that the first dragon Creel meets is actually quite friendly. Creel goes on to befriend other dragons before she makes her way into the King's Seat to seek her fortune, and here she has many more adventures involving magic shoes and royal friends.

 I have chosen The Dream Stealer, by Sid Fleischman, as one of the books for a book club I will be leading this summer. This is a short tale about a little girl and the big, bird-like creature named Zumpango who steals one of her dreams. The little girl, Susana, dreams one night about her best friend, Consuelo Louisa, who recently moved away. Zumpango is the Dream Stealer, and he is supposed to steal only nightmares. However, he has grown tired of having only the company on monsters and demons, so he decides to start taking good dreams, too. When Susana realizes what has happened, she decides she wants her dream back, so she sets a trap for Zumpango. Fleischman's author's note tells us that he was inspired to tell this story when he went to Mexico City and came home with a hand-carved figure of a Dream Stealer. Although it is his original tale, its tone is that of a traditional tale or fable. I found the story to be imaginative and fun to read. I hope kids who come to my book club will think so, too!

Come Fall, by A.C.E. Bauer, is the first I've read by this author, and I have already checked out another of her books (No Castles Here) to read. Come Fall combines contemporary realistic fiction, set in a middle school and complete with complex, interesting characters, with the magical world of Oberon and Titania, king and queen of Faery, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The fairies sub-plot is handled with a light touch, and kids who are not familiar witih Shakespeare's play will not suffer for their ignorance.
The main character is 7th grade orphan Salman Page (named after famous, or infamous, depending on your point of view) author Salman Rushdie. He is the new kid in school, and 8th grader Lu Zimmer is assigned to be his designated buddy. The third main character, Blos Pease, is a social outcast, probably a result of his asperger's-like traits. These three kids form a rather unusual threesome at school and eventually become friends, even though that outcome seems very unlikely at the beginning of the story. I believe this book would fall into the "magical realism" genre, and I find that I like it very much. 

Sphinx's Queen is the sequel to Sphinx's Princess, and it continues the story of Nefertiti and her quest to live her life on her own terms. I think Friesner may end up giving Rick Riordan a run for his money, as her books certainly appeal to the same audience (OK, more girls than boys, I suppose). In these two books, she smoothly blends information about ancient Egypt into a narrative with plenty of action and likeable characters. The ending is, perhaps, not quite credible, but it was certainly the feel-good solution I was hoping for!

Finally, I finished The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden, this morning. This is another I have chosen for my summer book club. It is a cute story about a cricket named Chester and his friends, a mouse (Tucker) and a cat (Harry). They live at a newsstand at New York's Times Square subway station. The family who own and run the stand are the Bellinis -- Mama, Papa, and Mario. It is Mario who takes in Chester as a pet, after finding him lost and alone near the newsstand. The story is sweet and I enjoyed reading about these animals' adventures. I especially enjoyed hearing about Chester's extraordinary musical ability. There is one thing about this story that concerns me, though, and that is the two Chinese men from whom Mario buys a cage for Chester.  These two absolutely reek of stereotype.  The book was written in 1960, so I suppose the use of this kind of stock character may not have raised as many eyebrows as it does today. I don't think Selden intented any negative comment on these characters. They are kind to Mario, selling him the cricket cage for next to nothing and feeding him a sumptuous meal. Perhaps this will be a good topic for discussion at the book club.

I finished Nobody's Princess, by Esther Friesner, a few days ago. It was very similar to Sphinx's Princess, but this one is about Helen of Sparta ("the girl who became Helen of Troy"). Helen has no talent for, and no interest in, traditional women's activities. She disguises herself as a boy and secretly shares her brothers' combat training. She also befriends the huntress Atalanta, who helps her learn to ride a horse and encourages her independent, adventurous spirit. Another enjoyable story!

I also read the 2012 Newbery winner, Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos. This one is a little strange, what with all the blood spewing out of Jack's nose, and all the old people dying. There was one scene near the beginning of the book where Jack goes hunting with his dad, though, that was just hilarious. I read it aloud to my boys and they seemed to appreciate the humor, but not as much as I. Maybe it's just funnier in context. Anyway, my favorite character is Miss Volker, the woman Jack helps throughout the novel by typing up her obituaries for the local newspaper and chauffeuring (even though he does not have a driver's license). She is smart, energetic, fearless, and funny, and I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes between her and Jack.

I read on Elizabeth Bird's blog, A Fuse #8 Production, that the British version of this book has a different cover, and is just called Dead End.  I like this cover a lot better. It seems to capture the book's funny/creepy tone a lot better.

Finally, Jack Gantos was a guest on NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" show last Saturday. He tells the story of how, when he was young, he was arrested for drug smuggling and went to prison for a year and a half. It's worth a listen -- very funny!

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