Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Cupcakes Conquer All: Close to Famous by Joan Bauer

There are lots of life lessons on the Food Network.

And Foster McFee needs all the life lessons that she can get.

With her beleagered mother, a backup singer whose dream is to be a star, Foster flees Memphis with her mom's boss and one-time boyfriend in hot pursuit. Huck ("Call me Elvis,") has threatened her mother when she plans to leave him and blacked her eye when she persists, and once out of town Mama just keeps driving, all night and all day, until they find themselves "somewhere" in a deep fog on a mountain road in West Virginia. Rescued from the brink (in more ways than one) by tow truck operators Lester and Kitty of Gotcha Towing, they take Lester's offer of free housing in his Airstream travel trailer behind their house in Culpepper, West Virginia.

Foster has a lot of baggage--not in her Bake 'n' Take carrier, which only has the remains of pre-departure muffins and cupcakes, nor in the plastic bag with her scanty wardrobe, but in the sad memories of her father's death in Iraq and her own skin-of-the-teeth promotion to sixth grade, achieved, despite her total inability to read, only through the cupcakes supplied to her teacher. Left behind in the hurried flight from Huck the crazed Elvis impersonator is her only treasure, a pillowcase filled with letters and mementos from her beloved father.

Culpepper doesn't look too promising either. There's the Church of God FOR SALE, Fish's Hardware, Angry Wayne's Bar and Grill, and a store called simply FOOD, which even Foster can read. And the residents are a strange lot, too--a very short boy named Macon who dreams of filming documentaries, a tall boy who wants to be an Olympic runner, a lady named Perseverance Wilson who is determined to block the sale of the Church of God, an ambitious girl her age named Amy Fish who wants to expand her father's down-at-the-heels hardware store, and a reclusive Emmy-winning actress, Miss Charleena, who nevertheless dreams of returning to the stage.

It's a potent mix of personalities, and when Foster, whose dream is to emulate her idol Sonny Kroll and star in her own Food Network show, fires up her oven and puts her extraordinary cupcake skills into action, she definitely stirs up the leavening in everyone's dreams. Persuading Angry Wayne to take her muffins and cupcakes on consignment at fifty cents each, Foster soon proves herself a potent ingredient in the mix that is Culpepper. Joan Bauer is an author whose specialty is character and setting, making her characters and places so real that you feel as if you've spent a couple of weeks with them by book's end. Her latest, Close to Famous (Viking, 2011), is one such book. Foster is a real girl who goes with what she's got and with her considerable talents shakes up the lives of her mom and the people in the going-nowhere small town where they find themselves and cooks up a new batch of possibilities for herself in a funny and poignant book, a worthy successor to Bauer's earlier award-winning Hope Was Here, as well as the notable and top-selling Rules of the Road and Peeled. A lot of laughs and a lot of heart make this one too good to miss!

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