Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Hiking Morse Mountain, Maine in Spring Snow

Over "spring" break, three weeks ago, my intrepid son joined me for a hike up Morse Mountain.

In Maine spring doesn't really kick in until May, but at least the snow is melting in mud season.

The trail starts by a saltwater marsh before climbing into the woods. We hiked with 
ice-stabilizers strapped to our boots, but snowshoes would have been better.

The mountain is really a hill, but it offers a spectacular view of the marsh and ocean. You can click on my Morse Mountain label below to see this view in other seasons. Over the last three weeks the snow has melted to patches. We were in the 60's these past few days! I shall spare you the photos of mud.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart

When it's mud season in Maine, I need a literary escape.

The first time I visited Florence, I was a teenager like Nadia Cara, the protagonist of One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart. This soon to be released young adult novel follows an American family on sabbatical in Italy. Like most of Kephart's literary novels, this book would cross over well to an adult audience.

Nadia isn't sure if she's losing her bearings or her mind in a foreign city. Words are hard to articulate and memories of the past compete with visions of the present. Is the boy with the sunlit hair real? Nadia can't resist the urge to follow Benedetto any more than she can stop herself from stealing beautiful objects. From these stolen things, she weaves artistic nests, which she hides under her bed. She doesn't want to ruin her father's sabbatical.

In this moving story, Beth Kephart gives a lyrical voice to a rare neurological disorder that robs an intelligent teenager of her ability to express herself in coherent words. The reader is taken inside a failing mind and experiences the protagonist's frustrations. The narration is fragmented like verse and integrated with avian imagery. Dialogue lacks quotation marks, and although Nadia's thoughts are intelligible, her speech is harder to understand.
"Long. High. Cool. White. Green. The nave of this church is a huge stone cage of doves and pelicans, angels and eagles. Everything carved. Everything still. The air is cool and unsunned. The wicks in the candles are burning. The pew is hard. The stone birds stretch their wings. I breathe."
The flip side of Nadia's linguistic disability is a new found artistic ability as her damaged brain re-routes. Although Nadia's story is fiction, her disorder is a true illness. This fascinating book offers a profound meditation on the complexity of the brain.

For readers who need clarity and answers, be patient. In the second part, Nadia's best friend, Maggie, takes over the narrative in a lucid voice. Specialists are called to find a cure, and Maggie seeks to return the stolen objects in a reverse treasure hunt. Maggie also searches for the boy, Benedetto, but isn't sure if he's real or not. Nadia's memories sound more like dreams or poetry.
"His lips on mine are fog and birdsong. They are the smell of leather and the raw, quickening of rain. He holds my head with the palm of his hand - all that is broken and hurting."
One This Stolen offers no easy solutions but still leaves the reader with hope. I'd strongly recommend this literary novel to adults and to teenagers who are interested in psychology, art, history and Italy. Kephart does a marvelous job with a difficult topic.

More reviews of Kephart's novels:
Going Over
Small Damages
Dangerous Neighbors & Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent
You Are My Only
Undercover (includes author interview)

Reviewer's Disclosure: Beth Kephart is a blog buddy. Upon my request, I received a free galley from Chronicle Books in exchange for an honest review. There has been some confusion over the release date, but I believe it was pushed to next week. The photos of Maine and Florence are mine.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is one of my favorite authors; her historical novels have redefined young adult fiction. There are plenty of war books celebrating male valor and camaraderie, but girls and women usually play only supportive or romantic roles. In Wein's novels, the girls are literally in the pilot seat, calling the shots and sometimes firing them as well, but violence is never romanticized.

Black Dove, White Raven follows a family of pilots in 1930s Ethiopia. Rhoda Menotti relocated from Pennsylvania so that Teo, her African American foster son, and Em, her Italian American biological daughter, can be raised free of racial prejudice in the only African country that was never colonized. Teo's deceased father was an Ethiopian pilot and his deceased mother was Rhoda's partner in a stunt pilot duo. The lady-barnstormers called themselves "Black Dove & White Raven" until a plane crash re-charted their lives.

The Menottis' new home looks like paradise, but there are unanticipated dangers. The fascist Italians led by Mussolini are planning to invade Ethiopia. Rhoda, who is married to an Italian pilot, is caught in the middle and is unable to flee since her teenaged children lack valid passports of their own. Rhoda reluctantly teaches her kids to fly, hoping to protect Teo from becoming a foot soldier in an out-matched war.
In the opening page, Em sums up their dilemma with dry humor: "It is a waste of time trying to pass off Teo as Italian. I think I pretty much burned that bridge when I stole a plane from the Italian air force." 

Nobody creates strong female characters better than Elizabeth Wein. While most moms in young adult fiction are relegated to the margins, Rhoda steals the narrative as a wing-walking stunt pilot who becomes a double agent and a field nurse. She will do anything to save her kids and her plane, often accidentally imperiling them all. Charming Rhoda is resourceful, generous and brave, making her a fine role model despite her many faults of judgement. Plucky Em, the plane snatcher, strives to be like her charismatic mom while shy Teo must fly away to prove himself as a man in this coming of age in wartime story.

The bulk of the narration alternates between Em's and Teo's flight journals, but the complicated multinational back story is related by old school papers in the opening chapters. As a result, the pace is a bit slow at first, but it soars once the kids take to the skies. The exciting flight scenes give a unique perspective on a tumultuous period of history. Surprising plot twists kept me up past my bedtime, and then I wished that I had read slower. When I finished the book, I missed the characters.

Black Dove, White Raven was published as a YA novel, but it would appeal to an adult audience as well as to teens, both boys and girls. It was a pleasure to read, although disturbing at times since the war atrocities were not fiction. Wein explains in the afterward how her narrative diverged from actual history. I was surprised to learn that an African American woman was truly the first American to earn an international pilot license in 1921. Wein's novels are educational but not didactic and empowering without being preachy. I'm eager to read her next book.

Reviewer's Disclosure: On my request, I received a free galley from Disney Hyperion in exchange for an honest review. The editor, Kate Egan, is a friend and neighbor, but I would have read and reviewed this book anyway. Since I've never been to Ethiopia, I used my photos of Tanzania, another East African country, to illustrate this post. This book was released yesterday.

My review of more novels by Elizabeth Wein:
Code Name Verity
Rose Under Fire (including an author interview)

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Town: Brunswick, Maine

Brunswick looks best in winter white. Yes, I know it's "spring," but my town has an offbeat sense of humor. Read the road sign: Maine Street. Brunswick has a population of 20,000, making it the biggest town in Maine. It's a half an hour up the coast from Portland; our biggest city has only 60,000 people.

Brunswick officially became a town in 1717 when Maine was part of Massachusetts. Maine didn't become a state until 1820. Lovely old houses line the town green, which isn't very green at this time of year.

In winter the town green becomes a skating rink.

We are well prepared for winter. Even the sidewalks are plowed and sanded.

Downtown hosts a variety of ethnic restaurants and mom & pop businesses in Hopper style buildings.

There are several art galleries and more artists than I could count. Frosty's bakes fresh "donuts" daily.

Of course there is a barber shop.

The architecture can't have changed much since the 1950s.

Fort Andros, the old cotton mill on the Androscoggin River, 
now houses art studios, restaurants, a flea market and the winter farmers' market.

At the other end of town is Bowdoin College, founded in 1794.

My husband teaches British and Japanese Politics in Hubbard Hall.

Mass Hall, the oldest building on campus, houses the English Department.

Another favorite building is Searle's Hall.

The campus has a lovely chapel too.

I love my town!

Blog Watch: check out Winter Walks of 2015 @Tidewater Gardener.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma is a beautifully crafted horror story. This soon to be released novel about vengeful ballerinas will haunt me like the movie Black Swan. It delivers a powerful message about the unfairness of juvenile detention in our current system that discriminates against the disadvantaged. I expect this edgy novel to be on many best young adult books of 2015 lists.

The story is told in two voices. Vee is an 18-year-old ballerina on her way to Julliard. Her future couldn't be brighter, but her dark past is catching up with her. Three years ago something horrific happened at her ballet school. As a result, her best friend, Ori, was sent to a juvenile detention center. All the inmates died of poisoning and nobody alive knows the truth. So why does Vee receive a bouquet of bleeding flowers following her final recital?

At the juvenile center, Amber was imprisoned years ago for the murder of her abusive step father. Everyone outside assumed she was guilty but everyone inside believes quiet, gentle Amber is innocent. She copes by embracing her "life job" as the book cart girl, helping others escape imprisonment by reading. Her world changes when a new girl, Ori, arrives bringing hope. The two narratives intersect on one surreal night, bridging the barriers of time and traditional justice.

The fine writing deserves high praise, but I found the material too gruesome for my personal taste. The violence wasn't gratuitous yet it was still hard to read, especially before bed. The girls engage in psychological and physical warfare for the worst reasons. No one is spared in this cynical story about the miscarriage of justice. Most of the characters were unlikable, but they were well-developed and worthy of consideration. The mysterious plot and the gorgeous prose kept me reading to the satisfying resolution. I was well impressed.

The vivid writing speaks for itself:
"A lot of us did try to run - even if it was only habit. Some of us had been running all our lives. We ran because we could and because we couldn't not. We ran for our lives. We still thought they were worth running for."

"It was the most private thing we had left - held even closer than our bodies, because our bodies were searched, all holes and crevices and cavities in every horrible way that could be imagined. But no one could shake the truth from inside us. They couldn't search us for that."
I'd strongly recommend The Walls Around Us to mature teens and to adults who enjoy horror stories and literary fiction, but I wouldn't give this novel to my thirteen-year-old niece, who is a serious ballerina and a gentle soul. The goal of my reviews is to match each book to the right readers.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I received a free galley from Algonquin in exchange for an honest review. The hardcover book and ebook will be released on March 24th 2015. The shadow photos are of my daughter.

Similar book:  
The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Perez

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March Comes in Like a Polar Bear

Last weekend we went to the beach at Reid State Park. As I trudged through knee-deep snow to the sea, my daughter followed the dog onto the rocks. She opened her arms to the horizon, embracing the moment. The world was hers. I admire her attitude.

This has been a long winter for most of the American east coast, including the south. It started early with a white Thanksgiving (above photo) and was followed by record snowfalls in January and February. While Massachusetts was buried alive, Maine was well prepared. My favorite winters feature powdery snow over the dreaded wintery mix and ice storms. I delighted in skiing out my back door, which inched closer and closer to the back yard as more snow fell. I have skied nearly every day for two months, often with my dog.

Now in mid March, there is nearly two feet of old snow to melt, and with the temperatures soaring into the mid 50's, snowbanks are flooding the streets and the woods. Mornings frequently feature snow-fog. We call this time of year Mud Season, which lasts well into April. Real spring won't kick in until May, with everything blooming all at once. Most homes have mud rooms for mucky boots and warm layers. We go sockfoot inside. More snow is on the forecast this weekend.

Today the air smells of spring, and the bright blue skies are lifting my spirits. Mud season is not my favorite time of year, but it's part of life. I'm making good progress on the manuscript that I'm revising and enjoying the extra daylight. I will follow my daughter's example and open my arms to this marvelous day. It may be my *last* day to ski.

One more harbinger of winter's close: spring galleys from Elizabeth Wein (3/31), Nova Ren Suma (3/24), Beth Kephart (4/14), and Barrie Summy (5/12) for review.