Wednesday, September 20, 2017

In-Flux-Out by Isabelle Pelissier & friends


I was walking in the woods when my usually quiet dog started barking: Men with chainsaws were chopping down trees! I shared Scout's dismay, but this was not our property so we continued on our way. A few days later we returned, and to my delight, instead of a clear cut, we found a sculpture garden.


Scout was transfixed, wagging her tail like she'd spotted a wild animal.


Then she turned to me grinning, inviting me to come closer.


I walked around the installation, watching how the iron caught the sunlight through the trees.


The tentacles seemed to move like an octopus underwater. I wondered who had created this gorgeous work of art and why it was installed in these woods.


Once again, Scout retrieved the answers from a pamphlet hanging from a tree:


Isabelle Pelissier's In-Flux-Out can be viewed from the paths 
off Pickard Fields at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.


Happy Rosh Hashanah! 
May this new year be better than the last.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

American Street by Ibi Zoboi


With DACA repealed and Congress considering new policy, we need books that increase empathy for undocumented immigrants. Back in March I listened to American Street while on sabbatical, and Ibi Zoboi's young adult novel still haunts me like a dream. The first chapter opens with an emotional bang: American-born Fabiola immigrates from Port-au-Prince to reunite with family only to have her Haitian mother detained by ICE agents. Naive and sweet Fabiola struggles to fit in with her street savvy cousins at public school in Detroit. Living abroad in Japan and the UK, I could relate to her challenges of assimilation.

This coming of age story with quirky characters felt Dickensian with diverse updates. For example, one of the cousins binds her breasts and is a tough fighter, but her gender dysphoria is part of her character and not a point of narrative tension or an "issue" that needs fixing. Her family, friends, and even her enemies accept and respect her. Other characters reveal secrets that reframe the plot. No one is who they seem to be at first. The line between good and evil often blurs. Although the characters were complex and original, the setting fell into the drugs and violence ghetto stereotype.

After several slow chapters about the pains of assimilation and homesickness, the pace accelerates into a suspense thriller. A detective offers to help free Fabiola's mom in exchange for information about her cousin's boyfriend. A troubled Fabiola turns to her vodou faith for guidance. The story becomes surreal when late at night, a homeless man starts singing cryptic messages to her. It's rare for a book to surprise me, but American Street was delightfully full of unexpected twists. The moral ambiguity forces readers to draw their own conclusions.

Author Ibi Zoboi, via her twitter profile
The audio book narration, once I got used to the Haitian accent, was excellent. As the story became a page-turner, I kept walking and walking. I got very fit, but it would have been easier to follow the plot twists on paper. I had to listen to the last chapter twice, and still it felt unresolved. I'm hoping for a sequel to this impressive debut (published February 2017). I'd recommend American Street to both mature teens and adults. It would be a good audiobook to listen to while driving your high school students to school. Teachers and librarians should add this novel to their immigrant literature section.

Reviewer disclosure: This ebook is from an audible.com subscription. I prefer books in print, but digital books were the only way to read American new releases while on sabbatical. Sunrise photo is from my family vacation in Massachusetts. I'm missing those warm summer days of reading in the hammock.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Center Pond Preserve in Phippsburg, Maine


After two decades in Maine, I've been looking for new dog-friendly hikes and was delighted to discover the Cooley Preserve at Center Pond in Phippsburg, not far from home.


There are 6 1/2 miles of trails with a parking lot access on Parker Head Road. Maps were provided at the trailhead to be returned to the box. We looped right along the Perimeter Trail North past Beaver Pond, which took under an hour at a leisurely pace with me stopping to take photos.


The woodland part of the trail was quite flat, wide, and easy. On this lovely summer day, we only encountered two other groups of people. It was quiet except for the sound of traffic across the pond.


Along the bank of the pond, the trail narrowed with rougher, overgrown sections that made me wish I'd worn hiking boots and long trousers. We sprayed up with 25% DEET due to Lyme Disease tick warnings.

My son would call this hike an easy walk in the woods. He once hiked 50 miles in one day! His summer internship is at a mapping company, where he is designing a digital trail map for a preserve in New Hampshire. He found the Center Pond Preserve through a mapping database.

Our part of coastal Maine is quite flat and most of the land is privately owned. This preserve was donated by the Cooley family for public use via the Phippsburg Land Trust. We only explored 1/3 of the trail network.




The "beaver pond" was more of a marsh overgrown with gorgeous water lilies.


Leash your dog if you don't want her wallowing in the beaver pond mud! Luckily the trail looped back to the pond, where we encouraged Scout to rinse off. Due to all the pond vegetation, it would be tricky for people to swim here, but the preserve is a short drive from Popham Beach on the sea. I plan to explore the rest of the preserve in autumn.


I'm taking a summer break from blogging. See you in September!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Medieval Town of Books: Hay-on-Wye, Wales


After our back-to-back sabbaticals in Tokyo and at Oxford University, I've been busy offline, settling back home in Maine. During our year abroad, my professor husband researched an academic book, and I gathered material for two young adult novels. At the end of our UK sabbatical, we visited Hay-on-Wye, which hosts a literary festival and has more used bookstores than I've ever seen in one location.


The Richard Booth's Bookshop has three floors of books, ranging from rare to new, including a large children's and YA section shown above. It's the brown woodframe building in the opening photo.


We found the best antique book selection at Hay-on-Wye Booksellers in a Tudor style building that felt appropriately Shakespearean. I chose an antique book featuring animals for our kind friends who hosted our dog while we were abroad.


To distinguish themselves, some secondhand bookstores specialized by genre. Murder and Mayhem is devoted to mysteries, crime fiction, and horror.


After a day of book shopping, we stopped at Shepherds for delicious local ice cream.


On a sunnier day, we walked along the River Wye and admired the wild swans.


We also learned how to say weak bridge in Welsh: "pont wan." Luckily said pont was strong enough for foot traffic and small cars. There were more challenging hikes in the nearby Brecon Beacons.


After our country walk, we enjoyed a cream tea (scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream) at Llangoed Hall, Laura Ashley's former home (above). Even in my hiking clothes, I felt like a character in Downton Abbey.

Back in England, we visited Highclere Castle (at left), where Downton Abbey was filmed. The tour was fun, featuring the amazing library, but they don't allow indoor photography.

It was such an inspiring year abroad! My young adult novel set in the UK is now with my agent, who loves it. I'm currently working on a new YA novel set in Japan, which I will blog about later. I update more frequently on twitter.

More about our Wales vacation here:
Carew Castle & Coastal Cliffs in Pembrokeshire, Wales

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Good Summer YA Fiction for Teens

Bailey Island, Maine at sunset

Although my sabbatical was fun, it's a delight to be home for summer in Maine! In Japan and England I was gathering material for young adult novels, while my college professor husband was researching an academic book. Overseas, I mostly listened to YA audiobooks, but all of these recently published novels are available in print. These eight realistic novels are my latest favorites:


Since it was released in February, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has been a New York Times bestseller with a large constellation of starred reviews. This Black Lives Matter novel has all the elements of a classic: strong writing, complex characters, emotional resonance, and an issue that matters. The unforgettable story is powerful and empowering. The debut author came from a similar background as her protagonist, who witnesses the police shooting of her oldest friend. The audiobook was like listening to live drama. I can't wait for the movie!




Another YA tragedy with an authentic teen voice is Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. A boy blames himself for sending the text that distracted the driver and killed his four best friends. His ambiguous relationship with his deceased friend's girlfriend adds romance and guilt. Humor offsets the sadness. There are lots of diverse secondary characters. Although there is a cautionary message, the book offers redemption without being preachy. Excellent on audiobook. I posted a more in depth 5-star review on Goodreads.


If you're looking for a lighter read, I'd recommend the Lara Jean trilogy by Jenny Han. The protagonist is a Korean American girl who enjoys baking and scrapbooking more than partying with her jock boyfriend. In the final installment, Always and Forever, Lara Jean, college acceptances pull the couple in opposite directions. Meanwhile, her widowed father's romance creates tension among the three sisters. This cozy slow-paced novel is a realistic account of the college application process and the challenges of long term relationships. I reviewed the other Lara Jean books here.



In Wildman by J.C. Geiger a boy must choose between his girl and his car after a breakdown strands him in rural Washington. In this eerie Twin Peaks alike town, a young women pushes the valedictorian to reconsider his conventional life choices. A barfight earns him the nickname of Wildman. The unfiltered teenage boy voice and risky behavior will appeal to its target audience. Read my full review of this fun debut on my blog.


Geekerella by Ashley Poston is a funny retelling of Cinderella set at a comic convention with a cosplay ball. The two narrators are a fangirl blogger and a hot teen actor, who stars in a controversial remake of a Sci Fi classic. They met online and communicate via text so are unaware of the other's true identity. A lesbian teenage seamstress plays fairy godmother, and her orange food truck sells vegan pumpkin treats. This quirky debut novel celebrates geekdom and friendship as much as romance.




Another audiobook romance with two narrators is When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. Career-focused Dimple is horrified to learn that her Indian immigrant parents only sent her to a web designing camp to meet Rishi, a nice Indian American boy whom they want her to marry. Traditional Rishi cares more about pleasing his parents than following his passions. To their surprise, the two teens are drawn to each other even as their life plans pull them in opposite directions. Despite the techie setting, the narrative focused on comic book art and Bollywood dancing. A coding scene would have made the story more believable, but it was otherwise a strong debut. A similar book is Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier.


One of my absolute favorite authors, Elizabeth Wein, has written a prequel to Code Name Veritywhich will delight both old fans and new readers. The Pearl Thief is a mystery set in 1930's Scotland. The books can be read in either order, and her writing style would crossover well to adult readers. My full review is here.







I'm currently reading The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone: a diverse group of normal teens tries to right the wrongs of the world. They engage in vigilante acts of kindness during a summer on the Hamptons. Firestone's debut novel, The Loose Ends List, is now available in paperback and was one of my favorites from last year. Her hardcover books have the best undercover art, as whimsical and fun as her heartwarming novels.





Reviewer's Disclosure: I received galleys for Wildman and The Pearl Thief from their publishers. All other books I purchased myself. I share an agent with authors Carrie Firestone and J.C. Geiger. Elizabeth Wein is a blog buddy.