Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My Favorite Country Walk to a Pub: The Bell Inn at Aldworth

One of my favorite country walks in England is a five mile loop around the Bell Inn at Aldworth. I know this part of Berkshire very well. My in-laws live in a neighboring village on the Oxfordshire side of the Thames. These rolling hills along the river are called the Goring Gap.

We usually park by a farm in Streatley and walk uphill to the Ridgeway. The Ridgeway is the oldest road in the UK, dating back to prehistoric times. Keep an eye out for horseback riders, tractors, and the occasional car. Our hardy son walked and ran 27 miles of the 87 mile Ridgeway the next day in the rain. The popular Ridgeway follows high ground to avoid the mud.

On any day of the year, England can easily be in the 50s and rainy. Luckily when our kids came to visit us for their February break, we had one dry day for our walk. Wellies (rubber boots) or hiking boots were still necessary for the footpaths on the way back to the carpark. A detailed Ordnance Survey map is a good idea too if you're walking a loop including footpaths.

Back home in New England, a blizzard was raging, but February is springtime in England. Instead of snow, there are blooming snowdrops.

About halfway through our walk, we stopped for lunch. The Bell Inn has been owned by the same family for 250 years and is located in the tiny village of Aldworth. The landlord is welcoming and has a good sense of humor. The Bell doesn't serve hot food beyond soup, but the Ploughman's Lunch (cheese, a warm bread roll, chutney, and salad) was delicious. Since it was midday, I had only a half pint of Arkells BBB.

Our teenage daughter was pleased to be legal in the UK but was too jet lagged for alcohol. Sixteen-year-olds can have beer, wine, or cider with a meal as long as they're accompanied by someone eighteen or older.

Although it was cozy inside by the fire, it can be crowded. We moved outside in the beer garden to enjoy the mild weather. Sunshine was good for the kids' jet lag too.

In the far corner of the beer garden is the secret exit to a footpath.

One of the best things about the UK is all the public footpaths crossing private lands and farms.

Since the footpath crosses through swards (Merriam Webster Dictionary retweeted this photo to illustrate the word of the day!) where livestock may be grazing, be sure to shut all gates.

The walk back to the carpark is a gentle path downhill, between the fields. After a reinvigorating week off, I'm happy to be back to work revising my young adult novel set in rural England.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone

Canal boat in Oxford, England on a rare sunny day. 

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone was my favorite debut young adult novel from 2016. The premise was original and meaningful: a dying grandmother takes her family on a luxurious world cruise to say goodbye. Gallow humor, a comically dysfunctional family, and a sweet romance offset the sad realism of terminal cancer. Somehow this novel about dying with dignity was one of the most life-affirming, feel-good stories I've ever read.

I was initially put off by the protagonist's crass language and her popular clique, but once the ship set sail (about fifty pages in), seventeen-year-old Maddie became a sympathetic character who struggles to support her beloved grandmother while dealing with her own fear of death. Widowed Gram surprises her WASPy family by inviting along the secret love of her life, a Jamaican American jazz musician. Despite the tragedy, it's a fun trip.

The diverse family also includes a gay uncle and his husband, a Jewish father, a frustrated suburban mother, a broody artistic brother, a great aunt with dementia, and a Barbie doll cousin. The family members alternate realistically between irritating and endearing. All characters were well developed, including the other families on the cruise. I especially loved the close friendship Maddie develops with a young mother and her baby.

Although the central relationship is between Maddie and her irreverent Gram (my favorite character), a fun romance offsets the grief. I appreciated how this novel tackled teen sexuality with a positive attitude, showing what a good relationship involves without sounding preachy. The love scenes felt believably real/awkward and avoided cliche. Best of all was how the novel explored terminal illness and death from a teen perspective without glossing over tragedy or becoming overly sentimental. The book coins its own catch-phrase: "snowglobe moment."

The around-the-world setting was entertaining. I won't reveal the secret itinerary since the journey has hidden meaning. The cultural details were well drawn and interesting, and despite the variety of settings, the narrative never felt choppy or superficial. I'm guessing that the author is well-traveled and grew up watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Since I'd never go on a cruise due to seasickness, I enjoyed this virtual vacation. The narrative also fit my year of sabbatical travel.

The poignant voice was true to teens:
"Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry. It's harder to hold back than a sneeze, but I do it." 
"'My life has been fabulous because I never listened to my parents.' My grandmother is peer-pressuring me." 
"But if this trip has taught me anything, it's that the only thing guaranteed is this very moment."
Given the wide age range of characters, this YA novel would appeal to adults too, especially to families dealing with terminal illness. I read the ebook in Japan during the miserable month of November, and it was the best distraction. The story now helps me find the emotional strength to support my mother-in-law, who was diagnosed yesterday with terminal liver cancer after surviving breast cancer last year. For Hanukkah, I had bought the hardcover for my 19-year-old daughter, who is finding comfort in it too. Luckily her beloved granny is British and is therefore receiving excellent care from her Muslim oncologist and free medical insurance via the National Health Service. My children will be joining us in England next week. The granny-grandson Trans-Siberian Railway trip, planned to celebrate my son's graduation, is now only a dream. My mother-in-law will start chemo soon. We are grateful for this time together as a family.

Photo from School Library Journal: The Loose Ends List won a Best Undercover Award.

Carrie Firestone, author's photo
The undercover was so gorgeous I couldn't resist buying another hard copy of The Loose Ends List for myself at home. I'm sure to reference the book for inspiration while writing my own YA novels set abroad. I'd strongly recommend The Loose Ends List to readers ages 14 and up. You might want to read at home since you'll be sobbing and laughing, often on the same page. I'm eagerly awaiting the author's sophomore novel, The Unlikelies, due out in June. Brava, Carrie!

Included in my Best Contemporary YA Fiction of 2016 list.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: the author and I share a literary agent.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Best Contemporary YA Fiction of 2016

I usually post my best young adult fiction list in December, but this year I was moving between sabbaticals in Japan and in the UK with a brief stop at home in Maine for the holidays. I'm finally settled in Oxford with time to catch up on book reviews. Since I write contemporary YA fiction, that's primarily what I read. Although these books were all published in 2016, their themes are all the more relevant for 2017. Reading fiction is also a good escape from the dystopian real world of American politics right now.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon was my favorite young adult novel of 2016. This emotionally resonant story of immigration, assimilation, and deportation is sadly all the more realistic today. We need books that foster empathy and compassion. The immigrant author won a Printz Honor for this perfect book.

Yoon's page-turner story hooked me immediately: On the day Natasha and her Jamaican family are due to be deported, she meets Daniel, a Korean American on his way to a Yale College interview in New York City. Daniel believes in poetry and soulmates but scientific Natasha is skeptical. Her focus is on fighting to stay in the USA. Natasha has no time for love, but what if Daniel is right?

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone was my favorite debut. The premise was original and poignant: a dying grandmother takes her family on a luxurious world cruise to say goodbye. Gallow humor, a comically dysfunctional family, and a sweet romance offset the sad realism of terminal cancer. Somehow this novel about dying with dignity was one of the most life-affirming books I've ever read.

The story now resonates with me personally as my mother-in-law fights cancer with the hope of traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway with my son this summer. My teenage daughter is finding comfort in this book too. I'll post a more in depth analysis next week for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club.

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo had the best setting: Antarctica. I loved how this novel focused on failure and resilience, a theme lacking in most YA literature. American culture unrealistically claims that anyone can succeed if she/he tries hard enough. In a clever juxtaposition, the world of professional ballet is shown to be as challenging and crazy as reaching the South Pole. After failing her ballet auditions, Harper Scott follows her ancestor's snow tracks to Antarctica. Her heroes haunt her long winter hallucinations as she struggles to find a new path in life. This book is eloquent on science, climate change, and ballet. The only weakness was the ease of romance, but that element provided some light in the darkness. Also there were penguins!

Wrecked by Maria Padian was my favorite issue-driven novel. This chillingly realistic story investigates an alleged date rape on a college campus from three perspectives: the roommate of the victim, the housemate of the accused, and an omniscient narration on the night of the attack. The reader must piece together the clues and draw his/her own conclusion about what really happened. The conflicting versions of the truth becomes the central theme of this engaging book. The setting is rural New England. I'd love to see more YA set at college and with feminist themes. Note the pussy hat pink cover!
Link to my full review of Wrecked.

Although the cover of The Season of You & Me by Robin Constantine looks like a traditional romance novel, what is missing from the photo is a wheelchair. A former surfer, Bryan now cruises his island home in an adapted car. Working at a summer day camp, Bryan befriends mainland Cassie, who is recovering from a painful breakup and adjusting to her dad's new family. Romance builds slowly on this small island off the Jersey shore. The story explores prejudice toward disability and the challenges of sex as a paraplegic, but the central plot is romance. A character does not need to overcome disability to be sexually attractive. It's wonderful to see more inclusive YA romance.
On my Good Summer Books List too.

This is a Story of You by Beth Kephart is a modern parable of the horrors of climate change. When a storm cuts off an island from the Jersey Shore, 17-year-old Mira must fight for survival with only a stray cat for company. Earlier that day, her single mom had driven her disabled brother to the mainland hospital for emergency treatment. As the storm rages and the sea floods their beachside cottage, Mira must decide what to save and how to stay alive. If that weren't scary enough, a mysterious intruder is lurking outside, and without power or cellular service, Mira can't call for help. I fear we'll see more real world examples of this fictional disaster all too soon if the US reverses climate change policy. Read the rest of my review here.

Given the spike in hate crimes in the USA, we need books that show diverse characters as normal teens, not as victims. You Know Me Well is set under the rainbow of San Francisco. Authors David Levithan and Nina LaCour narrate this heartwarming friendship story in alternating chapters: Mark is a hot jock with a secret crush on his closeted best friend, and Kate is a talented artist who is scared of finally meeting the girl of her dreams. The struggles they face are universal: academic expectations, parental pressure, and shifting relationships. Many teens will relate to the feeling of knowing what you want but lacking the self confidence to claim it. A buddy who supports and encourages you makes all the difference. Review continued here.

With Malice by Eileen Cook kept me up way past my bedtime. This Amanda Knox inspired suspense-thriller had intriguing suspects, multiple red herrings, and more twists than the village roads of Tuscany. The unreliable narrator's testimony leaves the reader tossing and turning in bed, ruminating over conflicting versions of the truth. This cynical satire lampoons journalists, social media, lawyers, detectives, and the scandal-hungry public. With Malice is a fitting read for the age of "alternative facts."
My full length review with photos of Italy.

Happy Reading!

Reviewer's Disclosure: Maria Padian is a friend and Beth Kephart is a blog buddy. On my request, publishers sent me ARCs of Wrecked, This Is The Story of You, and With Malice. I purchased all other books myself without compensation. Authors Carrie Firestone and Nina LaCour are represented by my agent.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

10 Year Blog Anniversary & Sabbatical in England

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford University

Ten years ago I started this blog before moving to England for a year long sabbatical. My kids' adventures at British schools inspired me to write a young adult novel, which I'm now revising on location. My husband has returned to Oxford University for a second research fellowship. Henry is writing an academic book on media & politics in Japan, the UK, and the USA. Given the political situation in the USA, we're almost wishing our four month sabbatical could be four years!

With blog buddy Beth@TRAC 9 years ago in Oxford
So much has changed in a decade online. Back in 2007 few people had heard of blogs or social media. I expected my blog to be an efficient way to update family and friends while abroad, but my followers soon grew beyond people I knew and spread across national borders.

We connected via our passions for reading, art, travel, and nature. Some of you became art clients too. Although our political views have sometimes differed, I appreciated getting to know people who were different from me.

The internet can be a hostile place, but I love how our community is respectful and open-minded. I have learned so much from my fellow bloggers. You kept me company in England, followed me back home to Maine, and more recently, to Japan. Thank you for posting and for commenting!

University Parks: a twenty minute walk from our sabbatical home.

My back-to-back sabbaticals abroad (including Japanese lessons!) left little time for blogging. Now that I'm settled in our temporary home with reliable wifi, I'll be updating more regularly. If you need a soothing distraction from the worries of the world, I'll be writing about books and life in Oxford. I'll post more about Japan when I return to writing that new novel. I'm looking forward to catching up with you too. Cheers!

Recovering from jet lag at the Catherine Wheel, my British husband's village pub.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour & David Levithan

Shinjuku is one of the twenty-three wards of Tokyo.

I'm finally back to book blogging from Tokyo! Those who are accustomed to my serene Maine landscapes, can you believe this is my new neighborhood? I've joined my husband on sabbatical to Japan, where I'm gathering material for a new young adult novel and learning the language. Our two months abroad went so quickly. By this time next week, I'll be back home in Maine, molding my experiences into a realistic story. While writing, I avoid books that are too similar to mine, but I still read YA fiction set in other locations.

Given the recent spike in hate crimes and political turmoil in the USA, I wanted to share a novel that fosters tolerance. Now, more than ever, we need books that show diverse characters as normal teens, not as victims. You Know Me Well (June 2016) is a contemporary YA novel set under the rainbow of San Francisco. Authors David Levithan and Nina LaCour narrate this heartwarming friendship story in alternating chapters: Mark is a hot jock with a secret crush on his closeted best friend, and Kate is a talented artist who is scared of finally meeting the girl of her dreams.

Although the subplots are romantic, the central relationship is a platonic friendship. Kate and Mark are likable protagonists and the hip San Francisco setting is fun. The struggles they face are universal: academic expectations, parental pressure and shifting relationships. The realistic narrative includes gay characters who have faced abuse and homelessness, but the main characters have accepting, loving parents and openly gay friends. They live in a comfortable suburb and attend a good public school. Still, life is not free of angst. Many teens will relate to the feeling of knowing what you want but lacking the self confidence to claim it. A buddy who supports and encourages you makes all the difference. Any teen could use a friend like Kate or Mark.

The writing was strong too:
"...friendship is about more than facts. It's about knowing what someone is thinking or knowing enough to know you don't."
Photo from my CA trip with my daughter
I highly recommend You Know Me Well for both heterosexual and LBGTQ teens and to the adults who care about them. The gorgeous hardcover book would make a fine holiday gift.

Related posts:
Diverse YA, Gay Romances for Teens
Diverse YA Romances

Reviewers Disclosure: I read an excerpt of this novel in Buzz Books 2016 via netgalley, which lead me to purchase the ebook for travel. Since I loved the book and saw some similarities in our writing styles, I queried Nina LaCour's literary agent, who signed me as a client too.

The foyer garden outside my apartment in Tokyo. By the time the leaves fall, we'll be back home in Maine.

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