Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Where did I go?

Life saving station at Lobster Cove, Monhegan Island, Maine

Hello Again! Even my neighbors have been asking where I've been this summer.

At Burnt Head, Monhegan Island in May. Photo by a fellow hiker.

I've been revising a young adult novel. Although it required a week on a remote island, 

Most of the time, I have been holed up in my home office, overlooking a riot of clematis.

Sometimes I revised en plein air. Every day was a work day. 
I was rushing to finish so that my teenaged beta testers could read over summer vacation.

Fish Beach, Monhegan Island

My 17-year-old daughter read in June, offering invaluable criticism. She would make a fine editor one day.

Monhegan Harbor at dusk

Now a girl in a harbor town, similar to my fictional one, is reading. I also asked for feedback 
from a Californian girl who knows nothing about Maine. There are a few adult readers too. 
A local police officer will fact check a crime scene. It's fiction, but I want to get it right.

Above and below: the pond on my daily walk at home.

With the manuscript gone for a few weeks, I'm finally free to catch up on life and on artwork. There's neglected housework too so I'm staying close to home. Luckily, no place is nicer than Maine in summer. 

What I'm reading now:
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Good Summer Books for Teens and Adults

Monhegan Island, Maine

Summer is time to read in a shady hammock or on the beach. If you can't travel, a good summer book will take you on vacation. I've compiled a list for adults and teens of recently published novels, some with links to full reviews posted earlier. If you want recommendations for younger readers, check out my Good YA Books for Tweens and Younger Teens.

Fiction for Adults

Right now I'm enjoying Euphoria by Maine author Lily King. It's a fictionalization of Margaret Mead's anthropological work and love affairs in New Guinea. I nearly majored in Anthropology at college and spent summers doing field research in remote areas so this subject fascinates me. Lily King is one of the authors whose books automatically go in my to be read stack. I loved her debut novel, The Pleasing Hour, about an American au pair in France. Father of the Rain was a beautifully written account of how alcoholism ruins a family. Euphoria seems just right for summer. Isn't the cover gorgeous? I'll post a full review after I finish reading it.

Summer vacation would be a good time to read the 770 page The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  The 2014 winner of the Pulitzer Prize follows a teenaged boy into an early adulthood muddled by drugs and art crime. This Dickensian novel with noir undertones is set in contemporary NYC, Vegas and Holland. It's bleak, verbose at times and received mixed reviews, but it's still worth reading.

If you crave something lighter, try Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen, a novel about brothers opening a trendy restaurant in Pennsylvania. Tempting Fate by Jane Green would be a good beach book for curious blog readers; the author used me as a physical model for her tempted protagonist! I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Rainbow Rowell's latest novel, Landline, next week.

Young Adult Fiction

If summer means travel and romance to you, you'll fall in love with The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith. During a blackout in NYC, a lonely rich girl gets trapped in an elevator with the building superintendent's son. As the star-crossed teens travel in opposite directions across the USA and Europe, they keep in touch via postcards. The chapters alternate between Lucy's and Owen's POV:

"But now, less than an hour later, he felt suddenly too aware of her, a presence beside him as prickly as the heat."

My only criticism of this charming novel is that there was too much focus on parents instead of peers, although that aspect would cross over well to an adult reader. Geography is similar to Smith's 2012 international hit, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. Smith writes contemporary but timeless stories in a voice true to teens. She's one of my favorite YA authors.

The YA book that is garnering the most attention right now is We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This June bestseller has a commercially sensational plot but is written in a literary style with allusions to King Lear and Wuthering Heights. Preppy teenagers and their greedy moms squabble over their inheritance on a private island off Martha's Vineyard with tragic consequences. It's a modern fairy tale with a grouchy old king, spoiled princesses and a politically correct pauper-prince. The protagonist is acutely aware of her privilege:
"I own a well-used library card and not much else, though it is true I live in a grand house full of expensive, useless objects."
We Were Liars reminded me a bit of the adult thriller, Gone Girl. I enjoyed it, but I didn't connect with any of the characters. They felt too contrived, arrogant and self-absorbed. Still, I kept reading eagerly to the surprising twist at the end. We Were Liars has style. E. Lockhart is on my favorite YA authors list; I loved her The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks too.

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner is also set on the shore, but the characters are more down to earth. Fifteen-year-old Frankie blames herself for her brother's death, who drowned at the beach four years ago. Frankie was only eleven-years-old, but her napping parents left her in charge of her 4-year-old brother. Four years later, Frankie meets a little boy who is so similar to her lost brother that she wonders if reincarnation is possible.

The Summer of Letting Go was really strong on loss, grief and recovery, but I wished Frankie had some cool interests of her own and wasn't completely defined by her loss. Also her best friend had as much character as a Barbie doll, and the love triangle didn't work for me. The little boy, however, was a delightful character, and I loved his relationship with Frankie. The writing was good too.

If you are looking for a literary historical romance, I'd strongly recommend Going Over by Beth Kephart, set in Berlin during the Cold War. Beth Kephart is another favorite YA author. Teenaged boys and Stephen King fans would enjoy Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican, about hazing and bullying at a Catholic school in Pennsylvania. Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando would be a good pick for older teen girls thinking ahead to college. As would be Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which is set at a college in the midwest. Fangirl was one of my favorite books from last year; it would crossover well to adults. Actually, most of these books would appeal to both adults and teens. Young adult is only a marketing category.

Next up on my to be read list is Born Confused (2002) by Tanuja Desai Hidier before the sequel, Bombay Blues, is published this fall. The cover caught my attention and the blurb hooked me: Dimple Lala doesn't know what to think. Her parents are from India, and she's spent her whole life resisting their traditions. Then suddenly she gets to high school and everything Indian is trendy. To make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a "suitable boy." Of course it doesn't go well -- until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web. Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue. This is a funny, thoughtful story about finding your heart, finding your culture, and finding your place in America.

Reviewer's Disclosure: Lily King's daughter is on my daughter's track team. I also know the author from Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Jane Green is an art client and a friend. Beth Kephart is a blog buddy and a friend. I received free review copies of Bread & Butter, Tempting Fate, Roomies, Brutal Youth and Born Confused. The other books I purchased myself, most at indie bookstores.

Happy reading! I'm taking a week or two off from blogging to revise my work-in-progress before beta testing it on teen readers. Time for reflection...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sunrise on Monhegan Island

Finally, I can share my Monhegan Island photos! I bought a new DSLR camera, a Canon EOS 70D, after giving my old Nikon D80 to my daughter for a photography course. In May I took my new camera on a writing retreat on Monhegan Island. When I tried to share my RAW photos, they were unreadable. Eek! The solution was updating my photo processing software. Lightroom 5 has cool new features. Have you ever taken a lighthouse photo that resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa (original photo at left)? Lightroom 5 can correct the wide-angle lens distortion (see top photo.)

My new Canon handles tricky lighting much better than my 2008 camera, but it's heavier, especially with an 18-135mm zoom lens. Even with an image stabilizer, it was hard to hold steady for a long exposure. Luckily my rental apartment had a deck with a flat railing overlooking the harbor. I held my breath and braced my elbows. Next time, I'll pack a tripod. Still, I'm impressed by how well the Canon captured twilight over the dimly illuminated dock, circling gulls and all.

The harbor was peaceful but not especially quiet. Before dawn, I was woken by a barking dog. I opened my eyes to rosy light and reached for my camera. Pulling a jacket over my pjs, I stepped out onto the deck. It was too early for lobstermen or birders so I had the beach to myself.

East of the harbor, the colors were shifting through the spectrum.

It was as if the lighthouse were illuminating the entire sky.

When I glanced back down at the harbor, I thought I was dreaming. After days of fog and rain...

I found gold!

The rainbow doubled, arching over the harbor. A wide-angle lens couldn't capture all of it. 

Even the seagulls seemed to watch in wonder. 

I'm not usually a morning person, but nothing is more lovely than the first light.

I will revisit these photos as I revise my novel, inspired by this special place. 

Disclosure: I received no free products nor any help from Adobe. Photoshop Lightroom 5 is a great product, but Adobe customer service is terrible. Luckily B&H Photo, where I bought my camera, has really good technical support both on the phone and in the NYC store. After trying several options, I liked the Canon EOS 70D best of all. I still need to figure out how to link the touch screen via wifi to an iPad. This post is dedicated to Barrie Summy and other island lighthouse fans.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Good YA Books for Younger Teens & Tweens

Fort Popham Beach, Maine at sunset

Tween to thirteen is an awkward age for advanced readers. Your child/grandchild/student has outgrown middle grade fiction but may not be ready for edgier Young Adult (YA) fiction. With the help of my kids, I've pulled together a list of somewhat recent YA books that are appropriate for ages 11 to 13. Follow the links to my reviews or Goodreads.

My favorite author for this age group is Laura Resau. She writes lyrical novels that have a touch of magical realism. Red Glass was inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. Sophie's family takes in six-year-old Pedro, who was the sole survivor of a border crossing from Mexico to Arizona.

Resau's Notebook series follows Zeeta and her Rumi-quoting, hippy mom across the world. Zeeta searches for her father and wonders about her ethnic roots. Her romance with a boy adopted from Ecuador is sweet and innocent. The Indigo Notebook is set in Ecuador and The Ruby Notebook is set in France. The final book in the trilogy, The Jade Notebook, is set in Mexico.

My daughter and I also love Libba Bray, although only some of her books are geared toward younger readers. Beauty Queens crashes a plane full of teen beauty queen contestants on a tropical island. It reads like a spoof of The Lord of The Flies. The Gemma Doyle trilogy, starting with A Great and Terrible Beauty, is a Victorian Gothic fantasy set in India and at a British boarding school. Bray embraces diversity and strong female characters. She's funny too.

One of my daughter's favorites was The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy, which takes place in 1970s Berkeley, California. Two girls from different backgrounds become friends and enter a creative writing contest. Another good book for younger readers is Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress by Maria Padian. Brett is a sassy 8th grader who turns to her grandmother when her friends disappoint her.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is a book I would have adored at thirteen. A girl enters her island pony in a race against magical, wild horses from the sea. The chapters alternate between her and a boy trainer's perspective. It's a bit scary, since the untamed horses can be vicious, but it's a great choice for horse lovers. The writing is beautiful and the atmosphere is enchanting.

My 13-year-old niece loved two books I chose for her. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman features a musical girl in an alternative medieval world with intelligent dragons. A sequel is due in 2015. Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a cyborg retelling of Cinderella set in New Beijing and is the first book in a series.

Three authors who write fairly innocent romances for teens are Jennifer E. SmithMeg Cabot and Sarah Dessen (only This Lullaby is edgy). There's a lot of talking and some kissing. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, set in Paris, is slightly edgier. My 16-year-old daughter still enjoys Dessen books.

Reluctant readers who play sports would enjoy Keri Mikulski's Pretty Tough series. The characters are in high school, but the romances are very innocent. Each book features a different sport. Another fun high school romance is A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker.

On the more literary end of the YA spectrum are Beth Kephart's novels. Undercover, a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, is contemporary YA fiction and Dangerous Neighbors is historical fiction. Beth's books cross over well to an adult audience and would be a good choice to read along with your child.

My son didn't read much YA as a tween, but he loved Isabel Allende's The City of the Beasts. This first book in a magical realism trilogy is set in the Amazon. The protagonist is a 15-year-old American boy who befriends a native girl. We also loved the first book in a Mexican border dystopian series, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. Another dystopian book we enjoyed was Shift by Charlotte Agell. My son was also a fan of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials steampunk trilogy.

Reviewer's Disclosure: authors Charlotte Agell, Beth Kephart, Maria Padian and Keri Mikulski are friends/blog buddies. My agent edited Dangerous Neighbors when she was at Egmont. I received no compensation for my reviews.

If you have other YA suggestions for 11-13 year olds, please leave a comment.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican is a cynical coming-of-age story reminiscent of J.D. Salinger, Ruth Ozeki and A.S. King. Although packaged as young adult, the novel would appeal to adults as well as to teenagers. The central characters are Catholic high school students, but we also get the perspectives of an earnest teacher, a malicious counselor, a nun/principal and a corrupt priest. The shades of the macabre are reminiscent of Stephen King, whom the author cites as his inspiration. His blurb made me request a galley from Netgalley:
“If you thought high school was hell, has Anthony Breznican got a story for you…Every bully who stalked you, every sadistic teacher who ever terrified you, every stupid prank, every hopeless crush and false friend: they’re all here, along with a few kids who hang together and try to do the right thing in a brutal environment. By turns funny and terrifying, Brutal Youth is an unputdownable tour-de-force, a Rebel Without a Cause for the 21st century.” —Stephen King
Those who find Stephen King too scary to read should not shy away from Anthony Breznican. There is a major gross-out scene in the opening of Brutal Youth, but then the narrative refocuses on the psychological horrors of bullying, the implied threats. Seniors at Saint Michael's routinely haze the freshman and the administration rarely intervenes. Meanwhile, the school is physically rotting from the inside out, a metaphor of corruption and decay.

Peter Davidek, a nerdy freshman with a kind heart, is an obvious target for bullies. Our protagonist teams up with Noah Stein, a charismatic boy with a troubled past, to fight the system. The boys form a Harry Potteresque threesome with beautiful Lorelei Paskal, who has an agenda of her own. The narrative is set in the 1990s, but apart from the absence of cell phones, it doesn't feel out of date.

What makes Brutal Youth stand out from other young adult books about bullying is its bleak perspective. The kids are selfish and often cruel, and the adults are either negligent or abusive. In a traditional coming-of-age book, the naive hero develops an ethical code, but in this case, our compassionate hero is at risk of losing his moral integrity. In order to survive, Davidek must shed his kind personality and resort to Machiavellian measures to achieve justice and social harmony. A happy ending seems unlikely.

Brutal Youth is not an easy book to read, but it's even harder to put down. The characters are wonderfully drawn, if exaggerated for dramatic effect, and the writing is a winning mix of page-turner suspense and well-observed descriptions. I found many sentences to highlight:
The setting: "Lockers slammed like gunfire." 
The evil guidance counselor: "Once-delicate features had gone soft and round, slightly wrinkled, as if they had swollen and then deflated."..."Bromine. It was a name like soap in the mouth." 
A victim: "Lorelei's shoes clicked in the pockets of silence she created."..."The crowd parted as she passed. No one said a word. Not until she was gone."
Author Anthony Breznican
Brutal Youth was an exceptionally strong debut, despite a few minor faults. Noah disappears halfway through the narrative, deflating tension. Lorelei was an interesting character, but her mixed motives and inconsistent behavior didn't make sense. Other characters were almost comically evil. However, Davidek and his antagonist, Hannah, were wonderfully drawn and well-nuanced. Adding the occasional perspective of adult characters reminded me of A. S. King's writing style. Despite all the head hopping, the narrative didn't lose focus. It was entertaining and funny too. The author writes for Entertainment Weekly.

I love books like Brutal Youth that are hard to categorize, that bridge the YA/Adult and the literary/commercial marketing lines. This universal story about the dark side of human nature would appeal to a wide audience, especially to teenaged boys. I'm impressed with this debut and am curious to see what Anthony Breznican will write next. This book would make a good movie. Brutal Youth will be released on June 10th, 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books at Macmillan.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Researching a Novel on Monhegan Island

Earlier this month, I spent a week on Monhegan Island researching my novel. Off season the mail boat goes only a few times a week from Port Clyde. It was a rough one hour ride in eight-foot seas and pouring rain. Even one of the crew got sick, but my husband was in his element. Henry's father, a former merchant navy captain, once told him that the best cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree. Henry (in orange topside) had come for the weekend to help me settle into my solitary retreat.

The only other visitors to the island were migrating birds (loads of warblers!) and intrepid birders. Their accommodations were unheated and unpowered. The tourist season starts Memorial Day Weekend and runs through September. The rest of the year is lobster season.

I rented an attic apartment in a former boat house, which had propane, electricity and even wifi. My landlady, who lives below, runs the only grocery store and is the sternwoman on a lobster boat. Most of the 40 or so year-round residents work two jobs. Lisa answered many of my questions about island life.

Other answers came from watching the harbor out my window. I'd wondered how trucks got to the island since only passenger ferries service the island, docking at the wharf. This truck ferry unloads onto Fish Beach. It idles until the truck is ready to leave. Good thing I packed ear plugs!

I watched the lobstermen without leaving my desk. One of my characters works the stern in his dad's lobster boat. He lives on an island that resembles Monhegan but with a larger population. I needed more teen characters in a young adult novel!

I'd wondered about the one-room school house on other visits to the island. This time I wanted to peek inside, but I'd had no luck tracking down the teacher online.

After my husband left the island, I hiked up the cliff to paint...

... the beautiful landscape?

Feeling discouraged, I decided to check out the new Monhegan Brewing Company. The delicious beer was served in seven ounce tasters as well as in pints. It was full bodied and smooth. My favorite was the Trap Stacker Special Ale with a hint of molasses. By happy coincidence, I ran into an author friend Paul Doiron and met his wife Kristen Lindquist, an avid birder and talented poet-blogger. The whole state of Maine sometimes feels like a small town.

Mary and Matt Weber of Monhegan Brewing Company

The proprietors shared their romantic story. Mary had moved to Monhegan after falling in love with Matt Weber, an island lobsterman. They'd opened the brewery last summer, offering tastings on weekends. On weekdays Mary teaches at the one-room school house while her husband is hauling lobsters. I'd found my elusive school teacher! It's Mary's last year teaching since she needs more time for the brewery. Matt answered my questions about island lobstering.

Mary invited me inside the one-room school house. It was bright, sunny and surprisingly up to date. All students have laptop computers supplied by the state. The video screen allowed the kids to collaborate with students at other island schools and for teachers to conference with one another. There's a stage with a piano and the kids' performances draw in all the islanders. The school currently has two half day preschoolers and one full day third grader. In past years, there were more kids, and the island would love to have more families.

Island educators Mary Weber and Jessie Campbell
Mary introduced me to Jessie Campbell, who used to teach at Monhegan and is now the coordinator for the Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative. Jessie shared her insights about island schools. Frenchboro and Isle au Haut have generations of lobstermen families, more like my imaginary island community. The lucky island kids gather to go on fieldtrips to the state capital, to the mountains, to Boston and even to Quebec. Educators visit the islands too. The kids go off-island for high school, like my narrative.

At Lobster Cove I photographed the house that was the inspiration for my character's home, although his is more modest. It's my dream house too. Can you see why this island inspires me?

Back "home," I watched storm clouds ripple the sea. The weather wasn't the best for painting watercolors, but I took many photos. I'll share the artsy ones in another post. I miss the island already.

Sarah Laurence on Monhegan Island, Maine. Photo by Henry Laurence.