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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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Temples & Gardens of Kyoto at Peak Foliage

Gate to Shinto shrine at Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

If you're visiting Japan, plan on several days in Kyoto if you enjoy gardens and historic architecture. This post includes only five of the 1,600+ Buddhist temples in the prefecture. Japanese temples frequently combine elements from their two national religions, like the traditional gate to a Shinto shrine (above) and the Buddhist garden (below) at Ryoan-ji Temple.

Ryoan-ji's rock garden with fall foliage.

Ryoan-ji in April
Photography fails to capture the minimalist beauty of Ryoan-ji's famous rock garden, which must be seen in person. The mossy rocks are islands in a gravel sea. In spring that bare tree drips cherry blossoms over the wall .

I have now seen Ryoan-ji in three seasons and would return a fourth time to see it in snow. That won't happen this sabbatical since my husband and I are going home to Maine for our kids' winter break from college.

Our kids were only three and six when we took them to Kyoto for cherry blossom season during my husband's last academic sabbatical to Japan. Henry teaches Japanese Politics at Bowdoin College and speaks the language but not fluently. Before he became a professor, he worked for the Bank of Tokyo in London.

Japanese maples and persimmons at Ryoan-ji

The first time I visited Japan, I was nineteen and it was brutally hot and muggy in August. The grounds of Ryoan-ji were refreshingly cool in summer but are at their most glorious when the maples turn color. The orange fruit hanging from bare trees are persimmons, which taste like papaya when ripe.

Japanese maples at Ryoan-ji in peak foliage 11/18/16
Cherry blossom season (early April) and peak fall foliage (late November) draw big crowds to Kyoto for good reasons, especially at Ryoan-ji. Pack warm socks since you remove your shoes inside temples.

Manshu-in Temple in Kyoto

Although Japanese people usually wear western clothes, women and girls occasionally dress in kimonos to visit temples and to pray in shrines. Newlywed couples in traditional dress pose for photos too. The open porch of a Buddhist temple is designed for garden viewing and meditation. Manshu-in Temple (above and below) can't be reached by bus since the mountain village roads are too narrow.

Manshu-in rock garden 11/19/16

To avoid the weekend crowds, we chose two remote temples Manshu-in (above) and Enkou-ji (below). Their websites are only in Japanese. Enkou-ji is in walking distance of Manshuin.

Enkou-ji Temple in peak foliage 11/19/16

The summit trail offers a spectacular view of Enkou-ji Temple and Kyoto.


In the early evening, lanterns illuminate the gardens. This rock garden is not as subtle as Ryoan-ji, but the more pronounced rake patterns makes it easier to photograph.


If you're a fan of samurai movies, Daikaku-ji Temple (above and below) may look familiar.


The buildings are connected by covered walkways overlooking the inner gardens.


The screen art in the tatami rooms is exquisite too.


Daikaku-ji's outer garden has a pagoda and a lovely path around a pond. 

Kinkaku-ji is also called the Golden Pavilion (photo from my April 2003 visit to Kyoto).

People travel from all over the world to see Kyoto temples, but there are far more visitors from East Asia, especially China, than from the West. If you're visiting at a less crowded time, I'd also recommend The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), The Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) and The Moss Garden (Saiho-ji Kokedera).

Mt. Fuji from the shinkansen. Photo by my husband (his turn for the window seat).

Kyoto is only 2 1/2 hours by shinkansen from Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see Fuji-san from the north side of the high speed train. I can't recommend hotels since we stayed with an old friend in the neighboring prefecture of Nara. I'm considering all these locations for my novel, but I'll save Nara for another post. I don't know how I'll choose a setting among all these gorgeous options.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Researching a Novel in Japan

Entrance to the Meiji Shrine Inner Gardens in Tokyo

Konichiwa from Tokyo! With both of our kids at college, I was free to join my husband on a two month sabbatical to Japan. I apologize for not updating my blog regularly, but it has been a busy transition. In June I signed with a new literary agent, Sara Crowe. Since receiving her excellent editorial notes, I've been revising a young adult novel set in Maine while planning a new YA novel set in Japan. Henry and I have now been here for three and a half weeks. Given the political situation in the USA, I alternate between homesickness and feeling sick of home.

Japan 1101 class photograph by Anna Aridome. 

It's a big responsibility writing about a country that is not your own culture. Although my brother is married to a Japanese woman and they speak that language with their kids, I knew only a handful of words. In late August I enrolled in Japanese 1101 at Bowdoin College, where my husband teaches Japanese Politics. The US Department of State recommends 800 hours of instruction to become proficient in a romance language but 1,800 hours of class for Japanese or Chinese. Japanese has three alphabets. After five weeks of instruction, my class had only mastered two: hiragana is phonetic and katakana is for foreign words/names. Those two are easier than the kanji imported from China. Sentences contain all three alphabets. Most student would take two years of Japanese before junior year abroad or a summer internship. We had a fabulous teacher, but I needed to work twice as hard to keep up with these gifted young linguists. Never have I done anything more difficult. 


My husband speaks Japanese so he took care of the logistics for our trip. We spent our first ten days in hotels, recovering from jet lag and waiting for our apartment to be available. Henry chose the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo because he knew I'd love its garden (above and below). 


Our sabbatical is doubling as an anniversary celebration for us and this hotel is also a popular wedding site. Sometimes the bride and groom dress in both traditional and western dress. The couple above gave me permission to take their photo. Except for holidays and weddings, most Japanese people dress in western clothing and live in western style apartments in cities. 

Tokyo from the Hotel New Otani. The green space is the Akasaka Palace grounds and mostly closed to the public.

I grew up in Manhattan and lived two years in London, but Tokyo is the most urban place I've ever experienced. There are few trees on sidewalks and fewer public parks. Even my limited knowledge of Japanese has been useful as I venture out alone in Tokyo. My iPhone with a Japanese SIM card is my map and dictionary. Simple chores like shopping for groceries and reading signs or menus are challenging. Swimming laps is an extra workout with my phone and phrasebook in the locker room. People try to be helpful but most speak limited or no English. This is my third visit to Japan, but I still feel unprepared. I continue to study the language on my own.

Can you find the moon in Shibuyu?

There are manga museums and teen hangout spaces to explore so I keep pushing beyond my comfort zone. The flashing neon lights, dense crowds and busy roads can be overwhelming. Imagine Times Square on steroids with a more homogenous population. There are few immigrants, expats or foreign tourists (most are Chinese) so we are a curiosity in our residential neighborhood of Shibuya. 


We found our airbnb apartment through a friend of a friend. The rooftop apartment with its balcony garden is an ideal writing retreat. Bird song wakes me in the morning and the tatami room is a soothing space to unwind after work. The remainder of the apartment is western style, although the bathtub talks and the toilet spritzes water and plays music. My brilliant husband deciphered the kanji to change the toilet's tune from Pachelbel's Cannon to traditional Japanese koto music. Like we new empty-nesters don't already feel like newlyweds in a tiny apartment!

The control panel for our toilet
In our new home we prepare mostly Japanese food, except at breakfast. I was very proud to read the katakana for fruit granola, which I found at 7-Eleven. In Japanese, milk translates to cow juice, but often they use our English word written in katakana. A Japanese breakfast is rice, pickles, miso soup and green tea or coffee. At the hotel buffets, I often combined both. 


As I struggle to adapt to my new environment and language, I'm gathering first hand experiences for my novel. Plus writing in English now seems easy by comparison! Later I'll blog about our trip to Okinawa (below) and to other places that I'll be visiting soon for research. Due to my travel and work schedule, I'll be posting irregularly. I update more frequently on twitter and Facebook.


Blogwatch: I'm looking forward to catching up with my blog buddies now that Google Blogger has reinstated my blogroll. The loss of those links for weeks was another reason I stopped posting. Blogging is meaningless without the community. It's nice to be back online!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

WRECKED by Maria Padian


Hello again! I'm back to blogging while my new agent is reading my revised manuscript, which will return soon for a second round of revision. For now, I'm enjoying time free to read for fun. For the book review club I've chosen a soon-to-be-released novel set at a New England college. Wrecked by Maria Padian eerily echoes the Brock Turner sexual assault case; it should be required reading for college freshman. This timely young adult novel would crossover well to adult readers too.

Wrecked investigates an alleged date rape 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.

Although Wrecked doesn't sugarcoat rape, this book is easier to read than others because the victim isn't the narrator. Since we hear her story second hand, there is an emotional buffer. This genius narrative structure recreates the way most of us will experience rape: one step removed. How would you respond if the victim or the suspect asked for your support? What if you didn't really know or even like them? Our two narrators are reluctant to get involved but want to do the right thing. The sweet romance that develops between the roommate and the housemate models a consensual relationship in sharp contrast to the date rape case under review by the campus administration.

Wrecked makes the reader think and ask questions. There is no obvious message, beyond a campus program on consent, which is played for laughs. The sexaul assault investigation is shown in all its murky confusion with lying witnesses, inebriated confusion, and unreliable evidence. Conviction may not always be feasible so how do you achieve justice?


Wrecked is educational, but it's entertaining too. The college campus setting is fun and true to life. There are housemates from hell, an apple picking scene, raging parties, social media mayhem, and an overwhelming number of extracurriculars on top of classwork. All the characters are well developed and humanly flawed. Both earthy feminists and boozy lax bros are satirized for balance. The mystery of what really happened makes the book a page-turner. Good writing takes a back seat to the story, never overpowering the narrative.

The author has clearly done extensive legal research and also captures the spirit of life on a New England campus with literary finesse. This book would be an excellent tool for getting students to talk about consent, boundaries, and sexual assault. Wrecked is one of the best YA novels I've read about rape. I would love to see more YA novels set at college. I strongly recommend Wrecked to teens and to adults.


My reviews of other YA novels by Maria Padian:
Out of Nowhere
Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best
Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress

Reviewer's Disclosure: author Maria Padian is a friend and we discussed this book on dog walks while she was writing it. Upon my request, Algonquin Young Readers (her publisher) sent me a galley to review. The book will be published on October 4, 2016 in hardcover and ebook. Photos are of Maine in October, where the author and I both live. Our dog walking trail crosses that bridge. Wrecked is set at a fictional college somewhere in New England.

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@Barrie Summy