Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Best Books of 2014


My favorite novels have beautiful writing that doesn't distract from the story. I enjoy diverse, quirky characters who see the world from fresh viewpoints or take me to exotic locations. I usually prefer realistic contemporary fiction but there are exceptions. My list includes some of my favorite authors as well as debuts. The title links will take you to my full reviews.

LITERARY FICTION

EUPHORIA by Lily King was the best novel I read this year. Anthropologist Margaret Mead's time in New Guinea inspired this fictional story. King is one of my favorite authors and this is her best book so far. Follow the link to my full review and my author interview for the story behind the story.







THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell is impossible to categorize. This ambitious novel follows a woman from her teenaged years in the 1980s into a world ravished by climate change. There's a paranormal plot line too. Read Mitchell and you'll understand why he's another favorite author.







EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng was a strong debut. The central plot is a who-done-it mystery: a half Chinese American teenager is found drowned in a small town. This literary novel delves deep into racial prejudices in the 1950s to the 1980s and examines how family members process grief differently. Everyone sees a different version of the story. The characters were flawed and very human. The only aspect that seemed unrealistic was the family's extreme isolation in a college town. The writing was excellent:

The ten-year-old sister who stole The Sound and the Fury from her older sister:

"Over the past two weeks she's worked her way through it, savoring the words like a cherry Life Saver tucked inside her cheek."




YOUNG ADULT FICTION

THREATENED by Eliot Schrefer In this Dickensian retelling of Tarzan, an African orphan is recruited by an Egyptian field biologist to study the elusive chimpanzees of Gabon. Abandoned in the jungle, young Luc must befriend the chimps in order to survive. There are venomous snakes, hungry leopards and aggressive, territorial male chimpanzees, but the worst are the humans who set traps for the endangered chimps and chop off the hands of runaway orphans. Starvation and disease might kill Luck first, but he fears loneliness most of all. His hunger for friendship and knowledge keeps him going.
"How would I survive alone? It has been the question of my life, and I'm still no closer to the answer."
This terrifying, literary page-turner gave me nightmares, but I couldn't stop reading. Luc is one of my favorite characters in young adult literature. At possibly thirteen (his birthday was long forgotten) Luc is a young protagonist for teen readers, but he acts more mature out of necessity. The professor, with his aspirations of being an African Jane Goodall, was intriguing too. The apes were as well developed as the human characters but not anthropomorphized, which is hard to find in children's books. The setting felt tactile and real. It was beautifully written too.

Schrefer, who clearly did his research, delivers a strong wildlife conservation message while acknowledging human needs in developing countries. This story is educational but entertaining and would appeal to animal lovers and especially to boys who like adventure stories and don't mind gore.

Schrefer's ENDANGERED (2013) with its female protagonist and a matriarchy of bonobo chimpanzees would be a better pick for a girl. Both of his books were nominated for the National Book Award and have many fans among adult readers. Schrefer is at work on a third great ape novel. I can't wait to read it.

GOING OVER by Beth Kephart is the best book by one of my favorite young adult authors. In this Cold War romance, the Berlin Wall stands between two star-crossed teenagers. The novel brings history to life for teens in this real world dystopia. The literary writing and adult characters broaden the appeal to an older audience.

FAR FROM YOU by Tess Sharpe was a strong debut with an original voice. A car accident leaves Sophie limping and addicted to painkillers, but she won't let her disabilities stop her from finding the murderer of her best friend. It was well written but not easy to read. Teens would love the edgy content. I like this book even better now, months later, on reflection.







MIDDLE GRADE NONFICTION

BROWN GIRL DREAMING is a powerful memoir in verse by children's author Jacqueline Woodson. Readers of all ages will appreciate her personal reflections on the legacy of discrimination and on the joy of writing. It won the National Book Award for Juvenile Literature.


Reviewer's Disclosure: Lily King's daughters go to school with my daughter and Beth Kephart is a blog buddy, but they did not ask me to review their books. I received free review galleys of Going Over and Far From You from the publishers. The other books I purchased at independent bookstores.


Promising 2014 novels in my To Be Read stack:

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (the historical novel topping most best books lists)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer (satirical fiction)

The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach (contemporary fiction by a Maine author)

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (contemporary YA fiction on many best books lists)

A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury (historical YA fiction set in India)

Blind by Rachel DeWoskin (contemporary YA debut)

No Surrender Soldier by Christine Kohler (historical YA fiction set in Guam)

Monday, December 15, 2014

My True Love Gave to Me: 12 YA holiday stories

Browsing at Sherman's Books in Portland, I picked up a book that I hadn't planned to read. I'm not usually a fan of holiday stories, but I can't resist Rainbow Rowell, whose New Year's Eve story opens this all star young adult anthology. After Rowell, came more favorite YA authors: Stephanie Perkins, Holly Black, Gayle Forman and David Levithan. The others were ones I'd wanted to sample. My True Love Gave to Me would make a good Christmas gift for your teenaged daughter/niece/granddaughter as long as you are comfortable with the mature content. The gorgeous cover showcases the diverse characters.

In any compilation there will be gems and stones, but My True Love Gave to Me sparkled. My blended family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah so I was pleased to find both holidays represented, although most had a Christmas theme. The stories were more festive than religious in tone, and all were united under the theme of holiday romance. Some were realistic fiction and others were surreal fantasies. I was thrilled to find a diverse set of characters who defied stereotypes.

"Midnight" by Rainbow Rowell follows two teens over four New Year's Eves. I loved how it captured that uncomfortable transition from high school to college and the challenge of reconnecting with old friends. It was funny, sweet and romantic, reminding me of When Harry Met Sally.

"The Lady and the Fox" by Kelly Link was a Christmas ghost story set in England. The writing was lovely, but the story didn't make sense to me. There were too many unanswered questions.

At first I was put off by the swearing in "Angels in the Snow" by Matt de la Peña, but it ended up being my favorite story in the collection. An Hispanic freshman at NYU takes a cat sitting job because he can't afford the plane ticket home to California for Christmas. Upstairs is a wealthy Columbia freshman who waited too late to buy a ticket home. Outside snow falls.

"Polaris Is Where You'll Find Me" by Jenny Han features a Korean teenager who was adopted by Santa. The girl has a crush on one of Santa's elves. It was the most innocent story in the collection, which leaned toward edgy upper YA. This tale would be best for tweens.

Stephanie Perkins edited the collection and her story "It's A Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown" was one of my favorites, despite the cheesy title. A Chinese-American film animator falls for the deep voice of the farm boy selling Christmas trees. Both have graduated from high school but are working instead of attending college. I wish this story were the first chapter in a novel: hint, hint!

David Levithan captures the absurdity of the holidays in "Your Temporary Santa." A Jewish boy dresses up as Santa as a favor for his boyfriend. If you love David Sedaris as much as I do, you will enjoy David Levithan's writing too. It's funny and irreverent, but it has heart.

In "Krampuslauf" by Holly Black a low-income girl throws a New Year's Eve party in her grandmother's trailer. She invites the private school boy who is cheating on her best friend. Mythical guests and drunken debauchery make for a lively party.

"What the Hell have You Done, Sophie Roth" by Gayle Forman is a Hanukkah story which reverses stereotypes: the Jewish girl is on scholarship and the African American boy is wealthy. It's a good story for Jews who feel left out at Christmas or anyone struggling to fit in at college.

"Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus" by Myra McEntire was the only story I quit reading after a few pages. You might guess why from the title. I cannot judge what I haven't finished so I will leave it at that.

"Welcome to Christmas, CA" by Kiersten White was a sweet love story between a low income Mexican American girl and a short order chef with a tough history. This one captured the generous, loving spirit of Christmas best of all. I loved how food worked on the emotions.

"Star of Bethlehem" by Ally Carter read like a page out of People Magazine. The larger than life romance would appeal to teens but felt more unrealistic than the fantasies in the collection. Still, it was fun.

"The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer" is a gorgeous, lyrical fairy tale. I loved the original voice, the lush imagery and the feminist message. Now I understand why everyone is talking about Laini Taylor. I don't usually read fantasy, but I might make an exception for her.



My True Love Gave to Me would make a fun Christmas gift for fans of young adult fiction. The book reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Love Actually. Some stories were innocent enough for younger teens and tweens, but others contained teen drinking, swearing and mild sexual innuendos. Several stories felt more new adult than young adult and would cross over well to an adult audience. My 17-year-old daughter will be reading this collection over vacation, while we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas.

If you're looking for more gift suggestion, my best books of 2014 will be posted later this week. I hope. I'm still reading...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

A white Thanksgiving in Maine! Luckily we got our power back in time to cook the turkey.
 
David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors; his genre bending novels defy classification. I waited eagerly for The Bone Clocks to be released in September of 2014 and was not disappointed. Fans will enjoy how several characters from Mitchell's previous books reappear in this one, although prior knowledge of his work isn't necessary to understand the story. The Bone Clocks follows a British teenager in the 1980s as she ages into a dystopian future, ravaged by climate change. A paranormal central plotline unites the chapters of Holly's life in this ambitious novel.

The Bone Clocks has something for everyone. Young adults will enjoy Holly's youthful rebellion, the hedonistic Cambridge students and the paranormal duels. Mitchell creates villains you love to hate. Spiritualists would find the parts about reincarnation fascinating. Policy pundits will appreciate the section about a war correspondent in Iraq. Literati will laugh over the publishing world satire. Environmentalists will embrace the scary climate change scenario. Somehow Mitchell weaves all these disparate plot strands together into a cohesive narrative.

Mitchell is a master of craft, but I think he's better at realism than at paranormal fantasy. I loved how reincarnation gave those characters a broader historical perspective, but the death defying Anchorites were too Harry Potter/Twilight. The central paranormal plot felt a bit contrived and overly complicated as if to compensate for being a childish element in an adult book. I'm not sure the narrative needed it since Holly's lifespan against the backdrop of climate change already grounded the story. Then again, I usually prefer realistic fiction to fantasy. Even so, the paranormal elements didn't put me off this book.

It was fascinating to watch a character age and mature through the period of my lifetime and into a plausibly bleak future. In an Atlantic Monthly interview, Mitchell explains that what people take for granted grounds a narrative in time: past, present or future. References to pop culture, technology and politics brings history to life and make an imagined future sound plausible. Holly's lifespan brackets the narrative. She is central to the narrative but is not always the protagonist in the story-like sections, each one focusing on a different character who matters to Holly.

Mitchell's writing is fresh, witty and occasionally sardonic:
Delightfully whimsical descriptive prose:
"Inside, Saint Mary Hoo's Church smells of charity shops, and the stained-glass gloom's all fruit-salady." 
Dialogue which reveals character:
"Don't your friends get annoyed when you do that?"
"Do what?"
"Sifting what they say for clues instead of listening?"
On the craft of writing:
"'A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned.'
My ten postgrads look sober. So they should.
'Art feasts upon its maker,' I tell them."
  
I'd recommend The Bone Clocks to almost anyone, although it's not my absolute favorite of Mitchell's books. I suspect that I will always love Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas the most. Perfection is pretty hard to beat. Nonetheless, The Bone Clocks is worth reading for its epic scope, well developed characters and page-turner plot. Mitchell is a writer's writer. The hardcover was a heavy 624 pages, but I literally couldn't put it down. I bought a larger handbag so that I could bring the book everywhere with me. My husband is reading it now and I'll be giving a copy to my son. The Bone Clocks will be on my best books of 2014 list (coming soon.)

The New York Times had a fascinating article on David Mitchell's process, which explains why academic scholars are studying his work. As I revise my WIP, I found Mitchell's advice inspiring: “Wrong versions become the scaffolding that you use to build the novel.”

Backcountry on Black Friday with Scout. Photo by my daughter.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought The Bone Clocks without compensation at Gulf of Maine Books. This beautifully bound hardcover would make an excellent holiday gift for readers and/or weight lifters. Let us say cheers and thank you to Barrie Summy for hosting the Book Review Club for another wonderful year!

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

At Bailey Island with my College Roommate

Freshman year, Harvard paired me with Bonnie and two other roommates. Before we met in person, Bonnie called me on the phone, and we discovered that we had lots in common, including adjacent geography. I was from New York City and she was from New Jersey. When I arrived on campus, I had an instant friend.

When I invited Bonnie to visit me anytime, I hadn't expected her to come in November. That's my least favorite month in Maine. The trees were bare; the skies were grey; the landscape was brown and the days were growing shorter. Bonnie doesn't like cold weather, but her son was competing in a regional cross-country meet (he finished second!) They came well prepared with warm layers and a game attitude.

I took Bonnie to Giant Stairway on Bailey Island for a frigid seaside walk.

There's a public path that skirts the cliffs.

It's a good lookout point for breaking waves, bobbing lobster pots and eider ducks.

On warmer days, I've often spent hours painting watercolors right there. 

We stopped at Mackerel Cove to watch the sunset.

It was chilly, but catching up with an old friend kept me warm.

I'm thankful for the long-lasting friendships in my life, including you bloggers.


Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Landline & Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, a double review

Wagon wheels at Rocky Ridge Orchard in Bowdoin, Maine

Rainbow Rowell captures the cool geek voice of my generation. She uses just the right amount of pop cultural references to place a book in its decade without making the story feel too dated. Her quirky characters are smart and well-meaning but lack judgment. We love them because we can relate to their mistakes. Rowell is best known for her bestseller young adult novels, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, but she also wrote two novels for adults.

Attachments (2011) was Rowell's impressive debut. Twenty-something Lincoln is still living with his mom at the end of the millennium. His job at the local newspaper is to prevent a Y2K crash and to monitor employee use of email. Beth, a music and film reviewer, and Jennifer, a copy editor, raise flags for using work email for personal chit chat, but instead of issuing a warning, Lincoln reads their exchanges and falls in love with Beth before first sight. Lincoln knows snooping is wrong, but he can't stop anymore than we can stop reading this bittersweet romance.

Although I found the premise creepy, Lincoln was a sympathetic character and the cyber security issues still felt relevant today. It was nice to see a close friendship between two women portrayed realistically through the ups and downs of life. Sometimes, however, this realism became too mundane, which is the downside of using email to tell a story. This narrative device was especially irritating in my audio book since every email exchange was tagged with the sender's and recipient's full names. The listening experience improved when the characters interacted in real time. I often stayed in the garage to finish a chapter. Attachments would translate well to the screen, as it reminded me of You've Got Mail. If you loved that movie, read this book.

Landline (July, 2014), Rowell's latest, is a contemporary realistic novel with a touch of magic. Georgie McCool's marriage is crumbling. She's so wrapped up in pitching a new TV series that she doesn't notice that her husband, who is home raising their kids, has left her until a day after her family is gone. Georgie returns to her childhood home and discovers that her old landline phone allows her to speak to her husband in the past.

Given the opportunity to do-over, what would Georgie change? This compelling question was well explored in the narrative, however, the magic phone was never explained. It thus felt like a plot gimmick and didn't integrate well with this otherwise realistic story. Still, I enjoyed the book for the well-developed characters and their witty banter. I often had to put the book down to laugh.
Georgie's dog-breeder mom:
"Kids are perceptive, Georgie. They're like dogs" - she offered a meatball from her own fork to the pug in her lap - "they know when their people are unhappy."
"I think you may just have reverse-anthropomorphized your own grandchildren."
Set over Christmas, Landline reads like a modern retelling of It's a Wonderful Life with a feminist twist. If you know someone who lives for holiday specials, Landline would make a wonderful Christmas present. Attachments in paperback (not audiobook) would make a good gift too. Rowell's YA books would be a better match for the teenagers and maybe some adults on your list.

Although I prefer Rowell's young adult fiction over her novels for adults, it's nice to see an author who can cross back in forth between marketing categories. Her YA books have more gritty realism and are less sentimental so I hope she writes more. I'd read any book written by Rainbow Rowell; she's one of my favorite authors. Her writing inspires my writing too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wolfe's Neck Park and Farm in Freeport, Maine


As the days get shorter, I'm gathering the warm ones to store for winter. Maine weather is quite temperamental in November. Our first snowfall was followed by days in the 50's with clear blue skies. Most leaves have fallen, but some still cling to the trees in brilliant shades of red and gold. A late frost means lingering colors.

It's deer hunting season so our hiking choices are limited, but Wolfe's Neck Park is always safe. This state park is situated on a peninsula on Casco Bay. The longest hike is only a couple of miles, but the ocean views from the wooded trails are gorgeous. It's hard to believe this wildlife sanctuary is only a short drive from the outlet shops of downtown Freeport.

On the way home, we stopped at Wolfe's Neck Farm. There's an untended farm shed where you can buy their free range meat, eggs, vegetables and soap. You write what you took and leave the money in a jam jar. It restores my faith in humanity.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I don't usually like memoirs or books written in verse, but I loved Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Born in 1963, Jacqueline grew up in both the north and the south. Her childhood memories are captured in free-verse poems. The reading experience was like flipping through a family scrapbook with warm nostalgia tempered by sorrow.

An excerpt from "the blanket"
So the first time my mother goes to New York City
we don't know to be sad, the weight
of our grandparents' love like a blanket
with us beneath it,
safe and warm.
During hard times, Jacqueline and her siblings lived with their working class grandparents in South Carolina. Civil rights legislation had repealed the Jim Crow laws, however racial prejudice lingered.


"ghosts" 
In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn't use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.
Young Jacqueline grew up with mixed messages. Her grandmother tells her to sit at the back of the bus to avoid trouble, but her mother encourages Jacqueline to be proud of who she is. In "the right way to speak" her mother whips her brother for saying "ain't."
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak. 
This lesson about the importance of language was not lost on the children. However, Jacqueline was a mediocre student. She was a disappointment to teachers who knew her brilliant older sister. Still, even as a child, Jacqueline wanted to be writer. Her poem "composition notebook" is an ode to her dream in the face of sibling rivalry:
And why does she need a notebook? She can't even write!
For days and days, I could only sniff the pages,
hold the notebook close
listen to the sound the papers made.
Some poems were three lines and others were three pages, but all were easy to read. Although Brown Girl Dreaming is being marketed for readers aged ten and up, a younger reader would need explanation about the historical context. An adult would appreciate the literary references to Langston Hughes and to Robert Frost, whose styles influence Jacqueline's poetry. It's a book with wide appeal to readers of all ages.

Although I wouldn't usually recommend this strategy, you should start this book at the end. The author's note places her work in context, and there are charming photos of Jacqueline and her extended family. As I met the characters, I enjoyed flipping back to the photos. The cover is gorgeous too.

Brown Girl Dreaming is on the short list for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and many expect it to win that and the Newbury Award. It would make an excellent addition to the middle school/junior high classroom or library. My one disappointment was that the memoir didn't follow the future MG/YA author beyond elementary school. I'm waiting for the sequel.


Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the beautiful hardcover edition at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine without compensation. Photo is of my backyard on Sunday after our first snowfall of the season. Happy Snowvember!

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October Favorites in Maine

Reading in my hammock, under a canopy of gold,


Wearing flannel shirts without jackets,

Picking apples with my daughter,

Biking on country roads,

Shopping at the farmers' market,

Brilliant maples at Bowdoin College 
(my husband's lecture hall)

Painting en plein air at Lookout Point,

Bird watching on Seawall Beach

Hiking safely at Morse Mountain (before deer hunting season)

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My daughter's song "Flooded to Black"

Gemma has written a song, "Flooded to Black," which was recorded for a documentary on tar sands oil: