Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

The gorgeous cover fits this young adult novel about a teen artist. In Starfish, debut author Akemi Dawn Bowman uses art metaphorically to explore multicultural identity, mental illness, and resilience. A victim of sexual abuse as a young child, Kiko paints the feelings that she is too scared to share with anyone. Since her Japanese American father signed full custody to her Caucasian mother, Kiko lost her chance to understand her Japanese heritage. Her narcissistic mom transfers her resentment about divorce into criticism of anything Asian, making Kiko and her brothers ashamed of their biracial roots. Living in a white suburban neighborhood in Nebraska with racist peers doesn't help.

Kiko's confusion about her identity exacerbates her social anxiety disorder: "I can't imagine feeling like I'll ever belong anywhere. I'm either too white, or too Asian, but never enough of either. And I'm weird. People don't react well to weird."

When her dream art college in NYC rejects her and her abusive uncle moves back in with her family, Kiko drives off with Jamie, an old friend/crush, to look at other art schools. In California she meets a Japanese American artist who offers to mentor her, but her anxiety makes it hard to trust anyone, including herself. Jamie, like the reader, often becomes frustrated with Kiko, but with love and acceptance, her self-confidence grows and her art improves. Their sweet romance offsets the pain.

Most chapters end with a description of Kiko's art, which captures her daily mood: "I paint a girl with white hair, blending into a forest of white trees, with stars exploding in the sky above them like shattering glass. If you don't know where to look for her, you might not see her at all."

Despite her dark issues, Kiko has a good sense of humor. On her mom obsessing over the "Best-Looking" in her yearbook: "Sometimes it feels like she belongs in high school more than I do."

Akemi Dawn Bowman portrait by Rory Lewis
As you can see from these excerpts, Starfish is brutally honest, surprisingly funny, and often lyrical. The author, like her protagonist, is hafu Japanese American and has social anxiety as well. Her novel will help multicultural teens feel less isolated and encourage empathy from others. The sexual abuse part of the story, although understated and not explicit, would make me not recommend this book to younger teenagers. However, Starfish would crossover well to adults since it's so introspective and the central relationship is with the mother. With all the media speculation on a certain president's narcissistic personality disorder, this book is timely. Although the college application process was somewhat unrealistic, the artistic process ringed true. I wish I'd read Starfish senior year in high school, as a young artist myself.

Since I was raised with two religions and married an immigrant, I relate to the identity issues facing Kiko. I have faced anti-Semitism but was also told that I wasn't Jewish since my mother was Christian. On the plus side, my brother and I have always been more open to people who are different from us. I married a British man and my brother married a Japanese woman, and we raised our children with multiple religions and time abroad to understand their mixed cultural heritage. Blended families need books like Starfish. Thank you, Akemi!

Reviewer's Disclosure: The hardcover was published in September, 2017. I searched four bookstores until I found Starfish at Print: A Bookstore in Portland. I connected with the author on twitter.

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Acadia National Park: Jordan Pond & the Bubbles


Care to join me for a virtual hike in Maine? On October 10th we set off for the Bubbles, a pair of conjoined mountains in Acadia National Park. The trailhead 14-spot parking lot is frequently full so we had to park at Jordan Pond, a couple of miles down the park road.


At the far end of the flat Jordan Pond trail, there is a choice between a steep trail up South Bubble or a more gradual trail (good for hiking poles) that winds through golden birch tree groves, which we chose both ways. Round trip, the moderately easy hike was three hours with many photo breaks. We didn't have time to include the North Bubble.


The bare granite summit of South Bubble is only 800 feet above sea level, but it offers fantastic views of Mt. Desert Island and its lakes to the north...


...and Jordan Pond plus the ocean islands to the south. The open summit would be a good picnic spot.


Another lunch option, if you're willing to wait an hour for a table, is Jordan Pond House overlooking the pond and the Bubbles. This in park restaurant is renowned for its oven warm popovers (American Yorkshire Pudding). My local lobster salad and crab cake and my husband's Shepherd's Pie were excellent. Afterwards we admired the wildflower meadows before our three hour drive home.

A less well known hike with good ocean views is Beech Mountain (previous post). We found both hikes in 50 Hikes in Coastal and Southern Maine by John Gibson, my favorite Maine guidebook, which also explains the geography of the terrain. I'd recommend a waterproof trail map and a compass too.

Acadia is most busy late June through Labor Day and for peak foliage in mid October. To save time, buy your park pass online and avoid the park road loop at midday. You can also take the park shuttle bus. Note that Jordan Pond House and some town businesses close off season. Despite the crowds, Acadia National Park is one of my favorite places in Maine.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Acadia National Park: Beech Mountain & Bar Harbor


Acadia National Park's seaside mountains attracts visitors from all over the world, but most tourists don't wander far from their cars. Beech Mountain (above photo) on the remote western corner of Mt. Desert Island is an excellent hike to avoid the crowds. At only 700 feet, it's more of hill than a mountain but still quite steep on the slick granite. Hiking boots are a good idea, but this trail is too rocky for hiking poles.


My husband and I woke early on Indigenous People Day (our town renamed Columbus Day) to hike before the afternoon rain. At sunrise, there was a cool fog bow over Bar Harbor. It's about a half hour drive from town to the trailhead (northwest corner of the parking lot).


On a clear day, the fire tower at Beech Mountain offers a panoramic view of Mt. Desert and the Cranberry Islands, but it was also quite lovely in the mist with peak foliage. Dense fog hid the sea.


Bright red maple trees and blueberry bushes still managed to flame through the misty evergreens.


The colors were all the more vibrant against the mist. 


From the open peak, the South Ridge Trail follows the granite ridge over lichen and descends gradually in switchbacks through a pine forest. The tall pines with dripping ferns, lichen and moss reminded me of the Pacific Northwest or Japan. There is such an interesting variety of terrain in Acadia, compared to other parts of Maine. Stopping frequently to take photos, the 3 mile loop took us about 2 1/2 hours. It was too wet to complete the Canada Cliff and Eagle Cliff loops near the base.


Since Acadia is nearly a three hour drive from home, we spent two nights at the Bar Harbor Inn, which has excellent views of the harbor and is close to the restaurants and shops in town. We met our son and his girlfriend, who hiked a more challenging trail in the rain, at Havana for a delicious dinner. I'd also recommend the Side Street Cafe for lunch or dinner in Bar Harbor, and you'll also want to browse in Sherman's Bookstore nearby. Luckily for us, the skies cleared on our last day. I'll share sunnier photos in my next Acadia post, later this month.


The foliage is also gorgeous back at home. This photo is from my regular bike ride, a seven mile loop from my house past farmlands and a tidal estuary. I love Maine in October!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Rattled Bones by S.M. Parker

If you're looking for an excellent ghost story for October, check out S.M. Parker's The Rattled Bones. This chilling tale of the past haunting the present is all the more horrific for being based on a true historical event. In 1912 the governor of Maine ordered the evacuation of Malaga Island. The residents were black, white, and mixed race, and several were incarcerated at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, which became Pineland Farms. For her novel, Shannon M. Parker pushed this true incident forward a couple of decades and added a present day family living on the mainland, overlooking the now deserted island. Sam, an Archaeology intern at USM relays the history to Rilla, the eighteen-year-old protagonist who befriends him while fishing off the island.

The Rattled Bones opens with a double tragedy. Rilla's mother is sent to a mental hospital, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother. Twelve years later, Rilla takes the helm of her father's lobster boat after he dies at sea. Rilla is torn by her desire to be the first in her family to go to college and her obligation to support her grandmother. When an island ghost starts haunting her, Brilla fears she has inherited her mother's insanity, but she wants to help the ghost and solve the mystery. This young adult novel was hard to put down.

Bustle called The Rattled Bones a "feminist ghost story" for many good reasons. The lobster fishing scenes were even more compelling than the ghost story, capturing the challenges a female captain faces in a male dominated industry. Rilla and her sternman Sam were smart, likable characters who treat each other with respect. My favorite character was the self-sufficient grandmother who listens to The Who while painting in the attic. Even the ghost was a well developed diverse character, a dangerous mix of good and evil. The ghost died before her time, but nevertheless, she persisted!

I had only a few criticisms of this well-crafted book. I would have preferred a transitional scene between the first and second chapter to show Rilla's relationships with her father and her high school boyfriend before tragedy struck. I also craved a final scene with the missing mother. The dig scenes, especially at the end, didn't always ring true to slow-paced Archaeology but made for a dramatic story. Overall though, the historical material was educational and well presented in engaging dialogue. Lyrical passages captured the gorgeous setting and enhanced suspense. The Rattled Bones was a fast, fun read which will appeal to both teens and adults.


My two favorite quotations:
"The morning fog parts as I push against its thickness, the displaced mist twisting into thin gray fingers, beckoning me toward deeper waters." 
"His apology surprises me. A boy who apologizes for interrupting a girl might be as rare as photos of the island." 

Last night Shannon M. Parker was on a YA panel with Maine authors Gillian French and Maria Padian at Print Bookstore in Portland. I've read and enjoyed all of Maria's books and Gillian's debut, Grit. Islandport Press editor Melissa Kim moderated the lively discussion and also published Gillian's The Door to January, which I purchased after hearing Gillian read a spooky excerpt. This was my second time meeting Shannon, who was my partner years ago in a YA workshop. I'm looking forward to reading her debut, The Girl Who Fell. It's so exciting to see her books in print. Well done, Shannon!

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@Barrie Summy

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.