Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Good Summer Books for Teens, Tweens and Adults

Simpson's Point in Maine

Now that summer is finally here, you'll find me biking four miles to Simpson's Point to swim at high tide. It's paradise if you ignore the green head flies. Great blue herons and snowy egrets fish in the shallows while bald eagles and ospreys circle above. As I wait for my suit to dry, I perch on a warm rock with a good book. Here are my recommendations of books published this year in hardcover or paperback with links to my full-length reviews:

Literary Historical Fiction (paperback) 

Euphoria by Lily King: set in tropical New Guinea and inspired by Margaret Mead, this sensuous summer read was one of my favorite books from 2014 and is now available in paperback. Follow the first link to my review and interview of the Maine author.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: this year's Pulitzer Prize winner alternates between a blind French girl and a German radio operator during World War II. This book would cross over well to young adults since the two protagonists are teenagers. Gorgeous writing and a well constructed plot makes this a compelling read. The author attended Bowdoin College in Maine. One third into this Dickensian story, I'm enjoying it. My husband will be reading this next for his book group. Thanks to all the people who recommended this book to me.

Commercial Fiction

Summer Secrets by Jane Green: I'm saving this newly released hardcover for Nantucket. Summer Secrets is set on that island and in Primrose Hill, London, where I lived on sabbatical with my family. This British American author knows her settings well. I've enjoyed five of Jane's novels; she writes the best beach books. You can read an excerpt from Summer Secrets here. Her last book, Tempting Fate, with my doppelganger as the protagonist, is now available in paperback.

Young Adult Fiction 

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein: this historical novel about a family of pilots in 1930s Ethiopia would appeal to adults as well as to older teens. The perspective alternates between an Italian American teenager and her foster brother, an Ethiopian American boy. Although slow to start, this literary book soars when it takes to the skies. Elizabeth Wein is one of my favorite authors (hardcover).

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales: this 2013 novel, recently released in paperback, is edgy, fresh and fun. An unpopular, depressed teen finds friends and romance while DJ-ing for a pop-up underground dance club. I loved this book and its alt rock music selections, stretching from now to decades past. The book includes thematic playlists and should have been sold with a soundtrack. I found this novel while browsing at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine.

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio: a homecoming queen discovers that she is intersex and is bullied at school when a friend reveals her secret. She turns to an online community for support. This novel will speak to anyone who doesn't fit in and will help others to be more understanding. The author is a urologist/surgeon who was inspired by a teenaged intersex patient (hardcover).

P.S. I Still Love You (hardcover) by Jenny Han is the follow up to last year's To All the Boys I've Loved Before (paperback). When Lara Jean's secret love letters are sent to her crushes, her love life gets complicated. The first book ends without much resolution, enticing you to buy the second one. These paired romances also focus on sibling relationships following the loss of their Korean-American mother. A good choice for reluctant readers.

One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart: set in Florence and narrated from the perspective of a teen who fears that she is losing her mind. The style is poetic and dreamlike without much plot structure. Best for fans of literary fiction and psychology. I've read six other novels by this most unique author (hardcover).

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is the 2015 Printz Award winner about a family of artists was one of my favorite books from last year. Narration alternates between a gay teenaged boy and his twin sister. If you want to understand why realistic young adult fiction is so big right now and crossing over to adults, try this book. I love Jandy Nelson's writing style (paperback).

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman is the much anticipated sequel to the award winning Seraphina (2012, now paperback). In this literary fantasy, an unstable truce between humans and dragons is under siege. Seraphina, a half human/dragon music mistress, hides her secret parentage while trying to prevent war. These books reminded me of The Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. I loved Seraphina (my niece's favorite book) so much that I bought the sequel the day I finished reading the first book, and I don't usually like fantasy. I bought a second copy for my niece's fourteenth birthday. Although Seraphina is a teenager, most characters are adults so it would crossover well to an adult audience (hardcover).

Young Adult Nonfiction (hardcover)

I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch: teenaged American-Zimbabwean pen-pals form a deep friendship over seven years in this inspiring memoir. The accessible style would appeal to younger teens and to tweens. Thanks, Main Point Books, for recommending this book to me.

Middle Grade Fiction (ages 10-12, hardcover)

A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord. An Hispanic migrant girl breaks traditions by entering the Downeast Blueberry Queen beauty pageant. Twelve-year-old Salma hopes to win a savings bond for college. No one captures small town Maine better than local author Cynthia Lord. This aptly named novel received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, won a Best of Maine Children's Book Award from Downeast Magazine and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Halfway through, I'm reading a chapter a night to savor it; A Handful of Stars would make an excellent read-aloud bedtime story for the summer.

The Disappearance of Emily H. by Barrie Summy: this paranormal mystery set in a real world middle school would be a good choice for reluctant readers. The protagonist is a 13-year-old girl who reads sparkle memories on inanimate objects to find a missing girl.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I read/recommend mostly realistic young adult fiction since that is what I write myself. Beth Kephart and Barrie Summy are my blog buddies, and at my request, I received review galleys from their publishers. I also requested a review galley of Elizabeth Wein's novel from her new editor, who is my friend. All other books I purchased at indie bookstores (Gulf of Maine Books, Longfellow Books and Bull Moose) and was not compensated for my reviews. Jane Green is an art client. Cynthia Lord and her editor are my neighbors/friends. My daughter went to school with Lily King's daughters. Yes, the Maine literary community is basically a small town.

Blog Watch: for more recommendations check out the summer reading lists posted @From The House of Edward@ The Cue Card and @ Midlife Roadtripper.

What are you reading this summer?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I Will Always Write Back by C. Alifirenka & M. Ganda with L. Welch

I Will Always Write Back is a moving memoir that advocates for compassion and respect for children in developing countries. For a seventh grade pen pal assignment, Caitlin chose to correspond with Martin Ganda in Zimbabwe because she'd never heard of that African country. Over the course of six years, they formed a close friendship. Their story is told in alternating chapters, dating from 1997.

At first Caitlin believes that Martin is well off since he pays fees to go to school and is top of his class, and he doesn't want to scare her off with the full truth. Martin assumes that Caitlin wouldn't understand, but when she learns of his impoverishment, she secretly sends her babysitting money to him. Later she convinces her middle class parents to help support Martin's family so that he can stay in school. However, sending money securely to Zimbabwe is nearly impossible. Martin's quest to find a scholarship to an American college is a page-turner story with everyday details that make it real and relatable.
"The last Fanta I had was two Christmases ago - at the beginning of the economic troubled time. My father could only afford one that year, so we passed it around, taking small sips, holding the sunshine-sweet liquid in our mouths for as long as possible before giving in to a swallow."
This engaging book teaches a lesson about the world from a personal perspective without sounding too preachy. Caitlin, despite her generosity, is not a saint. She's a typical American teenager who is more focused on shopping, popularity and boys than on her schoolwork. Most kids will relate to Caitlin and her everyday problems, which contrast sharply with Martin's day-by-day struggle to obtain basic necessities like food, water, shelter and medical treatment. His Herculean efforts to stay in school inspire Caitlin to take her education more seriously and to choose a career in nursing. She gets as much from him as he does from her. Their true story shows that it's possible to make a difference and that the differences between us aren't insurmountable.

I Will Always Write Back would make an excellent classroom supplement to an international pen pal assignment. The easy-to-read style is a good match for kids ages ten to fourteen. There are only a couple of chapters with drugs and underaged drinking, but a teacher could skip over them. Since the book follows the characters from seventh grade to college, it is being marketed as young adult. Older teens and adults would enjoy it too, but the naive perspective and simple writing style are better geared for younger readers, in my opinion. Read with a box of tissues.

Reviewer's Disclosure: the owner of Main Point Books in Pennsylvania recommended this book to me. I purchased it at Longfellow Books in Maine. As a teen, I spent a summer in Kenya studying wildlife conservation and learned how challenging life is for families in developing countries. The experience changed how viewed the world. Books like I Will Always Write Back are not only important; they are necessary. Family photo below is by my dad.

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Sorry to be slow to respond lately. I've been offline celebrating my daughter's high school graduation.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Port Clyde to Monhegan Island, researching a novel

Last week my daughter and I visited Monhegan Island, twelve nautical miles off the Maine coast. I was gathering more material for my young adult novel, and my daughter was gathering botanical samples for her senior project. As we waited for the ferry in Port Clyde, she read a draft of my manuscript. My work in progress is set in a harbor town similar to Port Clyde, and one of the characters is an island lobsterman.

Riding the small mailboat ferry out to sea feels like traveling back in time.

Out the bow windows, Monhegan slowly appears on the horizon, rising out of the sea. The island community just celebrated 400 years of settlement, although Native Americans inhabited it seasonally before the white settlers. Monchiggon was the Algonquin word for out-to-sea island. There are around 40 year round residents currently, depending on how you measure residency. The only access is by ferry, with infrequent service off season. Summer people and birders start arriving Memorial Day weekend.

The largest building is The Island Inn, where we stayed since the beachside apartment I rented last spring was unavailable. The Island Inn offered a good deal on a two room suite in their meadowside cottage (the bi-colored house with the dormer windows) with an excellent breakfast buffet. More rustic options are the Monhegan House and the Trailing Yew, which I've enjoyed other visits. All serve breakfast and dinner since there are no restaurants on island. On season there are two coffee shops, a pizza parlor and an excellent brewery (open until 6pm), where visitors and islanders congregate. There is no nightlife after dinner.

Monhegan is lovely in late May with the forsythia and fruit trees blooming, attracting migrating warblers. Spring lags two to three weeks behind the mainland. It's chillier in the spring and summer, although warmer in winter since the sea moderates temperatures. Many days are cloaked in thick fog.

We were lucky to have sunny 60 degree weather for our hike day. A narrow cliffside trail encircles the island, granting breathtaking views (ie time to stop and catch your breath and take photos!) Hiking the full outer trail would take four to five hours at a leisurely pace.

Hiking boots are a good idea, although there are easy trails leading directly to lookout points, like Whitehead. Below the 160 foot cliffs, lobster pots bob in the surf.

The natural beauty of this remote island never ceases to enchant me. It hasn't changed much in the twenty-four years that I've been visiting it. I've taken countless photos, painted watercolors and now I'm writing a scene set on a fictional island like Monhegan.

I was so pleased that my daughter chose Monhegan Island as one of her eight collection sites for her senior project. She's researching medicinal uses of native Maine plants. I'll share some of her exquisite drawings in a future post.

I can't believe that my daughter is graduating from high school next week. It's been so special having this time to explore the Maine woods together and to share our passion for nature and art. I'll be offline next week, celebrating with my family.

At the end of the day we hiked up to the lighthouse to enjoy the sunset over the ocean, quite a rare treat for those of us on the east coast. The clear golden light was worth the journey on its own.

You can read more about my young adult novel and Monhegan Island here.
Next post: Wednesday, June 17th.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The College Application Process Now

Harvard University
Even if you are a recent graduate, the college application process has changed radically for teens today. For starters, a majority of selective colleges use the Common App. However, most "realistic" young adult novels that I read/review get the process wrong. Hopefully this post will clear up some confusion.

Misconception #1: colleges snail mail admission responses.

These days, most colleges inform students of acceptance decisions online. When applying, a student creates an account with a password on the college's website. On the decision day, the student logs in to get the result. Following online admission, the college will snail mail a big packet to accepted students. Standardized test scores are also released online to the student.

Misconception #2: all applicants take the SATs and high test scores guarantee acceptance. 

Traditionally, students in coastal states took the SATs while those in the Midwest took the ACTs. These days, students from anywhere can take either standardized test and most colleges accept both. Some colleges allow you to skip standardized tests altogether. The most selective colleges may also require SAT IIs (subject tests). In 2005, the SATs switched to a 2400 point system: 800 Reading, 800 Writing, 800 Math plus an essay. In 2016 the SAT will revert to a 1600 point system: 800 Reading +Writing, 800 Math, and an optional essay.

The more selective colleges tend to accept students with higher test scores, but high scores and GPA aren't enough on their own to guarantee admission. Also important are the application essay (and sometimes an interview), teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities/supplements. Large state universities are more likely to place greater emphasis on test scores and GPA. Standardized tests are weighted more heavily for homeschooled kids who usually don't have an academic transcript/GPA.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology releases admissions decisions on Pi Day 3/14.

Misconception #3: kids apply early to multiple schools.

There are three types of early applications: Rolling Admission, Early Action and Early Decision. Many state universities, especially honors programs, have Rolling Admission: qualified students are accepted in the fall through the spring until the class is full. The most selective private colleges often have non-binding Early Action, but applicants may only apply early to one selective college along with state schools. Other colleges have binding Early Decision, which means you can only apply to one school and you must attend if accepted (as long as your financial needs are met.)

Early action and early decision applications are usually due in early November, and the students will hear by early/mid December if they are accepted, rejected or deferred (ie to be considered along with other applicants in the regular pool at a later date.) At that point, ED students must accept the offer, but EA students have the option to apply to other colleges as well. Some schools have a second round of binding Early Decision in January.

Most kids don't apply early. They may not be sure of their first choice and prefer to wait for regular decision, which frequently has a January 1st deadline. Students often apply to ten to twelve schools at regular admission time, a combination of likely, target and reach schools. Regular acceptances are posted in late March to early April. The accepted student's decision is usually due May 1st, and after that, other kids may be accepted off the wait-list. There are financial considerations too, explained below.

Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in rural Vermont.

Misconception #4: the smartest kids always go to Ivy League schools.

The Ivies aren't the best choice for everyone. Small liberal arts colleges focus exclusively on undergraduate education and offer top-notch teaching. State universities can be excellent too (eg UC Berkeley). There are schools that specialize in the arts (often requiring auditions and supplements) or technology. Some kids choose local community college so that they can work part time. Others pick ROTC programs.

Financial aid packages vary and some are need-based while others are merit-based. Many applicants don't apply early decision (binding) because they want to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools. This year a boy from Tennessee turned down all eight Ivies and Stanford for Alabama State University's Honor's Program so that he'd have more money left for graduate school. However, elite private colleges which accept need blind often offer bigger financial aid packages so it can be cheaper to go to a private college than to a state university.

The process is different for foreign students and for American students studying abroad. International students often receive an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree which is recognized in many countries.

A tip on writing realistic YA fiction: beta test your manuscript on teens the same age as your characters. They may flag other things that have changed since you were a teenager.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor

Spring comes late to Maine, but it makes up for lost time with everything blooming all at once.

On Mother's Day, my daughter and I visited Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.
It's one of my favorite places, and she wanted to scout it for her senior project.
She's creating a botanical guide to Maine plants with photos and drawings.

How did my little girl become a high school senior?

We still share a love of nature. Tulips!

Korean Azaleas!


My favorite photo was one my daughter took with her DSLR of the rhododendrons. 

The Rhododendron Garden waterfall was the grand finale to a perfect day.

Link to my previous visit to Maine Botanical Gardens

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Disappearance of Emily H. by Barrie Summy

Today I'm reviewing a delightful new children's book by Barrie Summy, the host of our book review club. The Disappearance of Emily H. is a realistic mystery with paranormal clues. This middle grade novel will delight fans of Barrie's I So Don't Do Mysteries series and will make plenty of new fans as well.

Thirteen-year-old Raine moves from town to town, escaping her mom's heartbreaks. Transitions are challenging for Raine, who has an embarrassing paranormal habit of reading "sparkle" memories from inanimate objects. Kids have mocked Raine for how she reaches for things and fondles them, without realizing that she has magical powers. Only her single mom knows of her secret talent. Raine's deceased grandmother shared this paranormal trait.

At her new middle school in upstate New York, Raine is determined to act normal and to fit in, but she can't resist a mystery. Prior to Raine's arrival, unpopular Emily Huvar vanished without a visible trace. Only Raine can read the paranormal clues which point to the school's queen bee and her buzzing clique of bullies. Creepier still? Before Emily disappeared, she lived in Raine's new home....

The Disappearance of Emily H. was written in an easy-to-read style and set at a typical school with an entertaining cast of kids. The mean girl was a bit too generic, but the other characters were well developed and multifaceted. I especially liked the inclusion of a formerly homeschooled girl and children from less advantaged backgrounds. For a paranormal book, it was surprisingly realistic but not too predictable. There were some unexpected plot twists. This well paced mystery was stacked with clues that will keep kids turning the pages to the scary climax.

Witty observations added humor to the dark mystery:
"Shirlee chats about Yielding. She's one of those people who can handle both sides of a conversation. Works for me." 
"Like sunflowers turning toward the sun, everyone at the table suddenly tunes in to our conversation."
Raine is a strong, likable protagonist, who makes a fine role model. The narrative includes a sweet romance, but brave Raine doesn't need help from boys to solve her mystery. Magic reveals clues without resolving the underlying problems. Raine turns instead to social media to teach the bullies an important lesson. The content is still innocent enough for elementary school children. I predict this magical mystery will be a big hit among young readers.

Well done, Barrie!

Reviewer's Disclaimer: upon my request, I received a free galley from Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest review. The author is a blog buddy. The book will be released on May 12, 2015 and is recommended for ages 10 and up. Raine is pronounced rain.

My review of I So Don't Do Spooky by Barrie Summy with an author interview.

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