Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Factual Accuracy in Fiction: does it matter?

Monhegan Island, Maine at night from a fact gathering trip for my work-in-progress

An author needs to create a world that is believable. When I spot factual errors in a book, even if it's fiction, the reality is broken for me. I don't expect perfection, but authors writing outside their personal experiences need to be more careful with the facts. Part of the reason I only review Maine novels if they are written by locals is that most people from away lack a basic understanding of my home state. If you use summer as a verb, I'm not the right reviewer for your book.

A day out lobstering in Harpswell to research my novel

I once read a "Maine" novel in which the lobstermen were loading their traps onto pickup trucks at the end of a summer day. In the real world, lobster traps are hauled up, the catch removed and then rebaited, but the traps usually remain in the ocean until the end of the season. The same book described a family as being so poor that they couldn't afford to repair their air conditioner. Most Maine residents live without air conditioning. It rarely gets too hot, and we have other priorities like heating our homes through the long winter. Yet another error: using a cell phone to navigate a boat. Once you're offshore, there isn't much reception. More importantly, you need a depth and tide chart to avoid the rocky shoals. Using a phone to navigate the coastal seas is not just inaccurate, it's dangerous misinformation. I didn't review that otherwise well-written book.

Rocky shoals off Monhegan Island

A related problem is not fact-checking. An author may do extensive research but can still get a few facts reversed or jumbled. Here's an example: a protagonist adjusts "aperture speed." In photography you can either change the shutter speed (how long the lens is open) or adjust the aperture (the size of the lens opening). There were other errors in a darkroom scene (eg film being processed in a red lit darkroom instead of in absolute darkness). Most readers wouldn't notice the slip, but I'm a photographer who cut her teeth in a darkroom before switching to digital. It was otherwise a really good book which captured the creativity of the arts. I may review it later.


The flipside of the factual coin is info dumping. Some books, especially historical fiction, are factually accurate to the point where the novel reads like a sixth grade Social Studies textbook. For example: I use my bone-handled knife to skin the seal in the manner that my grandmother once taught me. Nope. The native narrator wouldn't be consciously thinking about something she does everyday. If explanation is necessary for context, have an outsider ask questions. An author needs to be well informed to write believably, but that doesn't mean that the reader needs to be taught everything the author knows. Info dumping breaks the flow of a story and makes me quit reading. Keep your research file separate or consider switching to nonfiction.

Monhegan Harbor in fog

Finding factual errors in published books motivated me to be more careful with my own work-in-progress. Last month I interviewed a police officer for a drunk-driving arrest scene. After I wrote the scene, the officer fact-checked the pages and flagged a handful of errors, which I will correct. For drama, I might allow some flexibility with normal police procedure, but this will be a conscious choice, not a careless accident. My goal is to minimize factual errors to foster reality. (Thank you, Officer Dan Sylvain!)

Monhegan Harbor later the same day

The bottom line: write what you know or ask someone who knows to fact-check.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

Squam Lake, New Hampshire in summer

One of the best things about living in Maine is the community. For a population of 1.3 million, we have a surprisingly large number of writers and artists. The gorgeous landscape must be inspiring. My neighbor Cynthia Lord is a Newbury Honor author. Cindy's editor, Kate Egan, lives around the corner from her. Their first book together, Half a Chance, is about a 12-year-old girl who secretly enters a photo contest judged by her father.

Every chapter explores a theme of the photographic scavenger hunt. Lucy, who just moved to New Hampshire, asks the boy next door for help. Over the summer they explore the beautiful lake, their small town and surrounding mountains in search of original photo subjects. They also help Nate's ailing grandmother monitor the nesting loons on an island. This enchanting summer tale teaches the young reader about photography, wildlife conservation and artistic ethics. The fun competition becomes serious when Lucy realizes that her best photo might betray the trust of her new friend and compromise her father's professional integrity. There are no easy choices.

Author Cynthia Lord in Maine
Cindy writes so well about what she knows. She grew up on a lake similar to this fictional one. Her husband, a professional photographer, gave her excellent guidance. Cindy not only describes the process of photography but also the artistic decisions behind a composition and how to achieve emotional impact through imagery. During the time that she was writing Half a Chance, I noticed that her own photography skills improved. She also researched loon behavior thoroughly and spent days kayaking. Cindy is a method writer, but her technically brilliant prose is humanized with raw feelings. I dare you to finish this book with dry eyes.
"Whenever we move, I take a picture as soon as we arrive. It always makes me feel a little braver, knowing that on some future day I can look back at that photo, taken when it was new and scary, and think, I made it. Like creating a memory in reverse."
Editor/author Kate Egan
Credit is also due to editor Kate Egan. In a well edited book, you won't notice the writing but will focus instead on the story. This one flows so well, allowing the voice to sing. Half a Chance reads like an old classic with modern updates (eg texting and a computer programer mom.) Usually I can find a fault in a book that editing might have corrected, but the only thing I could criticize is the cover. The illustration is pretty, but that's not how you carry a kayak.

I'd strongly recommend Half a Chance to girls and boys in elementary school up to age twelve. There's a hint of romance but the focus is on friendship and family. It would make an excellent bedtime story because you will enjoy reading it aloud as much as your kids will enjoy listening to it. This middle grade novel received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Brava, Cindy and Kate! Encore!

Writers' Night Out: Cynthia Lord, Kate Egan, Charlotte Agell, Sarah Laurence and Maria Padian 

Reviewer's Disclosure:  I bought Half a Chance at Gulf of Maine Books. Cynthia Lord and Kate Egan (an author as well as an editor) are my friends. We get together with children's authors Charlotte Agell and Maria Padian to talk books. These talented neighbors encouraged me to write young adult fiction. That's the best kind of peer pressure! All photos are mine. The last one was taken by Scott Smith.

My reviews of more
novels by Cynthia Lord:

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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