Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

While browsing in the Wallingford Bookshop in that medieval market town in England, I was drawn to the gorgeous cover of The Bear and The Nightingale (January 2017). The writing inside was equally beautiful. Set in a remote village in northern Russia, this new fantasy series draws on local folklore and history. Author Katherine Arden spent her gap year in Russia before studying its literature at Middlebury College. Her mastery of the language and culture grounds the medieval fairy-tale in its historical context.

In The Bear and the Nightingale, young Vasya runs wild in the woods, refusing to conform to traditional gender roles, antagonizing her miserable stepmother. Her ability to see spirits also puts Vasya at odds with a handsome young priest, who is trying to establish Christianity in their farming community on the edge of the wilderness. Vasya fears being labeled a witch, but she also needs to warn her family of the threats only she perceives. The line between right and wrong often blurs, depending on perspective. I loved how the demons were as well developed and as morally ambiguous as the mortals and how winter was both a character and a setting.
"Moscow, just past Midwinter, and the haze of ten thousand fires rose to meet a smothering sky. To the west a little light lingered, but in the east the clouds mounded up, bruise-colored in the livid dusk, buckling with unfallen snow." 
-The Girl in the Tower
In The Girl in the Tower (December 2017), teenage Vasya disguises herself as a boy and sets out on a magical horse to see the real world, encountering spirits, bandits, and storms on the icy trail. She is more afraid of being sent to a convent or confined to a palace tower in Moscow, like her princess sister. Feminism is a difficult fit for the times. This second book in the Winternight trilogy was even better than the first, now that the protagonist has matured into a young woman. The sequel combines literary style with a page-turner mystery, less horrific than the first book but equally surreal.

Although this series was published as adult fantasy, it could as easily be young adult fiction, given the age of the protagonist and the content. I bought both for my sixteen-year-old niece, who loved them as much as I did. We're eagerly awaiting The Winter of the Witch, due to be published in August. I prefer the British cover art as shown, which looks more Russian than the American editions. I'd strongly recommend these books to historical fiction and fantasy readers of all ages, especially to fans of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. They are just the right books for this never ending winter!

I also have an excellent audiobook recommendation: Long Way Down, a YA novel in verse read by the author, Jason Reynolds: An African American boy, set on revenging the gang shooting death of his older brother, encounters the spirits of his past in the elevator.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko parlor in Nara, Japan

The sign of a good book is feeling bereft at the end. After finishing Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017), I spent days picking up new books and putting them down. I kept thinking about Lee's captivating characters and missing them as much as real people. This brilliant historical novel shows the plight of Koreans under colonial rule and as immigrants in Japan. By focusing on one peasant woman, Sunja, and her family from 1910 to 1989, history segways to near contemporary times and comes to life.

Under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, Koreans endured poverty, hunger, and rape. Some immigrated to Japan to live in slums. Even after World War II freed Korea, the Koreans who remained in Japan were treated as a legal underclass. Desperate immigrants opened pachinko parlors; the game is similar to pinball but with movable pins and gambling. Some Korean Japanese became involved with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and other nefarious vocations, leading to more social stigma even toward those working in lawful industries. The most intriguing character in Pachinko was a morally ambiguous yakuza boss.

Although I studied Japan at college, I learned a lot from Min Jin Lee. The Korean American author spent 30 years writing and researching Pachinko. It has a marvelous sense of place and period without info dumping. Her engaging story shows how racism takes an emotional toll on its targets. I won't demean her characters by calling them victims because they work hard to assimilate and take pride in their accomplishments. All the characters were well developed and their stories were inspiring.

I loved Lee's vivid descriptions of landscapes and characters:
"As they approached the forest located on the opposite side of the island, the enormous pines, maples, and firs seemed to greet them, decked in golds and reds as if they were wearing their holiday clothes." 
"Her expression was one of a small child who had been disappointed by her birthday present."
Pachinko parlor in Okinawa (from my sabbatical in Japan)

I would strongly recommend Pachinko to everyone. The historical sections from 1910 to the early 1960s were perfectly crafted, but the more contemporary part read a bit like a prolonged epilogue with a message. Still, it was important to have the narrative stretch to more current times. My husband, who is a professor of Japanese politics, had a similar reaction, and my mother loved it too. We are still casting around for new books that will be as satisfying as Pachinko so I'm hoping to find one from the reviews linked to this post.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Winter Walk at Wolfe's Neck Park

It was a glorious day for a winter walk with temperatures just above freezing. We drove to Wolfe's Neck Park in Freeport, one of our favorite places in Maine. The longest loop takes only an hour so my son decided to walk the ten miles home on his own.

Together we hiked the compacted trail with only microspikes, leaving our snowshoes in the car. 

Yesterday's ice storm left the trees glistening like cut glass. Streams gurgled with melting snow.

Evergreens dripped like rain. 

An ocean of ice reflected the bright sunlight, so deceptively warm.

Casco Bay was still mostly frozen, fractured by thaw and tides.

As the sun slipped behind a cloud, the blues intensified.

We climbed down the slick steps to the shore.

Where the ocean stretched to the horizon and beyond.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

Happy New Year! It's the Year of the Dog in Japan. Mine likes to join me on my cross country skis (photo by my son). With sub zero temperatures and another blizzard (9-12 inches with 45 mph gusts) due tomorrow, this is good reading weather.

While warming up by the fire, I enjoyed Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, which won the National Book Award in 2017. This well-crafted young adult novel shows the racial and gender based inequities of fostering and adoption in the USA, but it still manages to be a feel-good book full of hope.

After giving up her baby for adoption, sixteen-year-old Grace decides to look for her own birth mother and discovers that she has two half siblings. Wealthy Maya was also adopted as a baby into a loving but troubled family. Their half Mexican brother, Joaquin, had a harder time than his white sisters and bounced around foster homes for years. Together they redefine and expand the meaning of family. I loved the close bonds that formed among the siblings.

This simile was my favorite: "...the ability to sit quietly side by side, content in the knowledge that no matter what happened to your parents, or your girlfriend, that your siblings will be there, like a bookend that keeps you upright when you feel like toppling over." By comparison, the family tree metaphor of the title was less original and a bit overworked.

Of the three perspectives, Joaquin's was the most compelling. I probably would have prefered a book centered on him, but I often have that issue with multiple point-of-view books. I would still recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys heartwarming family stories with diverse characters. You should also check out my list of Best Contemporary YA of 2017. Thanks, Barrie, for recommending this novel to me and for hosting the book review club.

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@Barrie Summy

My resolution for 2017 was to write the first draft of the young adult novel I researched in Japan. The manuscript is going to two crit partners later this week, and there will be many more drafts and beta/sensitivity readers (including my Japanese American niece) before I give the manuscript to my agent, which is my writing resolution for 2018. Also, I'd like to learn more Japanese, and I will remain politically active since Maine is a swing state. What are your resolutions?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Aglow is Lit

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Aglow brightens the long nights from mid November to New Year's Eve. 

Last night it was 15F at 7:00 pm on the warmest day of the week. I was amazed to see more people than on a spring day, but crowds dispersed over the extensive grounds. Be sure to reserve tickets online in advance.

Mainers dress winter chic in long coats and high boots. In summer, roses adorn this veranda.

We wondered how long it took to hang over half a million LED lights. 

Evergreens twinkled like Christmas trees under a half moon, but there were no holiday decorations. Gardens Aglow is a nondenominational festival of lights; it felt spiritual but was not religious.

Storm buried lights made the snow glow like a phosphorescent sea.

An hour was barely enough time to see all the lights with a warm up break inside. There was hot cocoa, kettle corn, chili, and cocktails too. Next year we'll allow more time.

Afterwards my family drove ten minutes to McSeagull's for dinner on Boothbay Harbor. A hot Sailor's Cider warmed me up and the fish and chips were excellent. There was also gluten free pizza for my daughter, who declared, "Gardens Aglow was lit!" We agreed that it was a brilliant way to end the year.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Best Contemporary YA of 2017

If you're looking for good holiday gifts for teens, here are my suggestions from the 61 books I read this year. 2017 was a fabulous year for diverse contemporary young adult fiction. Follow the links to full reviews posted earlier on my blog or Goodreads. Since we're already halfway through Hanukkah, I'm starting with two novels with Jewish protagonists.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli is a sweet romance with secular Jewish characters. Molly has had 26 crushes on boys but hasn't even been kissed. She fears that no boy would be attracted to a big girl. Meanwhile her skinny twin sister has hooked up with several girls but has never had a serious relationship. As the twins discover romance, their sisterly bond is tested. Set in Washington DC during the summer when gay marriage became legal, the twins are also busy planning a wedding for their moms. This comedy of errors also has a full cast of racially diverse characters who break stereotypes. I loved the author's debut, Simon vs the Homosapien Agenda, which is a gay YA romance.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert also features a nontraditional Jewish family. Little/Suzette and her African American mom converted when they moved in with Saul and his son Lion/Lionel. While Lionel grapples with his bipolar disorder, Suzette is trying to figure out her sexual identity. This intersectional novel set in the diverse and affluent suburbs of LA tackles everyday prejudice toward people of color, bisexuals, and mental illness. Despite the gravity of the issues, steamy romances makes it a fast and easy read.

Another YA romance I enjoyed this year was Geekerella by Ashley Poston. This humorous retelling of Cinderella is set at a comic convention with a cosplay ball. The two narrators are a fangirl blogger and a hot teen actor, who stars in a controversial remake of a Sci Fi classic. They met online and communicate via text so are unaware of the other's true identity. A lesbian teenage seamstress plays fairy godmother, and her orange food truck sells vegan pumpkin treats. This quirky debut novel celebrates geekdom and friendship as much as romance.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was my favorite book this year. This Black Lives Matter story narrated by a African American girl who witnesses the police shooting her friend has been on The New York Times bestseller list since it was released in February. While I was abroad on sabbatical, I listened to the fantastic audiobook and bought the hardcover when I returned home to reread. This debut is brutally honest and devastating but also uplifting and empowering.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi is another topical novel about black Americans. This stunning debut focuses on Haitian American immigrants in Detroit. In the first chapter the protagonist's mom is detained by ICE. A federal agent offers to help Fabiola in exchange for information about her Detroit cousin's drug dealer boyfriend. Add a romance with the boyfriend's best friend and a touch of magical realism and the story becomes enchanting with lots of good plot twists.

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman is another impressive debut focusing on multicultural identity. Sexually abused as a child, Kiko paints the feelings that she is too anxious to share with anyone. Since her Japanese American father signed full custody to her Caucasian mother, Kiko lost her chance to understand her ethnic heritage. Her narcissistic mom transfers her resentment about divorce into criticism of anything Asian, making Kiko and her brothers ashamed of their biracial roots. Kiko gets a second chance at happiness when her childhood crush invites her to California to check out art colleges. I loved the use of art in the narrative, and the cover is gorgeous too.

Although 1973-2006 is historical fiction for today's teenagers, I'd also recommend You Bring the Distance Near by Mitali Perkins. This multigenerational family saga about Indian immigrants in the USA focuses on assimilation and racial prejudice in a changing world. It's a heartwarming tale featuring traditional and non-traditional romances with complex family dynamics. Since the central characters are teenaged girls, mothers and their perplexed matriarch, it would cross-over well to adult readers, who would call it contemporary fiction. This multilayered novel would be an excellent choice for a mother-daughter book group or to share with an immigrant grandparent.

Nobody captures a teenage boy voice better than Jeff Zentner. In Goodbye Days a boy blames himself for sending the text that distracted the driver and killed his four best friends. His ambiguous relationship with his deceased friend's girlfriend adds romance and guilt. Humor offsets the sadness. There are lots of diverse secondary characters. Although there is a cautionary message, the book offers redemption without being preachy. It was excellent on audiobook as was his debut, The Serpent King.

If you're looking for a feel-good story, The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone follows a secret group of diverse teenagers who engage in vigilante acts of kindness during a summer on the Hamptons. The protagonist is biracial Iranian American. This anti-bullying book will inspire teens to do better online and in the real world. Firestone's fabulous debut The Loose Ends List is out in paperback and features a half Jewish protagonist on a world cruise with her dying grandmother and their eccentric family.

Feminists and sports fans would enjoy A Season of Daring Greatly by Ellen Emerson White, a realistic novel about the first woman (age eighteen) to be recruited for major league baseball. I reviewed it in my last blog post.

I'm currently reading Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, this year's winner of the National Book Award. Three siblings reunite after adoption and foster care separated them as babies.

If you have other books to recommend for teens, please add them to the comments. I focused on contemporary YA since that is what I write.

Happy Holidays!