Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Muir Beach before sunset from my mother-daughter vacation to California last month.

Ta-Nahisi Coates won a MacArthur "Genius Grant" last year for his journalism and memoirs on race and politics. Between the World and Me describes what it's like to live in a body that is a black in the USA. Coates recounts the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, his own perilous childhood in West Baltimore and more recent events like Eric Garner's death to explain systemic racism in America. I read similar books for Literature of Social Reflection back in college, but this 2015 National Book Award winner speaks to our current crisis and makes sense of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Coates's personal approach to the subject teaches empathy and compassion.

Between the World and Me wasn't an easy book to read because it flags the failings in our nation, specifically in our system of justice. Although only 151 pages long, this eloquent memoir took me several days to finish and longer to process. Coates made me live inside a black man's skin and see the world through his eyes. He tells true stories of well-educated and compassionate men who play by the rules and are still crushed. There are incidents of police brutality (officers both black and white) but also the unintentional racism of people who identify as white and benefit from the system oppression. So much needs to change in the way we think, speak and act. Coates does at least leave room for hope.

His writing was beautiful and poignant:
"I remember being amazed that death could so easily rise up from nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog." 
"'Good intention' is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream." 
"I felt that I had missed part of the experience because of my eyes, because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear."
Between the World and Me was the most meaningful book I read last year, and I would recommend it to everyone, especially to Americans. Since the book was written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, it would crossover well to a teen audience, although it was marketed as adult nonfiction. My mother read it in two days and was deeply moved by the narrative as well. My husband and son are reading it now. "This is required reading," says Toni Morrison in her blurb. Add it to the top of your list.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought this hardcover book without compensation at Longfellow Books and bought two more copies at Gulf of Maine Books as Hanukkah and Christmas gifts for my son and for my writing crit partner, who loved it too. She read it on Martin Luther King Day.

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Back from England

Sorry if my absence worried you, but all is well. I was in England for the holidays with the British side of my family. Then I flew to San Francisco for one last mother-daughter vacation before she starts college in February. I'll leave California and my daughter's gap term for another blog post.

Even without snow, Christmas is special in my husband's hometown. On Christmas Eve villagers light torches at The Catherine Wheel's firepit, many grabbing a pint of ale before or after.

The cousins were happy to be reunited for the occasion with real flaming torches.

A bagpipe player in a kilt leads the procession of hundreds through the ancient village. I apologize for my grainy iPhone photos, but even with a full moon, it was quite dark.

We crossed the Thames River and gathered round a huge bonfire to sing Christmas carols, accompanied by a live brass band. Later at night there's a midnight mass in the Norman church. My father-in-law and his mates ring the bells for services at two churches.

On Christmas morning we go to church. After listening to the Queen's speech on TV, we open presents and go for a country walk in the rain. We warm up with a hot cup of tea and Christmas cake (fruit cake with a marzipan frosting).

Christmas dinner is always roast turkey with chestnut stuffing and brussel sprouts. We pull Christmas crackers and don crowns whilst the Christmas pudding flames. You need to chew carefully to avoid biting into the lucky sixpence.

On Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) we drove to Oxford since the trains weren't running. Not much was open. England shuts down for most of the holidays. The busy university town was blissfully free of crowds. I'd spent a year there with my family researching my work in progress, a young adult novel about an American girl at a British boarding school.

The holiday lights in Oxford are marvelous. I love the expression on the woman to the right.

When the trains were back on track, we traveled an hour to London. My daughter wanted to shop on Regent (at left) and Oxford streets, and I needed to check out the holiday lights for a new scene in my novel. I'll have to draw on older memories of clubbing in London. I love my job!

That night we went to Tate Modern, a favorite museum. Then we headed next door for a delicious pub dinner of roast pheasant and a candlelit performance at the Globe's new covered theatre. Pericles is not Shakespeare's best play - it was written with a collaborator, quite possibly a young apprentice - but it was thrilling to see his work staged in the traditional manner with no electricity and ancient instruments.

We walked back over the Millennial Bridge in a drizzle, admiring the view over the Thames. Is it my imagination or is St. Paul's Cathedral not as brightly illuminated as it used to be? I like matching my reading to my travels and have been enjoying Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, a gift from my mother-in-law (thanks!) From this historical novel, I learned that architects volunteered to keep St. Paul's flame-free during the blitz. The narrative is a series of alternate histories based on the protagonist's choices, giving it an existential resonance. I often wonder what my life would have been like if my husband hadn't quit his banking job in London to pursue an academic career in the USA. Three quarters through this 600 page book, I'm loving Life After Life and would recommend it to anyone.

Henry and I toasted the new year with Brakspear Special back at the Catherine Wheel with a blazing fire in the hearth. A belated Happy New Year! I look forward to catching up with you and your blogs. Cheers!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Best YA Books of 2015

Do you need gift suggestions for teens? Winter vacation is a good time to rekindle the joy of reading for fun. I've chosen a dozen of the best young adult books published in 2015. Impressively, four are debuts, including my top pick for teens, Under a Painted Sky by Stacy Lee. Follow the title links to full reviews posted earlier this year on my blog. If you have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments.

YA Historical Fiction
What made these three books special was the perfect blend of literary writing, engaging characters and parsimonious historical detail. The first novel would be a good choice for tweens and younger teens. The latter two would be better for mature teens or adults.

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. I don't usually like Westerns, but this historical novel reads like a racially diverse Little House on the Prairie. Following a tragic accident, a Chinese American musician and a slave girl disguise themselves as boys to run from the law in Missouri. They team up with three Texan cowboys who are heading to California to find gold. There's a touch of romance, but the most important relationship is the friendship between these resourceful girls. The writing is superb with well developed characters, a fast pace and a fine sense of place and period (1849). Despite dealing with tough issues like murder, slavery and racism, it still manages to be a feel good story, appropriate for tweens as well as teens. The girl protagonists are 15 and 16 and the boys are a bit older. This debut tops my list of best YA from 2015 that I've read to date.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez features a clandestine romance which dares to cross the racial divide of 1930's Texas. Inspired by the most deadly school disaster in American history, this provocative novel gives voice to those whose voices were silenced and whose histories were unjustly revised. The narration alternates among a Mexican American girl, her African American boyfriend, her biracial half-brother and her white stepfather. This gritty, dark novel would be best for mature teens or adults. It's one of the strongest and most disturbing YA novels I've ever read. Follow the title link to the full review, which includes a guest post from the author about her inspiration.

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, one of my favorite authors. There are plenty of war books celebrating male valor and camaraderie, but girls and women usually play only supportive or romantic roles. In Wein's novels, the girls are literally in the pilot seat, calling the shots and sometimes firing them as well, but violence is never romanticized. Black Dove, White Raven follows a family of pilots in 1930s Ethiopia. The narration alternates between Italian American Em and Teo, her African American foster brother. Their pilot moms are fun characters too.

YA Fantasy/Surreal Fiction
I'm reading more fantasy because my 14-year-old niece loves it. I thought I was buying books for her, but my brother frequently steals them from her bookshelves. We're all enjoying bonding over good books.

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh is a retelling of 1001 Nights with a feminist twist: Shahrzad has volunteered for marriage to assassinate the boy-king, thus ending his chain of bridal murders. Using her skill at storytelling, 16-year-old Shahrzad entrances Khalid and survives to see another dawn. She hunts for his vulnerabilities and discovers that she is his weakness as he is hers. To her horror, she is falling in love with this handsome monster. Is it Stockholm Syndrome or is Khalid not really a monster? This first book of a new series has all the best elements of a young adult novel: a fantastic set up, complex characters, a swoon-worthy if disturbing romance, a pulse-raising pace and an exotic setting.
Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman is a strong 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.  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 high fantasy. I bought a second copy for my niece's birthday, which she enjoyed even more. Although Seraphina is a teenager, most characters are adults so it would crossover well to an adult audience. The excellent world-building and philosophical themes reminded me of The Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and the Dune saga by Frank Herbert (my brother introduced me to those series when we were teens).

I Crawl Through It by A. S. King satirizes education in the USA. Everyday is a new bomb threat with police dogs sniffing the halls. The principal is literally buried to her neck in paperwork. Teaching is geared only to standardized tests, and a naked man in the bushes is selling letter answers. Seeking to escape the chaos/boredom of school, Gustav is building an invisible helicopter to fly to a colony of geniuses. Stanzi, a biology prodigy, can only see the helicopter on Tuesdays (ha!), but she agrees to run away with her secret crush. The reader must suspend disbelief to take this book for a spin. Challenging novels like this one aren't usually written for teens, but it's wonderful to find an author who is willing to trust the intelligence and the imagination of younger readers.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby is set in small town Illinois and in alternate worlds. The two narrators are a missing woman and her boyfriend's younger brother, Finn, who believes her abduction was his fault. There's also an omniscient horse, a goat who says "Meh!" and a magical forest. Most enchanting of all is Finn's romance with a beekeeper. This modern fairytale also contains the real world problems of bullying, abandonment, sexual harassment and college applications. I'm only halfway through, but the writing is so captivating, I'm including it on my list. Thanks to Charlotte Agell, my crit partner, for the recommendation.

YA Contemporary Fiction
I read mostly contemporary, realistic YA fiction because that is what I write. It was hard picking only four from so many good books. The ones I chose presented fresh perspectives, meaningful issues and an easy to read style designed for a wide audience of teenaged readers.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven would appeal to fans of John Green. For a book about depression, it's quite funny at times. Two troubled teens meet on the ledge of the school's bell tower. Instead of jumping to their death, they leap into an unlikely romance. The setup sounds gimmicky, but this book explores depression with brutal honesty as well as gallow humor. Popular Violet feels guilty about surviving the car accident that killed her sister. She is drawn to charming Finch who struggles with a bipolar disorder and his outcast status at school. Narration alternates between them. There is a list of resources for suicidal teens at the end and a personal note from the author that brought me to tears. This book won the Goodreads Choice Award for Realistic YA Fiction.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli: what makes this debut special is the authentic voice. The straight female author used her experience as a child psychologist to tell a typical coming out story. Simon's secret gay romance is threatened when another boy finds their flirty emails and blackmails him. Simon struggles to protect the privacy of the other closeted boy, whose identity is unknown even to him. The story is set in the suburbs of Atlanta with racially diverse secondary characters. I raced through this book in one day, laughing at Simon's witty observations and eager to uncover the identity of his mystery love. The parents were hilarious. This author knows how to laugh at herself.
None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio is being marketed as Middlesex meets Mean Girls, but this underplays the educational content of this groundbreaking young adult novel. The original premise was designed to hook teens: a homecoming queen discovers that she is intersex when sex with her boyfriend is excruciatingly painful. At her first gynecological exam, Kristin learns that her chromosomes are XY. When her secret is leaked at school, Kristin becomes a target of bullies and fears she might lose her athletic scholarship to college. The writing is strong for a debut, but None of the Above is not a literary novel nor does it try to be one. The plot is well paced and easy to follow, clearly geared for reluctant readers. By making Kristin so normal and likable, the surgeon author reinforces the message that intersex people are not freaks.

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy. From the blurb, I feared this would be yet another fat-girl-loses-weight-to-win-the-beauty-pageant-and-the-hot-guy book, but it wasn't like that at all. This heart-warming story, set in small town Texas, embraces love at any size. It makes you understand what it feels like to live inside someone else's skin and to be judged unfairly by appearances. Dolly Parton fans and feminists will love it too. Thanks to Kelly Jensen for the recommendation via Goodreads.

YA Nonfiction

I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda. This debut memoir advocates for compassion and respect for children in developing countries. For a seventh grade pen pal assignment, Caitlin chose to correspond with Martin 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. This book would work well as a classroom supplement to a pen pal assignment. Follow the title link for my full review. Thanks to Cathy Fiebach at Main Point Books for the recommendation.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I received free galleys of Out of DarknessI Crawl Through It and Black Dove, White Raven from their publishers in exchange for honest reviews. I'm friends with Elizabeth Wein's current editor, but I became a fan of Wein's books years before they connected. I purchased Under a Painted Sky, Dumplin' and All the Bright Places as ebooks from Amazon. The other six books (plus a few extra copies for my niece) I bought at independent bookstores.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Life gets crazy busy during the holidays, halfway through Hanukkah with Christmas looming in an endless to do list. The newspaper reads like a dystopian YA novel. What can we do? Take a moment to enjoy life right now: walk by the sea before sunset, drink wine with a loved one or read a good book by the fire. Remember to breathe. Shalom means peace in Hebrew.

Happy Hanukkah! 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

My father's nickname for me was Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights was a (creepy) bedtime story from my childhood. How could I resist this new retelling (May 2015)? The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh adds a feminist twist: Shahrzad has volunteered for marriage to assassinate the boy-king, thus ending his chain of bridal murders.

After one night of betrothal, Khalid usually kills his latest queen, including Shahrzad's best friend. Using her skill at storytelling, sixteen-year-old Shahrzad entrances Khalid and survives to see another dawn and another. She hunts for his vulnerabilities and discovers that she is his weakness as he is hers. To her horror, she is falling in love with this handsome monster.

Author Renée Ahdieh, from her website
Is it Stockholm Syndrome or is Khalid not really a monster? Shahrzad searches for the hidden truth as she plots her revenge. Meanwhile, her childhood sweetheart is raising an army to depose their king and to rescue her. Conflicted Shahrzad is not sure she needs saving. She is no damsel in distress and prefers to fight her own battles with wit or a bow and arrow. Only Khalid truly respects her strength. He tells her, "I see my soul equal in you."

Add a touch of magic and The Wrath & The Dawn is more than a retelling. It has all the best elements of a young adult novel: a fantastic set up, complex characters, a swoon-worthy if disturbing romance, a pulse-raising pace and an exotic setting. The evocative writing transports the reader to the deserts of Persia. The only weakness was the narration and dialogue sometimes sounded too contemporary for the ancient time period, but that probably makes the book all the more accessible to teen readers. I've bought a second copy for my 14-year-old niece for Christmas and am eagerly awaiting the sequel, The Rose & The Dagger. This series would crossover well to adult readers too.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the hardcover book at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury.

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