Wednesday, April 16, 2014


What I woke up to this mid April! 

At least I got my daffodil fix last week in NYC.

The people at Columbia College were very helpful with my research. 

When I got back home, all the ice had melted. I thought we'd seen the last of the snow. You need a good sense of humor and an excellent pair of boots to live in Maine. 

Thanks so much for all your encouraging comments last week. I'm taking a one week blog vacation to finish the first round of revisions on my novel. My crit-partner, the talented Charlotte Agell, will be reading my work-in-progress next week. I'll be away touring colleges with my 16-year-old daughter.
I'll be back online April 30th. 

Happy Passover and Easter!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Rough Draft of the Maine Novel

After seven months of writing, I have completed the first draft of a new young adult novel! It's a rough draft riddled with inconsistencies and plot holes, but the main story, setting and characters are there. I have chatted and written notes to these people at all hours of the day and night. My family has to remind me that my characters aren't real. You know that feeling when you're engrossed in reading a book? It's even more intense if you are writing that book. I kept writing because it was the only way I'd know what would happen.

First drafts are thrilling but also challenging. Although I know the initial set-up and the ending before I start writing, the narrative can go in so many directions in between. The characters are defined existentially through their actions, but those choices are made as I work through the plot. Initially my focus is on story and on character developed and not on writing craft. My first draft looks so coarse compared to a final polished manuscript. It makes me cringe with embarrassment. I much prefer revision to drafting, but it's all part of a process that can span more than a year. There will be months of revision and beta testing on teen readers before I share the manuscript with my agent.

Central Park in April a couple of years ago.
The timing couldn't be better for fleshing out a novel set in the spring of senior year. For hometown details, I'll be revisiting Monhegan Island and harbor towns that inspired my fictional coastal community. Since my protagonist has been accepted to Columbia College, my first field trip is to New York City, where I grew up. The last time I was on campus was back in high school so I've signed up for a prospective student tour tomorrow. I'll be the only parent accompanied by a virtual daughter!

I'm starting my field work in New York because Maine is still a fraying patchwork of snow and ice. This has been an unusually long winter and a protracted mud season. I'm craving flowers, warmth and any color beyond frosty white and muddy brown. I'm staying with my parents, seeing friends and celebrating Passover with my family. There will be time for museums and shops. I need a short break.

Happy spring!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Going Over by Beth Kephart

Do you remember the fall of the Berlin Wall? In November of 1989 I was at college, majoring in Government, and that was the first time I felt a part of history. It was a day to be remembered, the turning point in decades of icy hostility between democratic and communist nations. By the close of 1990 Germany was reunified. The whole world was changing.

The following year in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, dissolving the Soviet Union into a commonwealth of independent states. My children were born in this new era, one not overshadowed by nightmares of nuclear holocaust. I thought the Cold War was over, and then last month Russia made a grab for Crimea. How will today's youth understand the significance?

Going Over makes Cold War history relevant to twenty-first century teens. Beth Kephart's new young adult novel (released yesterday) transports readers back to 1983 Berlin. In free West Berlin fifteen-year-old Ada has dropped out of school to work at a daycare center. At night the pink-haired girl sprays graffiti art on the concrete wall that separates her from the young man she loves. Armed soldiers and dogs keep guard on the other side.

In communist East Berlin eighteen-year-old Stefan worries that the Stasi secret police are watching him. His grandfather died while trying to escape to freedom, although his body was never recovered. Stefan is training to be a plumber to support his grandmother, all the family that he has left. He aims his grandfather's telescope at the stars, but Ada refocuses it on West Berlin. The young lovers meet only four times a year, when Ada's grandmother visits Stefan's grandmother in East Berlin. Ada tells Stefan that she is tired of waiting for him. If he really loves her, he would risk his life to cross over to the west.

Going Over is much more than a star-crossed love story. It tells the history of a war-severed city, of a turbulent period lost to time. The book is educational without sounding so. The gripping story reads more like a dystopian novel than historical fiction. Kephart drops the reader into Berlin without explanation. (I think the book could benefit from a short historical preface for teens.) The author writes from the perspective of that period in a fresh and immediate teenaged voice. Ada's first person narrative alternates with Stefan's told in the second person, to remind us that this is her story.

Like many teens, Ada is self-centered but she is also capable of great empathy. The most moving part of the book was her fight to save a young Turkish immigrant boy and his battered mother. That part of history was new to me. I also loved Ada's and Stefan's relationships with their grandmothers, who had teamed up to survive the brutalities of the Russian occupation, following World War II, only to be separated by a wall.

Kephart takes the time to develop all her characters, including the secondary ones, and to set the scene. The writing is gorgeous, sensuous and nearly surreal at times:
"The courtyard is blue with the late-night TVs. The air is eggplant and sausage."
"Seeing is silent and it doesn't leave a trace. Seeing is waiting for the sky to lose its turbulence so that you can scope the distance. Seeing brings the far close in and the dark to light."
"There's cold in my eyes and winter in my lungs, and when I call for Savras his name scorches through me. Near the Landwehrkanal the vendor trucks are rutting the snow with their wide wheels, leaving grooves shellacked by the morning sun."
"And I stand with the wind in my bones."
I'd strongly recommend Going Over to readers aged twelve and up who enjoy literary fiction. The 1980's setting and the lyrical style would cross over well to adults too. Beth Kephart is one of my favorite young adult authors and this is one of her best books. The critics agree. The book has earned starred reviews from School Library Review and Booklist. It's a Junior Library Guild selection. I expect it to win awards. The eye-catching cover is a winner too. Going Over made me cry and it made me cheer. I finished the last chapter longing for more.

My reviews of more YA novels by Beth Kephart:

Undercover (includes an author interview)
You Are My Only
Dangerous Neighbors & Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent
Small Damages

Disclosure: author Beth Kephart is a blog buddy. Upon my request, her publisher Chronicle Books sent me a free ARC but did not pay me for this review.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mud Season in Maine

Pond ice is thinning.

Seawater is flowing into estuaries.

Maybe my last day on skis?

The backyard cover is only ankle deep.

Sidewalks thaw and mud oozes.

The beach has just a frosting of snow, a glazing of ice. 
It's nearly the end of winter,
but not quite the start of spring.
Mud Season.

photo note: first photo by my daughter on our "last" ski.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Far From You by Tess Sharpe

We still have a foot of old crusty snow in the woods with more snow due tonight.

In Far From You by Tess Sharpe a 17-year-old girl witnesses her best friend's murder, but no one will believe her story. The murderer cleverly planted drugs in Sophie's pocket to make the murder look like a drug buy that broke bad. Most people blame Sophie for Mina's death because Sophie was a junkie. The police shut the case with a shrug. As soon as Sophie is released from rehab, she starts investigating the murder herself.

The original set up drew me in immediately, and Sophie was a wonderful character, unlike any I've encountered before in young adult fiction. A car accident left Sophie with disabilities and an addiction to painkillers, but she learns to fight the pain and refuses to be a victim. Tough, smart and confrontational, Sophie is not the stereotypical sweet, helpless disabled kid. Her struggle with addiction was beautifully written, including the toll it takes on her friends and her family:
"Dad isn't disappointed in me like Mom is. He doesn't have that mix of anger and fear that's fueling her. Instead, he doesn't know what to do or how to feel with me, and sometimes I think it's worse, that he can't decide between forgiving and blaming me."
It was refreshing to read a book with a lesbian relationship that was just a part of the overall story and not the centerpiece. Sophie's obsessive passion and Mina's ambivalence were well rendered. The voice and dialogue were true to teens and sounded fresh, not formulaic.

As much as I loved the characters and their story, I had a hard time following it due to the narrative structure. The book unfolds in chapters alternating between the present day murder investigation and out-of-sequence flashbacks to the past. I got lost and confused and couldn't flip back easily because I was reading a digital galley. There was a lot of plot to follow: the car accident that disabled Sophie, her drug addiction, two rehabs, two possible murders, many suspects and two bisexual love triangles. The backstory was more interesting than the present day murder investigation, which took center-stage.

I'd recommend Far From You to readers aged 14 and older. The ebook will be released on March 27, 2014, but I'd advise waiting until April 8th for the hardcover version so that you can flip back if you get lost. It's worth the extra effort to piece the story together. I'm curious to see what Tess Sharpe writes next.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: I received a free digital galley from Disney-Hyperion via Netgalley but was not compensated for my review.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Painting at Reid State Park

On this wintery March day (6-10 inches due), I'm longing for watercolor weather. Let's flashback to September, my favorite month for painting en plein air in Maine. Working outside a studio requires meditative patience and a sense of humor about the hardships. Watercolor is the most challenging of paint media because you can only work darker, not lighter. Wet paper buckles and the paint is hard to control. Mistakes can't be erased. On the plus side, watercolors are portable and dry quickly. The flow of the paint mimics the flow of the water. I enjoy challenges. 

Reid State Park in Georgetown is an ideal spot for painting on location. Picnic benches are set to face the spectacular views. They're popular with mosquitoes and green-heads too so I cover up and bring bug repellent. The park is a half hour drive from my house.

After scouting out a location and testing compositions in my sketchbook, I line up my supplies.

The first step is a detailed pencil sketch on heavy weight Arches paper taped to a masonite board.

Then I use liquid masking fluid (the yellow) to preserve the white boulders and surf. After the mask is dry, I block out the base colors in thin washes of watercolor, using sponges and broad brushes. This is a leap of faith. The under drawing vanishes and the painting has to look terrible before it finds focus.

As I work, the tide falls, shadows lengthen and colors intensify. I enjoy the serendipity of working on location, of looking up and seeing kayakers paddle past. Fish jump and birds fly by. This is no still life.

The details are rendered in layers of paint, using finer tipped brushes. The penultimate step is rubbing off the liquid mask. The white areas are paper without paint. The final step is working detail into the white.

I work quickly to capture the grays, browns and blues in the boulders and the turquoise in the water.

Too soon the sun sets and the tide falls. There's not enough light left to finish my painting. Bother.

I pack up my paints and watch the sunset. A camera is best for capturing fleeting images in low light.

I return another clear day with a similar tide to complete the painting. In these two images you can see the differences between a photograph and a watercolor. The photo lacks definition, flattens the perspective and has no movement. This is why I prefer to work from life than from a photo. Once the painting was done, I removed the tape that held the paper to the board. Now the watercolor is ready for framing. I'll be painting more watercolors in summer...after the snow melts. Sigh. Please share your daffodils.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Tyrant's Daughter by J.C. Carleson

Yes, it's still winter in Maine, dipping  close to zero F overnight and not breaking zero C during the day. It's snowing now.

The Tyrant's Daughter would be a fine introduction to the Arab Spring uprisings for teen readers. Author J.C. Carleson is a former undercover C.I.A. operative and her experiences in the Middle East and in war zones well inform the fictional narrative.

After her father is assassinated in a coup d'état, 15-year-old Laila escapes to the USA with her mother and her little brother. For the first time in her life, Laila attends school and mingles with boys and girls her age. Back home in the Middle East, Laila had private tutors and never left the house without a headscarf and armed guards. She was raised believing her loving father was the king, but in the USA she gets proof that he was a ruthless despot.
"Back home we had no internet. Or at least not the internet I see before me now. We had only a heavily censored, filtered version, with threatening messages decrying all but the blandest of government-approved sites as forbidden."
Laila struggles to fit in with typical American teens while coming to terms with her family's legacy. Through her eyes, the American suburbs is a foreign land with bizarre customs. Wry humor lightens up the dark story:
"Around the lunch table everyone seems to have given something up - dairy, meat, gluten, sugar, carbs. Only in a land of plenty could people voluntarily go without so much." 
At other times the writing is poignantly raw and lyrical:
"I've been underwater for nearly a month. That's what it feels like here - a life submerged. Wave-tossed and sand-scoured. Voices around me in school sound muted and distorted; faces out of focus. I'm experiencing my new life through fathoms of water, making everything seem dreamlike and unreal, as if my brain can only accept so much change before it drowns. Gradually, though, I've been surfacing."
The only one who understands Laila is Amir, an expat boy whose family was victimized by her father. Laila's loyalty is torn as her mother schemes with the CIA to regain power for her brother. The book becomes a spy thriller full of plot twists and moral ambiguity. It was hard to put down.

Overall, The Tyrant's Daughter was a strong YA debut. The writing was very good and the story was culturally sensitive. Laila was a believable and sympathetic character as were the other expats. My only criticism is that the American teen characters seemed flat by comparison and their story lines felt generic. I suspect this was intentional to allow typical teens to put the exotic story in context and to highlight contrasts. The cover is striking but misrepresents the protagonist, who wore a headscarf in her native country, not a burka. Laila dresses like a typical teen in the USA. It's wonderful to see a YA book about Middle Eastern politics which doesn't demonize Muslims.

Teachers will appreciate the extras: a Middle East reading list, a note from the author describing her experiences and a fascinating commentary by Dr. Cheryl Benard drawing parallels to the experience of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. This fascinating book would work very well in the classroom for ages 12 and up. The Tyrant's Daughter was released in February 2014. It received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: I was pre-approved for a free digital galley from Netgalley/Random House.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Winter Walk on Skis

The bright side of winter: no leaves means more sunshine in the woods!

In Maine winter lasts well through March. Walking is challenging in deep snow or on icy sidewalks. My advice to newcomers is to find a winter sport. You need to embrace winter, not hide from it.

If you can't walk out the back door, try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

My children grew up skiing behind me as soon as they could walk. My daughter is captain of her school's Nordic Ski Team and my son has joined the Nordic Club at college. Now I struggle to keep up with them!

It's the best way "to walk" the dog.

We're lucky to live right off a wooded trail that circles Bowdoin College's playing fields. I'm often the first one out after a big storm. This year I got stiffer boots with more ankle support and wider backcountry skis to make it easier to cut the track. I apply Musher's Secret to protect Scout's paws. Snowball paw is no fun.

Young Scout is still learning the hazards of wandering off trail. 

I'm training Scout to run behind me without stepping on my ski tails. My command for getting out of a skier's way is "beep beep." We don't usually encounter that many on our morning outings. The trail winds past two ponds, good for iceskating too. If there's enough snow cover, I can go 6 miles roundtrip through the town commons, only taking off my skis twice to cross roads.

On work days, I usually turn around at the first pond. We pause to listen to water flowing through the dam. I enjoy the peace and quiet of winter, the times of frozen solitude. As I ski, I plan out the chapter I'll write later that day. I don't drink coffee. The exercise wakes me up and gets my mind going.

At the end of the day, I warm up by the fire with a good book, Scout crashed out at my feet.

More Winter Walks at A Tidewater Gardener.
Do join us by posting a winter walk from your house.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Writing Backstitch

Simpsons Point, Brunswick at sunset

February has been a month of shoveling, skiing and writing. We've had three major storms and the piles are now higher than my head. January was frigid with very little snow. My work-in-progress was equally frozen for a month of revision, but now I'm writing new chapters. I've been writing at home or in a hotel room while visiting colleges with my 16-year-old daughter. The word count fluctuates daily.

I feel like I'm writing in backstitch, moving two words forward and one word back. One day I'll draft a new scene, and then the next day I'll rewrite it. Sometimes I go back to previous scenes to weave in backstory and foreshadowing or to mend plot holes. Other days I shuffle scenes.

Before I start writing a novel, I know the beginning, the ending and a few major plot points, but I don't outline the first draft. I enjoy the spontaneity of discovery as I write. If I can't surprise myself, how will I surprise the reader?

My non-linear writing style works well with Scrivener since you compose in scenes that are easy to shuffle around as virtual index cards on a cork board. I keep track of characters on other index cards. Scenes get organized into chapter folders. There are some features I can't figure out, like how to check where a scene is in the total word count. I expect the novel writing software to be the most useful for revising future drafts. Now to ski before an ice storm ruins the snow.

Olympic Watch: the gold medal ice dance of Meryl Davis and Charlie White 2/17/14