Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sunset on Bailey Island

Mackerel Cove, Bailey Island, Maine 12/25/09

Endings are beginnings.  As 2009 sinks below the horizon, a new year will dawn.

Lobster season ended on Christmas except for fishermen with offshore permits.
In June lobsters and tourists will return to coastal Maine.

In December the cliff paths are near empty, slippery in ice and snow.

The sea beats the jagged shore.  The spray intensifies the chill.

The setting sun offers little warmth, and yet even the rocks reach for it.

Lichen is the only green.

Snow hides from the hungry sea in rock pockets.

Tidal flows freeze in motion, as if enchanted.

“O brave new world that has such people in’t!”
-Miranda, The Tempest by William Shakespeare

I wish you all a most Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Agent Appreciation Day: Jean Naggar

Behind most authors is a hardworking literary agent. An agent can get thousands of queries in a year. Her decision to represent an author is a greater commitment than a publisher’s because it is usually a lifetime relationship. A reputable agent works off the commission from sold manuscripts and takes no money upfront. Reputable agents are registered at the Association or Authors’ Representatives. My agent, Jean V. Naggar, is a former president of AAR.

An agent is like an athlete’s coach. She guides an author through revisions before a manuscript is “shopped” to publishing houses. Then she becomes a matchmaker. The skill is finding the right “home” for the book. Every editor represents a particular taste, a slice of the market pie. Once an offer is made, the agent negotiates the contract and then remains the author’s advocate throughout the publishing process. By taking care of business, an agent allows the author to focus on writing and on book promotions. She protects a new author from exploitation and teaches her about the industry. These days most big publishing houses won't read unsolicited manuscripts so agents are necessary.

My agent established the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency in 1978 after discovering author Jean M. Auel and negotiating a record-breaking advance for The Clan of the Cave Bear. They are still working together on the international bestseller Earth Child Series. My agent has a full list of established authors so she is not taking on more authors, but the other agents at JVNLA are taking new clients. They are terrific too. All JVNLA agents represent children’s books as well as other genres for adults. Photo of Jean Naggar by Serge Naggar.

Why I love my agent and the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency:

1. Jean is my most loyal fan and sharpest critic. She spots the flaws but leaves me to fix them. She never curbs my creativity. Her encouragement and unflagging faith in my writing keep me going through the long process of finding a publisher.

2. Jean has decades of experience as an agent. It doesn’t matter that I’m out of the loop in Maine because she’s at the hub of the publishing industry in NYC.

3. Jean is accessible. She has regular author call times and responds to my emails promptly. In the early stage of a project, I bounce ideas off her. She advises me on my career and cheers me on.

4. Jean works with the 3 other agents at JVNLA as a team. They divide the work, like subsidiary rights, and offer second opinion critiques on manuscripts when fresh eyes are needed. They partner with other agents abroad for foreign rights. It’s like having several agents without being impersonal. The agency is small enough that new and unpublished authors feel as welcome as their award-winning and bestseller authors.

5. Jean has published her memoir, Sipping from the Nile, so she can see the process from an author’s perspective. She can also relate to the multicultural elements in my writing since she grew up in Egypt and was educated in England. Plus she has the most beautiful accent.

This post is part of the first Agent Day (December 11 - I’m a day late), which was Kody Keplinger's brilliant idea. Lisa and Laura Write have posted a link-list to other Agent Day posts. It’s a great place to go agent shopping if you’re an aspiring author. You can learn everything you need to know about submitting manuscripts at these two agent blogs: Miss Snark and Nathan Bransford. Good luck!

I usually post weekly on Wednesdays (so as not to cut into my novel writing time) but I’ve made an exception because agents deserve appreciation for their hard work behind the scenes. Don’t miss this week’s blog review of Marie Mutsuki Mocketts’s wonderful debut novel and photos of our first big snowfall in coastal Maine.

I’m taking a blog break over Hanukkah and Christmas at home.
Next post: Wednesday December 30.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow Country: Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

It snowed! Now it feels like December. Only last week it was in the 60's.
Check out the contrast:

Even my dog was confused.
Then Stella remembered snow angels.

Burning bush berries add festive color.
A major storm is coming today, the first school Snow Day.
If I’m not online later, you’ll know why.

It’s time to curl up by the fire with a good winter book. I’ve discovered a new author: Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Her debut novel, Picking Bones from Ash, follows Rumi’s search for her Japanese mother in snow country. Like her protagonist, the author has an American father, a Japanese mother and true talent.

“But when you are talented, you are special. You will have troubles, but they won’t be any of the ordinary ones.” So begins the narrative and sums up my review.

In the northern mountains of Japan, villagers welcome winter with hot sake and dancing devils. Buddhist priests exorcise lost souls, and Shinto spirits can occupy any object. Bridges to the Underworld appear over multi-colored hot springs. Reality vanishes in the sulfur mist of Japan and in the fog of San Francisco.

Mocket’s writing brings to mind other masters of mysticism, such as Isabel AllendeGabriel Garcia Marquez and Amy Tan (whose endorsement is on the cover.)   The ghosts of ancestors and past injustices haunt the present. Individuals belong to an extended family, including both the living and the deceased. Such literature drops us into another culture and its system of beliefs.

Mocket does not strand the reader in Wonderland. She explains Buddhism and Shintoism with the voice of a scholar. At times these long passages of exposition risk sounding didactic and slow the pace. More integration would have been better. Expository sections also introduce the reader to the world of Asian antiques and porcelain. Rumi is an antique dealer who listens to the voices of objects, which literally tell her of their past. I loved how this worked in the narrative.

The experience of reading Picking Bones from Ash is quite like soaking in a hot spring in the mountains of Japan (I did so a decade ago.) The heat and vapor rest the body but blur the vision. Time slows; outlines are unclear. There wasn’t much plot or narrative tension in the novel, and yet I kept reading. The writing was lovely and easy to follow. Mockett favors short paragraphs and lyrical descriptions (eg “Snowflakes the size of dandelions bloomed in the air.”) I felt totally immersed in another culture and its landscape. Mockett captures the bi-cultural experience of many Americans.

Although this debut novel was beautifully original and evocative, there were some novice glitches. Rumi and her mother had strong narrative voices, but the dialogue sounded unnaturally formal. None of the romantic relationships made much sense. The section set in Paris felt tacked onto the narrative and unnecessary; two countries would have been enough. The story felt intensely personal, like a memoir. There is definitely a first-novel feel to Picking Bones from Ash, like watching a young bird on its first flight. It can be awkward, but then it soars.

“Eventually the snow stopped falling, and the clouds parted. Moonlight hit the white earth and the air took on a silver quality. Now I could see the outline of trees, the shadows of forests on the snow-covered ground. Sometimes I looked ahead and saw the figure was trudging before me and I felt as though I were watching a negative of a film unfold in slow motion: white earth, black sky, blue trees. It was eerily beautiful and foreign.”
-Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

i so don't do spooky by Barrie Summy: review & interview

Not only is Barrie Summy the host of our monthly book review club, she is also a talented children's author. “i so don’t do spooky” is the second installment in her mystery series to be released December 8th, 2009.

On the surface Sherry Holmes Baldwin sounds a lot like Nancy Drew: mystery ace with a perfect boyfriend, nice friends and a widowed dad. Only Sherry has a most unusual sidekick, her police detective mother. Sounds lame? Far from it. Sherry’s mom is a ghost!

Sherry summons her mother with coffee, her token scent. [That's Barrie's favorite coffee mug pictured to the left.] Every ghost has a distinctive odor, a useful plot devise for invisible characters. One ghost reeks of dirty socks, another of cinnamon buns. It’s the familiar that makes the extraordinary feel (smell?) real. 

Snappy writing and humor saves the story from sentimentality. Check out Sherry’s stepmother:
“Living with The Ruler is no Laffy Taffy. It’s like when you try on those strung-together shoes at Target. You can’t take big steps; you definitely can’t run; you can’t really tell how you feel about the footwear. Well, with the gazillion rules in our house, I only get to take teeny-tiny steps that don’t include TV on weekdays, MySpace anytime or unlimited texting. I won’t even start ragging on the health food I’m forced to eat.”
Talk about tough love, in "i so don’t do spooky" Sherry has to put aside her resentment and save the Ruler. Her stepmother has a stalker. Yikes! The mystery is spooky without being too scary for younger readers. There is a sweet innocence to it that feels classic, but all the pop culture references make it sound up-to-date.  The Phoenix, Arizona setting is really fun.

Author Barrie Summy at age 16  

Sherry is a real 13-year-old to a fault. She’s obsessed with shopping and prone to name-calling (eg. "Nerdy Nick.") Personally, I don’t like seeing this in children’s fiction. Although true to life, it reinforces stereotypes. Still, Sherry redeems herself by choosing mysteries over flirting, and kindness over selfishness. She’s a strong heroine, not a victim. Sherry grows a bit in this second book, realizing her faults.

Fans of "i so don’t do mysteries" will love "i so don’t do spooky." It has a similar feel, but the mystery holds together better. Even though "spooky" is full of ghosts, it’s more believable. The dead-grandfather-now-a-bird plays a smaller role. I’m hoping he’ll fly away in the next book, so we can focus more on the Ghost Academy. Reincarnation muddies this narrative. It’s just a little quibble about an otherwise strong storyline.

Barrie’s writing is fresh, funny and fast-paced. I can see this series becoming really popular with 8-12 year old girls, especially with kids who don’t usually like books. Barrie makes reading fun and easy without talking down. She gets kids and ghosts!

My Interview of Barrie Summy
(author photo by Ziegler Photography)

Sarah Laurence: You have a fun theory about dessert books – can you explain it?

Barrrie Summy: Well, actually it’s not my theory; it was my parents’. And, to be honest, I didn’t find it much fun when I was a kid! The Meat and Potato and Dessert Rule went like this: You could read as many Meat and Potato books in a row as you wanted. To read a Dessert book, you had to read at least one Meat and Potato book first. Much, to my chagrin, Nancy Drew fell into the Dessert book category.

Sarah: Who are your favorite authors?

Barrie: E.L. Konigsburg, Gordon Korman, Judy Blume, Jerry Spinelli, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Elinor Lipman, Anita Shreve. (This list is in no particular order. And it’s a mere drop in the bucket.)

Sarah: Where did you get the inspiration for the Sherry and ghost-mother detective team?

Barrie: I have absolutely no idea. Seriously. I originally wrote "i so don't do mysteries" as a Nancy Drew with all the guidelines that entails.  When I revamped the book for Sherry and could ditch the guidelines, my imagination went wild and crazy. Also, there's a part of me that would like to be in Sherry's shoes and having an unexpected  reunion with my mother and the chance to solve a mystery together.

Sarah: How is writing a series different from writing a single freestanding novel?

Barrie: With a series, you get to know the characters super well. And you get a chance to see what they’ll do in variety of situations. I think, also, you have to work a little harder at keeping it fresh for the reader.

Sarah: Over the course of the series, do you see Sherry staying a constant character, like Nancy Drew, or are you planning to have her mature, like Harry Potter?

Barrie: Originally, I'd planned to have Sherry remain a constant character. However, she insists on growing up a little in each book. In some books, she grows up more than in others. I'm currently writing the fourth book, "i so don't do famous," and I can already tell she's going to make some big connections and come more into herself.  It's exciting and a little like watching one of my own children start putting it all together. So, to answer your question, I'm basically, I'm just following Sherry's lead. 

Sarah: What is your advice for debut authors?

Barrie: Enjoy the ride. You only debut once.

Sarah: What motivated you to start the blogger book review club?

Barrie: I love blog round-ups. I especially love regularly-scheduled blog round-ups. I love book recommendations. I especially love positive book recommendations. Marry all that together and, voila, our monthly Book Review Club!

Disclosure: Delacorte Press of Random House sent me the Advanced Reader’s Copy of "i so don’t do spooky." Barrie and I are blog buddies, but, hello FTC, I reviewed this book just the way I wanted.

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Blog Watch: interesting discussion on career and family @ A Cuban in London, focusing on the changing role of fathers.  Cynthia @ Catching Days captured the change of seasons in song, image and prose.  Prairie Rose's Garden explained the love of gardening.  Reverie Book Reviews, The Story Siren and author Kami Garcia are helping a low income community in Virginia build a library; they need gently used children's books.  I've just sent a box of picture books etc.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Book: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Happy Thanksgiving!

On tomorrow’s Thanksgiving Americans (Canadians do so earlier) gather their extended families to show gratitude for nature’s bounty. We also thank Native Americans for sharing food with the new settlers, saving them from starvation. The Colonists repaid the Natives with smallpox.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich tells the American story of survival from the Native perspective. It reads like the missing companion to Laura Ingall's Wilder's Little House books for young readers. Both feature lovely black and white drawings, fascinating descriptions of 19th century family life and harrowing tales with bright touches of humor. Who knew that Louise Erdrich was an artist too?

The protagonist, Omakayas, is not quite eight, but the story of surviving smallpox during a hard winter has broad age appeal. It could be read aloud to a younger child or read independently by a 9-12 year old. Omakayas’s special relationships with a crow and the bear cubs on her island would have made this book a favorite when I was younger. My daughter’s sixth grade class read it over the summer. She loved it and urged me to read it too.

Here's my daughter's review:

I very much did enjoy the Birchbark House. We read it for school, but I was introduced to it by my best friend in about third grade.

The protagonist is very interesting and thinks in a whimsical fashion, thinking very carefully and hopping about the woods, as she is only seven years old but very responsible. Omakayas is her name and throughout this lovely book she communicates with bears, picks berries and lives through the theme of the book which happens to be, in my opinion, seasons. However, there are various other sub-themes like stories, family, and nature.

The book was easily read, as I am twelve, and I read more difficult, complex books, but it was written well. The plot at some times kept you edging off your seat and biting your lip to see what happens next but at other times is very smooth and pleasant, as they collect wood to build their house and build it throughout each season.

As an adult, I appreciated Erdrich’s insight into native culture and the issue of encroachment. It’s rare that I can’t find a flaw in a novel, but The Birchbark House is flawless: beautifully written, lovable characters, emotionally charged and a worthy issue. It was a National Book Award finalist. It should be required reading for all Americans. Share it with your family over the holidays.

From Chapter 12 Maple Sugar Time:
“Omakayas grinned. Her smile was now whole - new teeth had grown in over the winter. She was older. Soon, spring plants would poke up through dead leaves. The curled head of ferns. Buds, roots, fresh new leaves. Fat lake trout would sleepily rise from the bottom, hungry to be caught. They would be able to think of something other than the next bite of food. They would live again, truly live.”
Author Louise Erdrich is part of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and has written many novels on the Native American experience. For adults, my two favorites were Tracks and Love Medicine. I also loved her memoir on writing and motherhood, The Blue Jay’s Dance.  The Birchbark House is middle grade fiction, intended for children 8-12.

Speaking of talented middle grade authors, I had a lovely time with my neighbor, author Cynthia Lord. Last week we went out for the evening to talk about life and books. Cindy is the author of Newbury Honor winning Rules. Next week I’ll be interviewing another middle grade author Barrie Summy, who hosts the Book Review Club, and reviewing her soon to be released “i so don’t do spooky.” If you’re looking for good gift ideas for young readers….

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton: found for real in London

Walking up Drayton Gardens, a residential road in London, we saw a little house, wedged between townhouses. Above the ancient door was a mural of the house’s pastoral grandeur. Like the shepherd at the gate, I stopped in my tracks. Tears welled up in my eyes.

Growing up in Manhattan, one of my favorite books was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. My father saved it from his childhood collection. He would have been 6 and living in Manhattan too when it was released in 1942.

Sadly that first edition book did not survive my children. I cried the day I found the yellowed pages scattered in the nursery. I replaced it and supervised picture book reading after that.

The Little House is an American tale of a small pink house in the country. She sees the distant lights of the city and wonders what it would be like to live there. Over the years, the city sprawls towards her. Abandoned by the family who built her, she grows derelict and is trapped between skyscrapers, no longer able to see the stars at all.
“Then one fine morning in Spring along came the great-great-great-grandaughter of the man who built the Little House so well. She saw the shabby Little House, but didn’t hurry by.”
The Little House was published in 1942, but the story feels like a current tale of urban sprawl. Burton’s gorgeous illustrations remind me of another favorite artist, Grandma Moses. Her words are both poetic and visionary. The Little House won the Caldecott Medal in 1943.

Back in the 1970s, my family lived in a brownstone in a vanishing neighborhood of low-rise buildings. The old wood frame building next door, one of the last remaining in the city, was torn down to build a “pencil building” before laws banned them. Pencil buildings were mini-apartment buildings, built on a single lot.

On the avenues, rows of century old townhouses were razed to build luxury condominium high-rises. The Old World feeling of Yorkville became Upper East Side posh. Today there are no more children playing unattended on the sidewalks. Brownstones remain midblock, wedged between huge apartment buildings.


Living in small town Maine now, I feel like the Little House dug up from the city and transported:

“ As the Little House settled down
on her new foundation,
she smiled happily.
Once again she could watch
the moon and the stars.
Once again she could watch
Spring and Summer
and Fall and Winter
come and go.
Once again
she was lived in
and taken care of.”

Virginia Lee Burton passed away in 1968, when I was just learning how to turn pages without tearing them. Burton’s picture books are still in print today through Houghton Mifflin. The Little House would make a special holiday gift for your child or grandchild. Of the many books I passed onto other children when mine got older, this one remains on my shelf and in my heart.

Do you have a favorite picture book from your childhood?

Book Award Watch: Tonight is the National Book Award. I'm rooting for Maine author Phillip Hoose.  Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice tells the true story of a teenaged girl who refused to give her seat to a white woman on the bus. Colvin was jailed 9 months before Rosa Parks and went on to testify in court against segregation. Hoose interviewed Colvin to tell this true heroic tale, for the first time giving it the attention it deserves. Hoose's guest tonight is Colvin. I dare you to watch the video above with dry eyes.  Update: Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature - congratulations!

Shakespeare Watch: the Brunswick High School in Maine is performing Much Ado About Nothing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7pm and 2pm matinee on Saturday.  In addition to a ticket, bring one item of non-perishable food to contribute to the food drive.  Ten percent of ticket sales are also going towards the hunger drive, once costume costs are paid.  The kids are doing a great job with this delightful romantic comedy.  I've been observing rehearsals to research my young adult novel as u like it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Morse Mountain to Seawall Beach

Nature is an artist.
She sculpts with driftwood and paints with seasons.
Her canvas is Morse Mountain in Maine.

The trail is a dirt road,

Traversing the marsh,

Climbing to a summit overlooking the ocean.
 Nature draws a portrait with water. 

She mixes ochre on her palette and drops splashes of cadmium red. 

Pine trees transition to dune grass.  Smell the ocean.

Clouds are brushstrokes on the sky.  Feel the wind.

Waves weave an ocean blanket.  Hear the surf.

Wet sand abstracts the sky.  See infinity.

Driftwood is sculpture.  Touch it.

Seawall Beach is her masterpiece. 
I only leave my footprints on the sand,
My words upon a page,
And her images in memory.

Happy Birthday to my brother!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin

I have been immersing myself in theater lately: auditing a Bowdoin class on Shakespeare, renting Shakespeare movies, watching the high school rehearse Much Ado About Nothing and reading books on acting.

The Confessions of Edward Day by Valerie Martin is a fictional memoir of an actor in the 1970s. Curtains open on a group of struggling young actors, who have escaped the heat of lower Manhattan to hang out at a beach house.

Our hero is a narcissistic actor, Edward Day, who owes his life to his doppelganger, Guy Margate. Literally owes his life. Edward almost drowned.

Guy expects something in return for his heroic rescue. His demands escalate. The stakes get raised whenever Madeleine Delavergne enters the picture. She’s a beautiful and talented actress but tainted by neurosis. Madeleine is attracted to both Edward and Guy, two handsome actors who resemble one another. They form a love triangle with a sharp apex.

Edward Day is a story about envy, jealousy and creative genius. It centers on the gap between artistic perfection and real life. Valerie Martin explored these subjects before in her brilliant short story collection, The Unfinished Novel. Now she turns her lens from authors and artists to focus on actors. Martin writes beautifully about the ugliness of human nature.

Despite the heavy psychological underpinnings, Edward Day moves at a good pace and is entertaining. Martin’s extensive research (down to high set costs vs. low actor wages) makes the off-off Broadway scene come to life. Being 20-something in 70’s NYC was good fun despite the hardships.

Fans of theater will appreciate the way Martin weaves the plays into the narrative. The actor-characters quote Shakespeare and discuss method acting. The themes of the plays echo in the characters’ lives offstage.

Sometimes the theater-narrative connection is overplayed. There is an obvious connection between Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and our characters. Martin describes those links scene by scene to the point of interrupting the narrative flow. Trust the reader.

Still, I very much enjoyed The Confessions of Edward Day. If you haven’t sampled Valerie Martin yet, you are in for a treat:
“These lines drop from her lips without intonation, like a bag of chips falling into a vending machine when the correct code has been punched.”

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Blog Watch: Barrie sent me 2 useful links that explain how the new Federal and Trade Commission (FTC) rules effective December 1, 2009 apply to bloggers who accept free products (like ARCs and books) and endorse them:
For an example, see MY BOOK REVIEW POLICY in my sidebar.  My disclosure policy has actually been there since last May when I blogged about Blog Ethics.

Here are some NYT articles on it: