Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stealing Bases by Keri Mikulski and More Good Gift Books

Scout at Sunset, photo by my husband on Thanksgiving
From the books that I’ve reviewed this past year, I’ve compiled a list of novels that would appeal to a wide audience and are fun to read.  These aren't necessarily my absolute favorite books, but the ones that would make good holiday gifts.

Literary Fiction
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Commercial Fiction
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Award winning Young Adult Fiction (ages 14 and up)
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Looking for Alaska by John Green (my 17-year-old son recommends)

Tween Girls and Reluctant Teen Readers (ages 10 and up)
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (my 14-year-old daughter recommends)
Stealing Bases by Keri Mikulski (reviewed below)

If the name Keri Mikulski sounds familiar, it’s because she’s part of our Book Review Club. Earlier this year, I interviewed Keri and reviewed her first young adult novel in the Pretty Tough series. Head Games featured Taylor, a sweet basketball player who was victimized by a jealous girlfriend. Stealing Bases, the next book in the series, follows the “reformed” bad girl, Kylie, into softball season. I bought this paperback book for my collection of sporty teen girl novels.

Kylie is trying very hard to control her legendary temper, but her parents’ divorce and the loss of her starting spot on the varsity softball team push her over the edge. Her hardships explain her behavior without excusing it. Our unreliable narrator spins out of control, but we can’t help feeling sympathetic. It’s also bad fun seeing the world from a snarky girl’s point of view. The one disappointment was Kylie’s complete transformation; it seemed out of character. The lesson of good sportsmanship is, nonetheless, an important one.

Keri writes so well about sports and speaks to teens in their own language. Her girls play hard and get dolled up for prom. In the Pretty Tough series being athletic is both feminine and attractive. It’s wonderful to have easy-to-read books for girls in which sports and friendship take precedence over romance. Keri Mikulski hits a home run with Stealing Bases. The next two books in the series, Making Waves and Fifteen Love, are due to be published in 2012.

Do you have more gift book suggestions? List them in a comment or blog about them in the next 2 weeks, and I'll link to you from this updated post.  Also check out my links below.  The Book Review Club always has great suggestions.  Read on!

1. From The House of Edward listed Christmas classics, old and new.
2. The Education of a Pulp Writer listed Patti Abbott from our book review club.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

War Horse Review: book, play and movie soon

Horse in Port Meadow, England

I usually prefer the original book to the adaption, but War Horse by Michael Morpurgo improved on stage. The novel follows a horse and his boy from a farm in Devon, England to the battlefields of World War I France. In reality, the cavalry was pitted against machine guns, barbed wire, trenches and tanks. Over 15 million people and 8 million horses died. War Horse does not glorify war but remembers the bravery and sacrifices of those who served, both human and equine.

Although the book was very good, it was absurd to have a horse narrate a story of war brutality in which many sympathetic characters suffer and die.  Animal narrators belong in innocent books for young children.  Furthermore, the voice wasn’t believably equine, and there was no explanation for how a farm horse could understand three languages. We also lose track of the boy’s story when they part. An omniscient third person narrator would have worked better. Still, what a great story!

Oddly enough, moving the story to the stage with horse puppets created more realism. The puppets didn’t speak, and they acted like true horses: snorting, galloping and even breathing. It was hard to see them abused because you believed they were alive. There was nothing childish or cutesy about these puppets, and the war scenes were horrific and loud. In fact, I would not recommend this play to families with young children or sensitive teenagers because it was terrifyingly real.

War Horse is a must see for a mature audience. Not only were the puppetry, acting and singing fabulous, the staging was gorgeously artistic. A cloud-like backdrop became an animated sketchbook. As the actor rode the puppet horse, an ink drawing of them galloped across the rolling fields. Later the screen projected battle scenes as the stage spun or broke into trenches. The play was true to the spirit of the book, but the secondary characters and the plot were condensed and modified for more poignancy and greater realism.

War Horse at Lincoln Center, NYC

War Horse is currently playing in London and in New York City. It won 5 Tonys, including best play in 2011 and extended its run. In 2012 War Horse is due to open in Toronto and will simultaneously tour American cities. My parents (thank you!) took my teenaged children and me to the New York production over Thanksgiving. I purchased the ebook and read it before seeing the play. Thank you, Bee, for the recommendation.

Steven Spielberg’s film adaption of War Horse will open on Christmas Day, 2011.

Update Movie Review: my husband (who's family comes from Devon) and I were disappointed by the film version of War Horse. The movie was overly sentimental with too many characters, and the film looked obviously photoshopped (ie a tropical red sunset in Devon). The best part was the first half set in England, even if the actors didn't get the Devonian accents right. The later war scenes felt contrived, and the farm in France was absurdly bucolic. Go see the play (best) or read the book instead.

Theater Watch: on a lighter note, we also saw and loved Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway. Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall were superb.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How is a puppy similar to a 17-year-old boy?

Here’s Scout sneaking out of my office with the keys. She’s ready to hit the road. My son, with less than two weeks on his drivers’ license, wanted to drive two hours to Logan Airport in Boston on his own.

It was actually my idea for him to check out colleges solo. There is much more to campus life than what one sees on a tour. My son stayed with a friend who had gone to his high school. They had kept in touch via Facebook. I wanted him to not only see this college, but also to see that college is fun. He got to attend lectures and stayed in a dorm overnight. There were no parents.

Back when I was in high school, I had stayed with friends when checking out colleges. It was an invaluable education. I learned first hand that a coed dorm might be okay but not a coed bathroom. Frat parties were not my idea of fun. I applied early to the school where students had heated debates over philosophical ideas in their dorm rooms. I would not be the only geek on campus. There isn’t one right school for everyone; it’s more of an idiosyncratic match.

From NYC it was easy to visit colleges, but the journey is longer from Maine. I was okay with my son flying alone, but driving into Logan Airport, parking and making a flight would be stressful even for a seasoned traveler. When my husband drove down to Boston with our son, a smoking truck blinded them. Its engine was on fire. They took a wrong turn, but still made the flight on time. My son took the bus back to Maine on his return. I’m sure if you asked him, he’d say he could have done it all on his own.

If I left the front door open, Scout would run out into the street. I would be responsible. My puppy doesn’t know any better, but my son is a cautious, thoughtful boy. Part of me identifies with his desire to be free, even to make his own mistakes. I’ve let the leash extend 700 miles, but I’m not ready to let the boy go. That will happen only too soon, in less than two years. I think parents need to grow even faster than teens do at this stage.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to add blog pages with automatic forwarding or redirecting

 George J. Mitchell Field, formerly a US Navy Fuel Depot and now a public/dog park in Harpswell, Maine.

About once a year I give my blog a makeover.  My aim this time was to integrate my stand alone website (for my artwork and writing) with my blog.  I also wanted to reduce the clutter in my sidebar. On google blogger you can add up to 20 stand alone pages with tabs appearing under the banner (like mine) or in the sidebar. Thanks, Carol, for nudging me to add a homepage.

To add stand alone pages on Google Blogs:

Under the "Posting" tab click "Edit Pages"and then "New Pages." You create a new page like writing a blog post and then publish.

To create the automatic jump from the new page to my website, I added new code to my "Edit HTML" screen of the new page:'s instructions on adding automatic redirecting

This code would also work if you changed blog addresses and wanted to forward visitor to your new site. I changed the lag time from 1 to 5 seconds to accomodate search engines, but it jumps instantly due to the javascript. Don't worry, this is all much easier than it sounds.

More Posting Tips:

To improve your blog, read The Story Siren's Ten Things I Dislike About Your Blog. This is a must read post for all bloggers. The only point I disagreed with was word verification. I get bombarded with spam without it.

Here's my Advice for New Bloggers with your helpful comments.

Bookstore Watch: one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett has opened a bookstore.

Shakespeare Watch: from the latest New Yorker, "Who Wrote Shakespeare," by Eric Idle. Hilarious!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Author Elizabeth Strout Talks About Writing and Maine

Sunrise from by backyard, Brunswick, Maine

If you haven’t read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, go buy a copy now. You’ll want to read it more than once and to share it with others. I first blogged about Olive in 2009 after this novel of interlocking stories won the Pulitzer Prize. The author spoke last Sunday to a group of library volunteers in my town of Brunswick, the place which inspired her work of fiction. She said that libraries are the “fireplace of a town.” Children’s book editor and author, Kate Egan moderated the discussion. Elizabeth gave me permission to share my synopsis with you.

Although Elizabeth resides most of the year in New York City, she is a genuine Mainer: eight generations on one side and ten on the other. She was born in Portland and was raised in Maine and in New Hampshire. Elizabeth captures the quality of small town life better than any other author I’ve ever read. Kate agreed, “This isn’t just Maine but my Maine.”

Despite her phenomenal talent, Elizabeth’s road to publication was long. She suffered through years of rejection before her stories were printed in literary journals and in magazines. Even after those publications, it took her a couple of years to find an agent and a publisher for her first book. She was forty-one years old when Amy and Isabelle (1998) was published.

Amy and Isabelle is a disturbing tale of a teenaged girl having an affair with her teacher while her relationship with her mother deteriorates. The narrative has a linear and predictable plot, but it is still impressive for a first book. The novel is set in a former mill town like Brunswick, except with greater economic hardships.

The original cover image (at left) features the Bowdoin Mill in Topsham, across the river from Brunswick. The art designer found the old photo in a drawer at Random House. Locals might notice that the image was reversed. By coincidence, Elizabeth’s husband had also worked in that mill a long time ago. I have a personal connection too: that old mill building houses my doctor and the Sea Dog Brewery, a favorite spot for a pint or lunch by the river.

Olive Kitteridge is set in fictional Crosby, Maine, but references to Cook’s Corner and other Brunswick spots places the narrative in my town. When asked if Olive is a novel or a book of stories, Elizabeth replied that it is “whatever you like.” The stories all include Olive, but sometimes as the main character and other times as a minor character. Her reason for this variance was that Olive was such a large character. If Olive had been on every page, the reader would have been exhausted. Without an obvious structure, the stand-alone stories work together to build the narrative arc of a novel. Only 270 pages long, this expertly crafted book has depth, heart and soul.

The first Olive story came to Elizabeth while working on her second novel, Abide With Me (2006). She got a vision of a woman standing by a picnic bench at her son’s wedding, waiting impatiently for the guests to go home. Looking back at other unfinished stories, Elizabeth realized they were all waiting for Olive. From there, she wrote even more Olive stories.

The book structure came subconsciously while Elizabeth moved the stacked stories from her desk to a suitcase to share with her editor. Although the book went through editorial changes, the original order of the stories remained fixed. Elizabeth has a few Olive stories left over but doesn’t plan to share them. The next time we see Olive will be on TV. The book has been optioned by Francis McDormand for HBO.

I asked Elizabeth about her manuscript editing process. For the past 28 years, she has only had one writing critique partner. When asked about grammar and style, Elizabeth replied, “I love a semicolon and a nicely placed adverb.” She has only worked with one editor, who has recently retired. Someone new will be editing her work in progress. Her advice on writing was to keep reading; I can’t wait to read her next novel.

Elizabeth was a wonderful speaker. She was articulate, sincere and often hilarious with an almost British sense of self-deprecating humor. I found her personal story inspiring since I’m also trying to get published in my 40s. I've set my novels in mid-coast Maine too.

Storm Watch: my college roommate, Deb Sabin, wrote an amusing letter in The Boston Globe about the up side of the October blizzard. Book lovers will enjoy this.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Scout's first romp in snow.
A white Christmas is normal for Maine, but a white Halloween? A blizzard hit the northeast last weekend, robbing three million homes of power (our lights just flickered). We had a busy weekend preparing for early winter, and my back still aches from stacking logs and storing garden furniture.

Luckily my son’s play wasn’t cancelled, but I didn’t let him drive into the storm alone with his new license. Taming of the Shrew went very well, and he was hilarious in the comic role of Hortensio. Of all of Shakespeare's plays, this romantic comedy of domestic abuse fails to charm me, even though the kids did a great job with it.

Today my son's Mock Trial team is presenting an imaginary case to a real judge. My son will drive himself into school, to court and back home. This new stage of freedom feels as jarring and as exciting as the first day of kindergarten.

On the topic of coming of age stories, this week I’m reviewing a young adult novel for the book club. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta won the Printz Award in 2009 and continues to stir controversy today. Some reviewers claim that its unconventional literary style is too complex and hard for teens to follow. Yet others embrace Jellicoe Road as the book that changed their life as a teenager.

Jellicoe Road is realistic fiction, but the remote Australian location feels like another world. The story is Dickensian with a touch of dystopia (like Lord of the Flies.) Taylor was abandoned at a state-run boarding school. The students are engaged in a border skirmish with the townies and visiting cadets. Play escalates to violence due to the lack of adult supervision. The closest Taylor has to a parent is her dorm monitor, and Hannah has disappeared mysteriously.

Taylor searches through Hannah’s work-in-progress for clues. She begins to suspect that the manuscript isn’t entirely fiction. There are hints to her own past as well if only she could follow the narrative. The unnumbered pages are out of order with chunks missing. The reader is equally baffled as excerpts from Hannah’s manuscript are interspersed through the real time narrative.

The plot comes together like a fragmented dream. The seventeen-year-old characters are wonderful: headstrong Taylor, charismatic Jonah of the cadets and Santangelo, a half Aborigine from town. I got caught up in the entertaining narrative and didn’t mind following it through the thorny underbrush, into dead-end tunnels and down circuitous paths. When we reached the final destination, I was satisfied but sorry for the book to end.

I’d strongly recommend Jellicoe Road to discerning readers of all ages. This innovative book would be an inspiration for writers too. Young adult literature is pushing fiction into unexplored territories.

Disclosure: I bought an ebook of Jellicoe Road without compensation. It was so good that I then bought a hard copy for my library. The warring puppies at play are my golden retriever and her pug buddy, Guinness. No puppies were harmed for this post.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Puppy Contortions

Scout at three months

Growing too quickly?

yoga with pterodactyls

advanced camouflage lessons

At work: uh, thanks for the reminder. 

It's a short post this week.  My son's play opens on Friday.  He's playing Hortensio in Taming of the Shrew.  Yesterday he passed his driving test on the first attempt. As for my daughter, she just finished soccer season and has joined a rock band. Scout has started puppy class. Now that painting season is over, I'm back to work revising my young adult novel. Sometimes I feel like I'm chasing my tail.

I just dropped the word "blog" from my title.  Hard to believe, but when I started nearly five years ago, most people didn't know what a blog was.  I wanted to distinguish this page from my website and to avoid confusing search engines, but I think people will still find me.

Enjoy the last of the golden maples!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Russet Autumn

Brunswick Town Commons

Most autumns in Maine are ablaze with color, but this year the hues are muted. After a dry August, Tropical Storm Irene battered the trees. The weakened maples were susceptible to fungus in a wet September. Instead of turning bright red or orange, the maples are spotted brown. Another theory is the unusual lack of frost makes the leaves fade slowly before falling. The maples should recover by next year. Still, the subtle shades are beautiful in their own way, and the variance in fall foliage makes you appreciate it all the more in good years.  Remember the reflecting pond last year? Other years we've hiked in the White Mountains once with snow and once with peak foliage, literally!

October is my favorite time to hike in Maine. The foliage peaks this month and deer hunting doesn’t start until November. The woods are safe even for a fawn colored puppy. Maybe next year she'll be big enough to scale mountains.

Already Scout has perfected the art of camouflage. Squirrels beware!

We paused to check out the local color:
I with my camera and Scout with her nose.
Mission accomplished: 
tired puppy!

Blog Watch: I'm not the only one with a new puppy. Nantucket Daffodil welcomed adorable Stormy to her home. Remembering the untimely loss of my last dog, my childhood friend Jennifer Mirsky blogged about Pet Loss and Support. On the subject of loss, support and recovery, Sapphire posted an update on Japan after the Earthquake.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Indian Summer at Popham Beach

Pond Island Lighthouse and Life Saving Museum at Popham State Park, Maine
There’s a saying in Maine: “If you don’t like the weather, 
just wait a minute.” 
 Last Thursday night was nearly our first frost, 
but nature delivered a surprise for the long weekend: 
80-degree weather in mid October!

A fisherman looked overdressed in his waders.

Lobstermen in t-shirts were hauling in their catch.

One snack shack was boarded up for the winter, 
but Spinney’s was still serving lobster rolls and Moose Tracks ice cream.

Swimming in a bikini, I surprised a kayaker in a wet suit. 
The water wasn’t any colder than in June...really.

Scout, unconvinced, left the waves to the seals.

She dug a cool hole in the sand.

We stayed for moonrise and sunset, 
wishing these warm days would never end.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

You Are My Only by Beth Kephart

I love quirky books that are hard to categorize. You Are My Only by Beth Kephart is marketed as young adult fiction, but it could just as easily be adult literary fiction. It's a contemporary novel that echoes the language of classic literature.  Many lines read like poetry. The alternating chapters follow a young woman and a teenaged girl, each one confined to a miserable existence. The connection between Emmy and Sophie is a mystery for the reader to solve.

Sophie is a precocious 14-year-old imprisoned in a series of rental houses. While her mother works as a waitress, Sophie is left home alone to educate herself and not allowed contact with the outside world. Because classic books are her only companions, Sophie sounds like a child from another era. She reminded me of attic-bound Sara in The Little Princess. Quietly rebellious Sophie forms a secret friendship with the cute guy next door and his elderly aunts. This engaging storyline was a delight to read, despite the creepy undertones of the confinement.

Emmy married straight out of high school to an abusive man. Her only passion is her baby. After her daughter is kidnapped, Emmy has a nervous breakdown that leads to her institutionalization. Her narrative reads like a wink to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and deviates from the central plot. I would have liked to have known more about Emmy and less about her eccentric roommate. Emmy's emotional trauma scrambles her ability to communicate so she remains enigmatic.

Kephart does a fine job in weaving the two narratives together with parallel themes and crossover clues.  Each story is enhanced by the other in this well-crafted book. The un-rushed pace allows the reader to appreciate the beautiful writing. You Are My Only sparkles with whimsical prose:
Emmy: “The sun has come up like a squint on the horizon.”
Sophie: “Johannes Kepler was born with the skies in his eyes.”
The atmosphere is a character in itself, reflecting the narrator’s state of mind:
Panicked Emmy searches for her lost baby: “The neighborhood changes – from house to retail, from window light and TV flicker to lanterns above. At the gas station, the pumps are still. At the Clock and Watch, the gutter is splash. Maybe they’re hiding Baby in the shadows between places, in the dark behind bushes, on the other side of barrel trash cans.”
Sophie watches the world from the attic: “My house is a storybook house. A huff-and-a-puff-and-they’ll-blow-it-down house. The roof is soft; it’s tumbled. There are bushes growing tall past the sills. A single sprouted tree leans in from high above the cracked slate path, torpedoing acorns to the ground.”
Don’t you want to keep reading? You don't have long to wait. You Are My Only will be released on October 25, 2011.

Disclosure: I received an ARC from the publisher at my request. I’ve gotten to know the author online after interviewing her. You can check out her blog in my sidebar.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

10X10 Art Show in Brunswick, Maine

Reid State Park, watercolor by Sarah Laurence

Autumn’s crisp light makes this season my favorite time to paint. For this watercolor, I drove 40 minutes to Reid State Park in Georgetown, Maine. I had the picnic area to myself as the tide was turning. After sketching the main elements, I stepped back to examine my compositing before adding paint. The landscape on paper appeared too still for a windy day. A dynamic element was needed. By luck, just then a sailboat passed by. I sketched it in seconds. By the time I’d blocked out the colors, the sailboat was a memory on the horizon.

My watercolor will be part of the 10X10 Art Show in Brunswick, Maine. The proceeds from the sale will bring artists into our elementary schools to work with children. Local businesses have donated food and drinks. Come join us Friday night!

10X10 Benefit Art Exhibit and Sale
Curtis Memorial Library and
St. Paul’s Church Community Hall (my venue)
Preview: Sept 29 5-8pm / Sept 30 12-3pm
Reception and Sale: Sept 30 5-8pm
All 10 inch by 10 inch works are framed and $200

Online Preview

L'Shana Tova! Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sunset at Lookout Point

The islands at Lookout Point remind me of floating bonsais.

Autumn’s crisp, cool air makes the colors more intense.

Painting dockside, I watch lobstermen unloading their catch.

Seabirds queue for sunset as I drive the nine miles home.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

We got a new puppy!

Introducing Scout, born July 16, 2011

I figured out why puppies have to be so cute.

They sleep like howling newborns, 
but have the appetite of a teenager (or maybe a goat.) 
Then they run around your house like a toddler without a diaper.

A good puppy is a tired puppy.

Still, who can resist this fluff-ball?

Scout is a Golden Retriever from Colonial Goldens of Maine.
She joined our family last weekend at age 8 weeks.
The first two nights were rough (she was missing her dog family),
but she made it through last night without a peep.

My daughter named her after Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
 So far the only indication of good literary taste is chewed up paper. 
 Books and everything else are now carefully shelved.
Our Scout might prefer vampire novels.

Photos of Scout and me are by my daughter. 
 The solo shots are mine.

(Our last dog, Stella, died of cancer a year ago.)