Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Good Summer Books

Deer Isle, Maine

The best summer books are fun, easy reads but still well written. They must have appealing characters, good pace and sensuous details. Humor helps too. Below, I’ve compiled a list of recent titles for adults, teens and tweens. Enjoy!

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (historical fiction, 2010)
David Mitchell is one of my absolute favorite authors. In his fifth novel, we travel back to Japan at the turn of the 18th century. The Dutch hold the only Western trading post on an island in Nagasaki Harbor. Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk hoping to make enough money to marry his sweetheart back home. The corruption and depravity of his co-workers shock this son of a minister. Orito Aibagawa, a scarred midwife apprenticing with a Dutch doctor, wins Jacob’s admiration. He wants to save her, but this independent woman has other plans.

Mitchell’s plot stretches to almost Stephen King extremes and at other times gets bogged down in historical detail, but it’s all well researched. This fascinating novel defies expectations and stays true to Japanese culture. My husband, who teaches Japanese Politics at Bowdoin College, enjoyed this book too, now available in paperback. Our two favorites of Mitchell's works are Black Swan Green set in 1980's Britain and the genre bending linked stories of Cloud Atlas.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (commercial fiction, 2010)
I expected a novel written by a comedian to be funny, but I did not expect to be blown away by his mastery of art and the New York art scene. The narrator, Daniel, is a journalist obsessed with a beautiful, smart and manipulative woman. Lacey starts at Sotherby’s and works/sleeps/cheats her way to opening her own gallery in Chelsea at the turn of millennium.

Martin’s story follows a loose memoir style and lacks resolution. Although not especially well crafted, this novel is still easy to read or to listen to on CD as I did. The author is an art collector, owning an impressive collection of Hopper paintings and was himself a victim of an art hoax. An Object of Beauty offers an insider’s glimpse into the high-end art collectors’ world.

Looking for Alaska by John Green (YA fiction for older teens, 2005)
“Pudge” is the new kid at a boarding school in Alabama. He’s a skinny, thoughtful boy obsessed with final last words and the meaning of life and death. He falls hard for wild child Alaska, who introduces him to smoking, drinking, pranks and oral sex. Despite the racy content, this Printz Prize winner delivers a strong moral message in the tradition of Catcher in the Rye. Green’s first novel would be a good choice for teenaged boys especially. It’s one of my favorites and would cross over well to an adult audience. Paperback. I plan to read more of Green's young adult novels.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (YA fiction, 2010)
This teen romance is much better than its embarrassing title and odd premise: an American girl goes to an Americans-only boarding school in Paris for senior year. Why ban the French if the setting is Paris? The best character is half American, ¼ French and ¼ British. Étienne St. Clair is every girl’s dream: attractive, sweet, sensitive and smart. Unfortunately St. Clair has a girlfriend and Anna has a boyfriend back home. They develop a wonderful friendship and explore the beautiful city together. This most sensuous novel will make you drool for Paris. My 13-year-old daughter enjoyed Perkins’ impressive debut as much as I did. It’s been a big hit with YA book bloggers too. Currently in hardback or ebook and available in paperback in August.

A Match Made in High School by Kritsin Walker (YA fiction, 2009)
For senior year, all students are randomly paired in fake marriages for credit. Nerdy Fiona must “Tie The Knot” with Todd, a popular jock, in order to graduate. Her rainbow pride mom organizes the parents in protest. This debut novel is laugh-out-loud funny and has many compelling characters. I loved the multi-faceted relationship Fiona forms with Todd that breaks all stereotypes. A Match Made in High School is a hilarious satire delivered in a true teen voice. Thanks, Keri Mikulski, for the recommendation. Paperback. I love the cover too.

Doggirl by Robin Brande (lower YA fiction for tweens, 2011)
Although this novel is set in high school, its innocence makes it a better match for younger readers aged 10-13. The central romance is not physical and even the flirty seniors never do more than kiss. Note that Doggirl is available on ebook and supposedly a print version is due out this month.

Riley has moved to a new town after being bullied in junior high, although the incident seemed too mild to warrant a transfer. I was puzzled that Riley was not receiving help as her social ineptitude and obsessive knowledge of dogs seemed to point to Asperger’s Syndrome. Still, Riley was a sympathetic character and her dogs were as lovable as Lassie and James Harriot’s pack. Riley’s talent shines when she trains her 3 dogs to perform in a school play competition. The acting and dog training scenes were fun even if the play itself was a clunker. I always enjoy Brande’s engaging blend of science and humor.
In this Doggirl excerpt the teen director is talking to his actors: “’Remember,’ Danny said, ‘if you look stupid, I look stupid. But mainly you look stupid.’”
Reviewers Disclaimer: Doggirl was given to me by the author to review. All other books were purchased by me without compensation.

Deer Isle, Maine

What’s in my beach bag:

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (historical fiction, 2011)
A fictional account set on Martha’s Vineyard Island of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. Hardcover at Gulf of Maine Books.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (debut historical fiction, 2011)
Architecture, romance and genocide in World War II Paris. At over 600 pages, this hefty book was a good choice for my Kindle.

Show Me Good Land by Shonna Milliken Humphrey (debut Maine fiction, 2011)
A murder story with quirky characters set in a town in rural Maine. Hardcover gift from my friend Charlotte Agell.

The Pleasing Hour by Lily King (literary fiction, Maine author, 1999)
An American au pair in France uncovers dark family secrets. Paperback from  Gulf of Maine Books.

The Dairy Queen trilogy by Catherine Gilbert-Murdock (YA series 2007-11)
A farmer girl wants to join the boys’ football team like her older brothers.  Kindle ebooks.

Wither by Lauren DeStefano (debut dystopian YA series, 2011)
A girl bride is kidnapped in a world where no one of her generation lives past 25. Kindle ebook.

Note: I’m taking a blog vacation for the first half of summer. I don’t believe I’ve taken more than a week off at a time in 4 ½ years of blogging. I’ll be back recharged. Next post: July 20th.

What are your recommendations for summer reading? Please leave them in a comment or a post and I’ll add links.

More Summer Reading Posts:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Can't Wait by Ashley Hope Pérez

We often hear about how low-income kids fail at school, especially in minority communities. In What Can(t) Wait Ashley Hope Pérez describes the challenges from a gifted student’s perspective. Despite the gritty material, this moving debut novel still manages to be filled with hope, which is in fact the author's middle name.

Encouraged by her calculus teacher, Marisa dreams of going to college in Austin, Texas to become an engineer. Her barely educated parents, who left Mexico for Houston, have a different dream. They expect Marisa to cook, to look after her niece and to help support the family by working a minimum wage job. School comes a distant second to family. Marisa’s boyfriend is supportive, but his expectations weigh on her too. She struggles to please everyone at once but cracks under the pressure. Just when Marisa wants to give up, she finds encouragement from her niece, who is still young enough to think anything is possible.

What Can(t) Wait reads like a suspense story with high stakes even though what Marisa wants is what more privileged teens take for granted. Despite all the hardships, Marisa never whines and the book is not preachy. I would strongly recommend this well crafted novel to older teens and to adults. It's a must read for teachers. Sexually graphic material, including a near rape, makes it upper young adult fiction. What Can(t) Wait is not an easy read, but it’s well worth reading. I can’t stop thinking about it. Marisa and her issues feel so real.

My Interview of Ashley Hope Pérez

Sarah: You served in Teach for America Corps in a neighborhood similar to the one depicted in your novel. What did you teach? How did that experience inform your writing?

Ashley: I taught high school English in Houston. I’ve said this many times, but there would be no novel without my students. Many were reluctant to read or write when they first came to my class, so winning them over was a big challenge. Once I sold them on the power of reading and writing for success in life and for pleasure, though, they were unstoppable.

Read more about my students in this Diversity in YA guest post

How did that experience as a teacher compare with your high school years as teenager?

Believe it or not, I actually dropped out of high school after my sophomore year. Of course, I dropped out to go to college, but my dropout story here. The fact remains that I didn’t feel like I fit in at all. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t! I had friends who were very kind (and somewhat protective of me), but I always felt like we were speaking different languages. In retrospect, I see that I probably seemed relatively well adjusted from the outside. I still felt lonely and out of place on the inside, though. Most people don’t realize that I’m shy, but I am.  (Photo at right of Ashley at the same age as Marisa.)

What changes in our educational system would you make to help students like Marisa?

Set high expectations for student achievement and catch gaps early. The majority of my high school seniors were reading well below grade level, many of them on a fifth- to sixth-grade level. How did this happen? There are many factors, but (since I’ve also taught at the elementary level), I know first hand that students who start behind—particularly when they come from disadvantaged backgrounds—usually stay behind. It’s easy to make excuses for students based on their circumstances, but this is no favor to them. What they need are teachers and programs that are up to the challenge of helping them fill in gaps that will only widen with time.

Ashley Hope Pérez with her son.

How do you balance the competing demands of academic and creative writing with family life?

I’m just now taking my qualifying exams for my PhD in Comparative Literature, which is the last step before the dissertation.  I read and work with literatures in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English. For my exams, I have focused on the novel in all of these language traditions, but I have an especially strong interest in twentieth-century literature in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the U.S. (especially Latino/a lit). You can read about the books I teach in a course on Caribbean women writers in this post for Color Online.

I find that I tend to work best by focusing on academic work for a while (with a chunk of writing every day still for my creative work.) For example, during the past months, I have set a very small goal of 15 minutes daily for my creative writing. But by the time this interview goes up, I’ll have finished my exams, and I’ll be working full-time on the revision of my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, with a short block of time reserved every day for free-writing toward my dissertation idea.

As for family: my son and husband are so cool (and they are best buds) that I’m always happy to be with them! We work really hard to have playtime together every day no matter how busy we are.

How does the writing experience differ in your 2 fields?

While I find that the kind of writing I do is very different writing for teens versus writing for my colleagues, my process is pretty similar in both cases. I do a lot of zero drafting. A zero draft is “throw-away” writing in notebooks, on notecards, and on sticky notes. All of this is before I officially “begin”—I’m just trying to find my way in to the topic, to find the interesting material or the “story” (the best scholarly writing, in my opinion, also tells a story—a story of interpretation).

What is the best writing advice you received?

Oh, I’ve gotten so much good advice! But I suppose the two most important bits are:

(1) Write with whatever time you have; don’t let yourself say that it’s not enough to get something done. If you are focused, you can get a lot done even in 10 or 15 minutes.

(2) Write the book (or story or poem or essay) that YOU can write. The more I write, the more I realize what an amazing accomplishment it is to finish (much less publish) anything.

Ashley Hope Pérez with former student Rey Mejía (he's also in the student photo above.)

Congratulations on your 2-book debut deal with Carolrhoda Books. Can you give us a sneak preview of your next novel?

Sure! The Knife and the Butterfly was inspired in part by an actual event in Houston. I used a series of articles from the Houston Chronicle while teaching a freshman English summer school class, and the students got so into the story that I decided I had to use it. The novel follows two teenagers through the aftermath of a deadly gang fight. Lexi is from a working class background and hangs around a gang for protection and for a sense of herself. Azael is a romantic drifter essentially orphaned by his mom’s death and his father’s deportation to El Salvador. Their lives get mixed up in a way that neither one of them wanted but that neither one can escape, either.

Thanks, Ashley, for joining us! Your next book sounds very intriguing too. 

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought this book after reading a terrific review on Reading in Color. All photos were supplied by the author and reproduced with her permission. The (t) in the title is not a typo. Think mathematical function and literary perentheses.

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