Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Winter Solstice on Popham Beach

As the days fade to sunrise by sunset,

Colors glow in russet hues.

We choose to walk in empty spaces,

Where islands float in solitude,

Embering the lingering rays,

That wash dunes flat and grey.

But in the final moment,

The sun defies the solstice,

Painting winter in gaudy tones,

And reflecting infinite sky in endless sea.

Then into blackness, another year goes.

Festive Holidays and Happy New Year! 
I'll be offline next week.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Best YA Books of 2012 & One Favorite Book for Adults

Happy 12/12/12...I should have posted at noon!

A book makes the best holiday gifts if well matched to the reader. Buying for teenagers can be especially challenging. Luckily for the perplexed parents out there, I read a lot of young adult (YA) fiction since that is what I write. My gift suggestions aren't kids' books but complex, literary novels featuring teens making the transition to adulthood. These books would crossover well to an adult audience as well. I've thrown in one adult title, which would be appropriate for teens too. All the books were published in 2012. To read my full reviews, click on the title links.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein was the best book I read this year. Set in Nazi occupied France, this historical novel might be better suited for adults. What makes it YA is the age of the protagonists: the captured Scottish spy and her English pilot are both 18-year-old girls. The novel focuses on their friendship and their bravery. This is a book I will read a second time and pass onto my 15-year-old daughter when she's a bit older. My British husband loved it too.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green is a tragic romance between two teenagers with cancer, but it made me laugh as much as it made me cry. Green is the only YA author that my 18-year-old son still reads (his Hanukkah request was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace in adult literary fiction). Green's YA novel was also recommended by AARP for retired people. Both Green's and Wein's books made the best 2012 YA list in The New York Times.

If you're looking for a lighter story, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith was my favorite contemporary YA romance. An American teenager is seated beside a British Yale student on a flight to London. Their whimsical love story spans 24 jet lagged hours. My daughter enjoyed it too. A similar American-in-London romance is Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill.

Small Damages by Beth Kephart also transports the reader to a new world. A teenaged American girl is sent to Seville, Spain to face the consequences of an accidental pregnancy. This book has a marvelous sense of place with gorgeous, literary writing. It's a quiet, sunlit story meant to be savored.

In The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Pérez, a teenaged boy faces the consequences of  gang warfare. Violence, drugs and swearing make this book best suited to a mature audience. Nothing is gratuitous and this original novel delivers a strong moral message without sounding preachy. It would make a terrific gift for a teenaged boy.

As a teenager, one of my favorite authors was Barbara Kingsolver. Now she's my daughter's favorite adult author. Flight Behavior focuses on climate change, Monarch butterflies and a young woman's journey to finding herself. It was the best book for adults that I read this year and would be appropriate for young teen readers too. My mother, another Kingsolver fan, loved it as well.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: I received free ARCs of Small Damages, The Knife and the Butterfly and Flight Behavior for review purposes. I bought the other books myself. Beth Kephart and Ashley Hope Pérez are blog buddies.

Blog Watch authors: Keri Mikulski writes sporty romances for younger teens. Ellen Booraem writes middle grade fantasy. Alyssa Goodnight writes romantic fantasy for women. Barrie Summy, host of our blogger book review club, writes middle grade mysteries. David Cranmer edits, writes and publishes pulp fiction. Elizabeth Wix has self-published several novels for readers of varying ages. Pamela has self-published a lovely bound edition of essays from her blog, From the House of Edward; my aunt and uncle will get a copy for Christmas. What a talented group!

More Best 2012 YA Book Lists:
Kirkus Reviews
The Atlantic Wire
Good Reads

From the house of two religions: Happy Hanukkah!

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 What was the best book you read this year?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill: review and interview

Julia's dream visit to London had not included being partnered with her arch nemesis. Popular Jason will do anything for a laugh, especially at straight-A Julia's expense. When Jason accepts an invitation to a stranger's party, she feels compelled to go with her partner. Too hungover to enjoy sightseeing the next day, Julia regrets her choice. She gets a flirty text from Chris and can't even remember who he was. Jason offers to help her track down the mysterious British texter if she'll write his class papers. The two embark on a wild-text chase that leads them from a graffiti art skateboard park and to other quirky places.

The Cranley Hotel, London by Sarah Laurence
Meant to Be is Lauren Morrill's first novel, but she writes like a seasoned pro. She gets how teens act and talk today and knows what will appeal to her target audience. Her descriptions of London are spot on if a bit touristy, but that is appropriate for this story. Meant to Be is teen tour England. American girls will adore it. With its fun setting, snappy dialogue and slapstick humor, the book would translate well to the movie screen.

If there were an award for best use of cell phones in a novel, Meant to Be would win a trophy. Modern technology is a big problem for storytellers. Cell phones allow characters to connect too easily and texting can disrupt the narrative flow. This debut author cleverly exploits mobile phones to her narrative advantage. Every chapter starts with a text that drives the action. This was a smart editorial choice because readers will want to scroll back through those texts after reaching the final page. I can't explain why without a spoiler, but the ending is both hilarious and satisfying.

Lauren's musical inspiration: The Beatles
Fans of Anna and the French Kiss and The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight will enjoy Meant to Be as well. Although there is sexually crude humor and teen drinking, there are consequences and the central romance is quite tame. I'd recommend this book for girls aged 12 and up. Their moms might enjoy it too. My British American daughter is looking forward to reading it over vacation.

My Interview of Lauren Morrill

Photo of Lauren by Steven Folkins

Lauren as a high school senior on a trip to Park City, Utah
Sarah: Why did you choose to write for teens? 

Lauren: I've always heard that you should write the book you want to read, and I have always loved reading YA. All of my favorite books are young adult, and so when it came time to start working on my own novel, YA is what came pouring out. I think my inner voice is permanently sixteen years old. 

What inspired you to write Meant to Be

I love romance and comedy, so when I started working on Meant to Be I knew that those elements would be a huge part of the plot. The book draws a little on Cyrano de Bergerac, one of my favorite classics, so that was also a big inspiration.

 Since you were living in Boston, how did you research the U.K. setting?

Believe it or not, I've actually never been to London! I did a lot of internet research, including making some really intricate Google Maps to keep track of scenes and characters. Thank god for Google street view!

Good job on the online research! I’ve lived in London for two years, and you introduced me to new places. Did you make up offbeat locations or are they real places? 

All the locations are real places. Some of them have been renamed just for fiction purposes, but every restaurant, every hotel, every shop actually exists in some corner of London or another!

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben by Sarah Laurence 2008
Was the mobile phone plot device there from the beginning?

Yep, Meant to Be was always meant to be (hey, see what I did there?) a comedy of errors full of misdirection and missed connection based off the phone issue. With everyone so connected to to their devices, it seemed inevitable.

Who are some of your favorite young adult authors?

I love Sarah Dessen, Megan McCafferty, Stephanie Perkins, John Green ... oh man, I could go on and on. I love YA contemporaries in general, and romance and comedy specifically.

What is the best writing advice you received?

Lauren as a teen rock climber
Don't build any habits regarding where you write or what you need to write. Teach yourself to write anywhere under any circumstances, so that no matter where you are or what's happening around you, you can work on your novel.

 That's sound advice. Can you tell us about your next novel? 

My next novel is called Being Sloane Jacobs, and it's another contemporary comedy. It's told in dual perspectives, and I'm pitching it as The Parent Trap meets The Cutting Edge. It'll be out January 7, 2014.

Thanks, Lauren, I'm looking forward to reading more of you books!

Reviewer's Disclaimer: I bought the ebook on its November 13th release day and received no compensation. Beware of puns such as: "meant to be or not meant to be."

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review of Kindle Paperwhite with Case, Stand or Cover

Amazon Kindle Case, Duragadget Stand, Verso Marbled Blue Cover
When my 2010 Kindle died on the beach, I replaced it with the new Kindle Paperwhite ($139 with wifi and without advertising). This time I got a 2-year warranty to protect the fragile screen. Although I prefer reading real books at home, I like the Kindle for reading on the go and for digital galleys. I missed not having one when I was waiting for the new model to be released in October.

Low setting in Amazon case folded back
The Kindle Paperwhite has some good new features. The reader still uses e-ink, but it has added a built in light for night time reading. The sharper text is illuminated sideways to avoid the eye fatigue of backlit screens. The lit screen appears bright white like paper, but you can adjust the lighting so the screen looks more like newsprint or the old Kindle. Unlit is easiest on the eye, but it's nice to have options. I thought I'd miss the old physical keyboard, but the new touch screen one is easy to use and the menu simple to navigate. The Kindle Paperwhite is also smaller and thinner without losing any screen size.

High setting on Home Page in Amazon case open
Not all of the new features are improvements. I miss the old page turner buttons as it's too easy to skip a page accidentally with a touch screen. Another feature I dislike is the promotion of Amazon books on the home page (even in the "no advertising" models), but you can hide it by selecting to display "list view" instead of "cover view." All-in-all the pluses outweigh the negatives, but I wouldn't rush out and replace your old reader before it breaks. It bothers me that these ereader screens are so fragile. A book can last centuries.

Because the Paperwhite is smaller than the Kindle 3 with keyboard, I needed to purchase a new case. If you had the later generation Kindle touch model, you might be able to reuse your old case. I tested three covers which would suit different reading needs.

Amazon case is 1/2 inch; Durgadget stand and Verso cover are 1 inch thick approximately.
The least bulky, lightest weight and most protective cover is the Amazon Kindle one ($39.99 available in 7 colors). It has the added feature of a magnet closure that automatically turns the reader on and off. This is a big plus as the on-off botton is tiny and hard to use. The rigid edges protect the Kindle on all sides while leaving an opening for the charger. The design is nice but a bit corporate in feel with good quality leather. The cover bends back for easy hand held reading but doesn't work as a stand. There is one major design flaw: it's really difficult to get the device in and out of the case.

Adjustable Duragadget Stand
Since I like hands free reading, my personal favorite was the Duragadget Cover with Stand ($30.59 in 4 colors). It's adjustable and sturdy enough to sit in your lap while still providing good protection. Of all the cases I tested it was easiest to get the reader in and out of the case. It was also the cheapest. However the functional design and cheap leather were not especially attractive. I'm going to ask my daughter to decorate it with silver ink as a Christmas gift.

Verso cover folded back
For pure beauty I fell in love with Verso Marbled Blue cover ($39.99). The fake leather looks and feels real. The gorgeous Italian marbled paper design reminiscent of a journal bought in Florence. Even the spine has nice old book detailing. The biggest downside is the cover has no closure. Also it's extra bulky and awkward to hold when you bend the cover back (photo at right). It's best when held like a book in two hands. I'm tempted to keep this cover to dress up my Kindle just for fun.

The Kindle Paperwhite is only two months old so I suspect more cases will be designed to fit the new dimensions better, but these three were the best options I found so far. When I ordered a Kindle Paperwhite for my mom earlier this week, it was on backorder until December 19th. No wait for books at our local independent bookstore, and they shall outlast the Kindle by decades.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: all cases and the Kindle were purchased by me without compensation. I returned the cases I didn't like for a refund.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Life online: can you be over-connected?

Offline painting on Bailey Island earlier this autumn.

Although I can be quite social and outgoing, by nature I'm a hermit. When I write fiction, I disconnect from the internet and only answer phone calls from my children. The places where I paint my watercolors often lack cellphone reception, but that is a plus. Solitude allows me to slip into a meditative state of creative concentration. Still, as much as I need isolation to work, I crave social connection too. Face time is best, but the internet is useful for one who lives in a remote location.

Five years of blogging have lead me to new friends, who share my passion for books, nature and art. The view from my small town in Maine has broadened to foreign horizons. I've been introduced to new authors and toured beautiful gardens. A blog post is long enough to delve into a topic in depth and also allows interactive comments. Blogging is not the soapbox I feared it would be but an enlightened conversation. By meeting new people, whose paths wouldn't usually cross ours, we are forced to think outside the box and to consider different perspectives.

For years, blogging and email sufficed to maintain distant connections, but after Sandy struck, I lost contact even without losing power myself. I worried about friends and family in NYC and others in neighboring states. When emails remained unanswered, I joined Facebook and twitter to track down loved ones and blog buddies. Borrowed internet provided time for only a quick tweet or Facebook update, but it was enough to let me know they were okay. Technology is a marvel, a virtual campfire, as others have said. It warms our souls.

In the process of checking in with Sandy victims, I also reconnected with old friends, who had scattered all over the world. Many were now married with adorable children. As much as I dislike the needlessly complicated interface of Facebook and all the advertising, I now understand why people find it so addictive and forgo reading books. Limits will be key.

In some ways, I prefer the simplicity of twitter, but due to the public nature of tweets, it's better suited for work connections like my Linkedin account.

So now this Maine hermit is:

updating on Facebook
and linking on Linkedin.
It's a 5-ring circus if you add
my website as a virtual art gallery.

Some have managed online multiplicity by posting simultaneously to all forums, but I don't think that approach usually works. Disconnect and redundancy happens. It looks unprofessional to whine about your kid's fever to business associates.

I'm concerned by how much personal information is out there for all to read. My guiding principle is to assume the last person I'd want to read my update will share it with a thousand clients. Think before posting.

Question: how do you manage this online cacophony and still find time for life offline?

Scout at Popham Beach last year.
Note: I'll be on blog vacation next week. Happy Thanksgiving! Next post on November 28th.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

In the opening of Flight Behavior, Dellarobia climbs a mountain to escape her disappointing life when a vision halts her. The forrest appears to be burning but without heat. Unable to see clearly without her glasses, the young mother of two takes it as a sign to turn back. She returns to her unhappy marriage on a sheep farm where "her every possession was either unbreakable or broken." 

Only later is the miracle revealed to be a wayward flock of butterflies. Monarch Butterflies usually over-winter in Mexico, but in this novel, global warming has destroyed their old roost. Feathertown, Tennessee claims the visitation as a divine blessing, but scientist Ovid Byron sees the shift in migration as a symptom of a sick ecosystem. Barbara Kingsolver's imagery cleverly reflects her message:

"Dellarobia couldn't remember a sadder-looking November. The trees had lost their leaves early in the unrelenting rain. After a brief fling with coloration they dropped their tresses in clumps like a chemo patient losing her hair."

The media seizes the opportunity and poses redheaded Dellarobia as the Venus of the Butterflies. Hoping to rescue the Monarchs, Dellarobia applies for a job as Ovid's research assistant. His Caribbean background makes him exotic, but even more enticing is his faith in her intelligence. The savior in this tale is education; the villain is ignorance. The writing is so beautiful it soars:

"At dusk she and Ovid would climb together to the barn loft. They would stand in the open door of the haymow and take these butterflies in hand, one at a time, and toss them into the air. Some would crash. And some would fly."

Flight Behavior flutters with metaphors but is grounded in science. Earthy descriptions of sheep sheering, child rearing and field biology draw the reader into a real world ravaged by climate change. Scarily, this novel isn't set in a future dystopia but in Southern Appalachia right now. The November 6th release date follows eerily in the flooded wake of Sandy. At times the narrative is nearly overwhelmed by polemic or digresses into discount shopping centers, but the wonderful characters and gorgeous writing kept me turning the pages eagerly. The resolution was deeply satisfying.

Flight Behavior reminds me of Kingsolver's earlier novel Prodigal Summer in setting and in theme but with more heart and sympathy for the male characters. It also has better focus than her last novel, The Lacuna, which had disappointed me. This new book will please Kingsolver fans and make many new ones too.

Disclosure: I borrowed an ARC from a friend, but I'd like a hardcover copy for Christmas (kids: hint, hint.)

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pumpkins for Love

My daughter carved a message into our jack-o'-lanterns.

In Maine, Ballot Question One would grant the right of marriage to everyone, including same-sex couples. To me this isn't really an issue of politics or religion but a recognition of love and universal human rights. All families and committed couples deserve legal protection. 

Last weekend I joined a candlelit vigil in our town organized by Standing on the Side of Love. It was wonderful to see teenagers showing their support for marriage equality too. Next week voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington can vote yes for marriage equality laws. Please remember to vote on Election Day. 

Storm Watch: Maine was not hit as hard as the rest of the eastern coast. My thoughts are with NYC and other communities recovering from Sandy's onslaught. Up north, we know the pain of days without power or internet. Light a candle for love and hang in there, my friends.

Happy Halloween!

The Four 2012 helpful graphic for ballot questions.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A new puppy in our family

Yuki and Scout
(photo by my sister-in-law)

Yuki is a Coton de Tuléar and won't get much bigger. Her name means snow in Japanese, which is my sister-in-law's nationality. She met my brother when he was working overseas. They moved to the USA after they got married. My niece and nephew taught me that kawaii means cute. They are delighted with their new pet.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sunset and Moonrise on the Harbor

As the sun sets on Five Islands,

Moonlight silvers the harbor,

And colors seep like paint on canvas.

I float in the moment, content.

Blog Watch: congratulations to Pamela@From the House of Edward on the publication of a book of essays from her blog! After a year offline to move house twice(!), Alyson is back at a new blog address: New England Living.

Earth Watch: we had an earthquake last night during dinner! It was only 4.5 magnitude, but since we were about 50 miles from the epicenter, our house rumbled and shook. I had no idea an earthquake could be as loud as thunder. Rather unusual in Maine!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fall Foliage Reflections

Every day I walk past this pond, but in October...I pause.

Scout wags her tail impatiently, unable to understand the delay. 
I hear that dogs are colorblind. Mine is certainly well camouflaged. 

But even dogs must feel the warmth that glows from the trees.

Our woods are a cathedral to the seasons.