Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Winter Musings by the Sea

When sun cannot melt winter,

The beach becomes a desolate oasis,

A solitary island for imagination.

Winds strip away daily concerns,

As evening glazes ice with fire.

The moon illuminates what remains.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Back from NYC

Central Park in February

Growing up in NYC, I vacationed in the country, but now that I live in Maine, I crave urban vacations. I actually sleep better in my old bedroom, lulled by the hum of traffic. My homecomings are jamb-packed with old friends, family, dining out, shopping and culture fixes. This trip I also had a fun lunch in Soho with Elizabeth who blogs at About New York and The World Examining Works. My husband and I like to plan our visits around theater, and this time we saw two gems.

Last year in England, we’d heard fabulous things about Kevin Spacey in Shakespeare’s Richard III. The production hopped over the pond to BAM and is well worth a trip to Brooklyn just to see it (playing through March 3rd). Nearly unedited, this historical tragedy ran 3 ¼ hours, which felt a bit long but never dull. Kevin Spacey has a wonderful stage presence, and he mines evil Richard, oddly enough, for comedy. Spacey’s Richard came second only to Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard back in 1992, another British export. There is a movie adaptation of Richard III with Sir Ian too.

We also saw Alan Rickman, playing a curmudgeonly writing teacher/author, in The Seminar on Broadway. Rickman (ie Snape from Harry Potter and a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company) commanded the stage with beautiful diction and charisma to spare. The four actors playing his students were pitch perfect. We’d seen Lily Rabe as Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and she showed her versatility in this contemporary role. Theresa Rebeck's hilarious new comedy examines/parodies the challenges of breaking into the literary profession. The Seminar is a must see for writers and readers of all ages (playing through April 1st.)  

My parents and teenaged kids loved both performances. My daughter was especially thrilled to spot actress Emma Stone in the audience. She was brave enough to get her autograph. Emma was beautiful, humble and really nice.  What a fun trip for a 14-year-old girl who wants to be an actress herself one day!

A trip to NYC with my kids makes me reflect on my childhood. Often the media highlights the problems facing teens these days, so I was pleased to read some reassuring stats in the NYT Magazine: The Kids Are More than All Right. What do you think: are teens better off now or back in your day?

Bookstore Watch: Happy Birthday to Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick! The owners will be celebrating their 33rd year of business this weekend (Feb 24-25) with 30% discounts on all books. This independent bookstore outlasted Borders and is still going strong.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Knife and The Butterfly by Ashley Hope Pérez: review and cover art story

As I consider which novels to buy in book or ebook formats, the cover factors. A beautifully designed book is a piece of art, but it’s only worth owning if the story is equally good. As an artist and a writer, the intimate link between art and words intrigues me.

Today we have a special guest post (below) on cover art by author Ashley Hope Pérez. The Knife and the Butterfly (February, 2012) is young adult fiction, inspired by a true story of gang violence in Texas.

Blurb: Azael Arevalo wishes he could remember how the fight ended. He knows his MS13 boys faced off with some punks from Crazy Crew. He can picture the bats, the bricks, the chains. A knife. But he can’t remember anything between that moment and when he woke behind bars. Azael knows jails, and something isn’t right about this lockup. No phone call. No lawyer. No news about his brother or his homies. The only thing they make him do is watch some white girl, Lexi, in some cell. Watch her and try to remember.  The knife cut, but somehow it also connected.

My Review: 

How do two lost souls find the truth behind bars? Azael turns to art and Lexi to her journal to come to terms with their troubling past. Azael narrates in a ghetto thug voice, but his compassion for others makes him a sympathetic character. Although her story was well told, I had more troubles relating to self-absorbed Lexi. The resolution of their overlapping narratives was both satisfying and poignantly tragic. The swearing, sex, drugs and violence might irk some conservatives, but none of it is gratuitous. The powerful writing delivers a moral message without sounding preachy.

I recommend The Knife and the Butterfly to mature teens, especially to older boys, and to teachers/counselors of teens at risk. This moving tale about redemption would cross over well to an adult audience too. With its striking cover and meaningful story, The Knife and The Butterfly would be a fine addition to any library. Brava, Ashley and Laura!

Disclosure: this post is part of blog tour organized by the publisher, including a free digital galley. You might remember the author from my review/interview of What Can't Wait.

Guest Post from Author Ashley Hope Pérez: 
Behind the Cover Art

Ashley Hope Pérez

With my debut novel, What Can’t Wait, I didn’t see any of the preliminary covers, just the gorgeous final selection by the Carolrhoda Lab (and Lerner) rock stars. For The Knife and the Butterfly though, my editor Andrew Karre brought me inside the process. Although Andrew and the publisher are the ones with votes, I got to see some of the preliminary cover designs and weigh in on them. 

I saw about a dozen very cool designs; here I’ll show you two contenders and explain why the actual design was chosen and developed. Refining the ideas was a group effort, but the senior graphic designer at Lerner, Laura Otto Rinne, was the main mastermind behind the cover. About her work on this project, she said that she "wanted to create something as complex and meaningful as the novel's prose."

What I loved about this concept was that it incorporated drawing, which is so central to the novel. As is, it’s not the kind of sketch that I imagine Azael doing, but that probably would have evolved. And the cool thing about a sketch is that it plays into the way that everything—for Azael and Lexi—is provisional, still subject to further revision. In the end, though, I thought the overall feel of the cover (especially the banner across the top) was too playful for the tone of the book.

This cover grabbed my attention; I was especially drawn to the subtlety of the Rorschach-esque butterfly. The only thing I didn’t love about the cover was that it failed to communicate something critical about the knife in the novel: it has two blades. Which brings us to the forerunners to the actual cover...

This cover was compelling... the darkness of it, the anonymity of the male figure, how the double-bladed silhouettes fit perfectly into his shoulder blades, and of course how the silhouettes also suggest a butterfly. My concern about this cover—especially in a vampire-saturated market—was that it would play on the “dark fantasy” frequency of Twilight, especially since those silhouettes could be wings... dark angel, anyone?

We’re getting closer to the final design, but we’re not there yet. This cover has this cool double symmetry going on—left-right with the silhouettes and top-bottom with the ampersand as the fold point. Very visually compelling. The silhouette options give the reader an idea of what the knife in the novel is like. I also like how the butterfly is implied but the overall look of the cover remains stark and masculine enough to appeal to guys.

What’s perfect here that wasn’t quite right in the previous cover (in my opinion)? Here, the vertical line with the title strengthens the suggestion of the butterfly without making it too obvious. This is very close to the final cover, with some adjustments to the font (the gothic print was hard for some people to read) and shifts in color allocation.

So that—in my simplified, highly un-specialized rendition—is how I landed the gorgeous cover that the Lerner design team designed for me. Major thanks to Laura Otto Rinne, my editor Andrew Karre, Carolrhoda Lab, Lerner, and all the folks who cooked up all this awesomeness—even what didn’t make it onto the final cover. I am one lucky author.

Blog Vacation: I'll be offline next week. Next post Wednesday February 22nd.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and New Adult Fiction

Check out the Möbius wedding band cover art.
I love the way Jeffrey Eugenides writes with rich, intelligent prose. His characters, even the minor ones, are well developed, fallible and idiosyncratic. They feel like old friends by the time you finish the novel. His Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex (2002) is one of my favorite books. His recently released The Marriage Plot (2011), although not nearly as groundbreaking, also has wonderful characters on spiritual journeys. I especially loved the thoughtful Mitchell Grammaticus. Mitchell’s unhealthy obsession with Madeleine Hanna, and hers with mentally unbalanced Leonard Bankhead, and Leonard's with himself, felt comically true to life.
“Exactly!” Mitchell cried [to Madeleine] “You’re not attracted to me physically, O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”
“My goal in life is to be an adjective,” Leonard said. “People would go around saying, ‘That was so Bankheadian.’” 
Eugenides is an author of my generation. The Marriage Plot, set at Brown University in the 1980’s, could have been a memoir written by one of my classmates at another Ivy League school. It captures the irritating intellectual climate of English Departments of that time, with a focus on Semiotics over Literature. The seminar scenes were tedious if well rendered, but I enjoyed his seedy portrait of campus life and Providence, Rhode Island. I could not get enough of the scenes set in India with Mitchell’s struggle for compassion over revulsion. This engaging novel sets forth an unflinching view of modern life and human shortcomings without resorting to cynicism.
At a college party: “The air was warm and moist, like a beer-scented rain forest.”
The Marriage Plot somehow manages to be both original and conventional. Eugenides superimposed a Victorian-style marriage plotline on the liberal, feminist 1980s with hilarious results. Unfortunately, this literary construct led to an unsatisfying ending that makes the reader acutely aware of the narrative structure. There was, however, something liberating in the reversal of expectations and the defiance of convention. It made me question the biases of traditional literature. I can’t stop thinking about the maddening ending but to say any more would spoil it.
“Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?”
Among book bloggers, there had been a call for a new genre: New Adult Fiction. These books would focus on the college years and nascent career building. There are surprisingly few books in this category, and such manuscripts are notoriously hard to sell. The few that I have read, I’ve loved: A Secret History by Donna Tart; One Day by David Nicholls and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Publishers fear that college-aged kids or recent graduates lack the time, money or inclination for recreational reading. Even if that were so, I’m sure nostalgic adults would buy these books as would teens, wondering about their future. I hope that The Marriage Plot will lead to more New Adult novels.

Disclosure: I bought The Marriage Plot at Gulf of Maine Books without compensation. 

Happy Five: January marked my fifth anniversary of blogging.  Time flies!
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