Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Good Summer Books (mini reviews & links)

Ah, summer! Time to hit the hammock with a good book. On these hot, lazy days, I'm looking for something that will draw me into a new world. It can't be too bleak or cold - those books are better by the fire in winter - but it can't be too sunny and flimsy. I want fascinating characters, exotic or seaside locations and a story that keeps me hooked. Below is a list of books I've already read or have stacked for this summer's hammock. I'd love to get your suggestions too.

Contemporary Fiction

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogen
Every 5 years Harvard grads are asked to update their classmates. These mini-memoirs are published in the so called Red Book. Kogen's cynical spin is that the updates don't tell the full story. Her novel focuses on 4 women from the class of '89 at their 20th reunion. Jane, an adopted orphan from Vietnam, is struggling as a journalist/single mom in France. Biracial Clover was raised in a hippy commune and then lost her Wall Street job in the crash of '08. She longs to have a child like the others, but may have left it too late. Addison is spoiled and dramatic Mia is painfully naive, but we still get attached to this mismatched foursome.  The Red Book is a quick, easy read, but also offers some thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a modern woman, balancing career and family. The author is a Harvard grad, and as one myself, I can say she got most of it right if absurdly exaggerated to the point of satire. But that's what makes this novel fun. 

State of Wonder by Anne Patchett: a literary novel set in the Brazilian Amazon (reviewed last August.)

Surreal Fiction

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
I'm 60% through this 925 page tome on my Kindle, and it's a slow but addictive read by one of my favorite authors. I also bought this hardcover at Gulf of Maine Books as a gift for my husband, but I found it too heavy to hold! This recently released novel is set in 1984 Tokyo, with a nod to George Orwell. Aomame assassinates rapists. She is facing her toughest job: a cult leader.  Her childhood love, Tengo, has ghostwritten a bestseller novel about the mysterious Little People. The teen author is the runaway daughter of the cult leader. Under the shadow of a double moon, Aomame's and Tengo's dual narratives converge. In this mysterious world of alternative realities, it's hard to know what to believe. 

Historical Fiction

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
A fictional account of the first Native American graduate of Harvard. Set also on Martha's Vineyard so sounds right for the beach and islands. Comes well recommended. 

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery 
A bisexual artist and her model/muse in1920s Paris (reviewed last January.)

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel 
Cromwell in Henry VIII's court.  My husband loved this and is currently enjoying the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies.

Young Adult Fiction

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Historical fiction that might be better suited to adults than to teens. A captured British spy spins a story for her Gestapo interrogators about her pilot, another young women and her close friend. World War II is a bit dark for summer, but I couldn't resist picking up this new release at the Harvard Book Store last Sunday. The writing looks fabulous with a very appealing narrator. Reminds me of Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith
Airplane romance between an American teen girl and a British Yale student (reviewed in April.)

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Boy/girl narrators and island setting with a touch of horror (reviewed 3 weeks ago.)

The Jade Notebook by Laura Resau
The final installment of the Notebook series (first 2 books reviewed here.) Zeeta and Wendall are spending the summer together on the coast of Mexico. There is a jaguar in the jungle and sea turtles on the beach.  Zeeta faces poachers, a witch, her elusive father and an uncertain future with Wendall. A gorgeous setting with innocent romance, appropriate for tweens as well as teens.

Feed by M.T. Anderson
In this dystopian future people have an internet chip imbedded permanently in their brain. Humorous but dark satire with a male protagonist. Written for teens and adults and recently re-released on its tenth anniversary (reviewed last month.)

Small Damages by Beth Kephart
A pregnant American teen is sent to Seville, Spain to give away her baby. I'll be reviewing this novel in July, near its release date. Best for mature teens/adults.

Disclaimer: all books were bought by me without compensation, with the exception of The Last Nude and Small Damages (ARCs.) The Red Book was borrowed from a friend, who recommended it to me.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bear Mountain in Hartford, Maine

Last Friday my son and I welcomed summer by taking a day hike. We had the mountain to ourselves. 
There are many Bear Mountains, but this one is a bit over an hour from our home. 
The closest "town" is North Turner, Maine. It's an easy two miles up to the 1,200 foot summit. 
The fall foliage is spectacular in autumn, but wear bright orange if it's hunting season.

 Hiking boots are necessary as the trail is 
like climbing a rocky, muddy river bed uphill. 
The trees provide plenty of shade and ticks.

The bare rock summit is a fine place for a picnic.
By midsummer there will be wild blueberries.

After an uphill climb, nothing beats a wallow in the mud. Wait a minute. What are you doing, Scout? Bloody dog!

Muddy or not, you are still carrying your drinking water, buddy.

Time to enjoy the view of the White Mountains. Camden Hills were visible on this clear day too.

Driving directions to Bear Mountain 
from midcoast Maine:

Take the River Road north to Auburn. 
(less scenic option is Rt. 196.)
In Auburn follow signs to Rt. 4 North
(Miss turn and get lost.)
In North Turner, take a left on 219 West.
First right on Bean Street
Immediately left onto Berry Road.
 2.2 miles later, right on Bear Mountain Road.

Or plug these coordinates into Google Maps:

Park in the mowed field with a sign for hiker parking. No facilities.
Hiking Directions:
On foot, follow the dirt road
past houses and a 19th century cemetery.
Road becomes a rocky snowmobile trail in the woods.
Go straight up past a left turn off and past a right turn off.
At a big intersection, take a right for the mountain trail. 
(Don't follow sign to Bear Mt. Road straight ahead.)
Summit to base round trip is about 4 miles.
It was under 2 hours of hiking and another hour relaxing on the summit.
This non-technical trail is ideal for kids and dogs.
Sorry, not the best directions!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Girls Weekend in the Hamptons

Last weekend I left my family to hang out with my childhood friends. Some I'd known since we were toddlers, others since high school. There is something special about a relationship that lasts so long, withstanding differences and distances. This group of seven knows me better than anyone. High school wasn't an easy time, but these girls made it easier. It was remarkable how well we all fell back into conversation as if it had been weeks instead of years.

We gathered at a summer house on Long Island, New York. Some of us are still in Manhattan, but others came from Florida, Washington D.C., Maine and as far as Italy. Jet lagged, job lagged, exhausted from raising children and dogs, we all looked a bit worn on that first evening.

After a dip in the saltwater pool and a glass of wine, we recovered like wilted flowers in fresh water. Laughter and secrets were shared. We stayed up too late and slept in. Nothing was planned but everything happened. Even the weather cooperated for our beach walks.

The only tragedy was forgetting to charge my camera battery, but photos couldn't have captured the inner happiness of being with old friends. They are part of who I am and part of the reason I now write for teens. There's a comfort in knowing that there are many more chapters ahead of us.

What about you: are you still in touch with your childhood friends or have you moved on?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Horses at Popham Beach, Maine
Usually I prefer realistic fiction and dislike horror, so a young adult novel about killer horses should not be my type. Carnivorous horses from the sea: seriously? Still, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater was a Printz Honor and an ALA Notable Book for 2012. It had received a constellation of starred reviews. I’d read another novel, Shiver, by this author and had admired the writing if not the werewolves. With some trepidation, I picked up this employee-recommended book at the Harvard Book Store. I could not put it down.

The Scorpio Races read like an old classic with a feminist update. About to be evicted from her family home, Puck is desperate enough to be the first girl to sign up for the Scorpio race. Every November, islanders catch magically fast horses from the sea. The losers often die in the attempt to tame their vicious mounts. Nineteen-year-old Sean is the reigning champion and stuck working for a cruel boss at the island stable. Winning one more race could bring freedom for himself and his beloved water stallion, Corr.

In this passage, Puck observes Sean’s character in how he wraps Corr’s legs:
 “There’s something rewarding about watching a job well done, or at least a job done with everything you’ve got. I try to put my finger on how it is that Sean Kendrick seems so different to other people, what it is about him that makes him seem so intense and still at the same time, and I think, finally that it’s something about hesitation. Most people hesitate between steps or pause or are somehow uneven about the process. Whether that process is wrapping a leg or eating a sandwich or just living life. But with Sean, there’s never a move he’s not sure of, even if it means not moving at all.” 
Puck and Sean narrate in alternating points of view. Both were very likable, complex and well-developed characters, but it seemed unlikely that barely educated teens on a remote island would sound so poetic. Had the chapters not been labeled, their voices would have been indistinguishable from each other. Third person narration would have been a better choice. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the lyrical writing and the wonderful sense of place.

Cornwall, England
As described by Sean, Skarmouth Island is timeless:
 “As I walk, I look past the people at the town that stands beneath them. The stones are gold and red in the streetlights, the shadows black and brown and deep death blue, all the colors of the November ocean. Bicycles lie up against the walls as if a wave has washed them there and then retreated. Girls push by me, their strides ringing from the bells tied around their ankles. Firelight flickers from one of the side streets, flames licking from a barrel, boys gathered around it. I look at Skarmouth and it looks back at me, its eyes wild.” 
After finishing The Scorpio Races, I longed to return to Skarmouth Island, to gallop along the cliffs by moonlight. As in the best myths, the tale was innocent enough for a ten-year-old child (if a bit gory) but complex enough for an adult too. Stiefvater is one of the best storytellers of young adult fiction. Take this one to the beach and enjoy.

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@Barrie Summy