Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Happy Holidays!

I'm on blog vacation, enjoying the snow and catching up with family. See you in the New Year!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Best Realistic Fiction of 2013 for Adults and Teens (gift suggestions)

The pond after a two day snow storm. My first ski day this season! Good writing & reading weather too.

2013 was a strong year for realistic fiction. I've compiled a list of good gift books in several categories with links to my reviews. I'm sorry not to have this up in time for Hanukkah.

Best Literary Novel of 2013

Narrated by the author on a remote Canadian island and by a fictional school girl in Japan, this unusual novel mixes memoir, contemporary fiction, World War II history and Buddhist spirituality. With its focus on bullying, it would crossover well to a teen audience. My full review of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

Best Literary Beach Book of 2013

The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver is a multigenerational saga with lyrical prose. A summer house in Buzzard's Bay emerges as the protagonist, shaping the lives of the family from World War II to more current times. There is a wonderful sense of place, time and family. I enjoyed reading it on the beach last summer.

Best Light Read for Yuppies of 2013

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman parodies the Brooklyn literary scene and the narcissism of metrosexual men. The voice is strong and true to the male protagonist, although the author is female. It was amusing, but the protagonist failed to learn from his mistakes. Still, an impressive debut and lots of fun to read.

Best Gift Book for Your Parents/Retired Friends

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was a big hit in the UK last year and crossed over to the USA in 2013. Harold is an ordinary retired man in an unhappy marriage. When he hears that an old friend is dying, he decides to walk across the UK to save her. His spiritual journey (with Christian undertones) is as much about saving himself and his followers. I loved the descriptions of the British countryside, but I felt a bit young for this novel. My British husband loved it. The writing, especially for a debut, was very strong:
"Her hand was soft and warm against his. Outside the cupboard, she pulled it away quickly. Then she smoothed her skirt, as if Harold were a crease and she needed to brush him out."

Best Realistic Young Adult Novels of 2013 (follow the links to my full reviews)

In Rose Under Fire a young American pilot/poet joins the resistance movement at a female concentration camp in World War II Germany. This novel is a companion book to Code Name Verity, which should be read first (from my Best YA of 2012.) Include a pack of tissues with the books. My interview of author Elizabeth Wein.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell was my favorite contemporary young adult novel of the year. A college freshman escapes the real world by writing fan fiction, with tones of Harry Potter. A similar but lighter book is Roomies by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr.

Rainbow Rowell makes my list twice, with two YAs published this year. Eleanor & Park is an offbeat teen romance between two misfits in the 1980s. Good for teens and nostalgic Gen-Xers.

In Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian the clash between white working class families and immigrant Somalis in Maine paints a realistic portrait of the post 9/11 world. The MC is a typical teenaged white boy who plays soccer. It would make for meaningful classroom and book group discussions. Well written and original, I don't know why this book isn't getting more attention. A similar book for adults would be The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout.

Just One Day by Gail Forman is a romance set in Europe and at an American college. The companion book, Just One Year, was published this year too, but I haven't read it yet. An American girl narrates the first book and her Dutch lover narrates the sequel. It would make a good gift as a set.

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan might be the most original book I've ever read. The style reminds me of The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. A Greek chorus of dead AIDS victims narrates the story of two boys who combat gay bashing by trying to break the world record for the longest kiss. Love and passion are rendered in many forms, including sex hookup sites (not graphic but certainly edgy). It's inspired by a true story and beautifully written.
"Asleep in his backyard, Ryan does not notice the halo of dew that gathers around him as the night warms into morning. His eyes will open to a sparkle on the grass." 

What I'm reading now:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was released this fall and is over 700 pages. A Dickensian tale of Dutch art and crime, it opens with a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The protagonist is a young man who flashes back to the trauma he suffered at age thirteen. This literary novel for adults has lots of info on drug use and is not one I'd recommend to impressionable young readers. My artist mom enjoyed parts of it, but we both found inconsistencies about NYC (eg why take a cab instead of a bus/subway if you're short on money and not late?) I'm still gripped.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I received a free digital galley of Rose Under Fire from Netgalley. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a gift from my mother-in-law (thank you!) I bought the ebook of Nathanial P. All other books were bought by me at independent bookstores without compensation. Author Maria Padian is a friend. Elizabeth Wein and Rainbow Rowell (twice) also made the NYT Notable Children's Books list.

Please leave more gift book recommendations in the comments.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Roomies by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando follows two future Berkeley roommates over their last summer at home. The first email starts with who is bringing the microwave or the fridge, but soon the conversation turns personal. EB lives with her single mom in a Jersey shore condo while Lauren shares a bedroom with two of her five younger siblings in California. Lauren had hoped for a single, and EB dreams of a sister-like bond. Divergent expectations and over-sharing lead to problems before the girls meet in person.

Roomies captured the anxiety and thrill of leaving for college. It felt fresh to have the central relationship of a young adult novel be between two girls. EB and Lauren were well rounded characters with quirky interests and believable faults. Alternating chapters made good use of two authors. The voices were distinct and true to teens.

"Lauren's starting to sound sort of, I don't know, nice? And thoughtful. Not like do-nice-things-for-you thoughtful- I don't see her baking cookies or anything-but meaning, she is full of thought. I like people who think. Who examine things from all the angles. That's probably why she's good at science."

Lauren's boyfriend,  Keyon, is a typical guy. He lost his roommate letter and didn't bother to contact him. His relationship with Lauren is stuck somewhere between friends and something more. Their racial differences - Lauren is white and Keyon is black - add some tension. Their parents bend over backwards to appear open-minded with comic results. The downside of making biracial dating a big deal to Lauren was that Keyon's character was over-defined by his race. Still, Keyon was my favorite character, and I liked Lauren more for liking him.

By contrast, the guys in EB's life felt two-dimensional. Her boyfriend, Mark, was too good to be true. How many teenaged boys offer unconditional love and silver necklaces from Tiffany's? Mark's sweet manner stood in sharp contrast to his adulterous father and EB's deadbeat dad. I appreciated how EB's dad being gay was not the issue, but more explanation was needed on why he cut off all contact with his daughter. Men were an enigma in Roomies, but one could argue that this was true to the teenaged girl perspective.

With its December 24, 2013 release date, Roomies would make a good gift for a teenaged girl or your old roommate. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and blogs are buzzing with praise. This is my first time reading a book by either Sara Zarr or Tara Altebrando, and I'm eager to check out more novels by these authors. Roomies is a fun book begging for a sequel (hint, hint!)

My freshman roommate Bonnie was my first friend at college. 

Reading Roomies took me back to the summer before college. After getting contact info for my three roommates, I chatted with Bonnie in New Jersey and Julie in Ohio, but I didn't call our roommate in Massachusetts. Deb had attended a boarding school in her home town. Attending Harvard would be like me staying back in New York City to go to Columbia. Before meeting Deb, I dismissed her as a dull homebody.

Deb breezed into our freshman suite, her sari fluttering and a gold stud glinting in her nostril. Her blond hair was twisted into a top knot. She'd just returned from two years of traveling and working for orphanages in India and in Bangladesh. Her British parents (her father taught ethics at her school) had encouraged her to take a gap year. Deb served afternoon tea and entertained us with her stories. When it came time to pick a roommate for sophomore year, Deb and I joined up with Sarinah, the girl in the "psycho single" next door. We are still close friends. Toss those preconceptions!

Similar book: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.
Next week I'll be posting a best books of 2013 list, focusing on realistic fiction for adults and teens.

My other roommates: Sarinah, Deb and Julie in Harvard Yard.

What was your roommate experience at college?

Reviewer's Disclosure: I received a free digital galley from Netgalley.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A First Thanksgiving

Salt marsh at Reid State Park in early October

This year my son's high school girlfriend and her family are joining us for Thanksgiving, their first! They immigrated to the USA from South Sudan fifteen years ago, fleeing civil war. Hanukkah overlaps with Thanksgiving this year so we'll be celebrating both. There will be a menorah on the table and potato latkes along with local turkey. This is my son's first time back from Middlebury College. Other years we've joined my family in New York City for Thanksgiving, but this year the kids wanted to come home.

Chewonki campus last weekend

My daughter has also been away at Chewonki Semester School, a one term farm/environmental school for high school juniors. The campus is on a remote peninsula in coastal Maine with cabins heated by wood stoves. She's been having a blast milking cows, doing field biology, clamming at Reid State Park and making life long friends. She'll be back to her regular high school in January.

Moonrise at sunset from Popham Beach in mid November

This was our first, albeit temporary, experience as empty nesters. As much as Henry and I have missed the kids, we've enjoyed our free time. We hiked up mountains, walked on the beach and ate out on a whim. I caught up on years of lost sleep, and work time was extra productive. Mild weather in September and October was perfect for painting en plein air.

My Seawall Beach watercolor, sold to a client in Boston for her sister in Korea

When the weather got too chilly to work outside, I turned my attention to a new young adult novel, set in coastal Maine. After a slow start, I've written over 25K words. I'm using Scrivener novel writing software for the first time and loving it, although there was a learning curve. Also, I find first drafts harder work than revision, but I'm really enjoying these characters and the local setting. I'm especially grateful for the guidance from my new literary agent, Laura Geringer at Shannon Associates.

Scout enjoying our first snowfall last Sunday.  Copyright © 2013 Sarah Laurence

November is the season to read by the fire. I'm at work on a best books of 2013 post. I've enjoyed reading your blogs too. Happy Thanksgiving and Hanukkah!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cold War YA: Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner & Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem

Moonrise at Popham Beach, Maine

The Cold War overhung my teen years. We sighed with relief when 1984 did not bring Big Brother. I was in college when the Berlin Wall came down, marking the end of an era. It's odd now to think of that formative period of my life as history, unknown to my teenaged kids. I was pleased to discover two new young adult novels about the Cold War, which would crossover well to adult readers too.

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner is set in an alternate dystopian world in the 1950s. Imagine a teenaged George Orwell visiting a Hunger Games district or The Giver. The Nazi style Homeland strives for genetic excellence and global domination in a race to be the first to the moon. Maggot Moon is an empowering story about the power of the one against the tyranny of a mindless mob.

Fifteen-year-old Treadwell is a misfit with eyes of two colors and dyslexia, but what makes him outstanding as a protagonist is his imagination and his courage. Bullied and blacklisted by the authorities, he nonetheless dares to confront the regime when his only friend vanishes. Treadwell reminded me a bit of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Timewith his unique way of seeing and describing the world.

Maggot Moon would crossover well to adult readers. The main characters were school boys, but there were brave adult female characters and a resourceful grandfather. The simple prose delivered in one to two page chapters made the voice true to the narrator and accessible to readers with mild dyslexia. However, the book was violent, gruesome and scary enough to give me nightmares so I would not recommend it to young children. Its literary complexity would intrigue adult readers as well as teens. The sparse language was beautiful at times, full of haunting imagery:
   "Gramps put his finger to his mouth. He pointed to a piece of paper on the table. It had writing on it. His handwriting. I knew what it said. I didn't need the written words to tell me. I knew they had been taken.
    "I felt the scream rise. Gramps caught hold of me and we toppled to the floor. We were both crying. Gramps held his hand firmly over my mouth.
    "I still have that scream in me."
A similar dystopian book to Maggot Moon, which would be more suitable for tween readers, is Shift by Charlotte Agell.

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem nods at John le Carré but adds a teenaged girl protagonist. Marina, the privileged daughter of a scientist and a prima ballerina, hopes to inherit her mother's place in the USSR's cultural spotlight. When her mother vanishes in 1982, Marina and her father must run for their lives. There is a lot of Cold War exposition in the opening chapters, to situate young readers in Soviet Russia, but the story takes off once the father-daughter pair immigrates to New York City.

The lyrical, foreboding first sentence hooked me:
"November dusk slips into Moscow like a spy; you don't know it's there until it has stolen the day and vanished into the dark."
Kiem's debut novel had well developed characters, interesting period details and a page-turner plot. Marina was a strong, intelligent and graceful protagonist, but her story was a bit over-stacked. The spy thriller element overwhelmed the more subtle immigrant ballerina story. Also the paranormal ability of two characters to see the past and the future seemed unnecessary in a spy novel. I prefer realistic fiction so this might not be an issue for others.

DDTS was a gripping read and a good introduction to the Cold War for teens. The author studied Russian at Columbia University and lived in Russia for four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I'd recommend this book to dancers, wannabe spies and nostalgic Gen-Xers. I'm curious to see what this promising new author writes next.

I'm also looking forward to Going Over by blog buddy Beth Kephart. It's a YA novel set in 1983 Berlin, on both sides of the Berlin Wall (due out on April 1, 2014.)

Salt marsh at Popham State Park

Reviewer's Disclosure: Maggot Moon was first published in the UK in 2012, in the USA in 2013 and re-released as an adult book in the UK. It won a Carnegie Medal and a Costa Award. The paperback was a gift from my mother-in-law from the Wallingford Bookshop (thank you!) In August I read a mixed review of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy in the NYT, which nonetheless led me to take a second look at the hardcover novel in Longfellow Books and buy it. It got a starred review in Booklist. For Christmas I'm giving DDTS to my 12-year-old niece, who is a ballerina and avid reader. I was not compensated for my reviews. I took the moonrise and marsh photos at Popham Beach last weekend.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Sailboat Painting of Maine: how to capture a dream

My paintings usually start on location, but my latest commission began with a google search. The client, who lives in the Washington DC area and vacations in Maine, had found me through a keyword search for painters of sailboats. She described her dream:
"For twenty two years, I've closed my eyes each night and pictured my little house on the coast, the front porch, the late afternoon sails on my little boat. Thinking of those things brought me the most peaceful feeling."

I usually paint from life, but sailboats move too fast to sketch accurately. While visiting my family on Nantucket Island, I headed to the Rainbow Parade with my DSLR Nikon camera. From Brant Point I was close enough to capture the old wooden boats sailing past the lighthouse. I couldn't simply copy the photo because the client asked for a Maine background and Nantucket Island is in Massachusetts.

Maine is farther north and has a different feel: the islands are rocky and coniferous. The day I set out to paint at Lookout Point, the sky turned an ominous grey as the tide was falling.

I worked quickly but the sea became mudflats as raindrops fell, blurring the paint. In the rush to finish, I'd also gone too dark. Watercolor is the most challenging of all paint media because there is no way to fix a mistake. You can go darker, but you can't go lighter. My painting was a disaster.

I cut my losses by picking up a couple of lobsters. Allen's Seafood at Lookout Point sells them live off the docks at $5 a pound. My client is a professional chef so I felt she'd understand.

My husband boiled the soft shell lobsters on the barbecue and picked them out of their shells. He'd bought a bouquet of calla lilies to cheer me up.

A fresh farmers' market salad, baked potatoes and locally brewed Shipyard Ale rounded out the meal. It was a happy ending to a disappointing day.

Another day, another attempt, this time at home. It was getting too chilly to work outside. I set up my laptop with the Nantucket sailboat photo and propped up a more successful watercolor of mine of Lookout Point. Blending memory and imagination, I merged the images in my head.

Before painting a watercolor, I do several gesture drawings in a sketch book. These 30 second ink sketches of the main elements allow me to test several compositions before committing to paint.

Once I've chosen the layout, I transpose the sketch in pencil with more detail to heavy weight paper taped to board. Then I mix my colors and slip into a meditative trance. Two days later the painting was complete.

The penultimate stop was the framers in Topsham. I usually frame watercolors in natural wood, but this client had decorating restrictions. My watercolor might hang with family heirlooms in gold gilt frames or beside other pictures framed in black-painted wood. I emailed photos of the options. Since it was hard to visualize how well this would integrate in her new home, she decided to use her local framer.

UPS fragile packed the painting, but my work wasn't over. Once I've finished the first draft of my novel, I'll begin work on a companion watercolor for this client. (Thanks, Dad, for mailing a photo of a moored gaff rigged yacht). It's a wonderful feeling to capture a dream.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Partner Track by Helen Wan

Helen Wan photo by Sigrid Estrada
I have no interest in corporate law, but Helen Wan's guest post @Books in the City about writing beyond traditional ethnic literature caught my attention. Wan noted that most Asian American novels follow a formula: Old World relatives, an arranged marriage, a wedding banquet and a soul-searching visit to the Motherland. Although she enjoys those books, Wan wanted to ask a new question:
"What happens to these hyphenated Americans, these Minority Darlings, when they are finally within striking distance of The American Dream, the one their immigrant parents have been hoping to see them achieve all their lives?"
Wan's debut novel, The Partner Track, is set at a top New York law firm, following its characters from boardroom to bedroom. An in house attorney at Time Inc, the author translates the complexities of legal issues clearly for a general audience. Romantic shenanigans and corporate intrigue make for a fun read with unexpected plot twists.

Ingrid Yung is determined to be the first woman of color to make partner, but she wants no special accommodation for her ethnicity or her gender. She works harder than her male cohorts but doesn't get invited out to drinks with the senior partners. When the opportunity to prove herself arises, Ingrid gives 100%, but her boss wants more. He pressures her into joining a new diversity committee at the firm. The experience increases her awareness of the tacit prejudice in her workplace, but she "isn't about to rock the boat. Not this close to shore." A clandestine relationship with a coworker helps keep her afloat but is not without risks for both of them. Will Ingrid sink or swim?

The Partner Track is more commercial than literary in style, but it has substance. The most touching segments were flashbacks to Ingrid's childhood and the discrimination her immigrant parents faced. Visiting a friend at a luxurious New York apartment, her academic father is mistaken for a Chinese food delivery man and asked to use the back door. An appliance store refuses to fix her mom's defective machine until young Ingrid pens a letter in legal ease. Ingrid realizes that law is power and dreams of earning a spot in the glitzy New York skyline.

Many readers would relate to Ingrid's ambitions, but I found her world too materialistic and shallow. Like her law school professor, I wish Ingrid had used her talent for the greater good, but challenging corporate America to be more inclusive is admirable too. Ingrid is a morally grounded character who sees the flaws in her world. I hope Wan's next novel will step out of the boardroom and into the broader realm of social justice. I'd be more eager to read a book like that, but The Partner Track succeeds on its own terms. It would be a good match for readers interested in law, feminism, immigration and ethnic literature. It's a must read for anyone (male or female) contemplating a career in corporate law.

Another shot of Central Park last week. I went back home to see an all male performance of Shakespeare's 
Twelfth Night
 on Broadway: marvelous! Arrive early to watch the cross-dressing actors made up on stage.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the ebook myself without compensation. On her website, the lawyer-author reminds the readers that her book is fiction. Published by St. Martin's Press in September, 2013. Thanks, Colleen, for the recommendation. Check out Books in the City for more novels about immigrants and working women in contemporary America. The Central Park photos are under my copyright.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Graffiti Foliage

October races through tunnels of gold,

A graffiti artist spraying rainbow paint,

Striking matches in mountain groves,

And torching cobalt skies.

Too soon, neon tags fade to grime,

Leaving only memories of maple shine.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Family Weekend at Middlebury College

Last weekend my husband and I visited our son at Middlebury College in Vermont. The perfect weather and peak foliage called for a hike up nearby Snake Mountain. From the summit, we had a spectacular view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains, across the border in New York.

The golden trail was an easy 1,000 feet over two miles ascent. The ski team passed us, running up and down, but we easily overtook the yuppies hiking with an elderly basset hound. A garter snake slithered by on the way down.

Middlebury campus was gorgeous. This is the view from the science building, where my son spends most of his academic hours. In his free time, he plays Chopin on piano, and he's joined the bike club, the nordic club, the film club and Mchaka Mchaka, a group that runs around campus at night, chanting in Swahili. I can understand why he's enjoying freshman year.

The ivy on his dorm was burning bright red, complementing the maples.

My British husband felt at home in the Shoreham Inn, run by a Brit and his American wife. The pub style restaurant served delicious hot cooked breakfasts and locally brewed Switchback Ale with a tasty dinner. Our luxurious loft room was in a converted sheep barn, a twenty minute drive from campus. All of Middlebury and neighboring towns were booked five months in advance of family weekend.

While our son did his homework, we went to a book talk on Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar, a fellow Middlebury parent. Afterwards we settled into Adirondack chairs (scattered throughout campus) to read in the sun.

Back home in Maine, the leaves in our yard aren't too shabby either.