Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey should be read in winter by the fire. Set in 1920s frontier Alaska, this stunning debut is either historical fiction or magical realism, depending on your interpretation. Although based on a fairytale, The Snow Child was written for adults who never outgrew their love for a good story.
"Then they came to a frightening place, a stand of tall spruce where the air was dead and the shadows cold."
Do you remember the Russian fairytale about a barren couple who molds a child from snow? The snow child is their daughter until she melts in spring. It was Mabel's favorite story when she was young, but she'd forgotten how the grim ending echoes her personal narrative. Mabel fled to Alaska with Jack after the loss of their stillborn baby.
"Was that why they had come north - to build a new life? Or did fear drive her? Fear of the gray, not just in the strands of her hair and her wilting cheeks, but the gray that ran deeper, to the bone, so that she thought she might turn into a fine dust and simply shift away in the wind."
Jack fears that starting over in the wild frontier was a horrible mistake. He's not a young man anymore and farming is much harder than it was back in Pennsylvania. They risk absolute failure. Mabel and Jack still take delight in the first snowfall and craft a little girl out of snow. The next day, the snow girl is gone, leaving a track of small footprints into the woods. When Mabel insists she's seen a young girl darting amongst the snowy trees, Jack believes his lonely wife has succumbed to winter madness...until he sees the girl too.

A perfect pairing of fantasy and realism makes you believe. The travails of farming, trapping and housework are described in gritty detail, but there are poetic moments of transformative beauty too. Faini, the snow girl, is named for the twilight glow of an alpine sunset. Real or not, she is a wonderfully strong character, who lives off the land. The true heroes, however, are Mabel, Jack and their quirky neighbors, who work to exhaustion but still love their frontier existence.

The landscape reminded me of Maine and was true to my memories of Alaska, where I conducted research for my master's thesis. Even mud season is rendered with a naturalist's eye and poetic rhythm without slowing the pace:
"Here and there patches of snow still clung to the earth. Dwarf dogwood leaves and fern heads sprouted from the damp ground. Soon he heard the roar of the river, and when he neared the water, he saw soft, silvery pussy willows budding. He went to pick some from the limbs to bring back to Mabel, then remembered his grim task and kept walking."
Eowyn Ivey
Author Ewyn Ivey grew up in Alaska and is raising her family in the wilderness there. Her fascinating bio is here. The Snow Child (2012) is not only impressive for a debut, it's one of the best books I've ever read. It would make an excellent gift or a book group pick. I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought my beautiful hardback copy from Gulf of Maine Books last summer but saved if for our first big snowfall. Thank you, Pamela, for the recommendation. Cat and Lisa, thanks for urging me to post this review.

SCBWI Watch: I'll be in NYC this weekend for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference. Meg Rosoff and Julie Andrews are speakers. Is anyone else going to SCBWI?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Minus Four to Plus Four

Frozen puddle at Morse Mountain by Sarah Laurence © 2013

Brrr! It's cold even by Maine standards. Check out the thermometer at sunrise. When we awoke it was minus four; that's Fahrenheit not Celsius.  Scout stuck only her head out the dog flap and then went back to bed. My intrepid husband walked her once it had warmed to zero.

Our kids bundled up in down coats, still grumbling about yesterday's aborted snow day. Arctic winds had blown the blizzard out to sea, just missing the coast. Schools were full of dozing students with incomplete homework. A teacher chided them, "Poor you, you didn't get a snow day because there is NO SNOW!" That woke a few.

We need a snow day desperately. Mother Nature gave us nearly two feet of white powder over December break, but all that is left is crusty tracks and slick ice. The midday skies are the intense, unfiltered blue of single digit weather. It is, at least, good writing weather. Tonight I shall read The Snow Child by the fire. Keep warm and do a snow dance!

P.S. thank you so much for your kind comments on my 6 Year Blog Anniversary post!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

6 Year Blog Anniversary

It's hard to believe that I've been blogging for six years. When I started in 2007, my aim was only to update friends and family about our adventures in England. My husband was taking a sabbatical at Oxford University, and I was gathering material for a novel about an American on her junior year abroad. Every week, I blogged about new and beautiful places. Many of you found me online back then and followed me home to Maine. I followed you all over the globe. 

The best part of blogging is the diverse community. Last week's post on the Drinking Age in the UK vs the USA received comments about the laws in Hungary, Canada, Japan and Chile. Others shared their experiences of raising teens in the USA and in the UK. I'm grateful for all your comments and your fascinating posts. I have learned so much from you.

Another example of our community being helpfully informative was when I posted Advice to New Bloggers to guide a friend new to blogging. Over three years that post has gathered 72 comments with more helpful tips than I could have thought of on my own. I love how our words continue to live online and gather new responses. 

Through blogging, I've connected with other writers who share my passion for books. On the first Wednesday of every month for nearly four years, author Barrie Summy has been hosting a book review club. In addition to that group, many of you recommend good books to me as well. Being online encourages me to read more offline too. 

Your words and images inspire me. What I see, I want to share with you. I do not walk alone in the snowy fields thanks to your company.

So let me raise a virtual glass to say thank you. 
Your lovely blogs, thoughtful comments and friendship have improved my life. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cultural Differences: drinking age in the UK vs the USA

My husband and kids at The Plough, our local pub in Wolvercote, Oxford

When my family was on sabbatical in England, I researched a young adult novel about an American girl who spends her junior year at a British boarding school. One of the reasons my protagonist is 16 is that's the legal age for beer and wine in the UK, as long as someone 18 or older buys, and it's consumed with a meal. This law makes pubs a popular place for families and teens, giving them a very different vibe from American bars, where the drinking age is 21.

lower Manhattan: my teen playground
To understand how my fictional character might react to a change in her legal status, I recalled my own teenaged years. Back in the 1980s, the legal age was 18 in NYC. Club reps used to hand out free passes to underage girls outside our high school. At Limelight, a church that became a dance club, a bouncer told my friends where we could buy fake ID. We were more interested in dancing than in drinking, but teens drank heavily in the 1980s. It felt more like the UK.

While I was in college, the legal drinking age was raised to 21 in the USA. I went from being of age to underage, and this varied by state. Drinking went underground at dorm keg parties, which was not my scene. The change in law brought new danger as underage binge drinkers were afraid to call for medical help.

The Rose and Crown in Oxford
I spent my junior year in London where pubs and college bars were a big part of the social scene. I frequently saw students as young as 16 drinking in the streets, often getting sick. It's a myth that starting younger encourages moderation with alcohol. Still, as a young woman, a pub was a more comfortable place to be than an American bar or keg party.

The Dartmouth Arms, North London
Once I became a parent, my view on teen drinking gained a new perspective. In Maine we live next door to a college dorm.  Our yard becomes a recycling bin on weekends. Back in elementary school, my daughter once asked her brother, "Was so-and-so louder than a drunk college student?" It wasn't all bad. My kids believe that getting drunk is disgusting and embarrassing. Even in England, where my son can now drink legally, he orders a soda at the pub.

Our family has lived in both countries because my husband is British and an academic. It's been tricky coming up with cohesive rules for our kids. We discuss the risks of alcohol and drugs with our kids and ways to deal with peer pressure.

My biggest concern with underage drinking is drunk driving. In the UK the driving age is 17 and there are stiff fines for driving intoxicated and ubiquitous speed cameras. Most people live within walking distances of a pub, and there is an extensive network of nationally subsidized public transportation. In most of the USA, kids can drive at age 16 so underage drinking is a bigger problem. Teens are actually safer in a big city where no one has a car, let alone a license in high school. Perhaps the push should be for better public transportation to keep drunk drivers of all ages off the roads.

Update: be sure to check out the comments for info about drinking laws in other countries. Fascinating discussion! Do share more.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

Happy New Year! I'm happy to introduce you to a brand new author: Elizabeth LaBan's debut novel, The Tragedy Paper, is an enchanting wintery tale with sinister undertones. The release is well timed for January 8th, 2013.

A blizzard heralded Tim Macbeth's arrival to the elite Irving School, halfway through senior year. In the airport, his chance encounter with beautiful Vanessa snowballs into a tragedy. Tim's story is relayed on CD's left to Duncan, the student who inherits his dorm room. Duncan wishes to forget the role he played in last year's traumatic incident, but he can't resist listening to the CDs. Despite their Shakespearian names, this original story is not a retelling of Macbeth but rather an exploration of the narrative form of tragedy. At Irving, students write a tragedy paper senior year, and Tim promises that his story will inspire Duncan.

Tim is a wonderfully complex and sympathetic character. Born without pigment, he has physical challenges, such as a sensitivity to bright light, but his biggest problem is low self esteem. Tim assumes that being albino makes him an unlovable freak, although other than startled reactions from strangers and his lack of friends, there is no tangible evidence of prejudice in the book. I would have liked a flashback to an event that had traumatized him into being so reclusive, but his insecurities around a popular girl and his foolish behavior to impress her are generally relatable and true to teenaged boys. There is also plenty more to Tim than his disability. He's a sensitive, creative and kind person with a unique perspective on life.

I wish Duncan, the present day narrator, had been as well developed as Tim. Duncan seems to exist only as a narrative foil, reacting to Tim's story without carving out his own narrative arc. Often I had trouble marking the transition from one voice to another, but this might be a problem particular to the digital galley, which I read on my Kindle. Hopefully the final print version uses different fonts. Having Tim's voice in first person and Duncan's voice in third person meant I wasn't lost for long.

The Tragedy Paper reminded me of two other popular books, and I suspect it will do well. Using CD's to tell a story is a similar narrative device to the tapes in Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why. LaBan's novel also shared common elements with Donna Tartt's A Secret History, a favorite of mine in adult literary fictionBoth books share a gorgeous New England campus setting, a secret society, a charismatic teacher and a tragic story in the past. However, The Tragedy Paper's tragic event felt a bit anticlimactic after all the build up, perhaps in comparison to the other two books, or maybe because LaBan's story was geared to a younger audience. As such, The Tragedy Paper is appropriate for even preteens and would appeal to both boys and girls as well as adult readers of young adult fiction.

With its evocative, literary writing and true teen voice, The Tragedy Paper is an impressive debut. The cover art is gorgeous too. I'm curious to see what LaBan will write next. Disclosure: I received a free digital galley from NetGalley for review purposes.

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