Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Painting on the Coast of Maine

Watercolor Painting of Sagahadoc Bay, Georgetown, Maine

At this time of year, I swap my writer's cap for an artist's cap. In late summer and early autumn, the light sharpens, making the colors more intense. It's warm but not too hot to sit outside painting for hours. With my eyes trained on a distant horizon, instead of a computer screen, my vision improves (confusing my optometrist). I hoard sunshine to get through the long winter. Can you believe it's already the end of July?

This year my painting time will double count as book research: my next young adult novel will be set in coastal Maine. Once my kids are back in school, I'll head to Monhegan Island with my art bag and a notebook for a few days. I love my jobs!

The above watercolor of Sagahadoc Bay will be flying to a new home in London. The client is an ex-pat American with a summer house near my home, but we didn't meet in person. She found my blog through my book reviews. Her family wants to bring a part of Maine back to England with them. I'm pleased to see my painting go to a loving new home.

Even after six years of blogging, it still amazes me that two women with similar life stories (my family has lived in England too) can meet almost randomly in cyberspace. Blogging makes the world seem both smaller and bigger. We are part of a community that stretches beyond national boarders. And what a beautiful world it is!

Maine Artists: note that this year state tax returns must be filed twice. General sales tax in Maine is rising from 5% to 5.5% in October. One return is due October 15th and the other (October-December sales) is due January 15th. Sigh. At least this doesn't affect out of state sales.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A perfect day: Popham Beach and Spinney's

My daughter, just back from a month backpacking in Wyoming, said she missed the sea. On Sunday we drove a half an hour from our home to our favorite beach, Popham State Park. My daughter, her friend and my intrepid husband bodysurfed until their lips turned blue.

I swam in a wetsuit top and read The End of the Point. It's getting harder to save this beautiful novel for beach days only. Sometimes I think Elizabeth Graver is writing just to me: "Still, I want to think and talk about things that matter, to have conversations I return from changed."

At dinner time, we walked/waded two miles down the beach to Spinney's for good local seafood. My British husband ordered fish and chips, of course. I had my usual lobster roll and Vidalia onion rings (theirs are the best) with Lobster Ale (a red ale) on tap from Belfast, Maine. Despite living her entire life in Maine, our daughter doesn't like seafood. For a month of backpacking she had to live off dehydrated beans and cornmeal so she dug into a steak and cheese sub. Her friend had a shrimp roll, also locally fished. Ah, the taste of summer!

At Spinney's the service is slow and there is no air conditioning, but the view is well worth it. The building with the red roof is the Life Saving Station (1883). The lighthouse marks Pond Island offshore.

Later we pulled on fleeces to watch the moonrise from the beach. The heat wave has finally passed, and we are back to low 80's days and cool nights. Why go away for vacation if you live in Maine? Well, at least in summer...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ink by Amanda Sun, revisiting Japan

My photo of Ryoan-ji
After my first year of college, my family visited Japan and Hong Kong. I'd taken a couple of courses on Japan and written a term paper on Japanese gardens. Even so, I was not prepared for the beauty of the gardens and temples. I vowed to return in cherry blossom season, and I did, this time with my own children. My husband teaches Asian Studies and Government at Bowdoin College and was granted a sabbatical in Japan. It was a magical experience. We met up with my high school friend Terry Kawashima and my sister-in-law's parents (first photo). My brother worked as an architect for three years in Japan and met his wife there. I'll be recommending Ink, a new young adult novelto their 12-year-old daughter, as she loves fantasies and drawing. I think my 16-year-old daughter (the 3-year-old in the photo) would enjoy it too.

Canadian author Amanda Sun merged her experience as an exchange student in Osaka with Japanese mythology to create her debut novel, Ink (June 2013). After her mom dies, sixteen-year-old Katie Greene is sent to live with her English teacher aunt in Shizuoka. As the only foreign student (presumably), she catches the eye of Tomohiro, the star of the school's kendo team. Tomo is also a skilled artist, but he hides his talent. His drawings have a bad habit of leaping off the page and attacking bystanders. One nearly killed his best friend. Yakuza gangsters and the kami paper gods vie for his allegiance. Katie fights to protect Tomo, but her presence only makes his power harder to control. Their star-crossed romance is Twilight remixed with Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Not only is Ink a good story, it's a fine introduction to Japanese culture. The characters practice calligraphy, go to cram school and celebrate cherry blossom season. They also goof around and get into trouble like teens everywhere. The whimsical magical scenes, beautifully illustrated, draw as much on manga comics as on Japanese mythology. The fantastic is well balanced by a realistic sense of place. Katie is a sympathetic, likable protagonist who works hard to understand a foreign culture and to accommodate the new norms, often making embarrassing mistakes as she learns. As a former foreign exchange student and then manager of a foreign exchange program, I could relate to her experience. Japanese words are described in context and in a glossary. Sun does an excellent job of transporting readers to Japan without losing them.

Although the Japanese part of the story was well developed, the American backstory was not. Katie's closest relatives are conveniently missing: her dad vanished (why?), her mom died recently and her grandfather is fighting cancer. Her near-stranger aunt in Japan is the only well developed adult character. There is no mention of the friends Katie left behind or of her past life in NYC beyond ballet. Obviously she would miss her mom, but teens are mostly focused on their peers. It would have been extra-traumatic leaving them behind. The only friends mentioned are new ones and, like her facility with the difficult language, seem too easily acquired.

We know nothing about Katie's romantic past either. Perhaps she doesn't have one. Katie is a bit immature, behaves awkwardly and doesn't know how to flirt so why do the two hottest guys fall for her? This question is semi-answered toward the end, and hopefully her background will be fleshed out later in The Paper Gods trilogy. The page-turner ending of Ink leaves the reader eager for more.
"Clouds of shimmering dust encircled him, wisps of inky swirls that glinted in the sunlight. They curled in slow motion, spreading around him like waves of fireflies."

The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto, Japan
Reviewer's Disclaimer and Recommendations: I received a free digital galley from Harlequin Teen but was not compensated for my review. I flipped through the gorgeous paperback at Main Point Books, and I'd recommend buying a hardcopy from an indie bookstore. The cover image of Katie is far more glamorous than I imagined her, but Tomo's ink drawings were just right. The illustrations didn't look as good on my ereader and the glossary was harder to access. Although the action scenes are violent, the romance is quite innocent and would be fine for tweens as well as teens. Ink would crossover to adult fans of manga and of YA paranormal fiction. Ink was on my Good Summer Books list.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Good Summer Books, reading and swimming at Simpsons Point

One of my favorite summer routines is to bike eight miles roundtrip to the sea. A bunch of us locals and some summer people swim off the old boat ramp at Simpsons Point. We call ourselves the High Tide Club since the timing is key. At low tide, the estuary becomes mud flats, but the sun-baked mud warms the cold ocean at high tide (tip: swim within 2.5 hours of high tide either side). I painted this watercolor at Simpsons Point with a great blue heron for company. Other times I've seen bald eagles, snowy egrets, harbor seals and way too many green head flies.

If it isn't too buggy, I sit on a rock and read while my swimsuit dries. A good summer book is well written but not too heavy. It should be set in summer, ideally by the sea, or transports me to an exotic location. Most of my recommendations would appeal to both adults and teens so check all categories.

Fiction for Adults (with adult and teen characters)

The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (2013 hardcover). This three generation family saga is set in a summer house on Buzzards Bay, MA. The book opens in 1942 with soldiers stationed next door, narrated at first from the point of view of the Scottish nanny and her charges (8 to 16-year-old girls.) The upstairs/downstairs shifting perspectives, well developed characters, domestic focus and wartime setting would appeal to Downton Abbey fans (the writing is better than the TV show's script.) The sense of place is marvelous, and I adore the cover (click on the image to enlarge) with the rough edge binding. I'm reading this one only on beach days to savor it.
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (2012 paperback) British vacationers in Nice, France are surprised to find a young woman swimming nude in their pool. The characters were well developed, but most lack moral fortitude. The most likable was Nina, a 13-year-old girl. At 156 pages this novella is physically light but emotionally heavy. I have mixed feelings about the message but appreciated the gorgeous setting and the fine writing: "Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gasses seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating."

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012 hardcover) After his mother is brutally raped, a teenaged boy searches for clues on their reservation. Joe's summertime antics with his buddies add some much needed lightness and mirth. Erdrich has been a favorite author of mine since I read her first novel as a teen. I'd found some of her more recent books too grim, but this one has a good balance of gravity and hope, more similar to her earlier books. The Round House was written for adults but would cross over well to a teen audience, especially to teenaged boys. This 2012 novel won the National Book Award too.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (2013 paperback). I reviewed this hilarious satire last month. The descriptions of rainy Seattle and ice-bound Antarctica will cool you down. Be prepared to laugh in public. Written for parents; my husband enjoyed this one too.

New Adult Fiction (ages 18 and up)

Such A Rush by Jennifer Echols (2013 paperback). Although the characters are high school seniors, this new adult novel was written for readers aged 18 and up. It includes life changing choices, gritty realism and safe sex. Leah has grown up in a series of trailer parks by airports. Not only does she dream of being a pilot, she works hard to make it happen. The evocative descriptions of her impoverished life juxtaposed with the joy of flight makes this book uplifting and inspiring. Her romantic involvements with the gorgeous twin boys, who inherit the airport, are soap-operatic fun. Leah is a wonderful, strong protagonist with a fresh perspective on life. The narrative voice is true to Leah's circumstances, but the writing is still very good: "To be ignored was a sentence without a period."

Just One Day by Gail Foreman (2013 hardcover). A college bound American girl has a fling with a Dutch Shakespeare actor in Paris. Reviewed April 2012.

Realistic Young Adult Fiction

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han (2009 paperback). For years Isabelle has been chasing after two brothers, who are friends of her brother. This is the first summer the boys notice "Belly" as more than the silly younger sister. The author does a fine job of weaving in flashbacks from previous summers to build complex, shifting relationships true to adolescent life. The narrative includes the bigger issues of divorce and cancer but doesn't dwell on anything dark or deep. This light romance would be best for tween or young teenaged girls, especially for reluctant readers. Now available in a box set with the other books in the trilogy: It's Not Summer Without You (2010) and We'll Always Have Summer (2011).

Three of my favorites from 2012 are now available in paperback:

1. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. After her plane crashes, a young spy is captured by the Nazis in Occupied France. Best for mature teens and adults. Reviewed in September 2012. A Printz Honor Book and Edgar Award winner. One of the best books I've ever read. My husband loved it too. It was too scary for our 15-year-old daughter but her friend from Paris adored it. (This summer I'll be reading the companion book, Rose Under Fire, which is due out in September 2013.)

2. Small Damages by Beth Kephart. A pregnant American is sent to Spain to give her baby away before college. Simmering with secrets, savory flavor and dusty heat, this book is seasoned just right for summer. It would cross over well to adult fans of literary fiction too. I reviewed this novel on its release in July of 2012. Winner of the BEA Armchair Award, Best YA Novel of 2012. I reviewed two other Kephart paperbacks last week.

3. The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith. An American girl sits beside a charming Brit on a plane to England. One of my favorite romances. Reviewed in April 2012.

Paranormal Young Adult Fiction
New releases of 2013:

Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan is narrated in alternating boy/girl chapters. A boy is born invisible and only one girl can see him. This original premise serves as a good metaphor for falling in love and being truly seen and understood for the first time. The setting is summer on the Upper West Side of NYC. I especially enjoyed Stephen's creative attempts to hide his invisibility from his oblivious girlfriend. I love this type of magical realism. Halfway through, the narrative shifts from comic/surreal to a supernatural dual between good and evil. Despite having a mid-book shift in tone and two authors, the writing is seamless. It has some good lines:
"I am like a ghost who's never died."
"I am in the middle of Times Square. Lit like the inside of a video game." 
"Just as a fever makes cold feel colder, love can make loneliness feel lonelier."
Invisibility was a Main Point Books recommendation for teenaged boys and girls.

Ink by Amanda Sun (paperback). First book in a new paranormal romance trilogy set in Japan. Update: review is now posted.

Reviewer's Disclaimer:  I received ARCs of Small Damages, Ink and Rose Under Fire, but I bought the other books myself, most at indie bookstores. A couple were ebooks to read on the go. Author Beth Kephart is a blog buddy. I was not compensated for my reviews.

More Summer Books Posts:

Books in the City: Top Beach Reads & Top 10 Books Featuring Travel

From the House of Edward: A Tale and a List of Good Summer Books

Please add your recommendations in the comments. If you have a summer books post, let me know, and I'll link to it. Happy reading!

Brunswick Residents, Swimmers and Paddlers: the Marine Resources Committee might ask the Brunswick Town Council to consider a proposal to reopen Simpsons Point to motor boats. Simpsons Point is the only public swimming access to the sea in our town. The nearby Mere Point Boat Launch is already open to motor boats.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

At Main Point Books with Beth Kephart and Craig Johnson

At Main Point Books with Beth Kephart
Last week I spent a blissful couple of days helping my friend, Cathy Fiebach, who just opened an indie bookstore in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Main Point Books is as warm, smart and sunny as its owner. Since childhood, we've shared a passion for good books. It was her dream to open a bookstore and it was mine to be part of it for a few days. How often do you get to live a fantasy?

My favorite job was matching customers' individual tastes with new books, but the hardest work happens behind the scenes. Main Point Books is open 7 days a week, and Cathy is up at dawn placing orders, organizing author events, cleaning the bathroom and doing paperwork. I filed reams of book packing lists/invoices and learned all about Ingram, a book distributer. Empty shelf space indicates recent sales. Cathy's business savvy (a Warton MBA with experience in marketing) is as important as her love of fine literature. Her knowledge, energy and hours are making this bookstore a success. It helps to have such a welcoming and enthusiastic community too. And there's a cupcake store next door!

Many local authors stopped by, and it was a delight to meet (first photo) one of my favorite authors/bloggers, Beth Kephart, in person. I'd asked Cathy to order Beth's two historical YA novels, both set in Philadelphia. Dangerous Neighbors takes place during the Centennial and focuses on twin 16-year-old girls who dare to become involved with boys beneath their social class. Through extensive research, attention to detail and a fine ear for period dialect, Beth brings the past to the present. Dangerous Neighbors is a perfectly crafted novel; it's as tight as a short story with prose as lyrical as poetry:
"Then she steps through the hall and toward the front door, the whisper of her black skirt fading to silence." 
"Katherine saw how his eyes were like pieces of dark green-brown glass, shining and absorbing shine at the same time. She wondered if he'd seen her, then wondered why she cared..."
Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent  (impossible title to remember!) is a companion novel to Dangerous Neighbors. The protagonist is William, the boy with the "green-brown glass" eyes, who rescues lost animals in shantytown. My favorite character was a young goat (I love animals.) DRSR is a Dickensian story with a touch of Steinbeck's Cannary Row and gorgeous illustrations by William Sulit, Beth's talented husband. It's a younger and more masculine story, which I'd recommend to middle school boys and to fans of Dangerous Neighbors who miss the characters. The twins and their feminist/suffragette mother make a few appearances. Locals will be pleased to hear that Beth Kephart is planning a Main Point Books author visit.

Bestseller author Craig Johnson added an unscheduled stop to his book tour while visiting his daughter, who lives near Main Point Books. His Longmire mysteries have become a televised series, and his fans (men and women) came eagerly to hear him speak. Craig showed up in a 10-gallon hat, weathered jeans and cowboy boots, looking like he'd hitched his horse to the parking meter. He spoke eloquently about writing and shared many humorous anecdotes. His aim is to make the reader feel like he/she is sitting beside him on a barstool, not reading a book. Although western mystery is not my genre, I bought The Cold Dish, the first book in the series. Authors take note: you don't need to read your book out loud to gain a new reader, not if the story behind the story is equally interesting. Craig promised to return to Main Point Books - don't miss him.

Author Craig Johnson with Cathy Fiebach, owner of Main Point Books
It was hard to leave Main Point Books, my ideal bookstore. There's a cozy children's corner by the local author section. The big Young Adult section is beside Adult Fiction, making it easier for teens and for adults to crossover. We talked about renaming the Romance section New Adult. Nearly half the stock is non-fiction or memoir. Coming soon will be bookshelf blurbs from store employees and reviewers like me. I shall stay involved, even at a distance.

Follow Main Point Books on twitter for updates.
Reviewer's Disclosure: at my insistence, I was not compensated for my work in the bookstore (beyond food!) or for my reviews. I bought the three paperback books at Main Point Books. Dangerous Neighbors was edited by and dedicated to my new agent (before she shifted to agenting.) My online friendship with Beth stems from my appreciation of her blog and her books. Seems like a theme in my life...

Thank you, followers! Your encouraging comments on my last post helped. Revisions are nearly finished. There will be a final round of polishing once I get feedback from my agent, who is reading again. I haven't missed much summer. It's been raining in Maine for so many weeks on end that I've lost count. Mushrooms are springing up instead of wildflowers in our lawn. I even found one growing in the kids' bathroom (our 1920's home lacks central air conditioning.) When I went to print my manuscript, the paper kept curling up. I had to open a new pack of paper to keep the printer from jamming. This morning the rain has paused, but the trees are hiding in fog. This is my fault for mocking Seattle in my last review. I'm looking forward to catching up on your blogs soon. I've missed you too!