Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mud Season in Maine

Pond ice is thinning.

Seawater is flowing into estuaries.

Maybe my last day on skis?

The backyard cover is only ankle deep.

Sidewalks thaw and mud oozes.

The beach has just a frosting of snow, a glazing of ice. 
It's nearly the end of winter,
but not quite the start of spring.
Mud Season.

photo note: first photo by my daughter on our "last" ski.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Far From You by Tess Sharpe

We still have a foot of old crusty snow in the woods with more snow due tonight.

In Far From You by Tess Sharpe a 17-year-old girl witnesses her best friend's murder, but no one will believe her story. The murderer cleverly planted drugs in Sophie's pocket to make the murder look like a drug buy that broke bad. Most people blame Sophie for Mina's death because Sophie was a junkie. The police shut the case with a shrug. As soon as Sophie is released from rehab, she starts investigating the murder herself.

The original set up drew me in immediately, and Sophie was a wonderful character, unlike any I've encountered before in young adult fiction. A car accident left Sophie with disabilities and an addiction to painkillers, but she learns to fight the pain and refuses to be a victim. Tough, smart and confrontational, Sophie is not the stereotypical sweet, helpless disabled kid. Her struggle with addiction was beautifully written, including the toll it takes on her friends and her family:
"Dad isn't disappointed in me like Mom is. He doesn't have that mix of anger and fear that's fueling her. Instead, he doesn't know what to do or how to feel with me, and sometimes I think it's worse, that he can't decide between forgiving and blaming me."
It was refreshing to read a book with a lesbian relationship that was just a part of the overall story and not the centerpiece. Sophie's obsessive passion and Mina's ambivalence were well rendered. The voice and dialogue were true to teens and sounded fresh, not formulaic.

As much as I loved the characters and their story, I had a hard time following it due to the narrative structure. The book unfolds in chapters alternating between the present day murder investigation and out-of-sequence flashbacks to the past. I got lost and confused and couldn't flip back easily because I was reading a digital galley. There was a lot of plot to follow: the car accident that disabled Sophie, her drug addiction, two rehabs, two possible murders, many suspects and two bisexual love triangles. The backstory was more interesting than the present day murder investigation, which took center-stage.

I'd recommend Far From You to readers aged 14 and older. The ebook will be released on March 27, 2014, but I'd advise waiting until April 8th for the hardcover version so that you can flip back if you get lost. It's worth the extra effort to piece the story together. I'm curious to see what Tess Sharpe writes next.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: I received a free digital galley from Disney-Hyperion via Netgalley but was not compensated for my review.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Painting at Reid State Park

On this wintery March day (6-10 inches due), I'm longing for watercolor weather. Let's flashback to September, my favorite month for painting en plein air in Maine. Working outside a studio requires meditative patience and a sense of humor about the hardships. Watercolor is the most challenging of paint media because you can only work darker, not lighter. Wet paper buckles and the paint is hard to control. Mistakes can't be erased. On the plus side, watercolors are portable and dry quickly. The flow of the paint mimics the flow of the water. I enjoy challenges. 

Reid State Park in Georgetown is an ideal spot for painting on location. Picnic benches are set to face the spectacular views. They're popular with mosquitoes and green-heads too so I cover up and bring bug repellent. The park is a half hour drive from my house.

After scouting out a location and testing compositions in my sketchbook, I line up my supplies.

The first step is a detailed pencil sketch on heavy weight Arches paper taped to a masonite board.

Then I use liquid masking fluid (the yellow) to preserve the white boulders and surf. After the mask is dry, I block out the base colors in thin washes of watercolor, using sponges and broad brushes. This is a leap of faith. The under drawing vanishes and the painting has to look terrible before it finds focus.

As I work, the tide falls, shadows lengthen and colors intensify. I enjoy the serendipity of working on location, of looking up and seeing kayakers paddle past. Fish jump and birds fly by. This is no still life.

The details are rendered in layers of paint, using finer tipped brushes. The penultimate step is rubbing off the liquid mask. The white areas are paper without paint. The final step is working detail into the white.

I work quickly to capture the grays, browns and blues in the boulders and the turquoise in the water.

Too soon the sun sets and the tide falls. There's not enough light left to finish my painting. Bother.

I pack up my paints and watch the sunset. A camera is best for capturing fleeting images in low light.

I return another clear day with a similar tide to complete the painting. In these two images you can see the differences between a photograph and a watercolor. The photo lacks definition, flattens the perspective and has no movement. This is why I prefer to work from life than from a photo. Once the painting was done, I removed the tape that held the paper to the board. Now the watercolor is ready for framing. I'll be painting more watercolors in summer...after the snow melts. Sigh. Please share your daffodils.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Tyrant's Daughter by J.C. Carleson

Yes, it's still winter in Maine, dipping  close to zero F overnight and not breaking zero C during the day. It's snowing now.

The Tyrant's Daughter would be a fine introduction to the Arab Spring uprisings for teen readers. Author J.C. Carleson is a former undercover C.I.A. operative and her experiences in the Middle East and in war zones well inform the fictional narrative.

After her father is assassinated in a coup d'état, 15-year-old Laila escapes to the USA with her mother and her little brother. For the first time in her life, Laila attends school and mingles with boys and girls her age. Back home in the Middle East, Laila had private tutors and never left the house without a headscarf and armed guards. She was raised believing her loving father was the king, but in the USA she gets proof that he was a ruthless despot.
"Back home we had no internet. Or at least not the internet I see before me now. We had only a heavily censored, filtered version, with threatening messages decrying all but the blandest of government-approved sites as forbidden."
Laila struggles to fit in with typical American teens while coming to terms with her family's legacy. Through her eyes, the American suburbs is a foreign land with bizarre customs. Wry humor lightens up the dark story:
"Around the lunch table everyone seems to have given something up - dairy, meat, gluten, sugar, carbs. Only in a land of plenty could people voluntarily go without so much." 
At other times the writing is poignantly raw and lyrical:
"I've been underwater for nearly a month. That's what it feels like here - a life submerged. Wave-tossed and sand-scoured. Voices around me in school sound muted and distorted; faces out of focus. I'm experiencing my new life through fathoms of water, making everything seem dreamlike and unreal, as if my brain can only accept so much change before it drowns. Gradually, though, I've been surfacing."
The only one who understands Laila is Amir, an expat boy whose family was victimized by her father. Laila's loyalty is torn as her mother schemes with the CIA to regain power for her brother. The book becomes a spy thriller full of plot twists and moral ambiguity. It was hard to put down.

Overall, The Tyrant's Daughter was a strong YA debut. The writing was very good and the story was culturally sensitive. Laila was a believable and sympathetic character as were the other expats. My only criticism is that the American teen characters seemed flat by comparison and their story lines felt generic. I suspect this was intentional to allow typical teens to put the exotic story in context and to highlight contrasts. The cover is striking but misrepresents the protagonist, who wore a headscarf in her native country, not a burka. Laila dresses like a typical teen in the USA. It's wonderful to see a YA book about Middle Eastern politics which doesn't demonize Muslims.

Teachers will appreciate the extras: a Middle East reading list, a note from the author describing her experiences and a fascinating commentary by Dr. Cheryl Benard drawing parallels to the experience of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. This fascinating book would work very well in the classroom for ages 12 and up. The Tyrant's Daughter was released in February 2014. It received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly.

Reviewer's Disclaimer: I was pre-approved for a free digital galley from Netgalley/Random House.

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@Barrie Summy