Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sunrise on Monhegan Island

Finally, I can share my Monhegan Island photos! I bought a new DSLR camera, a Canon EOS 70D, after giving my old Nikon D80 to my daughter for a photography course. In May I took my new camera on a writing retreat on Monhegan Island. When I tried to share my RAW photos, they were unreadable. Eek! The solution was updating my photo processing software. Lightroom 5 has cool new features. Have you ever taken a lighthouse photo that resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa (original photo at left)? Lightroom 5 can correct the wide-angle lens distortion (see top photo.)

My new Canon handles tricky lighting much better than my 2008 camera, but it's heavier, especially with an 18-135mm zoom lens. Even with an image stabilizer, it was hard to hold steady for a long exposure. Luckily my rental apartment had a deck with a flat railing overlooking the harbor. I held my breath and braced my elbows. Next time, I'll pack a tripod. Still, I'm impressed by how well the Canon captured twilight over the dimly illuminated dock, circling gulls and all.

The harbor was peaceful but not especially quiet. Before dawn, I was woken by a barking dog. I opened my eyes to rosy light and reached for my camera. Pulling a jacket over my pjs, I stepped out onto the deck. It was too early for lobstermen or birders so I had the beach to myself.

East of the harbor, the colors were shifting through the spectrum.

It was as if the lighthouse were illuminating the entire sky.

When I glanced back down at the harbor, I thought I was dreaming. After days of fog and rain...

I found gold!

The rainbow doubled, arching over the harbor. A wide-angle lens couldn't capture all of it. 

Even the seagulls seemed to watch in wonder. 

I'm not usually a morning person, but nothing is more lovely than the first light.

I will revisit these photos as I revise my novel, inspired by this special place. 

Disclosure: I received no free products nor any help from Adobe. Photoshop Lightroom 5 is a great product, but Adobe customer service is terrible. Luckily B&H Photo, where I bought my camera, has really good technical support both on the phone and in the NYC store. After trying several options, I liked the Canon EOS 70D best of all. I still need to figure out how to link the touch screen via wifi to an iPad. This post is dedicated to Barrie Summy and other island lighthouse fans.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Good YA Books for Younger Teens & Tweens

Fort Popham Beach, Maine at sunset

Tween to thirteen is an awkward age for advanced readers. Your child/grandchild/student has outgrown middle grade fiction but may not be ready for edgier Young Adult (YA) fiction. With the help of my kids, I've pulled together a list of somewhat recent YA books that are appropriate for ages 11 to 13. Follow the links to my reviews or Goodreads.

My favorite author for this age group is Laura Resau. She writes lyrical novels that have a touch of magical realism. Red Glass was inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. Sophie's family takes in six-year-old Pedro, who was the sole survivor of a border crossing from Mexico to Arizona.

Resau's Notebook series follows Zeeta and her Rumi-quoting, hippy mom across the world. Zeeta searches for her father and wonders about her ethnic roots. Her romance with a boy adopted from Ecuador is sweet and innocent. The Indigo Notebook is set in Ecuador and The Ruby Notebook is set in France. The final book in the trilogy, The Jade Notebook, is set in Mexico.

My daughter and I also love Libba Bray, although only some of her books are geared toward younger readers. Beauty Queens crashes a plane full of teen beauty queen contestants on a tropical island. It reads like a spoof of The Lord of The Flies. The Gemma Doyle trilogy, starting with A Great and Terrible Beauty, is a Victorian Gothic fantasy set in India and at a British boarding school. Bray embraces diversity and strong female characters. She's funny too.

One of my daughter's favorites was The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy, which takes place in 1970s Berkeley, California. Two girls from different backgrounds become friends and enter a creative writing contest. Another good book for younger readers is Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress by Maria Padian. Brett is a sassy 8th grader who turns to her grandmother when her friends disappoint her.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is a book I would have adored at thirteen. A girl enters her island pony in a race against magical, wild horses from the sea. The chapters alternate between her and a boy trainer's perspective. It's a bit scary, since the untamed horses can be vicious, but it's a great choice for horse lovers. The writing is beautiful and the atmosphere is enchanting.

My 13-year-old niece loved two books I chose for her. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman features a musical girl in an alternative medieval world with intelligent dragons. A sequel is due in 2015. Cinder by Marissa Meyer is a cyborg retelling of Cinderella set in New Beijing and is the first book in a series.

Three authors who write fairly innocent romances for teens are Jennifer E. SmithMeg Cabot and Sarah Dessen (only This Lullaby is edgy). There's a lot of talking and some kissing. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, set in Paris, is slightly edgier. My 16-year-old daughter still enjoys Dessen books.

Reluctant readers who play sports would enjoy Keri Mikulski's Pretty Tough series. The characters are in high school, but the romances are very innocent. Each book features a different sport. Another fun high school romance is A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker.

On the more literary end of the YA spectrum are Beth Kephart's novels. Undercover, a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, is contemporary YA fiction and Dangerous Neighbors is historical fiction. Beth's books cross over well to an adult audience and would be a good choice to read along with your child.

My son didn't read much YA as a tween, but he loved Isabel Allende's The City of the Beasts. This first book in a magical realism trilogy is set in the Amazon. The protagonist is a 15-year-old American boy who befriends a native girl. We also loved the first book in a Mexican border dystopian series, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. Another dystopian book we enjoyed was Shift by Charlotte Agell. My son was also a fan of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials steampunk trilogy.

Reviewer's Disclosure: authors Charlotte Agell, Beth Kephart, Maria Padian and Keri Mikulski are friends/blog buddies. My agent edited Dangerous Neighbors when she was at Egmont. I received no compensation for my reviews.

If you have other YA suggestions for 11-13 year olds, please leave a comment.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican is a cynical coming-of-age story reminiscent of J.D. Salinger, Ruth Ozeki and A.S. King. Although packaged as young adult, the novel would appeal to adults as well as to teenagers. The central characters are Catholic high school students, but we also get the perspectives of an earnest teacher, a malicious counselor, a nun/principal and a corrupt priest. The shades of the macabre are reminiscent of Stephen King, whom the author cites as his inspiration. His blurb made me request a galley from Netgalley:
“If you thought high school was hell, has Anthony Breznican got a story for you…Every bully who stalked you, every sadistic teacher who ever terrified you, every stupid prank, every hopeless crush and false friend: they’re all here, along with a few kids who hang together and try to do the right thing in a brutal environment. By turns funny and terrifying, Brutal Youth is an unputdownable tour-de-force, a Rebel Without a Cause for the 21st century.” —Stephen King
Those who find Stephen King too scary to read should not shy away from Anthony Breznican. There is a major gross-out scene in the opening of Brutal Youth, but then the narrative refocuses on the psychological horrors of bullying, the implied threats. Seniors at Saint Michael's routinely haze the freshman and the administration rarely intervenes. Meanwhile, the school is physically rotting from the inside out, a metaphor of corruption and decay.

Peter Davidek, a nerdy freshman with a kind heart, is an obvious target for bullies. Our protagonist teams up with Noah Stein, a charismatic boy with a troubled past, to fight the system. The boys form a Harry Potteresque threesome with beautiful Lorelei Paskal, who has an agenda of her own. The narrative is set in the 1990s, but apart from the absence of cell phones, it doesn't feel out of date.

What makes Brutal Youth stand out from other young adult books about bullying is its bleak perspective. The kids are selfish and often cruel, and the adults are either negligent or abusive. In a traditional coming-of-age book, the naive hero develops an ethical code, but in this case, our compassionate hero is at risk of losing his moral integrity. In order to survive, Davidek must shed his kind personality and resort to Machiavellian measures to achieve justice and social harmony. A happy ending seems unlikely.

Brutal Youth is not an easy book to read, but it's even harder to put down. The characters are wonderfully drawn, if exaggerated for dramatic effect, and the writing is a winning mix of page-turner suspense and well-observed descriptions. I found many sentences to highlight:
The setting: "Lockers slammed like gunfire." 
The evil guidance counselor: "Once-delicate features had gone soft and round, slightly wrinkled, as if they had swollen and then deflated."..."Bromine. It was a name like soap in the mouth." 
A victim: "Lorelei's shoes clicked in the pockets of silence she created."..."The crowd parted as she passed. No one said a word. Not until she was gone."
Author Anthony Breznican
Brutal Youth was an exceptionally strong debut, despite a few minor faults. Noah disappears halfway through the narrative, deflating tension. Lorelei was an interesting character, but her mixed motives and inconsistent behavior didn't make sense. Other characters were almost comically evil. However, Davidek and his antagonist, Hannah, were wonderfully drawn and well-nuanced. Adding the occasional perspective of adult characters reminded me of A. S. King's writing style. Despite all the head hopping, the narrative didn't lose focus. It was entertaining and funny too. The author writes for Entertainment Weekly.

I love books like Brutal Youth that are hard to categorize, that bridge the YA/Adult and the literary/commercial marketing lines. This universal story about the dark side of human nature would appeal to a wide audience, especially to teenaged boys. I'm impressed with this debut and am curious to see what Anthony Breznican will write next. This book would make a good movie. Brutal Youth will be released on June 10th, 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books at Macmillan.

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