Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord

Squam Lake, New Hampshire in summer

One of the best things about living in Maine is the community. For a population of 1.3 million, we have a surprisingly large number of writers and artists. The gorgeous landscape must be inspiring. My neighbor Cynthia Lord is a Newbury Honor author. Cindy's editor, Kate Egan, lives around the corner from her. Their first book together, Half a Chance, is about a 12-year-old girl who secretly enters a photo contest judged by her father.

Every chapter explores a theme of the photographic scavenger hunt. Lucy, who just moved to New Hampshire, asks the boy next door for help. Over the summer they explore the beautiful lake, their small town and surrounding mountains in search of original photo subjects. They also help Nate's ailing grandmother monitor the nesting loons on an island. This enchanting summer tale teaches the young reader about photography, wildlife conservation and artistic ethics. The fun competition becomes serious when Lucy realizes that her best photo might betray the trust of her new friend and compromise her father's professional integrity. There are no easy choices.

Author Cynthia Lord in Maine
Cindy writes so well about what she knows. She grew up on a lake similar to this fictional one. Her husband, a professional photographer, gave her excellent guidance. Cindy not only describes the process of photography but also the artistic decisions behind a composition and how to achieve emotional impact through imagery. During the time that she was writing Half a Chance, I noticed that her own photography skills improved. She also researched loon behavior thoroughly and spent days kayaking. Cindy is a method writer, but her technically brilliant prose is humanized with raw feelings. I dare you to finish this book with dry eyes.
"Whenever we move, I take a picture as soon as we arrive. It always makes me feel a little braver, knowing that on some future day I can look back at that photo, taken when it was new and scary, and think, I made it. Like creating a memory in reverse."
Editor/author Kate Egan
Credit is also due to editor Kate Egan. In a well edited book, you won't notice the writing but will focus instead on the story. This one flows so well, allowing the voice to sing. Half a Chance reads like an old classic with modern updates (eg texting and a computer programer mom.) Usually I can find a fault in a book that editing might have corrected, but the only thing I could criticize is the cover. The illustration is pretty, but that's not how you carry a kayak.

I'd strongly recommend Half a Chance to girls and boys in elementary school up to age twelve. There's a hint of romance but the focus is on friendship and family. It would make an excellent bedtime story because you will enjoy reading it aloud as much as your kids will enjoy listening to it. This middle grade novel received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Brava, Cindy and Kate! Encore!

Writers' Night Out: Cynthia Lord, Kate Egan, Charlotte Agell, Sarah Laurence and Maria Padian 

Reviewer's Disclosure:  I bought Half a Chance at Gulf of Maine Books. Cynthia Lord and Kate Egan (an author as well as an editor) are my friends. We get together with children's authors Charlotte Agell and Maria Padian to talk books. These talented neighbors encouraged me to write young adult fiction. That's the best kind of peer pressure! All photos are mine. The last one was taken by Scott Smith.

My reviews of more
novels by Cynthia Lord:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Where did I go?

Life saving station at Lobster Cove, Monhegan Island, Maine

Hello Again! Even my neighbors have been asking where I've been this summer.

At Burnt Head, Monhegan Island in May. Photo by a fellow hiker.

I've been revising a young adult novel. Although it required a week on a remote island, 

Most of the time, I have been holed up in my home office, overlooking a riot of clematis.

Sometimes I revised en plein air. Every day was a work day. 
I was rushing to finish so that my teenaged beta testers could read over summer vacation.

Fish Beach, Monhegan Island

My 17-year-old daughter read in June, offering invaluable criticism. She would make a fine editor one day.

Monhegan Harbor at dusk

Now a girl in a harbor town, similar to my fictional one, is reading. I also asked for feedback 
from a Californian girl who knows nothing about Maine. There are a few adult readers too. 
A local police officer will fact check a crime scene. It's fiction, but I want to get it right.

Above and below: the pond on my daily walk at home.

With the manuscript gone for a few weeks, I'm finally free to catch up on life and on artwork. There's neglected housework too so I'm staying close to home. Luckily, no place is nicer than Maine in summer. 

What I'm reading now:
Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Good Summer Books for Teens and Adults

Monhegan Island, Maine

Summer is time to read in a shady hammock or on the beach. If you can't travel, a good summer book will take you on vacation. I've compiled a list for adults and teens of recently published novels, some with links to full reviews posted earlier. If you want recommendations for younger readers, check out my Good YA Books for Tweens and Younger Teens.

Fiction for Adults

Right now I'm enjoying Euphoria by Maine author Lily King. It's a fictionalization of Margaret Mead's anthropological work and love affairs in New Guinea. I nearly majored in Anthropology at college and spent summers doing field research in remote areas so this subject fascinates me. Lily King is one of the authors whose books automatically go in my to be read stack. I loved her debut novel, The Pleasing Hour, about an American au pair in France. Father of the Rain was a beautifully written account of how alcoholism ruins a family. Euphoria seems just right for summer. Isn't the cover gorgeous? I'll post a full review after I finish reading it.

Summer vacation would be a good time to read the 770 page The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  The 2014 winner of the Pulitzer Prize follows a teenaged boy into an early adulthood muddled by drugs and art crime. This Dickensian novel with noir undertones is set in contemporary NYC, Vegas and Holland. It's bleak, verbose at times and received mixed reviews, but it's still worth reading.

If you crave something lighter, try Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen, a novel about brothers opening a trendy restaurant in Pennsylvania. Tempting Fate by Jane Green would be a good beach book for curious blog readers; the author used me as a physical model for her tempted protagonist! I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Rainbow Rowell's latest novel, Landline, next week.

Young Adult Fiction

If summer means travel and romance to you, you'll fall in love with The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith. During a blackout in NYC, a lonely rich girl gets trapped in an elevator with the building superintendent's son. As the star-crossed teens travel in opposite directions across the USA and Europe, they keep in touch via postcards. The chapters alternate between Lucy's and Owen's POV:

"But now, less than an hour later, he felt suddenly too aware of her, a presence beside him as prickly as the heat."

My only criticism of this charming novel is that there was too much focus on parents instead of peers, although that aspect would cross over well to an adult reader. Geography is similar to Smith's 2012 international hit, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. Smith writes contemporary but timeless stories in a voice true to teens. She's one of my favorite YA authors.

The YA book that is garnering the most attention right now is We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This June bestseller has a commercially sensational plot but is written in a literary style with allusions to King Lear and Wuthering Heights. Preppy teenagers and their greedy moms squabble over their inheritance on a private island off Martha's Vineyard with tragic consequences. It's a modern fairy tale with a grouchy old king, spoiled princesses and a politically correct pauper-prince. The protagonist is acutely aware of her privilege:
"I own a well-used library card and not much else, though it is true I live in a grand house full of expensive, useless objects."
We Were Liars reminded me a bit of the adult thriller, Gone Girl. I enjoyed it, but I didn't connect with any of the characters. They felt too contrived, arrogant and self-absorbed. Still, I kept reading eagerly to the surprising twist at the end. We Were Liars has style. E. Lockhart is on my favorite YA authors list; I loved her The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks too.

The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner is also set on the shore, but the characters are more down to earth. Fifteen-year-old Frankie blames herself for her brother's death, who drowned at the beach four years ago. Frankie was only eleven-years-old, but her napping parents left her in charge of her 4-year-old brother. Four years later, Frankie meets a little boy who is so similar to her lost brother that she wonders if reincarnation is possible.

The Summer of Letting Go was really strong on loss, grief and recovery, but I wished Frankie had some cool interests of her own and wasn't completely defined by her loss. Also her best friend had as much character as a Barbie doll, and the love triangle didn't work for me. The little boy, however, was a delightful character, and I loved his relationship with Frankie. The writing was good too.

If you are looking for a literary historical romance, I'd strongly recommend Going Over by Beth Kephart, set in Berlin during the Cold War. Beth Kephart is another favorite YA author. Teenaged boys and Stephen King fans would enjoy Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican, about hazing and bullying at a Catholic school in Pennsylvania. Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando would be a good pick for older teen girls thinking ahead to college. As would be Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which is set at a college in the midwest. Fangirl was one of my favorite books from last year; it would crossover well to adults. Actually, most of these books would appeal to both adults and teens. Young adult is only a marketing category.

Next up on my to be read list is Born Confused (2002) by Tanuja Desai Hidier before the sequel, Bombay Blues, is published this fall. The cover caught my attention and the blurb hooked me: Dimple Lala doesn't know what to think. Her parents are from India, and she's spent her whole life resisting their traditions. Then suddenly she gets to high school and everything Indian is trendy. To make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a "suitable boy." Of course it doesn't go well -- until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web. Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue. This is a funny, thoughtful story about finding your heart, finding your culture, and finding your place in America.

Reviewer's Disclosure: Lily King's daughter is on my daughter's track team. I also know the author from Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Jane Green is an art client and a friend. Beth Kephart is a blog buddy and a friend. I received free review copies of Bread & Butter, Tempting Fate, Roomies, Brutal Youth and Born Confused. The other books I purchased myself, most at indie bookstores.

Happy reading! I'm taking a week or two off from blogging to revise my work-in-progress before beta testing it on teen readers. Time for reflection...