Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Best YA Books of 2015

Do you need gift suggestions for teens? Winter vacation is a good time to rekindle the joy of reading for fun. I've chosen a dozen of the best young adult books published in 2015. Impressively, four are debuts, including my top pick for teens, Under a Painted Sky by Stacy Lee. Follow the title links to full reviews posted earlier this year on my blog. If you have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments.

YA Historical Fiction
What made these three books special was the perfect blend of literary writing, engaging characters and parsimonious historical detail. The first novel would be a good choice for tweens and younger teens. The latter two would be better for mature teens or adults.

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee. I don't usually like Westerns, but this historical novel reads like a racially diverse Little House on the Prairie. Following a tragic accident, a Chinese American musician and a slave girl disguise themselves as boys to run from the law in Missouri. They team up with three Texan cowboys who are heading to California to find gold. There's a touch of romance, but the most important relationship is the friendship between these resourceful girls. The writing is superb with well developed characters, a fast pace and a fine sense of place and period (1849). Despite dealing with tough issues like murder, slavery and racism, it still manages to be a feel good story, appropriate for tweens as well as teens. The girl protagonists are 15 and 16 and the boys are a bit older. This debut tops my list of best YA from 2015 that I've read to date.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez features a clandestine romance which dares to cross the racial divide of 1930's Texas. Inspired by the most deadly school disaster in American history, this provocative novel gives voice to those whose voices were silenced and whose histories were unjustly revised. The narration alternates among a Mexican American girl, her African American boyfriend, her biracial half-brother and her white stepfather. This gritty, dark novel would be best for mature teens or adults. It's one of the strongest and most disturbing YA novels I've ever read. Follow the title link to the full review, which includes a guest post from the author about her inspiration.

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, one of my favorite authors. There are plenty of war books celebrating male valor and camaraderie, but girls and women usually play only supportive or romantic roles. In Wein's novels, the girls are literally in the pilot seat, calling the shots and sometimes firing them as well, but violence is never romanticized. Black Dove, White Raven follows a family of pilots in 1930s Ethiopia. The narration alternates between Italian American Em and Teo, her African American foster brother. Their pilot moms are fun characters too.

YA Fantasy/Surreal Fiction
I'm reading more fantasy because my 14-year-old niece loves it. I thought I was buying books for her, but my brother frequently steals them from her bookshelves. We're all enjoying bonding over good books.

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh is a retelling of 1001 Nights with a feminist twist: Shahrzad has volunteered for marriage to assassinate the boy-king, thus ending his chain of bridal murders. Using her skill at storytelling, 16-year-old Shahrzad entrances Khalid and survives to see another dawn. She hunts for his vulnerabilities and discovers that she is his weakness as he is hers. To her horror, she is falling in love with this handsome monster. Is it Stockholm Syndrome or is Khalid not really a monster? This first book of a new series has all the best elements of a young adult novel: a fantastic set up, complex characters, a swoon-worthy if disturbing romance, a pulse-raising pace and an exotic setting.
Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman is a strong sequel to the award winning Seraphina (2012, now paperback). In this literary fantasy, an unstable truce between humans and dragons is under siege. Seraphina, a half human/dragon music mistress, hides her secret parentage while trying to prevent war.  I loved Seraphina (my niece's favorite book) so much that I bought the sequel the day I finished reading the first book, and I don't usually like high fantasy. I bought a second copy for my niece's birthday, which she enjoyed even more. Although Seraphina is a teenager, most characters are adults so it would crossover well to an adult audience. The excellent world-building and philosophical themes reminded me of The Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and the Dune saga by Frank Herbert (my brother introduced me to those series when we were teens).

I Crawl Through It by A. S. King satirizes education in the USA. Everyday is a new bomb threat with police dogs sniffing the halls. The principal is literally buried to her neck in paperwork. Teaching is geared only to standardized tests, and a naked man in the bushes is selling letter answers. Seeking to escape the chaos/boredom of school, Gustav is building an invisible helicopter to fly to a colony of geniuses. Stanzi, a biology prodigy, can only see the helicopter on Tuesdays (ha!), but she agrees to run away with her secret crush. The reader must suspend disbelief to take this book for a spin. Challenging novels like this one aren't usually written for teens, but it's wonderful to find an author who is willing to trust the intelligence and the imagination of younger readers.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby is set in small town Illinois and in alternate worlds. The two narrators are a missing woman and her boyfriend's younger brother, Finn, who believes her abduction was his fault. There's also an omniscient horse, a goat who says "Meh!" and a magical forest. Most enchanting of all is Finn's romance with a beekeeper. This modern fairytale also contains the real world problems of bullying, abandonment, sexual harassment and college applications. I'm only halfway through, but the writing is so captivating, I'm including it on my list. Thanks to Charlotte Agell, my crit partner, for the recommendation.

YA Contemporary Fiction
I read mostly contemporary, realistic YA fiction because that is what I write. It was hard picking only four from so many good books. The ones I chose presented fresh perspectives, meaningful issues and an easy to read style designed for a wide audience of teenaged readers.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven would appeal to fans of John Green. For a book about depression, it's quite funny at times. Two troubled teens meet on the ledge of the school's bell tower. Instead of jumping to their death, they leap into an unlikely romance. The setup sounds gimmicky, but this book explores depression with brutal honesty as well as gallow humor. Popular Violet feels guilty about surviving the car accident that killed her sister. She is drawn to charming Finch who struggles with a bipolar disorder and his outcast status at school. Narration alternates between them. There is a list of resources for suicidal teens at the end and a personal note from the author that brought me to tears. This book won the Goodreads Choice Award for Realistic YA Fiction.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli: what makes this debut special is the authentic voice. The straight female author used her experience as a child psychologist to tell a typical coming out story. Simon's secret gay romance is threatened when another boy finds their flirty emails and blackmails him. Simon struggles to protect the privacy of the other closeted boy, whose identity is unknown even to him. The story is set in the suburbs of Atlanta with racially diverse secondary characters. I raced through this book in one day, laughing at Simon's witty observations and eager to uncover the identity of his mystery love. The parents were hilarious. This author knows how to laugh at herself.
None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio is being marketed as Middlesex meets Mean Girls, but this underplays the educational content of this groundbreaking young adult novel. The original premise was designed to hook teens: a homecoming queen discovers that she is intersex when sex with her boyfriend is excruciatingly painful. At her first gynecological exam, Kristin learns that her chromosomes are XY. When her secret is leaked at school, Kristin becomes a target of bullies and fears she might lose her athletic scholarship to college. The writing is strong for a debut, but None of the Above is not a literary novel nor does it try to be one. The plot is well paced and easy to follow, clearly geared for reluctant readers. By making Kristin so normal and likable, the surgeon author reinforces the message that intersex people are not freaks.

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy. From the blurb, I feared this would be yet another fat-girl-loses-weight-to-win-the-beauty-pageant-and-the-hot-guy book, but it wasn't like that at all. This heart-warming story, set in small town Texas, embraces love at any size. It makes you understand what it feels like to live inside someone else's skin and to be judged unfairly by appearances. Dolly Parton fans and feminists will love it too. Thanks to Kelly Jensen for the recommendation via Goodreads.

YA Nonfiction

I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda. This debut memoir advocates for compassion and respect for children in developing countries. For a seventh grade pen pal assignment, Caitlin chose to correspond with Martin in Zimbabwe because she'd never heard of that African country. Over the course of six years, they formed a close friendship. Their story is told in alternating chapters, dating from 1997. This book would work well as a classroom supplement to a pen pal assignment. Follow the title link for my full review. Thanks to Cathy Fiebach at Main Point Books for the recommendation.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I received free galleys of Out of DarknessI Crawl Through It and Black Dove, White Raven from their publishers in exchange for honest reviews. I'm friends with Elizabeth Wein's current editor, but I became a fan of Wein's books years before they connected. I purchased Under a Painted Sky, Dumplin' and All the Bright Places as ebooks from Amazon. The other six books (plus a few extra copies for my niece) I bought at independent bookstores.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


Life gets crazy busy during the holidays, halfway through Hanukkah with Christmas looming in an endless to do list. The newspaper reads like a dystopian YA novel. What can we do? Take a moment to enjoy life right now: walk by the sea before sunset, drink wine with a loved one or read a good book by the fire. Remember to breathe. Shalom means peace in Hebrew.

Happy Hanukkah! 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

My father's nickname for me was Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights was a (creepy) bedtime story from my childhood. How could I resist this new retelling (May 2015)? The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh adds a feminist twist: Shahrzad has volunteered for marriage to assassinate the boy-king, thus ending his chain of bridal murders.

After one night of betrothal, Khalid usually kills his latest queen, including Shahrzad's best friend. Using her skill at storytelling, sixteen-year-old Shahrzad entrances Khalid and survives to see another dawn and another. She hunts for his vulnerabilities and discovers that she is his weakness as he is hers. To her horror, she is falling in love with this handsome monster.

Author Renée Ahdieh, from her website
Is it Stockholm Syndrome or is Khalid not really a monster? Shahrzad searches for the hidden truth as she plots her revenge. Meanwhile, her childhood sweetheart is raising an army to depose their king and to rescue her. Conflicted Shahrzad is not sure she needs saving. She is no damsel in distress and prefers to fight her own battles with wit or a bow and arrow. Only Khalid truly respects her strength. He tells her, "I see my soul equal in you."

Add a touch of magic and The Wrath & The Dawn is more than a retelling. It has all the best elements of a young adult novel: a fantastic set up, complex characters, a swoon-worthy if disturbing romance, a pulse-raising pace and an exotic setting. The evocative writing transports the reader to the deserts of Persia. The only weakness was the narration and dialogue sometimes sounded too contemporary for the ancient time period, but that probably makes the book all the more accessible to teen readers. I've bought a second copy for my 14-year-old niece for Christmas and am eagerly awaiting the sequel, The Rose & The Dagger. This series would crossover well to adult readers too.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought the hardcover book at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm offline celebrating with my family. I'll be back online next week.
Corn stalks and haybarn at Rocky Ridge Orchard in Bowdoin, Maine.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Good Books About Refugees: Tropical Zion, The Good Braider and Out of Nowhere

Last week's terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris should raise - not diminish - compassion for refugees. Now is not the time to close our borders against the Syrian refugees who are fleeing these very same terrorists. Most of the global victims of terrorism are Muslims. None of the 750,000 refugees who have resettled in the USA since 9/11 have been arrested on domestic terrorism charges (source: The Economist). The terrorists win twice if they can rob us of compassion along with lives. How can we reverse this rising wave of xenophobia?

Books can help increase empathy. I've chosen one historical book and two young adult novels that could be used in the classroom to help young people understand the plight of refugees. If you have other books to recommend, please leave a comment. I'd especially like one about Syrian refugees.

Some countries have learned from history. Germany is welcoming a million refugees, but the USA is only accepting 10,000. Our low quota reminds me of World War II when many Jews fleeing the Nazis were not allowed into the USA. My great grandfather Arthur Lamport and other American Jews raised funds to help Jewish refugees resettle in the Dominican Republic. That true story is told in Tropical Zion by Allen Wells (2009), a history professor at Bowdoin College.

Nonfiction has the facts, but reading literary fiction has been proven to increase empathy. In a good story, we experience what the characters are feeling. The Good Braider by Terry Farish (2012) is a romance between a South Sudanese refugee and an American boy. I don't usually like novels in verse, but this one spoke to me, especially the parts set in Africa. Farish's novel traces a girl's escape from civil war in Sudan to limbo in Egypt and finally to resettlement in Portland, Maine. My only concern was that the abusive mother might give young readers a warped impression of Sudanese immigrants; most have integrated well in Maine and are dedicated to their families. Understandably, wartime trauma can lead to psychological problems so the mother was a believable character.

Farish's novel touched me on a personal level. My children went to school in Portland with many immigrant children. My son's high school girlfriend was born in a Sudanese refugee camp in Kenya and resettled with her family in Portland. She graduated from Waynflete School with honors and is now attending Wesleyan University through Questbridge. We invited her family to share Thanksgiving in our home; it was their first after many years in the USA. Before you form an opinion on refugees, get to know one. Remember that the USA is a nation founded on immigration.

Another refugee story that is set close my home is Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian. This excellent young adult novel was inspired by true events in Lewiston, Maine. The book was released in 2013 in hardcover and is now available in paperback. Soccer fans will love it. You can read my review here.

There are true stories about refugees with happy endings. The Lewiston Blue Devils have just won the Maine State Championship for soccer. Many of the players are immigrants. The coach shares their inspiring story about multicultural teamwork in a moving video below:

One Team: The Story of the Lewiston High School Blue Devils from LHSOneTeamFilm on Vimeo.

Reviewer's Disclosure: Allen Wells is a colleague of my husband at Bowdoin College and his wife taught our daughter history. My dad sent Tropical Zion to me without realizing that we knew the author. I'm friends with author Maria Padian and borrowed a galley for review purposes. I bought both young adult novels from indie bookstores and was not compensated for my reviews.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Author Lois Lowry at Bowdoin College

Author Lois Lowry listening to a question from a Bowdoin student.

My son introduced me to Lois Lowry. He'd read The Giver for sixth grade English and thought I would like it. I loved it. Lowry's dystopian novel reminded me of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, but The Giver felt darker because it's a children's book. The evil overlords weren't faceless bureaucrats or talking pigs but trusted parents and teachers. A boy who learns the truth must fix a world ruined by his beloved elders. This 1994 Newbury Medal winner defines the Millennial generation. It's a perfectly crafted novel with ageless appeal. The Giver was also one of the books that motivated me to write young adult fiction.

Speaking at Bowdoin College two days ago, Lowry shared her inspiration for The Giver. Her father was suffering from dementia and failed to recognize a photo of his deceased daughter. Lowry had to remind him about what happened to Helen over and over again. She became his memory keeper and a book was born. In The Giver a dystopian society has chosen to forget the evils of the world. Only the Giver remembers everything, and in his old age, he must pass all those memories onto his young disciple. The truth nearly breaks Jonas, a 12-year-old boy who must act as a man.

Although best known for The Giver, Lowry has written over forty children's books. Her first novel, A Summer to Die (1977) was inspired by the death of her sister. Her favorite is Autumn Street (1980), an homage to her grandparents' cook whose child was murdered. Number the Stars, set in Denmark during World War II, won her first Newbury Medal in 1990. She has also written lighter, humorous books for young readers. According to Lowry, the theme that unites all her work is reconciliation.

The author at age three getting a reading lesson from her six-year-old sister Helen. 

Lowry's personal story was interesting too. Born on Hawaii Island in 1937, Lowry moved to New York City right before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her father was General MacArthur's dentist so the family relocated to Japan during the Occupation. In Washington D.C., her dad cared for the Nixon family teeth. Back in New York City, Lowry won a national poetry competition, which earned her a writing scholarship to Brown. When the poetry book was published, Lowry was horrified to learn that her high school teacher had rewritten her poem. Like many women in the 1950s, Lowry dropped out of college to get married. She later completed her education while raising four kids in Maine. Her first book was published when she was forty. Lowry now has a graduate degree, several honorary degrees (including one from Brown), two Newbury Medals, and four grandchildren. At age seventy-eight she is still writing new books.

Questions for Lois Lowry from the audience at Bowdoin College.

Lowry writes children's books because "kids are changed by what they read." She shared some reader emails and answered the questions of the enthralled Bowdoin students in the audience. Her responses were heartfelt and often hilarious. I'd gone to Lowry's talk with young adult author Maria Padian, and what surprised us the most was how funny Lois Lowry was in person. Lowry shared family photos, news clippings and book covers. A photographer myself, I was impressed to learn that the iconic cover photo of The Giver was one of hers. I remember the challenges of SLR cameras and darkroom photography before Photoshop. She is clearly a woman of multiple talents. I left Lowry's talk feeling inspired.

Simpson's Point in Brunswick, Maine at sunset.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Good Books on Grief: H is for Hawk & Kissing in America

Simpson's Point where I watch bald eagles, ospreys and great blue herons catch fish.

It may sound strange to pair a nature memoir with a young adult novel, but both of these books deal with the death of a beloved father. They describe mourning and depression but aren't depressing to read. Grief is acknowledged with emotional honesty and described with poetic beauty. These marvelous books celebrate life and resilience more than death.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is a memoir about taming and training a goshawk. The author notes the irony of trying to overcome grief with a creature who lives to kill. Unhinged by her father's death, Macdonald is drawn to raptors - more than to people - for comfort.

"The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life."

H is for Hawk is an unusual blend of memoir, autobiography, literary analysis and natural history. Macdonald, a Cambridge University scholar from a middle class background, found parallels between her own experiences with those of the author T.H. White. His disastrous attempt to train a goshawk verged on sadomasochism. Sometimes her book got a bit bogged down on T.H. White, but the history of hawking was fascinating. The Cantabrigian countryside was more than a setting. Grief was described in luscious metaphors, using the natural world to portray a fragile state of mind:
"The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world."

"It's turned cold; cold so the saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain."

What makes H is for Hawk so special was the beautiful writing and the respect for hawks as wild creatures. Macdonald goes a bit feral herself, but her hawk Mable was never anthropomorphized. Mabel was a well developed character in her own right: blood-thirsty and vicious but also intelligent and playful. Through the sharp eyes of a hawk and her trainer, we gain a fresh view of the British countryside and of my home state of Maine (chapter 27). The reader can almost imagine what it feels like to fly. The writing itself made me swoon:
"I glance up. And then I saw my goshawks. There they were. A pair, soaring above the canopy in the rapidly warming air. There was a flat, hot hand of sun on the back of my neck, but I smelt ice in my nose, seeing those goshawks soaring. I smelt ice and bracken stems and pine resin. Goshawk cocktail. They were on the soar."
I'd strongly recommend H is to Hawk to nature lovers of all ages. I'm not usually a fan of memoirs, but I loved this one. With its gorgeous woodblock print cover, it makes a great gift (thanks Henry!)

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb isn't a memoir, but it reads like one. The author lost both of her parents as a new adult. The father in Rabb's novel died two years ago in a plane crash. Sick of everyone's morbid curiosity, 16-year-old Eva tells people her dad died of a heart attack. She struggles with depression, unable to let go of her father. To the horror of her feminist-scholar mom, Eva copes with her grief by reading romance novels (ha!)

"I loved romances because when you opened the first page, you knew the story would end well. Your heart wouldn't be broken. I love that security, that guaranteed love....In real life, you never knew the ending. I hated that."

Nonetheless, Eva searches for romance in real life. She drags her Korean American best friend on a cross country road trip from NYC to LA in pursuit of the boy who stole her heart. Will is swoon-worthy handsome, enigmatically biracial and he understands her grief. Unfortunately he's frustratingly elusive:
"He didn't find small things important: returning texts, charging his phone, being on time, punctuation."
Humor helped brighten a dark story:
"She wore green pants that sat high on her skinny waist, and a green blouse buttoned to the neck. Her hair frizzed out sideways. She looked like a stalk of broccoli. Broccoli with glasses."
Other times the writing was emotionally raw and painfully honest:
"You never stop missing them. It was a simple thing to say. But I'd never heard anyone say it before. Not the grief counselors. Not my mom. Everyone seemed to think the opposite: you moved on, you forgot, it was impolite to keep talking about it."
For a book called Kissing in America, there wasn't much kissing. The content was quite tame for young adult fiction. Even the road trip was chaperoned. Although I adore the Americana cover, I wish the book had a less misleading title. Love was explored in multiple dimensions: family and friendship as well as romance. Relationships were realistically messy and well developed. There were no easy fixes, but this book ended with hope. I'd strongly recommend Kissing In America to grieving teenaged girls or to anyone who has lost a loved one. The literary style would cross over well to adult readers.

Reviewer's Disclosure: H is for Hawk was a birthday gift from my husband, purchased at the Wallingford Bookshop in England. It's also available in the USA in hardcover. I bought Kissing in America at the Harvard Book Store in the other Cambridge, USA. I was not compensated for my reviews. All photos are from my part of Maine: a tidal estuary at Simpson's Point, an ice puddle at Morse Mountain, and in the woods near my home last week. I wish I had a photo of the red tailed hawk who occasionally visits our yard.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Walk at Bowdoin College

It's hard to work at home when the trees are calling me outside. 

A day of writing merits a walk to Bowdoin College...

...says Scout. 

Rolling in fallen leaves offers a fine view of the sugar maples.

Often we linger to watch the sunset over Hubbard Hall, 
where my husband teaches politics.

Other days we head home for sundowners in our backyard, 
wrapped in fleece and down.

The view from inside isn't too shabby, 
and reading in the tub doesn't feel like work at all.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Photo Verse for October

Prose becomes verse on autumnal days.

Trees catch fire, burning brighter than words,

Their golden reds taunting the murky depths.

Maples fireworks explode in clear blue skies.

Pines shadows highlight this deciduous extravagance. 

How can these gaudy colors be natural?

I am no poet, but October engenders such reflections.