Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Town: Brunswick, Maine

Brunswick looks best in winter white. Yes, I know it's "spring," but my town has an offbeat sense of humor. Read the road sign: Maine Street. Brunswick has a population of 20,000, making it the biggest town in Maine. It's a half an hour up the coast from Portland; our biggest city has only 60,000 people.

Brunswick officially became a town in 1717 when Maine was part of Massachusetts. Maine didn't become a state until 1820. Lovely old houses line the town green, which isn't very green at this time of year.

In winter the town green becomes a skating rink.

We are well prepared for winter. Even the sidewalks are plowed and sanded.

Downtown hosts a variety of ethnic restaurants and mom & pop businesses in Hopper style buildings.

There are several art galleries and more artists than I could count. Frosty's bakes fresh "donuts" daily.

Of course there is a barber shop.

The architecture can't have changed much since the 1950s.

Fort Andros, the old cotton mill on the Androscoggin River, 
now houses art studios, restaurants, a flea market and the winter farmers' market.

At the other end of town is Bowdoin College, founded in 1794.

My husband teaches British and Japanese Politics in Hubbard Hall.

Mass Hall, the oldest building on campus, houses the English Department.

Another favorite building is Searle's Hall.

The campus has a lovely chapel too.

I love my town!

Blog Watch: check out Winter Walks of 2015 @Tidewater Gardener.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma is a beautifully crafted horror story. This soon to be released novel about vengeful ballerinas will haunt me like the movie Black Swan. It delivers a powerful message about the unfairness of juvenile detention in our current system that discriminates against the disadvantaged. I expect this edgy novel to be on many best young adult books of 2015 lists.

The story is told in two voices. Vee is an 18-year-old ballerina on her way to Julliard. Her future couldn't be brighter, but her dark past is catching up with her. Three years ago something horrific happened at her ballet school. As a result, her best friend, Ori, was sent to a juvenile detention center. All the inmates died of poisoning and nobody alive knows the truth. So why does Vee receive a bouquet of bleeding flowers following her final recital?

At the juvenile center, Amber was imprisoned years ago for the murder of her abusive step father. Everyone outside assumed she was guilty but everyone inside believes quiet, gentle Amber is innocent. She copes by embracing her "life job" as the book cart girl, helping others escape imprisonment by reading. Her world changes when a new girl, Ori, arrives bringing hope. The two narratives intersect on one surreal night, bridging the barriers of time and traditional justice.

The fine writing deserves high praise, but I found the material too gruesome for my personal taste. The violence wasn't gratuitous yet it was still hard to read, especially before bed. The girls engage in psychological and physical warfare for the worst reasons. No one is spared in this cynical story about the miscarriage of justice. Most of the characters were unlikable, but they were well-developed and worthy of consideration. The mysterious plot and the gorgeous prose kept me reading to the satisfying resolution. I was well impressed.

The vivid writing speaks for itself:
"A lot of us did try to run - even if it was only habit. Some of us had been running all our lives. We ran because we could and because we couldn't not. We ran for our lives. We still thought they were worth running for."

"It was the most private thing we had left - held even closer than our bodies, because our bodies were searched, all holes and crevices and cavities in every horrible way that could be imagined. But no one could shake the truth from inside us. They couldn't search us for that."
I'd strongly recommend The Walls Around Us to mature teens and to adults who enjoy horror stories and literary fiction, but I wouldn't give this novel to my thirteen-year-old niece, who is a serious ballerina and a gentle soul. The goal of my reviews is to match each book to the right readers.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I received a free galley from Algonquin in exchange for an honest review. The hardcover book and ebook will be released on March 24th 2015. The shadow photos are of my daughter.

Similar book:  
The Knife and the Butterfly by Ashley Hope Perez

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March Comes in Like a Polar Bear

Last weekend we went to the beach at Reid State Park. As I trudged through knee-deep snow to the sea, my daughter followed the dog onto the rocks. She opened her arms to the horizon, embracing the moment. The world was hers. I admire her attitude.

This has been a long winter for most of the American east coast, including the south. It started early with a white Thanksgiving (above photo) and was followed by record snowfalls in January and February. While Massachusetts was buried alive, Maine was well prepared. My favorite winters feature powdery snow over the dreaded wintery mix and ice storms. I delighted in skiing out my back door, which inched closer and closer to the back yard as more snow fell. I have skied nearly every day for two months, often with my dog.

Now in mid March, there is nearly two feet of old snow to melt, and with the temperatures soaring into the mid 50's, snowbanks are flooding the streets and the woods. Mornings frequently feature snow-fog. We call this time of year Mud Season, which lasts well into April. Real spring won't kick in until May, with everything blooming all at once. Most homes have mud rooms for mucky boots and warm layers. We go sockfoot inside. More snow is on the forecast this weekend.

Today the air smells of spring, and the bright blue skies are lifting my spirits. Mud season is not my favorite time of year, but it's part of life. I'm making good progress on the manuscript that I'm revising and enjoying the extra daylight. I will follow my daughter's example and open my arms to this marvelous day. It may be my *last* day to ski.

One more harbinger of winter's close: spring galleys from Elizabeth Wein (3/31), Nova Ren Suma (3/24), Beth Kephart (4/14), and Barrie Summy (5/12) for review.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Yes, it is still winter in Maine. Give me the sun on fresh snow, and I'm blissfully happy.

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson won the 2015 Printz Award for young adult fiction. This literary novel set in Northern California explores artistic creativity and sibling rivalry. I had hesitations about reading a twin book since authors tend to treat them like circus freaks. There was also a dead mom, which has become nearly a cliché in YA. Nelson, however, has an original take on these tropes.

The narrative alternates between thirteen-year-old Noah and his twin sister, Jude, three year later. In between the twin narratives, their mother's death pushes their lives in opposite directions, alienating the once close siblings. Jude sounds more like a typical teenager with her sassy quips and amusing superstitions while Noah has a more quirky perspective. He sees emotional moments as paintings and can't express his true feelings in words. The duality of sibling rivalry versus loyalty made for a powerful dynamic.

I'll Give You the Sun pushes boundaries for young adult fiction but doesn't quite break them. Jude has a crush on her model, who is an art college student from the UK. Oscar flirts back because he believes that sixteen-year-old Jude is his age. She is young enough to believe that her "soul mate" will overcome his long history of substance abuse and womanizing. The resolution did at least reinforce that their age gap would be seriously problematic.

The amorous feelings between Noah and his new best friend were more age appropriate for a young adult audience. It was wonderful to see a homosexual relationship treated as a romance instead of as a tragedy, although there were barriers and no easy resolution.

The gorgeous writing captured the emotional intensity of the teen years:
"I didn't know you could get buried in your own silence."
"How can I hate him and wish I were more like him at the same time?"
"This guy makes me feel like I'm actually here, unhidden, seen."
"I feel pinned to this awful moment like a dead insect."
"In one split second I saw everything I could be, everything I want to be. And all that I'm not."
I'll Give You the Sun was at its best on art, showing how artists see the world and describing the fascinating process of sculpting in stone. Art shapes character, propels the plot and is used metaphorically. The twins' art historian mom fostered their passion for creativity, and her spirit haunts them, blurring the line between mourning and the paranormal. My favorite relationship was between Jude and her mentor, a sculptor who challenges her in art and in life. Guillermo Garcia was a nearly mythical character:
" him work, watch him rake his hands, dripping with wet clay, through his hair, over and over again, until it's not clear if he's making the sculpture or if the sculpture is making him."
This beautiful novel spoke to me as an artist. I could see glimmers of my teen self in Jude and in Noah, who define themselves by their art. I was lucky to have had wonderful mentors and an artist mom, who is still very much alive and not haunting me. I would have loved this edgy book as a teenager and I enjoyed it as an adult too.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought a hardcover copy at Bull Moose in Brunswick and was not compensated for my review. The charcoal life drawing is one of mine from high school.