Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wells Reserve in Maine

To escape the muddy trails of April, we drove an hour south to the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. Laudholm Beach is open to the public along with several acres of trails through the wetlands.

There are loose rocks to cross and tidal pools to hop so hiking boots are prudent. It's well worth it for the calm ocean vista, only a quarter hour drive from busy Kennebunkport.

The muted colors of mud season suit this landscape very well.

Nature is a fine sculptor too. 

When we returned home, I was delighted to find our crocuses in bloom. Spring is here at long last!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio

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 book. 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.
"That was when I realized that life was a multiple-choice test with two answers: Male or Female. And I was None of the Above."
The tabloids premise cleverly disguises the educational content in this outstanding book for teens. I.W. Gregorio is a pen name for the urological surgeon Dr. Ilene Wong, who was inspired by a real patient and also by the controversy about World Champion runner Caster Semenya. None of the Above has easy to understand explanations about what being intersex entails. Gender is described as having three components: chromosomes, physiology and sexual identity. The moral lesson is more nuanced.
"If there's one thing I learned from my dad leaving my mom, it's that love isn't a choice. You fall for the person, not their chromosomes."
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. The main characters are likable and well developed but aren't especially quirky. Kristin herself is quite a typical teen who likes guys, parties and running/hurdling. By making her intersex protagonist so normal, the author reinforces the message that intersex people are not freaks. The Gossip Girl writing style means this book will reach more readers and hopefully make life easier for intersex teens.

I'd strongly recommend None of the Above to Sexual Education teachers and to all teenagers aged fourteen and up. This book isn't a kinky story about exploring deviant sexuality. Kristin feels 100% female and only wants to be normal. Her realistic story delivers a powerful message about identity, tolerance and love, which will resonate with any teen who doesn't quite fit in at school. Adults who are looking for a literary novel with an intersex protagonist should read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my favorite books.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I purchased the ebook on its release date April 7, 2015 and was not compensated for this review. I'm a supporting member of We Need Diverse Books of which I.W. Gregorio is vice president.

Popham Beach, Maine in April

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Hiking Morse Mountain, Maine in Spring Snow

Over "spring" break, three weeks ago, my intrepid son joined me for a hike up Morse Mountain.

In Maine spring doesn't really kick in until May, but at least the snow is melting in mud season.

The trail starts by a saltwater marsh before climbing into the woods. We hiked with 
ice-stabilizers strapped to our boots, but snowshoes would have been better.

The mountain is really a hill, but it offers a spectacular view of the marsh and ocean. You can click on my Morse Mountain label below to see this view in other seasons. Over the last three weeks the snow has melted to patches. We were in the 60's these past few days! I shall spare you the photos of mud.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart

When it's mud season in Maine, I need a literary escape.

The first time I visited Florence, I was a teenager like Nadia Cara, the protagonist of One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart. This soon to be released young adult novel follows an American family on sabbatical in Italy. Like most of Kephart's literary novels, this book would cross over well to an adult audience.

Nadia isn't sure if she's losing her bearings or her mind in a foreign city. Words are hard to articulate and memories of the past compete with visions of the present. Is the boy with the sunlit hair real? Nadia can't resist the urge to follow Benedetto any more than she can stop herself from stealing beautiful objects. From these stolen things, she weaves artistic nests, which she hides under her bed. She doesn't want to ruin her father's sabbatical.

In this moving story, Beth Kephart gives a lyrical voice to a rare neurological disorder that robs an intelligent teenager of her ability to express herself in coherent words. The reader is taken inside a failing mind and experiences the protagonist's frustrations. The narration is fragmented like verse and integrated with avian imagery. Dialogue lacks quotation marks, and although Nadia's thoughts are intelligible, her speech is harder to understand.
"Long. High. Cool. White. Green. The nave of this church is a huge stone cage of doves and pelicans, angels and eagles. Everything carved. Everything still. The air is cool and unsunned. The wicks in the candles are burning. The pew is hard. The stone birds stretch their wings. I breathe."
The flip side of Nadia's linguistic disability is a new found artistic ability as her damaged brain re-routes. Although Nadia's story is fiction, her disorder is a true illness. This fascinating book offers a profound meditation on the complexity of the brain.

For readers who need clarity and answers, be patient. In the second part, Nadia's best friend, Maggie, takes over the narrative in a lucid voice. Specialists are called to find a cure, and Maggie seeks to return the stolen objects in a reverse treasure hunt. Maggie also searches for the boy, Benedetto, but isn't sure if he's real or not. Nadia's memories sound more like dreams or poetry.
"His lips on mine are fog and birdsong. They are the smell of leather and the raw, quickening of rain. He holds my head with the palm of his hand - all that is broken and hurting."
One This Stolen offers no easy solutions but still leaves the reader with hope. I'd strongly recommend this literary novel to adults and to teenagers who are interested in psychology, art, history and Italy. Kephart does a marvelous job with a difficult topic.

More reviews of Kephart's novels:
Going Over
Small Damages
Dangerous Neighbors & Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent
You Are My Only
Undercover (includes author interview)

Reviewer's Disclosure: Beth Kephart is a blog buddy. Upon my request, I received a free galley from Chronicle Books in exchange for an honest review. There has been some confusion over the release date, but I believe it was pushed to next week. The photos of Maine and Florence are mine.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is one of my favorite authors; her historical novels have redefined young adult fiction. 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. Rhoda Menotti relocated from Pennsylvania so that Teo, her African American foster son, and Em, her Italian American biological daughter, can be raised free of racial prejudice in the only African country that was never colonized. Teo's deceased father was an Ethiopian pilot and his deceased mother was Rhoda's partner in a stunt pilot duo. The lady-barnstormers called themselves "Black Dove & White Raven" until a plane crash re-charted their lives.

The Menottis' new home looks like paradise, but there are unanticipated dangers. The fascist Italians led by Mussolini are planning to invade Ethiopia. Rhoda, who is married to an Italian pilot, is caught in the middle and is unable to flee since her teenaged children lack valid passports of their own. Rhoda reluctantly teaches her kids to fly, hoping to protect Teo from becoming a foot soldier in an out-matched war.
In the opening page, Em sums up their dilemma with dry humor: "It is a waste of time trying to pass off Teo as Italian. I think I pretty much burned that bridge when I stole a plane from the Italian air force." 

Nobody creates strong female characters better than Elizabeth Wein. While most moms in young adult fiction are relegated to the margins, Rhoda steals the narrative as a wing-walking stunt pilot who becomes a double agent and a field nurse. She will do anything to save her kids and her plane, often accidentally imperiling them all. Charming Rhoda is resourceful, generous and brave, making her a fine role model despite her many faults of judgement. Plucky Em, the plane snatcher, strives to be like her charismatic mom while shy Teo must fly away to prove himself as a man in this coming of age in wartime story.

The bulk of the narration alternates between Em's and Teo's flight journals, but the complicated multinational back story is related by old school papers in the opening chapters. As a result, the pace is a bit slow at first, but it soars once the kids take to the skies. The exciting flight scenes give a unique perspective on a tumultuous period of history. Surprising plot twists kept me up past my bedtime, and then I wished that I had read slower. When I finished the book, I missed the characters.

Black Dove, White Raven was published as a YA novel, but it would appeal to an adult audience as well as to teens, both boys and girls. It was a pleasure to read, although disturbing at times since the war atrocities were not fiction. Wein explains in the afterward how her narrative diverged from actual history. I was surprised to learn that an African American woman was truly the first American to earn an international pilot license in 1921. Wein's novels are educational but not didactic and empowering without being preachy. I'm eager to read her next book.

Reviewer's Disclosure: On my request, I received a free galley from Disney Hyperion in exchange for an honest review. The editor, Kate Egan, is a friend and neighbor, but I would have read and reviewed this book anyway. Since I've never been to Ethiopia, I used my photos of Tanzania, another East African country, to illustrate this post. This book was released yesterday.

My review of more novels by Elizabeth Wein:
Code Name Verity
Rose Under Fire (including an author interview)

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@Barrie Summy