Wednesday, December 7, 2016

You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour & David Levithan

Shinjuku is one of the twenty-three wards of Tokyo.

I'm finally back to book blogging from Tokyo! Those who are accustomed to my serene Maine landscapes, can you believe this is my new neighborhood? I've joined my husband on sabbatical to Japan, where I'm gathering material for a new young adult novel and learning the language. Our two months abroad went so quickly. By this time next week, I'll be back home in Maine, molding my experiences into a realistic story. While writing, I avoid books that are too similar to mine, but I still read YA fiction set in other locations.

Given the recent spike in hate crimes and political turmoil in the USA, I wanted to share a novel that fosters tolerance. Now, more than ever, we need books that show diverse characters as normal teens, not as victims. You Know Me Well (June 2016) is a contemporary YA novel set under the rainbow of San Francisco. Authors David Levithan and Nina LaCour narrate this heartwarming friendship story in alternating chapters: Mark is a hot jock with a secret crush on his closeted best friend, and Kate is a talented artist who is scared of finally meeting the girl of her dreams.

Although the subplots are romantic, the central relationship is a platonic friendship. Kate and Mark are likable protagonists and the hip San Francisco setting is fun. The struggles they face are universal: academic expectations, parental pressure and shifting relationships. The realistic narrative includes gay characters who have faced abuse and homelessness, but the main characters have accepting, loving parents and openly gay friends. They live in a comfortable suburb and attend a good public school. Still, life is not free of angst. Many teens will relate to the feeling of knowing what you want but lacking the self confidence to claim it. A buddy who supports and encourages you makes all the difference. Any teen could use a friend like Kate or Mark.

The writing was strong too:
"...friendship is about more than facts. It's about knowing what someone is thinking or knowing enough to know you don't."
Photo from my CA trip with my daughter
I highly recommend You Know Me Well for both heterosexual and LBGTQ teens and to the adults who care about them. The gorgeous hardcover book would make a fine holiday gift.

Related posts:
Diverse YA, Gay Romances for Teens
Diverse YA Romances

Reviewers Disclosure: I read an excerpt of this novel in Buzz Books 2016 via netgalley, which lead me to purchase the ebook for travel. Since I loved the book and saw some similarities in our writing styles, I queried Nina LaCour's literary agent, who signed me as a client too.

The foyer garden outside my apartment in Tokyo. By the time the leaves fall, we'll be back home in Maine.

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Temples & Gardens of Kyoto at Peak Foliage

Gate to Shinto shrine at Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

If you're visiting Japan, plan on several days in Kyoto if you enjoy gardens and historic architecture. This post includes only five of the 1,600+ Buddhist temples in the prefecture. Japanese temples frequently combine elements from their two national religions, like the traditional gate to a Shinto shrine (above) and the Buddhist garden (below) at Ryoan-ji Temple.

Ryoan-ji's rock garden with fall foliage.

Ryoan-ji in April
Photography fails to capture the minimalist beauty of Ryoan-ji's famous rock garden, which must be seen in person. The mossy rocks are islands in a gravel sea. In spring that bare tree drips cherry blossoms over the wall .

I have now seen Ryoan-ji in three seasons and would return a fourth time to see it in snow. That won't happen this sabbatical since my husband and I are going home to Maine for our kids' winter break from college.

Our kids were only three and six when we took them to Kyoto for cherry blossom season during my husband's last academic sabbatical to Japan. Henry teaches Japanese Politics at Bowdoin College and speaks the language but not fluently. Before he became a professor, he worked for the Bank of Tokyo in London.

Japanese maples and persimmons at Ryoan-ji

The first time I visited Japan, I was nineteen and it was brutally hot and muggy in August. The grounds of Ryoan-ji were refreshingly cool in summer but are at their most glorious when the maples turn color. The orange fruit hanging from bare trees are persimmons, which taste like papaya when ripe.

Japanese maples at Ryoan-ji in peak foliage 11/18/16
Cherry blossom season (early April) and peak fall foliage (late November) draw big crowds to Kyoto for good reasons, especially at Ryoan-ji. Pack warm socks since you remove your shoes inside temples.

Manshu-in Temple in Kyoto

Although Japanese people usually wear western clothes, women and girls occasionally dress in kimonos to visit temples and to pray in shrines. Newlywed couples in traditional dress pose for photos too. The open porch of a Buddhist temple is designed for garden viewing and meditation. Manshu-in Temple (above and below) can't be reached by bus since the mountain village roads are too narrow.

Manshu-in rock garden 11/19/16

To avoid the weekend crowds, we chose two remote temples Manshu-in (above) and Enkou-ji (below). Their websites are only in Japanese. Enkou-ji is in walking distance of Manshuin.

Enkou-ji Temple in peak foliage 11/19/16

The summit trail offers a spectacular view of Enkou-ji Temple and Kyoto.

In the early evening, lanterns illuminate the gardens. This rock garden is not as subtle as Ryoan-ji, but the more pronounced rake patterns makes it easier to photograph.

If you're a fan of samurai movies, Daikaku-ji Temple (above and below) may look familiar.

The buildings are connected by covered walkways overlooking the inner gardens.

The screen art in the tatami rooms is exquisite too.

Daikaku-ji's outer garden has a pagoda and a lovely path around a pond. 

Kinkaku-ji is also called the Golden Pavilion (photo from my April 2003 visit to Kyoto).

People travel from all over the world to see Kyoto temples, but there are far more visitors from East Asia, especially China, than from the West. If you're visiting at a less crowded time, I'd also recommend The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), The Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) and The Moss Garden (Saiho-ji Kokedera).

Mt. Fuji from the shinkansen. Photo by my husband (his turn for the window seat).

Kyoto is only 2 1/2 hours by shinkansen from Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see Fuji-san from the north side of the high speed train. I can't recommend hotels since we stayed with an old friend in the neighboring prefecture of Nara. I'm considering all these locations for my novel, but I'll save Nara for another post. I don't know how I'll choose a setting among all these gorgeous options.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Researching a Novel in Japan

Entrance to the Meiji Shrine Inner Gardens in Tokyo

Konichiwa from Tokyo! With both of our kids at college, I was free to join my husband on a two month sabbatical to Japan. I apologize for not updating my blog regularly, but it has been a busy transition. In June I signed with a new literary agent, Sara Crowe. Since receiving her excellent editorial notes, I've been revising a young adult novel set in Maine while planning a new YA novel set in Japan. Henry and I have now been here for three and a half weeks. Given the political situation in the USA, I alternate between homesickness and feeling sick of home.

Japan 1101 class photograph by Anna Aridome. 

It's a big responsibility writing about a country that is not your own culture. Although my brother is married to a Japanese woman and they speak that language with their kids, I knew only a handful of words. In late August I enrolled in Japanese 1101 at Bowdoin College, where my husband teaches Japanese Politics. The US Department of State recommends 800 hours of instruction to become proficient in a romance language but 1,800 hours of class for Japanese or Chinese. Japanese has three alphabets. After five weeks of instruction, my class had only mastered two: hiragana is phonetic and katakana is for foreign words/names. Those two are easier than the kanji imported from China. Sentences contain all three alphabets. Most student would take two years of Japanese before junior year abroad or a summer internship. We had a fabulous teacher, but I needed to work twice as hard to keep up with these gifted young linguists. Never have I done anything more difficult. 

My husband speaks Japanese so he took care of the logistics for our trip. We spent our first ten days in hotels, recovering from jet lag and waiting for our apartment to be available. Henry chose the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo because he knew I'd love its garden (above and below). 

Our sabbatical is doubling as an anniversary celebration for us and this hotel is also a popular wedding site. Sometimes the bride and groom dress in both traditional and western dress. The couple above gave me permission to take their photo. Except for holidays and weddings, most Japanese people dress in western clothing and live in western style apartments in cities. 

Tokyo from the Hotel New Otani. The green space is the Akasaka Palace grounds and mostly closed to the public.

I grew up in Manhattan and lived two years in London, but Tokyo is the most urban place I've ever experienced. There are few trees on sidewalks and fewer public parks. Even my limited knowledge of Japanese has been useful as I venture out alone in Tokyo. My iPhone with a Japanese SIM card is my map and dictionary. Simple chores like shopping for groceries and reading signs or menus are challenging. Swimming laps is an extra workout with my phone and phrasebook in the locker room. People try to be helpful but most speak limited or no English. This is my third visit to Japan, but I still feel unprepared. I continue to study the language on my own.

Can you find the moon in Shibuyu?

There are manga museums and teen hangout spaces to explore so I keep pushing beyond my comfort zone. The flashing neon lights, dense crowds and busy roads can be overwhelming. Imagine Times Square on steroids with a more homogenous population. There are few immigrants, expats or foreign tourists (most are Chinese) so we are a curiosity in our residential neighborhood of Shibuya. 

We found our airbnb apartment through a friend of a friend. The rooftop apartment with its balcony garden is an ideal writing retreat. Bird song wakes me in the morning and the tatami room is a soothing space to unwind after work. The remainder of the apartment is western style, although the bathtub talks and the toilet spritzes water and plays music. My brilliant husband deciphered the kanji to change the toilet's tune from Pachelbel's Cannon to traditional Japanese koto music. Like we new empty-nesters don't already feel like newlyweds in a tiny apartment!

The control panel for our toilet
In our new home we prepare mostly Japanese food, except at breakfast. I was very proud to read the katakana for fruit granola, which I found at 7-Eleven. In Japanese, milk translates to cow juice, but often they use our English word written in katakana. A Japanese breakfast is rice, pickles, miso soup and green tea or coffee. At the hotel buffets, I often combined both. 

As I struggle to adapt to my new environment and language, I'm gathering first hand experiences for my novel. Plus writing in English now seems easy by comparison! Later I'll blog about our trip to Okinawa (below) and to other places that I'll be visiting soon for research. Due to my travel and work schedule, I'll be posting irregularly. I update more frequently on twitter and Facebook.

Blogwatch: I'm looking forward to catching up with my blog buddies now that Google Blogger has reinstated my blogroll. The loss of those links for weeks was another reason I stopped posting. Blogging is meaningless without the community. It's nice to be back online!

Next Japan sabatical post: Temples & Gardens of Kyoto at Peak Foliage

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

WRECKED by Maria Padian

Hello again! I'm back to blogging while my new agent is reading my revised manuscript, which will return soon for a second round of revision. For now, I'm enjoying time free to read for fun. For the book review club I've chosen a soon-to-be-released novel set at a New England college. Wrecked by Maria Padian eerily echoes the Brock Turner sexual assault case; it should be required reading for college freshman. This timely young adult novel would crossover well to adult readers too.

Wrecked investigates an alleged date rape from three perspectives: the roommate of the victim, the housemate of the accused, and an omniscient narration on the night of the attack. The reader must piece together the clues and draw his/her own conclusion about what really happened. The conflicting versions of the truth becomes the central theme of this engaging book.

Although Wrecked doesn't sugarcoat rape, this book is easier to read than others because the victim isn't the narrator. Since we hear her story second hand, there is an emotional buffer. This genius narrative structure recreates the way most of us will experience rape: one step removed. How would you respond if the victim or the suspect asked for your support? What if you didn't really know or even like them? Our two narrators are reluctant to get involved but want to do the right thing. The sweet romance that develops between the roommate and the housemate models a consensual relationship in sharp contrast to the date rape case under review by the campus administration.

Wrecked makes the reader think and ask questions. There is no obvious message, beyond a campus program on consent, which is played for laughs. The sexaul assault investigation is shown in all its murky confusion with lying witnesses, inebriated confusion, and unreliable evidence. Conviction may not always be feasible so how do you achieve justice?

Wrecked is educational, but it's entertaining too. The college campus setting is fun and true to life. There are housemates from hell, an apple picking scene, raging parties, social media mayhem, and an overwhelming number of extracurriculars on top of classwork. All the characters are well developed and humanly flawed. Both earthy feminists and boozy lax bros are satirized for balance. The mystery of what really happened makes the book a page-turner. Good writing takes a back seat to the story, never overpowering the narrative.

The author has clearly done extensive legal research and also captures the spirit of life on a New England campus with literary finesse. This book would be an excellent tool for getting students to talk about consent, boundaries, and sexual assault. Wrecked is one of the best YA novels I've read about rape. I would love to see more YA novels set at college. I strongly recommend Wrecked to teens and to adults.

My reviews of other YA novels by Maria Padian:
Out of Nowhere
Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best
Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress

Reviewer's Disclosure: author Maria Padian is a friend and we discussed this book on dog walks while she was writing it. Upon my request, Algonquin Young Readers (her publisher) sent me a galley to review. The book will be published on October 4, 2016 in hardcover and ebook. Photos are of Maine in October, where the author and I both live. Our dog walking trail crosses that bridge. Wrecked is set at a fictional college somewhere in New England.

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Wading Into Revision

High tide at Simpson's Point, photo by my husband
Midway through a Maine summer, the water is finally "warm" enough to swim without a wetsuit. I wade in slowly, giving my body time to acclimate.

Above me, an osprey is circling. Without any hesitation, she dives toward the sea with a big splash. Flapping in her claws is an enormous fish. She wings off to her nest before a bald eagle can steal her catch.

As greenhead flies buzz toward me, I plunge into the water. The islands are too far away, but the point across the estuary is close enough. I rest on the rocks, admiring the view, before swimming back to shore.

At home there's an email from my agent with editorial notes on my manuscript. She has reread my YA novel and is bubbling with enthusiasm. There are no major changes but a myriad of tweaks. Although her critique is excellent, I'm overwhelmed by the number of notes, listed chapter by chapter. Then I remember that rocky point within my reach. I wade into the first chapter.

I'm taking a blog break to finish my manuscript revisions. You may find me in the ocean or tweeting at day's end. I'll be back to blogging regularly in September. Enjoy your summer!

Bookstore Watch: Main Point Books is moving from Bryn Mawr to Wayne, Pennsylvania. I'll be helping my friend reopen her bookstore on Saturday July 30th for the midnight release of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. If you live nearby, stop in to say hello. I'll be wearing a witch's hat with a little black dress just because.

Blogging Tip: Recently an artist's lifework was erased when Google deleted his blog. To back up your Google content, including your blog archive, follow this link. It took me only a few minutes to create and to download a zip file of nearly a decade of blog posts. You may need to download an app to unzip it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

ALL AMERICAN BOYS by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

I read All American Boys in response to the police violence of last week. The news read like a dystopian novel: police officers had killed 2 more African Americans, and an army veteran had shot 12 policemen, 5 fatally, in retaliation. Then DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, was arrested with undue force during a peaceful protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The incident was captured on his and other cell phones and went viral. My tweet in support of DeRay caught the attention of racist trolls, whom I ignored.

DeRay's violent arrest hit me on a personal level. I'd heard him speak eloquently at his alma mater, Bowdoin College, and no one is working harder than he is to find a non-violent, political solution to the problem of police brutality. My husband teaches politics at Bowdoin and is friends with DeRay. We were appalled by his arrest. After making a donation for the protestors' bail and legal services, I retreated to the comfort of a good book.

Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson being arrested in Baton Rouge. Photo by Max Becherer  7/9/16

All American Boys tackles police brutality and racism with a gritty realism that will resonate with both teens and adults. This empowering story is narrated in alternating voices: Rashad, the black victim, and Quinn, his white classmate who witnesses the beating and runs away. The coauthors, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, mirror the ethnicity of their protagonists.

Author Jason Reynolds
In the opening chapter, Rashad changes out of his junior ROTC uniform into street clothes and stops at a convenience store to buy a snack. When a white woman accidentally trips over Rashad and falls, the shopkeeper accuses him of theft. A white policeman drags Rashad outside and beats him so badly that he requires hospitalization. The incident is caught on cell phones and goes viral. Without his consent, Rashad becomes a hashtag.

Author Brendan Kiely
Quinn, the teenage eyewitness, struggles with his conscience. The brutal policeman was no stranger; Paul is his best friend's older brother. When Quinn's dad died while fighting in Afghanistan, Paul had stepped in as a surrogate big brother and taught him how to shoot hoops. Quinn's basketball prowess may earn him a free ride to college. Quinn is torn between his loyalty to Paul and "doing the right thing." The moral dilemma plays out at home, at school and on the basketball court as friends and family take opposing sides.

All American Boys is anti-brutality but not anti-police. All the characters have strengths and weaknesses; they are realistically human. Although the protagonists are boys, many of the strongest characters are girls and women. The story is emotionally challenging but easy to follow. After an explosive start, the pace slows in the middle as momentum builds to the climax. The heart-wrenching ending left me in tears but not without hope. I'd strongly recommend All American Boys to everyone, whatever your age, ethnicity or gender. This powerful book should be required reading in American high schools and at police academies. It would make for an excellent book group discussion too.

The iconic image of the Baton Rouge Protest Against Police Brutality by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters July 2016

By the time I'd finished reading All American Boys, our friend DeRay had been released on bond and is now back at his advocacy work. Follow this link to his Campaign Zero for an interactive tool that allows you to track the progress of police violence legislation on the local, state and national levels. Change isn't going to happen unless we hold legislators accountable and push for progress.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought this book in 2015 and lost it in my to-be-read stack. Thanks to a nudge from YA author I.W. Gregorio of We Need Diverse Books, I remembered to read it now. Another book we both recommend is Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir, Between the World and Me. I write and review YA fiction, but my academic degrees are in Political Science. Author photos are from twitter.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Revision Tip for YA: teen beta readers

With my beta-reader Maya at Boothbay Harbor, Maine
If you want to write young adult fiction, you should test your manuscript on your target audience. Teen beta readers can check the voice and give brutally honest feedback. My instructions sheet for high school and college student readers starts with: does my protagonist sound like an 18-year-old girl or a middle aged mom? I tell them to flag the slow or confusing parts. For general feedback, I ask that they pair comments with examples from the text.

My daughter Gemma
I discovered how much YA fiction has evolved since I was a teenager by reading along with my daughter. Gemma's interest encouraged me to try writing YA myself with her input. Our collaboration has helped both my work and our relationship. As a writer and a parent, it helps to see the world from my children's perspective, to listen without judgment. It's easier to discuss emotionally charged topics like underage drinking or romantic relationships when talking about fictional characters. Gemma is also an excellent editor.

Family members may be the easiest to enlist for help, but it's also important to use readers who aren't related to you. For my Maine YA novel, I needed a reader who grew up in a small harbor town. My daughter had attended Chewonki Semester School with Maya from Boothbay Harbor (in top photo with me). After Maya read my manuscript, I took her out for lunch there to discuss things like accents, the offseason environment and small town details. My home town in Maine is larger than hers and not as reliant on tourism and lobster fishing.

Brittany from Vermont
Brittany, a college friend of my son, grew up in a small town in Vermont. When visiting us, she shared her experiences and was a good sport about letting me use some in my novel. Her dad works in a bookstore so she reads lots of YA. Brittany was an ideal beta reader, pointing to what worked and didn't work quite as well in the story. It was also helpful to have a reader who was unfamiliar with Maine. My character Brit shares her name by coincidence.

Bowdoin College alumna Janki
Since my husband teaches at Bowdoin College and we live next door to a dorm, we spend a lot of time with students. His advisee Janki started following my blog because she reads YA novels with her younger sister to stay connected. I was delighted when she offered to read for me after graduation. Janki helped fine tune the friend group dynamics, especially the relationship between my protagonist and Safia, a character who shares her ethnicity. When writing outside your own personal experience, it's important to get feedback and to listen. Respond to criticism that lines up and/or resonates with you.

With my friend Marika Josephson
I also received big picture feedback from two children's author friends, Charlotte Agell and Barrie Summy, and from Marika Josephson, a former assistant editor of KidSpirit Magazine. My architect brother fact checked the house building and stage design scenes. My husband and parents lent their sharp eyes to proofreading.

I spent more time revising than writing my novel. I didn't query literary agents until draft eight. It was well worth the effort. My new agent wants only minor changes. When I receive her editorial notes, I will revise once again. Then the polished manuscript will be submitted to editors at publishing houses. If they make an offer, there will be several more rounds of revision. Most of writing is rewriting. You need to embrace revision to get published.

Finding Free Critique Groups: If you're writing for kids or teens and want to join a free critique group in your region, become a member of the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators. In my state the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance helps writers of all genres organize into critique groups. These nonprofit organizations also offer writing workshops and paid critiques from professionals. I'm a member of both SCBWI and MWPA but found my crit partners and beta readers on my own. Good luck revising!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with my Daughter

Before my daughter started her summer job, we enjoyed a staycation in Maine. At the top of her list was returning to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, an hour up the coast from us. For her high school senior project Gemma designed a guide to Maine medicinal plants.

CMBG also combines botany and art; sculpture is an integral part of the gardens and seaside trails. My favorite was this supersized pinecone made of rusty old boat propellers.

We first came here with my kids' playgroup, so many years ago Gemma can't remember. There's a children's garden and fairy house building zone in the woods. We were relieved to see that no lady's-slippers were slain for this fairy abode. These woodland orchids grow naturally in Maine at this time of year.

For the botanically illiterate, such as me, plants were conveniently labeled. There was a Japanese accent to the design too, reminiscent of the gardens of Kyoto. At one point, I considered a career in Landscape Architecture until I learned that most work comes from designing parking lots.

We loved the exuberant colors of these Candelabra Primroses. The bright sunshine and dappled shade made photography challenging, but it was perfect weather for exploring the grounds.

The lilly pad pool reminded us of Monet's Garden in France.

Our favorite bloom was the Showy Lady's-Slipper, glowing in the midsummer light. I'm savoring these glorious June days. All too soon, I'll be back to work revising my manuscript. Boothbay Harbor, where these gardens are located, was another town that inspired my fictional Port George.

CM Botanical Gardens:
May 2015 Visit: spring blooms
August 2012 Visit water & sculpture

Blog Watch: if you enjoy botanical posts, check out garden bloggers Tina in Tennessee & Skeeter in Georgia, Les in Virginia, Rose in Illinois and Vivero in Texas. I'm a lazy gardener and prefer admiring the work of others.

Huffington Post posted this beautiful image in memory of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey last night. ISIS attacked a Muslim country during the holy month of Ramadan. When will this senseless violence stop?