Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sunset at Popham Beach Off-Season

Off-season sand is mirror smooth.

Only neoprened surfers brave the sea.

The horizon stretches wider than my vision.

When I despair that all is blue,

Nature surprises me with a flare of crimson.

Then daylight fades like cooling embers, 

Leaving nothing but abstraction.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Spring Snow & Before Goodbye by Mimi Cross

March is capricious in Maine. After an abnormally warm winter, six inches of snow fell on the second day of spring. On Monday I put on skis to walk my dog, but most of the snow has melted now. Late March through April is mud season for us. Anything is possible. You need a good sense of humor and excellent outerwear to live this far north. Spring snow makes me want to curl up by the fire with a good book.

Before Goodbye by Mimi Cross is a new young adult novel about music, romance, and grief-induced addiction; it will cross over well to an adult audience. After her musical muse dies in a car crash, Cate can no longer play the classical guitar. This 16-year-old sophomore seeks escape in the foggy stupor of Ketamine. David, an 18-year-old wounded athlete, uses sex like a drug to forget the pain of his brother's suicide. These two troubled teens from dysfunctional families bond over their love of indie music. Their dark romance is told in alternating voices and is set in a posh New Jersey suburb.

What makes Before Goodbye special is the musician-author's knowledge of music and her lyrical writing style. The words sing from the page, begging for guitar accompaniment. I often paused to read lines out loud, to hear their rhythm. My teenage daughter is a singer/songwriter so I related to that part of the narrative on a personal level. The book was at its strongest when music found symbolic resonance in the plot and in Cate's character development:
"I do not play the instrument; I am the instrument. I serve. My fingers move up and down the fretboard, skip, skip, skip across the strings..." 
"I put the guitar away, wondering suddenly as I do, what it would feel like to never take it out again. To close the case forever, like a coffin." 
"Snow doesn't produce a sound. Rather it emits stillness. Cate's stillness is not so different, and like the snow, that still aspect of her, I'm starting to understand, has to do with something frozen."
This gorgeous, engrossing novel suffers a bit from a typical debut problem: plot sprawl. There are enough subplots and messed up characters for a full season of a teen melodrama: two accidental deaths, two suicides, child abuse and neglect, depression, alcoholism, rape and homophobia on top of drug and sex addiction. Juxtaposition dilutes the emotional impact of these tragic issues and makes the story less plausible. The author does an admirable job delving deep into all of them, which resulted in a 400-page tome. Most contemporary YA is closer to 300 pages and is faster paced, especially in the opening chapters. Cross's novel would have been stronger for focusing more exclusively on the central plot without so many diversions. Even so, I stayed up late reading and look forward to more from this promising new author.

Given the edgy content, I would only recommend Before Goodbye to mature teens (16 and up) and to adults. The Maine Writer's panel on YA Today (last week's blog post) predicted more young adult books geared for older teens to accommodate adult readers (who comprise 80% of the market), and this is a fine example of the emerging trend. Cross covers a lot of contentious issues, but her novel includes consequences and learning. If my child were reading this book, I'd want to read along with her/him. Hopefully this dark story will open discussion on risky behavior. The author's acknowledgement ends with links to organizations supporting victims of rape, drug addiction, and domestic violence. Before Goodbye is a bold debut.

Reviewer's Disclosure: my writing crit partner, Charlotte Agell, recommended this novel to me since she knows the author. I bought the ebook and posted my review without compensation. Before Goodbye was released in January and is also available in hardcover, paperback, and audiobook from Skyscape Publishing, a new YA imprint from Amazon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

YA Today: Three Authors in Conversation

Terry Farish, Megan Frazer Blakemore, Maria Padian & Joshua Bodwell, Ex. Director of Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance

Last Saturday the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance invited young adult (YA) authors Terry Farish, Megan Frazer Blakemore and Maria Padian to discuss what defines YA fiction today. Even though I have been blogging about YA for nine years and write it too, I learned a lot from this informal but well informed conversation, which included audience participation. We all agreed that YA is a marketing category that should concern the publisher more than the author. Some books about teenagers are published as YA and others as fiction for adults, depending on the publisher imprint.

Maria Padian defined YA as "an emotional rollercoaster with high highs and low lows" in which the character struggles "to find a place in a world that is falling apart." She advised "writers to write the story they want to write and to leave it to the publisher to decide which box to put it in."

Megan Frazer Blakemore described how YA has evolved since S.E. Hinton in the 1960s and Judy Blume in the 1970's, whose work was surprisingly edgy even by today's standards. Megan posited that if The Catcher in the Rye were published today, it would probably be packaged as YA because the teenage voice is immediate with no distance from the protagonist. However, To Kill A Mockingbird would still be adult literary fiction because the narrator is an adult, looking back with a mature perspective.

Megan, who writes both young adult and middle grade (MG) fiction, explained how those markets differ. MG (ages 8-12) is purchased primarily by schools and by libraries, but YA (ages 12 and up) is bought mostly by individual adults (who may be buying for themselves or teens) and by fewer teenagers. Quoting figures from Publisher's Weekly, Megan reported that in 2015 adults purchased 80% of YA fiction, which is a big jump from 55% in 2012. This trend is worrisome if publishers start adjusting the content of YA books to fit an adult readership. Already there has been a shift in YA towards more books set in the junior and senior years of high school, leaving a big hole (8th-10th grades) between YA and MG. Maria added that over 75% of YA buyers are female, which might explain the prevalence of pink covers.

Terry Farish, who writes in verse about the immigrant experience and the traumas of war, described how educators' curriculum have broadened the audience for YA. Recently published YA books are finding a new home on the reading lists of middle schools, high schools and colleges. Sometimes teachers use an accessible YA novel to launch a fact-based curriculum about war, refugees and immigration. Classroom use is more gender balanced too.

My blog post Good Books About Refugees included Terry's debut YA novel, The Good Braider, and Maria's third YA novel, Out of Nowhere. Both authors conducted extensive research to describe the African immigrant experience and culture clash in Maine. Maria warned writers to avoid preaching and to focus instead on character driven drama to allow for emotional connection. As her current editor told her "I'm allergic to bibliotherapy." Megan added that the YA author needs "to write about the real world, not an idealized version."

The topic of realism segued to a discussion of profanity in YA. A handful of swear words in Out of Nowhere resulted in Maria's book being kept out of some libraries. In her upcoming novel, Wrecked, Maria has avoided any swear words, even though the subject matter of date rape is otherwise mature. Megan, who is an elementary school librarian as well as an author, explained that individual librarians make book selections at many schools, but in other districts, the collection department makes those calls. Bans on books (due to swear words or other controversial content) can affect the library collection of an entire state, such as in Texas. The authors managed to discuss this topic without swearing, showing impressive restraint.

All three authors agreed on the importance of beta readers, but they varied in practice. Maria relies extensively on her daughter, but she added male beta readers for Out of Nowhere because the protagonist was a teenaged boy. Maria also absorbed teen voices while driving carpools. Her novels have aged along with her kids from her debut about a mischievous eighth grader, Brett McCarthy, to her upcoming book, Wrecked, which is set at college. Maria's agent, Edite Kroll (who attended the panel), gives editorial feedback before the manuscript goes to her editor. Megan uses a combination of adults and tween/teen readers and absorbs the younger voice from her job as a librarian. For her MG novel The Firefly Code, Megan shared chapters with a classroom in New York City for live feedback while she was revising with her editor. Terry, who writes both YA and picturebooks, uses only adult beta readers. Since she is writing outside her cultural background, she relies heavily on adult readers from those cultures (South Sudan and Cambodian immigrants) for fact checking.

At the close, I asked a question about diversity in the YA market. A large majority of YA books have white protagonists and/or white authors. Terry and Maria offered advice on how authors can write outside their cultural background. Research and feedback from people within that culture is key. I chimed in with a plug for We Need Diverse Books, a new non-profit organization which seeks to promote children's and YA books with diverse protagonists and/or by diverse authors. If we all amplify these voices, their books will make it to a wider audience and will hopefully succeed.

If your school, library, bookstore or writing conference is seeking a realistic YA panel, I'd strongly recommend this engaging and articulate trio. Their books are fabulous too. I've read and reviewed Terry's The Good Braider, all three of Maria's books (Brett McCarthy, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best and Out of Nowhere), and I'm currently enjoying Megan's Very In Pieces, a YA novel about a studious, mathematical girl who feels out of place in an eccentric artsy family. Very struggles to be brave as her beloved poet-grandmother slowly dies of cancer and insists on talking about death. This literary story includes romance too. My unofficial report of this YA panel was merely a summary; there was a lot more depth and breadth.

Disclosure: I'm friends with Maria, but this was the first time I'd met Megan and Terry in person. I'm a member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance so this event was free to me ($5 for nonmembers). I was not compensated (beyond Maria's cookies) for blogging about this panel but volunteered to do so. I am also a member of We Need Diverse Books. My contemporary YA novel set in coastal Maine is seeking agent representation.
June 2016 update: my new literary agent is Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, who also represents Megan Frazer Blakemore.

Thank you to the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance for sponsoring this panel, to MWPA Executive Director Joshua Bodwell for organizing it, to Maria Padian for baking delicious cookies and to the Glickman Library at USM for providing the space.

Afterwards, I enjoyed a brisk walk on the Eastern Prom in Portland, feeling inspired!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Walk from Bowdoin College to the Androscoggin Swinging Bridge

Only a good friend would brave Maine at this time of year. I met Sherry during my junior year abroad in London. She's always been a game traveler. On a previous visit, we'd gone cross-country skiing in our woods, but it's been a freakishly warm winter in New England.

My house is next door to Bowdoin College, where my husband teaches Japanese and British Politics.

You might recognize my husband as Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey. Thanks to Bowdoin art professor Mark Wethli for the uncanny PhotoShop job! Yes, we are mourning the end of that gig.

Bowdoin has deeper roots in the past: it was founded in 1794. Massachusetts Hall, the oldest building on campus, dates back to when we were part of Massachusetts. Maine didn't become state until 1820.

Another old campus beauty is Searles Hall. During winter the quad is flooded to become a skating rink.

Bowdoin is located in Brunswick, the biggest town in Maine with a population of 20,000.

There are plenty of mom and pop stores like Frosty's Donuts (circa 1965).

 Keep walking, folks. We don't need a warm-out-of-the-oven wild blueberry doughnut...maybe later?

Time to cross the bridge over the Androscoggin River to Topsham, past Sea Dog Brewing.

The dam once powered the Androscoggin Mill. Now the mill houses art studios, restaurants, a flea market, an indie movie theater, our local radio station, and the winter farmers' market (on Saturday mornings).

The Androscoggin Swinging Bridge from Topsham to Brunswick, Maine
On the Topsham bank of the Androscoggin is a lovely path leading to the Androscoggin Swinging Bridge.

This footbridge was built in 1892 by John A. Roebling's Sons Co., who also designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge. No joke!

A transplanted New Yorker myself, I find this fact reassuring, despite the pronounced bounce underfoot.

Factory workers used the bridge to commute from their dormitory style housing in Topsham to the cotton mill in Brunswick.

This scenic walk is a three-mile loop from my front door.

I love my town!

Blogwatch: This post is part of Les@TideWaterGarden's Winter Walk Off. If you want to share a winter walk from your home, post it by March 19th with a link to Les. Links to more Winter Walk Off posts coming next week.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

I think my spirit animal might be an octopus. While raising two kids, I have been working two careers from home simultaneously. Our family has dual nationality and two religions. To unwind from a life of multitasking, I swim in the ocean or a lap pool. If only I had six more arms!

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery is more than a natural history book; it's also a philosophical reflection on non-human intelligence, a glimpse behind the scenes at the New England Aquarium and a rally for ocean conservation. The writing is engaging and emotionally moving, narrative nonfiction at its best.

Octopuses (not octopibecause it's a Greek word imported to Latin, explains the author) have three hearts, a complex brain and even more neurons in their arms. They taste, feel and see the world through their suckers and those arms may have distinct temperaments. Their intelligence and self awareness rivals that of advanced vertebrates like primates and dogs. They camouflage by changing skin texture as well as color and have various strategies for different predators and prey. In captivity they continually try to escape, but aquariums keep them as compelling ambassadors for the wild.

Although octopuses are naturally solitary creatures, they recognize and form strong bonds with their caretakers. At the New England Aquarium, a retired scientist makes complex toys for the octopuses to alleviate their boredom. Anna, a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome, finds reprieve from depression among her aquatic friends. The book was dedicated to her. The octopuses profiled in the narrative have individual personalities and moods too. This marvelous memoir would appeal to readers of all ages and species.

Reviewer's Disclosure: In a clickhole quiz "Are You An Introvert, An Extrovert, Or A Sea Monster?" I was revealed to be a sea monster. After reading a glowing review on Beth Kephart's blog, I bought the gorgeous hardcover book at the Gulf of Maine BooksThe Soul of an Octopus is the best read-in-the-tub book ever.

My DSLR photographs are of a Giant Pacific Octopus and fish from my visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in January. I was convinced that this GPO was watching me with as much interest as she danced an aquatic ballet for the awed spectators. My daughter had to drag me away at closing time.

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@Barrie Summy