Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Aglow is Lit

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Aglow brightens the long nights from mid November to New Year's Eve. 

Last night it was 15F at 7:00 pm on the warmest day of the week. I was amazed to see more people than on a spring day, but crowds dispersed over the extensive grounds. Be sure to reserve tickets online in advance.

Mainers dress winter chic in long coats and high boots. In summer, roses adorn this veranda.

We wondered how long it took to hang over half a million LED lights. 

Evergreens twinkled like Christmas trees under a half moon, but there were no holiday decorations. Gardens Aglow is a nondenominational festival of lights; it felt spiritual but was not religious.

Storm buried lights made the snow glow like a phosphorescent sea.

An hour was barely enough time to see all the lights with a warm up break inside. There was hot cocoa, kettle corn, chili, and cocktails too. Next year we'll allow more time.

Afterwards my family drove ten minutes to McSeagull's for dinner on Boothbay Harbor. A hot Sailor's Cider warmed me up and the fish and chips were excellent. There was also gluten free pizza for my daughter, who declared, "Gardens Aglow was lit!" We agreed that it was a brilliant way to end the year.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Best Contemporary YA of 2017

If you're looking for good holiday gifts for teens, here are my suggestions from the 61 books I read this year. 2017 was a fabulous year for diverse contemporary young adult fiction. Follow the links to full reviews posted earlier on my blog or Goodreads. Since we're already halfway through Hanukkah, I'm starting with two novels with Jewish protagonists.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli is a sweet romance with secular Jewish characters. Molly has had 26 crushes on boys but hasn't even been kissed. She fears that no boy would be attracted to a big girl. Meanwhile her skinny twin sister has hooked up with several girls but has never had a serious relationship. As the twins discover romance, their sisterly bond is tested. Set in Washington DC during the summer when gay marriage became legal, the twins are also busy planning a wedding for their moms. This comedy of errors also has a full cast of racially diverse characters who break stereotypes. I loved the author's debut, Simon vs the Homosapien Agenda, which is a gay YA romance.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert also features a nontraditional Jewish family. Little/Suzette and her African American mom converted when they moved in with Saul and his son Lion/Lionel. While Lionel grapples with his bipolar disorder, Suzette is trying to figure out her sexual identity. This intersectional novel set in the diverse and affluent suburbs of LA tackles everyday prejudice toward people of color, bisexuals, and mental illness. Despite the gravity of the issues, steamy romances makes it a fast and easy read.

Another YA romance I enjoyed this year was Geekerella by Ashley Poston. This humorous retelling of Cinderella is set at a comic convention with a cosplay ball. The two narrators are a fangirl blogger and a hot teen actor, who stars in a controversial remake of a Sci Fi classic. They met online and communicate via text so are unaware of the other's true identity. A lesbian teenage seamstress plays fairy godmother, and her orange food truck sells vegan pumpkin treats. This quirky debut novel celebrates geekdom and friendship as much as romance.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was my favorite book this year. This Black Lives Matter story narrated by a African American girl who witnesses the police shooting her friend has been on The New York Times bestseller list since it was released in February. While I was abroad on sabbatical, I listened to the fantastic audiobook and bought the hardcover when I returned home to reread. This debut is brutally honest and devastating but also uplifting and empowering.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi is another topical novel about black Americans. This stunning debut focuses on Haitian American immigrants in Detroit. In the first chapter the protagonist's mom is detained by ICE. A federal agent offers to help Fabiola in exchange for information about her Detroit cousin's drug dealer boyfriend. Add a romance with the boyfriend's best friend and a touch of magical realism and the story becomes enchanting with lots of good plot twists.

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman is another impressive debut focusing on multicultural identity. Sexually abused as a child, Kiko paints the feelings that she is too anxious to share with anyone. Since her Japanese American father signed full custody to her Caucasian mother, Kiko lost her chance to understand her ethnic heritage. Her narcissistic mom transfers her resentment about divorce into criticism of anything Asian, making Kiko and her brothers ashamed of their biracial roots. Kiko gets a second chance at happiness when her childhood crush invites her to California to check out art colleges. I loved the use of art in the narrative, and the cover is gorgeous too.

Although 1973-2006 is historical fiction for today's teenagers, I'd also recommend You Bring the Distance Near by Mitali Perkins. This multigenerational family saga about Indian immigrants in the USA focuses on assimilation and racial prejudice in a changing world. It's a heartwarming tale featuring traditional and non-traditional romances with complex family dynamics. Since the central characters are teenaged girls, mothers and their perplexed matriarch, it would cross-over well to adult readers, who would call it contemporary fiction. This multilayered novel would be an excellent choice for a mother-daughter book group or to share with an immigrant grandparent.

Nobody captures a teenage boy voice better than Jeff Zentner. In Goodbye Days a boy blames himself for sending the text that distracted the driver and killed his four best friends. His ambiguous relationship with his deceased friend's girlfriend adds romance and guilt. Humor offsets the sadness. There are lots of diverse secondary characters. Although there is a cautionary message, the book offers redemption without being preachy. It was excellent on audiobook as was his debut, The Serpent King.

If you're looking for a feel-good story, The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone follows a secret group of diverse teenagers who engage in vigilante acts of kindness during a summer on the Hamptons. The protagonist is biracial Iranian American. This anti-bullying book will inspire teens to do better online and in the real world. Firestone's fabulous debut The Loose Ends List is out in paperback and features a half Jewish protagonist on a world cruise with her dying grandmother and their eccentric family.

Feminists and sports fans would enjoy A Season of Daring Greatly by Ellen Emerson White, a realistic novel about the first woman (age eighteen) to be recruited for major league baseball. I reviewed it in my last blog post.

I'm currently reading Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, this year's winner of the National Book Award. Three siblings reunite after adoption and foster care separated them as babies.

If you have other books to recommend for teens, please add them to the comments. I focused on contemporary YA since that is what I write.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Season of Daring Greatly by Ellen Emerson White

This young adult novel about the first woman to be drafted for major league baseball is so realistic, it read like nonfiction. The coach/sports photographer author, Ellen Emerson White, writes from experience, but you don't need to be a baseball fan to enjoy A Season of Daring Greatly. Most of the drama was in the locker room/clubhouse. This feminist story focuses on the challenges and historical impact of being the first woman on a professional team.

Eighteen-year-old Jill Cafferty is a likable protagonist and a fine role model for girls. She is a skilled pitcher and a strong student but struggles with insecurity in this new and often hostile environment with too much media attention. Her Gold Star family aren't into sports, but they try to be supportive. Her father was a baseball fan who died while serving in the National Guard. It was nice to see a military family in a YA novel, and the author does a fine job of capturing how that background would shape character.

I also appreciated how the author included several diverse characters who broke stereotypes. Most of the Hispanic teammates struggle with English, but one is fluent and wealthy. The smartest member of her team is an African American on his way to medical school. Jill is white but speaks Spanish and tries to learn Japanese to make her teammates feel welcome. Although sexual attraction creates issues, the central relationships are friends and family. Her high school friends (one is gay and the other is disabled) keep in touch via text. Jill often regrets her choice not to go to college, but she keeps trying her best. Some of the most touching scenes were when Jill acted out like a normal teen and faced worse consequences.

I enjoyed the book from the engaging opening to the satisfying ending, but fewer details about food and minor characters would have sped the pace (432 pages is long for YA). I wondered why Jill didn't defer her acceptance to Stanford for a year so that she'd have a backup if pro ball wasn't a good fit for her. Then again, an all-or-nothing set up makes for higher stakes! A Season of Daring Greatly would make a fine holiday gift for a sports fan of any age. I loved the cover art too.

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@Barrie Summy