Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami spoke to me as both an artist and a writer. His latest novel has the usual mix of morally ambiguous characters, a fathomless pit, and World War II atrocities. The only missing element was a talking cat, but painted characters sprung to life off the canvas and double metaphors become a tangible threat. This cerebral book is quite meta. Murakami is a master of magical realism and one of my favorite authors. His originality inspired me to write fiction.

Murakami's new novel is set in recent times, but the 36-year-old protagonist eschews technology to focus on abstract art after his wife leaves him. On a remote Japanese mountain, the unnamed protagonist encounters a charismatic older man whose generous patronage might be a blessing or a curse. He also befriends a 13-year-old neighbor, who reminds him of his deceased sister. Murakami's female characters are strong and complex, leaving the nurturing, supportive role to the reluctant hero. The narrative is mostly realistic with surreal detours. The plot is hard to summarize but was easy to follow.

I have never read a better depiction of an artist's inner process. The focus on inspiration and technique was somewhat like a modern version of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring. As a professional artist myself, I related to his struggle over painting freely versus creating commercial art for clients. I loved how the book showed the tortuous but satisfying journey of oil painting and the wide range of artistic expression. However, the ending could have done more with the protagonist's personal evolution as an artist.

"What I was teaching them was less how to draw than a way to view the world."

Killing Commendatore wasn't as perfectly crafted as A Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, but I found it more compelling than his later novels. Although it wasn't as long as IQ84, 681 pages was still too heavy to hold in hand comfortably and too big to fit in my handbag so I read slowly. I enjoyed escaping into his imaginative world for nearly two months. I'd recommend Killing Commendatore to his fans and to anyone interested in art or Japan. With Chip Kidd's cool cover design (merging an eyeball with the moon), it would make a good gift.

The top photo of a remote temple village is from my sabbatical in Japan, where I was researching my work-in-progress, a noir mystery about a missing manga artist and gap year in Japan. I'll be offline until the weekend finishing a draft for teens and cultural sensitivity readers to read over vacation. Enjoy the holidays!

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Sadie by Courtney Summers

If you're looking for an excellent audiobook with superb production quality, check out Sadie by Courtney Summers.    I started reading in print, but the innovative narrative style seemed better suited to audio so I switched format. The chapters alternate between Sadie's narration and a            "true crimes" podcast about the missing nineteen-year-old girl. Usually I prefer to read a book in print and save audiobooks for chores or travel, but Sadie made listening into a creative new experience.

Sadie is a hard luck story about two girls raised by a drug addict mom in small town Colorado. Sadie tries her best to mother her little sister, Mattie, and the girls are also looked after by a kindly older neighbor who owns their "trailer park" (it's actually a mobile home center - one of the few misrepresentations in the book). When 13-year-old Mattie is found brutally murdered and the local police fail to find the killer, Sadie runs off in search of her mom's ex-boyfriend, whom she blames for the crime. This page-turner story has well-developed characters and strong writing.

Some books are better suited to audio than others. To illustrate, let me compare two YA novels who share one of my favorite narrators, Bahni Turpin. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas worked really well on audiobook since the protagonist narrates her story in the first person. However, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi has two girls' and one boy's points of view, and although Ms. Turpin did a fine job, the voices would have been more distinct and easier to follow with two more narrators. In an audiobook, the narrator/s is often as important as the author, which adds a second layer of complexity to your novel selection.

What made Sadie stand out from other audiobooks was the superb production quality and big cast. It was more like a BBC radio drama or a serial podcast, enhancing the narrative style. Rebecca Soler narrates Sadie's chapters fluently but adds a stutter when she speaks out loud, which is amplified with emotion. When a secondary character speaks, another person voices the dialogue, making the Sadie POV chapters feel like live theater. In the serial podcast chapters, Dan Bittner plays the podcast host, West, and adds theme music and background sound effects. The characters he interviews are voiced by the same dialogue actors from Sadie's chapters. This technique offers alternative perspectives on Sadie's story, and as West gets closer to her, it builds narrative tension. The listening experience was intense and felt real. By the end, I was in tears.

I'd strongly recommend Sadie to anyone who listens to audiobooks or podcasts, and I'm sure it would be good in print too.  It was wonderful to see an unpopular high school dropout like Sadie as the protagonist of a popular mystery. This newly released young adult novel is already #10 on the NYT bestseller list. Given the age of the protagonist and the disturbing content (not explicit), Sadie would be best for mature teens and adults. My only issue was the ending gave me nightmares and might be too scary for younger readers. If you have other good audiobook recommendations, please add them in the comments.

Last weekend might have been my last ocean swim of the season. 

Reviewer's Disclosure: provided a galley excerpt in exchange for an honest review. I finished the book on as a paid subscription member.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Driving Green in a Plug-In Hybrid Mini Cooper

Have you noticed that most car reviews are written by men? The auto industry is skewed male even though more American women than men purchase new cars. I'm no expert, but I'm sharing my personal experience as a woman shopping for a green car, and I don't just mean the color!

When our daughter took my 2002 Subaru Outback to college, I dreamed of replacing it with an all electric car. That dream would have been a nightmare in Maine. My state has few charging stations and my favorite destinations are off the grid. We frequently lose power in storms for hours, even days. This is why hybrids are more popular than electric cars in rural areas.

As I researched hybrid cars online, I discovered a green compromise: a plug-in hybrid can run on electricity for short distances, on gas if necessary, or a hybrid combination for longer range. Rear visibility was another consideration since we live next door to a college dorm. When backing out of our driveway, I frequently encounter teens without helmets (but with earbuds) texting while biking on the wrong side of the road. As a short woman, I also needed a car that would adjust to fit me and my husband. After years of practical station wagons for after-school carpools, I craved a fun car, but it still needed to be safe in winter. It was my first time buying a new instead of a used car.

I fell in love with a Mini Countryman SE in British Racing Green. Minis combine British design with a German engine and a Japanese transmission so they have classic style and handle beautifully. The electric motor adds torque for fast acceleration. It was lots of fun to drive and very quiet. My only complaint was the brake pedal is too soft and positioned a bit high. Of all the cars I test drove, the Mini had the best rear visibility, was small enough to park anywhere, and still had room in "the boot" for my Golden Retriever. Another perk of buying a Mini is the company's commitment to diversity. Our helpful salesman, Luis Velazquez, was a Mexican American immigrant (and a published poet), and the technical support "Mini Genius" was a woman, who traveled to Maine to give me a free tutorial. We bought our car at Mini of Peabody in Massachusetts because there is no Mini dealer in Maine.

charging at home from a 240 volt outlet
Switching to electric is a big commitment. Electric cars can charge off regular household current, but it takes all night. I hired a local electrician to install a 240-volt outlet in my garage, which recharges my car in about 2 hours. I also had to buy a high voltage charging cable (only a low voltage cable comes with the car). Those extra costs were more than offset by a $4,000 federal tax rebate for electric cars (some states - not Maine - have additional tax credits). I work at home and usually drive under ten miles a day with occasional longer trips up to 325 miles, the maximum hybrid range of my Mini. The all-electric range is listed as 12 miles, but in summer, I've been getting up to 21 miles, or 18 miles with air conditioning. That figure will drop in winter. On the plus side, this compact SUV utilizes gas and battery together for all-wheel-drive, which will be helpful in snow, but I'll add snow tires.

There is a learning curve to mastering the technical components of this car, but I enjoy those calculations and driving options. Safety-wise, I appreciate how the driver can use physical switches or voice control instead of the distracting touchscreen. The sound system and GPS integrate well with my iPhone via ApplePlay. My default setting for town is all electric in Green mode. On longer trips, I switch to hybrid mode and let the car's computer optimize my fuel vs battery use based on distance, speed, and terrain. I use Sport mode to get onto the highway or to recharge a low battery. A good place to recharge is L.L.Bean in Freeport: their free universal charging stations are partially solar. In Portland a few public garages and some businesses offer free charging, and there are pay-as-you-go or subscription charging stations, but half of the listed stations were too powerful for my car. Fortunately, a plug-in hybrid can recharge while driving on gas.

Free charging station at Flight Deck Brewing in Brunswick, Maine: three Tesla chargers and only one universal charger.

The best phone app to find charging stations is PlugShare. This crowd-sourced app allows you to filter for stations compatible with your car model. My Mini can't recharge in a Tesla outlet, which are more ubiquitous than universal chargers. However, I've heard Tesla owners complain that a 5 1/2 hour trip takes 7 hours with recharging stops. Often there's another car plugged in and no time limit. A plug-in hybrid is less green (hence the smaller federal tax credit) but offers more flexibility. Before buying an electric or plug-in hybrid car, I'd recommend testing the PlugShare app in your neighborhood. I also encourage the auto industry to keep producing plug-in hybrids for rural areas, especially in the north since cold temperatures reduce battery range. Full electric cars are better suited for cities and suburban commuters and cost more.

Despite the recharging infrastructure issues, I'm delighted to be driving green. I only need to refill my 9 1/2 gallon gas tank once a month, instead of once a week. I recharge every night at home but haven't noticed a jump in our electricity bill. The only downside is I will have to travel 120 miles to Massachusetts to service my car, but all Minis come with 4 years of free roadside assistance, including towing to the nearest Mini dealer. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoy driving, especially since there is less guilt about burning fossil fuels. However, it's still greener to bike.

Note: I was not compensated for this car review. I only blog once or twice a month (less in summer), but I update more frequently on twitter.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Kayaking in Merepoint Bay, Maine

Maine is best seen from the water, but I've never been totally convinced about kayaks. I rowed intramural crew at college, spent a summer aboard a Zodiac photo-ID-ing dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, and have enjoyed canoeing in Maine lakes. However, none of those boats were designed to roll upside down. An emergency "wet exit" sounds too much like a watery grave. As a writer/artist, I have an over-active imagination, but I'm also drawn to the beauty of the sea.

When my son asked for an inflatable double kayak for his birthday, I offered to join him on his inaugural launch. His Sea Eagle reminded me of a Zodiac (minus a motor): stable, comfortable, and surprisingly easy to steer. The open hull is self-bailing so doesn't require a spray skirt, and best of all, this boat was designed not to flip. Since it was near low tide, we left from our town's boat launch.

The hardest part was maneuvering around the moored boats between gusty wind and rocking swells. My arms ached until my son reminded me to pull from my core and brace with my legs. The best thing about a double kayak is easy conversation. Soon enough, my body relaxed into the rhythm of paddling.

A kayak can't be beat for birdwatching. We saw an osprey defend her nest from a hungry bald eagle. The pictured hero above is the speck flying by the tallest tree; I brought an old point-and-shoot instead of my DSLR camera on this salty voyage. Even my dry bag got a bit damp.

We paddled past lobster fishermen loading traps from floating docks onto their boats. June is the start of mainland lobster season in Maine, following the annual migration from deeper waters. During the winter and spring only outer island residents and fishermen with deep sea permits can set traps.

This sustainable fishery is well regulated in my state. Multi-colored buoys (lobster pots) distinguish lines of traps and are matched to a fisherman's boat (paired photos above). The marine patrol enforces strict catch rules to protect breeding females, small young lobsters, and big lobsters. To research my YA novel about a teen lobster fisherman, I went out lobstering with a pro, joined a marine patrolman on his rounds, and spent a week in a boat house on a remote island with a one-room schoolhouse.

Despite the high risks, I understand why fishermen choose to work at sea. The view from the bow was so gorgeous that all my worries melted away. I felt carefree and gloriously alive. Photos cannot capture the pungent scent of the ocean and the sparkle of the waves. My spirit animal must be a porpoise or an osprey, but not a thieving bald eagle!

Too soon it was time to come ashore. My son's Sea Eagle weighs about 42 pounds (much less than regular double kayaks) and only took a few minutes to semi deflate. It took my son about 15 minutes to assemble and to inflate the first time.

The oars snap in half to fit beside the folded boat and its foot pump in the back of my 2002 Subaru Outback with plenty of room to spare. There was no need for a roof rack, which is a big plus for a short woman with a bad back. The biggest pain was rinsing off the seawater and finding a place for it to dry out of the sun. A regular kayak is easier to maintain but harder to store/transport.

I'm sorely tempted to buy a second Sea Eagle as an anniversary gift for my husband and me. Our son will be taking his boat, packed in a surprisingly small duffle, to University of California, Berkeley in August. I will miss him and our wilderness adventures.

Note: I was not compensated or asked to post this kayak review. Top photo of me paddling is by my son; all other photos are by me and under copyright. Thanks to his grandparents for helping us buy this birthday boat (my son paid for part too.)

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Hunger by Roxane Gay

One of the perks of living in a college town is getting to hear great speakers from away. I was so eager to hear Roxane Gay that I lined up on a snowy path nearly a half hour before her talk in March. Roxane Gay is the Gloria Steinem for the Millennial generation and very popular with college students. Alas, the theater filled with her fans so I was unable to hear her speak in person.

Determined to hear her voice, I listened to Hunger: a Memoir of (My) Body on audiobook. Roxane has a beautiful, warm voice, and it broke my heart to listen to her narration. At age twelve, she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his friends and told no one out of misplaced shame. To protect her body, she gained hundreds of pounds and built emotional barriers. Her memoir also shows how society punishes "unruly bodies" such as hers. Roxane was further marginalized as a bisexual woman of color living in the midwest, but she found support from friends, family, and lovers.

Roxane Gay (photo from her website)

Although Hunger starts with tragedy, it is also an inspiring tale of resilience that teaches empathy. More than any other book I've ever read, Hunger allowed me to experience life inside someone else's skin. I'd recommend this beautifully written memoir to everyone. On audiobook I missed being able to underline her powerful words, but it was more emotionally resonate to listen. I'm looking forward to discussing her work with a savvy friend, who lined up earlier and said Roxane was a marvelous speaker. Thanks, Chryl Laird, for the nudge to read this book!

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@Barrie Summy

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Someday, Somewhere by Lindsay Champion

What looks like an insta-love romance becomes something else entirely as lies accumulate on both sides of Someday, Somewhere by Lindsay Champion. On a school trip to Manhattan, Dominique falls for Ben when his music conservatory performs at Carnegie Hall. To win his love, Dom pretends to be a wealthy NYU student instead of a high school junior from a gritty New Jersey suburb. Ben, a musical prodigy, has secrets of his own.

This YA novel gripped me from the opening scene to the perfect last line. Both of the teen protagonists have creative passions and natural talent, however Dom had to quit dance to help her mom keep her laundromat afloat. Ben has a supportive family and all the privileges money can buy, but he struggles under the pressure to live up to his potential in an ultra-competitive atmosphere. Both kids tell self-destructive lies to survive. Their stories are told in alternating point-of-view chapters, allowing the reader to piece the true narrative together. This engaging book is structured like a classical sonata with jazz riffs.

The main characters were well developed but only superficially diverse. Since Dom's Ecuadorian immigrant dad deserted her years ago, she can't speak Spanish or understand her cultural heritage. There is a throw away line about Passover towels (huh?) in Ben's apartment, but Jewish identity doesn't shape his character or the narrative. As a Jew with Hispanic relatives this lack of depth disappointed me. It's still better to have some diversity than none, and strong voices and realistic flaws fleshed out the characters.

I loved how this contemporary novel explored socio-economic differences, but some of the financial details were unrealistic. A low income student would get free lunch at public school and food stamps at home (only coupons were mentioned), and a credit card would be frozen if a cardholder started making unusually large purchases rapidly. However, these were minor details that didn't detract much from the story overall. If you enjoy unreliable narrators, mismatched romance, and music, check out this impressive debut.

It's been a late spring in Maine: freezing on Tuesday morning and then high 80s F yesterday! Only Scout misses the snow.

Reviewer's Disclosure:
I'm friends with the editor of this novel, but glowing early reviews on Goodreads and in Entertainment Weekly made me decide to read it. When I was unable to find a copy at independent bookstores in Maine, I purchased the ebook for my Kindle. The hardcover was released last month.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

While browsing in the Wallingford Bookshop in that medieval market town in England, I was drawn to the gorgeous cover of The Bear and The Nightingale (January 2017). The writing inside was equally beautiful. Set in a remote village in northern Russia, this new fantasy series draws on local folklore and history. Author Katherine Arden spent her gap year in Russia before studying its literature at Middlebury College. Her mastery of the language and culture grounds the medieval fairy-tale in its historical context.

In The Bear and the Nightingale, young Vasya runs wild in the woods, refusing to conform to traditional gender roles, antagonizing her miserable stepmother. Her ability to see spirits also puts Vasya at odds with a handsome young priest, who is trying to establish Christianity in their farming community on the edge of the wilderness. Vasya fears being labeled a witch, but she also needs to warn her family of the threats only she perceives. The line between right and wrong often blurs, depending on perspective. I loved how the demons were as well developed and as morally ambiguous as the mortals and how winter was both a character and a setting.
"Moscow, just past Midwinter, and the haze of ten thousand fires rose to meet a smothering sky. To the west a little light lingered, but in the east the clouds mounded up, bruise-colored in the livid dusk, buckling with unfallen snow." 
-The Girl in the Tower
In The Girl in the Tower (December 2017), teenage Vasya disguises herself as a boy and sets out on a magical horse to see the real world, encountering spirits, bandits, and storms on the icy trail. She is more afraid of being sent to a convent or confined to a palace tower in Moscow, like her princess sister. Feminism is a difficult fit for the times. This second book in the Winternight trilogy was even better than the first, now that the protagonist has matured into a young woman. The sequel combines literary style with a page-turner mystery, less horrific than the first book but equally surreal.

Although this series was published as adult fantasy, it could as easily be young adult fiction, given the age of the protagonist and the content. I bought both for my sixteen-year-old niece, who loved them as much as I did. We're eagerly awaiting The Winter of the Witch, due to be published in August. I prefer the British cover art as shown, which looks more Russian than the American editions. I'd strongly recommend these books to historical fiction and fantasy readers of all ages, especially to fans of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. They are just the right books for this never ending winter!

I also have an excellent audiobook recommendation: Long Way Down, a YA novel in verse read by the author, Jason Reynolds: An African American boy, set on revenging the gang shooting death of his older brother, encounters the spirits of his past in the elevator.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko parlor in Nara, Japan

The sign of a good book is feeling bereft at the end. After finishing Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017), I spent days picking up new books and putting them down. I kept thinking about Lee's captivating characters and missing them as much as real people. This brilliant historical novel shows the plight of Koreans under colonial rule and as immigrants in Japan. By focusing on one peasant woman, Sunja, and her family from 1910 to 1989, history segways to near contemporary times and comes to life.

Under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, Koreans endured poverty, hunger, and rape. Some immigrated to Japan to live in slums. Even after World War II freed Korea, the Koreans who remained in Japan were treated as a legal underclass. Desperate immigrants opened pachinko parlors; the game is similar to pinball but with movable pins and gambling. Some Korean Japanese became involved with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and other nefarious vocations, leading to more social stigma even toward those working in lawful industries. The most intriguing character in Pachinko was a morally ambiguous yakuza boss.

Although I studied Japan at college, I learned a lot from Min Jin Lee. The Korean American author spent 30 years writing and researching Pachinko. It has a marvelous sense of place and period without info dumping. Her engaging story shows how racism takes an emotional toll on its targets. I won't demean her characters by calling them victims because they work hard to assimilate and take pride in their accomplishments. All the characters were well developed and their stories were inspiring.

I loved Lee's vivid descriptions of landscapes and characters:
"As they approached the forest located on the opposite side of the island, the enormous pines, maples, and firs seemed to greet them, decked in golds and reds as if they were wearing their holiday clothes." 
"Her expression was one of a small child who had been disappointed by her birthday present."
Pachinko parlor in Okinawa (from my sabbatical in Japan)

I would strongly recommend Pachinko to everyone. The historical sections from 1910 to the early 1960s were perfectly crafted, but the more contemporary part read a bit like a prolonged epilogue with a message. Still, it was important to have the narrative stretch to more current times. My husband, who is a professor of Japanese politics, had a similar reaction, and my mother loved it too. We are still casting around for new books that will be as satisfying as Pachinko so I'm hoping to find one from the reviews linked to this post.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Winter Walk at Wolfe's Neck Park

It was a glorious day for a winter walk with temperatures just above freezing. We drove to Wolfe's Neck Park in Freeport, one of our favorite places in Maine. The longest loop takes only an hour so my son decided to walk the ten miles home on his own.

Together we hiked the compacted trail with only microspikes, leaving our snowshoes in the car. 

Yesterday's ice storm left the trees glistening like cut glass. Streams gurgled with melting snow.

Evergreens dripped like rain. 

An ocean of ice reflected the bright sunlight, so deceptively warm.

Casco Bay was still mostly frozen, fractured by thaw and tides.

As the sun slipped behind a cloud, the blues intensified.

We climbed down the slick steps to the shore.

Where the ocean stretched to the horizon and beyond.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

Happy New Year! It's the Year of the Dog in Japan. Mine likes to join me on my cross country skis (photo by my son). With sub zero temperatures and another blizzard (9-12 inches with 45 mph gusts) due tomorrow, this is good reading weather.

While warming up by the fire, I enjoyed Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, which won the National Book Award in 2017. This well-crafted young adult novel shows the racial and gender based inequities of fostering and adoption in the USA, but it still manages to be a feel-good book full of hope.

After giving up her baby for adoption, sixteen-year-old Grace decides to look for her own birth mother and discovers that she has two half siblings. Wealthy Maya was also adopted as a baby into a loving but troubled family. Their half Mexican brother, Joaquin, had a harder time than his white sisters and bounced around foster homes for years. Together they redefine and expand the meaning of family. I loved the close bonds that formed among the siblings.

This simile was my favorite: "...the ability to sit quietly side by side, content in the knowledge that no matter what happened to your parents, or your girlfriend, that your siblings will be there, like a bookend that keeps you upright when you feel like toppling over." By comparison, the family tree metaphor of the title was less original and a bit overworked.

Of the three perspectives, Joaquin's was the most compelling. I probably would have prefered a book centered on him, but I often have that issue with multiple point-of-view books. I would still recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys heartwarming family stories with diverse characters. You should also check out my list of Best Contemporary YA of 2017. Thanks, Barrie, for recommending this novel to me and for hosting the book review club.

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@Barrie Summy

My resolution for 2017 was to write the first draft of the young adult novel I researched in Japan. The manuscript is going to two crit partners later this week, and there will be many more drafts and beta/sensitivity readers (including my Japanese American niece) before I give the manuscript to my agent, which is my writing resolution for 2018. Also, I'd like to learn more Japanese, and I will remain politically active since Maine is a swing state. What are your resolutions?