Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Unconventional, complicated female heros

Some of my favorite girl characters are fighters: literally sword-fighters or kick-boxers or killer archers or have super powers like Katniss Everdeen, Sabriel, Alanna, Buffy, and the Avengers' Black Widow.

This Tuesday Top Ten is NOT about them! (This week's theme is Top Ten Characters Who ARE X... we get to pick, from the Broke and Bookish blog). 

I love strong fighting girls. But I don't want every dystopian, fantasy, science fiction or action/thriller book I read to feature a girl who can hold her own in physical combat, or has special powers to the same effect, and I definitely don't want that to become the main requirement for a "strong female character."

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.  (quote from Sophia McDougall's article here) 

Does anyone else feel like the kick-butt heroine is overdone in YA? So many of them in paranormal/dystopian stories in recent years. (tweet by Michelle Witte)

So this is my list of girl heroes in science fiction or fantasy that saved the day, with unconventional strengths.

Elisa in the Bitter Kingdom, by Rae Carson.
In the first two books and part of the third, Elisa does have a special power that sets her apart, though she struggles with insecurity. Without spoiling the third book, I think I can safely say her power changes enormously. She saves the day in an unexpected way with unconventional strength.

Lilac in These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner.
Spoiled, rich, smart, fashion-saavy, clever with space ship mechanics, party girl, chased up a tree, great at putting guys down, dangerous with explosives, determined, dogged... there are so many dimensions to Lilac.

Seraphina, in Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. I need to read this one again because I honestly can't remember the details of the ending and how Seraphina triumphs: but she's a very complex character with a lot going on in her head and no special abilities to help her stop a war between humans and dragons.

Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle.
Her stubbornness and love is what she uses to save the day.

Miri in Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale.
If I remember correctly, it was primarily Miri's diplomacy and smarts that saved everyone.

Ani in the Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale.
Ani's discovery of her magic doesn't impact how the ending turns out. In other words, the magic isn't what "saves" her, except in a very small way. 

Hermione in the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
While Harry Potter often gets credit for the "big" saves, Hermione saves the day and Harry's skin in many smaller ways. I loved that she was Muggle-born (nothing special, no magic in her family) and that her strengths were that she worked really, really hard to study and learn and observe and figure things out.

Okay, here's a couple more who did have some special powers/fighting prowess/weapons to help them along, but their strength was evident in many others ways too:

Ismae in Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers.
She's trained to be an assassin, so at first I didn't include her in my list. But in the end it's not her special skills that make her stand out, but her mercy.

Karou, Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, by Laini Taylor.
She's pretty keen with a knife and has some unusual powers but she mostly fights (using this term loosely) her enemies in surprising ways.

I am sure there are more great examples of girl heros like this that I've missed. Help me FIND THEM, please!!!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book hangover. Series hangover. Serious hangover.

The term "book hangover" shows up in the Urban Dictionary!

When you've finished a book and you suddenly return to the real world, but the real world feels incomplete or surreal because you're still living in the world of the book.

I just finished the last book in a trilogy, Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor,  and I'm going through a bad book hangover. I don't want it to be over! I want prequels and sequels and spin-offs! I want more mythical creatures, more clashes between our world and Eretz, a fantasy parallel world.  I want more of the characters: Karou and Akiva and Liraz, Zuzana and Mik and even Fake Grandma and the White Wolf. I want more of Prague and Morocco and Rome, and the Kirin caves and Astrae and the Far Isles. Chimaera and seraphim, Stelian and stormhunters.

But more of what I want is not likely to show up for another couple years, if ever, so in the meantime I'm chewing over just what drew me so much into this series. I've read several very good series over the years but only one other (the Lord of the Rings) has gotten under my skin as much as this one.

Things that drew me in both series, the Smoke and Bone series and Lord of the Rings:

1) rich world building, including mythology

Both Eretz and Middle Earth have different sentient races, cultures, traditions, rich histories and mythologies and languages. Middle Earth also had a detailed geography (Eretz needs a map! please, Ms. Taylor, make us a map!)  I've started other fantasy series that have similar world building richness, such as Game of Thrones, but was never tempted to finish the series, so there's something more than excellent world building

2) epic scale

Nothing short of the entire world (or even worlds, plural) is at stake and there is a generational aspect to the story, with a long history of conflict.

3) destiny

Can Aragorn reclaim the lost throne of Gondor that is rightfully his, but so much stands in the way? Can Karou and Akiva realize their dream of peace finally, the end of the thousand year war between their races?

4) longing stories

Not just love stories, but longing stories (and stories, plural). Aragorn and Arwen, Eowyn and Aragorn and Faramir; Akiva and Karou, Ziri and (spoiler). Longing for other things too, like the the elves longing for the West or the dwarves for their lost Moria. Karou longing to know who she is in the first book, Eliza longing to know who she is in the third book. These books convey a deep pathos, a twining of love and loss and sacrifice.

5) layers and intertwining threads

My head spins trying to think of how the authors fit together all the layers of stories throughout the series, with complicated histories and prophecies and  twists, set-ups, and implications.

6) family, friendship or fellowship

The nine in the fellowship of the ring (including the one traitor) and all their different personalities and quirks and a little bit of picking on each other or one-upping each other. Zuzana and Mik and Issa as Karou's friends and foils and Hazael and Liraz as Akiva's.

7) laugh out loud moments

No explanation needed.

Other admirable series I've read:

Iron King, Iron Daughter, Iron Queen, and Iron Knight by Julie Kagawa
Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen by Garth Nix
Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson
Wings, Spells, Illusions and Destined by Aprilynne Pike
The Harry Potter series, of course
The Mitford series, by Jan Karon (not fantasy, but arguably just as much world building!)

Series I plan to finish:
Grave Mercy, Dark Triumph, and Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers
The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik
Shadow and Bone, Seige and Storm, and Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
The Archived, The Unbound and hopefully a third book by Victoria Schwab
The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner

Have you ever had a book hangover? and what kind of literary cocktail caused it? (grin)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Top Ten most unique books I've read

I picked books for this list that I couldn't think of any other books to compare them to. These were not the easiest books to read, but I love how their different perspectives made my brain work a little harder.

Top Ten Tuesday is  an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish blog with a different top ten list theme (all related to books) every Tuesday (see the full list here). 

1. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
A demon instructs another less experienced demon on how to tempt mankind. Imagine a story from the perspective of your worst enemy who knows you entirely too well, while he/she is plotting against you. When you see how your enemy perceives you, it is very eye-opening.

2. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
About the friendship of two women during WWII . This book was written in a very odd, bold perspective that made me roll my eyes numerous times; but at the end I slammed the book shut and shook my head in amazement. I do believe the book wouldn't have been half as memorable if it had been written with a more traditional perspective.

3. Feed, by M.T. Anderson
I should have hated this book; it's written from the perspective of a bored, spoiled teen boy. Everything is blah blah blah to him; he has everything he could possibly desire but nothing satisfies. Somehow this book absolutely hooked me and amazed me (and terrified me).

4. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
Just... just... words fail me... so good. So scary amazing mind bending good. Like many of the other books on this list, some aspects irritated me because it was so unusual. But SO WORTH it if you stick it out to the end.

5. Snowcrash, by Neil Stephenson
A twist on virtual reality. My first experience with cyberpunk, and it rattled me and amazed me. I'm not sure if it qualifies as unique but from my perspective it certainly was.

6. The Stranger, by Albert Camus
I vehemently disagree with many things in this book, and at the same time think it is very perceptive. Not as colorful as the Great Gatsby, but this one was even sharper. The most memorable of all the required reading I survived in high school.

7. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson.
A matriarchal society set in a far-future Brazil. I have never before met such a cast of vain and unlikeable characters... with powerful character arcs that left me very impressed.

8. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
The main character, the narrator, is Death. A very interesting character, too, with an opinion on everything.

9. Shatter Me, by Taherah Mafi.
Sort of a stream of consciousness book, unique (to me) because half of the main character's thoughts are struck out on the page, and the other half are numbered.  It was hard to read, but some of it was like visiting a museum of the rarest and finest of beautiful and unique expressions

10. The Mitford series, by Jan Karon
These books were unique to me in that I never thought I could identify with a 60 year old single man (and an Episcopal priest) as a main character. I still don't know how Jan Karon did it, but these books are some of my all-time favorites.

What's the most unique book you've read?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A little writing wisdom and fun

I am out of town so this month's contribution to Insecure Writer's Support Group is really short and sweet, just a few recent writing pins to share:

"Editing is like killing your story and then very slowly bringing it back to life" - www.joanoram.com

Editing sometimes feels more chaotic than organized. 

If only I were like Tony Stark when it came to research and novel writing...

"All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn't your pet, it's your kid. It grows up and talks back to you." - Joss Whedon. 

So true!

At first I didn't agree with Tolstoy's insight here: "I have found that a story leaves a deeper impression when it is impossible to tell which side the author is on."  But the more I think about this, the more I am intrigued by this.

What have you recently seen or heard that made you look at something in a new way, writing or otherwise? 

The first Wednesday of the month is Insecure Writers Support Group, hosted by Alex Cavanaugh and his excellent team. Click here for a list of all the participants and to join in. (I'm posting a day early since my schedule is all weird this week. I also won't be able to catch up with other posters and commenters until this weekend, but I'm looking forward to it). 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why do presidents always have daughters?

Never thought about this till recently, but it seems like American Presidents (at least recently) tend to have daughters. Obama: two daughters. George W. Bush: two daughters. Bill Clinton: one daughter. Then there were four presidents with sons and daughters, back to Nixon with two daughters and Lyndon Johnson with two daughters, as well. Just random trivia that I discovered while reading When Audrey Met Alice, a charming book about a fictional 13 year old daughter of a future Madame President (more random trivia: a female President's husband is called the First Gentleman).

This book was so much fun. All the ins and outs and quirks of the White House; all the embarrassing situations that Audrey gets herself into that get national publicity of course; her nickname (Audi)... and the fictional diary of Alice Roosevelt that Audrey discovers hidden in the White House, written in 1902-1903 when Alice was also adjusting to living in the White House and adjusting to the public spotlight. Alice Roosevelt was a hoot!

Her father, Teddy Roosevelt, says of her "I can either run the country or I can control Alice, but I can't possibly do both."

It's a bit presumptuous to write a fictional diary of a real person, attributing made-up thoughts and words and personality and perspective of events (did Alice really say "I've found the secret to eternal youth, and it's arrested development"? Did she really carry a pet snake around in her purse?) But I cannot resist contemporary storylines mixed with historical ones, and Alice's voice felt so spot-on for a high society turn of the century tomboy. And her story complimented Audrey's story to a T.
As a child, I begged him [her father, Teddy Roosevelt], "let me loose in  your library." Now I begged him to let me loose in the world. 
I can totally believe that Alice carried a copy of the Constitution around in her purse, too.

I loved all the history and ambience of Roosevelt's era (it made me crave more! wish Teddy had shown up more), and I loved every occasion the fictional female president was mentioned (not enough). There's one scene with Audrey, Quentin and the President that cracked me up. Quentin is Audrey's crush, and the complications of trying to have a boyfriend with Secret Service agents lurking about was touched upon - I wished there'd been more of that, actually. And more of Quentin, who won me over with his musical inclinations and using a Sharpie to write 'Here comes Treble' on the edge of his shoe... adorkable.

I think I love this kind of book (contemporary/historical mix) even more than traditional historical fiction (without a contemporary blend). But the advantage of traditional historical is you get totally immersed in another time. Which kind of historical do you like best?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Life is beautiful and hard

Cancer has been haunting my family for a couple years now. My mother-in-law. I'm sitting here wracking my writerly brain for a better title. She is worthy of so much more than "mother-in-law". Right now I am thinking of her as my "hero-mom."

She's receiving hospice care now. 

Since I am struggling with words, I am going to resort to pictures. Art and photography and music are balm when my words fail me. Right now I cannot even find the right music, but I have collected art and photos over the past few years that right now seem to fit. 

This one is pure expression of joy. Love it! and it seems to fit, as my hero-mom's name is Joy. 

And finally I find some words, from an old poem:

True love is a durable fire, in the mind ever burning
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning. 

-Sir Walter Raleigh

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Top Ten girl friendships

Last week I found this great post on girl friendships in young adult books, by Jessica Spotswood, author of the Cahill Chronicles (which has now been added to my TBR list).

 I'll just jump into her great summary first, then share a list of books (sadly, too short of list) that feature strong girl friendships.
It strikes me, though, that the most common girl friendships in YA are sort of token friendships - the best girl friends who recede into the background once the heroine meets the right guy. This is one of my literary pet peeves, possibly because it rings so true to my own high school experience. I was the single girl amidst lots of couples, with girl friends who only made time for me when they needed relationship advice or consolation after breakups. It made me realize early on how often we idealize romantic relationships and focus on them to the exclusion of all else, and it gave me an early feminist horror for making a boy the be-all and end-all of one's life. I know firsthand that that dynamic is super realistic - but I don't think it's emotionally healthy or ideal, and too often it seems to go unquestioned within the text. If most other girls are either rivals or placeholders until our heroines meet the boys of their dreams - what is that saying? 
Jessica's observations about token friendships rang so true to me. When I scanned my virtual shelves, I wished I could have found more YA books that featured a strong female main character who had more than a token girl friendship. A girl friendship that actually meant something to the plot or a secondary girl that was also given her own character arc.  I found EVEN LESS strong friendships in the adult realm (though granted I don't read much outside of YA/MG these days).

I was so lucky, so incredibly blessed, to have a real honest to goodness BFF in high school. Our relationship had its ups and downs, to be sure (someday I'm going to write a story about us), but she was never a token friend, a frenemy, or a filler friend for in-between boyfriend moments. She was the real thing (and she still is, despite 2000 miles between us).

I don't think many girls keep friends like this after their tween years, or maybe it's just not reflected in literature because the boy relationships take the spotlight. I want to see more complex, plot-related friendships in stories. More like these:

1. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. An amazing, complicated friendship set in WWII in England and France. Queenie and Maddie are amazing girls. One flies planes in the war (true story! Loved to discover more about the little known female WWII pilots) and one was a spy (again, I had never heard of female spies in WWII before). Their friendship is just as dramatic as their individual roles.

2. Parallel, by Lauren Miller. Abby and Caitlin are the real core of this story, even though there are two well written love-interest storylines here, too. The two BFFs have a major falling out with plot implications and developments.

3. Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers. This book is set in the 1500's at a convent (a very unusual, scary sort of convent), and establishes the friendship, loyalties and tensions between three girls at the convent. The friendship aspect fades out as the story progresses (my only complaint) and isn't resurrected as much as I hoped in the sequel, but it definitely gave me a taste of what I crave.

4. Like Mandarin, by Kirsten Hubbard. This one is a really complicated girl friendship: one girl is older and world-wise and the other is young and naive and a bit star struck when the older girl singles her out for a friend. There's some bad influence going on here, but that's not the main gist of this story. Its an honest look at two very different girls with very different issues who learn from each other.

5. The Latte Rebellion, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson. The friendship of Asha and Carey reminded me a lot of me and my high school friend, and while this particular friendship faded as the priorities of the girls changed, it was for different reasons than the cliche intrusion of a boy. The excellent part of this book too is that the change in the relationship is pivotal to Asha instead of just being a "given".

6. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell.  Not nearly as strong an example as the other books listed above, but I was pleasantly surprised; what I first thought would be a token conflict between Cath and her college roommate Reagan turned into an unlikely friendship that tied into the plot.

7. Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater. Another not-quite-strong enough example, but Isabel is a case of a token girl character (and an unlikeable snotty one at that) who surprised me by developing into a very strong and vital counterpoint to Grace's character... a "reluctant ally because I have to be" role that eventually develops into a real friendship.

8. Vampire Academy, Richelle Mead. The interesting bond and friendship between Rose and Lissa was the highlight of this book to me. Jessica Spotswood sums it up well: "here are elements of jealousy, of negotiating boundaries (especially since she has a psychic bond with Lissa), of figuring out how to define herself away from the friendship"

9. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor.  Many supporting cast girls in YA books are great characters, vibrant and memorable, but they just don't get to play into the plot enough. Zuzana is exactly one of these, a character who should have had a larger role alongside Karou. But she's still definitely more than a token friend and her role is not insignificant in the sequel. Curious to see how much of a role she gets in the third book coming out soon.

10. I haven't read this one yet, but I want to: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Anne Brashares; I think it's a good candidate for the strong girl friendship category.

I'm also going to mention these books, even though they didn't have strong enough girl friendships for me to remember, their settings would have been a perfect springboard for interesting girl friendship dynamics. Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer, explores werewolf pack dynamics, and had potential to develop interesting friendship dynamics between pack members. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Gemma Doyle is about a clique of girls at a Victorian boarding school with gothic flavor. So much potential but the story just didn't clique with me, no pun intended.

At first, in middle grade stories, all I could think of was girl-boy friendships such as Hermione/Harry/Ron and Percy/Annabeth/Grover, but thank you to Laura Marcella for reminding me of Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables.

In the non-kidlit world, my two favorite friendship books are The Help (the unlikely friendships in the 1960's of two black maids, Minnie and Aibileen with two very different white women, Skeeter and Celia), and Talk Before Sleep, an absolutely beautiful, heart-wrenching portrait of the friendships of women, one of whom is dying of cancer.

 And yes it's a movie, but how can I not mention Thelma and Louise?

What's your favorite girl friendship book? I seriously want to add to my list.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In which an old dream is rekindled

Over the past year I've been having SO MUCH FUN re-reading some of my favorite childhood books to my daughters:  the Chronicles of Narnia, Bambi and Bambi's Children, My Side of the Mountain, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, and A Wrinkle in Time. We just finished Bambi's Children and I was debating what to offer them next: maybe Anne of Green Gables?

Then it occurred to me, hey, why not read them my book? Back in 2009 I finished writing a middle grade story about unicorns.

Ahhh, unicorns.

Alas, after finishing it, I found out it was way too long to be acceptable to agents and publishers - it was 130,000 words!!! At that point I realized I had to break it down into two, maybe even three books, which meant a major restructuring. I got overwhelmed at the thought, and switched to a new writing project, and then another new one after that, and I just never got back to middle grade story, even though it was my first love.

But now it's occurred to me that my oldest daughter is 12 years old, and she's getting close to the point where she'll be switching from reading middle grade to young adult. Right now she still loves animal stories and will read anything with horses or dogs in it (or unicorns). But I know her tastes will probably change... my stepdaughter was 13 when she read Twilight and she craved purely young adult after that point.

So right now seemed like a good time to see if my girls would be interested in Refuge (logline: In order to save the last remaining refuge of the unicorns, Selty needs help from her worst enemy: a human girl), before the oldest one has moved beyond middle grade and talking animals.

But would they actually like it? And how would I manage the problem of a 130,000 word, ridiculously long book? Well, I started re-reading it, and the five years of writing experience I've had since writing this book showed me immediately how to trim this monstrosity down. Back then I rambled through a story; a lot my scenes were extraneous, not really furthering the plot, just meandering here and there. Since then I've learned how to keep scenes focused on furthering the story. As I was re-reading,  I got excited thinking about how I could tighten it up and make it so much better - but I was also excited by how good it already was (well, to me at least!). I immediately fell in love with it again, and decided to try reading the first couple chapters to my girls to see how they'd react to it.

Absolutely terrifying. Reading this book to my family took all my nerve. I know some writers who have their family read everything they write, even their SFDs (first drafts, you insert the S word if you like) (Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird fans will understand), but I'm not like that. I only want to share the good stuff with them, the certifiably, beta-reader-proofed good stuff. I wasn't sure about this old draft from 5 years ago. But as I started reading, my girls laughed - in all the right places where they were supposed to laugh. They didn't wiggle around and tease the cat and build blanket forts like they do sometimes when a book isn't fully engaging them. And when I finished the 2nd chapter and said "that's all I have, for now," they said, "awwww! We want more!"

And I said, "Really? did you really like it?"

"Oh yes!" Four pairs of shining eyes. "We really liked it. Especially the unicorn parts." (My girls are unicorn and Pegasus crazy, just like I was, and maybe still am. We are different in lots of ways, but if you put pretty shiny horns or wings on a horse, our eyes all light up.)

Well, maybe it was a fluke. I read them chapters 3 and 4 the next night.

Same reaction. "You want me to keep reading this one?" I asked them.

"Yes!" (4x)

I'm not sure if they'll let me get it edited and tightened up first... but I'm already elbow deep in edits and I guess my official next writing project is not young adult, like I expected, but back to middle grade.

Amazing how an eager audience will motivate you!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

It's all about gratitude

The first Wednesday of the month
 is time for Insecure Writers
hos Support Group, hosted
by Alex Cavanaugh and his
excellent team. 
Click here for a list
of all the participants and to join in.
This post hits two different events with one of those magical coincidental (or maybe not so coincidental?) moments of perfect timing: the Insecure Writer's Support Group and the It's All About Gratitude Blog Hop.

What better way to deal with insecurities than to gently wrap them up in gratitude? I have been keeping a "1000 gifts lists" on my personal blog for nearly four years now, and I just reached 800 things to be grateful for on my list. I've also noticed how in those four years my perspective on life has really changed.

I'm still insecure and worried about a lot of things. But purposefully seeking out things to be grateful for has provided a mysterious and wonderful strength to face the hard things in life.

hosted by Sheri Larsen

Insecurity:  I worry that being an introverted writer means I can't connect to most people

Gratitude:  I'm thankful for being introverted. I may not be the life of the party, but I know my friends and family value me for being a good listener, for being empathetic and sensitive to what others are going through

Insecurity: I worry that the time I spend writing could be better spent elsewhere

Gratitude: I'm thankful for the joy writing brings me. The joy of a new idea, and the joy of revisiting old writing and seeing new potential there.

Insecurity: I worry there will be so many rejections they will crush my lifelong dream.

Gratitude:  I'm grateful for the rejections that also contain a note about the things they liked in my writing, or a hint about what didn't work that I can learn from.

Insecurity: I'm not consistent enough. I don't write everyday. I'm too on-again, off-again.

Gratitude: I'm thankful I always come back to writing, and that I can balance my life with other important things.

Right now this week I'm grateful for a critique partner who read the latest version of my manuscript and said "This is ready to submit!" and other complimentary things. I love how she described my characters just the way I wanted them to be.

I'm also grateful for another, unexpected compliment from an acquaintance that I have a "gift for teaching kids" - as a homeschooling mom and a Sunday School teacher, that compliment was a great gift and encouragement.

I'm grateful my daughter's broken arm is healing nicely and I'm grateful that even though the car I wrecked last week isn't fixed yet, no one was hurt in the accident and meanwhile I have another vehicle to drive.

What are you grateful for this week?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My middle name is Danger

"My middle name is Danger," is something Maisie Danger Brown doesn't like to tell people, because it's such a misnomer for her. Because she's homeschooled, she's slightly disabled (born without one hand), she loves poetry, and she's a wanna-be astronaut nerd. All of those things absolutely endeared her to me. 

Dangerous, by Shannon Hale, releases today and I've been eager to share the details about this interesting departure from Shannon Hale's usual famous books, like The Goose Girl and Princess Academy (middle grade audience, set in traditional fantasy settings). This book is young adult science fiction, blended with X-men-like superhero stuff.  The blurb for this book is almost useless, all it mentions is "falling in love with a boy at space camp" - leaving out what I found most interesting of all:  that Maisie's determined to become an astronaut, despite being only one-handed.  

In a nutshell: Dangerous is a dashing blend of science fiction (SPACE!!!), young adult angst, poetry, and superhero antics. What I loved: SPACE!!!!!! and GREAT dialogue and some very cool ideas. 

What I didn't like so much: too much action crammed into one book, resulting in a breakneck pace that I couldn't keep up with at times. But I'm glad I stuck with it, because I really liked how the end turned out. You know how you're not supposed to take the movie Back to the Future that seriously? That's sort of how you should take this book, just sit back and enjoy the craziness and try not to connect all the dots too closely. 

I also tend to judge a book by how much stuff I highlight in it: funny tidbits, thoughtful tidbits, nerdy cool ideas or expressions. And I highlighted A LOT in this book. So that tends to make me happily overlook its flaws.

First line (not counting the prologue):

Every superhero has an origin story. Mine began with a box of cereal.

I just loved the first chapter. We get Maisie's great voice, her Paraguayan mother, her multi-lingual background, ("Gaucala," I said. The Spanish word for gross sounded so perfectly gross), her scientific lecturing and punning father, we find out she's missing a hand (a heroine - a superhero- with a disability!), why she wants to be an astronaut, we find out what a space elevator is (note to self: must read Asminov's Fountains of Paradise for more science fiction space elevator geek happiness), we get to meet homeschool friend Luther, who I LOVE, and the beginning of the Maisie's character arc. (She has this belief that in order to succeed she must turn off all her emotions and become "Maisie robot." Which of course she completely fails at.) 

Here's a little excerpt where you get a feel for Maisie's mix of sharp wit and naivety:

Wilder looked at me leisurely before opening my folder. "Astrophysics in 2-C. That sounds like a party in a jar."

It did. If a party in a jar was a good thing. Would setting a party inside a glass container make it more amusing? Or was he being sarcastic?

"And you have Navigation in 4-F," I said, though he didn't ask.

"I can't just follow you to astrophysics? Sit in the back, pass you notes, sketch your profile on my desk?"

I was sure he was kidding. Almost sure. I should have done some homeschool projects on Teenage Social life or Boys in General.

Wilder did not follow me to astrophysics. I looked around a few times, just to be sure.

I was not a fan of Wilder. There was a very mild love triangle going on in this story, and I was definitely on Luther's side. Wilder didn't have much character and what he did have (the smooth talking) is something I've never liked or trusted: but he wasn't meant to be a trustworthy character. 

Another untrustworthy character I did like though was Bonnie Howell, eccentric billionaire, space developer, genius, and astronaut boot camp director. Here's her opening speech to the kids at boot camp:

"Your teenage brain is a work in progress. If you want big, beefy brains as adults, you must learn to organize your thoughts, control your impulses, and explore abstract concepts while you're still a teenager. Challenge ourselves, for pity's sake! By adulthood, any neglected areas in your brain will shut down. So sit back and stick to what you know, and you'll be condemned to flimsy, pathetic little pinatas, frozen in form with no hope of establishing the connections you ignored as teenagers. Okay?"

And she left the stage.

If Luther had been there, I would have whispered to him, "I give her an A for Brain Trivia, B for Bounciness, and D for Closure."

One of the things I loved about this book was how it combined all sorts of nerdy science stuff with dashes of poetry.  
"Poets seems to know things that scientists don't. And vice versa. Maybe they balance each other out somehow."

And this: 

"Poetry kind of reminds me of looking at things through a microscope." 
I didn't know what I was saying - I just started to talk. "I got a microscope when I turned six. You know, physicist mom, biologist dad. I examined things I thought I knew - a strand of my hair, a feather, and onion peel. Seeing them up close, they changed. I started to guess how, you know, things are more complicated than they seem, but that they have patterns, and the patterns are beautiful. Space has all those patterns and intricacies and mysteries, but not tiny under a microscope. So big, so expansive, when I think about it, I feel like the solid parts of me are dissolving and I'm out there in the blackness and light..."
...I wish I could explain better. NASA's next urgent mission should be to send good poets into space so they can describe what it's really like.

"'Stars, hide your fires,'" Jacques said, not looking down at Earth but out. "'Let not light see my black and deep desires.'"

He was quoting Macbeth, I was pretty sure. At least I wasn't the only apt-to-quote nerd aboard.

At first it's really not clear why  5 of the kids from the astronaut camp get picked to go up the space elevator into space and are given alien artifacts that produce superhero like powers in them... it feels a little fishy at first, but at the end it's all explained (I think it should have been explained sooner), and the ending is really pretty neat.  Meanwhile, there's a lot of chase scenes, a lot of trying to figure out who the real enemy is, and there's also a lot of violence, several deaths and a dismemberment (yikes... just thought y'all should know).  

There's also a "I'm not sure if I should love him or kill him" kind of romance going on, and there's a scene where Wilder tries to tempt Maisie into bed with him and she's VERY tempted but she turns him down. YES! SMART GIRL! 

Definitely a book for anyone who loves space, science nerdiness, superheros, lots of action, and a touch of poetry. 

I received a digital copy of Dangerous from Net Galley in exchange for my honest review. 

Oh, and see you tomorrow for Insecure Writer's Support Group!

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Oscars according to me

I was reading predictions from IndieWire about which movie is going to win the Academy Award this year (The Academy Awards are this Sunday), and here's the skinny:

"Gravity" vs. "12 Years a Slave"? That certainly seemed like the narrative we were heading into for quite some time, which would have shared  commonalities with the "Avatar" vs. "The Hurt Locker," "Hugo" vs. "The Artist" and "Life of Pi" vs. "Argo" showdowns that met the last three years (an expensive, 3D critical and commercial hit versus a smaller film tackling history in one way or another)... History won all three times, but this year is clearly closer than ever. 

My vote is usually for the history film - I'm a huge fan of history (The King's Speech still makes me cry happy tears!) - with one exception. When history comes up against really-well done, visually stunning, thought-provoking science fiction, I'm really torn.

I haven't seen 12 Years A Slave, so this is totally unfair for me to root for Gravity to win. (Personally, I'm surprised The Butler didn't get nominated, another good historical).

But Gravity was such an excellent story and such a vivid portrayal of space, with all its beauty and stark danger, that I can't help but root for it to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

I have never been so tense (in a good way) while watching a movie before. By tense in a good way I mean, yes, the character is in grave danger, but there's also the excitement of a challenge that can be overcome by applying expertise, courage, and perseverance. And I especially love it when an unlikely character, like Sandra Bullock's nervous, fearful, heartbroken character, manages to overcome her fears and rise to the occasion and accomplishes things at first she's too terrified to even try.

Encouragement from George Clooney's character (sometimes in a really surprising way!) gives Sandra's character the strength and inventiveness to save herself against almost unimaginable odds. The lullaby she hears sung across space from a remote radio operator in Greenland... hauntingly beautiful.

I just finished writing a young adult science fiction story set in space (my logline begins: Camria and her twin sister were the first children born on the International Space Station), and I did A LOT of research on the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. So it was really exciting to me to see a lot of information I'd learned confirmed and even more exciting to discover one spot in the movie which didn't match with what I'd learned about movement in space, but was probably added as a device to increase tension.

While reading more about the scientific accuracy of the movie: I learned some neat little details about zero gravity:

Stone's tears first roll down her face in zero gravity, and later are seen floating off her face. Without sufficient force to dislodge the tears, the tears would remain on her face due to surface tension  (Wikipedia)

But what I loved most about the movie was it really made you feel, with amazing cinematography and 3D technology, as if you were in space. I probably won't have a chance in my lifetime to visit space (unless a commercial venture becomes possible, but then I'm not sure I could afford it), so any opportunities like this, I eat them right up. Praise from critics does such a better job than me at describing the wonder that is this movie:

"a huge and technically dazzling film and that the film's panoramas of astronauts tumbling against starfields and floating through space station interiors are at once informative and lovely"... (Matt Zoller Seitz) 

"restores a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the big screen" (Justin Chang) 

the film "in a little more than 90 minutes rewrites the rules of cinema as we have known them." (A.O. Scott)

What's the last movie that amazed you?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How to start an epic story and giveaway

I'll get to the epic story stuff in just a moment, but first, let me tie it into a personal story.  February has not been a good month for me. One of my seven year old twins broke her arm (badly! - three pins needed to put it back together badly!) riding one of our horses because I DID NOT GET THE SADDLE tightened properly and it slipped on her. She had to have surgery (amazing scopic surgery without an incision, but still, SURGERY!) And then this Sunday, I caused a car wreck because I was driving off in la-la-land. No one was hurt, thank goodness, but still. A CAR WRECK. My car will be in the shop all week. Plus, a few other smaller things have happened that have made me a little blue this month.

NOT A GOOD MONTH (for my whole life, it seems like February has just been a blue month for me. Thank goodness it's only 28 days long). 

This weekend after my car wreck I was so blue that I didn't know what to do with myself. The same negative thoughts kept replaying. I couldn't even distract myself with a good book. So I'm just randomly surfing the internet trying to distract myself from all these sad, negative thoughts. And I check in at one of my favorite writing blogs, Adventures in Children's Publishing. They are doing a giveaway for the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, all three books signed by the author (the last book is coming out soon) and to celebrate, Martina Boone did a first pages analysis of Daughter of Smoke and Bone to show how to start an epic story (Daughter of S & B is SO VERY EPIC).

(You should definitely go sign up for that giveaway! It ends tomorrow!!!) 

It's been a year since I read Daughter, but as I was re-reading the first couple paragraphs that Martina was analyzing, not only was I enjoying seeing how to start an epic story, but I was totally getting sucked into the story again. Here's the first paragraph: 

Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark--in the dead of winter the sun didn't rise until eight--but it was also lovely. The falling snow and the early hour conspired to paint Prague ghostly, like a tintype photograph, all silver and haze.
I immediately identified with the "no sinister premonitions". (I hadn't had premonitions how bad my day was going to be, either). I also loved how Martina pointed out how the setting sets the mood. Mondayness, Januaryness (I could easily substitute Februaryness in there!), ghostly. 

Martina sums it up perfectly: "those lines give you everything. Character. Voice. Setting. A hint of danger." Also a question... the character doesn't have any sinister premonitions, but by just telling us that we know that she SHOULD have sinister premonitions. Something is going to happen... what? what? something is going to happen in a ghostly dark Prague morning. I MUST KNOW. Especially since I already have an emotional connection to this girl. We're feeling the same Januaryish/Februaryish feelings. 

Then the next paragraph: 

On the riverfront thoroughfare, trams and buses roared past, grounding the day in the twenty-first century, but on the quieter lanes, the wintry peace might have hailed from another time. Snow and stone and ghost light, Karou's own footsteps and the feather of steam from her coffee mug, and she was alone and adrift in mundane thoughts: school, errands. The occasional cheek-chew of bitterness when a pang of heartache intruded, as pangs of heartache will, but she pushed them aside, resolute, ready to be done with that.

More atmospheric, moody, foreshadowy setting, and emotion. Really, the SAME emotion I was feeling (though for different reasons):  a touch of bitterness and heartache, those naggy "if only" thoughts that are sometimes so hard to chase away. 

Martina says the author "paints the descriptions of Prague with the brush of Karou's aching vulnerability. But she doesn't wallow there. Instead, she immediately sets Karou into heroic motion"... Now what got me thinking was that Karou's "heroic motion" was simply encountering her ex-boyfriend, the cause of her aching vulnerability, as he tries to charm her back into his untrustworthy arms, and she resists him. She doesn't give into the temptation.

And this may sound corny, but I knew right then that I could resist the whole "I'm feeling so sorry for myself, my life sucks, I'm an idiot" self-talk and I could face that I'd made some mistakes, but they didn't have to make me miserable or keep holding back with negativity. 

And then I immediately went to my book shelf and found Daughter of Smoke and Bone and completely enjoyed myself reading the first half of this book all over again. My story certainly isn't epic, like Karou's, but as readers we identify with characters on the small things, too. 

There's more to Martina's excellent analysis plus a photo tour of her recent visit to Prague. Go check it out! 

And share with me the last time you identified with a character right on the first page, what book was it???