Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Body art and the cost of artistic expression

I love art in just about all its forms - music, painting, writing, sculpture, photography, digital, costume and fashion, etc. I used to dabble in sketching, before I settled down to concentrate on writing as my form of art.

As an artist of sorts, I know that there is a cost to artistic expression. Sometimes art comes easily, at least parts of it, but over the long haul it is exacts different forms of cost in terms of time, money, sacrifices such as limited social life or limits in other areas. The artistic temperament can also extract a high cost in terms mental peace.

The new YA release, The Summer Prince, explores the cost of art in the extremes that science fiction can take you in... and explores types of art that I've never given much thought to before: body art and graffiti.

Body art includes everything from tattoos, piercings, brandings, and scarrings. My teen stepdaughter recently told me how dermal anchor piercings, often combined with tattoos (to add texture and sparkle to a tattoo) are becoming very popular at her school.

Sometimes there are cultural reasons behind body art, and sometimes it is purely personal expression. I think temporary body bling is really fun, but I've never loved anything enough (like a tattoo, for instance) to get it done permanently. But it's always interesting when you get to hear the stories behind other people's tattoos.

Some piercings just blow my mind. Mostly I end up thinking: wow, that must be painful, and I wonder what makes a person want to express themselves that way? (This book sort of helped me understand it better, but I think it will also get teens thinking more about body art than just the short term fun/thrill of it).

Any type of art can be controversial, but extreme body art and graffiti seem definitely fall into controversy because of health issues and alteration of public and private spaces.

The Summer Prince dives into both these controversial areas head first. June, the main character, uses the advanced tech available in this futuristic SF world to do extreme graffiti and body art, as seen in the cover of the book: she implants lights in her skin to form patterns, though an unintentional byproduct of this body-modding is that the lights start to reflect her moods. So cool!

But even more wild, in this book nanotech has allowed for such extreme body modification that it can turn living humans into immortal data streams.

Extreme body modification results in so much controversy that some cities have outlawed it, which forms the basis for the plot and the conflict in The Summer Prince.

In the beautiful pyramidal Brazilian city June lives in, body modifying tech is severely limited, but on the other hand, the city's election of a new Queen every five years is heralded by human sacrifice. And you thought the Hunger Games touched on controversial subjects! The Summer Prince also frankly deals with same-sex marriages, homosexuality, casual sex and voluntary euthanasia. Because it's YA it doesn't get explicit in any of these, but this is still not a book I'd recommend to just anyone. I struggled through reading this book at times, but in the end I'm so glad to have finished it, because it does have strongly redemptive ending (like the Hunger Games series).

Here's five things that stood out to me about this book:

1) In the author's words: "it envisions a future that's not just about the US or about white people, that is cautiously optimistic, that is neither utopian nor dystopian" - neither utopian or dystopian: finally, yes!!! That is what this book is: complicated and hard to categorize, crossing boundaries, controversial, dense and rich, sharp and confusing - this book totally pushes the edge of YA.

2) June's city is governed by a matriarchal system:  it's ruled by women called Aunties. I find that title very amusing and ironic. And talk about an ironic twist at the end that made me sit up and go "wow!"

3) the city has an A.I. (artificial intelligence) system that makes it somewhat alive and sentient. It's illegal to for individuals to interface with the city, but of course breaking the rules is all part of the story.

4) the setting was in South America, and very rich with Brazilian culture intermingled with other cultures such as African and Japanese. Multi-cultural science fiction! It stretched me: I love to see the world in new ways and this book certainly delivers that.

5) Technology allows people to live up to 300 years, with the result that there are many more adults (grandes) than children and teens (wakas) and there are some complicated dynamics between the two. Also, the extreme body-modifying tech - this raises so many questions that the book explores.

My breakdown:

Characterization: June, Enki, Gil and Bebel are memorable characters, if not exactly likeable (they are all vain, in different ways). But they all have fascinating character arcs. June goes the furthest in her arc, and her perception of her art, especially as she strives to win the Queen's prestigious art award, reflects her changes. This is her at the beginning:
I'm an artist, after all, and I live for spectacle, for the construction of emotional states and evocation of suppressed feelings.

Let me tell you, she has quite a different perception of being an artist by the end.

Setting: The setting was tremendous. I could totally visualize this world and I want more of it. I want to visit more of the cities mentioned, with all their outrageous architecture and AI.

Plot:  This is the kind of book that challenged me to slow down as I was reading it and digest everything, and an ironic twist at the end that made me sit up and go "wow! I didn't see that coming, but of course I should have; how brilliantly it was set up!"  There were some morally controversial elements; this book is definitely not one that's meant to be swallowed easily.

Thoughtful elements: The implications of using nanotech to alter our bodies; implications of slowed aging, increased life spans; the cost of artistic expression, implications of matriarchal rule.

What's the last really controversial book you've read... what made it controversial?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Insecurity, obesity and other great stuff

Just a little sarcasm in that blog post title. But really, when you take not-so-great-stuff like insecurity and weight issues and put them into a story about overcoming these problems - then it really is great stuff. It made for VERY great stuff in Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson.

I also learned something about myself reading this book (and it's sequel, Crown of Embers).

In Girl of Fire and Thorns, I'm all sorts of worried and invested in Elisa, on her wedding day to a total stranger. She's overweight, insecure and awkward, and has to marry a dreamboat who also happens to be a king of another country. So she's going to have to leave behind everything she's familiar with. And also, this dreamboat king? - he wants to keep their marriage secret, for undisclosed reasons.

Oh man, girl, I'm with you. I'm scared for you, I totally get your insecurities and frustrations, I want to see what happens to you because despite your insecurities, you're going to blow them all away - eventually. I'm dying to see the process of how this happens (maybe I'll learn a thing or two).

So, about what I learned: first of all, I didn't learn how to lose weight. I mean, it's just not practical to get kidnapped by a band of rebels and go on forced march through the desert and get chased by animagus (those guys are scary). All just so you can lose some pounds.

But I did learn that I LOVE to root for an underdog, even an insecure, overweight one.

A lot of stories features underdogs, people who have to overcome seemingly impossible odds in order to succeed. Some stories, like Throne of Glass, by Sarah Maas, feature cocky, sure-of-themselves underdogs. When I read the first sample chapters of Throne of Glass, I was amused by the main character's attitude. She's been pretty much sentenced to death in a salt mine, but she grins and quips at her captors, and doesn't hesitate to remind them she's a world-class assassin.

Then I read the sample chapters for Girl of Fire and Thorns, and Elisa is the exact opposite. She's not confidant. She's not trained to kill, or really trained to do anything but socialize at court events. But there are small hints that she can overcome her insecurities and become a strong leader.

She appealed to me more than the girl in Throne of Glass, because she has much further to go in order to overcome the odds. 

You pretty much know, as insecure as Elisa starts out, that she's going to go through  a major change: lose weight, not let the king get away with keeping their marriage secret, take control of her life, save her city from the animagus that threaten to burn it down.

What keeps you reading is ... how will it happen? How will she change? How will she overcome? One reviewer had a great take on it: a fun riff on the whole 'Chosen One' sort of scenario that we are all so familiar with in fantasy. Rae Carson's story is basically, "What if the Chosen One...sucks?"

I loved that Elena's change from "sucks" to "savior" didn't happen all at once. And in fact in some places she seems to back track instead of making progress.

But that's real life, isn't it? how many of us succeed without some failures (sometimes BIG failures) to teach us?

The middle of the book takes a really drastic, unexpected turn. Forget a sleepy middle; the middle in the story made me sit up in bed and go "whaaa? I didn't see that coming" and trust me, there's even more unexpected twists and turns that keep coming after that one, too.

The book ranks up there with The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley, which is one of my all-time favorite books. If you love books where characters are transformed by harsh circumstances, but still manage to stay themselves, then you'll love this book. 

My ratings:

Characterization: 5 out of 5 stars. Elisa shines, even in her weak moments. Humberto, Alejandro, Rosario: A lot of characters with "o" names, but all uniquely memorable. 

Setting: 4 out of 5 stars. There wasn't anything especially fantastical or unique about the settings, but they felt very real, and I will never forget the sandstorm, or that crack in the cliff that Elisa had to hide in.

Plot: 5 out of 5 stars. Kept me guessing and in a few places, gasping with shock. Other spots made me react with a well-deserved fist-pump/high-five.

Pacing: 5 out of 5 stars. Fantastic pacing. Couldn't put the book down.

Dialogue/Voice: 4 out 5 stars. 

Personal appeal: 5 out of 5 stars. By the second sentence I was hooked, with the mention of the Godstone pulsing in her navel. A  high fantasy with down to earth touches.

Margo's literary scale: where 1 is "merely entertaining", and 5 is "really made me think": 4... so much to think about: where our insecurities come from and how we cover them up. Why some fail, some succeed. Much more. 

What's a book you've read where you learned something about yourself?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

An almost-kiss

In honor of Valentine's Day, I joined the Indie-Kissing blogfest, hosted by the Indelibles. For lots of steamy PG kissing scenes, head over to see all the links here.

Obviously, the spirit of this romantic day has somewhat deluded me, because:

a) I don't actually have a kissing scene to share because I totally chickened out when it came down to pasting a scene out here for anyone to see. Other writer's kissing scenes don't make me blush at all. My own??  Let's just say that if I get any redder in the face, it would bleed over through the internet. So I have an almost-kissing scene.


b) I'm not an Indie author and I have nothing published yet to promote. I just love blogfests and I haven't done one in a while.

So, before I chicken out, I present to you my "almost" kissing scene from my YA science fiction work-in-progress, Startripped.

Lander starts to say something, then shakes his head and closes his eyes for a moment. He faces forward in his seat again.
“What were you going to say?”
He shakes his head again. “I don't want to influence you - either to stay, or leave,” he says. “This should be your decision. It's your life.” One hand tightens around the steering wheel, the other clutches the device that is somehow transmitting sight to my eyes. A cell-phone in disguise.
“Tell me anyway.”
He turns and leans toward me again. Closer than before. He lets go of the steering wheel and brushes my cheek, and for a moment, I think he's going to kiss me.
Or maybe it's just me. Great. I’ve just been offered the hardest choice of my life, by a guy who can’t tell me anything about himself, and I want to kiss him?
“I really want you to come with me, Camria.” His eyes are locked on mine. It’s a powerful thing, looking into someone else’s eyes, at such close range. Even more intimate, in a way, than kissing. More vulnerable. It feels like he’s looking right into me, into all the places in my soul where fears and insecurities lurk. I want to flinch away and divert my eyes, but his expression holds me. He’s just as exposed as I am. There is such pain behind his eyes, and such longing on the surface, and hope.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ten Recent Romances

I've already done a top ten list on my favorite love stories here (Beauty and the Beast, The Time Traveler's Wife, and LadyHawke are on that list), so this list is going to be a little different. 

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). 

I have this odd obsession with categorizing love stories. I started out with thirteen categories of love stories here, and the following year expanded that to eighteen different types of love stories

But every year I discover more variations on all the different ways love can be found and lost. So here are ten more categories from some recent fictional romances that have come out in the past year or so. 

1. Crown of Embers by Rae Carson. Afraid love can't be returned. Hector is in love with his Queen (who he can't hope to marry) and charged with the role of protecting her life. And Elisa is all, oh I love this guy but there's no way he could love me back, he's just here because it's his duty.

2. The Archived, by Victoria Schwab.  "Working together dangerously" romance. Mackenzie and Wesley both do the same job, and its a very dangerous job (involving the "contents" of a creepy supernatural library). They have to keep their job a secret, too, from practically everyone else in their lives. So naturally they are drawn to each other, and naturally their job forces complications into their relationship. 

3. Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff.  In love with the enemy's man. Yukiko has the misfortune of falling in love with one of the Shogun's samurai (personal guard to the Japanese king) - and the Shogun ends up being the bad guy. So when it comes down to it, she doesn't know if Hiro is going to be true to her, or to his king. 

4. Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers. Forced to pretend to be lovers. Ismae is assigned the most insulting job ever: forced to pose as a mistress to a noble, where she has to pretend to be romantically involved in a dishonorable situation. Duval isn't very keen on this set-up either.  Not to mention they're in a political situation where they don't know if they can trust each other.  

5.  Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo. Tempted from true love by a powerful man.  Alina is in love with boy she grew up with, but knows she's just a friend to him. When she is forced to join the Grisha (an army of magicians) she is courted by the Darkling, the powerful and mysterious leader of the Grisha. Should she hold out hope for the friend she's really in love with, or give into this new temptation?

6. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. In love with a guy who is promised to your best friend. At least Seraphina has his friendship, though. Except for this: if he (or her friend, who is also the princess) discover her horrible secret, kiss everything goodbye.

7. For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund.  Love wrecked by obligations, but forced to continue to be friends.  In this futuristic re-telling of Jane Austen's Persuasion, Kai won't forgive Elliot for turning him down to meet her family obligations. Now he's flaunting his attentions on her friends and it's tearing her apart (and making him miserable too).

8. Scarlet, by A.C. Gaughn.  I'm too tough to fall in love.  A re-telling of Robin Hood, where one of Robin's gang is actually a girl in disguise. Robin knows Scarlet's secret, but she refuses to let him get under her skin. Turns out her toughness is a desperate attempt to cover up something else.

9. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.  Competitors pitted against each other fall in love.  Marco and Celia serve different masters, who are involved in some mysterious competition, with unclear but dangerous stakes. Marco and Celia are chess pieces in their games... until they overturn the board. 

10. Opposite of Hallelujah, by Anna Jarzab. I had the perfect love until I totally messed it up. Caro really lucks out with the neatest guy, who's crazy about her, fun to be around, doesn't even have any dark, destructive secrets. Nope, the secrets are what Caro has. So she lies. But then she gets found out. And Mr. Perfect is freaked out by it (turns out he's not so perfect after all). 

Which one of these categories most intrigued you? (or share a romantic category of your own). 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Giveaway: the Lost Girl

I have a copy of The Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna, to give away to a random pick from anyone who comments on this post.

This book is chilling like Frankenstein but so well disguised in a modern YA form that you swallow it all as a delicious drink of emotion and love and rebellion and you also swallow the horror of it because it's just that well-done. 

From Goodreads:

Eva's life is not her own. She is a creation, an abomination--an echo. She was made by the Weavers as a copy of someone else, expected to replace a girl named Amarra, her "other," if she ever died. Eva spends every day studying that girl from far away, learning what Amarra does, what she eats, what it's like to kiss her boyfriend, Ray. So when Amarra is killed in a car crash, Eva should be ready.
But sixteen years of studying never prepared her for this.

This is not a love-triangle book, but it is a twisty mess between the boy that Eva's really interested in (Sean) and the boy that Amarra loved, a relationship Eva is forced to step into when Amarra dies.  But this book goes a lot deeper than relationship issues.  I quickly realized that Eva has no rights of her own; echos are illegal and completely subject to their creators and "owners".  This book ended up being a lot scarier and with much higher stakes than I initially suspected. 

Eva is physically identical to Amarra, but she grows up to be her own person despite a lifelong process of training and indoctrination.  So for Eva, living as Amarra is basically living a lie.  Through carefully crafted writing, you also get a taste of what it means to Amarra, while she's still alive, to have to live with the knowledge that somewhere out there her echo exists - a person her parents authorized as her potential replacement! Then there's all the implications and issues it causes with Amarra's parents and siblings, and eventually her friends and her boyfriend when they discover the secret. 

On Eva's side you have her four guardians, who have raised her and loved her for years (basically, her family) and then suddenly have to let her go and sever all contact with her when she's sent to fill Amarra's place. So this wrecks their lives, too. 

And if all of this doesn't provide enough emotional angst (which is very, very well done), then you get two absolutely chilling characters, Matthew and Adrian, the Weavers: the people responsible for creating echos and marketing the lie that these people can possibly replace your original loved one. 

Matthew was a intensely powerful and scary antagonist. I couldn't believe how much I hated him and how scared I was for Eva because of him. And then there are the Seekers. And the chase scenes. OMG. The last 1/3 of this book was so intense I think I was twitching from nervous tics while reading it.  There's this place called the Loom where echoes are made that is freaky because through the whole book you can't help but wonder, just how are they made? We get hints that this isn't some clean, sterile test-tube baby process.

My breakdown:

Characterization: a fantastic array of characters.  Eva and her guardians (I couldn't get enough of Sean!), Matthew for the evil factor, Amarra and her family and her boyfriend for all the angst and secrets. 

Plot: a powerfully executed concept. 

Pacing: The hunters could have been used earlier to raise the stakes some more, but regardless, this book kept me riveted and often startled. 

Personal appeal: As soon as I read the description, I knew I wanted to read this book. And it delivered. The author wasn't afraid to take her character into her worst possible fears and greatest desires and to pull me in right along with her.    It also got me thinking about loss of loved ones, cloning, individuality, freedom, and human rights. 

Leave a comment for the giveaway - what do you think about human cloning? 

Please include contact info if you aren't signed in so I can reach you if you win. If you Join this site (see sidebar), I'll follow you back. Giveaway open until midnight February 11. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

My top 100 movies (Nathan Bransford's challenge)

Forgot a top ten list! Nathan Bransford challenges us to list our top 100 movies. Go to his post to see his top 100 movies and a bunch of other bloggers' lists too. From these lists there are at least a dozen more movies I want to see, including City of God, North by Northwest (how have I missed this one?) and Donnie Darko.

The first 20 or so are in order, the rest are pretty much random.

1.       Casablanca
2.       The Empire Strikes Back
3.       The Horse Whisperer
4.       The King’s Speech
5.       Gladiator
6.       Witness 
7.       How to Train Your Dragon
8.      Anna Karenina (1995)
9.       The Shawshank Redemption
10.   It's a Wonderful Life
11.    The Outsiders
12.    Star Wars
13.    Monty Python and the Holy Grail
14.    Déjà Vu
15.    Master and Commander
16.    The Wizard of Oz
17.    Gone With the Wind
18.   The Godfather
19.    Giant  (James Dean AND Elizabeth Taylor, wow)
20.  Glory
21.     Ferris Bueller's Day Off  
22.   Shrek
23.   Sleeping Beauty (because of Maleficent)
24.   The Princess Bride
25.   The 10 Commandments
26.   Ben Hur (the chariot race scene still rocks)
27.   Silence of the Lambs
28.   Les Miserables (1998)
29.   Persuasion (1995)
30.   Crimson Tide
31.    Hunt for Red October
32.   Seabiscuit
33.   Terminator and Terminator II
34.   The Incredibles
35.   Blade Runner
36.   Avatar
37.   Contact
38.   Inception
39.   Armageddon
40.   My Big Fat Greek Wedding
41.    The Painted Veil
42.   Shadowlands
43.   Back to the Future
44.   The Blind Side
45.   Speed
46.   A Time to Kill
47.   Man on Fire
48.   Courage Under Fire
49.   Steel Magnolias
50.   The Sixth Sense
51. I, Robot
52.   Gattaca
53.   The Island
54.   Thelma and Louise
55.   The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
56.   Life is Beautiful
57. The Little Princess (1939 with Shirley Temple)
58.   The Hobbit (2012)
59.   Remember the Titans
60.   Dances With Wolves
61.    The English Patient
62.   Star Trek (2009)
63.   The Help
64.   Airplane!
65.   The Green Mile
66.   Monsters Inc
67.   The Pursuit of Happyness
68.   Close Encounters of the Third Kind
69.   The Prince of Egypt
70.   Down Periscope
71.    Apollo 13
72.   Forrest Gump
73.   Raiders of the Lost Ark
74.   Lions for Lambs
75.   Robin Hood (2010)
76. Juno
77.   Up
78.   Crash
79.   La Femme Nikita
80.  Indochine
81.   Chariots of Fire
82.   The Ghost and the Darkness
83.   Jaws
84.   Traffic
85.   The Road Warrior

101.   Dead Poet's Society (a late addition!) 

Sentimentals (maybe not great movies but something about them stuck with me)
86.   Stepmom
87.   LadyHawke
88.  Stardust
89.   Beauty and the Beast (Disney)
90.   Toy Story 2
91.    Legend (1985)  oh, the unicorns!
92.   Excalibur
93.   Ice Age
94.   Finding Nemo
95.   Stargate
96.   Dirty Dancing

97. Thor (because of Loki)

98. Bambi

99. The Lion King

100. The Avengers

This was surprisingly fun and challenging! What movies are you scratching your head wondering why in the world they didn't make my list?? (grin)
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