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, Star Tripped, 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???

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Mortal Heart cover reveal and giveaway

The final book in "His Fair Assassins" series, by Robin LaFevers, has a cover! Mortal Heart won't be out until November (howls longingly at the moon) but it's never too soon to rave, especially since there's already two marvelous books out there to read if you haven't yet, Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph.

Set in Brittany in the 1400's, these books have four awesome things: historical royalty, political intrigue, and slow burn romance... and assassin nuns with supernatural gifts like being immune to poison.  How does one become an assassin nun? I have been especially curious about Annith's story ever since I first met her in the first novel, Grave Mercy. Here's the blurb for Mortal Heart:
Annith has watched her gifted sisters at the convent come and go, carrying out their dark dealings in the name of St. Mortain, patiently awaiting her own turn to serve Death. But her worst fears are realized when she discovers she is being groomed by the abbess as a Seeress, to be forever sequestered in the rock and stone womb of the convent. Feeling sorely betrayed, Annith decides to strike out on her own. 
But across Brittany, the tides of war are drawing ever nearer, with France pressuring the beleaguered duchess from all sides. Annith’s search for answers threatens to rip open an intricate web of lies and deceit that sit at the heart of the convent she serves. Yet to expose them threatens the very fabric of her existence and risks an unforeseen chance at love, one that she can no longer deny. Annith must carefully pick a path and, gods willing, effect a miracle that will see her country—and her heart—to safety.

Ah yes - that intricate web of lies and deceit that sit at the heart of the convent of assassin nuns - I'm dying to finally get the details.

To celebrate the pretty cover, Robin LaFevers is giving away one Advanced Reader Copy of Mortal Heart. Of course, they don’t actually exist yet, so really she’s giving away the guarantee of a Mortal Heart ARC, but that’s still exciting. Unfortunately, thanks to certain international laws, American ARCs may only be given away within the United States, so this will not be an international giveaway.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Top Ten reasons I love being a reader/book blogger

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). 

10.  I love to read because I get to be a princess for a day. Or an astronaut. Or an archaeologist. Or someone I never expected. Or to go places I never dreamed of...

9. I love to read because it makes me wiser. It connects me with all the wisdom of the ages

8. I love to read because it's like experiencing endless adventure 

7.  I love to read because it helps me discover new things about myself

6. Reading gives me a wider perspective, helps me see things in a new light,  better understand other people, become more compassionate

5. Reading fires my imagination
Source: ElenaDudina on DeviantArt

4. Reading (and a cup of tea) brings me comfort and contentment

3. Blogging about books I love helps me connect with other people who love the same books and characters

2. With a good book on hand, I'm never bored 

1.  I love it when I'm reading and discover a character who's going through something like I've gone through, or has felt the same way

What do you love most about reading?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

10 crazy ways to fall in love

Or, top ten books that will make you swoon.

I've already done a top ten list on my all-time favorite love stories here (Beauty and the Beast, The Time Traveler's Wife, and Jane Austen's Persuasion are on that list), so last year I started a tradition of listing my favorite love stories from the past 12 months. 

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). 

My top ten favorite love stories read from February 2013-2014...
(and a link to my top ten from February 2012-2013)

10. Parallel, by Lauren Miller. "Falling in love with your boyfriend's brother" - except, it's not quite as bad as it sounds, because it's Abby's parallel (herself in another dimension) who's falling in love with her boyfriend's brother. And that's why this odd love story appealed to me, because of the twisty effects of one girl living two different lives (sort of).

9. The Art of Wishing, by Lindsay Ribar. "Falling in love with your genie." Falling in love with a mythical creature! Oh, be still my mythic-loving heart!

8. Linked, by Imogen Howson. "Realizing that boy that always acted so superior to you was actually in love with you."  Elissa can't stand Cadan, who thinks he's so special because he gets to captain a space ship. But when she's forced to flee for her life, Cadan's ship is her only hope of escape.

7. Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. "Falling in love sharing headphones." There's so much more to their love story than just listening to music together, but it's such a simple but brilliant way to start it all.

6. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. This isn't actually a love story, but I kept thinking the golem and the jinni would fall in love with each other (they didn't). But the possibility of having two such drastically different mythical beings fall in love captivated my imagination.

5. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. "Falling in love over the same book."  This isn't the main reason why Hazel and Augustus fall in love, but it is, for this book-crazy girl, one of the best reasons.

4. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. This is the love story of Karou and Akiva and Madrigal, but it's not a love triangle, as the three names might imply. It is a love story involving mythical creatures and magic and mystery, and that's all I dare hint at without giving too much away.

3. The Queen of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner. I can't even categorize this love story without giving away the shocking and beautiful uniqueness of it.

2. Alienated, by Melissa Landers.  "Falling in love with an alien." This doesn't sound particularly romantic, but oh my, you're just going to have to trust me on this one.

1. These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner. "A survival love story."  This is sort of like the movie Titanic, set in space: poor boy and rich girl, doomed luxury liner, odds of surviving not good. But there is an unexpected dimension that makes this really stand out as a truly unforgettable love story.

What was your favorite love story from the past year?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Insecure writer: switching genres

The first Wednesday of the month
 is time for 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.
It's time for me to move on to a new writing project, or revisit an old one that got shelved for a while. But I'm having a hard time deciding which direction to head next. I have written four books now, all in different genres or age groups:  middle grade fantasy, Christian women's fiction, young adult historical fantasy, and most recently, young adult science fiction. I haven't really worried about this until I now because I love reading many genres, and so it made sense to explore writing in all my favorite genres.

But now that I've written in each of my four favorite areas, I'm wondering if it isn't time to finally "settle" with one.

Problem is, I can't settle. I still love all four of them. I have new ideas to pursue in 3 of the 4 genres.  It wouldn't be too much of a stretch from young adult fantasy to science fiction, since science fiction and fantasy are often lumped together. But from young adult SF/F to Christian women's fiction? That's not even remotely the same audience.

I'm torn between the maxim, "know your audience" and writing what I love.  I know self-publishing gives you more options, and there's also the option of publishing under a different name, but this is still an insecurity that pokes its head up once in a while when I try to look at my long term goals for writing.

Any one else out there in love with writing in wildly different genres?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Analyzing an alien exchange student

Ready to fall in love with your alien (yes, bonafide extra terrestrial) exchange student? Alienated, by Melissa Landers, releases today. This story is a sleek mix of American high school hijinks, romance, civil unrest and Star Trek Vulcan-ish culture-clash... without being as overwhelming as this sentence is.

Cara Sweeny, soon-to-be valedictorian and debate team queen, agrees to host an alien exchange student. It's been two years since the aliens made contact with Earth, and everything about them is still very mysterious and unnerving, even though they have the same DNA as humans. Even though they've provided a universal cure for cancer.

This post is going to be part book review, part analysis of writing technique, and part sheer jumping up and down in delight. I LOVED this book. It started me laughing in the first chapter and kept me smiling through out, even though it tackles some tough issues and includes some very tense scenes. Cara and her alien exchange student, Aelyx, are a pair you love to see clash. They make each other uncomfortable and frustrated and yet they still manage to grow on each other.

Okay, now that I've totally sold you on the book (wait, you're not sold yet? Please proceed to the review section with excerpts and tidbits that will surely delight you and win you over), the writer side of me has to point out a really well executed dual-point-of-view take off in this book.

The book starts off in Cara's point of view as she discovers she and her family have been selected to host an alien exchange student. She's shocked, (why me???), and justifiably concerned. This is going to change her life. But ultimately she knows it will be worth it, as a unique experience and unprecedented chance to learn about a new, um, culture. It's a great hook for starting a story and Cara's inner dialogue is hilarious, I immediately knew I liked this girl. She's smart and full of quips.

But then, just as I'm getting settled in to Cara's point of view, bam! the point of view switches to Aelyx as he leaves his planet, heading to Earth, and not at all happy about being selected to go there.

Now, this was a seriously risky writing move, because you're putting the reader into an alien head. It has to be different enough to be convincing (yeah, he really is alien), but still relatable, because if it's too alien, it's going to be a hard read, yanno? Well, trust me, the author pulls it off. But the big advantage with Aelyx's point of view is we immediately discover that he plans to sabotage the peaceful intentions of the exchange program. So when the point of view switches back to Cara, with her being all excited and nervous about her new responsibility, and us knowing it's doomed to fail, it really sets the story up with good page-turning tension.

Okay, enough analyzing and on to more happy rave reviewing.

Alienated starts off light-hearted and fun, mostly set in high school; and boy I was glad Aelyx was coated in his alien superiority because it made him immune to all the pettiness. At the same time I loved his brief moments of vulnerability, like when he flashes Cara a grateful look when she rescues him from a pack of L'annabees, freshman girls obsessed with him to the point of dying their hair and spray-tanning and dressing to look like a L'eihr. Speaking of which, "Friends don't let friends abuse self-tanning spray," is a perfect example of the inner dialogue Cara has with herself that kept me grinning through the first half. 

The second half - or about where Aelyx starts thinking of Cara as Elire - the whole tone of the book shifts into something far more serious and heart-wrenching. I loved Cara's courage (and at the same time I ached for her) as she doggedly sticks by Aelyx when anti-alien sentiment continues to rise at their school, in the town, and even globally. This girl has a big heart, and I just love to see how she cracks open Aelyx's well-bred coldness. 

She also has an eye for beauty, which I don't see often enough in YA lit. 
She lingered on the back steps to watch the sheets of foliage flutter to the ground like sunset-colored rain.

And the second half is where we also get the best dialogue, and repartee between Cara and Aelyx:
"Isn't there anything democratic about life on L'eihr?"

"No." He said is unapologetically, as if equally unimpressed with her government as she was with his.

"And you're really okay with that?"

"Of course."

He had to be lying. "I can't believe it doesn't bother you."

"What doesn't bother me? The corruption within your system of government?" He tapped his textbook as if the proof lay within its pages. "The inefficiency? The uninformed masses choosing whichever candidate made the most outlandish promises?"

"The lack of freedom, wiseass."

"Ah, freedom." He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, so cocky and sure of himself. "It's overrated."

"How would you know?" she asked. "You've never tasted it."

The tension continues to ratchet upwards both internally and externally, though a couple scenes with Blake the policeman and with the soldiers add some humor to balance things out.

One soldier propped against his Hum-V was even munching popcorn from a Smartfood bag. He nodded for her to continue as if she's pressed the pause button, and now he wanted to resume watching Romancing the Clone.

The science fiction elements of the book were just enough to intrigue and make me itch for more details about Aelyx's planet, their culture, L'eihr space ships, technology and weapons, and it's all introduced in small, well-paced chunks that imparted a lot information without ever overwhelming. 

But my favorite alien touch, (no pun intended), is the part with the pulse rate. In fact, I'm going back to that bookmark right now to re-read it. Oh, and the part where Aelyx was chanting the periodic table... swoon. Mere mention of the periodic table of the elements usually gives me hives, but not so with Aelyx, TRUST ME. 

I loved the ending: the tough choices Aelyx and Cara have to make and the consequences...and discovering the real reason why the L'eihrs sent exchange students to live on Earth. 

Everything in this story resonated with me except one scene in the very beginning, when Cara first meets Aelyx. If that scene bothers you like it bothered me, don't let it keep you from reading more because the book really isn't like that, I promise. 

I received a digital copy of Alienated in exchange for my honest review. I was not paid or in any way compensated for raving about it. I truly, honestly, deeply enjoyed this book. I plan to buy myself a copy to always keep, but thank you to the publisher for giving me a sneak peak.

Sorry this was such a long post, but wow! what a good book. So, your turn...

Are aliens intriguing to you? Or more like, no thank you, let's stick with humans please?

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