Thursday, April 28, 2011

Atlanta Nights : The Movie




It takes talent to write at both ends of the literary spectrum - exceptionally good and godawfully bad books alike. And Atlanta Nights

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The end of the semester


I got my grades!

Clinical Chemistry : A-
Hematology : B
Histotechnology : A-
Clinical Microbiology : A
Transfusion Practices : A-

Not the greatest I've ever done - and that was my first B in college so far - so my GPA is now 3.84. But on the plus side, I'm finished with classes! I'll still be paying tuition for a while, but that seems to rank along with death and taxes as something I can't escape.

During the summer semester I'll be doing Simulated Clinical, which is where the experience of working in a hospital or medical laboratory network is recreated on campus. High-volume workflows, reporting of dangerous microorganisms, ethical dilemnas and so on. But it's only three days a week, which gives me plenty of time to write, especially since there won't be assignments and exams. You're being evaluated as you work, instead.

SimClin lasts from May through July, giving me August off. In September I start my clinical placement, where the college puts me in a hospital or medical laboratory network to see how well I perform on the job. I just hope the hospital won't be way out in the boondocks, like in Yellowknife. The worst part about working in a small hospital is that I'd probably have to do phlebotomy (drawing blood), and that still scares the heck out of me.

Oh, and I get to pay tuition for this too. Seriously, if I were anywhere but Canada I would contemplate selling plasma at this point.

Clinical placement ends in February, when I take the CSMLS certification exam that qualifies me to work as a medical laboratory technologist. After that I don't have to pay any more tuition. Hopefully I get paid instead, when I have a full-time job again.

So that's the plan, everyone.

And if there's anything I've learned from life, it's that plans have a way of changing. But so far, so good.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Michael Rosen's Sad Book




Michael Rosen's Sad Book is another of the books I got for my birthday earlier this year. I first read it in 2006, and ever since then it's sat on my "To Buy and Keep Forever" list, so I was delighted to receive it.

Here's the first page :



He's sad because his son Eddie died. Drawings of Eddie from babyhood to the teenage years accompany the text - but the last drawing is simply an empty rectangle.

The book then describes Rosen's emotions and how he deals with them. It's one of the few books on grief that would work for adults and children alike, because it's simple, straightforward and honest. I would also recommend it for people who aren't religious, because it doesn't have reassurances that he will see his son again eventually, or claims that his son is now in a better place or still with him in some other way. I got a lot of those after my mother died, and they never helped.

Instead, the book just expresses what Rosen feels, and that is sad.

Sometimes he wants to talk about it with someone else, like his mother, but she's gone too. And sometimes he just wants to keep it to himself "Because it's mine. And no one else's." I thought that was very realistic. Grief is very individual, and everyone handles it in a different way, a way that might not be entirely rational.

As Rosen describes it, because he's sad he sometimes does crazy things like shouting in the shower or banging a spoon on the table. At other times, though, he tries coping strategies - like doing one thing every day that he can be proud of, or writing about sadness.

This last bit means that I don't want to be here
I just want to disappear.


But then he remembers his mother walking home in the rain. He remembers Eddie playing catch with him, laughing with his friends, dressed up as an old man for the school play. And he thinks about birthdays (the antithesis of death and sadness), because he loves birthdays.

And candles.

There must be candles.


The book closes on a wordless picture of Rosen looking at a framed photograph, with the scene lit by a single candle that burns brightly against the night. It's a restrained, vivid and evocative picture that ends the book with a sense that there is hope. No empty promises, no self-help messages... just a determination to keep going and to keep looking for that small, steady light.

I would recommend this book to anyone.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maria Zannini's True Believers




I've always been interested in fusing genres - and hopefully getting the both of best worlds in the process. On my blog, the genres are usually fantasy and science fiction, combined like the scientist in The Fly. But when I read that Maria Zannini had released a science fiction romance, I had to find out more.

Mostly because I enjoy both those genres, but couldn't recall reading more than one or two novels which spanned them both. Today Maria discusses some of the pleasures and pitfalls of this sub-genre, and does it with her trademark humor, attention to detail and solid background. Please give her a warm welcome - and be sure to check out True Believers. You'll see why after the interview.

1. Science fiction romance doesn't seem to be as popular as fantasy/paranormal romance. What are your thoughts on why this might be?

Maria : The ‘science’ part of fiction probably conjures dry, dusty data of things we’d rather forget from our high school physics lab. I’m not an egghead at all so I can commiserate with people who are afraid of a story coming off as stuffy and filled with technical jargon.

I liken SFR novels to movies like Star Trek or Avatar. You can tell a good story and still have a lot of exciting techy stuff happening in the background. We need more smart science fiction that can pull you into a techy world without boring you to tears. I remember watching the original Star Trek as a child. It was a fantastical world that was out of our reach. It was exciting and fascinating. We need to focus more on the awe and bring people back to the future. (Pardon the pun.)

2. What ways could authors use science fiction (setting/technology/aliens) to enhance romance? Sadly, the only thing that came to mind right away for me was sex in zero-gravity.

Maria : Is there anything sexier than a really smart hero or heroine who can get out of jams with nothing more than his wits? And let’s not forget the anatomically enhanced aliens who can rock your world just by getting naked. More than a few reviewers have mentioned True Believers’ hero, Taelen Jessit’s…ahem…extra man parts. …I can’t imagine why that tickled people so. :grin:

My favorite way to enhance romance is immersing the reader in a culture truly alien from our own. What might be normal for them would be totally foreign to us, and that can prove deliciously naughty and nice.

3. What clich├ęs would you suggest writers be aware of when writing SF romance?

Maria :• If you write aliens, make them physiologically believable. Pointy ears, wings, and gills ought to have a physical purpose for existing rather than serve as window dressing.
• Never forget that SFR is about relationships first.
• Every story doesn’t have to be epic. Sometimes it’s enough that the hero and heroine save the dog instead of the world.

4. What kind of scientific research did you need to do for your novel True Believers?

Maria : I am a conspiracy theory junkie so I used existing conspiracy theories to build the science necessary for True Believers. For example, HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program ) is an existing technology that uses high powered radio transmissions. This was the basis of the com-web in the story.

The AIs (artificial intelligences) were born from conversations I had with a computer scientist who once worked for NASA. I was shocked at what computers were capable of doing, so it wasn’t much of a leap to give my AIs personality and free will.

The research was more fun than I expected. It was also a bit scary. Society has progressed at an alarming rate this past half century. It makes you wonder where we’ll be in the next fifty years. I am hoping life will imitate art, and if that’s the case, we have our work cut out for us.

Thanks for your detailed and intriguing (extra man parts?) answers, Maria, and all the best with True Believers!

Bio: Maria Zannini used to save the world from bad advertising, but now she spend her time wrangling chickens and fighting for a piece of the bed against dogs of epic proportions. Occasionally, she writes novels.

Buy True Believers before April 30 and get an additional 15% discount. Just use coupon code BESTOFCARINA at Checkout. Offer is valid until April 30, 2011, 11:59 p.m. EDT.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tattoos in fantasy




I’ll never get a tattoo – don’t like either needles or permanent alterations to my body – but I do like reading about them in fantasy.

Especially when they’re beautiful, as in the case of the marque of courtesans in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel's Dart. Each courtesan owes a debt to their House, but can use the money they earn to pay for a marque, or tattoo, on their backs. When the tattoo is complete, the debt is paid.

With some effort, I recogmized the underlying design, which was based on a very old pattern, the briar rose. Somehow Master Tielhard had kept the dramatic vigor of the archaic lines, yet infused them with a subtlety that spoke at once of the vine, the bond and the lash. The thorny lines were stark black, accented only in a few choice hollows with a teardrop of scarlet – a petal, a drop of blood, the mote in my eye.

Tattoos, as such, are a mark of station and status. As in real life, they can indicate what a person is, and what organization they belong to. Since it takes time and skill to construct a sufficiently realistic and detailed tattoo, in a fantasy society this can be a sign of a person’s ability to afford one.

I also liked the tattoo in Matthew Woodring Stover’s first novel, Iron Dawn. An assassin has one in the shape of an Egyptian glyph meaning Destroy. Maybe other people, in such a society, might wear prayers for the purpose of defense. Would a vampire be able to feed off someone who had a cross tattooed on his throat?

But tattoos can be a sign of shame and punishment as well. The inmates of concentration camps were forcibly tattooed with identification numbers. In a fantasy society it’s often easier to brand a person, since tattooing means they have to be still for an extended period of time. If that’s feasible, though, and if branding is not desirable, they could be marked accordingly. Maybe someone who narrowly escaped the gallows could have the tattoo of a hangman’s noose around one eye.

In a role-playing gamebook I once read (Blood Sword 5: The Walls of Spyte), a character’s tattoos contained bound demons which she could summon, and there’s a Boris Vallejo painting of a man with a dragon tattooed on his upper arm. The dragon’s upper body rises out of the ink, becoming three-dimensional, and turns its neck to sink tiny fangs into the man’s flesh.

Tattoos can be studded with rhinestones or might incorporate thin slivers of metal embedded into the skin as well. They can be as elaborate as you like – and serve a dozen different purposes.

What tattoos do your characters have?

Picture from here: http://www.ebaumsworld.com/pictures/view/80600827/


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Unsinkable




A sixteen-year-old girl wants, more than anything else, to sail around the world alone.

When I was a kid, I read the Willard Price Adventure series and loved the stories of teenagers in foreign places, facing all kinds of challenges – including storms and shipwrecks. I thought Abby Sunderland’s Unsinkable: A Young Woman's Courageous Battle on the High Seas (written with coauthor Lynn Vincent) would be similar to that, except more up-to-date and gripping since it’s non-fiction. So I requested it from Thomas Nelson as part of their BookSneeze program.

There was another reason I requested it, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Told in alternating points-of-view – those of both Abby and her family/support team – this is both a biography and the story of a dangerous, unforgettable journey. In 2010, Abby sailed from Los Angeles, around Cape Horn and through the Atlantic Ocean, only to be caught in fierce weather in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That snapped the mast of her boat, leaving it disabled (and ultimately abandoned).

Her family counts other sailors, including her older brother – who successfully circumnavigated the globe in 2009 and inspired her. Their work on her craft Wild Eyes included painting a giant heart on the boat’s bottom to make it more visible from the air if the boat capsized. That was one of my favorite details.

Via phone, she was also in contact with her family and support team, who talked her through repairing the boat’s engine while storms raged and the satellite transmission was lost more than once. The book is fascinating in those parts. It’s bad enough to be a parent wondering where your child is; it’s worse when you can hear that child struggling to fix a disabled engine in the middle of the ocean, with a storm cutting her off periodically.

So when it dealt with the journey, this book was a great read.

However, the other reason I requested it was because Thomas Nelson’s website stated, “This title does not contain the amount of faith-focused content as many other books offered on BookSneeze.com. If you prefer Christian Living titles featuring a large amount of faith-centered content, Unsinkable is probably not the best selection for you.”

To me there was a large amount of faith-focused content. For instance, fortuitous events are always treated as the result of answered prayer or an act of God. And before Abby’s departure, her mother states that if her trip makes people aware of her family’s faith, it’ll be a success “no matter what happened”. Even if she had gone down with the boat?

There's also some controversy about whether a determination to break the world record ultimately sabotaged Abby's journey, and experienced sailors expressed concerns about her boat's seaworthiness. Finally, while the book didn't quite work for me, perhaps I should have seen that coming from the title. It's reminiscent of the Titanic... which sank as well.




Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What color is your character?




I’ve written about the use of color before, but it can also provide a touch of characterization, a visual flourish, when different colors are linked with different characters.

In V. C. Andrews’ My Sweet Audrina, the titular character is a troubled young girl who can’t remember much of what’s happened to her in the past. She’s usually dressed in white or violet. White is the color of innocence, but in this case it comes off as a blank slate as well, and violet symbolizes indecision because it’s neither blue nor red.

Antoinette, the protagonist of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, loves colors as vivid as the tropics where she lives. Her favorite dress is red, “the color of fire and sunset. The color of flamboyant flowers.” But the man she is coerced into marrying prefers her in virginal white, a bleached color with no passion in it. This also works because the moral judgment – linked with the symbolism of the colors – comes from the antagonist rather than from the author.

And in the movie Heathers, the colors of the characters’ croquet balls are just as significant – the head of the clique uses a red ball, the royal color of leadership, while the next in line for that position has a green ball, signifying envy, and so on.

I love symbolism. So in Before the Storm, Alex is called the Black Mare, wears a black dress when she first meets the hero and uses a black ribbon as a bookmark. That’s not a warm or happy color. It implies danger, both of the sinister sorcerous variety (think Snape or Raistlin) and the seductive kind. Bad girls wear black.

Watch for nuances, though. Violet doesn’t carry the same connotations as purple, so it may sound more normal for a king to wear royal purple than to wear royal violet. And the names of colors should take geography and history into account. The color ultramarine didn’t come into use until the year 1598, and a world without a certain painter is also unlikely to call a woman’s hair Titian.

What color is your main character?

Image from : http://www.jupiterimages.com/Image/royaltyFree/95588442



Friday, April 8, 2011

Under Pressure




The subtitle of this book is Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, so of course I had to read it. Growing up as the firstborn child in an Asian family meant getting straight As and being a virtuoso on the piano. So I was curious to read about this kind of stress on achievement in other cultures as well.

The author, Carl Honore, explores how different aspects of children’s lives – schoolwork, play and sports – can be intensified by parents who become too involved. Very often, this does lead to surprising achievement early on in life, such as the case of the world’s youngest marathon runner (Budhia Singh, aged 4*) and a girl who began playing the violin at three.

Honore shows the flip side of this, though, the prices that are paid only later on in life. Children pushed too hard to participate in an activity may end up hating it. And if all the stress is placed on achievement rather than on enjoying the sport or skill, children don’t develop creativity. Rather than painting a picture that expresses their vision, they’ll paint by numbers, trying to produce something that ticks all the right boxes so that they’ll get an A. It creates a lot of fear of failure in the children.

It can create something even worse in obsessive parents, too. One of the stories that made me search the web for more was the case of Christophe Fauviau, whose two children participated in tennis competitions.

Unbeknownst to his children, Fauviau began spiking their opponents’ water bottles with Temesta, an anti-anxiety drug that causes drowsiness… Eventually the scam came to light after one victim crashed his car and died on the way home from a match against Fauviau’s son.

A website mentioned that, “the alleged poisoning had taken place during a minor friendly tournament in which the first prize was a ham.”

I also like the story of the couple who, trying to give their first child the best possible start, bought him electronic educational toys that beeped and made animal noises and spoke Spanish. But the overstimulation left the child bored and edgy, and they soon realized that “by giving him toys that did everything, [they] left him with nothing to do.” It’s true. My favorite toys as a kid were the simpler ones that let me use my imagination.

The only thing I didn’t agree with was the idealization of preschool systems where teachers have a hands-off approach that allow the children to explore and develop what catches their fancy. I don’t think many three-year-olds would be that focused or serious about learning. Other than that, I enjoyed this book – and felt grateful that I escaped the worst such excesses.

“On 8 May 2006, a government statement had ordered that Budhia stop running until the age of 11.” --> Link





Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My birthday surprise


First, a picture of the cake.











This is the first time since I turned 18 and left for college that someone made a cake for me. :) My amazing landlady did it.

This is me being stunned as I open a present.












A little backstory on the presents - my friends asked what I would like, so I gave them a wish list of books. Unfortunately it turned out most of those books were out-of-print or just hard to obtain, some requiring weeks to ship. Which I didn't realize at the time, since I'd made the must-have list a long time ago, and whittle it down gradually by buying myself one of those books every two years or so.

Obviously the time factor isn't important when I'm crossing off an entry on the list, but my friends didn't think any of those books would arrive in time for my party. I told them I didn't mind. If those books had been on my list for years already, more time there wouldn't make a difference.

But one of them did arrive. My favorite.



After that we all ate and drank a lot.











Then as we were lying around, too full (and buzzed) to do much else, one of my friends noticed I had a copy of David Limbaugh's Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity. It was the first review copy I ever received, so I kept it. She began reading it, getting very annoyed as she did so and reading out choice excerpts to us.

Another friend of mine is a huge Firefly fan, so I thought I'd show her an, um, unique take on the show. Warning : potentially offensive content. She started reading that and became even more incensed, reading out the worst comments to us while I polished off the rest of the wine and made doggie bags (fish cutlets, pineapple jam tarts, corn muffins and cake) for my friends to take home to their menfolk.

I later heard that the menfolk were pleased, but also bemused at the way we ended the evening. "It sounds like you all just sat around reading and got angry," one of them said as he looked at the David Limbaugh book my friend had borrowed.

But a good time was had by all anyway.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Five more original titles of books


1. The Strangers Within, by William Golding

Eventually became Lord of the Flies. I like the latter. It emphasizes the horror in the book, even though it’s clear that the evil comes from within the characters rather than from an outside force.

2. Before This Anger, by Alex Haley

That was the original title of Roots, so this was probably a change for the better. Roots, as a title, focuses attention on the most important part of the book – the passing down of a heritage through the generations.

3. The Sea Cook, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Finally titled Treasure Island. Definitely an improvement, since “Sea Cook” implies a plump man in an apron, rather than the clever, sinister Long John Silver.

4. Tenderness, by D. H. Lawrence

AKA Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That reminds me of the experiment a company did by putting out two perfumes, one called Saint and the other called Sinner. Guess which one had better sales?

5. Catch-18, by Joseph Heller

Since Leon Uris’s Mila 18 was released before this novel, it went through a few more numerical changes before gaining the now-familiar title.