Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book review- Trader's Tales- Half Share

With barely enough time to keep up with my current work and writing obligations, I am finding myself with little time for recreational reading. Fortunately there is a vibrant audio archive out there, from news to fiction and I have a long enough commute to get some enjoyment in.

Trader's Tales: Half Share - Book Two in a series of books set in the "Age of Golden Sail" by Nathan Lowell 

Available in audio and print format, I found Half Share a little short (about an hour's less listening time from Quarter Share), but as enjoyable to listen to as Quarter Share.

Half Share sees Ishamel Horatio Wang move from the Mess Deck to Environmental and from a member of the crew to a ship mate. Where Quarter Share focused on Ishmael's adaptation to spacer life, Half Share delves into the deeper relationships of the various crew members and Ishmael's interactions with them. The conflict again remains entirely off screen - one decking and a character back story that makes Ish's seem rosey - while the main story focuses on Ishmael and his relationships with three of his ship mates.

As Lowell's gift of speech unfolded the story of Ish's post Henri experiences I came to realize I had been fundamentally wrong about one thing. This realization opened up a greater appreciation of the book. In my review of Quarter Share I said "about the simple life aboard a merchant ship plying the deep dark."

Thing is, Ishmael's story isn't about a simple trading ship. It's about an exceptional ship. No, it's not the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, able to make the Kessel run in 12 parsecs. No it's not an awe inspiring Super Star Destroyer, able to cast a shadow on passing planets. But it is exceptional. In a galaxy of run of the mill cargo haulers, the Lois McKendrick and her crew are one of the super stars. Being a super star of cargo isn't so very exciting, so it's easy to see how people could think Ishmael was having it too easy.

And Ishmael isn't a skill-less nobody. Again, he's no Luke Skywalker, hero of the Republic, or James Bond, super spy of her Majesty's government. But you take a boy and have him raised by a bright and individualistic literature professor and you end up with someone who's outlook on life is far different from your average eighteen-year old.

No, the Lois is something special and Ish proves to be the catalyst that makes her sing. Lowell masks a tale of "right place, right time" within a seemingly hum drum tale of merchant spacers. Which explains why I've already got Full Share queued up on my iPhone for listening. It certainly should be interesting to see how Ish handles the inevitable change to a new ship that must come in future stories.

Solid Story: It's not an epic tale of galactic warfare. But is a ripping good yarn about the life of a spacer and the adjustments one makes to live that lifestyle.

Slowed Down: While we know Ish will be jumping a test in the next book, you don't get as much of the "Ish can do no wrong." He's stymied by the more advanced environmental tests and you learn just how low a position Half Share is when he talks with his new boss and his orders boil down to "if it's anything but green, call me. Don't do anything else, just call."

Reading Style:  Nathan's reading voice is excellent. He's able to give each character a distinctive voice, so that he could omit the "X said" and you would still know who was speaking.

Laughter: Half Share continues in the humorous foot steps of Quarter Share. I found myself laughing in delightful peals at many of the stories comedic moments.

Size continuity: The omnipresent tablet is a schizophrenic object. Ishmael studies nearly the entire Spec 1 Environmental course on it and yet it was small enough to store in a ship suit pocket. When he was able to put it into his civilian sport coat, without it causing an issue, that's when I started to have some issues. Now, to Lowell's credit, this story was posted in 2007 so when he wrote it tablet computers were still the stuff of fiction. Unfortunately now it is something I noticed. Owning an iPhone and iPad I know how little detail work I can do on the phone vs the pad. From the descriptions, the tablet in the story couldn't be more than 3x5, which would make it a poor study tool, ship deck plan device and so on. Still, maybe it has a roll up screen or something else high tech.  Similar issues with the 3D welkie sculptures and how easily they get carried around pockets. I wear sports coats often and know how even a set of keys will ruin the line.

Time continuity:  This happened a couple of times, but the most glaring was During one of the major heart to heart talks. One of the characters goes out on a tour of the ship, something that takes 30-45 minutes. While she's gone, Ish and another lead character talk. There were no "time passes" moments but after only about ten minutes of conversation, Ish passes the first character just coming back from their tour of the ship. It worked plot wise for the conversation to happen then, but ti was till jarring. All in all a minor quibble.

The Cymru rating: 8/10
I'd expected to not rate this as high as Quarter Share. I think the author expected the same after my last review. Were I to rate Half Share on the same story style as Quarter Share, then it likely would have been only a 6/10. But Half Share was an entirely new story, new perspective, new goals, just the same fascinating characters.

Would I buy/listen to this author again?: Yes
I'm now on to book three in the series and I will most certainly explore other works by Nathan Lowell.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: Trader Tales 1: Quarter Share

Apologies for the long absence (what you were gone, hadn't noticed). Yeah, well I know I'm not exactly the edge of your seat must reading. I've been applying my creative writing skills to a speech I'll be giving in relation to my day job. If it goes well, I have folks that want me to turn it into a training course and maybe a book. Given that, it's been my main focus for a while.

But I can't let a great book go by without a little recognition to it.

Trader Tales: A Quarter Share - Book One in a series of books set in the "Age of Golden Sail" by Nathan Lowell

The first chapter book I have a conscience memory of reading was Farmer in the Sky, by Robert Heinlein. While almost certainly not my first chapter book, it is the one that left an enduring impression upon me. From that very beginning I've been fascinated with Science Fiction. The first role playing game I really got into was Traveller, a science fiction themed game and I've always had a special love for the "ordinary" of space (which is why Farmer has stayed with me for so long). Some of my favorite parts of Science Fiction novels have been the mundane or "character building" sections of a book. The hero, who would grow to be the Captain of the ship, on her first cruise and all the foibles of learning to be a spacer. These chapters have been as much my favorites as the dramatic battles that saw the fates of whole galaxies change.

I also have a passion for the early nautical life of Earth. From Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada to the Age of Sail and Nelson's gallant battles, I love the sea borne life. The Horatio Hornblower series rates right up with the Honor Harrington series as my all time favorite book series.

So when someone (I'm pretty sure it was Tee Morris) mentioned Trader's Tales with a description of "Hornblower in space," I had to check it out.

Summary: It's About the People
Quarter Share is the first book in a series. Like Hornblower, it starts with the character at the bottom of the pile. He's an eighteen year old orphan with no skills, no money and no clue. And it took an act of kindness to keep his story from ending right there. This books only action is all off screen. No emergencies, no disaster, one off screen mugging and the only death is before the story starts. It's not about dramatic action, but about the simple life aboard a merchant ship plying the deep dark.

And that's what makes it so interesting. Maybe my life is just too filled up these days, but the simplicity of the book was what appealed most.

The Good:
- First person narration: It really works for this book to have the lead character (Ishmael Horatio Juan) tell the story in his own words. It gives it the personal nature that makes the book really work. Had he not done that, it likely would have been too much like Hornblower. As it is, the book stands alone for the narration style.
- Great lines: Good thing I usually listen to this in my car. I found myself laughing often and loudly.
- The "feel": Not sure how to state it any better. The overall fabric of the story makes for a very visual story. I could see the shape of the Lois McKendrick and smell the coffee brewing.
- The hornpipe: He used hornpipe music for transitions and this tied it nicely back to the original Age of Sail.

The Bad:
- No failure: Something that the Hornblower stories have, which Trader's Tales doesn't, is the knock you to the ground and still get back up again determination. Horatio Hornblower scrabbled every step of the way to each of his promotions. Ishmael doesn't face the same challenges. He has the normal getting used to shipboard life, but everything he tackles he achieves. There is no adversity and by the end of the book I was left wondering a little how he could have gone from zero to so competent in five short months. Hopefully the future books will introduce a little more challenge.

The Cymru rating: 8/10
On its own, it rates a strong score. The sequels will have to work hard to keep the same score.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Creativity vs. Continuity

So I've been working on a writing assignment for five of the last seven days. Even at a very modest five hundred words a day that means I should have 2500 words in the can. Right?

Zero words later I have run smack dab into the steel cage death match of creativity vs. continuity.

As I've mentioned before, one of the reasons that I love writing is the ability to make stuff up. Being able to create a character, a plot, a new technology, even an entire universe , words can't describe. And getting to read your words in print is both humbling and completely ego satisfying.

Now if I were writing a short story, in a made up universe, that bore no connection to modern reality at all, I could do whatever I wanted to do with that creativity. Need a wormhole from Houston 1945 to Alpha Centauri 5012? No problem, just insert an interphasal flux wave form engine and I'm done.

Only when you start playing in a sandbox that is connected to something bigger, then you start to have issues. If I'm going to use a flintlock pistol, then I can't kill a person at a 1000 yards with it. Everyone knows what a flintlock is and that it can't do that. When you start playing in an entire universe you really start to run into constraints. Imagine if a writer tried to put transporters into Star Wars? That would go over about as well as symbiotic life forms that channel energy (Okay, so important note. When you invented the universe, you get to change the rules.) If you want to write in the Star Wars universe, you have to play by the Star Wars rules. Jedi don't use red light sabers, Wookies don't speak English and no one says "Beam me up."

So five days into my writing assignment and I'm at zero word count. Welcome to research and note taking. I've not written a single usable word, but I've researched the technology I'll be using, the backgrounds and names of the characters and the time period for the project. I have to admit, some of it has been a royal pain in the seated portion of my anatomy. It would be so easy to use no-name references, run of the mill technology and a time period with no relation to any major event in the universe. I could do that, but I also know the readers of BattleTech love the intricate details and when something new slides into the existing history like a hand into a glove, we have happy fans.

So for this project continuity wins over creativity. If you want to play in someone else's universe, you gotta play by the rules.

I do have this great idea for a completely unconventional knight in shining armor in a no name fantasy universe. Maybe next week.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Welcome to the future- Writing now, inventing then.

BattleTech Art- 2010
BattleTech Art- 1988


Why be a writer?

I've been asked this question more than once and goodness knows I've asked it my to myself many times. In my three part blog, on being a freelance game designer , I touched on this same question.  More recently I had a chance to revisit this question and have it lead to another interesting question that just has me wondering.

Being a fan of BattleTech and a father of boys it is a moral responsibility to introduce them to the game. I'm currently reading the original Warrior's Trilogy, by Michael Stackpole  to my oldest son (For those unfamiliar with BattleTech, this trilogy introduces the entire BT universe through the eyes of the major powers as an interstellar war unfolds) . Perfect bedtime story material (with some minor edits to remove some words). While reading the first book, Warrior: En Garde I had an absolute "welcome to the future moment."

One of the lead characters books an interstellar voyage. Her profile is loaded into the cruise lines computers and a series of automatic actions takes place. Her medical file is reviewed and the computer automatically adjusts the pharmacy's inventory for items she might need. Flight Engineering reviews her physical statistics to ensure she can handle the travel and any other special medical needs she might have. Her food purchase and restaurant ordering history is then dissected and the data is compiled with all the other passengers to shape the menu for the cruise.

Then things get really fun. Her age, social status and other factors (interests, clubs, education, etc) are reviewed. First the housing computer decides she gets an active deck, with other younger passengers (no screaming babies in her future).  Her dining partners for the first few meals are then determined. She is automatically booked for several activities that match her personality. After all this, the review by the intelligence agency computers is almost tame. In the matter of a few seconds her entire life is analyzed and her entire trip is laid out to best match what is expected she will want. 

This book was written in 1988.

In 1988 the Internet hadn't even become mainstream. Email was something scientists and college students had. You still used floppy disk to save data. Intel's premiere computer chip was the 386SX and had a blinding clock speed of 16MHz! Just to bring this back to reality, Intel chips today run in the 3.0 GHz range. That's GigaHertz! One Gigahertz is equal to 1000 Megahertz.

And here Mike Stackpole was writing about technology that we are just now seeing come into its own with the explosion of Social Media. Over twenty years ago, when the Internet was likely something he'd never heard of, he was creating technology we have today.

So that brings me back to my questions.

Why do I like to write fiction?
Because you get to make **** up! When I wrote the Castle Brian rules for BattleTech's Jihad Hot Spot Terra I was treading brand new ground. I was writing rules that had never existed in the BT universe. It was a complete rush to make up new things that people would be reading and incorporating into their games. I'd become part of the fabric of the BattleTech universe.

So I've only been writing for a few years now. In that time real world technology has surged ahead but I've not had any moments of "Hey I thought of that." Which brings me to my next question.

I wonder if Mike Stackpole ever looks around him and says "Wow, twenty years ago I wrote about just this."?

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE… (It's a great song, even if you don't like country)

Stackpole is not the first, of course. Heinlein, Asimov, Clark and the other fathers of modern Science Fiction were making predictions about the future decades before it came to pass. Heck, what robotics scientist doesn't have the three laws of robotics memorized?

Why be a writer? Why not? Even if it never makes me a fortune, there is something about playing with the reality. Whether you're writing a 20's era detective mystery - with magic swords and dwarves, or a 31st century interstellar war - with great big stompy robots, the sky is the limit. And you just might end up predicting something that happens in the future.


Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review: Phoenix Rising

Secret agents, explosives, strong drinks - not shaken not stirred, gallant British gentlemen and beautiful - and deadly women. Ah the good old British Intelligence, God save Queen… Victoria?

No, this is not a review of the latest James Bond book. It is a tale of everything else I just mentioned. Toss onto that clockwork technology and a whiff of the supernatural and you have all the makings of a Steampunk era British spy thriller in the tradition of the Avengers, with the old "new" tech of Artemis Gordon.

Phoenix Rising (A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel) is the collaborative work of Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine. Tee Morris has written both fiction and non-fiction, being the man who literally wrote the book on audio book podcasting and has given us the sarcastic wit of a dwarven detective in Capone's Chicago and the high seas swashbuckling thrill to remind us of the era of Errol Flynn. PJ Ballantine has a knack for fantasy and weaving it into a completely realistic setting, be that Elizabethan England or a future may be Cyberpunk world.

So the first worry I always have when reading a collaborative work, is if it will flow. Having been one of many writers in single product, I know how easily it is for the different styles to become very jarring. This wasn't an issue. I'm familiar with both Tee's and Pip's writing styles and I found it hard to tell the two styles apart. They clearly took time to blend their work together.

The story itself starts off like any good action movie. In a scene that would give James Bond a run for its money we get a taste of the era, the steampunk technology and the decidedly opposite personalities of the two main characters. And much like Mulder and Scully, it's antagonism at first sight. If the heroes are to save the British Empire, it looks like it will be in spite of themselves, given how little they get along. After all, how smart is it to call the person you just saved a lunatic. Especially when laying in the open door of an airship a couple thousand meters over the frozen expanse of Antarctica.

And that's just the first chapter - which you can read for free from Amazon.

I have to agree with other reviewers who've noted how well Phoenix Rising exists with in the setting of Steampunk. Goggles and gears are not some decorative icing tossed on the top of some pulp fiction thriller. Instead, Morris and Ballantine have woven a complete tapestry where the technology is part of the world and history has adjusted ever so slightly to reflect this technologically advanced British Empire. Any doubt on the richness of the universe they have created can be dispelled by listening to any of the eight podcast short stories set in the MoPO universe.

I don't get to read much these days and it takes something pretty special for me to buy an actual paper copy of a book. Phoenix Rising is just such a book and I am certainly looking forward to the next book in the series.

PS- Congrats to Tee Morris who has just proposed to his writing partner. May Tee and Pip have many happy years of marital and authorial bliss together.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oh My Ears and Whiskers, How Late it's Getting!

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

Adams was a masochist, pure and simple. As I sit here I have missed a deadline. Not just a, "whoops, I know the deadline was yesterday", miss. No this is a, "somewhere last month I was supposed to have this all done", kind of miss. The sound of it whooshing by was not pleasant. Honestly I don't think of it as whooshing by, but more that it rushed up on me, knocked me to the ground and is now sitting on my chest subjecting me to Chinese  water torture.

Of course the first, obvious, question - and one I know my editor will ask if he reads this - is "if you have time to write this blog, don't you have time to work on your assignment". The answer is a "Yes" and a "No." Yes, I am writing. In theory that means I could be writing the assignment I'm late on. No, I shouldn't be writing it right now because if I wrote it in the head space I'm in, I'd write utter garbage. I've learned the lesson that there is a difference between "Just write" and "Write what needs to be written." If you can't focus on your primary project, you should still write. If you don't exercise your writing muscles, they get weak. So write. Write a blog, a book review, another project, but at least write.

But that's not the theme of this blog. It will make a great blog, but not today.

Today the theme is communication.

Writing can be a very solitary activity. Grab your laptop, some headphones and that triple venti marbled mochamia with a lemon twist and find a tree to sit under. Bingo, you are writing. And unless you've mastered the entire chain of writing, editing, cover art, self-publishing, etc. you will need to talk to other folks. (For more on self-publishing I highly recommend Mike Stackpole, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Rusch's blogs. They have all been tackling the major changes in the publishing industry and the ease that you can self e-publish.)

It can be very easy to fall into the "zone" and just focus on your writing. Or at least focus on not writing (Put the World of Warcraft DVD back in the box!). And then as that deadline gets closer and closer, like some mad tornado of swirling doom, you run for the basement to ride out the coming storm. Might make you feel better, but the folks waiting for your work are not getting warm fuzzies.

And in today's world, it isn't like there isn't a high barrier to entry for communication. I can reach the BattleTech Line Developer in at least seven ways, all without moving from my chair.

So communicate. Do it early, do it often, do it always. When I was in the middle of the TRO3085 project, I talked with Herb at least once a day (usually by IM). I send him updates on a regular basis (Just finished section 4, working on section 5). And most importantly, when something is not going the right direction, communicate early!

A week before my deadline, I emailed Herb and told him I knew I was going to be late. I asked if he could prioritize the work I was doing so I could least impact him and I apologized ahead of time. Since then I've communicated regularly to let him know my status.

If you mess up, you need to talk even more. Hiding in a dark hole is only a way to ensure someone sends  the marines in to find you.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: Chasing the Bard

You've just read an absolutely great book. It had all the right elements, had great characters and the author did a wonderful job in painting the back story that the story rested upon. And then you discover the book was a sequel.

A sequel? You mean I started in the middle? The horror! The frustration! I can't take it anymore, I'll just have to end it all… Okay so the last might be a little too far. Still for those of you like me, there is nothing more annoying than coming into the middle of the story. I'll skip watching a TV show if I missed the intro , just because I don't want to miss any nuances of the story.

So when I discovered that Digital Magic, by Phillipa Ballantine, was a sequel, I was torn as to what to do. I'd completed Digital Magic, so I was already well familiar with the characters and the world. Would Chasing the Bard be too much review and not enough new? Would knowing the outcome of Digital Magic make it like reading the mystery novel knowing the butler did it, in the dinning room, with a candlestick?

Absolutely not.

My other trepidation to listening to Chasing the Bard was the setting. A book that had William Shakespeare as one of the main characters would be trodding in one of my favorite periods of history.  I've read books on Elizabethan history for fun and going to most so called "Renaissance Faires" makes me twitch as I see what most people interpret 1500s England as. Would a Kiwi from down under be qualified to bring one of my most beloved time periods to life, as the backdrop to her bardic tale?

Absolutely yes.

As I did with Digital Magic, I listened to PJ Ballantine's podcast novel  version of Chasing the Bard. Pip's voice work and the work of her esteemed guests was wonderful. Her characterization of the immortal trickster's voice, Puck, was positively brilliant and Tee Morris' portrayal of Shakespeare  was one of the best I've heard (and I've heard a lot of Will Shakespeare's in my time).

The story itself was a classic battle of good vs. nihilistic nothingness. I don't think you can truly call the Unmaker evil, given what he ultimately desires is the total nothing of all (Who let this guy out of the script of Neverending Story?). While the story might be a classic Trope it is the implementation and the weaving of history and classic fairie lore together that makes it a truly engaging story. Oh sure I knew the outcome. Even without reading Digital Magic, I could guess the eventual outcome. But the journey! Every time that Sive stuck her size zero fairie foot in her mouth I nearly cried out in frustration. For a female fairie she could be as dense as your typical redneck male.

Her characters were excellent, I would say even better than those of Digital Magic. Puck, Brigit and Warrick practically steal the show and the one scene with all three of them is positively explosive. And how Pip weaves the Bard's own interpretations of Oberon, from a Midsummer Nights Dream, into her own characterization of the fairie king make for an interesting mind twist as one ponders how the Bard's experiences in the story affected his writing of future plays (Yes, I was caught thinking of how the never happened story might have affected the real plays Shakespeare wrote. The story was that good).

And the end of the book not only elegantly sets you up for the next book, it also leaves you wondering.

Just what is "home" for William Shakespeare? Where did his spirit go?

An excellent "read", well worth the listen. And as an added bonus, it's all released. Listen to all twenty chapters as quick as you can, or spread them out to keep the story going for longer.

Until next time,
Writer, Explorer, Learner

Caveat Emptor- These blogs are written without the protection of an editor. I do proofread them, but I know I'm far from perfect. The ideas are sound and I'm still learning the foundational techniques. Thank you.