Book Review – Welcome to the Symphony

TITLE: Welcome to the Symphony: A Musical Exploration of the Orchestra Using Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5
AUTHOR: Carolyn Sloan
ILLUSTRATOR: James Williamson
FORMAT: Hardcover w/attached music panel
PUBLISHED: 2015

Welcome to the Symphony is a fabulous book.  It’s probably best suited for slightly older kids because of lots of big terms… 4-7 maybe?  But the not-quite-3-year-old I read it to enjoyed the music part of it.  I’m sure he won’t be saying timpani anytime soon.

Anyway, the book follows three little mice.  One of them is at the symphony for the first time, so the other two mice explain it to their friend as the book goes along.  It’s a really direct approach to terminology “Tempo is how fast or slow music is played” – AND behavior at the symphony.  “Don’t clap yet, they’re just warming up!”

Plus, as it works its way through a pretty well-known piece of music (I remember this as a background to some cartoons), it explains all the instruments and you can compare them to each other pretty easy.  Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone, Timpani.  (And there’s a page about other instruments you may find in a modern symphony that you didn’t find in this piece of music such as the piano, harp, tuba, etc).

In all, this is a really thorough explanation of the symphony and a great introduction for a kid.

My only issue with the book is that you have to hit right on the number for the audio pad to work.  Most of these books, you can hit anywhere in the square; there are a lot of reviews on Amazon that say “This didn’t work!” and I suspect that they’re stemming from that issue.

Regardless – the book works, the toddler loved hearing the instruments, and when he’s a little older, I think this would be a great resource to teach him about music.

5/5 pages and 5/5 musical notes. :p

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Writer Wednesday – Benjamin Cheah

1. Who are you? (A name would be good here…preferably the one you write under)
Benjamin Cheah, indie writer, blogger and freelancer. Someday I will become a full-time writer.

2. What type of stuff do you write? (Besides shopping lists)
I write about the impact of disruptive technologies and ideas on people, how conflict between people and groups would evolve, and how society and individuals adapt. In my fiction I strive for high-intensity action sequences, plausible futuristic technologies, realistic tactics and strategies, and characters driven by personal codes and visions of tomorrow. My stories also tend to blend science fiction and fantasy tropes to varying degrees, with a strong bias towards hard science fiction, military and law enforcement, and spirituality.

3. What do you want to pimp right now? (May it be your newest, your work-in-progress, your favorite or even your first)
Keepers of the Flame, my first novel, which is the second entry in the American Heirs series. Set in a North America recovering from a global collapse, the Republic of Cascadia is attempting to restore civilization in the Pacific Northwest. However, at the edges of Cascadia’s Green Zone, the Sons of America are plotting to foment a revolution and restore the old United States. On the East Coast, a new American empire rises, and prepares to march west. And as the conflict heats up, in the digital infrastructure that underpins Cascadia, a machine god is born.

The full American Heirs saga is conceptualized as three core novels supplemented by three novellas. The novels cover the major events of the series, while the novellas focus on a single character. The first novella, American Sons, was published last year, and the second novella (the third entry) should be ready by the end of Q1 2015.

I’ve also sold a short story to Castalia House for its anthology Riding the Red Horse. Titled ‘War Crimes’, it tells the story of a shell-shocked solder who stands accused of massacring alien civilians and a journalist who wants to find the truth. You can find the anthology here.

4. What is your favorite book? (Okay, or two or three or… I know how writers are as readers.)
I don’t have favourite books so much as favourite writers, specifically those who inform my writing. Currently, the most important writers are:

Jim Butcher. His Dresden Files and Codex Alera series inspired my earliest stories. They still inform my writing, through their combination of high-octane action and characterisation.

Larry Correia. Guns, magic, B-movie monsters, fleshed-out characters, authentic action scenes, incredible worldbuilding, and he just keeps getting better. His Grimnoir series was also fairly similar to a story idea I had in my head – but much, much, better, so much so I had to revise it.

Barry Eisler. His flagship character, John Rain, is a Japanese-American hitman who lives in the shadows but yearns to get out of the life, a ronin looking for a cause but disappointed by what he found, someone with a foot in the East and West but fully belonging to neither. His characterisation is incredible, and so is his unflinching portrayal of counterterrorism and modern-day espionage. The realistic martial arts and well-researched technologies help.

Marcus Wynne. Former shooter turned writer, his stories capture the mindset of top-tier operators and how they see the world around them. Also, his Depossessionist series resembled another idea I had – but much better.

Tom Kratman. His Legion del Cid and M Day series are masterworks of military fiction. Not merely content with portraying modern war at the tactical level, they delve into politics, economics, impact of technology, strategy and philosophy. He even wrote a thinly-disguised handbook on training women for warfare. His works set the standards for my big war novels and series, such as Keepers of the Flame.

John C. Wright. Just about everything he writes is pure genius. His writing harkens to the Golden Age of science fiction and the pulp era, with fantastic technology and mind-boggling scales, characters who are true to their beliefs and products of their times, and his stories always point towards better and brighter tomorrows, albeit won through blood and fire.

5. What other hats do you wear besides the writer hat?
Professionally I write articles for lifestyle magazine Eastie Brekkie and website Mothership.sg, and work for local NGO the Pwee Foundation as a staff writer. I’m also available to take up writing and/or editing assignments. In between stories I write the script, churn out design documents, and hash out mechanics for my indie RPG project.

In other words…I don’t.

6. What link can we find you at? (One or two please; don’t go overboard here!)
I blog at www.benjamincheah.wordpress.com, while my professional writing page is at www.benjamincheah.com.

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Advice For New Writers

Figure out what kind of writer are you: why you write, and who you write for. This will inform the skills you need to develop.

If you’re a hobbyist, you write for fun and to pass time. The most useful skill to develop is perseverance. To finish the story, even if it feels bad or wrong or when it stops being fun. Finish the story, then work on the next one. The only reason to give up a story is to burn it up and write something better from the ashes.

If you’re writing for a community, you’re writing to entertain people. First, learn the above. Then, develop the craft and art of writing. The former are the tools of trade that build the story: plotting, characterisation, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and so on. The latter is derived from the former; how you wield the tools of the craft defines you, and makes you stand out among everybody else in the community. And keep in mind, how you feel about your story doesn’t matter; if your audience is not entertained, you’re likely doing something wrong.

If you’re writing stories for a publisher, you’re working. First learn the above. Then keep in mind that you are writing for your client, the publisher, and your audience. Sometimes your client and audience are one and the same, or else they have similar tastes. More realistically, both the writer and publisher will have different ideas over what the audience wants. You’ll need to work with your client to serve your audience, and that means reworking your story as needed and standing firm where you must, so that the both of you deliver the best story possible.

If you’re writing as a career, you’re a small business owner. Build upon the lessons of the above three stages of writing. Then, while perfecting your craft, study the industry. The industry is changing, and to make a career out of it you need to stay abreast of affairs and figure out how to best promote and sell your works. If you’re a self-publisher, you need to think like a publisher too, and study the ways of formatting, editing, cover and interior design, marketing communications, accounting, management and other business skills.

Notice that each step of the way builds upon the last, but at heart is the determination to write a good story and to keep on writing. Writing is no more and no less a skilled trade as any other; if you aspire to master writing, you must first master yourself.

Book Review – Octopus! By Katherine Harmon Courage

Title: Octopus!  (The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea)
Author: Katherine Harmon Courage
Format: 
Paperback
Published: 
2013

Octopus! is not surprisingly a nonfiction book about octopuses.  (I picked up a free ARC copy.)  Subcategorizing it beyond nonfiction is a little tricky.  It’s sort of a snapshot of our historical, culinary, cultural, fictional, and scientific relationship with the octopus.  Katherine Harmon Courage is a journalist and an associate editor at Scientific American.  So there’s a good portion of the book which focuses on the biology and science of the octopus, but there’s almost as much time spent on what we don’t know about them as what we do.

As a personal preference, I like my nonfiction a bit drier than this book.  I felt there was way too much time spent on Katherine’s traveling misadventures to meet various fishermen and researchers, and I got a little bored with the constant variations on “Isn’t that cool/icky/strange/interesting!?!”

However, for other people this might be a nice break from a textbook rattling off a dry list of facts.  There is something interesting about stepping back from a stack of figures and looking at the messy, imprecise side of trying to gather more precise data.

If you’d like to know more about the octopus (or are just looking for idea fodder for a hard science fiction tale) this may be a good gateway book.  At 220 pages, it’s not a super long or intense read, but it does offer up a lot of stimulating food for thought on everything from our perspective on other species to the weird economics of food exportation to robotics.  And there’s an extensive list of source material in the back if you want some drier reading. Courage certainly did her research.

If you’re a hardcore animal rights advocate, you may feel a bit of outrage at sampling a live octopus meal at a Korean restaurant, and if you’re not, you may still feel a bit squeamish during a few passages.  It’s not a book designed to shock, but neither does it hold back on raw realities of octopus life or octopuses in our lives.  (Yes, she briefly covers hentai.)

I’ll give it a solid 4 out of  5, since I think the book accomplishes what it sets out to do.  I can’t say it’s a must read.  Just kind of nice, kind of interesting, and while there’s a certain deliberate messiness to the presentation, it does cover a lot of fascinating ideas.

Book Review – Disclosure by Michael Crichton

Title: Disclosure

Author: Michael Crichton

Format: Paperback

Published: 1994

Michael Crichton – author of such diverse tales as ‘Rising Sun’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ – switched contextual arenas once again with the publishing of ‘Disclosure’ in 1994. Gone are the worlds of amber-preserved mosquito-extracted dinosaur DNA and hospital emergency rooms, exchanged instead for your run of the mill fast-paced, trend-setting, cut-of-the-edge IT company. Some eighteen years later, the story remains relevant – despite the exponential growth of computer hardware and information technology. Perhaps it was sheer coincidence that the area of technology Crichton chose to set his story in virtually stopped (pun intended) around the time of publishing. Perhaps it was brilliant research on his part. It may even have been an innate suspicion that humans would be satisfied with the much cheaper technology of two-dimensional graphical or textual representations of three- and four- dimensional virtual worlds.

Virtual technology. Where it was at, way back in 1994 – VT and CD-ROMs. And baud modems. The last two clearly date the novel, but the interest – rather the primary focus (and essential plot device) – is Virtual Technology, and surprisingly the technology envisioned in the novel has not really progressed in the real world. This has been a fortunate turn of events, as the story reads more like an original Star Trek episode than a dated technological leviathan.

Tom Sanders, the loveable and only slightly flawed protagonist, is a mid level manager at the aptly named company Digital Communications Technology (DigiCom), unofficially but expectantly in line for a promotion when the unthinkable happens: an ex-lover who also happens to be the up-and-comer in the DigiCom’s corporate arena gets the promotion instead. Also, a stand-alone CD-ROM drive in production is coming off the line under specs without an obvious cause for the problem, and it’s his responsibility to fix it. Meredith, his ex-lover and now boss, under the guise of wanting to ensure a smooth transition, invites him to her office for a friendly drink at the end of the day, where she attempts to seduce him. He is, like all good husbands conflicted – and does not go through with the act, so is stunned to find the following day that she is suing him for sexual harassment  He flips the case on her, hires an aggressive defense attorney and countersues for sexual harassment.

Shakespeare had his handkerchief which was fatal for Desdemona: Tom has his phone recording. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his phone was still connected to an answering machine, and the whole encounter between Tom and Meredith was recorded. When it surfaces – things seemingly are restored to order, but an anonymous warning prompts Tom to keep his eyes open. Which is of course lucky, because the best is yet to come.

Crichton’s characters are believable – even Meredith. The reader attraction to Tom comes from his ‘down-to-earth’ quality, his honesty, his laymanship. Not surprisingly, this particular quality inherent in Tom (namely, his non-technical savvy) functions as a device to translate the alienating high-tech world to the reader: a technique of which Crichton is a master.

Meredith is a more complicated subject. Criticised by feminist readers as a gross misrepresentation of women in general, and believing that the whole novel is anti-feminist: it must be conceded that…..

*SPOILER ALERT* 

…. men indeed might read the novel and think “yay, the bitch got what she deserved,” but in the final scenes, Crichton successfully manages to raise (although cover with no depth whatsoever) some of the issues that women face – some eighteen years after publication continue to face – in the workforce, including the charge that women must deploy different tactics to compete on what is in the corporate world an uneven playing field. Given the long history and countless instances of nepotism and cronyism in many organisations (not just corporate) worldwide that happen on a daily basis, I think Crichton, through Meredith, raises a valid point. Certainly it would seem disturbing to us that a woman would alter her appearance to gain favour when we are confronted with the hypothetical, point blank (and Crichton does succinctly point out that men do the same, just in different areas): but the reality is women everywhere everyday do this with the simple act of applying makeup. One point I think even the feminist critiques must concede is that the corporate power structure, regardless of the sex of the offender and their offending history, has probably been portrayed pretty accurately in their eagerness to protect one of the fold. Crichton has argued in defense of claims of anti-feminism that the clear gender ‘role reversal’ was necessary to elucidate some of the more meaty plot-lines and subject matter happening around the seven or so pages of not so badly written stunted sex.

One of my old university lecturers once said that Shakespeare wrote as much for the intellectually elite as he did for the peanut gallery (by now, you should have figured I did at least one English Lit subject on Shakespeare). Given his status as a best-selling author, it is easy for the so-called ‘intellectually elite’ to dismiss Crichton’s writing as fodder (and if you’ve only seen the god-awful movie adaptation starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas, no-one could blame you for that!), but I think the same comment can be made for most of what Crichton pens. The fault of the movie was to turn the story into sex, but the book was about actually about power. Sexual harassment was the weapon – Meredith wanted to, needed to get him out of the picture in order to scapegoat him for the manufacturing problems she was effectively responsible for. Power, deception, corporate games, gender roles in the workforce and to a lesser extent in the home, and the nature of the corporate hierarchy – all woven into an easy-to-read, suspenseful and engaging story, where some kind of natural justice is served (at least for the patriarchs, misogynists and people who just think Tom was a nice guy who deserved to be vindicated). It can be easy to overlook the nuances of the secondary subject matter; but they are there – and what’s more: after eighteen years, and a rather lucky choice of technology as part of the main narrative – they are still incredibly relevant. That is the mark of a good writer, no matter how many books they sell.

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