Sunday, June 5, 2016

Music As My Muse

Music has always been a really important motivator for me. Through the more difficult times, it provided solace and a distraction from life events that befuddled any clarity of purpose; through the more enjoyable times it provided a soundtrack of emotions that could be drawn from to remind me of better times, periods of accomplishment. In both my undergrad and graduate degrees, music was a source of focus, ironically, that allowed me to do more with less time. I fondly remember placing my earphones/ear buds on in the library and spending 6 to 8 hours taking notes from textbooks, drafting outlines to papers and crafting PowerPoint presentations.

My friends, wife and colleagues find it quite the anomaly. For many, music while trying to work is anathema. For me it drowns out the background noise, the conversations and whatnot that pierce my concentration.

As an aspiring author, my writing process follows very much the same scenario. Music is my Muse, and more times than not, it provides that push to get through writer’s block, ignites the imagination. For the Ochra Cycle, certain bands and songs could easily be considered the soundtrack. The mood and the emotions they draw to the fore exemplify what I try to accomplish in the writing. As the music helps draw out the plot, it also influences the emotion and voice.

There are certain bands and songs that really stand out when I think of the Ochra Cycle, none more than Lacuna Coil. For the uninitiated, Lacuna Coil is an Italian “goth-metal” band, with the leading vocals duo of Cristina Scabbia and Andrea Ferro. The blend of heavy instrumental arrangements, Andrea’s growling vocals countered by Cristina’s soaring voice and a heavy dose of emotions make for a potent experience. Or at least they had until some of the more recent releases; to be honest, the last two or three releases left me wanting. 

The release of Delirium has completely turned that around. The instrumentals have gone heavy and dark, the lyrics heavily laced with emotion, brought to life by the more balanced weight from each of the singers. Tracks like House of Shame, Blood Tears Dust; really, every single track appeals to me.

Segueing into writing, this album has really jazzed me up. First throwing the tunes up in Youtube to review it, I immediately made the choice to go out and purchase this disc. Listening to it, the words flew onto the pages. I think these were some of the easiest chapters I’ve written, and this after a lengthy pause from writing altogether. The dark and heavy instrument arrangement synchs so well with the vocals. Possibly the best album Lacuna Coil has released, it has reinvigorated my writing in a way difficult to put into words. A succinctly as I can put it, I can’t wait to see how this album helps shape the Ochra Cycle, and I can’t wait to where it goes.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Classics: Ender’s Game – A Book Review

Hot off the completion of 1984 and typing out my review, I jumped straight into Ender’s Game.  There are those who would argue its place among the ‘Classics,’ yet I am one to wholeheartedly agree with its place on any top SF/F list.  I first read this back when I was in middle school or high school; from the first time I started reading it, I was hooked.  The pace is quick, and by that I mean fast!  There was an incredible amount of military theory, political manoeuvring and plot packed into such a compact book.  The fact that this was originally based on a short story and fleshed out into its current form may explain a lot of that.

Recently made into a cinematic adaptation (which I have yet to see), Orson Scott Card has certainly seen his fair share of criticism and bad press.  To be honest, I don’t agree with many of the author’s views, certainly not the ones that put him in such hot water.  To be clear, and to get it out of the way, this is a book review about Ender’s Game, not about the author.

We first meet Ender as his monitoring device is removed, a device that records his brainwaves and experiences.  It is no surprise that the first couple of encounters would be formative and revealing to Ender's character: with his older and diabolically twisted brother, Peter, and one of the older kids from his school, Stinson.  The former is a driving force for Ender throughout the book, as Peter’s torments and harassment plague Ender.  Poor Stinson is our first example of Ender’s capacity to excel in reading a scenario and overcoming it despite a multitude of deficiencies, defeating an opponent who outclasses him in every conceivable physical way.  The two sides of Ender are revealed and explored thereafter.

The Battle School and the games played with Ender, as well as those he plays within, are a quick overview of how he becomes the formative general and leader that will eventually save the world.  His leadership skills are developed and flexed until he finally gets to Command School.  There, he is set with the best and brightest from the Battle School.  Tutored through the most grueling challenges yet faced by the legendary hero of the Second Formic (Bug) War, Mazer Rackham, Ender and his team fight their way through new and more complex simulations.  They culminate with Ender winning the decisive victory over the Buggers.  We then realize that simulations, these were not.

The books ends with Ender leading a colonization of one of the Bugger planets, recently vacated after their queen’s died, leaving them devoid of reasons to live.  After establishing the colony, Ender makes a startling discovery.  He finds the last remaining egg of the Buggers, a queen who telepathically explains to Ender their perspective of the war Ender fought to defeat them.  He earns their love and respect, in doing so, healing the wounds that Battle School and Command School had rent in his psyche.

The dichotomy of the chapter introductions, typically a discussion between Colonel Graffe and Major Anderson about what Ender accomplished, or how they would mess with him, were perfect blends of world building and backstory in the context of what developed in the chapters themselves.  Typically laced with some significant humour, it often contradicted the seriousness of the activities Ender was forced to endure.

I found the chapters with Peter and Valentine (Ender’s older brother and sister) were originally a distraction from the story I really wanted to read: what was Ender doing?  In this, perhaps the fifth time reading, I came to understand just how important this part of the story was.  As Valentine assisted Peter’s megalomaniacal dream of ruling the world, it counter-balanced Ender’s genius; Peter and Valentine were the two greatest influence on Ender’s formative years.  As Peter and Valentine grew their influence over the global political landscape, it mirrored Ender’s control over the Bugger threat.  It was also the mechanism that justifiably allowed Ender to escape Peter’s clutches, but only through Valentine’s doing.

At just 225 pages, this is a quick and easy read, yet compelling in that you really want to keep up with Ender’s exploits and see what other obstacle he tackles.  Benefitting from a power outage, thanks to hurricane Andrew, I found lots of opportunity to grab a few pages here and there.  Before I knew it, I was done, having enjoyed it just as thoroughly as the first time.  An easy, and nostalgic, 10 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Scfi-Fi/Fantasy Classics: 1984 – A Book Review

So, I just finished reading 1984, by George Orwell.  It is the fourth in a project I began a short while back; read as many of the formative and recent classics of the science fiction and fantasy genre.  By most any standards, 1984 is a must read for the genre.  From an age where science fiction was really in its nascence, I could not agree more with the assessment.

The beginning of this book starts relatively slowly.  It introduces the reader to Winston, who lives in a world of totalitarianism, where the Party, led by the figurehead of Big Brother, defines and directs the lives of the citizens of Oceania.  As we explore Winston’s questioning of the world order, we are gradually introduced in the results of this level of control.  We don’t know the why or the how, just the net results, which in an odd way is a mirror of the Party’s control of its populace.

Winston meets Julia and begins a relationship with a kindred spirit, beginning to buck against the rules, the chafing that Big Brother and his cronies have inflicted upon them.  As things progress, they diverge more and more from the fold until Winston is given the book of revolution, the manifesto of the Resistance leader, Goldberg.  As Winston inducts himself into the revolutionary ideas of Goldberg, we are finally served with the world building that led to the creation of the Party and Big Brother’s control, a parallel I found quite inventive and infinitely satisfying.

Then they get caught.  Big Brother’s Thought Police capture them.  In a concussive and outstanding piece of literature, Winston is bombarded with physical and emotion torture that breaks his body and spirit.  He is reintroduced into the collective mind of the Party, but only after a prolonged series of tortures.  His resistance is broken and he accepts the system as just, as the way it should be.  Without giving it away, I found the very last line of the book to be a gob-smacking finale that literally left my jaw dropped.

As is likely done, this book is compared to the current state of world affairs and the parallels that Wells draws.  What I found interesting was the way this still translates into today’s current worldviews.  Particularly in North America, mainstream media is bitterly divided by party lines and their politics:  MSNBC and the liberal press for the Democrats and small ‘L’ liberals; Fox News and the associated right-wing media with the Republicans and small ‘C’ conservatives.  What I found interesting was the relationship between the Party in 1984 and how things are portrayed.  Today, both extremes are provided as fact, with sometimes completely divergent interpretations of the same events; the middle ground is often the sacrifice at the altar of truth.  Heck, there are too many times where the truth is completely abandoned to further exploit a turn of phrase or a fact to fit the extreme’s narrative, something Big Brother would approve of.  The selective cognizance of the past we now face n North America might as well be the equivalent as Winston’s edition of the past to fit the current narrative of the Party’s worldview.  As an example, I cite the case of the US Supreme Court upholding a closely held company’s right to decide what types of birth control to fund for their employees.  Here is a rather comical assessment from a Fox Host, with a definitively pendulum swung the other way response from MSNBC.

That the idea a political party could hold that much power and influence over the population, as conceived in the time Orwell’s penned the novel, is a rather profound and frightening premonition of our current state.  With such an information overload through instant communications, often with the unfiltered eye and untrustworthiness of social media, the idea that people would simply follow the current, accepting their political leaders’ opinion as gospel is chilling.

Orwell doesn’t pull any punches, something I enjoyed and appreciated; the book was superb and beat any expectations I had.  The info dump after Winston starts to read Goldberg was a surprise; the near thesis interpretation of the system the Party and Big Brother took me on a tangent I wasn’t expecting.  To be honest, I was relived when it returned to Winston’s perspective, yet the impact of the last chapter would have been completely lacking if we had not a complete understanding of the world dynamic.

As a political science fiction novel, I was stunned and mesmerized by the execution and appreciated the complexity of the system behind the story presented herein.  The novel 1984 has a definite place on my bookshelf of Classics, and a definite 10 out of 10.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Soul Sucking

There is simply no other way to describe it - moving can be an absolute and utter soul sucking exercise.  

Despite taking three days to pack, bag and box things with the help from my inlays and my wife's aunt and uncle, the process of dragging my family's stuff from one house to another was an effort I'd rather never repeat again.  I do believe that if ever there was an experience that would resemble the ripping of one's life essence from their body, I daresay I could now relate to it.  Vampires and soul leeching entities beware, I can now sense it happening before it is too late!

After living in our first home for eight years, we finally decided that, two children and their accoutrements and toys later, we had outgrown our semi-detached.  After four months of searching and dealing with the sale of our own house, we finally committed to and bought a new house.  I dare not say home, as I can't quite relate to it as "home" just yet.  Home is more the sense of belonging and familiarity you develop with your surroundings; you've developed your habits, tendencies and instinctively know where things are and when they out of place.  Less than a week in, we can't call it "home" yet.

My two girls took to the change remarkably well.  The first night was an absolute gong show, more so because of the fast food, lack of sleep and general over-tiredness that makes little kids into demon-djinni of immeasurable reserves of energy and equal amounts of dim-wittedness.  Don't get me wrong, I love my girls, they just picked the wrong two days to bananas on me.  I mean full blown B-A-N-A-N-A-S.  Parents with two kids under the age of five will instantly relate.  For those of you about to start, beware.  For those of you without kids, I have only scowls.

My wife had a more emotional response, which she is apt to have when lacking sleep.  For her, the old house was a near physical thing she had to detach from.  We bought the house, got married and raised our two girls there, making wonderful memories along the way.  To her, the move was more than a step up to a newer, larger home.  It was like ripping out a part of herself.  During our final clean and inspection, I found her crying no less than three times.  My consolations only went so far.

All this said, we now have many more memories waiting to be created, new discoveries and challenges to overcome.  For myself, I can't wait to make my house into a home, particularly the little niche in the basement I carved out for myself as my man-cave slash inspiration and typing room.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Two Glorious Sights

The first, any homeowner will likely know about, if not shudder at their memories of the process.  When a real estate agent places that SOLD sign on your front lawn, it’s a magical moment.  As mine was fixing that innocent little placard atop our sign, it was all I could do not to go out there and help her out.  I almost convinced myself too:  “She’s only 5’6”, and that’s with the heels.” “She’s in a skirt suit for crying out loud, go help the woman!” “Boy, I’m glad I mowed the grass before she showed up.”

The second is really something only those who have acquired the taste for scotch will appreciate.  The Macallan distilleries have come out with a new way of branding their single malts.  Normally associated with ages (12 years old, 15, 18, 25, etc.), the 1824 series is marketed by its colour.  Going from Gold, Amber, Sienna and finally Ruby, they gain a deeper luster as one increases in price.  After a bit of research, I went with the Amber for my first try, and I must say this is a treat to drink.  The nose is abundant, the palate a little less than expected, yet a nice finish to round it out.

Of course, combining these two sights together only makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

House Sold!

One of the more stressful and oft-times mind-boggling experiences I could think of is selling a house.  I remember as a child, my father carting us across Canada and into the United States as he was posted from one military position to another.  From a child’s perspective, things were an adventure whenever we moved, every two or three years or so.  I distinctly enjoyed the prospect of discovering a new house and city, making new friends and just generally making the best of things.

My parents were extremely supportive of my sister and I, and I suppose they appreciated my mostly positive attitude to the whole endeavor.  I certainly could have made things much worse, as some of my friends did with their folks.  I developed a very outgoing personality early on and moving simply reinforced it.  I know my sister didn’t quite develop my outlook or facility, but she lived through as I suppose the majority have.

As a homeowner, I found the process of buying a house somewhat archaic and hidden behind a veil or ritual; the real estate agents are the key masters and the gatekeepers.  On the seller’s side this time around, it was a wholly different and sometimes wildly frustrating experience.  With their commission, they hold you beholden to their experience and tradecraft, if you could call it that; mystics in the art of selling a house.  I like a dose of fantasy in my reading and certainly in my writing.  Not when it comes to buying my house, thank you very much!

I did the research in home pricing, and we visited numerous potential homes.  Time and again, we found something rather significant that struck it from the list or made it distant thirds to whatever houses we still may have had on our list to visit.  When it came to selling mine, I didn’t skimp on the research either.  The market was working against us, and our style of house.  I didn’t expect our real estate agent to be causing additional friction to the sale, yet she did.  Nothing earth shattering, but an annoyance none-the-less.  After it all, we sold our home, an experience that left my wife infinitely more drained than I.

All this to say, it is finally off the market, a four-letter placard proudly standing on top of the real estate sign in our front yard.  One of the best and most sought after four-letter words any home owner in our circumstance could hope for: SOLD.

And with a bit of mysticism, things seem right again in the world; my wife is certainly the better for it.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

World War Z: Cinematic Edition Review

One of the riskiest ventures Hollywood could sen to venture into is the adaptation of a novel or book into a cinematic rendition.  Typically, this leavens the risk associated with an original screenplay, in as much as it provides some measure of the studio's likely return.  Books that are adapted have already created a buzz around the author and the work; name recognition and publicity has largely already begun, including what one can assume is a loyal fan base.  

One of the risks the studio then faces is the adaptation itself.  There is no real way for them to copy the material of a 300+ page book into 120 minutes or so of screen time.  This necessitates certain cuts and revisions that could make it or break it with the book's fan base.  There are clear examples where the cinematic edition makes it, fully satisfying the books fan base.  In the past ten years, we've seen an increasing trend of these adaptations, to varying degrees of success.  A recent spate of book adaptations seems to demonstrate this trend is here to stay, and in some cases getting relied upon more and more as a business model.

Successful examples include the wildly popular Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy, and to a lesser degree the Hobbit trilogy's first two releases, Hunger Games, the Harry Potter series, The Princess Bride, and a plethora of comic book movies but most specifically those tied into the Avengers franchise and their individual spin-offs.  These movies gave their audiences something they could buy into and appreciate.

Other successful examples follow a different path.  They use the book as a launching point, which can clearly distance a certain portion of the audience.  They can easily be sympathized with, expecting a certain thing and given an entirely different experience.  Offhand the most successful example I can come up with was Bladerunner, based off the Philip K. Dick work Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  

World War Z, the cinematic version, falls mostly into this category.  The book, which I reviewed in this post, was a fantastically well done collection of short blurbs describing the zombie apocalypse and humanity's eventual weathering of the storm and rise from the ashes.  The movie goes a different path, following Gerry Lane's (played by Brad Pitt) efforts to find the solution to the zombie infestation.  The movie itself is largely zombie war porn, with lots of explosions, action and teeth biting into flesh.  From this perspective, it largely follows every other trope within the zombie genre, whereas the book's approach was much more refreshing.   The movie itself was entirely centred around Brad Pitt, with very little other character involvement or impact, with the notable exception of  Segan, the Israeli Defence soldier that gets swept up with Lane's exploits.

I actually enjoyed the experience enough, though I must admit I caught it on Netflix and didn't invest my money and time to go to the theatre; that might have jaded my review.  I can't help but imagine how this might have turned out if the studio had thought to provide a movie experience closer to the book.  From my prospective, I can only imagine how that would have added to the already cluttered and generic mob of zombie movies that are out there.  Something fresh and original would have gone a long way to expanding the genre's boundaries.

I suppose this is simply a reflection of the risk aversion studios have when approving movies for investment.  A zombie flick that gives the audiences what they expect is likely a going to reflect a decent return of investment.  Throw them something a little more highbrow and they risk facing a loss of millions, regardless of Brad Pitt's tag to the work.  I must admit that is likely the fear of all authors and prospective authors dreaming their works onto the big screen (myself included).  

The written work is a huge investment of an author's time and effort.  To see it adapted (whether by active design from the author or by a studio's direction) into something else may or may not work.  The risk, of course, may be too much for the author, and there are certainly enough examples of horrendous adaptations:  Starship Troopers, based on the Robert A. Heinlein book of the same name immediately comes to mind.  The book was a controversial best seller with political undertones that certainly alienated a number of readers.  That said, the work was a solid piece of science fiction, whereas the cinematic version was a campy sci-fi action movie with little depth and wooden acting.  I can't think of a movie that did it's book worse justice.

As adaptations go, World War Z certainly isn't the worst on the list, yet it certainly doesn't do much to try and claw up and above the norm expected from its genre.  For a movie of this genre, it certainly provides a well produced and enjoyable enough experience.  I gave the written work 9/10.  The movie gets a solid 7/10 from me.