Category Archives: Review

Book Report: Red Phoenix Burning

‘Red Phoenix Burning’ (2016) is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for a while now. Written by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson, it is a sequel to one of Bond’s books, ‘Red Phoenix’ (1990), which is a book I’ve read a dozen times over the years. 

Both books deal with a war on the Korean peninsula. In Red Phoenix, it was a North Korean invasion of South Korea. In Red Phoenix Burning, it’s the opposite. Early in the book, a coup attempt in North Korea sparks a civil war. That’s bad enough, but the question on everyone’s mind is about North Korea’s WMDs: the biological, chemical and nuclear weapons North Korea has developed and hidden about the country. As the political and military situation develops, both characters within North Korea trying to survive, and characters outside of Korea trying to contain the situation, have to contend with the ramifications of the choices before them, but how other actors will respond and possible escalate. 

What’s nice about revisiting this story after 25 years is running into several characters from the first book and seeing how they have matured. The young officer getting confident in his commission is now a decision maker for a general; others are now generals. The children of several characters return to influence the story in their own way. It’s a connection that I can appreciate in sequels. 

The book does two other things well. First – and this is something the first book did well – it captures the essence of international politics of a Korean civil war. The US and South Korea are very much worried about WMDs, but they also must worry about the Chinese and their military forces; China has its own interests and policies and will not just sit by as China is unified under an American-allied government, nor can it ignore WMDs any more than the US can. The interplay of the two, and how they influence the decision-making processes of the characters on the ground in Korea, makes up a huge chunk of the story. 

Second, the book hits a lot of points of how modern technology is used in warfare. From the prevalence of drones for intelligence gathering to the use of tablets by officers to view and disseminate information, the differences between a 1980’s war and a 2010’s war is striking. And that doesn’t take into account the differences in tanks, artillery and aircraft from book to book. It’s a completely different feel of warfare. 

That being said, the book does have a few let downs. Where Book 1 had a lot of combat, particularly infantry combat, but also submarine, airplane and commando actions, Book 2 has much less. With the story focusing on the politics and the interplay, Book 2 glosses over the fighting. Most of the combat that we get to read is the important things that influence the decision making; a bloody nose to get attention, an air strike to cut off an axis of advance, etc. I would go so far as to say the difference between books is due to the difference of emphasis; Book 1 needed to emphasize the grind-nature of that war, while this one is more about the higher politics and WMD hunting, so it doesn’t need combat scenes to tell its story. But it’s still a noticeable difference. 

Still, it was overall a very enjoyable book. There was nothing that made me shake my head and think ‘Oh, come on!’ I found the decisions and their consequences to be believable. I’m glad I read it and look forward to reading it again someday. 

Recommended: For a nice techno-thriller with a heavy strategic/political emphasis. 

Not Recommended: If you’re looking for non-stop action or combat heavy storytelling.  

Book Report: With the Old Breed

I recently read through With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. Published in 1981, Sledge takes us through his experiences as a Marine in World War 2. Sledge enlisted in the Marines in 1943 and trained as a mortarman, assigned to K/3/5 (K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment), in the 1st Marine Division. He landed on the island of Peleliu, a controversial and probably unnecessary battle in late 1944, and then on Okinawa in 1945.

Sledge’s writing is not to provide details of tactics, but to convey the experience of warfare as he recorded it. And he saw a lot of combat. Peleliu and Okinawa were both horrendous fights: the Japanese used defense in depth tactics to prolong each battle into months long campaigns. Terrain and weather (coral reef and extreme heat on Peleliu, mud and torrential rain on Okinawa) were as much as factor as enemy actions. Even friendly units and superior officers had to be dealt with.

As a young Marine, Sledge looked to the ‘Old Breed’, the veterans of Guadalcanal (and in some cases, World War 1) who made up the sergeants of the company. To those just fresh out of training camps in the US, their seniors seemed like men from a different era; their confidence and experience helped prepare the newcomers who were afraid of getting killed or, worse, showing cowardice.

Sledge braves his first combat on Peleliu, experiencing friendly fire, loss of friends, and extreme thirst. Across the coral rocks and into the heights of the island, K/3/5 sees a lot of combat, and Sledge takes the reader with them.

Sledge doesn’t try to elevate the Marines to mythical status; he writes to show the conditions the Marines fought in, down to the terrible details that soldiers often gloss over in their narratives.  He describes the first time he sees a dead soldier, and what it’s like to suffer from an artillery barrage the goes on for what feels like ever. For Sledge, it’s about showing the reader what the Marines went through and discussing why they survived.

By the time Sledge lands on Okinawa, he is a veteran. The landing feels different for him: he’s seen combat, so he knows he won’t run; there’s just the fear of death and letting his comrades down. Even so, he still experiences and describes the depths that battle on Okinawa went to. The harsh rain and difficulty not only supplying troops but removing the dead turns the battlefield into one reminiscent of trench warfare of World War 1.

Sledge is sparing in his judgment; he does not condemn men who break under bombardment or fall victim to sickness. When he speaks of army soldiers, he does so with respect (they all march into the same combat). Those he does judge are those who act foolishly, such as rear echelon soldiers who come up to grab souvenirs, or orders from on high that feel like a waste of time but must be followed.

Finally finishing the Okinawa operations, Sledge describes pulling back and beginning the process of refitting and preparing for the next assault when word comes of the end of the war. The anticipated (and feared) invasion of Japan would not happen. Instead, Sledge and the marines will face some time as occupiers in China, helping maintain order as the Japanese pull out of that country (described in Sledge’s second book, China Marine). But they will be returning home alive.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It is a simple retelling of a man’s experiences of battles most often viewed from much higher up the chain of command. It made no effort to idealize either friend or foe, but told the story of what was. And that’s all it really needed to be.

Recommended: To learn about the conditions and the mindset of a World War 2 combat Marine.

Not Recommended: If you get squeamish about injuries, death and decay.

Non-sequential writing

This last weekend I finished a rough, rough draft of Book 2, my sequel to Renaissance Calling. It took a lot longer to finish than I expected, in part because I had to learn how to write a book in a  non-sequential fashion. Between the length of time Book 2 covers (a year as opposed to two and a half months) and the need to fit fourteen backer-created characters into the story, writing the story from start to finish wouldn’t work, unless I was willing to write out a 300,000 word monster of a rough draft. So I started jumping around, writing scenes as I had them and working from both ends towards the middle.

Like a pyramid being built without finishing the foundation.

It was interesting and frustrating, with a lot of false starts and dead ends, but ultimately it got me to the end of the rough draft and into revisions. As I move on with both this book and other projects, I want to take a moment and share with you some lessons about non-sequential writing I’ve taken from the experience.

Start at both ends and work to the middle

Starting at both ends and working towards the middle was the first thing I started doing. It made sense, since I knew how the story began and ended. Working from both directions, I can approach any problem I came across from either the front or the back. Sometimes I had to solve problems by writing the solution first, and building up to it.

Keep an eye out for lessons the protagonist needs to learn

By writing the end I gained a huge advantage; I figured out what the character needs to experience to have the impact I need her to have at the climax of the story. That helped me figure out what I needed to show the reader, versus what I could tell the reader. It’s a huge benefit to non-sequential writing to know what you don’t have to write.

Write scenes independently; don’t worry about flow

By flow, I mean the attention of the reader as they go from one chapter to another. I quickly stopped paying attention to flow for my rough draft. Scenes begin and end rather abruptly. Annoying, yes, but finishing the overall story was the main goal. Working on the flow is for the revision phase.

Don’t describe a secondary character when you first write him/her:

Jumping back and forth, I had no idea when this character or that character was going to be introduced. The first few times I wrote a character I included a description, but several times I later wrote them in an earlier scene. So I stopped writing descriptions. Instead, I’m saving the description until afterwards, then I’ll add them when I know where their first appearance is.

Keep a list of ‘Bits to Add’

Instead of jumping around to fix things every time they come up, I’ve been keeping a separate document where I write down the ideas I want to return to. The point is to get the side-thoughts out of the way without interrupting the work on whichever scene I’m focusing on at the time. There will be enough time to fix everything later.

 

I’ve already started applying these lessons to other projects. It’s really helpful to get things moving when something is getting stuck, or simply to just get words down and counted. One project in particular covers almost a decade of time, and already I’m making huge strides in it because of these lessons.

Have any thoughts or tips of you own? Feel free to let me know.

And as always, keep on writing.

yWriter

yWriter5

http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html

When I write, I create a rich backstory for the world I’m writing in. And while I can remember many details of that world, I can’t remember them all. Trying to keep track of all those details has been a constant pain for me, especially as I replace computers, send documents from work to home, or even just forget where I put the file with all the information.

One day I ventured onto the Internet to look for a database program. I was hoping to find something that would allow me to create a Wikipedia type database, with links between files so I could move from one page to another. I did eventually find one, but first I found yWriter.

yWriter showed up as a writing program designed for writers. In the words of the website:

yWriter is a word processor which breaks your novel into chapters and scenes, helping you keep track of your work while leaving your mind free to create. It will not write your novel for you, suggest plot ideas or perform creative tasks of any kind. yWriter was designed by an author, not a salesman!

I downloaded it and gave it a try…and I am very glad I did.

Organization

yWriter most appeals to me because of the organization it applies to the writing project.  Before, I would write with either a single file for the whole project or each one file per chapter.  I wasn’t really happy with either one.  yWriter allows me to add chapters to a project, and add scenes to chapters.  The program keeps an automatic word count, and even tracks how many words I add in a given day.

For any scene and chapter I can add notes separate of the words in the actual document.  A writer can also keep track of a number of Details for the scene, including Type, Tags, Importance, and various Ratings (I don’t use these, personally, but they’re there to be used).

yWrite One
yWriter

What I really enjoy is the ability to turn scenes off, so that the program keeps them but they don’t apply to the book as a whole.  For example, I recently read a scene that started strong but petered out into a boring exchange.  I copied the scene and turned the first one off, so I can access it, but it doesn’t appear in my word count.  I deleted most of the copied scene and I can continue writing without losing the first attempt.

Databases

yWriter has three different databases: Characters, Locations and Items.

Adding an item is as easy as highlighting a word and right clicking.  Once it is added, I can add notes and pictures to the database without changing anything of the scenes.  I can get as detailed or as simple as I want.

This is a nice program to keep track of the little things when I add a new character, but it does have a problem.  The database will find every instance of the word and track it, even if it isn’t an instance that you want it to track.  For example, if I have a character named Mars, the program will highlight the first half of the word Marshall.

Spell Checking and Printing

No program is perfect, and yWriter’s flaws come towards the end of the process.

yWriter has a Spell Checker option, but it is not very good.  This would normally be a deal breaker, but the programmer managed to add a way to side step this.  You can export chapters to Microsoft Word and spell check your work there, then import back into yWriter (just be careful not to delete the coding that allows yWriter to import to the correct chapters and scenes).

The printing function is okay, but I’ve found it much more useful to import to Microsoft Word and fix the formatting before printing or changing to a PDF.  Part of this may stem from so much of my first project in yWriter being imported from Google Docs, Microsoft Word and Open Office.  I’m hoping this will improve over subsequent projects.

Conclusion

I have found yWriter to be a very useful program, both as a writing system and as a simple database for notes.  And that is fully admitting I don’t use everything this program has to offer.  I hope some of you go and try it out.

-Michael