Stories Waiting to Be Told

Have you ever browsed stock photo sites? There are some ridiculous pictures posted there and I often wonder what the photographer was thinking. Obviously, they were setting a scene with the hope it matched a story waiting to be told – probably by an advertising company or a journalist. Because nuns praying to fish is a thing, right?

But when I’m not giggling over implausible scenarios, I’m collecting another type of stock photo. These ones are, well… They’re book covers for the stories I haven’t told yet. It’s kind of annoying, to be honest. Because as just about any writer will tell you, ideas aren’t hard to come by. We have notebooks and files full of them. The stories that come from these ideas are less abundant. The time to write these stories? At a premium. I’ll never get to a quarter of my list.

But, hopefully, I’ll get to at least one of these:

the-hand-1172231The Hand

The door has just been closed, but whoever is on the other side with her has given them a moment. He’s let her touch the window, just once. Is it because he knows it’s the last time they’ll see each other? Is the gesture cruel or kind?

Where is she going? Why? That’s the story I don’t have yet, but this photo suggests something sinister. Interrogation? Experimental gene therapy? Prison?

Maybe she’s going willingly. Maybe she asked for this moment, knowing it would be the last one. Or, maybe the shape of her hand is a symbol.

 Here, Now

This stock photo is tagged passion. I…don’t see it. I can see the tension. This kiss is a spur of the moment thing, but it’s more meaningful than hormonal, in my opinion. It might just be that the models were asked to pause before their lips connected, but in that pause is the story. The distance between their faces and the stillness of their pose. They’re in a public location, but their posture is fairly relaxed. They don’t fear being caught out in this kiss. Their connected at several intimate points – the hand on the thigh, a hand around the back of the head. There is a possessiveness to both gestures, and familiarity. This is a couple, but maybe not one well established.

So, maybe this kiss began as a passionate impulse. Then, as they drew close, something else intruded. A realisation that this moment was about more than the kiss. It was about them telling the world they’re together. That they’re intimate. That their feelings are something they want to acknowledge and share.

Footsteps

It took me a while to figure out that wasn’t snow. Before I did, though, this picture begged for a story. Why is this woman out there without the proper gear? Has she been abandoned? Or has she escaped from a remote facility. Once thing is clear: she isn’t going to get far. The shadows are long and with the night, any lent by the sun will disappear, as will her compass.

Any stir of wind will erase her footprints, hiding her trail. This is good and bad. In the event someone is following her, it’s a good thing. But it also makes it hard for the good guys to find her, and if she can’t look back along her trail, how will she find her way in the dark. She has to keep moving, remember? It’s cold. Even if that is sand, it’s going to be cold – but traveling at night will protect her from the heat of the day.

Where did she come from and where is she going? I don’t know, because I’m probably never going to write this story.

I Heart LA

I nearly bought this image to use for “Graduation”, the short story Jenn and I wrote for our Chaos Station series. The clothing wasn’t right, though, and my Photoshop skills aren’t up to all the other changes I wanted to make, such as modernizing the city skyline and changing the letters. Adding another figure.

But there is a story here. It’s separate from the letters this guy is writing in this picture. Change those words and this could be about anything. Is he writing a name? Is he giving a clue to the code? Maybe he’s been possessed by aliens and he’s writing equations against the night sky as if it were a blackboard. He could be solving the theory of everything.

Or, he could be pointing to a bird, a plane…Superman. Or a UFO. He could just be really, really drunk and imaging there’s something there.

I really like the idea this picture is a celebration, though. It just has that vibe. Maybe he has just graduated and he’s writing his new name in the sky. Or maybe he’s dancing and what he’s writing isn’t important at all.

I have close to a hundred other stock photos saved to favourites folders, though, and some of them…some of them are calling. They’re weaving their stories for me, even as I write this post. I just hope that when I get around to writing one of them, the image hasn’t already been used by Stephen King or something. Or in a Buzzfeed quiz.

Review: Zero World by Jason M. Hough

Zero World

I didn’t actually read the synopsis of Zero World when I requested a copy for review. I had enjoyed Jason M. Hough’s Dire Earth series so much, I figured I’d like anything he wrote. I also hoped this would continue that story. I was wrong on one account and right on the other. Zero World introduces a new story and universe, but it’s just as compelling as Hough’s previous novels.

Peter Caswell is an assassin. He has a switch in his head, that when flipped, allows him to act almost without conscience, knowing that when he completes his assignment, he will be reset, forgetting any atrocities he may have committed. He begins each job as a rookie – remembering only his training and whatever skills he acquires in between.

His latest assignment will be the most interesting one he will ever forget. A lost spaceship has been found. He is sent to investigate and discovers it is full of bodies. But one crew member is missing, as is a landing pod. Caswell’s switch is flipped and he’s sent after her. In a second lander, he follows a preprogrammed course through a wormhole. On the other side he discovers a planet that looks just like Earth – except for the huge scar of craters across the middle. This duplicate planet only looks like Earth, however. Their culture is heavily influenced by this cratered scar which divides the continents into North and South. They speak English, but with market differences. They dress differently, and he cannot stomach any of their food.

Tracking his quarry in this alien landscape is already a test of Caswell’s skill and adaptability. He also has a time limit. He will reset in just fourteen days, six of which will be required for the journey back through the wormhole. If he forgets why he’s there, he may never get home.

This book is divided into four parts. I devoured the first part. Futuristic assassins equipped with techy gadgets set upon intergalactic mysteries? Sign me up. The second part was a little tougher to read. Hough introduces his second principle lead, another spy named Melni Tavan. I liked Melni and through her, formed an appreciation for the thought the author had put into creating the duplicate earth. Everything was just off. A different culture, a different social norm. For instance, women are dominant and men usually wear their hair long. It was like reading a book with 3D glasses. The focus was a little weird.

Eventually, Melni and Caswell run into one another, complicating their respective missions. Then, in the third part, THINGS HAPPEN. The truth of it all is revealed and it’s pretty cool. In the fourth part, Caswell reverts, forgetting everything, and he has to rely on Melni to complete his mission. What he doesn’t realise is that his mission parameters have changed.

Overall, I enjoyed Zero World. It was new and different. Caswell and Melni were extremely likeable characters. I did wonder when Melni was going to properly react to all the killing, but I did enjoy her propensity toward planning. A woman after my own heart. Caswell’s situation came with a lot of build in sympathy, and when he discovered the truth, I was fully invested in how he’d overcome the lie of his existence.

My one issue with Zero World would be with the overwhelming number of action scenes. The book is exciting in that Caswell and Melni are constantly running for their lives. But not a lot of plot elements hinge on these sequences. I got a little bored reading fight scene after fight scene, particularly as the plot is actually fairly simple. The magic lies in the big reveal, which could have come a little sooner, I think.

Still, it’s an entertaining read that introduces a diverse new universe, and while Zero World does work as a standalone novel, there is a lot of story left to tell.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Undertow by Michael Buckley

Undertow (Undertow #1)

Undertow by Michael Buckley tells an ugly story. Three years ago, the Alpha arrived on the beach of Coney Island, New York. They’re made up of mixed races of sea dwelling creatures – many of whom appear to be plucked for our very own myths and legends. Calling themselves the Sons and Daughters of Sirena, Triton, Nix, and so on, the Alpha set up camp on the beach and begin to intermingle with humanity. The results are as predictable as they are disheartening. Humanity rejects the castaways – forcing them to remain on the beach where a tent city soon overtakes the coastline. It is another slum on the edge of a city already rife with racial tension.

Three years on, a program is devised to integrate the Alpha children into local schools. It is hoped this will foster a relationship between the younger generation that will filter back through both sides of the not so cold war. This is where Lyric Walker comes in. From the beginning, we know she is different. She professes to be a wild thing, but the arrival of the Alpha has tamed her teenaged rebellion. Still she is far from a model student, and holds the respect of the kids she used to run with. For this reason, she is chosen to partner one of the Alpha kids. She and Fathom – the prince of the Alpha – are supposed to meet for an hour each day and get to know one another. The notion to show one of the cool kids taking the first steps toward equanimity is hopelessly naïve – so much so, even Lyric thinks it’s a bad idea. But the arbiter of this farce is a government agent, and he knows all the Walker family secrets.

For weeks, Lyric and her friends brave the picket line to attend school. Violence erupts almost daily – human against Alpha and human against anyone who might show the slightest sympathy for the people from the sea. The Alpha, with their rigidly stratified society and warped ideas of honour, are just as antagonistic. The violence escalates toward outright horror. Students are bullied for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any willing contact with the Alpha is an unforgiveable sin. A new gang gives rise to an abusive order until school is finally closed due to a gunman gaining access and running rampant through the halls.

In the midst of this ugly representation of our society, attraction blooms between Lyric and Fathom – which is the hinge upon which the rest of the book balances for the space of a couple of chapters. Then the door slams shut – in the wrong direction. What was ugly becomes foul.

I found the last third of Undertow increasingly difficult to read. Not because it isn’t well written – it is. Michael Buckley’s prose draws you quickly into the story and carries you effortlessly forward. From the beginning, the pacing matches the rhythm of our teenaged protagonist, Lyric Walker, as she flips from obsessing about her wardrobe to worrying concepts larger than herself – her family and their fate, her neighbourhood and the unclear picture she has of a future that includes both humanity and the Alpha. But when I wanted more outrage on her behalf regarding the way her friends and counterparts treat the Alpha, what I got instead was factual reportage of the horror unfolding before her young eyes. Some scenes are very visceral, but without Lyric’s emotional subtext, they didn’t carry quite the punch they might have. There is one incident in particular that shows a severe lack of compassion on her part – the thought is there, but not enough time is given for those seeds to take root.

The other fault of the last third manifests at around the same time as the pacing suddenly switches into overdrive with hours and days passing in a matter of sentences – if they’re referenced at all. It’s clear the book is racing toward a climax, and it is exciting. Unfortunately, I still needed time to recover from the event that is clearly the beginning of the end. I understand that war doesn’t allow that time, and this is – if nothing else – a novel of war. But this turning point is vastly important, and it ends up feeling almost meaningless.

Along with the jerky pace and lack of emotional depth, the last third of the book delivers a number of plot conveniences, many of which could have been powerful tools in the reader’s kit if delivered sooner. Had we known the reason the Alpha arrived, we might have had more sympathy for them. Maybe. With the super late delivery of the big outstanding “why”, however, I couldn’t help wondering if the author only figured out a compelling enough reason at the same time he delivered it.

Ultimately, I did not dislike the book. In fact, I enjoyed the first three quarters, despite the uncomfortable itch in my head, the one that refused to believe humanity could be so petty and cruel, and that we’re raising our children to be intolerant. That we can be as thoughtless as a herd of pack animals goaded onto action single, outraged voice. Regardless of my horror, I gave Mr. Buckley his due for having the wherewithal to cast us in such an ugly light. But when I looked for the flipside – the brightness I believe is within all of us – I found it tarnished and dull. I wanted the relationship between Lyric and Fathom, that hinge, to open the door again. To allow the light in. But the lack of emotional punch meant I didn’t truly believe in the relationship. To reuse my odd metaphor, the hinge wasn’t strong enough.

Despite this, I would recommend Undertow to readers of Young Adult fiction. It might not end up necessary conversation starter about bullying and intolerance, but it does deliver a unique story, lots of action, and a young heroine who has some admirable qualities. Lyric is unflinchingly loyal to her family and friends, and has a true moral compass. It will be interesting to see what direction this takes her in in the follow up novel, Raging Sea, due out February 2016.

Reviewed for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Crucible (The Epherium Chronicles #2) by T.D. Wilson

Crucible (The Epherium Chronicles, #2)

Twenty-five years ago, the Epherium Corporation launched three colony ships to settle new worlds. In command of the new flagship Armstrong, Captain James Hood is directed to investigate mysterious signals from those nearly forgotten ships. His mission is complicated by startling revelations regarding the deep sleep technology used to quicken colonist’s long journey and a plot seemingly devised to prevent him from catching up with them.

Crucible, book two in The Epherium Chronicles, picks up the story up one jump from the Cygni system where Hood hopes to find a thriving colony. When they do find evidence of the colony ship Magellan and nearly three thousand colonists doing their best to tame a wild planet, Hood faces perhaps his most daunting challenge. Twenty-five years have passed for these men and women and Earth is not as they left it. An alien enemy has decimated the Mars. Many will have lost friends and relatives. But that’s not all. Cygni system might also be in danger, from the alien Cilik’ti and perhaps the corporation that funded the original mission.

Hood must prepare the colonists for the visible enemy first, the Cilik’ti. But even as they brace under the threat of invasion and attack, the invisible enemy is there, plans unknown.

Author T.D. Wilson combines several elements to make a very compelling read. The plot laid out in Embrace, the first book of The Epherium Chronicles, is expanded upon here without too much complication. The personal threads are deepened, however, with Hood being reunited with his uncle and two women he knew as a boy. If he didn’t already feel beholden by duty, he now has more than one reason to protect the new colony.

We learn more about the Cilik’ti in Crucible, which is much appreciated. There is no big passage of history for the reader to wade through, however. All revelations come exactly as they should, on a need to know basis. It’s difficult to elucidate this part of the plot without spoiling a good chunk of the story, so I’ll move on to the action. There’s lots of it and it’s all pretty awesome. Space battles, ground battles, power armour and classic David and Goliath conflicts. Wilson skips from view to view seamlessly so that we get in on every aspect, too, from the colonists and teams on the ground, to the men and women aboard the Armstrong. These pages were thrilling and the conclusion is never foregone. I enjoyed the tie-in with Hood’s chess games as the captain measured his progress against that of his enemies. The battle is much more than a game, however. It is, in fact, the crucible which will forever change humanity’s relationship with the Cilik’ti.

Crucible is a very enjoyable read. It’s got intrigue, plenty of action and a good dose of heart. Best of all, however, it’s not a sequel that either lets the story dip into obscurity or skip off on a vastly different tangent. We’re definitely still heading forward here, with a deeper and even more interesting story. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens in the next installment, Echoes*, due to be released 30 March 2015.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Watch for my review of Echoes on Wednesday!

Review: Embrace (The Epherium Chronicles, #1) by T.D. Wilson

Embrace (The Epherium Chronicles, #1)

 

It’s the year 2155 and humanity has survived first contact and conflict with the alien Cilik’ti. A veteran of this war, Captain James Hood now has the opportunity to follow the dream that led him to serve in the Earth Defense Forces. Twenty-five years ago, the Epherium Corporation launched three colony ships to settle new worlds. In command of the new flagship Armstrong, Hood is directed to investigate mysterious signals from those nearly forgotten colony ships.

Technology has improved such that the Armstrong can navigate folded space in order to reach the ships’ location in weeks rather than years, but the journey will still be fraught with peril. The Cilik’ti are still out there and they could be the largest threat to any new colony. Accordingly, Hood must gather a team that is prepared for that and more.

Once out in the black, the Armstrong is plagued by myriad small problems that could be the growing pains of any new crew – personality conflicts, security issues and various ailments – and someone is sneaking around the ship. When crew members are found murdered, the two survivors fall suspect but of what plot, security chief Maya Greywalker cannot figure out. There are too many unknowns. Then there is the mysterious ship shadowing their journey. Unravelling the identity of that ship produces more questions than answers, however, casting an entirely new light on the current mission and the one from twenty-five years before.

Embrace starts slowly with the introduction of the new Akita class dreadnaught Armstrong and the man selected to captain her, James Hood. From there, pivotal members of the team selected by Hood are introduced with back story and complications. In between, the reader is treated to snippets of world-building and history. Though eager to get to the mission, I did appreciate the fact author T.D. Wilson took time to set the scene. There is something to be said for dropping the reader into the middle of the plot and letting them figure out where they are and who everyone is. Beginning at the beginning and progressing to the middle is a kinder journey and saves having to insert vast quantities of exposition into the middle of the action later on.

Once the mission launches, the pace picks up and from there, rolls into a tighter and tighter ball, gathering plot threads and characters as it runs. This is when you appreciate the groundwork. You know who everyone is and have a fair enough idea of their motivation but, in some cases, you’re still not sure if they are a friend or foe. Wilson is careful on that score, so that when crew members are implicated and exonerated, each revelation comes as a surprise.

When the mystery surrounding the original mission, that of the colony ships, is exposed, Embrace takes the leap from entertaining to downright fascinating. Then the book ends, which might be more annoying if the sequel were not already available.

All in all, I found the writing and story-telling solid. I enjoyed meeting Wilson’s cast of characters and look forward to seeing how their conflicts continue to grow and/or resolve as the main plot progresses.

Written for SFCrowsnest.