Should you save the story or shoot it in the head?

Image courtesy zombiebaseballbeatdown.com

What happens when a story idea you’ve got pretty well formed in your head doesn’t really cut it anymore?

For about three years now, I’ve toyed with a story I’ve named Eleven Years After. The basic idea is that a traveling caravan of traders in a post-apocalyptic world expands to find new territory and discovers a city with near-pre-apocalyptic technology levels. They have running water, electricity, complex institutions of government, and a few more sinister aspects of society. Another aspect of my story is that it involves what you might generally call zombies, the catalyst for this apocalypse.

For a long time, I thought zombies were the creepiest monster out there. As a kid, the idea of something eating my brains was quite terrifying. I specifically remember realizing I feared zombies the most during a show called “Big Wolf on Campus,” an ABC Family afternoon TV show about a werewolf just trying to make it through highschool.

When I started dating Ben around seven years ago, he was into zombie movies. I watched them and did some thinking and realized that zombies are pretty darn interesting because of how they reflect human society. I stopped being terrified of zombies and became more intrigued by what they made people do. Soon after, I read World War Z (which, unlike the movie, is a brilliant look at humanity in the grips of an apocalypse caused by zombies; go read it now; really, stop reading this post and go read it; I’m not kidding).

My boyfriend began to explore writing and eventually published a short story called Mercury, Sulfur & Salt. I was inspired by him and started thinking about my own story ideas. In this time, zombies rose (har, har) in popularity, becoming a pretty fashionable marketing tool for books, movies, and more. I read a lot of zombie fiction and discovered that a lot of it was just about violence and less about the human factor. There are some pretty decent works out there, but many are poorly done, in my opinion. I finally saw the World War Z movie, and while it was a good zombie movie, it follows the Oatmeal’s explanation precisely in that it and the book only share a title in common.

Frankly, I’m pretty tired of zombies by now. Like vampires, they’ve recently been overplayed and overdone. I specifically avoid books with zombie themes in them myself, because they’re almost always rewritten versions of the same story. It seems tired. As someone that enjoyed zombies before they heightened in popularity, seeing them come to the forefront and be made into a boring genre was pretty disheartening.

Where does this leave my story? Ben gave me the good advice to write the book I want to read. At this point in time, I don’t want to read about zombies. Though I think my story has a good plot and could be interesting to read, I feel like I would dismiss it because of the zombie connection. If I’m feeling that way, a lover of b-grade monster movies and one who enjoys seeing the social implications of monsters in books and films, then how would Jane Q. Reader feel?

A major inspirational part of this story’s birth was a short piece of fiction I wrote on another blog of mine, years ago, that centered on a zombie bite. Should I scrap my story and start over? Should I try to work the themes of my story (post apocalyptic, dystopian, speculative fiction) into  scenario that doesn’t involve zombie-like creatures? Should I stick it out and hope for the best?

On the same token, aren’t these monsters pervasive and always there? Haven’t there been zombie, vampire, and werewolf movies every few years or so for my entire life? “Night of the Living Dead” was done in 1968. “28 Days Later” was done in 2002. “Dawn of the Dead” was done in 1978 and 2004. Should I really be worried?

A conundrum, at best.

Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Image courtesy Amazon.

Humanity may have left Earth and branched out through our solar system, but what makes us human is still there—especially the bad parts. Leviathan Wakes is an entertaining space opera set in a future where technology has allowed humans to colonize the solar system, including Mars and the asteroid belt. It sports of a cast of “usual suspects,” but each is vivid enough to remain captivating.

Space opera is basically dramatic space adventure. The most notable example for many people is Star Wars. The term originated as a means of referring to a soap opera-type show or story set in space, with science fiction elements. As I enjoy the notion of a space opera, I was drawn to this book by a Kindle Daily Deal and the cover review that said “…kickass space opera.” I’m a fan of kickass space operas, so why not?

The story follows the lives of two men, one from Earth working on a ship that hauls ice to the outlying colonies, and one who is a detective on an asteroid settlement. Each has a unique voice, history, and motivation, and the chapters switch back and forth between them. As the book progresses, the lives of the two become intertwined when catastrophe threatens. A series of unexplained ship explosions and a too-honest broadcast lurch the system into war, while a small group of space miners and the detective work to stop the real threat—a biological weapon that aliens aimed at our planet long ago. (Alternate title: “Humans in spaceships going places fast with entertaining goals.”)

The dual point of view is done well and didn’t feel cumbersome. It was a nice taste of different views throughout the story. The setup of the book was a little boring, as we follow a series of events that lead to the part that gets really interesting (around about 15 percent). The overall tale was good, yet I felt the ending to be just a touch too far out of the realm of the story.

Both main characters were charmingly frustrating. Each had his own quirks that made you not like him, but then you’d read something else through his eyes and forgive the previous transgressions. Some of the speech patterns in the book were very difficult to read. The Belter dialect was pretty darn hard to understand, but it was meant to be that way.

I enjoyed the fact that this book didn’t leave our galaxy. It gave it a sense of near future that many sci-fi books lack. The technology felt plausible to me, specifically the notion that fast space travel isn’t comfy, cozy, or really desirable. The Big Bad of the story was dealt with logically, which is refreshing. Instead of yammering about random actions and ignoring facts, the appropriate questions and actions were asked.

My favorite aspect of this story was the human element. We are, essentially, a race that hates difference and change. Sci-fi tends to take a couple of views on this. In Star Trek, humanity has long since learned to work together and pull strength from our differences. The galaxy in Leviathan Wakes is not that sort of humanity. The Earthers don’t like the outer colonies (called Belters) because the people born there are often taller and thinner because of gravity differences. As such, the Belters distrust and don’t like Earthers. This causes all sorts of controversy. It was interesting to see the “united humanity reaches space” notion in a bit more of a realistic view.

Overall, I would call this book a READ. You can easily tell if you’re drawn to this genre or not, and if you are I think there’s a good chance you’d like the story. It has its flaws, and the ending seems a little odd, but not unsatisfying. The bad guys in this book are not super clear, but the threat is there. To me, this is an interesting twist and is a lot closer to the decisions we must make in everyday life.

 

Review: The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker

As a middle schooler, life can be pretty difficult. Between your body doing odd things that seem impossible (random erections or suddenly bleeding for a week at a time) and the sudden interest in other members of your species as potential mates, tweens need little outside influence to make life more trying. Unfortunately for Julia, the world is starting to stop spinning.

As you all (hopefully) know, Earth rotates on its axis. A complete rotation takes approximately 24 hours, which gives us our handy cycle of day and night. It also influences the weather, distribution of oceans, habits of animals, and magnetosphere (that last one is pretty darn important). I was interested to read about living through the experience of the Earth slowing down, so I grabbed The Age of Miracles from my local library’s ebook service.

Life is pretty awesome for Julia. She plays soccer, she has good friends, and her family is pretty happy. One day, however, scientists realize that the spin of the Earth has begun to slow. As such, new hours bleed into every. Over time, the spin keeps slowing until days and nights are long affairs and humanity can’t naturally keep up with them. Soon, every part of life is thrown out of balance.

Overall, the book told a decent speculative fiction story of what might happen if the rotation of the Earth began to slow. I enjoyed the perspective of a middle schooler for these events. When you are younger, the world isn’t the same as it is when you’re an adult. You don’t always have all the facts and most of your world revolves around your parents and your close friends. Though unfortunate for Julia, it was interesting to read about her comfortable world falling apart.

The science in the book seemed a bit odd at times. Though the author cites that she had her work checked over by an astrophysicist who deemed it all “plausible,” I felt like there would be more of a noticeable difference for the characters in the story. It may have been a result of the point of view. Some aspects were there, like plants having difficulty with longer days and nights, as well as the magnetosphere being in danger. Other points weren’t as noticeable, like the fact that the world’s oceans would start to reallocate at the poles. It also seemed a bit odd to me that it took a somewhat substantial amount of time for people to realize the days and nights were longer. When everyone finally notices the slowing, it is staying dark until around 8:00 am in the summer (northern hemisphere). I feel like that would have been a pretty obvious occurrence.

The writing style is interesting. I specifically enjoyed the way the author described some things in an almost abstract way. It seemed fitting to what you notice when events occur—the glint of American flag pins, dark suits, and red ties rather than the names or faces of the politicians speaking. One aspect of her style I didn’t enjoy was the use of the “Little did I know this would be my last…” tactic. It seems that she relied too heavily upon the use of “I was wrong about that” or “I would later find out I was right” to make the story suspenseful. Used tastefully, this can work out fine, especially in memory-based fiction. I felt it was overdone here, though.

The novel ends with an overwhelming sense of melancholy. I do think the book did quite well in establishing the sense of impermanence and lack of control that humans go through when they are adolescents. The Earth’s spin slowing down was an interesting take on the story, but the same story could have be written about a middle schooler without that inclusion. Granted, if it hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been drawn to pick up the book.

This is another READ WITH CAUTION. I was impressed by several parts of the novel, but there were also a few parts that seemed lacking. As such, I can’t get fully behind everyone needing to read this book. It was a decent speculative fiction novel, and a pretty good story about being a teenage girl in the midst of confusing times.

Review: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Image courtesy goodreads.com

I’ve always enjoyed stories of the American west and southwest, specifically spaghetti westerns. I used to watch such movies with my grandpa and dad when I was a kid. True, the content probably wasn’t the best choice, but bonding rituals don’t always make sense. One of my favorite movies is Tombstone. Though the Earps are compelling, I was always specifically interested by Doc Holliday. As such, when browsing the historical fiction section of my local library’s ebook section, I picked up a novel called Doc by Mary Doria Russell.

John Henry Holliday is a displaced southern gentleman living in the infamously wild Dodge City, Kansas. Having moved west to Kansas to escape the cruel effects of Georgia’s humidity on his tuberculosis, he tries to practice dentistry in towns that wax and wane with Texas cowherds, earning him the nickname Doc. In time, he becomes friends with the Earps and inextricably linked to the history of the old west. Doc’s true story, however, is not the same as history might make it out to be. The shootout at the OK Corral was at the end of a long road.

The novel captures the Doc I’m familiar with: the southern drawl, the love for music, and the impatience with stupidity. I learned a lot more than I previously knew about conditions in the old west and perhaps more descriptions of suffering from tuberculosis than I ever hoped to know.

The book is not told entirely from the point of view of Doc. At times, we see things from Wyatt or Morgan Earp’s point of view, or even Kate, Doc’s companion. Dodge City is about as close to Mos Eisley cantina as a place has ever been on this Earth, and is truly a wretched hive of scum and villainy. You’re introduced to the politics of the day, animosity over the not-long-over US Civil War, racial tension, and the hard life of those that moved westward to settle.

The theme of prejudice and assumption is executed well in Doc. You see the difference that education can make, as well as reasoning behind many different types of racism and violence. Dodge City is a melting pot of lost souls, but many manage to find a place in the world.

I felt it was a little disconcerting to go back and forth between characters as suddenly as the book did. For instance, one minute you’d be reading from Doc’s point of view, and then you were suddenly in Wyatt’s shoes. It was fairly easy to pick up on, but still seemed a bit jarring. Many parts of the story were told as future events, while others were presented as blow-by-blow action. I didn’t have much trouble with this, but I could see it disconcerting some readers.

There is little true romance in a story like this. Doc feels isolated because of his intelligence and knowledge about certain things about which other people care little. I related to this quite a bit. When Doc does find another soul who shares his sort of intelligence, he drinks it in like a man in the desert (which I suppose, in a sense, he is).

It’s a sad story of a hard life. There are some parts to make you laugh and smile, and other parts to make you thankful for modern medicine. I came away from the novel feeling a little bit closer to one of my favorite characters, his voice a little clearer in my head.

I’ll call this book READ WITH CAUTION. It’s a bit of a niche read. Generally, if you are interested in that historical time period or any of those historical figures, you’ll probably enjoy it. Otherwise, I can’t really say.

Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Photo courtesy Goodreads.com

Diana is a historian, a tenured faculty member researching ancient alchemical manuscripts, and a witch. She refrains from using her powers as much as possible after the untimely death of her parents when she was young. Unfortunately for her, she unknowingly calls a bespelled book up from the archives and begins a chain of events that lead to her finding out things she never knew about herself and her family, much less the world.

A Discovery of Witches appealed to me because of the fact that the main characters were lovers of old books and the pursuit of knowledge. After having seen the book a few years ago, but not wanting to pay the price for it, I was happy to find it in the ebook section of my local library.

The book is cited as historical fiction, but a lot of the plot takes place in modern times. One of the appealing elements of the novel is that Matthew, the vampire love interest, is very old and has witnessed a large amount of historical events. Since Diana is a historian, this means they have some pretty interesting conversations. I found this to be an enjoyable aspect of their budding relationship. Rather than having some hot and heavy sudden affair, Diana and Matthew discuss alchemical imagery used in ancient texts, banter about The Origin of Species, and discuss the implications of historical events. Passion does come, but it is tempered somewhat (even though the fall-in-love time frame is rather short).

At times it seemed that Matthew was around for a little too many historical events. I was willing to let this slide, though, because the creature races in this world are very much obsessed with intellectual pursuits. Vampires wonder about science and biology, specifically (and not unexpectedly) anatomy and circulatory systems. Daemons are artistically-inclined savants, exceedingly clever and gifted. Witches are known for their incredible familial lineage and variety of powers. As such, it makes a fair bit of sense that a vampire would surround his or herself with the powerful intellectual minds of any period.

The book seemed a bit long for all that went on in the story. I didn’t get tired of reading it, but it just felt a bit longer than it should have been. The story was interesting, but not really unique. You can generally guess where many stories are going. The good stories just make you guess a bit more than the bad ones. I didn’t expect every twist and turn, but the basic gist was pretty easy to ascertain (witch who doesn’t use her powers actually has extraordinary powers she must learn to control and her love with the vampire will somehow unlock or be the key to a mystery).

I don’t begrudge the book for that, though. I enjoyed the unique look at creatures, though I find it odd that there are only three types, aligned in neat little categories. I would consider this novel a READ WITH CAUTION. It was a pleasant book, but had its flaws. The predictability of the story wasn’t too overt, but I could imagine it annoying someone easily. Somehow, the novel manages to both be a basic love story and not be a basic love story. I applaud the book for showcasing a variety of families and love, as well as not resting on the tropes commonly associated with and expected when it comes to fantastic creatures.

Please note that this is the first book in a trilogy. As such, the story wraps up fairly well, but still does a good job of hinting toward the next book. I’m not sure if I’ll continue on with the trilogy, because the library only had the first book and I’m not too keen on the way the books are priced (the second ebook is $4.99, but the third is $11.99). I will probably grab them if they are available from my library in the future, though.

Review: Binary Cycle: Revelations

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Image courtesy wjdaviesauthor.com.

Humanity’s new planet is in danger. Most people are going about their lives as normal, which is what Kenneth is trying to do as well. In a specific region for his job, he unwittingly makes friends with a scientist trying to figure out how to save the planet. After a brief meeting and a suspicious robbery, Kenneth decides to try and figure out what’s going on himself, with the help of two new friends he met in the market. Meanwhile, the dangerous fauna called Spindroth are starting to exhibit new signs of awareness, mental aptitude, and even appear to be working with a terrorist organization.

Binary Cycle: Revelations is the second book in WJ Davies’ Binary Cycle Saga. If you read my review of Binary Cycle: Disruption, you might be a bit confused about the plot synopsis above. That’s okay, because I’m pretty confused too. As I mentioned in my last post, book one doesn’t really resolve itself as an individual book—it’s expected that you’ll read the second (and ostensibly, the third). As such, I was expecting the second book to pick up on the story.

This book barely includes any of the characters we got to know in the first part of the saga. Instead, we follow a rather boring character named Kenneth who seems to be an outlet for the author to express his odd poetic musings about life. There are several instances where I think the author is trying too hard to provide elegant imagery; the most notable of which includes this quote:

“Sporadic chunks of inky sky were visible through the canopy of trees, like intricate black and white patterns intermittently placed over a semi-transparent, quivering tablecloth.”

Semi-transparent, quivering tablecloth.

Kenneth is always in the right place at the right time. He’s been brought to the region by his father’s company and ends up meeting Skyia through the vent in their shared hotel room wall (creepy). She divulges minimal information, but has Kenneth all flustered thinking about relationships and life. After they speak briefly, a robbery occurs. Obviously overcome with the momentous small talk exchange that he had with Skyia through a vent, he feels the need to search their hotel room and save a data pad, which he then reads to gain highly classified information. After giving it to their bodyguard, he decides to follow the team through a dangerous jungle with two 20ish locals he just met. He also develops a crush on one of them as well, who is named Hanna and called Han. Another Star Wars reference? What are the odds? Don’t tell me.

I’m a fast reader, even with stuff I don’t enjoy, but it was a real struggle to keep reading about Kenneth. Everything seemed so contrived at this point that it was a little painful. The author creates an interesting plot in some regards, with an cryptic message from an Earth that has been silent for over a century and a terrorist organization suddenly working with newly-sentient, highly dangerous animals. All of this, however, was overshadowed by the unfortunate, Hamlet-esque musings of Kenneth and his lack of being anything other than a handy plot device (only less slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and more quivering tablecloth).

After reading this second installment, I’ve pretty much forgotten most of what occurred in the first book, since there was barely any mention of those characters and plotlines. I feel no desire to read the third book in this series. These should have been released as a single book, or either each should have been a bit longer and had a more satisfying conclusion. The promising start provided by the first book was injured by the Lifetime TV series feel of the second, and I’m not sure there’s enough life left in the story for it to limp home in the third.
I would call this a DON’T READ. It’s not unreadable, but it does not meet my expectations and I feel it was a waste of reading time.

Review: Binary Cycle: Disruption by WJ Davies

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Graphic courtesy wjdaviesauthor.com.

In the seemingly inevitable future, humanity has to abandon Earth and colonize elsewhere. Unfortunately, planets to support life as we know it are not ubiquitous, and only one planet was successfully colonized. The inhabitants have spent over 200 years making it their own home, dealing with threats from indigenous wildlife and adapting life as humans to a new place. Such is the premise for WJ Davies’ Binary Cycle: Disruption.

I like to support indie authors, as my boyfriend is one and I respect the pursuit of putting pen to page (or fingers to keyboard, as it were). Binary Cycle: Disruption is noted on Amazon as the first book in a saga. It’s really more a novella-sized work and I would not call this a stand alone book—it’s expected that you will keep reading.

In general, this first installment was intriguing. It was fairly run of the mill sci-fi, but with an interesting world and a nice set up to pique the reader’s interest (oh no, our new world is doomed!). Humans, it seems, ruin everything.

I felt there were a few too many characters presented in a short amount of time, but they each had a good debut and were meaningful enough in my head. They all felt a bit too self-aware. Each character seemed to have just a bit too much of a grasp on their own strengths, weaknesses, and places in life. Even when thrown into disorienting circumstances, they remained a bit more together than I would generally assume. As such, I was a little thrown off.

I took issue with the fact that one of the main characters is named Skyia Walker. If you’re not a Star Wars fan or member of the last century, you may not be familiar with this name. I understand paying tribute to things you like and adding pop culture references to your work, but I feel that should be done in a more minor way, rather than with a protagonist. Considering that this character also doesn’t know who or father is and has never met him, I’m even more unimpressed. This may not bother you, dear reader, but it was a point of contention for me.

The book ends with several loose threads waiting to be woven into the story, so there’s no overarching resolution. I felt the desire to read the next book, however, so the goal of the first was ostensibly fulfilled. It was entertaining, if not magical, and left me wanting more, if not fervently.

I’d call this a READ WITH CAUTION. If you’re into science fiction or speculative fiction, you’ll probably be entertained. You’ll also be supporting an indie author, if you’re into that sort of thing. The price tag is also quite friendly.

 

Review: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

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Graphic courtesy of Wikipedia. http://bit.ly/1xhyq1G

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, tells the story of an Earth in peril, beginning with a night when the stars disappear.

I picked this up as part of a Humble Bundle eBook bundle. Overall, the book was entertaining, with an ending that fell just short of satisfying. I particularly liked this quote and first line from the novel:

Everybody falls, and we all land somewhere.

The narrator switches back and forth between the present time and the past, which recounts the Spin event, as it is called. A large barrier has formed around the Earth, blocking the stars and slowing time. As Earth plods along at its own pace, billions of years pass beyond the dark sphere. This is an issue, as our powerful sun is but a star and has an eventual date with death. The narrator’s generation must face the fact that they will live to see the world end.

The novel explores humanity’s reaction to knowing when the world will end. Some people cling to religion and various movements spring up around the world, from lewd sex festivals to groups trying to breed a blood red calf to usher in apocalypse. Science takes a different route, hatching a plan to colonize Mars and give humanity more time to figure out how to fix things. No one knows who has caused this Spin event, but it isn’t a naturally occurring thing. With the oncoming end, everyone is falling and everyone lands somewhere different.

This was a book I wasn’t sure how to take. It wasn’t necessarily boring, but it wasn’t quite riveting, either. I think a lot of that has to do with the main character and his sense of detachment from everything. He very much lives vicariously through his closest friends, a brother and sister pair who take on polarized roles in the end of the world. The sister clings to religion and a husband, while the brother pursues science and understanding in the shadow of his father’s monetary empire.  Through the main character’s lens, we view all the doom of humanity—and it seems largely underwhelming.

I thought humanity’s initial reaction to the stars disappearing was rather odd. Everyone seemed to take it very well. I can only imagine that finding out a giant sphere of black made the stars disappear would drive most people into frenzy. As long as humans have existed, we’ve gazed up at the night sky. To have that suddenly vanish would be terrifying.

The book makes a good point, though, about the number of people who o don’t know much about science or subscribe to religions or beliefs that don’t give much credit to science (such as the Earth being 6000 years old). There isn’t an easy way for a good chunk of the population to grasp an event like a large barrier forming around the Earth and slowing down time. These same people would have a harder time grasping that the sun could die and die soon. I feel like this is a pretty accurate assumption.

I would rate this book as READ WITH CAUTION. You might like it, you might not. I honestly can’t say, at this point. The sensation of finishing this novel was similar to thinking you have a Diet Coke and tasting sweet tea instead. You’re not really upset or disgusted, but it isn’t exactly what you wanted and you’re not really sure if you’re going to be satisfied with tea.

There are two more books in the trilogy, Axis and Vortex. I don’t think I will be reading these, at least right now. If you do check any out, please let me know what you think.

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