Weekly Musing: The Joy of Reading a Good Book

Last week I wrote about some of the books I read this past year that didn’t quite float my boat. This week I want to quickly comment on some of the books I enjoyed this year. The books listed below cover the gamut from fantasy to historical fiction to works by the ‘masters’ of the field. There were more I could have added to this but in no particular order, here are just a few of the books I loved reading this year.

Dreamsongs Vol. 1 by George R.R. Martin: This is a collection of published short stories from early in Martin’s career and is also part autobiography. Before each section, Martin gives the reader a glimpse into his childhood influences as well as a history lesson in the development of the science fiction/fantasy genre. I enjoyed virtually every story in the volume, even his work published when he was a teenager and young man. I was blown away and jealous of his prose even at those early stages. It’s fascinating reading each story chronologically because you can see Martin’s growth as a writer and as a person. If you’ve only read Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (as I had), then picking up this volume of his earlier works is a must. His prose is lyrical and poetic and somehow he manages to convey absolute realism even in the fantasy worlds he’s created. I have Dreamsongs Vol. 2 and hope to read it in 2014.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck: This year I wanted to start reading some of the classics, the giants of the literary world. Previously the only Steinbeck work I had read was The Grapes of Wrath, which was assigned reading in my English class senior year of high school. I enjoyed that book immensely because it was such an honest, simple look at the Depression. In addition to Cannery Row, I also read Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent but I enjoyed this one more. Cannery Row has an interesting assortment of characters living during the Depression in Monterey, California who want to throw a thank you party for Doc, a marine biologist, who has been nice to the people that make up Cannery Row.

The book is a character piece not only of the people but the area itself. Steinbeck’s prose is simple yet poetic. Again, what intrigued me the most was the realism of the people in the book. Nothing is glamorous about any of them. It’s just a community of hard working people, even the bums work hard, coming together to put on a celebration desperately needed by all of them. It’s a simple, beautiful story.

Far in the Wilds by Deanna Raybourn: This novella, a prequel to A Spear of Summer Grass, is set in 1910s Kenya. I gobbled it up in a few hours and loved the world it is set in. A departure for Raybourn, she has as her protagonist a male, Ryder White, a rough and tumble guide in the wilds of Kenya. He is an immigrant from Canada and prefers to be alone with his troubles. His two best friends are Tusker and Jude, two rough and tumble women.

Raybourn’s descriptions of Kenya are vivid and I immediately felt I was there in the heat and sparse landscape of Kenya. I wish Ryder had been the protagonist in the follow up book instead of Delilah Drummond because I think his side of the story would have been more interesting.

19 Dragons by S.M. Reine: Another short but excellent book is 19 Dragons by S.M. Reine. These are not your typical dragons as the spirits of all but 1 inhabit non-dragon bodies. Set in a world above Earth, each dragon represents a province. The Device, a powerful object, has been stolen and the dragons have become mortal. Each one tries to figure out who took it and one by one; they either are killed by other dragons or die by their own hand. The Device is important to the salvation of humans in this world. The interactions amongst the dragons are interesting and each dragon’s story is told in 19 chapters.

It is short but Reine paints a vivid world and clearly gives distinctive voices to each dragon that represents a variety of people including a kind old man, a little girl, and an even android whose parts keep malfunctioning.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion: I saw the movie version of this earlier this year and loved the spin on the zombie genre so I decided to the read the book. The book is different from the movie, aren’t they always, and tells the story of R, a zombie who can’t remember what his human name was. It’s a take on the story of Romeo and Juliet and adds a nice spin on the zombie genre. R lives in an abandoned airport and spends his days trying to find food. While hunting one day, he runs into a group of zombie killers headed by Julie, the daughter of the President. He eats her boyfriend’s brain but somehow absorbs his memories of the relationship with Julie. Julie is captured by R and taken back to the jumbo jet he calls home which is filled with records and other knick knacks he finds. R has still retained his humanity and even has a ‘wife’ and ‘children’ but that relationship quickly sours as his ‘wife’ and ‘children’ exhibit the more advance behavior of zombies we’ve all come to know and love (or loathe). R begins to fall for Julie and she slowly realizes not all zombies are bad and that with compassion and love, they begin to regain some of their human form.

I loved how the story was told in first person from R’s POV and while his brain seems a trifle too intellectual given his current state, it was a great twist on the Romeo and Juliet story it is inspired by and much more interesting than Romeo and Juliet in my opinion.

Fragile Things and American Gods by Neil Gaiman: I’m combining these two because it is so hard to describe adequately what the stories are about. Fragile Things is a short story and poetry collection which reveals the quirky mind of Gaiman. The world Gaiman writes about is full of bizarre and sometimes grotesque people acting out bizarre situations.

American Gods was inspired by a cross country trip the author took of America and many of the characters and places in it are taken from real people he encountered. It centers around Shadow, an ex-con recently released from jail. He loses his wife in a tragic automobile accident shortly before he is released. A man named Mr. Wednesday employs him as a bodyguard and together, they travel the country encountering a variety of people who are the earthly forms of gods and goddesses from various ancient and modern mythologies. It’s a difficult book to wrap one’s head around and made even more difficult by the main character being the strong, silent type. Haunted by the ghost of his wife who acts as a bit of a guide, the reader gets the sense that if Shadow completes his work, he will be able to overcome the grief of her loss.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: Another classic that I never read before. I enjoyed this one because of the themes of loneliness and isolation and think Shelley does a great job conveying those. The story is not what various movies make it out to be as the title does not refer to the monster but the man who creates him as part of an obsessive experiment to see if he can create life. He does with terrible consequences but his monster is not really a monster. He’s just a very lonely and sad creature trying to find his place in the world and connect with others but because of his huge size and disfigurement, is shunned by society. This causes him to act out the only way he knows how by erupting into uncontrolled, fear-based violence. Frankenstein himself experiences isolation and loneliness during the time it took him to create his monster as well as when he runs away from the monster who hunts him down after the refusal to create a mate. It’s not terrifying in the traditional sense and if you can get past the not-so-believable eloquence of the monster, it is well worth the read.

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey: This book is beautiful. Following the story of an Indian woman from childhood to adulthood, it is set in India during the 1910s all the way up to India’s independence in 1947. The main character’s journey to true independence from a variety of oppressors, Indian, Anglo-Indian, and English alike is mirrored by India’s own struggle to shake the yoke of the English. After the death of her family from a cyclone hits their coastal village, her life turns tragic yet along the way she manages to obtain an informal education as she is a servant at an all-girls school catering to the offspring of the English. Despite this she is ignorant of the world. She retreats in English literature obtained by a favorite teacher and develops a close friendship with a daughter of a family whose caste is much higher than hers. Tragedy happens, though, which forces her to go on the run. That’s when her life becomes harsher. She is tricked into prostitution at the age of 15, a rape by a corrupt English police chief that results in pregnancy, the giving up of her child to a couple she trusts, until finally she achieves happiness. Her life is full of lies and she undergoes so many name changes and identities that I struggle to remember what her birth name was.

Massey’s style is enchanting and she fully uses all five senses to immerse the reader in this world. The political struggle of India to shake off England’s yoke mirror the protagonists only struggle to shake off the past she is running from. The main character is strong, stubborn, na├»ve, smart, and resilient and I was happy when she finally got beginnings of a happy ending she deserved.

There you have it. The books I couldn’t help but enjoy and love this year. What all of these books have in common were the ability to completely transport me. The characters grabbed me, the settings took me away, and the prose was strong. These authors all inspire me to create worlds and characters readers can identify with and to take them on a journey. If I could get to even a fraction of these authors talent, I would be thrilled.

Weekly Musing: Oh, Why Did I Read That?

I don’t normally make New Year’s Resolutions just because it seems to me like an exercise in futility and a great way to end feeling guilty for not sticking to them. This year, though, I decided that if I did make any resolutions, they would be ones related to my new career. One of those was to read more and to actual log what I read because I often can’t remember if I’ve read a book or not. I have met my goal of reading at least 50 books this year and while there were many books I enjoyed, there were some I wasn’t enthralled with. So this week and next week I’m going to list my favorite and least favorite books I read this year.

I’d rather start with the ones I didn’t like because that means ending the year on a positive note. ‘Tis the season for sentimentality.

I’m excluding from my list books I didn’t finish because if I didn’t finish it, I didn’t like it enough to soldier through and it seems a bit unfair to list it. I’m also not counting books I only read parts of for research because that doesn’t seem fair, either.

So with a little drum roll , here is the list of my least favorite books I read this year. In no particular order they are:

Everflame by Dylan Peters: Really cool concept about a kingdom of talking bears (it’s a fantasy world, just roll with it) who adopt an orphaned human baby and raise him as one of their own. But the kingdom is threatened by evil, The Messenger, who is taking out The Ancients one by one. Evercloud (the human raised by bears) and his bear family and friends must find the evil and fight it. It’s the first book in a trilogy but I have no desire to read it further. The author has some really lovely descriptions and I do enjoy the world of the bears but things fell apart once the author shifted focus to telling the story of villain in the book called The Messenger (who is human). The Messenger’s origin story is violent and drags on for far too long. Cutting some of the back story would have helped the flow of the story. The characters are very black and white with only Evercloud showing any signs of potential for growth.

A Crowning Mercy by Bernard Cornwell and Susannah Kells: I love historical fiction and had heard Bernard Cornwell was a really good writer so I looked around his catalog to see what might appeal to me. I picked this book because it was set during a time period I’m not familiar with, mid-1600s England, and it sounded like it had an interesting female lead. I was wrong about the female lead. She was dull, boring, and irritatingly stupid but the authors seemed to blame that on her Puritanical upbringing which I think can only carry so far. Dorcas Slythe was orphaned at a young age and left in the care of relatives. Her mother was a Puritan who fell in love with a ship’s captain and ran off with him. They are strict Puritans and I hated the way they are portrayed. They were just over-the-top bad and plain greedy which seems to smack right in the face of what their religion believes. There’s some plot about a map and seals and whoever finds all the seals gets the map that leads to some treasure tucked up in the Netherlands. Of course Dorcas has one of those seals but doesn’t know it. Most of the book is her repeatedly trusting people whom she shouldn’t yet despite repeatedly getting burned, she continues to trust the same people. Oh and there’s some dopey romance buried in there. It reads as if two people wrote the book which if more than one author are going to collaborate on a book, their parts should flow seamlessly. It didn’t in this book.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Don’t fling things at me but I just felt this ‘classic’ was boring. I know it is supposed to be a reflection and commentary about the Jazz Age but I just wasn’t feeling it. I found it dull and I think for me, it is a case of if I lived during that time period, it would have worked have had more resonance. It was just meh and while the mystery around Jay Gatsby keeps you interested, it just doesn’t say much to me.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: I discovered Neil Gaiman this year and utterly enjoyed his other works. This book, however, just didn’t quite click. Gaiman has a wonderful imagination and a great dreamy, surreal quality to his writing but this one just dragged on too long for me. It’s hard to describe the plot of the book other than it is a flashback to the narrator’s childhood and a very special friend who lives with her mother and grandmother. There is evil afoot inhabiting various earthly and unearthly forms. His oddball friend, though, is there to protect him. While it is widely imaginative and well-written, it just didn’t grab like American Gods or Fragile Things.

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn: This is a novel follow-up to the fun novella released earlier this called Far in the Wilds. While I really enjoyed the novella, I didn’t care for this one as much. This book, as well as Far in the Wilds, is set in Kenya in the 1920s, a departure from the Victorian time setting of Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey stories. The story centers around scandalous socialite Delilah Drummond sent to there by her equally scandalous mother who found even her own daughter’s exploits a bit much to handle. Delilah is the embodiment of the roaring ’20s: living life to excess by drinking, smoking, and sleeping with as many men as she wants to. She’s cheeky and fun which normally I like since I’m so not either of those but I found Delilah really dislikeable. She’s childish and immature and treats her much more prudish cousin, sent there to try to keep her out of trouble, with a lot of disrespect I found off putting and unwarranted. I finished the book because Raybourn’s descriptions are phenomenal. I felt like I was in Kenya and it was beautiful if dangerous. I’ve also noticed a trend with Raybourn with pulling some random plot twists toward the end of novels that aren’t foreshadowed at all (or they might be and I’m too slow to pick up on them) and don’t make sense in relation to the story.

Owain Glyn Dwr: The Last Prince of Wales by Peter Gordon Williams: When I bought this, I thought it was a nonfiction book and had it with the rest of my research materials. Then I looked at it again and noticed it was labeled as a novel. Okay, no big, shift it to a different bookcase. I read the book because I wanted to see what the author’s take was and so I wouldn’t try to repeat what someone else has already done. It’s not really a novel. It really should be classified as creative nonfiction because it is just a regurgitation of facts and dates with dialogue and descriptions of what people look like. The dialogue is wooden and is exposition with quotes around it. People come across as colossally stupid about what is going on around them. No character growth. Just lots and lots and lots of telling. At least I realized I was truly retaining what I had studied.

So there you have it. My list of the books I read this year I just didn’t care for. It is small which is a good sign I think. Thankfully there were a lot more books that I utterly enjoyed and having to narrow down my list to just a handful for next week’s post is going to be a fun challenge.

Weekly Musing: It’s a Wrap

The final word on my first NaNoWriMo experience. It certainly had some bumps but it was a very valuable learning experience. I can’t really narrow it down to just one thing but several things I learned about writing a novel and about myself during November.

As my spouse pointed out to me the second day of NaNoWriMo, just concentrate on what it feels like to write a novel rather than focusing on if it makes complete sense. That was probably the biggest thing I learned during November. It was about understanding what my process is, discovering what it physically feels like (hello more callouses and wrist pain), and discipline. Don’t get me wrong, finishing the novel was a huge goal and one that I’m happy to say I accomplished even though I wound up adding to the ending a bit earlier this week.

Another thing I learned was it is more than okay to have a really, really terrible first draft. My draft is terrible and makes little sense to me. The characters are inconsistent and at one point I decided I wanted to age up the main character. Since my original plans for NaNo weren’t working out, I focused on writing a story completely from scratch. I truly tapped into the pantser way of thinking and I found it quite freeing. It also means chunks of what I wrote will be cut as it doesn’t make sense for the story. I got the feeling around the middle of the month that I had written myself into the story. All this means is that when I go to revise the novel sometime next year, it will be a lot more work than the draft.

This leads me to the next thing I’ve realized. I think of my NaNo draft as a bones draft. No, not Dr. McCoy (dammit Jim, I’m a doctor not a writer). To me a bones draft is just getting down the basics. I got down a lot of dialogue with some actions and some setting descriptions but beyond that, there isn’t what I would consider a lot of ‘meat’ to it. I’m thinking my technique may be to flesh out the story in terms of setting and getting inside the characters in subsequent drafts before paring it down again to a concise story. I guess it’ll get fatter before getting down to a healthy weight.

I also learned to somehow keep that inner editor at bay. The phrase ‘I can fix this later’ was circulating through my head every day. I needed to constantly remind myself to just concentrate on getting the word count in and just getting thoughts down. Also that it is okay to run spell check but to ignore the grammar stuff, especially passive voice reminders, because again, it’s just a rough draft and the story itself will change significantly. The story became the guiding force.

Discipline was another biggie in November. I had been struggle all this year trying to figure out some kind of routine. It even got to the point that I created a time sheet for myself to help me stay on task. That didn’t work but telling myself I will write at least 3 hours each day, 5 if I can manage it, did the trick. Somehow I managed to commit myself to that schedule nearly every day despite the fact I was prepping for a major move. The only exception was when I was out of town yet that break was beneficial. It allowed my brain time to refresh and make the final push to the end. So if I can get 50,000 words in during all that imagine what more I could do when life isn’t so crazy?

Finally, I think I learned this past month was that each novel will probably have its own process. This one had none other than to just write anything down. But for novels that will have had more research, thought, and plot notes done, the process should be less seat of the pants. This novel was written linearly yet there are plenty of scenes that need to be added to it which means in the revision stage I’ll be writing out of sequence.

Overall I enjoyed my NaNo experience. I think I will definitely participate in 2014 and beyond. I’ve learned to be a bit gentler on myself and let that inner editor go far, far away. While I wasn’t as active on the forums on NaNoWriMo’s website as I intended to be, just looking around that international community of over 300,000 writers meant a lot of them were going through the same experiences at the same time. Somehow that worked for me psychologically more so than reading or listening to author interviews. I think that says a lot about the people behind NaNoWriMo and their approach to novel writing.