Weekly Musing: Delightful Reads of 2017

Last week I went my least favorite books of 2017. This week I go over the books which really transported me to another time and place. These were the kind of books which every reader dreams of because they remind us why we love reading so much.

Thankfully, this list is longer than last week’s which is always a good thing. Enjoy and it’s probably not too late to get any of these in time for Christmas!

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers: I read this book way back in January and the corresponding book review can be found here.

Clover by Dori Sanders: Another book I read earlier in the year and its corresponding book review can be found here.

Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence Schoen: This book, as well as the next three, were all books I read for the geek book club I’m in. Stay with me as I describe what each of the books are about since we read sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Barsk is centered around a group of anthropomorphic elephants with Jorl, a historian, as the main protagonist. The heart of the story is about Jorl and his relationship with the son of his dead friend, Pizlo. Pizlo isn’t like the other elephants as he is undersized, doesn’t feel pain, is a different color, and seems to have a mystical connection with the universe. Throughout the book, the reader gets a mystery as to why elephants at the end of their lives are being taken away from the scared place all elephants go to die. Eventually, there is evidence it is connected to a drug called koph and a nefarious organization trying to control the production and distribution of the drug.

What I really liked the most about Barsk is just how out there the book is. It is easy for the reader to get over the premise of anthropomorphic animals inhabiting an entire universe of planets. This isn’t the first book by a long shot to feature an entire cast of animals acting as humans. Schoen does a great job as the animals in the book feel like fully fleshed out characters that at times you forget they are animals until a description about a tail or trunk catches your attention. They are just like you and I as there are good and bad guys, complicated relationships, and different cultures.

The next thing I really enjoyed about the book are the characters. My favorite is Jorl because he is a historian and I have a soft spot for history. I also like him because he is sensitive and the type of character who doesn’t seek glory; he only wants to look out for and protect his friend’s son. He’s a quiet hero. I also enjoyed Pizlo because I sympathize with his ostracization from society for being different. At times he can be creepy, but that is because of his other worldly connection with the universe. The supporting characters offer a unique range of antagonists. There are some true villains and there is one morally grey characters who must decide what is the right thing to do.

The overall world building is first rate. Again, as a reader I forgot I was reading about animals as cultures of the elephants and other species are well-developed with their own lore, legends, and religion.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel: Another book which was unlike anything I’ve read before is Sleeping Giants. It’s another one of those books with an out there concept, but because it was so well-written with interesting characters, it works.

Sleeping Giants is about robots. Specifically, one robot composed of pieces found all over the world. The first piece is accidentally discovered by Rose, who is riding her bike when she falls through the ground. When she is discovered, she is being cradled in a giant metal hand with unknown symbols carved into it. Flash forward seventeen years and Rose is now a physicist intent upon discovering the who, what, where, how, and why of the hand’s origins. She heads a motley team and together they discover other parts around the world. Eventually this leads to it being put together. When they realize it can be turned on, they now have a giant alien robot.

I really enjoyed this book because of the uniqueness of its premise. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about robots, let alone alien robots. It is the first in a series, what else is new for sci-fi and fantasy, and Sleeping Giants is the first in the series. Don’t expect to get all the answers to all your questions. I do want to know what happens next and what the discovery ultimately means for humanity.

The search around the world for the pieces intrigued me. I liked that the pieces weren’t all found in America as I get tired of America being the center of books. This scattering of pieces clearly indicates something caused the robot to explode. Or did it self-destruct? It brings up many more questions beyond the basics.

Rose and her team are interesting characters. At times Rose isn’t a very nice person and I like seeing that in a protagonist. In fact, none of the people on her team are sympathetic all the time. You feel bad for them as these people have committed themselves to isolation from the outside world to protect the secrecy of the project. It’s no wonder they can get pissy.

The structure of Sleeping Giants works. The story is told through journal entries and interviews an unnamed character conducts with each member. This could have very well become boring and formulaic, but Neuvel makes it work. He is able to give the reader character development and the story progresses smoothly with a complete arc and subplot. I’m sure if Sleeping Giants had been written in a more traditional style the story would still work. But I think telling it via journal entries and interviews adds to its uniqueness.

 The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden: In The Prey of Gods fifty years into the future in South Africa robots are part of everyday life. However, the demigoddesses, one good and one very much bad, are not. This multi-viewpoint story follows five people as they discover they have powers who must work together to stop a deranged demigoddess from ruining the world. They also learn who truly are as people.

I feel like a broken record saying what makes this novel work are the characters, but it is true. Drayden is able to successfully write from a diverse background of characters from a young child to a gay teen to a pop star to a transgender government official and finally, to the deranged demigoddess. Drayden knows these characters and can capture their diverse backgrounds from the very poorest of the poor to a rich pop star. Certainly, some characters enjoy more spotlight than others, but by the end of the book their lives collide and work well together.

I also enjoyed reading this book because of how the personal robot component worked. In Drayden’s South African future, anyone who can afford a robot has one and they do all kinds of basic day-to-day things. For some they also provide an odd kind of friendship for some. The robots also have unique personalities which comes into play later in the story. The reader sees how one treats his or her robot affects that personality. Never does Drayden use the term AI, and I’m not sure the person robots were designed to develop unique personalities. For example, Kuzi treats his robot as if it were human by “talking” to it. Meanwhile his best friend, and crush, treats his like crap. This difference in treatment later becomes key for the story when everyone’s personal robots rise up.

I loved the blend of ancient myths with futuristic technology. This is something which could have been clunky and awkward, but I think because of the diversity of the characters it allows for the mash up to flow. A lot is crammed into the story. Luckily the pacing doesn’t suffer, and the book isn’t longer than it needs to be.

I also think the action sequences were well-done. Sometimes in books I have a hard time following along with heavily involved and complex action sequences. Sometimes an author drags them out and it becomes tedious. Drayden does a great job of keeping the action followable, the right amount, and exciting. Perhaps because she does keep it simple even when she switches the action to different viewpoints.

 

Overall, the books I read in 2017 had one major theme and that was they each represent something different. Not only from each other, but what I might not normally read or hear about. I’m hopeful 2018 will see my reading continue to expand while still incorporating genres and authors I enjoy.

 

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Weekly Musing: Regretful Reads of 2017

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Ah, December. The time of year when people’s thoughts turn to various holidays and wondering “Where did the year go?” It is also the time of year when lists upon list upon come out rating the best movies, the worst movies, the best songs, the worst songs, best moments, terrible moments, and so on. What’s another list or two to the add to the jumbled heap of lists?

Thinking about my reading for 2017 it was admittedly not the most productive year. At least not since I started tracking what books I read. Having said that, I still read a decent amount. As always, some books I read were great, others were terrible, and most were in between.

This week I’m discussing the books read I wish I could get back the hours spent reading them. I don’t count books I didn’t finish, of which there were 2, because if I didn’t finish it, it probably wasn’t even good enough for me to force myself to read it.

So, in no order, here are my least favorite books of 2017.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin: A highly praised fantasy novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms follows the story of Yeine Darr as she investigates her mother’s death. The investigation takes her to the city of Sky where she is suddenly named one of the heirs of a dying king. Throughout the book she not only tries to solve her mother’s death and tries to figure out why she is an heir, but also battles the other heirs for control of the throne. Oh, and there’s something about trapped gods and their battle for freedom.

Where to start. First, I find the title to be clunky. I still have the hardest time getting it right. I guess that’s a good thing as it stands out.

Second, and this is my biggest and key grip with the book, the characters. Specifically, Yeine herself. She is boring, wooden, doesn’t really act, or smart. She spends a majority of the novel reacting. There is far too much reliance upon the myriad of minor characters. Granted, she is new to Sky and their culture is very different from the matriarchal barbarian culture she was raised in. The trapped gods are also a new concept for her as well. That being said, Yeine rarely initiates anything. All she does is walk around the castle hoping to run into other characters who will either give her an info dump or prompt her to take some action.

The supporting characters are at least moderately interesting. I was more taken with their stories then I was the main character’s. Especially the gods who are trapped and punished by the humans who have enslaved them. The fact gods can be imprisoned and have their powers either reduced or abolished is problematic to me. By definition gods are all powerful and the explanation for their weakened state doesn’t work for me.

Jemisin’s writing style is not for me. The prose is stilted and wooden. The dialogue I found to be weak and even trite. Some of her descriptions are odd especially the sex scenes. Action sequences were also difficult to follow.

Finally, the ending is weak. Yeine is so boring and weak compared to the other heirs that it comes as a shock to the reader when she suddenly becomes a bad ass. Somehow, I’m supposed to buy she is more than she appears or knows herself to be. It doesn’t work as written. Maybe this is because like so many sci-fi and fantasy novels, this is the first in a series.

Overall, this was a book I found tedious and if it wasn’t for it being a book club read, I wouldn’t have finished. It was one of those highly praised books I found myself scratching my head in confusion as to why it was so hyped.

Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson: This was a book I previous did a review which can be found here.

 Little, Big by John Crowley: Little, Big is a novel about…I have no idea. Seriously. I have no clue what this book is about nor did my book club. Ten intelligent adults well-versed in sci-fi and fantasy couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The back cover claims the books is about Smoky Barnable who travels to a magical town called Edgewood to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater. The rest of the book is about the four generations of the family.

Nothing about this book connected with me at all. The characters are all slow and boring. No one seems to have a job and the women all stay at home and do nothing. There’s no real main character, which in and of its self isn’t a bad thing. I’ve read quite a few books where there was no clear main character and the novel worked. In Little, Big, though, it does not work. What the reader gets is an unfocused story.

There were a ton of subplots which neither supported the story or led to anything. For example, for some reason, in the middle of the book Crowley dumps in a whole story about Smoky and Daily Alice’s son who moves to the City and falls in love. But, it never really connects to the main story, whatever the hell that is, other than it is one of the children of Smoky and Daily Alice.

There’s a lot of backstory and flashbacks. So much so as a reader I got confused about what was taking place in the present. Again, this circles back to the book lacking a clear plot and purpose.

The prose style is pretentious and often felt to me as if Crowley was in love with his own words. To me it is an example of a book critics love, but the general public wonders why.

The dialogue is bizarre and everyone, and I mean everyone, talks in a vague, non-emotional way. It’s great the characters seem to understand what the hell is going on, but the reader sure doesn’t. It’s as if all the characters have ESP with each other. They seem to move like they are trapped in molasses and just shrug through life.

The ending is bad. Very late in the book an organization is introduced which never is explained fully what their purpose is or their goal. Like all the other subplots and main plot, it is never resolved. I honestly thought perhaps Little, Big was the first book in a series. When I checked, I discovered it is not. This makes the book and ending even more non-sensical.

For me it is incredibly difficult for me to look at this book as a fantasy book as the fantasy elements are incredibly subtle. Sure, there are pockets of it. The town of Edgewood is a real place one can get to from the city, but it isn’t on any map. There also seems to be strong hints fairies lurk about in the outer area of Edgewood, but not once do any of the characters come out and say it. Again, it is one of those things which isn’t fully resolved or developed. There is also a weird subplot with a baby of one of the characters who was kidnapped in the middle of the night by a creature and raised by a witch. There’s a stork in there somewhere.

The book is just bizarre and not in a cool, topsey-turvey kind of way. Just a maddening, non-sensical mess and not one I’d ever recommend to anyone.

 

Well, there are my least favorite books of 2017. I think none of us know we won’t enjoy a book until we sit down and starting reading. I used to be one of those people who finished a book no matter what. I have become a firm believer if something doesn’t grab you right away, put it down and a walk away. There are far too many books out there, on your shelf or Kindle, you could be reading and enjoying.

Weekly Musing: 2017 NaNoWriMo Update #2

Well, I am entering the home stretch of 2017 NaNoWriMo and yes, it has started to feel like a marathon. The brain is struggling a bit more. The energy is starting to wan, but I have kept going.

Below are brief highlights of how this month has gone so far:

1)     Some days have gone easier than others, but the routine I set up has gone according to plan. Having a day off has been extremely helpful in both mental and physical recovery.

2)     Speaking of plans, as is tradition, my rough outline has changed dramatically. Characters and free will always override anything a writer comes up as far as I’m concerned. I adjust the outline accordingly to help guide rewrites. It also helps in rewrites to see where some areas need something more or to cut out an idea that doesn’t make sense.

3)     I’ve been able to average over 2,000 words a day. As of when this post goes live, I will be close to the 50,000 words goal. By no means I am close to being done with the rough draft by the end of November. I don’t know when I will be; hopefully by the end of December or early January. I also never know what the total word count will. Since what I’m writing is historical fiction, it’ll be long.

4)     I have entered the phase in a rough draft in which I am noticing repeated phrases and overused words. Brain starting to become a little bit fried and the words are leaving me.

5)     More caffeine, less sugar consumption. Good/bad? I’m getting the work done so…

6)     Working outside the home occasionally is great. Gets me around people without actually having to talk to anyone, keeps me less distracted, and makes me write faster. It seems to kick start some of the road blocks I run into.

7)     This is the first year I haven’t set up rewards for reaching milestones. While those have been great motivators, I realized I don’t really cash in many of them.

I’m feeling pretty good about my progress. I’m hopeful I’ll keep up the pace beyond November. Here’s to everyone who stuck it out for the month of November. It doesn’t matter if you “win” or not. You’re writing and should be proud of yourself. Give yourself a pat on the back. You’re doing something a lot of people wish they could do, but for whatever reason are terrified to try.