Front Page, Musings

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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Book Reviews, Front Page

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Clover by Dori Sanders

Clover by Dori Sanders is set in 1980s rural South Carolina. Told from the point of view of ten-year-old Clover, a bright girl who has already seen a lot of tragedy in her young life, the story is about her and her new stepmother dealing with the unexpected death of her father. Further complicating matters is Clover is black and her stepmother, Sara Kate, is white. The two barely know each other as her father is killed in a car crash the day of his wedding.

I really enjoyed the book especially as Sanders really captured the voice of Clover; something I think is difficult to successful pull off. Clover comes across as smart and wise, but not in a matter that ever comes across as precocious or false.

One of two big themes of the book are relationships, primarily Clover’s complicated relationship with the grown-ups in her life in addition to the relationships the grown-ups have with each other. Her relationship with her father, principal at her elementary school and which is told through flashbacks starts off strained. Initially Clover had been raised by her grandfather after her mother died. Now that her father is close by, he wishes to take over the caretaker duties. Because of this, she almost nearly refers to her father by his first name, something Gaten never corrects. Gaten is a good person and a good father, mature enough to recognize he has to earn the title of “Dad”.

A pattern develops with Clover in having a difficult time trusting her caregivers when Sara Kate becomes her stepmother. Like Gaten, Sara Kate doesn’t press Clover to accept her as a parent, mainly because she’s going through her own grief. She gives her new stepdaughter space to process her grief as well though an incident happens which causes Sara Kate to wonder if Clover is holding in her grief in an unhealthy way. As the reader sees with Gaten, Sara Kate eventually earns Clover’s love and trust, which rankles Clover’s Aunt Everleen.

Another major theme is race. Sanders is honest in how Clover’s family reacts to Sara Kate. In a way she’s a little bit subtle because as a reader it wasn’t apparent for several pages Clover was black. It’s only when Sara Kate is introduced that the reader is made aware. Gaten’s family, primarily the women, and an ex-girlfriend have the biggest issue with Sara Kate. Aunt Everleen and others believe it was a mistake Gaten married a white woman believing Sara Kate must have some defect if a white man wouldn’t love her. Because of the color of her skin, no one is willing to reach out to her and get to know her or even offer words of comfort and support. It doesn’t matter Sara Kate is nice (a bit too passive in my opinion) and makes an effort to be part of her new family. Prejudices run rampant until near the end of the book. The attitude of Clover’s family affects how she sees and treats Sara Kate initially. When Clover and Sara Kate start to get to know each, Clover starts defending Sara Kate in front of her Aunt Everleen. She’s rebuked, made to feel as if she’s betraying her family and ultimately, her race.

I enjoyed the characters though it personally frustrates me as a reader to see how if people just communicated a lot of problems wouldn’t exist. I appreciate how Sanders allows the characters to take their time in grieving Gaten, but to realize everyone has a common goal: to care for Clover, a girl surrounded by love. I appreciate the awkwardness Clover and Sara Kate have toward each other. It’s realistic and dealt with sensitivity.

I also enjoyed how Sanders uses the setting of small town South Carolina. Probably because I live in South Carolina, very near to many of the towns mentioned, that it was incredibly ease for me to immerse myself in the world. I know what the weather feels like and I’ve seen peach stands in the area (South Carolina actually produces more peaches than Georgia).

My only grip with Clover is the ending. It felt too abrupt and I would have liked to see the story continue on as the changes in the characters were just starting to happen. But perhaps that’s the point of the novel. It’s ultimately about watching these characters come to the beginning of understanding.

Overall, I give Clover four pencils out of five. It’s a quick read and while sad and deals with heavy issues, it’s not a downer.