Musings

Weekly Musing: What Would You Bring?

If I ever had the misfortune to be stranded on a deserted island or find myself in some kind of isolation, whether by choice or forced, what books would I take with me and why? Assuming I’m allowed to bring reading material with me. I better be or bad things would happen quite quickly.

There is no way I could narrow this list down into just a handful of books. Hopefully I’m allowed to bring some boxes and get help with said boxes since I prefer paper books. Part of it would also to serve as shade if the place I was marooned on was too sunny or bright. Maybe even serve as kindling although to burn a book really has never been acceptable to me. But in desperate times who knows what one might do. If not, then the island or wherever, better have at least one electrical outlet to recharge my Kindle.

Since I’d have a lot of time on my hands, I’d pick a lot of series and sweeping epics since several hundred pages of worlds and characters would hopefully keep me distracted. Probably a good idea to bring a complete dictionary, too, since there are sure to be words I wouldn’t know and because, hey, it’s the dictionary and kinda big.

Let’s divide up my choices into the following categories.

Book I’ve Read:

Any book listed as one of my favorites on this site would clearly be on there. I’d also throw on there some of my most recent favorites like The Sleeping Dictionary, The Martian, A Confederacy of Dunces, American Gods, and Frankenstein.

Book Series:

Great thing about a lot of books published in the last couple of decades is a lot of them come in sets. Perfect for complete isolation.

A Song of Ice & Fire – If I were ever in this situation I would hope it would be after the series is completed.

Harry Potter

Outlander – I’ve only read the first book but with 8 books and counting there is plenty of new-to-me material to read and enjoy.

Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series

Ngaio Marsh’s Det. Alleyn series

The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Authors I’ve Read Most, But Not All, Of Their Books:

I’m cheating just slightly on some of these because there is some crossover with other categories.

Ken Follett

Neil Gaiman

Isabell Allende

Kurt Vonnegut

George R. R. Martin

The Classics I Own But Haven’t Read:

Don Quixote

Gone With the Wind

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Mark Twain

The Count of Monte Cristo

Overall I would want to bring with me a variety. A mixture of what I’m already familiar with and clearly enjoy as well as new stuff. Genres and writing styles would keep my mind engaged and save me from boredom. It’d also suit my somewhat fickle and indecisive nature. With no one else to have for company, these books with their hundreds of characters would become my friends to me. Their worlds would be a needed relief from the reality that would be my new norm.

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Musings

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, naïve, 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.

Musings

Weekly Musing: You’re My Inspiration

I’ve touched briefly upon what spurred me to become a writer but I haven’t talked about who my inspirations are, both good and bad. What I mean by that is, which authors do I admire, who in my wildest dreams would I love to be like, and which authors have I read that made me roll my eyes, sigh, and think ‘God, I hope I can do better than that.’ So today I’d like to wax a bit on those writers who have inspired me.

My absolute favorite author is Ken Follett. When I started reading his works, I think it was the first time I realized how much historical fiction I actually read and was the genre I loved the most. I was introduced to him by my spouse, who lent me a copy of The Pillars of the Earth. I loved the book. I loved the time setting, the story, and all the characters even that scumbag William Hamleigh. I started reading other Follett books, haven’t gotten through all of them yet, and my absolute favorite of his books is A Dangerous Fortune. Besides the tremendous amount of research that goes into each Follett book, the biggest thing I admire the most is the depth and complexity of his characters. He can juggle several major characters creating wonderfully entangled relationships. The characters feel like real people. They act like real people. His female main characters are always strong and complex. They are women with brains who buck the social constraints of their time period yet never come across as being out of place or too ‘modern’. Their motivations maybe for love and family, tropes most writers go to, but it never feels trite.

Follett’s characterizations and ways of seamlessly weaving in historical facts and details are a model for me. If I can achieve even an eighth of that, it would be a huge accomplishment in my mind. In A Dangerous Fortune, the book is set in the late Victorian era and Pilaster family’s wealth is centered in the banking industry. This is something most people aren’t familiar with so Follett has to educate the reader but not get the reader bogged down in all the boring financial terms. Instead of taking several arduous paragraphs to explain this, like some authors who shall remain nameless, he sprinkles it throughout the narrative in short, easy to digest paragraphs. He gives it the probiotic treatment. Just long enough to explain why it is germane to the story but not enough to glaze over the reader’s eyes. This approach is something I hope I can do in my own narratives because it is too easy for me to get caught up in the nerdy details I find interesting.

Another one of my favorite authors is George R.R. Martin. Like a lot of readers, I became aware of him via the show Game of Thrones based upon the excellent series A Song of Ice and Fire. His writing style is very different from Follett’s and modern writers I’ve read so far. He has this wonderfully dense, sensitive, lyrical quality to his prose. Sure some lament this but I find it refreshing; it makes his work and voice stand out. I’ve read some of his earlier short stories and am completely jealous of his early works because you can see his uniqueness even when he was a teenager. If I could put together prose a fraction of a fraction as beautiful as Martin does, I’d be exhilarated.

Besides the beauty of Martin’s words, the other thing he does that inspires me is, again, his characters. If you want to know what real, honest characters that quickly become people, then read George R.R. Martin. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of morally gray characters. It is full of characters you may love or hate at the beginning of the series but you wind up switching allegiance to by the end. But it’s not just this series where the characters are like that. His short stories are full of characters with indescribable depth. I admit I haven’t read any of his other novels yet but I look forward to them because I trust the quality will be there.

And for all my fangirling with regards to at least 2 of the authors whom I aspire to be like, there are those that I aspire to NOT be like. I won’t be specific with names or titles because that would be rude but suffice it say, when I attempted to read a certain book with sparkly vampires, I had to stop. Thinking ‘Um, is this what passes for a best-seller?’ is either inspiring or depressing. Inspiring as in well, I don’t think my writing can be any worse than that. Depressing as in I could be going at this for decades, producing well-written work (I hope) and yet not get published. What bugs me about books I’ve read that I don’t finish or like is because those authors have not created complex characters, interesting settings, or have strong prose skills. What gets published isn’t an accurate reflection of quality; it’s just what a publisher thinks they can sell.

But that’s when I realized I just need to concentrate on doing the best I can. I can be inspired without aping anyone else’s style or voice. It is incredibly easy for me to look at what my idols write and get down on myself. Is it realistic to aspire to be the next Ken Follett or George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling? Perhaps but I doubt any of them started out thinking they would be huge authors with millions of fans around the world and thousands of people admiring them.