Front Page, Weekly 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: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers was first published in 1940. The story takes place in an unnamed Depression-era Southern town and revolves around the lives of John Singer, Mick Kelly, Biff Brannon, Jake Blount, and Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a diverse group of all trying to survive life. We follow each character’s hopes and dreams, ups and downs, in heartbreakingly written narrative. The center of the group is the deaf-mute John Singer. Each of the other main characters gravitates toward him, frequently visiting him to unload their burdens and dreams.

John Singer, a man who starts the novel off living with his equally mute, though not deaf, roommate and best friend Spiros Antonapoulos. But circumstances cause the pair to be separated when Spiros is sent away to an insane asylum. It’s after this event that each of the other characters gravitate toward Singer, using him as an outpost to express thoughts and desires they can’t tell anyone else.

Overall, I loved this book. The characters were extremely fascinating and well-developed with the exception of one. The secondary characters are often just as well-developed as the main characters. The prose is lovely and McCullers does a fantastic job utilizing the setting to mirror each character’s journey. The book’s themes carry over to today showing a modern reader just how far we have or haven’t come as a society.

To me the two strongest, most interesting characters are Singer and Dr. Copeland. Singer starts the novel happily going through life doing his job in a jewelry store while his roommate, Spiros, who is also mute but not deaf, works in a candy store. They do everything together and it’s Spiros which gives Singer strength and is the one person he can communicate with. He believes Spiros understands him though the reader at times wonders if Spiros truly has full mental capacity.

When Spiros is committed, this sinks Singer into a depression and causes him to move into the boarding house owned by Mick Kelly’s family. It is here that we start to see the other characters gravitate toward him believing him to be a great listener (he is as he learned to read lips). Others speak to him, treat him as some kind of wise person, but he rarely speaks back. His only form of communication, besides the sign language he used with Spiros, is pencil and paper. Without Spiros, Singer’s emotions become pent up until he can let them out when he visits Spiros. Others trust him with their deepest thoughts and desires yet he trusts no one but Spiros.

My other favorite character is Dr. Copeland, the town’s black doctor whose patients are the black community. Through his work he sees the injustices, prejudices, and lack of opportunity which exists in his community. He tried to fight this by raising his own children to be as educated and socially conscience as him. Yet none of them show the same need for education and desire to fight. Instead they, like everyone else, work just to survive each and every day. They are simply too tired to fight and Dr. Copeland is too old and sick to fight.

Dr. Copeland is a hard man to love. His relationship with his children is strained. Yet despite his gruff manner, many of his patients have named their children after him. But he doesn’t see this as having a positive impact on the community. Dr. Copeland would rather see his patients and their children stand up and fight and work to improve their lives.

Through the doctor the reader is given a front row seat to so many social issues America still struggles with today. We see how difficult it is for the black community in the town to trust any white person as so many of the whites in the town look down upon them. But in Singer Dr. Copeland finds himself trusting a white person for one of the few times in his life believing he is understands the struggle. So he starts visiting Singer to vent his frustrations.

Jake Blount is one of the characters I find myself rather ambivalent about. He wanders into the town, a true vagabond, and spends the first few weeks of his time in town hanging out all day at the New York Café. At first he’s a drunk but eventually stops and begins work at the local amusement park. He fancies himself an intellectual, a communist, and indeed he is well read. His nomadic lifestyle gives the reader a broad glimpse into the Depression.

Like Dr. Copeland he wants to fight an oppressive system. Unlike the doctor, he has the energy to try. He tries a few times to rally his co-workers to protest and to educate them, but those efforts fail. Like the other characters, Singer is his outpost believing very much like Dr. Copeland that this is a man who understands. He has no idea Singer often can’t clearly read Blount’s lips enough to understand what he’s saying.

My two least favorite characters are Brannon and Mick Kelly. Brannon because I felt he was underdeveloped and really didn’t fit into the rest of the narrative. Most of his time in the novel is spent working at the New York Café which is in the same building as his home. He rarely leaves and this is the problem for me. Though his café attracts Singer, Blount, and Mick Kelly, overall he is disconnected from the world at large. Brannon comes across as almost void of emotion even after his wife dies. His point of view didn’t add anything to the story nor gave any insight into the other characters. He also has, by our standards, an odd affection toward Mick. It may very well be a fatherly instinct as he has no children of his own, but even Mick gets a creepy vibe from him.

My other least favorite character is Mick Kelly. She’s the only female main character and is the youngest. The middle child in a large, poor family she starts off the story as a tomboy. Mick is tough yet very motherly in that she is the primary caretaker for her two younger brothers though her mother is alive and well. As the novel progresses she transitions into what would be considered more ladylike mainly inspired by when Singer moves in. She develops this odd crush on him, stalks him, and waits for him to come home each day. It’s not made clear what the attraction because she’s often tongue-tied around him.

Unlike Brannon, she has some fascinating characteristics such as loving classical music even stealing away in the night to listen to music as it flitters into the open from people’s radios. She starts composing her own music and practices after school on a piano located in her school’s gym. But then a horrible accident forces the family into deep poverty and eventually she makes a fateful choice.

On a scale of one to five pencils I’d give The Heart is a Lonely Hunter four pencils. It’s heartbreaking and completely honest in its portrayal of a group of flawed people.