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.