To Kill a Mockingbird

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When I finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a book by Harper Lee, Amazon proposed to me other books from the category “heartwarming stories”. At first I was a bit perplexed, because being a heartwarming story is not what gained it the Pulitzer price.

The story of the book evolves around the lives of two children growing up in a rural town in southern USA. This main story arc is very well a heart warming story. A different aspect makes it interesting, though.

The father of the children is a lawyer who was given the task of defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. This adds another dimension in which the author explores the relationship between white and black people in the southern US of the 1930ies.

Today, more than 70 years later, that relationship is still a difficult one. In Europe currently a similar situation is developing with the refugees. In both cases it’s distrust, suspicion and other negative feelings towards the “others”.

The book reminds us that in the end it’s always also a “we”. That both groups are made up of human beings having the same rights – even if the way of living and being of one group feels strange or unnatural to the other.

Besides having a deeper meaning, the book is very well written and provides an engaging story. So even just as a “heartwarming story” I recommend reading it.

The Last Unicorn

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“The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle is on Amazon’s 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime and appears on other lists collecting great books. People confess having cried while reading it. Long story short. I was intrigued by this phenomenon.

I can assure you that crying is not the only possible reaction to this book. Simply being content at having read a beautiful book is another one.

The book is written in the style of a fairy tale. There is just one quest and several characters appear on the road to its culmination. Some stay and some leave again. There are no flashbacks, no side tracks. It’s fairly simple.

It begins with a unicorn. After hearing two people talk about there being no more unicorns, it becomes restless and sets out to find out whether it really is the last one and what happened to the other ones. Unicorns only die when they are killed. So the disappearance of all but one unicorn is a mystery.

On its quest for knowledge it meets Schmendrick, a magician who is most of the times unable to do any magic. Schmendrick is a very likable character. It’s quite enjoyable to follow his endeavors at doing magic. And Schmendrick stays till the end of the book.

I liked the tone of the book and the short stories it tells on its way to the uncovering of the great mystery. The characters are well crafted. The unicorn especially feels somewhat alighted or nearly arrogant. You would probably expect it from an immortal being and the unicorn actually says at one point:

You are a man, and men can do nothing that makes any difference.

So while it’s not a book that is guaranteed to make you cry, it’s beautiful in its way and an enjoyable read.

Bone Clocks

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“Cloud Atlas” was a collection of stories ranging over a long period of time that starts somewhen during the colonization time and ends in the future. And all the stories were somehow mysteriously connected.

“Bone Clocks”, the second book by David Mitchell that I finished reading some days ago, has some similarities to “Cloud Atlas”. This time there are six stories and they again start in the past and end in the future. But the past and future aren’t as distant as in “Cloud Atlas” and the connections are more obvious.

There is a woman — Holly Sykes — who appears in all stories and even tells the first and the last one. It all starts while Holly is a teenager and ends with her being a grandmother.

I liked the first story. There are some really funny tidbits like this one:

Over her head is a faded poster of a brown goldfish bowl with two eyes peering out and a caption saying: “JEFF’S GOLDFISH HAD DIARRHOEA AGAIN”.

I still start smiling when I think about that one.

The second story is the greatest of all of them. I’m not quite sure whether I would recommend reading the book just for this one story, but it is really great. It’s reminiscent of the Bret Easton Ellis’ books. There’s no way to remember all the details, because there are too many, and there’s actually no point in trying. It’s fun while it lasts but nothing you’ll keep thinking about during the days and nights that follow.

By now you’ll have an inkling of something strange going on. And that will get more obvious during the next two stories, but an unveiling will not happen before the fifth one.

I’m not into wartime hero stories. So the next story dragged along quite a bit. The fourth one was more interesting, although I sometimes thought that Mitchell created a self-fulfilling prophecy by stating early on in this one:

… what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?

Each story is told by a different narrator and story four is told by a writer. But in the end it’s OK and quite fun on some occasions.

Story number five brings answers to the “What the …” questions that started piling up by now. There are some nice ideas presenting two groups using two different means to live forever. Those two groups fight each other and this story also shows a somewhat ridiculous fight involving force fields, lightning and so on.

The last story wraps up the whole thing nicely and Mitchell cannot let the occasion pass to tell a story about a gloomy future. While reading it I thought “Damn, we don’t make it to the part with flying cars in this one.” As fitting the current time, this dystopia is caused by climate change and careless usage of earth’s resources.

I liked how the perspective changes from one story to the next as the narrator changes. Most people reappear in the next stories, but you get a different look at them as the next narrator has their own views and ways to describe people.

Although it’s really slow and dragging on some places, the good parts make up for that. So, yes, “Bone Clocks” is a recommended reading — not as much as “Cloud Atlas”, but still recommended.

Everything I Never Told You

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After a disappointing science fiction novel, about which I wrote last month, and a disappointing fantasy novel I didn’t bother to write about, I was again scanning my closed Amazon wish list for the next book. And so I came to read “Everything I Never Told You” which is the debut novel of Celeste Ng.

It’s what I sometimes call a “normal people problems” book. No lightsabers are used and no wizards appear out of thin air.

There is a family of five people: mother, father, son and two daughters. One of the daughters is found dead and the whole book revolves about the question why and how she died.

Through various flashbacks and inspections of the current situation from the viewpoints of each of the members of the family the problems that shaped the lives of the individuals and the family in its entirety are revealed.

At first it all seems to be rather mundane and a standard case of unfulfilled dreams and feelings of inferiority of the parents which they long for their children to implement and overcome. But it’s much deeper than that and the consequences are way more disturbing.

Ng succeeded to change my attitude from “Why did they recommend this book?” during the first pages through “That might be a good source for a drama movie.” to finally “So that’s how life sometimes plays. You die shortly after you realize what you can change to actually reach happiness.”

Congratulations to Celeste Ng for a great first novel. If you like to read touching stories with a good portion of tragedy, I recommend this one to you. If you are a parent and have specific ideas about the future of your child, I even urge you to read it.

Seveneves

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When “Star Wars Episode 1” arrived in the cinemas many fans were shocked and some came up with a conspiracy theory in which George Lucas had been kidnapped and replaced by an imposter.

When I look at Neal Stephenson’s books after “Anathem” I fear a similar conspiracy is taking place here.

I didn’t like “Reamde” and I don’t like “Seveneves”.

The setup of “Seveneves” isn’t overly exciting. One day the moon breaks apart into seven pieces and scientist predict that within two years it will split into many more small pieces that will produce a “hard rain”, which in turn will burn Earth and extinguish all life on it.

Similar scenarios have been used and reused for movies with beautifully rendered catastrophes.

But this is a book by Neal Stephenson and I believed in him doing something special with this. And he probably does. The book consists of three parts. In the first part the world prepares for the catastrophe by sending selected people to the ISS and creating a “Cloud Ark” with the ISS at its center. The second part shows the catastrophe and the third part takes place 5000 years afterwards.

I gave up at the start of the second part which is after 1/3 of the book. The problem is that the story is broken into little chunks by overly detailed descriptions of all sorts. It seems like Stephenson is trying to make sure some scientists will be inspired to actually build the things he describes. With that those descriptions look like small technically detailed essays.

The book is likely a contribution to his Project Hieroglyph. The project wants to bring together big ideas, real science and great stories.

The big idea in Seveneves is how humanity will deal with a catastrophe destroying all life on Earth. I’m convinced that Stephenson did a detailed research on all the topics he talks about in his essay-like descriptions.

The last one — great stories — is where the book is sorely lacking. Where is the engaging, exciting storytelling from “Diamond Age”, “Snow Crash” and the “Baroque Cycle”?

Is this an imposter at work? So sad. I really miss the old Neal Stephenson.