The Hopeful Wanderer – Making Change

Sweet, floral perfume hung on the stale air of a forgotten warehouse. Wafting among corroded pipes, which wove their way along a high ceiling and around long, dusty windows. Drifting through the trash and dead leaves scattered across a concrete floor. Reflecting off once-white walls and old, broken furniture.

I was following a trail of flowers.

Each blossom sprang from the concrete as if grown from dirt – fresh, colorful, trembling with life. The trail meandered this way and that, seeming to follow the least messy path through the warehouse. Once, it stopped at the windows, leaving a large cluster of plants there. A circle rubbed clean of muck showed where hands had wiped away the dirt for a clear view outside.

I did not bother looking out myself. This city, I knew, only decayed.

At the farthest end of the warehouse, a curious thing hung from above. A bower of flowers, twisted around themselves and ballooning upward to the ceiling, where strong roots dug into cracks in the plaster. This bower reached almost to the floor, where a gaunt woman stood weaving more blooms in among the rest. A carpet of blossoms festooned the floor around her. The trail ended here.

Candlelight illuminated my approach, evidencing my following of her, yet she did not stop her work. The plants around the hem of her dress seemed to grow without pause.

When I had come close, I asked, “Who are you?”

She drew another cluster of flowers from the floor to the bower in her hands. “Nobody,” she replied.

Groaning sounded from above and I tipped my gaze upward. The roots along the ceiling spread even farther. “And what are you doing here?”

A small, bitter smile. “Nothing. Just trying to make a small change.”

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Book Review: Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones by Micah Dean Hicks

The narrative examines topical questions of today wrapped up into one metaphor – those of labor replacement as artificial intelligence and digitization invade the workplace, as well as the decline of the coal industry (and others) as alternate energy options become available.

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones Synopsis

Jane is haunted. Since she was a child, she has carried a ghost girl that feeds on the secrets and fears of everyone around her, whispering to Jane what they are thinking and feeling, even when she doesn’t want to know. Henry, Jane’s brother, is ridden by a genius ghost that forces him to build strange and dangerous machines. Their mother is possessed by a lonely spirit that burns anyone she touches. In Swine Hill, a place of defeat and depletion, there are more dead than living.

When new arrivals begin scoring precious jobs at the last factory in town, both the living and the dead are furious. This insult on the end of a long economic decline sparks a conflagration. Buffeted by rage on all sides, Jane must find a way to save her haunted family and escape the town before it kills them.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

On a trip to Tulsa, OK to view the release of Detective Pikachu at the Warren Theater, a few of my friends and I stopped into the Barnes & Noble down the street from the hotel where we usually stay. Fresh from a job promotion and corresponding pay raise, I had given myself permission to buy a book. A new one, never used nor from the library sale rack.

Though I had a few possibilities lined up, none of the books on offer there interested me much. But one of my friends casually suggested Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones to me. The first few pages showed a life none of the other possibilities had, so I bought it. My first book purchase in a long, long time.

Appreciations

PLOT

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones presents an immediate saturation of imagery, never leaving the reader confused as to description. Quick sentence elements and dynamic plot shifts barrel the story forward.

The narrative examines topical questions of today wrapped up into one metaphor – those of labor replacement as artificial intelligence and digitization invade the workplace, as well as the decline of the coal industry (and others) as alternate energy options become available.

Specifically, it covers how such economic changes effect workers and their storied histories of fighting just to exist in such industries at all. Plus the uselessness of such strife when changes make all that effort moot.

CHARACTERS

Jane, the main point-of-view character of Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, clings to the known as it disintegrates around her just for the familiarity. Holding out on change until the very last second, proving herself no different from the rest of the townsfolk, both living and dead, even though she can see what’s happening to all of them. She takes some stabs at making a difference and finds that reality bites back, hard.

THEME

Death does not us part. The point of view of Henry, Jane’s younger brother, demonstrates what a great hold one’s surroundings can exert, to the point that even death imparts no relief from tasks uncompleted. In Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, anger and hopelessness at the current climate, and the unwillingness to change and improve a given situation, holds all back from betterment.

ENDING

The ending of Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones takes a surreal turn, pulling out a peculiar and inexplicable subplot as the solution to the narrative’s conflicts. Symbolic, to be sure, but almost to the point of incomprehensibility.

Criticisms

Gloominess begins and ends Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. Given a natural melancholic bent myself, this made finishing the book while remaining cheerful a very difficult task.

In addition, I prefer character-driven stories in appreciation of the human element. But Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones leaned far more toward a plot-driven narrative, hammering home the sense of uncontrolled hopelessness present throughout the tale.

My Rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 3.96 stars

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The Hopeful Wanderer – A Seed of Doubt

Brushed with soft pink hues in the fading evening light, full white dandelion heads stretched away from either side of a dirt path. Evidence of a wishing festival lay scattered all around me – broken, bald stalks discarded in the dirt. On still air rode the scent of sap and cut grass, warning other plants of the danger of being plucked.

More than half of the dandelion field lay in ruin. Stalks crunched beneath my shoes as I made my way to the first line of puffs still sanding. Rumors said this particular field imparted more potent wishes than most, but only on one day of the year. Today. I knelt and took a living stalk in hand. I had until the suns fell bellow the horizon to make my wish.

A little burst of feathery seeds floated past my face. Someone’s earlier wish. I followed their progress into the smokey blue evening, away until I could see them no longer. Sun rays glanced through the head of the dandelion I held poised to pick, illuminating the clinging seeds like the hundred tiny things I wanted. Yet how they clung, not quite ready to go or else they would have already gone. In what way had I earned a say in that timing?

As the suns slipped away, I sighed and released the dandelion, laying back on the bed of destroyed plants. Better these seeds flew off in their own time and not in mine.

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Next Time

Just peculiar enough to look like an accident, a white truck hulked beneath a tree in bloom. The pale pollen and petals piled upon its windshield, however, revealed that it had huddled below the heavy branches for a long time. Nighttime crouched like a presence between the tree trunk and the car door.

A rustling sent my heart skittering. No breeze had brushed the branches, yet somehow the darkness moved. I stood before the car, now regretting my curiosity to investigate. My feet felt rooted to the grassy ground. An unusual scent of burning carburetor hung in the still air.

Two things happened at once. A massive gust of wind rose, sending me stumbling toward that darkened gap with the force of a pair of hands. From out below the tree rushed a person, eyes wide, clothes bedraggled, face bloodied. I could pick out no more details before they slammed into me, shoving me against the wind until at last it dropped, no longer pushing me from behind.

The person’s voice quivered as they clung to me. “Don’t go in there,” they said. Then they released me and scrambled off into the night.

A moment of quiet. Then a screech of rending metal tore through the air. The truck quivered. Buckled. Dragging deeper beneath the tree. I stumbled back, but couldn’t turn away. Crunching like chewing sounded as the truck lurched backward, crushing smaller and smaller until none of it was left.

Leaves shivered as the tree seemed to smile, white blooms like blunt teeth. Low, rumbling laughter. Nearly friendly, but not quite.

“Next time, Wanderer.”

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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Those joining the military cannot imagine what they will face, and are forbidden from contacting anyone back home after joining. They are, after all, dead to their world.


Old Man’s War
 Synopsis


John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

When I lifted Old Man’s War by John Scalzi from the library shelves, the soft cover art had me nostalgic for that of Ender’s Game, one of my first sci-fi reads. The initial line in the synopsis packed punch and the rest promised mystery, so I gave it a go.

What I Liked

PLOT

While I won’t give some of the twists away (because they’re good twists), the premise of Old Man’s War involves the elderly returning to youth in return for the promise to fight in an intergalactic war both never-ending and ever-shifting. The tone leans into the oppressiveness of war, the way its horrors translate across space and species, but can take forms so much worse than anything humans have perpetuated on earth. Those joining the military cannot imagine what they will face, and are forbidden from contacting anyone back home after joining. They are, after all, dead to their world.

CHARACTERS

John Perry comes off as an Everyman, neutral enough for anyone to step into his shoes and see the world – and the universe at large – through his view. He gains friends and grows attached to some people, but seems less than effected when war wipes them out. Distant. Even the chapters of Old Man’s War describing these deaths step back, as if to avert the reader’s gaze from the impersonality of war, just a little. He does, however, love his deceased wife more than anything, holding onto his feelings for her as if they can supplement his own emotions.

Showing an aptitude for staying one thought ahead of constantly changing battlefields, John Perry adapts to war and, as much as he can, excels at it. To the point of ultimately joining the military’s most elite branch, even if he forever hovers at the bottom of their ranks. Though death almost claims him countless times, he lives war as if he has known no peaceful life.

THEME

War doesn’t care about you. From the beginning to the end, Old Man’s War reiterates that death happens in an instant and often for no reason. Soldiers must find meaning in the tiny things or die with nothing. Even then, no one can say whether it matters in the end except the dead.

ENDING

The ending of Old Man’s War felt just a little rushed. The buildup and rising action worked great, but where the components for winning a decisive battle should have come together, they seemed to come out of nowhere and then vanish into dust. Perhaps because averting one disaster means just going on to the next crisis, rendering the details somewhat unimportant.

Criticisms

With the recognition that Old Man’s War was written during an earlier literary time than the era in which we find ourselves today, the narrative contained some troubling tropes. While I still enjoyed the story and the message it had to offer, it still contained aspects of the Bury Your Gays and Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes. I’m not saying don’t read it, but I am saying be prepared.

My Rating: 3/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.24 stars

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The Hopeful Wanderer – Guided Passage

Light bloomed behind me in a passage I had already cleared, so bright as to drown out the glow of my flashlight. Looking back, I had to hold up a hand to shield my eyes. I could see nothing but the sandstone walls of the cavern.

“Are you lost?” a voice asked. It echoed around the chamber ahead as well as behind, surrounding me.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Can you point that elsewhere?”

The light shifted away, its absence revealing a man holding a staff tipped with a glowing crystal. Shirtless and barefoot. A lean, hungry look in his narrow eyes.

“Where are you going?” the stranger asked. “I can guide you.”

“Have you been following me?” I asked. “You weren’t there when I passed through just now.”

“I live in these caves,” he replied. His shadow loomed huge on the wall between us. “I guide the lost.”

Noting that he had failed to answer my question, I said, “I wouldn’t take up your time. If you could just point me toward the way out…”

The man’s mouth pressed into a thin line. He paused so long I wondered if he would even respond. Then, arm raised toward the passage I had been following already, he said, “Take a left at the first fork.” With that, he dimmed the crystal, melting away down another passage. As he did, his fading shadow shifted to look just a little like a jackal.

After waiting a moment to ensure the man wouldn’t return, I pressed on. At the first fork, I took a right, following the directions of a map I had acquired for this trip. It wasn’t long before I reached the exit. Once out, I added a note to the map’s corner. ‘Offering of guidance not to be trusted.’

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