Book Reviews

I recently finished a book which made me want to do a quick review. Then I wanted to contrast that with a different book. Then maybe toss in a third book, just for contrast. Finally, I thought I’d mention a book I’m looking forward to. I think I’m doing some book reviews!

 

The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir

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When this book came out, I originally gave it a pass. For reasons I don’t recall, I somehow thought of this movie as Castaway on Mars. I had visions of a Space Wilson and Tom Hanks, all on Mars. Maybe some kind of Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Tangent Alert Did you know that there was a movie in 1964 called Robinson Crusoe on Mars?! Apparently he is stranded on Mars with his monkey. There is an alien man Friday, slaver-aliens, air pills and explosions!

Back to our novel. Eventually I read a couple of reviews which, again, raved about The Martian and I started to think I needed to give it another look. About that time I heard that the book had been optioned to be made in to a movie (With Matt Damon, squee!!) There’s little I like less than having a good book spoiled by a bad movie so that added to the pressure to give it a read before I started to see images from the movie.

I absolutely loved this book! It’s probably one of the most fun and enjoyable books I’ve read in a very long time. I enjoyed the main character very much. He is a NASA astronaut (mission specialist), so he’s smart and he knows his science! He can think on his feet and he can think his way out of whatever sort of problem he’s faced with. Sure, he occasionally gets emotional, but he was always able to bounce back and come back positive.

One criticism I read said they were turned off by the cycle of “Disaster-Panic-Recovery, rinse, repeat”. I didn’t feel that at all. I and the story were propelled from one event to the next very fast and with what felt like real momentum. I cared about the guy. I wanted him to survive! It was, in the old parlance, a page turner despite the fact that I was reading it on my iPad.

One of the things I really liked about it was that it was pro-Science and pro-Math and pro- being smart. The main character was intelligent and he was resourceful and that was constantly fun to read about and feel a part of.

At the end of the day, that’s one of the things I liked best about it: I really enjoyed my time with that adventure and really sad to have it come to a close.

On a related note: I’ve seen the official trailer for the movie (YouTube Link) and it looks really, really good. Favorite line from the trailer: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m faced with only one option: I’m going to have to Science the shit out of this”. Not a line in the book, but very much in line with the character from the book. I’m looking forward to this movie, too.

Now, I’m going to move on to a book that I wanted to enjoy but did not.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

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Stephenson wrote a couple of books that I enjoyed a great deal: Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Both of these were about Big Ideas and playing out the consequences of those big ideas. I enjoyed them both a great deal for those Big Ideas, for the characterizations and for the story that was told.

Some time after those came Cryptonomicon, which was the first of what was to be a “epoch making masterpiece” in the words of one reviewer. Personally, I found the book to be very, very long. And very self-involved and while I did make it through the book, I totally lost interest in anything that followed in that world or from Stephenson.

Recently, however, he released Seveneves which was reviewed well by some folks whose opinions I value. Additionally, it had what seemed to be a killer hook that asks the basic question: What would happen if the world were ending. Stephenson proposes a huge, cataclysmic disaster and them proposes to follow it through. Even better, the story was going to come back much later in the future to see how the world was impacted and how mankind recovered and was changed by the event.

It was enough to bring me back on board and give it a try.

Unfortunately, the book was simply not enjoyable to read. I did manage to suffer through, but I didn’t enjoy it. In the end, I finished it out of perversity and stubbornness as much as anything else.

The big disaster which drives things starts off very unemotionally. It just happens. Which is just fine. Sometimes things just happen and the interesting story is in watching how it affects the characters.

Unfortunately for me, the characters, with the exception of one, were largely uninteresting or unpalatable. The felt one-dimensional and I was unable to engage with them as people. In contrast to how I felt about the main character in the previous book, I just really didn’t care what happened to any of them.

On the upside, this may well be a book for someone interested in the science of a disaster like this. It might also be interesting to someone who follows the space program, enjoys physics (in the abstract) and is fascinated by astronauts as they are, really, the heroes of the story and that’s laudable.

Eventually, about two thirds of the way through the book, the first portion with all the characters we’ve been following winds down and there’s a giant flash-forward in time to see how the mankind fared in the interim and how, or if, the Earth recovered.
Again, I found the story cold, unengaging and, ultimately, uninteresting. I was, sad to say, bored.

It may simply be that Stephenson’s prose and story telling are not engaging to me and that’s okay. But at this point I suspect it would take a very large truck to pull me back in to trying another story from him.

Now, in fairness, I’m bashing a book that’s currently a bestseller from an author who has received multiple awards, all of which may simply indicate that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, but it remains my opinion.

From that, I wanted something to clear my palate, so I read a book in a series which I’ve been enjoying. It’s a book in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey

The Getaway God by Richard Kadrey

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I enjoy this series. It’s a mashup of a very noir L.A. coupled with a fantasy series involving monsters of various stripes, demons and angels as well as Lucifer and a God that’s got a bit of multiple personality disorder (literally!). And our main protagonist, Stark, known to many as Sandman Slim.

The world is, quite literally, going to hell and Stark, often reluctantly, is the one who stands between the forces trying to tear it all apart and the rest of us, obliviously living our lives.

I like how L.A. is where (at least on Earth) we spend most of our time in the books because the glitz and glitter of L.A. is reflected in a Hell that looks and feels much the same.

Stark is a hard-drinking, hard-living man who is always ready with a quip or a fight. As with the best of noir characters, on the face of things, he’s not all that likable, but he’s always fun to watch. And, really, at the end of the night, all he wants is a drink, good takeout and good movie to watch.

Our world sits on the edge of annihilation and all that stands between us and the end of all things is Sandman Slim.

This is the sixth book and in each, Kadrey has managed to ramp up the suspense and the stakes. I’m not sure how long he can keep doing that, but as long as they’re fun to read, and they are, I’ll likely come back every year or so for another.

Finally, I’ll mention a book I’m looking forward to.

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

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This is the last (for now!) book in the Old Man’s War series. It takes place in a universe where humans are out and about interacting with a variety of other space-faring intelligences, many of which are bigger, badder and more capable of killing than humans. We are not, by any stretch, the big kid on the block.

I find the Old Man’s War universe to be very enjoyable and a fun, easy read. Scalzi was answering the question recently on reddit whether his writing can be compared to eating popcorn. I suspect it was implied that somehow being compared to eating popcorn was a bad thing. On the contrary, if you’re in the mood, a snack is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it’s exactly what you’re looking for. In a fairly self-aware response, Scalzi notes that his goal is to write books that sell – he has a family to support, after all. And sell books, he does! And, I like popcorn.

I’m not buying the book (and, to be clear, I will be buying the book) because it’s necessarily the best piece of literature ever, I’m buying it because he writes books that I’ve enjoyed, tells stories that I want to read and I have a pretty high degree of confidence, based on his track record, that I’ll enjoy this book as well.

The End of All Things comes out August 11, 2015. Now, Mr. Scalzi, TAKE MY MONEY! And let me know when you write something else. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll buy that, too.

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1 thought on “Book Reviews

  1. Thanks for the review! I don’t read much contemporary fiction, let alone SF. It’s good to get a review before I invest time or money. I’m a Stephenson fan, though, so I’m obligated to give SeveneveS a try at some point.

    If you’re bored, I can recommend “The Hunters” (1957) for a better than average Korean war novel. My current slog is “Yellow Wolf: His Own Story” by Lucullus McWhorter (1940) – it’s a biography/history of the 1877 Nez Perce war told by a guy who was just 21 when he fought in it. About the most recent thing I’ve got is “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” – it’s a short read, but I can’t bring myself to finish it; I think they’ll release of movie of it before I get back to it. Hmm – I might read too many heavy war books.

    For lighter fare, I love the Iain M Banks SF stuff; although “Against a Dark Background” doubles as a war book, to me.

    Keep the reviews coming!

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