Month: June 2014

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

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This book is a fantastically varied tale that is compelling and believable science fiction.

In Andy Weir’s The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first humans to be on Mars, number 17, to be exact. His six man crew is supposed to land and stay on Mars for 31 days, but, on day 6, a massive sandstorm forces an early evacuation and termination of the mission. The crew scrambles to leave, and Mark gets knocked out. His life sign monitors flat-line, and the crew is forced to leave Mark’s body on Mars. There’s just one problem:

Mark isn’t dead.

He’s now left to try and survive alone on Mars until the next mission to Mars lands, over four years later.

The Martian by Andy Weir

There’s a lot going on in this book, so first things first. Let’s talk about Mark. A very big chunk of the book is Mark’s mission logs, which he starts taking when he realizes he’s stuck and is deciding that he can, in fact, survive for a rescue mission. The logs read much like a personal journal, and we get a sense for Mark’s personality. Mark, we’re told, deals with much of his stress through humor. The first chapter or so makes sure we’re aware of this aspect of his personality. To be honest, I was a little turned off by it at first. Weir lays it on a little thick. But, the more Mark focuses on his mission and survival, the more balanced his voice becomes.

Mark is a very creative thinker. Sometimes it was a little disappointing that we didn’t get to see his brain working through the problems he faced. Instead, the reader sees a lot of the post-idea formation. The actual thought process doesn’t really make it into his logs, but, hey, that’s what a log is for: recording the actions and reasons behind them for future review. We do, however, get a lot of Mark’s reactions to his survival missions and problem-solving attempts. That’s probably where some of Weir’s best work is. Mark’s records where he is panicking are very believable.

The story is counter-balanced by third-person narrative interludes of what is happening in the NASA control centers. Because they can’t always communicate, the NASA employees who find Mark and work to rescue him are often bustling. Weir very often shows the organization’s thought process and how different it is, at times, from Mark’s. What is very cool in this is that we get to see the way that the thought processes, though different, often come to similar conclusions. It also provides a contrast between the more organic self-preservation attempts Mark is making and the rigid institutional attempts that are working to bring him home. This results in some clashes, but the frustration is on both sides and their cooperation is that much more valuable for it.

The only thing I occasionally didn’t like was the quick problem-resolution sequences that occurred. It sometimes seemed that there were very quick solutions to the problems Mark had. When he was looking for a food supply to augment his provisions, the solution was straight forward. Surprisingly there were very few hiccups with implementing the solution. I expected more sustained problems. Another instance of this was when Mark is travelling. There are some very serious issues with his travel plans, some of which, we’re told by the NASA narratives, he couldn’t see coming until it was too late. It felt like there were a lot of times that Mark’s problems were overblown in their presentation. That being said, the story is very fast paced and we see a lot of creative thinking (on both Mark and Weir’s behalves).

As far as “realistic” science fiction goes, this isn’t just enjoyable, it’s very well presented. The characters are likable, there is a sense of urgency, and the story is compelling. A solid 4 out of 5.

Andy Weir talks about how he wrote the story here: http://bit.ly/1qpzBKZ

I received this book for free for an honest review via Blogging for Books.

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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I want to preface this review by saying that, aside from people singing its praises, I didn’t know very much, if anything, about the story prior to reading Gone Girl (Get a copy here.). I picked it up blind, just understanding that it was a murder-mystery.

Gone Girl revolves around Nick Dunne, a former writer who has moved back to Missouri from New York after he and his wife, Amy, are laid off.  Amy, a Manhattanite, isn’t thrilled to be in the more rustic suburban town. But, Nick’s parents are ill and they are almost completely broke. They buy a bar and seem to start settling in, though their marriage is more distant than ever. When Nick returns home on the evening of their fifth wedding anniversary, he finds their living room a wreck, their things scattered about and ruined, and Amy is nowhere to be found.  The longer the search for Amy goes on, the more we realize how dark things really were between them.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is presented in two different perspectives (arguably three). We hear from both Nick and Amy, both in first-person narrative. It’s very difficult to keep two parallel first-person narratives distinct, but Flynn manages to do it. With the exception of a prolific misuse of the word “literally,” the two maintain different attitudes and voices.

What’s unfortunate is that neither character’s voice felt particularly genuine. Nick is unhappy in his relationship. This much is made clear, but the emotional connections we’re supposed to see, namely his desire to be anything other than a man like his farther and the slow resentment building up towards Amy, seem very unjustified in the narrative. We don’t see him interact once with his father and we already know he has come back without hesitation or complaint to take care of BOTH his mother and his father. The narrative seems to jump from neutrality over Amy and a preoccupation over how he will be perceived without every explaining why he (1) instantly assumes that he will be seen as a culprit, or (2) why he isn’t that concerned about his wife’s safety. As a character, I thought Nick felt very flat.

Amy isn’t any better. Her initial diary entries do little more than paint a picture of a spoiled upper-middle class princess. The shows of resentment towards other children of privileged don’t make her special; instead, they emphasize her self-pretensions and entitlement. When the plot twists, Amy at least speaks in a way that makes sense with her actions.

The story has been praised for it’s twists. To be honest, I thought that the plot was pretty predictable. As I said before, I knew nothing about the plot going in, but I was never surprised. I thought that the plot points were overly built up and the story overall seemed anti-climactic. It seemed very much like there were check boxes Flynn was going through to be surprising or edgy. But the twists have all been used before, and they were neither exciting in their presentation nor in their justifications.

Overall, I gave this one a 2.5-3.

Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon (Get a copy here) takes place in contemporary Scotland and follows a young girl, Anais, who is in the foster care system. Her world is just going to hell. She’s been tossed into a care unit with other children in the system. Anais has been in the system her whole life. She’s been in and out of the criminal system for drug abuses and brawling. Her only respite was with her adoptive mother who has died, and, now, Anais is being accused of attacking a police officer who is comatose.

It’s pretty clear throughout the novel that Anais is struggling. She doesn’t open up to people, and she certainly doesn’t trust others. She’s pretty convinced that “the experiment” is watching her, manipulating the world around her and the people in her life with the goal of hurting her as much as possible and observing her reactions. Anais suffers from panic attacks and sometimes sees flying cats. The world she lives in is unstable, and she really just wants to run as far as she can.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Fagan’s novel is an interesting, detailed story with some fantastic elements.

The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness-like narrative with a vernacular that is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s writing style. Here’s an example:

I hate. Her face. The thick hair on his neck. I hate the way the policeman turns the wheel. What is worse, though, is this nowhere place. There’s nae escape. The cuffs chink as I smooth down my school skirt–it’s heavily spattered with bloodstains.
We drive by a huge stone wall, up to a gateway framed by two tall pillars. On the first there’s a gargoyle–someone’s stubbed a fag out in his ear. I glance up at the other pillar, and a winged cat crouches down.

The interesting thing about the narrative style is that the format is so well-balanced that the thoughts, and in particular the hallucinations that Anais has, are smoothly transitioned. It’s so easy to make a stream of consciousness style story jump around and feel erratic. Fagan manages to make the story flow together naturally. Even when the events jump or when the hallucinations start, the story doesn’t feel disjointed. It gives a really neat insight into the character’s mind and the feeling of organic thought processes.

The characters are very well thought-out and have carefully crafted emotional profiles and backgrounds. The side characters are interesting and emotionally complex. Fagan takes a lot of time and care in their development. Anais herself is emotionally complex. We see a lot of her internal conflicts and her struggles with her mental state. Not only do we see her debate how she feels about the other characters and events in the story, but we also see, in detail, her paranoia and hallucinations. This is most prominent in Anais’ belief in “the experiment,” a god-like entity she believes sees everything she does and has the power to manipulate her life circumstances to see how she reacts.

The only problem I had with the character development, and really the plot, was in the story’s ending. Anais and her friends take action in the last few pages, spurred on by prior horrific events. Anais’ story continues on and she does some of the things we hear her talking about throughout the novel. While much of this is a resolution to the story, I found it unsatisfying. I thought the ending didn’t seem to fit with the emotional connections that are built throughout the story, and Anais doesn’t get any resolution with the child care system itself. It was by no means a bad ending, and, while it was foreshadowed, I found it to be a bit disconnected from where the story seemed to be going.

Overall, I thought the read was dynamic and impressively complex.

On a rating scale, I give it a 4-4.5.

Note: This book does contain drug use and sexual assault

Review: Tommy’s Tale by Alan Cumming

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Originally released in 2002. I received a copy from !t books, the publisher, for the paperback re-release this year.

Goodreads: http://bit.ly/1jTzbcJ
Twitter: https://twitter.com/reev2550

The Thinking Chair: Different Storytelling Mediums

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I love storytelling. I think it’s one of the most fundamental human urges: to share experiences. It’s one of the ways we grow and learn. Though I will often be heard saying that books are my preferred storytelling form, I don’t often get the opportunity to say why or what I enjoy about the different storytelling mediums we have available to us.

One of the things I like best about books is that they are so similar in form and storytelling capability to verbal storytelling (This is also a big reason why I like audiobooks). Books offer the same verbal craftsmanship and omnipotence that oral storytelling does. The advantage of the written word comes in the ability to refine the story before the reader receives it.

In my opinion, books maintain much of the artfulness of oral storytelling while allowing the creator the ability to go more in-depth with their tale and the ability to revise and refine their work.

This is not to say that books are superior to other forms of storytelling.

I know it’s often popular or considered a sign of sophistication to advocate reading over modern visual storytelling forms like movies and television. Doing that, however, would undermine the growth and perpetuation of storytelling as a form and underestimate the value of visual mediums.

First off, we know that I love graphic novels and comics. They offer a compromise between the visual and the verbal that I find enjoyable and intriguing.

Movies and television offer, however, a sense of real-time experience that shouldn’t be sold short. They also allow the viewer an opportunity to create bonds and decide how they feel about a character without the potential for an all-seeing narrator to interrupt and tell them otherwise. Of course, stories and characters are still guided; their plots are fixed and the consumer only sees chosen actions. However, I think there is some value to not seeing inside a person’s head, even if it is one of the things I like most about books. Television in particular offers a fantastic sense of time, especially when shown in weekly episodes.

What do you like about storytelling? What forms are your favorite?

I won’t go into all of them. Of course, plays, music, art all offer their own advantages. Let me know what you prefer.

Review: The Split Worlds Series (Books 1-3) by Emma Newman

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Publication Date: 2013

Genre: Fantasy

 

The Split World Series is composed of three books: Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name, and All is Fair.

The Split World Series by Emma Newman

The Split World Series follows Cathy, a member of the fae-touched society who has escaped into Mundanus (the regular world). Cathy wants to leave the backwards misogynistic Nether behind her and to start her life as a regular human who will age and die like the rest of us. When her family captures her, she is forced back into the fae-touched world and married off to avoid scandal.

Cathy is resolved to leave again, but things are more complicated this time. Her marriage is bad enough, but she’s also caught the eye of Lord Poppy, the fae lord her family serves. With his increased scrutiny, she knows she’s headed no-where. She also has to deal with Max, an arbiter (the monitors who keep the fae-touched out of the mundane world), whose chapter has been destroyed after he uncovers corruption in the London chapter that has allowed the fae-touched to roam unchecked. Max is depending on Cathy to act as a spy and figure out exactly what is going on.

I’ve been waiting to start reading this for a while. I finally got my hands on a copy (That in itself was quite the debacle) and I’m not disappointed. This series has a great sense of fun. It’s fast-paced and witty.

I enjoyed that the characters in these novels grew. In particular, Cathy was grating and flat for the first book. She threw temper tantrums and was more preoccupied with what she had lost than with the situation at hand and dealing with the changes in her life. Frankly, she was kind of a whiny baby. By the end though, Cathy takes ownership of her situation and becomes an active player in changing her world.

Unfortunately, the character development wasn’t always up to par. For example, Newman initially builds up Cathy’s father as an abusive misogynist who puts social standing and expectations over the desires of his children. In the second book, Cathy’s father gets a bit more depth. We find out that he also went against his family wishes by fighting in World War II (did I mention the fae touched live for hundreds of years?). Cathy’s father says that the reason he doesn’t sympathize with her actions is because she was doing something selfish. This is fair enough; Cathy’s being pretty self-absorbed. But then, Newman turns around and continues to present Cathy’s father as the same abuser he was seen as previously without integrating the presented complexity into his later actions.

Another thing I was confused about was Max, the arbiter. Arbiters’ souls are separated from their bodies. They no longer feel emotion when processing crime. When Max’s chapter is destroyed, Max’s soul is bound to a gargoyle. The two proceed to try to solve the crime together. This was fine. I’ll bite.

However, Max consistently gets angry, sad, or otherwise emotional. The gargoyle often shows a great deal of logic and prioritizes his emotions last. Both of these seemed to go counter to the situation Newman initially describes. I liked them both, but it was far easier for me to just think of them as separate characters than as parts of a whole and singular one.

I did enjoy Cathy and Will’s relationship. It really grew as the two began to depend on one another. The trust and love wasn’t instant, a really gratifying thing when the situation is complex. I enjoyed that they had to learn to trust and respect one another and that it wasn’t easy.

Will was a good guy. We see this repeatedly. That’s why it’s really confusing when he does some sketchy stuff to keep Lord Iris, his family’s fae lord, happy. Will isn’t above using magic to manipulate those around him. I still really liked him, but some of this just really chafed. That Cathy remains fairly ignorant of what Will does is troubling, but I think it will be addressed in a fourth book (hopefully).

Overall, The Split Worlds Series is a fun, fast-paced read. I gave it a 4 rating.

You can watch me babble about it here:

Spotlight on Graphic Novels: Manifest Destiny Vol. 1

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Manifest Destiny (available on ComiXology) follows the adventures of Lewis and Clark as they traverse the unknown western regions of North America. Unlike the journey we’re told they took, this highly fictionalized version features buffalo-men, zombies, and, of course, Sacagawea. This was a fun read, though not always a smooth story.

The story starts off with an exploration of land on the west side of the Mississippi. The crew has been sent with the limited knowledge that monsters may lie west of the river. They’re past the point of help or turning back.

They are attacked by buffalo headed, human torso-ed creatures.

Buffalo Minotaurs in Manifest Destiny

Then, in an attempt to escape, they’re chased into an abandoned outpost. Things there, however, are anything but safe.

The novel features some great art and creative monsters.

More horrors face the expedition than the men expect.

The men are consistently led astray be Lewis and Clark. Clark is convinced that he is strong and brave enough to take on the unknown, and his pride won’t let him return to safety. Lewis is compulsive about seeking knowledge of the new life forms. Though Lewis is afraid, he wants to further the biological sciences.

The characters were interesting. However, the plot seemed to jump around without much regard for how it was foreshadowed or how the events were building.

On the plus side, there’s a fun Little Shop of Horrors feel to the first volume that I thought was very well done.

Admittedly, I read the first 97 pages and then let it sit for two weeks. That doesn’t speak much to the story being particularly engaging. It often seemed to alternate between random plot points and subplots that dragged. Overall, I’d rate it a three. There’s a lot of room to build, but also a lot of promise.

The Thinking Chair: Young Adult Fiction, RE: Slate

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Slate recently released an OpEd article about the young adult genre ( http://slate.me/1nmpVgH ). 

I’m not going to pretend to be a champion of young adult fiction. On a personal level, I find that young adult doesn’t do it for me, but I’ll talk about that later. 

The slate article claims: 

(1) Young adult is all about wish fulfillment. 

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.

Graham wants to argue that distinct endings are inherently bad. They don’t reflect reality, and, thus, ought to be rejected out of hand.

I’ll be honest. I’m a fan of messy endings. I do think they reflect reality, and I often want to see reality reflected in the literature I read. I do think that YA does this because, in large part, its proclaimed audience is younger (13-17 years old) and does not always seek out stories that don’t resolve themselves. The reasons behind this are vast and change with the reader. 

I’ll be honest. This is one of the reasons that I don’t find YA particularly satisfying. I like things unresolved (Granted I also enjoy the occasional lighter read that does resolve itself). 

However, should you be ashamed of reading YA because it has resolved endings?

Of course not. The truth is that people like resolved endings. Most books that we read are stand-alone. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting a resolved ending. Resolution is one of those things that we want as humans. It’s why we pick at those unresolved problems in our lives even weeks or months after we claim to let them go. To ask for a resolved ending in a story that will, in fact, end in page numbers, if not always in plot, is not unreasonable. Nor does having a resolved ending make a story any less valuable in its plot, character development, or overarching cohesion. 

(2) The author writes that:

I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives. But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up. 

I’m not going to address this point in detail, but a person’s individual feelings (the desire to present one’s self as more adult than they are) doesn’t mean anything regarding what someone else’s feelings ought to be. 

So, should the teenage desire to be seen as an adult mean that you, an adult reader, should be ashamed of reading YA?

Of course not. Let’s ignore the total pretension of this claim (The author may as well be saying that they’ve always been sophisticated and why aren’t you) and instead talk about the more basic claims.

You shouldn’t ever feel like your voluntary entertainment needs to meet anyone else’s standards. Whether or not a kid wants to read literature above their typical age level is a good thing or not, as an adult, you should feel free to read whatever you want and you should feel confident that you know your entertainment desires more than anyone else. At the end of the day, you’re an adult. Whether you want to pick up a copy of a middle grade, YA, or adult fiction novel is not anyone else’s business and someone else’s opinion should change your desire to pick out what you think will keep you interested and entertained. 

(3) The author is concerned whether YA novels are “literary enough”

Literary fiction is not the only thing in the world. NOR SHOULD IT BE. To pretend that the young adult genre doesn’t offer anything in the way of complex topics or narrative sophistication is a total denial of the multitude of worthwhile reads that are in the genre. 

I’m not going to pretend that I find the YA genre to offer much in the way of literature in the classical sense. I often find it to be lacking in character development and topical considerations. I often find that the way topics are tackled lacks complexity that appeals to me more now that I am an adult. 

Does this mean you should feel ashamed to read YA?

Of course not. I don’t read all of my books in order to be a sophisticate. I read because reading is my preferred form of storytelling. Reading offers an insight into human nature that cannot be conveyed in visual media. Regardless of whether a novel meets up to an arbitrary standard of literature, this storytelling advantage is there. It should not be put down simply because the storytelling isn’t poetic enough or the topic not complex enough. 

True. I don’t always find fulfillment in young adult fiction. But, my opinions or anyone else’s shouldn’t change anyone else’s opinion. It’s hard to ignore people’s criticism, but as an adult, you should be working towards, if not already have achieved, a sense of confidence in your ability to determine what you like. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

 

Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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Publication Date: 2006
Genre: Fantasy

The Alchemist is available here.

The Alchemist follows a young shepherd as he pursues his “Personal Legend.” The shepherd is bringing his sheep to market in southern Spain when he has a vision of treasure. He sees a gypsy and an old man who both tell him to go to the Egyptian pyramids he had seen in his dreams and to seek his treasure there. The boy crosses to North Africa where he begins to pursue his Personal Legend, seeking out the treasure from his dreams. While there he faces disheartening events and the temptation to settle.

The writing in this book is fairy-tale like. It seemed to me to be more heavily influenced by Arab tales. The writing style is clear and at times very beautiful.

Throughout the story, Coelho seemed more interested in the moral of the tale than the cohesion of the plot. This was one of the things that was a bit disappointing. I thought that the interludes where the boy is unable to go where he wants and is forced to learn and re-engergize himself towards achieving his goals were slow and didn’t always have the impact he wanted. It often led to the pursuit of the boy’s dream feeling erratic and showed the boy to be more fickle in his pursuit than I think Coelho intended. In compbination with the way the boy was magically propelled towards the treasure he dreamed of, the plot was not only secondary, but also mundane.

The main themes of the story–personal satisfaction and the connectedness of the world–aren’t normally themes I would find objectionable. What I found dissatisfying in them was the way that practicality and the desire to understand they why and how of the world were put down.

Coelho was pretty clear in the story that people who don’t pursue their dreams become sad and unfulfilled. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that people’s dreams and desires often change. He talks about how men either don’t chase after what they want because they are afraid or think themselves unworthy of success. He doesn’t talk about how at a young age we often dream many things. The pursuit of dreams takes precedence. Though it’s important to strive after fulfillment, his own main character shows how very fickle dreams can be. The shepherd boy wavers back and forth constantly between pursuing treasure, building a new and bigger flock, and settling down. Coelho’s story urges him on to the most fanciful of dreams. I think this diminishes the others and discourages the exploration of many dreams and the pursuit of the right fit by trial and error that allows a person to feel satisfied in the choices they have made.

Coelho also talks a lot about the Language of the Universe. The shepherd is in touch with nature and is, by extension, better able to understand what choices should come next. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. However, Coelho juxtaposes the boy with alchemists and those who pursue the knowledge of the world on a more detailed level. One conversation outlines that the powerful alchemist who lives in the desert (one who is so powerful he has lived for over two hundred years and can manipulate the elements) doesn’t know why the alchemy works, but that “the tradition is always right.” To say I balked at this would be an understatement.

The first point I’d say is that understanding that the world is connected and understanding why are not mutually exclusive nor does one detract from another. Aside from the fact that the idea of practicing something as purportedly powerful as alchemy without understanding why and how it works is a scary and dangerous thing to do, I think that this approach devalues the beauty of the way the world works. To accept that the world works without understanding why is a bit sad.

Overall, I thought this was an okay read, but I was expecting more.

Rating: 3