Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

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Leviathan Wakes was a fun book, but Corey lost me at times. I gave it a 3.5 out of 5.


A bit of a belated #FridayReads

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Happy Fourth of July to those of you in the US. Here’s a Friday Reads for the week.

This week’s reads:
The Martian by Andy Weir
Habibi by Craig Thompson
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Upcoming Reads:
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Spotlight on Graphic Novels: Habibi by Craig Thompson

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Habibi by Craig Thompson

Habibi follows Dodola, a young Arab woman, and Dodola’s adopted son, Zam. Dodola was sold into marriage at a very young age and, though her husband allows her something of a childhood and ensures she is educated, Dodola is eventually kidnapped and forced into slavery and prostitution. It is as a slave that Dodola, then an early teenager, finds Zam, a three-year-old slave who she takes in.

Dodola and Zam escape their captors and flee to the desert. They live in isolation for years until they are found and Dodola is captured for the sultan’s harem. Zam is alone and Dodola is again enslaved. They are determined to find one another again.

The art in Habibi is beautiful. It integrates the story, biblical tales, and Arabic script beautifully.

The story itself was disappointing. Habibi could have been an interesting story about motherhood, love, and freedom.

As the story progressed, the relationship between Zam and Dodola became less and less familial. This is somewhat expected. Boys grow up, after all, and relationships can be changed by this. But there wasn’t a lot of foreshadowing for this change on Dodola’s part. Throughout the book, she refers to Zam as her true child, even rejecting her own biological children because they were not Zam. It was very strange and discomfiting to then see their relationship change to a less familial and more romantic relationship. It seemed out of place.

I couldn’t figure out what time or place they were supposed to be in. It may just be that it’s hard for me to conceive of a country that has plumbing, electricity, and modern automotives that also has a section of its population that doesn’t know that it exists. It’s also hard to see a country with those amenities condoning slavery, especially given political pressures that exist in the world. I could normally attempt to ignore this, but it stood in such contrast and really segmented the plot and the character’s journeys.

Overall, I was disappointed. I gave this a 3 of 5.

Get your copy of Habibi here:

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:

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.