Review – The Martian

Cover of The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian, Andy Weir

Oh dear, I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long! But fortuitously, now that I have, the next book club read is going to be The Martian, and the film adaptation is coming out soon. Now I just need to get my mother to read it… I found it a lot of fun, though sometimes a bit too juvenile in the style and humour — coming right after reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, I was very aware that astronauts are, for example, trained in public relations. Watney’s “look, boobs!” comment and so on… mmm. That didn’t ring true of the kind of professionalism you expect from an astronaut, even bearing in mind that they’re human too and Watney’s in an awful position.

Despite that, I did get hooked on the survival aspects, working out ways and means and timings, finessing budgets, launch times and politics. It’s a formula that works pretty well, and one of the reasons I find Apollo 13 (the real event, not the movie) more interesting than, say, Apollo 12. Apollo 11 put the first men on the moon, and Apollo 13 brought astronauts home despite immense odds, but Apollo 12 didn’t have the emotional engagement of being a first or of being a disaster. The situation for Mark Watney and his crew is very similar: people have been to Mars before, interest is even waning in the program, but then the mission’s scrubbed, NASA have to scramble to bring the astronauts home safely… and the world’s eyes are back on spaceflight.

Even with the sometimes juvenile humour, I couldn’t help but smile at some of Watney’s shenanigans, and I enjoyed trying to follow the chemistry and so on. Given that this was originally self-published as a serial and there was no contact with NASA, I didn’t really look too hard for any defects in the science — and I forgave it the NASA fanboyism, since it was full of the wonder of exploring space in an obvious way that reminded me of my mum’s enthusiasm for space.

The ending is pretty abrupt, since there’s actually plenty of time to go before the mission is really over, but that did leave the moment of attempted rescue as the climax of the story, and avoided taking away any of the significance of that moment with worries about re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere and the like.

Rating: 4/5

Review – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Cover of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris HadfieldAn Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield

I’ve been meaning to read this forever, after getting quite into the videos Chris Hadfield posted and the stuff he tweeted when he was on the International Space Station. This is both less glamorous than you’d imagine an astronaut’s book to be, and more practical in terms of actual advice about everyday life. There are details about NASA, about what it’s like to fly a plane or go into space, etc, but there’s also a lot about being a team player, communication with family, and all sorts of ordinary things that maybe you wouldn’t think an astronaut would talk about.

Overall, Hadfield comes off as a down to earth (ha) and likeable guy, with a sense of humour about life and humility about his achievements, even though they’re pretty epic achievements. I found his book mostly interesting, although sometimes talking about bureaucracy was just bewilderingly frustrating — and why should he have exploratory surgery to prove that he doesn’t need exploratory surgery again? Aaargh, world, you are weird.

It’s mostly not really about being an astronaut. It’s about loving your job, working hard, and trying to be a decent human being. The moments of wonder are there too, but this is mostly about the road taken to get there.

Rating: 4/5

Top Ten Tuesday

Hmm, this week’s theme is about recommending stuff you like if you like something popular, and I’m never sure about what’s actually popular and what I just know about because I’m in my own little circle. So I’m just going to suggest some readalikes.

  1. If you like N.K. Jemisin, especially The Fifth Season, try Kameron Hurley. Reading the start of The Fifth Season, I was so struck that it ‘felt like’ The Mirror Empire.
  2. If you like J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly in The Lord of the Rings mode, try Poul Anderson. He was also one of the founding writers of SF/F, and dug into a lot of the same material that influenced Tolkien.
  3. If you like Raymond Chandler, try Chris F. Holm. Mostly if you like SF/F as well, because the Collector series is a lot of fun, and riffs on Chandler and Hammett’s style and plots. But The Killing Kind is also great.
  4. If you like Jacqueline Carey, particularly the Kushiel books, try Freda Warrington, starting with A Taste of Blood Wine. There’s a similar lushness there in the language and style.
  5. If you like Ilona Andrews, try Jacqueline Carey! She has written some urban fantasy type stuff with the Agent of Hel trilogy, which is now complete.
  6. If you like Catherynne M. Valente, try Patricia McKillip — or the other way round, both being differently famous depending on your circles. The lyrical writing and some of the themes seem akin.
  7. If you like any books at all, try Jo Walton. She’s written in a whole range of genres, but mostly I’m thinking of the fantasy/coming of age story, Among Others. If you’re in love with books, you’ll have something in common with Mori.
  8. If you like Ellen Kushner’s Swordspointtry Tanya Huff’s The Fire’s Stone. Also has LGBT themes, in a more fantastical world. Never seems to get the love I’d like to see for it!
  9. If you like epic fantasy, of whatever stripe, try Tad Williams. I really enjoyed the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn books, and though they stick quite close to a traditional fantasy mould, they had a lot there that I appreciated, especially by way of characters.
  10. If you like Gail Carriger, try Genevieve Cogman. The tone is less silly, but some of the same enthusiasm and tone is there.

I’ll be interested to see what other people are recommending here! I found this one difficult, because I’m never sure how to judge other people’s taste.

Review – Landline

Cover of Landline by Rainbow RowellLandline, Rainbow Rowell

Stand by for opinions!

Reading the reviews of this book, there’s a significant subset of people who think that Neal is a bad person, a bad character: he’s holding back Georgie from her career; he’s jealous of her close friendship with another man; he has a tantrum and takes his kids to Omaha without their mother because she’s working on something which could, potentially, be her big break, and can’t go with them. I know there were people who read it as anti-feminism, trying to imply Georgie should have spent her time in the home instead of focusing on her career, condemning her close friendship with a man, etc.

As the daughter of a woman with a career and a man who gave up his for me and my sister, I can’t read it that simply. I know exactly how much work my dad puts into keeping the house clean, tidy, and a nice place to live. Neal does that, here, and still finds time to be affectionate to his wife, to play constantly with their children, to do favours for her. And mostly, he doesn’t complain about all the things he has to do. He just wants more of Georgie in his life — to feel like he is her priority, and not Seth. He doesn’t seem to resent Georgie for the fact that he gave up his career for the kids — she didn’t even ask him to, he chose to — and at one point he outright says that if she says that he comes before Seth in her life, he believes her and trusts her, and will not ask her to choose.

It is entirely fair for him to ask her to put some work into the relationship too, and not just rely on him to pick up all the slack. It’s not feminism to simply reverse the roles and leave the husband at home, unsatisfied with his life.

I honestly didn’t find anything Neal asked for unreasonable, and though sometimes his behaviour was a little over the top, let’s not pretend that people have to be perfect in order to deserve love, respect, and partnership. Taking the kids off to Omaha without their mother was unfair to the kids, as well as to Georgie, and so just came across as spiteful. Sometimes his surliness was very unappealing.

But the whole point of this book is about working on a relationship. Making it work. Trying to be a better person, trying to be better to your partner. Owning up when you’ve done wrong. We see more of that from Georgie, because it’s fairly tightly focused on her POV, but in the connection-to-the-past scenes, we see a younger Neal trying to figure it out too.

And, as always, Rowell writes well about that connection between people — the physical connection, the closeness, and how gestures of affection don’t have to be stereotyped kisses. The titular landline is, in fact, just a prop, a way to make the bridge between the characters in the past and present — this isn’t science fiction. It’s romance with a touch of magic. It never gets explained, because it really isn’t the point of the story. You may find that unsatisfying, particularly if you are a fan of time travel stories and the like, but it would be a completely different book if it focused on that aspect (and probably not very characteristic of Rowell’s style).

This isn’t YA, like Eleanor & Park or Fangirl, so it is different. It’s a much more adult experience of love and relationships. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Colouring Book for Grown-Ups

The Colouring Book for Grown-UpsThe Colouring Book for Grown-Ups, Arcturus Publishing

Quite a hefty collection of pictures to colour here, and an amazing variety, from twee fairies to Chinese dragons and back through mandalas to flowers. It really is just colouring, with no doodling or mindfulness advice, though there is a bit of advice on colouring and using your imagination in the front, which I duly ignored. I’m also duly ignoring the fairies and so on; I really prefer to colour patterns, I’ve found. There’s still a fair amount of that in here.

The paper is quite thin, so if you’re going to use felt tips or markers, you need to put a piece of paper between the pages to protect the next design. Unlike some other books, though, it doesn’t have designs on both side of the pages, so you don’t end up ruining anything as long as you remember to put a piece of paper behind the page you’re colouring.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Seven Forges

Cover of Seven Forges by James A. MooreSeven Forges, James A. Moore
Received to review via Netgalley and Angry Robot

I’m embarrassed about how long it took me to get round to finishing and reviewing this. I did actually read most of it before it came out, and I’m pretty sure it was one of the books I chose as my Robot for a Day prize when I visited Angry Robot’s HQ, because I’d been enjoying it. Reading it today, I just determinedly pushed right through it so I can finaaaally get onto the next book (and hopefully request the third book too).

There were a couple of rockier moments, in retrospect: some of the female characters and the way the male characters related them — that constant undertone of sex, sex, sex from certain characters, and the description of various female characters as stupid in that vapid pretty blonde stereotype way — and some of the writing, which amounted to “as you know, Bob”, and “little did he know, but”.

Still, the setting is interesting, and the culture clash between the two groups is understandable and bound to drive further conflict. The twist at the end with the assassination, well, I half-expected it, but from a different quarter. I’m interested to see how that plays out; it’s obvious that one group is working on a political agenda, and the other on one directly from their gods. I’m eager to see how the various characters handle it — particularly Nachia and Swech.

I’m less interested in Andover and Tega, because that story is relatively well-trodden in fantasy. But they may yet surprise me.

Rating: 4/5

Stacking the Shelves

This week I was a little bit naughty and did some requesting on Netgalley, after doing a bit of a tidy-up of copies I can’t review because I didn’t download them in time, can’t find a library copy, etc, etc. But I’m still on 69% reviews-to-approvals, so I think I’m doing okay!

Received to review!

Cover of The Prophecy Con by Patrick Weekes Cover of The Paladin Caper by Patrick Weekes Cover of Tower of Thorns by Juliet Marillier

Cover of Badge, Book and Candle by Max Gladstone  Cover of The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu Cover of Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

I really need to read Dreamer’s Pool so I can read Tower of Thorns, and The Palace Job so I can read The Prophecy Con and The Paladin Caper. Oh, self, you do make work!

(Like I mind.)

Bought/gifted

Cover of Old Man's War by John Scalzi Cover of The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi Cover of The Last Colony by John Scalzi

Cover of Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi Cover of The Human Division by John Scalzi Cover of The End of All Things by John Scalzi

Cover of Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson Cover of Dragon Coast by Greg van Eekhout Cover of Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Cover of Talking Hands by Margalit Fox Cover of The Fox Tower by Yoon Ha Lee

Many many many thanks to Lois and Amy, who have belatedly celebrated my birthday by showering me with bookishness. (Some of the Scalzi is from Lois, and Talking Hands is from Amy.)

Aaand the final issue of Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps

Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps #4

By the time this goes live, I’ll be on the way to BristolCon with Robert from Bastian’s Books. So if you’re going, you might catch a glimpse of that rare sight — a wild Nikki. Bring a pokéball.

Review – The House on the Strand

Cover of The House on the Strand by Daphne du MaurierThe House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier
Originally reviewed 9th August, 2012

I don’t know why I’ve always been reluctant about reading Daphne du Maurier’s work: I don’t know what I thought it was going to be like, because both this and Rebecca were atmospheric and intriguing. Slower than your average thrillers maybe, but I do think there’s something in them that captures the mind. A little patience works wonders.

The narrator’s background contempt for Vita, not fully realised by himself, is both well written and discomforting: the hints at the end that it could have been all in his mind are interesting — it seems almost a cliché looking at it that way, but it read well here, and oh, the ending.

I got into the medieval story than the modern one; like the narrator I found it more real, full of passion and life — which really, I suppose, shows it to be a fiction, or at least that the narrator experiences it in the episodic manner of fiction, while his real life remains unsatisfactory. Like the narrator I’m glad to have experienced Roger and Isolda’s stories. And I can understand the draw of them for the protagonist, and how prepared he is to throw what he has away to see them, to know them.

I’m half wishing I was writing the dissertation on time travel we all joked about in the first semester of my MA. It’d give me an excuse to keep on thinking about this book.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Permanent Present Tense

Cover of Permanent Present Tense by Suzanne ChorkinPermanent Present Tense, Suzanne Corkin

The first thing you should be aware of about this book is that Suzanne Corkin was one of the people who did most research with Henry Molaison before his death, even involving herself in who was his guardian and the arrangements for what would happen after his death. She liked him, and clearly thought that he was a good man, but she also remained first and foremost a researcher. So she was pleased when, after his death, they successfully removed his brain intact for study. If that’s going to bother you, this may not be the book for you; Corkin remains a scientist primarily, throughout.

For me, though, it was fascinating. It explains a lot about the various different tests that were done on Henry Molaison, yes, but it also describes his willing cooperation, his character, the way the operation which took his memories affected him, even his sense of humour and the things he enjoyed. According to Corkin — and I’ve heard nothing to contradict this — he was happy to offer himself up for research, happy to contribute to medical science. It ends up being a touching account because of that: the number of people who cared about what happened to him, about his legacy, and the number of people who benefited because of his willingness to be studied.

Of course, you can question whether he would have been so willing if he remembered the immense number of trials he was run through, the sheer amount of time he spent in the labs. Probably not, I would think — it requires an immense amount of patience, after all. But if he had his memory, he wouldn’t have been the object of so much study, so it’s a bit of a circular argument. I would be interested in reading a book about the ethics behind all the experiments run on him and if any of them caused him any distress, etc, but as it is here, it doesn’t seem so — and certainly the fact that he was closely monitored at all times made sure he received good medical care throughout his life.

It’s difficult to construct a continuous narrative of a life as necessarily fragmented as Henry’s, so Corkin follows the progress of study on his brain instead. It’s not primarily about H.M. in that sense — except that without him, those advances couldn’t have been made. I think it still brings across a tenderness and affection for the man, despite Corkin’s academic interest.

Rating: 5/5

Review – The Salt Roads

Cover of The Salt Roads by Nalo HopkinsonThe Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson
Received to review via Netgalley

Originally received to review, anyway, but I’ve picked it up legitimately since, because wow, it’s been a while. I’ve been meaning to read Nalo Hopkinson’s work for a while — I know I got partway through The Midnight Robber at one point, and I’m not sure why I stopped; it wasn’t lack of interest — and from other reviews, this sounded great. In many ways, I’m not entirely sure how to judge this: it’s about black people, about a mythology that links between time and space, and it’s full of pain and degradation visited on those people by white people. It’s visceral, with sinuous and earthy language; sensual and sexual and rooted in black bodies, black experiences.

It wasn’t quite my taste in fiction, still, and I’m wary of judging it because of that. Because it’s not my usual kind of story. But I think I got at least some of the richness of the novel: the intertwined lives, the physicality of the women. I could connect to the queerness of several of the characters, although the sexuality is not something I can easily connect with. I could connect to the relationships between people — Mer’s concern for Tipingee and Marie-Claire, the awkwardness and respect between her and Patrice. The issues with Mackandal, the fact that Mer opposes him but still wants to keep him safe, as one of her people, doesn’t want him to suffer. For me, she was the most real character; there wasn’t enough of Thais, and Jeanne Duval’s tempestuous relationship with Baudelaire, while vivid, didn’t appeal to me in the same way.

I’m not a huge fan of shifting POVs, and especially when they’re quite disparate; I didn’t find it too bad here, but sometimes it would take me a while to find my footing again when there’s a switch. Sometimes it worked just right, though, for the shifts, the confusion of the spirit riding those women.

Rating: 4/5