Thursday, October 30, 2014

REVIEW: The Martian by Andy Weir



https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18007564-the-martian?from_search=true
Original Publication Year: 2014 (though interestingly this was self-published first in 2012)
Genre(s): Sci-Fi, Thriller
Series: NA
Awards: None
Format: Audio (Audible.com)
Narrated by: R.C. Bray

This book made a pretty big splash earlier this year and seemed to be everywhere.  I had not heard a single negative thing about it and it sounded like the most sci-fi fun to be had this side of the Milky Way Galaxy.  When looking up the publication year I was very surprised to see that the book was originally self-published before being bought by Crown Publishing.  This sends me into a panic because this book was indeed fantastic and super amazing so what else am I missing by completely ignoring self-published lit???!!!  Before I hyperventilate and pass out I will just have to trust that established publishers will in fact identify those self-pubbed diamonds in the rough amid the gigantic, enormous pile of self-published novels. 

Anyway, back to the point.  This book is amazing.  If you are even the tiniest bit a space nerd and you have a sense of humor, I can’t imagine this book not tickling you pink.   Even if you are not a space nerd but like well-paced character driven thrillers this book should work really well for you.  So what’s it about?  Mark Watney is an Astronaut/Botanist/Mechanical Engineer who is accidentally stranded alive on Mars.  He must figure out a way to survive alone on the planet and with limited supplies while back on Earth NASA scrambles to figure out a rescue and Watney becomes the most compelling news story for months.  The narrative splits between Watney’s journals and the action back on Earth.

Calling the book Science Fiction is actually a bit of a stretch because I think much of the technology in the book is at least possible today.  And there is A LOT of technobabble here which normally I don’t really like.  One of the strengths of the book is how Weir manages to make all this technobabble completely fascinating.  He does it I think partially by context - the solutions Watney is developing are life and death and have a McGyver quality to them – and partially because he dumbs it down just enough so that it is easy to at least get the gist of what is happening. 

It is also due in no small part to the character of Watney himself, who is another strength of the book.  I found him incredibly likeable and charismatic.  In fact, by the end of the book I was halfway in love with him.  He’s partially what you would expect in an astronaut – brilliantly smart, adaptive, quick-thinking, daring and unflappable – and some things you wouldn’t – goofy, very funny and irreverent.  My crush was deepened by the news that Matt Damon will play him in a movie version next year – pretty perfect casting I think.

The final point I want to make about the book is that I think Weir also did a really amazing job with the pacing.  The book at heart is a survival thriller so it is important to keep the action and threat level pretty high.  Splitting the narrative between Watney’s journals and the action on Earth was a really good choice and Weir struck the perfect balance between the two.  Just as the lone voice of Watney starts to drag ever so slightly, there’s a switch to Earth and a cast of relatively distinct and decently developed cast of characters there.  As soon as you started wondering how Mark is doing back on Mars, the narrative switches back.  For me, it was paced just right.

I listened to the audio and I really liked R.C. Bray’s narration.  He captured the humor in the journal entries really well while doing a decent job with the cast of characters on Earth.  It did take me a little bit of time to warm up to him but once I got into the flow, I decided I really liked him.

Final Verdict: I found this to be a perfectly paced space drama which satisfied both the nerd and thrill seeker in me. 4 out of 5 Stars.  ✯✯✯✯

 I’ll leave with some of the more endearing quotes from the book:

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

“I can't wait till I have grandchildren. When I was younger, I had to walk to the rim of a crater. Uphill! In an EVA suit! On Mars, ya little shit! Ya hear me? Mars!”

“The screen went black before I was out of the airlock. Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid.” I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.”

“[11:49] JPL: What we can see of your planned cut looks good. We’re assuming the other side is identical. You’re cleared to start drilling. [12:07] Watney: That’s what she said. [12:25] JPL: Seriously, Mark? Seriously?”  (I am sorry to say this one made me guffaw out loud because apparently I have the sense of humor of a 13 year old boy.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

TOP TEN TUESDAY - Top Books or Movies for getting into the Halloween Spirit

 

As I started putting this list together, I realized that I really don't read or enjoy books in the "horror" genre and I'm not really sure why.  I like horror movies and haunted houses quite a bit and have been fascinated with vampires since I was a child.  Maybe it's because books are longer and more detailed?  Who knows.  This is why I love TTT - it's all about self discovery, ha ha!  Anyway this list will be a hodge-podge of books, tv shows and movies that produce halloweeny feelings for me.  

BOOKS


1) Turn of the Screw by Henry James:  It's been a long time since I read this short novella but I definitely remember that it gave me the shivers and threw me into a Henry James frenzy for a short time.  It is thrillingly Gothic and features creepy children which never fail to frighten. 
2) Assorted stories by Edgar Allen Poe (The Telltale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven etc...):  Again most of Edgar Allen Poe's creepiest, most atmospheric tales are short which is apparently the way I like them.  He's very talented at creating creeping dread - I am sure his mother was very proud of this talent. 
3) Dracula by Bram Stoker:  As I mentioned, vampires have always been my monster of choice and I read and loved this book as a teenager.  I even acted in a play of the book in college. 


TELEVISION
A couple of my favorite TV shows are perfect watching to get geared up for Halloween.

4) Supernatural: Each week is like a little mini horror movie featuring the fierce and rather handsome Winchester brothers as Hunters of supernatural phenomena.  At ten seasons or so long they've really been able to play with all kinds of horror tropes.  I also think that while I love the show, Jensen Ackles is a much better actor then it deserves. 
5) Buffy the Vampire Slayer:  One of my favorite shows of all time!  Every season (I think)they had some kind of Halloween episode that was usually pretty brilliant.
6)It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: I grew up watching Charlie Brown specials so this one kind of encapsulates Halloween for me.

MOVIES

7) Poltergeist:  I watched this movie at least 400 times in my youth. It's kind of perfect.
8) A Nightmare on Elm Street: Of the horror movie "franchises" this was my favorite.  It scared me deliciously in my teenage years while also inducing swooniness over Johnny Depp.
9) The Monster Squad: I adored this movie as a kid  - it's campy and brilliant and features all the Halloween bad guys!
10) The Nightmare Before Christmas: Is there anyone better at evoking the Halloween spirit then Tim Burton?  This and the next movie on the list are both his and they are on here for good reason!
11) Sleepy Hollow:  This is Johnny Depp's second appearance on the list and come to think of it I could also put Edward Scissorhands on here... which would also mean more Tim Burton. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in all forms pretty much embodies Halloween for me! 

As for characters I would like to "be" for Halloween, I think my post from last week on fictional women that inspire me kind of covers it!  So what's on your Halloween read/watch list?

Happy Halloween!!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

REVIEW: Whisper the Dead by Alyxandra Harvey



Original Publication Year: 2014
Genre(s): Fantasy, YA, Paranormal, Historical
Series: The Lovegrove Legacy #2 (myreview of book 1)
Awards: None
Format: Hardback from Library
Narrated by: NA

Whisper the Dead is the second in the Lovegrove Legacy series that features a paranormally enhanced Regency Era England.  This book focuses on Gretchen who of the three Lovegrove cousins is the biggest rebel which is really saying something. None of them are exactly conventional Regency Era debutantes. Gretchen’s magic specialty is as a Whisperer which means she can access the thoughts of other witches and warlocks both living and dead.  It means that she has access to the spells and knowledge of all magical folks who have come before her but shifting through the hoard of whispers is a difficult skill to develop.
 
The plot continues from book one.  The three Lovegrove cousins are still under the tight scrutiny of The Order and the big bads which were vanquished in book one may not be as vanquished as previously imagined.  Protective wards set up around London to shield the magical society from harm, as well as from the notice of the general non-magical populace, have begun disappearing.  The Order who are tasked with…well…keeping order are at a bit of a loss how to deal with some of the unusual problems cropping up which is where Gretchen is useful.  She does this by grudgingly helping her assigned watcher from The Order, Tobias, who is a very proper young English Gentleman who is doing everything he can to suppress his inherited werewolf nature.  He is the perfect romantic foil to Gretchen’s wild and very anti-proper young lady.

So let’s talk about Gretchen.  She’s great and I love her.  Of the three cousins she has the most conventional and proper parents and she chafes the most at society’s expectations of gentle ladies.  She despises balls and needlework and would rather be having adventures and living on her own like her twin brother Godric.  She is always doing everything that is wrong and improper and the only way she has stayed sane and not been completely beaten down by her parents is by the help of her twin and cousins.  She in no way understands Tobias’ devotion to civilized and proper society and he in turn is slowly and tentatively learning the value of being ones true self from Gretchen.

While I loved book one, it did not stop me from recognizing a lot of sloppiness in the construction of the novel.  It had a great story and characters but it was kind of a mess.  This book gets rid of almost all those issues.  It felt much more tightly plotted and there were many fewer moments of disjointedness.  There are still some issues with transitions that were sometimes jerky but it was much less of an issue here. 

Another aspect I felt was done better in book two was the development of the setting.  Without having to do such a complete info dump as in book one, Harvey settles in and really explores the world she’s created.  One aspect I noticed this time around was the interesting contrast between the High-Born magic wielders and the lower class as personified in the “madcap” Moira.  Madcaps are the young homeless magic folk that roam the rooftops of London doing odd jobs and surviving by their wits.  The magic they practice is quite different than that of the upper class which adds some interesting layers to the Regency society being portrayed. 

Unlike book one, this book ends on a HUGE cliffhanger which is frustrating because the release timeline for book three has not been announced.  You may be rest assured I will be stalking the interwebs impatiently awaiting a release date, something I never do. 

I have come to accept that Alyxandra Harvey is one of my most favorite authors for delightful fluff, I don’t think she gets enough attention quite frankly.  If you get a chance, visit my review of Book One where I try to articulate what it is that is so great about her books.  Basically, while I think she struggles a bit with overall construction of a novel, at the sentence level she is a pretty fantastic writer, has a fantastic sense of humor and she writes characters and relationships that are easy to love and are healthy.  It’s the perfect recipe for a satisfying, page-turner YA read.
Final Verdict:  4 out of 5 stars for leaving me wanting more for being a blast!  ✯✯✯✯ 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Saturdays in the Garden - Here be Dragon.........Carrots.

OUTSIDE

I found myself having a really hard time getting motivated to work in the garden this week.  A lot of the tasks in spring and fall are similar but they seem so much less arduous in spring for obvious reasons.  It's easy to get psyched up at the thought of the green returning to the world after being locked in a frozen hell for months.  I love the Autumn but it does signal endings which I haven't quite figured out how to be happy about yet.

On Wednesday (Oct. 22) I got my beds cleaned up and planted my garlic!  That's it above in the picture of ...um...dirt (and compost)!  I was able to plant thirty cloves which was better than I expected and all the cloves were a good size.  I left some room around the edge of the bed because I'd like to plant some carrots here next spring they are a good companion plant for garlic. *googles* And it is!  Looks like garlic is pretty friendly with most plants - the only two listed as not good companions are peas and beans.

Speaking of carrots I had a nice little surprise this week.  On Sunday or Monday I remembered that I still had some carrots that I had sort of off handedly planted last spring in the tomato and pepper bed and then never harvested.  When I pulled them, I shockingly had some of the best carrots I've ever grown!
Dragon Carrots  - Yes, They are meant to be purple  - because they are made of dragons. Just kidding. About the "made of dragons" part. 
I mean look at that middle one  - it's actually carrot-sized!  And it was crunchy and sweet and delicious because of course I've already eaten it.   Now here's the tricky thing.  This isn't the normal way to grow carrots - you don't generally let them grow for 5.5 months - but these are the best carrots I've ever grown in my shady, less than ideal back yard.  Should I do this every year? After all I'm pretty good about completely forgetting things!  Or was this just a fluke because carrots like cool, wet weather and we had a cool wet summer?  I am guessing it is the latter but by planting around the garlic bed I can probably experiment a little bit next summer.

With the snap in the air it also seemed like it was time to put up the bird feeders.  So far I've seen only white-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker partaking.

LIFE
Or is it??
I am in the home stretch of a 2 and 1/2 week vacation.  I was away from home for only 3 days of that 2 and a 1/2 weeks and have spent the remainder of the time relaxing and addressing a long and varied house and personal life to do list.  One of my goals for the year was to find a little more balance between my work and home life.  My job is demanding, energy wise, and as a result there are a few areas of my personal life that get pretty massively neglected.  I want to try and change that.  So far, this has been a really crappy year to try and address the imbalance. I have been in charge of an extra two major projects on top of my regular duties at work that kept me non stop crazy busy from mid March through the end of September.

This two week break has been my attempt to try and re-claim my goal and despite my feeling a little guilty, lazy and irresponsible etc..., I think it was a really great decision.  I feel refreshed and more in control and organized in my home life and I am looking forward to returning to work and approaching it in a less frantic manner on Monday.  I have not been feeling that positive or motivated at my job of late so playing hooky from work for a couple weeks will in the end prove to be the responsible move.  I think.  We'll see how next week goes...

So how about you all?  How do you try to find balance in your life?  Or is that even something you strive for?  I read somewhere recently, can't remember where, that "balance" is a foolish goal because it's not really achievable but I don't know.  It's probably not something to expect at all times but on a longer time scale I think its worth a try.

BOOKS AND BLOGGING

Last Saturday was Dewey's Read-a-thon!  It's always nice to set aside a period of time and give yourself permission to read as much as you want.  This was my second read-a-thon and it was pretty similar to my first experience.  I read off and on from 8am to 1:30 am and got through 1 and 3/4 books.  I finished Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder - first in the the Little House series which I somehow missed as a kid.  The day after the readathon I finished The second in Alyxandra Harvey's Lovegrove Legacy series, Whisper the Dead.  It was fantastic and I'll be posting a review of it soon.  Later in the week I also finished The Pursuit of Mary Bennet by Pamela Mingle which was enjoyable but also a little...odd.

I've just started Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love which thus far is a hilarious and delightful satire.  I'm also still working through Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (which is pretty good but better in chunks) and People of Sparks by Jeanne Duprau (which may be a DNF - apparently the only people that survive a great catclysm are mean, weak-willed and downright stupid). 

On the Blog this past week:

SUNDAY:  Review of Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Beautiful book that has stuck with me after finishing.
TUESDAY:  A post where I fangirl all over the fictional women I find the most inspirational.
THURSDAY: Review of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. A recommended read for true crime fans.

On the Blog in the coming week:

SUNDAY:  Review of Whisper the Dead by Alyxandra Harvey.
TUESDAY:  Top Ten Tuesday of the ten books or movies that will best prepare you for Halloween.
THURSDAY: Review of The Martian by Andy Weir.

That's it for this week.  Hope all is well with you and your patch of garden.

"Let us cultivate our gardens." Voltaire, Candide

Thursday, October 23, 2014

REVIEW: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


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Original Publication Year: 1965
Genre(s): Non-fiction(ish?), True Crime
Series: NA
Format: Audio (CDs from Library)
Narrated by: Scott Brick

Yep, it’s time to talk about this one.  My feelings about this book are partially influenced by the fact that I had to put it aside briefly.  My listening to it coincided with a lengthy stay, on my own, in the middle of nowhere.  Considering the subject matter of this non-fiction book, which is the senseless murder of a farm family in the middle of nowhere Kansas, it interfered with my calm and enjoyment of my solitude.  So be aware, it is a book that can spook you out.

I should also warn of spoilers in the following discussion/review.  I knew nothing of the crime described in the book and I think approaching it in ignorance was a good way to experience it.  However I can’t adequately speak about the book without revealing some details of the crime so if you’d like to approach the book completely ignorantly, skip the review. 

My initial impressions of the book were how odd its style was.  It oftentimes reads more like fiction than non-fiction and the tone at the start and frequently throughout the book seemed light-hearted.  Minute details are described and/or imagined of the victims on their last day, the interactions and conversations they had, their position in society and even how they perceived themselves and felt about their lives.  Much of it must be research-based speculation on Capote’s part.  His hybrid writing style was wholly unique in my reading experience. 

The first quarter of the book focuses on the Clutter family and the small community of Holcomb, KS of which they are members.  It discusses the discovery of their bodies and the initial stages of the seemingly motiveless crime – nothing was stolen and the family was well liked in the community.  The recounting is interrupted by some brief visits to two recently released prisoners who have reunited in Kansas City, over 400 miles from Holcomb.  At first these interludes are puzzling – who are these men and what do they have to do with the Clutters.  It will not be long however before the reader’s acquaintance with these men becomes all too intimate.

Capote chooses to structure things by first giving the barest sketch of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who seem to have no connection to the Clutter family at all,  revealing only that they have committed these murders but not why or how. He then begins again and takes the reader through every detail of the investigation, the murderer’s eventual capture, trial and execution.  Capote delves deeply into the character of the two men, particularly Perry which he seems to feel an affinity with, despite the fact that Perry was admittedly the trigger man.  They are an incredibly disturbing pair.  Their motive for the murder was robbery but when it turns that there was in fact nothing to steal, they seemed to have almost tripped into murder.  It was, in fact, a senseless crime.

By the end of the book the reader not only knows every detail of the case but has been given an intimate portrait of all those involved.  Everything is told in this story-like style that seems to teeter between fiction and non-fiction.  Capote definitely spins out the dramatic portions of the story just as any mystery or crime fiction writer would.  I doubt it is possible to finish the book having felt nothing.
I don’t know enough about the history of narrative or True Crime fiction but the book has a feel of being revolutionary, combining sensationalist journalism, with hard reporting and a little bit of imagination.  It felt like a very unique beast to me.

Final Verdict:  If you like true crime, I think this is must read.  I found it interesting and disturbing in equal measure, uniquely written and spectacularly well researched.  4 out 5 Stars - ✯✯✯✯

This book is on my 100 Books Project List.  I'm doing well so far in 2014!