Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Martian - Andy Weir

   2014; 369 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : “Hard” Science Fiction; Books Made Into Motion Pictures.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    Mark Watney is special.  He’s the very first human colonist of the planet Mars.  Kewl, huh?  Too bad Mark had no intention of earning that honored place in history.

    But a sudden and violent dust storm forced the Ares 3 team of astronauts to abort their mission after less than a week on the planet.  And in the ensuing desperate trek to the Mars Ascent Vehicle ("MAV"), Mark’s spacesuit was punctured, and that’s an immediately fatal condition, right?  So the rest of the crew were forced to abandon his body and flee the planet before the storm claimed all their lives.  Better one dead than six.

   Except Mark didn’t die.  And a Mars exit-flight is one-way only.  So now he’s got the whole planet to himself.  With no way to contact Earth.  Not that it would do him any good if he could send an SOS.  Even if NASA could launch a rescue spacecraft today, it would still years before it reached Mars.

    And Mark will starve to death long before then.

What’s To Like...
    The Martian is Andy Weir’s debut novel, and is a fine piece of “Hard” Science Fiction, meaning it is written to be as technologically plausible as possible.  The basic hypothesis is: if a person becomes stranded on Mars, is there any possible way for him to survive for months, or even years, on end?

    To have even a remote chance, Weir lets Watney start out with a couple advantages.  He has an inhabitable living area and adequate food, water, and air for the short term.  And Watney is by training a botanist and a mechanical engineer.  So, if he can somehow come up with “start up” resources, he can grow things and build things.

    The book starts out in the first-person POV; Mark Watney’s entries into his log, morbidly assessing the odds of his imminent demise.  About  the time you begin to get tired of that, Weir adds two more locations – NASA command center on Earth, and the spaceship taking the other five Ares 3 crew members back to Earth – and these provide third-person POV contrast to the text.

    Weir imbues the storyline with an abundance of wit, which makes for an entertaining read.  Then he seasons it with other kewl things like chemistry, 70’s/80’s TV shows-&-music, and lots and lots of Martian potatoes.

    I particularly liked that not all of Watney’s ideas go as planned.  Indeed, he very nearly kills himself a couple of times.  I also like that China helps in the rescue attempt.  There is some cussing, but that would be realistic in the story’s setting.  Everything builds to a gut-wrenching ending, despite the fact that you pretty much know all along that Watney’s gonna somehow make it.

Kewlest New Word. . .
Dreideling (v.) : spinning like a dreidel, which is a four-sided top.  Note : it rhymes with “labeling”.

    Before anyone could ask a follow-up, Venkat strode out the side door and hurried down the hall to the makeshift Pathfinder control center.  He pressed through the throng to the communications console.
    “Anything, Tim?”
    “Totally,” he replied.  “But we’re staring at this black screen because it’s way more interesting than pictures from Mars.”
    “You’re a smart-ass, Tim,” Venkat said.
    “Noted.”  (pg. 117)

   Each crewman had their own laptop.  So I have six at my disposal.  Rather, I had six.  I now have five.  I thought a laptop would be fine outside.  It’s just electronics, right?  It’ll keep warm enough to operate in the short term, and it doesn’t need air for anything.
    It died instantly.  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.”  (pg. 127)

 Everything went great right up to the explosion.  (pg. 43)
    If you’re a scientist, and I am, you are probably going to love The Martian.  OTOH, if you prefer your science-fiction reading to have sandworms rather than sandstorms, you may find Watney’s chapters tedious and a bit too science-y

    There’s also a plethora of acronyms to wade through – EVA, MAV, MDV, JPL, RTG, CAPCOM, AREC, NASA, MG54, MMU, and VAL, just to name a few.  Weir usually defines each one when he introduces it, but after a while you forget which means what.  And I don’t think “EVA” was ever defined; it stands for “Extravehicular Activity” in NASA-speak.

    But these are minor things; overall I found this book to be an entertaining read, with an original theme – Survival on Mars – and a well-thought-out way of making it so.  I enjoyed The Martian, and am looking forward to seeing how the movie adaptation handles all that technical stuff.

    8½ Stars.  Subtract 1 star if you think science belongs in the classroom, not in science fiction novels.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane - Neil Gaiman

    2013; 259 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Dark Fantasy; Horror.  Laurels : NY Times #1 Bestseller; 2013 National Book Award “Book of the Year”; nominated for the 2013 Nebula Award – Best Novel; 2014 Loew Award “Best Fantasy Novel”; nominated for the 2014 World Fantasy Award “Best Novel”.  Overall Rating : 10*/10.

    The funeral was a godsend in a way.  It gave him an opportunity to visit the area where he grew up.  He saw his old house where he lived as a child.  Well not the same actual house; that one had been torn down and another built in its place.  And it made him think of  his parents and his sister, even though that was 40 years ago.

    Yet what he felt really drawn to was the neighbors’ farm a mile or so farther down the lane.  The old Hempstock place, with the duck pond at the back of their property.  There was Old Mrs. Hempstock, and her daughter (he presumed), Ginnie Hempstock.  And her daughter, also presumably, young Lettie.

    He dimly recalled meeting Lettie when she was eleven and he was seven.  How many years had it been since she moved to Australia?  Wispy memories swirled evasively inside his head as he tried to think back to when he was with Lettie.  They had some strange adventure, although the details eluded him now.  But he did recollect she said the duck pond was actually an ocean, and that the Hempstocks had come from the other side.

    Ah yes, the ocean.  The ocean at the end of the lane.

What’s To Like...
    The Ocean At The End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman’s 2013 highly-acclaimed novel, which won or was nominated for all sorts of awards, most of which are listed above.  It is a clever mixing of both horror and fantasy, and balances somber topics like loneliness and dread with things like trust and hope.  There’s some magic, some monsters, and some mayhem.  But the supernatural takes a backseat to a compelling storyline about two kids developing a deep and trusting friendship.

    The book is written in the First Person POV.  The protagonist, who is also the narrator, is never given a name, although we can deduce he is a boy.  This sounds awkward, but Gaiman makes it work smoothly.

    There are only a few characters – the three Hempstock women, the narrator’s family, a nanny, and an opal miner.  So if you’re tired of novels where there are dozens of characters to keep straight, this book’s for you.  I think this is also the first book I’ve read that contained both a prologue and an introduction.

    The setting is modest – just the two family farms and the fields and country lane between them.  But Neil Gaiman fills this with all sorts of neat things – a cute kitten, a foot worm,  a “Flowers for Algernon” moment, an adorable kitten, and wormholes that don’t look anything like those described in Quantum Physics.

    This is a standalone book, suitable for the kiddies if they don’t mind being scared out of their wits.  There are multiple and successive Ultimate Evils (UE’s), which I think is very rare.  This is the second book this year that I’ve encountered it (the other one is reviewed here), and it works marvelously here.

Kindle Details...
    The Ocean At The End Of The Lane sells for $10.99 at Amazon, which seems in line for a top-tier author.   Neil Gaiman has, of course, a slew of books available for the Kindle, ranging in price from $4.99 to $14.47.

    I walked, gingerly, across the small yard to the front door.  I looked for a doorbell, in vain, and then I knocked. The door had not been latched properly, and it swung gently open as I rapped it with my knuckles.
    I had been here, hadn’t I, a long tme ago?  I was sure I had.  Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.  I stood in the hallway and called, “Hello?  Is there anybody here?”  (loc. 82)

    The second thing I thought was that I knew everything.  Lettie Hempstock’s ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe, from Egg to Rose.  I knew that.  I knew what Egg was – where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing in the void – and I knew where Rose was – the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind.  (loc. 1932)

 “You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.”  (loc. 2346)
    Simply put – The Ocean At The End of the Lane is a masterpiece, fully deserving of a 10-star rating.  I kept turning the pages, wanting to see how Lettie and the narrator were going to get out of a rather in-over-their-heads situation.

    The writing is masterful, and so is the storytelling.  Just about the time you begin to tire of the first UE, Gaiman switches in something new and more horrifying.  Then he closes everything up with an ending that will leave you both sweating with relief and with a lump in your throat.

    If I were forced to say something negative to balance all this gushiness, the only thing I can think of is that the book’s too short.  I wasn’t ready for it to end.

    10 Stars.  Overwhelmingly recommended.  There’s a reason this was a New York Times #1 bestseller, and it’s not just because of the Neil Gaiman name on it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Lost Hero - Rick Riordan

   2010; 553 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Book #1 (out of 5) in The Heroes of Olympus series.  Genre : Fantasy; YA; Mythology.  Laurels : Barnes &Noble’s “Best Book of 2010” Award.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    All in all, it could’ve been worse.  You wake up in a camp bus next to a girl, who’s kinda cute, holding your hand.  And the kid in front of you looks kinda geeky, but claims he's your best friend at camp.

    It’s too bad you have no idea who you are, how you got here in the bus, or anything about your life so far.  The girl – her name’s Piper – and your best buddy – his name’s Leo -  do their best to answer your questions, but they know little about you before you came to the camp.  They say your name is Jason, though.

    So what’s it going to take to get your memory back?  Hmm.  Well maybe getting zapped by a lightning bolt will do the trick.  Jason doesn’t know it, but there’s one in his very near future.

What’s To Like...
    The Lost Hero is the first book in Rick Riordan’s second YA fantasy series, The Heroes of Olympus.   It follows closely – both in real time and in the fantasy setting timeline - his phenomenally successful pentalogy, Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  There are a slew of characters to meet and greet, but really only three that you need to follow closely – Jason, Piper, and Leo - and the chapter titles let you know which one to focus on.

    This is a YA novel, so the action starts early and fast.  The storyline in complex.  Hera has been imprisoned, but who knows by whom?  Mt. Olympus has gone silent on orders for Zeus, but who knows why?  Percy Jackson is missing in action, but who knows where?  And each of our three heroes harbors secrets that they’d rather not divulge.

    There’s a heavy emphasis on Greek and Roman mythology (which is also true of the Percy Jackson series) and that's always a plus for me.  If mythology isn’t your forte, there’s a handy list of the gods and goddesses in the appendix at the back of the book.  I liked the Arizona “Hualapai” setting, and the Cherokees get worked into the story as well.  And you’ll love Festus, the mechanical dragon with a taste for tabasco sauce.

    One of the stops in the journey is Quebec, and Rick Riordan works some French into the dialogue.  But I did cringe a bit at Je suis Piper”, which really ought to be “Je m’appelle Piper.”  Everything builds to a tension-filled showdown, where some, but not all, of the plot threads get tied up.  The story ends at a logical point, and gives the reader some hints as to where this series is headed.

    This is a YA story, so there’s no cussing, sex, booze, or drugs.  There may be a kiss or two, but other than that the steamy scenes are confined to hugging and holding hands.

    “Leo, you’ve just been claimed –“
    “By a god,” Jason interrupted.  “That’s the symbol of Vulcan, isn’t it?”
    All eyes turned to him.
    “Jason,” Annabeth said carefully, “How did you know that?”
    “I’m not sure.”
    “Vulcan?” Leo demanded.  “I don’t even LIKE Star Trek.  What are you talking about?”  (pg. 38)

    “Well, there are the Hunters of Artemis,” Annabeth amended.  “They visit sometimes.  They’re not children of Artemis, but they’re her handmaidens – this band of immortal teenage girls who adventure together and hunt monsters and stuff.”
    Piper perked up.  “That sounds cool.  They get to be immortal?”
    “Unless they die in combat, or break their vows.  Did I mention they have to swear off boys?  No dating – ever.  For eternity.”
    “Oh,” Piper said.  “Never mind.”  (pg. 57)

 “I hate to tell you this, (…) but I think your leopard just ate a goddess.”  (pg. 94)
    Being a YA novel, I thought I’d breeze right through The Lost Hero, but it took me a couple weeks to plod my way to its end.  This surprised and puzzled me.  The writing is superb, the wit is plentiful, and Leo provides a bunch of comic relief.  So what’s the problem?

    Well, frankly, it’s the storytelling.  Our heroes flit from place to place, slowly uncovering what their quest is, yet everybody they meet seems to already know.  Piper can charm any mortal; Leo has a magic backpack, and Jason has a dad that makes him someone you don't want to mess with.  They may be young, but they’re not exactly defenseless, even when going up against immortal powers.  I suspect it also would’ve helped if I had read the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series first, even though I have a fair idea of what that was all about.

    Still, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, and I think any teenager will find The Lost Hero to be a fascinating read.  But juveniles may be turned off by its length, and adults may wish the storyline would do a bit less rambling and a bit more advancing.

    8 Stars.  Add 1 star if you are a Young Adult and are intrigued by, but have never gotten into Greek and Roman mythology before.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Ruby Rattlesnake - Nicholas Erik

   2015; 246 pages.  Book 2 (out of 4) of the Kip Keene series.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Action-Adventure; Thriller.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    Run, Rabbit, run!  You may be a lean, mean, fighting machine, but you’re also nothing but a laboratory rat in Commander Owens’ “Project Atlantis” lab experiment, and if you stay there, you’re days are numbered.

    If you can find Kip Keene, you stand a very slim chance of eluding the long and intrusive grasp of Commander Owens.  Then again, you may just die anyway.  Because you’re not the only enhanced creature in the laboratory, Rabbit, and the others are more powerful than even you.

    Like the Hawk.  And the Fox.

What’s To Like...
    The Ruby Rattlesnake is an Indiana Jones type of action-thriller.  Things start fast and furious right away, the pacing is crisp, and we get to tag along with Kip Keene and Strike as they try to figure out what the heck the Ruby Rattlesnake is.  The settings are neat, especially Barcelona (with the way-kewl Sagrada Familia getting a mention), where most of the second half of the book takes place.  And of course, there’s Atlantis to explore as well.

    There’s not a lot of characters to keep track of, which can either be a plus or a minus.  Ditto for the UE (Ultimate Evil) which changes a couple times in the book.  I think that’s quite rare for this type of story, but it seemed to work here, despite making the tension level bob and weave a bit. 

    Everything builds to a satisfying climax, and like any Indiana Jones tale, a bit of the paranormal creeps in, which helps keeps things interesting.  This is a standalone novel, despite being part of a series.  No cheap-shot cliffhanger crap here. 

    There is some “adult language” which I found unnecessary, since I presume the target audience here is teenage boys.  The writing is so-so, it didn’t draw me in; but the storytelling is quite good.  Stephen King gets criticized for this same thing.

    There are a lot of references back to Book 1 in this series, which I haven’t read.  More on this in a bit.

Kewlest New Word…
Wiftiness (n.) : a somewhat made-up word, but “wifty” is real and is a synonym for the adjective “ditzy”, so this word means “ditziness”.

    “Point is, this girl would break every person in that class, man or woman, in half.  No problem.”
    “She’s not even awake.”
    “In half.”
    “Even you?”
    Wouldn’t be a fight,” Strike said.
    “That must be hard.”
    “What must be hard?”
    “Admitting someone else is better.”
    “It keeps you alive when you know who you shouldn’t fuck with.”  (loc. 313)

   “So,” she said.  “The artifact retrieval thing didn’t work out so good, eh?”
    “Not really.”
    “But we saved the world.  Again.”
    “There is that.”  (loc. 2396)

Kindle Details...
    The Ruby Rattlesnake sells for $5.99 at Amazon.  Book 1, The Emerald Elephant, is free, but you can pick up the boxed set of Books 1-3 for only $0.99, so that is by far your best bang for the buck  Nicholas Erik has 10 or so other books, all in the $3.99-$5.99 range.

 “You smell like a marijuana farm got in a fight with a Mountain Dew factory.”  (loc. 644)
    It’s a funny thing about this e-book.  Book 1, The Emerald Elephant, is often available for free, and that is what it appeared I had downloaded.  And the e-book has the TEE book cover, as well as calling it that in the header.

    But the text itself is The Ruby Rattlesnake, and this confused the heck out of me for about 10 pages.  I’m not complaining; I still got a free book to read.  It just wasn’t the first book in the series.  For all I know, Nicholas Erik may have fixed this glitch by now.

    To sum up, this was an okay read, with lots of thrills and spills and no slow spots.  The writing could be stronger and the characters could be a bit more complex.  I never did figure out the need to cast Kip Keene as a space pirate, but perhaps that had more relevance in the first book.

    7 Stars.  Add ½ Star if your download was indeed the book you were expecting.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Killing The Machine - Jamie Sedgwick

   2015; 292 pages.  Book 2 (out of 3) in the Aboard The Great Iron Horse series.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Steampunk Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Someone stole the entire supply of Starfall from Socrates, and the locomotive he is the engineer of, The Iron Horse.  Which leaves him in dire straits, since the train is a half-mile long, and things like wood and coal are scarce in a post-apocalyptic, Ice Age world.

    The thieves were brazen, deftly lifting the entire container off the train with via a way-kewl flying device.  And their leader’s identity is well-known, since Burk had been one of Socrates’ crew.

    It’s time to get the Starfall back, or, failing that, find some more of it.  And both of those approaches can be worked on in the city of New Boston.

   It’s a pity Socrates and his crew have never been there before.  And that there’s an ocean between them and their destination.

What’s To Like...
    Killing The Machine is the second book in Jamie Sedgwick’s steampunk “Iron Horse” series, which takes place in a quasi-fantasy, quasi-futuristic earthly setting.  Socrates is a mechanical ape, and although humans predominate (at least so far), there are lots of other species, some living, some undead, to keep your interest.

    The story, and the series, is written in “storytelling” style.  That is, the action starts immediately, and doesn’t let up until the last page.  The characters are all likable, but not particularly complex.  The emphasis is on a quick-moving tale, not stopping for anything in-depth.

    There are a couple info dumps – one on welding, another on airship mechanics – but these are short enough to where you won’t catch yourself yawning.  There are less strange critters and beasties than in the first book, The Clockwork God (reviewed here), but this is balanced by the settings being fleshed out in much greater detail.  The question of sentience arises.  H. Beam Piper did it in more depth, but Jamie Sedgwick does it wittier.

    I wouldn’t call this a standalone novel.  You can probably still enjoy it without first reading The Clockwork God, but since that e-book is free, why not read these in order?  I don’t recall encountering anything R-rated.  And AFAIK, this is a trilogy.  I like series that don’t go on forever and ever, with the author expecting you to fund his retirement.

    Micah pressed his lips together.  I knew it! He thought.  I knew something like this would happen.
    He heard the commander of the police force shout an order for everyone to leave the train.  He heard Kale’s response, telling the commander to do something with his horse that didn’t sound very comfortable or safe.
    The commander’s response was to count backwards, from ten to one.  Micah wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen after that, because nothing did.  The commander shouted out “One!” and then they all sort of sat there on their horses, waiting quietly for something to happen.  (loc. 2492)

    “That’s all wrong,” said Loren.  “Not even Kale would scorn a woman as fine as Rowena.  Fine for a human, I mean.  I prefer my women thinner, and with pointed ears, but Rowena… A woman like that might change my mind.”
    “Fat chance,” said Vann.  “She only had eyes for our friend here, not that I understand why.  He may be tall and good looking, and strong as any six men, but what’s he got beyond that?”  (loc. 3013)

Kindle Details...
    I bought Killing The Machine for $0.99 at Amazon.  As is usual for most of Jamie Sedgwick’s trilogies, the first book, The Clockwork God, is free, and the third book, The Dragon’s Breath, is $2.99.  I find this to be a most effective marketing device.

“Think of the future. (…) I won’t have a city where snowshovels and steamcarriages are considered human beings!”  (loc. 3201)
    My quibbles with Killing The Machine are similar to those I had with the first book.  While the thrills and spills are non-stop, there’s nothing epic about the storyline.  The starfall and the train change hands a couple times, we hang out in a couple new cities, and the question of sentience is again considered and has its usual outcome.

    But the series’ overall plotline doesn’t really advance much.  The bad guys get away, presumably so we can have a book 3, and I have my doubts as to whether anything earth-changing will have occurred at the close of the trilogy.  This may be okay in a Louis L’Amour western, or a Romance, but it doesn’t cut it in a Fantasy series.

    There are also a couple WTF’s.  In a world of steampunk technology, a submersible locomotive train, hauling a line of railcars a half-mile long, is apparently considered NBD.  And when the baddies surprise and capture most (but not quite all) of our plucky band of heroes, they inexplicably merely pen them up and leave them alive, to be rescued later on, and to fight another day.  I don’t think I would’ve been so accommodating.

    Still, all’s well that ends well, and as long as you’re content with action and adventure for their own sake, you’ll enjoy both this book and this series.

    7½ Stars.  Subtract ½ star if you didn’t read The Clockwork God first.