Archives for category: 5/5

In a sea of humdrum books, this one stands out.

Martian

The story starts with Mark Watney, an astronaut who is part of the third ever Mars mission.The mission has just been aborted, with the astronauts forced to leave the red planet. Yet when we meet Watney he is still on Mars.

Clocked by a flying comms dish that punctured his space suit and sent him flying far from the rest of the crew, Watney’s odds of survival were slim to none. Reluctantly, they leave him for dead and rocket away.

In one of fate’s sick jokes, Watney is not dead. Or not yet. He’s been abandoned on an inhospitable ball with a perforated suit, no breathable air, no water source and freezing temperatures. As he so eloquently summarises, he’s fucked.

Luckily for the story, Watney’s not the type to give up. Immediately he begins to weigh his options in his head, coming up with solutions to help him survive for at least the next little while. At first his inner monologue seems a bit dry as he explains the science behind some of his improvisations. But soon the reader is sucked in, caught by curiosity at what Watney’s going to come up with next and awe that anyone could be so ingenious.

Meanwhile, Watney’s screwball sense of humour keeps inserting dry asides that are completely incongruous in the situation and have the reader in stitches. I really pity this guy’s children.

Does he make it? Given the book’s being made into a film to be released later this year, I’ll let you bet on it. But the suspense doesn’t come from whether he survives, rather how he does. What’s not to love about Macgyver on Mars?

The Martian is a story of innovation, of perseverance and of beating the odds. It’s brilliance condensed. I’m going to give it a 5/5.

The Rosie Project was named book of the year at last night’s Australian Book Industry Awards. I loved this book, so totally agree with the verdict.

ImageDon is a very intelligent guy. He just happens to have no social skills whatsoever. After a number of disaster dates, Don decides he should take a scientific approach to finding a wife, creating a survey to find “Mrs Right”. He figures he just needs to sit back and wait for one of the respondents to match his criteria and –voila – find his future spouse. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for Don, before the end of The Rosie Project, all his beliefs are turned upside down.

Don’s voice is what makes this book so intriguing and funny – or rather the juxtaposition of his voice with what would be considered normal. His word choice is so stilted and thoughts so nerdy – if the first ten pages don’t have you laughing out loud, it’s possible you have no sense of humour.

Here is an example that many reviewers (including me) loved, where Don arrives at a fancy restaurant wearing a Gore-Tex jacket and is challenged by the doorman:

‘I’m sorry, sir, but we have a dress code,’ said the official.

I knew about this. It was in bold type on the website: Gentlemen are required to wear a jacket.

‘No jacket, no food, correct?’

‘More or less, sir.’

What can I say about this sort of rule? I was prepared to keep my jacket on throughout the meal. The restaurant would presumably be air-conditioned to a temperature compatible with the requirement.

I continued towards the restaurant entrance, but the official blocked my path. ‘I’m sorry. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. You need to wear a jacket.’

‘I’m wearing a jacket.’

‘I’m afraid we require something a little more formal, sir.’

The hotel employee indicated his own jacket as an example. In defence of what followed, I submit the Oxford English Dictionary (Compact, 2nd Edition) definition of ‘jacket’: 1(a) An outer garment for the upper part of the body.

I also note that the word ‘jacket’ appears on the care instructions for my relatively new and perfectly clean Gore-Tex ‘jacket’. But it seemed his definition of jacket was limited to ‘conventional suit jacket’.

‘We would be happy to lend you one, sir. In this style.’

‘You have a supply of jackets? In every possible size?’ I did not add that the need to maintain such an inventory was surely evidence of their failure to communicate the rule clearly, and that it would be more efficient to improve their wording or abandon the rule altogether. Nor did I mention that the cost of jacket purchase and cleaning must add to the price of their meals. Did their customers know that they were subsidising a jacket warehouse?

‘I wouldn’t know about that, sir,’ he said. ‘Let me organise a jacket.’

The scene continues to a hilarious conclusion.

In contrast to Don, who the reader can see very clearly through his own scientific observations, the other characters, even the love interest Rosie, seem less solid. It’s like Simsion spent all his energy on Don and couldn’t give us more than an outline on what makes the other characters tick.

The plot itself also seems to take a back seat to Don’s character. I didn’t feel like I was reading the book to find out what happened next, but rather to see what Don’s reaction would be to what happened next.

To be so focussed on a character’s development was scintillating and gave me the feeling that this book really was more about the journey than the destination.

In summary, I thought it was brilliant and I’m going to give it a 5/5.

Sanderson’s Words of Radiance is the second instalment in his Stormlight Archives about a world facing destruction from the voidbringers of ancient myth.

ImageMost of the world’s inhabitants are oblivious of the danger, but some have been piecing the clues together that point to the trouble to come. Unfortunately they also have vastly different ideas about what to do about it.

It seems obvious that the order of the Knights Radiant will be involved: a long defunct order of men and women with special powers.  Yet the budding “knights” come from diverse backgrounds and are afraid of revealing the extent of their powers. Can they get past differences in class in cultures to confide in each other and build the trust necessary for a functioning order? Can they discover the long lost secrets they will need to survive the battle to come?

These questions are not fully answered by the end of the book, leaving a lot to do in the next instalments. Even so, I loved it.  All of it. If I had to choose one word to describe it, it would be brilliant. If I had to choose two, I would say brilliant and long.

I seem to find less and less fantasy books that are really long. Many people find this a good thing. After all, the shorter the book the better for busy people.

Personally, I prefer longer books. It takes me a while to warm up to characters and I like to take some time to enjoy them once I’m familiar with their quirks. Plus, I’m a bit cheap and I always consider the value/price ratio before I purchase a book. If I have a 200-page book and a 1000-page book on my wishlist for the same price, I’ll always buy the latter first.

Words of Radiance was therefore manna from heaven.

I’m in awe of how much the characters develop — they are certainly not the same in the second book as they were at the start of the series. But I’m most in awe of Sanderson’s world building, which is intensely detailed and immensely broad in scope.

I’m going to give this book a 5/5. I bow to Sanderson’s superior abilities and pray it won’t be as long a wait for the next one in the series as it was for this one.

(Credit: John Marsden)

I’ve spent a lot of time sick in bed this month.  Given I was sick, I decided to forget how expensive the sequels to Tomorrow when the War Began are (over $13 for each very short novel) and bought all six of the books I had not yet read. I managed to spend a $100 Amazon gift card in a matter of days, but don’t tell my husband that.

The Dead of the Night picks up where Tomorrow when the War Began ended — the children pick targets to attack. They start small and work their way up to larger, more ambitious goals. Despite how central some of the infrastructure is they destroy, the way the attacks are explained, it never feels unrealistic. The main character, Ellie, is always frightened, no matter how many operations they do. And some of the children are braver than others.

I think another part of why these books are so believable is that Marsden isn’t afraid to have his characters chicken out, ask for help or even get caught. Part of me was disappointed when the children are suddenly caught in The Third Day the Frost, but I realised later that they couldn’t keep escaping or the books would lose their grit.  Getting caught also allowed Marsden to write particularly poignant prison scenes as Ellie and Homer receive death sentences and consider the end.

Luckily, rescue comes out of an unexpected quarter, although not without casualties on the children’s side. Soon enough, the children are back where they started, conducting sabotage, despite having the option to stay safe in New Zealand. I love the action and I loved the characters (When I didn’t hate them, that is. They felt like real world people, after all.)

However, possibly the best thing about the series is how it ends. It’s not a Hollywood happy ever after — in this situation, where a large force from the region attacks Australia and takes control, I can’t imagine that it would be. Marsden doesn’t pretend that the invaders would just disappear, with mini nations New Zealand and Australia suddenly sweeping them from the country in a decisive victory. No, Marsden’s finale is much more realistic.

I finished the series only a few days before Australia Day this year, which is the day on which the invasion occurs in the first book. The books had affected me so deeply that I was uneasy the whole day, especially when our fighter jets flew overhead. I thought about the books in the supermarket when I bought my vegetables, considering what I would eat if the shops were no longer open. I thought about the books when I was in the shower, asking myself whether my Glebe flat would be spared if there was widespread bombing in the centre of Sydney. The way the books lingered in my mind shows how good they really are. If you haven’t read them yet, I would recommend them. I’m going to give this series a 5/5.

Now I just have to decide if I want to shell out for the following series which plays after the war. The jury’s still out on that.