Tag Archive: 9

May 15

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir

I picked up this book on a 2-for-1 special on Audible, and I’m really glad that I did. It was a blast. I was talking to my friend Krystin about it when Dale and I were in the middle of listening to it, and apparently  this book  is a bit of a response to the genre blending that has become so prevalent over the last couple of years. No blending with this one, though. Weir puts forth a straight science fiction yarn that can be summed up simply: Mark Watney is alone on Mars, and he’s doing everything he can to survive.

The majority of the book takes the form of first-person day logs kept by Mark Watney. Watney was one of the astronauts on the Ares III mission that was supposed to establish a month-long base on Mars before coming back to Earth. Less than a week in, a massive storm hits, and they all escape. Well, except Watney who becomes injured and swept away. Through dumb luck, he survives, and he spends the next two years putting his life back together on Mars. The story follows him healing his initial injuries, crafting ways to communicate with space command back home, figuring out how to become the first Martian farmer, and trying to come up with a way to get home. In the midst of it all, Watney provides shrewd observations about his new world and life with a biting, sarcastic humor that helps keep him sane in the desolate wasteland.

Now, a straight up epistolary narrative is not my thing. Though Watney doesn’t record every day of his time on Mars, leaving one character alone for too long can get dangerous. Luckily, just at the point that I was starting to get worried that Weir was going to strand us on Mars with Watney, he starts to include chapters based out of mission command on Earth. That story picks up from a satellite technician figuring out Watney is alive to the administrators trying to decide on the best way to keep him. The book accurately portrays how people on Earth would react to the news of an astronaut being trapped on Mars: morbid curiosity, fear for his safety, and a clamoring to do whatever could be done to get him back.

And so, while in some ways this book has a very modern feel, it does have a very classic format. The main problem is escape Mars, and this is never used a backdrop for more sentimental or psychological issues. The very real man vs. nature conflict puts all other worries aside as Watney has to deal with numerous problems dealt to him from the environment to a plethora of issues he brings on himself through experimentation (explosions from water making, blowing up a rover with a drill, and other mishaps). The book is simultaneously both dramatic and fun. It kept making me want to peek ahead to see if he actually made it out or not. Because you start feeling that you’re going to be so mad if he dies, but you just can’t see how could ever make it.

And if you’re going to do a trapped and trying to escape story, then that’s the way to do it.

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Apr 30

Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

This book came into the library, and one of my coworkers immediately said, “That has been all over the Internet. It’s supposed to be fabulous.” So, since I didn’t have anything to read (lies…I have all the things to read), I decided to take it home and see if it really was that good. I mean, I don’t read a lot of just straight out literary fiction, but when I do, I tend to love it. Maybe it’s because I’m lucky. Or maybe it’s because I only read things that other people have raved about (looking at you, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry). So I dove into this book.

A. J. Fikry is the town curmudgeon. He runs Island Books on Alice Island, but he is not your friendly neighborhood bookshop owner. Instead, he likes literary fiction, and he has no patience for bestsellers, chick lit, children’s book, or vampire fiction. His wife used to deal with the customers, but she died in a freak car accident after an author even two years ago. After his first edition copy of a rare Edgar Allen Poe work goes missing, he decides to take up running to help clear his mind and get himself off the booze. Well, he comes home to find that someone has left a baby girl named Maya in the bookshop in his absence. He offers to keep her while they attempt to locate her mother. Sadly, she turns up dead. Instead of giving the child up to the foster system, though, Fikry agrees to keep the child and raise her.

This bring a profound change on Fikry. Suddenly, he’s not the town crank anymore. He starts ordering books for children and some more popular materials. The community rallies around this man who has no business raising a child, stopping by to drop off supplies, advice, and to create that “community raising a child” vibe that small towns in literature seem to love. It even makes Fikry come out of his shell and make an advance on Amelia Loman, the pretty publisher representative that eventually sweeps him away.

There’s also a frame structure that I found quite nice. Each chapter is preceded by a short description of a short story that Fikry wants his daughter to read. It includes a brief synopsis and why he thinks she should read it or why he thinks she will enjoy it. So, on top of a book, you get a short reading list of short stories to get you jumpstarted in that genre.

This book can be boiled down to a very simple formula. Basically, an unexpected baby makes a single dad reevaluate his life and build a more positive world for himself. But that’s such an oversimplification of how charming this book. Imagine the town crank suddenly deciding to pander to children, host author events, and start a book club for mothers and another for police officers. It’s heartwarming if not always believable in the real world sense. And the end of the book. The end of this book. Guys, it is sad. And you realize that he’s been writing this book (or at least the introductions to the chapters) from the future, and it is just so cute and charming and really, if you’re going away to the beach or you’re looking for something nice and easy but so good to read, then this is it. This is like a less mystical Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop. Go. Read it. Thank me later.

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Jan 23

Review: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale For the Time Being

So I picked this up because I liked the cover.

And guys, it is sooooo good!

Okay, so this is Ozeki’s third book, and it was Booker shortlisted this year, and it totally deserves all the nice things people have been saying about it.

The story follows a dual narrative that is told in chapters that alternate between the two main characters. First there is Naoko, usually called Nao. She is writing a diary about her life in Japan, detailing her not so fabulous existence. She used to live in Sunnyvale, California in the late 1990’s with her family, but her dad lost his job when his internet startup burst in the tech bubble, so they had to come back to Japan pretty much broke. And then her dad had tons of mental problems and tried to kill himself multiple times. Her mom kinda took over and got a job, but that left Nao on her own.

And school for her is no fucking fun. Her classmates basically torture her. I mean, spoiler alert, but they hold a fake funeral for her in front of her face and steal her period-stained panties to sell on a fetish website. What the fuck is going on in this school, you know?

Sexy times? Yes, sexy times.

Nao is nice, and the meanness seriously comes out of left field.

And on top of that, a whore cum pimp takes her under her wing and makes Nao into a call-girl at a French maid cafe. You know, just for a little bit.

But not everything sucks for her! She turns it around. She takes a lot of solace from spending a summer with her great-grandmother Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun in this rundown monastery. Jiko is awesome and super committed to bettering the world, and she really gives Nao tons of perspective. And since the whole story is told retrospectively, it has all of these references to Jiko and all the empowering Buddhist things she has to say. And I don’t want to spoil those sections because they’re really the best part, so read them.

That’s just half the story! I know, right! The other half is about Ruth, a writer on one of Aleutian Islands, who finds Nao’s lunchbox washed up on the beach. The lunchbox contains the journal, a group of letters, and a kamikaze pilot’s watch. And Ruth becomes obsessed with figuring out the story, but she also wants to pace herself to make it last. She’s enjoying it, and it helps put her own problems with writing her memoir in perspective. And then there’s her odd but perceptive husband and the weird island neighbors and storms and trash gyres and all sorts of goodness. But Ozeki doesn’t let the story go down this empowering route of finding meaning in a lunch box. I mean, the Ruth section is sort of empowering, but the ending isn’t that simple.

And are you ready for my favorite bit? The title is a pun! It’s a pun! It sounds like it’s a story that’s in progress, and it ends. Which is in part true. It tells the story of Nao’s life up until a certain point in her life, and there’s going to be more of her life after the book ends. But it also refers to the Buddhist concept of being a “time being,” or being super aware of the moments of your life and how they are spent because, according to Dogen, being is time and time is being (I’m sure I mangled the subtlety of that all to hell, being terrible with subtlety and Buddhism). And time and history and age and experience play such a huge role in this story and when I realized that pronunciation of the title really altered the meaning, I was like woah.

Woah

In case it’s not obvious, I loved this with both arms. It took me a while to get in the right head space, but once I was there, it was on like Donkey Kong.

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Dec 05

Review: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a HalfHoly backlog, Batman! I have been reading all the things, and not reviewing them, and that’s no good. So here we go. It’s get caught up time. Starting with one that Dale has been hammering me to talk about ever since we got done with it: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.

I first discovered her blog when I was living out in Orange County. I don’t even know what the first post I read was, because I ended up reading the whole thing that afternoon. I laughed so hard that the people in the living room thought I was having some sort of attack. When they rushed back, the tears streaming down my face and my inability to catch my breath from laughing so hard did nothing to disprove these concerns. But I finally got it together. And I’ve been an advocate for Brosh ever since.

Brosh uses an illustration style that is done entirely in MS Paint. But it’s not bad because Brosh can’t do better; many of her drawings are hella complicated. But she wants them to be the funniest, most informative, and most useful to the story as they possibly can be. And between the stories and the pictures, this book reads incredibly quickly (also, each story is on different colored pages making it a breeze to thumb through!).

This book is a collection of many of the best essays…blog posts…picture stories…whatever you want to call them from Hyperbole and a Half. Whether it’s the epic Why I’ll Never Be An Adult or the Stupid Dog Test, Brosh’s humor and self-deprecating style will leave you in stitches. In addition to the best of her blog, there are several original stories in this book, including a conversation with her two dogs, a story about her mother getting lost in the woods with them as a child, and the goose story.

I have rarely seen Dale laugh so hard as he did at the goose story. And, I’m pretty sure that when Dale got done reading it, he immediately read it again because he realized that the whole story was true. Basically, Brosh’s house was invaded by a goose. Who promptly went crazy. Anybody who has spent any time around geese knows how mean they are, so the story of how they had to deal with this devil spawn is hilarious. Brosh was able to record the goose’s escape from her kitchen and include the images with the book. Dale has been desperately searching for the actual video, so if it’s posted, let him know where.  And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this story. Just not as much as Dale.

I love the blog, so I knew I’d love the book, and I bought this to support an author who has given me tons of joy over the years. I wasn’t disappointed, and you won’t be either. Unless you don’t like humor or fun or laughing. Then you shouldn’t buy this book. Because it will be a real disappointment.

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Aug 18

Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

Lexicon by Max Barry

I work part-time for ye olde local library while I’m finishing up master’s (in working in ye olde libraries).  However, Saturdays are dead days.  Saturdays with a drizzling rain are the deadest of days.  And there’s three of us running the circulation desk.  So, to help pass the time, I went over to the new shelf and pulled off the first book with a cover that caught my eye.

I finished it two minutes before we closed.

Max Barry’s Lexicon is pretty damn good.  Almost fantastic.  Certainly worth the read.  I feel like I’m writing pull-out quotes for a movie poster.  But it was really good.  And I didn’t really sleep the night before, so it was great at keeping me awake and interested which is not always the easiest thing to do.

Although the book is cut into four roughly equal-sized sections, the bulk of the story is told in dueling narratives.  The first story follows Wil (with one l, which in retrospect, was kind of important).  He is trying to escape from an airport while two unknown men try to kidnap him.  Well, he escapes them for a half second, finds his girlfriend in the parking lot, but it turns out she’s been brainwashed into trying to kill him.  So he ends up escaping with the men who are trying to save him because he’s special. Wil’s story is about running.  There’s a lot of running (as a thriller is wont to have).

The other storyline follows Emily Ruff, a street urchin from the west coast.  She gets an offer to attend the exclusive Academy on the east coast that will teach her to harness her skills for persuasion.  See, this world has a shadow organization that uses special words to unlock people’s minds and force those people into doing whatever you want them to do.  And the Academy tries to find people who have the ability to learn how to do this.  They teach them words of power, and once they learn them and join the secret organization they’re called “poets” (because they’re good with words, get it?).  Well, Emily is a wild child, because, you know, street urchin, and she doesn’t really fit in.  So when she eventually gets kicked out (and forced to move to Australia), you can tell that rumblings are coming in the future.

You can feel that these narratives are coming together, but the surprises aren’t telegraphed too early, and I felt like I was discovering things just a chapter or two before they were going to become important.  So, suspense and mystery, but one that the author lets you figure out before he just tells you.

Now, I have to ding the story on a few fronts.  At times, I got a little bit of whiplash from the rapid shifts in time and perspective.  If you’re not careful, you can think that stuff is happening now when it’s really then and that the past is actually happening at the present.  Usually not an issue, but don’t let your mind wander during section breaks.  Also, naming all the bad-asses after poets doesn’t really make sense.  Oh, and making a big deal about how they wouldn’t name Emily after Emily Dickinson because DIckinson was too famous, and then turning around and having poet-spies named Virginia Woolf, William Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Patti Smith is just a little disingenuous.

I’m having a hard time deciding whether this was more thriller, more fantasy, or more sf, but I’ve decided that it’s good and that I enjoyed the ride and that I’m interested in reading a little more Max Barry

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

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