The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir was originally self-published in 2012 until Random House picked it up and re-published it in February 2014. I kept hearing praise for The Martian after the re-release, so I was excited to read it myself. I actually finished it a month ago, but I’m behind on blog posts right now. 😛

Summary

A fierce dust storm causes the crew of the Ares 3 mission to evacuate after only 6 days on Mars. As they’re leaving, NASA astronaut Mark Watney is impaled by an antenna. Assuming Watney has been killed (and unable to verify it because of the storm), the rest of the crew is forced to leave without him. By a stroke of luck, Watney survives, but he’s left alone on Mars with limited supplies and no way to contact Earth.

Review

loved The Martian. Loved it. It had me hooked from the first sentence: “I’m pretty much fucked.” It is thrilling and hilarious and a great blend of science and adventure.

Mark Watney is in an impossible situation, but his sarcastic sense of humor and MacGyver-like problem solving skills keep the book lighthearted in spite of the danger Watney is in.

The Martian is definitely my favorite book I’ve read so far this year and I’d probably list it among my favorite sci-fi books ever. I highly recommend it!

Ready Player One

Given the growing popularity of audiobooks, I thought it was time to give them a try. I read an article, I Regret Reading These 5 Books (Because I Should Have Listened to Them Instead), last month that helped me select Ready Player One for my first audiobook experience.

Summary

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline is set in 2044, when most people spend their time in the OASIS, a massively multiplayer online virtual reality simulation. When the creator of OASIS dies, it is revealed that he left the key to his vast fortune hidden in the OASIS, protected by a series of riddles and puzzles inspired by 1980’s pop culture (an obsession of the creator’s).

Review

Okay, so Ready Player One isn’t a great piece of literature, but it’s entertaining and has an interesting concept. It’s written for young adults, which is odd because it’s meant to appeal to people who experienced the 1980’s. I was born too late to really experience the 80’s, but I was still familiar with some of the movies, video games, and music mentioned in the book.

The audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He did an awesome job narrating and it was funny to listen to him refer to himself as a “geezer” in the book. 😛

If you’re a fan of 1980’s pop culture (particularly, science-fiction and video games), I’d recommend giving the book a try — especially in audiobook form. As for audiobooks in general, they definitely seem like a convenient way to read (especially while commuting or doing housework), but I enjoy the experience of reading myself better, so I think I’ll stick to eBooks and print books for now.

Allegiant

AllegiantSummary

Allegiant is the 3rd and final book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. It begins right where Insurgent left off, but it is written from the perspectives of both Tris and Four. Motivated by the old video they found, Tris and her friends decide to see what is going on in the outside world, beyond the fences that surround Chicago.

Review

Like the two books before it, Allegiant is a very quick, easy read in spite of its 526 pages, but it’s my least favorite in the series.

I was initially excited to see the viewpoints of both Tris and Four in Allegiant because I thought it would offer some new insight, but I quickly changed my mind about that. The two characters’ voices sound so similar that they are essentially indistinguishable and I often forgot whose perspective I was reading until context clues reminded me (or I went back to the beginning of the chapter to check). I think it’s obvious why Roth chose to use two perspectives, but I really wish it had been done differently (besides, isn’t it a little spoilery to start using two perspectives in the final book?).

The romantic relationship between Tris and Four continued to feel cheesy and shallow, especially with the eye-roll-worthy jealousy element. “OMG, you were talking to a pretty girl?! You must be cheating on me!”

I was also disappointed by the book’s biological/political explanation for why things are the way they are, which seemed far-fetched. I generally like my dystopia to be more plausible.

Without getting too spoilery, I know a lot of people were disappointed with the ending of the book, but I was actually okay with it. I was mentally prepared for it and I think that character’s actions were in line with who that character was.

Insurgent

InsurgentSummary

Insurgent is the 2nd book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. It picks up right where Divergent left off, after the attack against Abnegation. The factions are on the brink of war and Tris and her friends are caught in the middle of it.

Review

Insurgent is very much a continuation of Divergent. It’s a fun, action-packed book that was a quick read in spite of its 500+ pages. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the series (at least so far), but it’s entertaining and enjoyable. I still wish Roth would’ve toned down the romance/melodrama, though, because it detracts from the main story. Also, for someone who has an aptitude for Erudite, Tris sure acts illogically sometimes.

I liked that I got to see more of the other factions and that, by the end of the book, Tris had been to all 5 faction headquarters. The factionless, who were only mentioned in the first book, also played a bigger role in the sequel. While there is still no word on what is going on outside Chicago, the end of the book did at least reveal some information about the founding of their isolated society.

Flowers for Algernon

I picked up Flowers for Algernon at a book sale in the fall and after seeing a Reddit post about it last month, I decided to bump it to the front of my queue.

Flowers for AlgernonSummary

Charlie Gordon, a 37-year-old man with an IQ of 68, takes classes at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults to better himself. When Charlie is chosen to be the test subject for a surgery that could drastically improve his mental performance, he’s ecstatic because he’s wanted to be smart his entire life.

Within a few months of the operation, Charlie’s IQ nearly triples. The college students and professors he so admired now seem amateurish and ignorant. While he has grown intellectually, though, Charlie is still lagging behind emotionally, making relationships difficult.

I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

When Algernon, the mouse who got the surgery before Charlie, starts acting erratically, Charlie and his researchers worry about what will happen to Charlie.

Review

Warning: My review contains spoilers!

Who knew a missing apostrophe could be so heart-breaking?

Flowers for Algernon is told through a series of progress reports written by Charlie. His first several reports are full of misspellings and grammatical errors. As he grows intellectually, there are fewer and fewer errors and then none. Even though I knew what was coming at the end of the book, it was still so sad to see that first missing apostrophe. 🙁

It was painful to see Charlie break out in anger over his mental deterioration, because he knew what was happening and although he was trying, there wasn’t anything he could do to prevent it. My grandfather has Alzheimer’s and I couldn’t help but think about him when I read that part.

Although it’s tragic, I highly recommend Flowers for Algernon. If reading isn’t really your thing, there is a short story version that some people recommend even more than the novel. I haven’t read the short story, so I can’t say which I prefer. Either way, go forth and read it!

Divergent

Summary

DivergentDivergent is a young adult dystopian fiction novel that is being made into a movie that will be released in March 2014. It’s the first part of a trilogy by Veronica Roth.

Divergent is set in Chicago in the future, where the people there have divided into five factions, each dedicated to a particular virtue:

  • Abnegation (selflessness)
  • Amity (peace)
  • Candor (honesty)
  • Dauntless (courage)
  • Erudite (knowledge)

Each year, all 16-year-olds get to choose whether to spend their lives in the factions they grew up in or switch to a different faction. The book’s main character, Beatrice Prior, has to decide whether to be selfless and remain with her family in Abnegation or to make the more selfish choice to go elsewhere.

Review

I liked Divergent, but the premise is a bit unrealistic. To prevent evil in the world, their ancestors thought it would be best to segregate themselves and each embrace only one admirable quality. So unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which was scary in its plausibility, I think Divergent was going more for entertainment value.

I also felt that the romance subplot cheapened it. What could have been a strong, female lead character was replaced by a semi-strong and occasionally oblivious girl who gets saved a lot by her romantic authority figure. Then again, Tris is a 16-year-old girl and this is a young adult book. *Shrugs*

That said, Divergent was an action-packed, quick, fun, and easy read. It’s almost 500 pages long, but I blew through it in just a few days. If you like the Hunger Games series, I’d recommend giving Divergent a read (though I liked Hunger Games better). I’m curious about what life is like outside of Chicago, so I’m hoping one or both of the other two books in the trilogy expand on that.

Movie Trailer

After seeing the trailer, there are two main things that bug me. First, Tris has an awful lot of makeup on for being Abnegation. She’s only allowed a brief look in the mirror every three months and I’m pretty sure the Abnegation would see makeup as self-indulgent. Second, Four looks way too old and a lot more tough and physically attractive than I imagined. In the books, Four was modest and vulnerable once you got past the “strict leader” front. I’m really having a hard time seeing the guy in the trailer as Four, but maybe the movie will change my mind. I’ll just have to wait and see.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyI know it’s hard to believe, but I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams for the first time last week. It amazes me that it took me so long to read it since it’s so well-loved and exactly my type of book. I’ve seen the movie several times and I had a copy of the book, but I lent it to someone before I read it and never got it back.

When I compiled half a dozen “Top 100” book lists earlier this year, Hitchhiker’s was #1 on the list. With how hilarious and unpredictable the book is, it’s not hard to see why. Quotes like

 The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

and

On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.

made the book a fun and delightful read and I highly recommend it. 🙂

Book vs. Movie

This is one of the rare cases in which I read the book after I watched the movie. I know a lot of people don’t care for the movie, but I like it and I felt that it stayed reasonably true to the book, though there were some differences:

  • Physical appearances of characters (ex. Trillian is supposed to look somewhat Middle Eastern)
  • Addition of Humma Kavula and Questular Rontok (they don’t exist in the book)
  • Zaphod’s motivations in searching for Magrathea
  • Galatic Police vs. Vogons pursuing them

While the book is (of course) better, I really liked the movie’s animations for the guide entries and I loved Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin. I couldn’t help but read Marvin’s lines in his voice.

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and CrakeSummary

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood paints a bleak view of the future. The main character, who goes by the name Snowman, believes he might be the only human left alive after a biological disaster. He is barely getting by, living on the remnants of the now non-existent society: cans of sausages, broken sunglasses, and warm bottles of beer when he can find them. He tends to a small group of genetically-modified humanoids while living in a tree to avoid artificially-created hybrid animals.

As the story progresses, Snowman reveals what led to the destruction of mankind through a series of flashbacks. When he was a boy (he was “Jimmy” back then), he lived in a corporate compound with his emotionally-absent parents, where he met Crake, a brilliant boy who would become Jimmy’s best friend. Everything had become so desensitized that in addition to playing computer games together, Jimmy and Crake also watched child pornography and live tortures and executions online. One of their favorite games is called Extinctathon, a game that ranks you based on your knowledge of extinct plants and animals. While browsing the Internet, they come across Oryx, a mysterious girl who secretly intrigues both Jimmy and Crake.

Review

I know Oryx and Crake has a lot of fans, but I thought it was just so/so. Some of the ideas were intriguing: genetic engineering, transhumanism, corporate compounds, living in a post-apocalyptic world, etc.

My main problem with the book was its odd characters who were hard to sympathize with. Jimmy is kind of a mopey, pathetic guy who plays a fairly passive role in the story (though I did like his interest in old words no one uses anymore). Oryx is mysterious and frequently described as “wisp-like”… a hard character to understand. Crake is an aloof and brilliant scientist who has his own way of seeing things.

Overall, I liked the book and wanted to find out what had happened… I just didn’t love it. :-/ *Shrugs*

Sequels

I should also mention that Oryx and Crake is the first book in a trilogy. The Year of the Flood takes place at the same time as the events in Oryx and Crake, but from a different perspective. MaddAddam, which was released this summer, is a continuation of the two previous novels.

The Giver Quartet

I first read The Giver in elementary school. It was probably my first taste of dystopian fiction and I loved it. When I saw The Giver on a Banned Books Week list last month and learned there were sequels, I decided to reread it, along with the other books in the series.

The Giver

The Giver

Summary: Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a seemingly ideal community where people are content and free from pain and suffering. When Jonas is chosen to be the next Receiver of Memory, he begins to learn the truth about his community.

Review: The Giver explores, among other things, the idea of individuality vs. “sameness.” In Jonas’s community, everyone is content and provided for, but they do not get to make their own decisions, experience true emotions, or even see color. It’s a thought-provoking book that I loved as a kid and I really enjoyed reading again.

Gathering Blue

Gathering Blue

Summary: In a village that sends the weak and disabled out to a field to die, Kira (an orphan girl with a deformed leg) is ostracized by her neighbors. Kira has a special gift, though, that will save her life.

Review: Gathering Blue was my least favorite book in the series. I was disappointed that it had no ties to The Giver until a brief allusion at the end of the book. Kira’s village was not nearly as interesting as Jonas’s community and Kira was too passive a character. I also thought the story was predictable.

Messenger

Messenger

Summary: After living in Village for six years with a blind man named Seer, Matty is eager to earn his true name and become a full member of society. Village is changing, though, and Matty the message-bearer must make one last journey through the treacherous forest before it’s too late.

Review: Picking up where Gathering Blue left off, Messenger tied the two previous books together and I was glad to get some resolution on what happened to Jonas and Gabe. I liked the book, but I was disappointed in the “somebody sacrificing to rid the world of evil and now everything’s magically better again” cliché.

Son

Son

Summary: Claire, a teenage Birthmother from Jonas’s original community, washes ashore in a distant village, remembering nothing of her life before. After watching someone give birth, she regains her memory and becomes determined to find the son she gave birth to years ago.

Review: Son started out strong, but, unfortunately, it went downhill from there. The book really got bogged down with all the time spent on Claire training to climb the cliff out of the village. When Claire finally found her son, I found it unbelievable that she wouldn’t reveal herself to him after spending so many years and risking her life to find him. The ending was also unsatisfying, but at least it tied everything from the series together.

Final Thoughts

I really liked The Giver and would recommend it to anyone, especially since it’s such a quick, easy read. If you’re interested in seeing what happens to the characters, by all means read the rest of the series, but I don’t think it’s necessary to continue reading it.

While writing this review, I found out that a movie version of The Giver is in production, scheduled to be released in August 2014. I’m really curious about how they’re going to film it. If it starts in black and white, the audience will know something is wrong prematurely. If it starts in color, Jonas’s discovery of color won’t be as impactful. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle that. I also wonder how they are going to end the movie, since the book’s ending was ambiguous.

The Handmaid’s Tale

Warning: Spoilers about the backstory below!

The Handmaid's TaleA terrorist attack blamed on Islamic extremists kills the president and wipes out most of Congress. A new movement called the “Sons of Jacob” takes over and revolutionizes the United States, turning it into a militarized, patriarchal, ultra-conservative, Christian-based religious society known as the Republic of Gilead.

Men and women in Gilead live very separate lives. Men have varying military roles and those at the top (the Commanders) are permitted to establish a household. Women are subservient to men and have domestic roles. A woman can be a Wife (married to a high-ranking man), Handmaid (bearer of children for the Wives), Aunt (instructor and supervisor of the Handmaids), Martha (domestic servant), or an Econowife (married to a low-ranking man).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is told through the eyes of a woman valued only for reproduction, who witnessed the transformation of modern day America into the Republic of Gilead. It’s amazing how quickly and convincingly the radical societal revolution took place.

I love dystopian novels, so it’s not surprising that I enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale. I liked how I had to piece together what was happening and why as I was reading. It’s a terrifying prospect of what America could be like if right-wing, Christian fundamentalist ideologies are taken to the extreme: an oppressive, misogynistic theocracy.