Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

PackingForMarsTwo of my favourite things in one book – Mary Roach and space. Roach’s writing is informative, hilarious, and unlikely anything else I’ve read. I finished Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers sometime last year, and despite the numerous times I felt like vomiting, it was an outstanding book and made me a Roach fan for life. I’m trying to spread her books out so that I’ll always have something to look forward to, but I couldn’t help myself from racing through this one.

Ever since man decided to venture to the stars…wait. Let’s be honest.  Ever since the world was on the brink of disaster and two nations with nuclear weapons decided they hated each other, we have had a fascination with the possibility of life beyond our planet, even if that life was just us humans flailing about in orbit above the Earth. The Cold War advanced our understanding not only of space, but of the impacts that space has on the human body.

Roach investigates all aspects of space exploration, from the technological requirements, the toll it takes on our physical bodies, the emotion repercussions, and a smattering of history. Like a true investigative journalist (which she is), she throws herself in all manner of awkward and trying situation to be able to report what things are really like. This included on the vomit comet (to simulate micro-gravity), a northern expedition to a remote Canadian island, and visits to various NASA sites where she wasn’t afraid to ask the awkward questions we’ve all been thinking.

Refreshingly, she doesn’t ignore the contribution of the Russians. She gives them equal treatment, and gives credit where credit is due. Too often, histories of space exploration focus entirely on NASA, and their struggles with the former U.S.S.R. serve as a dramatic backdrop to the heroism of the Americans. As not an American, I find this really annoying and often downright rude. But that’s a whole other topic of conversation.

Other than the main topics she covers, Roach’s work has so many interesting details about the intricacies of her subject matter.  I struggle to come up with an example off the top of my head, but they’re the sorts of things that you wouldn’t even think to ask unless you were already immersed in this world. On that note, her footnotes alone make this book worthwhile.  They’re usually comic asides, but do yourself a favour and don’t skip them.

I’m going to leave it there lest I turn fan girl on you.  But seriously, the book was fantastic. Highly recommended.

Rapid Reviews – 3-in-1

I’ve finished a couple of books recently that I don’t really have a lot to say about, so instead of droning on, I’m going to 3 mini reviews all in one post.  Here goes.

KillingPilgrimKilling Pilgrim by Alen Mattich

This one sort of took me by surprise. I haven’t read the first book in the series, nor am I a fan of mystery/thrillers. I picked this up because it had a Canada sticker on it (though the author wasn’t born here, nor does he currently live in the country) and I have to read a number of Canadian titles every year.  I started in on it and was hooked almost immediately. The story alternates between Sweden in 1986 where the Prime Minister has just been assassinated, and “modern day” (1991)  where intelligence agent Marko della Torra is getting drawn into an American investigation to find the assassin.  Now that I think back on it, not a lot really happened, but it was still a great read.  I found the whole atmosphere to be strangely engaging and enlightening, especially for people like myself who are unfamiliar with the ethnic conflict that was about to erupt in this region following the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Recommended.

 

WitchWraithWitch Wraith by Terry Brooks (Dark Legacy of Shannara Book 3)

I’ve been reading Terry Brooks for as long as I can remember.  He was my introduction to the genre of Fantasy, and to adult fiction in general.  He’s the kind of author that I read because I always have, not because I find his books to be extraordinary.  He continues to write in a well-developed world, and there are always elements that feel old and used.  But it’s comforting just to be back in familiar places and check in to see how the locals are doing. That being said, this trilogy was one of his better offerings of the last few years in my opinion, and I finished the book excited to see where things go next.  Brooks has announced that the end of Shannara series is in sight, with just 3 more books to come.  It will be sort of the end of an era for me, but I’m happy to hear that there will be a planned conclusion to the larger narrative. And with any loved series, there’s always the excitement of going back to the beginning and living it all again.

PoisonPoison by Sarah Pinborough (Tales from the Kingdom Book 1)

I bought this for my Kindle app a long time ago it seems, and never really got around to reading it.  Last night, with a terrible headache, I decided to dull the lighting on my iPad and give it a go. It’s a short re-telling of Snow White, but like all fairy tale stories these days, Pinborough has added a ton of awkward sex and profanity.  I’ve seen it done really well, where these additions serve to update the story and made it more complex, but in this case, it just fell flat and I always felt like the plot was there just to get us to next bit that would make me sit back and say, “Oh…racy!”. Except that it wasn’t. It was just weird. If re-tellings are your thing, then maybe you want to check this out, but then again, maybe not.

Shakespeare: The World As A Stage by Bill Bryson

bryson-shakespeareI’ve been going through a Shakespeare kick with The Hollow Crown (Richard II, Henry IV Pt. 1, Henry IV Pt. 2, and Henry V) starring most of my favourite British actors, but instead of just reading some straight Shakespeare to get my fix, I picked up Bill Bryson’s short biography of William Shakespeare himself.  Short, because as Bryson quickly points out, we know almost nothing about the greatest playwright of the English language.

The biography follows life as you might expect.  Where and when Shakespeare was born, where he lived, who he knew, what he did for a living, troubling moments he had to overcome, and where he died.  The problem of course is that we know so little for sure, but there are many theories and alternatives out there that people can subscribe to.  So instead of providing the reader with a tidy history of a man and his work, Bryson’s tale reads like an essay where every probable version of the truth is included.  This may sound unreadable, but the result is a refreshing take on a controversial issue.  Instead of one side just presenting the evidence to support their argument, all (reasonable) sides are considered, albeit with a healthy dose of typical Bryson wit.

You may be thinking that this sounds all fine and dandy, but the last thing you want to read is an academic diatribe about the minutiae of Shakespeare’s life.  Pause for a moment and consider this.  We aren’t just talking about the subtleties of writing styles or lost manuscripts found in an attic that may or may not be in his handwriting.  We are talking about the big stuff:  How he spelled his name;  Which version of his portrait is the most accurate, if any; Where in the world he was for a significant portion of his life. The result is a highly accessible conversation on the enduring mystery surrounding Shakespeare that only seems to add to the marvel that is his surviving work.

I don’t have much else to say about this one.  I really enjoyed it.  It’s accessible to readers who don’t know a whole about Shakespeare, but it also has enough depth to please readers who already know the basics.  Bryson is a fantastic author and I’ll read anything he writes.  I hope you like it as much as I did.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

AnathemWhat do you say about a book this big that builds an entire civilization from scratch and demands a lot from a reader…

I’m not going to try to write a short blurb about the plot.  I’d recommend taking a look at GoodReads or Amazon to get a real feel for it, but picture monks with math who love a good philosophical dialogue and who live in seclusion until an alien vessel is spotted in orbit and they’re called upon to save everyone.  Yes, you read that right.

I’ve been putting this review off because of so many things.  It took me many months to read, spread over lunch hours, late night reading binges, and many, many days where I chose not to pick it up at all.  It’s a massive undertaking in terms of time and brain power and is so full of detail and complexity that you’re doing yourself an injustice if you choose to skim.  It’s one of those books that really takes it’s time setting up the characters and the world (somewhere around page 250 the main plot really starts to kick in) so if you want something you can dive into, this book isn’t for you.

I think that’s where my biggest problem lies.  I could spend the entire review turning readers off of this book for this reason, or a number of others, but I really don’t want to do that because I really thought the book was great.  The time spent learning about the world pays off when it comes under threat, and getting to really know the characters is critical to understanding how they react to situations.  The final result is a complete story that is so rich as a standalone novel that I left the book really feeling like I got something profound out of it.  Now, I couldn’t tell you what exactly that was, but there is such a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment that comes as the last page is turned that I struggle to put it into words.

I’ve sort of read over a number of reviews of Stephenson’s work, not just Anathem, and the common thread seems to be that no one really agrees on anything.  He is an award-winning author, but is also really polarizing.  Some readers don’t see what all the fuss is about, others swear by him.  Some don’t “get” his work, and that’s fine, (I’m not sure I got everything either) but then don’t see the point in reading his books.  I think there’s also a degree to which literature clashes with science fiction, and this can confuse readers who typically read in one genre or another.  So put aside any preconceived notions you have about genre when you pick this one up and lug it home.

Also a quick note on editing.  I often read in reviews of long books that a good editor should have hired, or that the book could really have been half the size.  Of course, reading is such a personal thing and everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I really feel like most books are the length that they’re supposed to be.  For whatever reason, the author has decided to include a ton of seemingly trivial detail, or they don’t tell you quite enough about anything so the novel seems sparse. But everything is done for a reason, and who am I to say that the choice was wrong?

This isn’t a book for everyone, but it’s an outstanding contribution to the genre for some, so I’d recommend giving it a try.  The reward is huge if it clicks for you, and if not, then just move on.  There’s plenty out there to read.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Seraphina Book 1)

SeraphinaI don’t entirely remember where I first heard about this book, but I distinctly remember feeling that it had come out of nowhere. I wasn’t aware of it prior to publication, and then all of a sudden people were excited about it and recommending it to me.  A co-worker provided the final kick that I needed to really get going with it, and Fantasy-Faction is reading is this month for their Fantasy Book Club, so it seemed a good as time as any to dive in.

 Seraphina is a young woman who has spent her life trying to keep a deadly secret to herself.  In a world where humans and dragons live in an uneasy peace, racism and prejudice run rampant and it can be very dangerous to be different.  Seraphina has easy access to the royal family as a music teacher to the princess, but her proximity to power often puts her in danger of having her secret revealed.  When the prince is murdered, tensions rise and Seraphina gets drawn into the mystery of his death and implications it will have for everyone.

 It’s also worth noting right off the bat that I’ve been hearing the most about this book from adults sources, not teen reviews.  It’s technically a Young Adult novel, but with such popularity among an older audience, I was curious to see what about the story made it appealing.  This isn’t to say that YA novels can’t appeal to adults, but I usually end up looking for what specifically is catching the eye of an older reader while I’m reading. Also, I’m not the type of person to pick up a book just because it has dragons.  Some people seem to be nutty for dragons, but not me.  The only thing that really saved them for me was the vivid culture that was created around them.  They are a much more realized aspect of the story than I have seen in other books.

 When it comes down to it, I think the overall quality of the novel (especially as this is Hartman’s debut) helps this book transcend it’s target audience.  The writing is excellent, the plot is intricate and deals with complex social issues, and the dreaded teen angst love triangle just doesn’t exist.  The protagonist is a teen, but since this is based in a medieval world, it makes complete sense for a younger person to be behaving like an adult and to be treated as such by other adults.  I think it can be easy for readers to forget that the idea of a “teenager” is a modern construct that has only been around for the last hundred years or so. Writing fantasy with a medieval feel has become quite popular, and while I’m not opposed, I was glad to see that this book took that framework and crafted a completely new society where dragons seem to fit right in. Where other books would downplay the fantastic elements, Hartman puts fantasy front and center and doesn’t shy away from how that impacts her storytelling.

 The counter to this has been pointed out by a number of reviewers.  Seraphina seems to have almost too much access to the royal family, visiting dignitaries, and parts of the castle that serve to move the plot along, but at times it can pull the reader out of the story.  Instead of just reading along and enjoying things, I stopped and thought about how the heck she got to where she was, and how she managed to find the time to slip away from everyday living to investigate a murder. It’s a minor grievance, and I’m easily accepting the existence of dragons, so perhaps I should stop worrying about reality so much!

It’s hard to write reviews for books you really liked because it ends up sound mushy and overly sentimental so I’ll leave it there.  Hartman was able to combine so many elements into her narrative and was able to keep the plot moving at a great pace without forgetting that quiet moments are important too.  Her characters are believable, and the world is a place that you want to spend more time in.  Highly recommended.

The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray

MasseyMurder This is my first Charlotte Gray novel, although I first really came across her name in conjunction with Gold Diggers, which was recently adapted as the TV miniseries Klondike.  She writes in a style that I think could easily be classified as narrative non-fiction, meaning that while the book is undoubtedly an account of a historical event, it reads like a novel.  I just wrote in another post that I like my non-fiction to follow a fairly strict format, but in this case, following the story chronologically is enough.

In 1915, Carrie Davies shot and killed Bert Massey on the front steps of his Toronto home.  A somewhat outcast member of the illustrious Massey family, Bert’s murder made headlines nonetheless, and Carrie was thrust into the spotlight.  As a domestic servant who had immigrated to Canada from England seeking a better life, many wondered what could have made this young 18-year-old girl pick up a loaded gun and shoot her employer.  Though Davies immediately confessed to the crime, her trial was just beginning, and new facts quickly emerged about the treatment she received at the Massey home and the idea that she shooting was done in self-defense.

Layered on top of this drama is the backdrop of The Great War, which by 1915 had proven to be a conflict with no easy outcome.  Canadians were being sent to the front in huge numbers, and papers ran daily headlines covering the war in Europe and at home.  As Gray points out, this wartime sentiment had a huge impact on how Davies’ trial played out.

I think the commentary on the impact of the war on a single murder trial is what made the book most interesting to me, but my inner historian worries that coming to conclusions about individual or group sentiment can be extremely difficult from a distance.  Of course, certain assumptions can be made based on written evidence, but I like solid proof, so unless someone explicitly wrote “this made me feel…” or “I think…”, I have problems accepting the conclusion.

This is by no means meant to diminish Gray’s work.  The entire book is laid out with a view to include all points of view, however backwards they may seem.  She spends a great deal of time making the reader feel as though they really understand what living in Toronto was like at this time.  Had this not been done properly, I think the drama of the trial would have seemed quaint and misplaced to a modern audience, but instead we end up feeling like everything that happened was a natural progression.

To help us understand why the trial ended the way it did, Gray also gives up some commentary on how that outcome would have been different even a few years later.  This all ties back into the wartime landscape and the mood of the general public (and therefore the jury), but I thought that it was especially important that points were made as to the state of the legal system at the time and later in the century.  For those of us not entirely familiar with how trials happen, what precedent is being relied upon, and how that might have changed in the past hundred or so years, this was a nice conclusion that really laid it all out for us.

The thing I’ve heard the most from other readers about this book is how much they liked hearing about the day-to-day lives of Canadians living in a rapidly changing urban setting.  I think when we think of Canadian history, we are so often consumed by the railroad or farm life that we forget some of the incredible periods of urban growth and modernization. There is a great juxtaposition between the new advances in technologies that are beginning to take hold and the Victorian ideals that many people held onto so tightly.  I’ve never really read about this period in Canada (I’m always preferential to what was happening in Britain) so this was a great read for me.

Overall, highly recommended.  Fiction readers will find this accessible, while non-fiction readers will be impressed with the amount of detailed research that went into the work.  This is also an Evergreen nominee for 2014, and voting will take place in Ontario libraries during Ontario Public Library Week in October.

The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon

the-once-and-future-world This is going to be a short review, not because the book was bad, but just because it is what it is and I don’t feel the need to nit-pick every single thing that was said.  The title, in all its glorious reference to the T.H. White novel, grabbed me right from the beginning, and the cover is gorgeous.  And let’s be honest.  Who doesn’t a judge a book by its cover?!

MacKinnon demonstrates that the environmental/conservation movement is reflective of a far more complicated issue than simply “we must revert back to how the world as it was ‘before'”.  Natural ecosystems are in a constant state of flux and so choosing when exactly ‘before’ is, and then deciding which version of the past we are striving for becomes a rather complex issue.  Mixing personal memories with scientific fact, MacKinnon sheds some much needed light on a hot topic.  Caring for our planet is not as simple as rewinding the clock, so our way of thinking and our proposed solutions to environmental collapse must take into account the delicate balance that our planet relies on instead of arbitrarily deciding what is worth saving and what should be allowed to die.

I care about the state of our planet, but I find that many environmental movements are so extreme that they can alienate the average person.  I’ll be the first to admit that it seems time for some extreme responses, but lecturing people isn’t always the best way to achieve your goals.  This book was great in that it outlined the issues surrounding conservation in a professional way while still being accessible. There are some recommendations made about what we need to do going forward, but that isn’t what the whole thing is about.  It’s also relatively short, and doesn’t overload the reader with way too much information.

If I have a complaint, it’s minor and more a matter of personal preference than anything else.  I felt at times that the narrative wandered, and in my non-fiction, I like clear and obvious formatting.  Grab your rotten tomatoes and begin the harassment, but I like a good essay format that lays out clear and concise arguments.  So while everything in the book was interesting, I sometimes felt a little bit lost and wasn’t sure what point was being made.  I think this resulted in some parts feeling repetitive to me, but I wouldn’t let this dissuade anyone from reading it.

So go, read it.