Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian

I thought this was awful.  So awful that I only got to page 69 and felt I was wasting my time so abandoned it.

This book was a best seller so what was I missing?

The book is about a man (whose name I can’t remember) who gets stranded on Mars during a space mission.  The Book pretty much seems to be set in the present day.  A crew of about six people have landed on Mars and there is a storm and they have to leave in a hurry.  During the evacuation whats-his-name gets hit by debris and apparently killed so the crew sadly abandon his body rather than risk more lives.

But he’s not dead!

He comes round with an injury and makes his way to the buildings that have been placed on Mars over several missions.  There are only basic supplies as it wasn’t intended that anyone would stay there for any length of time, and there is no way to contact Earth.  He knows there will be another mission in four years that can save him but doesn’t have enough supplies to last anywhere near that long so if he wants to survive has to find ways to create food and water.

The next part of the book is a lot of detail about him working out his survival techniques.  It is all written in the first person in the form of mission log entries.  According to other reviews the science described about how you could survive in these conditions is excellent, all the calculations and facts have been well worked out by Andy Weir…but I don’t care!  It’s boring reading about how much water you need to grow potatoes and about soil nutrients and oxygen supplies.  Dull, dull, dull – at least in this context.

What I wanted to know is how Whats-His-Name is feeling.  What is he thinking?  Why is he so driven to ensure his survival?  What is there on Earth for him to go back to?  We don’t find out – at least not in the first 69 pages.  He records his very detailed logs in an unbelievably irritating tone, it sounds forced and as if he is trying too hard be glib and funny at all times – and failing miserably.  At no time does it come across as a realistic inner voice.  I think he is lucky he was stranded alone, if I had been stranded with him I would have throttled him to death on day one even if that meant being left alone with no clue as to how to grow potatoes.

After an interminable 50 or so pages of potato growing (some of which I admit I skipped) the action jumps to Earth where we find out how his former colleagues are responding to his supposed death.  This is boring too.  All the ‘characters’ speak with the same voice, they are completely interchangeable and all talk in short glib sentences that don’t sound like real dialogue.

So I quit.

It isn’t that I hate science or realistic details but I think they are pointless in a novel if there is no heart to the story and no characters whose fate you are engaged with.  Perhaps that comes later in but I needed at least a taste in the first 69 pages to keep me interested.

1/5

Zoe

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The Book of You by Claire Kendal

The book of you

This is a really frightening book, I’d say more horror than mystery.  So beware if you are easily frightening and a wimp (like me).  But if you are made of sterner stuff it is a pretty good read.

The main character is Clarissa, a woman definitely down on her luck.  Her husband has left her after years of unsuccessful fertility treatment, her career has stalled and she hasn’t really got any friends…and now she has found herself pursued by a scary stalker!  Her life is so rotten that she greets a jury service letter as a source of salvation, being on jury service will get her temporarily away from her stalker and her crappy job and she might even make some new friends.  But I am afraid her high hopes lead only to disappointment.

The villain of the piece is Rafe.  He works with Clarissa at the University of Bath and probably drugged and raped her after a party.  I say ‘probably’ as we only have it from Clarissa’s point of view and she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, he gave her a strange tasting glass of wine and she awoke the next morning naked in bed with him feeling sore and bruised.  She is confused and disoriented and doesn’t report it.  From this point on he acts like they have begun a relationship after a night of consensual sex.  He pesters her and sends her creepy presents and when she yells at him to leave her alone behaves as if they are having a harmless lover’s tiff.

At times you feel quite frustrated with Clarissa.  Why didn’t she report the rape to the police?  Why isn’t she taking this more seriously?  But at other times you feel sympathy.  She is a very vulnerable woman, possibly quite depressed, and she has confused and complicated emotions about what happened to her that night as many rape victims do.  Also Rafe is very convincing to the outside world, he is charming and successful at work and even convinces Clarissa’s oldest friend that he and Clarissa have been having a relationship and that he is nothing more than a caring and concerned boyfriend to the mentally disturbed Clarissa.  So Clarissa comes up with a plan, she will systematically collect and record evidence until she has enough to present the police with a strong case against Rafe.

The trial Clarissa is a juror for, far from being an escape, is a rape case that brings up painful memories of her own experiences and fears.  At the same time, outside the relative safety of the court, Rafe’s behaviour becomes increasingly menacing.  Will she gathered enough evidence to see him convicted and out of her life or has she underestimated the danger she is in?  Read this book to find out…if you dare!

A bit too violent and scary for my tastes.

3/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

heart-of-darkness

This is one of those books I feel I am supposed to like.  It is on a very serious and worth subject and is a well thought of classic – but I just found reading it a chore.  It’s one of those books where I could read a page of text and just not feel like I was taking any of it in.  I found it dull and hard to follow, I didn’t really understand the characters or what was going on most of the time (perhaps I am very stupid!)

The book is basically about the brutal nature of imperialism in 1890s Africa.  The main character is Marlow who is travelling through Africa while employed in the ivory trade up the Congo river hoping to meet a famous/infamous Ivory trader called Mr Kurtz.  Along the way he witnesses how corruptly the imperialists are behaving.  At one point the boat he is on gets attacked by some native Africans…but that’s about all I can tell you as to the plot as my mind kept wandering and I struggled to take anything in.  It kind of ended and left me thinking “well what was all that about?”

Basically I just didn’t get it.

1/5

Zoe

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Book Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This book has an interesting style.  It is fiction but is written as if it is true crime with the text made up primarily of witness accounts and trial documents and reports.  The crime in question is the murder of a Scottish crofter and his young son and daughter, the criminal is one of his neighbours, a 17-year-old boy, Roderick Macrae.  It is set in 1869 in the Highlands of Scotland.

Most of the book is an account written by Roderick (who freely admits his guilt) of the circumstances leading up to his crime.  It makes fascinating reading, not just because of the crime, but because of the picture it paints of life as a 19th century crofter.  People living as peasants long after the industrial revolution had swept the rest of the country.

The story also offers an element of mystery.  Not as to who did the crime, as that is pretty clear, but why.  Because he is so open about his guilt Roderick seems a reliable witness but aspects of his account don’t tally with evidence found in court documents.  Did he really kill the family driven by family pride after a prolonged disagreement as he claims or did he actually have baser motives?

It is a very interesting and well written book.  Mysterious and offers a glimpse into a world very different from modern Britain.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's Ark

This is the Booker prize winning novel on a very serious subject of the holocaust.  And I didn’t finish it.  I feel bad, like I was obliged to find it brilliant and moving as so many other people have.

The subject matter really is moving and the darkest subject there is.  The story has an element of hope too however.  It tells the story of Oscar Schindler a Czechoslovakian businessman living under Nazi rule during World War II.  He uses his wealth, power and influence to save as many Jews as he can.  The book was made into a film, retitled Schindler’s List, which won a record number of Oscars.  It is based on a true story and real people.

I guess with the subject matter it’s not the kind of book you expect to enjoy but I have to say I didn’t find it hugely moving or engaging either.  The style didn’t pull me in.  Keneally moves between short, often harrowing, stories of Jewish families before quickly moving on to another individual’s or group’s story.  The only constant character is Oscar, but I never really felt I ever really got to know him well either.  I think it is probably intentionally arranged like this, it would be easier for the reader to follow if we stuck with one group of characters but perhaps part of Keneally’s take is to show how many horrifying stories there were and not give any one the focus of the book.  There was one tale I particularly liked with elements of joy about a couple who fell in love and married while confined to a work camp, their friends and family help them court, marry and even attempt a wedding night all in secret without the guards finding them out – it was almost funny!  Then we left the couple after only six pages or so – I was left wanting to follow their story for good or ill.  Other books I have read about the Holocaust recently have been Diary of a Young Girl and The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas, these tales make the holocaust human and almost manageable by focusing on a small tight experience, Keneally leaves the holocaust vast and hard to imagine or relate to.  It’s admirable but it just wasn’t for me, I constantly found myself wishing I was reading a factual book instead or that it would start to take on a more conventional storytelling approach, I found myself having to be disciplined about picking it up and reading it was slow going until I eventually gave it up with about 100 pages to go.

I’m not sure if I failed or the book did.

2/5

Zoe

holocaust memorial

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The Muse

Great review. I like reviews that aren’t afraid to be critical! I’m reading The Muse at the moment and so far I am really enjoying it but will wait to see if I am left ‘underwhelmed’ by the end like Rebecca.

What Rebecca's Read

The Muse
by Jessie Burton

Publication date: 2016
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 447


Summary:

A picture hides a thousand words . . .

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer…

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The Bull and the Thunderstorm: An Artistic Partnership

Great preview of some of the issues that will be raised in the talk at Willesden on 22 May. Book now! – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/guernica-and-beyond-tickets-43977550036

will / write and talk

“She was anything you wanted. A dog, a mouse, a bird, an idea, a thunderstorm.”

A vital influence on Pablo Picasso’s life and art in the late 1930s was the Croatian/French artist Dora Maar (above, far right). Thanks to her we have the best visual records of Picasso at work, but her fiery socialism may also have awakened a hitherto dormant political passion within the artist that helped make “Guernica” the angry masterpiece we see today.

In 1936 Picasso was still married to the Russia ballerina Olga Koklova, with whom he’d had a son, Paulo. The two were now estranged because in 1927 the artist had met the 17 year old Marie-Therese Walter. Their secret affair didn’t remain secret for long as she became his model for a series of erotic, colourful portraits. A daughter, Maria was born in 1935 and Picasso ensconced both mother and child at the palatial…

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Book Review: The Only Story by Julian Barnes

“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

This is how it starts, and I immediately knew, just by reading those words, that I will be witness to a beautiful and heartbreaking love story that will leave me, after the last page, with a heartsore. I was entirely right.

“Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.”
The_Only_Story
As a younger man, the narrator becomes entangled with an older woman, and their story is told in three parts. Interestingly, the perspectives change from first person, to second, to third, possibly reflecting the narrator’s maturing, and the distance he places between himself and his love story over time. As the ‘only’ story continues, many other facets of love emerge including commitment, sacrifice, and obsession to the point of addiction.

The author explains his choices to use these narration techniques better than I ever could. .“And first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realize that there are other persons, and other tenses. ”.

“The Only Story” is a story about a powerful love destined to fail, about hope, social conventions, shame, unspoken guilt, and loss. It is a beautifully written novel, as everything Barnes writes, but I do recognise that a slow moving plot and a deeply contemplative style is not everyone’s idea of a bedtime read.

“You realize how sympathy and antagonism can coexist. You are discovering how many seemingly incompatible emotions can thrive, side by side, in the same human heart.”

 

Georgia

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Book Review: The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

improb love

This book had a pretty good plot.  It concerns the rediscovery and sale of an 18th century French masterpiece called The Improbability of Love.  The novel opens on the night of the auction where we learn about all the fuss and attention of the sale and we also learn a little about the people buzzing round the painting; potential buyers and those hoping to profit directly or indirectly from the sale.  Then the novel jumps back 6 months to the initial discover of the painting in a junk shop then moves us through the identification of the painting and the discovery by certain characters of it’s very dark history and then back to where we opened on the night of the sale.  Along the way we have; romance, struggles with alcoholism, sex, greed, lies, a woman arrested and imprisoned for a crime she did not commit, Nazism, murder…and more!  Sounds like rollicking good read?  Well unfortunately it’s just really badly executed.

A major problem is that there are too many characters and most of the characters don’t play a part in the actual story.  We learn all about the backgrounds and wealth and…wardrobes of the incidental billionaires and millionaires hoping to purchase the painting but this knowledge doesn’t take us anywhere of achieve anything.  I guess Rothschild is trying to establish just how important the discovery of this painting is by showing us how many people are effected and involved but the problem with all her characters is that they are either A – totally boring, or B – totally over the top and not slightly believable or C – totally boring AND over the top and not slightly believable (mostly they are C).

Aside from all the bit parts we do have a couple of main characters at the heart of the tale.  Jesse and Annie are the innocent romantic leads unwittingly caught up in the chaos around the painting.  Annie is the young down at heel cook who buys the painting as a birthday present for a date who stands her up and Jesse is a struggling artist she bumps into in a gallery a little later who is helping her identify her mystery painting.  A bigger pair of sappy dull wet fish are difficult to imagine.  Reading about the development of their relationship and growing connection and attraction is the least sexy thing I have read since…Mein Kampf!  She is just a saintly goody two shoes with ‘victim’ written all over her (aside from discovering the painting she is nursing an alcoholic mother and her own broken heart from the end of a long term relationship) and he, well we don’t really know too much about him other than that he has floppy hair and a “slightly feminine mouth” and that he fell totally in love with Annie’s goodness and sweetness the second he laid eyes on her and will do anything to help (YUK!)

Most of the characters are mega rich, the leads are the only exception but are as about as convincing a picture of working class life as you’d find in a Richard Curtis script.  Annie comes to London after being dumped by her long term romantic and business partner in Devon.  She has no connections and no formal qualifications as she ran her own catering business with her older boyfriend from the age of 16, she has no references either as it would be a bit awkward asking her ex!  So what does she do when she arrives in London?  Find a room to rent in a shared property using Gumtree ?  Get a few zero hours shifts at a Sports Direct while getting a cleaning gig in the evening to pay the rent? NO!  She rents an entire one bedroom flat to herself (in London…in 2015…) and somehow gets a job as an assistant to a world famous film director – as you do!  The job is lowly but obviously flings her into the orbit of the rich and influential, her connection with the film director gets her a job as a chef with his wife, an art dealer, which then gets her catering gigs with the great and the good.  Honestly, rich people must think us down here are all mugs wasting our time complaining about minimum wage and job seeker’s allowance when apparently it’s that easy to go from nothing to being quite successful with only hard work, talent and goodness in your armoury.  It had the massive chip on my shoulder itching and throbbing painfully.

I considered quitting this book many times.  But the plot kept me in there as I was curious to find out what happened to the painting, but you know what they say about curiosity?  Don’t make the mistake I did, save yourself the pain and don’t get started.

 

1/5

Zoe

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Book Review:  All That Man Is by David Szalay

This is a great book.  It consists nine short stories about men.  It seems pretty random at first as the men are from all different countries, different classes and the stories are different; some funny, some sad some kind of just incidental.  After the first few though you realise that the age of the man goes up by a few years in each story, so I guess if you are looking for a theme this deals with the stages of life; the first main character is boy who has just finished his A-Levels and the last an old man facing declining health and the end of his life, in between you find young men exploring their sexuality, facing unwanted fatherhood, struggling to find career success, relationship breakdowns and disappointments  – life basically.  Some men are rich, some poor, some reasonably happy, others totally depressed – there was heaps of variety.

all that man is

I guess the downside of such a mix is that you are bound to relate to some stories and characters more than others.  My favourite was the second tale about a young French man who goes on an 18-30 style beach holiday to Cyprus on his own after his intended companion drops out last minute.  A bit of a saddo, he struggles to make friends when he gets there and ends up being taken under the wing of an obese mother and daughter from England.  Not cool!  I have never been a male French youngster but could really relate to the concerns, possibilities and awkwardness of youth that Szalay portrays.  This section was funny enough to have me laughing out loud and gasping with joyful shock during my commute.  It was also strangely touching about finding something rather nice in unexpected places – places that really are not cool!

After this classic the rest could only really go downhill unfortunately although I did still get a lot out of some of the other stories, my second favourite was probably the one about the young academic meeting up with his Polish girlfriend during a road trip and having to deal with her unplanned pregnancy.  In this tale I felt so sorry for both characters, one wants the child and one doesn’t and, in my opinion, neither one of them is ‘wrong’ but there is no compromise position and one of them is about to have their whole lives effected against their will.  They clearly care about each other but you can feel antagonism grow as he realises he may be forced into fatherhood he doesn’t want (an absent father is still a father) and she realises he is trying to persuade/bully her out of the motherhood she now craves.  It is very well written.

I also enjoyed the one about the poverty stricken British loser living with a few other oddballs in an unglamorous Croatian town remembering his glory days in the 1980s when he was briefly quite successful and owned a nice car.  He drops into every conversation the old car he used to own 30 years ago – and I can’t even remember the make as I have zero interest in car brands.

Overall though I would say I felt the stories were best when concerning young men.  They were more entertaining and rang truer than the later stories. I wondered if that is perhaps because I am still relatively young and can relate to the concerns of youth better than those of late-middle age and old age.  Or perhaps the same could be said of the author who is only a few years older than myself.

A very good read and easy to get into as the stories work stand alone so there is no effort involved remembering complicated plots or huge casts of characters – which (sorry to sound lazy) can be a relief if your reading time is made up of a few pages here and there on lunch breaks and commutes.

4/5

Zoe

Zoe

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