Monday, March 24, 2014

Alone in Space


Reviewed by James L. Thane
4.5 out of 5 stars

Looking at things on the bright side, if you're the only human being on an entire planet, you've got an awful lot of elbow room. On the downside, though, if even the tiniest thing goes wrong, you could suddenly be up that well-known tributary without a paddle.

Mark Watney was part of a six-person crew that constituted the third manned expedition to Mars. The mission was to remain on the Red Planet for thirty-one days, but six days into their stay, a huge dust storm blew up with ferocious winds that forced the crew to abandon the mission.

As they're racing toward the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) that will take them back to the safety of their orbiting space ship, a long, thin antennae blows free and slams into Watney, piercing his space suit and wounding him. The crew is moments away from disaster but searches through the swirling dust in an effort to find him. Unhappily, the antennae has also pierced his bio-monitor computer, which now flatlines. Watney's bio-monitor computer is networked to those of all the other crew members who see the data and draw the obvious conclusion.

Out of time, and perilously close to losing their own lives, the mission commander has no choice other than to abandon the search for Watney's body. She orders the crew to race to the MAV and the remaining five crew members make a very close escape, reluctantly leaving behind the body of Mark Watney, the first human being to die on the planet Mars.

Except that he didn't.

Those NASA guys make great space suits and Watney's functions exactly as it should have under these circumstances, saving his life and allowing him to live another day. Some minutes later, he recovers consciousness and discovers his fate. His first conclusion is the obvious one: he's screwed big-time. He's alone on Mars, and while he does have the crew's living quarters which survived the storm, it's designed to last for thirty-one days. He has a limited amount of oxygen and water and enough food to last three hundred days, if he rations it carefully.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the next manned mission to Mars is four years away and will be landing way the hell and gone away from the site assigned to Watney's expedition. Additionally, he has no way of communicating either with NASA or with the crew that left him behind. So yup; he's pretty much screwed.

But Watney is a very clever and resourceful guy. He was the mission's botanist and engineer, and he refuses to accept the inevitable. He gets down to work, determined that he will not be the first person to die on Mars if there's any possible way of avoiding it. In the process, he begins a journal, detailing his efforts to survive, and the journal constitutes the bulk of this book.

Though a nerd at heart, Watney is also irreverent, funny and mischievous, and thus turns what might have been a dull, technical treatise into a gripping read. His story is part Apollo 13, part Castaway and a helluva ride. The beauty of the book, which is set in the not too-far-distant future, is that it all makes sense and seems perfectly believable. This is not the science-fiction of Star Trek or even of Arthur C. Clark; rather it's a tale of one man's gritty effort to survive under impossible circumstances that would defeat anyone of lesser spirit.

A special shout-out goes to my friend Kemper. This is not the sort of book I would have ever found on my own, but he wrote such an intriguing review that I not only ordered it immediately, but read it the second it hit my mailbox, rather than letting it sit on my books-to-read stack for months on end. So thanks for that, Mr. K. While I have a couple of minor qualms about the book, I enjoyed the hell out of it and it's an easy 4.5 stars for me.

Introduction to Rocking Your Socks Off

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Guitar [with CDROM]The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Guitar [with CDROM] by Frederick Noad
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the spine, the title is written so that the words "The Complete" and "Guide to" are very small indeed, so small in fact that when reading the title from a few feet away it appears as if this book is called Idiot's Playing the Guitar. I kinda wanna read that book.

I'm not saying this is a bad book, not in the least! However, it's still a boring old text, regardless of the Idiot's Guide's attempt to fun-it-up with some "kooky" cartoons. Nonetheless, if you're picking up a guitar for the first time, you could do worse than to make this your beginner's go-to text...believe me. The only book I had while learning was one that was nothing more than page after page of chords, hundreds of diagrams of hands on the fretboard. No how, what or why ever explained. This one does a very good at walking you through the basics.

It begins with a bit of history, moves on to explain what a guitar is (remember this is an Idiot's Guide), gives you tips on what to look for when buying a guitar, as well as advice on how you're going to be handling your ax (<- data-blogger-escaped-actual="" data-blogger-escaped-and="" data-blogger-escaped-br="" data-blogger-escaped-for="" data-blogger-escaped-guitar="" data-blogger-escaped-kids="" data-blogger-escaped-music.="" data-blogger-escaped-of="" data-blogger-escaped-playing="" data-blogger-escaped-proceeds="" data-blogger-escaped-rock-n-roll="" data-blogger-escaped-s="" data-blogger-escaped-slang="" data-blogger-escaped-that="" data-blogger-escaped-the="" data-blogger-escaped-then="" data-blogger-escaped-to="">
You can learn the musical staff if you wish (and if you're plaining a professional career in music you absolutely should), but if you're just learning to play for fun or starting a band with friends, tablature - the guitarist's cheat sheet - is provided for every song included in the book for practice.

Every chapter has a half-page section called "Guitar Gods," in which they give a brief rundown of a virtuoso. And it's not just all about popular rock guitar gods either. The book has various sections detailing a number of different styles of music in which the guitar plays a prominent role, and each of those "Guitar Gods" sections includes relevant players to that style.

I'm trying to figure out how I came into possession of this one. My edition is from 2002. That's about 14 years after this kind of basic, intro to guitar playing info would've been helpful to me. I bet my brother bought it and it ended up in my collection when he moved and unloaded some of his crap on me. Oh well, this might actually come in handy. My teenage-aged dreams of being a rock legend have slipped away, but now and then I occasionally like to bust out with "Iron Man," but I am admittedly quite rusty. Running through the songs herein might help oil the ol' finger joints. Plus, I never did learn the flamenco style...Oh good lord, if I learned flamenco my woman would want to make the sweet, passionate love to me all the day and all the night! I'm not sure I've got the cojones for that...

A Faeriely Good Fantasy! (That was terrible, I'm sorry)

Artemis Fowl (Artemis Fowl, #1)Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the get-go it appears Artemis Fowl is going to be about Artemis Fowl, a criminal boy genius with Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction, but then bomb squad-esque faeries take over the story and we end up spending just as much time, if not more, reading about them. That's fine since they're interesting and their story moves with a good dash of fun and excitement.

This is another of those books with a redeemable bad-guy protagonist. We shouldn't, but we do root for him, at least in some way, shape or form. In the natural (or "typical") way of things, that would mean the antagonists are good guys, who we're hoping won't succeed, at least not 100%. I haven't tired of this formula just yet, plus Colfer has handled it well and crafted a fast, short read that doesn't give you much downtime to reflect on any potential faults.

I found this book to be very similar to Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand with its snarky protagonist, its magic-in-a-modern-setting, its fantastical creatures and its infusion of light-hearted comedy (Things slowing down due to necessary exposition? Throw in a fart joke!).

You can tell Colfer did a bit of research into mythology and magical beings, as we see some creature attributes from the old traditions. For instance, I like his portrayal of a burrowing dwarf.

He also had fun with meshing the modern aspects with these old notions, technology with mythology. I've not always been a big fan of that genre (parts of the Ralph Bakshi movie "Wizards" annoyed me the first time I saw it), but Colfer balances and blends the two together pretty well, almost seamlessly.

Rating Note: This was such a strong 4 that I decided to go with 5 stars.