Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Recommending a Book That's Out of This World

As I write this review, I'm trying to temper my enthusiasm. I need to surrender and just start with a command:

Read The Martian. Go buy it now and start reading it. When you have to take a break from time to time, and you may, pop back here and read this review.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, here's my review: I loved this book. I would rank it as one of the best books I've read this year.

The buzz was pretty high from readers and reviewers, and I heard there was a movie in the works starring Matt Damon. When Amazon advertised the book for a ridiculously low price, I downloaded it to encourage myself to read it. There it lingered.

My friend Melanie and her son listened to it on a recent road trip, and her description intrigued me:
Remember that scene in Apollo 13 when the engineers needed to build a filter out of items than astronauts could find on the space ship? That's what this book is like, only even better.
My dad was one of those engineers who helped the Apollo 13 crew, and I always admired his ability to problem-solve and learn how to do and build anything. I knew I had to read the book.

I am so glad I did. I learned how to use my Kindle highlights just so I could re-read the good parts and highlight them for future enjoyment. There were plenty: not only was Mark Watney's personal records entertaining and honest, but his sense of humor was relatable and geeky. As much as I liked Mark, I admired him for his response to JPL on Sol 98 (2), when he was instructed to "watch his language."

The story was enjoyable but intense: Mark lived in a hostile environment where anything could happen to him. He could be injured or die, and I wasn't sure if I could trust Weir to write a story with a "happy ending," whatever that might be (and as the story progressed, that was harder to define). Also, the book was very technical and detailed, which was exhausting to read. Every once in a while, I had to set the book down for the day. (Those of you who are reading this review during such a break: Am I right?) Have faith in the author: he loves his characters as much as you do, and he remains true to them throughout the book.

Weir created many different characters who acted and sounded very different from each other. He also changed narration style from time to time, which was very jarring the first time it happened. However, the changes made perfect sense and strengthened the story.

Often, if I enjoy a book enough, I am loathe to see the movie — but for Matt Damon and The Martian, I'm willing to overcome that reservation. Personally, I recommend readers finish the book before watching the movie, in case any of the magic of Mark's intelligence is glossed over for a Hollywood tale. (Anyone who does the reverse, let us know how you liked that order.)

One last thought: I hope this book made you think about Mother Earth, about how we need to protect her because we can't live without her. 

Is anyone else in the Mark Watney Fan Club with me, besides Weir? Let me know!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence Day: Too Late to Apologize

In honor of the brave men and women who helped the United States of America become a reality, I offer a fresh look at the acts of sedition required for success — expressed in song.

Thanks to Soomo for such a revolutionary take on music and history. (Check out the video on women's suffrage: it will make you gaga.)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Summer Reading Update: Coming Along Swimmingly, Thank You Very Much

Fellow readers, are you spending enough time with your books this summer? I suspect I am falling behind, but I tend to do that when I have a lot of books going at once.

Below is my "completed" list  from Memorial Day weekend and my nightstand list.

 As you'll notice, a few books on each list were not on my original summer read  list, but I'm flexible in that way. There are a couple of shorter pieces, but as I noted before, it all balances out.
  1. Start Late, Finish Rich
  2. Picturing Grace
  3. Divergent
  4. The Three Monarchs
  5. Moriarty
  6. Station Eleven
  7. Good Omens
Here are the books currently on my nightstand:
  1. The Light Between Oceans
  2. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
  3. Stepmonster
  4. Steve Jobs
  5. The Descent
  6. A God in Ruins
  7. Second Life 
  8. The Martian
  9. Man Seeks God: My Flirtation with the Divine 
  10. Alexander Hamilton
I have bookmarks in five of those books, so I may not finish them all tomorrow, but I'll have a cascade as I reach the end of some really, really good books.

Simultaneous reading doesn't always indicate boredom or slow books. Sometimes, like with The Martian, I can't take the relentless pace of excitement and revelation. 

(For the record, read The Martian this summer. You will be glad you did.)

How has your reading progressed? Are you keeping to your list, or are you veering off when something else good comes along?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Virus and Irony: Station Eleven in Review

It comes out of nowhere and takes the world by surprise, a new virus with a near-total mortality rate. What it does to humanity is devastating. What humanity does in its aftermath is fascinating.
In Station Eleven, watch the world through the eyes of people with connection to a single person: the world-famous Arthur Leland. Each has experiences that, when woven together, tell a fascinating, riveting story about hope and loss, love and fear.

This isn't a "science fiction" book beyond the idea that it's futuristic and involves the end of the world as we know it. It's the story of people trying to live in a world that is strange, cruel and beautiful. Emily St. John Mandel chooses an interesting, comprehensive cast of characters through which to see this new world, and it was amazing to watch the threads slowly create one of the most interesting, gorgeous designs I've seen in a while.

Much like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mandel doesn’t try to tell the story of the plague on society beyond what the characters can tell us. I prefer it that way: the omnipotent narrator isn’t always welcome when a story can be told better in small ways. It’s the “a-ha” moments, the hints and ideas that slowly take shape, that are the strength of books told in such individualistic ways. I thought the connections wrought for the title were too thin, but it didn’t change the quality of the story or the value of the characters.

After you finish the book, be ready to spend an inordinate amount of time examining how you use the tools of your life and whether you could thrive in the post-flu world. And become determined that in the future, you will dedicate yourself to print media. Just sayin'.

This beats Alanis Morrisette's definition of irony: I read Station Eleven on my Kindle.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Reading, and Fine Print: Prime and 'Unlimited' as Reading Resources

Recently, I managed to wrack up a $30 Kindle book bill one month buying books priced at $3 or less. Now, $30 isn't huge in the grand scheme of things — I can spend that on a single printed book (sans latte) at a full-price bookstore. However, I am always looking for a great deal, so I reviewed my Kindle and Amazon reading and borrowing privileges.

I noticed some of my recent inexpensive buys were Kindle Unlimited or Kindle Prime books, which meant I could read them for free (with some restrictions).

Kindle Prime members are Kindle owners who may borrow a single book each month from a select list. Kindle Unlimited permitted readers to borrow, for a fee, an unlimited number of books each month from a select list. Between the two, I could read for three months on what I spent in a single month.

But was it really a deal? Were the books I wanted to read Unlimited to me?

The short answer: no.

The long answer: none of the 130 books on my Amazon book wish list are Unlimited.

My wish list skews toward popular fiction and non-fiction (at least, that's where I found them when I listed them). If I was paying a monthly fee to read e-books, I'd want access to books I would buy to read.

I checked for Kindle Prime books on my wish list and found the same: not a single one.

Now, to be fair, Kindle Prime borrowing books don't always display on non-Kindle devices, and I searched on a laptop computer browser. Perhaps the same is true of Unlimited books as well.

Typically, I do not shop on my Kindle, so it's not helpful to me if books are accurately tagged as Unlimited or Prime only when viewed on Kindle. I would prefer Amazon tantalize me with Prime and Unlimited books across all platforms — and perhaps lure e-reader enthusiasts to purchase a Kindle reader. (Amazon, please take note.)

Long story short, I am not subscribing or investing in Kindle book borrowing or subscription programs beyond what I already have. I have been spending a lot of time reading e-books lately, and I am weary of a few Kindle features that highlight an e-reader's limitations. I am tired of my Kindle telling me it's low on power. (That's my job, to be low on power.) I don't like having to use a sliding bar to skip around a book, and I haven't mastered the "jump to bookmark" feature. "Added features" such as first chapters of new books show as part of the book I'm reading, so I can finish a book but still show a few percent of the book left to read.

Having said that, I am not going to abandon e-readers completely: my Kindle gives me more than a hundred books at my fingertips, and I am grateful for that, especially when I travel.

However, I would prefer Amazon expand its subscription programs to include more of the books I want to read. I'd consider a subscription if the catalog was worthy.

What do you read on? Have you traveled cross-platform, and do you have a preference?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

True Confession: Polar Book Club Failure

I hang my head in shame and announce something that should be obvious by now: I did not read Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, the Polar Book Club book this past winter.

I tried. In fact, I am still trying to read it, a few sideways glances at a time.

It is perhaps the least enjoyable book I have encountered this year.

It was weird, which I normally do not mind (and, truth be told, tend to prefer). 

It was tedious reading, scattered, unfocused storytelling. 

It also put children in adult situations. Okay, let's not be coy: a pre-teen boy was having all the sex he could muster. I cannot tolerate gratuitous sexualization of children in books, and since the story ambled along in a scattershot way, I did not see the value in that portrayal of a child. 

Finally, it was not the story I expected to read. I thought I was getting a love story that stretched across time.  Instead, I managed to get quite a ways into the story without a glimmer of such romance (but plenty of sex).

I read a few pages every once in a while, hoping it gets somewhere good. However, I think I am formally and publicly surrendering. It's not the book I want to read, so I won't.

Have you read it? Have you tried? Let me know!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Summer Reading Club 2015: The Official Ambitious Reading List

It's the summer reading season, which is when I make  unreasonably long lists of books to read. 

It's like the rest of the year, but with a publicly announced ambition. (And warmer. Usually.)

As a child, I loved the summer reading club — and found myself really disappointed to find no adult version. So, I did what most people do: I formed my own club and invited my friends, family and interested future reading buddies. (Let's be honest: if you see someone with a book, especially a book you yourself have read, are they really strangers?)

Now, the summer has unofficially begun with Memorial Day, a solemn occasion to remember why we have the freedom and opportunity to exercise our rights and privileges as Americans. Please, take a moment to remember the true reason for the day.

Review your bookshelves or nightstand to decide what to put on your summer reading list. Here is mind, in no particular order:

    The Lowlanddescent-site
  1. Good Omens
  2. Divergent 
  3. Insurgent
  4. Allegiant
  5. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride
  6. The Light Between Oceans
  7. Stepmonster
  8. Map of the Sky
  9. The Map of Chaos
  10. The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books
  11. The Descent
  12. At the Water's Edge
  13. Everything I Never Told You
  14. The Glass Sentence
  15. Arcadia
  16. Second Life
  17. Bone Season
  18. Bristol House
  19. Carsick
  20. A God in Ruins 
  21. Wolf Hall
  22. Arcadia
  23. Faefever
  24. The Lowland
  25. And the Mountains Echoed
  26. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter 
  27. NOS4A2
  28. The Sixth Extinction
  29. Revival
  30. Bellman and Black
  31. Station Eleven

I have no doubt this list will change, probably as soon as I publish it. However, I am going to let it fly.

Join the Summer Reading Club and put yourself in the running for a new book. Read as much as you wish from May 22 through September 27, and if you read the most book, you will win a book of your own. 

To join the club, just send me an e-mail or leave a message below. Then, at the end of the summer reading period, send me a message or include your reading list in a blog message. If you read the most, congratulations! If not, you still are a winner because you spent your summer reading.

I've already had a few e-mails from eager readers, and I can't wait to read your list!

I make sure summer reading is beneficial to my community. As I have done in years past, I will  donate $5 per book I read to Main Street Child Development Center, and I will buy three new books for the Fairfax County Public Library from its Amazon Wish List

Hopefully, reading club members also will find a way to help their communities through their reading, or to help share the love of reading with their communities. It's not a requirement, of course, but it certainly is a worthy effort. It doesn't have to be financial support, either — think of what the community wants and needs. Every reader can determine what is within her or his power to bestow.

Even if you don't join the reading club, I still would love to know: what's on your summer reading list? Tell me!