Review: The Martian

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The Martian is like a twelve hour math class. It’s the most fun twelve hour math class you will ever have the chance to take, and its well worth the time. I know that’s not much of a pitch, but let me explain. Mark Whatney# is the lead character of this book (for much of it, he is the only character). He’s a mechanical engineer and botanist who gets stranded on Mars. He is the only living person on the planet and has to figure out, daily, how he is going to survive in an environment that is constantly trying to kill him. That means math, lots and lots of math, but this is James Bond math. It is math that, depending on whether you get it right or not, can either save you or kill you. Those are pretty high stakes. Imagine what a rush it would be if you were sitting in a classroom, knowing that if you forgot to move the decimal, your face would implode. Many of you probably had a teacher capable of such terror, so maybe that’s not the best illustration. Even if you don’t like math (which I’m not particularly fond of), Whatney’s wry sense of humor and “if there’s a way to get off this friggin’ planet, I am going to find it” attitude make the entire book feel light and unencumbered by the restrictive narrative environment that Andy Weir has to work in.

The actual narrative structure of the book is unusual. What begins as a first person account told through log entries later meets a third person narrative of the reactions of the rest of NASA to news of Whatney’s survival and their desperate attempts to rescue him. This threw me at first glance, but I quickly adjusted.

Some might criticize the book for the “unprofessional” nature of Whatney’s blog entries, and I can see how a few of them go over the top, but I would have rather had the humor than just a dry lecture on the conductive qualities of spacecraft siding. Additionally, if you were stranded on Mars all by your lonesome and you knew you were going to die without ever seeing another person again, I think you might drop the pretense and just say what you’re thinking as well.

So, is it worth the read? If you’re looking to get off planet, but not go as far as a true Sci-Fi novel, I’d say “yes”. It gives you a lot to think about; places you up there. While you’re reading it, you’ll be looking up at the night sky, imagining what it would be like to be out there, all alone, like Robinson Crusoe, but on a whole ‘nother world. That’s a thought worth contemplating for a while.

Review: Hindsight ~ Owen Banner

Owen Banner:

Stumbled across this “four thumbs up” review for my novel, Hindsight, today on catesbooknuthut.com. Cate is one of the members I go to on Goodreads for clear, incisive book reviews. If she doesn’t like it, I don’t bother. If she does like it, it’s usually pretty quickly on my shelf. It’s nice to know she enjoyed Hindsight.

Originally posted on Cate's Book Nut Hut:

Hindsight“I am hurtling eight stories to the pavement. There’s a bullet in my left shoulder and another chewing through my lung. I am going to die.” – Shirley O’Shea

When Shirley got out of prison three years ago, he committed himself to being there for his sister, Haley, and his aunt, Winnie–the only family he has left. Then he met Isaac, a man with connections to his grandfather and to the IRA. Isaac said he owed Shirley’s family a favor: deliver a package and get some money. But things are never that simple, are they? What should have been an easy drop-off blows Shirley’s world apart. Now he’s on the run, a continent away from those he loves, trying to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in order to keep his family safe.

But Shirley has a few…

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Review: Blue Ruin

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Blue Ruin’s best trait is its slow reveal. If you did not read the synopsis or look at the movie’s poster, you wouldn’t know it was a revenge thriller until a good twenty minutes into the movie or so. It opens with wit and a melancholic humor that helps you quickly attach to the main character, Dwight. He is a homeless man, living off what he can scrounge and what he can steal. Isolated from people, he is still drawn to them, to a life he once knew. I won’t give up too much more, because, as I said, every small revelation is a slow unraveling of the backstory that weaves together with Dwight’s current actions to create the tapestry of chaos and violence that lays over a growing number of bodies like a sheet at a morgue. I will say this, however. Dwight is not the perfect action hero. He is no ex-marine or ex-cop or ex-mafia hitman. He’s just a normal guy, a little pudgy around the edges and not accustomed to pulling a trigger. He makes mistakes, and he is punished for them. That’s what made this revenge thriller so refreshing. Give it a shot. It’ll be worth the night.

Newsletter – How psychopaths choose their victims

Owen Banner:

Looking for some inspiration for that new villain of yours, check out John Ling’s latest blog article on how psychopaths choose their victims.

Originally posted on John Ling:

The latest edition of my newsletter below.

 

Greetings!

Being victimised by a criminal psychopath is an unpleasant thought. No one consciously wishes for it to happen. And yet some people are singled out for a violent attack more than others.

Why?

A recent study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence suggests that psychopaths choose their victims based on the way they walk.

As an experiment, researchers filmed several civilians walking along the street. They then visited a prison and showed the footage to a group of inmates, asking them which individual would make a good victim.

Remarkably, the inmates kept selecting the same individuals over and over. These were civilians who had adopted timid postures and moved in a timid way. This made them easy targets.

As the study progressed, an even more chilling pattern began to emerge — these civilians, as it turned out, had previously been assaulted…

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Review- 11/22/63: A Novel

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Stephen King’s Needful Things was the book that turned me on to reading and writing again, after a long hiatus. The book set the bar quite high for other thrillers and here’s why:

King is a master of atmosphere. Other authors focus on creating a terrifying villian. King, however, simply traps his very human characters in a horrific situation, like putting two starving guinea pigs in the same cage, then watches them eat each other. These characters are going about their ordinary lives when something changes, be it an invisible dome snapping down over their town or a mist that rolls in with monsters in its wake or an old shopkeeper who sells people the things they want for a simple favor. This change is what all of King’s readers have come to love about his writing.

He sets a scene so thoroughly that it smells and tastes like you are sitting at a diner, drinking a gritty, bitter slosh of coffee while you overhear the conversations that carry on around you. Then an unseen hand turns the dial on the thermostat up just a little and the scene shifts. Soon, things are tense and that tension doesn’t let up when the villain leaves, because something has changed in the ordinary people that still live in the hamster cage.

I could go on about Stephen’s knack for plot-craft, but I intended to talk about 11/22/63, and that I shall. Truthfully, I could have used a little more of that sense of foreboding. The entire novel was heavy on the nostalgia, but a little light on the suspense for my tastes. There were those moments when everything is going wrong, but I didn’t feel as compelled into finding out just how bad things could get, because there were a few too many rays of sunshine in this piece. This could be what some readers are looking for. They don’t want a white-knuckle thriller, just an escape to a different time. If that’s what you’re out to find, then this is a great book. King doesn’t just write suspense or horror, after all. He’s the author of The Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption as well, both beautiful works of the nobility and strength of the human spirit. Others have felt this one falls closer into that category. I felt he was trying to straddle the fence a little and could have gotten off on either side.

The premise is interesting. You walk into the pantry of a diner in 2014 and out into the past. You could stay for five years, but when you go back into the diner, you’ve only been gone for two minutes. You go back into the past, but it’s always the same day and every time you go back, you reset everything you did to the timestream on the trip before. Now, one of the characters thinks so much of the world’s evil could be undone if someone could just keep JFK from being assassinated. Then the mission begins. An ordinary goes back to stop a killing (a few killings, actually).

I would like to have seen a little more darkness and desperation in the main character, Jake Epping. For most of the novel, he seems to wander around trying to figure things out, making up life as he goes along. It’s believable. He’s not a superhero and stepping back in time would definitely put you on your heels, but I didn’t get much of a drive from him for most of the book.

One thing that King does excel at in this novel is his research. It is exhaustive. He knows everything from obscure dog-racing scores to the kinds of cigarettes smoked in his locals fifty years ago. That was, perhaps, the most impressive thing about the book for me. It gave the whole story an air of authenticity is critical to works of science fiction. It took a while, but his theories of time-travel presented an unusual slant on the organism, or machine, of time and how our actions affect the nature of reality. It was a payoff, however, that I would have like to have come sooner.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable, believable story, but I would not say it is one of King’s best. The suspense is quite watered down by the length of time it takes to tell the tale and the span of years that it covers. Suspense is not everything, however, and if you want a story that is one part thriller and three parts homage to the 50′s, then this is the perfect tale for you.

As I Lay Dying Review

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As I Lay Dying was, honestly, like wading through an ever changing current of words. Faulkner’s ear for dialect is as keenly tuned as a master violinist’s toward the reverberations of his instrument. That being said, however, Faulkner’s writing style, when expressed in the stream of consciousness ramblings that fill this book, is…well to say “confusing” would be an understatement. The book is well worth the read if you enjoy reading for the sound of a character’s voice. There are some unique voices here. If you’re not one for meandering monologues on life’s meanings and odd sentence composition, then I’d suggest you leave this one on the shelf. If you choose to read this book, opt for the audiobook as the various readers help to make better sense of the unbroken style of Faulkner’s prose.

An example of when Faulkner gets confusing: 

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”

An example of when Faulkner gets it right:

“He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like those others: just a shape to fill a lack that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear.”

and…

“I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as when he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping. And like he would be kind of proud of whatever come up to make the moving or the setting still look hard. He set there on the wagon hunched up, blinking, listening to us tell about how quick the bridge went and how high the water was, and I be durn if he didn’t act like he was proud of it, like he had made the river rise himself.”

3 TV Shows You Should Be Watching

As an author, I love good writing. I love it in every shape it takes: music, theater, literature, movies, TV, and even video games. I devour good stories and savor exquisite dialogue. There’s a lot on TV, however, that just isn’t worth the time, and I appreciate any list that helps me procure those truly exceptional shows. So, here’s three that are on my list (not in any order). Feel free to add any of your favorites as well. As a fair warning, some of these shows are a bit rough–some, but not all. For those that are, I’ll let you know what to watch out for, in case colorful language, copious amounts of blood, or some “tasteful nudity” turns you off.

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Parenthood- A show that’s really just about a family that has to deal with all the normal stuff that your family has to deal with. This show sets the bar for television dramas. The thing that I like most about Parenthood is that it feels authentic. They don’t overreach with bizarre plot lines. They don’t hyper-manage the dialogue so that it every moment is a hallmark moment. People talk over each other and you only catch bits of the conversation at points, but that just feels like a family conversation around my dinner table to me and I like it. It’s a show that thrives on subtlety, and subtlety is the watermark of confident, mature writing.

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Hannibal
- Like the juxtaposition? This show is gorgeous. That’s an odd compliment to give a television show that has literally been banned from certain channels because of it’s gore and “violence”. I put violence in quotations, because the actual violence in Hannibal is not anything that you wouldn’t see on CSI or 24. It’s the display of the victim’s body that can get to you if anything. In Hannibal, the human form and psyche is art. Bodies are displayed as icons, symbols of deeper psychological meaning, so that the detectives and grasp the mind of the man or woman who killed them. A human mushroom farm, blind justice, and people used as antler ornaments are just a few examples of the show’s creative displays of dead human bodies. It’s not the artistic rendering of crime-scenes that draws you in, though (it certainly stuns you into paying attention). It’s the exchanges between the show’s characters and the maestro of human manipulation, Hannibal Lecter. An ominous energy charges every episode, because you know exactly who Hannibal is but no one else does. He works his web around people psychologically unsettling both them and you, until he is, at last, ready to devour them. Most every episode ends with my jaw on the floor at the brilliance of this villain and the unexpected turn that the plot has just taken.

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Ripper Street- Ripper Street is what you would get if CSI got together with Downton Abbey and had a lovechild who could speak like Shakespeare and throw a punch like Mayweather. Set around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, the show’s main protagonist is a duty-driven detective in Whitechapel who’s deductive prowess make him something of a Sherlock Holmes, though he’s not so self-assured. The crimes center around the consequences of advancements in technology, medicine, and entertainment, like moving pictures, electrified railways, the stock market, and lobotomization. Caught up in this world of greed and murder are the detective’s American surgeon, who is a carousing, substance-addicted fugitive, though very handy with in brand-spanking-new field of forensic science, and an ex-military man who is the muscle to the detective’s brain. The characterization and crimes are very intriguing, but the main draw of this show is the dialogue. Almost every line is so eloquent that you could read the script at a wedding, graduation ceremony, or even a friggin’ funeral and receive a standing ovation. As a heads up, there is a very slight amount of nudity in Ripper Street (mostly in the form of cadavers laid out on an examination table, but the first episode does show a bit as well).

How about you? What shows would you recommend for their writing?