Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: The Martian

Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science fiction, contemporary
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5 of 5 stars)

If there is a kind of story I am certain we are all so eager to devour, it is that of survival. We are always excited to hear tales of men striving to stay alive in an isolated island, of friends stuck in a forest of cannibals, of sailors trapped at sea where they are forced to become cannibals, of unlikely allies in a town of living dead, and even of kids chucked in an arena where they are barbarically made to murder one another. We marvel at the things the main characters do just to keep going, and we sometimes put ourselves in their shoes, wondering if we will go the same path that they did.

So when I heard of Andy Weir’s The Martian for the first time—described by many as an interstellar survival story fronted by an astronaut Robinson Crusoe —I know it was just too good to pass up. I have to read it; after all, the string of existence stories that I treasure for their ability to quench my thirst for adventures is screaming for a new addition.

The Martian follows astronaut Mark Watney who, after being mistakenly thought dead during a dust storm on Mars, is left when his crewmates are forced to evacuate the planet. He finds himself stranded on the Martian surface with (1) no way to signal Earth that he is alive, (2) food supplies that would run out years before a rescue mission reaches him should he be able to get a word out, (3) machinery that will probably get weathered by Mars’ unforgiving environment, and (4) possibilities to commit “human error” in his attempts to live. How long will he be able to sustain this fight when all odds are seemingly not in his favor?

Riveting, smart, and laugh-out-loud funny, The Martian is perhaps one of the best hard sci-fi tales that I have encountered in the past year. While it is teeming with technical details, Weir makes sure that readers who do not have much knowledge in space programs and modern science fiction in general would not be left behind. It charges along nicely at a gallop, making it an entertaining ride that would beg to be read in just one sitting.

Watney is perhaps the epitome of a narrator that is virtually impossible to dislike. Documenting his dogged journey to survive through a twenty-first-century style epistolary, he constantly pulls hope and strength from his resourcefulness and unlimited supply of gallows humor. Readers will find themselves laughing with and rooting for him, crunching their brows and ooh-ing at every problem solved, and face-palming whenever his efforts are met with inevitable setbacks. Through his rose-colored spectacles—or helmet faceplate, rather—he proves he has too steadfast a soul to be dampened by the Red Planet’s challenges.

If there is anything I came to almost not liking about this book, it is the change of point-of-view to show what NASA is doing on Earth to retrieve him (is that counted as a mini-spoiler?) and those handful of times on Mars when the readers are made to know something before Watney notices it. I understand that they are necessary. They are not bad per se, though there are times when the transitions are not seamless. But like bumps on a gratifying joy ride, it did not halter my enjoyment of the story.

Aside from Watney’s, another POV that I also loved is that focusing on his crewmates. The hard-knuckle science foundation of the whole novel gets its emotional punch on this side of outer space, where the Ares 3 crew proves they are a close-knit team through and through. They will do everything they can to get back to Mars and rescue Watney, even if it means having to cause a mutiny.

The moment I reached the last page, I immediately wanted to start it again. This is what I hoped every book I pick up will make me feel: a little bit exhausted from the life I lived with the protagonist while going on with his adventures, a little bit invigorated by the things I learned while reading, and all in all happy for having just read a very good book.

Five stars for the amazing experience.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

This home is swaddled in dust and cobwebs.

Let's say I have been on some kind of 'life arrest'.

I wish I could give you more acceptable reasons, like perhaps I have submitted myself to some kind of digital sabbatical or I have been deployed to accomplish some life-changing mission so I can justify my silence in this little pocket of e-universe. But the simple truth happened. Adulthood pulled me into a hurricane of bigger responsibilities, effectively reducing the already meager time that I used to allot for adding something (thoughtful musings and verbalized thoughtlessness alike) to this online space. Priorities took a 180-degree turn. The corporate world slapped on my forehead an invisible Post-It, reminding me that our nine-to-five could eat up the rest of our lives ...if we allow it to. Sometimes, I could be helpless about it. Sometimes, when I am stubborn and willful enough, I could escape it for a while.

Life simply happened.

I have not severed my ties to the online world totally, though. There are social networking sites, where time and again I put up something to express my never-ending love affair with books, a few words on current events, gushing about pop culture, among others. But what I missed is staying here. I missed spending hours doing book reviews, churning out meta-essays about fictional characters, crafting more poems, and even drafting fanfiction. I missed making poor excuses for artworks. I missed staying up until the wee hours of the day when all I do is scroll up and down to read posts of fellow bibliophiles, wallowing in the warmth of the fact that somewhere out there, people devote a big part of their hearts for literature and fandoms, too. Does all of this equate to missing being a kid? Hah.

But most of all, I missed writing. I write constantly in the day, but the kind of stuff I produce out there sometimes makes me feel like an obligations-fueled marionette, chained to a tiny bank account. I get tired of it sometimes, but hey, it's part of the equation of being an adult! I just truly missed the kind of writing where I feel more alive, more free,

Today, I realized it is about time I clear this online home of the dusts and cobwebs that have accumulated in my absence. I took the time to  put up a couple of book reviews (I cheated and have them anti-dated, haha!). I have more of those in my drafts, plus a few posts detailing what happened in the previous months. Maybe I'll get to clean them up and post more in the coming days, considering the amount of leaves I filed in December. I hope that by doing that I will be able dredge up the kid in me once more, the one with rosy-colored lenses when viewing the world. I feel the need to oil up again the gears I left almost rusting to the wind. And I guess I just want to feel holistically happy again.

(Now that I think about it, this has sounded more of a note-to-self than a "hi again" post to fellow bloggers. More precisely, it sounded more like a note to a version of myself, to the nerdy gal who actively contributes to the fandom she's a part of. Moving on...)

No matter how small of a thing it is to be able to blog again here, I'm so drinking to it. No alcohol though. Just a good cup of darjeeling will do.

If someone is reading this...well, see you in my next posts!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories

Author: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Genre: Romance, general; contemporary fiction

My Rating: ★★★ (specifically, 2.5 of 5 stars)

Short stories possess a kind of magic that novels sometimes do not have. The worlds in them seem smaller because of their length, but I came to realize that this is nothing but a hypercritical verdict: the worlds in them are in truth so much bigger, as there is a plethora of possibilities hanging at the ledge of every tale’s abrupt end. The readers often get to be the mind-pilots when they reach the said ledge, imagining what would happen past the borders. These tales are like tiny pieces of a universe pulled apart and made to stand alone. The very good ones are strong enough to make a reader believe they do not need to be a part of something bigger in order to do what volumes of others could, from something as small as scraping the reader’s heart to something as large as totally changing someone’s life.  Imagine what an anthology of these kinds of stories would be like!

But let us keep in mind that a tale’s power is directly tied to its effect to the audience. In the end, it is still a matter of preference and taste—what can reduce you to tears may only be able to make me arch an eyebrow; what can make me laugh like there is no tomorrow may only make you shrug.

Considering this, I believe that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s ’s anthology There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories may be regarded as a powerful collection, but one whose clout does not quite hit my heart’s bull’s eye nor grabbed at my interest for long. (The title did arrest my curiosity, I'll admit, but it was its contents that I have a few concerns with.)

Don’t get me wrong: the stories have a lot to offer. They bring forth a blend of bittersweetness, hope, desperation, grit, heartbreak. They flash facets of histories of women who sought, found, and lost love in a variety of places and situations: seedy apartments that witnessed infidelities, hasty and messy one-night stands, hesitant romances in corporate bubbles, trysts crutched by temporary bliss, and label-less relationships. They feature an assortment of women, too—there are strong ones, "weak" ones , and those lodged in between. But even though there is a lengthy list of rave reviews for this anthology and the one that preceded it (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales), I cannot seem to find a concrete element in it that will make me cherish it as something that is utterly remarkable.

I think my main concern with the whole thing is that even though the stories are meant to be stand-alones, the characters (and in effect, the situations they are in) seem to bleed into each other. And I am not talking in a seamless, spin-off-like Venn Diagram way either. It was as if there is a handful of templates for characters that get recycled for the individual tales, as though there is a lone element that make them identical in voice and demeanor.

The result, for me, is that there is no character that stood out. Well-written characters are vital for short stories because they often drive the whole tale with them. Like what I said in the beginning of this review, there might be a bigger universe outside a short story’s concrete margins when it reaches the end, but the space where characters could establish themselves as beings worthy of being remembered is very small. The process of character creation and/or development should happen here—it could not extend to those unseen margins.

I liked how each story unfolded, though. The successions of every scene hold a flavor of honesty and simplicity; their undemanding messages could be conveyed to their audience effortlessly. Remembering these bits as something notable could be a lot easier if their anchors—the characters, of course—are as strongly knitted as they are.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The 'Little Prince' Little Babel Hunt!

Ever since I fell in love with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince around 15 years ago, I pledged to embark on a little (dork-ish) mission of collecting its various editions in all possible languages. I wanted to have a 'tribute' space for it in my shelves that I can label "The Little Prince Around the World," something perhaps that you may tag as a shrine. I imagine it's going to be a beautiful babel of paperbacks for one timeless story.

 I started with an English copy, of course; I also have one in my own tongue, the Filipino translation that can still make me giggle when I read parts of it. And today, I chanced upon a French edition--THE STORY IN ITS ORIGINAL LANGUAGE! I had to clamp down my shriek when I found it, had to dodge curious looks from fellow book-shoppers when I clutched the copy close to me. I also had to insist that Yes, Ms.Cashier, I know it's in French and I'm still going to buy it! ;)  Frankly I have a long, long way to go with this mission: The Little Prince is translated in 250 languages! Good luck to me, right? If I'm lucky enough, I might even find a copy of it in Braille.

 So...I guess you guys know now what to give me this Christmas? Kidding...not. Maybe. Haha!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review: A Fall of Moondust

Author: Arthur Clarke
Genre: Hard science fiction, thriller
My Rating: ★★★★(4 of 5 stars)

Image courtesy of Google Images

Like its reel counterparts, popcorn literature set in outer space are usually replete with alien invasions, intergalactic skirmishes, and heroes trying to defeat extraterrestrial elements. But there is no written rule saying all works under the genre should have all these checklist items ticked—relying on hard facts, research, and a little bit of forecast will sometimes do just dandy. If done properly, they could even be better than most of those soft sci-fi treats. This dawned on me as I corrected 1/3 of my blasphemous mistake of Not Having Read Anything by the Sci-Fi’s Great Triumvirate (also known as Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, and Robert Heinlein) by picking up one of Clarke’s classic works, A Fall of Moondust.

Known as the first science fiction novel to be included in the Reader’s Digest’s Condensed Book, A Fall of Moondust is a futuristic (or pseudo-futuristic?) lunar disaster story involving the tourist “dust-cruiser” Selene, which sunk into the “Sea of Thirst” after a moonquake. Its twenty-two occupants must struggle to survive while the crew above them tries to trace and rescue them before it’s too late.

Readers need not become selenologists or even space buffs to notice that the world-building is superbly executed, although by now the delicate details of its science-based foundation are largely outdated. Clarke was not also able to foresee the influx of high technology that this generation could as well be having; the existence of cellular/smart phones or tablets and similar gadgets could have propelled the plot points into very different directions, from contacting people (they are not in too deep into the moon-pit anyway) to extracting some form of entertainment. This did not deter me from enjoying its multi-dimensionality, though. I loved the feel of the whole thing, from how space tourism worked in the author’s chosen setting—with of course a bit of involvement of politics, like how there are actually some officials who voted against turning the moon into a tourist destination, etc.—to how Clarke wrote the moon to appear both mystifyingly beautiful and stealthily dangerous. It was as if the moon was a character in itself, and that is always good in my book.

The characters are not as fleshed out as I wanted them to be, but I think they were decent for the most part. My favorite turned out to be the one person the other characters could not find themselves to like, the young grumpy astroscientist Tom Lawson. His antisocial, high-and-mighty attitude makes almost all people he meets peel away from him as if he is caustic, and that’s exactly how he wants it. He does not put up pretenses about caring for the people he is supposed to be saving; he is a cold problem-solver, bent on proving he is right when all of nature is trying to tell him otherwise. I liked him the most because he is ‘differently flavored’ from the rest of the characters. He stands out and does not make excuses for his actions, and though he sets out to make everyone thinks he is made of marble, there are moments in the book that poked at his soft core, handful of scenes that showed he could be an ordinary, scared human too. Through subtle episodes, it is hinted that his personality has been a by-product of a bad childhood. However, Clarke did not allot space for a dramatic back story as it could veer away the focus from the main meat of the novel, a choice that is unusual with overly dramatic books nowadays.

The thing that concerned me the most is the lack of strong women in the book. Sure, we have the flight attendant Sue Wilkins, but what purpose does her presence serve other than being a romance catalyst for one of the main male characters? She is described as formidable, but nothing in the novel ever backed that up—even that single sentence saying the skipper Pat Harris is simultaneously afraid of and smitten by her proved to be a tad too unconvincing . The rest of the women are passengers who are either bitter old maids with a bad case of “impacted virginity” (I mean, seriously?!) or obese wives who automatically turn themselves into butts of ridicule with zero effort.

But in terms of plot and pacing, this story simply shines. I was constantly at the edge of my seat, turning pages in awe as I await one plot twist after another (Clarke never runs out of rabbit to pull out of his author’s hat, I tell you). This is a prime example of a true-blue space thriller. They say this is not even Clarke’s best work, making me more excited about reading A Space Odyssey or Rendezvous with Rama.

Four stars for a satisfying treat!