Monday, June 22, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

It is so exciting as a reader to find a book like The Martian by Andy Weir. This is one of those books that will hook its readers from the very first page, make its readers laugh out loud (no matter how strangely other people may look at her) and keep its readers turning the pages as quickly as possible. Mark Watney is an astronaut and is currently on a mission to Mars. The first five days were great- and then day six happened. Well, Sol Six, since "days" are calculated differently on Mars. On Sol six, a catastrophic event left Watney all alone on the red planet and now he has to figure out how to survive.

This book was suspenseful and exciting and it made me laugh really hard in some places. It was technical enough to make me feel smart for reading it, but the technical bits were never overwhelming. The science factor of this book was so interesting and compelling that I am planning to let my eleven-year-old read it, despite the fact that it isn't exactly a children's book. There is quite a bit of cursing in the book, as one might imagine would happen in such an insane situation, but seeing as he's starting middle school in the fall, I'm thinking there won't be anything he hasn't already heard.

Mark Watney seems like just the kind of great guy everyone would love and in this book everyone does. One of my favorite things about this book is that there is no enemy, no character to hate. The antagonist is Mars herself and Mark does everything he can to defeat her while still maintaining his sense of humor and, somehow, his sanity. He is sarcastic and completely irreverent of his situation, but he's also a total genius. As a botanist and a mechanical engineer, he uses every ounce of his knowledge to get from one Sol to the next.

I suppose I'll think of something. Or die.

...there'll be nothing left but the "Mark Watney Memorial Crater"...

It's a terrible thing to have my life depend on my half-assed handiwork.

He takes great pleasure in laughing about the fact that he is the only man on the planet.

...I'm about 100 kilometers from Pathfinder. Technically it's "Carl Sagan Memorial Station." But with all due respect to Carl, I can call it whatever the hell I want. I'm the King of Mars.

While Mark is attempting to piece together some way to not die, back on Earth he is getting quite a lot of attention. And in addition to loving Mark, the characters we meet that work for NASA are just as wonderful. This book is written in such a way that the reader cannot help but become invested in the characters. I cheered for their successes and worried along with them with things went wrong. And at one point, I had to put the book down and walk away because I was freaking out so badly over one section. Seriously, it was so crazy and so so good.

The way Weir imagines the mission is fascinating. It is obviously set in the future, but there is no indication of how near or far this future could be which makes it fun to imagine watching such a mission in my lifetime. And it isn't totally removed from reality. At one point, the mission commander says this:

"Uncle Sam paid a hundred thousand dollars for every second we'll be here."

Wow. And I really don't think that's far fetched at all. I also really appreciated the way Weir wrote in the perspective transitions. The story never sits too long on one perspective or moves on too quickly. The timing is just about perfect and that is a difficult balance to find.

This was a fantastic book and I highly recommend it. The movie version is set for release at the beginning of October and it is starring Matt Damon. First a disclaimer: I LOVE MATT DAMON! However, despite that fact, I can't imagine a better actor to play Mark Watney. The whole time I was reading this book, I could totally hear Matt Damon's voice saying Watney's words. Here is the official trailer so that you can see for yourself how good this looks. I enjoyed this book so much that I bought a copy of it for my husband and another for my dad for Father's Day. I really think they'll like it and so will you. Even if this isn't the kind of book you typically read, give it a try. You'll be so glad you did.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Boldly Bookish Tour

What a fun night! I was invited to an author reception for the Boldly Bookish Tour hosted by Bloomsbury Children's and it was such a great time. We met at Buca di Beppo and had some delicious appetizers and pizza and over an hour of great chat time with the authors and other book lovers. I really enjoyed talking with these lovely ladies and hearing about their writing and all the fun things they've done while on this tour and because I love you, Smart Girls, I'll share a bit of what I learned.

Trish Doller is the author of The Devil You Know, an exciting book that I can't wait to read. It was described last night as a feminist thriller that is terrifying, but in the best way possible. I was sitting a bit away from her, so I didn't get to hear as much as I would have liked, but I did hear her say how much this tour has meant to her. She didn't share details, but she said that one night a young woman came up to her and told her how much her book had influenced her and that it had prompted her to make some real changes in her life. Trish said it really got to her and "isn't that why we do this in the first place?". It was very moving to see an author so touched by a fan's response to her work.

I was intensely happy to have been seated so closely to A. C. Gaughen. She said we could call her Annie and that the best way she has to help people pronounce her last name goes back to a high school election in which her campaign slogan was "Use your noggin, vote for Gaughen!" The slogan and the election were both successes. Annie is the author of the Scarlet series, historical novels based on the tale of Robin Hood and rewriting the character of Will Scarlet as a woman named Scarlet. I so enjoyed the conversation we were able to have. Annie helped found Boston Glow, an organization aimed at helping girls and women become leaders in their communities and use their voices for change. Previous to the event, I had found Annie's Ted Talk and I gushed to her about how wonderful I thought it was. We talked about the need for art in education (she is a teaching fellow at Harvard focusing on that very subject) and also her desire to encourage more girls in the STEM fields. Seriously, if you ever get the chance to sit next to Annie at talk for a while (or longer if you're lucky), TAKE IT!

Near the end of the table sat Emery Lord, author of The Start of Me and You, which I loved! Emery is funny and a little goofy and a vegetarian. She is obsessed with RuPaul's Drag Race and she told a hilarious story about taking the other tour ladies out to an appearance of some of the participants of the show. Tiffany found a rainbow colored sequined dress that Annie convinced her to wear and then the two of them challenged Emery to find something equally appropriate for meeting her drag queen heroines. Tiffany had to twist her arm a bit, but Emery spent the evening in a lace jumpsuit and she was rewarded by the firm approval of one of the queens. It was a riot listening to the whole group get in on telling this story.

Finally, I was so happy to be able to sit across from the lovely Tiffany Schmidt. She is the author of Hold Me Like a Breath and I am also really looking forward to reading this retelling of The Princess and the Pea set within a human-organ black market trading crime family. Really- how can anyone resist that premise? Tiffany was very sweet and friendly and she told me about her twin four-year-olds that she was missing while on tour. She also told me that her next novel is set in Texas so the trip yesterday was a good start on her research. She also spoke about her writing process and how her editor continues to push her to "write from her edges". If she is comfortable with what she is writing, she needs to push herself a little further. I thought this was wonderful advice for all writers, actually for everyone. Don't we all want to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones to see what we can accomplish?

It was a lovely evening and I am so grateful to Barnes and Nobel and Bloomsbury Children's for hosting and inviting me. I highly recommend you look for book events in your local area. I have had the most wonderful time meeting these ladies and hearing them speak, not to mention all the other amazing book lovers and Smart Girls!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord

I just finished reading The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord. It was the perfect summer read- quick and hard to put down. Paige Hancock is just beginning her junior year of high school and she is ready for a change. The past year has been a difficult one- her boyfriend, Aaron, died- and while she is still sad about Aaron, she is ready to move on from all the pitying looks she gets from everyone in their small town. She is ready to embrace life again and she has made the perfect plan to begin again. 

The characters in this book are wonderful. I love that Paige is nerdy and awkward without being a caricature of nerdy and awkward. She is extraordinarily Type A (she picks out each days outfit at the beginning of the week and really doesn't like it when her sister messes with it), she is nicknamed Grammar Girl, and she chooses to join the QuizBowl team in an effort to be more involved at school. I love the way she feels about school and isn't ashamed of it. On the first day back from summer, she is glad to be there:

Did you just intentionally inhale the scent of high school?" Kayleigh asked, laughing.
I shrugged. "I know it's not a good smell, but it smells like...possibility."
"Possibility has a smell?", Morgan asked, teasing me. "What else does? Happiness?"
"Sure," I said, giving her a defiant look. "Birthday candle smoke. Movie theater popcorn. A fresh Christmas tree."

I also love her group of friends and that they love her just as she is. I like that her best friend Tessa seems to already know who she is and cares very little about the opinions of her peers. And I love how supportive they all are of one another.

Morgan insisted on painting my nails every weekend while we marathoned TV shows. It seemed so silly, so pointless. Until I looked down at my mint-green or petal-pink nails in class: one beautiful. glossy thing in my life. My friends added the first colors to my black-and-white world.

These are friends worth having. And they are the kind of friends we should all strive to be.

I love that Paige's family is such a part of the story. So many times authors leave out these other relationships and it seems so obvious that these are the people who make the main characters who they are. Her divorced parents confuse her, her grandmother is her truest confidant with whom she shares things she could tell no one else. She even grows to see her sister in a new way, "so nearly a peer." And through these relationships, Paige is able to grow and learn. Some relationships work out, others don't. A bad relationship can be ended and a bad boyfriend isn't better than no boyfriend at all.

I also really loved all the nerdy things that Lord wove throughout the book. The summer reading assignment in their Honors English class was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I loved reading that in high school and even thinking about it still makes me laugh. I loved the bit when Tessa and Paige agree to watch a Firefly marathon with Max, but I really laughed when Ryan came in and said this:

"Okay, what is happening here?"
"Sci-fi education at its finest," Max said.
"Oh my God," Ryan said, his gaze moving between me and Tessa. "Are you being held here against your will? Blink twice if you're hostages."

I love the nerd-poking and the fact that no one is embarrassed by their nerdiness. 

Finally, my favorite thing about this book was that it Paige wasn't the typical whiney-girl-who-has-to-get-the-boy-or-life-is-over kind of person. She makes herself. She takes her grandmother's advice to "live her life" and that is just such a good thing. "Live your life and everything else will fall into place." "Love extra, even if it means you hurt extra, too. That's how we honor them." Man, I loved Paige's grandmother. And I loved that Paige was smart enough to take her advice.

I used to think it took me so long because, on some level, I wasn't quite ready to be with [spoiler]. But now I think I wasn't quite ready to be me. I needed to relearn myself.. to venture into new friendships and nerdy after-school activities and my own mind. I needed to realize that I was one-fourth of a family that is not normal and that no family is normal. I needed to paddle... I needed to let go of my unknowns...

The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs

"It's never been a better time to be a geek girl." So says the description of The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs. It is subtitled "A Handbook for Girl Geeks" and so I was immediately drawn to it. I don't know that I qualify as a "geek girl", but I at least make camp on the fringes.  I am a proudly self-proclaimed nerd, whether it be of the book or any other variety and there are certainly things I geek out about, therefore a book aimed at similar girls must be read. Sam Maggs wrote this book to reach out to all the Girl Geeks whom she felt were being overlooked and marginalized by "the often male-dominated world of geekdom."

Maggs' book gives permission (not that we need it) to all the girls out there who feel like they are being told they aren't allowed to like something, or like it as passionately as they do, because they are girls. This is a fabulous feminist manual for teaching us that we should like what we like and not care what anyone says. It embraces all the wonderful things out there that maybe we used to think were just for the boys: video games, comics, anime, Star Wars, Comic-Con, or anything else out there that makes us geek out.

She begins her book by lauding all geekiness.

My geekiness has made me friends all over the world, women who continue to be the most intelligent, well-spoken, and wonderful people I know.... What's more, regardless of their particular fandom, geek girls are devoted to supporting women in media., constantly pushing an agenda of acceptance, diversity, and fair representation.

This book is a primer for anyone curious about any aspect of the "geekdom". She breaks down some of the most populated fandoms by their defining characteristics, key accessories, tips on how to join in on the fun and details the unending debates among those that are members. I was surprised at how many of these she listed while also knowing there are thousands more. She talks about Potterheads, SuperWhoLockians, Ringers, Otaku, Trekkies, Star Warriors, Batgirls, YA Book Nerds, Whedonites, Girls Who Game, and lots more. She is also clear to point out that everyone is different and even within the fandoms, there are distinctions. And while I definitely nerd out to a lot of things, I only identified with a few she listed, but it's always fun to learn about someone else's passion. She also gives excellent advice for anyone wanting to attend her first convention. From the ginormous Comic-Con in San Diego to several smaller conventions around the U.S. and Canada, Maggs will help you get there and have a great time.

The feminist in me loves the feminist in Maggs. She brings a strong sense of girl power into her love of the geeks. I especially appreciate her drawing attention to the concept of the Bechdel Test. This is a test created by Alison Bechdel used to call out gender bias in films, television and other forms of entertainment. Simply answer three easy questions:
1. Are there two female characters with names?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

This may seem silly, but it is shocking how many things fail this once you put them to the test.

Finally, I love the list of resources at the end of the book for anyone wanting to expand her geekiness or find other like-minded ladies. I've marked them all and I'm making my way through one website at a time. And I have to love someone who says this:

"I'm nobody's sidekick, love interest, or token female. I'm driving this ship. I'm a fangirl, a feminist, and a force to be reckoned with."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Imagine a letter carrier's bag has been lost in an attic somewhere for fifty years and in it are letters never delivered. These days, it's likely that most of that would be junk mail or bills, but in 1942 when this particular bag was misplaced,back when people still wrote letters, the contents were much more personal. This is the beginning of The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. When Edie's mother is the recipient of one of these lost letters, and when Edie sees her mother's reaction, it sends Edie to uncover the truth of her mother's past.

What an intriguing premise, isn't it? That is precisely what drew me to this book. Unfortunately for me, it was a very long, slow read that alternated narrators and timelines in an almost jarring manner. When the letter leads Edie to a castle in the countryside, we meet the three elderly sisters who live there and we listen as their secrets are slowly, SLOWLY, teased out of them. This book was beautifully written, but perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind to have the patience for it. This was just one of those books that would sit on my bedside table and would not call out to me. Once the story began to reveal itself, I was more drawn in, but I was nearly three-quarters of the way through it before I felt any pull to read it. Normally, I would have walked away much sooner, but so many people speak so highly of Ms. Morton's work that I really wanted to like it and so I continued. And, while it seemed to be taking forever, I really did want to know about the grand mystery at the heart of the story.

I won't say I don't recommend this book, but I think it would be wise to save it for a time that you can give it your full attention. Oh, and I think the fall or winter would be a better season to read it. Some books just seem to require colder, wetter weather and to me, this is one. If I've totally gotten this wrong, I'd love to hear what I missed. I'm always happy to hear your opinions!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Signing Event with Deborah Harkness

I had the BEST TIME last night! As much as I love books and the authors who write them, I have never been to a book signing event and last night I was able to rectify that. Deborah Harkness, the author of the All Souls Trilogy came to the Barnes and Noble in the town where I live. I have been so excited for months waiting for today, but I had begun to worry that it might not live up to my expectations. Luckily for me, it did. Last week, I stopped in at B&N to get a wristband for the event so when I showed up tonight I had a reserved seat in the third row. I arrived about forty-five minutes early anyway and it was wonderful chatting with the people around me. I met a few members of a very active All Souls Discussion Group from Facebook and the woman sitting next to me was just lovely. We had a great time getting to know one another. Her name is Kristen and she is about to launch her own book blog which I cannot wait to read. She also told me about an amazing-sounding day camp in Austin called Camp Half-Blood run by Book People, the largest independent bookstore in Texas. We talked about how much we love books and how, when we meet new people, we always try to pick out the "book nerds" like us. Needless to say, this was a book nerd- infested event and we loved it!

While we waited for Ms. Harkness to arrive, the B&N employees kept us well entertained and even gave away a few prizes. The young woman who appeared to be in charge of the event even hand-crafted these fun little necklaces, one of which I was so excited to win. How cool is that?!

When Ms. Harkness joined us, a whisper immediately swept over the crowd to alert us all that "She's here!" and "Look! It's her!" After a little trouble with the microphone, of which she very amiably joked, she launched right in by asking if any one of us had not yet completed reading The Book of Life, the book she was currently promoting. A few people raised their hands and Ms. Harkness was considerate enough of them to ask the rest of us to carefully meter our questions during the Q&A portion of the evening to avoid the lion's share of the spoilers. I was a little worried about how this might hamper the discussion, but she handled it seamlessly. She then read two sections from the early part of the book and gave us further information about them. One of my favorite things I learned tonight was that Ashmole 782 is an actual manuscript that belongs to the Bodleian Library in Oxford and that it is, in fact, missing. She told us of how, in 1982 while there on a research trip she had attempted to call Ashmole 782 for her historical research at the time, but the slip returned to her informing her that the manuscript was missing. She even joked about how greatly the calls for it have increased over the last few years.

I was also lucky enough to be one of the six people chosen to ask a question. I asked about how difficult it is to allow a character in a book to die and if she had made that decision or if she had always know it must happen that way. She told of how she had been watching so much of the news at the time about all the service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan who were being killed and how she knew that not everyone can survive a war. She said she knew it had to be one of two characters that would die, but each time she attempted to write it one way, that character would not be killed. I love the way she discussed each of her characters as if they each have their own will. I was also rather pleased that she ended her answer by saying it was a good question - and then I realized she said that to everyone and that it was very nice of her and I'll hold on to my tiny bit of praise anyway.

She ended with telling us about how she is in the development stage of bringing the All Souls Trilogy to BBC in a miniseries and we were all very happy to hear that those plans are still moving forward. She also said that she has much yet to write and compared the stories in her head to wriggling puppies- she gets hold of one and it gets away from her- but she assured us that she would begin her next project soon. I cannot wait to read what she writes next. I envy all her students at USC and I can't help but imagine myself in one of her lecture halls.

It was a fantastic evening and I'm so glad I was able to attend. I loved meeting other book nerds like myself and hearing them speak as passionately about books as I do. Thank you to Barnes & Noble for hosting and a very special thank you to Ms. Harkness for putting us on her tour schedule. It was wonderful.