Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton

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     The satellite Scoop VII suddenly lots its orbit around earth, and came down near a tiny town in Arizona called Piedmont. The agents sent out to retrieve it find its signal inside of the town itself, where they find all of the inhabitants apparently lifeless. The men see an old man in a robe covered in blood still alive, and walking towards them. They open the door of the van, and die seconds later. The commander of the nearest army base contacts a secret government organization called Wildfire, which was set up in case of an extraterrestrial contaminant appeared. Wildfire is comprised of an elite team of four hand picked scientists who are shipped out to the base immediately. The base is a huge underground complex, built to avoid contamination at all costs. If it does somehow become contaminated, a nuclear trigger will be set off, incinerating the compound. The team heads off to Piedmont for samples, and finds a few notable things. Not everybody just died, some people committed suicide. They only find two living people, the old man, bleeding all over his robes and slippers, and a baby, apparently unharmed.
     Even though most people think this is one of, if not the greatest, work of Michael Crichton, I beg to differ. I would say that the plot is excellent and the facts are steadfast as usual, but the ending lacked a kick. Admittedly, it was unexpected, but very underwhelming. It was disappointing really, such a great story and a total letdown at the last three pages. Other than that though, I really liked it. Basing a story on a biologic threat whilst the world was still dreading a nuclear one turned out to be genius. The most genius part about it though is the fact that he wrote this while he was still in medical school. I have no idea how he found the time (I wouldn't have been able to even if I was a spectacular writer), but I suppose that writing it over multiple years helped. Amazingly, the voice still feels uniform though throughout the book, something that isn't quite there for most long term projects. Overall, a very worthwhile read.

Fun Fact #1: This was the first book of his to be turned into a film (miniseries, actually).
Fun Fact #2: Crichton wrote this while he was still in his 20's.
Fun Fact #3: This book was considered to be the turning point when Crichton's writing became well known. 
Fun Fact #4: Crichton was inspired by the book The Ipcress File by Len Deighton (yet another first time author!).
Fun Fact #5: The Andromeda Strain took him three years to write.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Martian - Andy Weir

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Image courtesy Crow's Nest
     This book follows the story of Mark Watney, a member of the Ares 3 mission to Mars. After just six days on the surface, a massive dust storm hits their camp, and the crew decides to abandon the mission before their MAV (Martian Ascent Vehicle) is destroyed. As they make the EVA (extravehicular activity) to the ship, Watney is impaled by an antenna, destroying the biomonitor of his suit in the process. His crew decides to leave him, believing he is dead, and Mark somehow makes it back to the Hab (living quarters) alive. Even though he recovers over the next few days, he soon realizes that he is doomed. He has no means of communication, little food and water, and no way to contact anybody. He decides that his first order of business is to create a food source, figuring that it would be more than four years before NASA's next Mars mission. However impossible his position seems, Watney continues to overcome obstacle after obstacle with phenomenal expertise, ingenuity, and wit. But can he survive long enough?
     This was easily one of the best rated books of the 2014 year, and after reading it, I understood why. It is amazing. I would go as far as to say that it is still underrated even with all of the attention it is getting. The Martian was narrated by Watney in a kind of diary format, with him writing an entry every few sols (Martian days). This format is usually one that I could live without, but it was clearly perfect for this book. Having a third person narration for Watney would have ruined it. The thing that I liked best about it, though, is just how technical it was. I have never seen a book with such attention to detail. The statistics are spot on. Just as an example, Watney is tries to figure out how he can make water with almost nothing. In the end, he ends up making it out of leftover hydrazine from the MDV (Martian Decent Vehicle). Not only does he do this, but he finds out the exact amount of water it will produce with him burning it with oxygen. It also includes the fact that he can't burn it without oxygen, but he is living in an environment that will blow up if a flame is introduced. He hurdles every scientific problem in a logical way, and makes it interesting at the same time. Even though he is resourceful, he keeps on getting bad luck and having more problems to face. These problems include short circuiting, flipping over, blowing up (twice), and having to live with only disco music for entertainment. In a word, stupendous.

Fun Fact #1: This is Andy Weir's first sold novel (Just like the other 10/10, Ernest Cline!).
Fun Fact #2: The rights for a movie were quickly snapped up by 20th Century Fox, who are planning to release it on November 25th of this year.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Amulet of Samarkand - Jonathan Stroud

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     In modern day England, an eleven year old boy named Nathaniel is setting up a summoning in his attic room. The candles and fragrances are there, and the pentacles have been drawn. He calls out into the void, against the will of his master, summoning a powerful djinn, Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus, feeling slightly offended at the fact he was summoned ant thus controlled by so small a child, is given a daunting task, to take the Amulet of Samarkand from a prominent magician, Simon Lovelace. Bartimaeus complies, and finds the amulet's location, Lovelace's house, to be heavily guarded. He changes into a mole, and burrows under its safety net. Sneaking through the house, he is able to find the amulet, but as soon as he takes it, he senses a powerful entity. He is chased by Jabor, his old friend, and barely escapes after encountering another friend, Farqual. Afterwards, he finds that even though his disguise as a human is activated on six planes (visible levels, humans can only see on one), a motley group of kids mugs him and nearly takes the amulet from him. Bartimaeus can feel its powerful aura, and almost pities the kid for having stolen it. He would surely be tracked down and killed.
     This novel is an interesting one, with a straightforward plot. Wizards are always enamored with personal gain above anything else. The only wizard who defies that is Nathaniel, and it follows his story alongside that of his charge, Bartimaeus. Nathaniel's viewpoint describes a maze of information and Bartimaeus threads his way through it, showing the reader the real plot hidden underneath. (No, I am not going to tell you what that is.) The scene at the end of the book really took the cake for me. It had just the right combination of scheming, battle, and heart (Yeah, yeah; move on). The fact that this book is part of a series is also appealing, making the intricacies of the first book relevant in the second and third. Stroud has done very well setting up the next two books, and has created an environment in which you connect with the characters with ease. You grow to love Bartimaeus for his quirky yet omniscient personality, and Nathaniel for his bravery to do what is right, no matter the cost. I really only disliked two things about this. First of all, I am the arch nemesis of character switching authors. The POV switching confuses me normally, but in this book, each time the POV switched, so did the time period! That was extremely annoying. Also, once I read the rest of the series, I was sorely disappointed. They were just okay, nothing like the masterpiece we have here. I really wanted a good series, and I did not receive it.

Fun Fact #1: Jonathan Stroud integrated some of his own finding into this book.

(for this book only, NOT the rest of the series.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sphere - Michael Crichton

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Image courtesy of Jwk Books
     This book is narrated from the point of view of Norman Johnson, a fifty-three year old psychologist, and begins with him being shuttled by the navy to an apparently astounding discovery in the South Pacific. Navy ships were passing the area, and detected an unusual object far below the ocean's surface. They send divers down to investigate, and found what appeared to be an alien spacecraft half a mile long, abandoned there for more than three hundred years. Now, Norman has been given leave by the President himself to investigate with a crew that he had designed years before to investigate any signs of sentient alien life. Norman had written that paper for some quick cash, and found it shocking that the government actually chose it to be used in the situation. He and the rest of his team go down to extreme depths in the ocean, to find a fully intact spacecraft. Once they get close and move to open it up, they notice the instructions next to the buttons, written in plain English. Inside, they find that it is from fifty years in the future, and fully equipped for what appears to be time travel. However, after being down in the depths for a few more days, they find something even more shocking. There is an sphere inside of the craft, approximately thirty feet in diameter, polished silver, with strange, unearthly markings on one side. This begins a whirlwind of discoveries and deaths seemingly set into motion by the mysterious sphere...
     This book is a frankenstein of genres, and I honestly didn't expect it to work. But with the staggering amounts of detail that Crichton put in, it really does deserve at least three genre types. There really is something for every nerd. The mystery aspect of the story was really just the question of who will live. (Hint: at least one does, but no more than three.) Trying to figure this out beforehand drove me mad with anticipation, and with every activity someone did, the chances of survival grew slimmer. There is another, even better mystery, but it would totally spoil the story, so I won't tell you. You'll just have to read the book. The science fiction aspect was comprised of a few things as well (again, mostly spoilers). The one that I can tell you about is the spaceship. Crichton meticulously designed the ship, thinking of every possible aspect. The size, the powering, the actual way it travels through time, the way it is designed, the list goes on and on. The best part is, it doesn't get boring like it usually does when you read something from a social studies textbook (Facts with a little bit of filler sentences.). I've mentioned it before, and I'll mention it again (probably), the detail in his books is what makes him a fantastic author. The only downside I can think of is that the characters seemed slightly dry in comparison to the rest of the book.

Fun Fact #1: Sorry, I already wasted all of my facts on Airframe.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dog On It - Spencer Quinn

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     This mystery novel is told from the point of view of a quirky dog, Chet. Chet had been trained at the police academy, and just barely failed his last test to get his certification. He is adopted by Bernie, a former soldier and now a Private Investigator, and a great friendship begins. When this book begins, they are falling on hard times, and doing any PI work they can scrounge. When a frantic mother comes and says that her daughter, Madison, is missing, Chet and Bernie take the case. Suspiciously, while searching the house for clues to where Madison had gone, they find pot hidden under her desk. Unfortunately for Chet and Bernie, Madison comes back on her own, apparently from the movie theater. They return home, still starving for cash. However, Madison's mom comes back the next day and says that Madison is really gone this time. Chet and Bernie are back on the chase, and following more than just a kidnapping...
     I was surprised by Dog on It. I was expecting something nonsensical, and with a dog narrating, I thought it would be juvenile. I was wrong. It was much more endearing than juvenile, and it was refreshing for me. If this book did not have Chet, I would have rated it much worse. He is the comic relief in the story, and he really does make it interesting. Quinn has also found a way to make humor seem adult, without having to integrate adult themes. This is a hidden skill, and not many authors have it. The struggles that Chet and Bernie have (financially) are not just a spur of the moment thing. Lots of time and thought were put into it, and it really ends up playing a part in other books in the series as well. Unlike other mystery series I have read (the original Hardy Boys comes to mind), Chet and Bernie do not get repetitive at all. Each mystery is its own, and even though the ending can be predicted early, it will always entertain you.

Fun Fact #1: Spencer Quinn is a pen name for Peter Abrahams.
Fun Fact #2: Abrahams used to work as a spear fisherman in the Bahamas.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

Images courtesy of Penguin.
     Side Note: Before you begin wondering why, I did not choose this book to read, nor was it a request. It is a book I had to read for English anyway, so I figured why not write a review on it?

     The Fault in Our Stars follows a protagonist by the name of Hazel, a sixteen year old girl from Indiana who suffers from thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She attends a weekly cancer support group, and there she sees a boy by the name of Augustus Waters, both of whom immediately bond. Augustus as been affected by cancer as well, as he lost his leg due to having osteosarcoma. They both find someone with whom they can confide in, about cancer and the meaning of life. Hazel recommends a book called "An Imperial Affliction" to Augustus, as she feels that it describes her and her life well. The book is about a young girl named Anna that was affected by cancer as well, and ended up dying. Augustus ends up shocked by the ending of the story, seemingly cut off mid-sentence. This leads the both of them to contact the famed reclusive author of "An Imperial Affliction," Peter Van Houten, to find out just what happened after Anna's death. To their surprise, he actually responds, but they are told that he would not tell them the aftermath by mail, as they could repeat it. They plan a trip to Amsterdam to visit Van Houten, but are stopped by a critical buildup of water in Hazel's lungs. In this number one New York Times Bestselling novel, they experience life, death, and love in entirely new ways.

     Side Note: I can't believe that I actually wrote that last sentence. Way too cliche.

     I have no idea how this even became a bestselling book, much less a number one NYT novel (New York Times, for those of you that cannot decipher my made up acronyms). To quote from the book itself, it is a "soggy broccoli and black-bean burger that all of the ketchup in the world could not adequately moisten." In this metaphor, the ketchup is the press. John Green being a popular V-logger, his book received immediate and total press coverage, spreading the book around the globe. I would be the person eating the burger, deciding what grade it is worthy of. The beans would be the way the characters were developed and portrayed, in this case, dry and stiff. It all seemed staged to me. Lastly, the soggy broccoli would be the fancy words and the plot. To me at least, it seemed like the eloquent wording in this book came after the book was written, much like I do in my essays. This is unsatisfying to me as a reader, and apparently to my English teacher as well. The plot seemed to dissuade criticism in a very odd way. The author, again in my opinion only, incorporated the cancer aspect to be able to say "Well, if you don't like this book, you have no sympathy for people that have or have had cancer." Bull. I can have the utmost respect and sympathy for people with cancer (my neighbor) and still hate this book.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Loot - Aaron Elkins

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     This book begins in April of 1945 with a convoy of Nazi trucks slowly traveling to a secret salt mine in the Altaussee, which holds thousands upon thousands of rare and precious stolen works of art coveted by Hitler himself. With the Allies closing in, one such of these trucks breaks off. This truck was the famous "Missing Truck" of WWII. The driver had meant to drive south and pardon with the United States for amnesty, but a blizzard set him far off course, and straight into the front of the U.S.S.R.. Surprisingly, he was not immediately killed. Instead, he watched as the Russian army turned most of his precious cargo into a bonfire. Fast forward fifty years to a sordid pawnshop in Boston, where a painting by the spanish artist Velazquez shows up, sold for just one hundred dollars. The shop owner, Nazi Death Camp survivor Simeon Pawlovsky, immediately recognizes its value, and calls his art historian friend Ben Revere. Ben inspects the artifact, and finds that it truly is genuine, and one of the rare pieces known to have been on the missing truck. The very next day, the painting is stolen, and Simeon is dead. Ben sets out to recover the painting, and all of the other paintings that went missing fifty years ago. He finds himself immersed in a world of lies and deceptions, and can trust nobody as he attempts to return the paintings to their proper owners.
     This book is a good one, filled with deceit and mystery. Elkins seems to have a talent for disclosing clues without making the reader suspicious of the real culprit. In the end of the book, everything becomes crystal clear, and all of the pieces fall into place nicely. Most authors fail to do this successfully, and ruin the book in the process. What I disliked about the book was the plot setting. Even though Elkins made it work, I would not have set the book in the present. I would have kept it to the time directly after World War II. The part of the book that was set in WW II was interesting, and seemed to have more depth than the modern day part, to my surprise. I found that I really enjoyed it much more, and found myself wishing that the entire book had a different plot. Despite these drawbacks, it was still a great read.

Fun Fact #1: Before becoming an author, Aaron Elkins majored in anthropology and psychology, and worked in the government.

Fun Fact #2: He started his first novel at the age of forty-four.