The Martian 2014A page-turner of a story about a lone astronaut inadvertently left stranded on Mars after a catastrophic accident leaves his crewmates believing he is dead. Coming to alone and marooned millions of miles from home, Mark Watney is left with no choice but to try and fight for his life. Written in log book format, the story is about So, yeah this book was pretty sweet. It was one of those cases where the reality managed to live up to the hype…a rare case as far as my experience goes.In a nutshell the premise of the book, on the off chance that you didn’t already know, is that a lone astronaut is inadvertently left stranded on the red planet after a catastrophic accident leaves his crewmates believing he is dead. Coming to alone and marooned millions of miles from home Mark Watney is left with the choice to try and fight nearly impossible odds to survive or give up and die alone on an alien world. Given the circumstances he finds himself in I think most of us would inevitably fall into the latter course sooner or later. We come to find, however, that Mark is the kind of man who doesn’t take failure lightly. Taken at its most basic level I guess one could boil the story down to the movie Gravity meets Robinson Crusoe, but, as with all analogies of this kind, taking that too far would be doing the book a disservice. While I found Gravity visually stimulating I thought it was pretty bland as a story and _The Martian_ is anything but bland. There were enough ups and downs in the plot itself to keep me excited and wondering just how the hell the most recent crisis was going to be resolved. Ultimately though, the question of what makes this book work so well comes down to two words: Mark Watney. Our intrepid hero and narrator is an ingenious astronaut with a penchant for botany and engineering whose sharp wit and never-say-die attitude manage to be uplifting without being cloying. And he can bring the funny. I found myself smiling often and even laughing out loud much more than is normal for me when reading. When it comes down to brass tacks Mark Watney is a truly likable protagonist and I’m not sure I could say that I found the afore-mentioned Robinson Crusoe half so charming.I had the audiobook version and must say first off that the narration by R. C. Bray was great. He hit the humour notes just right and did a pretty good job with accent and voice shifts where required, though his female characters did end up sounding pretty same-y…though I’m not sure if there’s an easy way around that for a male narrator short of caricature. I’d be curious to see if the humour works as consistently for me with the print version given Bray’s excellent delivery. I can’t really go into too much detail on the plot since I think that the surprises in store for the reader are integral to one’s enjoyment of the story. Suffice it to say that the (sometimes actual) shit is often hitting the (mostly proverbial) fan and it’s up to our intrepid astronaut to try and find a clever way out of problems that threaten to end his life nearly every day. While I don’t doubt that every single obstacle Watney had to face was an actual one (in the sense that they were all ‘real’ issues a man stranded on Mars would have to face) some of the crises occasionally bordered on predictable as I knew by the pacing of the story when we were due for a new catastrophe, but that’s a pretty small nit to pick. One other related problem I had with the book was the sheer amount and detail involved in the technical information Watney provides for each crisis throughout the book. I think for the most part these details were necessary, especially given the conceit that the bulk of the book was made up of log entries by Watney where he would obviously want to be pretty scrupulous in detailing exactly what he was doing for posterity. Still, I often found myself rewinding in order to try and get my head around all of the minutiae I was given…I wasn’t always completely successful at getting the full nuance of things (hey, I got an Arts degree, ok?), but I generally got the gist. As implied a lot of these explanations border on the territory of infodumps, something that usually makes me break out in hives, but in this case I would have to admit that the structure of the narrative and manner of their insertion made them seem much more like valid requirements of the story itself as opposed to merely being literary wanking by the author. While I still didn’t like the fact that I was often at a loss for exactly what was being expressed the first time I heard it I readily admit that without these details the reality of Watney’s situation, as well as their ultimate repercussions, would have been pretty vague instead of vivid and visceral.Ultimately this book is all about the human ability to come up with creative solutions in order to overcome adversity…and the adversity comes pretty hard & fast. Basically anything that can go wrong will and the real burden on suspension of disbelief lies on the reader being willing to accept that Mark Watney is clever enough to think his way out of them consistently. It means we have to accept that Watney is enough of a specialist that he can come up with pretty difficult science-based solutions without needing to consult unavailable resources, but also that he’s enough of a generalist to be able to solve problems outside of a limited range of knowledge. To be fair he does (view spoiler)[ get some help from NASA at certain points of the story, but for the most part he’s on his own. (hide spoiler)] The book also relies heavily on the belief in the power of positive thinking…something I have to admit I’m not always in line with, but for anyone without the optimistic outlook of Watney day 1 (or I should say Sol 6) would have been the end of the story. (view spoiler)[ One character even comments on the fact that “It’s amazing how much red tape gets cut when everyone’s rooting for one man to survive” and I have to admit that the cynic in me wonders how much time and effort the powers that be would really be willing to spend on behalf of one man, and whether they might not allow some ‘accident’ to occur so they could simply pull the plug on the whole operation and spin the event as an inescapable tragedy once the costs became apparent. (hide spoiler)] At first I thought the book might wear a little thin if all we were doing was listening to Watney monologue about his lone existence on Mars, but not only is he a rather charming narrator, Weir was also able to expand the story beyond Watney himself to include other characters affected by his predicament (no spoilers!) and I often found myself looking forward to these segments away from Mars and felt like they allowed me to have a bit of a break from the marooned astronaut so that when we did return to him I felt like I was coming back to him with a fresh attitude and his story never grew stale. I certainly learned the important lesson that if you’re ever trapped on Mars you must never forget to bring some serious scientific know-how and a can-do attitude. Oh, and lots of duct tape!Watney’s resourceful efforts to sustain himself until the next mission is scheduled to arrive in four years. Both humorous and suspenseful, it’s an absorbing space adventure not to be missed even for those who are not big sci-fi fans.

leaving timeAn unusual mystery novel written on several levels. While it is a book about a teen searching for her missing mother, it is also very much a book about the emotional lives of elephants. 13-year-old Jenna is determined to find out what happened to her mother who disappeared when Jenna was three years old after an elephant trampled an employee to death at an elephant sanctuary, owned and operated by her parents. With her father in a psychiatric facility, Jenna enlists the help of a psychic and a private investigator. A book about loss and grief in humans as well as elephants, the story has a dramatic twist of an ending.

The Good Lord BirdA highly entertaining, humorous historical novel of the fictitious Henry “Onion” Shackleford , a young slave, mistaken for a girl, who links up with radical abolitionist John Brown in 1856 Kansas for a rollicking ride with Brown’s crew of freedom fighters as he witnesses firsthand Brown’s doomed historic campaign. Along the way, he encounters the famous Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman as the John Brown gang make their way to the bloody Harper’s Ferry raid that helped spark the Civil War. Winner of the 2013 National Book award for Fiction.

The boys in a boatUplifting, inspirational story of nine young  men from the University of Washington who took the gold medal for rowing at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  Sons of loggers, farmers, and miners with grit and determination, they overcame many disadvantages of their impoverished circumstances during the Depression era to row to victory.

The main character of the story is Joe Rantz , a member of the team who faced unbelievable  hardships  including the loss of his mother, the rejection by his stepmother, and finally the abandonment of his parents at a very young age, but who still persevered on to row for Washington.

The book captures a fascinating slice of history of the Depression time period and the Germans preparations of the games with Hitler at the helm.

Gripping  account  of perseverance  and teamwork that captures the heart.

Orphan-train4Two orphans' stories from different generations intertwine as they clean the elderly woman’s attic and memories from the boxes and trunks unlock the stories of her life when she was sent on one of the country’s Orphan Trains in the 1920’s. Niamh tells her story as a 91 year-old woman to the young foster teenager, whose story parallels Niamh's and the two find a strong bond through their shared connection. An uplifting story of perseverance and hope.

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