2014 Audio Book Recommended books Science Fiction Uncategorized

The Martian by Andy Weir (Audio Book)

The Martian

Five words from the blurb: Mars, astronaut, alone, survival, rescue

The Martian was on the “Best of 2014” list of many bloggers I trust, so I bought the audio version. I’m so pleased that I did as it is one of the most entertaining stories I’ve ever listened to. It is basically a survival story, but combines the tension of a man living in daily fear for his life with the mundane reality of being an astronaut for an extended period of time. It also shows how complex science can solve problems and combines this with well researched technical information about Mars. I was gripped throughout and found myself laughing and amazed in equal measure.

Mark Watney is one of the first astronauts to visit Mars, but just hours after touching down on the surface there is an accident and the rest of the crew evacuate, sure that Watney has perished. He regains consciousness and discovers that he is alone on Mars. He must use every ounce of his training and intelligence to find a way to survive until he can be rescued. The majority of the book is made up of Mark Watney’s daily log entries where he records everything that happens each day, including his thoughts and frustrations. Some people might find the language a bit harsh, but I thought it was appropriate and realistic given the situation he was placed in:

Log Entry: SOL 118
My conversation with NASA about the water reclaimer was boring and riddled with technical details. So I’ll paraphrase for you:
Me: “This is obviously a clog. How about I take it apart and check the internal tubing?”
NASA: (After about 5 hours of deliberation) “No. You’ll fuck it up and die.”
So I took it apart.

Watney is one of the best characters I’ve ever come across. His flaws and strengths were given equal attention and by the end of the book I felt as though I knew him. I loved his attitude to life and think many people could learn from his reactions to adversity. The book also raised interesting questions about how much one life is worth and whether we should ever gamble with the lives of others in order to save someone else.

The Martian works particularly well on audio. R.C. Bray is the perfect narrator – making the wry humor spring to life, but maintaining the tension when serious problems arise.

Overall I can’t fault this book. I was transported into the mind of an astronaut whilst being thoroughly entertained. I learnt many new things and admired the way technical information was integrated into the gripping plot. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time.

Highly recommended.


2014 Science Fiction Uncategorized

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (Audio Book)

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August 

Five words from the blurb: death, knowledge, life, before, mystery

Harry August was born in 1919, but when he dies he is born again at exactly the same moment – with a complete knowledge of everything that happened during his previous lives. He discovers a small number of other people who experience the same phenomenon. This secret group support each other, sending messages forwards and backwards in time, until one day they receive a worrying message from the future. Harry must use several lifetimes of knowledge to try to prevent an unbelievable tragedy from occurring. 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was chosen by my book group, but I can’t decide whether or not I enjoyed it. There were many things to admire in this book:

  • accurate science with theoretical concepts developed to a high level.
  • a great cast of characters, some deliciously evil.
  • original ideas that stretched the imagination.
  • information about global historical events I was unfamiliar with.
  • a clever concept that managed to stand up to most scrutiny.

Unfortunately the brilliance of this book was undermined by the fact I was bored for most of time I was reading (listening to) it. The gripping scenes were buried in a mountain of mundane behaviour. I appreciate that this was realistic and the meandering nature of living many lives served an important purpose, but I found it very frustrating. At the end of the book everything came together and I admired what the author was trying to achieve, but I’m not sure the effort of reaching that far was worth it. 

The writing style was also quite strange. It had a clipped, almost mechanical feel to it – something probably exacerbated by the narrator. I found it irritating for the first few discs, but after that I managed to cope with it:

“Complexity and simplicity,” he replied. “Time was simple, is simple. We can divide it into simple parts, measure it, arrange dinner by it, drink whisky to its passage. We can mathematically deploy it, use it to express ideas about the observable universe, and yet if asked to explain it in simple language to a child–in simple language which is not deceit, of course–we are powerless. The most it ever seems we know how to do with time is to waste it.”    *

There was also a lot of violence in this book. Harry was tortured on many occasions and the graphic descriptions were occasionally too much for me. 

Overall I can only admire the ambition of this book – not many authors attempt to include quantum physics in their fiction. Unfortunately no one really understands quantum physics and so it could be implied that no one really understands this book either. The majority of my book group abandoned it and half of me wishes I’d done the same. The other half is proud to have reached the end and (thanks to a quantum physics module in my chemistry degree) have had a slightly better understanding of what was happening than most.

Recommended to patient people of a scientific disposition.


Did you enjoy this book or were you as frustrated as I was?

* Quote taken from Goodreads as I could not take one from the audio version. 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has been nominated for an Audie in Science Fiction. I’m surprised as I didn’t think it worked that well on audio.

The Armchair Audies are a group of bloggers shadowing this award. Take a look at the Armchair Audie blog for links to reviews of other shortlisted titles.

2014 Chunkster Recommended books Science Fiction

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

Five words from the blurb: missionary, leaving, wife, adventure, worlds

The Book of Strange New Things is an impressive book. It is nearly 600 pages long, but the intensity of the emotion means that it never drags and so seems much shorter.

The book centres on Peter, a missionary who travels to another planet to teach Christianity to a strange new species. He leaves his wife Bea on Earth and the pair communicate via an electronic system. Bea struggles on her own, especially as things on Earth begin to go wrong. The book shows how their strong relationship begins to falter as Peter finds himself increasingly absorbed by his work.

Not much actually happens in this book, but I was completely absorbed by the couple. Having had a long distance relationship I found their shifting emotions scarily accurate.

He sighed, squeezed her hand. What was he going to do without her, out in the field? How would he cope, not being able to discuss his perceptions? She was the one who stopped him coming out with claptrap, curbed his tendency to construct grand theories that encompassed everything. She brought him down to earth. Having her by his side on this mission would have been worth a million dollars.

The world-building was fantastic. The vivid descriptions enabled me to visualise the new planet and I found the quirky differences between our world and theirs entirely believable. The alien species were particularly well observed and I loved the way the human’s interactions with them highlighted the problems within our society.

My only issue with the book was the occasional excess of religious quotation. I thought the discussions on faith were well done, but my eyes tended to glaze over when the bible extracts became excessive. Luckily this only happened a handful of times and I suspect that anyone with an interest in Christianity will find these much more inspiring than I did. 

Overall this was a fantastic book. I loved the fact I didn’t know where the story would take me and found the ambiguous ending particularly satisfying. Recommended to those who enjoy vivid character studies, packed with emotion.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

The real problem, it dawns on you as you read, is that Faber just isn’t that interested in his alien Others. Sibilant Frictive

…one of the best novels I’ve read this year. S Krishna’s Books

In fact, The Book of Strange New Things is a novel that skirts the edge of one cliché after another only to either bypass them or—more impressively—reinvest them with emotional significance. Reading in the Growlery

1990s Recommended books Science Fiction

Encounter with Tiber by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes

Encounter with Tiber

Five words from the blurb: Earth, species, starfaring, space, future

I hadn’t heard of this book until I read about it in Moondust a few weeks ago. Intrigued by the idea of an astronaut writing a scientifically accurate sci-fi novel, I ordered a copy from my library. I’m pleased that I did because this is one of the best pieces of science fiction I’ve ever read.

Encounter with Tiber is a fantastic story that travels through time and space. I was gripped throughout the 500+ pages; thrown from moral dilemmas to heart stopping scenes of disaster. It predicts how human space travel will increase over the next few decades, explaining how technology will evolve to enable us to travel increasingly large distances. It also shows the problems faced when alien life is detected, giving thought-provoking insights into our society.

The wonderful thing about this book is the way everything is based on scientific fact.  The plot is firmly rooted to the first moon landings and the science behind everything is clearly explained. Some people may find that it gets a bit technical in places, but I loved the detail and enjoyed Aldrin’s predictions for the future.

“We’re going to the Moon, but only to go treasure hunting, and once we’re there it probably won’t be long before we’re taking soil that hasn’t been disturbed for four billion years, bulldozing it up in carloads, and pumping it through helium extractors. I wonder when they’ll open the first casino up there and the first Swfplay online casino. Probably within my lifetime.” Many people are playing casino games on

Buzz Alrdrin also used his experiences in space to give realistic descriptions of the thoughts, feelings and fears of those leaving our planet. This added a unique spark to the story and is the main reason this book should be considered a modern classic.

There are several things I should probably criticise (for example, the writing wasn’t perfect and the characters all had the same voice) but these problems didn’t seem to matter – I was far too engaged in the story. The only real issue is that this book was published in 1996 and so many of the events in the 1990-2010 section had already happened/not happened. Had I read this book on publication it would have had a far greater impact.

If you think you don’t like science fiction you should give this a try – it effortlessly blends historical events with predictions for the future and the scary thing is just how possible it all seems.

Highly recommended.


2000 - 2007 Fantasy Science Fiction YA

The Shadow Speaker – Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu


Five words from the blurb: 2070, mysticism, West Africa, survival, magical 

Earlier this year Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu won the World Fantasy Award for her novel, Who Fears Death. It sounded really interesting, but a few people on twitter suggested that her earlier novel, The Shadow Speaker, was even better and since it was available in my local library I decided to give it a try first.

The Shadow Speaker is a young adult fantasy set in West Africa in 2070. The world has been changed by a nuclear war that released “peace bombs” around the globe. These bombs caused the human population to mutate in a variety of different ways; the idea: to create so much diversity that no single group would be big enough to launch a war against another. Many of the population now possess magical powers – some can fly and the central character, Ejii, has the ability to hear the thoughts of plants, animals and people.

There is a lot going on in this book. African mythology is mixed with science fiction and fantasy to create something truly unique. The blend of magic with interesting predictions for the future created a book that I found very compelling and the fact it is aimed at teenagers means that it is easy to read and is the perfect introduction to African literature.

There is something for everyone in this book – there are talking cats, flesh-eating bushes, links to other worlds and a myriad of new inventions. At times there was a bit too much going on for my liking – so many new ideas on each page that I longed for a bit of calm.

My only other criticism is that the characters weren’t very well developed. There was so much world building crammed into this book that the characters remained a bit flat. They lacked an emotional depth and I failed to connect with any of them, but this wasn’t a major problem as other aspects of the book were so strong.

The best thing about The Shadow Speaker is that it contains a depth behind the words. I found this interesting blog post about the religious messages in the book and I’m sure that it contains equally insightful thoughts about many other aspects of our civilisation.

Recommended to anyone looking for something a bit different, especially if you are interested in African literature.


2000 - 2007 Science Fiction

Speed of Dark – Elizabeth Moon

Speed of Dark

I love reading books that feature autistic characters and so ordered Speed of Dark the moment Judith mentioned that it was one of her favourite books set in the future.

Speed of Dark is set in the near future, at the moment they find a cure for autism. The book follows Lou, a man with autism, who works in a department specially set up to enable autistic people to maximise their ability to analyse data. The department provides trampolines, soothing music and other comforting objects that enable the group to work as efficiently as possible, but cutbacks are forcing the company to re-evaluate the amount of money they spend on these facilities and so, in an effort to reduce costs, they try to persuade their employees to undergo surgery to remove their autism. The book follows Lou and his colleagues as they decide whether or not to become “normal” citizens.

Speed of Dark reminded me of Flowers for Algernon in that the premise of the book is whether or not people are happier when they match the majority of the population, but whilst I found Speed of Dark interesting, it wasn’t in the same league as Flowers for Algernon.

Speed of Dark accurately captures the autistic mind, giving the reader a real sense of the difficulties they face. The problem is that it isn’t necessarily pleasurable to see the world through their eyes. There were times when I became bored by the excessive detail of some descriptions and I found the continual confusion over the simplest incidents repetitive and dull.

He did not say he was sorry I had four flat tires. That is the conventional thing to say, too bad or how awful, but although he is normal, he did not say either of those things. Maybe he is not sorry; maybe he has no sympathy to express. I had to learn to say conventional things even when I did not feel them, because it is a part of fitting in and learning to get along. Has anyone ever asked Mr Crenshaw to fit in, to get along?

The sad thing is that I know this is what they have to go through each day and so I feel guilty for admitting that I found simply reading 400+ pages about it too much. I think this book would have benefited from being 200 pages shorter, but perhaps that wouldn’t have given such a complete picture of their frustrations.

On a positive note, this book did raise some interesting questions and I loved the debate about whether or not we should remove autism from society. I am still thinking about what all this means for my own son, but whilst I’m not hoping that they find a cure for autism, I am hoping that employers come to realise the benefits of autistic staff and begin to provide the wonderful facilities mentioned in this book.

Recommended to anyone with an interest in autism, but everyone else should read Flowers for Algernon first.