Bring him home

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This books is great. For science fiction lovers who like attention to detail, this is manna from Mars. Mark Whatney is part of a Mars expedition and after a storm disaster he finds himself left for dead after the crew had to abandon the planet. Communications with Earth are down, he has a limited supply of food and equipment that was designed to keep him alive for weeks, not years. In his words, he’s “pretty much fucked”.
Raw honesty is the cornerstone of this book. Watney is a likeable protagonist, and mainly because he is unflinchingly honest. He keeps a video diary (his part of the narrative) and he pulls no punches. There are detailed descriptions of recycling urine, turning human waste into fertiliser and so on, so those with a delicate composition may not want to venture here. But that would be a shame –because this is a story about human spirit. Of wanting to not only survive, but to be reunited with one’s tribe, to belong to something bigger than oneself.
Watney is a wonderful everyman – the reader roots for him all the way. The players back on Earth and the crew of Hermes, the escape ship, are also well realised. Mitch Henderson, the NASA mission director who is desperate to tell the Hermes crew their team-member is actually alive, is terrific. His superior, NASA director Teddy Sanders is really believable as well – trying to weigh up all the factors and keep everyone happy. Venkat Kapoor, Director of Mars operations is tasked with working out how to keep Watney alive and bring him home and his journey on Earth mirrors Watney’s in many ways in terms of testing, building and creating things that have never been done before. The Hermes crew has the right amount of hutzpah and determination, particularly Lewis, the mission commander. Every character is well crafted.
One of the best parts of this book is the amount of time given to Watney, and how he is thinking. He is the loudest voice here and he should be. The others are really bit players, trying to keep up. The other thing I really liked about The Martian is the lack of melodrama. There is DRAMA, but nothing is over the top or lacking credibility, which means it is seated in reality, but still really tense.
No spoilers, but there are certainly highs and lows here and a wonderful, grounded (pardon the pun) central character.
Highly recommended for anyone over the age of 14 – some swearing, but nothing gratuitous.

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Heavy content, but well written

The Sky So HeavyThe Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Claire Zorn’s The Sky So Heavy is a bleak and disturbing novel which thrusts the reader into a post-apocalpytic nightmare. Fin and his younger brother, Max, are having dinner with their Dad and stepmum when the unthinkable happens. A nuclear “test” by a neighbouring country (unspecified) has gone terribly wrong and they are plunged into nuclear winter. After an argument, Kara, the stepmum, takes off into the night and Greg, Max and Fin’s dad, goes after her. Fin and Max are left to fend for themselves in a community that is disintegrating around them. No electricity, no telephones, food becomes scarce, their neighbours start dying around them and Fin and Max make the decision to find their Dad. Along the way they draw in Noll (Arnold) an Asian boy whom Fin was guilty of bullying at school, and Fin’s friend Lucy, with whom Fin is in love.
When it becomes obvious that Fin and Max’s Dad is nowhere to be found, the group of survivors try to find their mum, a scientist, who they think will know what is going on and where to find help. Along the way there is danger and death and they are all forced to question their existence and how far they are prepared to go to survive. One way or another they all have to stand up to be counted.
There is definitely a sequel in the offing here as the conclusion is very much up in the air, and I really hope Claire Zorn is writing furiously right now! Due to a bit of swearing and the bleak content I would recommend for readers over the age of 13. A great debut novel.

War Zone : Vanguard Prime #3

Firstly I must thank Steven Lochran for organising a review copy of this book for me – I was very excited to see the next instalment of this series arrive in my PO box.
War Zone is the third in the series that began by introducing us to Sam, aka Goldrush, the newest and youngest member of Vanguard Prime, a league of superheroes. In this story we find Goldrush preparing to be introduced to the world media as as the rookie member of the elite unit. Agent Alpha, the elder statesman of the crew, suddenly takes off in the midst of this preparation, leaving Goldrush and his new bestie, Machina, to wonder what is going on. Of course, in true impetuous fashion, the two young friends take off in pursuit to find out what Alpha is up to.
When they reach him, Alpha is catching up with an old friend, Robert Ross, otherwise known as Dr Ouroboros and some of the Dr’s associates : Brainchild, Lilith and Tsar Bomba. It turns out this group is trying to find a boy named Jeremy who has powers not before seen in the superhero community. The Dr says he is trying to save Jeremy from a life as an experimental subject and manages to convince Alpha, Goldrush and Machina to help him. What he neglects to tell them is that his little group is also being pursued by an elite military group known as Vanguard Ultra.
What ensues is a series of exciting and suspenseful battles across and around the city of Tokyo, Japan. Along the way we meet the Japanese version of VP (Vanguard Prime), Battle Force Zero, commanded by the imposing Mighty Senshi.
I don’t want to give away too much in terms of plot, but Goldrush certainly holds his own against the many adversaries he faces, and we see his powers starting to develop and become even greater that he dreamed they could be. I like the science fiction sensibility of these books – Lochran really creates a world where these guys could exist quite convincingly. He also throws in the odd “in joke” for those of us who are nerds from way back. I particularly loved the reference to unobtanium in this story!
It is clear at the end of War Zone that book four in is in the wind. I hope Steven Lochran is writing fast – I know there will be lots of loyal readers hanging out for the next instalment!

For ages 12 and up.

No calm before this storm

Before the StormBefore the Storm by Sean McMullen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emily and Daniel live a sheltered and priveleged existence in Melbourne circa 1901. Into their world come Fox and BC, solidiers from the future, who need their help to save the world.

Fox and BC belong to the Imperial Army, an elite military unit from the year 2001. Australia’s first parliament is due to open in a matter of days and Fox and BC are on a mission to make sure nothing(like a bomb blast) disrupts it. Emily and Daniel and Daniel’s friend, Barry the Bag, must use every resource at their disposal to prevent the future of Fox and BC from coming into existence.
Along the way, Emily discovers a strength she never knew she had, and Daniel learns that he is braver than he ever thought possible.
This is a rollicking tale of Victorian values and future sensibilities told with humour and suspense. Highly recommended.

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

The Ask and the Answer – Men vs Women

The Ask and the Answer (Chaos Walking, #2)The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go promised much and totally fulfilled that promise. At the end of Book 1, Todd and Viola fell into the clutches of Mayor Prentiss – one of the most evil villains I have ever read in fiction. Viola is sent away, to become a healer, and after a beating and interrogation by Mayor Prentiss, Todd is placed in a prison cell with Ledger, the former mayor of Haven (now New Prentisstown).
The crux of the novel is the struggles of Todd and Viola as they exist without each other, and their desire to be reunited. They are inexorably connected and the plot hinges on whether or not they will ever see each other again.
I don’t want to talk about the events of the book, as so much happens I could write pages. What I do want to talk about is the character development of the main players.
Mayor (President) Prentiss is fully revealed as a vile, manipulative man who will stop at nothing to control all the inhabitants of New World. I can’t give spoilers, but just when you think he can’t stoop any lower – he reaches down and finds a new bottom in the barrel. He is intelligent and charismatic, but he just oozes evil.
Todd, ever the pragmatist, makes the best of his life as Prentiss’s prisoner. He tends the “herds” of Spackle used as forced labour, and is repulsed by them. It is interesting to observe this device in the novel – he can’t see (yet) that the treatment of the Spackle and the treatment of the women is the same. He constantly thinks about Viola and how he can see her again. Ben once told Todd “war makes monsters of men” and through Todd we see how this happens. He does start to become what Prentiss wants him to be. Of course, Prentiss is that quote coming to full fruition. However, through Todd we also see that it might be possible to come back from it – with the right help.
Viola really comes into her own in this novel. She finds a voice (Ness switches the narrative between Todd and Viola)and as the story goes on, a purpose in life. She is not a great healer (as she tells it) and she is overwhelmed with a desire to see Todd again. This takes her into dire situations, but it also makes her a leader. Viola is more questioning than Todd (less of a pack animal than Todd?) and rises up against injustice or pain at every turn. She feels sorry for the Spackle, where Todd, even though he tries to save one, feels only revulsion and disgust. It is clear that Viola and Todd need to find each other again, so she can save him.
Davy Prentiss – this guy is such a tool, I thought I could not feel for him at all, but by the end of this book, I felt pity for him. Everything he believed in is turned back on him and he is abandoned by everyone – except Todd. No spoliers, but from me at least, there were tears.
This is a novel of growing tensions, of revelations, of war and all it’s sorrow. It ends with a match being thrown onto a tinder box. Now I have to read book three Monsters of Men to find out who survives.
A rich and rewarding novel which gripped me from beginning to end. Book three here I come!
Ages 14 and up.

Holding on like grim death

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I should state up front that this was my second attempt at reading this book. The first time (about 2 years ago) I grew impatient with the voice of Todd and gave up. I am so glad I tried again.
Todd Hewitt lives in a world of Noise. Even when the men (and there are only men) in Prentisstown aren’t speaking, you can hear what they are saying. Not just the men either- the animals too. About a month before Todd turns 13 (and becomes a Man), his life is thrown into chaos when the two men who have cared for him all his life tell him he must leave his home and never return. Confused, but trusting their judgement, Todd and his dog, Manchee, flee Prentisstown as an armed conflict erupts. Men from the settlement come after Todd and Manchee and they realise they are on their own and fighting to survive. As they run, they discover, Viola, a girl of unknown origin who does not emit Noise. At first Todd is wary of her, but it soon becomes apparent that Viola is in as much danger as Todd, if not more.
The pursuit is relentless, with gory encounters along the way that are not for the faint-hearted. Both Todd and Viola are tested to the limits of their mental and physical endurance as they try to escape the encroaching army from Prentisstown. There is heartache, tragedy and immense sadness in this book. I became so invested in the characters that I found myself crying in anguish on more than one occasion. But, this is by far one of the best science fiction/dystopian novels I have read, in fact it may be THE best. Patrick Ness has written an accomplished cautionary tale about technology, fear of difference and self-acceptance that left me begging for more. I will not reveal more plot he, but it is safe to say that the end left me hanging and now I must read The Ask and the Answer to find out what happens next. I commend this book to you in the strongest terms. A modern YA classic.
I would recommend this for ages 14 and up but a mature 12 year old will probably get a lot out of it too.

A Steampunk Engn?

EngnEngn by Simon Kewin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Received this as an Early Reviewers book for LibraryThing and was pleasantly surprised.
Engn is a fantasy novel set in a world that has 36 hour days. It felt like a steampunk novel, but I think to qualify it would have to be set on Earth, so let’s just call it fantasy/sci fi to make it simple. Written for a YA audience, this is a story of Finn and Connor, who live a mostly idyllic life playing and fighting in the woods near their homes. We learn that Finn’s sister, Shireen, was taken to the leviathan-like Engn by the Ironclads (this novel’s version of Dementors)and has never returned. Periodically teenage villagers are spirited away by the forces of Engn without explantaion.
We learn about Connor and Finn’s friendship, and their relationship with the fugitive Diane, through a series of flashbacks as Finn is himself transported to Engn by the Ironclads. Before they were taken the three vowed to destroy Engn from within or die trying.
The big mystery of the book of course is “what is Engn’s purpose?” Finn works his way through various parts of Engn trying to find the answer and the books biggest flaw is that we don’t really find out.
However, the story flies along at a good pace and the characters are likeable. Finn struck me as a bit of a dolt at times, but I put that down to the fact that he had lived such a charmed life until the day he was taken by the Ironclads. The world Simon Kewin creates is vividly realised, but I got pretty sick of reading the word “fizz” or “fizzed” as descriptors. No less than 11 times through the text – I am sure there were other words that could have been used.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this novel and I will look at Kewin’s other work as a result.

I couldn’t quite cross The Bridge…

The BridgeThe Bridge by Jane Higgins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Bridge was an interesting book which left me a little empty at the end. I was surprised by this because it had all the right ingredients for me to absolutely love it. A war pitting one one side of a bridge against another. A secretive organisation that selects and trains the best minds to keep the “hostiles” on their side of the bridge. A central character with a mysterious past who is rejected by that organisation, despite his obvious potential. I don’t know precisely what went wrong for me reading this novel, but it felt cold. Perhaps that is what Higgins was shooting for, perhaps it was because I was reading it as an ebook on my iPad for the first time. I feel like I am shortchanging the book because I never really engaged with it. It is possible that a second reading would serve me better, so I won’t write much more here now. I really hope I can read it again at some stage and post a more illuminating and helpful review. Sorry this one is such a dud, but I have to call ’em as I see ’em at this moment!
Would suit ages 12 and up.

What a (Gold)rush!

Goldrush (Vanguard Prime, #1)Goldrush by Steven Lochran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is never a dull moment in this first book of Steven Lochran’s Vanguard Prime series. From the outset, as Sam Lee is dropped off by his parents to join the ranks of Vanguard Prime as its youngest-ever member, we know we are in for a ride and a half. We get to know Sam, piece by piece, and little by little we understand he is a reluctant recruit, totally overwhelmed by the prospect of being “Goldrush” and in the company of his childhood idols, Agent Alpha and Gaia. Sam’s superpower is supersonic speed, but he tries very hard to avoid using it because of a horrific event in his recent past.
We follow Sam as he becomes Goldrush and learns what is expected of him as a member of Vanguard Prime. Lochran gives us great details here, and the sequence where Sam learns what NOT to do with his uniform brought a smile and a chuckle to my face.
The book switches between following Sam, and following those around him. This takes a little getting used to, but by chapter four I had my had around it.
There are villains too (of course) and Cronus and The Overman are formidable ones. When they escape from “The Gallery” all hell breaks loose and Goldrush and the rest of the Vanguard Prime team are in a fight to the death for control of the planet.
Along the way we discover some really cool superpowers. Machina, shaping up to be a close mate to Goldrush, can manipulate electronic devices; Gaia, who can control the elements; Agent Alpha, who can channel energy and is able to fly and heal himself quickly. These are some awesome superheroes, up against some truly scary villains. I will not post spoilers, except to say that there is an epic conflict in the closing stages of this book and there IS a second (and I believe a third) book in the series. You can take what you will from that. A terrific SciFi/Fantasy series from an Aussie author who clearly has many more stories to bring us. Can’t wait to read Book #2, Wild Card. Review to be posted soon.