Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The movie The Martian is coming out on October 2. I’ve seen the trailers and it looks good. I hope it is true to the book because it is an excellent book. This is one of those rare books that can really grip you and make you stay up late because you can’t sleep while wondering about what is going to happen next. Normally, I prefer to read books before seeing the movie adaptation. The adaptation is usually so poor as to do the book an injustice, but contains enough of the story to be a spoiler to the book. My solution is to read the book before hand and then endure the inadequacies of Hollywood screen writers. This is particularly true of any kind of science-based storyline (Is there ANYONE in Hollywood who can even spell the word ‘science’?) However, the word coming out is that The Martian is pretty accurate.

The book is not only an excellent book, but the story of how it came about is pretty remarkable. It is not a spoiler to tell you it is the story of an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars. This comes out in the first few paragraphs of the book. There is a large storm and the manned mission is forced to evacuate. Mark Watney is observed getting impaled by debris and swept away. Remote sensors show the pressure in his space suit going to zero and his life signs flatlining. It’s a crisis and the rest of the team has to evacuate, leaving his body behind. Unbeknownst to them, the debris that impaled him destroyed his life sensors, causing the flatline. The blood from the wound sealed the hole in his suit, keeping him alive. But, by the time he awoke he was alone. The real problem is he only had a few days of food, no way to reach NASA, and years from another mission that might rescue him. He had to find a way to survive on his own. The result is a modern day Robinson Crusoe combined with Apollo 13 and touches of MacGyver.

One of the remarkable things about the story is how valid the science is. Okay, here’s a spoiler, the storm depicted that caused the problem is not possible. The air on Mars is so thin the storm, as described, would hardly have gotten any attention from the astronauts. I read a calculation that said it would take winds of about 10,000 mph to get the effect in the book. Storms of over 100 mph are rare on Mars. After that, the science and math are very solid. Warning: There is some serious science in the book, but the author writes it in a way that it adds to the story, not detract.

Even the story of how the author, Andy Weir, got the science so accurate is a good one. He posted it as a serial novel on his webpage, one chapter at a time. This not only developed a following, he stated getting feedback from a lot of technical people pointing out areas that were weak. These included “astronauts, people in Mission Control, nuclear submarine technicians, chemists, physicists, geologists, and folks in pretty much every other scientific discipline.” He finally relented to their demands and put it on Kindle where it went to the top-five science fiction books. A book contract followed and he found himself on the New York Times’ Best Seller list. Obviously, a movie deal followed.

Not bad for his first novel.

Book Review: Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt is both an excellent book, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and an excellent documentary, by Robert Kenner. I highly recommend both of them for anyone that has any interests in what is going on in our society today.

The book is technical with lots of science, dates, and people. It is not an easy read, nor is it a pleasant one. The history of the people involved with deliberate deception for the sake of companies and at the expense of the public is alarming and, at times, depressing. Oreskes and Conway do a thorough job of exposing these people, providing a large amount of documentation in the process. While the book reads much like a newspaper article and is very in depth, the documentary is easier to follow, but does a much more superficial job. That is to be expected – the book is 274 pages long and the documentary is 93 minutes. You could not possibly cover the same amount of material in a documentary and, to their credit, they don’t try.

Reading the book brings out a few interesting points. The first, and most obvious, is the history of deception and the success these people have had in this regard. Take a look at the list of things the public has been deceived about by the Merchants of Doubt:

  • Smoking

  • Second-hand smoke

  • The Strategic Defense Initiative

  • Acid Rain

  • CFCs and the ozone hole

  • Global warming

  • DDT

In every case, conservative groups have put the public at risk while helping industry to make a bunch of money.  What really makes it alarming is they have routinely known they were wrong. The tobacco industry knew smoking causes cancer way back in the early-1950s. The fossil fuel industry knew manmade emissions cause global warming back in the 1960s. The dangers of second-hand smoke was proven and known in the 1980s. The Strategic Defense Initiative was well known to be unfeasible, even by the people pushing it, from the very beginning. The link between the ozone hole and CFCs was never in doubt scientifically (DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers, realized the danger of CFCs early on and quit making them). The economic and ecological damage as a result of acid rain (and the causes) was understood all along. And, the widespread danger of insecticides and DDT is fully known, even by the people pushing them.

Why is that? Why have the conservatives become the anti-public, anti-science group? Oreskes and Conway make the convincing case that it isn’t about money, it’s about ideology. To these people pushing anti-science, anyone that opposes them is a liberal and a liberal is someone who wants to destroy the country. To them, defending these horrible things is about freedom. We need to allow coal companies to belch out massive amounts of sulfur and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in order for the country to be free. It is important people smoke so the country will be free. DDT, SDI, CFCs and every other cause of these groups is all about keeping the country free. Opposing them means you want to take freedom away from the American people.

It never seems to enter their minds that someone could be a liberal and loyal American at the same time. They accuse someone of being a ‘liberal’ the same way you accuse someone of being a murderer or rapist. To these people, ‘liberal’ means someone who wants to destroy the country and civilization. One of the terms these people use for people who oppose them is ‘watermelon’ – green on the outside but red on the inside. According to them, if you are concerned with the environment, you’re a communist, even though they know the science is correct.

I find this to be very interesting. Basically, I’m quite conservative on many things. After all, I spent 35 years in military intelligence. You don’t do that and walk away with a cheery viewpoint of the world at large. And, when it comes to fiscal matters, I am a definite hawk. Believe me, my family gets quite a laugh when someone accuses me of being a liberal. And yet, I find myself on the opposite side of the fence from the conservatives on each of these issues. The reason for that is I accept the science and go where it leads me.

You can deny the science all you want, but it will keep right on doing what it does. The universe is not sentient. There is no “Mother Nature” looking out for us with a gentle hand. If you say manmade emissions won’t cause global warming, that is your right. But, those manmade emissions will continue to cause global warming. And, if you say smoking doesn’t cause cancer, that is your right. But, people will continue to get cancer from smoking. Nature doesn’t need you to agree with it. It doesn’t need your permission.

So, these Merchants of Doubt have protected the industries by causing people to question the science. And, they continue to do it. Unfortunately, as we have all seen, it is very effective. After all, the truth caught up with the tobacco industry, but it took fifty years for it to happen and millions of people died in mean time. Eventually, the truth will catch-up to the fossil fuel industry. I just wonder how many people will eventually die because of them. It’s already in the millions. And, don’t forget about the irreversible damage to the environment.

Is ideology really that important?

In summary, if you have any interest in the topic at all, I highly recommend you watch the documentary (available over the Internet) and read the book.

Book Review: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson

There is only one thing you need to know about this book – it was written by Bill Bryson. If you have never read his books consider yourself very privileged – you get to read all of them for the first time. Bryson is one of the most gifted writers today. His books are uniformly entertaining and informative at the same time. Never has learning something been so much fun. I prefer to read his books in private because I get tired of all the strange looks I get when I’m laughing out loud while reading his off beat stories and irrelevant comments.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is about growing up during the 1950s and 60s in Des Moines, Iowa. This was a magical time in the history of the U.S. (even, the world) and Des Moines represents the nearly ideal image of American life at that time. Combine that with the misguided adventures of a young boy and you get a very entertaining story.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially if you feel you need something to make you laugh.

Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

If you follow science fiction, you have probably heard of Connie Willis. She has won six Nebula Awards, six Hugo awards and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Those are just a few of her achievements. She’s a heavy hitter in the world of writing. Based on that, it should be no surprise to hear To Say Nothing of the Dog is an excellent read. And, it is. It is something of a comedy of errors and coincidences, loosely based on the Jerome St. Jerome classic novel, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), and Willis makes several references to it in her story, including one passage where they spot the actual boaters on the Thames River.

The story is about a future, time-traveling society that has somehow upset the time-continuum, but doesn’t know how or where. The team is racing to fix the continuum while at the same time working at the detailed reconstruction of the St Michel’s Cathedral in Coventry, England, which was destroyed in a blitz attack during World War II. Throw in some love interest and you have the making of a very fine story. There is a great deal of humor and intrigue in the story, as well as mystery. It is a little long (my edition had nearly 500 pages), but it moves rapidly and easily. Definitely put it on your to-read list, if you haven’t already read it.

Book Review: The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks

I went with a newer-than-classic science fiction novel for my last read. Published in 1988, it is a little old to be calling it ‘current’ or ‘modern,’ but it is too new to be calling it a classic. Given time, it will be a classic. It was that good. I have heard of Bain, but I never got around to reading any of his books. Now, I plan on reading some more of them.

The story is a little difficult to follow at first. Eventually, you learn this is happening in a civilization that has had space travel for 11,000 years, so it is taking place in the distant future. Banks includes some weird things that you might expect in a future scenario but doesn’t explain what they are. You just have to accept them as is. The more important ones explain themselves over the course of the book. Some never really did become clear, but it wasn’t important.

The story concerns Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a professional game player. He is considered to be the best player in the entire Culture (as the civilization calls itself). He gets recruited to go to a newly discovered Empire in the Magellanic Clouds, 150,000 light-years away. He was picked because this empire is built about a game – Azad. It is so engrained into the culture of this empire that it has taken the name of the game for itself – the Empire of Azad. Every “Great Year,” there is a tournament and the winner of the tournament becomes the emperor. Gurgeh is to go to the Empire and enter into the tournament. The trip will take two years to get there and he spends his time on the trip learning how to play Azad. Don’t worry, he is not permitted to win any governmental post as a result of how well he does, he does not become emperor (Bain is much more creative than that). It is merely an exhibition match for him. But, that doesn’t prevent the episode from becoming very involved and dangerous.

It is a pleasant read. There are a few areas where it gets slow but, for the most part, it flows well. I give it a high recommend.

Book Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

I realized recently I had never read this classic, which is very surprising due to the fact I love Gothic horror stories. So, there was nothing to do but sit down and read it and I’m glad I did. It really is a great classic. I don’t need to go into details about the story, although I’m sure you don’t know details of the actual plot (I’m not aware of any movie that has been faithful to the book), but you know the premise. Count Dracula is a vampire and makes his way from Transylvania to London where he intends to start a legion of vampires to rule the world, only to be foiled by an intrepid team of mortals. There is a lot of suspense and the storyline is excellent. It was written in 1897, so the language is a little strange, but not too much. What is more strange is the mannerisms of Victorian England as compared to what we experience today (Were they really that sexists? No need to answer, I already know.). I love the irony that Dracula (the book, not the Count) actually did spawn a legion of vampires. This is the one that started it all. From Nosferatu, to Bela Lugosi, Interview with the Vampire, Underworld, Blade, the Twilight saga, the campy Count Blacula, or the hilarious Love at First Bite, and many more movies and books – they all started here. Count Dracula only wished he could be this successful.

A little know fact about the book is Bram Stoker changed the ending. Originally, he had the castle collapse at the end, but he deleted that in the final version. The speculation is he either didn’t want to be compared to Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher or possibly, he was planning a sequel. We’ll probably never know the answer. There was also a first chapter that dealt with a vampire queen which the publisher deleted. He felt it was superfluous to the story and the book was too long. Stoker’s widow published a number of his stories after his death and one of them was ‘Dracula’s Guest,’ supposedly the removed chapter.

So, if you are looking for a good story to read in the dead of night, you found one. Still good (or evil) after all these years.

Book Review: Frozen Heat (Nikki Heat Series) by Richard Castle

I don’t watch TV. I don’t even own one. Yes, I’m one of THOSE people. I had to make choices in my life and TV was something I decided I could live without. There have been no regrets.

That doesn’t mean I look on TV with disdain. In fact, there were quite a few shows I really enjoyed. The Mentalist as a good show and I loved Bones before it went weird. I used to watch cooking and gardening shows, as well. I particularly love to watch movies (How do you block TCM? I can’t stop watching!). But my favorite regular show was Castle.  I liked it so much I still watch it on line. You can catch the new shows on one week after they have aired on regular TV.  That, and Nova, are the only shows I still watch.

If you are not familiar with the show Castle, the premise is Richard Castle is a best-selling murder mystery writer. He has exhausted his ideas for his hero, Derek Storm, and kills him off. At this time, he is called in to consult with the New York Police Department on a series of murders staged after his books. This begins a long consultation gig working with Detective Katherine Beckett and her team of detectives. Beckett becomes the inspiration of Castle’s new series of stories featuring NYPD homicide detective Nikki Heat. Each episode centers around a murder they must solve, but includes the growing romance between the two, Castle’s bizarre relationships with his daughter and mother and contains a considerable amount of clever humor. The show is much more light-hearted than say, Criminal Minds.

Someone came up with the idea of actually writing the books. So, you can purchase the whole series of Nikki Heat books, ostensibly written by Richard Castle. Whoever is responsible for this idea deserves a big bonus. The series began with Heat Wave, followed by Naked Heat and Heat Rises. Each of them is quite good, if you like murder mysteries. The one I read most recently is Frozen Heat and is the best one so far.

The story starts with the finding of a murdered woman stuffed into a suitcase. While inspecting the crime scene, Heat finds out the suitcase was one stolen from her mother’s apartment after she was murdered ten years ago. It turns out, they never found her mother’s murderer and it was the event that inspired Nikki to become a police officer. This puts her on a dual investigation – one of the current murder and one of her mother’s cold-case murder. With the help of her reporter boyfriend, Jameson Rook, she then get’s involved in a series of adventures and near-death confrontations that answer’s many questions, but leaves her with others still unanswered. Hey, you need to leave something for the next novel – Deadly Heat.

So, if you are looking for some light reading, I recommend the entire series. Each book is a stand alone and you don’t need to read the previous books, but if you are going to read the whole series, I recommend reading them in order.

Book Review: Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen

Justinian’s Flea is about the history and events surrounding the first major plague outbreak in history. Justinian was the Roman Emperor in the sixth century who ambitiously (was there ever any Roman Emperor who wasn’t ambitious?) attempts to rebuild the fading empire. He very nearly succeeded and might have reunited all of Europe, if not for the plague. Between the earliest outbreak in Pelusium, Egypt (near Alexandria) in AD 540, the plague came and went throughout Europe and the Middle East for the next 150 years, killing more than 50 million people, approximately one-half of all people living at the time.

Let me say, William Rosen must have one of the most impressive intellects I have ever come across. He is able to speak intelligently on a very wide range of topics and subjects – history, art, science, medicine, politics, religion, climate and much more. Consequently, this book is an amazing piece of work. If you have any interest in history, particularly the history of the end of the Roman Empire, I highly recommend this book. I learned something on every single page. But, it is not an easy read. Sometimes, Rosen loads the story with so many names, places and dates that it is very difficult to follow. At times, he incorporates multiple concepts and topics in a single paragraph. You really have to pay attention while reading this book, but it is worth the effort. Frequently, I found myself just blipping over some of the details that I found more in-depth than needed for my purposes. I am not interested in becoming a scholar on the names of the multitude of rulers and would-be rulers Rome went through during the period. During one period, known as the Third Century Crisis, Rome had 26 different emperors in only fifty years. Poisoning was the favorite means of dispatching them. It makes you wonder what that twenty-sixth guy was thinking when he took over. Rosen doesn’t list them all, but that gives you an idea of what the period was like.

So, if you are looking for a good historical tale about a period that shaped the modern world (even our world of today), put this on your list.

Book Review: The Captured, by Scott Zesch

The Captured – A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier, by Scott Zesch.

The descendent of a ‘white Indian,’ Scott Zesch’s book is both informative and engaging.  You feel as if you were actually there as you read the accounts of the attacks on the Texas settlers by the Apache and Comanche who viewed the settlers as invaders.  Frequently, these attacks would include the abduction of the settler’s children who would then be raised as members of the tribe. It is a gripping tale, but also sad at the same time.  The clash of the cultures lead to many hardships and heartbreak – on both sides. Zesch did us all a service by researching these accounts and recording the stories before they passed into eternity.  I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of the era and to anyone looking for a good, but serious, read.

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