Reviews

Review: Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham

Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham
Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am amazed by the seemingly infinite flexibility of the Batman mythos. I’ve read Batman stories set in the Victorian era and the far future, seen him teamed up with (or placed in opposition to) characters as offbeat as the monster from the film Predator, and of course he’s been interpreted through cinematic visions as wide-ranging as Adam West’s, Tim Burton’s, and Christopher Nolan’s, and yet, somehow, it almost always works. In The Doom that Came to Gotham, the Caped Crusader and his rogues’ gallery of regular sidekicks and villains are transplanted into an HP Lovecraft story, and it works very well indeed.

The year is 1928, and the globetrotting adventurer Bruce Wayne has just discovered the remnants of the overdue Cobblepott Antarctic expedition… as well as the tentacled thing they found in the ice that apparently drove them all mad. Wayne destroys the monster with explosives — or so he thinks — and returns to Gotham City, the home he hasn’t seen in 20 years. But he soon encounters a talking dead man and a demon called Etrigan, who warns him that an old debt is coming due. An ancient evil from before the time of men is waking up, and if Wayne can’t find a way to stop it, humanity is doomed…

One of the pleasures of an “alternate history” tale like this is seeing how familiar characters and tropes get reworked in service of a new framework, and in this case, the reworking is clever, organic to the story, and frequently surprising. (This story contains the most logical explanation behind The Penguin that I’ve ever encountered!) But I suspect this story would also be effective if you didn’t know a thing about Batman or his usual sidekicks and adversaries. Co-writer Mike Mignola is the creator of Hellboy, another series that draws heavily on Lovecraft’s dark tales of Elder Gods and cosmic dread, and this story is an effective pastiche of those. It’s a taut, spooky yarn that effectively ratchets up the dread panel by panel until the climax, which casts a whole new light on the eternal question of whether the Dark Knight’s true identity is Bruce Wayne… or the bat.

Mignola did not do the artwork in The Doom that Came to Gotham, but the general look will nevertheless be familiar to fans of Hellboy, although it’s less stylized. Rendered mostly in a subdued palette (except where fire is involved), with nice detail overall and a suitably squirmy look to the creatures, the art contributes greatly to the final effect of the story.

Overall, a highly satisfying read.

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Quick Take: Sing Street

sing-street_cast-hero-walkI feel like I’m late for the party on Sing Street, as it’s been making its way around the U.S. since April, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, take my word for it: you will. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

An Irish import filmed in Dublin, Sing Street is a rare cinematic treasure: a movie that is both joyous and poignant, fanciful and authentic, with an ending that is exactly what you need it to be without it feeling predictable. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who forms a band to impress a girl and escape from the grim realities of his daily existence, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a love letter to the mid 1980s and the synth-pop music videos that dominated MTV at the time. It’s also a slice-of-life picture about a gritty urban school milieu that is no more. It’s a comedy-drama about brothers and brothers in arms, as well as the struggle to find yourself in spite of the petty bullies who want to squash your spirit. And it’s a clear-eyed depiction of young romance. Mostly it’s about that time in everyone’s life when you feel both hope and disappointment more keenly than you ever have before and ever will again.

This is the kind of movie I sometimes see and think “I wish I’d written this,” while secretly fearing that I don’t have enough talent to pull it off, at least not this well. The music is great and the evocation of 1985 is spot-on, as is the casting. It’s refreshing to see a movie about teenagers in which the actors actually look like teenagers. And I’ve got to say that Lucy Boynton, who plays the mysterious older girl who claims to be a model and catalyzes the entire plot, is some kind of amazing. When I was a teenager, I’d have become a musician for her myself.

Sing Street is charming on every level. Don’t miss it.

Oh, one final note: the makers of this movie must’ve cleaned out every vintage clothing store in the UK to find all that acid-wash. Wow…

 

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Review: Razor’s Edge

Razor's Edge
Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Razor’s Edge is the second of the two books in the aborted Empire and Rebellion trilogy that made it to press before Disney’s acquisition of all things Star Wars and subsequent termination of the existing “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials. (Well, technically, Razor’s Edge was the first of that trilogy, but I read it second; there isn’t a unified story arc connecting the two, so it doesn’t matter what order you read them in.) Remember, the idea behind Empire and Rebellion was to give each of “the big three” characters — Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo — a book focusing on them during the little-covered period between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, i.e., between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Razor’s Edge is Leia’s entry… and I’m sorry to say that it was pretty disappointing after the rollicking good time I had with the Han Solo book Honor Among Thieves. Also, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain exactly why.

The plot isn’t bad. It begins with Leia and Han on a secret mission to meet with merchants who can provide supplies for the construction of the new rebel base on Hoth, but their ship is attacked by Imperials shortly after arriving at the rendezvous point, suggesting they’ve got a leak somewhere in the Alliance. Fleeing their attacker, they come upon a pirate vessel attacking a freighter… and to Leia’s shock, the pirate is a former Alderaanian ship that survived the destruction of their homeworld and turned rogue to survive. One thing leads to another, and Han, Leia, and the Alderaanians find themselves at a pirate armada’s “clearinghouse,” surrounded by cutthroats, trying to figure out how to save a group of innocent captives as well as themselves, and uncover the identity of the spy in their midst, as before the Empire catches up to them.

That all sounds good, and I liked the primary setting — an abandoned asteroid mine filled with broken-down machines and senile droids, now taken over by the pirates — but I found I just didn’t engage with the story in any significant way. The secondary characters were largely indistinguishable from each other, the Imperial pursuit never seemed all that threatening, and I wanted something… more from Leia. Her lingering feelings of guilt and trauma over what happened to Alderaan are mentioned, and supposedly play a big role in why she’s so interested in these hometown pirates, but the feelings don’t have any palpable presence, and I kept thinking they ought to. Not that I wanted the book to become too dark and heavy — remember, that’s my complaint with so much of current popular culture and a place I definitely don’t want Star Wars to go — but a little more exploration of the princess’ mindscape would’ve been appropriate in this story.

On the positive side, Leia is convincingly portrayed as capable of independent action, Han gets in one of his trademark insanely reckless rescue stunts, and some of the banter between them is nice.

In the final analysis, I’d give Razor’s Edge a lukewarm recommendation. It’s mediocre and disposable, but it’s an adequate diversion, and it is better than some of the Star Wars tie-ins I’ve read. But I wanted it to be so much better than it was…

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Review: Star Trek: Captain’s Log

Star Trek: Captain's Log
Star Trek: Captain’s Log by David Tipton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This graphic novel, which I suspect will be of interest only to hardcore Trekkies, collects four stories about starship captains whose names aren’t Kirk or Picard: Pike (from the original series’ first pilot episode “The Cage”), Sulu, Harriman (briefly seen in the feature film Star Trek: Generations), and Jellico, a character who appeared in the two-part Next Generation episode “Chain of Command.” While it’s an interesting idea to more fully flesh out some of the background characters of the Star Trek universe, the results are decidedly mediocre, in part because three of the four stories follow essentially the same formula: the starring captain experiences (or is told about) a specific incident, then finds himself in similar circumstances and uses the trick that worked years ago to save the day again. Only the Jellico story breaks the mold… as does the Jellico character himself, perhaps the only truly abrasive Starfleet captain we’ve seen in all the many, many years of Star Trek stories.

My favorite of the four stories involves Harriman, captain of the Enterprise-B, and his struggle to come to terms with his role in the incident seen in Generations, in which the legendary Captain Kirk was (apparently) killed saving Harriman’s ship. Harriman is widely believed to be “responsible for the death of a monument” because he froze when the crisis began, and his confidence isn’t helped when an angry Doctor McCoy dresses him down. Overall, the story is somewhat banal — McCoy apologizes and shares some wisdom, the Klingons attack, Harriman outwits them and regains his mojo — but there are some really nicely written exchanges between Bones and Harriman, and the dialog is all in-character and authentic. (My favorite: “You’re a wise man, Doctor.” “Nah, I’m an old man. People just mistake the one for the other.” That’s Bones McCoy, at least in his later years; I even “heard” the words in De Kelley’s voice.) It helps that this segment has the best artwork of the four, too; Andrew Currie really captures Kelley’s and William Shatner’s expressions.

The Pike story has some nice emotional moments as well, expanding on a relationship only hinted at in “The Cage” between the captain and his attractive young Yeoman, but overall it’s just a generic shoot-’em-up tale. The Sulu story was completely forgettable (seriously, I can’t even recall what it was about). As for the final story about Jellico… it’s a nice change from the others, in that it’s told from the perspective of a newly transferred officer who’s trying to get used to her new captain, but I find Jellico such an obnoxious bully that I can’t believe he’d be an effective leader, and I can’t bring myself to care too much about him. He’s a jerk at the beginning of the story, he’s a jerk at the end of the story, and the protagonist has simply learned to live with it.

Ultimately, this is a fast, but disposable read aimed at a niche audience. But it does have its moments…

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Review: Space: 1999 – Aftershock and Awe

Space: 1999 - Aftershock and Awe
Space: 1999 – Aftershock and Awe by Andrew E.C. Gaska

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last year, I spent some time revisiting a TV series I dimly remembered watching as a young boy, Space: 1999. If you’ve not familiar with it, the premise is this: by the year 1999 (as imagined in the early 1970s), humankind is busily exploring the solar system and has established a permanent lunar outpost, Moonbase Alpha. It’s also started dumping its dangerous nuclear waste on the far side of the moon, which is a swell idea until a freak mishap detonates all that waste material, blowing the moon out of orbit and sending it hurtling out into the universe, along with Moonbase Alpha and everyone living there. Far-fetched, yes, even ridiculous, but also weirdly compelling… compelling enough that the show still enjoys a healthy cult following some 40 years after it originally aired. For proof of that, you need look no further than the 2012 publication date of the (mostly) original graphic novel Aftershock and Awe.

Aftershock and Awe comprises two parts. The first retells the events seen in the TV show’s pilot episode, climaxing in the nuclear detonation and the so-called “breakaway.” I understand this segment was adapted from a vintage comic book as well as one of those children’s storybook records that were common at the time; accordingly, the artwork has a pleasing (to me at least) retro appearance. Having just seen the television series before reading this, I also appreciated certain story tweaks to reconcile discrepancies that were created when the show was retooled in its second season, such as giving us a glimpse of characters that didn’t appear in season one.

However, the real meat of the book is the second part, which tells the story of what happened back on Earth after the moon’s departure, something the series only hinted at. The action follows several different characters scattered around (and above) the world: two men in an orbital station; the father of a young girl who is touring Moonbase Alpha with her mother at the time of breakaway; the brother, daughter, and ex-fiance, respectively, of three of the series’ most loved regular characters; and a number of powerful politicians and military men. The narrative builds a convincing alternate history in which President Kennedy was not assassinated and the past several decades proceeded very differently than we remember them — thus explaining the discrepancy between the imagined 1999 of the TV series and the real one we experienced — then interweaves all the individual characters’ storylines against the backdrop of an almost unimaginable global disaster. The plot includes dramatic rescues, failed conspiracies, and the question of how best to rebuild on an Earth radically changed, finally ending on a surprisingly optimistic note ten years after “the last moonrise.” My only complaint with this half of the book, honestly, is with the artwork. While it’s fine on its own terms, I found the modern painted realism rather jarring after the old-fashioned look of the first part. I would’ve liked to see a bit more uniformity between the two segments. But that’s my own preference; as I noted, there’s nothing really wrong with it.

As presented, the story is perfectly accessible to people who aren’t familiar with Space: 1999, but I suspect it will be of more interest to established fans, for whom Aftershock and Awe will make a nice companion to the beloved old series.

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Review: Honor Among Thieves

Honor Among Thieves
Honor Among Thieves by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the release of The Force Awakens, I’ve thought a lot about that movie and about Star Wars in general, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my favorite era, both in terms of storytelling as well as the real-world Star Wars phenomenon, was that scant handful of years between the first two movies, i.e., Episodes IV and V… or, as we old farts who’ve been there since the dawn of time like to call ’em, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. That period was the most fun, in my opinion, when this whole crazy juggernaut of a franchise was still a swashbuckling adventure untainted by the tragic undertones that crept into it later, when anything was possible and Luke Skywalker was just, to borrow a memorable phrase from James S. A. Corey’s Honor Among Thieves, “a farm boy who love[d] flying his fast ship.”

Honor Among Thieves was one of the last Star Wars novels published in the so-called “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials (books, comics, and games) produced before Disney acquired the Star Wars brand in 2014. The book was originally intended as part of a projected trilogy titled Empire and Rebellion, set in that sweet spot between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, and with each book focusing on one of the “Big Three” heroes: Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. Only two of the three novels in that trilogy were published, however, before Disney’s controversial decision to decanonize the EU and recategorize all those stories as mere “legends.” So technically speaking, Honor Among Thieves and its companion piece, Razor’s Edge, never happened. Which is a shame, because it’s one of the more entertaining SW tie-ins I’ve encountered.

The time is shortly after the destruction of the first Death Star. The Rebels have abandoned their now-compromised base on Yavin IV and are searching for a new world on which to settle. Han Solo still has not committed to formally joining the Rebel Alliance and considers himself an outsider to their cause, an independent contractor who’s willing to do jobs for them but expects to be paid in return. So when Leia asks him and Chewbacca to fly into Imperial space to pick up a Rebel spy who’s called for extraction, it’s just another paycheck. Naturally, though, he gets more than he bargained for when the spy reveals why she called for help: an Imperial agent has discovered the path to an ancient alien artifact of immense power, but a third party has accidentally acquired the information as well and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. And now the race is on to intercept the data and recover the artifact, which will bring its possessor ultimate control over the Galaxy. Matters are complicated by an old friend turned bounty hunter who’s picked up Han’s trail and intends to capture him for Jabba the Hutt, as well as by an unexpected side trip to rescue Leia from an approaching Imperial fleet…

Refreshingly free of the usual mystical light-side/dark-side concerns involving the Jedi and the Force, Honor Among Thieves is more reminiscent of the old Han Solo novels by Brian Daley that I loved as a kid, or perhaps the original Marvel Comics Star Wars series (as opposed to the current Marvel series), just a fast-paced space opera adventure about a scoundrel with a fast ship and a sharp tongue. There’s even a bit of an Indiana Jones vibe in the final act as our heroes trek across a jungle world toward an ancient ruin that houses the story’s MacGuffin.

The tone never gets too heavy, but the book does offer some interesting ethical questions — voiced by the most unlikely of philosophers, Han Solo himself –about whether a New Republic founded by a victorious Rebel Alliance would be much different from the Empire for people who live on the margins, like himself — meet the new boss, same as the old boss — as well as whether anybody can be trusted with the kind of power promised by the object everyone is trying to obtain. And while I personally have grown very weary of all the superweapons in the Star Wars universe — including Starkiller Base in the new movie — the artifact in this story has the novelty of being alien in origin and non-destructive in nature, an idea that I found far more intriguing than just another variant on a giant laser.

Bottom line: official canon or not, Honor Among Thieves is a fun read that’s perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon. If you love and miss a certain kind of Star Wars story the way I do, it’s highly recommended.

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Review: The Fiery Cross

The Fiery Cross
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was warned ahead of time that The Fiery Cross, the fifth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, would be a bit of a slog, and indeed it was. All of Gabaldon’s books are long, but this one is a real whopper, coming in at 1,443 pages in the mass-market paperback edition; for all that bulk, however, it feels as if very little actually happens to advance the story of Jamie Fraser, his time-traveling wife Claire, and their increasingly extended family.

Oh, things do happen in the book. Over the two-year span covered by The Fiery Cross, 1770-72, there are a couple weddings; new settlers are welcomed to the fledgling community of Fraser’s Ridge; there’s a murder mystery to solve, and bigger mysteries appear involving a treasure (the so-called “Frenchman’s Gold,” dating back to the failed Jacobite Revolution in Scotland) and an unknown time traveler (recall that Claire, her daughter Briana, and Bree’s husband Roger are all from the 20th century, not the 18th). Jamie and his son-in-law Roger bond through adversity, and Roger’s life and character take a major, traumatic turn. Jamie and Claire encounter a very twisted couple deep in the wilderness who could be characters from an entirely separate, far more Gothic novel. There’s a bear hunt, a near-fatal snake bite, and a hanging. Characters thought lost for good return. And Jamie, as de facto laird of the people living on Fraser’s Ridge, is pressed into forming a militia and marching off to battle against self-styled vigilantes called “the Regulators,” as the first stirrings of the American Revolution make themselves felt. But somehow none of it feels very consequential. It’s almost as if Gabaldon’s fascination with the details of everyday life in this milieu — which had been one of the great strengths of the earlier books — has become a distraction for her. She disappears down rabbit holes and then occasionally thinks, “Oh, I really should throw in some action here.” But my impression is that her heart really wasn’t with the action in this one, and it’s always perfunctory at best. Even the long-awaited confrontation with recurring villain Stephen Bonnet, when it finally arrives, is something of an anti-climax, over and done with quickly so we can get back to domestic matters.

I’ve heard it said that the reason most stories about couples take place either at the beginning or the end of the relationship is because all the stuff in between, when people are just raising kids and building a life together, makes for pretty poor drama. This book is perfect evidence of that, as all the talk of dirty clouts and breastfeeding gets pretty tedious. If I didn’t already have a sizable emotional investment in these characters — if this were my first exposure to the series — I’d be wondering what the hell the big deal is and why these books are so popular. As it is, I’m hanging in there with the series because I do care about Jamie and Claire and Roger and Bree, and because I know the Revolution is coming and things will be getting interesting again. But this book, The Fiery Cross is essentially just filler between points A and B. Recommended for confirmed fans only.

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Review: No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan

No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan
No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan by Shannon Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Growing up in Utah is hard enough when you’re not a member of the culturally predominant Mormon Church. It becomes an order of magnitude more difficult when you are a member but harbor doubts or long for something other than the officially sanctioned LDS lifestyle. In that respect, Shannon Egan’s story is a familiar one. I’ve known many people who experienced similar struggles to find themselves in the face of parental disapproval and an almost overwhelming institutional pressure to conform. Often, as in Shannon’s case, these struggles lead to self-destructive behavior and problems with drugs and/or alcohol. But what makes Shannon’s story unique is what she did to try and escape both her upbringing and her addiction: she took a teaching job in Sudan, a war-torn country about which she knew virtually nothing. As the situation in Sudan deteriorated, a chance encounter led her to a position as a fledgling journalist, and that, in turn, led her to witnessing the horrors of Darfur and a confrontation with her own demons. Even in a land ruled by strict Islamic law, a determined addict can find what she needs…

Shannon Egan is a fine storyteller who reveals herself with vivid imagery and a sometimes painful degree of honesty. Her account of getting lit up on the Sudanese version of bathtub gin — a noxious homebrewed spirit called aragy — and the events that led to the relapse is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read. But there are moments of real beauty in this story, too, as she describes the history, culture, and especially the people of a place few Americans really know anything about. No Tourists Allowed is as much a travelogue and an ethnography as it is a work of memoir, and I found the wide-angle story as fascinating as Shannon’s personal one.

If the book has any flaws, it is in the author’s habit of occasionally slipping into asides filled with the jargon of recovery and advocacy. I understand that’s where Shannon’s mind is these days, as she’s parlayed her own experiences into both a career and a noble cause, but these passages tend to feel like parentheticals that distract from the action of the story she’s telling. The book is powerful enough on its own terms, don’t misunderstand, but I think it could’ve been moreso if she’d stuck to the facts and saved some of the commentary.

Nevertheless, this is an engrossing and fast-moving read that plumbs the worst depths of human behavior to come up with a message of hope and resilience. I understand a sequel is in the works, and I look forward to reading it…

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Review: Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn
Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After taking a little break from the Outlander-verse, I’ve jumped back in with the fourth book of the series, which I believe is the longest one yet (and that’s saying something with these massive tomes!) Drums picks up a few months after the events of Voyager, the previous volume, with our time-crossed lovers Jamie and Claire, along with Jamie’s nephew Ian and adopted son Fergus, trying to start a new life for themselves in the colony of North Carolina in the years just prior to the American Revolution. They will face many dangers in this new world, including bears, Indians, disease, scheming family members, the ugly institution of slavery, a murderer, and even a ghost, but it is a chance encounter with a pirate named Stephen Bonnet that will have the greatest impact on their future… and that of their daughter, Brianna, who they think is safe and sound up in the 20th century, but has learned something terrible enough to convince her to risk traveling through time herself… for the sake of her mother and the father she’s never met…

By this point, the series has left its bodice-ripping origins far behind — Drums doesn’t even have much sex in it, compared to the earlier books — and settled into something resembling a cross between a cliffhanger serial and a soap opera. Basically, it’s “one damn thing after another” in a historical setting, and the book strongly reminded me of Michael Mann’s 1992 film version of Last of the Mohicans with its epic sweep and romanticized depiction of 18th century America. As ever, I am deeply impressed with the sense of authenticity and verisimilitude Gabaldon brings to her writing. The settings and the mundane details of life in this period are absolutely convincing, and the characters themselves live and breathe and are as real in my mind as my own relatives. Gabaldon even allows her hero Jamie to be somewhat unlikable for a good portion of the book, and even the dastardly Stephen Bonnet, in the end, reveals an unexpected depth.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a series of books with such a strong female perspective. I don’t mean simply “the female gaze” that objectifies and admires the beauty of Jamie and the other male characters in the way that we’re accustomed to lingering over female beauty, although that’s definitely a noticeable motif in these stories. Rather, I’m talking about the way Gabaldon revels in the earthy, visceral, sometimes unsettling, often mysterious, but always very human flesh-and-blood reality of women’s bodies and women’s lives. I’ve read books by women authors, of course, and about female protagonists, but can’t recall any before that go into the places that Gabaldon deftly journeys. And I have to say, as a man, I wasn’t at all alienated by that perspective, as one might expect; rather, I’m fascinated and at times moved by it. Without making too much out of it, I think these books are giving me a better understanding of what it is to be a woman, and that’s exciting and makes for really damn good reading.

Unfortunately, though, Drums does have a couple of problems. For one thing, it’s difficult to really describe the plot of this one because, frankly, it doesn’t have much of one. Things happen, a lot of things, and the story moves forward, but there’s no clear throughline as in the previous books. It really is just one damn thing after another, and it’s more the reader’s affection for the characters and the world that keep you reading than a tight story. That‘s where I’m getting the soap opera feeling I mentioned.

In addition, Gabaldon allows some of her vivid characters to vanish from the action for long periods. Poor Fergus and his wife Marsali are especially ill treated by Drums; their appearances here are little more than cameos. Of course, Gabaldon’s cast has become sufficiently large that this is probably unavoidable, and one could make the argument that it’s true to life, especially under the primitive conditions of the 1760s when you wouldn’t have frequent contact with friends and relations. But as a modern-day reader who likes these people, it is… frustrating.

Ultimately, though, the story belongs to Jamie and Claire, and it is at its most interesting when the action is centered on them. By the end of Drums, some thirty years have passed since we first met them, and it is to Gabaldon’s great credit that she’s managed to let them age without losing whatever it was that made them seem real and compelling in the first place. Whatever else one may say about this series, it feels like a record of actual lives, and that’s a rare and commendable thing for a writer to have accomplished.

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Review: The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t generally enjoy so-called “hard” science fiction, i.e., that subcategory of SF that insists upon scientific accuracy and devotes a lot of time to talking about it. Not that I’m not interested in science, of course. But when it comes to fiction, I’m more of a “warp-drive-and-ray-guns” kind of guy. So I consider it quite a noteworthy accomplishment that Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, not only makes descriptions of chemical processes and engineering problems integral to the plot, but downright gripping as well. Weir accomplishes this by telling the story mostly through the first-person voice of Mark Watney, an astronaut who’s been left behind on Mars after an accident that results in his crew mistakenly believing him to be dead. Watney’s a smart guy, but he’s also an incredible smart-ass, and his frequent wisecracks, childish vulgarity, and gallows humor leavens the logical puzzles he needs to work out in order to survive in a place that is utterly inhospitable to life.

This is an incredible adventure tale that reads like a dramatization of real events. But it’s also a richly human story that evokes the fear, wonder, loneliness, courage, nobility, and above all the danger of manned space exploration. And it’s frequently a very funny book as well… I literally laughed out loud a number of times while reading it. (I was especially amused by the running gag involving disco music.) The time setting is somewhat indeterminate — the book never specifies what year it takes place in, but it must be sometime relatively soon, because an important plot point involves the expertise of people who were operating Mars probes in the 1990s, and of course there is the enduring appeal of 1970s pop culture. Also, none of the technology described is terribly futuristic, all of which contributes to a sense that it could be happening right now. Indeed, the descriptions of how a Mars mission could actually, logistically, take place are so convincing that I don’t know why NASA isn’t already doing it as I type this. (Okay, I do know; my point is, the book is eminently plausible.)

Beyond the “gee whiz” factor and old-fashioned NASA can-do spirit, however, the thing that keeps you turning the pages at a breathless pace is Mark Watney himself. His victories and setbacks and the final, last-ditch, edge-of-your-seat attempt at a rescue mission are the stuff of an instant classic. And no doubt this story is going to make a great movie, too; it’s already in the can and coming soon to a theater near you, starring Matt Damon as Watney… a perfect choice, in my opinion…

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