Adventure

“The Martian” by Andy Weir

 

Book Cover - The Martian

Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” has received a tremendous amount of positive hype since it was first published in 2011, and lots of great reviews, even from scientists and astronauts.

 

It’s all well deserved. Instead of being a boring, techy tome (sorry, but some science based fiction bogs down in the science and forgets to entertain) it is a riveting, barnburner of a story.

 

Mark Watney is an astronaut that has been accidentally left behind on Mars after a sandstorm threatens to strand the Ares3 crew millions of miles from home. He has been seriously injured and the other crewmembers think he is dead, so they leave the surface under orders from Control.

 

When he comes to, he assesses his situation and declares that he is in deep trouble. Two words come to mind: ingenuity – the quality of being clever as well as inventive, and resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from hardship. Watney never blames the crew for abandoning him, and instead, attacks his problems head on.

 

The best sci-fi throws real people into a strange world where they must use skills from their own world to cope and/or deal with the new. “The Martian” is a cross between the TV shows MacGyver and Survivor. As if just being alone on the planet isn’t challenging enough, he has to work out his oxygen supply and food supply and somehow let Earth know that he’s not dead yet. Being the first and only Martian is not as much fun as you might think.

 

Watney knows that the next mission to Mars won’t arrive for another four years and that he has to travel 2000 miles to get to the rendezvous point. He has to find a way to stay alive that long. That is, if he doesn’t blow himself up before the food runs out. Anything can go wrong, including explosions and leaks and not having access to the guys at NASA. Yes, even computer access goes down. Imagine being cut off from the guys that keep thousands of possible solutions to any given dilemma only a keystroke away.

 

Complete silence outside the Habitat. Isolation. Like every other pioneer in the wilderness, every decision Mark Watney makes is about life and death. We groan at his harrowing setbacks, gasp/laugh at the outrageous solution to growing his own food, admire his ingenuity at solving space/sleep/water issues. “The Martian” is a celebration of man's resilience in the face of intolerable hardship.

 

When Weir (an actual scientist and software engineer) wrote “The Martian,” he worked out planet positions and shuttle orbits to support his storyline. Andy Weir tested many of the decisions made by his  astronaut so that Watney could realistically work his way through the challenges. If the science wasn’t right, it didn’t go onto the pages.

 

Weir gives Watney a belief system in “The Martian” that makes it all work. Watney has an outrageous sense of humor and an “I can fix this” attitude, no matter what is thrown at him. If he’s alive, he has another chance to get it right. If he can get past listening to old disco songs left behind by his crew mates, and do without even the fake coffee, he can survive anything. 

 

Of course, Watney has the right credentials (engineering and botanist degrees) to do the job, making the book that much more successful. There is no high school student solving the complex problems in this book just by virtue of being a computer whiz. But, duct tape – that heavy, cloth backed, silver tape that plumbers and electricians use so often – plays a great role in the book. Gotta love that legitimately, a low-tech item could save expensive equipment from complete failure.

 

There is strong language in response to some of his situations, so don’t read “The Martian” if you are offended by four letter words. It’s not pervasive, but it’s there, and appropriately used.

 

A movie based on the book, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, was released in 2015. Happily, it was astounding.

 

 

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“Submerged” by Dani Pettrey

 

Book Cover - Submerged

Dani Pettrey’s debut Christian novel, “Submerged,” is set in the world of Alaskan dive rescue, a frequently dangerous profession. The book opens with what may be an engineered plane crash into the sea, off the coast of Tariuk Island. Cole McKenna’s team attempts a harrowing rescue, with a tragic outcome.

 

When one of the deaths turns out to be the aunt of a former girlfriend, Bailey Craig, life gets complicated. Aunt Agnes owned a popular Russian-American store in Yancey, where McKenna and his family have a dive shop. Bailey reluctantly returns to Yancey to sell her beloved aunt’s business, knowing that her own dicey past will be painful to relive once she sets foot there. She vows to take care of the estate and leave as soon as possible. But, her position as a Professor of Russian Studies uniquely qualifies her to help with a murder investigation that may be tied to sunken treasure and so much more.

 

As romantic suspense dictates, Cole and Bailey are drawn to each other again, afraid to trust, but now ten years older and wiser. Their interaction is aching and intense; yet as they are forced to work together to solve the mystery of the ‘why’ of the plane crash, we hope that Bailey comes to understand what true forgiveness means.

 

There is a noisy, active family support system for Cole that Bailey envies and never had – dumped on her aunt’s doorstep, unwanted by her mother. The dialogue flies back and forth as people drift through rooms at gatherings, interrupting each other, teasing each other – as it would be for any large family and their close friends who depend on each other and know each other so well. Pettrey captures that verbal chaos beautifully.

 

The book is a tight read with plenty of dialogue to advance the story and the action scenes. My ebook version seemed to be missing a few scattered transitional sentences that would have clarified when some scenes were ending, but those small omissions did not keep me from enjoying this multi-layered story of a Christian family caught up in some challenging circumstances. Cole’s faith is more developed than Bailey’s and Pettrey manages to convey that without getting preachy.

 

“Submerged” won the 2013 Holt Medallion for Best First Book and the Colorado Romance Writers 2013 Award of Excellence in the Inspirational Category.

 

Readers who enjoy Dee Henderson’s books involving the O’Malley family might also enjoy Dani Pettrey’s ‘Alaskan Courage’ series. “Submerged” was followed by “Shattered,”  “Stranded,” and “Silenced.”  “Sabotaged” will be released in 2015. The personable McKennas are featured in each of the books.

 

For more information about Dani Pettrey and her work, please visit www.danipettrey.com.

 

 

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“Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

 

Book Cover - Outlander

 

The “Outlander” series, by Diana Gabaldon, has been a sensation in the historical fiction arena, blending time-travel, romance, and adventure into one terrific story. Why do we love “Outlander?” It’s well-written, crosses genres beautifully, and the broad sweep of the storyline is just plain fun.

 

Claire Randall is a former combat nurse, home from WW2 in 1945. She has been reunited with her husband, Frank, and they are enjoying a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands after a long, war-caused separation. On the lookout for interesting flowers and herbs, she wanders into a circle of ancient stones said to be the legendary Merlin stones, touches one of the stones and disappears. That is, disappears from 1945 and pops up in 1743 – right into the middle of the Jacobite rebellion, with Bonnie Prince Charlie attempting to take over the throne of England.

 

With her English and slightly alien accent, she is soon called Sassenach (an outlander) by the MacKenzie clan that rescues her from an assault by a British soldier (her husband’s ancestor) and is suspected by everyone of being a spy. But, for whom? Her rescuers, in part to use her as a bargaining chip, keep her hostage.

 

Her skill as a healer is discovered when she meets injured Jamie Fraser and that ensures her safety until her fate can be decided. “Outlander” reveals Gabaldon’s tremendous amount of research into the uses of botanicals for healing both in 1945 and two hundred years earlier. We are treated to descriptions of herbs, the drugs available in both centuries, the limits of medicine in the 1700s, the choices available, and even the handling of prisoners. The wisdom of the modern medical era is applied to herbal remedies of the 1700s, but often, Claire just has to make do.

 

Gabaldon has written the developing relationship between Claire and Jamie realistically within the constraints of the time travel strand. Claire can’t reveal when she is really from – nobody would understand it – and Jamie does not quite trust her since her circumstances don’t really ring true. Claire has a modern sense of humor and Jamie is puzzled by her references to John Wayne and her cursing. And, yet, they each feel an attraction as they are thrown together repeatedly during the action. The complexity of Scottish clan rivalry is explored, alliances for and against the British are created, and Claire occasionally uses her knowledge of history to protect the people in her immediate circle.

 

“Outlander” succeeds in part because of its intimate portrait of a marriage, with its moments of personal truths, physical intimacy, enduring love, and sometimes hilarious banter. Two strong-willed people are forced into a union of convenience in order to save their lives and the relationship is raw and wonderful. There are sometimes tender and sometimes rough, bedroom scenes between Jamie and Claire. There are graphic descriptions of an attempted rape as well as an actual rape with another character. Gabaldon does not mince words, so be forewarned that this is well-done adult reading.

 

The Jacobite rebellion and the surrounding political turmoil drive the tale, but it’s the characters that keep us spellbound until the last page. There are good guys and bad, some of whom are both in order to survive in a dangerous political climate, and one who is undeniably evil. We don’t always know whom to trust. The supporting characters are colorful, complex, as well as entertaining, and add depth and realism to the multi-layered plot.

 

The time travel is brilliantly handled. Claire tries on multiple occasions to return to the stones in order to get back to her own time, but as she falls more deeply in love with Jamie, she is torn between leaving him and her responsibility to the husband she left behind. Along the way, she discovers that she may not be the only person who has traveled through the stones.

 

I laughed during the engaging dialogue, cringed at the choices that needed to be made and cried during some desperate moments for more than one character. When the book ended, I was very happy that there were more titles in the series to be read.

 

The novel won the Romance Writers of America's RITA Award for Best Romance of 1991. The first seven books in the series sold over twenty million copies and landed on the NYT bestseller lists six times. The eighth book in the series was published in June, 2014. A TV series based on the first book, “Outlander,” debuted in the USA in August, 2014.

 

For more information about Diana Gabaldon and her work, please visit www.dianagabaldon.com

 

 

 

 

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“Divergent” by Veronica Roth

 

Book Cover - Divergent

Dystopia: “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives” (Merriam-Webster) OR “a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening.” (Wikipedia)

 

It used to be that everywhere I turned in the YA section of the bookstore, vampires were front and center. Now that the Hunger Games Trilogy has proven to be wildly successful, vampires seem to have been edged out – at least in product placement – by books with a Dystopian theme. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series is the latest of the genre to be a hit with teens and have a movie tie-in.

 

Beatrice Prior and her brother are 16 and they will soon take a test to see which faction in their society is a suitable match for their particular strengths. Each of them is in some way unhappy about the idea of staying with the family’s faction, Abnegation (a selfless group) and they seek out other factions (Dauntless=brave, Erudite=intelligent, Candor=honest, Amity=peaceful) after their test results come in.

 

The choice Beatrice makes in Divergent changes her in ways she doesn’t always understand or embrace, and may destroy her as she uncovers the truths behind the exciting hype of the Dauntless. And, when secrets are revealed about her test, she faces danger from the very faction she chose.

 

Beatrice renames herself Tris and is like many real-life teens – she doesn’t appreciate the support system that surrounds her until she needs it, she takes her parents for granted, she’s insecure in her physical appearance, she searches for something beyond the life she has in hand, she feels unworthy when in fact she’s better than her peers – in other words, she’s growing up painfully as most teens do.

 

Roth writes Tris as having a conflicted moral compass, and angst about doing the wrong thing. During training, her hands shake when faced with something new, but when protecting a friend, she performs unflinchingly. She is small for her age, so outdoes her competition by using her brain. She has an excellent trainer, a mysterious ‘Four’ who seems intimidating in his coldness and yet perfect in so many ways. Roth reveals the layers of the young man’s background as the relationship develops.

 

Divergent features an interesting mix of sixteen year olds with varied flaws and positive attributes, and their range of personalities and skills keep the plot moving and the action believable within the Dystopian world. There are loyal friends and nasty instructors, psycho initiates, desperate people who live outside the faction compounds, evil adults who plot and scheme for control, and, of course, a way for the teens to outsmart the evil adults. A few of the action scenes that involve incredibly difficult physical tasks, would lend themselves to great FX in the movie version if there is a big enough budget.

 

Young Adult fiction is a playground for vampires, martial arts experts, archers, unexpected heroes, magicians, and werewolves in the sci-fi/paranormal/fantasy realm. Partly because parents are curious about what their offspring are reading and partly because of all the media hype, full-fledged adults are now big fans of YA as well. I read the Twilight series, the Hunger Games trilogy, and now the Divergent series, and am happy to be numbered among the followers.

 

Please visit www.veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com to find out the latest about Roth and her projects.

 

 

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“Agincourt” by Bernard Cornwell

 

Book cover - Agincourt copy

Set in the 1400s, “Agincourt” delivers a graphic account of one of the most important battles of the age. Underfunded, overconfident and thoroughly lucky, the English king, Henry V, decides he needs to conquer Agincourt in order to claim the French crown and maintain his dominance of the Normandy coast. He must overcome formidable odds and expensive, incredible losses on hostile foreign soil, and yet he marches on. Any real battle strategy is thrown to the wind as the French forces keep outwitting the English. If you don’t already know the actual story of Agincourt, the book will keep you guessing until the end.

 

The tale is told from an archer’s viewpoint. It’s not a new storytelling technique to have a warrior relate the action, but interesting in this case because the skill of English archers was feared throughout the world. If you had a few hundred archers on your side, you would most likely win the battle. They were the early medieval equivalent of our modern day artillery, yet their quivers only held about twenty arrows at a time. Think about it. Twenty ‘shots’ before having to be resupplied from a packhorse shared by other archers. Survival depended on having quick, deadly aim and well-made arrows that flew true.

 

As always, “Agincourt” is meticulously researched, and Cornwell accomplishes a literary feat few authors can claim – he makes a battle fascinating, while at the same time never letting us forget about the violence. From the description of exhausted men slogging through muddy tracks to the subplots of personal bickering over lands, women and food, war is depicted as grim, hard work accomplished for the glory of the nation and king.

 

Body armor and weapons of the era are discussed in terms of their merits for particular campaigns, and in very human terms – “armored men on foot were less vulnerable to arrows than horses…”

 

I keep coming back to Cornwell for more, wishing that my school history books could have made the events of that century come to life in the way he does. If Cornwell ever gives up the mighty pen for the more prosaic life of an ancient history professor, his classes would be standing room only.

 

For more information about Cornwell and his work, please visit www.bernardcornwell.net

Read the review of Cornwell's "Sword Song" here.

 

 

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“American Assassin” by Vince Flynn

 

Book Cover - American Assassin

 

Vince Flynn’s “American Assassin,” Mitch Rapp, is not a suave, smooth-talking spy. He is a twenty-three year old, non-skirt-chaser, non-political, All-American lacrosse player who has never been in the military.

 

Ian Fleming and Hollywood gave us James Bond and glamorized the life of a spy, interweaving assassinations with hot cars, cool guns, and fast women. However, the tuxedo wearing, Baccarat playing, former Navy Commander rarely had a hair out of place, even when being tortured. Bond had the full force of the British Secret Service behind him, including military backup and impossibly cool gadgets with which to work whenever he got into a jam. 007 was the embodiment of MI6 and was staunchly patriotic. Those characteristics appeared to be the standard by which all other spies in books, on TV, and in the movies were measured.

 

So how does Mitch Rapp qualify to become an assassin? How is he turned into an efficient human killing machine? What motivates him to do the job?

 

He is recruited. An assistant to the CIA Director of Operations sees something in Rapp that could change the direction of a CIA in disarray after many intelligence failures. The CIA needs to take the fight to the enemy instead of merely reacting to events, and Rapp may be just the one to do it.

 

Mitch Rapp, at the beginning of his career in “American Assassin,” will not have the official backing of the CIA, and in an almost “Mission Impossible” style interview, is told that his very existence will be denied if he is caught doing his job overseas. He has guns, his mental agility, his physical skills, and a passport – not much else. Oh, and a training officer that doesn’t like him, calls him a ‘college puke’ and doubts that he is truly qualified to carry out any assignments. Sound like something you’d sign up for?

 

Flynn writes Rapp so convincingly that we buy it all. Why? Rapp agrees to take the job because of revenge, pure and simple. His girlfriend was killed in the Pan Am Lockerbie disaster and he wants to see the perpetrators dead. His ability is proven again and again as he puts up with what he considers the sham of his training, verbally challenging his so-called mentors and questioning his own motivation in the process.

 

After his first operation, Rapp looks in the mirror and realizes a killer is looking back at him. And, he’s okay with it.

 

Flynn explores the post-Lockerbie world and places it in historical context, so that the reader can recognize the global players in the intelligence community. The bad guys are varying shades of nasty, and the good guys/gals are complex, layered characters.

 

“American Assassin,” an intense page-turner that Flynn waited fifteen years to write, is a strongly political anti-terrorism thriller. In the book, an American businessman is kidnapped in Beirut, an operative goes in after him, then is captured as well. There are references to torture, to rendition, and to the Middle Eastern conflict.

 

Mitch Rapp is a character originated in “Transfer of Power,” published in 1999, the first of the thirteen Rapp books. “American Assassin” tells us how it all began for Rapp and is now listed as the first in the series.

 

Sadly, Vince Flynn passed away in 2013 at the age of 47 after a bout with cancer. His family, friends, and fans sorely miss him.

 

For more information about Vince Flynn, his body of work, and his charities, please visit www.vinceflynn.com

 

 

 

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“Sandstorm” by James Rollins

Book Cover - Sandstorm

If you’re looking for a little syfy, lots of science, tons of thrills and even a romance packed into a great book, then “Sandstorm” should be your next read.  

 

A mysterious blue ball of fire explodes in the Kensington Gallery in the British Museum, the security guard is incinerated, and almost all the artifacts destroyed. The benefactor of the exhibit, Kara Kensington, is sure there is a connection between the explosion and her father’s death from blue fire in the Arabian desert years before. Dr. Safia al-Maaz (curator of the gallery and childhood friend of Kensington) uncovers a clue in the middle of the destruction to an incredible secret, and demonstrates unusual capabilities for a curator. The bodies pile up after an assault on the gallery is made.  

 

Painter Crowe is an agent for Sigma Force, a covert group working for the US government to keep scientific discoveries safely in US control. Cassandra is his previous ally, has stolen secrets and is now working for the opposition. Dr. Crowe is dispatched to London to investigate the possibility that the explosion was caused by anti-matter – has someone uncovered an unlimited energy source?  

 

An expedition to the Arabian Peninsula and Ubar, the lost city of the desert and source of all anti-matter secrets, is organized. Dr. al-Maaz reluctantly travels along, unwilling to face her former fiancé, Omaha Dunn, the archeologist/Indiana Jones type needed on the expedition. Crowe and his partner are forced upon the trip by the US government, but nobody knows the real reason behind the interference.  

 

And that’s just Part 1. “Sandstorm” gets even more exciting as the plots develop.  

 

Part of the fun of reviewing novels is taking a look at the book that launched a dynamite series. “Sandstorm” is the first of eight in the bestselling Sigma Force stories, and it’s easy to see why there are so many fans. The unexpected twists make this a page-turner as we root for the very likable main characters to overcome the obstacles of storms, ancient curses, and government entities. Even the bad guys are interesting and make worthy adversaries for the heroes.  

 

“Sandstorm” incorporates lots of real science in the action-packed storyline, and it’s so well done that I began to wonder how much was fiction and how much actual fact. Happily, Rollins includes a fact disclosure at the end of the book for the curious. No plot spoiler here, but who knew that buckyballs were real?  

 

One of the intriguing subplots involves gals from an ancient sister society. They have the ability to disappear at will in front of your eyes – I REALLY want to learn that trick. Thrilling five-star adventure! With scene after scene of slam-dunk writing, and an ending designed for the big screen, I’d love to see a movie made of this one. I’m casting the major roles in my mind right now.  

 

For more information about James Rollins, the Sigma Force series, his work in YA fiction, as well as his collaboration with Rebecca Cantrell for the 'Blood Gospel' series, visit www.jamesrollins.com          

 

 

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