Book Review: The Martian

“I’m pretty much fucked.”
“That’s my considered opinion.”

That’s how the book begins. He’s right. Getting stuck on a planet all by yourself is bad enough. And then there’s the complete lack of communication. And the fact that a rescue mission will not happen till another four years. Welcome to Mars!


Reviewing this book is easy: You’ve got to read it! Take time off work, cancel Netflix for a month; do whatever it takes, read it!

I’ll clear it upfront: I’m late on the bandwagon. The Martian was a New York Times bestseller in 2014, and is now a Ridley Scott movie starring Matt Damon! But anyways, here goes the review.

The Read

The Martian is a very easy read. Thanks to the fact that most of the books consists of log entries by the stranded astronaut Mark Watney. The first person monologues really help reader get into Watney’s shoes (or space suit). The epic battle for survival on a hostile planet is captured very well by the technical details of the solutions as well as the (high level) math behind them. Wait a minute – technical details? Math??

Yes, since the book is ‘hard’ (no time travel, infinite-fuel engines etc) Science Fiction, the author takes very few liberties with the technical aspects of the story. Does it feel a little daunting at times? Maybe. Does it make you stop turning the pages like a maniac? Nope! Which brings us to the non-technical aspect of the book.

There are only a handful of characters; no romantic or familial relationships, or other emotional aspects in the story. Okay, maybe some, but not much. And yet that doesn’t get in the way of making the reader root, pine and even pray for the protagonist. How? Probably due to the super-focused motive of the protagonist: survival. That’s it. Survival on a hostile planet, facing new challenges one after the other. Survival – the most natural thing for any life form.

And the book is really funny! Given the circumstances the protagonist is in, it is hard to imagine how story could do well on the humor front; but trust me, you’ll get quite a few laughs out of it. Mark Watney’s wit, sarcasm, and outright insane thoughts make for some incredible moments in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation.

The Martian

The Impact

Finishing the book felt very satisfying. In a world filled with stories having complex plots, an increasing number of of gray characters, hidden motives, political/philosophical undertones, The Martian was a refreshing change. It was like an intense rollercoaster where you know the ride is going to end safely (most probably), but the experience is going to be to be epic and scary.

NASA has a big role to play in the story, as you can probably imagine. They seem to be glad that the book has revived public interest in manned space missions. And that it would, in turn, prompt the US Congress to increase NASA’s declining budget.

The amount of research the author, Andy Weir, has put into space programs is clearly visible. Hell, the (former) software engineer wrote a program to help him calculate the space trajectories accurately! The technical details of Watney’s ingenious solutions are very satisfying. They’re just the right amount – enough to satisfy hard Sci-Fi readers and yet not so much that the average Joe will be turned off.

As I was reading the book at 39,000 feet, I was imagining how it could be adapted into a movie. The mild turbulence and the background score of Interstellar playing in my mind added a new dimension to the reading experience. Upon landing, I checked on the Internet to discover that not only had a movie been planned, it has already finished production and is releasing in November!

Also, potatoes are the best!

The Author

This is Andy Weir’s first novel, but not his first published story. He has written a popular short story called ‘The Egg‘ prior to this one. He has a very active Facebook presence, and has also done a Reddit AMA.

The Martian was actually a free story offered by Andy on his website. Due to its rising popularity and the demand by readers to have it in an ebook form, he put it up on Amazon as a Kindle eBook for $0.99 (the lowest price an author can set on Amazon). This is the second, successful author I have read in recent times who started out as a self-published one; the other being Michael J. Sullivan (link to that review).

Conclusion

Go. Read. It. Now! It’s not by accident that this book is a New York Times bestseller and a Goodreads Choice Award winner.

This was my first hard Sci-Fi book, and I’m definitely reading more of this genre. Any recommendations?

The Movie

Then I started following the movie buzz. My initial feelings on Matt Damon being cast as Mark Watney were mixed. Especially after seeing him play an astronaut in Interstellar. But after watching the trailer and other promotional material, I’m sold.

Here’s the (just-released) trailer:


Thanks for stopping by! Check out other book reviews, tech stuff and a travelogue as well, now that you’re here 🙂

– Omkar

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Book Review: An Action-packed Fantasy

THEY KILLED THE KING. THEY PINNED IT ON TWO MEN. THEY CHOSE POORLY.
There’s no ancient evil to defeat or orphan destined for greatness, just unlikely heroes and classic adventure.

That is what the jacket text for the book ‘Theft of Swords’ said. Interesting, I thought. But like almost every person in the world with Internet access, I decided to check out the reviews on Amazon. And they’re good; 4.4 out of 5 average. The book was part of a series called ‘Riyriya Revelations’ by Michael J. Sullivan. I had never heard of the series, nor its author.

Taking a leap of faith a couple of days later, I got the book on my Kindle. Turned out to be one of my better decisions. Eventually I read ‘Rise of Empire’ and ‘Heir of Novron’ as well, the other two books in the trilogy.

This review is not for a single book, but for Riyriya Revelations as a series. Of course, no spoilers ahead; so don’t worry!

The Read

The books are tomes, as they should be, I believe, for a high fantasy series. At 704, 816, and 960 pages, they’re certainly not what you’d pick up for a weekend getaway, hoping to finish before you get back (they work well if your travel requires taking 10+ hour flights). Be prepared for a long, adventurous read. But wait, don’t dismiss them yet just because of the size!

If you’ve read (or seen) The Lord of The Rings, or A Song of Ice and Fire (‘Game of Thrones books’ for the uninitiated), you know what to expect in a high fantasy. But this series did surprise me – it is shockingly less descriptive compared to many other fantasy stories. Of course, the author ensures that the world building and description is sufficient to put the reader in the right environment. Action packed scenes compliment the dialogue-heavy ones (not too many of these), as we are taken across Apeladorn (the world), mainly around the nation of Avryn.

The best part of the series for me was the dialogue. It is surprisingly casual for a fantasy set in medieval-esque times.And it works well. The chemistry between Hadrian and Royce, the protagonists is really fun to observe. Two very different people, with unique skills, finding themselves in the middle of many adventures: it had been a while since I read something on those lines.

The UK book covers for the trilogy.

The UK book covers for the trilogy.

The Impact

It’s not The Lord of The Rings, and comparing it, or any other fantasy to Tolkien’s masterpiece is not a fair assessment. What it is, however, is a fun, adventurous read. It’s like a scaled-down, ‘zoomed in’ high fantasy. And I say this when there are multiple nations, political parties, landscapes, ethnically diverse people, religions and wizards, amongst other things!

The lack of character depth for supporting characters can be observed occasionally, but that doesn’t get in the way of good – albeit a little predictable sometimes – storytelling.

Most high fantasies follow multiple major characters; this one focuses acutely on the protagonists, and it works. At least it worked for me. Hadrian and Royce are memorable characters and I’m definitely reading more stories involving the pair.

The Author

Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan

It’s certainly worth mentioning that Michael J. Sullivan is a self-published author. He’s certainly quite social and is active on twitterreddit and Goodreads. He replies to questions and comments! A success story like his proves that if you are able to put out a good tale before people, they will read/listen. Check out his website: http://riyria.blogspot.com

The author has another series in the same world, called Riyriya Chronicles. This is a nice, spoiler-free list of how the author prefers the reader read his series in a chronological order.

Want a small taste of Apeladorn and its denizens? Check out this free short story by the author.

Conclusion

If you like fantasy, especially high fantasy, do give this a try. Of course, if you read it with Tolkien at the back of your mind, you’re likely to be disappointed. But the world the author has created is fun to read about. It has just the right amount of magic, great character chemistry, and is a well-painted canvas for a great adventure.

Book 1: Theft of Swords
Book 2: Rise of Empire
Book 3: Heir of Novron


Thanks for stopping by! Have a look around the blog for other book reviews, tech stuff and a travelogue.

Cheers!
Omkar

Book Review: Another Steve Jobs Biography?

Yes, there is already an ‘official’ biography of Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. So why do we need another one? The authors of the new biography claim that Isaacson’s biography added nothing new to the public’s knowledge, and that it did not delve deeply into the years between Steve Jobs’s dismissal and eventual return to Apple. They said this was a transformational period that allowed a creative, visionary, tantrum-throwing, often-arrogant founder in his early twenties to eventually become the CEO of the most successful company on the planet.

becoming-steve-jobs-cover

To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about the book. Steve Jobs’s life has always been a popular discussion topic. With a movie and a book already out, and another movie coming soon, there has been no shortage of mainstream attention to the man’s life either. Further, the open endorsement from Apple for the book actually reduced its credibility a little bit for me. But after researching about the author Brent Schlender, I decided to give it a go; the author being a respected technology analyst for Fortune, who has covered the computer industry for more than 30 years.

The Read

The book is certainly not a quick read at 400+ pages. But it is well-paced. It is divided into chronological chapters, with each chapter having multiple sections within it – often used for detailing different threads of Steve’s life at that time. We start from his childhood and finish with his death in 2011.

For someone who is interested in the computer (now mobile, mostly) industry and cares about its history and evolution, the book is a fascinating journey. In that regard, it’s not just about Steve and Apple. Bill Gates, Andy Grove (co-founder of Intel), Michael Dell, John Lassater (Chief Creative Officer at Pixar), Ed Catmull (CEO of Pixar), Bob Iger (CEO of Disney), and of course Steve Wozniak, are just a few of the titans that appear in the book.

At the end of the book, a notes sections details how the facts presented in each chapter were derived: interview details, online links, etc. It’s worth noting that the authors have even referred to and cited Quora, specifically this answer, as part of the narrative.

Author Brent Schlender with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs after he conducted one of their only two joint interviews in 1991.

Author Brent Schlender with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs after he conducted one of their only two joint interviews, in 1991.


The Impact

The book does deliver on its promise of focusing on how Steve Jobs changed himself to be eligible to become a successful CEO at Apple. The story is not sensational, but a transformational one. While most of us aren’t facing the problems faced by Steve Jobs (and we may never), it is interesting to see, and learn from how changes to his personality and thinking led to tangible decisions and results, both good and bad.

It is also great to learn about the inside stories at both Apple and Pixar, especially since Apple is a very tight company as far as internal details go. We also get a snapshot of the personalities of many of the other key players in the computer industry. The anecdotes they have shared from their personal experiences with Steve Jobs are insightful and fun to read.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the book. The authors – Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli seem to have done their homework well. What really works in their favor is the fact that Schlender has covered Steve Jobs for more than 25 years. Apart from all the archival data and their own notes from the past, it’s the ‘off record’ things that give the authors an edge over other biographies of Steve’s. For most part, the authors reflect upon his life objectively, without any bias. From a purely management point of view, there might be too many ‘distractions’ for the reader. But if you love technology and its history, the book is certainly worth your time.

http://becomingstevejobs.com/


As always, thanks for stopping by and reading! Keep watching this blog for more reviews, travelogues, and other things! 🙂

– Omkar

Review: Humanity at Times of War

What I write about is not war but the courage of man.
– Cornelius Ryan

Let me start off by saying this: I love history. Because not only is truth stranger than fiction, it is often more dramatic, unbelievable, shocking and entertaining as well.

Thanks to my father, I was hooked on to world politics and World War stories from an early age. But apart from exposure through movies and a few lessons in high school, somehow I never delved deep into World War 2 events.

A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned that a wartime correspondent and author by the name of Cornelius Ryan has written a great set of books on WW2. I had never heard of this gentleman before. Having seen and ‘played’ (Medal of Honor: Allied Assault) the events of D-Day before, I was excited about diving deep into the historic day a little more. Based on the reviews on Amazon and B&N, I decided to go ahead and order the book titled ‘The Longest Day’. At the same time, I realized that there is a movie adaptation by the same name; how did I manage to miss that?! But since I am a ‘books > movies’ guy when it comes to adaptations, I didn’t watch the movie. I was halfway through the first book when I ordered the second one: ‘The Last Battle’. There was no stopping now!

Cornelius_Ryan_Combined

Wow, what an epic nine-hundred page journey it has been; certainly an emotional roller-coaster.

These were the first history books I read that did not have any follow-up quizzes or exams afterwards. And I loved them! Cornelius Ryan is a great writer. Here’s why –

  • Not once did the books come off as ‘boring history textbooks’. Fascinating descriptions of the environment, the battles and the (voluntary and involuntary) participants in them. You’re not reading anymore: you’re sucked in, experiencing a horrible, glorious and decisive period in 1944-45.
  • He has an amazing way of revealing factual information: through dialogues, famous speeches and messages, and sometimes even from the perspective of a civilian, intently listening to the radio. I got goosebumps while reading the radio broadcast that announced the invasion of France (D-Day) to the western world. What a moment it must have been, especially for the loved ones of the soldiers involved.
  • The human emotions in the books are staggering. Often, we are only presented with the tactical and battle elements of WW2 but the true stories of civilians caught in the crossfire are heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.

There are so many things that happened in WW2 that are not given much footage in pop culture. How many women wanted the Allies to capture Berlin because of the horror stories they had heard about the Russian soldiers; the shock when some of the soldiers behaved like gentlemen; the final moments before the greatest armada in modern history set sail from Britain to land on the coast of France; French civilians’ surprising encounters with the brave Allied paratroopers who landed in France a few hours before the naval assault; Hitler’s decision-making process, Stalin’s relations with the West, and many other things. There is a reason some of the German generals were feared and admired by both the sides. The books provide detailed (point of view style) information on two of them: Rommel and Heinrici.

Whether you’re a history buff, an avid reader or just someone who loves great stories, both these books are highly recommended. So don’t be scared, not all history books bite! 🙂

I stumbled upon this amazing promotional video for The Last Battle from the sixties. It has footage from the Battle for Berlin!

Thanks for reading!

– Omkar