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All In with the Duke (Gambling on Love Book 1)

2/5. M/M historical inexplicably titled with reference to gambling when it's actually about a duke and a prostitute.

This is competently written, and appears to have pleased people who like the duke/prostitute thing, but. There is just something intensely claustrophobic about this book. It contains two main characters, who spend most of the book shut up together alone in the country, and roughly 0.75 other characters. I started developing suspicions halfway through, checked, and yup: the only other two characters in the book with more than a couple of speaking lines are product placement main characters for the rest of her series.

And I just, look. Publishing is a business, and the business is selling books. But for real, if you can only ever be bothered to create a character for the purpose of selling a book he headlines, you have a problem.

And you also write shallow stories, with no depth or texture.
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Get in Trouble: Stories

4/5. Specfic short stories. The first time I read Kelly Link years ago, I found her fuckin' weird to the point of incomprehensibility, and I liked it. Now I read her and I find her fuckin' weird just barely to the point of comprehensibility, and it's still great. I don't know if she changed her style or I became a more complex reader – both, probably – but it's still working for me.

One of the stories in this collection, "I Can See Right Through You," is available to read online. It's not my favorite from the collection, but it gives an entirely accurate sense of what she does and how: pop cultural commentary that almost fools you by pretending to be obvious, until you think about it a little bit and go wait . . . what the fuck? You can also read the opening story "The Summer People" online. I kept trying to reduce this story to a class metaphor, because yeah, it's totally doing that, but let's be real, that's the least of what it's doing.

My favorite story in this collection isn't available online, unfortunately. That would be "Secret Identity," the story of a teenaged girl at a hotel where a superhero convention and a dentist convention are taking place. She's there to meet her internet boyfriend, who thinks she's in her thirties. I'm making this sound tiresome, but it's actually about refrigerators and sidekicks and users and dentists and it's freakin amazing, okay.

And then there's "Origin Story," the one about the woman meeting her superhero boyfriend in an old theme park, and "Light," about the woman with a twin born out of her shadow and pocket universes and mystery sleepers and hurricanes, and and and.
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The Heiress Effect (The Brothers Sinister Book 2)

Note: I discovered in the process of linking this that it's currently $0.99 on Kindle, if that's of interest to anybody.

3/5. Historical. Heiress makes herself deliberately repellant to suitors for her own reasons; she and a blossoming politician fall in love, much to their mutual irritation.

Sweet, with a core of genuine complexity, because it really is an actualfacts bad idea for this couple to get together, in ways that aren't just silly authorial manufacturing.

But here's something I've just figured out about Courtney Milan. A bunch of reviewers have complained about the historical anachronism in the fact that she writes about social justice. Her characters are involved in labor movements, women's rights, economic justice, etc. I find it quite problematic to call that anachronistic – doing that is to suggest that social justice is itself an anachronism, which is obviously incorrect. Laborers and women fought for their rights in the nineteenth century, and fought and fought and fought, and wrote about it, and thought very hard and complexly about it. Saying its anachronistic for characters in a historical romance to be concerned with these things is to erase that struggle and those people, and also to participate in the myth of progress, the idea that the past was a land of injustice and that the arc of justice bends solidly to now. Injustice having been defeated, don't you know.

So I don't agree with that critique at all. But there is something . . . comfy wish-fulfillment about Milan's social justice writing. And I've finally figured out what it is.

Her characters are all conscious of oppression. They all understand what it is, they all can perceive its dimensions as it comes down upon them, they all recognize it in the moment. I realized this when reading the POV of a minor character who is an Indian gentleman, subject to overt and covert racism at every turn, and who has a pithy observation or a pointed comment for each micro and macro aggression, no matter how blatant or subtle, with an ability to put things immediately in context.

And that's the fantasy of these books. Not that historical people resisted oppression, but that they all, on a person-to-person level, could spot it in the wild. Because that is one of the most insidious things about oppression – it can have its foot on your throat, you can have spent your life resisting it, and sometimes, often, you won't know. I have spent over a decade and a half thinking and writing about the various sorts of intersectional oppression I have experienced, and still, on a regular basis I don't recognize it until long after the fact. I'm sure I miss aspects of it all the time. Several times a week I will walk away from an encounter with a slow, creeping feeling down my back, and then days later it will occur to me out of nowhere that, oh, huh, that guy was absolutely trying to put me in my place for daring to be younger and more successful than him; that medical professional was attempting to make me straight by sheer force of will; that cab driver was fundamentally offended that I refused his help to the door because I didn't match his notions of what disability looks like and it made him angry.

You live in the ocean; you don't see the ocean.

Courtney Milan's characters see the ocean. All the time, in every situation. That's the wish-fulfillment fantasy, being able to name oppression and label it, and see it coming and see it going. That's the part I don't believe.
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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

1/5. DNF. I've had this biography of Oppenheimer for years, and I've been looking forward to it. Shame it comes with the biographers.

You know how sometimes biographers spend years and years on a project, and it renders them erudite and clear-eyed and compassionate and surgical upon their subject? And then you know how other times biographers spend years and years on a project and it renders them defensive and untrustworthy and over-invested? …Yeah. A small sample of the many reasons finishing this book was not worth my time:

  • Bird and Sherwin relate the multiple documented accounts we have of Oppenheimer's expulsion from graduate school in England after he – these sources agree – attempted to poison one of his professors. This can't actually be true, they conclude, and if it is true he was just trying to hurt the guy a little bit, okay, because if it was a real poisoning, there would have been more consequences.

    …Yeeeeeah. Yes, definitely, when the very wealthy child of privilege does something bad at school, the good old boys will absolutely react appropriately, yep.

  • They recount Oppenheimer's own story of assaulting a girl (sexually and later physically, though the exact dimensions of the sexual assault are unclear) and then conclude, with no reasoning, that this is a fabrication of some sort. The reasoning, by the way, is entirely clear – they just can't cope with the notion that they're writing a biography of a guy who would do that. Even though they quoted his juvenile rape fantasy poetry at length.

  • They can't talk about the bomb. It's fucking amazing, they're all 'loving discussion of the first test in the desert, feels feels feels – oh yeah Hiroshima happened anyway let's talk about how the scientists felt afterward also politics shh don't look over there lots of people died but we really don't want to talk about that at all at all at all.'

And then there's the part where they take the suicide of the woman he nearly married before he met his wife – a really interesting, complicated, improbably well-educated, professional queer woman – and they decide the suicide was all about Oppenheimer. It's revisionist fridging! It's fucking amazing!

And then there's –

Nope, I've spent enough time on this already.
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Agatha H and the Voice of the Castle (Girl Genius Book 3)

3/5. Volume three of the novelization of the Girl Genius webcomic.

Cute! This story is almost being really clever about *gestures* historicity and the gravitational force of intelligence upon the trajectories of civilizations and stuff, but mostly it just wants to make bad puns. And I'm really down with that. I suspect the comic is better than the book, but the book really does capture a lot of frenetic energy and visual humor very well, so.
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3/5. Urban fantasy London cops sequel to the well-received London Falling.

People I follow almost entirely enjoyed the first book, and then diverge sharply on the second. I avoided all reviews, so I didn't know why. Now I do, and it's . . . awkward.

So like Neil Gaiman is a character? And not just an in-jokey walk-on, but a recurring character? With, like, a plot line and motivations?

And if I take several steps back from this, I can go yeah, okay, that's doing something. Cornell talked about the space Gaiman is filling in this story in re magical underground London and access to its spaces, and if you think about the landscape of these books – this genre niche, I mean, as it has grown over the past fifteen years or so –incorporating RPF for the author of Neverwhere makes a certain amount of sense.

But the truth is I'm not taking a few steps back from this and viewing it from that vantage. Because close up, within the pages of this book? The Neil Gaiman RPF was super fucking awkward and super fucking weird, and it made me so uncomfortable for nebulous, inarticulate reasons that it nearly ruined this otherwise entertaining book. I don't care whether he got permission (he did) or how good of friends they were (not that close, as far as I can tell). It's . . . sort of about how Cornell thinks he's doing something groundbreaking and interesting when he's, uh, really not. And sort of about a man profiting off of RPF while so many women push boundaries in much more interesting RPF as part of a maligned subculture. And sort of about how secondhand embarrassing it all came off, particularly in light of Cornell's self-confessed celebrity crush. And sort of about the role Gaiman is playing and what Cornell thinks he is saying about access to magical spaces and fannish spaces via Gaiman when I am one of that apparently rare clique of people who don't like Gaiman's stuff and don't think it represents us and our fannish experience.

And just . . . nope.
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The Bogleheads' Guide to Retirement Planning

4/5. Excellent and comprehensive. This book won't tell you everything you need to know about taxes or health insurance or estate planning, but by God it will make sure you can have an intelligent enough conversation to be asking the right questions. The chapters on investment focus – unsurprisingly, if you know who Bogle is – on passive index investing. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this as the first investing book to read in your entire life, but if you have been plugging dutifully away at your 401K and want to think about the bigger picture of long-term planning, you really can't do better than this. Docking a star just because it lacked that "putting it all together" chapter that could have elevated this from very helpful to truly remarkable. But this book holds up well for being more than five years old (most finance books have a very short shelf life) with the glaring exception that it doesn't get into the Affordable Care Act, for obvious reasons.

Why am I reading this now? Well, because when you aren't already a millionaire, time is your greatest asset, and I've got that. Plus, I'm in the extremely weird position of being thirty and making more money in the next couple years than I likely will for the rest of my life (weird career trajectories can do that) so this is the time I need to get my shit together. More finance books to follow.
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Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

4/5. Very belated review – I was still several weeks from giving birth when I finished this -- and thus somewhat shallow. But, completeness!

Excellent collection of essays from a surgeon. Standouts for me were from his section on doctor fallibility. He has a particular piece that speaks candidly about physician learning curves and the necessity of learning new techniques sometimes at the expense of patients. You don't see people admitting that often, but it obviously must be the case. The whole section on fallibility is great. I was baffled to discover that my girlfriend wife (…whoa….) trusts doctors as, like, a baseline state of being. I assumed cancer treatment would cure that, but nope! It's amazing. She goes to see someone and she just assumes they are well-trained, up-to-date, engaged that day, etc. To be fair, her cancer was initially suspected by a nurse practitioner who was seriously on the ball, and I have had my share of amazing doctors myself. But as a general rule, I go in assuming 85% of them are overworked, uninterested, or simply incompetent. I mean, in my experience, 85% of the people in most professions fall into one of those categories, and to assume doctors don't is an obvious fallacy. So it's great that this collection dug into that.

But the real highlight for me is his essay on autonomy, particularly speaking to it as an ethic of care, not the ethic of care. It's important, challenging material I wish I'd read back when I was writing about medical ethics in law school.

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Top Secret Twenty-One: A Stephanie Plum Novel



Aside from everything else wrong about this book which I will not bother with (except wow she really needs to stop making "jokes" about a person with a disability being like an animal -- wow). Aside from that, this book grossed me out so much at one point I actually gagged. What the hell? I am not here for this.

Actually, I'm not here at all. I'm out. Buh-bye.
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The Goblin Emperor

4/5. Refreshingly anti-grimdark tale of the abused and neglected eighteen-year-old half-Goblin child of the Elf emperor elevated unexpectedly to the throne after his father and brothers are killed.

I have a huuuuuge loyalty kink (you guys didn't know that, didya? Didya? …You totally did). This one doubles down by combining loyalty with fealty, and hitting that sweet sweet spot of someone earning all of it.

This is a surprisingly gentle book about a boy determined to do better than he was done by; in which most people can be counted on to have redeeming qualities underneath; where providence is kind as much as cruel. I think one of the things I like best is that this is a book very much focused on forgiveness, but it doesn't short shrift anger. That is rare – stories of forgiveness like to treat anger as a brief, passing phase, something that the "good person" must put aside as quickly as possible. And I mean, I'm sure it's a total coincidence that 'turn the other cheek' is precisely the standard you hold people to if you want to ensure that abusers can always keep abusing, yep yep. This book believes in anger, and knows it lingers, and that anger and forgiveness aren't mutually exclusive, because it just isn't that simple.

A kind book, but not as simple as it pretends.

Things worth knowing: Katherine Addison is the pseud of Sarah Monette (not in any way a secret – I generally try not to publicly connect names authors don't want connected, but she clearly doesn't care). Also, there is apparently an invaluable naming conventions guide (in the back?) of the print edition which is not included with the audiobook. Why, Tantor Media, why? It actively pisses me off when production companies slice off so much metadata and front and back matter for audio, and in this instance I think it does the book very particular harm.
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Back to text links for now.

The Boy With The Painful Tattoo: Holmes & Moriarity 3

4/5. M/M, third in the mystery series featuring two writers.

I started this last night when I took the dog out for her evening constitutional, and then it kept me company through the 4 a.m. insomnia. I didn't read this for the mystery (fine, but not engaging) or the genre jokes (many and charmingly bad). I sorta read it for the relationship, which is delightful and unusual in that these are two grownups who often fight with each other about things that grownups fight about! Imagine that.

Really, I read it for the protagonist. He's forty with a bad back and a vicious streak and a career on the rocks and a commitment to misanthropy that delights me. He's got piles of baggage and he doesn't fight fair, and he's the sort of guy who will say, "You're only hearing this once," over some romantic expression. He is just so cranky and vivid, and he doesn’t like kids, and he snarks on absolutely everything. He is aging ungracefully and he's a lot of work to love, but he's still allowed to be sexy. And falling in love has nothing to do with learning to smile or love the kid: it just involves wrangling boundaries at every turn. And I dig it.

Ugh, I really needed good satisfying M/M with actual human beings in it. Josh Lanyon is here for me.
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Playing with posting formats.

2/5. M/M of the married with kids with law enforcement entanglements variety. Points for boring me, rather than actively pissing me off. I mean, these guys appear to have one kind of sex in the physical sense (always penetrative, same guy always tops) and about 1.5 kinds of sex emotionally (quote claiming end quote) but the kids are actually a realistic amount of work and disruption so whatever, fine, be that way.
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Parting Shot (A Matter of Time, #7)Parting Shot by Mary Calmes

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It's the first grudge read of 2015! …That didn't take long.

Grudge read, btw, meaning a book you desperately want to throw across the room less than halfway through, but you continue on to the bitter end just for the satisfaction of knowing for sure that it really is that terrible. And also so you can slam it in full knowledge.

So yeah. M/M of the cop and billionaire variety. This book is an unholy mess – disorganized, confused about who its unlikeable protagonists are, full of random BDSM content with no accuracy or emotional context or, uh, sexiness.

But whatever. A bad book is a bad book. Here's what's offensively bad about this one.

So both our heroes were closeted, right, very purposefully and to the detriment of previous relationships. Until – you can see this one coming – they meet each other and that all changes. Here's what our narrator, the cop, has to say about it: "It made me almost sick that I had waited so long to be brave and stand up. That was crazy, but I felt like I owed someone an apology."

That's right, kids. A queer person staying in the closet is failing to be brave and stand up. Coming out being, you see, entirely a function of the queer person's courage (and also whether he is in real love) rather than, say, oh just some random options – physical safety, job security, maintaining familial stability, I could go on.

Staying in the closet isn't a failure of courage. It is often a carefully calculated decision, and an essential or very smart one. This book and it's repeated refrain of how coming out was so much easier than expected – the executive board doesn't care! The police captain doesn't care! – isn't just erasing homophobia, it's placing responsibility for the consequences of homophobia on queer people. Queer people aren't in the closet as a random cultural artifact! The closet exists because of a vast and terrifying history of oppression and violence which is still alive and well today!

But, well, if only those queer people would be braver. Problem solved.

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The Three-Body Problem (Three Body, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A scientist is drawn into a conspiracy involving a computer game and an old research station and extra-terrestrial life.

Translated from the original Chinese. I have to admit I read this book mostly because the way it's being talked about made me really uncomfortable. There's the contingent who want to treat it as some sort of referendum on the Chinese science fiction landscape, or Chinese literature in general, as it was a wildly successful bestseller there. Yeah, okay, tell you what – go take a look at this week's NY Times bestseller list and pick out the book we should translate into other languages for readers to judge as a referendum on all of American writing of that genre. I'll wait. And then there's the way the translator responded to criticism by making a lot of sweeping statements about Chinese writing that I have very little doubt, even in the absence of any personal expertise, are dubious at best. This book is occupying some weird space in reviewerland, is what I'm saying.

So I read it, and. Um. It's not very good. Flat characters, some shall we say eyebrow raising decisions regarding women, a lot of but humans don’t human that way, etc. Which kind of figures, since if notions of best seller can be translated, then this book is Chinese Tom Clancy. So . . . there you go.

It did intrigue me on behalf of other Chinese science fiction, though. The cultural context of this story – the asides about how communism impacted intellectual thought, for example – interested me more than anything else.

I generally have a pretty good nose for these things, though, and I smell movie deal, for what that's worth.

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Contemplating some changes around here. Like many people, I have increasing problems with Goodreads and their policies regarding review content. To say nothing of their, uh, complete disinterest in accessibility, shall we say. I'm in their top 1% of reviewers globally, which sounds great until I start thinking about just how many advertising dollars I've made for them over the years. I mean, if I wholeheartedly loved them, no biggie, but I'm making an effort to be more conscious of where my financial footprint is these days, and well, *shakes head*. Plus, because of aforesaid Goodreads issues, most of my community there has scattered to other services.

So considering some changes. I initially used Goodreads because so many people like seeing a book cover with a review, and that was an easy way to do it. Easier than Amazon Affiliate, which I also used briefly, and could go back to. There's also Booklikes, which seems to be the preferred Goodreads alternative these days.

Amazon Affiliate links raise other issues. I have competing impulses about making money off these reviews, even if it's just a few cents here and there. On the one hand, it feels unnecessary and sort of . . . squirmy. On the other, I do put in a fair amount of work here, and people do find it useful. And the truth of the internet is that if you have an audience, even a small one, you're making money for someone, and if you want any control over that, you've got to take it yourself. Plus, I kind of interrogate that squirminess I mentioned – is it that usual notion of cottage industry guilt where we are taught to devalue ourselves and our work because we aren't part of the traditional creation/consumption model, blah capitalism blah? Dunno.

Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 39

How strongly do you prefer to see a book cover with each review?

View Answers
Mean: 3.74 Median: 4 Std. Dev 2.10
1 19 (23.1%)
25 (12.8%)
35 (12.8%)
42 (5.1%)
58 (20.5%)
66 (15.4%)
74 (10.3%)
80 (0.0%)
90 (0.0%)
10 100 (0.0%)

How strongly do you prefer to have some sort of rating or scale included with reviews?

View Answers
Mean: 6.36 Median: 7 Std. Dev 2.31
1 13 (7.7%)
20 (0.0%)
32 (5.1%)
41 (2.6%)
59 (23.1%)
61 (2.6%)
77 (17.9%)
810 (25.6%)
95 (12.8%)
10 101 (2.6%)

Would you use Amazon Affiliate links?

View Answers

Sure, useful!
8 (20.5%)

No, I hate it when bookbloggers do that
0 (0.0%)

No, it's just not how I get books
25 (64.1%)

Not sure.
6 (15.4%)

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Burning ParadiseBurning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Alternate history scifi about a subtle alien organism surrounding the earth and nudging the course of history towards peace for its own ends.

Bafflement. Robert Charles Wilson, what happened to you? How did the guy who wrote Spin phone in something so shallow and pointless? This is a fertile concept – humans confronting the idea that prosperity and peace are artificially imposed from without, and having to decide what to do about it. You could really go places with that. This book utterly fails to. It flails around a bit with some stilted interpersonal nonsense, drops a few obvious twists and sets up more plot holes than most Stargate episodes, and then limps to a vague conclusion type thing. There isn't even enough there here for me to get my teeth in for some real complaining. I can't, because there's not enough substance.

Seriously, his back catalog is kind of shaky, but this was recently published and we know what he can do. What the hell happened to RCW?

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Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories (Abhorsen)Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories by Garth Nix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Collection. Hrm. Turns out Nix is one of those authors who I like more at greater length. The Abhorsen novella that starts this collection was the highlight for me: it had all the creepiness and mounting pressure and young people being brave with difficulty that I like from him. The rest of the collection was hit or miss, and it really seemed like the shorter the piece, the more scattered or unclever (or, in one case, quite sexist) I found it.

I'm only writing it up at all to ask whether I should be reading this days of the week series of his? It looks a bit younger than the Abhorsen books -- yay or nay?

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All Kinds of Tied DownAll Kinds of Tied Down by Mary Calmes

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I generally like Calmes's contemporary romances more than her fantasies (which in my experience are epically batshit). This one, about two federal marshals, is a decent bit of vaguely power dynamic-y porn wrapped around some boring action/adventure nonsense, sprinkled with, like, every character from other books of hers she could awkwardly shove in. This book is almost interrogating the usual Calmesian tropes – she takes a vague stab at mixing up which of her usual types tops, and for her that's, like, serious subversion because she's one of those authors who is deeply, deeply concerned with who penetrates and who gets penetrated, that being, like, an intrinsically and vitally important aspect of everyone's personality or whatever. Not that this genre is fucked up or anything….

Anyway, whatever, it's fine, a little incompetent around the edges, nothing exciting.

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More Than ThisMore Than This by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book opens with our teenaged protagonist drowning. And then he wakes up a continent away, apparently alone in an abandoned British town.

Ugh, you guys, this book is so good -- Patrick Ness is such a crazy beautiful motherfucker – I can't cope. I also can't say much about this, because you've just got to go on the journey, but here are some things.

This is a young adult book about nihilism, and it is so smart; this book scared me so badly at one point that I actually eeped; this is a little bit slipstream and a little bit metafictional and a lot about that moment when you look up from the bottom of a very deep well of pain and you're, you know, still a baby yourself so you don't know how to survive; this book played with me and jerked me around and mindfucked me at least twice, and I said please and thank you.

Oof, so good. And frustrating. And inconclusive – but necessarily so. And just – some of my Goodreads friends are totally wright about young adult, it really is doing things that adult fiction just can't touch.

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The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Through a freak set of circumstances, an astronaut is abandoned on Mars when the rest of his NASA crew departs. Now he has to survive.

Ahaha, okay.

Things this book doesn't care about: Doing the omniscient POV well; doing epistolary well; giving characters anything more complex than the most obvious, primary-colored emotions; the actual psychological experience of being left alone on Mars to die.

Things this book cares about: How to extract hydrogen and create your own water molecules from scratch OMG.

This was a lot of fun, and compulsively readable in places. But let's get real here: I can see exactly why this book was self-published for lack of an agent, and simultaneously why Crown later acquired it (though I am baffled as to why, during the editing process, they didn't sit Weir down and have a long, firm talk with him about how jaw-droppingly terrible the last few paragraphs of the book are. Seriously, they're seventh-grade essay about the nature of mankind bad. It's like telling someone their fly is unzipped – it's embarrassing, but someone has to do it). Anyway, this is a cool space survival piece with loving (and fascinating!) descriptions of growing potatoes on Mars and orbital mechanics calculations sprinkled with occasional quips, and really disinterested or just incompetent everything else.

Basically, I really dug this. But I actually bet myself halfway through that this was going to be made into a movie, and yep, I was right. Starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, which, uh-huh. And I just . . . look. Being able to spot a book that a major studio is going to snap up for adaptation? That isn't actually a compliment. That usually means the book is a good adrenaline vehicle with only cut-outs of human beings in it, where the emotional arc – such as it is – can go comfortably down in one small swallow and be immediately forgotten. And . . . yeah.

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