Monday, August 3, 2015

The Martian

The Martian
by Andy Weir
Recommended Ages: 15+ [Adult Content Advisory]

Ares 3, the third in a series of manned missions to Mars, is supposed to last 31 days. On the sixth day the astronauts are forced by a sandstorm to abort, blasting off for an early return to earth. Thanks to a freak combination of events, botanist and engineer Mark Watney is left behind, presumed dead by his crewmates but actually quite alive. Now all he has to do is stay that way in a lifeless, airless desert with supplies to last six crewmen a month and no way to call home even to tell the world he's alive. Best case scenario, a rescue mission starting right away would take more than a year to reach him. Everything is against his survival except his own ingenuity, his will to live and a few million dollars worth of abandoned NASA equipment.

What would you do in Watney's situation? A lot of us would probably give up and wait for death, or maybe even hurry it along. Some of us would be paralyzed with fear. Watney copes with his hopeless situation, the loneliness of his harsh environment and the whisker-thin membrane between life and death with cussed (and frequently cussing) stubbornness, inventiveness and brilliance, lightened by endearingly goofy humor.

Soon enough folks back on Earth are racing to save him. His Ares 3 crewmates, still en route home, are ready to risk everything. The space agencies of more than one country commit enormous resources to his rescue. But ultimately Mark's rescue depends on his own heroic effort and a journey across the surface of Mars, where every moment seems to bring another brush with death.

This book first came to my attention on a list of must-read science fiction novels. I bought it as a gift for my dad, who is much more into sci-fi than I am, and he expressed his enjoyment of it so strongly that I read it after him. According to the author's note at the end of it, the book started out as a serial published on his wesbite and was later packaged as a 99-cent e-book on Amazon. From there to best-seller, soon to be a motion picture starring Matt Damon, is a journey almost as amazing as that of its main character.

This might turn out to be a historically important book, lending insights to the development of manned Mars exploration. But for now it's notable enough for what it is: a smart, exciting piece of entertainment that touches the heart and transports the mind to a strange but real world. It makes us feel just how close and how far away Mars is. And it leaves us with a warm thought about the human family.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Rithmatist

The Rithmatist
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 12+

If you are a Harry Potter fan, drop everything right now and read this book. End of book review.

Wait, one more thing. Don't wiki this book. Wikipedia quotes exactly one review of it which is not only unflattering, it's downright untrue.

OK, a few more things. The Rithmatist takes place in a worldscape that its author calls "gearpunk." In an alternate-reality America where there's an archipelago instead of a continent, the United Isles of America in the year 1908 has carriages, lamps, and even trains powered not by electricity or steam but by wind-up springs. Even the dollar coins have clockwork in them. Europe has been conquered by the Korean empire. America is, or at least was in fairly recent times, a monarchy. A Christian sect called the Monarchist Church is known for practicing a rite called inception in which some devotees - say, one in a thousand - develops a kind of magical ability called Rithmatics, which allows them to draw chalk lines and figures that come to life and move about in two dimensions.

Eight schools throughout the country teach Rithmatics to children age eight and up. They're sort of like Hogwarts, only these schools teach ordinary students as well. The Rithmatists stay to themselves most of the time, except during spectacular displays of dueling such as the yearly Melees. In exchange for a life pension and special career opportunities, Rithmatists have to spend ten years in an island at the center of the country called Nebrask, where Rithmatic forces fight to contain horrors most people know nothing about. Among them are the wild chalklings, silent two-dimensional creatures that attack and harm not only other chalk figures but human beings as well.

Joel Saxon, age 16, attends the Armedius academy on a scholarship. His mother works at the academy as a cleaning lady, and his late father was a maker of specialty chalks favored by the Rithmatists. Neither of them had Rithmatic powers, and neither does Joel - but all he wants in life is to be a Rithmatist. While his other studies suffer, he obsessively studies every detail of chalk-line defenses and dueling. He is even willing to risk being thrown out of school to learn more, but it is rare for Rithmatists to allow unpowered people to study their secrets.

Joel's chance finally comes when the brilliant but weak-nerved Professor Fitch is forced to take summer tutoring duties. Fitch accepts Joel's help as a research assistant while tutoring a hopelessly inept Rithmatics student named Melody Muns. Somehow, between doing boring research for Fitch and putting up with Melody's annoying personality, Joel finds himself in the thick of an exciting investigation into the disappearances, and possible murders, of a series of young Rithmatists.

That's enough synopsis. If you haven't found the thread by now, go find the book and look for it there. I promise you, as implausible as it sounds - and at the beginning, I found it downright goofy - it quickly becomes a fully convincing, immersive world-building experience. I don't know if it's the characters who feel real and deliver natural sounding dialogue, or if it's the sketches of Rithmatic defenses sandwiched between the chapters, or just the grip of fear and mystery and accelerating action that closes in around you, but by the end of the book you'll know you've found your way into something truly excellent. I can't wait until the promised sequel comes out.

This is the second Brandon Sanderson novel I have come across, following the marvelous Elantris. I want more, but I either have to wait until the local library acts on my buying suggestions or buy them myself. Some of his titles that I am even more excited to open after this include Steelheart and Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Plus, if I ever get around to reading Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, I'll be reading more Sanderson titles by the end of it since it was he who wrapped up that fantasy masterpiece after its creator's death. I have a lot of homework to do. But mostly, I want the sequel to this book to come out already!

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni
by Helene Wecker
Recommended Ages: 14+

On a ship crossing the Atlantic from Poland to New York, a dying man awakens a golem - a clay woman animated by the darkest secrets of Jewish mysticism - who has been designed to pass as the perfect wife. In a tinsmith's shop in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood of Little Syria, a soldering iron releases a jinni - a fire spirit from the deserts of Arabia - from an old copper oil flask. In the year 1899, these nearly simultaneous events bring two wildly different beings of old-world magic to the new world and send them searching for the meaning of their existence, just like millions of other lonely, homesick immigrants on the shores of the 20th century.

Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni both face the danger of being terrifyingly different in a world that crushes individuality. They endure the hardship of being creatures of ancient magic in a modern, industrialized world that has sucked the magic out of traditional beliefs. Meanwhile Ahmad chafes against the iron bracelet that keeps him bound in human form, the blank in his memory where the events that bound him ought to be, and the crowded city that could not be farther from the empty desert where he belongs. And Chava struggles against the temptation to serve the desires of every person who goes by, since she can read their feelings and has no single master to guide her will.

Ahmad becomes the tinsmith's apprentice, then his partner as he demonstrates a gift for shaping things by fire. But restlessness tugs at him, driving him out on long walks at night and putting him in danger from cold and wet weather. Chava shelters for a while under the care of a kindly rabbi, but when he too dies she is left to cope as best she can with a day job at a bakery, taking in needlework to keep herself busy at night. When the two creatures meet, an unlikely but powerful friendship develops that could save both of them. They only have to survive the tragedy that inevitably plays out when an evil magician, a heartsick social worker, a mentally touched peddler, a silent child, an unconventional heiress and a pregnant but unwed shopgirl get involved.

This debut novel excels in conjuring a period-perfect atmosphere, filling it with communities full of hopeful and hopeless immigrants, speech tinged with distinct accents and the regretful flavor of old beliefs fading in the harsh light of modernity. It is an electric novel that growls with danger, hums with suspense and finally explodes with violence. But it is also a candlelit, gaslit novel furnished with glimpses of old New York in the midst of its transformation into the New York of today. It is a sandwich novel in which multiple layers of story develop in alternation, but also a full-course meal of a book with romance, mystery, fantasy and horror elements blended together and spiced with historical authenticity. It is a literary novel that entertains, moving heart and mind at the same time. And it is also an outwardly attractive book. I think I should mention this fact, since I would never have read it had not my eye been drawn to it on the stacks of the local library. You can't always judge a book by its cover, though. So now you have it from me. I wholeheartedly vouch for this book.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Everything Wrong with My Car

I really liked my car when I bought it, but I'm starting to get pretty annoyed with all the little glitches that have built up over the last few years when I haven't had enough cash on hand to get it tuned up.

My previous car was a Hyundai that I bought new and drove to death in eight years flat. This car is the same age now, but I've only had it for five years - and I'm still paying it off! It's a Volkswagen Rabbit with 135,000 miles on it and a few cosmetic wrinkles. I hit a deer with it several years ago and never had the damage to the hood smoothed out. I had trouble getting it onto a U-haul tow dolly a year ago and some low-hanging pieces of the plastic grille assembly are either hanging even lower than they should or they had to be removed altogether. The rear wiper stopped wiping the rear window and started flopping uselessly over the tail of the vehicle, until I pulled it off completely. Some jerkweed keyed the paint job on the right side from front to back. And some body paint started flaking off the last time I tried to power-wash it, which is one of the reasons my car is always filthy: I'm afraid to give it a good scrub.

But that's more or less cosmetic stuff. At times a warning light on the dash board tells me the hood is unlatched, but that's related to the wrinkle from hitting the deer; a secondary latch is often all that's holding it shut, which isn't ideal. Also at times the engine light comes on, but when I brought it to some local mechanics for an explanation they spent four days trying to find an adapter to plug it into their diagnostic computer before I just took my car back and said never-mind. Apparently they don't service foreign cars in the sticks. I miss living in St. Louis sometimes, and this was one of those times.

I think the belts and filters need to be replaced. My poor car is overdue for that kind of service. It's also about due for a tire rotation and oil change, but there's nothing unusual about that. What is unusual, however, is the fact that my windshield wipers won't wipe unless the car is in motion. If I stop while they're running, they will freeze in mid-wipe. The washer fluid won't squirt on the windshield, ever.

At some point, I think about the time when these last-named problems surfaced, the car mysteriously stopped beeping when I hit the door-lock button on the smart key. I can make the panic alarm go off, though, which helps find it in a crowded parking lot. On the other hand, the panic alarm sometimes goes off on its own initiative, whether my keys are on me or not. There have been instances when it went off repeatedly, or all but continuously, for an extended period of time and would only stop if I remotely unlocked the doors. And then sometimes the panic alarm would go off again a minute or two later. It's embarrassed me many times. It's happened twice as I write this.

About a year ago, I started having trouble while driving on long trips and/or in hot weather. At a certain point in the trip, the engine goes into a cycle of seeming to lose power, then suddenly jerking forward and running full-power again, wash rinse repeat. These episodes often coincide with the engine light coming on. During stretches of open highway it will just go slower and slower, regardless of what I'm doing with the gas pedal, then leap forward with a sickening jerk and begin accelerating again, only to start losing power again just as I'm approaching the speed I want to go or, sometimes, easing off the gas pedal to avoid going too fast. At stop signs or red lights, I have to rev the engine to get started again without stalling, and sometimes as I'm shifting up from gear to gear it will do the old "losing power (almost to the point of stalling) then jerking ahead" trick again - in one gear after another. It's not only exasperating and embarrassing, it's sometimes terrifying as trucks close in behind me, or approach on roads that I'm crossing, and I'm struggling to get the machine moving. Picture me stomping on the gas, swearing, waving my hands in apology to other motorists, sometimes having to crank the ignition again and start over. And it keeps happening all the way to the end of my trip from there. Driving pleasure becomes driving misery.

What little work I've had done to correct this problem has not solved it, but nobody who's looked at it seems to have any idea what's causing it. The first time the problem surfaced, I actually replaced my battery because the parts shop said the old one tested dead, but the car continued running exactly the same way.

The latest new problem with my car is such a non-essential thing that I'm almost ashamed to mention it, but my CD player has become the one thing standing between me and insanity during many hours of monthly commuting and business travel. I listen to audio books more than I read printed ones. Take them away from me and you'll not only be forcing me to listen to broadcast radio, which I loathe, or road noise, which tends to lull me to sleep. But also, you'll be curtailing my intake of good books, which would be more devastating than you can possibly imagine.

So imagine my disgust when, a few weeks ago, the CD player started refusing to play any disk I put into it. It often relaxes that refusal first thing in the morning while I'm driving to work, and sometimes it will relent and let me listen to a disk or two after it's been running for a while and the air conditioning has gotten the interior nice and cool. But later in the day when the car has been warmed by the sun, or after a stop when the AC starts up again at the temperature of the air outside (which it can do, amazingly, even after I turn off the ignition and immediately restart the engine), or even after starting to work again and then realizing the car is hotter than it thought, the CD player forgets how to do its job. It tries and tries to read the disk, eventually decides it's unreadable and spits it out. Encouraged to try again, it does the same until you give up. An hour or so later maybe it will reward another try by starting to play a CD, only to cut out again at about the point where it stopped playing before. Now and then I can coax it into playing for a moment or two by tapping the front of the radio, but it will repeatedly get stuck and repeat the same second or so of the recording until tapped again, or it will simply stop playing.

I'm pretty sure the CD player has somehow become sensitive to temperature, but there is probably more to it than that. And it sickens me to think of my alternatives. Even having to listen to audio-books on a walkman CD player plugged into the car's AC adapter isn't an option that thrills me. I used to do that in the Hyundai, using a cassette adapter to plug the CD player into my car stereo so I could listen to audiobooks over the car's speaker system, but it was a lousy deal. Every time I changed disks I had to crank the volume on the walkman all the way up, and changing disks or controlling the playback was very distracting while I was trying to drive. Walkman devices are for people who don't mind listening to the same disk over and over, not for audiobook addicts trying to commute. I need this CD player to work. And odd as it may seem, this little "extra" is the thing that has tripped the countdown clock to when I can afford to buy a new(er) car.

In the meantime, I have a vacation coming up - my first vacation time in several years. It looks like auto repair will take up some of it. All I have to do now is find a mechanic who isn't going to deprive me of a car for a whole week and then tell me he wasn't able to figure out how to run a diagnostic on it. Alas for St. Louis!

Oh - also, I think the brakes need work. AGAIN.

Friday, July 24, 2015

123. Labor Hymn

I thought of doing this hymn partly as a counterpoint to the preceding "Agriculture Hymn," and partly as a nice addition to a daily morning prayer service before going to work. The tune I had in mind was Johann Crüger's O WIE SELIG.
God, whose labor set the planets spinning,
Bless our work today at its beginning,
Our burden easing
That our labor's fruit may be found pleasing!

Christ, who earned our pardon by Your labor,
Help us share the burden of our neighbor,
Our work perfecting
And our heart to others' need directing!

Spirit, manifest in flame and blowing,
Work in us that faith beyond mere knowing,
Our hearts transforming,
And in us the works of God performing!

Triune Lord, at work in glory splendid,
Strengthen us until our work is ended;
Then reunite us
And with gifts of perfect grace delight us!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Paper Magician

The Paper Magician
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Recommended Ages: 14+

Just imagine, I discovered this book because my car wasn't working properly. In the middle of a long trip my beater Volkswagen started acting up. I pulled into a truck stop to let it rest and while browsing the audiobook rack, I noticed this title and was intrigued. Now, after listening to Amy McFadden's performance of this book, I want to read more like it.

The story is set in the early years of the 20th century, in a version of England that has magicians. They train at a special school and are regulated by a governing cabinet. And each magician specializes in using one, and only one, man-made material. Some are into rubber, glass, plastic or metal. There are some evil magicians, known as excisioners, who have figured out a way to use human blood. But when it comes time for ambitious young Ceony Twill to apprentice under a master magician, binding her power to paper is the farthest thing from her dreams. Folders, as magicians specializing in paper are known, are necessary for the balance of things, but who really wants to be one? Not Ceony.

So maybe you will understand why Ceony starts off as a slightly unsympathetic character. She is, to put it nicely, disappointed at first to be apprenticed to a folder named Emery Thane and bound forever to the power of paper. She is a little snotty about it, to tell the truth. But then she learns Thane was the anonymous donor who made it possible for her to study magic when the scholarship first promised to her fell through. She starts to appreciate his kind gestures and his eccentric but catchy method of instruction. She starts to learn how magic can breathe life into origami creatures, how folded paper can be used to tell fortunes, and how a story read with enough charisma can conjure up life-like illusions.

It's just starting to look like things might work out when an excisioner blasts her way into Thane's house, reaches into his chest by magic and pulls out his still-beating heart. Ceony's quick thinking provides the paper magician with a temporary paper heart, but his life hangs by a thread while she chases the dark magician who happens to be Thane's ex-wife. I don't have room to explain how it happens, but Ceony ends up inside Thane's heart, racing to find a way out in time to save him while encountering his happiest, most hopeful, darkest and most discouraging memories, all while trying to find a way to defeat an enemy whose very touch is deadly.

To succeed, Ceony needs to find a way to communicate with the man whose heart she is trapped in. She thinks this is so he can teach her the magic she needs to save him. But maybe it's so both their hearts can heal.

This is the first book in the Paper Magician trilogy by an up-and-coming young author from Idaho, USA who, you may be surprised to learn, is a woman. I stopped being surprised at things like this when I saw a photo of China Miéville. Though at times Holmberg fumbles her syntax, with a good editor I think she will go far. This series continues to follow Ceony Twill's apprenticeship with titles The Glass Magician and The Master Magician.

Monday, July 20, 2015

122. Agriculture Hymn

As usual, I came up with Too Many Stanzas. Oh, well! It was just such a, ahem, fertile field of inspiration! On the other hand, I'm sure somebody will object that I missed an important branch of agriculture - but how long does this hymn really need to be?

O God, whose word like living seed
First broke creation's virgin soil,
It is a little thing indeed
That You should bless the farmer's toil.

You who move mountains by Your hand
And crush the stony heart to dust,
Give unto those who break the land
Both fruitful toil and restful trust!

Give unto those who till and sow
The strength of hope and patience sure!
Come flood or famine, hail or snow,
You yet will bless all who endure.

As You, Lord, sometimes blend with pain
The lessons leading us to light,
Those who the growth must prune and train
Make wise to judge its limits right!

When You, Lord, cleanse the hearts of men,
Their darkest stains show bright and clean;
How will You then forgo to send
The rain that keeps the croplands green?

Encourage us when weed takes root,
When field is rank with rot and pest;
For though we yielded bitter fruit,
You, Lord, forgave and promised rest.

You sent a Bread made without hands,
Life-giving, living, from above;
So let the bread raised from our lands
Reflect Your sacrificial Love!

You sent, O Lord, a living Vine
In whom as branches we are spliced;
So in our grafting and our wine
Remind us that we are in Christ!

From things that captivate and damn,
O Lord, You saved Your straying sheep;
Let us recall this with each lamb
We lead to pasture, watch and keep!

We find in Your pure word, O Lord,
A milk to nourish heart and soul;
So may there also here be poured
The milk that keeps our bodies whole!

Our flax and wool, our fowl and egg,
Choice meat, plump grain and sweetest comb
Come all from You, and so we beg,
Uphold us till our harvest-home!