Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach

Ah, Mary Roach. It’s been awhile. How you been? Oh, you’ve been gallivanting around the world talking to astronauts and wannabe astronauts and chimponauts and people who pretend to be astronauts for SCIENCE? Tell me more!

And she does! There is much more than I would have guessed to tell about space, that final frontier and whatnot. Some of it I had heard before, like the bit about how a certain president was not a fan of lady astronauts, and oddly some of it I heard on a podcast referencing Packing for Mars after I had started the book but before I got to the part they referenced. That was odd.

Other bits I had not heard but made sense, and were kind of intriguing, like the whole chimps in space program and how it totally ruined the start of our space race and how at one point there was a human testing a spacesuit to see if it was humane for chimps, except that the point of the chimp wearing the spacesuit was to see if it was safe for humans. Oh, science. And the part where she goes off to Japan to visit their astronaut training camp or whatever and you find out that Japanese astronaut candidates have to fold 1000 paper cranes for luck and psychological testing. On that basis alone, I am not cut out to be an astronaut.

And, of course, in true Mary Roach fashion, there were also bits about sex in space and poop in space that I didn’t know I didn’t need to know until I knew them. Darn her! Suffice it to say that it is difficult to do both, and so NASA at least tries to avoid them when at all possible. Also, you shouldn’t talk about your poo problems on a live microphone. For your sake AND everyone else’s.

I’m wondering if my lack of love for Spook is content-based or narrator-based, because the woman who narrates this one also did Bonk and I liked the latter equally as much as this current one. I think this narrator has an excellent blend of “Wow, did you know this?” and “Wow, did you need to know this?” and sometimes, “Wow, you definitely don’t need to know this but it’s written down so I’m gonna have to tell you anyway,” like when Roach writes about her lack of knowledge about body odor in the crotchal region, not for lack of trying ew. Sorry. I heard it, so you have to, too!

I promise most of the other fun facts in this book are actually fun, and it’s about space! I really don’t think you can go wrong.

Recommendation: For lovers of SCIENCE and crazy people who write about science and obscure factoids disguised as science.

Rating: 8/10

(What’s in a Name Challenge)

Space space wanna go to space yes please space. Space space. Go to space.
Better buy a telescope. Wanna see me. Buy a telescope. Gonna be in space.
Iā€™m in space.

Thinner, by Richard Bachman

I’m always a little confused by authors who use pseudonyms but are also like, “I am totally this person,” so people will read their books. Like I’ve cataloged a few books that are authored by NORA ROBERTS (writing as J.D. Robb) or… someone whose name I forget where her author bio is like “This Person is the pseudonym of That Other Person.” Why are we bothering with the pseudonym, then?

All this is to say that I didn’t actually realize this was a Richard Bachman book until well after I started listening, because everything I looked at was all STEPHEN EFFING KING all the time. It is also to say that when people know they are reading a Stephen King book it is a little weird to hear the narrator talking about how it’s like he’s in a Stephen King book, but according to my friend Cory this is not an unusual thing to happen in a King novel. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Aaaaanyway the novel. I had actually thought this was a short story, because the plot ā€” a heavy guy gets cursed to become thinner, which is cool until all of a sudden he can barely eat enough to survive ā€” did not seem like a story that could be sustained over 10 hours(!). And indeed, there were a few parts where I was like, “Okay I get it let’s move it along now?”

But on the whole the story was delightfully horror-ful. It starts with a guy, Billy, who’s like, “That creepy gypsy guy was creepy. Why did he say ‘THINNER’ at me?” And then he’s all losing weight, and you find out that the creepy gypsy guy said that because Billy ran over the gypsy’s daughter who ran out into the street and so he was found not guilty of manslaughter or whatever except that then it turns out that maybe he wasn’t quite so not guilty after all? And maybe the gypsy isn’t only targeting him? But Billy is a lawyer, so he’s gonna fight back, even if he has to drive all the way up to Maine (you knew Maine was in here somewhere, didn’t you?) to find these gypsies and bitch at them. Because that’s really what it boils down to.

And really, the driving up I-95 bit could have just been completely excised from the story, because I really do understand that gypsies are creepy, and also why is it that everyone is like “Man, I haven’t seen a gypsy in like 25 years” and then at the EXACT SAME TIME like “Oh, gypsies. You know how they roll.” Do you? Are you sure?

But the whole cursing aspect is interesting, and Billy’s visits to the other afflicted-types are quite creepy, and the ending is the only possible ending I would have accepted for Billy so it’s fine that it’s pretty well telegraphed. Also, I knew I liked Joe Mantegna, the audiobook narrator, from his work on the teevee, but seriously that man can read a book. He did some fantastic voice work to the point where I was sometimes like, “Isn’t Joe Mantegna reading this book? Who is this guy? That is Joe Mantegna? Are you sure?” I think he should probably read every Stephen King book, because he can make with the spooky and terrifying. Maybe he should do a version of The Turn of the Screw! How much would it cost to commission that?

Recommendation: On the whole, I enjoyed my ten hours with Stephen and Joe. Especially Joe. And while I think the novel should be much much shorter, I do still think it’s worth a read if you’re in the mood for some gruesome.

Rating: 8.5/10 (bonus points for Joe!)
(RIP Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I had meant to post this last week, but with Blogger acting up I figured I’d wait until I was sure everything was fixed. This turned out to be an excellent idea, as a) Blogger ended up eating a couple of my posts and b) by waiting, I made it to the book club meeting for which I read this book AND we watched a companion movie. So I have lots to talk about!

So, the book. I’d been meaning to read this, oh, forever, so I’m glad the book club made me do it. Before reading it, though, I just knew it was an important book that people read, and also a true crime story, another thing I’ve never read. The reason it’s important is because it is a true crime story written as non-fiction but in the style of a novel, with people doing things and talking to each other and expositing their own story. This was apparently a very new thing, and the conceit does fall apart in places, like any time Capote includes an entire letter or confession or whatever that just goes on for pages and pages or when there are scenes where you know Capote had to be making some stuff up because he just couldn’t have that information.

The story itself is about the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, who in 1959 were murdered quite unexpectedly and brutally in their own home. Capote’s novelization presents the murder and investigation in a really interesting manner, as the Clutters die fairly early on in the story and the rest of the book is spent first in figuring out the whodunnit and then in pondering about the whydunnit. The book jumps back and forth between the Kansas investigation and the murderers on the run until, of course, the two meet, and then there’s a bunch about jail and the trial, which is more intriguing than I originally thought it would be.

I quite liked this book even with its problems, and so did the rest of my book club, and after we talked about it we watched Infamous, which is a recent movie about Capote and how he managed to actually write this book. I thought it was a perfect complement to the book, as it’s structured similarly and touches on the unreliable narrator problems of In Cold Blood while taking its own liberties with Capote’s story. Brilliant, really. And it was really the unreliable narrator parts that intrigued me most ā€” the movie brings up the fact that Capote never took notes during interviews, preferring to write things down with 99 percent accuracy later (mmhmm), and that he reworked “quotes” until they sounded better, which did not surprise me in the least. The movie even points to one bit of In Cold Blood that is just outright fabricated! I may need to go read the book that Infamous is based on.

Recommendation: For the Criminal Minds/Law and Order/other crime procedural lover in your life.

Rating: 8/10
(A to Z Challenge What’s in a Name Challenge)

The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud

Okay, so, we’ve already established that I heart Bartimaeus. I find him delightful and wonderful and lovely and all sorts of other good adjectives. But it turns out that I like him a heck of a lot more when compared to lesser beings rather than when he’s just being awesome all the time. It’s kind of like how you can’t wait for summer to come and be warm all the time, until summer gets there and you’re sweltering and envisioning snowball fights.

So, yeah. This is, I guess, the fourth Bartimaeus book, though it’s not directly related to the other three except for its protagonist. This one takes place in the time of Solomon, who is the boss of a magician who is the boss of Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus is all collecting ice and stuff until such point as he meets a wannabe assassin called Asmira, whom he rescues and convinces to convince his boss to free him. Well, the boss “frees” him into a bottle where he’s meant to stay trapped, but then Asmira summons him up all magician-like and then instead of letting him be free she coerces him to help her kill Solomon.

The plot is definitely excellent, with the intrigue and the subterfuge and the awesome. But while I enjoyed Bartimaeus and his trickery, I couldn’t have cared less about Asmira, who is quite possibly dumber than Nathaniel and not nearly as entertaining when bad things happen to her, because who cares?

On the plus side, I’m still also in heart with the narrator, Simon Jones, and his soothing voice got me through several hours of stickers and data entry. So… yeah. It’s a fun read, even if you haven’t read the other books, but I wouldn’t say it’s as good as the trilogy proper. So go read that instead.

Recommendation: For fans of fantastical swashbuckling, and of Bartimaeus.

Rating: 7/10
(A to Z Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach

Hello again, Mary Roach. You are ever so delightful.

In this book, Roach does indeed tackle the afterlife, starting with a bit of religion and then really focusing on spirits and mediums (media?) for the rest of the book. It’s not nearly as titillating as Bonk, but I do know a heck of a lot more about spirit phenomena than I did before!

My favorite part: in the religion section, Roach writes about reincarnation and spends some time with a reincarnation researcher in… India, I think… who finds cases where children are claiming to be remembering past lives and then going to where they live and where they think they used to live to try to fact-check the situation. I had never thought about people doing that ā€” it makes perfect sense, but is almost too easy, yes?

Recommendation: Good for a car trip and for the spooks-enthusiast, but not the most thrilling book you’ll read all year.

Rating: 7/10
(A to Z Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy Sayers

I found this book in Mac’s Backs when I was up in Cleveland for New Year’s, and since I’ve never seen any other Sayers novels there (and because I still have some store credit there), I snapped it up right quick! It even took precedence over my library book for in-flight reading material, because I liked Gaudy Night so much I wanted my Sayers fix pronto!

This was, for the most part, a very good idea, especially the plane part, because I might not have been able to focus on this book were it not for lack of anything else to do. The story is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but Sayers buries the whole thing in so much train timetable nonsense and sometimes indecipherable Scottish dialect that more than once I found myself a bit confused by something but too overwhelmed to go back and figure it out. So I may be missing any subtler parts of this mystery.

But basically, you’ve got a dude. A belligerent dude, who is not terribly well liked by most of his friends. And so then he dies, seemingly accidentally, and that’s all well and good until one Lord Peter Wimsey is like, “Oh, ho, but this one piece of evidence that would totally make this an accident is missing!” and Dorothy Sayers is all, “But I’m not gonna tell you what that evidence is because where’s the fun in that?” except she actually writes, “(Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.)” Which is both sexist and unnecessary, because I sort of knew what she was talking about but it didn’t help me figure out whodunnit any faster, so whatever.

Ahem. Anyway, dude-face is dead, and it’s an artist what killed him, and in particular one of six potential artists who had the motive and means to do it. Interestingly, most of these artists have gone missing, so it takes rather longer than it probably should to round them all up, figure out their stories, and solve the case. And even then, the case takes a while to solve, because it gets all Clue up in Scotland. Or, I should probably say that Clue gets all Five Red Herrings up in Mr. Boddy’s mansion, but I saw Clue first and I’m sticking with it. What I mean to say is that several people offer theories of what might have happened, and then Wimsey is all, “Nuh-uh, you’re wrong and I’m right like Sherlock Holmes!” and then, and I am not kidding about this, Wimsey stages a real-time reenactment of the crime that is, again, totally unnecessary but which is in fact delightful.

So. Minus points for the incredibly dense writing, but super-awesome plus points for lines like, “‘You shut up,’ said Wimsey, ‘You’re dead, sir.'” and, “‘Now, corpse, it’s time I packed you into the car.'” Though I admit that if anyone had ever said, “To make a long story short,” I would have had to shout, “TOO LATE!”

Recommendation: For fans of classic-type mysteries who are not adverse to a little translation in their reading or a little math (for the timetables).

Rating: 8/10, mostly for the delightful ending
(A to Z Challenge, Vintage Mystery Challenge, What’s in a Name Challenge)

What’s in a Name Challenge

This here What’s in a Name Challenge just looks adorable. I have to sign up!

Here’s How It Works

Between January 1 and December 31, 2011, read one book in each of the following categories:
1. A book with a number in the title: First to Die, Seven Up, Thirteen Reasons Why
2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the title: Diamond Ruby, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Opal Deception
3. A book with a size in the title: Wide Sargasso Sea, Small Wars, Little Bee
4. A book with travel or movement in the title: Dead Witch Walking, Crawling with Zombies, Time Traveler’s Wife
5. A book with evil in the title: Bad Marie, Fallen, Wicked Lovely
6. A book with a life stage in the title: No Country for Old Men, Brideshead Revisited, Bog Child

The book titles are just suggestions, you can read whatever book you want to fit the category.

Interesting, right? Well, I think so, anyway, and that’s what counts! I have noooooo idea what I’ll pick for this, but if you’ve got ideas, send them my way!

Number: Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy Sayers (Review)
Jewelry: The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud (Review)
Size: Thinner, by Richard Bachman (Review)
Travel: Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach (Review)
Evil: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (Review)
Life: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach (Review)