Archive for May 2021

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

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For as long as I can remember, scientists, politicians, and large corporations have gone back and forth about how to best respond to climate change. The scientific community is at a consensus that Earth's temperature is rising at an alarming rate due in a large part to human-induced emissions and greenhouse gasses. Despite most agreeing that this is a problem, no one seems to be able to agree on how to resolve it. In Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir imagines a climate catastrophe that makes our struggle with global warming pale in comparison. In his signature style, Weir writes of the last-ditch attempt to reverse the extinction of the human race, an effort that will take all of mankind coming together to save themselves. 

To say the situation that Ryland Grace finds himself in is completely alien to him would be both an understatement and about as accurate as you can get. As we first meet him, the public school science teacher is as in the dark about his predicament as we are. Grace has just awakened from a deep sleep. He's connected to various tubes and wires, each leading to machines that hum and beep quietly in the background. Moving his body is a chore. Dr. Grace aches with each attempt to lift himself from his bed and take in his surroundings. He sees two other beds that appear similar to his own, though neither of the others is connected to any monitoring devices. 

As his physical strength grows, so does his mental capacity. He can see now that the two other beds contain the lifeless bodies of two people, though Grace doesn't recognize either of them. More alarming is what lies outside of this room, a vast blackness that both mystifies and startles him. You see, Dr. Ryland Grace is in outer space. The only problem is that he has no idea how he got here or what he is supposed to do next. 

After enjoying Andy Weir's previous novel Artemis, I was excited to accept an offer from his publisher to review Project Hail Mary. Weir is best known for his breakout hit The Martian, and this novel sees him continue to combine his scientific expertise with a compelling story and witty dialogue. The main character's amnesia adds to the mystery of his situation. Weir alternates chapters of the past on earth with the present in space, allowing us to discover the motivations of his character without sacrificing any of the suspense of his current predicament. 

Both of Weir's previous works were the kind of sci-fi that is rooted firmly in a plausible reality. Project Hail Mary asks us to suspend disbelief a bit too much for my taste, taking the story into several eye roll-inducing moments. As the story progressed, things got more and more far-fetched, taking me out of the reality that the first portion of the novel so successfully built. By that point, however, I was so invested in seeing the story of this character through that I couldn't help but keep reading. To that end then, Project Hail Mary is ultimately a story of one man tasked with carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. It is through the power of this one character that everything else filters through, ultimately making the novel an endearing, if a bit uneven, read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 19)

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

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Every once in a while, a book breaks out and captures the world. Titles like The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter are the kind of novels that become a global phenomenon, books that everyone you know is reading and talking about. The works are published in as many languages as possible and circulated around the globe. Inevitably a bidding war breaks out for the rights to create a film or television version of the story. The author goes from unknown to rich celebrity in an instant. For most authors, this is the kind of success they can only dream of. For Jacob Finch Bonner, the main character in Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel The Plot, that fantasy is about to become reality. 

When we first meet Jake, he is barely holding on to his dream of being a professional author. He's published two books, but neither of them brought him enough sales or acclaim to comfortably live off of. Heck, his third and fourth books can't even find a publisher. Instead, Jake serves on the faculty of a low-tiered MFA program, coaching potential young authors with whatever experience and wisdom he can muster. His students rarely make an impression on him, so it is unusual that he finds himself thinking of a young man from his latest class. 

Evan Parker is cocky. He's the kind of guy who has all the confidence in the world and isn't afraid to show it. Jake takes an immediate dislike to him. Evan seems to think he's too good for the writing program. He even goes as far as telling Jake that he's only taking the class to pad his resume. Evan claims to have an idea for a novel that is too good to mess up. The last thing he needs is some washed-up author like Jake giving him advice. Jake has seen these kinds of students before, but Evan is different. In their one on one the first week, Evan lays out the plot of his work in progress.  Jake can't believe it. Evan is right. He has an idea that will take the world by storm, a surefire hit. All Jake can do is keep living his bland life and wait for his student to become a literary star. 

Years go by and Jake's life continues to diminish. The college he taught at closes, and he begins freelance editing self-published works. In an age when anybody with enough willpower and money can publish a book, the world of serious writing slips further and further away from him. He still thinks back to that day when the arrogant Evan Parker outlined his novel. Surprisingly, Jake never heard about his student becoming the runaway success that he was destined to be. On a whim, he looks Evan up. Jake is shocked to see that his student passed away shortly after completing his course. Even more alarming, it appears that Evan never got around to writing his novel, the very novel that was destined to lead him to stardom. In that instant, Jake makes a decision that will alter the course of his own life. He decides to steal Evan Parker's plot and write the hit novel himself. 

Who owns an idea? Sure, copyright laws exist to protect the works and their creator, but does an idea in and of itself belong to anyone? These are the questions at the center of The Plot. Jean Hanff Korelitz is no stranger to success. Her novel You Should Have Known was recently adapted into the hit HBO series The Undoing. Here she writes of an author dealing with similar achievement while harboring the secret that his breakout work didn't begin as his own. As Jake grapples with the moral dilemma of his fame and fortune, he must also face the knowledge that someone knows his secret. Jean Hanff Korelitz does a fine job balancing the internal character conflict with the external strife that propels her thriller. I easily raced through the pages of this one, eager to see things come to a head. My only problem is that I guess the twist in the plot about a quarter of the way in. While this didn't completely take away my enjoyment of the story, it did lessen the impact of its conclusion. Still, The Plot is a twisty thrill-ride of a novel that has enough nuanced character development to keep even the most skeptical readers engaged to the very end.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 18)


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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I'm very late to the game with this book. At this point, it almost feels redundant to review it. Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give is a novel that has captured readers from the moment it was published by shining a light on the people affected by gun violence and police brutality. I've been hesitant to read this book. With so much unnecessary violence, racism, and injustice present in the real world, reading about those same topics in fiction just wasn't something I was emotionally prepared for. But then the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial came in. While his conviction isn't the end of systemic racism in policing, it was a hopeful sign of progress in the long battle ahead. Inspired by the moment and determined to continue reading stories of those with different perspectives from my own, I decided to finally read The Hate U Give. 

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is a girl who lives two lives. The first is that of her life at school, a prominent prep school filled with affluent, mostly white students. She's had no trouble making friends, but she has learned to adapt and compartmentalize her school life with the other side of her. This place and these people just aren't ready to see the "real" Starr. When she leaves school, she heads home to a place that her school friends would probably consider another world. Starr doesn't live in the wealthy neighborhoods of her friends. She lives on the poor side of town. To her, this is home. It is the place her father owns a business, the place her childhood friends have grown up, and a place where she feels the greatest sense of community. 

Starr's worlds begin to collide when she and a friend are pulled over while leaving a party. The officer panics and fatally shoots her friend. In almost an instant, the victim-blaming begins. Claims of the victim being a drug dealer, gangbanger, and thug begin to circulate in the media. It is as if they are saying that he deserved to be killed. Besides the officer, Starr is the only witness to the shooting, the only one who has the voice that can speak the truth to this murder. But putting herself out there to the world will come with a cost. Everyone in her life at the prep school will know she was involved in the shooting. Everyone at home will know too. Determined to not let her friend become another statistic in the long history of police brutality, Starr risks everything to make sure the world knows what really happened. 

It is hard to describe the impact a book like The Hate U Give has on the reader. Angie Thomas begins her story like any other young adult novel. Her main character is someone who is coming to terms with who she is and who she wants to be. All the pressures of being a normal teenager are present. With an opening that seems so familiar, I was a bit disarmed by the sudden onslaught of police brutality. At one moment, life was normal. In the next, everything changed. This is the harsh reality that far too many people of color have to face. Thomas does an excellent job of building her characters and the community they inhabit. These people are familiar, the kinds of people whom we encounter on a daily basis. Her ability to get the reader to invest so heavily in her characters only adds to the outrage we feel as they face injustice. The Hate U Give is a story for our times, the kind of novel that demands to be read. It forces us to face the harsh reality of our world while encouraging us to learn more about the lives of our neighbors. I can't recommend it highly enough. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 17)

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