August 2021 Books

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (2015)

First, a brief plot summary: a ragtag crew of aliens and humans set out on a journey to a job that is long, possibly a little dangerous, but will pay well. The book is a travelogue, so there are vignettes of their various adventures and we spend time with each of the crew getting to know them and what their species is like. This book though, is less about the plot and more about “hey here are a colorful cast of characters!”

I’ve heard both rave reviews and also complaints about this book, so I expected to love or hate it. I neither loved nor hated it: there were things I enjoyed about this book but more things that didn’t really work for me.

Pros: This is not grimdark sci fi, so if you’re looking for a lighter tone, you might enjoy this. This is a hopeful universe with few true villains and the story doesn’t dwell on the darkness.

There is also great world building where humans are just one race among many intergalactic species—Chambers populates the galaxy with an array of species who are mostly just trying to get along and live their own lives.

Cons: If you like plot-driven stories, this will not be for you. There’s a loose journey, but this is more about the characters’ lives.

The characters, while interesting, seemed a little two-dimensional to me. This could be in part because there are a lot of characters, but no one really made choices that surprised me or were unexpected. And while some situations were a little fraught, everyone nearly always seemed to make the right choice.

For example: one of the ship’s techs is named Kizzy, and if you’ve seen the show Firefly, imagine Kaylee but make her Asian, and that’s Kizzy. She’s pretty much exactly the same, and that annoyed me. She felt completely lifted from that show.

I think that’s my real complaint: other than some interesting worldbuilding, there was nothing about this book that grabbed me. Situations seemed to almost always resolve in the best-case scenario. I don’t need a book to have a lot of unexpected twists, and I’m ok with a book that’s more about character than plot, but this book didn’t delve deeply enough into its characters to show their complexity. It shied away and changed scenes just when something was about to go deep, and conflicts felt too easily resolved.

★ ★ ★

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)

This was for my 50 Classics project and has its own review here.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir (2021)

After loving Weir’s first novel, The Martian, and being disappointed by Weir’s second novel, Artemis, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Project Hail Mary. But the tone of this book is much closer to Weir’s first novel, so I’m glad he went back to a style that suits him better. Part of the problem was, I think, with the female narrator in Artemis. Some authors are not great at writing deeply in the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender, and Weir does better when he sticks with the male protagonist perspective.

It’s hard to say much about the actual plot of the book without giving things away, but the story opens with a man awakening from a coma, alone, and with no memory of who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing. His memory slowly returns in bits and pieces as he figures out where he is and what his job is, and we get flashbacks as he remembers pieces of what brought him to where he is now.

Thankfully for him, he’s fairly resourceful and intelligent, and while not knowing who he is for some time is frightening, he makes the most of opportunities for scientific research.

I enjoyed the unfolding story style, though the book takes an unexpected turn partway through which is definitely a spoiler to discuss, but if you’ve read the book I’d love to know what you thought!

While there are lots of similarities to Weir’s first book, I enjoy his style, so if you enjoyed The Martian’s snarky yet exceedingly resourceful character, you’ll probably enjoy Project Hail Mary.

★ ★ ★ ★

Ok, I’m leaving some space to say a little more about the plot, but it’s spoilery, so if you don’t want to know, click away now…

…more spoiler space…

…yet more space, because space is vast…

…almost there…

Ok. So partway through the book, our protagonist, Ryland Grace, has first contact with an intelligent alien, whom he dubs Rocky. I thought Weir did a pretty good job of keeping the book grounded while introducing alien life, and I enjoyed the ways that Rocky and Grace learned to communicate despite their huge differences. Both are scientists who are trying to save their worlds, and that curiosity and desperation brings them together.

I did not see the twist of meeting an alien coming at all–I expected the book to be more like The Martian where our lone protagonist had to solve the problems himself, so I enjoyed the two working together to figure out how to save both their worlds. Did I think it was slightly contrived that both space ships only had one survivor by the time they got to the Tau Ceti system? Yes. But I’m ok with that because I thought Weir executed the story well.

Pride and Prejudice Review

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a review of Jane Austen’s work is superfluous. Yet here I am anyway.

Pride & Prejudice book cover

This is one of my all-time favorite books. From my first reading as a teenager, taking extended “bathroom breaks” to read the small hardback with tiny print which I hid under the sink for such occasions (sorry, Mom!), I fell in love with Austen’s wit and style, her characters, and her well-paced story.

Published in 1813 and popular from the beginning, there is plenty of scholarship out there if you are interested in that. And it’s so well known that I don’t know that I can add much here but if for some reason you’d like a refresher, here’s a summary:

Mr. & Mrs. Bennet live in a village in Hertfordshire with their five daughters. They are not poor, but having no male heir and not being frugal, the daughters will have to rely on marrying well for future economic stability.

The novel opens with the arrival of two handsome and eligible bachelors to the neighborhood: Mr. Bingley (sweet and outgoing) and Mr. Darcy (introverted and has some…pride). The story follows the shenanigans of Mrs. Bennet’s attempts to marry off her daughters and how that works out for them all.

The Bennets’ second daughter, Elizabeth, is the protagonist of the novel, and she is active, energetic, outgoing, smart, and witty—and also opinionated and believes strongly in first impressions (so she can be…prejudiced). She is a fun character to follow, and she goes through a lot of growth by the novel’s end.

The characters are so well-drawn and the comic characters are both pretty great and ridiculous (but also can be dangerous and/or disappointing to their families). The book balances getting to know the many characters with a good bit of plot–we don’t sit around too long before the next event, and I appreciate that she keeps everything moving.

This book is rightly considered a classic, but I think it’s pretty approachable as well. While there are details like the entail of the Bennet property and other manners that can be confusing to the modern reader, the plot moves along and the characters are interesting that parts of it feel fairly modern. While the 19th century was a while ago and manners have changed, people are still people–that has not changed.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★