Mars by Ben Bova
Released in 1992, Mars imagines the first manned expedition to the red planet, the issues we could encounter on the way, and the wonders that might await us there. Now, I prefer my written sci-fi in short story form, and at 567 pages Mars weighs in on the heavier side of the sci-fi novel spectrum. It's not that I dislike longer novels, but rather, with science-fiction, I am interested in the ideas that are on offer, and often get impatient with the surrounding details. Whereas I would happily invest in characterisation and scene-setting anecdote elsewhere, give me a sci-fi novel and I want to get straight at the robots and aliens. It doesn't help that many sci-fi novelists (and I realise that this is a sweeping generalisation), whilst hot on scientific accuracy and fantastic happenings, lack the talent to write in a way that sustains a reader's interest in character and the more functional aspects of plot. Or perhaps these things are merely deemed less important, because the target readers just want robots and aliens!
Ben Bova, to give him the credit he is due, does pay attention to characterisation, and does write well. A good half of the book is dedicated to the back-stories of the astronauts on the Mars mission. And I dare say that it is all very interesting. But I still skimmed most of it and skipped to the sections that were set on Mars. I just couldn't stop myself! The plot here focuses on the question that we would all like answered: Is there life on Mars? Bova is clever. He throws a mystery at us. Several mysteries. He gives the reader all the information required to work out what is going on, but manages to constantly wrong-foot us, sometimes only for the length of a paragraph or sentence, bewildering us momentarily before we dive back in to the search for the truth.
I enjoyed it. I might even recommend it. Apparently there are two sequels, Return to Mars and Mars Life (is that a spoiler?), but to be honest I'm not sure I would read them. It's not you Ben, it's me. Sorry.
Yes Man by Danny Wallace
After I reviewed Awkward Situations for Men last month, I decided to re-read Yes Man. This is one of my go-to books, for days when I'm feeling down and need something both safe and comedic to read. Essentially, it's about Danny Wallace trying to say 'yes' more. It starts out as a silly pub bet and ends up being a rather inspirational journey of discovery. Like Paulo Coelho but without the bullshit. If you want a laugh, read it. If you're stagnating in a pool of No, read it. I had pulled out some relevant quotes but I can't find them now, so I guess I'll just have to read it again...
The Luberon Garden by Alex Dingwall-Main
This book lied to me. With beautiful garden photographs on the front and back, the blurb says that "Alex Dingwall-Main left London in the early nineties for the Luberon and a new way of gardening... He thought he could take anything Provence could throw at him. Until he came across the secret garden at Menerbes". I began reading expecting some Heligan-like tale of the passions and pitfalls of a magical garden restoration. Non. Dingall-Main is a landscape gardener, and this book is actually about him installing a pool and some trees. Unless I missed something? I didn't even skim-read this one, I plodded on with it, despite doubts, hoping that it would pay off in the end. It didn't. Full of overblown and mixed metaphors, ill thought out similes, and forced witticisms, what it lacks in charm it makes up for in extraneous detail. It could stand some serious editing, as well as a spell-check and some re-formatting. It jumps from subject to subject, rambling on like an old drunk at a party.
Perhaps the author didn't realise that he was painting such an unattractive picture of himself and his lifestyle? Does he have anything good to say about the people of Provence, that isn't undercut by some final snide remark? He changes the names of the people that he writes about in order to protect their privacy. This is understandable, especially in such a rich area. But instead of using something culturally appropriate, he saddles them with the imaginative titles of Mr Neighbour, Mr Owner, Mr Actor, and so on. What I expected, in a book about gardening in Provence, was something warmly funny with a little countryside romance thrown in. Instead I got dullness and snark. I say nothing of Dingwall-Main's abilities as a gardener, but as a writer he leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps that will teach me to pay more attention to old proverbs.
And the ones I didn't read....
The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer
I can sum up this book in two words: zombie porn. And if that's your thing then this is the book for you. A self-aware homage to the zombie genre post-Shaun of the Dead, it misses the mark somewhat. The zombie plague here is 'a sexually transmitted disease, turning its victims into shambling, horny, voracious killers.' The frequent sex scenes are laughable, but the intended comedy falls flat. The whole thing reads like fan-fic, albeit high-quality fan-fic, full of repetitious phrasing and unrealistic dialogue. I got the impression that the author was imagining it as a movie rather than a novel. I gave up after 86 pages, and flicked through to the end. I don't think I missed much. But if you don't believe me, you can read the first four chapters for free, on the author's website.
Somebody's Baby by Charlotte Vale Allen
This was going straight into the book-swap until I became intrigued by the premise of a snatched child trying to discover just why her mother stole her. So I flicked through. Turns out that she doesn't actually find an answer. Oh well.