Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

When a very dear friend told me I had to read this book because it’s the best sci-fi book she’s ever read, I didn’t muck around. I bought Project Hail Mary immediately and, as soon as I finished the book I was reading (and enjoying), commenced reading it. Nevertheless, I was a little apprehensive in case I didn’t rate it as highly as my darling friend. My fears were completely unnecessary.

From the opening page, the story of Dr Ryland Grace, who wakes up millions of miles from earth in a cobbled together spaceship with only two corpses for company and no memory of why he’s there, who he is or what he’s meant to be doing, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let you go. Gradually, Grace’s memory returns and when he comprehends he’s on a mission to save the earth from imminent destruction (or rather, save humanity from being wiped out), he also understands he’s in a race against time and that this mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy is a one-way ticket. But it’s when he encounters an unexpected ally, that his mission takes on a fresher urgency – one that promises life, for earth and beyond.

The narrative segues between Grace aboard the ship hurtling through space, and the months leading up to his departure, revealing aspects of his life, various professions, and how he was recruited for the mission. His voice is compelling, honest and often really funny. The narrative skips along and I laughed often, but was also deeply moved. But what I really loved about it was how plausible and real the entire scenario felt. The science made sense and is explained in ways that don’t baffle or lose non-scientific reader interest – on the contrary, its utterly compelling and completely believable.

While Weir has used the notion of a sole survivor working against incredible odds to secure some kind of future in The Martian, this is a very different story, even though it tackles many similar themes – resilience, embracing and acknowledging one’s flaws and working to overcome them. How people can thrive in adversity; rise to face seemingly insurmountable challenges by reaching within themselves to find courage. It’s also about trust, friendship and sacrifice. In fact, it deals with so many ideas, arouses so many emotions.

This is a brilliant story that will reside with me for a long time. Like my girlfriend, I am now telling people to read this book, because it’s the best science-fiction book I have read in a long, long time.

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The Atlantis Plague by A.G. Riddle.

A.G Riddle’s books are what I would call a guilty pleasure. His Winter World series and Pandemic novels were easy-read page turners that were perfect holiday fare. The first book in this series, The Atlantis Gene was similar in that it was a fast-paced sci-fi action adventure story that was good enough for the sequel to beckon.

While there were some worthy moments in this second book, especially near the beginning, I’m afraid that even for this genre, there were times it was impossible to suspend my disbelief. Not only did dead characters keep resurrecting but one of the main characters performs the equivalent of an ex machina manoeuvre, meaning that all the questions the reader and thus characters had could be (conveniently) answered as she suddenly became a font of all knowledge (because… shhhhh… she’s not who we think she is). It became a bit too much.

So, while the book and characters were pitched into chaos which had folk flying, sailing, running, digging beneath the earth and making all kinds of discoveries and taking incredible risks, being transported here and there, I virtually ceased to care. My investment in the story, which became incredibly convoluted and expedient, ran its course. Not even the science was plausible or even, for that matter, interesting enough to give the wild tale credibility anymore. Don’t get me wrong, Riddle knows how to write and the short pacey chapters keep you turning the pages, even if it’s only to get to the end. Nah, that’s not entirely fair. There’s a smidgin of wanting to know left that did that.

The ending prepares the reader for the third instalment. Not sure I have the energy.

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The Winter World by A.G. Riddle

Winter World (The Long Winter #1)

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed A.G. Riddle’s Pandemic series, I couldn’t wait to read his latest, Winter World. Not  only do I love the visceral thrill of eschatological narratives and their exploration of geo-political machinations as well as emotional and psychological trauma and challenges of facing the end of the world as we know it and how people react, but the notion of the earth becoming a winter wasteland (and the reasons behind this) were fascinating to me – very Day After Tomorrow-esque.

This tale of the earth’s rapid change from varied climate and where power is concentrated in familiar regions to one where mass immigration from First World centres to formerly third world countries is told from two points of view. The first is that of an astronaut/scientist and commander, Emma, and a brilliant doctor and roboticist (among other things) James, who commences the book in a federal prison. The way Riddle tells the story of earth’s epic struggle to survive an attack that will destroy all life is at once personalized through these two characters and the relationships they form with their families, colleagues and each other, but also far-reaching. He cleverly keeps the pace moving by leaping the story forward and avoiding what some sci-fi narratives do (albeit some do it very well), bogging the reader down in extraneous scientific detail that show the author’s grasp of technical complexities as opposed to serving the story. We are given some of the science and for this Luddite, it appears to work. But it is the story that captures you – as well as demands you suspend your disbelief – as James and Emma and the brilliant people they work with fight to battle an alien enemy no-one predicted and who is ruthless in the extreme. 

My only mild reservations are that James and Emma are so damn courageous and amazing. James is like the nerd’s James Bond personified but with the ability to grow and change – for the better (even when he’s practically perfect in every way). Emma, through great tragedy and personal hardship is also a geek Mary Poppins – intelligent, focused, self-sacrificing and lovely. I just wish there were more people Iike Emma and James in real life. As it is, I’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out where their battle and the dangerous adventures that ensue lead. Looking forward to it!

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Mosaic, by Michael C. Grumley.

Mosaic is the fifth book in Michael C Grumley’s fabulous Breakthrough series, a tale that keeps getting wilder, more intense and utterly immersive with each book. Grumley’s imagination, grounded in science, knows no bounds but also respects them as his tale of a group of ex-Navy seals, scientists, ethical politicians (yes, they exist in Grumley’s world) as power-hungry despots, conspirators and unscrupulous folk well as dolphins, primates and an assortment of others, gets taken to the next level.

Having rescued the young Chinese woman, Li Na Wei, John Clay and Steve Cesare as well as Alison and Neely cannot rest on their laurels. While international interest in not only the bacterium they’ve discovered and its implications for Earth’s future but where it’s come from intensifies, it’s the attention they’ve attracted from their own that poses the greatest threat to their mission. 

Once again, the wide cast of characters are expanded upon revealing their strengths and vulnerabilities. Readers who have invested in this series need to be prepared to lose a few favourites as well for surprises. Just when you think you know where the narrative might be heading, it explodes in a different direction.

Some old faces and new also make appearances and then, of course, there’s the endearing mammals – Dirk, Sally, the dolphin Elders, the gorgeous primates – all of whom have secrets to tell and wonders to share with their human companions. It’s so evident that Grumley really cares about this story and those he’s created to help him tell it – you cannot help but care as well and forgive the narrative if it sometimes slips or slides into over-telling or didactics (which he mostly avoids).

I was describing this series to a friend and while I don’t think this does it justice, it’s sort of Avatar meets Indiana Jones, meets James Bond meets Dr Doolittle. I am just astonished that a major publisher or production company hasn’t picked them up. James Cameron? Where are you? Grumley’s series is waiting for your treatment.

My only disappointment is that I have to wait so long for the next book. 

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Ripple by Michael C. Grumley and a word on Editing and Self-Publishing

It’s hard to describe the Breakthrough series by Michael C Grumley without resorting to superlatives and a bit of hyperbole. It is original, well-written, with characters you care for, a cracker of a plot and, yes, while it does ask you to suspend your disbelief and maybe play with science, hell, it’s fiction – a terrific action-packed, techno-thriller series with an emotional environmental, animal and human heart.

Ripple, as the latest book in the series (thank goodness Grumley is working on a fifth), simply adds to this incredible tale of Alison Shaw, John Clay, Steve Cesare and the team (including the dolphins and primates) and their support network that seek to prevent sinister forces from discovering and using an alien creation to wield power and control over the earth.

From South America to Africa, the USA and further afield, this book starts where Catalyst left off and doesn’t stop until the last page. Even then, you’re left hanging.

On one level, I was so disappointed I finished as I wanted to continue to immerse myself in the life and death adventures of this intrepid group and the animals with whom they’ve learned to communicate and for whom you end up caring as deeply as they do. On the other, I was so excited to read Grumley is continuing with the series.

What surprises – no, shocks me – most of all about this series is that Grumley is self-published. The quality of his work, of the prose, the editing, is testimony to how seriously Grumley not only takes his craft but respects his readers….

Allow me to digress a moment. As a reviewer (and writer) of books, I get sent many self-published books and books from established publishers to read and consider. With the professionally contracted and published books from known publishers, you can usually rely on, if not always a story that grabs you, at least the excellence of the grammar and syntax. With self-published books, in my now long experience, not so much. There are times I cannot even read beyond a few pages of a self-published book – albeit by someone who has gone to the trouble of hiring a professional PR person to spruik it for them – because of spelling and other errors littering the book. I even had one that changed characters’ names halfway through and clearly forgot – truly. Needlesstosay, I do not review those books. I don’t think it’s fair on anyone to criticise something that someone has sunk not only their heart into, but also paid a number of people to print, package and distribute. I generally don’t negatively review books (I might, however, point out a weakness in an otherwise good book or critique an aspect) that have been professionally published either – ie. the author has been paid by a publishing house – for the same reason. Unless I have something mainly positive to say, I stand by my grandmother’s words – don’t say it. Sadly, there’s usually someone else out there that’s doing it anyhow… I just wish that self-published authors would pay a decent editor – someone with rungs on the ladder, references and proof of work and a grasp of the language as well. They do themselves and their stories (many of which would be very readable) a huge disservice by cutting that particular corner or relying on their own or a friend’s or family member’s abilities. Books need a few set of experienced, professional eyes on them to iron out the errors – and then some are missed – I speak from experience. Grumley and someone like Hugh Howey – who was originally self-published until he was picked up by a publishing house – are great examples of exactly what to do when putting your work out there under your own steam and money.

Anyhow, now that’s off my chest, back to Grumley and the Breakthrough series. The excitement his tales generate is of a calibre that’s beyond many a well-known authors’ works in similar genres. How a major publisher has not picked this guy up and offered him a contract is astounding. The uniqueness and beauty of his stories, as well as the excitement they generate, never mind the compassion at its core deserves that at least. Then there are the many readers who clearly agree with me.

Even if I am shouting into the wilderness here, I think these books are really terrific. If you’re looking for wonderful escapism, heart-racing excitement, an engaging plot and characters to invest in, and enjoy action-adventure with a bit of sci-fi thrown in, then I highly recommend this series. You won’t be disappointed

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