The Martian by Andy Weir


Andy Weir’s first published novel is simply awesome. I can’t believe that he couldn’t find a publisher, resorting to posting the book for free consumption on his website before being noticed and published. And now there’s even a film in the works, scheduled for release later next year.

The plot centres around astronaut Mark Watney who has been stranded on Mars after a NASA mission. He has to use all his training, mechanical engineering and botany qualifications and sheer human ingenuity to survive, until he is rescued. However, in the beginning he didn’t know he would be rescued, so it was just the sheer will to live for as long as possible. Back on Earth, everyone thought he was long dead.

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

Yes, that he was, until an observant NASA employee on earth noticed a few anomalies on some satellite surveillance photographs, and realised that he may just well have survived.

While NASA went about in earnest trying to attempt a rescue mission, Watney was left to fend for himself on a barren planet hell-bent on killing him at every turn. The science that Watney uses to survive (manufacturing air, water and growing potatoes in Martian soil) is all real. As Watney logs his daily struggles to survive with great wit in a journal, one can’t help rooting for the guy and cheering him on.

Being incommunicado did not help much, until he finds an abandoned Mars Rover whose equipment he modifies to set up a two-way communication link with NASA back on Earth. That was fun for a while, until he destroys the equipment in a freak accident. It was then back to writing Morse Code with rocks laid out on the ground, and our intrepid NASA employee photographing them with satellites. Slow, one way, but effective enough.

It takes on average about nine months to make the trip to Mars from Earth, and that is only if the two planets are lined up favourably in orbit around the sun in relation to each other. This favourable alignment occurs once every 26 months, so the lauch window is very tight. Therefore NASA can not just fire off a spaceship whenever they want to get to Mars. So if you’re stranded on Mars, it’s a long wait for help.

I’m not going to give away anything else; you’ll just have to read the book. Did I mention it’s awesome?

Making amends with Herman Charles Bosman


I have a rather embarrassing confession to make.

I have not read a single book by a South African author in all of my 48 years. Surprisingly, I was not asked to in school either, although one set-work was African, but not South African. And so, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe has been the only book from this continent that I have read.

I have given some of the greatest authors ever, the skip, for all these years. Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, Nelson Mandela, Andre Brink, J.M Coetzee, Antjie Krog, Breyten Breytenbach, Wally Seroto, Olive Schreiner, and even J.R.R. Tolkien who was South African born, all passed me by.

At this point, I need to make another confession. What I stated in the paragraph prior to the one above, is not entirely true. I did read Slave Species of God by Michael Tellinger out of curiosity, but I consider that a non-book. It is the biggest load of pseudo-scientific rubbish you will read. And so it does not count.

However, all that has changed and I’m now making amends for the many years of scorning South African authors. About two weeks ago, I was loaned an old copy of Herman Charles Bosman’s Bosman At His Best. It’s a compilation of some of his best short stories, and what an awesome story-teller he is. And that’s not all. This guy is damned funny. Get a load of this from In the Withaak’s Shade:

I remember the occasion that I came across a leopard unexpectedly, and to this day I couldn’t tell you how many spots he had, even though I had all the time I needed for studying him. It happened about mid-day, when I was out on the far end of my farm, behind a koppie, looking for some strayed cattle. I thought the cattle might be there because it is shady under those withaak trees, and there is soft grass that is very pleasant to sit on. After I had looked for the cattle for about an hour in this manner, sitting up against a tree trunk, it occurred to me that I could look for them just as well, or perhaps even better, if I lay down flat. For even a child knows that cattle aren’t so small that you have got to get on to stilts and things to see them properly.


What was more, I could go on lying there under the withaak and looking for the cattle like that all day, if necessary. As you know, I am not the sort of farmer to loaf about the house when there is a man’s work to be done.

Not surprisingly, I’ve dropped everything else I’m reading until after I’ve devoured these brilliant stories from one of South Africa’s most famous authors.

Incidentally, there’s a full reading of this hilarious short story available here on YouTube.

A More Perfect Heaven – How Copernicus Revolutionised The Cosmos, by Dava Sobel

sobelI’ve been meaning to review A More Perfect Heaven for more than a month, and yesterday would have been the ideal opportunity on the 541st anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Alas, one day later will have to do.

Nicolaus Copernicus needs no introduction. If he does…Jeez man, where the hell have you been?

A More Perfect Heaven is a book in three parts, and relates how Copernicus, a Catholic cleric came to turn on its head the common notion at the time, that the Sun revolved round the Earth. The first and third parts are set against the backdrop of political and religious upheaval in Europe and is thus purely historical. Interestingly, Copernicus grew up and lived during the times of the Teutonic Order and was a contemporary of Martin Luther who led the breakaway from the Catholic Church. Sobel used many primary sources of knowledge, including accredited letters written by Copernicus himself, to paint her historical picture of his life and death.

Perhaps because of the social, religious and political climate at the time, it would seem that Copernicus was reluctant to publish his many decades of observational work on the heavenly bodies, and only did so after collaborating with and being prodded by Georg Joachim Rheticus, a German mathematician.

The middle part is quite intriguing as I’ve not come across this device in a book before. Sobel conjures up a two-act play in which she imagines a collaboration and dialogue mainly between Copernicus and Rheticus, which may have eventually convinced the former to publish his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which forever changed humankind’s understanding of the universe.

Whether it is part of folklore or fact, the play closes out with a sickly Copernicus receiving a published copy of his book in his deathbed, and promptly died.

The third part of the book provides the historical context in which the book was eventually published, largely due to the efforts of Rheticus, and its reception in Europe by the religious fraternity and the scientific community. In this third part we are also introduced to other famous scientists such Galileo Galilei who were persecuted by the church authorities for supporting and following Copernicus’ discoveries.

I received this book as a Christmas present last year and it was quite an easy and quick read; it is untechnical and you don’t need to know much or anything about science to follow it. If you enjoy history or science or both, this book is perfect.

Books from trees

I got three actual paper books for Christmas from family members. I fairly raced through them all inside of two weeks; something of a record for me.

Off course there were special circumstances involved – my Internet activities which have dominated my time in recent years, were severely curtailed by being limited to my smart phone because of er other circumstances which I’m embarrassed to divulge. Okay, I was stupid enough to “mislay” all my chargers and power cords for my various devices, because I had them all in one package while on holiday.

And so, not being able to troll online,  I had all this time on my hands…

They were all great books really, but so clumsy to read. I haven’t held a real book in my hands for quite some time, and they felt awkward to handle. My reading method of choice is the Kindle. It just feels right. I wonder for how long real books will still be around. I feel bad for all those book stores where I’ve spent many hours in the past, browsing.

I’ll post reviews of these books in time to come, when I’m back behind a real keyboard again. Posting from my newly acquired tablet is as awkward as reading paper books.

In order read:
1. The Saga of the Volsungs – The legend of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and the magic ring of power, translated from Old Norse by Jesse L. Byock
2. A More Perfect Heaven – How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos, by Dava Sobel
3. An Appetite for Wonder – The Making of a Scientist, by Richard Dawkins

Aaaand, I’ve just started reading my paper book copy of Carl Sagan’s The Demon – Haunted World, again…

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

invisiblemonstersInvisible Monsters is quite possibly the most bizarre book I’ve ever read, if you exclude certain religious texts. I plodded through the first two-thirds, and then breezed through the rest as things started coming together and finally making sense.

This was my first Palahniuk novel, having only ever experienced his work through the film Fight Club, starring Brad Pitt. And I can’t say if I’ll attempt another any time soon, because writing trippy novels seems to be what he’s about.

Now comes the difficult part: saying more about the book without actually giving the whole game up (incidentally you could look it up in Wikipedia, but that would spoil the mind-fuck awaiting you).

The book is narrated by a model whose name you don’t get to find out until the very end, and starts at the end and ends at a sort of beginning. If that does not make any sense now, you’ll have to read the book to get what I mean. The narrative revolves around the dysfunctional relationships among a small group of people and jumps from the present to the past at disconcertingly frequent intervals. In fact, you’ll have to get used to the term “Jump to”, as it is used quite frequently to shift the scene from the present to the past and back to the present. So paying attention is pretty important.

The Invisible Monster is actually the narrator who’s just had half her face blown away by a gunshot wound. The plot essentially revolves around her travels through various parts of America bingeing on prescription drugs with her companions Brandy Alexander and Manus, who really aren’t who you think they are. Along the way, you’ll learn about her supposedly closest friend Evie, who also turns out to not be what you’re told either.

Right from the beginning I was expecting the plot to be about the search for the shooter, but this person is also a real surprise. I’m not giving away anything more, so you’ll just have to read the damn thing yourself.

Cool Quotes From the Book

The one you love and the one who loves you are never, ever the same person.


All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.


If death meant just leaving the stage long enough to change costume and come back as a new character…Would you slow down? Or speed up?


Your birth is a mistake you’ll spend your whole life trying to correct.


Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden, Book 1 in the Emperor Series

Gates_Of_RomeHaving already read the Conqueror series about Genghis Khan by Conn Iggulden, I was looking forward to the Emperor series. I must say I was a little disappointed as it did not have the same intensity.

To be fair, the Emperor series was Conn’s maiden attempt at writing epic historical fiction, and The Gates of Rome, his very first book. I suppose once Conn had cut his teeth on this genre with Emperor, he excelled on the Conqueror series.

Not much is known about the early life of Julius Caesar, but from inferences in the biography by Suetonius, Iggulden was able to create a fictional account of what may have occurred. Iggulden as he usually does, takes great liberties by introducing Gaius and Marcus as boyhood friends who grow up together learning the arts of war on Gaius’s father’s estate. Gaius as we know, is in fact Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus is Marcus Junius Brutus who was the leading figure in Caesar’s eventual assassination.

In Iggulden’s fictional version of events, the two boyhood friends are separated in their early teens, with Marcus joining a foreign legion in Greece and Gaius entering politics in Rome under the patronage of his uncle Gaius Marius, who was a rival to Sinna, another famous Consul.

The rivalry between Sinna and Marius is loosely based on historical facts, but the eventual showdown between them in Rome is total fiction. After Marius takes control of the city, Sinna who was away on a foreign campaign, returns to defeat him. In the aftermath of this civil war, Julius Caesar is evicted from the city, joins a naval legion and swears to return and seek revenge for the killing of his uncle by Marius.

And that’s where the first book ends. I have not started the second book yet, but hope it gets better than the initial installment.

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

A Dance with DragonsI’ve finally managed to finish reading the 5th book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, this being the lengthier by far. Fortunately, having started reading the series late, I was not placed in the same agonizing position as those Martin fans who had to wait around some 6 years for the next installment after A Feast for Crows.

Initially I found the read a bit disconcerting because you might remember that A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons was originally planned as one book, which Martin decided to split in two, which resulted in events in the latter segment occurring on the same timeline as events in the former, but as seen through the eyes of different characters. However, after this initial bit of unsettlement, the story comes nicely together again.

Briefly, A Dance with Dragons features episodes around the lives of John Snow of the Night’s Watch who is in the North at the Wall, Tyrion Lannister who after killing his father Tywin, escapes to the Free Cities, Daenerys Targaryen in the East and her travails in Meereen, Arya Stark who shows up in Braavos at a temple of the Faceless Men for some sort of training in the occult arts and assassination, Victarion Greyjoy’s journey to Slaver’s Bay en route to find Daenerys, Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre who pitch camp at the Wall, Cersei Lannister the bitch psuedo-queen in the South and Jaime Lannister who after returning to Kings landing, marches with an army back into the Riverlands, Theon Greyjoy who makes an appearance as “Reek”, having been thought dead after the third book, and a host of others besides.

And lots of people die…

As usual, A Dance with Dragons ends with a cliffhanger, but if you have the Kindle version, there is a fairly lengthy pre-taste of what Book 6 The Winds of Winter, promises.


I still found the sub-plot around Bran Starks journey beyond the Wall, annoying and a little pointless. However I may be proved wrong, as this journey may yet prove significant in the planned final two books yet to be published. You never quite know what Martin has up his sleeve.

Overall, another breath-taking read and I’m eagerly anticipating Book 6, due some time in 2014. Let’s hope George Martin does not keep us waiting any longer than that.

A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin

feastforcrowsThe 4th book in the epic fantasy series is as exhilarating as the previous three. Martin explains at the end of the book how his original manuscript  was too large for publication considering the ongoing saga of the multitude of characters we were introduced to in the first three volumes. And so he decided that it was “better served by a book that told all the story for half the characters, rather than half the story for all the characters.”

Therefore this book focuses on just the characters from King’s Landing, The Riverlands,  The Eyrie, The Iron Islands, Dorne, Oldtown, and Braavos. At King’s Landing we have the Lannisters who include the evil Queen Regent Cersei, twin brother Jaime, 8-year old King Tommen who succeeded King Joffrey, the Tyrells of Highgarden who include Queen Margaery, Tommen’s wife (yeah, forced to marry at 8 to cement the alliance with the Tyrells), and an assortment of cronies aligned to Cersei.

Elsewhere the continuing tales of Brienne of Tarth, Petyr Baelish and Sansa Stark, The Greyjoys of The Iron Islands, The Martells of Dorne, and Samwell Tarly of the Wall, play out.

We also continue to enjoy the story of Arya Stark’s journey to Braavos since fleeing from King’s Landing after the execution of her father Eddard Stark.


There is a great deal of moral ambiguity throughout the book, indeed in all 4 volumes thus far. While one is accustomed to good triumphing over evil and the good guys always winning in the end, the good guys in Martin’s books don’t necessarily always come out on top, nor do the bad guys always get their comeuppance. Martin allows for the characters we initially despise, to be able to redeem themselves. And a lot of the good guys die unnecessarily.

However some of the characters such as Cersei and Joffrey were irredeemably bad, and while we know that the latter suffered an agonising death in the previous book, Cersei’s scheming and cruelty goes unpunished, at least until the end of this book. But I’ll have to wait for the next installments to find out to what extent she suffers.

In conclusion, I once again found the historical backgrounds provided for the characters, too in-depth and long-winded. However, so fantastic is the overall story that I’m willing to overlook this, and eagerly look forward to Book 5.

A Storm Of Swords by George R. R. Martin

stormofswordsThis being the third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, continues the epic fantasy saga of the people’s of Westeros and Essos, most of whom are either fighting to ascend the Iron Throne, defend it, or are just caught in the middle. The one exception being the Brothers of the Night’s Watch, defending the Wall in the North of the Seven Kingdoms, against the Wildlings and the more sinister The Others.

Basic Plot

New alliances are formed, old ones broken as the five contenders for the Iron Throne continue their rivalry in the North and South. Meanwhile in the East on Essos, Daenerys Targaryen is busy gathering her forces, watching her three dragons grow, and preparing to stake her claim to the self-same throne. On the Wall, the Night’s watch venture beyond into the icy North to face the threat of the Wildlings and their leader Mance Rayder, but also come face to face with The Others, ghostly creatures that cannot be killed… easily.

While the Lannister’s, primarily Cersei, plot and scheme to keep the evil boy King Joffrey on the throne, Stannis Baratheon, brother to the recently deceased King Robert, also plots to ascend the throne with the help of Melisandre the Priestess whose use of sorcery disposes of Renly Baratheon, another contender for the Iron Throne.

Central to all these plots for the throne are the Starks. Robb Stark’s push for the Iron Throne ends with him being betrayed and murdered by the Frey’s in what becomes known as the Red Wedding. His sister Arya Stark meanwhile having escaped from King’s Landing and the Lannister’s, continues her journey to nowhere really, searching for a new home, with Winterfell the castle of the Starks being destroyed in the North.


This is the longest book in the series thus far and is just as intriguing as the others, perhaps more so. There are literally hundreds of major and minor characters dotted throughout the book. That makes for exceptional story-telling having to keep track of all them as the story is told through the eyes of the major characters.

However I feel that the chapters telling the story of Bran (Brandon Stark) could have been eliminated altogether, as they add very little to nothing to the overall saga. Bran’s adventures, if you can call them that, are a sort of distraction from the overall main events, as they have no link to them in any meaningful way.

The other gripe I have is with the length of detail Martin goes into describing the scions of the past, kings, knights and lords and other peripheral characters. The level of detail was unnecessary and just takes up page space.

Otherwise an excellent book. Really epic. I’m already well into Book 4, which is beginning to tie up some of the loose ends from Book 3.

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R Martin

I’ll bet more people have watched the first two seasons than read the first two books by George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Who can blame them – the television series is without doubt superb in almost every respect.

But the books are so much better.

I’ve just completed reading the first two books (volumes).There’s probably hundreds of reviews for Martin’s epic fantasy elsewhere, so I’m not going to add my two cents worth here. My aim is to advocate for the actual reading of each and every volume in this collection, instead of just watching the television series.

While the first TV series kept pretty much faithful to the book narrative of Book One, the second series strayed quite a bit. Whole scenes were filmed out of sequence with the book and even actions were attributed to characters who did no such thing in the book. Even locations where key events occurred did not correspond with Martin’s narrative. [You’ll have to read the books to find out what the main differences are between the book narrative and the filmed series, because I’m not going to list them. Alternatively this wiki does].

I guess it’s a near impossible task fitting around 1200 pages of a book into a 10-episode TV series, but if the overall essence of what Martin was trying to convey, is not bastardized too much, I guess it’s okay. In fairness, the TV series does do justice to the books.

However, I urge you to read each volume because there’s just so much more in the books. I’ve started reading the third volume in the series A Storm of Swords, and will be hoping that the third season which has just started flighting in some parts of the world, will not deviate as much as Season Two did.