Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

[Contains no spoilers]

Reading this book has all over again made me want to become an astronaut when I grow up. Chris Hadfield tells an incredibly personal story of how he became an astronaut, the challenges he faced, the adventures he had, and what he learned along the way that helped him become the person he wanted to be.

I’ve seen online that some people call this a self-help book, which isn’t necessarily true. Hadfield manages to apply what he learned in his astronaut training to everyday life and in turn offers us various suggestions on how to properly carpe that diem, take criticism as a good thing, and generally not be a total arse.

What’s great is he doesn’t say “you need to do this to become a good person.” But instead offers us with “I did this and it helped me become a good astronaut, try applying it to your life if you want.” I’m personally a little sceptical about all those ‘self-help’ books that you find advertised online. A lot of them are great if you want to make big changes and are willing to get out of bed 3 hours earlier to have time for some yoga before whizzing yourself up a green smoothie and heading off to work in your running shoes. But if, like me, you’re still just working things out but wouldn’t mind a little push in the right direction, Hadfield has some great ideas that can be applied to almost every situation.

At times I found the 300 pages a little information heavy and it was hard to keep track of the timeline and different meanings of Hadfield’s various jobs as test pilot, astronaut, guitar player, and CAPCOM. And there were moments when I got a little bored of reading about all the skills and qualities needed to be good at making sure you pushed all the buttons in the Soyuz in the right order. However, Hadfield always managed to end the chapter on a high note, whether it was with a useful explanation on how to be a great group contributor (something we’d all like to be good at now and then) or by telling an exciting story of how he was stuck, blinded, on the outside of the ISS for over an hour.

I initially bought this book for the geeky space side of it, and while it does include lots of useful advice, it certainly doesn’t lack in geeky space stuff as a result. Hadfield has taught me that being an astronaut isn’t all about flying around in rockets like I thought, but there are so many different elements to it that I never imagined existed. For example: he writes about the fact they have to take Russian lessons for months on end to be able to communicate with the cosmonauts on board, about the various traditions and ceremonies that take place before and after a mission, and (hilariously) about the ways the astronauts on the ISS entertain themselves by having zero gravity races through the corridors. I suddenly realised that there was even more to being an astronaut than what meets the eye.

It was also really interesting reading Hadfield’s descriptions of their training and of life aboard the ISS. Somehow he manages to make the science easy to understand and describes their day to day life in space in a way that allows you to imagine yourself floating around, looking out at the shimmering oceans of earth through the Cupola.

Overall, this book is a brilliant read with lots of really interesting space-geek orientated stories and insights. But this also doesn’t overshadow the books central message of how to become the person you want to be by taking life into your own hands and influencing what you want to do.

You can buy An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth off Amazon here!

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

[Contains no spoilers]

Ready Player One can be summed up quite simply as ‘the ultimate geek book’. I’ve heard other people describe it as a ‘nerd utopia’, and they’re certainly not wrong there.

The story begins in 2044 in an almost dystopic world. Climate change and global warming has taken its toll, civilisation is in decline, and most of the world is over populated and penniless. In these dark days everyone looks for a distraction – something that can make them forget about the real universe they live in, and provide some sense of hope and happiness.

Enter, the OASIS. The OASIS is an online massively multiplayer simulation game that allows the players to create an account and login for free to control a virtual avatar of themselves with their headset and haptic gloves. Through the OASIS, players can do any number of things whether it’s attend school, go to work, watch films, read books, or explore the huge world and complete various quests, challenges, and games.

The story focuses on the main character, Wade Watts, in his attempt to complete the biggest quest of all while battling enemies, living in poverty, and trying to impress the girl he loves. When the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves his entire fortune to whoever manages to find a hidden ‘egg’ within the simulation. To do this, players must use clues and riddles left by Halliday to find three keys and unlock three gates in order to reach the end of the game and find the prize.

Now jumping straight into it. One of the biggest parts of the plot to Ready Player One is all of the references to 80’s pop culture. James Halliday was a teen of the eighties and so uses films, games, TV, and music references to create the ‘Easter egg’ hunt and leave behind clues. Initially I wondered if this would just make it a very boring read to anyone who didn’t understand the references – but how wrong was I?! I was born in the 90’s so completely missed the decade that the book so frequently references, and somehow, through Cline’s brilliant research and explanation, I was still able to laugh along at the inside jokes and find the book incredibly exciting!

I think the whole idea of Ready Player One is very clever. If you want to write a book where the story involves wizards and aliens and dungeons and robots all in one chapter, then set it within a game where anything can happen. This allows it to be believable and take place in the real world. There’s no need to create alternative universes that often appeal only to the geekiest of geeks.

Ready Player One also addresses some interesting subjects, the biggest being how we have come to rely upon technology. The main character describes how, with the energy crisis, people have come to rely solely on the simulation to find any kind of happiness. The book is set in the future so is by no means a description of how we use technology now, but perhaps could be used as an allegory to describe how it could become.

The great thing about Wade Watts, the main character, is that for a lot of teenagers, he is very relatable. He prefers to spend his time playing games and watching films instead of being outside. Wade struggles at school and has found it hard to make friends, especially in the real world. However, what really makes me like this character is his determination to stand up for what he believes in. This is what sets him apart from being the antisocial school dropout and instead turns him into someone who is relatable, but equally someone we can learn something from.

I have seen a lot of people say the endless references in this book to 80’s pop culture can be a little unnecessary at times. I say nah! Okay, some of them do not hugely add to the story, but 9 times out of 10, they’re really funny.

This brings me onto my final and possibly only semi negative point. Who is this book for? The style and plot of the book makes me think it fits into the young adult category. But the references, humour, and jokes are clearly aimed at folk who remember the 80’s. Yes, it’s all understandable and funny to anyone not from that decade, but I still wouldn’t be sure what section to display the book in at Waterstones.

In conclusion: I loved this book. It held my interest the whole way through and I thought it was brilliantly witty, exciting, and full of action. It’s incredibly well researched and the descriptions are written in a way that makes you feel like you’re in the simulation yourself. So nerds, geeks, gamers, teenagers of the 80’s, and anyone who just fancies reading something a little different, I would highly recommend Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – and you can buy it off Amazon here.

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It feels like my reviews are getting longer. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does anyone have any suggestions? Is it just getting boring halfway through? Or is it okay finding out a little bit more about a book? Help!

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

[Contains no spoilers]

I promised to review this book sometime in November last year. Clearly I got distracted by giant man eating space worms – or some other equally credible excuse.

Set in 2035, The Martian tells the story of the Ares 3 space crew and their mission to determine whether Mars can become habitable to the human race. Or at least that’s what it would have been about, if it hadn’t been for a freak storm that forced the crew to abort their mission only six days in, resulting in their crew mate, Mark Watney, being left behind. On Mars. By himself. Oops.

From there, the book is made up of log entries made by Watney where he documents his life as the only human being on the entire planet…

To start with, I was a little surprised that the book was written almost in the form of a diary. It wasn’t quite the first thing my mind went to when I thought ‘thrilling science fiction’. However, a short way in, I realised how well it worked. With Watney being the only person on the planet, his log entries enabled us to share his feelings of loneliness and isolation because he was describing it as was, there and then.  It also allowed us to connect with the character. Mark Watney is, for lack of a better word, a smartass, and this comes across very well through the way the book is written. The character is able to tell jokes to us, share worries and concerns, and generally tell us what went on in his day. We’d lose all of this if it were written in third person, since there’s no one else on the planet for Watney to tell his jokes to…

One of the biggest things I loved about this book was how realistic it seemed. Realism adds to excitement because we believe it could happen to us. Sure, Godzilla is exciting. I mean whose ears don’t prick up when they hear about a giant prehistoric monster rampaging through a city? Do we believe it could happen tomorrow? Even in ten years? Not so much. But a space mission to Mars going wrong? Now that could happen, and possibly makes us just a little bit more interested in finding out how.

The two biggest reasons The Martian seems so realistic is how genuine the main character comes across, and how well researched the book is. I mean I don’t know about you, but if people start throwing around big scientific words that I haven’t heard before, I tend to think they know what they’re talking about. Because I certainly don’t! This book is full to the brim with scientific references, equations, calculations, and jokes. And I think it’s this excellent research by Weir that backs up the whole plotline and makes us believe it’s possible.

But have no fear, nerds of the arts world! If you’re like me and dropped maths and science as soon as you could at school so you could take extra art and English, this book is still for you! The thing that surprised me most was how much I actually understood what was going on. Or I did at least most of the time. Watney does indeed talk a lot about how E=MC2 and how speed=distance over time and all that jazz but nine times out of ten, he then goes on to explain what this means or why he did this or what the result of this experiment was. And then it’s as easy as pi(e) for us laymen to put two and two together and make 3.14.

(My only reservation here is that I couldn’t quite work out how to read some of the words and how they should be pronounced in my head when I read them. Not a problem though – I generally just made up my own way. Which turns out to be quite funny when you watch the film and find out you were totally wrong!)

Finally, I really liked how the book didn’t let you relax for a single moment. Whether it was in Watney’s logs or between the scientists in a panic back on earth, there was always something happening. And usually, that something was going wrong. But it made it exciting, and you could almost feel the tension that everyone in mission control feels when they’re staring at that giant countdown clock and hoping nothing will explode. As cheesy as it sounds, I couldn’t put this book down until I thought everyone was safe and nothing was going to go wrong immediately at the beginning of the next chapter.

To conclude: Just like a great science fiction book, The Martian is packed with humour, suspense, bad puns, and relatable characters. Every single page is a new adventure as we root for this character tackling all the challenges he has to face. And in the good old edge-of-your-seat style, there seems to be a new, terrifying problem on every page, right up to the very end.

I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone whether they’re a syfy fan, aspiring astronaut, poet, hater of maths, or giant man eating space worm.

You can buy The Martian by Andy Weir here! That rhymes…

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Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

[Contains no spoilers]

I surprise even myself saying that A Walk in the Woods is the first book I have read by Bill Bryson. With his reputation for being such a hilariously witty travel writer, surely he would be an immediate go to for someone who longs to be churning out some equally creditable pieces of work? But nope, this is indeed my first Bryson experience and I must admit it wasn’t what I was expecting.

This non-fiction book follows Bryon on his attempt to walk America’s Appalachian Trail with long term friend, Stephen Katz. The trail spans 14 states covering 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine. For an experienced hiker to go the full length, it would take around 6 months, all the while battling mountains, bears, hunger, snow, and heat.

To hike the whole trail, you are expected to be young, fit, and know exactly what you’re doing. Bryson quickly demonstrates how he fails to be any of those things, adding a whole lot of humour to the book straight away. He is relatable in his writing and that’s one of the things I most like about him. I think of myself as quite the outdoorys type – that is until I get outdoors. But he wants to change this, and sparked something in me which agrees with him. One of my favourite quotes in the book explains this quite well…

“When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake.”

However, a short way into the book and I realised it wasn’t all going to be quite as relatable and witty as this. His reputation and type of books he is known to write had me expecting hilariously described experiences, scattered with little trivial thoughts, and details of all the things that inevitably go wrong while travelling; making us feel more connected to the writer. I was very surprised to find this book rather missing these little things.

Instead Bryson intersperses his experiences with long details about the history of the trail, the nature, and America. While I found all of this quite interesting, it was not what I thought a third of the book would be about. The factual chapters were still funny for some parts, but I wanted to hear about what it was like to hike the trail from someone I could relate to, not how someone ended up destroying acres of woodland 60 years ago, partly because it really wasn’t very cheery…

In some ways Bryson made up for this with his brilliant description of people he met on the trail. While they weren’t all necessarily thought of as a valued addition to his experience, the characters came to life on the page. From Katz’s lowbrow personality and interests to the infamous Mary Ellen forever nattering away about something unimportant. To read it, it felt like these people were stood in front of me and I could share in Bryon’s laughter or frustration. The stark contrast in character between Bryson and Katz and the different ways the two of them saw the world created quite an amusing read as well.

In conclusion: even though this book wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting, it most certainly won’t be the last Bill Bryson book I read. Between the factual parts of it, the descriptions of Bryon’s experiences were still gripping, funny, and have most certainly rekindled a wanderlust that had me Googling how much it was for a proper backpack. The book interested me despite the slower parts but if you’re in it just for the humour I would suggest trying another one of Bill Bryon’s books first. Otherwise, go buy it, make yourself a cup of tea, get reading, and enjoy the bumpy ride through the Appalachian Trail. Just keep an eye out for the bears…

 

First book review… ooh. Hopefully it made sense and helped a few folk who weren’t sure decide to read the book. Or not? This is the first post in a rather long time. Oops. ‘Excuses, excuses.’ But plans are being made and adventures are on their way so check back for more soon!

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