I picked this up on a whim to last me a long road trip. I'm really glad that I was able to get through it during the drive and the return, because otherwise I would have spent my time after returning curled up with my headphones until I was done. Had I not known I'd need something for the drive home, I would have finished it at my hotel after arriving it at my destination!
That you can take a book this heavy on technical exposition and make it that riveting is quite an accomplishment, and I think the kudos for it deserve to be split between author Andy Weir and reader R.C. Bray. Weir did a fantastic job of balancing technical detail and the human element, and R.C. Bray excelled at making what exposition there needed to be seem conversational and imbued with humanity.
This is ultimately a story about a bunch of engineers with equal parts perseverance and intelligence banging their heads against a problem so difficult as to be indistinguishable from the impossible, and reminded me more than anything of the excellent Tom Hanks film adaptation of the Apollo 13 story.
If that sort of thing interests you on any level whatsoever, you must read this book.
Epic in scope, but told in a very personal, down-to-earth fashion. The material itself is striking. Even if you've been aware of what happened in the Sudan, I expect hearing about what the people endured as part of the story of an individual life would still be eye-opening. I wasn't that well-informed, so it was certainly interesting for me.
Despite the excellent source matter, however, the story is somewhat crudely told. While Eggers has a fantastic sense of voice and really personalizes all of the characters, the overall handling of the plot arc felt clumsy and gimmicky at times, and the way the historical material is introduced through the Valentino's present-day inner monologue addressed at various people in his daily life gets to be a tired trick after a while. Also, the attempt to include everything possible about the Sudanese people's experiences in this one person's individual story leads to a certain straining of plausibility after a while that's only partly explained away by having the other characters themselves remark that God must have something against him. The pacing of the context switches seems slightly off in a way that often leaves you wanting to hear more about the part you're not hearing about now, whichever part that may be. There are a couple of things which are introduced multiple times during the course of the story in a way that seems more accidental than artistic, and oddly, given that at several points the story felt a little long, the book eventually just sort of ... stops, dropping the story in an unsatisfying fashion.
That said, the source material is so compelling that even a muddled rendition of it provides for an extremely worthwhile read, and Dion Graham does a riveting job as the narrator, with excellent voices for most of the characters and a fantastic command of the cadence and character of the principal character's voice that makes the book wonderful to hear.
The strength of this story is in is characters, who are incredibly well fleshed-out, strikingly human, very believable, and more often than not quite likeable. Also a huge plus are that despite a standard patriarchal fantasy world, the novel contains a number of intelligent, active, well-portrayed female characters who exist and work of their own right rather than acting as props or foils for the male characters.
The story itself is interesting and has good momentum and a few interesting twists, but the novel is ultimately mostly character-driven. This works well, given that you're handed a cast that you generally actually care about.
The reading was very well-done, transparent but with excellent voicing of the characters. You could easily tell which character was speaking from the voices alone, without them ever becoming cartoonish or overdone. The voices of the main characters fit their descriptions and tone very well.
My only complains is that the book contains a rather lengthy denoument with a lot of descriptive language long after the story is concluded. My attention really wandered toward the end. But it's a very minor detail compared to the rest of the work, which is top-notch.
I don't know that years from now I'll think to put this on my "great books" list, and it wasn't really life-changing or philosophically challenging. However, it was good, solid entertainment of the best quality.
While this book purports to be a realistic analysis of human reaction to a first-contact situation, the first-contact aspect occupies a remarkably small portion of the overall text. The bulk of the book is dedicated to the sexual (and occasionally romantic, but mostly as seen through the eye of out-of-control sexuality) exploits of various deplorable characters. This might itself be interesting enough except that the book is wildly sexist and the models of human sexuality and romance drawn here are disturbing at best, with the majority of the sexual interactions bordering on rape. Throw in a little bit of completely stock, stereotyped cold-war paranoia and a Russia taken directly from the cheesiest of 80s thrillers, and excise the bulk of anything even approaching a plot and you have little to commend this book. I did continue through to the end so that I could feel as if I was reviewing it from a complete perspective, and it did get a little better toward the end. For one, the distance from the worst of the sexual exploitation, which primarily happens in the first half to two-thirds of the book, helps suspend the distaste in the romantic relationships that eventually come out. For another, the book does, toward the end, begin to garner some semblance of a plot, ultimately presenting what feels like the first third or so of an interesting story. I would almost have been compelled to continue with the second and third book had I had even the slightest interest in any of the characters.
The reading by Stefan Rudnicki is reasonably decent, with accents provided where necessary and characters easily distinguishable. However, toward the end of the book especially, a second (uncredited on Audible) narrator comes in who made me cringe each time she read due to her wildly inappropriate emotional presentation, all characters coming out as whiny children, mad, venom-spitting, seething men or dreamy new-agers.
Definitely two thumbs down from me.
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