Is last year’s best science fiction novel is this year’s best science fiction film?

movie poster image of The MartianI think so, but I certainly haven’t seen all of the science fiction films of 2015. However, last night, I saw Ridley Scott’s version of The Martian, and it is really, really good. The guys with me (hubby and our unmarried 22 year-old son) absolutely loved it, and they had not read the book. (I wrote about Weir’s originally self-published novel last year.)

No doubt there are any number of professional and amateur reviews of the film, so I will do a bit of compare and contrast with the book. First, the beginning and the ending are different. Not vastly so, but the visual medium requires a different approach. However, the spirit of the novel, as well as much of the plot, is intact. The film begins with the astronauts on the surface of Mars, taking care of exploring and introducing characters. The action begins quickly, as the storm sets in and the crew aborts the mission. In the book, the back story unfolds as stranded astronaut Mark Watney recovers from his wound, assesses options, and determines each course of action. Either way, the story soon slows a bit, as this modern take on “Robinson Crusoe” unfolds. In order to get the audience out in a timely manner, the events in the film are compressed a bit. However, some things, such as the mission commander’s affection for “disco” music actually work much better in the film, as 80’s hits make up much of the sound track.

The casting is excellent, and the amount of screen time for players other than the central character, Watney, reflect a slightly different approach to the story. In the novel, chapters go by before there is any mention of the characters back on earth, but that, too, is accelerated for the film version. Actually, I like the film’s approach better than the novel, as it ramps up the suspense a bit.

Some folks in my generation have been very, very disappointed in the choices our government has made regarding space exploration. (Or should I say, the lack of space exploration.) The Martian can certainly thrill audiences of many ages, as my son really loved it. But it will especially appeal to those of us who watched NASA missions in our youth, and dreamed of continued exploration. This isn’t space opera— it is fiction based on real science.

At the most basic level, The Martian is good entertainment. It’s not particularly violent, or sexy, but it has plenty of action. The conflicts here are mostly man vs. the environment, and the environment is very believable. Perhaps, however, the younger audience will also ask why our government is so concerned about minutia, such as providing everything from cell phones to farmer’s markets, rather than taking the lead on larger initiatives, such as exploring the solar system.

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What’s selling from my “used” collection? Old grammar books!

I’ve been selling off my “teacher” stuff for about five years. During my on and off teaching career (at both private and public schools, in grades 6 through college) I did manage to accumulate a lot of books. One thing that surprises me is that really old books do sell, especially grammar books. Today, I received notice to ship an eleventh grade grammar text, published in the early 80s. Believe it or not, that one is modern. For whatever reasons, during the mid 80s, grammar began to gradually fall out of fashion in the classroom. Budgets seemed tight, and textbook price inflation was just getting started. Our school, like many in that era, bought new lit books, and each of those generally had lots of ancillary materials, including “daily grammar” lessons— usually one concept illustrated via a handout or a transparency for an overhead projector, and grammar books were either not used, or we used old ones. My friend, Janet, used a set of Warriner’s until the covers came off. Then she got the administration to find her some more of the same one on eBay. Until I left teaching high school, I used the same ones, over and over. I taped them together each August, and hoped they would make it another year.

My current teaching gig is as an adjunct at a local technical college. (For readers outside of Georgia, you would probably term it a “community college.”) Anyway, our institution pays for students to take self-paced grammar lessons online. The reason we do it that way is that we never know how much grammar the students might have already mastered, so they take assessments and are required to do lessons based on the topics they did not pass initially. From my experience, there are many students who have to take all of the lessons (known as modules) which is probably due to their teachers having been trained in the “non-grammar” era. The lessons are quite basic, including each part of speech, sentence structure, and so forth.

From time to time, I do sell grammar books, usually really old ones, and that lets me know that some people are either teaching themselves, or someone else, English grammar. I’m glad, because I see a lot of bad grammar in student writing these days. Actually, I see it in many other places, too!

Are Teachers Professionals?

As I’ve cruised news sites lately, there have been some articles about teacher in NY who was “tardy” more than a hundred times and yet managed to keep his job. This seems to be an outrage to the press, but I think it is much ado about a minor problem. If your doctor is ten minutes late arriving at his office, you are probably glad that is all. Same thing for the judge who hears your divorce. Why is that? Because they are professionals, that’s why. According to the articles I read, the teacher was never late to class. So, who suffered because the teacher liked to dawdle over breakfast? Not the students, apparently.

So why is this a big deal? The teacher went to arbitration, stating that he had only once been later than 10 minutes, and that was due to a broken down car. And the teacher kept his job. Certainly, being punctual is a virtue that the teacher should demonstrate, but if teachers are professionals and they do a good job in the classroom, then “punching a time clock” should not even occur.

Many years ago, when I first began teaching, there was a “sign in” sheet in the front office, and we would all have to line up to jot down our names. Then, we got a new principal who said, “You are professionals, and I expect you to be professional in all of your dealings with students, parents, and anyone else you encounter in your work. I am going to treat you as professionals, and professionals don’t line up to sign in or punch a time clock.” Cool. And, as I recall, we didn’t have any problems with instructors being late. Instead, we reported directly to our classrooms to help students, instead of waiting to sign that sheet of paper on a clipboard.

The news media should report on good and bad aspects of education. But leave the “tardy” teacher story alone. It’s a stupid story.

Forged by Jennifer Rush (a quick review of an even quicker read!)


Yeah, we just got underway with a new semester, so I haven’t had much time to read… and even less to write. However, I did squeeze in an evening of reading, which I devoted to “Forged” by Jennifer Rush. This is closer to a long short story than to a novella, but it is billed as a prequel, so that’s fair, I suppose. Since I haven’t read any of the series, I was a bit baffled by this piece. Dani seems to be quite the victim, but she is being manipulated somehow. The writing is good, but there seemed to be more going on than I was able to understand. The why and the who were a bit ambiguous, and the twist at the end was indeed unexpected.

Ultimately, I felt more confused than intrigued, but those were my mixed emotions when I got to the end. Others seem to enjoy the series, so at some point, I may revisit it, but “Forged” was simply not compelling. So… let’s say it is for fans, but not a good intro to the series.

Up to Date— a quick review of a quick read.


Very light romance is not normally my thing, but a friend suggested that if I would “like” Gemma Halliday on Facebook that I could get a freebie on Friday. So, one of the recent choices was a romance novella called Up to Date, which is also billed as Better Date than Never series, Book #8.

When I began Up to Date by Susan Hatler, I was immediately hooked. The main character’s name is Ginger. Her sister is named Mary Ann. And, yes, their dad was a big fan of Gilligan’s Island. The tone of this book kinda goes along with that… a bit romantic and quite a bit of comedy. This version of Ginger is miserable in her job, because being an office manager is a real snoozefest. Her home life lacks stability, because flighty sister Mary Ann never seems to have money to pay rent, but has lots to spend on frivolous social matters. Ginger is artistic and highly interested in home decor, so her true calling is to be an interior decorator. Knowing this, and knowing her talent for it, a friend suggests that Ginger donate her design services as a prize in a charity auction. The winner of the auction is a guy who wanted to date Ginger, but in typical romance fiction style, Ginger doesn’t care for him. Or maybe she does.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this light romance and urge those who enjoy the genre to download Up to Date. I read the Kindle version, and it is a most pleasant way to spend an evening.

Why college aid isn’t making college more affordable for students

I’ve been seeing this, from inside and outside, for years and years…

Kyle Wingfield

College grads have mostly waved goodbye to the extra aid Washington has sent their way in recent years. (AP Photo / Matt Rourke) College grads have mostly waved goodbye to the extra aid Washington has sent their way in recent years. (AP Photo / Matt Rourke)

From the Department of Unintended But Widely Predicted Consequences (via the Wall Street Journal):

“The federal government has boosted aid to families in recent decades to make college more affordable. A new study from the New York Federal Reserve faults these policies for enabling college institutions to aggressively raise tuitions.

“The implication is the federal government is fueling a vicious cycle of higher prices and government aid that ultimately could cost taxpayers and price some Americans out of higher education, similar to what some economists contend happened with the housing bubble.” (links original throughout)

As the article goes on to say, this consequence has been predicted at least as far back as 1987, when then-Secretary of Education William Bennett warned of the aid-fueling-tuition-hikes phenomenon in a…

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Tales of Honor: Bred To Kill #1 (Comics Review)

I’m looking forward to the further adventures on Honor Harrington in this new medium.

Shadowhawk's Shade

Tales of Honor is the adaptation of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novel series and is written by Matt Hawkins, who is one of my favourite writers in the biz, and is drawn by Linda Sejic, an artist I don’t have much of an experience with, but love her work nonetheless. I’ve read a couple issues of the previous Tales of Honor volume, and even the recent FCBD issue, not to mention that I read the first novel recently as well, so I’m pretty well-versed with the setting and the characters, and going into this new arc, that’s a good thing since I can orient myself that much quicker.

Tales of Honor: Bred To Kill #1 picks up sometime after the recent war with the People’s Republic of Haven in the Basilisk system, and it has Honor coming back during some downtime from her job as the Captain of the HMS…

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The Missing— a brief film review

Film, The MissingWhen I was growing up, I loved westerns. There was much to like about them: horses, good guys in white hats, horses, bad guys in black hats, horses, guns, horses, beautiful settings, more horses…. you get the picture, I am sure. My early favorites were “Fury” which was a show about a horse, “My Friend Flicka” which was about a horse, and the Roy Rogers show, which was mostly about the horse named Trigger. At least, that is how I remember it.

Then, I grew up and westerns were not in favor in Hollywood anymore. My early love of science fiction is all intertwined with my love of westerns. Once, I was amazed by a very intelligent woman who said she despised Star Wars. I laughed, and said, “It’s just a western!” As she gaped at me, I went on to explain that Star Wars owes much to westerns, from the bar scene (just a saloon) the greenhorn (Luke Skywalker) being guided by an older and wiser mentor, the gunslinger (Han Solo) and the Millennium Falcon, which doesn’t have much on a good horse.

Westerns have never been as popular as they were in my youth, but they have grown up. Recently, hubby and I were looking for something on Netflix that we hadn’t seen, and “The Missing” with Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett caught my eye. The description reminded me of an oldie but goodie, “The Searchers,” so we we popped some corn and got involved in Ron Howard’s take on the quest to foil white slavers in the old west. We enjoyed this suspenseful tale. The film has some fabulous scenery, very wicked bad guys, a very heroic mother (Blanchett) and too much mysticism for my taste. Oh, and there were several horses, but lately, filmmakers seem to think they are like cars or motorcycles, just transportation.

This plot could have been told in a science fiction setting, with space ships instead of horses, but it works reasonably well as a western. Check it out on Netflix streaming.

eBay scammer

From time to time, I sell used guitar parts on eBay, because my son is a luthier. Recently, I got some bad feedback, and when I checked on the buyer’s ratings, it seems that this guy (Mike in Nebraska) has a tendency to leave such feedback and after he gets a refund, he leaves new feedback saying, “Thanks for the refund.” The item I sold was a used (yep, used) truss rod cover. I asked $6.50 (with free shipping) for this used item, and Mr. Mike offered $5, which I took, even though it was hardly worth the trouble of doing the transaction. BTW, I offer 14 day returns, too. So, I package up the used cover, buy shipping with tracking ($2.05) and take it to the post office. Some 45 days after the transaction, Mr. Mike isn’t happy. I have offered a refund, but only if he returns the item. Mr. Mike hasn’t yet done the return request, perhaps because he knows that the item isn’t in such poor shape that it is worth printing out the form and paying return shipping. Actually, I will still give a full refund, despite it being 45 days, because it will be worth $5 to see if that cover looks as bad as he says. I know it was quite usable when it left me! Anyway, if you sell stuff on eBay, don’t sell to Mr. Mike. (eBay ID available upon request.) If there is a lesson in this, read the buyer reviews, and if he/she/it gives negative feedback or refers to refunds, cancel the order!

Anyway, this is my first bad experience, but no doubt not my last. Here is an interesting article on how to scam eBay sellers: I’m dealing with a bad eBay buyer!

Mockingbird— a novel for children, but a good read for adults as well

Mockingbird by Kathryn ErskineMy local library doesn’t have an available copy of Harper Lee’s new/old Go Set a Watchman available just yet, so I chose a novel that I first learned about when taking a graduate level course in improving reading in secondary schools, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. The premise in this YA novel is that our narrator, Caitlyn, is a fifth-grader with Asperger’s Syndrome. I have a family member with a similar diagnosis, so this novel interests me on more than one level. Caitlyn had been quite dependent on an older brother, Devon, but he is not with her any longer. For anyone who does not know, the vast majority of symptoms of Asperger’s are associated with communications skills. Caitlyn exhibits many of the classic symptoms, but there is both humor and pathos in her approach to life. Her father seems to want to help her and connect with her, but he is suffering from a different malady. As the exposition unfolds, the reader learns that Devon was killed in a school shooting and their mother died of cancer a couple of years prior to the events of the novel. So the father is reeling emotionally, and Caitlyn is struggling with adjusting to these losses and with trying to develop empathy for other people. Other players in this novel include young Caitlyn’s teacher, counselor, and her fellow students. Try as she might, Caitlyn has trouble “getting” what others seem to understand with little trouble. This, too, is typical for Aspies.

Mockingbird derives its title from the many references to the movie/book To Kill a Mockingbird, and I do not believe that the novel would resonate nearly as well if the reader had not either seen TKAM or read it. But, with most readers knowing a bit about the famous story by Harper Lee, it is fairly safe to say that most readers will “get” the references.  Indeed, I really, really enjoyed the novel, but I did need some tissue toward the end— it is that kind of story.

Reading YA lit is more and more common these days, because big publishing is far more open to publishing those stories. Getting a contract is rather difficult for new writers of adult fiction, but YA sells well, so it is becoming a crowded field. I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers, but I do want to encourage fans of TKAM to read Mockingbird. Although it could be read by upper elementary on up, it is a touching story for readers of any age.