4 out of 4 stars
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In Man Mission: Four Friends, Fifteen Years, One Epic Journey by Eytan Uliel, we follow a set of friends that have recently graduated from school and are just starting out in their careers, relationships and life in a modern world where what it means to be a man is ambiguously defined at best. Having originally described his dream of physically and gastronomically challenging himself to a close friend in college, our main character and sole narrator finds himself being asked to follow through on his dream and go on a trip to New Zealand. After that first surprising experience, the “man mission” becomes an annual adventure between the friends to new, exotic locales and with new rewarding, and punishing, challenges. The trips force them to face and overcome obstacles as they attempt to navigate through their adult lives, sometimes equating the physical challenges they face on their trips to the emotional ones they face at home.
I rated this book as 4 out of 4 stars because while there were aspects that I didn’t love, overall the book was an enjoyable read. The narrator and his friends are realistic characters with human flaws but it makes their triumphs and brotherly bonds with one another something you are drawn into, making the reader almost like a fifth person on these adventures. This book has some adult themes and cursing, everything you would expect following around four adult men, making it not appropriate for a reader lower than teen but great for anyone that is curious about travel and especially those that have faced big changes in their lives and found themselves drifting afterwards.
The aspect I liked best about this book was the author’s ability to balance heavier topics with a light and irreverent tone. The book comes in at 374 pages, covering fifteen trips, and the corresponding years in the men's lives. They alternately face triumph and heartbreak and the author keeps the pace up and the reader’s interest by not allowing the tone to get too serious. It was easy to want to keep reading this book because the character’s banter was entertaining and even when the characters were facing a tough situation, the tone didn’t get desperate. I found myself wanting to see the characters through the challenges and felt like cheering when they triumphed. Even though I read it at home, I thought Man Mission would be a great beach or vacation read.
Another thing I loved about this book was the author’s choice of settings. I love traveling and hope to continue to explore and the author’s choices of locations for the character’s trips felt like a mini-preview of all the places described. The characters were looking for a specific type of location, places that offered a physical challenge like difficult hiking or adventure sports. While those activities were happening, the readers are treated to descriptions of the countries, people, and scenery they pass. While I do not see myself ever biking across Japan, this novel let me vicariously experience it.
What I disliked most about this book was the female characters. The story’s main characters are all male, which is refreshing because there seems to be a trend toward female protagonists, but the female secondary characters in Man Mission are very secondary. Therefore their reactions and positions are not explained from a point of view that understands their motivations or their inner decision making. Unfortunately, this makes them sometimes cold and aloof, and generally unlikeable. While it does create a stronger bond with the narrator, I think it also does the story a disservice because when bad things happen and you only understand one side, the other side is marginalized and easily blamed for it.
The other thing I did not like was the author’s repeated use of certain words in his descriptions. In some books, repeated phrases or ideas can create a better picture of the character’s personality or help the reader understand their perspective. In my opinion however, if something is repeated too often, you lose the continuity because the words lose some of their impact and meaning. Eytan Uliel has picked very exotic and diverse settings but unfortunately he uses some of the same descriptors in each place. I think it would have been more effective to use different adjectives for some of the different settings.
Overall, this was a well-edited story with few errors and typos, characters you cheer for, and a story that never drags and keeps the reader engaged.
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