Tag Archives: First Novel

On Andy Weir’s “The Martian”

24 Mar

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian [2013] by Andy Weir

There are a lot of different types of survivors: there’s the Bear Grylls survivor who “survives” in the “wild” with a full TV crew and then books a hotel room off-screen; there’s the Donner Party survivor who makes it because she overcame some serious taboos; there’s the Tom “Chuck Noland” Hanks survivor who may go a tad crazy but ends up losing weight and looking really good after hanging out with a volleyball for four years; and then there’s Mark Watney, astronaut-botanist extraordinaire and the hero of Andy Weir’s debut novel that will have you canceling your one-way ticket to Mars. In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that.

In the not-to-distant future, NASA succeeds in landing (and returning!) several manned missions to Mars. It’s a dream that isn’t too far away in our own reality, so the scenario Weir conceives in The Martian isn’t as alien as we once thought in the Mars craze of the mid-20th century. Instead, Weir creates an extremely plausible and relentlessly logical story of one person’s struggle for survival on the withered Red Planet. Mark Watney is the lowest rank on a totem pole filled with superlatively qualified astronauts in the Ares 3 mission to Mars. He and the crew only just landed on Mars to begin their research mission when a lethal sandstorm forces them to abandon their base and escape back to the refuge of space. The abort occurs only six Mars days, or “sol,” into their mission, and in the chaos of their escape, the team leaves Watney behind, thinking him a victim to the storm. And that’s the end of the story.

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I'll let the Mark Watney's of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I’ll let the Mark Watney’s of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Or so the Ares 3 team thinks as they speed back toward Earth while grieving for their lost crew member and friend. But Watney is alive–for now–and must use his training and extraordinary will to survive to stay one small step ahead of a harsh environment that wants nothing more than to see him dead. While Watney huddles inside the temporary shelter of the Ares mission’s Hub trying to cultivate potatoes in DIY farm soil (I’ll give you a hint straight from Watney’s mouth: “My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”), Mission Control in Houston finally catches on that their missing astronaut miraculously survived. In a mad race against time, NASA personnel try to solve the ultimate puzzle of Watney’s survival. Every time they solve for one problem, the unforgiving Martian environment throws them another life-threatening situation.

Watney’s wit keeps him alive as much as his intelligence (or his asshole, as he claims). He keeps his indomitable spirits high through his wisecracks and never seems to let his bleak surroundings affect his mood, so, while his sarcastic remarks certainly makes for a more entertaining read, I never feared that Watney would fail in his quest. In fact, Weir never so much as mentions the excruciating loneliness Watney must have been feeling. At worst, Watney is bored, but hundreds of days pass without any kind of human interaction, and I had a hard time believing Watney never made his own little Wilson somewhere in the Hab. I understand that reading about a dude being bored might be a dampener on an otherwise nonstop, nerve-wracking plot, but Weir missed an opportunity to investigate the true horror of a human sans humanity, of someone more utterly and definitely alone than any human being has ever been. Instead, Weir sweeps the surreal nature of these circumstances under the rug that is Watney’s sardonic humor.

Watney’s humor helps him keep his sanity, but his extraordinary resourcefulness keeps him alive, and I tried my darndest not to get distracted by some of the contrivances of the blog format Weir uses to tell Watney’s side of the story, or by the fact that I pretty much watched this whole situation play out in Ron Howard’s 1995 Apollo 13 and the fact that we’re going to be watching the Ridley Scott version this November. I still tore through the book in less than two days, and I am still going to watch the film adaptation, and I’m still never, never, ever going to Mars.

Even billions of dollars of technology can't protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Billions of dollars of technology alone can’t protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Read It: The Martian is a story of survival before it’s sci-fi. It is a thrilling, fast-paced, quick-talking adventure story that just happens to take place on the surface of Mars. I say this to encourage all you genre-haters to take off your hate hats and pick up this book. There may be a few sciency type words and concepts buried under all the action, but I found that skimming those and pretending I remembered AP plant biology worked just fine. Andy Weir writes a captivating story that has already made him a name as a great new author to watch.

Don’t Read It: Do you have high blood pressure? Has a doctor recently told you to avoid stressful activities? Listen to your doctor! The Martian is the story of an astronaut in constant peril. Reading this is like watching a five-hour montage of just the climaxes of every MacGyver episode and you don’t get to see the resolution until the final eight seconds.

Similar Books: Tales of survival have always stressed me out, so I mostly steer clear of them, but I recently tackled Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Seathe nonfiction retelling of the disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. Philbrick collects information from two survivors’ accounts as well as countless documents from the era to create a thrilling history of the human will to survive even in the face of impossible odds. Weir’s The Martian was also combination of Apollo 13 and Cast Away. There must have been a Tom Hanks marathon on TBS or something when Weir was brainstorming, not that that’s a bad thing.

Andy Weir (Photo from Wikipedia)

A photo of Andy Weir taking a photo. Weirception. (Photo from Wikipedia)

On Lee Kelly’s “City of Savages”

10 Mar

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

Katniss Everdeen is a household name and the Divergent film adaptations made a young star out of Shailene Woodley, all thanks to a rising subgenre among young adult readership. New author and resident New Yorker Lee Kelly is jumping aboard late on the post-apocalyptic YA funtimes wagon, but her debut novel City of Savages might be one of the better installations of this popular topic. (I’m not sure what it says about our youth today that this depressing, morbid genre is all the rage, but at least we’re past the “vampire-werewolf-love-triangle” genre, so I can’t complain.) Despite a few discrepancies in logic and some predictability in the plot, City of Savages tells a fantastic story about the grey areas between good and evil, and the strength of bonds between loved ones.

Two decades after World War III decimated New York City, sisters Skyler and Phoenix navigate the  wasteland of Manhattan with their mother Sarah. The entire island is a massive POW camp, regulated by the loose and distant hand of the Red Allies. The Miller family has the freedom to spend the warm summer months hunting wild peacocks and squirrels for their dinners and camping out in an abandoned penthouse overlooking Battery Park.

It's hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo by "Elizabeth Haslam")

It’s hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo from “Elizabeth Haslam“)

In the winter, the three women seek shelter in Central Park under the harsh but protective hand of the prison warden Rolladin. Rolladin is herself a prisoner, but as the Red Allies take less and less of an interest in the few hundred surviving residents of Manhattan, Rolladin assumes more and more power. She and her “overlords” keep residents in line and enforce strict schedules of manual labor to help the tight community survive.

The younger sister Phoenix, or “Phee,” seems to fit in with the survivor-mode lifestyle of the island, but her older sister Skyler immerses herself in books and the remnants of a previous culture, one where people weren’t forced to the limits of humanity and beyond to stay alive. Sky dreams of another world, a better one the the savage hierarchy enforced by the heartless Rolladin. Phee’s fighting skills and spunk earns her Rolladin’s attention, though, and the distance between sisters grows. When the girls discover their mother’s old journal, they steal chances to read it whenever they can, careful to keep it hidden from their secretive mother, and begin to unravel the truth of their ruined world and deeper, family secrets–secrets that threaten to tear sister from sister and child from mother. The final straw is the arrival of handful of strangers with strange accents–four men who claim they sailed in from the outside and come bearing news. The girls commit an act of treason to help the strangers evade the wrath of Rolladin, but their escape leads them through the subway tunnels, and the danger awaiting them there could be worse than anything Rolladin could cook up.

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you bet your ass I wouldn't love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly's "feeders." (Photo by "Genial 23")

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you can bet your rosy bottom I wouldn’t love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly’s “feeders.” (Photo from “Genial 23“)

The plot that ensues from there is nothing new in the literary world: familial bonds are tested by distrust, a little love triangle forms, things aren’t what they seem, conflict, climax, resolution. Kelly doesn’t stretch for the unfamiliar either in story line or setting, though that doesn’t stop her from creating a perfectly entertaining novel, thanks to the several fresh elements she uses throughout the book. Kelly creates well-paced, textured narrative by alternating chapters of the cocky, angst-ridden voice of Phoenix; the self-doubting, speculative voice of Skyler; and Sarah Miller’s journal, which slowly reveals the secrets of her past. The layers of the three narrative styles balances our slowly growing understanding of the past with the quickly moving actions of the characters’ present. Kelly also examines different forms of dictatorships: Rolladin’s power of brute force and rigid hierarchy, and the more subversive, covert power of theocracy. I have to believe that, were she not writing a young adult book, Kelly would have given the exploration of these methods a little more page time and maybe cut down on the time her two protagonists spend mooning over boys.

Phee and Skyler themselves are little better than formulaic female protagonists, representing two polar archetypes: the tough girl who cracks jokes and doesn’t care what people think about her, and the quiet, bookish one who doesn’t really know how beautiful she is. I appreciate the equal representation here, and I think young readers will benefit from knowing there’s no single way to be the kick-ass hero of the story. In fact, you could have two kick-ass heroes and they can be complete opposites of each other. But the real show-stealers here are the young Sarah Miller of the journal entries and the twisted, cold-hearted Rolladin, who comes with secrets of her own. Rolladin takes the crown when it comes to compelling charcters. She is a villain who inspires some wonderfully conflicted feelings because of what she represents: the cautionary tale of what happens when obsessive love turns into something ugly.

Through all the sloppy logic and predictability, City of Savages is a fine way to spend a few hours of your life and a stellar debut by an exciting new author on the young adult scene. You may think the post-apocalyptic genre is overdone and as saturated as a pre-teen’s Instagram stream, but this story of sisters, war, and tragic family secrets was nothing but a joy to read.

“I guess who needs a voice of reason when you have a partner in crime?”

And lord help the sister

And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.

Read It: Whether you’re an angsty teen looking for some new grey-scale, post-apocalyptic morbidity to gobble down or you’re a full-blown adult who just needs a little escapism that’s easy on the literary interpretation faculties, you will find City of Savages a pleasure to read. Lee Kelly succeeds at crafting an entertaining story in complex yet relatable landscape. The novel also contains a fun, queer subplot, so be on the look out!

Don’t Read It: All you sticklers out there–you critics of highly predictable plots or surveyors of plot holes–be warned. This is not the book for you. I have high hopes, though, since this is Kelly’s first novel, and she’s already planning another; these things will only improve! Some plot elements may be too intense for readers under 18. Not only are the scenes of physical brutality quite frequent, but themes of cannibalism and sexual abuse take large roles in this darkened setting. If you are a parent looking for something acceptable for your young one to read, make a note: if you wouldn’t let your child watch The Walking Dead then you may want to think twice before buying or checking out City of Savages.

Similar Books: Of course I’m going to tell you to go read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games for another book about a young female lead who is beyond capable in a depressing future America, but I hope to God you have already done that. You probably haven’t read the lovely novella Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I urge you to jump on that with both feet. Wild Girls is a short fantasy about two sisters navigating a world of slavery and harsh class structure. Le Guin’s writing blows me away every time I read it, and this short but powerful piece will convert you if you aren’t already an acolyte.

Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

On Tom Cooper’s “The Marauders”

3 Mar

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

If there’s one place in the United States that inspires images of shrouded mystery and magical kingdoms, it’s the bayou. Maybe it’s the French and Creole cultural background, so spicy and foreign, so different from the Anglo-Germanic traditions elsewhere in the country. Or maybe it’s the setting itself: hoary trees, prehistoric predators, covered and joined with water. Thanks to the magical realism of films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and the hallucinatory elements of films like In the Electric Mist (not the best example, I admit, but I have an old man crush on Tommy Lee Jones), my perception of bayou stories is eternally skewed toward the mythical and darkly romantic. Tom Cooper’s debut novel about a hodgepodge of men in post-Deepwater Horizon Louisiana extracts the romantic and leaves the myth and the darkness. The Marauders speaks of good things to come from new author Cooper.

The Marauders sets its stage several years after the BP oil spill disaster at Deepwater Horizon, and describes the lasting effects the spill inflicts on the resident shrimpers of Jeanette, Louisiana. Cooper manages to scale the unfathomable disaster down to something more understandable and human by following the course of five stories: teenage Wes Trench and his quest for his father’s approval as a man and a next-gen Jeanette shrimper; Brady Grimes, the BP yes-man knocking on doors, heckling Jeanette’s residents into settling on a measly sum for their ruined lives; Gus Lindquist, a one-armed shrimper with dreams of finding the pirate Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure of Spanish dubloons; the Toup twins, who would do anything to protect their hidden island farm of marijuana; and Cosgrove and Hanson, two petty criminals on the verge of the biggest break of their lives. It’s a small sampling of life in a hurricane-torn, oil-slicked bayou, and Cooper adds enough spice to make the novel a decently tasty morsel.

Bayou (Photo from "Xavier Lambrecht")

Bayou” is Louisiana French from the Choctaw word “bayuk,” meaning “small stream.” Talk about lost in translation. (Photo from “Xavier Lambrecht“)

The separate story lines tell the same narrative: a man struggles against his ties to his homeland. These men are fixtures of Barataria or they dream of escaping its narrow lifestyle. They return home full of bitterness and loathing or they learn to respect a dying way of life and embrace its tradition. Cooper’s description of the landscape is sparse but vivid leaves readers with the sharp impression of scents and moist heat. His attentiveness to character description instills a little less confidence, though, and I found it difficult to consider the Toup twins as anything more than a couple of floppy, cliché villains–two-dimensional and easy to hate. Wes Trench is similarly flat in the opposite polar end of the balance between Good and Evil. He’s all hard work and youthful earnestness. I wanted to punch him in the face.

Cooper is strongest in the chapters following our one-armed shrimper and treasure-seeker Lindquist. Lindquist miraculously reaches his middle ages, despite his painkiller addiction and an obsession that drives away his wife and daughter and threatens to sink his business. When the starved, oil-covered shrimp are few and far between, Lindquist religiously scans the muddy banks of the Barataria with his metal detector searching for the buried treasure of notorious Gulf pirate Jean Lafitte. In his spare time, Lindquist researches his library of maps and old myths, pouring his time and his soul into the hunt of the pirate’s missing Spanish dubloons. The town both ridicules him for his obsession and respects him for his faithfulness. Fueled by his feverish pipe dream of pirate treasure, Lindquist is the heart of the Barataria. The man throws everything away–his health, his family, his livelihood–for a single belief, a hope that no one else seems to understand but everyone takes comfort in.

“No, he wasn’t wrong. Lindquist knew it in his blood. He knew it with providential certainty, the same way a dowser knew there was water in the ground, the same way a diviner knew a ghost was in the room. And as long as he kept searching, as long as he kept digging holes in the ground, he’d never be wrong.”

Oiled bird (Photo from "Marine Photobank")

An ocean bird suffers from an oil spill. The adverse effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster are still felt today by the Gulf wildlife and its human dependents. (Photo from “Marine Photobank“)

The Lindquist story line alone would make The Marauders an entertaining novel at the very least, and I would have enjoyed an entire novel about him and his pitiable, yet somehow respectable, obsession. The other characters seem to all fall short in comparison, but the greatest travesty is the novel’s utter lack of diversity. In the Deep South, where society is a great stew of hybrid cultures, languages, tastes, and customs, The Marauders is astoundingly white and male. Not only are the main story lines boringly similar to each other, but the other non-white or female characters are so wan and weak they could be figments of your imagination. Of the three or so female characters with speaking lines, one is dead, one is dying, and none of them exceed a stereotypical understanding of “woman as understood by a man”: the perfect, idolized mother lost in Katrina; the mother dying of cancer; a bitter ex-spouse. I’m not saying every book has to have a balanced cast of men and women. I’m just saying that the women included here are not real women. Even more appalling is the lack of any character who isn’t white. An off-handed mention of some Vietnamese fishers doesn’t count in my book, and the lack of any mention of Black Americans and Black Southern culture all points to apparent Cooper’s tunnel vision.

Read It: Do you feel like kicking back with a cold brew and a relaxing, but entertaining read that won’t force you into the hard labor of thinking? The Marauders is the book for you. With its bold, easy symbolism and swift currents of plot, readers won’t need to exercise their grey cells to uncover the mystery of Barataria Bay, and I say this as a compliment. The novel is totally accessible and enjoyable as fun, light read.

Don’t Read It: The Marauders is a debut novel, and it reads like a debut novel. Cooper still needs to flesh out his two-dimensional characters, get some meat on them to make their stories not only unique but worthwhile. This might not be the book for you if you aren’t willing to be a little forgiving of those first-novel kinks.

Similar Books: Tom Cooper’s novel reminded me more of a couple of films than of books: In the Electric Mist, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Sarsgaard–as surreal and hallucinatory as Gus Lindquist’s story of pirate treasure–and The Beasts of the Southern Wild, starring Quvenzhané Wallis–a wild ride of magical realism and Southern character sketches. A book with similar tone and attentiveness to geographical subcultures is Jessie van Eerden’s Glorybound, another first novel, this time following several characters in a West Virginia coal mining town.