The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
First published 2012; published by Crown on 11 February 2014
science fiction
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Mark Watney is on the Ares 3 Mars mission with 5 other crew members when they’re forced to abort because of a devastating sandstorm. But before Mark can get to safety, he’s swept away by a dust storm and left injured and unconscious. His biomonitor is damaged, so the crew have every reason to believe he’s dead and are forced to leave without him.

Mark wakes up and manages to save himself, but finds himself in rather bleak circumstances:

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m fucked.

In addition to this he’s also working in very delicate circumstances, in a very hostile environment, so the slightest mistake or oversight could kill him too.

But none of it deters Mark. He immediately focuses on survival, finding unexpected solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. His goal is to survive until the next Mars mission. In four years.

Meanwhile, at NASA, an undervalued engineer notices that the satellite picture of the Ares 3 site show unexplained signs of movement…

This sounds like it could be extremely boring – one lone man going about the very practical business of surviving on Mars without even the drama of aliens or something? Sounds too much like a documentary. But it works. Not just works, actually –  it’s also interesting, tense, exciting, funny, and emotional. It doesn’t need aliens because surviving alone on Mars is insane enough. It does drag at times, but it still manages to be a more entertaining read than many books that have a lot more to work with.

So, what makes it good? Mark’s character plays a huge role in that. One of the reasons he has a chance of surviving on Mars is that he’s an amazing problem solver, and a large portion of the book is devoted to the mission logs where he describes how he survives. This sounds like one of the most potentially boring parts, but even as someone who hates the rigour of hard sf, I found it very interesting and impressive. He specifically states that he’ll explain how Mars missions work just in case a layman reads his logs, and he sticks to that style throughout.

Mark is a botanist and engineer, so it’s not long before he’s figured out how make water FROM SCRATCH and turn his habitat into a potato farm. He sorts out his air supply and modifies his rover for long-distance travel. On the downside, he also turns his habitat into a bomb and causes an explosion by breathing, but that’s all just part of the thrills of life on Mars. In many ways, this book provides a basic education on how complicated and dangerous space travel is.

I couldn’t tell you how accurate it all is, but it certainly gives the impression of being completely accurate, which, for sf fans like myself, is really all that matters. Admittedly I didn’t always understand exactly what Mark was doing, but the how and why are easy to understand and that’s good enough. Yes, there’s a ton of science and maths, but Mark keeps it manageable.

The other thing that helps Mark survive and make the book readable is his sense of humour. He’s always making little jokes or framing his life-threatening endeavours in amusing ways. It keeps the tone light, keeps Mark motivated, and is often laugh-out-loud funny. I love how he complains that he’s stuck with disco music and crappy 70s sitcoms for entertainment, and how he explains that, according to international law, he is in fact a space pirate. This kind of stuff is is essential. His story could be very depressing and the realism of it suggests that Mark could die before being rescued. The humour saves it from that fate.

It could also be bogged down by Mark’s emotional and physical suffering but, thankfully, there’s very little of that. Most of Mark’s narrative is made up of mission logs, which means he chooses how to describe his experience. He focuses on his methods of survival, throws in a lot of perfectly justified bitching, and makes jokes, but he very rarely feels sorry for himself or wallows in the wretchedness of his situation. If anything, he survives because he’s the kind of person who doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s quite possible that he gets depressed and maudlin, but he doesn’t make the reader suffer through that too.

Another thing that makes this a good book narratively, is that it’s very well paced. We alternate nicely between dilemmas and triumphs, between great worry and huge relief. When Mark’s narrative starts to get a bit tiring, we suddenly go back to Earth where an observant engineer realises that Mark is still alive. That adds another dimension to the story, and from then on we move back and forth between NASA and Mars. It becomes quite a page-turner.

It did drag for a bit in the middle though. When I hit the halfway point I was so ready for Mark to be rescued, and I was a bit depressed by how much book I still had to get through. After a while though, the story climbs out of the rut and gets interesting again, as we move closer to what will either be Mark’s rescue or his death.

There is one thing I wondered about that the novel only mentions in passing – the public’s reaction to the cost of saving Mark. It costs tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to save one man (albeit a highly intelligent and skilled man whose experience constitutes unprecedented research). On the one hand, it’s an incredible story and people all over the world are following closely and hoping for a happy ending. I was hoping desperately for a happy ending too. On the other hand, it seems easier to get money and resources for this than, say, public health care, housing for the poor, environmental protection, etc. It’s mentioned that people start asking how much is too much, but that’s really all the book has to say about it.

Admittedly though, that issue might have hindered rather than helped what is already a (mostly) excellent story. I’ve heard that the movie rights have been sold and I think this would be fantastic on the big screen – all the tension and humour of the book, with a stunning visual component. That’d also complete the indie-dream that is this book – it started out as a free story on the author’s website, then he sold a Kindle version on Amazon for 99c, it got picked up by a major publisher, and film rights were sold. How awesome is that? But deservedly so. Well done Andy Weir 🙂

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel ReadyTitle: Shovel Ready
Adam Sternbergh
14 January 2014
Crown Publishing
science fiction, thriller, noir, dystopia
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Spademan used to be a garbageman, but that was before a dirty bomb and a series of other terrorist attacks killed his wife and turned New York into an empty toxic shell of a city. Now he’s a hitman. Which is also a kind of waste disposal.

His latest mark is an eighteen year old runaway named Grace Chastity Harrow, who is now going by the name Persephone. Her father is T.K. Harrow, a wealthy and powerful evangelist who Persephone has somehow betrayed. Spademan likes to keep his jobs as simple as possible, but this one quickly becomes complicated when Persephone reveals a secret that stops Spademan from killing her. It’s classic noir – the dame in distress whose troubles tug at the cynical protagonist’s hardened heart and get him tangled up in a more complicated and dangerous plot than he expected.

In this case, it’s because Persephone knows some disturbing secrets that would ruin her father’s holier-than-thou reputation and thwart a highly profitable new scheme that he’s set up – a highly realistic, biblically accurate virtual-reality heaven. By protecting Persephone, Spademan essentially opens his arms to some very powerful and utterly ruthless enemies.

I don’t read (or watch) much noir fiction, but from what I know of the genre I’d say that Adam Sternbergh has captured the tone perfectly. The writing is lean and edgy, simultaneously blunt and razor sharp. Sternbergh strips Spademan’s narration down to the brusque basics. He doesn’t even use quotation marks, which is easy to get used to but can be confusing. Sometimes you have to backtrack and figure out who is speaking, or if Spademan is just thinking rather than speaking aloud (and if you’re reading an ebook with messed up formatting that doesn’t have line breaks in the proper places – like a pirated eBook, for example – you’re fucked).

But I think the lack of quotation marks suits the blunt style and Spademan’s equally blunt character. He the typically dispirited anti-hero of noir fiction, the bad guy who takes it upon himself to be the good guy in a corrupt world.

Spademan is very strict about keeping his interaction with his clients down to the most basic requirements. He doesn’t want to know their reasons. He doesn’t need to justify what he does or live with it, because that’s what his clients have to do when they hire him. He is just a bullet, an action.

He kills men and women because he doesn’t discriminate, but he draws the line at children – he’s not that kind of psycho. His weapon of choice is a box cutter – easy to obtain and easy to hide but very effective. It kept reminding me of the very real terrorist attacks that happened in New York – planes crashing into the Twin Towers after being hijacked by men wielding box cutters. If this association with terrorists is deliberate, I wonder why Sternbergh chose this weapon for his character, who still hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife in a terrorist bombing. However, it does have a very apt sense of anger and disillusionment about it. It’s an unassuming but efficient weapon with which the disempowered defeat the powerful. I love this line from Spademan:

I may have once had some thin faith in something like cosmic justice, but now I believe in box-cutters.

It’s a belief that serves him well in this ravaged New York, where radiation poisoning is a daily threat. I wouldn’t call this a post-apocalyptic though, because the bombings were restricted to New York. The rest of the world, and the rest of America, is carrying on as usual, except for any problems caused by the loss of New York (but the novel doesn’t get into that).

The bombs didn’t actually kill that many people. Instead it killed New York’s tourist industry, and that eventually killed New York. Most people left, but many stayed – the poor, stubborn squatters, people with unusual business requirements, and of course dodgy underworld types who profit from lawless environments. There are also loads of wealthy people who don’t really live in the city because they spend most of their time in a virtual reality known as the limnosphere. This is basically a customisable online space, and while you’re in there your body is lying in a bed with a bunch of life-support tubes. The warehouses in the industrial area of Tribeca are full of rich people in beds.

I find this a tad unlikely though. If you’re going to spend all your time in virtual reality, then it doesn’t matter where you live, but if you’re rich, why not do it in a safe environment with reliable medical care, instead of a toxic lawless city? Many of Spademan’s marks are withered bed-ridden dreamers; he just walks in and slits their throats while they sleep. The seedier dens that cater to less upmarket clients make sense, but not the luxury versions.

Despite that snag however, I do like the concept of the limnosphere, largely because of spoilery stuff that I won’t reveal. And a rather likeable character who appears as a hot avenging angel when he’s needed most. Part of the plot plays out in the limnosphere, although Spademan prefers to avoid it having been addicted to it in the past.

His history is full of dark and tragic details that Spademan reveals over the course of the narrative. One of the words used to describe the book in the blurb is “tender” which I thought was a bit odd until I learned more about Spademan. It doesn’t detract from his edgy character, but it does add a wounded human side. I won’t give you any of the details; it’s nicer just to read them yourself.

Other words used to describe the book include “gritty, violent, funny, riveting”, and although I’m not so sure about the “funny” part, I agree that it’s all of those other things. A good quick and dirty thriller.

Downsides? Yes, there were some things I didn’t like. Sometimes, and particularly towards the end, a lot of information is withheld from the reader to maintain suspense, and with the terse writing style things start to get confusing.

The are also few women in the story, and although some of them are central to the plot, they have little or no control over it. Like Spademan’s wife, who is important largely because she died.

Persephone is the most important female character, not to mention the character whose actions set the plot in motion, but she is relegated to the role of damsel in distress in what is primarily Spademan’s story. In fact, there are two occasions in which the characters analyse the situation and decide that this is essentially a struggle between Spademan and T.K. Harrow, with Persephone as little more than a pawn. She does at least end up playing a more active role than pawn and proves to be extremely fucking deadly with a knife, but she still gets sidelined way too much. Sternbergh might be sticking to the conventions of the genre, but he didn’t have to go that far.

Common gender pitfalls aside though, it’s good read. Check it out.

Review of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P SingletonTitle: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
Elizabeth L. Silver
Crown Publishing
 11 June 2013
crime, mystery, drama
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

I know I did it. The state knows I did it, though they never really cared why. Even my lawyers knew I did it from the moment I liquidated my metallic savings bank hoarded in the bloated gut of a pink pig to pay their bills. I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once.

When Noa P. Singleton was put on trial for killing Sarah Dixon, she never took the stand in her own defence, and the state’s weak, melodramatic case was enough to give her the death penalty. Now, after a decade in jail and her execution date six months away, Noa is suddenly approached by Sarah’s mother Marlene. At the trial, Marlene stated that Noa was exactly the kind of person the death penalty was designed for. Now, she offers to use her considerable influence as a high-powered attorney to get Noa granted clemency – life in prison instead of death.

In exchange, Marlene wants Noa to prove that she’s reformed, specifically by revealing the all the details that she never confessed during the trial – her motives and the specifics of what happened that day. Whether or not Noa deserves to be on death row, they both know that she was put there for the wrong reasons. Marlene sends her lawyer Oliver to speak to Noa, who begins telling her story, from the very beginning when her mother dropped her as a baby.

Which is kind of funny in the black way that Noa sometimes laughs at things if only to avoid crying about the way her life has turned out. This is a mystery novel, but it’d be more accurate to think of it as a tragic life story that led to a murder and a death sentence. At ten-months old (I’m rather sceptical about the idea that Noa has memories from such an early age, but whatever) Noa’s mother accidentally dropped her from the top of a second-floor stairway. Too embarrassed to admit what happened, she made up a ridiculous story about an intruder and proceeded to wreck Noa’s crib and the house as evidence for her lie.

In true Freudian style, Noa repeatedly looks to her past to explain or contextualise the later events of her life. This incident is mentioned several times, particularly because of her mother’s bizarre attempt to cover up the truth, as Noa has done. Being dropped as a baby is also the first in a long line of mishaps and tragedies that characterise Noa’s life. She was raised by a single mother who frequently changed boyfriends. She suffered a disastrous miscarriage, requiring an emergency abortion that left her unable to have children. She dropped out of college soon after and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with her life. Later, Noa’s estranged father gets in touch with her and tries to build a relationship with her. He’s an ex-con and a recovering alcoholic who is very obviously a relapse waiting to happen.

Although this sounds more like a drama than a crime novel, most of Noa’s story, down to the sad little details, eventually ties in to the murder, the trial and her sentence. A lot of it ends up being misused in the trial, which seems more like a soap opera than a serious legal procedure.

It turns out that Noa is actually the one writing the story we’re reading, doing her best to explain how she ended up on death row, why she never defended herself, why she committed murder in the first place. She sometimes suggests that she’s an unreliable narrator – revealing that a story she just told is a lie, or leaving out important events and details – but you get the impression that if she has misled you, she will eventually tell the whole truth. In between her biographical chapters, she also describes her conversations with Marlene’s lawyer Oliver (a sweet twenty-something who, unlike Marlene, is very serious about helping Noa), details about the death penalty in America, comments on how the trial was conducted (like the way the jury was frequently asked to ignore statements from witnesses, or how she was demonised as a bitter, barren psychopath), life on death row and so on.

Partly because Noa is the author here, your sympathy falls with her, the confessed, convicted murderer. She manages to be the heroine rather than the villain, even if you don’t quite like her (she’s certainly not cute and fluffy). If there is a villain of any kind, it’s Marlene, the mother of the murder victim. Noa says she “had never known Marlene to possess even a quarter of a heart, let alone a full one”, and even when accounting for the fact that Marlene is shown from Noa’s perspective, she really does seem to be a stone cold bitch. Her motives for wanting to get Noa granted clemency are purely selfish – she wants a means of getting the truth, and she wants Noa to spend the rest of her life wasting away in jail rather than being given an early escape. Which is a perfectly understandable attitude toward the woman who shot your daughter, until you realise that this is simply an example of Marlene’s cruel selfishness. The narrative actually includes some letters she writes to her dead daughter, but these don’t elicit sympathy so much as reveal Marlene to be the unstable, controlling woman that Noa warned us about.

I want to make a few comments on the writing and narrative style. The novel is easy to read, but Silver often makes attempts at being poetic that tend to be confused or just fall flat. Oliver actually criticises Noa’s metaphors at one point: “Lovely, Noa,” he said, spitting a bit of scoff my way. “Taking a poetry class via the post?” Based on that you could say that this style is a voice Silver crafted for Noa, but sometimes Marlene does it too.

Another thing I wanted to mention is that a couple of chapters are little more than lists. Between telling her life story, Noa gives us trivia related to her experience at the trial an in prison – excuses people make to avoid jury duty, final words of people who’d been executed, final meals. Some of this is interesting for a short while, but it quickly gets tedious without adding anything to the story. It’s also unclear where Noa gets this information, since she’s stuck in prison with few connections to the outside world.

But flaws aside, this is a pretty good read and an impressive debut novel. I loved the way the main characters’ psychology unfolded as the novel progressed, with all their twisted issues about family, guilt and atonement. It moves relatively slowly for quite a while, but by the last quarter or so I was anxious about how it would turn out. If I’d read it in print instead of on a Kindle I’d have had to stop myself from ‘accidentally’ glancing at the final pages. And any mystery that has that effect on me has done its job.


Up for Review: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

The Execution of Noa P SingletonThe Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver (Crown Publishing)

NetGalley Blurb:

A beguiling debut novel about the stories we tell ourselves to survive, the scars that never fade and the things we choose to call the truth.

Noa P. Singleton speaks not a word in her own defense throughout a brief trial that ends with a jury finding her guilty of first-degree murder. Ten years later, a woman who will never know middle age, she sits on death row in a maximum security penitentiary, just six months away from her execution date.
Seemingly out of the blue, she is visited by Marlene Dixon, a high-powered Philadelphia attorney who is also the heartbroken mother of the woman Noa was imprisoned for killing. She tells Noa that she has changed her mind about the death penalty and Noa’s sentence, and will do everything in her considerable power to convince the governor to commute the sentence to life in prison – if Noa will finally reveal what led her to commit her crime.
Noa and Marlene become inextricably linked through the law, shared sentiments of guilt, and irreversible mistakes in an unapologetic tale of love, anguish, and deception that is as unpredictable as it is magnificently original.
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is Silver’s debut novel and will be published on 11 June 2013 by Crown Publishing.
Crown Publishing
The novel at Random House (including an excerpt)
About the Author
Elizabeth L. Silver holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, and a JD from Temple University Beasley School of Law. She has taught ESL in Costa Rica, worked in book publishing in New York, and was an adjunct professor of English composition and literature at Drexel University and St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She has also worked as a Briefing and Research Attorney for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, and is licensed to practice law in the state of California. – author’s website

Up for Review: Gone Girl

I just read this one. It was fucking awesome. I’m going to review it, of course, but don’t wait around for my essay-length opinion on the matter – if you like psychological thrillers, pre-order this NOW.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown Trade)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

From New York Times bestselling author Gillian Flynn, a twisted novel of literary suspense, and her most ambitious to date.

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife, Amy, has disappeared. Nick is weak, Nick is a liar, and maybe he’s not the very best of husbands–but is he a killer? Amy’s diary reveals turmoil over their marriage, strange sicknesses, and her deep wish to be a mother–but is she telling the whole story? As the evidence slowly mounts, and the cops’ investigation deepens, Nick is incriminated in horrible ways. Nick swears he didn’t murder his beautiful wife and goes on the offensive to clear his name…only to learn that something may have happened more disturbing than death.

The terrifying masterpiece of a marriage gone wrong, Gillian Flynn’s fast-paced, dark, and ingeniously plotted Gone Girl confirms her status as one of the hottest thriller novelists around.

Gone Girl will be released on 5 June 2012 by Crown Trade, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group