I am not fucking around: this is a great Kim Stanley Robinson novel. It's got everything I like about him: a bunch of hugely nerdy digressions, some legit science, a little light-hearted didacticism, and words words words. This man can write. Ok, sure, the plot is loose, but who even needs a plot when you've got a world like this, like ours but in extremis.
During a mission to Mars, Mark Watney is left stranded by a freak accident. The rest of his crew think him dead and leave for Earth.
This book should be subtitled “How to survive on Mars when everything there wants to kill you.” Almost every chapter has something going wrong for Watney, yet he manages to stay alive using the most powerful tools he has – his brain and his will to survive.
Watney is indomitable, a Martian Terminator. He won’t stay down, and it’s that spirit of resilience that carries the book. We all love someone who just. Won’t. Quit.
I say it’s Watney that carries the book, and I’ll stick with that. We’ll get to his character in a minute, but the rest of the cast are pretty flat and two dimensional. They exist only as props for the main action. And yet they work, because all we really care about is the guy on Mars. Everyone else can be the second spear-carrier on the left and it doesn’t really matter.
Watney himself is an odd character. He writes sometimes like a twelve year old, his logs full of exclamation marks and comments like “Look, boobs! (.Y.)”. The immaturity is striking against his other character traits. He’s a very smart guy, very determined to survive.
We never get a feel for what’s going on internally though; we only get surface impressions. Nothing about the intense pressure of someone living alone without hearing a human voice, without seeing a blade of grass, or even the simple pleasure of taking a shower. Very little about what it’s like to be where he is. I’m reminded of other stories about Mars that bear comparison – “I, Mars” by Ray Bradbury and his “Martian Chronicles” both of which give more insights into what people are experiencing as they wander the Martian hills.
The book is so much more powerful when we do get to see inside Watney – he makes contact with Earth, then goes back to his habitat and cries. When he’s being rescued, he asks for a minute when he sees another human being for the first time in years. More moments like that would have deepened the book.
Mars itself exists only to throw things at Watney. Weir is (perhaps intentionally) vague on what it would really feel like to be there, to see what Watney is seeing. Watney is trying to survive, but there’s nothing even as small as the way the Martian dust clings to his boots or gets in his hair.
Because of that, the setting of Mars becomes irrelevant. With a few tweaks, the story could have been set anywhere where the character is isolated and survives on his own wits. An asteroid or a desert island – if you don’t immerse me in where you are, it doesn't matter.
There are a lot of pages where this book felt like maths problems from a textbook: “I have 50 square metres of soil which I need to cover to a depth of 3.4cm. I need to irrigate it with 1.64 cubic centimetres per gram of water, how much will I need?” Fortunately, the answer is given instantly and it can be skimmed through without thinking about it.
As a last note, I saw the film before I read the book, and I think the two complement each other very well. A rare case where each is as good as the other.
It is a good thing I started 2016 with a bang because I am ending it with a whimper. Well, maybe not quite a whimper, more like less of a bang. Like one of those champagne poppers versus the full Fourth of July fireworks. I had all kinds of grand reading plans for 2016. I discovered reading challenge groups on Goodreads and it was like the universe magically expanded. Then I went out and got one of those adult full time job things. Good bye grand plans. One of the wonderful things about my adult job is that it is at a school which means I have been on break for the last week. This gives me time to review my year of reading.
Top 5 Reads
1.) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
-This is a middle grade novel. I devoured it in an hour. At the end of that hour I was an emotional wreck. This book should be required reading for any child (or even adult) who is grieving a loved one. The illustrations were gorgeous. If nothing else, pick this book up for the pictures. This book is being made into a movie for wide release in 2017 (currently it is limited release), featuring Liam Neeson as the Monster. As much as I love Liam Neeson, I think this movie will disappoint me as much as any book ever made into a movie.
2.) Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood
-Phryne Fisher just might be my new favorite fictional female. She is brilliant. The best part about these novels going forward, they are short. I tried an episode of the television series. I think the actress cast to play Phryne is brilliant but the story line veered too far from the books to keep my interest. I might have to come back to it once I have worked my way through all the books.
3.) Medicis' Daughter by Sophie Perinot
-How is it possible everybody and their mother has written a book about the Tudors but there is so little about their counterparts across the Channel? The French royals are just as scandal filled as any of the Tudor monarchs. Marguerite de Valios is a tragic figure and the bride at the original Red Wedding. To me the sign of good historical fiction is when I find myself desperately wishing for history to change just to save characters from their known fate. This book had me crying like a baby, begging for Margot to be saved from her impending fate.
4.) The Martian by Andy Weir
-I stepped well outside my bubble for this book. I am not a big reader of science fiction. I have minimal interest in space travel. While picking up this book is not likely to encourage me to read more science fiction, I'm not disappointed that I read this novel. Mark Watney had me in stitches. The other adult in my house was so curious to see what I was giggling about that he took the book from me as soon as I was done.
5.) Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
- I knew nothing about Margaret Cavendish, the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London. This book didn't really provide me with a great deal of information about the Duchess but it was enchanting none the less. The words just floated along on the pages. Their was such a lyrical air surrounding me while I was reading that it was hard not to be disappointed when things came to an end after only 176 pages.
Worst 5 Reads
1.) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
-Yet another over hyped bestseller that reminded me why I stay away from over hyped bestsellers. I couldn't even bother to finish the last part of the book. I looked up the ending on Wikipedia.
2.) The Visitors by Sally Beauman
-What should have been a fascinating thriller about the discovery of King Tut's tomb, was nothing more than a hot mess that should have been buried in a tomb.
3.) The Hammer of Thor (Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard 2) by Rick Riordan
-At this point it is pretty obvious Riordan is only writing because Disney has already paid him. It's the same story with different characters (well, mostly different). The shots he took at police officers in this books was particularly deplorable.
4.) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts 1 and 2) by J.K. Rowling
-I don't even want to talk about this. The disappointment is still too raw.
5.) Bohemian Gosepl by Dana Chamblee Carpenter
-Another highly recommended book that turned into an utter disappointment.
1.) The Hourglass Factor by Lucy Ribchester
-I have little to no interest in the women's suffrage movement in England (despite being a woman who is grateful to all those women did for me and my daughters) so this book was not on my radar. It was a featured book at my local library. The cover was so amazing that I had to pick it up. One of the few times where judging a book by its cover works.
2.) The Moon in the Palace- Weina Dai Randel
-A beautiful novel about a time and woman history often ignores.
3.) Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
-A rare, over-hyped bestseller that I found myself in love with. I immediately went out and bought the next four books.
I've been lucky to have read a ton of great books this year here at my Horror Corner. I'll be doing a few different posts about my favorites and this one tackles short story collections and anthologies. If you're interested in learning more, please click the titles to see my original review.
These are in no particular order but: Every. Single. One. Of them. ROCKED!
Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt is the one selection in my top 5 that was written by an author previously unknown to me. It absolutely knocked my socks off and I cannot say enough good things about it. I still think about the title story and the "spaces between" any time I hear any stories about long distance truckers.
You can get your copy here: Greener Pastures
The Wrath of Concrete and Steel by John Claude Smith contains a few stories that are unlike anything I've read before. I've read over 170 books this year alone, so for me to say that is really something. Unfortunately, I do not believe this book is currently available anywhere.
Wrathbone by Jason Parent was great fun! The title story was a curious mix of historical fiction and dark fiction which I didn't think was possible to pull off properly, but Jason did it and he made it look easy. I still think about "The Only Good Lawyer" and the witch doctor all the time. You can find your copy here: Wrathbone and Other Stories
The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories is an absolutely terrific anthology put together by one of my favorite publishers. What sets this one apart and above the rest is the fact that it's not the same old horror stories that you read in every other anthology. The authors included within are often not known for their horror stories at all, which was a nice treat. Plus, there's a kick-ass story from Michael McDowell in there. The price of the collection is worth it, just for Miss Mack, in my opinion.
You can get a copy here: The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories
The Seeds of Nightmares by Tony Tremblay was a breath of fresh air. Containing original and creative stories, often with a touch of poignancy, I found myself wishing I had read this collection sooner. I know that the story Stardust will stick with me forever. You can get your copy here: The Seeds of Nightmares
Bonus: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. What more can I say about this widely read classic? The stories were creative and imaginative even by today's standards. I think any fiction reader's library is incomplete without this volume.
So fill that void here: The Martian Chronicles
Thanks for reading and I'll hope you stick with Char's Horror Corner in 2017, for your dark fiction and horror reading recommendations.