Bring him home

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This books is great. For science fiction lovers who like attention to detail, this is manna from Mars. Mark Whatney is part of a Mars expedition and after a storm disaster he finds himself left for dead after the crew had to abandon the planet. Communications with Earth are down, he has a limited supply of food and equipment that was designed to keep him alive for weeks, not years. In his words, he’s “pretty much fucked”.
Raw honesty is the cornerstone of this book. Watney is a likeable protagonist, and mainly because he is unflinchingly honest. He keeps a video diary (his part of the narrative) and he pulls no punches. There are detailed descriptions of recycling urine, turning human waste into fertiliser and so on, so those with a delicate composition may not want to venture here. But that would be a shame –because this is a story about human spirit. Of wanting to not only survive, but to be reunited with one’s tribe, to belong to something bigger than oneself.
Watney is a wonderful everyman – the reader roots for him all the way. The players back on Earth and the crew of Hermes, the escape ship, are also well realised. Mitch Henderson, the NASA mission director who is desperate to tell the Hermes crew their team-member is actually alive, is terrific. His superior, NASA director Teddy Sanders is really believable as well – trying to weigh up all the factors and keep everyone happy. Venkat Kapoor, Director of Mars operations is tasked with working out how to keep Watney alive and bring him home and his journey on Earth mirrors Watney’s in many ways in terms of testing, building and creating things that have never been done before. The Hermes crew has the right amount of hutzpah and determination, particularly Lewis, the mission commander. Every character is well crafted.
One of the best parts of this book is the amount of time given to Watney, and how he is thinking. He is the loudest voice here and he should be. The others are really bit players, trying to keep up. The other thing I really liked about The Martian is the lack of melodrama. There is DRAMA, but nothing is over the top or lacking credibility, which means it is seated in reality, but still really tense.
No spoilers, but there are certainly highs and lows here and a wonderful, grounded (pardon the pun) central character.
Highly recommended for anyone over the age of 14 – some swearing, but nothing gratuitous.

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All right for the rest of you…

The Rest of Us Just Live HereThe Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first finished reading this book, I was angry. I felt ripped off – that Patrick Ness had not made the most of the amazing characters he had created, and that he was resting on his laurels too much. But. The more I think about this novel, the more I see it is probably a work of genius. The mere fact that 4 weeks after finishing it, I am STILL thinking about it, is testament to just how good Ness is. This novel got under my skin – it made me sit up and take notice, and it made me question what I thought I knew about fiction. And that’s a good thing.
Mikey suffers from OCD. He sometimes gets himself into a repetitive behaviour loop that is hard to break out of. But his sister, Mel, and his best friend, Jared are there to help pull him out of the worst of it. They have a close group of friends who hang out together a lot, but Mikey carries a torch for Henna who doesn’t take much notice of him. They live in a town where weird things happen, but never specifically to them. There are grisly deaths a-plenty in their unnamed town, but the victims are the “indie” kids with names like Satchel, Dylan, or Finn.
Each chapter heading outlines a different story to the one in the body of the novel. We follow the story of the indie kids, who are dropping like flies and being subjected to terrible violence, as headlines in a kind of newspaper that only we can see. Indie kids have battled vampires, soul sucking demons and so on, and nobody, it appears, from Mikey’s part of town helped them. The indie kids are the disenfranchised part of this society, but not just in this town – everywhere. Jokes are made about their deaths. People treat their deaths as something to be expected, something unavoidable that is part of life in the town. Now there is something brewing – pillars of light appearing and disappearing, indie kids recruiting and enslaving other indie kids. It’s a freak show.
Meanwhile Mikey and his mates are living their lives with “normal” teen problems. They clash with parents, worry about school and agonise over relationships. Mel is a recovering anorexic, Jared is strong and caring, Henna is torn between her affections for two guys – all the usual stuff. But they are not normal. Jared is the son of a God, Mikey has close encounters with indie kids with glowing eyes and Henna nearly dies in a car crash.
I realise now, as I write this review, that there is almost too much going on in this novel. I can’t reveal too much more without giving spoilers, but I think this is why I struggled to like this book after first finishing it. There is a lot here, and I think this book requires multiple readings to get a grasp on what is going on inside it. Far from being the waste of time I originally thought it was, it is a novel of layers – many layers – that have to be peeled back with more than one pass at the text.
Read it. Challenge yourself to read it at least twice. Tell me I’m crazy, and then read it again. Seriously. I think I am finally starting to get this book and what it is trying to tell me.
First impressions are great, but to find the heart of something you need to dig, and dig, and dig some more. There is treasure here. Be patient – it might take you a while to see it.
Suitable for ages 14 and up.

Panic – don’t.

PanicPanic by Sharon M. Draper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I expected big things from this novel as Sharon Draper is a popular writer in our library. Out of My Mind has been a big middle school favourite this year and I was interested to see how Draper would tackle the meaty subject matter of this book.
I was, in the end, disappointed by both the writing and how the abduction, rape and rescue of central character, Diamond, was handled. This book started out okay – with a group of friends at a dance school preparing for a showcase performance. Two of the girls, Mercedes and Diamond go to the mall to buy new tights and only one of them makes it home. Diamond is enticed away by a smooth talking stranger (Thane English) and finds herself in a terrifying and perilous situation. The reader sees her drugged, tied up and abused by numerous men in the name of video “entertainment”. It is a hard read. Her friends don’t seem too worried by her disappearance at first – perhaps this is an American phenomenon – if this happened here it would be all over social media in a matter of hours.
As well as the abduction of Diamond, the other issue in this book is partner abuse. Layla, a talented dancer, is verbally and physically abused by her boyfriend Donny. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be enough concern from her friends about this. They all talk about what is happening, but no-one seems brave enough to talk to HER about it. Donny is controlling and leaves bruises on her regularly and I found it difficult to believe that even the dance teacher (who must have seen Layla in leotards and dance gear regularly) failed to notice anything.
I got very impatient with this book. Mercedes, Layla,and Diamond speak in what I assume is supposed to be some sort of “street” talk, which sounds forced and ridiculous. Justin, the only male teen (other than the abusive Donny) felt like the only “real” character to me. He is caring, concerned, sensitive, but also struggles to make sense of what is going on both with Diamond’s disappearance and Layla’s abusive relationship. It is interesting to me as I have written about this book as an example of “YA realism” for a Uni essay because it hits a lot of markers present in other realist novels, but overall the effect is more of hyper-realism.
I also found an undercurrent of victim blaming in this novel. It is covert, but it is there, lurking in the background, particularly in relation to Diamond and her conduct and what it has led to.
I was actually asked to remove this book from the library by another library staffer because she had a complaint from a student about the “disturbing” content. I refused, because even an average book about these topics is better than none at all, and there are lessons to be learned from reading this novel. Draper, while not being graphic, does not pull punches in describing Diamond’s ordeal and that is a good thing. There is nothing pretty about rape, nothing attractive about being robbed of all control over what happens to you. In this, the novel excels. The resolution of the Layla/Donny situation is a satisfying one, but the rest of the novel’s conclusion left me shaking my head.
I would not recommend this book if you can find a better, preferably Australian, alternative. Try Stolen: A Letter to My Captor or Hostage as other options.

I would not give this book to anyone under 14 to read, unless you were confident they could handle the subject matter.