The Martian, by Andy Weir

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This novel opens with a punch as astronaut Mark Watney faces his own imminent death. Thinking him lost in a dust storm, his crewmates have taken off to return to Earth, leaving Watney stranded on Mars. In the best Robinson Crusoe tradition, he has to figure out how to survive in the harsh Martian environment until the next mission arrives—which won’t be for another four years.

One thing that lifts this story above the usual marooned-on-a-desert-island tale is Watney’s voice which we hear almost entirely through the entries he makes in his log. He’s smart and funny and never gives up. Faced with a problem, he thinks about it and comes up with a possible solution, and if that doesn’t work he comes up with another. His MacGyver-esque repurposing of the things around him is fascinating. Watney is clear about his failures and limitations; sharing a name with a famous brand of beer, he makes no bones about his status.

Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be ‘in command’ if I were the only remaining person. What do you know? I’m in command.

As well as being a survival story, this is also a rescue thriller. Once NASA realises Watney is alive, teams of people swing into action to find a way, amongst the strictly limited options, to bring him home. As the clock ticks away, the stakes couldn’t be higher for this high-profile rescue. NASA and the U.S.’s international reputations are at risk, not to mention Watney’s life. Of almost equal concern to Watney himself is the potential loss of the precious research he’s been able to conduct while marooned on Mars.

I found the switch to NASA and a third-person point of view a bit of a wrench since it didn’t occur till well into the story. By then I was deeply focused on Watney. I never completely regained that depth of focus, but introducing people and tensions back home provided some interesting contrasts and enabled us to follow the rescue efforts in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do if the point of view had stayed solely with Watney.

One of the best things about this novel is the science. Watney’s situation is so dire and his voice so entertaining that his explanations of the science behind his creative solutions are fun to read. The part that I’m familiar with was certainly accurate and the rest plausible. I love the idea of him being saved by science. And—mystery devotee that I am—I loved that so much of the story was about solving problems. It added to the realism and the tension that not all his solutions worked. The way he picked himself up after every failure was admirable.

My one complaint was the lack of insight into Watney as a person. We learn nothing of his family or his life back on Earth, whether he has a girlfriend, likes football, or whatever. There is a vague reference at the very end to a couple on Earth worrying and awaiting news, whom I assume to be his parents, but we aren’t told. We get a little insight indirectly through his need for human contact, which recurs throughout the story. He doesn’t paint a face on a volleyball, but he does think of his crewmates as he apologetically uses their belongings.

Generally in a novel, we want interior story arc as well as an exterior story arc. However, that is actually less common for the scifi/suspense/thriller genres. Also, since what we are hearing are his work logs, he’s less likely to share his inner feelings (except by swearing now and then). Still, for me it made the book feel a bit dry sometimes, and I’d have gladly traded a few bits of science for some personal information.

One theme that comes through in this story is how much a single life matters. What is the worth of one person? Call me cynical, but I didn’t quite believe that the U.S. government would come up with billions of dollars and cripple future space programs to bring home one astronaut. I know how hard it is for NASA and other such agencies to get funding.

Still, it is a good case study for ethics classes. It is one of those wicked problems for which there is no easy answer. Like most people, my heart is moved when a child falls down a well or a hiker is lost in the wilderness. Yet I also consider the human and financial costs of rescue missions. I respect the military’s “Leave no soldier behind” ethos, but would rescuing Watney really be the best use of resources? As a former welfare mother who watched people I knew starve and suffer and die for no other reason than poverty—poor nutrition, substandard housing, lack of medical care—I can’t help thinking how many lives could be saved by those dollars. It is much easier for our hearts to be moved by the plight of one person than that of thousands of people.

The breakneck pace of this story does not allow more than a passing glance at these issues, but it is enough to conjure a larger meaning, a more significant framework that gets us thinking. It is enough to make this story more than just an action tale, more than just a thrill ride. Even if you’ve seen the film, it’s worth reading the book.

What book do you recommend reading in addition to seeing the film on which it’s based?

Note #1: Thank you to my Book Dissection Group for much of the insight included in this blog post. Opinions are my own, of course.

Note #2: Originally I included more examples of the humor, but I’ve deleted them so as not to ruin the punchlines for you. Read the book!

Deep South, by Nevada Barr

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Looking to change up her life, Ranger Anna Pigeon accepts a promotion that takes her away from her beloved Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. Driving deep into the tangled darkness, Anna finds her car sliding off the road. Then she learns that the directions she’d been following, provided by one of the rangers who will be working for her, had sent her down a little-used road that led nowhere. Is it a prank? Or something more ominous?

Anna struggles to adjust to her new role as chief in a culture where women are not expected to hold positions of authority. At the same time, the culture calls for men—even teenaged boys—to be respectful towards women. Anna stumbles across a group of Civil War re-enactors, a good introduction to Faulkner’s home state, the man who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Then she stumbles upon a particularly gruesome murder and it is up to her to solve it.

I’ve long been a fan of Barr’s series, that takes Pigeon to national parks around the country. I’d read this book a dozen years ago, but have been rereading—or rather listening to—the whole series. I’ve been on the road a lot the last few months, and these books make the miles fly by. It also seemed appropriate to reread these books starting last year, which was the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park Service.

I remember hearing Barr speak, I think in 1998. She said that when she decided to write a mystery, she took a handful of her favorite mysteries and spent a long time studying and deconstructing them. Her process obviously worked well, because her first Anna Pigeon mystery, Track of the Cat, was a bestseller as have been the rest in the series.

As I’ve mentioned before, writers often debate about process. Is it better to plot out your story before starting to write or just start writing (known as “pantsing”, as in writing by the seat of your pants)? The answer is yes. Whatever works for you. And writers sometimes find that their process changes with each new writing project.

Another debate centers around training. Is it better to start by getting an MFA in creative writing or study the many craft books available? Or is it better to follow Barr’s path of reading intensively as a writer, studying books that have worked? Again, there are many paths to your goal. I don’t have an MFA, but I’ve taken a few workshops. I’ve learned a great deal from writing craft books as well as from reading as a writer (the original concept for this blog).

Perhaps most valuable of all has been engaging in critique groups. This involves not just reading a variety of work and having to think critically about it, but also hearing how other people think and react to the same work.

A friend recently said that she’d stopped reading Barr’s mysteries because they got too violent. I see what she means. As I’m proceeding through the series, it is not the violence of the murder, which is expected, but the violence Anna Pigeon encounters that strikes me.

Still, I love the descriptions of the parks, the complex characters both new and repeated, and Anna herself with all her doubts and strengths. She continues to hold my interest. And Barr does suspense well, so well that I find myself at the end of a roadtrip that seems to have taken no time at all.

Which national park–in the U.S. or another country–is your favorite?

A Foreign Country, by Charles Cumming

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An au pair in Tunisia, involved in an affair with her employer, disappears leaving him heartbroken. Many years later, an elderly French couple on the vacation of a lifetime in Cairo are horribly murdered. Shortly after that, a man given the code name Holst is kidnapped off a Paris street.

While the reader is wondering how these In a seemingly unrelated incidents fit together, we are introduced to Thomas Kell.

A disgraced MI6 undercover agent, he has been out of work for eight months, mostly drinking and feeling sorry for himself when he gets a call from a former colleague. Jimmy Marquand brings Kell in from the cold in secret to find the newly appointed head of MI6 who has gone missing. Kell’s initial reluctance disappears when he learns that the person missing is Amelia Levene, someone he was close to.

This book is a great example of creating and maintaining suspense. Cumming demonstrates how to ask questions, answer some while asking more, and repeat again and again. This technique gives the reader moments of satisfaction along with a large helping of uncertainty. We are never completely satisfied until the end, when it all comes together in a tense burst of action.

Another brilliant aspect of this absorbing tale is the cast of characters Cumming assembles to assist—or challenge—Kell’s quest. In France, he is first put in touch with Bill and Barbara Knight, retired agents. The portrait of their marriage adds a touch of humor and wry recognition as first one and then the other show strengths and weaknesses through their actions and interactions with each other.

The team Kell puts together are also shown as full individuals, with their own quirks and background. Amelia herself is deftly portrayed as a woman who holds her secrets close. Her careful self-control makes her moments of revelation stand out. Even the villains of the piece and their henchmen are given full-length portraits. Having all these supporting characters fully characterised makes the story feel authentic. Even more importantly, ensuring we understand why they matter to our protagonist makes us interested in them.

One of the things that fascinated me was the characters’ relationship with their agencies. You would think that being part of a government bureaucratic organisation would be a binary matter: you either are or are not an employee. Yet many of these characters operate in a liminal area, balancing personal and professional motivations.

All in all, a good read. No surprise, since I’ve enjoyed other stories by this author. The immensely satisfactory ending gave me a rest from the ongoing suspense of today’s political situation. I look forward to checking out the later books in the Thomas Kell series.

What suspense novels have you enjoyed?

The Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene

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Author of over 25 novels, Greene brought his complex view of human nature to whatever genre he chose as his starting place. While he famously separated his oeuvre into serious novels and “entertainments”, he nevertheless imbued even the lightest of stories with a dark undercurrent of moral ambiguity. While he is often called a Catholic writer since several of his novels feature protagonists and themes that are overtly Catholic, Greene took his exploration of moral issues well beyond Catholic doctrine.

This early novel, published in 1945, is a thriller which employs the now-common trope of an ordinary man stumbling into a morass of international intrigue. He has to figure out what is going on while trying to rescue himself (and usually another; oh, and possibly the world).

In wartime London, Arthur Rowe impulsively attends a church fête, drawn by memories of his innocent childhood. It’s a rather sad affair, with few booths, but some of his anxieties are eased as he tries the games. He makes a wild guess at the weight of cake, said to have been made with real eggs, before ducking into the fortune teller’s booth. He ends up walking away with the cake.

It is not an ordinary cake, though, and Arthur is not exactly an ordinary man. He’s been living a half-hearted life in a rooming house since his release from prison where he’d been sent for the mercy killing of his beloved but ill wife.

He is pursued by the people involved with the cake, though he only gradually begins to understand his danger. The kaleidoscope shifts constantly as he tries to determine who to trust and what their motivations are. Even identities shift constantly. The stakes are raised as he is dragged from his self-imposed isolation and begins to care about others.

Greene reflects Rowe’s dilemma in two opposing forces. The first is the Blitz. The nightly bombing raids not only ratchet up everyone’s anxiety level but also continually rearrange the fabric of their lives. Buildings disappear; streets are rerouted. If you turn a corner, the street may or may not be passable. If you call someone, the phone may or may not ring. If you go to their home, the house may or may not be there. People abandon their bedrooms to sleep in shelters.

The second is a children’s book, The Little Duke, by Charlotte M. Yonge, which Rowe also carries home from the fête. In the story young Richard of Normandy becomes the duke when his father is killed. He must learn whom to trust: those who flatter and cajole him or his father’s trusted lieutenants who tell him hard truths. He is betrayed and kidnapped, yet his trials teach him to do what is right; he learns how to be both brave and gentle. Although some of his people are puzzled when he forgives his enemies, they love the little duke for it and support him without fail.

While not didactic, the story is obviously meant to be instructive, with its themes of honor and glory: that maintaining your honor by doing good will bring you glory in war and in the hearts of your countrymen.

Such childish illusions were shattered in the trenches of the Great War, and shattered again for a new generation in the war against fascism that is the setting for Greene’s story. A more nuanced understanding of good and evil is required.

Like Rowe, we are asked to leave behind the comfortable certainties of childhood to navigate this adult world where everyone has secrets and reality is always shifting. As Yonge put it, we must find “the only safe way across the morass, and a very slippery, treacherous, quaking road it was.” The tension that is created between the broken and uncertain present and the sweet simplicity of the past amplifies Rowe’s predicament. And what could be more relevant to the situation we find ourselves in today?

Also relevant is the title, which refers to one way Germans are said to control the fifth columnists working against England in the war. They come up with something on them, forgive it, and then control them with the threat of blackmail. As one character explains, “‘They formed, you know, a kind of Ministry of Fear—with the most efficient under-secretaries. It isn’t only that they get a hold on certain people. It’s the general atmosphere they spread, so that you can’t depend on a soul.’”

These days it is hard not to look around and wonder who is being paid or blackmailed, if the people in power are taking orders from our enemies and selling out their country. Amid threats and firings and lies, we must stand up to the Ministry of Fear that threatens our fragile covenant.

Have you read anything by Graham Greene? He was one of the most popular novelists of the 20th century. Do you find his work relevant to today’s world?

Fear of the Dark, by Walter Mosely

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Mosely’s fans know that his many novels, including the Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones mysteries, are rousing adventures that navigate the liminal areas that lie in the shadow of good and evil, guilt and innocence. While we race along with the narrator, trying to avoid danger and death while figuring out just what is going on and what to do about it, we are testing our own moral code.

This addition to the Fearless Jones collection is narrated by Fearless’s friend Paris Minton, bookstore owner and ferocious reader. Most of Paris’s problems follow visits from his cousin Ulysses “Useless” Grant, a petty crook who spreads trouble in his wake. Although Paris turns Useless away at the door, refusing to help him, trouble comes in the door anyway. Luckily Paris can turn to his friend Fearless—a man Paris says is “outside the law” and “stronger of thew and character than any other man I had ever met.”

For me, the great joy and value of fiction—all fiction, highbrow or lowbrow, genre or literary, ebook or audio, text or graphic novel—is the chance to live someone else’s life. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains the biology behind our deep-rooted desire for virtual adventures: stories are how we learn about the world and test our abilities. Most of all, to my mind, they increase our empathy by enabling us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and by forcing us to fill in the gaps with our own emotions and experiences.

Walter Mosely’s novels let me encounter the world as a black man, an especially difficult and valuable stretch for me. This particular book is set in Los Angeles of the 1950s: not the easiest time to be a black man in this country. Without disrupting the flow of the story or preaching, Mosely gently reminds us of just how different life was and is for a black man than for someone, say, like me.

The most explicit moment comes when Paris comes upon a white man lying dead on the bookstore floor. He calls Fearless for help, and he brings a friend to help dispose of the body. Paris says:

There I was, in a truck with desperate men. I was a desperate man. It was hard to believe that a milquetoast coward like myself could be involved in such a clandestine and dangerous operation. But the reasons were as clear as the quarter moon shining through the windshield.

All three of us were living according to black people’s law. The minute I came upon that white boy’s body I knew that I would be seen as guilty in the eyes of American justice. Not even that—I was guilty. There was no jury that would exonerate me. There was no court of appeals that would hear my cries of innocence.

I wasn’t a brave man like Fearless or a born criminal like Van Cleave, but we all belonged in that truck together. We had been put there by a long and unremitting history. My guilt was my skin, and where that brought me had nothing to do with choice or justice or the whole library of books I had read.

This is not empty polemic. It is a necessary explanation of why Paris doesn’t just call the police when he finds a dead body on his property. It is why this quiet man gets drawn into the dangerous currents of the criminal underworld.

Being such a big reader explains Paris’s voice being a little more florid than today’s readers might be accustomed to. One area where I particularly noticed his voice was in the descriptions of every character, even the most minor walk-on extra. As David Corbett points out in a recent blog post, “the ability to describe the human face in fiction seems to be, if not a dying art, at least in a state of decline, even indifference.”

In this story Mosely mixes it up. He makes use of faces, posture, clothing and behavior to bring his characters memorably to life. Here are some examples:

Jessa was wearing an orange sundress that had little white buttons all the way down the front. The collar had a little dirt on it. Her red purse was scuffed.

Mona was a beautiful young woman. She was Negro and she was brown, but the brown mixed with gray everywhere in her appearance. Her skin was touched by it; her eyes sometimes shone with lunar possibilities. Even her hair seemed to be lightened by the midtone color.

Rinaldo had copper skin and slicked-back hair that did not seem straightened. He was missing one tooth and stood and walked in a hunched-over posture that he blamed on forty years leaning over pool tables.

Cleetus Rome, an elderly white man, . . . was old and toothless. He smelled something like dust or maybe even loam and he always bought magazines from me that had swimsuit models on the covers.

I was especially interested in the different ways Mosely describes skin color. He never falls back on the overused “coffee” or “mocha” but instead imagines the particular tone of a character’s skin.

As a writer and as a person I am learning a lot from this book. Even after providing an exciting read, it continues to reward further study.

Have you read a mystery or thriller that transported you to another world?

Salem’s Cipher, by Jess Lourey

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While the town of Salem, Massachusetts does make an appearance in this mystery/suspense novel, the title refers to Salem Wiley, a young woman whose deliberately uneventful existence in Minneapolis is torn apart by a phone call. She is a genius at cryptography and produced ground-breaking research for her PhD thesis, but her life is severely limited by a form of agoraphobia. The call from her best friend, Bel Odegaard, changes everything.

Police have informed Bel that her mother’s apartment has been broken into, a neighbor and her dog left in a pool of blood, and Grace–Bel’s mother–gone missing. When the two young women arrive, they discover that Salem’s mother was at the apartment as well, something we know from the prologue, and both Grace and Vida are missing, one of them probably dead.

Despite FBI Agent Stone’s warning that they too may be targets, Salem and Bel set out to follow the clue left for them by Vida, hoping to rescue their mothers. Or revenge them. As this tense, suspenseful novel tears along, the two women uncover a conspiracy going back hundreds of years. Each clue involves some kind of code, which Salem must decipher–and fast if they are to help their mothers. Factor in unforgettable characters they encounter, Emily Dickenson’s home and poetry, and an election about to produce the first female president of the U.S. and you have a story that works on several levels.

Lourey also works in references to scientific contributions by women, without slowing the breakneck speed of the story. She does an amazing job of capturing and conveying the emotions of the characters, especially the fraught mother-daughter relationships.

There are a few continuity problems that another editorial pass might have caught. There are also a couple of what Ray Rhamey calls “information questions” where information well known to the point-of-view character is teased yet deliberately withheld from the reader, presumably to create suspense. Mystery readers usually want to solve the puzzle along with the protagonist, so such tricks feel as though the author isn’t playing fair.

And it’s unnecessary, because Lourey is brilliant at ratcheting up the suspense. Every page has multiple instances of what Donald Maass calls “micro-tension” . A new and stunning bit of information or insight, a panicked physical reaction (“frantic movements”), even the use of especially active adjectives and verbs (“The . . . plane pitched and dropped, yanking Salem out of her light sleep.”) all keep the characters’ emotions in conflict and the reader turning the pages.

If you like to unravel a conspiracy or a good puzzle, if you long for a novel with engaging characters and a little history and literature thrown in, then hop on this rocket of a story.

Have you read a good mystery/suspense novel lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.