Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Reviews: The Martian by Andy Weir and Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

by Sara N.

Two sci fi releases dropped on the same day last month and have been building positive buzz ever since. One tells the story of a man stranded on Mars. The other follows two Iowa teenagers as they race to stop a giant bug infestation. One is a must-read novel of resilience and the human will to survive. The other is a monster romp that gets a bit mired in teenage sexual confusion. Keep reading for the lowdown on both.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Astronaut Mark Watney gets left for dead on Mars when his team evacuates during an emergency. (It was an accident. Really.) And now Mark has to figure out how to survive by himself on a planet that seems pretty intent on killing him. Not maliciously, of course. It's just that humans aren't meant to thrive on a frozen, atmosphere-less planet.

The story is told primarily through Mark's log entries. He knows he's going to be on Mars for years before a rescue mission could come for him — if anyone on Earth even realizes he's still alive. So he has to figure out how to make a finite amount of food and water stretch infinitely and how to keep equipment designed for a one-month mission to function far beyond its intended lifespan.

I have never rooted so hard for a character to prevail as I did for Mark Watney. Alone, facing horrific odds and almost comically catastrophic setbacks, Mark not only finds ways to keep himself alive, but his sense of humor and his optimism rarely slip. His log entries reveal him to be wickedly brilliant (of course; I mean, he's an astronaut), but also a bit of a nerd. He gets discouraged, he gets frightened, he gets hurt. And he keeps going. His matter-of-fact entries hint at the crushing loneliness and immense physical demands that he endures, but he never whines or wallows in self-pity. The book layers tense scene upon tense as you wonder how Mark can possibly survive this crises, and then this next crisis. Plus, the chemical and mathematical calculations he uses for his survival will make you feel like a mental midget.

I'll be honest. I developed quite a crush on Mark Watney. I want this funny, brave, cheerful, resourceful, brilliant nerd to appear in all fictional stories. I want him to travel to England to woo Elizabeth Bennet. I want him to become the seventh member of the cast of Friends. I want to see him help Andy Defresne break out of Shawshank Prison. I want him solving crimes in True Detective season 2.

In short, I want more Mark Watney. Lacking that, I want more from author Andy Weir. This is the best book I've read this year so far.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

Austin Szerba is in love with his girlfriend Shann. He's also pretty sure he's in love with his best friend Robby. Austin's hormones can't settle on one of them, and it causes him no small amount of trouble, both internally and socially. Austin's also a self-professed historian who catalogues the world around him and the stories of his father's father's father, on down the line.

But wait, you say. I thought this book was about 6-foot-tall praying mantises that eat humans? Why aren't you talking about them?

I'll tell you why: Because the book's priorities seem to be 1. Austin's sex drive, 2. Austin's historical accounts, and 3. the chance that giant horny man-eating bugs will overrun the Earth.

This book is sensitive in the way it presents teenage sexual confusion. Is Austin straight? Gay? Bisexual? He's not sure, and his confusion leads to problems for himself, for Robby and for Shann. It's unusual and refreshing to read this kind of coming-of-age story in a big-hit, YA, sci fi, world-in-crisis book. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story — as so many love triangles before it — consumes too much of the plot momentum that could have been spent on, you know, the enormous mantis monsters that eat people from the head down.

The writing meanders, and Smith has Austin repeating certain phrases throughout the book like a mantra. It gets old quickly. Still, the action scenes are scary, and the book covers a too-often overlooked aspect of teen sexual and romantic development, so there's something to be celebrated here. (Plus, it name checks my town and could be set in the community where I went to college. I'm a sucker for things like that.)

Grasshopper Jungle is weird sci fi, and a welcome entry into the genre GLBT cannon. If either or both of those things are up your alley, you'll devour this book like a ... well, you know.

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