I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What I’m Reading: The Martian

Okay, enough procrastinating. Time for some serious review catch up.

Back in January (!) I listened to The Martian by Andy Weir. Hopefully the fact that this book was a huge debut hit in 2014 is not news to you.  It won numerous awards for both the book and the audio. [You can find more specific audio info a bit further down on this page.] Yet, despite all of the accolades, I am still finding that some readers are hesitant to read "a book with an astronaut on the cover" [actual patron quote].

Well, I am here to help change that.  Let's start where I always like to begin in these reviews, with my book promotion sound bite.  In this case though, let's think about how we book talk this title to patrons before I give you the soundbite.

Look at the cover! We do not need to lead our soundbite to patrons with anything about space or Mars. People, those are both clearly on the cover.  When we are hand-selling books, we need to provide the info they cannot get from looking at the cover. We need to capture their attention with THE WHY they would enjoy the book.

Here is what I have created as my 30 seconds or less review:

Becky's Soundbite Synopsis: "The Martian is the most though-provoking MacGyver story ever. You will fall hard for Mark as you follow him, and those back on earth trying to help him. You will laugh, you will tear up, you will perch on the edge of your set, you will cheer for joy, and ultimately, your faith in all humanity will be restored in this realistic space adventure that is just as much about how we all live together on Earth as it is about how to survive on Mars." [21 seconds]

As you can see, I have led with the fact that it is smart and fun ("thought provoking," "MacGyver").  This is the most important appeal of the book that needs to be conveyed. Again, the cover shows the space part, but does not get to the fun, humor, adventure, and serious issues that are explored in this novel. That's why such a wide range of readers will like it.

But let's also note what I DO NOT do here. I do not spend time on a long description of the set up of how Mark got to be "The Martian." Most reviews begin with that and I think it is a mistake.  It is called THE MARTIAN. We get it. There is a guy on Mars. I see him real big there on the cover. Your job is to tell people why they want to read a book about that. You will capture their attention and earn their respect as their best book discovery tool if you rise above the obvious.

Okay, enough about the DON'Ts.

Then my soundbite moves on to Mark. Ahh, Mark. We love him. If you want a hero you can believe in and root for, Mark is for you. So as not to repeat myself, scroll down a bit to my notes on the narration for more info about Mark as a character. He will make both men and women swoon.

Next part of the soundbite... I, very quickly, mention a key twist in the story without spoiling too much-- the fact that after we read for a bit and just as we have become fully captivated by Mark, the POV changes and we are with the people on Earth working for NASA who figure out that Mark is still alive and surviving on Mars. This was an upsetting switch at first [I missed Mark], but I quickly got involved in the characters, issues, and emerging stories from "the home front." The effect of the shifting POV made the book even better.

Now all this being said, this book has a lot of math and science; this fact need to be mentioned and not downplayed.  But Mark is so endearing that even readers who are less scientifically inclined (like myself) will happily sit by and watch him "geek out," as we wait for the story to continue. [I have corroborated my opinion with close to a dozen other readers]. My soundbite only hints at that ["how to survive on Mars"], so if a patron is intrigued by your soundbite and is considering reading this novel, I would mention this point too.

Feel free to use my soundbite as you promote this book to readers, just please cite RA for All as the source.

One final note, the ending was PERFECT. "The Martian" issue was resolved, but it was not all neatly tied up in a bow. It was triumphant [for now] but realistic about not knowing what is to come, for Mark, for the space program, and for the state of international cooperation in general. [See I wasn't kidding when I said this book was thought-provoking].

Note on the Narration: It was amazing. Seriously. Mark's personality is captured perfectly; in fact, the entire story, but in particular the character of Mark was enhanced even more by R C Bray's narration.  He captured the sarcasm, hope, despair, elation, black humor, and intelligence of Mark in the way he delivered Weir's text to the listener.  Mark is an extremely complex character, who was written to near perfection. The reader must be invested in the entirety of Mark for this book to work; a poor narration could have undone all that Weir worked to do in print.  Thankfully, Bray nailed it. But I am not the only one who thinks so. While the book made many bests lists last year, the audio won just about every award it could have. This is one of those rare great books that is even better on audio.

I also want to note that since much of the novel is composed of Mark's audio diary, listening to "the actual recordings" rather than reading the "transcripts" adds another level of enjoyment to the audiobook experience.

Possible Limiters:
 Mark uses the F word a lot, but he is stuck on Mars, so while it is used a lot, it seems appropriate for the circumstances.  That being said, while I think this book would be perfect for a teen reader, I would disclose this info to any nervous parents first.

Three Words That Describe This Book: compelling, thought provoking, witty

Readalikes: After finishing The Martian some may want to run out and read more about Mars and how we could survive on this hostile planet.  Those readers should try the well reviewed Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap by Pat Duggins or, to keep with Mark's sense of humor, but in nonfiction this time, Mars: A Survival Guide by Guy Murphy.

Those who just want a few articles or discussions and not an entire book on the topic should click here for the Reddit Space thread on the accuracy of the novel or here for an interview with Weir or here for a book review from the professional Space News journal.

Now in terms of other novel options, those who want to give more accessible, hard science fiction a try should definitely check out the work of Iain Banks. He wrote thought-provoking, compelling and witty science fiction up until his death at 2013.  Some, not all, was set in space.  The Culture Universe series which begins with Consider Phlebas is a good place for fans of The Martian to begin.

For readers who loved the characters and the adventure, but could have done with a little less hard core science, your best bet is anything by Connie Willis.  I like to start people with The Passage because although it is not her best book, it is short and captures the essence of why people love her.  The Doomsday Book, Blackout and All Clear are AWESOME books, but quite daunting in page count to give to someone who has never tried her before.  Start with this "shortie but goodie," and readers will learn for themselves if they want to read her longer works.

For a non-science fiction author who writes compelling, witty, and fast paced stories about topics which you wouldn't think have a wide appeal, yet his writing manages to make it so, try Dave Eggers.

But the 2 authors today who most perfectly capture the overall appeal of The Martian, how Weir uses Science Fiction in a way that showcases what is best about the genre for a wide audience, including those who think they are not Sci Fi readers, try Ernest Cline and Paolo Bacigalupi.  Both are appropriate for audiences from YA and up and both have highly anticipated 2015 releases too.


Katie M. said...

This has been my go-to book to suggest to patrons this last year...even had someone randomly ask me about the book while I was in the stacks today! I loved how the author incorporated hard science fiction with killer suspense and dry humor, and I completely agree - the ending was PERFECT. I have rarely felt so satisfied after finishing a book.

3goodrats said...

I've been recommending this one a lot too! In fact, I'll be booktalking it at a program on Monday night (along with Doomsday Book, coincidentally). My focus will be on his ingenuity, resourcefulness, and humor.