Book chat: ‘The Martian’ by Andy Weir

The MartianI must be broken.

While everyone and their book-loving great aunt has been raving about Andy Weir’s The Martian (seriously: look at all these five-star reviews), I was over here listening to the story on audio and trying not to fall asleep on the road.

The story centers on astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist stranded on Mars after his colleagues believe he has been killed during a powerful dust storm. They reluctantly depart to save themselves, but no one feels good about it. No man — or woman -– left behind.

After he comes-to in the barren red landscape light years from home, Mark must take stock of his limited resources and find a way to communicate with Earth. He uses his wits, experience and sense of humor to stay alive and fed as NASA scrambles to save him — with the eyes of the world watching.

The premise was definitely intriguing, especially given how obsessed I was with last year’s “Interstellar” and my general love of outer space. Fun fact? Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” defined my early marriage. Spencer and I never missed an episode, often settling down on busy weeknights to re-watch ones we’d already seen. I was all about it.

I married a scientist, so my interest in science-y stuff does come in handy . . . but, you know, I was an English major. Despite my love of the subject, I don’t know much about space — or survival.

Maybe that’s partially what hurt me here?

Along with high expectations, of course. The Martian is everywhere right now, with a high-profile film starring Matt Damon due to release this fall. Everyone I know who has hunkered down with this fast-paced tale has loved it, so I assumed I would love it, too.

But I didn’t. It was . . . missing something. Though initially hard to pin down, I’ll describe it as a lack of emotional investment. As a narrator, Mark is funny, compelling, smart and sarcastic — definitely a great character. I liked him. I felt for him. But did I ever truly worry for his fate? Not so much.

Buddy Trish recently commented that she believes it will make a better movie than book, and I agree. The trailer definitely got me hyped up. All the extremely science-y science may better translate on film. As it stood? I didn’t have the attention span necessary to follow the intricate plan for Mark’s survival, totally zoning out as he described the math needed to ensure he could grow enough potatoes to survive until possible salvation.

And that was just the beginning.

Though I wasn’t emotionally invested in the outcome, I definitely appreciate Weir’s writing. He builds suspense — will he make it, or won’t he? — and deftly brings hostile, lonely Mars to life. Between its storms and desolate landscape, it’s not exactly a place conducive to life. Yet Mark’s ingenuity allows him to tame the red planet, finding a way to subsist despite all reasoning saying he shouldn’t be able to.

Also, it’s fun to see under “settings” in the middle of my 2015 reading log spreadsheet:

New York City, New York, USA
Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA
MARS

The audio narration by R. C. Bray was fantastic. If you’re toying between reading the story or listening to it, I heartily recommend the latter. Bray perfectly nailed the tone of the story and seamlessly shifted between characters, with his portrayal of Mark being the definite highlight.

Though The Martian won’t go down as an all-time favorite, I’m happy I read it — and was impressed to learn that Weir’s science is sound. Plus, it was originally self-published . . . and as a writer, that earns an extremely impressed thumbs-up.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘Who Do You Love’ by Jennifer Weiner

Who Do You LoveRachel Blum is an 8-year-old heart patient when she first meets Andy Landis at a Florida hospital. Andy arrives alone with a broken arm, capturing Rachel’s attention in the emergency room. She’s searching for a good story to tell an ill friend up on their regular floor, and she finds that — and more — in Andy.

Fast-forwarding nearly a decade, Rachel and Andy meet randomly while volunteering as teens and strike up a summer romance. Though together only a short time, they immediately bond despite their different circumstances. While Rachel grows up in Florida being doted upon in an affluent Jewish family, Andy is a biracial teen being raised by a hardworking, tough-to-please single mother in Philadelphia.

Andy’s solace — his salvation, really — comes through running. At the encouragement of a beloved neighbor and mentor, he survives his rough teen years with an end goal in mind: getting to — and winning at — the Olympics. As Rachel goes to college and pledges an exclusive sorority, Andy devotes his life to becoming a world-class runner.

As time and distance both separate and reunite them, the pair must decide what truly matters in life . . . and if they’re willing to go after it.

Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love is a comfortable, fairly predictable read following two young lovers over the course of three decades. Their chance meeting at a hospital sets them up for a lifetime of serendipitous encounters, only some of which seemed realistic. It’s really a story about first love.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I feel the need to extol my love for Jennifer. She creates characters that make you feel, and her stories always suck me in with their casts of relatable — if occasionally frustrating — characters. She has a powerful ability to tap into the inner lives of women, and I greatly admire her ability to produce novels that really stick with you.

So why didn’t this one work for me?

It comes down to narrative voice. Rachel’s sections are told in first-person, allowing us to really get to know her, while Andy’s are third-person omniscient. While I could begin bonding with Rachel, I always felt removed from Andy . . . physically and mentally. His sections lacked soul. I felt as if we were going through the motions — all tell, no show — and couldn’t get excited about his victories nor mourn his failures. I wanted to, but there was just something . . . missing. The only time I really felt anything? When he’s interacting with Mr. Sills, a neighbor who takes Andy under his wing.

While I enjoyed seeing the interesting ways in which Rachel and Andy’s lives intersect, I found Rachel to be a pretty uninspiring heroine. We’re introduced to her as a young girl struggling to get out from under her parents’ anxious gazes, and I thought there was real potential there. Instead, Rachel spends much of the story projecting herself as a whiny sorority girl who doesn’t feel good enough for the Famous Andy Landis. And that got old.

Who Do You Love is not a bad story, but it’s not Weiner at her best. This was a different sort of novel for her: no elaborate cast of female characters; no exploration of friendships or sisterhood. We do get her trademark family dynamics, but it wasn’t enough to save the plot for me. I liked that she was trying something new, but I probably would have enjoyed this story more if it had been told exclusively from Rachel’s point of view. It lacked . . . sparkle. Pizzazz. Not heart, exactly, but warmth.

Will I come back to Jennifer? Absolutely. But if you’re new to her work, I would recommend Good In Bed or All Fall Down instead.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book thoughts: Memoirs from Lena Dunham & Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham

I spend a great deal of time in the car these days. With the addition of driving to Oliver’s day care each weekday, I’m commuting at least 40 minutes daily — so I can plow my way through an audiobook or two a week.

Which is awesome, actually . . . given I’ve had so little energy to read physical stories since Ollie came home. I’m often determined to settle down with Jennifer Weiner or Meg Cabot before bed, thinking that tonight is the night I’m going to finally read for goodness’ sake, but something comes up.

Or, more accurately, the eyelids come down.

Through plenty of trial and error, I’ve come to realize that my favorite audiobooks are memoirs — particularly when read by the author. I’ve checked out all sorts of non-fiction I wouldn’t normally read in print, but adored them as audios.

But I didn’t need any convincing to read Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. They arrived on hold for me at the library at the same time, and I didn’t have the heart to leave either lady there. Good thing I didn’t, either; I’d finished both in three weeks, a new record, and desperately missed them both when their stories were done.

So. Lena.

Dunham, a 29-year-old New Yorker, is a polarizing figure. Known for being the creator, writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” Lena has no problem putting it all out there — literally and figuratively. Some declare her the voice of our generation; others label her a self-important drama queen. I happen to be in the former category, and I’ve watched “Girls” for years. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining. Lena’s Hannah is messed up and whacky and self-absorbed, but she’s refreshingly realistic in her obsession with writing and love. I relate to her. Not all of her, but enough.

In reality, Lena is not Hannah . . . but, in some ways, she is. Not that Kind of Girl is Lena’s life-story-in-vignettes with tales of her awkward adolescence, search for acceptance, demanding of respect and growth. There are some squicky moments, yes, and it’s not for me to debate the level of their squickiness. But I think Lena is mostly guilty of oversharing. (Can you overshare in a memoir? Probably.)

Look: Lena can be brash. She’s controversial. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate hearing her voice above the din and look up to her for all that she’s accomplished before 30.

Her memoir is quick, pithy, easy on the ears and often very funny. There are some deeper, disturbing moments, but it’s not a depressing story. If I’m honest, I’d normally be super jealous of an under-30 talented takes-no-prisoners writer lady who is actually younger than me, but really? I’m just kind of proud of her. In a big sister kind of way.

And then we have Amy Poehler, who’s Yes Please was the perfect companion to my morning drives. Like pretty much everyone in America, I was introduced to Amy through “Saturday Night Live” and was a mega-huge fan of the often-underappreciated “Parks & Recreation,” which I watched religiously with my dad. Leslie Knope is it.

Poehler’s memoir is part motivational speech, part biography, part behind-the-scenes glimpse at the shows and people who helped boost her to monumental success over the years — and I really enjoyed all of it. Like Lena, Amy comes across as a down-to-earth but badass lady who has me totally rethinking what it means to be deemed “bossy.”

Bossy women get stuff done.

Amy is like your cool aunt who admits to recreational drug use while still cautioning you against it, and comes across as deeply knowledgeable about life because she’s probably “been there.” Growing up in Massachusetts, Amy later moves to Chicago to begin working in improv and eventually marries and divorces Will Arnett, has two sons, achieves great success on “SNL” and “Parks & Rec” and then, when it’s over, must find what’s next again.

She sounds like an amazing friend, colleague, daughter and mom, and you get a sense of all those roles while listening to Yes Please. I loved her stories of and take on working toward success — and it doesn’t have anything to do with it happening overnight. Overall, her memoir was equal parts funny and empowering: a perfect recipe.

Both Lena and Amy narrate their own books, as you’d hope and expect. Each does a wonderful job. These women are storytellers, and these are their stories. Who else could possibly tell them?

By the time I’d finished both audios, I felt like I’d just sent a new friend off on a long vacation with no way to get in touch. Amy and Lena have both further endeared themselves to me, and I’d definitely recommend their stories to anyone who wants to think about life, snort into their commuter-friendly coffee mug and feel good about the road ahead.

Four stars, both of ’em!

Not That Kind of Girl / Pub: 2014 / 265 pages
Yes Please / Pub: 2014 / 329 pages


Book chat: ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeIt’s been too long since I sank into some solid young adult fiction. And with my limited attention span these days? Well, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before really hit the spot.

The middle of three daughters, Lara Jean Song is used to hovering behind her successful older sister — often feeling a bit adrift behind Margot’s perfection. But with her sister heading off to college abroad (and breaking off her relationship with Josh, once Lara Jean’s own crush), this Song girl is ready to shine.

Maybe.

When a secret box of Lara Jean’s letters disappears, she is suddenly forced to confront her crushes — past and present — as her notes land in mailboxes around town. Lara Jean has always taken to letter-writing as a way to release her feelings for the boys she has loved: her first kiss, her summer camp love . . . even Josh, her sister’s ex-boyfriend.

As her crushes receive her notes and press her on her feelings, Lara Jean is forced to own up to her emotions — even as a faux-relationship with Peter, a popular boy on the rebound, begins to actually blossom. On the home front, Lara Jean is charged with caring for Kitty, her sassy younger sister, as well as her warmhearted but busy, bumbling father.

Though she’s initially mortified by the letters, are they actually the key to moving forward?

Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a sweet story with plenty of family dynamics, high school loves and entertaining escapades to delight its audience. Though it’s described as the tale of Lara Jean confronting her crushes, it’s also about family and self-acceptance.

Have you ever written a letter you never intended to send? As a teen, I frequently drafted notes to crushes and ex-boyfriends as a way to “get out” whatever angsty, complicated, 16-year-old drama I had stored up without fear of embarrassment or reproach. In fact, I had a floppy disk (a floppy disk! You too will get old someday, kids) full of such missives.

Had someone found my super-private collection of letters to the adorable guy in my math class or my first kiss or first love and actually sent them, I’m pretty sure you would have had to pry me out the dark cave I would have made my new home. But Lara Jean? She’s a pretty resilient, courageous cat. As a narrator, she’s entertaining and matter-of-fact — the sort of person who doesn’t realize she’s funny, which is the best kind.

Though I enjoyed Lara Jean’s burgeoning friendship/relationship with Peter, the charming boy-about-town, the real highlight here was the Song sisters’ dynamic. Especially tight-knit since their mother’s death, I found their closeness heartwarming and realistic. I loved that Lara Jean appreciated Margot even more after she was off in Scotland, and young Kitty is a wise-beyond-her-years and fun character pivotal to the story.

A breezy and enjoyable novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before demands little of readers except their rapt attention . . . which you’ll happily hand over. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need!

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Book chat: ‘The Precious One’ by Marisa de los Santos

The Precious OneTaisy Cleary thought she’d finally banished him. After her father abandoned the family when she and her twin brother, Marcus, had just turned 18, Taisy made it her mission to press on without the dominating, controlling, sneering Wilson Cleary. With his pregnant second wife quickly ready to welcome a new daughter, his first wants only to exorcise him.

Wilson makes it his mission to protect Willow, this precious babe, from all the world’s hurts. As his third child lives a sheltered, academically-rich life under her father’s tender wing, Taisy and Marcus work to erase difficult Wilson from their lives. And they succeed — mostly — for 17 years. But after learning of her father’s recent heart attack, Taisy is shocked to receive an invitation back to the hometown she fled so long ago.

Faced with a surly teenage half-sister, dreamy stepmother and father who remains as self-obsessed as ever, Taisy is also confronted with memories of another man she lost so long ago: her first love, Ben. Returning to the Delaware town where she’d once been so happy, she hopes to forge new connections . . . just as her sister needs her the most.

Lyrical, thought-provoking and filled with memorable characters, Marisa de los Santos’ The Precious One challenges our notions of family, loyalty and second chances. Though it got off to a slow start for me, I became lost in the beautiful language and sucked into the world of the complicated, broken Clearys.

In chapters alternating between Taisy and Willow’s viewpoints, the story begins with Taisy estranged from her father and his second family — but still faced with a longing to understand, and be understood by, her dad. While her brother has long given up on Wilson, Taisy can’t seem to shake her strange, misguided feelings of loyalty to the man who destroyed to their once-strong family unit. Even decades later, she can’t help wondering . . . why?

With Wilson now in his 70s and in questionable health, he calls his oldest daughter — a writer — for a favor: to ghostwrite his life story, one of his marvelous mind. An unquestionable genius, Wilson places education and knowledge above all else. His daughter, Willow, was molded in his image: a brilliant, savvy young woman who thinks easily for herself . . . but can’t function away from her father’s grasp.

Public high school is a new circle of hell for Willow. With Wilson unable to continue her homeschooling, she enters eleventh grade without any of the grasp of culture or social norms. And it’s painful. When the author has us join Willow in a dirty stairwell where she’s somberly eating her lunch alone, I ached for her. Who hasn’t felt like the misfit?

And that’s why it’s so easy to understand how she is quickly adopted by a new mentor: her English teacher, a 30-year-old man who easily quotes poetry and Shakespeare but harbors dubious intentions. The Precious One is as much the story of a family as it is one of predation and loneliness, hope and belief.

I related to Taisy — in her thirties, still smarting with the dissolution of her first love — and with Willow, this sad and lovely girl who can’t understand just how sad and lovely she really is. No matter your age, there is probably a bit of Taisy and Willow in all of us: people who still seek the approval of their parents, regardless of what’s come to pass between them. Willow’s fondest hope is to never make a mistake, and Taisy’s is to atone for her worst one of all.

Can you tell I liked this book? I really liked this book. I read it almost entirely in one afternoon with my swollen pregnant feet propped on a coffee table, lost in the Clearys and their myriad issues . . . swept up in the idea of Wilson’s mysterious past and how much he inflicted his own issues upon his unsuspecting children.

Though I didn’t feel we got the most satisfying story arc from Wilson’s history, I appreciated Taisy’s desire to dig deeper — to try and find the root of what made this man so calculated, austere and cold (to everyone but Willow, that is). As Willow begins to clear a small path in the real world outside her parents’ arms, I felt a surge of protection for her . . . even though my loyalty was, for the most part, with Taisy.

The evolution of the sisters’ relationship is at the heart of the story. Though we have sinister subplots peeking into the crevices between paragraphs, Willow and Taisy finding solace and camaraderie in one another — and the changes they help bring to each other’s lives — was moving, to say the least. Though Willow would have never admitted to needing a “sister” around (and Taisy could never imagine being that sister), their changing dynamic was my favorite part of The Precious One.

With a satisfying conclusion and engrossing plot, Marisa de los Santos presents a winning novel that swept me up with its gorgeous prose and compelling characters. This family isn’t one I’ll soon forget.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Facebook
Complimentary copy provided via TLC Book Tours for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Attachments’ by Rainbow Rowell

AttachmentsLincoln didn’t plan on becoming a snoop.

Hired by the nascent IT department of a local newspaper to ensure their employees aren’t using the new-fangled Internet for nefarious purposes (it is 1999, after all), Lincoln’s primary job is to hang around at night reading others’ email.

For a while, nothing interesting happens. Aside from the occasional off-color remark, his filter remains resolutely boring. Until chains of messages begin to pour in between Beth and Jennifer, two members of the editorial staff who share their lives through a series of notes passed like a digital middle school experience.

Though he feels awful invading their privacy, the friends’ emails keep appearing in his filter . . . and he keeps reading them, partly because he’s bored silly — it’s an overnight shift in an empty building — but, gradually, because he starts to feel connected to them. Especially Beth, a sharp and funny movie critic stuck in a dead-end relationship.

When their paths cross in daylight, everything feels different . . . and his affections only grow. But how do you confess to snooping on your love interest for months — and all on the company dime?

Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments is a sweet, modern love story that immediately sucked me in. As an editor at a local newspaper myself, it was literally impossible for me to not relate to this quick, quirky and entertaining read.

Lincoln is the sort of dude you can’t help but root for — a man floundering a bit to find his way in the world after a nasty break-up, but undoubtedly someone with a heart of gold. I loved his relationship with his well-meaning but overbearing mom, of all things; it was incredibly realistic, right down to her shoving casseroles into his hands on his way out the door.

In his late twenties, Lincoln doesn’t plan to still be living at home . . . or working in a soulless IT position, where even a monkey could read flagged emails and send warning messages to the paper staff. But he knows there is something more — and he’ll find it. Eventually. His predicament is one many can relate to, I’d wager, though the story was set in the chaos of Y2K. (Also: nostalgia.)

Beth and Jennifer’s dynamic was wonderful. I read Attachments thinking often of who my own Beth would be (I mean, I’m definitely Jennifer, the married and nervously pregnant editor). Though we only get to know the pair through their constant emails to each other, this style — a modern epistolary — worked really well for me.

And it made for an incredibly quick read. Though Lincoln is the star of our show, every side character held his or her own — and as the story progressed, I was dying — DYING — for Lincoln and Beth to meet. I kept wondering how they would eventually run into each other, waiting to see if instant sparks would fly. Wanting shy, handsome Lincoln to finally make a big move.

Lovers of contemporary fiction and the ever-funny, ever-wise Rainbow Rowell will find much to love in this savvy story. It was an incredibly entertaining way to spend a few weeknights, and definitely solidified my Rowell love.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘The Godforsaken Daughter’ by Christina McKenna

The Godforsaken DaughterWhen her father was alive, Ruby Clare didn’t much mind that she was single, serious, plain and sturdy. She and Vinny worked side-by-side on the family farm in Tailorstown, Northern Ireland, toiling together in a way that felt less like work and more like camaraderie.

But after his unexpected passing, Ruby is left to care for her aging, tyrannical mother and ungrateful twin sisters — both of whom fancy themselves sophisticated ladies now that they’ve fled to Belfast, working at a department store and returning only to antagonize Ruby about their starched sheets on the weekends.

Mired in grief and desperate for hope, Ruby discovers a set of mystical objects left by her paternal grandmother — a spiritual woman who died in the lake outside their house. The deeply-religious Martha immediately fears that Ruby has been taken over by an evil spirit, remembering how her mother-in-law — awash in her own grief years before — had eventually committed suicide.

But Ruby is buoyed by the strength and confidence the objects give her, eventually finding the courage to stand up to her family and a sense of peace that she does, in fact, have some control over her own destiny . . . however fleeting.

Alongside the story of Ruby is that of Henry, a psychologist from Belfast who arrives in Tailorstown after fleeing his own wayward life following his wife’s disappearance. It’s the 1980s in Northern Ireland, and unrest is still all around them . . . and in Henry’s soul, too. Not knowing what happened to Constance, his beloved wife, is destroying him — but he’s been told to lay low and “stop looking.” He’s just not sure how.

The Clares and Henry’s lives eventually intersect in Tailorstown, where everyone is yearning for something about unsure how to find it. In the mix, too, are Jamie McCloone, a lonely farmer; Rose, his friend and Ruby’s new confidante; and Father Kelly, the devoted parish priest who tends to the Clares in their darkest moments.


Irish countryside


Christina McKenna’s The Godforsaken Daughter is an enthralling, well-drawn and incredibly evocative story of love, grief, redemption and faith. I couldn’t read a passage or two without picturing the rolling Irish countryside, and the idea of life on a small pastoral farm was intoxicating.

Of course, life for Ruby Clare is far from picture-perfect. I immediately bonded with our heroine as she traverses the strange, awful landscape of life without her father. Her mother, Martha, is a distressingly awful woman who leans mercilessly on her oldest daughter but offers little in return. When Martha threatens to parcel off her late husband’s farm, Ruby shows her first signs of a backbone — and I desperately hoped to see more.

There is so much happening in The Godforsaken Daughter, but it never felt cluttered. First, the time period: set in the 1980s during the Troubles, there is a sense of unrest and simmering violence throughout the narrative. Without giving too much away, several characters are affected by the Troubles. Though I’m not intimately familiar with Irish history, I remember stories of the violence and bombings in Belfast when I visited in 2011. My lack of knowledge didn’t hamper my understanding — and enjoyment — of the story.

And enjoyable it was! I fear my synopsis has made it sound darker than it actually is. Even with mysticism, seances, religious differences and death, The Godforsaken Daughter still manages to be . . . uplifting? interesting? wildly compelling?

McKenna draws each of her characters so vividly, you feel as though you’re sitting in a diner nibbling on pastries with Biddy or cruising through town in the back of Rose and Paddy’s car. Ruby is a Cinderella-like character who longs to be loved and accepted, and she eventually comes into her own. Though she’s in her early thirties, the novel also functions as Ruby’s coming-of-age story.


Irish Sea


Northern Ireland itself comes alive in McKenna’s tale, taking on a shape and personality as distinctive as any other character. I felt like I was on the banks of the Irish Sea, thinking about a different way of life in a town populated by such colorful people. I loved how easily I could picture each of Tailorstown’s residents — even the awful sisters, who were terrible brats I hoped would get theirs.

The Godforsaken Daughter is an engrossing, page-turning read about family, love, faith and moving forward. I adored its country setting, relatable cast and unique plot. By the last page, the loose ends had come together in a way that was deeply satisfying without being predictable. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading McKenna’s other works!

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review