Review: Artemis

Andy Weir’s Artemis has the same vibe as The Martian so I expected to enjoy it for all the same reasons, but many of The Martian‘s strengths become pitfalls when they are repurposed in Artemis. Summary from Goodreads:

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.
Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.
Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

Jazz is Mark Watney (the main character in The Martian). Not only does Mark’s voice make for a poorly-written woman, but his personality doesn’t suit Jazz’s situation. His endless internal chatter worked for someone alone on Mars—he didn’t have anyone to talk to—but why does Jazz speak the same way when she’s surrounded by others? Her long tangents, musings, and science lessons interrupt dialogue and reduce the supporting cast to yes-men. There’s little for anyone else to do but sit back while Jazz banters with the reader.

If Artemis preceded The Martian, it would be easier to evaluate Jazz without thinking of her as Mark-lite. Unfortunately, she suffers for the comparison because she’s half as clever and relies on her feminine wiles at all the wrong times:

In this scene, Jazz has just been asked to sabotage some machinery in exchange for more money than she’s ever had in her life. The machinery is new to her, but she studies it to discover its weakness. And then:
“Okay,” I finally said. “I have a plan.”
“Yeah?” Trond dropped a socket driver and scurried over. “Do tell.”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry about the details.”
“I like details.”
“A lady’s got to have her secrets.” I stood up. “But I’ll completely destroy their harvesters.”
“That sounds great!”

That sounds great is what I say when someone says, “I’ll have that report for you after lunch.” It is not what anyone would say in response to I know your entire fortune is riding on this, but A LADY’S GOT TO HAVE HER SECRETS.

The real reason Jazz has secrets is because Weir is hiding her cards from the reader to build suspense. He partially succeeds. The sabotage scene is briefly suspenseful when Jazz brings the wrong tools for the job (darn details) and can’t spark a flint in a vacuum. Don’t fret, Dear Reader! She remembers in time to lecture about oxidation while building a workaround.

Question: Why does Jazz forget to bring proper tools for her secret plan?
Answer: Artemis doesn’t have a plot. It’s an after-school special where the host says things like “Look at this flint, boys and girls, it won’t make a spark and I’m going to tell you why.”

Unlike in The Martian where all the experiments worked toward one goal (leaving Mars), the end goal in Artemis isn’t immediately clear. There are some machinations by power-hungry rich people, some techno-babble, and a whole lot of contrivances built around Jazz’s awesomeness—no joke, most of the climax is caused by her welding abilities being too perfect.

I liked the concept of Artemis, the international city on the moon that uses weight as currency, but this idea has more wasted potential than payoff. Jazz tells us it’s the first truly international city, but it’s written to feel less multi-cultural than a midsize city in the U.S. Weir’s reliance on cultural stereotypes makes Jazz’s world narrow. He gets points for a diverse cast, but it feels less like representation and more like pandering when the characters’ actions are governed by shallow assumptions. This criticism extends to Jazz—Weir can say she’s a woman as often as he likes, but she never stops being Mark. Fortunately, every time I slipped up and started imagining Mark in her predicament, there was a reference to her sex life or something like: “I giggled like a little girl. Hey, I’m a girl, so I’m allowed.”

If you read the first couple of chapters and it doesn’t bother you that a 26-year-old woman speaks like a 15-year-old boy—keep reading, you’ll have fun. But if it bugs you then bail early—it doesn’t get better.

Overall: 1.5 (out of 5) Every book gets at least a point. No matter how badly a book is written, the author still wrote an entire book. It’s like how everyone gets points for writing their name on the SAT.

This means Artemis joins the ranks of North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Russell’s Sleep Donation, and Chabon’s The Final Solution as one of the lowest-scoring books on this site. Every time I think about the low scorers I consider shaving a point from The Night Circus because that actually is my least favorite book here.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: Girl in Snow

If I had not received this book free via NetGalley, I would not have finished it.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka sounds promising, but the reveal is badly paced with obvious red herrings. Even though the mystery lost my attention, there’s potential in Kukafka’s prose—it’s occasionally lyrical with unique imagery. Summary from Goodreads:

When a beloved high schooler named Lucinda Hayes is found murdered, no one in her sleepy Colorado suburb is untouched—not the boy who loved her too much; not the girl who wanted her perfect life; not the officer assigned to investigate her murder. In the aftermath of the tragedy, these three indelible characters—Cameron, Jade, and Russ—must each confront their darkest secrets in an effort to find solace, the truth, or both.

My biggest gripe is that too much time is spent on descriptions and redundant flashbacks. Because the book starts after Lucinda’s death and the sections are titled “Day One,” “Day Two,” and “Day Three,” most of the character-building moments happened before page one. Kukafka flashes back to the core moments of each relationship instead of relying on the strength of her present-day scenes. It’s not satisfying to be hit over the head with expository matter after carefully picking out the same information from well-crafted clues in an earlier scene.

The flashbacks aren’t the only distraction. There’s a curious fixation on gross/unsightly things. As an example, a description of Lee as “clean-shaven” is chased by a paragraph that describes the nicks around his mouth and how he must have looked with toilet-paper squares stuck to all his bloody cuts. There’s nothing wrong with describing a clean-shaven face this way—it’s certainly vivid—but no one is ever described without taking them down a few notches. The vast majority of characters have bad skin, smeary make-up, dripping sweat, pimples around their mouths and sprinkled across their sagging cleavage… Not even inanimate objects are safe! Misshapen beads are described as “tumorous.” I think this is all to contrast with Lucinda Hayes’s beauty, but it’s emphasized to the point of silliness. The more over-the-top descriptions are funny when I don’t think they’re meant to be.

This grossness reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I stopped reading Flynn’s book after a background character was described as having dried scrambled eggs in her hair. (I admit this is a weird place to draw the line.) In college, I ran across an article that suggested every character should have something ugly about them. This was to warn writers against creating physically ideal characters that are hard to relate to and hard to imagine. It’s easier to picture a crooked nose than a “perfect” nose—what does a perfect nose look like anyway? It’s a good piece of advice, but Kukafka takes it too far.

These two points are the kind of complaints that would have been less noticeable if the overall story had been more compelling. A taut mystery provides a lot of cover for errors in craftsmanship. Since I wasn’t particularly concerned about who killed Lucinda Hayes, the energy that should have gone into asking whodunnit all went to nitpicking.

Overall: 2.4 (out of 5)
Taking on three points of view to solve a murder is ambitious and two of the characters (Cameron and Jade) have unique, if unlikeable, voices.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Dinner Party

I requested a collection of short stories by Joshua Ferris from NetGalley months ago (I’m running behind). I was familiar with Ferris from two of his earlier books: The Unnamed and Then We Came to the End. In both cases, the premise was sound but the main plot was rehashed repeatedly until I throttled the book and said: “I’ve got it. Can we move on with the story now?”

My experience with Ferris’s long fiction is what made me excited to read a collection of shorts. He’s a witty writer who goes for dark humor (which I like). My hope was that the limited page count would leave room for his originality but not his tendency to wax on. Yet most of the stories in The Dinner Party follow a similar arc despite the range of subjects.

Adding to the repetitive feel is that most of the stories examine a deeply-flawed or unhappy person and the same flaws keep cropping up: insecurity, self-loathing, dishonesty, and an inability to connect with others. The actual writing is quite good; whenever I thought I might set the book down permanently I’d run across a little gem. Ferris can put his finger on a thing/emotion exactly and make the reader feel it with surprising clarity.

The highlights for me are:

“The Dinner Party”
One couple waits on the arrival of another for a dinner party. The longer they wait, the more it seems like the other couple is staying away for their own reasons. Because it’s first, its hooks and twists are the most effective in the collection. It sets the tone for those that come after.
Here is “The Dinner Party” as originally published in The New Yorker, August 11, 2008.

“The Pilot”
An insecure writer is invited to a party thrown by a successful acquaintance. He wonders whether he was invited intentionally or accidentally and, to cope, he hides behind an alter ego and tells everyone that his pilot is almost finished. The tension that comes from his writhing insecurity and problematic drinking is skin-crawling. Come to think of it, most of this collection is uncomfortable so it stands to reason the best stories are those that nail discomfort most efficiently.
Here is “The Pilot” as originally published in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2010.

“More Abandon, or Whatever Happened to Joe Pope”
Points awarded for absurdity. “More Abandon” follows another self-loathing man, Joe Pope, as he leaves an embarrassing series of voicemails on a coworker’s phone. He then explores the empty offices in his building and does a little redecorating…

Overall: 3.5  Ferris can write and he’s a little more interesting than average so The Dinner Party can’t slip below a three even if the redundancy is tiring. Many of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker—which makes sense, they have that New Yorker vibe—and they’d be better if read months apart instead of in a collection where their similar themes and tones are obvious.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is misery porn. This isn’t an insult; it’s just a descriptor. Misery porn is a sub-genre of memoir built around the thesis: My childhood was worse than yours, but I’m going to be cavalier about it so you know how tough I am. Memoirists can paint their histories however they choose, but it’s near impossible for misery porn to not be a self-indulgent humble-brag: Look how independent I was; look how I persevered; would you have survived my obstacles? True to genre, The Glass Castle is a litany of obstacles in the form of abusive, neglectful parents and grinding poverty.

The Glass Castle opens as a three-year-old Jeannette Walls boils hotdogs for dinner and accidentally sets herself on fire. She’s taken to the hospital, but her father sneaks her out early to avoid paying. Walls writes herself as a rational, surprisingly well-spoken three-year-old. Some reviewers have questioned her memory—how accurately do you remember your time as a three-year-old?—but I won’t.

I don’t care whether Walls’s stories are strictly “true.” Memoirists can take some liberties. We all have stories that ring false to outsiders because they contain unlikely events or a turn of luck. But while some writers cushion their harder-to-believe stories, Walls leans into the absurdity of her childhood.

What does feel true about Walls’s well-spoken three-year-old (who grows into a well-spoken ten-year-old) is how the tenor of her stories changes over the years. When she’s young, she believes her parents when they cast their financial setbacks as adventures. It’s not until she’s a little older that a negative light develops and her stories focus on cold, hunger, and her inability to reason with her mother or father. Even if Walls embellished the language of her younger self, she successfully contrasts her former innocence with the person she became.

The Glass Castle is a hard book to read because her parents’ chief skill is finding new lows in selfishness and addiction. At the outset, her father, Rex Walls, seems a bigger villain than her mother: Surely the family would have money for food if Rex weren’t confiscating his wife’s checks on payday and drinking himself into a stupor. Later though, it’s clear that Rex isn’t the whole problem. Even when her mother stumbles into free money, she doesn’t put it towards food, clothing, or her children’s welfare:

We brought the ring home and showed it to Mom. She held it up to the light, then said we needed to have it appraised. The next day she took the Trailways bus to Bluefield. When she returned, she told us it was in fact a genuine two-carat diamond.
“So what’s it worth?” I asked.
“That doesn’t matter,” Mom said.
“How come?”
“Because we’re not selling it.”
She was keeping it, she explained, to replace the wedding ring her mother had given her, the one Dad had pawned shortly after they got married.
“But Mom,” I said, “that ring could get us a lot of food.”
“That’s true,” Mom said, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food.” (186)

You’d think failing to feed her kids would be a blow to that same self-esteem… This scene was an especially hard read because when the kids find the ring, their only thoughts are to pay off the house and buy food—they aren’t looking for luxuries. They give the ring to the person they think will provide, but she’d rather wear it instead. The scene where the kids catch their mother sneaking food under a blanket while they go hungry about made me throw the book. When Walls says she’s hungry, she means it:

“We haven’t had anything to eat but popcorn for three days,” I said.
“You’re always so negative,” she said. “You remind me of my mother—criticize, criticize, criticize.”
“I’m not being negative,” I said. “I’m trying to be realistic.”
“I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances,” she said. “How come you never blame your father for anything? He’s no saint, you know.” (187)

And speaking of Walls’s father—
At one point the book shifts from simple memoir into something more voyeuristic and uncomfortable. After Bryan (Jeannette’s brother) is groped by their grandmother, Walls speculates about whether their father was sexually abused by his mother. She points to this as a likely reason for his drinking and discomfort around his family. I suspect Walls included this speculation because she didn’t want to depict her father as only an alcoholic, as the villain. However, I find myself suprisingly resentful of her willingness to spill one of his biggest secrets in a bid for sympathy—as if he wouldn’t deserve help or pity without a Legitimate Reason for his drinking. As if alcoholism isn’t a disease—something that Walls convincingly (and heartbreakingly) portrays elsewhere in the book.

Reading The Glass House is like being stuck next to a stranger on a train who insists on giving their whole life story even though you’ve just met them and didn’t sign on to play therapist. It’s easier to close a book than to change cars on a train but, ultimately, The Glass House made me wonder: Why was this book written? Do people need to learn and grow in a memoir for it to be a “good” book?—it’s not as though static people don’t exist. Is a series of repetitive anecdotes enough to make The Glass Castle a “good” book?

Overall: 2.7  (out of 5.0) Before you think this score is unduly harsh, remember that a 3.0 is average. 2.7 is only a touch below average. And, while Walls’s experiences may be unique, the book and presentation are average. My initial reaction was to give it a lower score, but I think Walls deserves credit for being so open/forthcoming (which can’t have been easy) and I’ve seen people call this story “helpful” online. It’s hard to be harsh on a memoir. I don’t want it to seem like I’m rating her personal story—I’m only rating the book.