Debut Author

“The Martian” by Andy Weir

 

Book Cover - The Martian

Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” has received a tremendous amount of positive hype since it was first published in 2011, and lots of great reviews, even from scientists and astronauts.

 

It’s all well deserved. Instead of being a boring, techy tome (sorry, but some science based fiction bogs down in the science and forgets to entertain) it is a riveting, barnburner of a story.

 

Mark Watney is an astronaut that has been accidentally left behind on Mars after a sandstorm threatens to strand the Ares3 crew millions of miles from home. He has been seriously injured and the other crewmembers think he is dead, so they leave the surface under orders from Control.

 

When he comes to, he assesses his situation and declares that he is in deep trouble. Two words come to mind: ingenuity – the quality of being clever as well as inventive, and resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from hardship. Watney never blames the crew for abandoning him, and instead, attacks his problems head on.

 

The best sci-fi throws real people into a strange world where they must use skills from their own world to cope and/or deal with the new. “The Martian” is a cross between the TV shows MacGyver and Survivor. As if just being alone on the planet isn’t challenging enough, he has to work out his oxygen supply and food supply and somehow let Earth know that he’s not dead yet. Being the first and only Martian is not as much fun as you might think.

 

Watney knows that the next mission to Mars won’t arrive for another four years and that he has to travel 2000 miles to get to the rendezvous point. He has to find a way to stay alive that long. That is, if he doesn’t blow himself up before the food runs out. Anything can go wrong, including explosions and leaks and not having access to the guys at NASA. Yes, even computer access goes down. Imagine being cut off from the guys that keep thousands of possible solutions to any given dilemma only a keystroke away.

 

Complete silence outside the Habitat. Isolation. Like every other pioneer in the wilderness, every decision Mark Watney makes is about life and death. We groan at his harrowing setbacks, gasp/laugh at the outrageous solution to growing his own food, admire his ingenuity at solving space/sleep/water issues. “The Martian” is a celebration of man's resilience in the face of intolerable hardship.

 

When Weir (an actual scientist and software engineer) wrote “The Martian,” he worked out planet positions and shuttle orbits to support his storyline. Andy Weir tested many of the decisions made by his  astronaut so that Watney could realistically work his way through the challenges. If the science wasn’t right, it didn’t go onto the pages.

 

Weir gives Watney a belief system in “The Martian” that makes it all work. Watney has an outrageous sense of humor and an “I can fix this” attitude, no matter what is thrown at him. If he’s alive, he has another chance to get it right. If he can get past listening to old disco songs left behind by his crew mates, and do without even the fake coffee, he can survive anything. 

 

Of course, Watney has the right credentials (engineering and botanist degrees) to do the job, making the book that much more successful. There is no high school student solving the complex problems in this book just by virtue of being a computer whiz. But, duct tape – that heavy, cloth backed, silver tape that plumbers and electricians use so often – plays a great role in the book. Gotta love that legitimately, a low-tech item could save expensive equipment from complete failure.

 

There is strong language in response to some of his situations, so don’t read “The Martian” if you are offended by four letter words. It’s not pervasive, but it’s there, and appropriately used.

 

A movie based on the book, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, was released in 2015. Happily, it was astounding.

 

 

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“Kneading to Die” by Liz Mugavero

 

Book Cover - Kneading To Die copy

‘Stan’ (short for Kristan) Connor leaves Hartford, Connecticut after being unfairly downsized from her high paying, high pressure PR job. It’s time to take a breather from the fast lane and move her life in a different direction. When she arrives at her newly purchased Victorian in Frog Ledge, a town so small that everybody knows your business before you say hello for the first time, she knows she is home.

 

Her boyfriend doesn’t agree, and pressures her to get another job ASAP before she regrets her decision. Plus, he’s not happy about the commute to see her. He keeps trying to arrange job interviews for her, despite her protests. Not needed, not wanted. She has two years severance pay, after all. This pair is definitely not on the same page.

 

Stan soon finds herself in a fix when she visits the obnoxious town vet with her Maine coon, Nutty. The vet is dead; kibble sprinkled over her body, and hardly anybody misses her. Stan is a suspect in the murder, just because she found the body. Well, small town people do have to blame the outsiders, don’t they?  😉

 

As Kristan seeks to clear herself in “Kneading to Die,” she finds it hard to know whom to trust. Even her childhood friend, an animal rescuer and now the owner of Pet’s Last Chance, Nikki Manning, comes under suspicion as the case unfolds. But, then Nikki delivers some inside info about the deceased and a possible motive for the vet’s death.

 

Colorful characters (and suspects) abound, including alpaca farmers/bed & breakfast owners, a sweetshop owner, dairy farmers, gossipy townspeople, long-lost relatives, a homeopathic vet, and more.

 

Kristan bakes healthy treats for pets, made from scratch like people cookies, but without the additives usually found in commercial cat and dog food. One of my mother’s cats suffered with clumps of hair falling out, traced back to his completely canned diet. As soon as mom put him on a diet of home cooked fish and other fresh goodies, the condition cleared up. Mugavero is definitely onto something with this aspect of “Kneading to Die,” and has generously included recipes for dog and kitty treats at end of the book.

 

The hunky potential love interest, Jake McGee, owns a seemingly untrainable, sloppy, big dog that loves Stan’s treats and shows up on her doorstep at odd hours, waiting to get fed. The dog keeps throwing Kristan and Jake together, at times embarrassing them both.

 

The underlying theme of this dog-and-cat-filled cozy is advocacy for animals. Mugavero weaves the nasty side of pet sales, abandoned animals, questionable veterinarian policies, badly prepared pet food, etc. into the murder plotline and raises awareness of the real-life issues involved. Fortunately, the unpleasant side of the pet industry is balanced with the warm, caring behavior of the assorted animal lovers in “Kneading to Die.”

 

P.S. If you’ve ever owned a cat or a dog, you’ll find the descriptions of the animals in “Kneading to Die” hilarious and spot-on. I was checking a detail at the beginning of the book and reread about Nutty’s tail delivering opinions – still sooo funny. Mugavero clearly knows her animals.

 

“Kneading to Die” is the first book in Pawsitively Organic series, and happily, Kristan Connor will be back in the next.

 

Please visit www.lizmugavero.com for information about this debut author.

 

 

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“Speaking of Murder” by Tace Baker

Book Cover - Speaking of Murder

 

A college professor has an affair with her student, keeps it a secret to protect both of them, and finds that student dead on campus one evening after class. His killing has protected someone’s secret, and Lauren Rousseau is afraid that the murder investigation will uncover her own indiscretion. But, she’s not the only one with a secret, as the lives of those around her are revealed, layer by troubling layer.

 

Rousseau is an interestingly flawed character, with fits and starts of conscience as it applies to her love life. And, her love life is further complicated by her relationship with a man to whom she cannot commit. He wants more, she doesn’t, as evidenced by the affair. Their off and on relationship rings true as Rousseau sorts out her feelings and he can’t understand what’s wrong. He’s a good man and Rousseau is screwing it up. She almost recognizes that fact and the reader sees the changes in the independent Rousseau as she deals with her fluctuating heart.

 

A mentally unsteady friend mysteriously goes missing from rehab. Basically dismissed by the police, Rousseau is unwilling to leave the case alone. She hopes someone will care enough to rescue her if she ever gets into trouble and wonders if her friend’s disappearance is somehow related to the murder.

 

The murder and the disappearance are set against the crucial backdrop of college interdepartmental politics, with a masterful inside look at the life of a college professor – the power plays inherent in the tenure track and staying published in order to appease department heads. Having visited a few college profs’ offices over the years, I chuckled at the plot point that a missing thesis might be the key to everything. Trust me, those offices are stacked with hundreds of papers near exam time and it’s nearly impossible to find anything unless you know the professor’s filing system. Perfect!

 

I was struck by the rich texture of the heroine’s life, the fascinating people she meets and the intelligent way she approaches her investigations. The chats about other parts of the world, foreign language phrases sprinkled appropriately during conversations with other travelers, as well as the cooking references, make this a literate mystery, as it should be when a cultured linguistics professor is involved at the core. We discover that Rousseau is a Quaker and while it is an interesting aspect of her persona, the book is not a religious one.

 

Side characters play against each other satisfactorily and the family holiday dinners reminded me of cringe-worthy relatives I have known. There are some wicked bad guys, a surprise twist or two, and even arson tossed into the mix. I would never have guessed where the story would end up when I began and was extremely satisfied at the way Rousseau uncovered the awful truths that got her student killed.

 

I would bet that there are lots of mysteries to be solved on a college campus and many more food insights to be shared by Lauren Rousseau, in future books penned by Tace Baker.

 

A winning debut mystery.

 

Tace Baker is a pseudonym for Edith Maxwell, an author who will soon publish “A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die,” under her own name.

 

For more information about Maxwell/Baker and her upcoming projects, please visit www.edithmaxwell.com

 

 

 

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