These aren’t the only books I’ve read in the past few months, but I noticed two themes that led me to group these reviews together.
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
This classic mystery was written in 1953, and reading it in the original edition (courtesy of Daniel’s mother) helped me get into the mood. I’ve never seen either of the two film versions, which is good: This story is best if you have no idea what to expect from it, and some of the twists just simply wouldn’t work if you could see who’s who rather than relying on the viewpoint characters’ perceptions. I won’t give away the plot except to say that you may want to avoid this one if you’re pregnant or have a new boyfriend. It’s really fantastically written, with plenty of clever tricks that prevent you from noticing that you’re making assumptions until some of those assumptions are suddenly overturned.
Although the story is set on Earth and all characters are humans, the book will be enjoyed by readers from all worlds, as indicated by this symbol on the cover of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries hardcover.
Red Planet by Robert Heinlein
Teenaged buddies Jim and Frank are colonists on Mars, ready for their first year of boarding school. Jim brings along his pet, Willis, a Martian native who is a sort of furry basketball with eyestalks and is able to speak for himself but also has the ability to record and play back everything he hears. The school headmaster confiscates Willis, and after his escape Willis plays Jim an overheard conversation revealing that the authorities are planning a cost-cutting move that endangers the lives of everyone in Jim’s home colony. Jim, Frank, and Willis run away from school to warn the colonists. In the process, Willis introduces the boys to some Martian people (that is, natives of Mars who are more humanoid than Willis) who introduce them to some mysterious customs. The overall plot is fairly predictable, but the details of Willis, the other Martians, and the Martian landscape make it an interesting journey.
My father read this aloud as a bedtime story when my brother and I were in late elementary school, so when he was decluttering and offered us the book, I cheerfully anticipated reading it to my ten-year-old Nicholas. However, the “monster” on the cover motivated Nicholas to refuse, no matter how strongly I insisted that that’s just a Martian and really quite gentle. Eventually I reread the book by myself. I still think it would be suitable for kids 7 and older, but I recommend parental guidance for the staggeringly sexist offhand comments made by some characters. (The book was first published in 1949. But A Kiss Before Dying is from the same era and has females who are real people!)
A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine
This is another one not to read if you’re pregnant or have a young baby. I first read it as a library book years before motherhood, then came upon a cheap used copy while I was gestating Lydia and set it aside until she was much older than the baby in the story!
The owners of an English country estate set out to bury their dog in the old pet cemetery on the property. Digging in an unmarked spot, they turn up the bones of a young woman and a baby. When this news appears in the media, it triggers memories for the three men who lived in the house for a summer ten years ago, when they were university students. Adam had inherited the place from his great-uncle and enjoyed hosting a sort of hippie commune, but then things went weird. Each man tells you some of the story–but all of them are avoiding thinking about the toughest parts, all of them are dwelling on things they don’t need to explain completely because they know them (although you don’t), and ultimately both the story of what happened then and the story of what happens now take unexpected twists.
This one was even better the second time around, after waiting long enough that I’d forgotten most of the twists but still remembered the mood and the characters like old friends.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Mark is an astronaut on a six-person, month-long mission to Mars–but on their sixth day, a terrible sandstorm causes them to evacuate, and in the process Mark is fatally injured and has to be left behind. Then he wakes up–it wasn’t fatal, after all–alone on Mars with no way to return to or communicate with Earth. He has to figure out how to keep himself alive while NASA notices he’s alive and then figures out how to rescue him.
This book is an amazing combination of serious science (carefully thought through by the author, who calculated the orbital trajectories and everything) and irreverent, blog-like writing! It was great fun to read. I especially appreciate that, although Mark makes a number of jokes of a red-blooded male nature, everything he says about his female colleagues on the mission is completely respectful and it’s clear that he regards them as equals. Warning: If you are sensitive to profanity, you might not like this book, not even the first paragraph.
Having just read the much more fanciful Red Planet, I was struck by the way The Martian makes an edge-of-your-seat adventure without any alien creatures or human plots against the protagonist. Every human on Earth and in space is rooting for Mark, and he doesn’t have to fight off anything tentacled. It’s just the planet itself that’s trying to kill him–and that’s nothing personal; Mars is just being Mars, which is no place for an Earthling.
This book really motivates gratitude. Every day while I was reading it, I felt unusually grateful for the breathable air wafting gently around me, my fellow humans within sight at almost all times, the many foods other than potatoes, and communications options other than spelling out messages in Morse code with rocks and waiting hours for them to be seen on a satellite photo! Yeah, rocking a screaming toddler at midnight when I’m hungry and sleepy and worrying about finishing the laundry is no fun, but that’s just peanuts to being stranded on Mars!