Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The ship came down from space. It came from the stars and the black velocities, and the shining movements, and the silent gulfs of space. It was a new ship; it had fire in its body and men in its metal cells, and it moved with a clean silence, fiery and warm. In it were seventeen men, including a captain. The crowd at the Ohio field had shouted and waved their hands up into the sunlight, and the rocket had bloomed out great flowers of heat and color and run away into space on the third voyage to Mars!
Now it was decelerating with metal efficiency in the upper Martian atmospheres. It was still a thing of beauty and strength. It had moved in the midnight waters of space like a pale sea leviathan; it had passed the ancient moon and thrown itself onward into one nothingness following another. The men within it had been battered, thrown about, sickened, made well again, each in his turn. One man had died, but now the remaining sixteen, with their eyes clear in their heads and their faces pressed to the thick glass ports, watched Mars swing up under them. (43-44)

It’s against the advice of most writing guides to begin an essay/review with a quotation (a block quotation in particular), but Ray Bradbury’s voice sells itself. I can think of no other writer who better communicates a sense of wonder and joy. Full disclosure: I put off reading The Martian Chronicles until I’d read all other Bradbury stories I could find. I worried it would be another one of those awful sci-fi books to take itself too seriously and rely on ridiculous inventions and technobabble to move the plot—that brand of sci-fi doesn’t age well. While the book is centered around voyages to Mars, the technology takes a backseat to the basic thrill of exploration. I should have had more faith in Bradbury and read it sooner. read more

Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Even people who don’t like this book concede it’s well written. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was on my reading list for a few years before I picked it up. I knew it had won the Pulitzer (which meant it was either brilliant or dry), but it remained unopened on my shelf. Then I read it in two sittings and loved it. It’s hard to explain how or why this book is so entertaining; it’s such an absurd story and, if you think about it too much, a very depressing one. Fortunately, Ignatius is so loud and melodramatic that thinking gets pushed to the side. Most of the laughs that come are of the ‘this is so ridiculous; I can’t believe it’ variety. read more

Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Historical fiction is a messy business: too much history and it’s dry; too much fiction and readers assume you don’t know your history. Few authors juggle fact and fiction more deftly than Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall, but she made a mistake in her choice of copy editor. Whether or not a reader can overlook this flaw is determined by how interested they are in the story. Much has been written about Henry VIII and his many wives, but Mantel takes one of Henry’s advisers (Thomas Cromwell) as the book’s center and keeps Henry largely offstage. By doing so, she spares herself the difficulty of writing him and the book feels more authentic for it. If there is information that Cromwell is not privy to, the reader isn’t either. Any prior historical knowledge goes a long way. read more

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I have become the literary equivalent of a food taster: people throw books at me so I can try them out and let them know if they’re worth reading. That’s where this blog came from and how I came to read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It’s unlikely I would have picked this book on my own after reading (and strongly disliking) Flynn’s first book, Dark Places. To her credit, Flynn’s writing and pacing have come a long way since then—the story is better balanced, her characters have more unique voices, and while it’s still predictable, it’s very entertaining. Such improvement between her first and third books actually has me excited for her fourth. read more

Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne duMaurier’s Rebecca, first published in 1938, has been on my list of favorites since I was given a copy a decade ago. The book’s biggest weakness is the cover: recent printings are teal and pink with flowing script; other editions feature gold lettering over a red silk background (as shown). It often looks as though it belongs among books with Fabio-esque men on the cover, which makes it a hard sell to friends. But it really, really, is not like that.

At the outset, the unnamed narrator is on holiday as companion to the hilariously gauche Mrs. Van Hopper. While there, she meets Maxim de Winter, Rebecca’s widower. After a brief courtship, the narrator becomes the second Mrs. de Winter and returns with Maxim to Manderley. Since Rebecca’s death, the housekeeper has preserved the house as a shrine and Mrs. de Winter finds herself in competition with Rebecca’s ghost. Being introverted and naive, she believes herself a poor replacement of someone so vibrant, beautiful, and intelligent. The first half of the novel is her struggle to carve a place for herself in the house. It’s hard to describe how engaging and suspenseful this book is without giving away the ending, so you’ll have to take my word that this scant summation of plot doesn’t do the novel justice. read more