The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

thesparrowThis book is really worth reading. The Janus-like bipolar cover can be confusing, but the words inside will blow your mind.

Here’s a very brief overview to entice you:

In the not-distant future, a young scientist monitoring signals from space discovers music coming from Alpha Centauri. The Society of Jesus (Jesuits) organizes the first expedition to the planet of Rakhat, the origin of the music. Father Emilio Sandoz, along with seven of his colleagues, both secular and religious, travel to the planet to investigate the source of the music and make contact with the Singers.

The story is told in alternating time frames between the events of the mission to Rakhat and the subsequent interrogation of Father Sandoz, who is the only member of the expedition to return alive.

I alternated between loving this book and being tempted to bail on it. Here’s why:

What I didn’t like:

The rampant, overt Catholicism, and the nauseatingly saintly, outrageously open-minded, pious characters with tolerance for each other bordering on the saintly. The characters are locked in a spaceship for years together and never really have so much as a spat. When there is catastrophe, no one blames anyone else, no one loses their mind, no one has a breakdown. I find that level of absurd harmony harder to believe than aliens singing songs from Alpha Centauri.

What I really liked:

This book is brilliant in its anthropology and science of discovering a new people. The anthropology bent was interesting; the social framework of the aliens on Rakhat was well-grounded and fascinating. I love reading about possible other worlds, how the inhabitants organize social structure, language, government, and familial relationships. When the structure is well done, as it is in The Sparrow, the book seems believable and possible. If you like books with an anthropological concept, consider these others as well:  Anthropology in Fiction

The first 100 pages are all strictly for set up, so don’t let that deter you or tempt you to bail. The next 200 pages are really interesting, but repetitive. The last 100 pages fly by quickly, and the plot development is frenetic. The last 15 pages will make you read frantically, wide-eyed in disbelief and anguish, and then you’ll need to call your best friend and sob about why you’re in existential turmoil and how you’ll never be the same.

The major question this book offers is the religious cliché “why do bad things happen to good people?”, which is unanswerable. The bad things that happen in The Sparrow are beyond comprehension.

There is a sequel available, Children of God, in which Emilio Sandoz returns to Rakhat, but I’m not quite ready. I need to stare into the middle distance for a while and get my bearings before I read more. But I’ll definitely read more. I can’t look away for long.

Montpelier Parade – Karl Geary

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I was intrigued by this short novel when I read the description that it’s about a teenage boy having an affair with an older woman, and it’s written in second person from the boy’s perspective. Is he genuinely in love with her? Is she taking advantage of him? Is he using her? An interesting premise, to be sure.

However, this novel fell flat for me. There are not many characters in this story, but each one was depressing and pathetic. No one evoked any sympathy from me. The main character and the reader’s voice, Sonny, vacillates between two emotions: phlegmatic and confused or aimlessly angry. His lover, the moribund Vera, is suicidal and taciturn. Their conversations, or rather I should say, exchange of words, are terse and sparse. There is no relationship development, only an acquiescence into sex.  Their “relationship” doesn’t even begin until halfway through the book, and then it just seems like a resigned inevitability. Even Sonny’s younger love interest, Sharon, is just desperate for attention. The entire book is just lonely.

I was grasping for meaning, and the only theme I could find was one of existential hopelessness. It’s dark and melancholy, but I still recommend it for readers who enjoy this type of morose psychological novel.

I thank Edelweiss, Karl Geary, and Catapult publishers for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

 

essex serpent

I’ve been waiting for months for The Essex Serpent to be available in the United States. Too often when I get overly excited about a book and wait so long for it, it doesn’t live up to my expectations, but The Essex Serpent delivered.

 

Set in the late 19th century, the story follows Cora Seaborne, newly widowed, but not exactly grieving. She is looking forward to a trip to Essex to explore the shorelines and look for fossils, possibly one good enough to make a name for herself at the museums in London. Another enticing motivation for Cora is the resurgence of sightings of the mythical Essex Serpent. It has a power over the small community of Aldwinter:  children go missing, men turn up drowned on the river banks, milk goes sour much too soon, and there’s a portent of something sinister in the air.

The story follows the mystery of the Essex Serpent superficially, but there is much more underlying the current of the relationships of the friends in Cora’s circle. Hearts are captured, inchoate friendships are challenged, and naturalism and religion become difficult to reconcile. The characters are what make this novel so believable. Each person in Cora’s life is multidimensional and complicated, as are their relationships with Cora.

The main characteristic that drew me in to this novel is its sense of place. The descriptions are imaginative, almost mystical. I could smell the salt on the air, feel the dampness at the shore, and see the indigo in the stones gripped by Cora’s friend who is delusional with consumption.

This book is atmospheric, full of dreary Victorian greys and blues. The language is subtle and so nuanced, in fact, that if you read too quickly you may miss something critical. Each character interaction, however trivial, often results in grand ramifications.

There are themes of early social consciousness of homelessness, how fear can drive the public into a frenzy, and how intellectual compatibility can often surpass in importance anything else in a relationship. The writing is delicate, often beautiful, and never heavy-handed. At times, in my assessment, the characters seemed to have too modern of ideals, and were often too accepting of progressive notions, but it did not detract from the story.

Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a compelling Victorian novel with a gothic feel. 5 stars all the way.

 

Rush OH! – Shirley Barrett

Rush OH! is the battle cry when one sees a whale – a call to arms to run to the boats.rush oh

Set in the early 1900s in New South Wales, Rush OH! is a snippet of history when whalemen along the Australian coast would rush the waters to lance their fortunes. Unlike in America, the whalemen were not gone from their homes for years at a time, but instead lived along the coast to chase the whales near shore.

This is the tale of the life Mary Davidson, the 19-year-old daughter of a brave whaling captain, who lives among the oarsmen boarding in her home. Mary is learning her role in the family after the death of her mother: she must cook and feed the crew, take care of her younger siblings, and parcel out her feelings for one new whaler in particular, John Beck. Rush OH! is a coming-of-age tale based loosely on historical anecdotes from the area, including one Killer whale named Tom who assisted the whalemen in herding and trapping the whales.

There are humorous stories of the whale crew, but there are also some dark corners in the backgrounds of these men. The feast-or-famine life of whaling is full of hardships, and  often attracts men who have nothing left to lose.

I appreciated the care taken to create an atmosphere in this story: the description of the flensing of the whales, the excitement and fear of the whale hunt, and also the depictions of the Australian coastline with local flora and fauna. The descriptions and inclusions are necessary to the story without being pedantic, which makes for a compelling setting. The characters also represent the differences of interpretation of whaling and how the fear, adrenaline, and desperation can affect people in different ways.

This is a quick read sprinkled with small illustrations that add to the vintage feel of the book. I really enjoyed this one.

Today Will be Different – Maria Semple

 

 

This is the story otodaydifferentf one day in the life of Eleanor Flood: cartoon artist, mother of young son, wife of prominent hand surgeon, and victim of scatter-brained, desperate personality.

At the onset of her morning, Eleanor declares:

“Today will be different. Today I will be present. Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today I’ll play a board game with Timby. I’ll initiate sex with Joe. Today I will take pride in my appearance. I’ll shower, get dressed in proper clothes, and change into yoga clothes only for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today I won’t swear. I won’t talk about money. Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self, the person I’m capable of being. Today will be different.” 

Eleanor is just scrambling to keep it together. Today, her son Timby calls from school with yet another stomach ache, she’s afraid she’s offended her poetry mentor with flippant comments, she accidentally/ on purpose stole another mother’s keys, and she’s running late to meet a former hapless employee for lunch only to discover he’s become a huge success. Not to mention, everyone she talks with is asking about her sister, and she insists she doesn’t have one (*no spoilers here). When she drops by her husband’s office, the receptionist says he’s on vacation . . . except Joe isn’t on vacation. So what’s going on? Eleanor is going to blow like a hurricane through this day to right wrongs and discover truths, and you’re her sidekick, riding this mess with her.

One aspect I especially appreciated was her relationship with her husband, Joe. Semple nailed it, in that Joe is the perfect counter-balance to Eleanor’s anxiety. When she’s freaking out, he is the calming influence; when she loses her way, he shows her that it’s okay to feel lost. She analogizes this yin-yang as a “competent traveler” and “helpless traveler.” The difference with Eleanor, however, is that she’s beginning to realize that she’s been the helpless traveler for far too long.

I actually enjoyed the frenetic, quirky, frazzled tale of Eleanor Flood and her constant worry. The only unrelatable part, however, was that Eleanor’s life is full of Rich People Problems. Not many of us can spend our time worrying about if we’re going to make our lunch date at the upscale boutique restaurant on time after dropping off our only child at his private school in our luxury car. But, this story is also deeper than most reviewers give it credit for: there’s sibling jealousy, marital discord, and self-doubt, and all through it is humor, and that makes it all okay.

The story is insightful, comforting, and sometimes over-the-top. I enjoyed it, and the audio narration was delightful. Recommended for anyone who has forgotten Teacher Appreciation Day, or had a falling out with a friend, or who has ever questioned their career choices. In other words, everyone. All of us are part Eleanor.

 

 

 

 

 

Cinnamon and Gunpowder – Eli Brown

I loved this book because it was SO MUCH FUN.

cinandgunCrazy pirate Mad Hannah Mabbott captures and kidnaps chef Owen Wedgwood. “Wedge” is now a prisoner aboard The Flying Rose, and if he wants to remain aboard and not become fish food, he must prepare an exquisite meal for the red-haired pirate captain every Sunday.

The conflicts abound:  Captain Mabbott’s quixotic hunt for her nemesis, The Brass Fox;  Wedge’s panicked scrounging for decent provisions, which imagination leads him to use scraped barnacles, stolen pineapples, and a sourdough starter made from feeble yeast and coconut water; and countless encounters with other pirates where Wedge must dodge cutlasses while trying to keep his pans on the stove. There are escape attempts, underwater excursions, pirate raids, and haute cuisine.

Other swashbucklers aboard include: Mr. Apples, Mabbott’s first mate, a swarthy pirate with a predilection for knitting; twin Chinese bodyguards; and Joshua, a deaf cabin boy who proves to be a competent sous-chef.

What I loved about this book is not only is it adventurous fun, but it has an underlying current of heartbreak:  the mother’s loss of her child, a man overcoming the death of his wife, a boy intent to return home, and the fight for triumph of good over evil. Above all, love trumps greed, and loyalty is more precious than gold.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder appeals to all five senses. Wedge’s cuisine patched together from rancid ingredients and seasoned with spices purloined from bowls of potpourri crushed with a cannon ball are nothing short of genius. The characters are multi-faceted, and no one can be taken at face value. Adventure on the high seas, indeed, replete with danger and a tender love story. What more could a reader ask for?

 

 

 

 

Alabama Book Festival!

Last weekend was the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery!

Rachel Rozet was there promoting her teen fiction book, Kinda, Sort Of, and doing a signing (see my book review here). She sold a lot of copies!

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Buy Kinda, Sort Of here!

We also got to meet Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why. He was happy to receive a signed copy of Kinda, Sort Of, and he signed our boojayasherks too!

jayasherandrachel

Tayari Jones gave a talk and also signed copies of her book, Silver Sparrow, which was a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read.

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Tayari Jones signing my copy of Silver Sparrow

 

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Rachel with author Michael Lackey, who was at the festival signing copies of his medieval fantasy novel, The Bad Seed

So proud of Rachel for being such a success with her debut novel. Rumor has it there’s another book on the way . . .