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

todays-programme-montpelier-parade

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.