Review: The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is about many things I like to read about: encounters with alien cultures, close-knit groups of friends, Catholicism, colonization, sin and forgiveness and whether God has a plan.  Basically, some people on earth in the nearish future discover that there are aliens not far from Earth, and they go on a Mission to meet the aliens and learn their languages and all about them.  The book opens shortly after the last surviving member of the mission, Father Emilio Sandoz, has been returned to earth amidst much ado and scandal about the way the mission ended; and the narrative goes back and forth between the current time, with various Catholics trying to make Sandoz talk about what happened, and the time of planning and preparing for and going on the mission to the aliens.

I bought The Sparrow for either fifty or twenty-five cents at the book fair last year, and then I didn’t read it and I didn’t read it, and I would have listed it on PaperbackSwap and been rid of it ages ago, except the cover and spine were all creased.  So I brought it with me this summer, thinking I could read it at last and discard it.  And then, see, then, Bybee said how satisfying and amazing she found it to write in the margins of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I thought, hey, this book’s all beat up anyway, I will try a new experiment and write in the margins.

The results were – mixed.

Good result: I thought of things while I was reading, as one does, and instead of forgetting them at once, I wrote them down.  Not brilliant observations or anything!  Just responses to things the writer had said, and usually because I disagreed, but it did give me a pleasing sense that I was being intellectually stimulated the way you are supposed to be when you read, and having something (scribbled margin remarks) to show for it.  For instance, this:

The mission, he thought, probably failed because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions, each of which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Like most colossal disasters.

I think this passage is just in there to sound profound at the end of a chapter.  Because in fact I do not think that most colossal disasters happen for this reason.  That is giving people way too much credit.  Most colossal disasters happen because are people are shabby, so they cut corners, and one day they turn around and found they have cut the wrong corners and too many of them and too close together, and a colossal disaster has resulted.  Which, by the way, leads me to:

Bad result: I got way critical.  I wrote down stroppy margin comments like “Really?” about D.W.’s accent, and “hate hate hate phrases like this” about “when her body was used” (seriously, I hate phrases like that), and “rarely enhances a line of dialogue” next to the word “conversationally”.  I was critical about individual words and phrases, and critical about the pacing of the plot, and critical about stylistic choices.  Put a pen in my hand while I am reading, and I feel like editing.

Good result: I engaged very strongly with the characters.  Though that might just have been that Mary Doria Russell wrote a set of strong characters, and managed, although there were a bunch of them, to create a solid group dynamic.  Inevitably, some characters were explored more thoroughly than others, but I felt like I had a handle on all of them.

Bad result: I engaged very strongly with the characters, and then they all died except for one.  (That isn’t spoilers, you find it out like three chapters in.)  They all died!  It was such a bummer.  I read the end early on, to find out how everyone died, so I wouldn’t have to keep worrying about it, and the end was extremely unhappy.  Also (and I cannot stress this enough) (and this is spoilers, even though you would probably figure it out your own self) I do.  Not like.  Sexual.  Violence.

Like I said, mixed results.

Here’s the problem with trying reading experiments: There’s no control!  I have no idea what I’d’ve thought of this book if I hadn’t written in the margins, AND I have no way of finding out.  As it is, I thought it was very well-written, had some point-of-view problems, and it was way intense.  I do not have the wherewithal to read the sequel right away.  Should I read it anyway, at some point?  Do you think colossal disasters happen because of a series of logical, reasonable, carefully considered decisions all of which seemed like a good idea at the time?  Have you found margin-writing improves your reading experience?

Other reviews:

Book Addiction
Booklust
books i done read
Adventures in Reading
Incurable Logophilia
Medieval Bookworm
Semicolon
The 3 Rs Blog
Bibliolatry
Age 30+…A Lifetime of Books
It’s All About Books

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: In the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker

Embarrassing confessions can be good for the soul, so here’s one of mine.  Sometimes when I read a book by a new author, and I really really like it, and then I go to the library and see there’s a whole shelf of books by that author – sometimes, when that happens, I get a little internal sound effect of a deep, serious voice going “So it begins.”

Well, okay, always.  Every time that happens, I get the sound effect.  And it doesn’t always work out.  Sometimes the author breaks my heart.  Sometimes I accidentally read the best book first and must spend the rest of my life being let down by all the others.  Sometimes I read interviews and discover the author is kind of a poop, and then I have a hard time reading the books without thinking of that.

In aid of avoiding another Orson Scott Card situation, I’ve decided not to read anything about Kage Baker in case she turns out to be a poop, because I love the premise of this series.  This premise of this series is like the (shining and glorious) lovechild of Doctor Who and Diana Wynne Jones’s wonderful The Homeward Bounders.

About three hundred years into our future, a company called Dr. Zeus, Inc., has figured out how to do time travel.  You cannot travel into the future, you cannot bring anything forward out of its own time, and you cannot change written history.  What you can do is stack the deck your way.  The library at Alexandria has to burn, but that doesn’t stop you going back in time and having an agent make copies of all the books, and hide them for you to discover in your own present.  Agents of the company find children at different points in history, save them from death, and make them immortal.  These new immortals are promised shiny rewards in the present if they serve throughout history as agents for the company, rescuing books and paintings and endangered species.

I know, right?  How did I never hear of these books before?

Mendoza is saved from the Spanish Inquisition and made immortal.  Disliking what she knows of human beings, she decides to be a botanist, intending to minimize her contact with mortals.  However, her first assignment for the company is to collect rare plants from a garden in Tudor England.  Along with two other immortals, she will pose as a Spaniard come to England in the retinue of Prince Philip, with all the attendant fears and stresses of changing religions and an angry monarch.  Intending to keep out of the way of the mortals as much as possible, she finds herself falling in love with one of them.

A few things that are difficult to pull off, that Kage Baker pulls off:

  • Characters talking in Elizabethan English.
  • Explaining necessary historical background, especially historical background that I already know, in a way that is funny and interesting, though it’s possible she gives Elizabeth I too much of a pass.
  • Implying that there is More at Work Here than this book lets us in on, without the book’s ending being an obvious set-up for a sequel.  Do you know what I mean?  You get the sense that clues are being dropped, but the story of this book is self-contained.
  • Being wry without trying to be hilarious, or coming off as disaffected and unfriendly.
  • (Spoiler alert.  Stop reading and skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens in the end, although why you wouldn’t want to know I can’t imagine.) Killing off the love interest.

My one single eensy little complaint was that Mendoza, right, she falls in love with this sixteenth-century guy, and he’s completely okay with a lot of the crazy stuff that comes out of her mouth.  Okay, yeah, he’s held heretical religious views in the past, but even with that, and even accounting for his being in love with her, I think he’s just the tiniest smidge unrealistically tolerant and open-minded about religion for his time period.

Apart from that one thing, it was a good book that made me feel very excited to read the sequels.  I feel like intrigue and deception are forthcoming.  Thank you, trapunto!  This was a read for the Time Travel Challenge (haHA!  Thought I’d forgotten that one, didn’t you?  I HAVE NOT.)

Other reviews:

bookshelves of doom
Regular Rumination
Mervi’s Book Reviews

Did I miss yours?  Let me know and I’ll add a link!

Review: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I should know better.  I very foolishly checked Slaughterhouse Five out of the library and brought it to read on our camping trip even though I suspected I wasn’t going to like it and I knew the person who recommended it to me was going to be on our camping trip wanting me to like it.  I read books when I’m given them, and when I don’t like them, I’m likely to say “I liked [specific thing],” or “It’s very well-written!”, rather than lying straight out with something like “Yes!  I liked it!”, and I had planned exactly what I was going to say when asked about it.  Only after I’d said all my evasive remarks, my sister said, “Did you like it?” and I felt too guilty to say no so I said yes but it was a tangled web of lies and if I’d had a second to think about it I’d have said something vague and noncommittal like I liked some things about it but I’d have to read it again to make up my mind completely.

Which wouldn’t exactly have been true either.  I have this blurry notion that lies are less wicked if they involve a lot of words and incorporate some elements of the truth.  Dear oh dear.  I feel sad when I don’t like other people’s favorite books, because I know how sad it makes me when other people don’t like my favorite books.

ANYWAY, Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Masterwork, an anti-war novel that features the Tralfamadorians of whom I have heard (in my parapsychology class – I missed the final on account of writing down the date wrong, and our Vonnegut-loving professor was kind enough to let me take it the next day without penalizing me), and discusses the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier who becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back and forth between moments of his life – times with his wife and children, his childhood, his time as a soldier in the Second World War, his kidnapping by aliens in a flying saucer, etc.

It was clever.  I think that’s what I’d say about this book.  The business of being unstuck in time was interesting, and I wondered if that’s where Audrey Niffenegger got the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife (hope so – it always cheers me up to see other authors stealing ideas because it makes me feel better about myself).  It was clever, but there was nothing underneath it.  All this weak-jawed fatalism – it was quotable (the phrase “So it goes” occurs whenever something bad happens), but it didn’t lead to anything.  Not for the characters, and not for me either.  It was clever, but there wasn’t anything underneath the cleverness.  It was just a lot of words.

I meant to give it two stars, but I like the book less and less the more I think of it.  I have very few one-star ratings, because I feel guilty being mean about books that I know other people love.  But it’s a new year and I’m going to be bloody, bold, and resolute (Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  When I quote that bit of it, though, I’m quoting Eliza from Knight’s Castle.  You can’t ever escape your childhood reading.) with my ratings.  One star it is!

What do you like or not like about Vonnegut?  Am I missing something vital about this book?  Anyone want to claim that Slaughterhouse Five is overrated and the real Vonnegut is only to be found through [one of his other books]?  I’m willing to try again…

If you haven’t read Vonnegut, don’t take my word for it; I know loads of people love him.  Other reviews of Slaughterhouse Five: things mean a lot, Becky’s Book Reviews, Just a (Reading) Fool, Rob Around Books, booklit, Bibliofreakblog, Rose City Reader, and you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I missed yours?

Review: Darkchild, Sydney van Scyoc

Phew.  Nearly didn’t make it.  Actually I am not absolutely convinced I did make it – I was planning to read Daughters of the Sunstone (a trilogy) for the YA/juvenile fiction book of Jeane‘s DogEar Reading Challenge; I thought it was juvenile fiction because when I looked it up in the library catalogue, it was shelved in the children’s section.  So when December rolled around I placed a hold on it (it was checked out), and I waited and waited and waited, and it never came in, and eventually I gave up and just checked out the first book of the trilogy, Darkchild.  I don’t know that I’d call it a kids’ book in real life, but on the other hand, I don’t want the challenge police to come and scold me, so a kids’ book it shall be called!

Darkchild is a sci-fi/fantasy book in which, essentially, humankind left earth eons ago and went to colonize other planets, making necessary changes to adapt to life on less friendly planets.  Brakrath, where our young heroine Khira lives, is one such planet – a planet on which the ruler can use the power of the sun as she wishes.  While spending a long winter alone, Khira meets a boy without a name, whom she calls Darkchild, unaware that he has been programmed (against his will, of course, or we wouldn’t like him) to collect information about her civilization, then bring it back to his programmers so they can use it to destroy the people of Brakrath and take all their valuable things.

What I loved about this book was the honesty of the characters’ dilemmas.  Even after she learns what Darkchild really is, Khira is fiercely loyal to him, desperate to find a way to save him from anyone that might consider harming or destroying him.  Darkchild, in his turn, grows fond of Khira and tries to fight against his programming, to access those parts of his memory that are shut off to him, and to keep his “guide” (the program in his head that protects him) in check.  Their loneliness aches, and it makes their relationship very sincere.

I wasn’t as crazy about the sci-fi business.  I am picky picky about my science fiction, and I found some of this confusing.  Some bits were over-explained, like the race of creatures who had programmed Darkchild (Darkchild has a revelation of sorts, near the end, where he remembers how he helped his programmers to destroy cultures that had helped him – and it falls flat because this has been explained so thoroughly in the rest of the book); and some were under-explained, like the powers the barohna (the rulers of the sunstone) has, and the way everyday life goes on this world.  I had a hard time getting a sense of the world, I guess, and that took me out of the book a bit.  Can’t have been too bad, though, as I’m eager to read the sequels if I can get them, and see where the author takes it from here.  I like it that she’s switching to different characters, as I do feel Khira and Darkchild are at a good stopping place.

Thanks to the lovely Jeane for hosting this challenge!  I’d say three of these five books were a bit out of my comfort zone, and that is a good thing for me to do, read outside of my usual stuff, give different things a try and see how I find them.  Like science fiction and books about food that make me want to eat cheese fries.

An open letter to Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go

Wow, Patrick Ness, color me super impressed.  Way to create a distinctive, consistent, memorable voice for your protagonist.  That isn’t easy.  I have not read a book where I enjoyed the narrator’s voice so much since, mm, The Book Thief, and before that The Ground Beneath Her Feet.  Which are two of my all-time favorite books.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is based on a fantastic premise, that the aliens in this settled world have given the settlers the disease of Noise, which killed all the women and left the men able to hear each other’s thoughts; and then the youngest boy in the settlement of Prentisstown finds a girl.  A live girl!  The book is fast-paced and exciting and frightening.  The title is perfect.  The relationship between Todd and Viola is utterly real – all the relationships are, actually, and even though this is a plot-driven book, damn, Patrick Ness, you just nail those emotional moments every single time.  Like this?  (Major spoilers in the block text below, so skip to the subsequent paragraph if you haven’t read the book.  Even if you don’t care about spoilers – if you haven’t read the book, you won’t know how great this is because all the context isn’t there, but trust me, it is great.)

Ben nods again, slow and sad, and I notice now that he’s dirty and there’s blood clotted on his nose and he looks like he ain’t eaten for a week but it’s still Ben and he can still read me like no other cuz his Noise is already asking me bout  Manchee and I’m already showing him and here at last my eyes properly fill and rush over and he takes me in his arms again and I cry for real over the loss of my dog and of Cillian and of the life that was.

“I left him,” I say and keep saying, snot-filled and coughing.  “I left him.”

“I know,” he says and I can tell it’s true cuz I hear the same words in his Noise.  I left him, he thinks.

Ouch.  Also, chills.

And you know what else, Patrick Ness?  Since I have gotten started talking about the good things about your book, and how it’s just everything that’s great about being great?  What else is, hooray for you, portraying a gay couple without making a big thing of it – we know they’re a couple because they act like a couple, not because you (the author) gets all THESE ARE TWO GAY PEOPLE THAT ARE GAY; they are just a couple, and that is nice, and it is normalizing, and there should be more of that going on in literature.  Oo, and, okay, also?  Aaron was about the dreadfullest villain I ever read about in my life.  (That isn’t a spoiler – you can always tell he’s insane.)

Here’s the thing, Patrick Ness.  You already did it!  You already created Todd’s voice!  You did it using only your words!  Your achievement is a remarkable achievement, because it is damn hard to create a voice like that, and you did it ever so beautifully.  Why, why, why did you need to do that silly dialect thing?  “Yer” is not necessary!  “Cuz” is not really necessary either!  And I can assure you that there is no possible world in which “conversayshun” would ever be necessary, because that is how the word is already pronounced.  It’s not an accent.  It’s how you say the word.  And “an asking” instead of “a question” is both silly and jarring.  It mildly chagrins my dazzle to see you relying on dialecty crutches this way, when Todd’s voice, and the atmosphere of the world you’ve created, are already just about perfect.

Since I am having a moan anyway, here’s my other (teeny-tiny) gripe, which contains massive spoilers.  I feel like the Big Prentisstown Reveal could have happened sooner.  At least part of it could have happened sooner.  I say, tell about how they killed all the women earlier on in the book (have one of the townspeople tell Todd, or something) – we pretty much figure that out anyway, right?  It’s part of the emotional arc of the story, but it’s not the central part.  The reveal you want to save for close to the end is that Prentisstown keeps on killing their own, to allow the boys to become men.  That is what’s crucial to the events that occur immediately after Ben tells it to Todd – plotwise and emotional-story-arc-wise.  Plus, if we already had the reveal about the women, we would think, okay, we’re done, now we know why nobody likes Prentisstown, and then the other thing would really slap us in the face, because it is pretty chilling.

(I mean, it wouldn’t slap me in the face.  I would already know because I would have read the end (as indeed I did!) and found out what was what.  This was helpful to me in making judgments about where each reveal should have occurred.  Reading the end: the Way, the Truth, and the Light, verily I say unto ye.)

Once I get started complaining, I can’t stop, so here’s my last complaint.  Patrick Ness, WHY ARE YOU BRITISH?  And also WHY DID I NOT READ THIS BOOK SOONER?  My sister has just now returned from Ireland, and if I had read this book like, like two days sooner, I could have told her to buy me the sequel, which is out in the UK now but not out in the US until September.  I really loved the books I read last week, but I would have loved them a few days later, and then I could have had The Ask and the Answer on Thursday when my sister comes all the way properly home.

To conclude, Patrick Ness, you are awesome, and future books would not suffer if you eighty-sixed the fakey dialect bit.  Also (spoilers!  Spoilers!), given that this book turned me into an emotional wreck, you, um, you could go ahead and have it turn out that Ben is still alive.  And, um, I mean, Cillian too.  That would be fine.  It wouldn’t mess up anything!  I would be happy!  Todd and Ben would be happy!  We would all be happy!  I wouldn’t feel like you had cheated!  Just if you wanted to have it turn out that way.  I only mention it.

Kisses and hugs,
Jenny

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
Bart’s Bookshelf
books i done read
Becky’s Book Reviews
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Fantasy Book Critic
Librarilly Blonde
The Well-Read Child
Wands and Worlds
YA Reads
YA Fabulous
Karin’s Book Nook
The Page Flipper
Reading the Leaves
Bookannelid
Lisa the Nerd
Kids Lit
Bitten by Books
Books and So Many More Books
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature

Let me know if I missed yours!

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury

My sister said to read this, so I bought it at the book fair last month.  Ray Bradbury can write some disturbing stories, I tell you what.  He writes beautifully – such good imagery and dialogue.  I like the frame mechanism, of the  man with illustrations on his body that begin to move, to tell the stories.  I’d read two of these stories before, the one with the nursery and the one with the falling star – hated the star, loved the nursery.  Which is about how I feel about them generally.  I like the ones that start out sort of pleasant and domestic, and then you gradually come to realize they aren’t pleasant and domestic at all but in fact really creepy.

I feel pleased with Ray Bradbury.  Maybe I will read Fahrenheit 451 again.  It’s been years.  I didn’t care for it much when I was in middle school but I am much older and more cynical these days.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This review brought to you by: Indie Sister, the same girl responsible for my reading Neil Gaiman.  I am always wary of Indie Sister’s book suggestions.  Sometimes she says to read things like Coin-Locker Babies, which gave me terrible underwater nightmares, and which I have really tried hard to forget completely; and sometimes she says to read Neil Gaiman and gives me a massive huge new source of happiness.

I checked out A Canticle for Leibowitz a month ago, and I only finished it last night.  I kept putting it off.  I’m not the hugest fan of science fiction that there has ever been.  Eventually I looked up Walter Miller on Wikipedia and discovered that a) he converted to Catholicism; and b) he struggled with mental illness his whole life before eventually committing suicide.  These things gave me much more of a fellow feeling for Walter Miller, so I decided to read his book.  And I loved it.  He killed himself before finishing a sequel to Canticle, so THANKS A LOT, MENTAL ILLNESS.

Oh, this book was so good.  Oh, I liked it so much.  I don’t want to return it to the library.  It’s set in the Southwestern United States many years after a world-wide nuclear war, following which there was a major backlash against technology and learning, which people perceived to have been the cause of the mass destruction.  Leibowitz was a Jewish clever man who converted to Catholicism, founded a monastic order, and worked really hard with the Church to save books for future generations; and he was martyred.  All this a long time ago.  The first part of the book is set before Leibowitz is canonized, and a young monk discovers relics of him; and then the second part (possibly my favorite?  I couldn’t decide) is set many years later, at the beginning of a sort of new Renaissance, and a scholar comes to the Abbey to study all the Leibowitz documents they have there; and the third part is about how everyone’s getting set to destroy the world.  Again.

This book was so, so good.  Really.  With added poignancy because Walter Miller served in the Allied forces.  And – my family made fun of me when I said this but here it is – I liked it that the Catholics weren’t all humongous jerks.  Not because I am one of those people with a bumper sticker that says “I’m thankful for the thousands of GOOD priests”.  I am not one of those people.  I want to key those people’s cars.  But because there are such a lot of bigoted, sexist, closeminded, insulting, rude Catholic priests around, and I always want Catholic priests to be nice and wry and morally upright; and it was nice to read a book in which most of them really were.

I just loved this book to pieces.  I loved how each of the parts of the book mirrored an aspect of our history – the Dark Ages and the Renaissance and the modern times – and how religion fit into each of those times.   That was neat.  All circle-of-life-y.  And I found the people in the books remarkably sympathetic, especially sweet innocent Brother Francis in the first part, all confused by how upset everyone was getting, and so sweet with the bandits and the relic – bless him.  And I liked this:

The answer was near at hand: there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods.  The old father of lies was clever at telling half-truths: How shall you “know” good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little?  Taste and be as Gods.  But neither infinite power not infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men.  For that there would have to be infinite love as well.

And this:

We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas.
We march in spite of Hell, we do–
Atrophy, Entropy, and Proteus vulgaris,
telling bawdy jokes about a farm girl name of Eve
and a traveling salesman called Lucifer.
We bury your dead and their reputations.
We bury you.  We are the centuries.

And this:

And the last old Hebrew sat alone on a mountain and did penance for Israel and waited for a Messiah, and waited, and waited, and–

Yup.  A Canticle for Leibowitz.  What a good book.  “We bury you.  We are the centuries.”  Wow.