The Sparrow

the-sparrow3 Matthew 10:29 (New International Version)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.

When SETI finally hears a song from the stars, some of the first people to understand the potential are a close knit bunch of friends led by a Jesuit priest.  Their story of first contact – of acceptance and separation, of disclosure and secrets, of exploration as the will of God – will make you think about a modern Columbus and what we’ve learned from the past.  It will also make you explore the notion of “God’s will” and will make you take a close look at the sacrifices needed and made for the better good.  And in the end, it may make you ask why God lets sparrows fall at all.

*****

I’m not an overly religious person, and I was a bit surprised at how religious this book actually was.  I didn’t find it preachy though and it approached the questions of faith and what it meant to truly devote your life to God in an interesting way.  Although there is a compelling cast of characters, this is really the story of  Emilio Sandoz, a devout Jesuit linguist who is searching for his connection with his church and his faith.

As Emilios story unfolds, we see him come to terms with his past and learn to accept his future.  This isn’t an easy journey to watch, and there were times  when I wanted to reach into the book and shake him.  This may be partially due to my own background, where I often felt that church rituals and rules took many of the good things in life and made them sinful.  I won’t go into a theological discussion here, but I would be interested in seeing what people with other views thought.  I was sympathetic to Emilio, but found myself exasperated with him.  I absolutely credit the author, Mary Doria Russell, for allowing for some personal interpretation of what faith might mean, and not writing a pure “glory be” novel under the guise of exploration.

Speaking of which, this story is an emotionally hard read at times.  We learn early on that Emilio is the only survivor of the mission to Rakhat – the foreign planet.  Russell tells the story using chapter length flashbacks, and the juxtaposition of the “pre mission Emilio” and the “post mission Emilio” creates a much more powerful impact than a linearly told story might have.  In some books it’s hard to keep it all straight when it jumps around, but I didn’t have that issue with this one.

If you like first contact, character driven, philosophical sci-fi stories then you will probably like this one.  The religious aspects are worked into the story naturally and logically and it doesn’t feel like a Sunday sermon if you’re not looking for one.  Russell says that she wrote this book when she was bringing religion back into her life, so it’s really a semi-exploration of what place religion can or maybe should play in life rather than preaching.  I think she’s done a masterful job in this one.  This book is the first in a series and, while I’ll borrow the second one to check it out, I don’t know that I feel compelled to see how the story could move on from this book.  I did read that Brad Pitt’s production company picked up the rights to this one… and I bet we already have a few people that would join me to see this translate to the big screen.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, 405 pages

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 10:41 am  Comments (7)  
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The Eyre Affair

eyre-affair7 Great Britain, 1985.  Time travel is a reality?  Check.  People clone dodos as pets?  Check.  There is an entire Special Department dedicated to literary detection and crimes?  Oh yeah, big check.

In this Great Britain, Thursday Next is a Special Operative, working to hunt down forgers and desecraters of books.  And when someone starts entering historical works of fiction and kidnapping main characters, it’s up to her and her fellow operatives to seek out and capture the culprit before the stories are changed forever.

*****

First, I want a cloned dodo as a pet.  Especially since they apparently say “plock” a lot.  How awesome would that be?  Okay, now the story.  It’s not clear if this particular Great Britain is the same Great Britain of The Big Over Easy, but I’m going to guess yes.  Which means that this is a world that takes i’s literature VERY SERIOUSLY.

In this book, we get a bit larger view of the world as it is.  There’s a war going on and it’s in the best interest of the Goliath Corporation – the largest and most definitely influential of businesses – to keep it going.  There’s also a lot more going on in Special Ops than people want to get into, including time traveling parents and a vampire here and there.  This book had a much more layered story than The Big Over Easy, and it’s almost hard to get into the main gist with it all.  Still, in the end, it adds to the feel of the story rather than weigh it down.

This particular set up is ripe for a series and, what do you know, it IS the beginning of one!  I have a couple more on order so we’ll see how the series progresses as it goes.  This book also made me realize that I don’t think I’ve ever read Jane Eyre and so I’ve ordered that one too.  This was a fun book, pick it up if you ever wished you could actually be in one.  Not that anyone ever felt that way… heh.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, 374 pages

Published in: on January 26, 2009 at 7:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I owe you all a post…

BUT, I have a heck of a weekend ahead of me and I may not get to it until Monday.  I’ve finished reading The Eyre Affair and am now working on The Sparrow.  So, some good stuff to come!

Time for reader audience participation:  what should I read next:

a)  Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (I may hate you all for this)

b) Neil Gaiman’s The Cemetery Book

c) Outliers – that one book about why people who are really good at what they do are really good at what they do.

Leave your vote in the comments!

Published in: on January 24, 2009 at 8:21 am  Comments (2)  

Practical Demonkeeping

practicaldemon_lg Meet Catch.  He’s a shape-shifting, people-eating demon.  Meet Travis.  He’s 100 years old and really sick of  Catch.  And when they come to Pine Cove, California, they both see something appealing – Catch sees an endless buffet, and Travis sees the potential end to his unwilling partnership.

Add in some pagans, the King of the Djinn and the normal inhabitants of the tourist town you’ve got the fixings for one hell of a story.

*****

Well, folks, here’s the first time I have to say this.  This book was just “okay.”  I’m actually a little bummed about it because I really like Christopher Moore’s other books and wanted to like this one.  This is his first, and either I missed something incredibly clever about it, or I honestly think he was a bit lucky to get to do the next ones.

Christopher Moore is known for irreverent, offbeat humor.  He’s been compared to folks like Dave Barry.  And generally, he lives up to this reputation, just not this time.  This book wasn’t bad, per se… but if you’re going to read a Moore book, start with Lamb or The Stupidest Angel.  Or even Bloodsucking Fiends.  Just don’t start with Practical Demonkeeping – you’ll get the wrong idea.  I don’t love the setting and the characters weren’t as compelling as he’s written in other books.  This book was a really quick read (I actually finished it last night) and it’s not overly memorable.

To be fair, I might have not been in the mood, who knows.  So I’ll mark it to come back to at some point and see if I vibe it differently.   For right now?  I can’t recommend that you drop everything and read this one, so I won’t.

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore, 243 pages

Published in: on January 21, 2009 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Celestial Matters

celestial-matters The ancient Greeks believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. The great astronomer Ptolemy mapped the solar system and stars, locating each heavenly body in a crystalline sphere, the spheres forming a concentric series that progressed in an orderly fashion outward from the earth. Celestial Matters is a startling novel of hard SF, set in an alternate, ptolemaic universe in which these beliefs are literal scientific fact. The greek empire of Alexander the Great has lasted for a thousand years, and for a thousand years it has been at war with the Empire of the Orient. Now, a spaceship has been built to voyage through the spheres to the sun and return with the ultimate weapon: a fiery piece of sun matter.

(summary from Google books who wrote it much better than I could have)

*****

Okay, this is what they call “hard science fiction”.  What seems like magic or impossible is actually based on real theory (which has since been found wrong) and has a logical baseline.  That doesn’t mean that it’s an easy read, though.  You have to get used to the idea that the ancient theories of matter and space were right and that gods are regularly talking to scientists and war generals.  Richard Garfinkle takes these old assumptions – that the Earth is the center of the Universe, that there is breathable air within each celestial sphere, that you could take a piece of the sun – and creates a world where these theories are laws.

Garfinkle has also created compelling characters.  It makes sense that Spartans are the warriors and that Athenians are scholars.  They each have their own viewpoint on the world and their place in it, and the honor that they owe to their society. I have to admit that I would have probably found a different enjoyment in the book if I had a better grasp on Greek and Taoist history and science, but I found it completely accessible even without it.

The only criticism I have is the ending.  I might have missed something along the way, but I think I’ve missed something subtle.  Also, it seemed to end a little abruptly which was a surprise.  It’s a first novel, so I think that I can cut him a little slack given the general expanse of the book.  I’m sure I’ll come back to this one at some point – but I need to do some additional reading before that happens.

Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle, 348 pages

Published in: on January 20, 2009 at 10:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Maltese Falcon

maltese-falcon1

Introducing Sam Spade – a chain smoking private detective with at least one too many problems on his hands.

It’s just another typical day for Spade and his partner Miles Archer.  It all starts with a simple case – a womens sister has run away with an unscrupulous man and she needs to be found and brought home.  But when Miles ends up dead, it’s up to Sam to sort through the lies and find the truth behind a ring of thieves, a fantastic and legendary tale, and a very special and coveted bird statue.

*****

I should fess up… I’ve never seen the movie they made from his book.  You know, that really famous one with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre?  In fact, the whole reason I bought the book can be blamed on Adam Savage of the Mythbusters.  I was watching a lecture online where he was talking about creating a perfect replica of the falcon from the movie and it got me interested in the story.  So, here we are… me having finally read one of the quintessential detective stories of our time.

Everyone knows the character of Sam Spade, even if you haven’t read the story or seen the movie.  I’m sure when you hear the name you get a mental picture of the smoking private eye in the shady office, leering over some poor damsel in distress who comes with hat in hand.  There’s a reason it’s cliche – this book started it, really.  Part of what paints such a clear and understandable picture is that Dashiell Hammett is a great “describer”.  When we first meet Sam, we learn that he’s made up of a series of V’s, from his chin to his hairline.  In fact, the last line of the first paragraph of the book is “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”  In that one line, Hammett tells almost everything important about Sam.

I’m not a huge fan of detective novels.  Generally, I find them either too convoluted and contrived I can’t understand them or so predictable I don’t even care to see how they end.  I do like Sherlock Holmes though, and this book reminds me of the same type of story.  At times the language is a bit dated – the book is from 1929 so you’d hardly expect it to be completely contemporary – but it holds up nicely and doesn’t distract.  Also, the women are women and the men are men in these types of books… and while he’s written women who can hold their own, there are set gender trait assignments that evident.

The story itself is really great, and with the imagery that Hammett conjures,  I liked it enough to look up his other books and order an anthology that has a couple of more stories from the same time period.   I think that, at the least, The Maltese Falcon should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the detective/mystery genre or who wants to create a library of influential American literature.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, 213 pages

Published in: on January 17, 2009 at 1:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Gun Seller

gun_seller1 Thomas Lang isn’t what you’d call a bad guy… but then he’s not exactly a good guy either.   After all, if he was a bad guy, he would never have tried to warn the American industrialist that someone was trying to hire Lang to kill him.  On the other hand, if he was a good guy, nobody would have tried to hire him in the first place.

What follows is a game of international intrigue involving terrorists, helicopters, unique marketing campaigns and a lot of people called Carl.  This is a great send up the classic spy novel, with some genuine humor, romance and cleverness thrown in for good measure.

*****

Let’s start out by saying that yes, this is *that* Hugh Laurie – the asshole doctor in House, the ponce from Blackadder, half of the Fry and Laurie comedy duo.  You know, that British guy (which you may NOT know if you only know him as a-hole doctor).  Well, apparently he’s also literate.

In an interview about the book, he says that he wrote it after keeping a diary and realizing that the normal day to day of our lives isn’t really that interesting.  There is a distinct lack of car chases, dinners with famous people or fights with pirates.  Okay, he actually didn’t say car crashes or pirates, but he did mention dinners in his list of “pretty incredible things taht don’t happen to me”.  He said he was looking to make up a life and fantasize an adventure.  He’s done that pretty wonderfully.

There are a lot of twists and turns and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who knew what.  Which I guess is good in a novel like this.  Nobody wants to read a spy novel where you know what’s happening.  A note about this novels place within the genre – this is not James Bond.  It’s not really Bourne or even Clouseau.  Tom Lang is a new entity: a stupidly intelligent ex military guy who manages to get by and it pretty kick ass with a Buddha statue.

The best thing about the book is the writing itself.  Laurie has instilled his protaganist with a great and wry sense of humor and, since this is written in the first person, you get a great taste of it in every page.   This isn’t a completely serious book and it’s not meant to be.  It doesn’t really take itself too seriously, either – which is refreshing.  It’s better than your typical vacation/beach read, but it’s not going to make you think too terribly hard.  There’s no real large message here, it’s just fun.

Apparently there was some discussion about a movie and Laurie says he was working on a script.  Unfortunately, we all know how well a not completely serious British movie about terrorism would go, so it looks like it’s on the bottom of the pile for now.  Too bad, I’d go see this one with the right casting.

The Gunseller by Hugh Laurie, 339 pages

Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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Let The Right One In

right_oneTwelve year old Oskar is obsessed by the murder that’s taken place in his neighborhood.  Then he meets the new girl from next door.  She’s a bit weird though.  And she only comes out at night…

– From the back of the book

I’m not giving you much more than that, other to add that this is a darkly expressive coming of age tale of a couple of 12 year olds in Sweden during the height of the cold war.  Everything else, you have to find out on your own.

*****

I know that’s a little light on plot.  It’s meant to be.  I don’t want to spoil this book for you if you decide to read it.  And you should, but not right before bed and not with the lights out.

Lindqvist, a Swedish author, has captured a very gritty set of characters in his first novel.  In some ways, you find it hard to like them – but in almost every one there is a spark of hope or honesty or realism and you find yourself caring about them in spite of their brokenness.  And when the stagnant dynamic changes, the story is compelling and hard to put down.

It’s funny… I told someone the other day that the book was almost boring, but I still was up late reading to see what happened next.  It’s not a case of non-stop action and page turning suspense.  It’s something that I find myself having a hard time describing – all I can say is that I found myself picking up the book when I should have been doing something else.

I completely recommend this book, but have to warn you that it’s harsh in some areas and the author doesn’t shy away from social taboos.  This really serves to make you understand the characters but can be slightly disturbing at times.   You’ve been warned.  It also puts him on my “foreign authors to watch” list to see when his novel comes into English translation.  Hopefully the literary success, and the success of the film adaptation, help move that process along.  I’m interested to see his other works.

But for now, I’m on to something light and happy.

Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, 472 pages

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 5:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Wicked

wickedOnce in a far away land, a house fell out of the sky onto a woman – a witch – killing her and freeing her people from her rule.  Theyd called her the Wicked Witch of the East, and her ruby slippers were known throughout the land.

The Witch had a sister in the West – a green, intensive woman who, perhaps more than she wanted to avenge her sister, wanted the damn shoes.   We all know how this story ends.

But what of this “Wicked Witch of the West”, Elphaba?  Who was she?  Was she always a witch, did she have a family, go to school, love anyone?  And what the hell was up with this shoe obsession, anyway?  Gregory Macguire gives us a view into the making of a witch – mixing a backstory of family and school drama with a highly intelligent and forward thinking life and covering it all in a bit of “it’s not easy being green.”

Macguire doesn’t paint us the rosy singing Munchkin Oz.  He tells of a real world, where the threat of political upheaval weighs over the land and prejudice exists.  In the telling of Elphabas life story he shows us that the weak may be swayed, the powerful can be corrupt, having morals and strength doesn’t always mean you win, and makes us question what it really means to be Wicked after all.

*****

Okay, unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard of this book.  I originally bought it in a bookstore in Boston back when it was still in hardcover in 1996 or so.  I recently saw it in Costco (where all good things come from) and thought that, since I couldn’t find my hardcover copy, it was worth $5 to reread.  I was right, I forgot how much I like this story.

It’s not the Wizard of Oz, in fact, Dorothy is hardly in this one.  And you know how it ends so it’s not like that’s a surprise… except it is.  It’s a really fascinating way to look at the Oz world.  It’s sort of like if you see someone’s Mexico vacation pictures with the nice beaches and floofy drinks and then go there yourself and see some of the poverty once you’re away from the resorts.  Macguire really has made it a real world with real people living in it and it’s dramatically different from the Baum telling.

I don’t expect everyone to like this book, and I think it may be a bit of a hard read if you’re expecting some fantasy.  This really reads almost like a character study.  All the reviews (and even the back of the book jacket) will mention the notion of “good” vs “evil” and it’s worth bringing it up again.  This book does make you think about it, but never goes over the top and screams “SO IS THIS PERSON REALLY GOOD?!  THINK ABOUT IT!  I CHALLANGE YOU!”.  It grabbed me at various times while reading, that slight pause that makes you rethink your assumption.

All in all, I have to recommend that you try this book out, pick it up, see if it grabs you.  It’s not an easy read only because it does make you think a bit and at times the plot gets a bit convoluted.  Or maybe I was just on too much cold medicine and too little sleep this time around.

Uh.. anyone want to go see the show if it comes back to town?  😉

Wicked by Gregory Macguire, 519 pages

Published in: on January 9, 2009 at 8:18 am  Comments (2)  
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Just a quick update

Here we are, you wanting updates and me wanting to provide them.  Just so you know,  I’m in the middle of reading “Wicked” and it’s a bit longer than the previous ones.  On top of that,  I have an overly demanding work schedule this week, so I’m not getting through this one as a) I would like and b) you would probably like.

So, please continue to listen to my excellent hold music while you wait.  I would expect that I will finish it by the end of the weekend or so.

In the meantime, let’s be interactive!  What’s your favorite book and/or what’s a book that you really think I need to read.  Post ’em in the comments!

Published in: on January 7, 2009 at 8:00 pm  Comments (2)