Book Review 34: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

the sparrow

Have you ever read a book that you knew instantly you should have read years ago?

I knew it after reading the first chapter of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

I was working at a mom-and-pop bookstore in Santa Fe, NM in 1996 when this novel was published. I remembered the sales rep from Random House promoting The Sparrow at that bookstore and how he believed that readers would be talking about this book long after they read it.

Of course, it was the sales rep’s job to promote their publisher’s books and their objectivity could be questioned as the sales reps were more concerned about the bottom line then the quality of the novel they were selling to these small independent bookstores. Nevertheless, I’ve came to this novel a decade and half later (better late than never) and realized that sales rep was right in his prediction.

The Sparrow tells the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, who leads a first contact mission to the Planet Rakhat. However, he returns to Earth as the only survivor and is blamed for the mission’s failure. The priest reveals his side of what happened on the mission to his father superiors of the Catholic Church in Rome and undergoes a crisis of faith that becomes more apparent by the end of the novel.

The characters are what makes The Sparrow a great novel. Russell creates real, three-dimensional characters that will remain with you long after the story is finished.  Actually, my favorite characters of the novel were Anne and George Edwards. They were liberal, agnostic, and Emilio’s best friends. Their relationship develops throughout the story and shows how the author did an excellent job of not sugarcoating their differences with the Edwardses’ non-belief in God and Sandoz’s belief in God.

There is a scene in the novel where Anne, a doctor, wants to blame God for letting one of their comrades (another priest) on the mission die while she did everything she could to save his life. That scene was raw and unforgettable as anything I’ve read in contemporary fiction.

The only issue where I could be critical of the novel is in the density in explaining the trip to Rahkat. I could see for non science-fiction readers it might be a bit boring and seem like a “info-dump” in which that genre is known for.  However, Russell does an excellent job of not letting that density slow the pace of the novel.  It is woven into the plot very well and doesn’t take away from the rest of the novel’s strengths.

This is a thoughtful, moral work of fiction and proclaims itself being just as effective as a book of theology or a run-of-the-mill sermon at your local church in showing how faith can be shaken under difficult circumstances.

I haven’t been excited and saddened by a novel like this in a long time. Excited by having read it and saddened by finishing it and wanting to read more.

I will give The Sparrow my highest recommendation to be read by all serious readers. Also, I will add it to my favorite novels list.

Welcome aboard…….The Sparrow!

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.12: Marion’s 2012 Book Reviews Year In Review


The end of 2012 has come and the world didn’t end…those Mayans!  LOL!

Anyway, I’ve decided to create my own list of the books I’ve read and reviewed for the blog in 2012.  I had a good year reading and looking forward to fulfilling my reading resolution in 2013.

Here’s my favorites in 2012: (click on the title to read that book’s review)

1) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (RIP)

2) Daughter of Light by Morgan Busse

3) The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick

4) The Opposite of Art by Athol Dickson

5) Cover Her Face by P.D. James

6) Bag of Bones by Stephen King

7) The Child Goddess by Louise Marley

8) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I’m currently reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and I will not have my review until the beginning of the new year. However, I believe this will be the best book I’ve read in 2012 and I wanted to mention it with this list.

So what were you favorite reads of 2012?

Book Review 33: The Child Goddess by Louise Marley

Can you judge a book by its cover?

Well, this old adage was put to the test by me in reading The Child Goddess by Louise Marley. I was perusing at our local used bookstore here in San Antonio and made it to the science-fiction section to see this striking cover of a bald woman with her right arm around a child. It intrigued me and knew instantly I would be reading this novel.

It’s a surprising literate story about a woman named Isabel Burke, who is a Priest from the Order of Mary Magadalene (she has been a popular topic in a lot of modern fiction recently) and her relationship with a child named Oa from the planet Virimund who can not age. The child is about a hundred years old, but her body and mind has not reached beyond the pre-pubescent stage.

The scientific community thinks the child is carrying a gene that could lead to an anti-aging virus and make them famous. The priest thinks differently and has developed a relationship with the child. However, the novel goes well-beyond the stereotypical science versus religion argument and shows both sides in a fair manner in dealing with this kind of dilemma.

Also, the characters are well developed and shows the priest having an honest dose of human desire as well and not trying to be a perfect religious person. As a matter of fact, the story reveals rather adroitly Isabel’s feelings for a married prominent scientist that causes a realistic tension between them as they worked together to find out about Oa’s condition.

The best speculative fiction stories always ask the question, What If? The story succeeds admirably in that regard and reminds me of a novel that Ursula LeGuin would write but substituting her Taoist perspective for a Catholic perspective instead.

The Child Goddess is not the greatest novel ever written. However, Louise Marley gives us the insight into the second question an excellent speculative fiction story should ask, What does it mean to be human? For that, I applaud the author in giving a possible answer in such a non-conventional manner.

I will include The Child Goddess as one of my favorite books I’ve read and reviewed for the blog in 2012 and even recommend it to those who would not usually read this genre of fiction.

Moreover, I guess the old adage can be true every once in awhile.  You can judge a book by its cover!

Book Review 32: Daughter of Light by Morgan L. Busse

Every so often, you will get a book that takes awhile for you read for no apparent reason. Work schedule gets a little longer, family obligations eats up more of your time, and distractions from like getting sick or car problems will keep you from giving your full attention to reading.  However, once you’re able to get some reading time, the story takes you away from what life has thrown at you.

Daughter of Light became that book for me.

It’s a debut novel from Morgan L. Busse and the story revolves around Rowen, a young woman who got banished from her village because she was accused of being a witch. Even though she was devastated by her banishment, Rowen gets an opportunity to become a varor (bodyguard) for Lady Astrea, daughter of King Gaynor of White City.

Rowen’s journey from banishment to discovering her purpose and coming to grips with her gift has been told before in many fantasy novels. However, Busse adds her own style to this theme and creates a fully fleshed out fantasy world in Daughter of Light that made a familiar trip truly enjoyable to read.

Moreover, the story is infused with a Christian worldview, with acknowledgement to The Word as an ancient source of power, inspiration and faith for some of its citizens. It is definitely a reference to biblical scripture but Busse weaves it into her narrative pretty well without being preachy or overbearing.

I did think the rhythm of the novel was at a different speed than I’m used to from this genre. There were a lot of short sentences in the narrative where I was expecting longer flowing sentences and more expository passages. However, the characters were fully developed and made up for whatever lack of rhythm that the novel had.

Daughter of Light is an excellent addition to the fledging genre of Christian Speculative Fiction and should be recommended for all readers of fantasy literature.

Book Review 31: Cover Her Face by P.D. James

After reading and reviewing White Butterfly by Walter Mosley recently, I’ve gained a new appreciation and affinity for the mystery novel. As a result, I’ve decided I will read an entire mystery series over the next year and post the reviews on the blog.

I chose P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh novels as the series to read and if Cover Her Face is the beginning leg then I believe I’ve made the right choice.

Cover Her Face is the first Adam Dalgliesh mystery and P.D. James’ first novel. It is a story of a young, vivacious, free-spirited woman named Sally Jupp who was murdered at an English country estate. Sally worked for the Maxie family who owned the estate and the rest of the novel is spent trying to figure out who killed her.

Well, P.D. James has turned the standard mystery plot from a whodunit to a whydunit and after reading the story I could see the elements that has given her the title, “Queen of Crime.”

One of the most interesting things I noticed in Cover Her Face was that Adam Dalgliesh didn’t dominate the novel.  It felt like he was more of a guiding hand to make sure the story didn’t go off course.  Dalgliesh doesn’t appear until Chapter Four and the way he interacted with the other characters seemed rather routine and matter-of-factly.

However, I wasn’t put off by it and I’m wondering in later Dalgliesh mysteries if his personality will have more of a presence in those stories.

The other interesting thing I noticed is that P.D. James can write beautifully descriptive narrative passages. While I wouldn’t put her in Mark Helprin’s class of writing beautifully, she can definitely hold her own and Cover Her Face read more like a literary novel than a mystery novel.

Even though, Cover Her Face was published in 1962 it read like a valuable antique that has never gone out of style. I have added this book to the best novels I’ve read in 2012 (The Opposite of Art & The Book Thief).

Book Review 30: Junior by Ray Donley

“Junior, I did not know if the tape would be helpful, but you can never have enough good information. I did not trust Fairman, in part because I never trust men who marry rich women, particularly if they use their spouse’s money to fund their political amibitions. That’s just unseemly.

Now I had absolutely no idea that Fairman would defile those poor women, but his actions illustrate a truism you should never forget: men–be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, white, black, brown, or purple–are stupid when it comes to sex. At least once in his life, and generally dozens of times, a man will do something stupid because the blood leaves his brain and heads south. Never forget that, Junior. Every man you deal with his this defect, and there will come a time when you can use this defect to your advantage–like we are about to do with Fairman.

And one more thing. Truism number two is that all women know Truism number one. Not only are they aware of it, they rely on it.

Nothing like sex education from beyond the grave.”

That nugget of wisdom is from Joshua Jennings Jr’s journal in the hilarious, zany first novel, Junior by Ray Donley. Junior is a fugitive accused of bombing a Native American Reservation in New Mexico where the President and Vice President of the U.S. were killed along with his father.

However, Junior is shocked to hear his father’s voice on the tape recording saying that bombing was planned by him and Junior would be the main suspect of the murders.


Did a father plan his own death and frame his son for the crime? In usual circumstances, a plot like this would be great for a mystery novel. But, Junior’s story is completely different than the standard whodunit story and his three years on-the-run journal is being hailed and praised as a classic study of the human condition.”

Well that hyperbolic statement is one of many in the novel that made me laugh out loud while reading it. Moreover, after reading serious books like Tracks by Louise Erdrich and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, a over-the-top hilarious story is a much-needed and refreshing change of pace.

Junior pontificates in his journal on various topics: religion, politics, ethnic behavior and culture, sports, companionship, and his father whom he still loves despite his predictament. For example:

“Some interesting election news today. Dr. Davis and Big Fly Washington, the Democratic candidates, held a rally today at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. Dr. Davis told the crowd: ‘I am going to say something very unusual, so you should probably pay attention.’ When the crowd stopped cheering, he continued:

A couple of weeks ago our Republican opponents took a bold stand by promising they would never commit this great country to a stupid war. Big Fly and I have talked about Ebenezer Cohen’s “no more stupid wars” speech and the truth of the matter is that we could not agree more. We join with Ebenezer Cohen and General Dozier in their stand that America should not fight any more stupid wars. I know it is rare for candidates to agree on anything, but we think Ebezener and General Dozier are exactly right on this issue and we thank them for elucidating it so clearly.

Civility in a presidential campaign? Agreement on an issue by the candidates? The end of the world as we know it must be right around the corner. Tell the Baptists that the Antichrist is lurking in the shadows.”  

Imagine if our current political climate could adopt this approach?  Hmmm…..

For serious readers, Junior has too many coincidences and over-the-top stories that would stretch the credulity of the story in their eyes.  I must admit I thought some of the journal entries were a little long-winded and bogged the story down a bit. Nevertheless, I had not read a novel this fun and imaginative since Tom Robbins’ counter-cultural best-selling novel, Jitterbug Perfume.

Junior was a breath of fresh air to read and the story had a fascinating premise with interesting characters and revealed the importance of a father/son relationship.

(Lastly, I would like to thank the author for providing me a copy of this novel to read and review for the blog.)

Book Review 29: Tracks by Louise Erdrich

I wrote in my last review, White Butterfly by Walter Mosley, that the next couple of books I reviewed would be from authors I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.

Next up: Tracks by Louise Erdrich

For many years, I’ve been wanting to read Louise Erdrich.  I had seen her books at bookstores and had picked them up several times planning to buy one but never did until now.

Tracks is the story of two Native American families: The Kasphaws and Morrisseys told by one member of each family in alternating chapters. The novel covers a twelve year period where the old ways of Native life are being changed by the white society that surrounds them.

Well, I have to write that Louise Erdrich writes beautifully even poetically. However, I must say that I found Tracks uninteresting.  The story for some reason didn’t engage my imagination and I felt distant and remote from most of the characters. It would have been easy to stop reading the novel after the first few pages…but I’m the type of reader that doesn’t give up easily and I was determined to finish it. I know I just probably put some frowns on the faces of readers who are fans of her work.

Nevertheless, I did find the character of Pauline Puyat, one of the narrators of the novel, somewhat interesting. Her conversion from the tribe’s old spiritual ways into Catholicism was powerful and heartbreaking at the same time.

Tracks was not my cup of tea but glad to have finally read Louise Erdrich and satisfied my curiosity about her work.

Book Review 28: White Butterfly by Walter Mosley

For the next two reviews, I will be reviewing a couple of novels from authors I’ve been wanting to read for a really long time.  Oddly enough, both authors are completely different on the literary spectrum. I have looked at their books for years and said to myself, “I have to read a novel of theirs someday.”  Someday has finally arrived and the timing is right.

First up: White Butterfly by Walter Mosley

Mosley is known for the Easy Rawlins mysteries and White Butterfly is third one published in the series. However, I felt after reading this novel it was a good entry point for a Mosley newbie like myself.

White Butterfly is about a series of murders in the black community of Los Angeles in 1956. The police paid little attention to the murders since the victims were black women.  But, when a white stripper, Cyndi Starr, AKA The White Butterfly is murdered then everything changes. It turns out that she was a UCLA coed and daughter to one the city’s most powerful attorneys that finally gets the police’s attention.

At first, Easy Rawlins didn’t want to have anything to do with solving the murder of White Butterfly. He wanted to spend time with his new wife, the kids, and be left alone. However, when his best friend, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander is considered a suspect in the murder that Easy gets drawn in.

White Butterfly is a standard whodunit story with several interesting twists and turns that makes it a good, solid read. But for me, Easy Rawlins is the most compelling reason for reading the novel.

He is a character of surprising contradictions. Easy is a ladies’ man but adopts a Hispanic boy named Jesus and raising him as his son. He has a best friend who wants to kill anyone that crosses him but Easy prefers not to kill when solving a case. Moreover, most of the community where he lives is poor, but he lives comfortably and holds several pieces of real estate which becomes an interesting subplot in the novel.  Those contradictions are shown in good detail and takes White Butterfly beyond the usual mystery story.

Most critics of Walter Mosley have praised his authentic dialogue similar to Elmore Leonard. But, I will have to disagree with those critics. I felt the dialogue of Broken English distracts from the story and took away from Easy’s rich characterization. (Maybe, since I grew up in Florida and I’ve heard people talk like that all the time…that it didn’t nothing for me.) That was my main critique of the novel.

If you are looking for a good mystery with a colorful main character and an original setting then I will recommend White Butterfly for your reading pleasure.

Book Review 27: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Does a novel that is highly recommended live up to hype?

Well, I will attempt to answer that question in my latest book review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

This novel has been one of the most talked about and most recommended by book clubs in the last few years.  I must admit I usually steer clear of novels like this…because I don’t want to be let down or have unrealistic expectations based off of the praise it has received.

However, I decided to read it because this novel received the most votes on my New Standards of Fiction List I posted recently.  Also, it was recently chosen as a book of the month on Goodreads and mentioned on several other book blogs I read regularly.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II. Standing at her brother’s graveside, Liesel picks up a book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook and that beings her love affair with the written word. Her love of books is so great that begins to steal them in order to learn how to read and eventually write her own book.

The characters in The Book Thief are the heart and soul of the novel.  Beginning with Liesel’s foster parents: Hans Hubermann, the kind-hearted, accordion-playing foster father who does an incredible act of humanity that shows best of us even in the worst situations; Rosa Hubermann, the foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails foster mother who reveals a surprising side of her personality during the story; Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend, whom I believe actually steals the novel from her; and Max Vandenburg, the Jewish man who becomes an integral part of Liesel’s life and is unforgettable.

I have to write that through three-quarters of the novel, I was let down from the expectations I had before I started reading it.  However, the last quarter of the novel and some unforgettable scenes throughout the book changed my initial opinion.

For example, one of my favorite scenes in the novel was when Rudy Steiner decides to paint himself black so that he can become Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.  Considering that Rudy was a blonde German boy doing an act like that during the time of Nazi Germany was beyond crazy.  However, I thought it was a realistic picture of how kids can cut through barriers unencumbered regardless of the political or governmental backdrop that was happening at that time.

In closing, I wrote in my last review that The Opposite of Art by Athol Dickson was one of the best novels I read in 2012.  Well, I have to add The Book Thief to that list and I realized that something highly recommended can live up to the hype.

Book Review 26: Athol Dickson’s The Opposite of Art

Athol Dickson is becoming one of my favorite novelists.

Last year, I did a review for his Lost Mission novel and I throughly enjoyed it. Now, I’m doing a review for his latest novel, The Opposite of Art. Also, he is the first novelist I’ve done a second review for on my blog.

The Opposite of Art is the story of the genius artist, Sheridan Ridler, who is known for painting nudes without faces. Ridler got quite a reputation in the art world as a cad to the ladies and an arrogant jerk to everyone else that came in contact with him.

Well, he has an accident at the Harlem River and that begins his spiritual transformation. However, the art world thinks the great artist is dead and Ridler’s paintings are worth millions. But there are reports that he’s alive and his daughter (whom he never met) from one of his models decides to search for him.

Because of her search, the daughter attracts another individual from Ridler’s past who wants to make sure the great artist is dead….and if not, stay dead.

In lesser hands, a story like this could have fallen victim to stererotypes and the spiritual transformation would have been a “Come to Jesus Moment and Now I Have A Get Out of Hell Free Card.” However, Dickson creates a story of intrigue, love, murder, family relationships, and the collision of art and faith. He goes beyond the stereotypes to produce a novel that has depth and reveals the honest struggles of someone trying to come to terms with their spiritual conversion.

Because of that, Dickson has become one of my favorite novelists.  He seems to understand that being a believer is not just about saying the sinner’s prayer, attending at church once a week, and singing Jesus loves and forgives me songs. A spiritual conversion affects every area of our lives and this type of fiction should reflect that and not simplify it for mass consumption.

In both novels I’ve reviewed, Dickson has given the Christian Fiction genre a fresh and honest perspective of what these types of novels should look like and he deserves to be mentioned with writers that preceded him like Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene who expanded the genre’s boundaries as well.

The Opposite of Art should be a must read for all serious readers and is one of the best novels I’ve read in 2012 so far.