Book Review – The Sparrow

I hadn’t even heard of this book until it was brought up by one of my local book clubs. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell was published in 1996 and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the British Science Fiction Association Award. A mini-series based on the book is currently under development at FX.

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Here is the blurb:

In 2019, humanity finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post picks up exquisite singing from the planet Rakhat. While the U.N. debates possible contact missions, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an 8-person expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human.

This brief description hardly begins to explain the scope of this book. The story unfolds in two parallel time frames, one telling how an alien radio signal was discovered and a secret interplanetary mission was sent to search out the planet from whence it originated. The second part follows the trauma of the sole survivor to return from that mission, a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz.

The plot develops slowly, but that didn’t matter as much to me as it usually does, being a plot-oriented reader. The way the character development was done and how the relationships between each character were slowly drawn were engrossing and made up for the lack of immediate drama. This is heartbreaking at the same time, for you already know at the outset that something terrible is going to happen to all these people.

Emilio Sandoz becomes the spiritual force behind the mission, and much of this book is about his faith in God at different points in his life. Everyone on this mission has their own reasons for being there, and while the expedition is driven by the Jesuits, this is not a book that glorifies religion. Rather, it asks questions of how far one will go for faith and how events can be interpreted by those with blind faith in their God. In the end, can tragedy be written off as God’s will? Or is it better to forgo all belief in such a system?

Have you read The Sparrow or anything else by Mary Doria Russell? Let me know in the comments.

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Catch and Kill

When Harvey Weinstein was outed as a sexual predator amid the #MeToo movement, I had followed the news, of course, but I didn’t know the whole story. I don’t remember how I came across this book, but I am intrigued by stories of investigative journalism. Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow tells how the author went from working on a routine assignment to uncovering the stories of women who had been frightened into silence by an organized system of intimidation by those in power.

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Here is the blurb:

In 2017, a routine network television investigation led Ronan Farrow to a story only whispered about: one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers was a predator, protected by fear, wealth, and a conspiracy of silence. As Farrow drew closer to the truth, shadowy operatives, from high-priced lawyers to elite war-hardened spies, mounted a secret campaign of intimidation, threatening his career, following his every move and weaponizing an account of abuse in his own family.

All the while, Farrow and his producer faced a degree of resistance that could not be explained – until now. And a trail of clues revealed corruption and cover-ups from Hollywood, to Washington, and beyond.

This is the untold story of the exotic tactics of surveillance and intimidation deployed by wealthy and connected men to threaten journalists, evade accountability and silence victims of abuse – and it’s the story of the women who risked everything to expose the truth and spark a global movement.

Both a spy thriller and a meticulous work of investigative journalism, Catch and Kill breaks devastating new stories about the rampant abuse of power – and sheds far-reaching light on investigations that shook the culture.

In a dramatic account of violence and espionage, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Ronan Farrow exposes serial abusers and a cabal of powerful interests hell-bent on covering up the truth, at any cost.

I listened to this book in audio format, read by the author. He gives a thorough account of his journey to discover and document the widespread sexual harassment amid the movie and television industry, but that’s only part of the story. I was only halfway through the book when I thought that he had gathered plenty of information. What else could the book be about?

The second part tells about how his work was suppressed and how major networks shied away from running the story. After everything he went through, I’m actually surprised that he wasn’t scared off the story in the same manner that those in power suppressed the voices of any women who dared make accusations against them.

In the end, The New Yorker published the story and won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for Farrow’s reporting (shared with The New York Times).

Have you read much non-fiction or stories of investigative journalism? Let me know in the comments.

Read more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – Ruin and Rising

Ruin and Rising is the third and final book in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone Trilogy. I also listened to this in audiobook format, narrated by Lauren Fortgang.

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Here is the blurb:

The capital has fallen.

The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.

Now the nation’s fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.

Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.

Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova’s amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling’s secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.

So this final book in the series brought everything together to quite a satisfying conclusion. I had guessed some aspects of the ending but not enough to spoil anything about it. I particularly like stories where the magic and the history come full circle and resolve something about the world, and this book certainly satisfies in that respect.

I don’t want to spoil anything by saying more here, but if you enjoyed the first two books, you will likely appreciate this conclusion.

For my review of book 1, Shadow and Bone, look here. Or for book 2, Siege and Storm, look here.

Have you read the whole series? What did you think? Please let me know in the comments.

Find more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm is the second book in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone Trilogy. I jumped right into this after finishing the first book and also listened to this in audiobook format (narrated by Lauren Fortgang). If you want to read my review of the first book, Shadow and Bone, you can find it here.

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Here is the blurb:

Darkness never dies.

Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land, all while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. But she can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.

The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her—or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

This second book picks up with Alina and Mal trying to find a life together in a new land. But of course, they can’t live happily ever after when this is only book 2! Parts of this second book irritated me because at the beginning it felt like the author was reverting to the same forms as in book 1. I started to tire of having the Darkling threaten to hurt Mal in order to get Alina to cooperate.

But once a certain privateer arrives on scene, the events took a fresh turn. Now I did get tired of Mal being surly and Alina hiding secrets throughout the book, but at least the characters change as the story unfolds. I also figured out one character’s secret before it was revealed, but the clues had been there.

The mythology and the history of grisha magic begins to be more important in this book which leads into the resolution of the story in the last book.

Have you read any of the Shadow and Bone books or watched the Netflix show? Let me know in the comments.

Find more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – Shadow and Bone

I started to listen to this series (The Shadow and Bone Trilogy) by Leigh Bardugo in audiobook format (narr. Lauren Fortgang) after I started to watch the recent Netflix series encompassing the events of this first book, Shadow and Bone.

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Here is the blurb:

Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.

The country of Ravka is loosely based on some Russian or Eastern European cultures and is a tough place to live for the average peasant. I think it is that aspect, together with the romance aspects that gave this story echoes of the Hunger Games.

However, this is very much a fantasy setting, with magic and monsters aplenty. Interestingly, this is also a world in which technology has advanced in spite of magic, even to the point where it starts to threaten those in power. I found this book very easy to follow and it sped to a satisfying conclusion. While the story isn’t complete in the first book, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger either.

The television show follows the book very closely, but mixes in events and characters from one of the author’s other series (which I have yet to read). Even if you haven’t read the books, you could watch the show without any spoilers for how the series ends.

Have you read Shadow and Bone or watched the show? Let me know in the comments.

Find more of my book reviews here.

Book Review – The City & The City

I had wanted to read something by China Miéville for some time and this novel came up in one of my book clubs. So I finally had my chance. The City & The City is a stand-alone novel that tied for a Hugo Award for best novel, won the Locus Award, World Fantasy Award, and Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was nominated for a Nebula Award.

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Here is the blurb:

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.

Borlú must travel from the decaying Beszel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own. This is a border crossing like no other, a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen. His destination is Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma. With Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, and struggling with his own transition, Borlú is enmeshed in a sordid underworld of rabid nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them and those they care about more than their lives.

What stands against them are murderous powers in Beszel and in Ul Qoma: and, most terrifying of all, that which lies between these two cities.

Casting shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, The City & the City is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.

Overall, this book just wasn’t for me. I found the author’s writing style hard to follow and I can’t pinpoint exactly why. Something about the sentence structure and the way he writes dialogue made this a hard book to get into.

The story started off intriguing enough with a murder investigation in a strange mish-mash of coexisting cities, their separation enforced by the mysterious power of Breach. I felt like the plot dragged and it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through the story that it became more suspenseful.

This next part is a little spoilery:

What bothered me the most about this book is that the most fascinating aspect – the nature of the two cities and rumor of a secret third city – was not the point of the book. The murder is solved and has a mundane explanation, while the third city is just a red herring. Meh.

Have you read anything by China Miéville? Would you recommend a different book of his based on my problems with this one? Let me know in the comments.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

I don’t remember where I heard about this book, but I picked this up as part of my attempt to read non-fiction from time to time. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein is a fascinating look at how people learn and apply skills in fields stretching from chess to music to science. I listened to this as an audiobook, which seems to be my preference for non-fiction in particular.

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Here is the blurb:

What’s the most effective path to success in any domain? It’s not what you think.
Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. But a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.

David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He discovered that in most fields–especially those that are complex and unpredictable–generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.

Provocative, rigorous, and engrossing, Range makes a compelling case for actively cultivating inefficiency. Failing a test is the best way to learn. Frequent quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers. The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepening their knowledge in a single area. As experts silo themselves further while computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans, people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will increasingly thrive.

I enjoyed this book for both the concepts and the stories. The author has clearly done his research and I learned some fascinating history in this book, particularly in the section on music.

The variety of fields that the author explores is another reason why I enjoyed reading this book. He brings in examples from sports, music, chess, science, art, writing, medicine, and engineering, showing how people with a wider range of experiences can sometimes make the discoveries that a more narrowly-focused expert cannot see.

The audiobook was easy to listen to and nothing in this book is too dense for the audio format. This was an easy non-fiction book to follow and one of my favorite books so far this year.

Have you read anything by David Epstein? Please let me know in the comments.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – The Wind Through the Keyhole

The Wind Through the Keyhole is a story set in Stephen King’s Dark Tower world. Chronologically, it is book #4.5, set between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. However, the bulk of this story is not Roland’s, but rather his narration of another tale.

I listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by the author himself. Actually, The Dark Tower series were some of the first audiobooks I ever listened to.

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Here is the blurb:

Roland Deschain and his ka-tetJake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy, the billy-bumbler—encounter a ferocious storm just after crossing the River Whye on their way to the Outer Baronies. As they shelter from the howling gale, Roland tells his friends not just one strange story but two . . . and in so doing, casts new light on his own troubled past.

In his early days as a gunslinger, in the guilt-ridden year following his mother’s death, Roland is sent by his father to investigate evidence of a murderous shape-shifter, a “skin-man” preying upon the population around Debaria. Roland takes charge of Bill Streeter, the brave but terrified boy who is the sole surviving witness to the beast’s most recent slaughter. Only a teenager himself, Roland calms the boy and prepares him for the following day’s trials by reciting a story from the Magic Tales of the Eld that his mother often read to him at bedtime. “A person’s never too old for stories,” Roland says to Bill. “Man and boy, girl and woman, never too old. We live for them.” And indeed, the tale that Roland unfolds, the legend of Tim Stoutheart, is a timeless treasure for all ages, a story that lives for us.

I’m sure it’s been at least ten years since I read the original series. It was nice to revisit Roland and his ka-tet, even if the story doesn’t dwell so much on them, but more on Roland’s past and a second story within that story. I think that placing this book after Wizard and Glass makes sense since that entire book relates Roland’s backstory as well. I’d have to re-read the series to see if it truly works there, as anything that follows the phenomenal Wizard and Glass has a lot to live up to.

The story of Tim Stoutheart was more involved, with greater room for character growth and a more intricate plot than Roland’s investigations into the skin-man. In many ways, it felt like an older fairy tale. I think that was partly because it filled that role for Roland in the way that it had been read to him by his mother, but also because it was set in a vague past and pitted the hero (Tim) against two different types of evil. However, the book doesn’t completely neglect Roland, showing some of how he deals with the loss of his mother. So in that respect, Tim’s own quest to save his mother is echoed by the recent loss of Roland’s, at his own hand.

Have you read The Dark Tower series? What did you think? Would you read it again with this book slotted into it’s place? Let me know in the comments.

Find more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story From Launch Control

I have trying to get back to my stack of space-themed non-fiction books recently. This one was a short read that I picked up on sale last year and I read it on my Kindle. Challenger: An American Tragedy: The Inside Story From Launch Control is written by Hugh Harris, a journalist who worked as “the voice of launch control” for NASA.

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Here is the blurb:

On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Seventy-three seconds after launch, the fiery breach of a solid motor joint caused a rupture of the propellant tanks, and a stunned nation watched as flames engulfed the craft, killing all seven crew members on board. It was Hugh Harris, “the voice of launch control,” whom audiences across the country heard counting down to lift-off on that fateful day.

With over fifty years of experience with NASA’s missions, Harris presents the story of the Challenger tragedy as only an insider can. With by-the-second accounts of the spacecraft’s launch and a comprehensive overview of the ensuing investigation, Harris gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the devastating accident that grounded the shuttle fleet for over two years. This book tells the whole story of the Challenger’s tragic legacy.

While this book was short, it was also hard to read. I was one of many school children watching the launch live in my classroom when the tragedy unfolded. Up until that day I had wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. At only eight years old, I didn’t understand the risks of exploration and spaceflight. After the accident, I abandoned that dream (until later, but that’s a different tale).

The author gives a good overview of the events around the disaster and the investigations that followed. He doesn’t go into exhaustive detail, but just enough to relate the relevant information. The author focuses more on the dry details and less on the emotional side of the tragedy, so while those human aspects are all included, the way it was written made it easier to read than it might have been.

Next up in my space-themed non-fiction, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson. What other non-fiction books about space exploration have you read? Let me know in the comments!

Read more of my reviews here.

Book Review – Ready Player Two

I have been so busy recently that I almost forgot to review this book. So while I have a few minutes to spare, I thought I’d finally write out my thoughts on the latest book by Ernest Cline, Ready Player Two. This is, of course, a sequel to Ready Player One which I had ready several years ago, and which was made into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg.

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Here is the blurb:

An unexpected quest. Two worlds at stake. Are you ready?

Days after Oasis founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything. Hidden within Halliday’s vault, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the Oasis a thousand times more wondrous, and addictive, than even Wade dreamed possible. With it comes a new riddle and a new quest. A last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize. And an unexpected, impossibly powerful, and dangerous new rival awaits, one who will kill millions to get what he wants. Wade’s life and the future of the Oasis are again at stake, but this time the fate of humanity also hangs in the balance.

The plot picks up in the immediate aftermath of the first book’s conclusion. But I also had the same problem getting into this book that I did with the first one. The way the opening third of the story is told is through a first person point of view, with Wade simply telling the reader about all the recent events while he wakes up and goes about his daily routine. It lacks tension and would have been more engaging if written in a more direct way. Listening to this as an audiobook, made it tolerable, but I think if I had been reading a physical copy, I would have stumbled over this approach more.

The way Wade presents everything at the beginning also make him more unlikeable as his tale progresses. He loses his girlfriend, mistreats his friends, and becomes more isolated from society. Once the real antagonist shows up, only the enemy’s evil psychotic nature made me want to cheer Wade on at that point.

I did enjoy the book to some extent, but not as much as the first one. With the exception of the Tolkien-based world at the end, I didn’t relate to the rest of the scenes based on pop culture spheres as much. The tension does build and the characters are forced to work together to solve the new puzzle they are given. There are very real stakes as the author has contrived a way to pull the story out of the purely virtual world of the Oasis and give it real consequences. I did enjoy the way the ending was constructed, but I can’t say more about it without giving away spoilers.

Have you read both Ready Player One and Ready Player Two? Let me know in the comments!

Find more of my reviews here.

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