Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereA while back I got a great deal on an Audible membership, $7 for three months instead of $45. Winning! At the end of the three months I had credits to spend before I could cancel, and so into my collection went the radio adaptation of Neverwhere because Benedict Cumberbatch and because I couldn’t find it for free (legally) anywhere else.

I waffled about whether to listen to it immediately (see: Benedict Cumberbatch) or finally get around to reading this book, and I might still be waffling about it except that in a room full of my sister-in-law’s books, this one was sitting on top of a precarious pile, just waiting to be read. So I did.

It was… not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be American Gods-like, maybe, or, better, Good Omens-y, but it reminded me more of Stardust than anything else. It has that sort of slow, dreamy, fairy-tale quality to it, as well as some very obvious morals and dubious motives.

It’s not quite what I wanted, but I still liked it, for sure. I was drawn into the weird world of Richard Mayhew, your standard bumbling British fellow with terrible girlfriend and improbable lack of any social graces, and moreso of Door, your standard, uh, magical creature slash creator of portals to other worlds. As one is.

Richard, having done an exceptionally good deed, is punished for it because magic is rude like that and finds himself rather unmoored from reality, no longer welcome in our regular world and yet not welcome in the world of London Below, where things are magic and danger is lurking in every corner, especially for Door. But, having almost literally nothing to lose, he bumbles his way into Door’s quest for answers and revenge, and, probably not a spoiler, learns some stuff about himself along the way.

It is kind of an epically standard boy-meets-magic story, but of course Gaiman sells it with his writing, which is as ever poetic and darkly humorous and full of the tiniest and most important details. I hadn’t realized when reading it how early it falls in Gaiman’s writing career, so much earlier than almost anything of his I’ve read save Good Omens and Sandman that it’s hard to adequately judge this book on its own merits. I am definitely more inclined toward his more contemporary novels and stories, but I can see the bits and pieces in this novel that, twenty years later, make a Gaiman book a Gaiman book and that’s always a cool thing.

And, of course, now I’m ready to bust out my radio adaptation and see what can be done with this book with four hours and a bevy of amazing voices. I am looking forward to reporting back on that!

Recommendation: For fans of Gaiman and weird London-based fantasy stories.

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The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowI hadn’t intended to read The Sparrow so soon after my last read of it, but I ended up having to fill an emergency book-club slot and I wanted to make sure I had a winner of a book. Of course, shortly after I announced this as the next book, I started hearing horror stories all across the internet (by which I mean one horror story on a podcast) about someone else’s book club where no one liked The Sparrow.

Luckily that’s not actually possible and that person was clearly lying, as my second book club reading went just as fantastically as the first!

There’s just so much greatness in The Sparrow, starting with the chilling-on-a-re-read last line of the prologue — “They meant no harm.” Seriously, chills. Then there’s the competing Before and After plotlines that don’t seem like they can come together until they rush headlong into each other just exactly like Sandoz rushes headlong into Askama to start this whole narrative. And there’s the worldbuilding, which, in a present very close to the present of the story (2015 to the story’s 2019), seems oddly prescient about some things and very very happily completely wrong about others. Hooray for iPads and a lack of institutionalized slavery! (Though as one book clubber pointed out, not a lack of slavery in general.)

But I’ve talked about all that before (see link above), and I will talk your head off about it if you even tangentially mention this book in my presence. What was cool about reading the book this time was that Scott and I chose to listen to it on our road trip up to Cleveland, so we got to experience a very different re-read together. There was much pausing and discussing of the book while we drove, and it was really fun to see how we took parts of the book very differently.

And, of course, it was cool to hear the book. The narrator, David Colacci, was maybe not a master of accents, but he put on a good show, and I realized for the first time how ridiculously multicultural (still pretty white, but multicultural) the characters are. I mean, I knew there were Texans and Italians and Puerto Ricans in the book, but let’s be real, they all had Cleveland accents in my head. So it was neat to hear how they “really” sounded. Colacci also did a good job with tone and volume, putting a lot of emotional depth into Sandoz’s pain and Sofia’s reticence and the narration about everything awful that happens to everyone in this book. At first I was a little put off by this, because it can be really hard to hear those quiet parts while driving without losing an eardrum to a normal speaking voice, but since I already kind of knew what was happening it turned out pretty okay after all. I will definitely be seeking this narrator out for future audiobooks.

I will also keep recommending this book to everyone. I knew my first book club would love it because I know them pretty well, but I was really nervous about this second book club because the members have wildly varying ages and religions and viewpoints and I was worried that like two people would show up. But the ten of us who came all at least appreciated the book, and we had a great discussion about fate and belief and responsibility without anyone resorting to fisticuffs, and several people said they would be seeking out the sequel, so I’m glad to get more people on the MDR train.

Recommendation: Um, go read it, obviously. If you’ve only read it once, read it again.

Rating: 10/10, perpetually, always

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowThe last time I picked a book for my online book club, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time, and so when it finally came around to my turn again I decided to go with a foolproof selection — a book I’d read and loved and already foisted upon another group member, who also loved it. Co-member Mary says this is “cheating,” but I say it’s “not getting kicked out of the book club.”

It seems to have worked, as in fact all of the people who read it liked it, though we didn’t end up having terribly much time to actually discuss the book because of reasons. This is a shame because this book makes me want to talk about ALL THE THINGS.

Of course, as I said last time I read the book, a lot of what makes this story so interesting and wonderful is the way that Russell tells you things in stages — first you learn that Emilio’s hands are somehow no good, then you learn how they’re no good, then you learn why they’re no good — so I won’t spoil any of that here. It was really interesting on my second reading to see how Russell dances around certain subjects that become important later, some of which I missed the first time, but those reveals later were not nearly as exciting.

Another thing I noticed on my second reading was the stuff around the Jesuits in Space storyline; I didn’t remember going in how much world-building Russell does to create her version of 2019, which was 23 years away when the book was first published, 11 years away when I first read this book and only six years away now. The computing technology is surprisingly accurate, if awkwardly phrased in 90s speak, but there are some references to the fact that we’ve killed all the trees that make me very glad that we haven’t, though I guess we’ve still got six years. Russell, who lives in my beloved Cleveland, also hedges her bets by getting the Indians to the World Series, though of course they lose, because that is how Cleveland works.

Narrative-wise, I had trouble with the book last time because it spends a lot of time on some scenes I consider boring and absolutely none on others I am more interested in, and because the ending runs in front of you and slaps you right in the face when you think there should certainly be much more story left. I was still disappointed in that this time, especially regarding certain scenes where certain things happen to certain characters, but since I knew more of what was going on it was easier to see this as a function of the story being told by a reluctant narrator who wants to spend more time on the good things than on the horrible, awful things that happened to him. Seriously, poor Emilio.

Story-wise, I am still madly in love with this novel. I love that music sets off a space journey and that the Jesuits are way more organized than any government. I adore all of the humans brave enough to go to space and the Runa that they meet (though I wouldn’t want to live with them!). I appreciate if not enjoy all of the realistic consequences of this journey and of the human propensity to break the Prime Directive.

If you haven’t read this book, I really think you should, because it will make you think lots of thoughts and that is never a bad thing. Also Jesuits! In Space! You can’t go wrong.

Recommendation: For everyone, unless you are allergic to space priests, I guess, or very bad things happening to good people. There’s a lot of that.

Rating: 10/10

P.S. Apparently several years ago Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to The Sparrow, with the intent to have Pitt star as Emilio. Russell subsequently revoked the rights, and while I am sad not to have this fantastic book as a movie, I am very happy that I won’t have to worry about that casting.

Woman With Birthmark, by Håkan Nesser (7 June — 8 June)

Finally, a great book! I’ve been lacking them for so long….

I read this mystery without even looking at the jacket flap and I’m very glad of it; the flap would certainly have ruined a few interesting developments for me. So: go read it. Now. If you need more convincing, read on.

Woman With Birthmark is a mystery novel in which we meet the murderer in the first chapter but have no idea who she is, why she’s doing it, or even whom she’s going to kill. A few chapters later, we meet a man called Ryszard Malik who has been receiving odd phone calls that are simply a song recording being played over and over. Malik thinks he recognizes the song, but doesn’t understand its significance until it’s too late — so late that his wife comes home one night to find him dead in the entryway with two gunshot wounds to the chest and two to the, ah, groin. The police are called in and they do their best to solve this odd, improbable murder, but of course can’t make any connections until another man is found dead.

This is a Swedish novel from about ten years ago recently translated to English, so I’m not sure how much I’m missing due to a lack of Swedish culture — if you’ve any insight, you should let me know.

Rating: 9/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Sweden)

Audiobook Round-up

I got back last night from a week-long camping trip in Alabama, which was awesome. Less awesome is all the internet catching-up I have to do!

Because of the twelve-hour drive, I decided to collect a bunch of audiobooks from the library’s fancy-pants online trove of such things. Scott loves them, but I’d never given them a real try. Now I have, and… well. I was right — I can’t focus on an audiobook to save my life. So. No ratings (or even decent reviews) for these until I read them proper, but here’s the list of things I listened to in the car last week.

Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, by Dave Barry (22 March)
This is a 1988 collection of Barry’s columns, which shows in all his talk about Reagan as president! I like Barry, so I enjoyed listening to this hour-long book while I tried to stay awake (we left home at 6am!). Bonus points for having John Ritter as a narrator.

More of Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, by Dave Barry (22 March)
I can’t seem to find this listed anywhere but fancy-pants online troves of audiobooks, so this is possibly audiobook-only. Unsure. Anyway, this is the 1996 collection of awesome columns. Still entertaining. Still narrated by John Ritter. Still capable of keeping me awake, if not listening properly.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde (28 March — 29 March)
I knew the general idea going in, of course — Dorian Gray has a painting that ages while he stays young. That turns out to be a gross over-simplification of this novel, which deals with heavy themes of morality and ethics and deception. Gray likes his painting at the beginning, but as it ages and the bad things he’s done show up in it he comes to loathe it. And his loathing of it has him doing even more bad things that show up in it. And all the while he has an angel-friend telling him how good he is, and a devil-friend spouting off ridiculous (even to him) notions of how the world works. I definitely enjoyed this book, but I will have to go back and read it to pick up on the hour or two I missed of it!

(Support Your Local Library Challenge)

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (9 September − 13 September)

Read this book. Seriously.

The Sparrow mostly follows the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who, through coincidences (or God’s work?) ends up on a mission to a just-discovered planet near Alpha Centauri. The book follows two timelines, one starting when Sandoz returns to Earth, as the last surviving member of the crew, several years after some very embarrassing and horrifying information about Sandoz has made its own way back. He is to report on the mission to his superiors, but has to get over what happened to him before he can face the other priests.

The other timeline starts back at the beginning, with the events leading up to the discovery of the planet, then details the mission and what happens after the crew lands on Rakhat. This second timeline slowly fills in the large number of blanks left in the first, and helps make Sandoz’s alleged crimes understandable.

I don’t want to be too specific here, because a lot of what I loved about the book was the way Russell would bring in a fact without explanation, causing me to say, “What? When did that happen? Why?” and then a little while later the narrative would answer my question.

I loved this book a whole ridiculous bunch. It’s an interesting take on what would happen if we found life on another planet and went out to meet it, and if meeting that life would go just how we might expect it. I’m a big fan of the dual timeline, and Russell uses this to her great advantage.

The one thing I didn’t like terribly much is that the ending happens so fast − you spend a lot of time leisurely following the stories and then all of a sudden Russell is throwing in forced exposition in order to tie up the story. I would gladly have read another hundred pages (the book is about 400); the rushed ending was unnecessary and made the religious tie-ins at the end seem a bit trite.

Rating: 9.5/10