Gutted by Faith

Every once in a while I read something that I didn’t like at all that I want to force other people to read because I found it disturbing, moving or good, even if I didn’t find it enjoyable to read. After all, whether we like something or not has relatively little to do with if a thing is good or bad. This is all to say that I found Mary Doria Russell’s critically acclaimed book The Sparrow to be absolutely sparrow_paperback_cover-165x250heart wrenching and awful in myriad ways, but I still want you to read it.

I’m not selling this, am I? Let me try to intrigue you…

In the year 2019 humanity catches wind of an extraterrestrial strain of music from a planet that we’ll eventually come to know as Rakhat. While the UN argues over how to deal with this musical missive from space the Society of Jesus (a group of Jesuits) secretly plans and executes a mission to Rakhat (they use asteroid-ship called the Stella Maris to get there!).

Annnd things don’t go so well.

The narrative begins during a Vatican inquest into Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, the only survivor of the Society of Jesus’s trip to Rakhat. He is a broken man, physically and spiritually, having undergone a complete crisis of faith on Rakhat, where he and his crew made numerous mistakes in regards to first contact with an unknown society that end in tragedy.

As Sandoz’s story unfolds, we get a grisly reminder about why the Federation in Star Trek has the Prime Directive. The crew of the expedition meets the Runa, a simple and good natured race when they first arrive on Rakhat. They make friendly overtures and are welcomed into the Runa’s culture. It becomes clear early on that the Runa are not the creatures who sent the interstellar musical message, as they seem to have neither the culture not the inclination to create the kinds of music sent to Earth.

The crew makes insanely bad choices, though they intend to help, that lead to significant changes in Runa culture that draw the attention of the Jana’ata. The Jana’ata are the predatory and ruling species on the planet that have co-evolved with the Runa, but that exploit and abuse them regularly. The Jana’ata have a more advanced culture and are described as excessively hedonistic and oftentimes cruel.

When the Jana’ata intervene in the human crew’s involvement with the Runa the real story (in my opinion) begins. Philosophical questions about colonization, interfering with other cultures, spirituality and ultimately the gray areas between the blacks and whites of good and evil. It is clear that Sandoz means to to the right thing, but his (and his crew’s) actions lead to irreparable harm between not only the Jana’ata and the Runa, but also Rakhat and Earth.

I can promise you that there is no shortage of horror in what goes on when the Jana’ata arrive on the scene and it would be easy to view them as the villains of this story. After all, they are a group of predatory oppressors that commit unthinkable atrocities on the Runa and on Sandoz himself when he is captured by them (think Ramsay Bolton level cruelty and be careful if that’s a trigger for you). However, I think there is a subtlety here that we shouldn’t miss.

While the Jana’ata can be truly awful and the Runa are simple and sweet, the truth is that the crew of the Stella Maris are truly at fault. They land on Rakhat with almost no information about the culture they’re entering and begin changing it, with good intentions, but without regard for the consequences. I think this is the reason to read this book, especially in times such as our own.

The Sparrow speculates about what it means to do the right thing without forethought or a wider cultural lens. It considers what it means to impose centuries of corrupt morality on unsuspecting and unguarded cultures we do not understand. This is also a story about what happens when the predator is out-predatored. Christian “missionaries” and “explorers” have wreaked havoc on indigenous cultures throughout history and this story starts off in a way that suggests that this is a glorification of those goals, but quickly devolves into something much more complicated.

The novel is a self-contained conversation about the reality of morality: that it is in the eye of the beholder. And while I was absolutely gutted by the events that take place in the duration of the story, I appreciate the nuance of the dialogue. The book is well written and smart as hell, so even though I didn’t like it, it’s a good (if uncomfortable) read. Fans of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness will likely enjoy the philosophical aspects of The Sparrow.

For those who can get through The Sparrow and want to know more, there is a sequel, Children of God. I haven’t read it, because I’d had just about enough of Sandoz, Rakhat and the Jana’ata by the time I was done with The Sparrow, but you can read it for me. You remember that I told you I didn’t like this book, right? If you read Children of God, report back. I hear it’s about a revolution and we’re about due for one of those up in here.

Allison Carr Waechter is starting to long for fall and autumnal, witchy re-reads. 


Starved in Space

downloadI am not into horror, almost ever, but I am always down for creepy, even super creepy. I especially love super creepy science fiction with an unreliable narrator, so Genevieve Valentine’s novella Dream Houses is honestly pretty perfect for me. Plus, short! I am so busy this summer I can barely find time to sleep, so it was wonderful to read something so great that was also so short, but that has had me thinking about it for a month.

Dream Houses is about a lot of things, family, class struggle, murder, space travel and madness. However, the frame story is that in a future where space travel takes a while and humans are colonizing and terraforming other worlds, goods have to get from place to place. They do that in merchant ships (Kite-class) that travel into deep space for long stretches of time — seven years in this case.

Crew members are meant to stay awake for about six months at the beginning and end of the trip, but otherwise they spend the rest of the trip in stasis and the ship is guided by an AI. Of course you must know by now, this is not what happens. Amadis Reyes, a low level crew member of the ship Menkalinan, wakes all too early to find that the rest of the crew is dead and she is alive on a mere technicality. It appears that the crew’s deaths are due to some kind of purposeful sabotage and we are off and running with the mystery of the novella.

True to its strong sci-fi roots, this is a pretty classic space story in some ways. There is an exploration of class conflict (how people who transport merchandise are treated — the kinds of jobs Amadis has done in previously, as well as the way she grew up); there is the threat of Amadis not being able to make it to her destination without starving to death first (if the crew is supposed to be fed intravenously throughout their stasis period and they’ve been sabotaged, Amadis doesn’t really have enough food to make it to her destination, Gliese); plus there’s the overall threat presented by the sabotage in the first place. Why was the crew killed, why did Amadis survive and what is in the mysterious cargo hold that the ship’s AI won’t let her into? And is Capella (the AI) really as sinister as it seems, or is Amadis imagining things?

But these part of the “adventure” aren’t what make this novella worth recommending, though the growing creep factor in the relationship between Capella and Amadis as her sanity crumbles is certainly compelling; there is an indication that more complex AIs are available for purchase, but that this ship simply has the cheap version. So there is some question about whether or not Capella isn’t really the cheap version at all.

Though this question is certainly important and helps move the plot at a pretty quick pace, it’s Amadis herself that is truly interesting. Told from a first person perspective, we recognize that we can’t trust Amadis as she starves and becomes paranoid, but the flashes into her past really make the story. Her relationship with her brother is particularly intriguing. The question of whether or not her family loves her is presented over and over in such a nebulous way that I felt practically compelled to try asking her: “WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING HERE, AMADIS?” and then try to therapize her into some better ways of thinking. What can I say? I’m a fixer.

Of course, that’s not possible and that’s the real magic of the book. We’re left wondering about the mystery of the ship, of course, but about Amadis herself. How do all these memories of her family fit together? What really happened between her and her brother? Between her and her parents? How do the events that take place in her time as a trucker fit into all of this? And honestly, does it mean anything if we understand that Amadis is going mad? Or does it mean everything, because this is what’s left as Amadis gradually loses her mind?

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions and it’s why I particularly love this book. It’s not a “fun” read, but it’s certainly given me something deep to sink my teeth into and something to puzzle over in my distracted moments this summer. I’d say that if you loved some of the creepier aspects of the show Firefly, this is a great book for you.

Allison Carr Waechter is living on the surface of a very humid sun this summer. Thanks, climate change. Thanks. 




What’s Ahead

Most of what I’ve been reading lately is for our Coven Chat discussion posts (previously called Coven Reads), so I figured now’s a good time to announce what we’ll be talking about as a group in April and May.

The Starbound Trilogy, by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner:  I’ve been hearing wonderful things about this series for years, so I’m really looking forward to our discussion. I just finished These Broken Stars (#1), and I’ll finish This Shattered World (#2), and Their Fractured Light (#3) this week.  Since each book is about different characters and takes place in a new setting, I’m most curious about how they will relate to one another and bring clarity to the series’ overarching plot.


The Winner’s Trilogy, by Marie Rutkoski: The Winner’s Curse (#1) and The Winner’s Crime (#2) are a couple of my favorite books, so I can’t wait to read The Winner’s Kiss (#3), available tomorrow.


A Gathering of Shadows Final

The Shadowhunters Novels, by Cassandra Clare: I’m now finishing The Mortal Instruments books (City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels, City of Lost Souls, and City of Heavenly Fire). Next I’ll read The Infernal Devices Trilogy (Clockwork AngelClockwork Prince, and Clockwork Princess), along with the first book in The Dark Artifices Trilogy, Lady Midnight, and The Bane Chronicles. We’ll also compare the books to the Shadowhunters tv show, so I’m really excited for our discussion.

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic #2), by V.E. Schwab: Allison and I had so much fun discussing A Darker Shade of Magic last year, and I’m looking forward to talking about its sequel.

The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater: I can’t wait to re-read The Raven Boys (#1) and The Dream Thieves (#2)  before The Raven King (#4) hits the shelves on April 26th. I’m glad I waited until now to read Blue Lily, Lily Blue (#3), so I won’t have a painful wait between books 3 and 4.


23308084A Court of Mist and Fury, by Sarah J. Maas: Last May Allison, Nicola and I had so much fun discussing A Court of Thorns and Roses, and I can’t wait to chat about this sequel with them!

The Rose and the Dagger, by Renée Ahdieh: The three of us loved The Wrath and the Dawn (see my recommendation) and are excited to discuss its sequel in May.

Have you read these series? Which books are you looking forward to the most? 

Happy Spring! – Alyssa 

Winter 2016 YA Wrap-up

Now that it’s officially spring, it’s a perfect time to post a roundup of the winter releases I’ve recommended:


Nicola, Allison, and I enjoyed Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard, immensely. (Read our discussion post here.)

Passenger, by Alexandra Bracken: Passenger brilliantly brings together teenagers Etta, a present-day New Yorker and prodigy violinist, and Nicholas, a biracial seafarer in colonial America. After Etta’s violin competition goes horribly wrong, she finds herself transported to an unfamiliar time and place. She is aboard a colonial ship, as Nicholas’s passenger. (Read my full recommendation here.)

Sword and Verse, by Kathy Macmillan: Sixteen-year-old Raisa is an orphan and a slave at the royal palace of Quilara. Ten years ago, the Quilarite king’s forces raided her homeland of Arnath, killing her parents and capturing her. In Arnath, Raisa’s father taught her to read and write, training her to take his place as the Learned One. But in Quilara, she must keep her literacy secret, since the Arnathim, the lowest class, are forbidden from reading and writing. (Literacy among the Arnathim is punishable by death.) Raisa’s status improves, however, after the royal tutor is executed for treason, and Raisa is chosen as the tutor-in-training for the Crown Prince, Mati. (Read my full recommendation here.)

The Dark Days Club, by Alison Goodman: If you’ve read Eon (2008) and Eona (2011), then you know how hard it’s been to wait FIVE YEARS for Alison Goodman’s next book! The Dark Days Club, the first book in her new historical fantasy series, set in Regency London and starring aristocratic Lady Helen as a reluctant demon-hunter, is worth the long wait. (Read my full recommendation here.)


Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys: Did you know that the worst disaster in maritime history occurred seventy-one years ago? On January 30, 1945, nine thousand people, mostly civilians, more than half of them children, died during the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff, as they attempted to escape the Russian invasion of East Prussia. Yet this tragedy has been largely forgotten…until now. In Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys, the acclaimed author of Between Shades of Gray (2011) and Out of the Easy (2013), brings to light and humanizes this tragedy. (Read my full recommendation here.)

Glass Sword, by Victoria Aveyard: Red Queen was one of my favorite books of 2015, so while I was very excited to finally get my hands on its sequel, Glass Sword, I was afraid that it would not live up to the awesomeness of its predecessor. Fortunately, what I love most about Red Queen–its rich world-building, dynamic characters, high-stakes adventure and romance, and plot twists and turns that never lose their punch (even after multiple reads)–continues in Glass Sword, but with an even more elaborate and expansive setting, cast of characters, and storyline. (Read my full recommendation here.)

Assassin’s Heart, by Sarah Ahiers: Attention Throne of Glass fans, there’s a new female assassin in YA fantasy! Like Celaena Sardothien, Oleander “Lea” Saldana, the seventeen-year-old heroine of Sarah Ahiers’s Assassin’s Heart (the first book in a planned duology), is a kick-ass, mask-wearing, revenge-seeking assassin. But the similarities between Maas’s and Ahiers’s series end here. (Read my full recommendation here.)

Blackhearts, by Nicole Castroman: Blackhearts is a smart, creative debut that imagines Edward “Teach” Drummond’s life…before he became Blackbeard! Blackhearts is not a pirate story, though. It’s a love story, told in alternating perspectives. Before “Teach” was a fearsome pirate, terrorizing the Caribbean from aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge, another Queen Anne stole his heart–his father’s maid–in 1697 Bristol, England, when he returned home after a year at sea. (Read my full recommendation here.)

The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig: This debut is a fun, smart, unique, magical, diverse, and intricately plotted historical fantasy that explores complex issues of family, friendship, trust, identity, and belonging. Sixteen-year-old Nix has traveled on her father’s ship, The Temptation, across many time periods and places, both real and imagined. As long as she and her father have a map of a place and time, they can go there. Which is wonderfully adventurous, except for one problem. Her father is determined to find the map that will take him back to 1868 Honolulu, before Nix’s mother died in childbirth. But won’t his return to the past and desire to save the woman he loves eliminate Nix’s very existence? (Read my full recommendation here.)


Rebel of the Sands, by Alwyn Hamilton: It’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with Amani, a heroine whose tongue is as sharp as her shooting, and Jin, the mysterious and handsome foreign fugitive who helps her escape an oppressive life. They’re as fierce as their world: the sultanate dessert nation of Miraji, where Old West meets Middle Eastern mythology and mythical beasts, including djinn, still exist in more remote and wild areas. Determined to battle oppression and embrace her own powers, Amani is one of my favorite new heroines in YA fantasy. (Read my full recommendation here.)

Into the Dim, by Janet B. Taylor: You don’t want to miss Into the Dim‘s time-traveling adventure, thrilling romance, and historical richness. After her mom disappears and is presumed dead, Hope Walton travels to Scotland to stay with her mom’s family, whom she’s never met. When she discovers their secret–they are time travelers–she journeys to 12th century England, where she encounters Eleanor of Aquitaine, Thomas Becket, and her mom (alive). Now she has three days to bring her mom back to the present, or they’ll be trapped in the 12th century forever! (Read my full recommendation here.)

Alyssa recommends new and upcoming releases in young adult fiction (and occasionally middle grade and adult). She thanks Edelweiss, the publishers, and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with digital review copies for review purposes only.


Summer 2016 YA Preview: July/August

Here are my most anticipated July and August releases. (Summaries are from Goodreads.)


This Savage Song (Monsters of Verity #1), by Victoria Schwab: The city of Verity has been overrun with monsters, born from the worst of human evil. In North Verity, the Corsai and the Malchai run free. Under the rule of Callum Harker, the monsters kill any human who has not paid for protection. In the South, Henry Flynn hunts the monsters who cross the border into his territory, aided by the most dangerous and darkest monsters of them all—the Sunai, dark creatures who use music to steal their victim’s souls. As one of only three Sunai in existence, August Flynn has always wanted to play a bigger role in the war between the north and the south. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate Harker, daughter of the leader of North Verity, August jumps on it. When Kate discovers August’s secret, the pair find themselves running for their lives and battling monsters from both sides of the wall. As the city dissolves into chaos, it’s up to them to foster a peace between monsters and humans.

Math_9780553539479_jkt_all_r1.inddHow to Hang a Witch (How to Hang a Witch #1), by Adriana Mather: Salem, Massachusetts is the site of the infamous witch trials and the new home of Samantha Mather. Recently transplanted from New York City, Sam and her stepmother are not exactly welcomed with open arms. Sam is the descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for those trials and immediately, she becomes the enemy of a group of girls who call themselves The Descendants. And guess who their ancestors were? If dealing with that weren’t enough, Sam also comes face to face with a real live (well technically dead) ghost. A handsome, angry ghost who wants Sam to stop touching his stuff. But soon Sam discovers she is at the center of a centuries old curse affecting anyone with ties to the trials. Sam must come to terms with the ghost and find a way to work with the Descendants to stop a deadly cycle that has been going on since the first accused witch was hanged. If any town should have learned its lesson, it’s Salem. But history is about to repeat itself.

27245910The Shadow Hour (The Girl at Midnight #2), by Melissa Grey: Everything in Echo’s life changed in a blinding flash when she learned the startling truth: she is the firebird, the creature of light that is said to bring peace. The firebird has come into the world, but it has not come alone. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and Echo can feel a great and terrible darkness rising in the distance. Cosmic forces threaten to tear the world apart. Echo has already lost her home, her family, and her boyfriend. Now, as the firebird, her path is filled with even greater dangers than the ones she’s already overcome. She knows the Dragon Prince will not fall without a fight. Echo must decide: can she wield the power of her true nature–or will it prove too strong for her, and burn what’s left of her world to the ground? Welcome to the shadow hour.

23454794Wax, by Gina Damico: Paraffin, Vermont, is known the world over as home to the Grosholtz Candle Factory. But behind the sunny retail space bursting with overwhelming scents and homemade fudge, seventeen-year-old Poppy Palladino discovers something dark and unsettling: a back room filled with dozens of startlingly life-like wax sculptures, crafted by one very strange old lady. Poppy hightails it home, only to be shocked when one of the figures—a teenage boy who doesn’t seem to know what he is—jumps naked and screaming out of the trunk of her car. She tries to return him to the candle factory, but before she can, a fire destroys the mysterious workshop—and the old woman is nowhere to be seen. With the help of the wax boy, who answers to the name Dud, Poppy resolves to find out who was behind the fire. But in the course of her investigation, she discovers that things in Paraffin aren’t always as they seem, that the Grosholtz Candle Factory isn’t as pure as its reputation—and that some of the townspeople she’s known her entire life may not be as human as they once were. In fact, they’re starting to look a little . . . waxy. Can Poppy and Dud extinguish the evil that’s taking hold of their town before it’s too late?



The Beauty of Darkness (The Remnant Chronicles #3), by Mary E. Pearson: Lia and Rafe have escaped Venda and the path before them is winding and dangerous – what will happen now?

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2), by Sabaa Tahir: A Torch Against the Night takes readers into the heart of the Empire as Laia and Elias fight their way north to liberate Laia’s brother from the horrors of Kauf Prison. Hunted by Empire soldiers, manipulated by the Commandant, and haunted by their pasts, Laia and Elias must outfox their enemies and confront the treacherousness of their own hearts. In the city of Serra, Helene Aquilla finds herself bound to the will of the Empire’s twisted new leader, Marcus. When her loyalty is questioned, Helene finds herself taking on a mission to prove herself—a mission that might destroy her, instead.

28205310Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives #2), by Kate Elliot: Now a Challenger, Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives–the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons alike. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on her traveling party puts Jes at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos–the prince she still loves–is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…. She must become a warrior.


25689012The Voyage to Magical North, by Claire Fayers: Twelve-year-old Brine Seaborne is a girl with a past–if only she could remember what it is. Found alone in a rowboat as a child, clutching a shard of the rare starshell needed for spell-casting, she’s spent the past years keeping house for an irritable magician and his obnoxious apprentice, Peter. When Brine and Peter get themselves into a load of trouble and flee, they blunder into the path of the legendary pirate ship theOnion. Before you can say “pieces of eight,” they’re up to their necks in the pirates’ quest to find Magical North, a place so shrouded in secrets and myth that most people don’t even think it exists. If Brine is lucky, she may find out who her parents are. And if she’s unlucky, everyone on the ship will be eaten by sea monsters. It could really go either way.



Sticks & Stones, by Abby Cooper: Ever since she was a baby, the words people use to describe Elyse have instantly appeared on her arms and legs. At first it was just “cute” and “adorable,” but as she’s gotten older and kids have gotten meaner, words like “loser” and “pathetic” appear, and those words bubble up and itch. And then there are words like “interesting,” which she’s not really sure how to feel about. Now, at age twelve, she’s starting middle school, and just when her friends who used to accept and protect her are drifting away, she receives an anonymous note saying “I know who you are, and I know what you’re dealing with. I want to help.” As Elyse works to solve the mystery of who is sending her these notes, she also finds new ways to accept who she is and to become her best self.

The Rat Prince, by Bridget Hodder: The dashing Prince of the Rats–who’s in love with Cinderella–is turned into her coachman by the Fairy Godmother on the night of the big ball. And he’s about to turn the legend (and the evening) upside down on his way to a most unexpected happy ending!

Alyssa is happy spring is almost here. She can’t wait to read these books outside!