"The Sparrow" is written by Mary Doria Russell's, and simultaneously tells the story of Father Emilio Sandoz in two parts. The first part begins where an alien signal is picked up and a team is sent off to investigate the planet in which the signal originated from (the team contains Father Emilio, obviously), and the second part telling the disasterous results of this encounter of two worlds, where only Father Emelio manages to return from the original voyage, quite changed from his original self - he is apparently a murderer, a whore, and has lost his faith in God.
Although it's an alien encounter novel, and the premise is pretty much identical to the millions of alien encounter stories you've read/watched before, Mary Doria Russel manages to do several things to make this a cut above the stereotypical alien-encounter story, which deserve a mention.
The first aspect that is done somewhat differently is the two-eras aspect of the novel. One on hand, there is a sense of tension created that I probably would not have felt if I were simply reading one of many "people encounter aliens" stories that have been done so often before. Having Emelio explain what is occuring afterwards also clears up what would otherwise be quite confusing to read otherwise - his explanations of the likely motivations of the aliens, or what actually occured, take away any confusion that might exist. However, the main aspect of the dual-timeline aspect is that you want to see why Sandoz turned out the way he did, and yes, the novel is worth reading for these revelations alone.
On the other hand, the dual-storyline aspect occasionally comes off as disjointed, as the second part has Emelio relating his story with little regard to chronology, which does create a bit of a headache trying to sort the story out properly. I'll chalk it up as a plus for the book, but I think Russell could have dealt with this better.
If it were not obvious from the main character being a priest, Russell adds a religious aspect to the first-encounter idea, that is not considered as often, and has some interesting observations about religion and how an encounter with aliens might affect us in a religious sense. This was quite interesting, particularly the ending revelations about the new society that leads to Emelio losing his faith in God. It is only when you find these out that you see all the hints that were left there that might lead to such a conclusion, but were looked over when you first read the book.
Also quite interesting is the society Russell creates for the aliens in question. The aliens are humanoid, in that they are bipedal and have forearms for the manipulation of tools and the like, but their society and ideas are quite alien to ours - the way they behave and interact, the way they talk, their social systems.
However, the book does come off in several ways that make it seem like many other "land on an alien planet and find the inhabitant" stories. The planning for the mission, voyaging to the planet, landing and making initial forays on the planet feature problems similar to what many authors have previously dealt with. Russell does write about this well and quite convincingly, but you've seen it before and also have the T-shirt.
While the book occasionally comes off as following a set formula, on the whole, Russel has created an interesting alien-encounter book, with quite a few religious overtones, and a writing style and methodology that makes "The Sparrow" well worth reading. 4/5.