Book Review: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

Like her previous novel, Silvia Moreno-Garcia has another bestseller with The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. Named one of the best books of the year by The NYT Book Review, time, NPR and other outlets, this is the story of a young woman growing up on a fabulous estate far from the rest of the world. Her father is a researcher; he may also be insane, because he’s experimenting with animal-human hybrids. This is a story about isolation and social injustice, but it also offers some romance, a vibrant setting, action scenes–and monsters. Reviewers have called it unsettling and eerie, and it is, but it’s also hard to put down. Recommended.

SWEETBITTER, by Reginald Gibbons

Author Reginald Gibbons, courtesy of JackLeg Press

Reginald Gibbons is the author of eleven books of poetry, including CREATURES OF A DAY, a finalist for the National Book Award. His new novel, on sale Aug. 1, 2023, SWEETBITTER, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. I’m pleased to share an excerpt; thanks to his publisher, JackLeg Press, for allowing me to post this prologue, book cover and author photo.

“This is an adventure story and a romance, but in Gibbons’ hands, it’s that and much more. Exquisitely rendered and deeply felt, this is as astute and absorbing as fiction gets.” — Booklist

PROLOGUE
“Many generations ago Aba, the great spirit above, created many men, all Chahtah, who spoke the language of the Chahtah, and under- stood one another. They came from the heart of the earth and were made of clay, and before them no men had ever lived.


“One day they all gathered and looking upward wondered what the blue of the sky and the white of the clouds were made of. They determined to try to reach the sky by building a great mound. They piled up rocks to build a mound that would reach the sky but at night the wind blew from above so strongly that the rocks fell down. The second day, too, they worked, building the mound but again that night the wind came while they slept and it pushed down their work. On the third day they began yet again. But that night the wind blew so hard it hurled the rocks of the mound down upon the builders themselves.


They were not killed, but when daylight came and they crawled out from beneath the rocks that had fallen on them and they began to talk to one another, they discovered that they could no longer understand each other. They spoke many languages instead of one. Some of them spoke the original language, the Chahtah language. Others, who no longer spoke this language, began to fight with those who did. Finally they separated. The Chahtah remained, the original people, and lived near nanih waya, the mound they had not been able to complete. And the others went north and east and west and encountered more tribes.”


“In this way or some other, all the peoples of the earth were created, each from some substance and thus of different appearance, and at times struggling against each other. This is what the Chahtah told to a white missionary. But this was only a little of what the Chahtah knew. It was not for that man to know everything. And then he wrote mistaken things about them.”

Excerpted from SWEETBITTER by Reginald Gibbons © 2023 by Reginald Gibbons, used with permission from JackLeg Press.

Woolly: A Book Review

Occasionally, publishers send me complimentary copies of books to review, or I’m approved for a title I’ve requested on Netgalley.com, like Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures (Simon and Schuster) I’ve got to admit: I thought this was a novel after I read the first few pages. Author Ben Mezrich is a really engaging storyteller, and this non-fiction book has a Jurassic Park quality that might make you think it’s all made up. But surprisingly, it’s not, and the way Mezrich writes about real-life scientists and their research work makes for a terrific read. Highly recommended, even if you’re not a woolly mammoth fan.

Book Review: A Fierce and Subtle Poison

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What do you wish for?

In author Samantha Mabry’s debut novel, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, seventeen-year-old Lucas is drawn irresistibly to a mysterious house, said to be cursed, that sits at the end of a street in Old San Juan. Locals scribble their wishes on notes and toss them into the courtyard, which is filled with poisonous plants, and it’s rumored that a girl with green skin and hair like grass lives behind its walls.

While Lucas spends the summer with his father, a hotel developer, idling away his time and partying with friends, several girls from town go missing. One of them is pretty Marisol, whom he’s been seeing.

As Lucas starts to look for answers to the disappearances, he meets Isabel Ford, who lives in the cursed house. Isabel’s touch, he discovers, is poisonous. Worse, when Marisol’s body washes up on the shore, and her little sister also vanishes, Lucas becomes a suspect in the crimes.

Isabel’s poison affects Lucas, but it’s also slowly killing her, so the two join forces to find a way to end the curse.

Her book, Mabry says, was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” She re-told the story, adding elements of magical realism like those used by Latino author Isabel Allende, and moved the tale to Puerto Rico. The result is a haunting novel that’s so rich with atmosphere, the reader can feel the humid, tropical air, and the cold sting of the sea that took Marisol’s life—and may have taken her sister’s.

The book is filled with romance and suspense, sacrifice and longing, and myth and mystery. Eventually, Lucas becomes the keeper of the written wishes, even as he spins a wish of his own. When the book ends, some readers will still feel a need for closure, but Mabry has crafted a haunting, exciting novel – with a stunningly beautiful cover – that will resonate with readers.

(Jacket image courtesy of Algonquin Young Readers)

Book Review: In Wilderness

In Wilderness

I don’t like to post reviews for books that I’m not crazy about, especially when the book was a free copy from the publisher.

That’s the case with In Wilderness, a novel I received from a LibraryThing giveaway. While author Diane Thomas’ book is extremely well-written, suspenseful, and even lyrical, with finely-drawn, heartfelt characters–I must confess, the subject matter is just not for me.

Set in 1966, In Wilderness is the story of Katherine, a successful, 30-something businesswoman who loses both her baby and her health after she’s exposed to an environmental poison. Soon her husband abandons her, and when her doctors tell her she’ll die within months, she leaves work and home behind, and retreats to an isolated cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, where she intends to live out her remaining days alone.

But fate has a different plan. She encounters Danny, a twenty-year-old Vietnam veteran who’s living off the land and suffering from PTSD. While I don’t want to spoil the story, as it unfolds, we realize that these two terribly damaged people are helping each other while surrounded by the healing powers of nature.

But if that description makes this sound like a lighthearted read–well, it isn’t. I shouldn’t even use the word “healing,” because this is no fairy tale, dark woods notwithstanding, and neither character experiences anything like true redemption.

I found this book disturbing, primarily because Katherine takes so much abusive treatment from Danny (although he’s kind and attentive at times, he’s also violent, dangerous and unpredictable). At one point, I couldn’t understand why Katherine didn’t head back to civilization for help (by then, she has a compelling reason to get away from him).

Other critics have said this book testifies to the healing powers of nature, too. But in the end, I think “therapeutic” might be a better word to use. That’s because while the natural world comforts these characters, it doesn’t or can’t restore them, either to the people they used to be, or to society at large. While these two broken, sorrow-filled people find some balm in the wilderness, I was left feeling sad and disturbed.

This isn’t to say this isn’t a worthy book. Most critics have given it high praise, calling it “gripping,” “powerful,” “haunting” and “harsh and beautiful.” It’s just too dark for me.

Book Review: The Girl in the Well is Me

51gubUXsmpL._SX372_BO1,204,203,200_Ever been in a “tight spot”? Eleven-year-old Kammie Summers is literally in a tight spot when she falls into an abandoned well. As daylight fades, Kammie, her arms pinned against her body, can’t even wipe away her tears. Meanwhile, her three new “friends,” popular girls who got her into this jam as as part of a club initiation, take off. But they’ll be back to get her out.

Won’t they?

Kammie desperately hopes so, and I did, too, as I read The Girl in the Well is Me, the new middle grade novel by Canadian author Karen Rivers. I was mesmerized as Kammie, trapped and alone, revisits both the good and bad things that have happened in her life: her father’s imprisonment for embezzling funds from a charity; an elderly neighbor’s friendship; her mother’s struggles to earn a living; and her own efforts, after the family moves, to fit into a new town and different school. But help is on the way.

Isn’t it?

As her oxygen supply dwindles, Kammie hallucinates about spiders and zombies in the well, while a silvery, French-speaking coyote shows up to keep her company. But rescue is coming.

Right??

Rivers’ book reminds me of a one-act stage play. The scenery barely changes, yet the plight and voice and heart of the main character keeps the reader spellbound.

Getting out of the well is Kammie’s biggest problem, of course, but it isn’t her only one. If she survives, she’s got to find a way to go on, not with the life she wishes she had, but the one she’s been given. And no matter what happens with the popular girls and her father or anything else, she’s got to stay true to herself.

I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Kammie, and you won’t be able to, either. Her dilemma is one we all face, at some point in our lives. Once you finally climb out of the darkness, how do you live in the light?

I highly recommend The Girl in the Well is Me, which has been named a Top 10 Spring 2016 Kids’ Indie Next Pick. It’s also earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

Thanks to Algonquin Young Readers for sending me a copy of this book. My opinions are my own.

 

Dogtology: A Bone-A-Fide Book Review

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Dogtology: Live, Bark, Believe, by J. Lazarus, is simply terrific. I loved this laugh out-loud look at canines and our obsession with them.

The author really has us pet-parents nailed. We are smitten with our fur-babies, and see them as our perfect companions because they’re non-judgmental, loving, playful, and accepting of all our human failings.

I like to say my rescue dogs rescued me, and they did. They pulled me out of my empty-nest slump and licked me into shape again (literally licked me, with their long, wet tongues). Four enthusiastic paws up for this book! I’ll recommend it to anyone, especially cat-lovers.

I received my copy of this book from Netgalley, but my opinions are bone-a-fide, so to speak.

Image courtesy of Greenleaf Book Group

 

Book Review: The Methods of Breaking Bad

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Were you a fan of Breaking Bad? Here’s a review I just posted on LibraryThing.com about a collection of essays on that groundbreaking show:

Breaking Bad, a television show that ran from 2008 to 2013, was popular, well-written and executed, and thought-provoking. This collection of essays about the program, edited by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood, is an interesting and in-depth look at its characters and their motivations and morals.

However, The Methods of Breaking Bad: Essays on Narrative, Character and Ethics, is written in an academic style. At times, I felt some of the chapters were a bit dry, and they probably won’t appeal to readers who lack the inclination or energy to focus on the serious and complex issues the book addresses, such as health care, politics and scientific ethics.

I also wonder if this book will find a lot of readers now that no new episodes are being made. As a writer, I was interested in the ways it studied character development in fiction.

If you were a fan of the show, or you’re looking for insights on creating fascinating characters and plots, I recommend this book. Readers looking for lightweight or beach-type books may want to pass.

I received a free copy of this book from LibraryThing.com, but my opinions are my own.

Front cover images © 2015 iStock/Thinkstock; Used by permission of McFarland & Co. Inc., Publishers.

Book review: If You’re Lucky

Courtesy Algonquin Books for Young Readers
 
Plan on staying up late if you choose IF YOU’RE LUCKY, by Yvonne Prinz, for a bedtime read. This young adult novel, which goes on-sale in October 2015, is a quick read and a gripping thriller.

It’s the story of 17-year-old Georgia, “George” to her friends, and the aftermath of her brother’s drowning while surfing in Australia. Losing a sibling would be tragedy enough, and her brother’s nickname, Lucky, belies his fate. But George also suffers from mental illness, and her meds leave her feeling isolated and alone. (And isn’t adolescent a time for those kinds of feelings?)

 

Then handsome, enigmatic Fin shows up, saying he was a close friend of Lucky’s, although George had never heard of him. Fin charms his way into her family’s life, even earning the devotion of their dog, and begins to romance Lucky’s girlfriend.

 

She starts to question whether he might have murdered Lucky, just to take his place. I won’t give away the specific nature of George’s mental illness, which isn’t revealed until the tension starts to build. The reader is left to ask: Is George right about Fin? Or is she delusional and paranoid?

 

In many ways, this feels like a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. But Prinz has written her story in an easy-to-read style, with brief chapters and short, simple sentences, that most young adults will breeze through. (I wouldn’t have minded if the writing had been a bit more complex or challenging, but that’s just my preference.)

 

My only real criticism–and this isn’t much–is the use of the name “Lucky,” and how it played into the title and resolution. It felt slightly gimmicky, to me. But I did think that George’s objections to taking her meds–and sometimes, her outright refusal to take them–rang true, from what I know about mental illness. She’s a realistic and believable character, and you find yourself rooting for her.  I received this book as an advance reading copy from the publisher, but that has not influenced the opinions I’ve expressed here.

 

Image courtesy of Algonquin Books for Young Readers

Rain, by Cynthia Barnett

Image courtesy of Crown Publishing

Image courtesy of Crown Publishing

Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, is exactly the kind of natural history book I love. It’s lyrical (as you’d expect, since rain figures in many poems and songs) and informative and just plain fun to read.

It’s also a good reminder that no matter how plastic and artificial our lives sometimes feel, rain is wild, unpredictable and precious.

For those of us who live in urban areas, it’s easy to forget how vital and extraordinary rainfall is, until there’s not enough of it, and farms blow away as dust, and the price of bread soars. At other times, we notice only when there’s too much rain and our basements flood, or worse, entire buildings are swept away in raging currents.

Throughout history, rain has influenced the migration of animals and the movement of human populations. The lack of rain emptied our wallets when we looked to “rainmakers,” charlatans who claimed the ability to conjure rain from clear skies (did you know the U.S. Congress bankrolled a bunch of rainmakers in the 1890s? Yet another example of taxpayer dollars literally going down the drain). On the flip side, the abundance of rain has led us to re-sculpt the earth with dams and dikes and levees and canals.

Rain has inspired writers; think Ray Bradbury, who imagined a rainy red planet in The Martian Chronicles, or Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, a recounting of the Dust Bowl years. With the success of The Weather Channel and its slicker-clad meteorologists reporting from the field, rain has even become must-see TV.

Barnett’s book is fascinating, written in an accessible, interesting style. Although my copy was provided free through LibraryThing.com, my opinions are my own and I recommend this book.