HYBRID WORLD: THE DAUGHTER OF DOCTOR MOREAU

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest book, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, is a fascinating take on the only H.G. Wells classic novel that has never really gotten its due in popular culture (unlike, say, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, or The Invisible Man).  By taking the basic elements of the original and moving them to the Yucatan peninsula in the late 19th century, she’s created not just a meditation on things science shouldn’t do and the line between humans and animals, but also an examination of class, colonialism and feminism.

Carlota Moreau, one of the two protagonists of the book, has grown up on her father’s isolated estate in the wilds of the Yucatan peninsula.  Her father, whom she looks up to practically as a god, is totally dedicated to his scientific research involving the creation of human-animal hybrids.  She has no other biological family, but she’s close to Lupe and Cachito, both of whom are hybrids, whom she treats as brother and sister.   She has little contact with other human beings, as her father keeps her away from society, on the grounds that she’s been very sick when she was younger and she needs to keep herself calm and unemotional or else the sickness will return.

The plot really starts when Montgomery Laughton, the other protagonist, takes a job as Doctor Moreau’s majordomo.  He’s a broken soul, a man struggling with alcoholism and depression, whose life has been pretty much a wreck.  He’s shocked at first to meet the hybrids, and he’s entranced by Carlota when he first encounters her, but over time he comes to find the world at the estate to his liking, and to treat the hybrids as normal human beings. His past romantic experiences have made him very wary of beautiful young women like Carlota, and the two of them butt heads (not literally) fairly often, without there being real antagonism between them.

Moreau’s in trouble.  Actually, he’s in debt, deeply in debt, to the Lizalde family, who are financing his experiments.  He may be focusing on pure science and the ultimate benefit to mankind of the discoveries he’s making, but the Lizaldes want him to create a race of obedient hard-working creatures who won’t give them the kind of trouble the natives do.  Hernando Lizalde thinks of the Indians, many of whom are in rebellion against the colonial powers, as little more than animals themselves, to be worked till they drop and hunted down if they try to escape.

Meanwhile, the hybrids are suffering: they weren’t built perfectly, and are in constant pain that supposedly can only be treated by the medicines only Dr. Moreau can give them. They want freedom, especially Lupe, but they’re afraid they won’t survive without the medicine, and of course Moreau doesn’t want to give that away and give up his control over the hybrids. 

When Eduardo Lizalde shows up at the estate with his cousin, and falls for Carlota, you just know there’s going to be trouble.  Not from Moreau, who hopes that his daughter’s marrying Eduardo will guarantee him funding for his work, but from Montgomery, who doesn’t like young Eduardo and especially doesn’t like his interest in Carlota, and also from Eduardo’s cousin who doesn’t like Carlota’s background and thinks she would be a terrible match for Eduardo. They discover the existence of the hybrids and are horrified by them, though Eduardo comes close to promising to give Carlota the estate if she marries him.

From the outset we know that Carlota isn’t Dr. Moreau’s legitimate daughter.  His wife died in childbirth with his first child.  She and everyone around her assume that she’s the daughter of some woman who had an affair with Moreau after his wife died, but there’s more going on than Moreau lets on.

The explosive situation, with the hybrids and Moreau’s dependence on Lizalde and the Indian rebellion in the background, does in fact explode, and both Carlota and Montgomery are tested beyond anything they ever expected.  The book has a slow, long fuse, but once it ignites, it moves fast and becomes a book you can’t put down.  You care about the characters, hybrid and human, and at a certain point you start to wonder if it’s possible for this to end well, or even on a slightly positive note (spoiler alert: it does).

A compelling read, an excellent take on an underrated classic, and the kind of book which would prompt one of our librarians (hi, Sarah) to say, “Good for her!”, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is well worth checking out.

ALGORITHMS AND SECRETS AND AFFAIRS OF THE HEART: THE VERIFIERS

One of the pleasures of running book groups is getting to put together selections of books for the group to read for the following month.  One of the drawbacks of running book groups is that sometimes the group doesn’t pick the book you wish they would.  That happened this month: I offered the Field of Mystery Group the book The Verifiers, by Jane Pek, and they didn’t choose it.  So I ended up reading it myself, and what a fun read it was.

Start with the premise: our main character, Claudia, is working for an agency that checks out the backgrounds of people on dating services.  If you’re matched up with someone through an online service and you feel there’s something iffy about the person, you would go to this agency, the Verifiers, and they would investigate whether the person is what they pretend to be online.  Isn’t that a great premise for a mystery?  Think of all the ways in which people lie and what might be behind the deceits.

But it gets better, and part of that is because of Claudia, our protagonist.  Claudia has secrets of her own, not terrible ones, but ones that loom fairly large when she considers her family.  She’s not looking for a nice Chinese boyfriend, as her mother wants: she’s gay and she hasn’t outed herself ro her traditional (if quirky) family.  She left the corporate job her older brother got for her through his connections, and instead is working for this agency, where secrecy and confidentiality are bywords, and where she is not making the kind of money her brother hoped she would.  Her family – mother, sister and brother – is a big part of her life, whether she likes it or not, and she’s aware that she’s lying to them pretty much all the time.

Claudia has a degree in English, and she is a major fan of mysteries, especially a (fictitious) series starring one Inspector Yuan, to which she refers frequently over the course of the book. She delights in the idea that she’s following in the footsteps of this Inspector Yuan (and for the record, based on what she mentions about those books, I would absolutely read the whole series), and bases her (sometimes less than great) decisions on what he would do in the circumstances.

The plot begins when a young woman comes to the agency to find out why a particular date started ghosting her, and then asks the agency to look into the background of another person who dated her but who seemed to be hiding something.  Of course the second person IS hiding something, as Claudia quickly discovers, but the first date, the one the client never even met, is more interesting still.  Claudia is much more fascinated with this case than either of her bosses are (always a red flag), and when they discover that the client died suddenly, an apparent suicide, the bosses want to close the files, but Claudia is really hooked and, true to her deep genre knowledge, wants to find out if this was really a suicide. 

One thing leads to another, and Claudia finds herself investigating that suspicious death and some other odd things that are going on in the online dating industry, including the use of bots pretending to be potential suitors.  Despite the discouragement from her bosses, she persists in digging deeper and deeper into the question of who that client was (and of course, the client wasn’t exactly who she pretended to be), what the client was really doing, and who caused the client’s death.  All the while, Claudia is also dealing with her family’s demands on her, and the general complications of living and working in New York City.

The book is fast moving, the mystery is original, the characters are believable if slightly off, and all in all, it was great fun to read. I couldn’t put it down, and I devoutly hope that the hint at the end of the book that there might be more to come is a promise.  I’d be delighted to read more of Claudia’s exploits if they’re as entertaining as these.

Check it out if you’re in the mood for a mystery that’s not gory or excessively violent, that pulls you right in with a wonderful character with a great voice and keeps you going to the very end.

FIELD NOTES GOES BACK TO THE TROJAN WAR: A THOUSAND SHIPS

After a really amazing and invigorating discussion this Saturday on Small Things Like These (so much depth for such a short book!), the Field Notes Book Group chose our book for August.  It was a tough choice, and I had to be the tie-breaker, but ultimately we went with A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes.

A Thousand Ships is about the Trojan War, sort of.  It’s also about The Iliad, The Odyssey and a number of famous Greek tragedies about the lead up to and the aftermath of the Trojan War.  It differs from those classics because this book focuses exclusively on the female characters involved in the war, on the Greek side, on the Trojan side, even on the Olympian side, giving them a voice they’ve been denied through the centuries.  

Because it’s about a war and the aftermath of a war, there are dark and sad moments in it, but there’s also a certain vein of humor, especially in Penelope’s increasingly annoyed letters to Odysseus while he’s off having his adventures.  The book is structured as a series of interrelated short stories, and it’s a terrific read.

Do you in fact need to be an expert on Greek mythology to enjoy this?  No.  You don’t even need to have read The Iliad or The Odyssey.  Trust me, it will all become clear to you as you read.  Of course if you are familiar with the stories in a general way, the book will be all that much more fun to read.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk.  Join us on August 20 for what promises to be an excellent discussion of a fascinating book.

WHY IS IT A TELEVISION SERIES?

I’m not rigid about the difference between books and movies.  I understand that they are two different media, and you can’t expect a movie to do the same things that a book can do, even if the film is “based on” the book. Sometimes the differences between the two are almost comical (the Lawrence Olivier/Greer Garson version of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, completely changes some of the characters), sometimes they’re so vast you can hardly trace the outlines of the original in the movie (and yes, I know the movie, Blade Runner, is a classic, but it is VERY different from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and while I love the movie Slumdog Millionaire, I don’t think I would have loved it as much if I’d read the source, Q & A, first).  What’s interesting to me now is the difference between books and television series based on the books, which actually turns out to be the opposite of the difference between books and movies.

With a movie, the book is almost always better because the author can go into depth in the characters and their thinking in a way that’s almost impossible to depict on film.  An author can have a character musing over things, considering alternatives and possibilities, for pages and it’s interesting.  In a movie, showing someone thinking is the same as showing the person doing nothing, and nobody likes that.  Books can go into greater depth with subplots and side characters, where movies have to cut all that “extraneous” stuff out to get on with the story.

A television series, though, has enough time and space to cover all the details of the book.  Subplots and side characters can be developed and shown because you don’t have a two hour limit.  The problem with a television series based on a book is that the series needs more, and so the way a series diverges from a book is in complicating things and adding things to the book, whether those things might be strictly necessary or not.

For instance, the first season of Dexter followed the first book, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, fairly closely, with one or two dramatic differences (people live at the end of the book who are killed in the series, and vice versa).  Characters who were mentioned in the book got their own subplots, but on the whole, if you read the book, you had a good sense of where the series was going.  After that first season, though, the television series took a completely different path, complicating Dexter’s backstory, adding more characters and more relationships, until finally the only things the series and the books had in common were some characters and a general concept of who and what Dexter was.

The Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett book, Good Omens, was delightful, a romp through the apocalypse and the efforts to avoid the apocalypse.  The characters of Crowley and Aziraphale, the devil and angel (respectively) were just two among a whole assortment of strange and entertaining characters.  The television series, while mostly following the arc of the book, changed its focus to Crowley and Aziraphale, developing their relationship over the course of human history and giving them much more of a part to play in avoiding the end of the world.  They are charming and funny characters, and I’m not saying that the series was bloated or in any way bad.  I enjoyed it.  I enjoyed the book more, though, and I think that’s because (a) I read the book first (always a factor, to be honest), and (b) the book was more balanced among the characters and the plotlines. I understand there’s going to be a second season of Good Omens, and I have to wonder what it could possibly be about, since the whole story of the book was covered in the first series.

More recently, I’ve been watching the series of The Old Man, and, while waiting for the next episodes, I read the book, by Thomas Perry. The television series is baroque, especially for a thriller: there is a backstory involving the Russian war in Afghanistan, there are multiple characters with multiple identities, and (as there should be in a show about spies) questions of loyalty and betrayal.  The book is lean and mean; the characters are fewer and less complicated, the plot is clear and moves like a racehorse.  It would make a terrific movie in the same way The Maltese Falcon made a terrific movie.  What I can’t understand is why someone chose to take this book, with this plot and this speed, and wrap it around with multiple lines of secondary characters, political intrigue, mistaken identities and the like to drag it out for hours and hours of a television series.

I’m sure there are books that would be perfect for a television series (Bleak House, for instance) where the writers wouldn’t need to add extra characters and extra plots and complications to stretch the material out.  But on the whole, I believe television series and books are two entirely different kinds of creatures, and they should stay that way.

AUGUST FIELD OF MYSTERY: THE BOOK OF COLD CASES

The Field of Mystery Book Group had an especially stimulating discussion on Saturday of The Long Call, as is often the case when we have a book that some people really like and some people don’t.  There was plenty of interesting material to talk about with this book, and at least some of us will probably be looking for more books by Ann Cleeves.  Then we had a really easy time picking the book we’re going to be reading for August, which is The Book of Cold Cases, by Simone St. James (as an aside, I’m a little surprised we didn’t pick The Verifiers, which was another of the choices and one of the more intriguing possibilities – probably I’ll read it myself soon).

Years before, two men in the same area by similar means and with similar cryptic notes left on their bodies. Beth Greer, a rich and eccentric woman, was seen leaving the scene of one of the murders, and was charged with the crimes, but acquitted (shades of Lizzie Borden).  No one else was ever caught and charged.  Beth went back to her family mansion to live more or less as a recluse.

Shea is working as a receptionist by day, and running a true crime website by night.  Her choice of hobby is a little odd, given that she’s the victim of an attempted kidnapping by a man who’s coming up for parole soon.  Chance brings her into contact with Beth, and, not expecting any kind of response, she asks if she can interview Beth.  To Shea’s great surprise, Beth agrees, but on her terms: in her home, when she chooses.  Shea’s torn between delight that she might be getting the scoop of her life, and worry that she might be getting manipulated by a sociopath.  

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk shortly, and we’ll be meeting on August 6 at 10:30 (refreshments served!) for a discussion.  Join us if you can.

WHAT MAKES A GREAT MYSTERY

Over the last couple of years, since I’ve been running the Field of Mystery Book Group, I’ve had lots of occasions to think about what makes a good mystery.  Some of the books we’ve selected have been all right, some have been less than all right (one I actually hated, and said as much in the meeting), and some have been really good.  Reading our most recent selection, The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves, helped me to come to some conclusions about what kind of mystery I like best.

I’m as fond of a good twist as the next person (though, having read a lot of thrillers and mysteries, I’m a little harder to surprise with a twist these days), and a clever puzzle with lots of red herrings and dead ends is always entertaining, but what really makes a good mystery for me is more than the plot, however clever and twisted.  

The depth of characters and the breadth of the world the author creates are what I’m looking for. I want a mystery that sucks me into a whole world, a place that feels alive and realistic, where you feel the people go on and have lives outside their roles in this particular case.  When you’re reading the book, you should feel as if you’re actually there, whether “there” is a small town in Devon, England, or a private school for girls in Dublin, or a neighborhood in Tokyo. 

The other thing I look for is characters as complicated and conflicted as real people.  I especially love a book that starts out with a character presented in a particular way that then reveals more and more facets to the character, so you’re forced to question whether the initial impression was accurate at all.  For instance, in The Long Call, we’re given one view of the victim at the outset, and then as we gradually learn more and more about him, he becomes more and more of a human being, flawed and struggling, and quite different from the person we originally thought he was.  Lots of writers devote this kind of attention to their main characters and the continuing characters in a series, but to me, the mark of a really good writer is that they give that kind of loving attention to many characters, not just the detectives and the suspects, but the people surrounding them.  P.D. James was good at this, as are Tana French and Ruth Ware and Ann Cleeves and Minette Walters, to name a few.

Which is not to say that plot isn’t important.  Obviously a mystery where the answer is obvious from the outset isn’t much of a mystery, and neither is a mystery where the answer, when revealed, seems to have no relationship with the rest of the plot.  A great mystery plot turns on the particular characters of these particular individuals, and when the solution is finally revealed, you feel as if you should have guessed it all along but you didn’t because it was too cleverly hidden from you through the book.

Reading a good mystery is an immersive experience, one that engages the emotions as well as the intellect.  I’m delighted to have discovered so many really good ones through the book group, and hope you, too, will find the kind of mystery that keeps you up extra hours because you just have to find out what happened to these characters you care about.

SUMMER READING — FOR ADULTS!

As an adult, one of the things I really miss is summer.

Oh, not the heat and humidity.  I never liked that aspect of summer even when I was a child, and I like it even less now.  But summer as a time when you’re not in school and you don’t have responsibilities and so you can go to the library and take out a stack of books and just sit back and read under a tree or in your room for hours: that’s what I miss.

When my daughter was young, she was involved in the summer reading program at our library. It was great: she got to read lots of books (which she loved to do anyway), she would report on them at the library, she’d get stickers to put on a plastic banner that moved around the room based on how many books she read, and then at the end of the summer she’d be invited to a pizza party.  I was jealous, frankly, of all the fun she had with the summer reading game.

But what’s to stop us as adults from having that kind of fun?  Our dignity?  Our busy-ness? The fact that nobody’s offering us a game with prizes and the like?

Well, I have nothing to do about your sense of dignity or busy-ness, but this year I am running a summer reading program for adults at our library. It started on July 1, it’s ending on Labor Day, and it’s almost ridiculously easy to play.

You come to the library and you sign up. You get a sheet to keep track of your reading, and you get the makings of a game piece, which you decorate and return.  Then you read!  And read and read and read, and keep track on your sheet of whatever you’ve read and how many pages it was.  You bring that sheet in to the library, where we copy the information onto the sheet we keep at the front desk, and then you get to move your game piece around on our game board, one space for every 150 pages you read.  Along the way you get prizes!  Yes, some of the prizes are cheesy (little emoticon erasers, pens with clips to hang them on your belt loop or purse strap, little bright colored notebooks), but some of them are cool (advance readers copies of books that haven’t been published yet!).  You also get a raffle ticket for every 150 pages you report, and at the end of the summer we’ll pull one ticket for the grand prize (which I haven’t chosen yet, but which will be awesome).  And of course there will be a party for everyone who gets to the finish line on the board.

There are no limits on what “counts” as reading.  Audio books count, graphic novels count, paperbacks count, YA books count, whatever you’re reading counts.  We’re not here to tell you what to read or to judge your reading choices.  We’re here to encourage reading!

And the real prize is the pleasure of reading, of giving yourself permission to read your heart out, even if summer isn’t the responsibility-free time it was when you were a kid.

If you’re not within the reach of our library, I still encourage you to create your own summer reading game.  Keep track of your reading.  Give yourself prizes (cheesy or otherwise) as you reach certain milestones.  Compete with yourself in previous years, or get some reading friends together to have a little friendly competition (your book group?  Your neighbors?).  Summer is for reading.

Let’s bring back the fun of summer reading!