Sultry, slow, and dripping with tension-filled nods to a classic novel--The Daughter of Doctor Moreau was a unique reading experience. (Aren't they all, when it comes to this author?) Silvia Moreno-Garcia strikes again! It's a shame that this particular one didn't hit the favorite zone for my reading tastes.
Character connection: ★★★
Sense of atmosphere: ★★★
This is going to be an interesting review. I didn't love it, but let me gush about it anyway and try to get you to pick it up...
Carlota is growing up on her father's remote estate in the wilderness of the Yucatan peninsula. It's the late 1800s. Her father is a disgraced French scientist—with the name of Moreau. Carlota's childhood is strange. It's filled with medications, an odd cast of friends and servants with physical peculiarities, and the constant reminder from her overbearing white father to keep calm and hide behind the verses of the Bible.
Laughton Montgomery is a middle-aged Englishman accidentally entrenched in the Mexican scene. He's an alcoholic with a sad backstory, and he's in serious debt to Eduardo Lizaldes, a wealthy light-skinned Spanish-Mexican man holding all of the cards in this story: including both Montgomery's debts and the estate funding holding up Moreau's life in the wilderness.
Moreau needs a man on site to help with his work. Montgomery needs to do what Lizaldes tells him to. Carlota finds herself involved and intrigued by the things simmering around her.
As the years pass by, Montgomery and Carlota find themselves at the heart of a slowing unfolding drama involving experimentations, Mexican/Maya politics, and the meaning of humanity.
Will they find (or lose) themselves along the way?
Mm, mm, mmm. Silvia Moreno-Garcia continues to rock pretty much anything she sets her mind to. So far, I've personally seen her kill it in body horror, 1970s crime noir, futuristic urban vampire dramas, 20th century Mayan death god adventures, and high fantasy quests. There is seemingly nothing she can't conquer—and in this case, her sights are set on a culturally rich interpretation of an H.G. Wells classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau.
I think this novel is going to be like all of her other ones: it's going to REALLY work for some people, and it's going to REALLY not work for others. The added complexity to this particular story is the restraints placed upon it. By tying it to the H.G. Wells concepts, this adaptation was already roughly structured to follow certain ideas, tropes, and trains of thought. Whether subverted or followed, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau was going to have certain elements addressed.
And that's, I think, where I struggled a bit and others will love this.
I love Moreno-Garcia for her ingenuity, her turns of concepts, her bizarre way of writing sentences that make me slow down. Linger. Absorb.. These are stories with interesting characters that do things you don't expect or approve of, and they're often not very likeable or relatable. I've always liked that—the distanced yet intimate journeys with people I don't understand and therefore can't predict.
However, this particular story deviated from those expectations. I found Carlota and Montgomery—our two points of view—to be both predictable and weirdly bland, and yet the most likeable of all of her characters. I personally neither liked nor disliked them. Frankly, I think the characters were a lower priority in this story compared to the setting and interweaving of the Moreau/H.G. Wells template and the late 1800s Mexican conflicts that Moreno-Garcia wanted to address. Which, again, is both a negative for readers like myself and yet a huge positive for fans of historical fiction and atmosphere.
Was it lush? Yes. Was it filled with dripping gothic tension? Yes. Was it a jungle dream of animal hybrids meeting Mexican interpretations? Yes. But was it a personal, Amy favorite? Nah.
I was looking for surprise, for character-driven ingenuity. For an atmosphere I didn't want to leave and felt was sucking me into its pages. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau didn't do that for me. But I think that's more due to the fact that I have an unsustainably high standard for each Moreno-Garcia work that comes in my path and an expectation for characters rather than flaws within this particular story.
This book would be a shining star in other circles, and I think it is shining for those who have loved it and are potentially new to this author's work and/or interested in historical fiction. For us returning folks (and those of us who don't care about the H.G. Wells original), I'm not sure.
Go into it with a historical and atmospheric expectation, and see what happens. I'm curious about what you'll find...
Oh YES. I had such a horrifically good time. This is the mirror-twin counter melody to Mexican Gothic, the Fall of the House of Usher done grotesque.
Well, it's happened again: I have fallen in love with yet another bizarre and lingering horror story with a special focus on mushrooms. ("Again," yes, because this niche apparently has multiple books in it.)
Join me and the spores...
Alex Easton has heard word that their childhood friends, the Ushers, are struggling. Madeline is gravely ill, Roderick is not faring much better, and something is amiss.
Alex arrives, and they quickly realize that Roderick's understated things. There is something very, very wrong with this scene.
Madeline looks like she's already dead, Roderick doesn't look much better. The Usher estate is damp, moldy, and near-death itself. There's a visiting American doctor who has no idea what is going on, and a wandering older British woman on the grounds with a passion for mushroom study and a daughter named Beatrix Potter.
As Alex stays in the home, a creeping sense of foreboding and inevitability starts to sink in. The longer they stay at Usher, the worse it seems to get...
And that's IT. I won't say any more.
What Moves the Dead looks like—and sounds like—a repeat of concepts to those of us who have already read and loved Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic. In fact, T Kingfisher themselves writes in the Author's Note that they'd been chewing on this idea already, and then Mexican Gothic came out and What Moves the Dead disappeared into a drawer, almost for forever, as Kingfisher went "gah, I can't do it better than THAT!"
Well I, personally, am thrilled that someone got T Kingfisher to revisit and finish this tale. This is something akin to a cousin, a neighbor, someone with the same facial features as Mexican Gothic but with an entirely different set of personality traits. These two novels are NOT the same, and—as a Moreno-Garcia superfan I can't believe I'm saying this--What Moves the Dead did it... better.
This was grotesque, truly horrifying, and went somewhere that even I didn't full expect. I thought I knew the steps, and I was having a good time, but then... yeah. This seasoned reader was still surprised in an interesting way. A very, very good horror novella that I recommend to anyone with the stomach to handle it.
Thank you to TOR/Nightfire for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Told in a hypnotic, prismatic point-of-view using multiple characters all turned toward the same direction—our "main" character, distanced yet vital--Calling for a Blanket Dance is one of the most unique fiction novels I have ever read. And its resonances thrum deep.
Narrative voice: ★★★★★
Plot/Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Sense of time and place: ★★★★★
Ever Geimausaddle is a Native man living in Oklahoma. This is his story, but it's not told in his voice. (But, is it?)
Carried through the voices, emotions, and chords of his multigenerational family and community, this story follows Ever as he is raised and formed by his community, his family's struggles, and the seemingly endless loop of forced endurance and perspective placed upon him in harsh and gentle knots.
Who are you, individually, among all of the roots and tangles of your family, culture, and place in time and space?
Can you be an individual when the circumstances around you pilot more of your choices and opportunities around you than you do?
These weighty questions and deeper concepts of Native experience, generational expectations and situations, and reactionary living are all explored in Calling for a Blanket Dance. I thought it was beautiful, poignant, surprisingly lyrical yet accessible, and overall an interesting view of the contemporary Native experience. There is a lot of trauma here. There is a lot of joy. There is muchness, there is never-done.
As a white woman living in Michigan, I'm sure I missed some of the deeper ties to Native culture and the possible resonances within the community and others familiar with the unique situations of marginalized groups. I'm interested to see how those with more perspective find this novel. From this non-Native reader, I thought it was stunning.
Looking forward to more from this author.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Can two anxious people overcome their obstacles and find love over a bingo card? Strap in for an emotional and lingering journey.
Representation vs. Romance: ★★
A small disclaimer for this review: my rating has nothing to do with this book's actual contents. It has more to do with my perception what this story was going to be based on its description and pitch.
Aja spends each of her days walking hand in hand with her anxiety disorder. It's her constant companion, it affects how she goes about her day, and it occasionally severely impacts how she deals with people and experiences.
So when she has a panic attack in the grocery store one night, the last thing she wants is to meet a cute guy. Said cute guy supports her during her attack, and afterwards Aja flees into the night. She'll never see him again, right?
Well, then the cute guy shows up at Aja's weekly bingo night with the town's senior citizens. Turns out his name is Walker, he's super cute in person, and he's going to be bopping around Aja's life for the next several weeks.
Walker's dealing with some anxiety and other issues on his own, so he not only gets Aja—he's interested in her. Cue the sparks...
Aja and Walker end up in a bizarre bingo pact together that promises to deliver some steam... and they're both very much on board with placing bets on who will come out on top. (In more ways than one.)
I thought Bet On It was a very cute concept for a romance novel. Bingo isn't a sexy activity, really, but the idea of the two young people in a sea of senior citizens having a connection was kind of adorable, and the addition of Aja and Walker's anxieties gave it a very realistic edge.
However... this book kind of lost me when it came to the romance and pacing. I heard "sexy bingo bets" and thought this would be smutty, funny, and quickly paced. Not sure why I thought "quickly paced," exactly, but the other two points seemed like a given.
Instead of a lot of banter and smut, Bet On It delivered on some serious plot points, emotional deep dives, and personalized healing journeys. On a large scale. Not a bad way to go for a general fiction novel about healing from trauma and coping with mental illness, but again, given the hook of "sexy bingo bets" I was...confused. (And bored. I kept getting a bit bored.)
Overall, I thought this novel was extremely sweet and a story of personal triumph over struggle. I will be recommending it to those looking for anxiety representation in stories, and for those who enjoy emotional journey-dominant tropes in their general adult fiction.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Cute and heartwarming, if a bit of a slog in the first half. A sentient octopus, an octogenarian who needs some closure... An odd yet endearing setup.
Plot: ★★ 1/2
So I definitely, 100% picked up this novel because someone shared that it involved the antics of a sentient octopus who wrote diary entries. That's the kind of magical realism I will always show up to read.
Remarkably Bright Creatures follows the story of Tova, an elderly woman living out her days as a the nightly cleaning lady at the local aquarium. Her husband recently passed away, and her son died tragically at 18, so Tova's got to keep busy somehow as a single woman alone, and cleaning aquarium glass is something to do.
Tova's Swedish roots mandate that she do something as that's the thing "to do."
Enter Marcellous, the sentient Giant Pacific Octopus who's nearing the end of his lifespan in his aquarium tank. He knows everything there is to know in the aquarium, including where to get the best food and how to escape his enclosure. He also, to his surprise, finds out that he knows Tova too.
Tova and Marcellous form an unlikely and seemingly one-sided nightly conversation ritual. Tova talks, Marcellous listens, and when Tova's not there Marcellous plots out his next moves when it comes to Tova's unfinished business.
What will happen to Tova and Marcellous?
I'm going to stop the setup there, because literally anything else would be a spoiler, and as it is, I found this novel so extremely predictable.
That, honestly, was this novel's problem for me. It was heartwarming and charming, yes. But the dry and dull first half, combined with the utter predictability of where we were going, led to me wishing the novel would wrap itself up so I could be done with it. (Not a good way for a novel to make a reader feel.)
I wish the author had leaned into the magical realism a bit more, and leaned less on the predictable nature of the plot itself. From the very entrance of some characters, it was clear to see what their purpose was for Tova and the plot and therefore I found it very hard to care about the journey. If we had been left in the dark for longer (less POVs?) maybe I'd be writing a different review. But sadly, I just found myself wishing for more in this quaint family drama tale.
Definitely pick this up though if it's of interest—there are some gems here regardless of the plot's pacing.
Witchy fall vibes, sapphic love, and a cute cozy town atmosphere collide in this fun rom-com. And it's the start of a series!
A short reader disclaimer: So first off, I have to SINCERELY apologize to the publisher, as I messed up and did not review this book in a timely manner despite having an early digital copy. In general, I've struggled a lot more with ARC reviews this past year due to a lot of upheaval in my personal life, but that's not this book's fault or the publishers so please keep that in mind.
On to the review!
So, did you ever watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Halloweentown, or those other adorable witchy vibe tv shows and wish they had a lot more lesbian action and just a gooey romantic plot arc?? Payback's a Witch is the novel for you.
The magical town of Thistle Grove has been the home of several powerful witch families for generations—including the Harlow family. Emmy Harlow thinks that her family's line isn't exactly prestigious or on the same level as the others, but it's still their claim to fame and Emmy's the reluctant heir of the situation.
The catch is, Emmy fled Thistle Grove years ago due to some unfortunate angst and hasn't been back to her home town in quite some time.
When she does come back for the all-important tournament that requires all of the Thistle Grove witch family heirs to be present, Emmy is met with something new: the enigmatic and wickedly devious Talia Avramov, one of the other family heirs and a reluctant partner-in-arms.
Will Emmy and Talia intertwine as they work together to bring down their mutual ex, Gareth, or will tensions collide?
Ok y'all, this was super cute. I do regret missing out on the opportunity to read this in the fall, when the vibes would have been immaculate, but this did give me a wonderful dose of the season anyway. Payback's a Witch was clever, funnier than I expected it to be, and filled with a lot of small town shenanigans.
I had some small quibbles with the pacing and lack of real stakes—it was a bit too quaint for me, a little less dramatic angst than I tend to like in my romances—but overall I do think it was a wonderful and fun rom-com to spend an afternoon reading.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
The 1960s, Greek islands, a young girl on the cusp of artistic pursuits and adulthood, and a saturated look at men and women colliding together.
Sense of place: ★★★★★
Erica's a fresh-faced young woman from London who's just arrived on Hydra, one of the picturesque Greek islands haunted by the rich, artistic, and beautiful. Its 1960, bohemia is all the rage, sexuality and the artistic are colliding together in various ways. It's heady days, and a heady setting.
A Theater for Dreamers follows Erica's journey into this rich tapestry of desires, art, lush settings, and mired interpersonal relationships. For us readers, it's an interesting blend of fact and fiction too—Leonard Cohen's real life persona meets a fictional group of folks in this window into the past. It's fantastically described, enviously set in a beautiful location, and classically portrayed through the eyes of our young and naïve protagonist.
I am, admittedly, a weird audience for this book. Every once in a while I like to step out of my reading comfort zone, if you will, and try things setting in different genres and settings. Historical fiction and destination locations/summer reads are not usually my cup of tea, so I think my rating reflects the fact that this isn't my usual read.
I found Erica to be an enjoyable main character to follow, if a bit annoyingly naïve. (I find this is often the case though with this kind of setup, so let's call it part of the territory.) Her fresh eyes experiencing this kind of sweltering landscape of sensual politics and artists in collision was extremely well done. Even though we've seen this story before, I thought it was done well.
I will say the novel lost me a bit with its sheer number of descriptions and meandering prose. I'm a "get to the point" type of reader unless it's a special case (usually in the fantasy realm) so I found myself getting frustrated with the paragraph to paragraph pacing. But do take that with the reviewer's grain of salt—I think this prose will work beautifully for those who love historical fiction/beach reads.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Stunning. These stories are raw, unresolved, crystalline, and opaque at the same time. The words ache with talent.
Emotional resonance: ★★★★★
Strength of collection: ★★★★
First off, a short callout to Call Number Box (pun intended) for bringing this short story collection to my attention. Call Number Box is a quarterly book subscription that focuses on new Black literature and is curated with a very cool librarian vibe (we get call numbers, library stickers, etc.).
On to the collection now. Milk Blood Heat was, to put it simply, stunning. I don't have much more to say on the subject without rambling endlessly, so instead, enjoy some short thoughts on each of the stories:
Milk Blood Heat - 5 stars
A heavy opener. Two girls turn 13, become blood sisters despite their skin color. Only one girl makes it through, and she's left to pick apart the duality of life.
Feast - 5 stars
This one is definitely a trigger warning: avoid it if you have sensitivity for miscarriages and bodily discussions. One woman can't move on from an early miscarriage and her obsession consumes her.
Tongues - 4.5 stars
Tackling the patriarchal nonsense at the heart of hardcore Christianity, this is another coming-of-age story packed with teeth. Shivers abound from some of those lines.
The Loss of Heaven - 4 stars
Fred is an aging man. Fred thinks he is important and that the flirting bartender authentically cares for him—it helps him avoid thoughts of his dying wife. Fred is wrong. This was a longer story and while excellent, I have to be honest, I wish this collection had been entirely female.
The Hearts of Our Enemies - 5 stars
Mothers and daughters, both realizing that the other is just a woman, making choices in a man's world filled with snakes.
Outside the Raft - 3 stars
This one was my personal least favorite of the bunch. It's a survival story of two young girls in a deadly moment on the water, and while well-told it wasn't memorable in this all-star collection.
Snow - 4.5 stars
I feel conflicted about this one. Maybe it's because I've been there before - a woman unsatisfied in her circumstance... but is she actually unsatisfied, or is she just in need of a reality check?
Necessary Bodies - 5 stars
This one was a PUNCH. A woman is pregnant, she hasn't told her mother, and she's ruminating her ultimate choices as she plans her mother's birthday party. I loved the ending.
Thicker Than Water - 4.5 stars
Obviously this collection is filled with heavy topics, so this initial road trip story is much darker than it first appears—and the beginning is already pretty grim. I liked it for its complexities, I disliked it for its complexities. Strong emotions.
Exotics - not rated
Commentary on the dehumanization of society from the eyes of the "elite." Another one with some chills, albeit small ones as this story was so short.
[Last story, which I have forgotten] - unrated
I'm typing this up away from my copy, and I've forgotten this one. Will update the review when I can.
Yes, I loved it just as much as the first one. Happiness is an Ali Hazelwood book.
Love on the Brain comes out on August 23!
There is no better way to start this review than by using what the book's description starts with:
Like an avenging, purple-haired Jedi bringing balance to the mansplained universe, Bee Königswasser lives by a simple code: What would Marie Curie do?
And with that, that's almost all you need to know about Love on the Brain, with the added information that this is an exquisite enemies-to-lovers romance with a dose of lighthearted angst—and absolutely jam-packed with bonkers humor.
Bee and Levi are ENEMIES. This is known. In grad school, Levi made it extremely clear that he couldn't stand the sight of Bee and made it his mission to avoid her at all possible costs. Bee never really understood how she came to acquire an arch nemesis, but she rolled with it and life moved on. They both graduated and Bee thought she'd never see Levi again.
But of course, life has a funny way of dealing with your expectations.
When the opportunity of the lifetime lands in Bee's lap—working for NASA as their lead neuroscientist for a cool project—Bee is over the moon! This is it! Her dream, coming true! What could go wrong!
Well, Levi is listed as the engineering co-lead to the project. That is definitely a wrinkle.
Can these two scientists become more than nemesis?
Y'ALL. I thought The Love Hypothesis was in danger of being a one-hit wonder. It was too funny, too lovable, and too tailored to that perfect blend of steamy romance and plot. It was perfect—and how often do we get multiple perfects in a row with an author? It was the perfect storm of all of my favorite things and I thought to myself "there's now way that Ali Hazelwood can match herself with the next book."
Well, I'm eating my hat today. Hazelwood matched her energy with this one and then some--Love on the Brain was everything I wanted it to be and yet also, somehow, still fresh. How she managed to take a similar STEM-based setup and bring new feelings, scenarios, and characters to the table baffles my mind, but I digress. This was 10/10, my sweet cinnamon roll, the peanut butter to The Love Hypothesis' jelly, the answer to our Science! hetero romance dreams.
Read it, love it, and then come back here and rant to me about it because I would love that.
Bring on the next one, Ali!!
Thank you to Berkley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
I think the concepts, representation, and emotional journeys were all top tier. I laughed out loud a lot and absolutely loved the side characters with all of my soul. But I must say, the actual plot and pacing were dull by comparison.
Representation: all of the stars
Viola Carroll is finally living the the life she's always wanted. When Waterloo and the war gives her the perfect opportunity to disappear for good and start a new, true life for herself as Viola, she runs with it and never looks back.
But Viola's past has not fully escaped her, and one of the people from her past haunts her still. Her childhood best friend, Justin Gracewood, needs help.
The Duke of Gracewood is in mourning for his lost best friend. He blames himself for the loss, the war, and for his disability returning from the warfront. Gracewood is slipping into an opium dependency and a depression with no light in sight. Things are dire.
When Viola learns of Gracewood's distress, she and her sister-in-law, the Lady Marleigh, decide to intervene. Viola knows she's playing with fire—how long can she hide her very-much-alive presence from her oldest friend?—but the choice is a done deal. She is going to help Gracewood no matter the cost.
But Viola's new ability to explore life as her true womanly self has opened up yet another wrinkle when it comes to Gracewood: she can no longer ignore the fact that her feelings for him are considerably more than friendly.
Will these two old friends see past themselves and achieve an ideal form of happiness?
Quaint, happy, and filled with heart, A Lady for a Duke is a shining example of a new type of inclusive historical romance.
Let's start this reaction off with some honesty: I am very conflicted about my star rating of this review.
On the one hand, I want to support this title and showcase how happy I am to see it exist, see it hold such a positive and happy storyline, and see it receive a wide readership. Squeals all around, this was adorable and wonderful and I felt all of the feelings.
On the other hand, I have to discuss the significant flaws in this novel's pacing, plot construction, and overall sense of boringness due to its drawn out pacing and lackluster scenes.
This novel is almost 500 pages long... and it feels like it. Cute scenes of emotional honesty between Viola and Justin were awesome and I loved them, but after the 200 page mark it became painfully obvious that we as readers were going to basically experience the same variant of the same type of emotional scene over and over again. Viola and Justin have barely any drama—which was good for the health of their relationship—but it did lead to a lack of opportunity for newness in their dialogue and interactions. Justin reassures Viola about X, Viola reassures Justin about Y....wash and repeat. So many of their scenes could have been remixed into any spot in the plot and been completely fine, that's how identical in tone and importance they were.
The only spot of freshness in this story did not come from the main characters at all—it came from the side characters, Lady Marleigh (sister-in-law to Viola) and Lady Gracewood (Justin's younger sister). They were doing fresh things in this story, thank goodness, and Justin and Viola got to semi-react to those events throughout the novel. But that did make for awkward reading in a romance subniche that tends to rely on its main characters to provide the agency in a story.
Definitely a conflict, and frankly a good one to have as again, the fact that this book is here at all on the bookshelves in the store is a wonderful thing. I'm glad this book exists and that I can quibble over its issues—but as a reviewer I do still need to highlight them.
Eagerly looking forward to more fresh stories in the historical romance canon to join this one on the shelves.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.