The protagonist of Helen Harper’s urban fantasy Gifted Thief lives the first eleven years of her life without a name. An orphan among the Highland Sidhe, she’s so despised that no one bothers giving her one. She lives in a castle, the ward of a nobleman, ignored or bullied until she escapes to the world of human beings. There she makes a life for herself with the help of a newfound human friend, Taylor. She names herself Integrity.

Taylor is a thief, so Integrity enters that profession.

Years later, she’s working with him and a team of magical characters, each with specialized skills. They look for high value targets, so when Taylor hears about a rare sapphire kept in a bank vault, he dispatches the team to acquire it. Integrity and her friends scale the building and break into the vault — only to find the sapphire isn’t there! Worse, Taylor has been lured into the debt of dangerous people. He needs money fast.

Then the trap closes. The debt and the elusive jewel are part of a Sidhe plot to force Integrity back to their lands. But why? For years they haven’t bothered coming after her.

Except in the prologue, the story is narrated by Integrity, and one of the novel’s attractions is her voice. She’s a funny, insightful, and self-deprecating narrator — the most likable protagonist I’ve encountered in a while. The band of thieves are endearing in their kindness and loyalty to one another. And then there’s the comical genie trapped in the letter opener.

Overall, the story is a bit too sweet for my tastes until the Sidhe show up. They come off as arrogant, vain, and treacherous — an entrenched aristocracy interested only in wealth and power.

With one or two possible exceptions.

Byron, the handsome son of a clan leader, may be hiding goodness beneath his jaded playboy exterior. He’s attracted to Integrity and offers to help her. Although she’s attracted to him, she refuses to give him her trust. He’s a Sidhe and she despises them all. Worse, he’s one of the Sidhe who made her childhood miserable. The romance between the two follows a predictable course of miscues and misunderstanding.

But once she returns to Sidhe lands, Integrity needs his help. She can’t be choosy about her allies as it becomes clear that the clan leaders mean to kill her once they have no more use for her.

Despite the danger, her return finally gives her an opportunity to find out about her parents and who she truly is. The search for identity is a central theme in literature, and Integrity’s quest adds weight to a story that occasionally seems frivolous.

I began Gifted Thief thinking it was pleasant fluff. But Integrity changed my mind. She likes to crack silly jokes, but she’s serious about defending herself and protecting her friends. By the end I loved her and hoped for her eventual triumph.

Gifted Thief is the first book of Harper’s Highland Magic series. The next one, Honour Bound, will be released on February 29.

I’m always on the lookout for a good urban fantasy. I found a great one in R.L. King’s The Threshold, the third book in a series chronicling the adventures of mage Alistair Stone. Alistair is a white mage; he doesn’t power his spells by siphoning the life force of other human beings.  In The Threshold, Alistair and his companions, Verity Thayer and her brother, Jason, are battling an extra-dimensional enemy called the Evil that feed on human emotions and seek world domination. The trio must find and destroy the portals through which the Evil are invading this world.

As incorporeal beings the Evil can possess the bodies of most humans, but not the bodies of mages, although a few black mages allow themselves to be possessed  in exchange for the power the Evil  gives them. A mysterious group known as the Forgotten are also immune to possession. The special abilities of the Forgotten come with a downside: — they suffer from various mental disorders that make it difficult for them to function in society. Most of the Forgotten are homeless.

The story moves briskly without sacrificing the descriptive detail so necessary to this genre. The author weaves the magic seamlessly into a very concrete everyday reality. The extra-dimensional portal in the basement of an Indian restaurant, aptly named A Passage to India, seems as real and believable as a broom closet.

Alistair and his companions are altogether sympathetic. I prefer antiheroes, so this threesome is a bit too white magic for me. But their quirks and passions keep them from being bland. Englishman Alistair comes across as a typical college professor, unconventional and sometimes acerbic. His mysterious past makes him intriguing. Teenager Verity is both Forgotten and a mage. Apprenticed to Alistair, she is discovering her abilities as she wrestles with the problems of adolescence. Jason’s only gift is the ability to power Alistair’s spells without depleting himself, a kind of magical battery, but his fierce love for his sister makes him stand out.

Secondary characters are well-drawn, even those who make only a brief appearance. Eleanor Pearsall, the white mage in the opening chapter, is so sweet that it hurts when she’s ambushed by the Evil. And gray mage Trevor Harrison is so compelling that I wish he had a larger role in the story.

Later books in a series are tricky. Often the beginning gets bogged down by exposition or the story cannot stand on its own. King avoids both these pitfalls. She gives just enough information so readers can understand what’s going on. At times the Evil seems like an abstract menace, though, and the trio’s history with the Forgotten feels thin. After finishing The Threshold I backed up and read The Forgotten, which filled in everything that was missing — and more. The first book, Stone and a Hard Place, tells a separate story featuring Alistair Stone.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, you don’t want to miss this series. You can read The Threshold first, like I did, but for the optimal experience, start with The Forgotten. Or better yet, Stone and a Hard Place. Once you enter the world of Alistair Stone, you won’t want to leave. And you won’t have to. The Source: Book Four of the Alistair Stone Chronicles, is coming soon.

 

 

The Threshold Cover

A few reviewers have compared Talion to the novels of Thomas Harris because of its graphic violence. I’m so thrilled and flattered by the comparison I could whoop like Daffy Duck. Harris is a master of his genre, and while his stories are undeniably horrific, the violence is a small part of what makes them awesome.

When readers think of Thomas Harris, they’re haunted by images of savaged bodies with shards of mirror in their eye sockets, skinned bodies with exotic insects jammed down their throats, or a man alive and conscious as Hannibal Lecter slices his brain from his open skull.  But in his earlier work anyway, Harris renders the quieter passages as memorably as the violent scenes. It’s not Lecter’s cannibalism and other gruesome acts that capture my imagination in The Silence of the Lambs, but his creepy conversations with FBI agent-in-training Clarisse Starling. Harris can make even minor characters unforgettable. One of the clearest images I retain from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is the witness who tips her head back so her mascara won’t run as she weeps for her missing friend.

serial killers, Thomas Harris, Hannibal Lector, Red Dragon

In Red Dragon, my favorite Harris novel, I find the narrative of Francis Dolarhyde’s childhood—his cleft palate and sadistic grandmother, the awful logic of what he becomes—as compelling as the descriptions of the ritual murders he commits. Dolarhyde has a brush with redemption when he becomes intimate with a blind coworker and fights the voice of the dragon demanding her blood. I care enough about him to wish he could have been transformed by love. But that kind of magic cannot exist in Harris’s world.

At the conclusion of Red Dragon, the emotionally and physically damaged ex-FBI agent Will Graham lies in the hospital critically wounded after his last encounter with Dolarhyde. His mind drifts in a narcotic haze to a visit he once made to Shiloh and his feeling that the place was haunted by everything that had happened there. He realizes now that, like the rest of nature, Shiloh has no meaning except what human beings project on it: “Beautiful Shiloh could witness anything. Its unforgivable beauty only underscored the indifference of nature, the Green Machine.” Nature is without mercy, Harris tells us. The concept of murder doesn’t exist in nature. “We make murder, and it matters only to us.” This grim determinism adds to the darkness of an already dark story and extinguishes whatever lingering pity I feel for Dolarhyde.

I understand that pity is beside the point.

It’s gratifying when a reader not only enjoys your book but also understands the story on a level that many other readers overlook. The review below appears on Goodreads. I’m thrilled to bring it to you here with the permission of the reviewer, James Goltz.

Daemon Seer is the second published novel by Mary Maddox and a sequel to Talion which was published in 2012. I noticed immediately upon receiving the book that “daemon” was spelled differently, and presumably had a different meaning from, the more familiar term “demon,” the latter a term familiar to most of us as a malevolent spirit capable of inhabiting and causing serious mischief in the human host. Consider, for example, the Gerasene Demoniac in the Christian New Testament, Mark V, 1-17 who is possessed by a legion of demons, banished from his village, abuses himself with stones, cannot be constrained by chains and wails among the tombs until the demons are exorcised by Jesus. Daemons, on the other hand, are also spiritual beings but, based upon the terms Greek origin and Latin interpretation, can be either malevolent or benevolent beings. They influence human behavior and, more seriously, select some people as on-going hosts and control their behavior. These supernatural beings in their Greek origins are lesser divinities existing somewhere between the gods of the Greek pantheon and humans. But they are definitely more powerful than the humans they inhabit.

The daemons that appear in Mary Maddox novels are both benevolent and malevolent, in some cases; good and evil are embodied in the same daemon. Talion is the daemon prince who inhabits Lu Darlington along with Black Claw, a more sinister companion of Talion. Lu is the main character, a woman of 25 who tries to maintain a normal human existence despite the periodic presence of her daemon companions and who now reemerge after a ten-year period and compel her to have a child, in daemon parlance create a “knot,” so that Talion can be present to influence human events as he sees fit. Lu is a “seer” and continues in a generational line of seers who have kept Talion in the physical world. Talion has some affection for Lu but seeks to dominate and force compliance with his needs which are not necessarily commensurate with those of Lu, his host and seer.

In Maddox’s first novel, Lu is a 15 year-old girl whose parents are abusive and her friend Lisa is pursued by a serial killer. But thanks to Lu, with daemon assistance, the serial killer is dispatched though Lisa is gravely wounded and disfigured. Fast forward 10 years. Lu is working a nowhere job and without warning, Lisa appears still reeling from her near-death encounter with the “Professor of Death” and badly strung-out on pain killers. Once again, she’s fleeing, this time from a sexual predator, a renegade cop with a demon (this one is purely malevolent) of his own. This is a smart and imaginative novel with relentless action. My advice is to read Talion first and you will hit the ground running for Daemon Seer. Like Talion, Daemon Seer is a fast-paced well written thriller—a book that will keep you up late and may invade your dreams.

Fire Demon 2

 

 

The epistolary novel (a novel written in the form of journals or letters) has a long history going back to the 17th Century. It’s uncommon these days, but Brian Sfinas has adopted it to write an imaginative and sometimes brilliant work of science fiction.

The Darkest of Suns Will Rise consists of a series of official reports and the journals and letters of principal characters. From these Sfinas constructs a terrifying and only too credible world of the future in which much of humanity lives and dies on space stations without ever setting foot on Earth. With its population at a sustainable level, the planet’s ecosystem is healthy once more. Macaws have been genetically modified to be as intelligent as humans. Nano robots clean up messes, from smudged walls to demolished space ships, by deconstructing them at the molecular level. They heal injuries and disease, doubling the human lifespan. Super intelligent and benign aliens known as the Pronogsticate monitor the governance of human beings.

Sound like paradise?

Not exactly. Human nature hasn’t changed.

A secretive group called the Orphanage range through space, plotting the overthrow of the Prognosticate and the rule of reason. The Orphans are the few remaining believers in God. The military commander Aiden DeCaro is their chief enemy. He detests their destructiveness, irrationality, and rebellion, but he harbors the same traits in himself and works to conceal them from the probing of the Prognosticate.

Aiden also keeps Clarissa, his lover, hidden in his cabin on board the ship he commands. Their relationship is sadomasocistic in the extreme. He kills a man who accidentally sees Clarissa and feels little remorse for doing so. The love affair between Aiden and Clarissa forms the emotional core of the story. His political struggles and fight against the Orphanage unfold around it.

Despite the brilliant conception and fully imagined world, the writing occasionally falls short. In a novel like this, errors in grammar or usage can be a way of creating a distinct narrative voice, but not when they contradict the character’s intellect and education, as happens two or three times with Aiden.

In the middle of the story, Aiden spends time on Earth writing in his journal. He ruminates at length about economic and political conditions in the early 21st Century. Although many of the author’s observations are astute, they seem extrinsic to the story and slow it further at a point where it’s already dragging.

Finally, there is little or no foreshadowing of the abrupt ending. I anticipated it a few pages ahead because I saw nowhere else for the story to go.

Overall, the novel’s many strengths outweigh its few weaknesses. The Darkest of Suns Will Rise is a haunting novel, remarkable for its complex characters and intelligent vision of the future.

 

A coming-of-age novel set in America in the late 70s, Sandra Hutchinson’s The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire centers on the relationship between David, a physics professor in his 30s, and Molly, the teenage girl who used to babysit his daughter. Molly doesn’t babysit for David anymore because his wife and daughter recently perished in a plane crash. He is too overwhelmed by grief to take care of himself, so his estranged sister hires Molly to keep house for him.

Molly has problems of her own. Her parents are divorced. Her father loves her but now has another wife and children, a family where she has a marginal place. She mostly lives with her mother, a notorious and uninhibited artist who commemorates Molly’s first period by constructing the figure of a girl with tampons and, of course, exhibiting it publicly. Molly’s schoolmates call her Tampon Girl.

The physics professor doesn’t seduce or become obsessed with the teenager, nor does she have a girlish crush on him. While David struggles with grief and survivor’s guilt and Molly negotiates the minefield of adolescence in the 70s, they develop a friendship that’s hard to categorize but easy for people in their small town to misinterpret and condemn.

Sandra Hutchinson writes beautifully transparent and unpretentious prose. She creates complex characters and a vivid sense of place. Most of all, she tells a compelling story full of sorrow and humor with a benign detachment that leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions. In other words, she’s a first-rate writer.

Some readers might be offended by Hutchinson’s frank depiction of sexual situations and nonjudgmental treatment of behavior that is usually condemned. They may dislike the somewhat open ending. But if you don’t read fiction to find emotional security and have your beliefs validated, if you’re just looking for an excellent book, I strongly recommend The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.

Also by Sandra Hutchison:

 

romance, literary fiction

Read my review of The Awful Mess here.

Bill Kirton’s The Darkness charts the moral journey of a doctor who succumbs to fantasies of revenge. Dr. Andrew Davidson seeks justice for his brother, who commits suicide after his wife and daughter die in a car crash. He wants to punish not just the drunk driver who caused the accident, but other sociopaths who destroy lives and evade punishment. One by one, suspected criminals begin to disappear from the streets of Cairnburgh, Scotland.

Inspector Jack Carston, charged with investigating the disappearances, has mixed feelings. He isn’t sorry to have rapists, child molesters, and killers off the streets, but whoever has taken them is equally a criminal. He and his partner set about solving the cases in their quiet, methodical way.

The Darkness pits a compelling antihero against a reticent hero. Both are intelligent and likable. Davidson is kind to his patients, considerate of his coworkers, and sweet to his girlfriend. Carston loves his wife and enjoys his work. But the doctor eclipses the inspector through most of the story.

The doctor becomes the dramatic center as soon as he appears, largely because of the narrative point of view. Most of the narrative is third-person omniscient, but the doctor addresses the reader in first-person, which is direct and intimate and places him at the emotional core of the story. Everything happens around him. Eventually we learn that we’re reading his confession, addressed to Carston. This device links the doctor to the detective and underscores their shared need to see justice done.

Once the investigation begins to break, Carston’s role becomes more active and his character takes center stage. Still, the doctor remains the heart of the story. What will he do with the captives in his basement? Will his sanity survive the trauma of the crimes that he commits in the name of justice?

Kirton writes elegant prose and creates memorable characters. Even secondary players stand out. I won’t forget the prostitute Rhona or her devoted boyfriend, Billy, for a long time. The Darkness might confound some readers who expect mystery novels to follow a conventional pattern, but those who enjoy intelligent psychological suspense are in for a treat.

Haley Molnare can’t inherit her father’s estate until she runs his company for two years. Her father has been absent from her life, and the little she knows of him comes from her embittered, narcissistic mother — hardly a reliable source. Haley’s idle, materialistic lifestyle suggests she will become much like her mother. She dreads the two years of hard work but wants the money.

Kirsten Mortensen’s Dark Chemistry is the story of Haley’s entry into her father’s world. No more partying every night, sleeping in every morning, or taking her survival for granted.

The company makes raw ingredients for cosmetics companies. Its research department has developed a dangerous and potentially lucrative chemical, and the current CEO intends to profit from it. He will do whatever is necessary to get Haley out of the way. She lacks the experience and knowledge to fight him, so for much of the story the CEO manipulates and uses her. She turns away from her new friend, Donavon, even though she cares for him and he cares for her.

Her weakness could have made her unsympathetic, but one of Mortensen’s strengths as a writer is her ability to get inside a character’s head. Readers experience Haley’s struggle to understand what’s happening and her newfound determination to succeed. Mortensen brings the same insight to the other characters, even the villainous CEO, who is loathsome but also pitiful.

For a moment I doubted the story’s premise, the discovery of a chemical that has the potential to change the world, but the author’s research and careful plotting won me over. Besides, I was already hooked.

Dark Chemistry has the essential ingredients of a page-turner — professional prose, a gripping plot, interesting and believable characters, and a love story that’s touching but never sappy.

Every evening I looked forward to reentering the story, and I read late into the night to reach the ending.

It did not disappoint.

Dark Chemistry Cover

 

 

In Manroot Anne Steinberg tells the tragic story of Katherine, who inherits the gift of magic from her Native American mother and nothing but heartache from her abusive white father. After her mother’s death Katherine and her father travel from the Southwest US to a small town in Missouri, where they find work at a tourist hotel. There Katherine falls in love with a local judge who hangs out at the hotel with his cronies.

She begins collecting items connected to the judge—a cigarette butt, one of his cuff links, a few strands of his hair, and a man-shaped ginseng root (the manroot of the title)—negligible things, but she believes their magic binds him to her. For a brief time the couple is happy even though the judge refuses to leave his spoiled, childless wife. Then the magical items are discarded when Katherine’s room is repainted. Distraught, she behaves in ways that alienate her lover.

At this point in Manroot I wondered if Katherine’s belief in magic is supposed to be a delusion, since her reaction to the loss rather than the loss itself triggers the chain of events leading to her ruin and threatening her sanity. Later events show the magic is quite real. Just not altogether under her control.

I can’t give specifics without spoiling the story, but the narrative shifts away from Katherine in the second part of the novel. She stays in the background, emerging now and then to do her magic and influence events. Although these events are compelling and matter to Katherine, it’s as though her destiny is sealed and her personal story has ended. From now on she must live by proxy.

An omniscient narrator tells the story, which necessarily creates distance between the reader and the characters. Both the point of view and the narrative structure kept me from fully identifying with Katherine. In addition, the narrator comments on and reacts to events. The editorial omniscient is more common in 19th Century fiction, and it gives Manroot an old-fashioned feel. Not a bad thing in itself. Sometimes, though, Steinberg uses it to insert long expository passages that become a bit boring. Manroot coverOne quirk irritated me, the overuse of the exclamation point. The author attaches it to sentences that are declaratory. For instance, “That was when she sent for Katherine!” Those exclamation points were like flies. Just when I hoped I’d seen the last of them, another one buzzed me.

Overall, though, Manroot is a haunting story with lush description, complex characters, and a kind of mystery that cannot be neatly categorized or explained.

I began David Litwack’s novel The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky expecting the title character to be a fabulous creature supercharged with magical power. Instead I met Kailani, a nine-year-old girl who has run away from home. Kailani does have the ability to transform the lives of those she meets, but her power isn’t supernatural. It comes from the altogether human qualities of beauty, innocence, and love.

The world of the novel consists of two hostile nations, the Blessed Lands where people believe in the Spirit, and the Republic of Reason where people embrace empiricism. Most of the action unfolds in the Republic, a place much like our own world with technology circa 1985. The Blessed Lands are less advanced. Decades after a long and bloody war, the two nations have an uneasy peace maintained through rigid diplomatic protocols. Each side demonizes the other. Believers are zealots; non-believers are soulless. Free travel between the nations does not exist although procedures exist to seek asylum. Those who enter surreptitiously are considered enemies until proven otherwise.

When Kailani arrives on the shores of the Republic of Reason in a foundering boat, proclaiming herself the Daughter of the Sea and the Sky, she presents a problem for the authorities. Although only a child, she breaks the law by preaching the existence of the Spirit. She tells Helene and Jason, the young couple who rescue her from the sea, that she has come from the Blessed Lands to do penance. For what sin she refuses to say. The couple tries to protect her and discover that doing so requires greater personal sacrifice than they imagined. Meanwhile subversive elements within the Republic see in Kailani a means of advancing their own agenda.

A major theme of the novel is that grief is unavoidable for anyone capable of love. Almost every major character mourns a loved one and struggles to make sense of the loss. Yet love gives meaning to life. After the death of her father Helene is cast adrift until she reconnects with Jason, her childhood sweetheart. Significantly, the villain, a religious fanatic who would sacrifice Kailani to his faith, feels neither love nor grief. He only cares about getting what he wants.

Another theme examines the dichotomy of faith and reason. The two nations struggle to coexist yet they need each other. The Blessed Lands lack modern technology. The Republic of Reason prospers materially, but it’s a drab and uninspiring place where many people hunger for a greater meaning. Kailani shines there like a candle in the dark. Litwack suggests that we need both faith and reason and our challenge is to find a way for them to coexist within us.

The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky is a beautifully written story with a fully imagined world and complex characters. I would have preferred a bit more subtlety in the presentation of theme, but other readers will disagree. Without a doubt this is a novel worthy of your time even if you don’t usually read fantasy.

The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky

In Ebony and Spica: Two Birds in My Life, Janet Doolaege tells about a blackbird and a starling who were rescued as fledglings and spent long and happy lives as part of her household. It might seem like there wouldn’t be much of a story here, but the author’s keen observations and skillful description make this brief memoir an entertaining read.

The writing abounds with vivid imagery and information about birds, the kind of knowledge that comes only through close observation:

An aggressive blackbird looks very different from an aggressive starling. Ebony in an angry mood would look like a horizontal missile, all feathers on his head flat and his beak pointed forwards. . . . An enraged starling, on the other hand, is a vertical challenger with crown feathers sticking straight up.

Bird lovers will enjoy the antics of these feathered sweethearts, who worm their way into the hearts of Doolaege and her husband. The latter occasionally loses patience with Spica’s dinner-table incursions. My husband and I share our home with a budgie, so I know how birds can take over a household and how annoying they can sometimes be. I had quite a few moments of recognition while reading Ebony and Spica.

Some think of birds as neglible creatures. Anyone who has lived with them knows they’re intelligent and sensitive. but even bird lovers might not think of starlings and blackbirds as beautiful. Doolaege reveals their beauty—Ebony “with a fine gold ring around each large black eye” and Spica “with his feathers slightly puffed out like miniature cockle shells.”

The story of the birds inevitably allows readers into the author’s daily life. I enjoyed visiting a world not fraught with melodrama or darkened by disaster, a world where people with ordinary problems find contentment in their day-to-day experiences. The author adopted Ebony and Spica because they would have perished otherwise, but she concludes that birds cannot live a full life among human beings. I understand her arguments but think a bird, wild or domesticated, could meet a far worse fate than life in a French farmhouse with other birds, cared for and loved by compassionate human beings.

Ebony and Spica

An Animal Life: The Beginning by Howard Krum with Roy Yanong and Scott Moore follows a group of students through their first semester at University of Philadelphia School of Veterinary Medicine in the 1980s. For readers interested in what vet school is like, this novel offers a full experience of demanding class work, raucous parties, and sometimes painful personal growth.

The omniscient point of view is skillfully done. It gives the authors leeway to explain aspects of veterinary medicine in technical detail so readers can understand what the students are learning in class. But the analytical perspective on the action is less suited to expressing the characters’ emotional lives and motivation. Too often we are told rather than shown who characters are and what they want.

In an intensive and useful glossary, the authors give a tongue-in-cheek definition of An Animal Life as  “A book series . . . [that] may be an upcoming blockbuster movie or TV series.” They offer a “Suggested Soundtrack” of popular songs to accompany each chapter. Their music selections are knowledgeable and clever, and the objective omniscient point of view has a cinematic flavor, but the story isn’t presented in a way likely to attract Hollywood.

The book makes demands on the reader. It takes some knowledge of biology to understand the chapters about vet school classes. (Those pre-med biology courses back in college came in handy here.) The illustrations by Patty Hogan help, but they’re difficult to see in the Kindle book. The story, while interesting, isn’t exactly a page-turner. The narrative plods through that first semester of vet school, developing the various subplots sporadically. Despite the potential for suspense, there isn’t much.

On the other hand, a screenwriter might transform this promising raw material into the hoped-for blockbuster.

The story has several plotlines, but two stand out: a romance between two first-year students and a medical mystery.

Jack, a former cop, is attracted to Anna, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Although she has feelings for him their personalities aren’t altogether compatible, and various missteps and misunderstandings keep them apart. Their story follows the conventional pattern of romance novels without the usual emotionalism. Both know Anna will die young, but the story is almost over before they become close enough to acknowledge it. The title suggests the story will continue, and I’m curious to know whether the two will get together.

Because of the point of view, Jack and Anna occasionally seems like puppets, doing what the plot requires rather than acting from character-driven motivation. Jack’s infatuation with pet-food PR slut Avery is one example. We’re told that Jack resists sex with Avery because he’s waiting for “the one,” yet Avery has him enthralled. That kind of paradox is certainly possible, but readers aren’t shown enough of Jack’s thoughts to understand why this intelligent, experienced man gives in to juvenile lust.

The medical mystery begins when animals and birds in the area begin to die in startling numbers. A zoo vet and a pathology instructor work to discover why, but corporate interests at the zoo are less interested in the truth than in avoiding bad publicity. This conflict culminates in one of my favorite scenes as an Aussie thug employed by the zoo tries to intimidate the vets.

An Animal Life succeeds most completely on an intellectual level. I learned a lot about what veterinarians do and the challenges they face. The book raises the ethical dilemma of caring for animals while exploiting them for food, experimentation, and entertainment. An Animal Life offers no solution and has no ideological agenda — all the characters except Anna are unapologetic meat eaters — but it reminds us that humans and animals are part of the same ecosystem. Our treatment of animals has environmental consequences. On a personal level, the story depicts callousness and cruelty toward animals as character flaws, kindness toward them as a mark of goodness, and respect for them as essential in a veterinarian.

I noticed smatterings of punctuation errors concentrated in certain parts of the book, an uneven job of proofreading, but by and large An Animal Life is well written and worth the time of any reader who cares about animals and enjoys biology.