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Friday, April 5, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Madman's Daughter

Okay, so I am trying to get into the groove of this reading more YA lit thing, so over my recent vacation, I nixed the plan of reading The Twelve and instead brought along The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd (and a whole bunch of New Yorker back issues). It was the only "work" I did on vacation. But thankfully, it ended up being very enjoyable.

I was intrigued by The Madman's Daughter when I was reading reviews, and in fact, I placed a hold for myself at the same time I ordered it for the BPL Teen collection.

Why was I intrigued? Because The Madman's Daughter is basically a retelling of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells but from the Doctor's 16 year old daughter's perspective. First, I love Wells and second, it was a YA book that was not dystopian.  Also, a mad scientist, not a romance, was the driving force behind the narrative.

Let me give a bit more detail.  Juliet Moreau is a poor maid at the medical college in 19th Century London, but she was not always living on the bottom of society.  In her childhood her father was a celebrated surgeon, but there was some controversy with his work, he was run out of England and presumed dead.  Juliet and her mother got by (with her mother turning toward being a glorified concubine) until her mother's death of consumption.

Desperate, Juliet follows a lead that her father might still be alive and discovers her childhood friend/family servant boy Montgomery, who reluctantly tells Juliet that her father is alive and continuing his "great" work on an isolated island in the South Pacific.  Juliet returns to the island with Montgomery to try to understand her father's obsession with his science, decide for herself if he is the monster people back in London say he is, and hopefully reconnect with him.

During the long sea voyage, the ship picks up a castaway, Edward Prince.  And thus the story begins in earnest.

Dr. Moreau is just like he is in the Wells classic.  He has created new, thinking beings by combining other animals.  The story is part sf thriller, part love story (as Juliet explores her feelings for Montgomery and Edward) and part mystery, as Juliet needs to learn about her own origins and deduce where her father's allegiances truly lay.

The novel is Gothic in the classical sense of the term.  It has bits of horror as there are monsters (both human and science fiction) who incite fear and attack and chunks of thriller (as there are great action-mystery-investigation scenes).  It is also a coming of age story.

I saw one reviewer on Amazon call the novel "grotesquely beautiful."  This I think sums it up perfectly.

There are shocking twists here, and more literary allusions than just the Moreau stuff. In fact, I think adult readers will get more out of the twists and allusions than most teens will.

It is also important to note that if you did not know the Island of Doctor Moreau back story, you would be fine.  The story stands nicely on its own, but a knowledge of what it is an homage to makes it even more fun to read.

I have read some reviews that thought the sea voyage scenes were slow and useless.  I disagree because they help to set the historical tone of the story.  Passage by ship was slow and arduous.  The length of story spent on the voyage underscored how far they were going.  Also, it helped to solidify Juliet's character.  Her inner conflict between loving her father, holding on to intense anger at him and being petrified of him was established here.  Finally, this book is set to be the first in a trilogy, and the second book will be beginning on the sea, so I think some of what we saw in those long sea voyage passages here, will come into play in book two.

Speaking of the planned trilogy.  I have to say, I was sad to see the story was going to continue.  I felt the ending was perfect. It is not traditional YA though, so true readers of the genre would be disappointed if it ends as it does.  People have called it a cliff hanger ending, but I did not see it that way.  The conflict on the island is resolved and we know Juliet returns to civilization because we are reading the book she has presumably has written a book about her adventures (the novel is in first person). The love story is what you could say has a cliff hanger, but I disagree; I think it ends as it should.

Again, on this point I think this is an adult reader reading YA problem.  I like ambiguous endings that veer toward the darker resolutions (Like Gone Girl), whereas, most YA readers want wish fulfillment, happy endings, with a coupling at the end. So when I book talk this to a teen reader I will say there is a cliff hanger with 2 more books to come, even though I will not read those myself. I am happy with how it concluded; in fact, I loved how it ended.

Three Words That Describe This Book: homage, Gothic, "grotesquely beautiful"

Readalikes: Before I start with readalikes, I wanted to point out this playlist from an editor at Amazon.  Scroll down to the reviews to it-- "Songs in the Mood for Madness."

The original, inspiration text, The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells is a good read in and of itself for adults and teens alike. Click here to read it online, for free, right now.

There are two books I have read that I think make good readalikes here.  First the YA horror novel Ghosts of Coronado Bay by J. G. Faherty is very similar. Click through for a full review, bu in short, both novels feature strong, but outcast teenage girl protagonists.  Both share a love triangle, speculative frame, island setting, and frightening action scenes.

I would also suggest the steampunk first in a series Boneshaker by Cherie Priest.  Click through for the full review.  Here the similarities include a mad scientist and 19th Century setting. Boneshaker has high teen cross over appeal. However, it is important to note that Boneshaker is firmly in the steampunk genre while The Madman's Daughter is an homage to a science fiction classic.

For an adult readalike that is okay for teens, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a good choice.  It is also based on an old story (in this case Dracula), it is creepy, Gothic, and features a father-daughter relationship at its core.

Kenneth Oppel's popular Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein YA series that begins with This Dark Endeavor is also a great readalike option. In this case, we are seeing the childhood of the mad scientist not the daughter of one.  It makes a nice parallel read.

Finally, I am currently reading The Lady and Her Monsters: a Tale of Dissections, Attempts to Reanimate Dead Tissue, and the Writing of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Roseanne Montillo.  This is a nonfiction story about the real scientists pushing the boundaries of nature during the 19th Century and the literature their work inspired.  This is a drier, nonfiction book and would probably only appeal to adults who are very interested in writers like Wells and Shelley (as I am), but not too many teens.

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