Brand new review: Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy

By Ekta R. Garg

June 2, 2021

Genre: Mainstream fiction

Release date: June 1, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A young woman considered a scientific miracle discovers that there’s a darker agenda behind the science when her mother goes missing. As the woman searches for her mother and for answers about her own existence, she’ll have to decide whether the path she’s chosen for herself is the right one after all. Author Sara Flannery Murphy offers an intriguing premise that’s light on crucial details in the novel Girl One.

When Josephine “Josie” Morrow was born in the 1970s, some people called her a miracle baby. Others called her an abomination. Her scientific father, Joseph Bellanger, called her Girl One, because Josie was the first child conceived without male DNA. Josie came out whole and a perfect replica of her mother, Margaret.

Josie and Margaret lived in a commune known only as the Homestead with eight other Mothers and Girls. Media and social backlash forced the Mothers and Girls to keep to themselves, despite Dr. Bellanger’s confidence that one day the world would accept the Girls for what they are: scientific breakthroughs. Not long after the last Girl is born, however, someone sets fire to the Homestead. One of the Girls and Dr. Bellanger die while everyone else barely escapes with their lives.

In 1994, Josie is in medical school in Chicago. Unlike some of the other Girls, Josie is fascinated by the science that created them and wants to reproduce it in the lab. When the Homestead burned down, the fire took all of Dr. Bellanger’s notes and research with it. Now Josie is slowly piecing it back together. It helps her feel closer to Dr. Bellanger who always called her his most special daughter.

Then word comes that her mother’s house in her small Illinois hometown has burned down. Josie races back home, only to discover that Margaret has disappeared. The circumstances around the fire are suspicious at best, and Josie gets a feeling the whole incident is somehow connected to her status as Girl One.

Having no one else to turn to, Josie starts combing through Margaret’s belongings and finds the contact information for a reporter with a keen interest in the Homestead. They begin a search for Margaret by tracking down the other Mother-Girl pairs to see if Margaret visited any of them recently. As Josie talks to the sisters that science gave her, she begins to understand how their existence is more incredible than anyone realized and how that very existence puts all of them in grave danger.

Author Sara Flannery Murphy offers readers a cursory introduction to the field of parthenogenesis, where a species reproduces without the presence of sperm. Much is made in the book about this accomplishment in humans, yet Murphy doesn’t share any of the scientific details. The oversight makes it a little harder to buy into the concept overall. Dr. Bellanger is purported to be some kind of genius scientist, yet readers never actually get to see what he did to accomplish this incredible feat. Later explanations, too, are skimmed over. Instead, Murphy directs readers to the relationships between the Girls and between them and their Mothers.

Here, too, the story feels a little lightweight. Margaret’s willingness to participate in Dr. Bellanger’s experiment on the Homestead is the only one given much consideration, but the details are sparse. Readers never get the chance to hear the “why” of it all—why would nine women leave behind their lives and all social conventions to participate in a radical scientific experiment?

Without this baseline motivation or any grounded science, the book becomes an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. Josie’s voice is the strongest, and Murphy’s descriptions are delightful and innovative. However, the story lacks the weight to make it truly a knockout. I recommend readers Borrow Girl One.

Latest review: The Memory Collectors by Kim Neville

By Ekta R. Garg

March 17, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction/magical realism

Release date: March 16, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

When a young woman with a unique ability to feel emotions meets another person like her, she has to decide whether she’ll trust her new acquaintance with her deepest secrets. As the two begin working together, the woman learns to harness her ability for the good of others and herself. Author Kim Neville showcases her Canadian hometown of Vancouver in the well-intentioned but somewhat faulty novel The Memory Collectors.

Evelyn is doing her best to get by every day. She makes her living by selling items at the Chinatown Night Market in Vancouver, BC. The trinkets come to her by the frequent dumpster dives she does, and the items almost call to her. Evelyn, in turn, sells the best of what she finds at the market. Those pieces that feel benign she gives to her diving friend, Owen. The worst she destroys.

Because for Evelyn, or Ev, it’s literally about the feelings. She has an ability that no one else except her father shared. Ev can touch objects and sense the emotions attached from previous owners. Joy, anger, distrust, shame—all of it comes to Ev when she puts her fingers on things. She calls the emotions “stains,” because that’s how it feels: like the things of the world carry the smudges and marks of their emotional burdens.

Dumpster diving is by no means lucrative. Ev ends every month scrambling to pay her bills. It doesn’t help that her position in the Night Market is precarious at best. The people there aren’t that fond of her, and she’s in danger of losing her spot.

In other part of the city, Harriet is also in danger of losing her place. For her, though, it’s her apartment. Harriet collects items, odds and ends really, that emanate their emotions. She calls them her bright things, and they make her happy. Except the neighbors keep complaining about her bright things lining the hallways in boxes, and everyone in the building is suffering from bad headaches and vague frustrations.

Harriet knows her bright things are to blame. They carry the weight of their emotional pasts, and those feelings are leaching into the building. When she’s threatened with eviction, she starts to think about where she might take the bright things and how they could, possibly, help others.

Ev and Harriet cross paths during one of Ev’s dumpster dives, and Harriet knows Ev is the only one who can help her with her dilemma. She shares her plan with Ev: to build a museum where her treasures can live and maybe help others by drawing them into their positive energy.

Ev is skeptical that any item can have a positive impact on people. She’s seen the absolute worst that can happen in her own family, and it left her and her sister the victims of a horrible tragedy. Yet the more she talks to Harriet, the more confidence she gains about her abilities to manage the effect the stains have on her. Maybe it is possible to interact with people’s most intimate feelings and still come out feeling whole.

Author Kim Neville digs deep into the magic she’s created for the world, and the result is a well-rounded experience of that system. Ev’s interaction with the stains feels real and almost tangible. Neville will certainly have readers thinking about their own possessions and what kind of emotional impression is left on them.

The book falters in character development, however. Ev is, by far, the most well-developed person in the novel, but everyone else around her doesn’t get the same importance. While Ev frets about her younger sister, Noemi, readers don’t get to know Noemi well enough to feel that invested in her. The fact that Noemi keeps disappearing for pages at a time doesn’t help.

Also, the book alternates between Ev and Harriet, yet Harriet’s past is mostly a mystery. Some key facts are never revealed, and others are explained with a few sentences that become the taglines for Harriet’s life. Ev’s dumpster diving friend Owen also doesn’t get his due. In early chapters it seems as though Owen and Ev are close in age, but later chapters contradict this assumption and overall readers never get to know much about him either.

One of the highlights of the book is the depiction of Vancouver. Neville brings her hometown alive, and readers will be clamoring for a visit. That and the magic system in the book will keep some readers engaged to the end. I recommend readers Borrow The Memory Collectors.

Latest review: The Ickabog by J.K. Rowling

By Ekta R. Garg

November 18, 2020

Genre: Children’s fantasy

Release date: November 10, 2020

Rated: Bordering on Bookmarking it! / 3.5 stars

When a bumbling king lets his evil advisors take control of his kingdom, the advisors use rumors to scare people into submission. Two best friends, however, refuse to let the pressure force them into doing the wrong thing and devise a plan to reveal the truth instead. Author J.K. Rowling returns with a story that will remind everyone why her writing has had such a huge impact with her newest work The Ickabog.

In the kingdom of Cornucopia, King Fred the Fearless is loved by everyone. Well, as far as he knows. The kingdom runs so well on its own that he really doesn’t have to do much other than make appearances to his adoring constituents and go hunting with his two best friends, Lord Spittleworth and Lord Flapoon.

Spittleworth and Flapoon live in the palace with the king where they all spend most of their time agreeing on how wonderful Fred is. When news comes of a visit by a king from a neighboring kingdom, Fred orders a new outfit be made as soon as possible for the occasion. Despite being ill, the head seamstress stitches the stately uniform and drops dead the morning she finishes it.

Fred feels a niggle of guilt for demanding the seamstress’s speed, but Spittleworth and Flapoon reassure him he did nothing wrong. His guilt grows when he hears that Daisy, the seamstress’s daughter, called him selfish, vain, and cruel. To prove that he’s not any of those things, Fred goes on a quest to save Cornucopia from the Ickabog.

Legend has it the Ickabog stays near the Marshlands on the northern side of Cornucopia. Unlike other parts of the kingdom, the Marshlands are a hard place to live. Fred knows this is probably exaggerated, given how often his friends commend him on the condition of the kingdom, and sets out to defeat the Ickabog once and for all.

Complications come up when the party hunting the Ickabog loses one of its members. To cover up the terrible accident, Lord Spittleworth starts spinning a web of lies to convince first Fred and then the people of the kingdom that the Ickabog is a terror to be feared. Fred starts to cede control to Spittleworth and Flapoon bit by bit, allowing them to tax Cornucopians and announcing stringent new laws. Soon the happy kingdom becomes a worn, tired, bleak place to live.

Daisy, the seamstress’s daughter, refuses to accept the circumstances, however. Even though her father is imprisoned and she’s thrown into an orphanage, Daisy fights against the system. Her best friend, Bert, starts digging through all the murky facts to find out the truth. Although their friendship is tested and even ceases at some points, the two manage to find their way back to one another again in time to make a shocking discovery that may just save all of Cornucopia after all.

Author J.K. Rowling returns to children’s literature for the first time in more than a decade. Between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Ickabog, Rowling has written several novels for adults under a pen name. This latest release shows how much the world of children’s literature could benefit from her return to it.

The book is reminiscent of old fairy tales, offering tried-and-true life lessons: too much pride almost guarantees a great downfall; compromising with a bully doesn’t yield true friendship; be willing to look past differences to find what’s common underneath. An omniscient narrator tells the story, offering readers confidence that all will (most likely) be well by the end. Like the original fairy tales, however, the dangers to get to that end are real and, for some characters, irreversible.

In a foreword, Rowling shares that she wrote this novel in between drafts of the Harry Potter books. All of her concentration at the time was on the boy wizard, and she didn’t think much of this story until the pandemic hit this year. She took out The Ickabog, polished it, and began posting it in installments online for children to read while stuck at home.

The richness of Rowling’s world and the sharp wit of her narration will make older readers and adults smile. Younger readers may not fully absorb the parallels between the story and current world events, but the lessons are good ones all the same. While some might seem a little on-the-nose, readers might find it refreshing to see these lessons set down in black and white.

There are almost too many characters to keep track of. Lord Flapoon, in particular, disappears at points while Lord Spittleworth schemes to keep his pockets full. As a book, it’s not the most polished effort but it’s perfect for reading aloud and sharing with the family.

For the past year, Rowling has been mired in controversy about comments she’s made regarding the trans community. This book will remind readers of who Rowling was before all of that. It certainly may make many readers hope that Rowling gets back into her writing space and spends more time there and less time on social media. I rate this book as Bordering on Bookmarking it.