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BookBrowse Reviews Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

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Jamrach's Menagerie

A Novel

by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch X
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jun 2011, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2012, 304 pages

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Novel: A magical whaling expedition set in the 19th century

With 17 out of 21 reviewers rating it 4 or 5 stars, Jamrach's Menagerie was very well received by most BookBrowse readers!

Here's what they have to say:
I love love love this book! (Linda R). It is a wonderful novel written in beautiful, lyrical prose with a compelling story that has everything: love, deep friendship, and thrilling adventure (Alison W). It reads like an autobiography, the author is that convincing in her portrayal of Jaffy's odyssey. I will definitely be watching for other books by Ms. Birch (Steve B).

Many admired the imagery:
This is a book of the senses. We hear, taste, feel, and especially smell Jaffy's unpasteurized life (Paula W). Told in the first-person, his story is of a life filled with wonder, exquisite joy, unbridled excitement, terror, brutal horror, survival, great sadness, love, and acceptance. I found myself totally and unabashedly absorbed in his nineteenth century world. Carol Birch provides the most wonderful imagery you can possibly imagine. Her descriptive narrative is vivid enough to have made my mouth water as an eight year old Jaffy tastes his first raspberry puff, to have made said mouth run dry during his on-sea adventures, and to have tears running down my cheeks when he struggles with the horror of choosing life or death. I am enthused enough about the writing that I have ordered two earlier titles by Ms. Birch. She's that good (Margaret D R).

And suggested comparisons to other books:
It reminds me of a Dickensian tale with touches of Life of Pi (Lisa B). The story of animal-loving seafaring young men is a winner. There is enough fantasy mixed with grueling reality and exotic animals to remind one of the original fairy tales of Grimm (Ginger K). A melding of Moby Dick and Dickens's The Donner Party (Vivian H).

While a couple warmed to it slowly but ended up as fans:
I wasn't so sure about it in the beginning, but it reeled me right in. Once it got me, it was hard to put down until I finished (Sharon W). It is not really my type of book at all. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and slowly, gradually, the author won me over. So, instead of putting the book in a donation box, it's in my bookcase, right where it belongs: with other wonderfully-told books of challenges at sea (Rosemary K).

Two others found the descriptions too gruesome for their tastes:
Despite the beautiful writing, parts of this book were difficult for me to read, and I cannot say I really liked the story (Vivian H). While the writing was great, very descriptive and made me feel like I was there, it is something I don't want to relive - it is too unsettling and too detailed. I finished it a few hours ago, and I am still sad, thirsty, feel dehydrated, and have no appetite (Bea C).

Many offered advice on who should read it:
For one interested in the 19th century, in the business of selling wild animals and birds, and in the whaling industry, this is a treasure... For one who can distinguish and accept the reality closely interwoven with fantasy, it is a must... A masterful piece of writing, but one that I would recommend only to those I know have a mature imagination. It is not a fairy tale for children (Shirley J). This is certainly a coming-of-age story but the growing-up is via the fast-track of gruesome ordeal. The book might carry a warning label for squeamish readers (Mark O). But the narrative - so alive with winds, waves, horror - also has tender and poetic moments and characters who are very well drawn and worth the effort to get to know (Paula W).

And recommended it to book clubs:
I think this book would lead to very interesting book club discussions, but I would be careful in recommending it to juveniles (Steve B). A very delightful book that would be a fun book club discussion (Carol J). A good discussion piece for young adults (Ginger K).

Overall
The book is about life, love, friendship, journeys, life at sea, survival, caring for animals, and coming to terms with tragedy and death, all told against the backdrop of 19th century life. Carol Birch is an amazing writer, not merely a talented one - she's a GREAT contemporary writer - and Jamrach's Menagerie is a book that you really MUST read (Elizabeth K).

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2011, and has been updated for the June 2012 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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