Writing Wildlife | The Reader’s Shelf

Readers expect novels full of human characters, but fiction is populated with wildlife, too—from the fantastic to the real, the endangered to the extinct, and from companions to subjects and protagonists themselves.

An engrossing, intertwined tale about the extinction of bees unfolds in Maja ­Lunde’s The History of Bees (Touchstone: S. & S. Aug. 2017. ISBN 9781501161377. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501161391), a novel told in three time periods across three continents. In 1851 England, William, a failed biologist, struggles to find purchase in his life. In 2007 America, a beekeeper named George stands witness to colony collapse. China, generations after the destruction of the bees, is the last place on Earth that can produce fruit thanks to the endless toil of human workers who pollinate by hand. Living in 2098, Tao is one of them, resigned to her task until tragedy spurs her to take on an unfathomable quest. The haunting story, touched with hope and connection, is told with a stately grace powered by Lunde’s evocative and spare prose.

Two Amur tigers provide the trigger for John Sandford’s ninth “Virgil Flowers” novel, Escape Clause (Putnam. Sept. 2017. ISBN 9780425276228. pap. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 9780698152670). The rare cats have been stolen for their incredible street value, and what is planned for them is grisly—their organs are vital ingredients in ancient medicines. The laconic (until he does not need to be), quirky, and skilled Detective Flowers is on the case, however, and as the clock ticks down on the lives of the tigers, it does so for the bad guys as well. In keeping with his popular long-running series, Sandford provides plenty of secondary plots and characters, humor, and a great deal of action.

Old, mad, homeless, and addicted, Cuthbert Handley breaks into the London Zoo at the end of April 2052. He is there to set the animals free, to question them about his dead brother, and to save them from a doomsday cult that seeks the eradication of every animal on earth. Author Bill Broun follows Cuthbert through the zoo’s defenses in his immersive and fable-like dystopian debut, Night of the Animals (Ecco: HarperCollins. Apr. 2017. ISBN 9780062400802. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9780062400819). As the mesmerizing plot develops, it is clear that others are also out and about this night, a number of whom play a key role in Cuthbert’s mission. The lions demand first release, as, overlooking it all, a newly discovered comet silently speeds through the sky.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (­Ballantine. 2012. ISBN 9780345538987. pap. $9.99; ebk. ISBN 9780307763051) earned its status as a modern classic in the adrenaline genre for its taut and riveting suspense but stays with readers for its astoundingly convincing depiction of dinosaurs. From a stalking T. rex to the crafty and relentless velociraptor, the long-extinct creatures live anew on the page, striking atavistic terror. Billed as a new type of zoo, with enclosures highlighting cloned dinosaurs, Jurassic Park quickly becomes the site of carnage as the animals escape their confines and encounter human prey among the staff, expert evaluators, and the founder of the park and his family. A surprisingly effective and reflective page-turner, it remains a deeply satisfying read.

The strange and wonderfully conceived Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from German by ­Susan Bernofsky (New Directions. 2016. ISBN 9780811225786. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811225793), features three generations of snowy bears, all of whom interact in the human world and gain celebrity status for their accomplishments. Blending the surreal with the everyday, Tawada’s inventive and pensive novel unfolds in multiple parts, with each bear featured as the principal figure of one long, single chapter. The opening is told by the matriarch; she is writing her autobiography and serves to introduce readers to Tawada’s deadpan humor, silky writing, and quirky imagination. The bear’s daughter also shares her life as the star of a circus act, and, in turn, the grandson closes the book with his own story set in a zoo.

Armored polar bears and dæmons, which manifest in multiple animal forms, populate Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2015. ISBN 9781101934661. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780440418603), book one in the fantasy masterpiece “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Full of richly evocative descriptions and sharp themes, it traces the high-stakes adventures of Lyra Belacqua, an astonishingly intrepid child who plays a central role in a very grown-up war involving science, religion, and power. With her is Pantalaimon, her dæmon, who variously presents as an ermine, a mouse, and a range of other creatures. Fans will be thrilled to learn that La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of a new companion series called the “Book of Dust,” is set to be released this October.

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt is LJ's reader's advisory columnist. She writes The Reader's Shelf, RA Crossroads, Book Pulse, and Wyatt's World columns. She is currently revising The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 3d ed. (ALA Editions, 2018). Contact her at nwyatt@mediasourceinc.com.

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