Book Review: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni – 5 stars!

When you are as obsessed with ‘all things books’ the way I am, it’s not very often that you read a book that you’ve never heard of and LOVE it! I read so many book recommendation lists, subscribe to so many book emails and services and listen to so many bookish podcasts that I often think I know about every book that has been published in the past year that is worth a damn! Boy…did the Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell prove me wrong!

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell

I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley and, for whatever reason, it took me a long time to get around to reading it! I must have started it and gotten distracted at least 4 times in the first chapter alone! As soon on as I decided to listen to the audiobook, however, I was hooked! Read by the author, who does such an amazing job embodying the characters that I thought (at first) that it was a true story, Extraordinary Life is the life story of a boy born with red eyes (ocular albinism). (Yes! That’s a real thing!)

Dugoni tells the story of that boy, Sam Hill (Hell to his friends and his adversaries) almost as a series of vignettes but with a unifying thread that pulls the whole story together. We learn of Sam’s birth, his childhood in Catholic school, his relationship with his devout mother and the birth of his lifelong relationships with his two best friends. We also learn what it’s like to be a child who is so obviously different from others and how that plays out throughout Sam’s life. The examples that Dugoni provides of those who scorn Sam and those who embrace him are heartbreaking and heartwarming in turn. Watching Sam face the world with the help of those who adore him gives the book an incredibly hopeful feeling that points to the importance of resilience and the support of others.

Sam himself and the characters that surround him in this story are drawn amazingly realistically by Dugoni. They are imperfect and scarred in myriad different ways but so human and approachable that you can’t help but love them. The themes of discrimination, bullying, love and faith are strong throughout the narrative and it’s easy to become so engrossed in Sam’s life that you begin to feel as if he and his family friends exist in your world. Hearing Sam’s story in Dugoni’s voice only adds to the realism of the characters…it’s clear that the author knows and hears these characters in his mind. He does an incredible job making those voices available to the listener as the reader of his audiobook.

Dugoni spells out in the book’s acknowledgements that Sam Hill is a fictional character whom he imagined as a hybrid of his youngest brother Michael (who has Down’s Syndrome) and a child in a newspaper article he read about ocular albinism. There’s no doubt in my mind, however, that some of the situations we see Sam encounter must have really happened in the author’s life. His ability to paint a scene and the attendant feelings that go with it is incredibly impressive. What do they say? ‘I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats!’

As I read more about Dugoni and his other books (because, of course, when I love one book someone writes I want to read everything they write) I discovered that Sam Hell is outside of Dugoni’s typical wheelhouse. He has written a host of spy thrillers that get great reviews! Since that’s not a genre that I’m usually drawn to, it stands to reason that I wasn’t familiar with his name or his backlist! You can bet, however, that I’ll be looking for recommendations for which other book of his to read next…his talent and ability to make characters so real for me leaves me willing to follow him into whatever he’s written!

Maybe I was in the dark and everybody else was talking about Sam Hell in April 2018. If they weren’t, they certainly should have been. This book is the busy, messy, love-filled and ultimately delightful story of a man who embraces his life and his condition. I highly recommend you check it out for yourself. I’ll be over here missing my new friends!

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