Review: At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

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*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for and honest review.*

Title: At the Water’s Edge

Author: Sarah Gruen

Publisher: March 31, 2015

Publication Date: Spiegel & Grau

ISBN: 9780385523233

At the Water's Edge

Synopsis from Goodreads:
After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colourblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

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I’ve never read Water for Elephants, so this was my first experience with Sara Gruen. Boy, am I ever glad that I’ve been introduced to her writing.  At the Water’s Edge is a stunning and heartbreaking novel about friendship, family, love, marriage, terror, war, and so much more. This novel lives and breathes Scotland. The setting is absolutely encapsulating. One sentence is all it takes to dive right into the heart of the Scottish landscape. The story takes place right on the banks of Loch Ness at the tail end of World War 1. Food stamps and air raid threats are ever present. These realities serve as a wake up call to Maddie Hyde, wife of the son of a wealthy Colonel and daughter to an equally wealthy father. Maddie and Ellis have lived in luxury, never wanting for anything. Although Ellis remains, throughout the story, absorbed in his own self-centred reality, Maddie learns that there is more to life than money and appearance.

This story had me dreaming of air raids. The war looms on the outskirts of the story, but it inevitably brings death into the story. There is an ever-present ominous tone as danger hangs over the characters. There is turmoil in the world around them as there is turmoil in their lives. The characters are survivors and they prove that there is strength in numbers. The learn to live together and even to love one another. They form unbreakable bonds and rely on one another for strength and guidance. The characterization in this story is very strong. The characters, the essential characters I should say, experience growth and change. They develop thoroughly throughout the course of the book. They make the best of seemingly desperate situations. They manage to find happiness in a world wrecked with hatred and violence.

Superstition and folk lore are also present throughout this little town. Stories of the Lock Ness Monster are abundant, and spirits observe the goings on of the townsfolk. The spirits and the uncertainty surrounding the monster create a sinister tone on some occasions, but offer hope on others. They are the protectors of the town and a good number of the citizens rely heavily on and believe deeply in the sightings of both the monster and the spirits.

This is a story of growth and change. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit and the capacity of people to love, to change, and feel compassion. The characters face complex and difficult situations, often without an apparent ability to change. They must adapt, or learn to cope. The characters, especially Maddie, or the barmaid Meg, are strong and discover unknown reserves in themselves to carry on and to better their situations. As woman during the 1930s, their options are limited and often frightful, but they create a support system for themselves wherein they are safer and are better able to cope with the world around them.

Overall, this was an excellent story. I’m absolutely enamoured with Sara Gruen’s writing. I may just need to backtrack and pick up a copy of Water for Elephants. I definitely recommend this book.

What do you think of Sara Gruen’s writing style? Does it differ much from Water for Elephants?

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Review: Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

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*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Everything Everything

Author: Nicola Yoon

Publisher: Delacorte Press

Publication Date: September 2015

ISBN: 9780553496642

Everything, Everything

Synopsis from Goodreads:
My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world.I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.
But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black–black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly. Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

———

I loved this book. I started it and finished it in an evening. Madeline is born with a rare disease (severe combined immune deficiency) that inhibits her ability to leave the filtered air sanctuary of her house. She lives her life in books with the company of her mother, her nurse, and the friends she’s made online. She takes classes through Skype. It takes so much time for people to come through the decontamination chamber to get into her house, that she’s only met a few of her teachers of rare occasions. She’s by herself a lot. She’s a pretty cool girl. She has bright ideas and she’s positive, although her situation is quite dreadful. She has a great outlook on life.

Then Olly moves in across the road. Olly has troubles of his own with his family life, but he reaches out to Maddy, inspired by her strength and her desire to keep on learning and growing as a person. I’m not usually a fan of romances in books, but Olly helps to empower Maddy. He encourages her to try new things. They support one another and help each other through their difficult situations. I loved that Maddy develops feeling not because he’s the best looking boy she’s ever seen, but because they get to know one another. They can see past the difficulties in each other’s lives without pitying one another. Their lives, their personalities, and their situations don’t seem false or unbelievable. They’re very real and well-developed characters.

I never quite knew where the story was going. Yoon throws in quite a few twists that you don’t see coming. There are so many twists, turns, and surprises. This book took my breath away. The story is presented through many forms: traditional narrative, drawings, charts, graphs, IM conversations, etc. I have few words to describe it other than to say it was a really amazing book.

Review: The Night Stages by Jane Urquhart

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*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: The Night Stages

Author: Jane Urquhart

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart

Publication Date: April 7, 2015

ISBN: 9780771094422

The Night Stages

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Set mainly in a remote area of County Kerry in the ’40s and ’50s, Jane Urquhart’s stunning new novel is at once intimate and epic in scope.
Tam, an English woman in her thirties, has been living in this harshly beautiful region since shortly after the war, in which she served as an auxiliary pilot. She is now leaving her lover, Niall, who, like his father before him, is a meteorologist.
The airliner she is travelling on becomes grounded by fog at Gander Airport, Newfoundland. As she waits, she regards an enigmatic mural, and revisits not only the circumstances that brought her to Ireland but her intense relationship with Niall and his growing despondency over his younger brother Kieran’s disappearance years before.
The Night Stages explores the meaning of separation, the sorrows of fractured families, and the profound effect of home in a world where a way of life is changing.

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This is a beautifully written novel. The story breathes Ireland. Urquhart’s writing brings the landscape to life and puts you right in the land and the culture. The setting is vibrant and vivid. If there’s any one thing to be said about this book is that it’s so easy to feel as though you’ve fallen right into Ireland with the characters.

However, I couldn’t connect with the character. Kieran, a trouble boy who grows into a solitary and shy young man, seems to be the focus. The narrator’s eye turns to him: the tantrums he suffers as a child, the unrequited love that blossoms as he becomes a adolescent, and the introspection he develops as a focused adult. He has no relationship with his family, but is set on honing his mind and body as he grows up. We learn about Kieran’s brother in the periphery of the story, and additionally, Niall’s mistress Tam. But we never really get to know these characters in much depth. I felt as though I didn’t really get to know anyone at all.

The beautiful descriptions carried the story, but it fell flat with the characters. I struggled to get through most of the story. I felt as though there was a lot included that was really not essential to the plot. I found myself quite disappointed with the story as a whole, as beautiful as the writing was.

Watch the Sky by Kirsten Hubbard

22875507*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Watch the Sky

Author: Kirsten Hubbard

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

Publication Date: April 7, 2015

ISBN: 9781484708330

Watch the Sky

Synopsis from Goodreads:
The signs are everywhere, Jory’s stepfather, Caleb, says.Red leaves in the springtime. Pages torn from a library book. All the fish in the aquarium facing the same way. A cracked egg with twin yolks. Everywhere and anywhere. And because of them Jory’s life is far from ordinary. He must follow a very specific set of rules: don’t trust anyone outside the family, have your works at the ready just in case, and always, always watch out for the signs. The end is coming, and they must be prepared.
School is Jory’s only escape from Caleb’s tight grasp, and with the help of new friends Jory begins to explore a world beyond his family’s farm. As Jory’s friendships grow, Caleb notifies Jory’s mother and siblings that the time has come for final preparations.
They begin an exhausting schedule digging a mysterious tunnel in anticipation of the disaster. But as the hold gets deeper, so does the family’s doubt about whether Caleb’s prophecy is true. When the stark reality of his stepfather’s plans becomes clear, Jory must choose between living his own life or following Caleb, shutting his eyes to the bright world he’s just begun to see.

——

Watch the Sky is the first middle-grade that I’ve read in a while, and it had me hooked. I tend to avoid the middle-grade genre because I often find them too simplified, but Hubbard does an excellent job of creating a complex family situation that is reveals slowly over the course of the novel. Her writing style is subtle, but the tension throughout the text has you on edge, unsure of the danger, but you’re aware that danger is always lurking. At first, it’s not readily apparent that there’s something wrong with the situation, but we are gradually shown that Jory’s family is very different, and perhaps the family is not as safe as they believe themselves to be.

Hubbard tackles some difficult topics: poverty, dysfunctional family life, paranoia, possible PTSD, and fear. What I really liked is that these issues are not stated outright. Jory comes to realize what is off kilter in his world as he learns more about the lives of his friends and classmates. He has been told to trust no one but his own family, no matter what, but he learns that his family’s way may not always be the correct way. He comes to question his safety, and the safety of his mother, sister, and brother, and he acts out in order to protect them.

The main body of the text is very strong. Jory is a curious and likeable character who is unsure how he fits into the world. He’s trusting, curious, loyal, and intelligent. He loves his sister, Kit, and encourages her out of her perpetual silence, breaking through her shell to establish a devoted friendship. This story shows Jory’s movement towards growing up. He learns to think for himself and establishes some independence apart from his family. It is his independence and his natural curiosity about the world around him that allows him to stand up for what’s rights and to make a move to better his situation.

My only criticism for Watch the Sky is the ending. Hubbard spends such effort to make a detailed and complex story, but she falls short with her ending. The climax and conclusion disregard the careful detail of the rest of the text and the whole story–all of the tensions–ends in an abrupt and anti-climactic two pages. It was a bit of a disappointment after the care that was put into the rest of the book. It was a bit frustrating. For this reason, I’ve rated it 3.5 stars out of 5.

This is a great book to open up the discussion of tough topics with middle grade readers.

Review: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl

21413855*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl

Authors: Paige McKenzie & Alyssa B. Sheinmel

Publisher: Weinstein Books

Publication Date: March 2015

ISBN: 9781602862722

The Haunting of Sunshine Girl

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Based on the wildly popular YouTube channel, The Haunting of Sunshine Girl has been described as “ Gilmore Girls meets Paranormal Activity for the new media age.” YA fans new and old will learn the secrets behind Sunshine—the adorkable girl living in a haunted house—a story that is much bigger, and runs much deeper, than even the most devoted viewer can imagine

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I should start off by saying that I’m not a ghost story person. This book is unlike anything that I read and have ever read. And I enjoyed it so much. The Haunting of Sunshine Girl will have you covered in goosebumps as you wait to see how the paranormal activities in the home of Sunshine and her mother, Kat, will unfold. Good spirits are tormented by evil spirits and Sunshine, a “luiseach” able to tune in to the ghostly world around her, is a direct witness to their activities and the terror they wreak on the world.

I actually didn’t know this book is based on a YouTube series, but the story translates extremely well to the written word. McKenzie and Sheinmel take the time to set the tone of the book. The setting is tangible, wet, and saturated. They bring Sunshine’s fear to life. Sunshine as a character is actually one of the coolest teen heroines whose stories I’ve read recently. As a luiseach, she has incredible paranormal powers that manifest on her 16th birthday, but they are unknown to her as she’s been raised as a human by a normal, mortal woman. Sunshine befriends Nolan, and it’s this charming, interesting stranger that helps Paige to discover what she is. Paige is strong, devoted, rational, and adaptive. She’s reasonable frightened, but she’s also brave — standing up to learn and fight for those she loves. Although the paranormal occurrences in her house frighten her, she rises to the challenge, interacting and even befriending the ghost of a child.

Sunshine’s friend Nolan is equally as interesting. He’s down to earth and relatable. I loved that the authors created a character that was so connected with his family. He’s a bit bookish, but is passionate about learning more about the paranormal — an interest that he shared with his recently passed grandfather. It’s great to see a story that is not all about the romance. Although there is romantic tension between Nolan and Sunshine, that’s not what the story is about. Their flirtations barely classify as a subplot. I think this tactic of presenting romance makes for a much more plausible and believable story. Sunshine, especially, has bigger fish to fry.

 

It’s creepy and frightening without being overtly terrifying. The authors perfectly balance the spooky elements of the paranormal with strong character building, the creation of a visceral world, and the interesting discovery of the luiseach. I was sucked into this world. I read half of the book this morning, and finished it later than afternoon.

This for me was 4.5 stars out of 5. Can’t wait for book 2! Do you read any paranormal books? How does this one compare?

Review: The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

23492774*I received a copy from Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: The Sunken Cathedral

Author: Kate Walbert

Publisher: Scribner

Publication Date: June 2015

ISBN: 9781476799322

The Sunken Cathedral: A Novel

Synopsis from Goodreads:
Marie and Simone, friends for decades, were once immigrants to the city, survivors of World War II in Europe. Now widows living alone in Chelsea, they remain robust, engaged, and adventurous, even as the vistas from their past interrupt their present. Helen is an art historian who takes a painting class with Marie and Simone. Sid Morris, their instructor, presides over a dusty studio in a tenement slated for condo conversion; he awakes the interest of both Simone and Marie. Elizabeth is Marie’s upstairs tenant, a woman convinced that others have a secret way of being, a confidence and certainty she lacks. She is increasingly unmoored—baffled by her teenage son, her husband, and the roles she is meant to play.
In a chorus of voices, Kate Walbert, a “wickedly smart, gorgeous writer” (The New York Times Book Review), explores the growing disconnect between the world of action her characters inhabit and the longings, desires, and doubts they experience. Interweaving long narrative footnotes, Walbert paints portraits of marriage, of friendship, and of love in its many facets, always limning the inner life, the place of deepest yearning and anxiety. The Sunken Cathedral is a stunningly beautiful, profoundly wise novel about the way we live now.
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I want to start off by saying that the cover for this is quite stunning. The image of a city is distorted by water, the sunlight shinning through to the city below.There’s so much colour and movement, it’s very eye catching. The novel itself though, I struggled with a little bit. In it’s synopsis, it sounds like the perfect book for me. The story directs us to this small interconnected community of people: two frinds, a tenant, an art instructor. Their lives are so closely intertwined. They form friendships and connects with one another.

What I really loved about this book was the incorporation of footnotes. Footnotes are used so interestingly to provide metatextual information. They provide the narrators opinion, or an ancillary anecdote, or a tangent. Sometimes the footnotes take over the page, conquering and replacing the story for a moment or two. Often times the footnotes seem to recall memories or make comment on the current situation. The metatext fights to be heard and makes itself known over the bulk of the rest of the story. Sometimes it succeeds and completely eliminates the main body of the text from the page, claiming greater importance than the main text, even if for a brief second.

The story itself struggled to hold my attention. I would become emerged for a few pages, full engaged with the story and loving the characters, but the next I’d be straining to finish sentences and walking away from the book for a while only to come back and try again later. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was I struggled with. I generally enjoyed Walbert’s writing and her characters are compelling. She paints a portrait of life that is honest about grief and loss, as well as happiness and relationships.

Have you read Walberts latest book? I’d love to hear your thoughts.