Go Set a Watchman

Title: Go Set a Watchman

Author: Harper Lee

Publisher: Harper Collins

Release Date: July 2015

Source: Chapters

Rating: 4/5

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Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her.  Memories form her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt.

When news of Harper Lee’s novel first came out a few years ago, there was a lot of controversy surrounding it involving her rights and the protection of a novel she never wanted to publish.  Ultimately, it rendered me reluctant to purchase and read it, but as time wore on, I realized that I actually just really wanted to read it and find out what it was all about.

Essentially, the novel takes place several years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird.  It follows Scout’s, or I should say Jean Louise’s, attempt to get through life as a modern woman.  The novel revolves mostly around her visit to Maycomb County, during which she finds out many of the town’s dirty little secrets, destroying her own disillusioned view of her father.

Honestly, reading this novel I found myself completely taken aback at the serious revelations and allegations that came out surrounding her own family, and felt completely disheartened.  Atticus is held on such a high pedestal in To Kill a Mockingbird, and this just crushed me.  But I guess, as the saying goes, never meet your heroes.

Despite this, the novel was wonderfully written in true Harper Lee style.  A classic, for sure.  I felt Jean Louise’s struggles as a modern woman in a small town very telling of society and our culture as a whole (even though I live nowhere near the American South) even in this day and age.  She is condemned by her family and community for being who she is, a woman rising in success.  Condemned because she chose to “abandon” her father for a career in a big city.  Her inner struggle between caring for her father, marrying a man she loves but could never make happy and be happy in return, and her independent, successful and fruitful life in New York.

These are issues that I feel women are still struggling with today.  Home versus professional life.  Dependence versus independence.  Family versus career.  Although the times are changing, society still puts so much pressure on women to abide to gender roles and morals.  Harper Lee addresses these issues, as well as many others also explored in her first novel, that I feel Go Set a Watchman will become an iconic, timeless classic novel in its own time.

The Secret Garden

Title: The Secret Garden

Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Publisher: Penguin Threads

Release Date: November 2011 (first published 1911)

Source: Mayersche Buchhandlung

Rating: 5/5

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When orphaned Mary Lennox comes to live at her uncle’s great house on the Yorkshire Moors, she finds it full of secrets.  The mansion has nearly one hundred rooms, and her uncle keeps himself locked up.  And at night, she hears the sound of crying down one of the long corridors.  The gardens surrounding the large property are Mary’s only escape.  Then, Mary discovers a secret garden, surrounded by walls and locked with a missing key.  One day, with the help of two unexpected companions, she discovers a way in.  Is everything in the garden dead, or can Mary bring it back to life? (Goodreads)

The Secret Garden quickly became my favourite story when I first saw the film as a young child.  Ever since, I’ve watched at least once a year.  It’s my go-to movie and yet, I’ve never read the novel until now.

Having seen the movie, I knew the story of Mary Lennox.  Of course while reading, my imagination conjured up images of the actors, of the movie sets, and all of that, but the novel filled in all of the gaps the film had left empty.  Everything we don’t see or know from watching the movie is answered and addressed in the novel.  I found that there was an added depth to the story.  The story, the characters, the world of Misselthwaite Manor, is filled in with rich, lively detail that is not necessarily available in the movie.

This review seems to be more of a comparison between the novel and the film, but in all seriousness, I don’t see why you wouldn’t love this novel.  It is such a great story, albeit a sad one at first.  Burnett’s writing reignites the light of childhood and your imagination is able to run wild with Mary and Dickon through the moors of Misselthwaite.  The language might be a little tricky because a lot of it is written to imitate the Yorkshire accent of the community, but you get used to it really quickly.

Overall, reading The Secret Garden as an adult was a great experience.  It felt like an old friend, evoked a sense of nostalgia and familiarity I’ve rarely experienced.  It reminded me of the magic, innocence, and whimsicality of childhood.  It was a fantastic, easy and quick read.  How could you say no?

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Publisher: Broadway Books

Release Date: June 2012

Source: Amazon

Rating: 4/5

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When I first heard of Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, it came with a bundle of rave reviews, however; when I read up on it, my main concern was: will I like this?  It’s a novel about video games, and being a really horrible player with little interest in gaming, it was definitely a struggle to make a decision on whether or not I wanted to buy this book.

I don’t know about you, but I like good books.  Even though I might not be interested in the genre or topic at hand, I can still appreciate it if it is well written and makes me interested in something I might not have been previously interested in at all — so with that in mind, I bought the book anyway.

Ready Player One tells the story of Wade Watts, a teenager living in an impoverished community in a futuristic, dystopian America.  Life has become digital, with everyone leading their lives through their created online personas.  Five years before Wade’s story takes place, James Halliday, the genius behind the Oasis (the online world in which everyone lives) passes away with no one to inherit his wealth and legacy.  Knowing this, Halliday, organizes a massive and complex quest for his fans.  The first person to complete the quest, the winner, inherits everything he has.

Wade is the main character in this novel, however, there are are four other players who also play important roles in the development of the plot. Together they drive and mould the story as they attempt to complete Halliday’s quest while also going up against an evil corporation trying to take over the Oasis.  For a novel of this length, juggling five characters is no easy job, but Cline makes it look so easy.  As the story unfurls before your eyes, each and every character is brought to life through amazing backstories and subplots, creating some of the best character development I have ever experienced.

Overall, Ready Player One was a fantastic book.  It was a quick and easy to read, but I did find that some references went right over mtg head, especially the gaming ones.  But the novel is so much more than gaming and ’80s references, it’s about finding strength and confidence in yourself all the while staying true to who you are.

This was a great read and I highly recommend it!

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

Title: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden

Author: Jonas Jonasson

Publisher: Harper Collins

Release Date: April 2014

Source: All Books

Rating: 4.5/5

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On June 14, 2007, the king and the prime minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the royal castle.  Later it was said that both had fallen ill, but the truth is different.  The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto.  Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township, be it from drugs, alcohol, or just plan despair.  But Nombeko takes a different path.  She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the the position of the chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects. (Goodreads)

Jonas Jonasson’s novel The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is probably one of the best books I’ve read in a while.  It’s my first Jonasson novel, I heard about it after my parents saw the film based on The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, and raved about how fantastic the story was.  I figured that if the film was great, the novel must also be amazing, but instead I found this thrifty find for only a few dollars at All Books, one of Ottawa’s best independent bookstores — and boy, am I ever glad I read it.

First, I will begin with a word of warning: the suspension of disbelief is absolutely crucial.  Jonasson’s characters are all well-rounded, believable (albeit still exaggerated) characters — there is no doubt that truly gifted and intelligent people can be born into horrible situations, that a potato farmer is a long-lost descendent of a baron, or that a man can exist without legally existing on paper — Jonasson’s story is somewhat based in realistic and truthful circumstances, however, it is the wild and crazy adventure on which these characters embark that force you to simply forget reality in order to fully enjoy this outrageous story.

I feel like I’ve recently read a few novels in which multiple storylines intertwine and converge into one, but I don’t think any of them have done it as well as Jonasson has in this novel.  Jonasson’s talent really shines in creating such diverse and intriguing characters with such fantastic and rich backstories, throwing all of these characters together, and letting the story unfold and tie up all loose ends in an extravagantly complex plot.

Unfortunately, despite how much I loved this book, I cannot give it a full 5/5.  Instead, choosing a 4.75/5 because I did find the beginning of the novel a little long-winded and difficult to get through.  However, despite its laboured start, this was an amazing novel and I think it will stick with me forever — it is truly such an amazing and creative piece of literature.

The Splendor Falls

Title: The Splendor Falls

Author: Rosemary Clement-Moore

Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Release Date: January 2011

Source: from a friend

Rating: 3/5

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Goodreads

Devastated by a freak accident that has left Sylvie Davis recovering from a broken leg, the now-retired professional ballerina escapes the bustling city of New York, where her mother has remarried a psychologist who over-analyses every aspect of Sylvie’s life, for the southern comforts of Alabama, where she is enlisted by a distant cousin to help renovate the family home she never knew.

Mystery abounds when she arrives at Bluestone Hill, as Sylvie is haunted by the house’s long forgotten past and its ghosts.  Hoping to regain her sanity by moving to Alabama for the summer, Sylvie instead finds herself attempting to understand the house’s past, while also attempting to uncover the mysterious Teen Town Council led by the local teenagers.

Following the brief synopsis above, I would like to begin by stating that although I felt annoyed by some aspects of this novel, it was a quick and easy read and I rather enjoyed uncovering the supernatural mystery with Sylvie.

The beginning of the novel finds her struggling with the trauma of her accident, as well as dealing with her mother’s new marriage and the imposition of a new family she barely knows.  I found Clement-Moore’s use of the supernatural, in regards to Sylvie to be quite interesting — the concept of being able to see the past unfold before you while you are still in the present, is one that I felt was intriguing and definitely important to the plot.

I felt that Sylvie, despite her training as a professional ballerina, was a typical teenage girl.  She meets the brooding, mysterious, and witty Rhys Matthew from Wales, and the too-good-to-be-true Shawn Maddox, whom immediately become her love interests.  Unfortunately, despite Sylvie’s best efforts to stop any feelings between her and either boy, there was the mention of strange magnetism and allure every time she saw or interacted with either of them, which became increasingly more annoying as the novel went on as they made me feel as though their message, although possibly unintended, was that “girls can only gain respect and validation from boys and that she must choose one of them”.

Apart from the icky feeling I got from reading those passages, I also felt that the second half of the novel became repetitive.  For several chapters, Sylvie performs the same daily routine almost page after page, and reading about her dependence on her dog Gigi, also became more and more annoying, and unnecessary, as I read on.

Overall, the novel became increasingly better as the supernatural mystery at Bluestone Hill developed.  I found myself truly intrigued in the house’s secrets and found myself excited for Sylvie to uncover the truth.  I found myself extremely interested in the historical fiction included in the novel, and I was always looking forward to Sylvie’s visits to the archaeological digs, as well as her her conversations with Rhys’ father and coworkers about the history and mythology of Bluestone Hill and Maddox County.

The Oxford Inheritance

Title: The Oxford Inheritance

Author: A. A. McDonald

Publisher: William Morrow

Release Date: February 2016

Source: from a friend

Rating: 2/5

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Cassandra Blackwell arrives in Oxford with one mission: to uncover the truth about her mother’s dark past.  Raised in America, with no idea that her mother had ever studied at the famed college, a mysterious package now sends her across the ocean, determined to unravel the secrets that her mother too to her grave.  Plunged into the glamorous, secretive life of Raleigh College, Cassie finds a world like no other: a world of ancient tradition, privilege — and murder. (Goodreads)

This might be the lowest rated book on my blog thus far, so let me begin by stating that I was highly intrigued by the plot summary when I first picked up this novel.  The idea of secret societies and old colleges truly made me anticipate a great YA mystery novel, however, I was left devastatingly disappointed by the end of the novel.

McDonald’s description of Oxford and its rich history and architecture, truly painted an image while I read.  I felt completely immersed in the novel’s setting, almost picturing myself walking down these Oxford streets.  However, despite McDonald’s talent in bringing the novel’s setting to life, I was completely let down by the novel’s plot and characters.

The Oxford Inheritance had the potential to be a great novel.  I loved McDonald’s concept of intertwining ancient secret societies with the supernatural, however, reading the novel felt tedious in the sense that it took a long time to get around to the introduction and development of these concepts.  I honestly do not think we were introduced to the possibility of something supernatural as being the cause behind the entire novel until the last chapters — making it almost seem like an after thought, tossed in to make the story more interesting.  Without giving out too many spoilers, I felt more confused at the inclusion of these supernatural elements because I truly did not understand what was happening.  Were the secret society members monsters or demons?  I still don’t know the answer, all I can say is that they are vague supernatural beings that feed on the intelligence and knowledge of others… I think?

 

It isn’t always necessary to like the protagonist of the novel you’re reading, but I feel that in order for a novel to succeed, they need to be a strong character in the sense that the reader is still able to connect with them on some level.  Unfortunately McDonald’s protagonist, Cassie, was a very confusing character — I wasn’t able to feel much for her, nor was I able to understand who she truly was.

The beginning of the novel describes her as a mature student which lead me to believe that she must be in her thirties.  By becoming fast friends with the grad students, I supposed then that she was in her mid-to-late twenties, however her behaviour throughout the novel made her appear to be a whiny, immature teenager which became increasingly unnerving to read.

Ultimately, I truly believe this novel had the potential to be great, but with such a weak plot, and poorly developed protagonist,  I was left completely disappointed and wishing I had never bothered with it in the first place.

All the Light We Cannot See

Title: All the Light We Cannot See

Author: Anthony Doerr

Publisher: Scribner

Release Date: May 2016

Source: Gift

Rating: 5/5

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Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” are dazzling.  Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.  Ten years in the writing, a Nationl Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill”. (Goodreads)

 

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

Doerr’s hauntingly beautiful prose weave together the stories of a blind French girl who escapes to Saint-Malo during the Parisian invasion and of a young German boy with a intuitive talent for technology forced to conscript.  Despite the horrors the characters face throughout the novel, we are constantly reminded of the small pleasures that life can bring us.

It was utterly fascinating to read a story told from the perspective of a blind character.  Through Marie-Laure, we see the world differently as we are faced with auditory, olfactory, and sensory descriptions of the world in which she lives, quite different than what we are used to reading.  Instead of getting physical descriptions of her surroundings, or of the people around her, we learn of the lilt in their voices, the sound of their footsteps, their smell… Her senses are heightened to compensate for her vision loss, and in turn, we are heightened to a life of purity and innocence.

Through Werner’s experiences throughout the novel, bring insight to the atrocities of the Second World War and their effects on the German population.  We are able to see that joining Hitler’s Youth, or the military, was hardly a choice, and that women were removed from their homes, forced into hard labour, and, in many cases, forced into sexual exploitation by foreign soldiers.  As readers, experiencing these through the eyes of a child and teenager, Werner’s childlike innocence is abruptly corrupted by his experience in the war, and it is truly heartbreaking.

To be honest, it is an ambitious read at times — the poetic diction can become quite heavy and tedious, and it can be slightly discouraging to work through all of the beautiful imagery and metaphors — however, once you apply yourself to it, it becomes a book you will never want to put down, a book you wish would never ended.  The characters are so intricate, fascinating, and complex, even those who appear for only a moment or two.  Doerr captures the fleeting qualities of life and makes them eternal in the pages of his novel.

Doerr’s novel is deeply moving and inspiring.  Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories are heartbreaking, yet truly beautiful.  And despite the novel’s length, one is left wishing for more time with them, but the novel’s last chapters, however, tie up their stories and bring it to a perfect close — you couldn’t ask for a better ending.