“At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen

This is not my first Gruen read, and probably not my last. I tore through this 350 page book in two days, and I’m slightly angry that I didn’t pace myself. I pulled this off the shelf not only because of the author, but because the cover jacket mentioned the Loch Ness Monster.

Now, a little sidenote: As a native Vermonter, I grew up with the legend of Champ, the Lake Champlain monster. Toted as the United States version of Scotland’s own Nessie, Champ was the mythical water creature that captured the imaginations of locals and tourists surrounding the lake. So as a kid, I was naturally curious to learn more about both Nessie and Champ, and although I admit I’m a skeptic, I love to hear and read about the sightings.

So, I indulged myself and thought I’d see what “At the Water’s Edge” had to do with the Loch Ness Monster. Although in the end (SPOILER ALERT) the only thing that the monster did was draw me into the book, and drive the story’s plot.

Gruen opens the novel with a tragedy. On Valentine’s Day of 1942, a Scottish woman is grieving the loss of her infant when she receives a telegram with news of her husband, gone missing and presumed dead in battle during WWII. With a heavy broken heart, she walks into Loch Ness, allowing herself to sink into a watery grave.

Fast forward to 1944, the author introduces the trio of Ellis and Maddie Hyde, and their best friend Hank. Raised in privilege but accused of being a disgrace to those in their surrounding high society, the trio end up aboard a ship heading for Scotland in search of the Loch Ness Monster, determined to prove otherwise. It wasn’t an easy passage as war wages around them; attacks from German U-boats and soldiers with significant wounds on stretchers prove to be a rude awakening. They arrive at their extended stay inn, a pub that is far below their high standards, and after a nights rest the men start plotting how to find the monster. Maddie, sea-sick and weak after the journey across the Atlantic, stays behind and is cared for by those running the inn. From there, she establishes a friendship with Meg the barmaid and Anna the housekeeper, and a respect for Angus the innkeeper.

Maddie starts to realize the world around her is far different than the one she grew up in, as well as the two men she grew up with. Her husband Ellis is so wrapped up in his efforts to find the Loch Ness monster- a creature his father searched for only to find embarrassment and failure- that he becomes reckless, getting drunk and disorderly night after night. Hank, ever the sidekick, follows. Both men feel the need to prove themselves to both the locals and their families, especially because neither could serve in the war efforts due to ‘hidden ailments’- color blindness and flat feet, respectively. In a time where everyone was doing something for the war efforts, to have two seemingly capable men not fighting on the front for their country was shameful.

Despite unsuccessful attempts to provide proof of the monster, the men still hold on to their sense of entitlement, and wear out their welcome quickly at the inn. However determined, their genuine efforts become fraudulent, and as Maddie catches on to their schemes, she simultaneously notes that her marriage is deceiving as well. In the end, Maddie’s story and the tragically drowned Scottish woman coincide, the war comes to an end, and (SPOILER ALERT) the Loch Ness Monster never makes it’s public appearance. But, as Maddie points out, “the monsters we seek may be right in front of us.” While searching for one monster, she uncovers a different one in her husband.

Now, if there is one thing I could complain about, it’s that I did find the character development pretty obvious. Maddie changes from privileged to working class, Ellis becomes the bad guy, and (SPOILER ALERT) Angus becomes the hero… all things I could have guessed about 50 pages in. But the story line is fast paced, and though at times predictable, the events that occur are just enough to keep the reader on the edge. Would I read this book again? No, probably not. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the read. “At the Water’s Edge” kept me so absorbed from the beginning that I barely put it down in 48 hours, and to be that engrossed is one of the things I look for in a good book.

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“The Eighty-Dollar Champion” by Elizabeth Letts

I love a good underdog story, and I’m a sucker for horses. So while perusing the shelves at the local library, I passed through the equine section just to see what I could find, and spotted “The Eighty-Dollar Champion”. With a gray horse jumping over a fence on the cover, I was curious- nothing is cheap in the horse world, and the title made curious as to how eighty bucks could purchase a champion jumper. At the top of the cover read “Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation.” I wanted to know his story.

At less than 300 pages, it’s a relatively quick read. The author recounts the story of the Snowman the “Cinderella horse” who beat the odds in more ways than one to become a national championship-winning jumper. A fictional-biography, this book describes how Harry de Leyer came to own, ride, show, and eventually retire Snowman. Author Elizabeth Letts pieces together interviews from Harry, his children, and those that followed Snowman’s journey to the top. Harry and his wife Joanna leave their homeland of Holland (Denmark) post German occupation in 1950. They didn’t have much- a small crate and $160 between them- but they were determined to make a life for themselves in America. Eventually settling into St. James on Long Island, New York, the horseman took a job as the riding master at The Knox School for girls. Looking for a mount for his inexperienced riders, he made his way to a horse auction only to find “the kills”- horses bought for slaughter- left. Picking out a gray plow horse that looked the healthiest out of the emaciated bunch, Harry gives the meat buyer his entire $80 budget (a fair amount of money in 1956) and becomes the new owner. Dubbed Snowman by one of the de Leyer children, Harry nurses the horse back to health, and uncovers a diamond in the rough.

Now, a quick disclaimer, if anyone has questions on the equine terminology, feel free to ask- I’d love to explain!

Letts herself simplified or gave definitions within the book to help her readers understand some of the common terminology that equestrians use. For the average reader who doesn’t normally use such words, I find them pretty helpful and accurate, and for a person who does frequent the terms, I also found them not overly simplified. She knows that her audience is going to be predominantly horsemen, but she does a great job including those who aren’t. However, I did find that she repeated herself frequently, most often when building suspense. At many of the shows, Harry is pondering his odds and reflecting on how much the riding pair have done to get to their current situation. I understand that Letts is underlining that importance of bravery and perseverance, but it does get tiresome and slows the pace of the book.

However, the reader can’t help but get swept up in the rags-to-riches backstory. Through Harry’s point of view, the reader sees the amount of dedication needed to work and show horses- the hours of labor, the lessons and training, the early mornings and late nights, and the budget to make it all happen. As Snowman reveals his jumping talent, Harry puts his faith and best efforts into the horse, and they become a force to reckon with in the jumper circuit. Even though Harry doesn’t come from the wealthy background that many of his competitors do, he knows that talent is what matters most. His bond with Snowman is one of trust, and together they showed the nation that they belonged in the winner’s circle. Letts does an excellent job of transcribing the emotional connection between the horse and his rider.

I couldn’t help but get emotional at the end of this book. Each stage of accomplishment in Harry and Snowman’s journey connected with me- I’ve always ridden the longshot horses in the barn, and I know what it feels like to have that moment when everything clicks, and your horse becomes a true partner.  I hadn’t heard of Harry de Leyer or Snowman before, but like many others I gained a deep respect and fascination for the pair after reading about them. And I’ll admit it, I cried at the end of this book in a few spots, so I suggest that if you read this book, you’ll want some tissues handy.

 

 

“The Casual Vacancy” by JK Rowling

As a serious Harry Potter fan, my eye couldn’t help but catch the author’s name on the spine. But I was hesitant to pull this book off the shelf because my inner 11-year-old couldn’t imagine JK Rowling writing anything without The Boy Who Lived. Despite my cause for pause, I picked it up anyway, and read the jacket cover, then flipped to a random page and read. Finding Rowling’s cheeky humor, a la Ron Weasley, in less than a paragraph, I said what the bloody hell, and checked it out of the library.

The story starts off rather dramatically- a sudden death, not even 5 pages into the 500 page novel. Barry Fairbrother’s ill fate sets a wave of motion about the town of Pagford. As word of his death spreads (as juicy gossip or tragic loss, depending on the news-bearer), the novel’s characters start plotting their way into the “casual vacancy” on the parish council- a position that would tip the scales of a long estate war between Pagford and rival town, Yarvil. The townspeople of Pagford are divided, and as the candidates become known, the drama starts to unfold.

There are many characters in this novel, each with their own agendas and secrets. There’s the Fairbrother family, who can’t help but watch the town murmur with plots to fill Barry’s previous position. There’s the Mollison family, full of Pagford pride and politics. The Price and Wall families both possess hot-tempered fathers, patronizing mothers, and angsty teenage sons. Also, Drs. Jawanda and their divided family, the reluctant couple “Gavin-and-Kay”, and the underprivileged Weedon family. Rowling is a very detail-oriented writer, and the more you read into the story, the more these characters tie together. However at first, I found that in having so many characters, so many points of view, and so many different sub-plots quite confusing that I actually had to take notes!

Once everything starts to unfold (no spoilers here), I found myself quickly absorbed into the novel. Although it is completely different style from Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels- “Casual Vacancy” contains more mature content and language- the author’s ability to take her readers to a fantasy setting, and create a world that is believable with multifaceted characters is amazing. Just when you’ve decided you didn’t like a character, Rowling shows another side to them and changes your opinion- or, in a few cases, enforces it. So without revealing the ending, I would say if you like scandal, gossip, or small town politics, give this book a read.

 

 

 

 

 

“Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay

First off, although the main topic of this book is about a grim point in world history, I had a hard time putting this book down. I did not intend to start my year off with such a heavy subject, but when I pulled this book off the shelf and read the back cover, I wanted to know the whole story.

The first page introduces Sarah, a 10 year old Jewish girl living in Paris in July of 1942. She is awoken in the middle of the night by French officers under orders to round up Jewish families with children ages 2-12. Confused, she is lead away with her parents, leaving her little brother hidden in a cupboard under lock and key with the perception that they will return shortly. What unfolds is a first-count point of view of the Velodrome d’hiver, the Jewish round-up in Paris, France during the German occupation in World War II. The roundup sent over 4,000 children with their families to Auschwitz.

As Sarah’s story starts to unfold, we are transported 60 years ahead and introduced to Julia, an American-born journalist who lives in present-time Paris. She is given the assignment to research the Vel’ d’Hiv for it’s 60th anniversary, and the deeper she delves into the past, the more she uncovers about her own life. Although she has been living in Paris for 25 years, she struggles with being accepted as anything more than “L’Americaine”, The American. While researching about Paris’s dark past, she connects to the history that many Parisians blocked from memory.

Without giving too much away, Julia’s search into the horrific night of July 16, 1942 leads her to Sarah’s own story, and it changes everything. Julia’s family relationships shift, and she is left with many choices to make, moral and otherwise. Using her journalistic skills, she searches for answers until the final pages of the book, where the past is finally laid to rest. “Zakhor. Al Tichkah. Remember. Never Forget.”

I finished “Sarah’s Key” in 3 days, an almost 300 page book. It was hard to put it down once I started, and I’m lacking in sleep because of it. It’s worth the read, absolutely. However, there are two things that I wasn’t so fond of, just in general terms. First, the book starts with two different perspectives, written in two types of font with a header that lets you know the “chapter” or narrator had changed. This made sense; I liked how they weaved the story line. But about 150 pages in, the narration from Sarah stops (which is understandable in the story line), and becomes mostly just Julia’s point of view, yet it is still separated in these short little “chapters”. I feel it would have been easier to follow the train of her thoughts if it wasn’t so punctuated with these headers. The second thing that I wasn’t so fond of was the change in Julia’s narration. In the beginning, although she is questioning her own acceptance in Paris, she seems to be a determined woman with something to prove. But as the story unfolds, Julia loses the gumption and becomes less self confident, questioning herself repeatedly. As the reader, I felt like I got stuck in her train of self-doubt, which slowed down the fast pace of the book. In the author’s defense, maybe this was intentional and I’m just not scholarly enough to understand her literary tools, but as a member of her general audience, this is my personal assessment.

Despite the minor discrepancies that I had with the narration, the story de Rosnay shares pulls at your heartstrings. Although these are fictional characters, the events of Vel d’Hiv were real and tragic. “Sarah’s Key” serves as a reminder to never forget the events brought about by the German Occupation throughout Europe during World War II. Even dark times in the past still have a way of changing our present and future.

**UPDATE 2-29-16**- I found that there is a DVD of this novel, and it is absolutely worth watching, if you decide to skip the read. If I didn’t know the book, the DVD wouldn’t have jumped off the shelf to me, but in my opinion it streamlines the entire plot. There are obviously things cut out in the movie that are in the book, but the emotional connection is still there. I cried, and I’m not embarrassed about it. It’s just so heart wrenching…. and I still encourage you all to hear this story.