Review: The Swallow by Charis Cotter

Author: Charis Cotter
Title: The Swallow: A Ghost Story
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2014
Publisher: Tundra Books
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Middle grade ghost story
Why I Read: Intriguing premise, cute cover
Read If You’re: Looking for a good ghost story, or a story about friendship
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Publisher’s description: In 1960s Toronto, two girls retreat to their attics to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. Polly lives in a house bursting at the seams with people, while Rose is often left alone by her busy parents. Polly is a down-to-earth dreamer with a wild imagination and an obsession with ghosts; Rose is a quiet, ethereal waif with a sharp tongue. Despite their differences, both girls spend their days feeling invisible and seek solace in books and the cozy confines of their respective attics. But soon they discover they aren’t alone–they’re actually neighbors, sharing a wall. They develop an unlikely friendship, and Polly is ecstatic to learn that Rose can actually see and talk to ghosts. Maybe she will finally see one too! But is there more to Rose than it seems? Why does no one ever talk to her? And why does she look so… ghostly? When the girls find a tombstone with Rose’s name on it in the cemetery and encounter an angry spirit in her house who seems intent on hurting Polly, they have to unravel the mystery of Rose and her strange family… before it’s too late.

Recently, I read Doll Bones. I was most looking forward to the creepy aspect of that book, but the ghost story line seemed to fall by the side in favour of the friendship/growing up story line. Happily, The Swallow satisfied my desire for an eerie middle grade read, striking just the right balance between belonging and friendship, and ghostly terror. A handful of frightening scenes made me anxious while reading this book in the dark before bed! But the fright is not prolonged or overwhelming. There are humorous scenes that do not detract from the creepy of the story, but add to the realistic portrayal of a budding friendship between two young girls. The scene in which they meet for the first time is a particularly good example of this. I enjoyed the focus on the relationships between the two girls and their respective families. I liked that the ghost story is integral to their own lives, and not part of some outside adventure like in Doll Bones. I was surprised to find some emotional parts in this book well – I actually teared up! The story of searching for belonging at that age is one I think many children might relate to.

The story is written in first person, with chapters alternating between Polly and Rose. Some may find such a narration confusing, especially given the short chapters, but I thought the transitions felt seamless and comfortable. I appreciate this sort of narrative because I think it gives you a better understanding of a character than if you learn about them solely through a third or first person perspective. In The Swallow particularly, this style keeps the reader on their toes about whether Rose is a ghost.

Please Note: The next paragraph discusses the conclusion of The Swallow. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

The twist!! There is a twist, and I didn’t expect it at all. I assumed the setting of the 1960s was for atmospheric purposes, so when the timing became significant to the plot I thought “Doh!” I was totally prepared for the main drive of the story being the conclusion of whether Rose is a ghost. So, when a twist came, I was very pleased that it was not over the top (i.e., preceding by heavy foreshadowing and anticipation that something was going to happen), and that it really came as a surprise to me. It was hinted at shortly before the reveal, so I did guess, but I believe you were meant to – it wasn’t dragged out for very long and while the actual revelation was still a surprise, I was excited to read it and I exclaimed “OH OH YES VERY GOOD!!” Well done, Ms. Cotter. I do have one criticism about the conclusion, however. There is no resolution between Polly and her brothers. There’s a moment where they mention they feel like her death was their fault, drawing a clear parallel between how Willie felt about Winnie. I think some sort of farewell between the three of them before Polly moved on would have been appropriate.

 

The Bottom Line: A great debut novel that will grab your attention from the start, The Swallow provides equal enjoyment for those looking for a good tale about belonging and friendship, or for those looking for a spooky ghost story.

Further Reading: 

Review: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Author: Leslye Walton 
Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: March 2014
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Length: 301 pages
Genre: Young adult/magical realism
Why I Read: Description sounded fantastic
Read If You’re: New to magical realism or YA
Quote: “After failing every other attempt to get the ornithologist to notice her […] Pierette took the extreme step of turning herself into a canary” (14).
Rating:  ★★★★½ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReadsIndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

I finished this book near the beginning of June. It’s taken me weeks to write this review because I kept lending it to people. This is my favourite read of the year so far.

Before I discuss the story, I want to note that The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a fantastic example of young adult fiction that does not hold to the usual tropes and conventions of the genre.  I thought about not labelling this book as YA, but I think both people who only love YA or only love literary fiction should try out this book. The book doesn’t feel like YA to me, aside from the teen protagonist. I read a few interviews with Leslye Walton where she mentions that she did not intend to sell the book as young adult. She notes, “I actually didn’t write it with the intention of selling it as Young Adult because there isn’t a lot of strong literary YA out there, not that there isn’t any” (The Poetics Project interview; click for more).

I think this could be a good read for those unsure about magical realism, or for those who want to give it a try. Magical realism is “a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment” (Wiki).  There are light touches (i.e., don’t have major impact on the plot/major component of the plot) of magical realism throughout the first part of the novel, until Ava’s birth.  Ava’s wings are the major instance of magical realism in the book, yet they are not treated as wholly unremarkable. Most characters find her wings fascinating and unusual but don’t seek reasoning for them.

The book’s titular character only begins to feature a third of the way through the story – first we are introduced to her grandmother and mother. I enjoyed this generational approach. It was not as sentimental or nostalgic or romanticized as it might have been. Emilienne and Viviane are as fascinating and well-developed as Ava. They take a less prominent role when Ava starts to tell her story, but they remain present and active.

Other characters will grasp your attention just as well. I found myself frightened of Nathaniel (rarely am I truly frightened of a character), who initially appears to be very grounded – perhaps this is why he is so frightening. I read Henry, Ava’s twin brother, as autistic but given the genre of the story his peculiarities seem to be part of the magic (which might raise thoughts on what’s truly real, or magical, or abnormal…).

I haven’t yet mentioned the prose, which is another area where Walton shines. I doubt my own words could do it justice so here is a random passage (I literally opened up the book and wrote down the first paragraph I saw…it’s perhaps not the most magical or stunning but it gives you a good taste of the rhythm and style of the prose):

In the end, Viviane all but raised herself – meals were yesterday’s pastries; baths and bedtimes were rarely enforced. Her childhood was spent amid the scents and sounds of the bakery. It was her sticky fingers that topped the Belgian buns with glazed cherries, her hands that warmed the pie dough. As a toddler, she could easily whip up a batch of profiteroles, standing on a chair and calmly filling each choux pastry with cream. With barely a sniff of the air, Viviane Lavender could detect the slightest variation in any recipe – a talent that she would perfect in later years. Yes, Viviane spent many hours in the bakery. Her mother barely acknowledge she was there. (53)

Please noteThe next paragraph contains spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

The only part of the novel that I thought fell short of the rest of the story was the denouement. I thought the assault scene itself was well-written: intense and painful without being graphic. However, Ava’s recovery is practically non-existent. She narrates the story from a personal perspective but suddenly the reader receives little of how she feels, how this event affects her beyond physical consequences. Perhaps we the readers are now cut off from her because of her suffering?

The Bottom Line: A lyrical, sorrowful novel straddling the boundaries of magical realism, literary fiction, and young adult. Plot, characters, and prose are all in strong form. Highly recommended.

Elsewhere:

Quick Review: Breezy Summer Reads

I read each of these books – one young adult and one middle grade – in one sitting. 

  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide
    • The second book I ever purchased solely due to hype
    • I really liked the narrative style – without it, this would have been a one or two star book.
      • Some people don’t like broken lines in their prose novels. To me it’s either annoying if done intrusively, or it creates a rhythm that suits certain characters’ personalities. I think the use of broken lines suits Candace’s dramatic, whimsical personality, and I don’t think they’re overused.
    • Not sure how I feel about the characters. I guess they felt realistic but they didn’t really compel me.
      • I was not expecting this book to be so much about racism or inter-generational family conflicts.
      • But really it’s all about rich people problems so if you’re not into that, stay away.
    • The big twist was something of a disappointment (as it pretty much was bound to be after all the hype), but especially because it was very similar to what I had just read in another book.
        • SPOILERS (highlight to see):
        • I thought there would still be more after the fire reveal, about when she hit her head…but then it just turned out to be she was so traumatized she blacked everything out. I thought maybe the big twist

        • I wonder how the twist would stand up on a re-read, i.e. how obvious the clues would be. The fact that her friends were dead was not a huge shocker, but the fire and how it came about was interesting (if I hadn’t read that ending in another book just a few weeks earlier, I might have enjoyed the twist a lot more.
  • Doll Bones by Holly Black
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide
    • This is a good story about growing up but a not-so-good creepy adventure story. The three kids read as tweens, not as teens or adults in small bodies. I was expecting something akin to Coraline and was greatly disappointed in that area. However, there were some really poignant moments (such as when Alice reveals why she’s so adverse to Poppy’s ghost hunt). I think this book would have been much stronger without the doll story line, which admittedly is the main focus and probably what draws kids to the book.

Quick Review: Ambivalent

 These reviews are part of the Summer Library Challenge Week 6 Activity – Reviewing Library Books.

These books I read all the way through, but I’m not sure how I feel about them. Because of that, these books are difficult to review. I still wanted to document my thoughts so here are a few odd notes on each.

  • All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
    • Rating: ★★-★★★½?  [ratings guide
    • I picked this book up because of the gorgeous cover, book description and four star reviews from a few bloggers I follow.
    • I thought the book had great atmosphere, moody and dark and solitary (reminded me of when I was running around with sheep in Ireland).
    • I kept waiting for something to happen in the present story-line but I found it extremely disappointing. I think I may have ~missed something~ there. A lot of somethings did happen in the past story-line but somehow it never really grasped me. 
    • I did not really like Jake, but I guess I liked reading about her?
    • The book felt empty to me, yet I read the whole thing quickly and without feeling like i should stop. So I must have liked something about it? I’m not too sure what else to say. I have confusing feelings about this book! I think I felt a bit let down by the book’s description – it’s not nearly as mysterious or fantastical as its made out to be.
  •  I Forgot to Remember by Su Meck and Daniel de Vise
    • Rating: ★★-★★★? [ratings guide
    • I find this book extremely hard to evaluate because I would essentially be evaluating someone’s life. You have to keep in mind that Meck lost all her memories, she has no knowledge of the first part of her life, she had to be completely re-educated, including how to read and write. I found a lot of parts of this memoir uncomfortable to read. It was not the sort of story I was expecting. I can’t believe how many years it took for people to start to realize what she really lost when the accident happened. I want to keep my concerns about this memoir to myself, since it’s a fresh story and because who I am to judge how someone’s life play out? Meck’s choice to tell her story in such a no-holds-barred manner is admiring, at the very least. I don’t think you can find many memoirs like this, where the author’s husband (to whome she is still married) is so thoroughly exposed. (Suffice to say, the husband’s behaviour is mostly terrible. But then, given the situation – like I said, it’s not my place to judge!)
    • The writing style is nothing impressive, but again – she had to learn to write again as an adult. That she can write this memoir at all is truly incredible.
    • My uncertainity over this book comes from the fact that the subject matter is undoubtedly interesting, but the how Meck’s life actually unfolds was not at all what I was expecting. Perhaps it’s a bit terrible of me to say this, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to read! That’s certainly not Meck’s fault, though, and her story is still fascinating. If the book’s description sounds interesting to you, I recommend you give it a shot. Maybe then my ramblings here will make a bit of sense… 

If you’ve read either of these books, I would love to hear what you think! Maybe reading other peoples’ opinions will help me sort out mine 😉

       

      Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

      Author: Ruth Ozeki
      Title: A Tale for the Time Being
      Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
      Published: March 2013
      Publisher:Viking
      Length: 403 pages
      Genre: Contemporary + splash of magical realism
      Why I Read: Canadian and Japanese characters/setting + pretty cover + on my radar
      Read If You’re: A fan of Haruki Murakami, the genre, or Japan
      Quote: “Or maybe none of these things will happen except in my mind and yours, because, like I told you, together we’re making magic, at least for the time being” (5).
      Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
      Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

      The cover of A Tale for the Time Being caught my eye. Bright, bold, clean, and elegant, it stood out on the express shelf at the library. I had put it on my TBR list because the description mentions the 2011 Touhoku tsunami. I decided to sign it out because I’m off to Japan soon and want to read more Japanese-related literature. Though the tsunami is a part of the novel, it’s more of a background framing device than the primary focus on the novel. The story alternates between two storylines: the first-person narrative of Japanese schoolgirl Nao and the third-person narrative of Canadian author Ruth. Ruth finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of the remote British Columbian island where she lives (the tsunami comes into play as Ruth wonders how the diary could have reached her). Nao fills the diary with thoughts on her difficult life, while Ruth becomes absorbed in finding out what ultimately happened to Nao. Nao’s tale spans generations, including stories of her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother and her deceased kamikaze grand-uncle. Ruth’s story is less enticing than Nao’s as she functions primarily as a receptacle for Nao’s story. Regardless, the story captured by attention and I read at least 75 pages at a time. I only made three notes about this book. But, now that I’m ready to reflect, there is a lot about this novel to comment on (I think this is my longest review to date!).

      This book had many components that, when combined, create the sort of story I enjoy digging into. Some of the components are:

      • Observant and introspective narrators
      • Few but strong characters with deep relationships
      • Zen philosophy and practice
      • Vibrant settings in Japan and remote British Columbia
      • Exploration of the reader-writer relationship
      • Japanese involvement in WWII
      • Minor elements of magical realism (ex. ghosts)

      Each of these components alone are perhaps not enough to truly capture my interests. The first two points are what create a novel’s hook for me. I love this type of story, where the central character or two is a reflective observer, sharing thoughts both mundane and profound about themselves and the world around them. Maybe that’s why I have trouble connecting with books like The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.

      There are some very dark parts of this book, dealing as it does with nasty incidences of bullying, depression and suicide. I felt very uncomfortable during the height of Nao’s bullying and had a hard time accepting that this could be someone’s reality. Thankfully, Nao’s relationship with Jiko (spiritual, philosophical, grandmotherly) balanced the dark parts of the story for me, made them more bearable, as I think it did for Nao.

      A lot of the aspects of A Tale for the Time Being that I enjoyed can also be found in the works of Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite authors. Perhaps I enjoy this book so much because it reminds me of my favourite Murakami novel, Kafka on the Shore. It’s not that I like A Tale for the Time Being because it emulates Murakami; I like both of these novels because I like this type of story. Some similarities between the two that I like include:

      • Thoughtful young person struggling to find their place in Japanese society
      • Connection to old wars gone by
      • Touches of magical realism
      • Two interweaving storylines, one in first-person and one in third-person*

      Personally, I connected emotionally to Kafka but not to Nao. Kafka is so similar to me, while Nao has few experiences to which I can relate. This is why, and I emphasize again for me, Kafka on the Shore is a five-star novel while A Tale for the Time Being is a four-star novel. For another reader, Ozeki’s story could be the one she deeply connects with.

      I loved old Jiko and would have liked to read more about her. The book description states “[Nao] wants to accomplish one thing: to recount the story of her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, in the pages of her secret diary. The diary, Nao’s only solace, is her cry for help to a reader whom she can only imagine.” Nao’s documentation of Jiko’s life is a framing device through which Nao tells her own life story. Jiko has a prominent role in the story, but the book is Nao’s story. Nao expresses great pride in her great-grandmother’s life, but the reader only learns about Jiko’s final stages of life. I would have loved to hear more about Jiko’s younger days, as a feminist radical, and how (the why is briefly discussed) she transitioned to a Buddhist priest.  Jiko is not the main character in the novel, but she is the most fascinating to me and I would have been happy to read more about her.

      Ruth’s story has less plot than Nao’s, but I found her story calming and grounding even though it has moments of stress. I think this is because I can picture myself in Ruth’s position, out on this remote island living in a beautiful but discontent state of solitude. In Ruth, the reader encounters encounters a blurring of fiction and reality. Even from the sparse author description on the book, I recognized similarities between Ruth-narrator and Ruth-author. I wondered how closely the two are related (as I did with Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), but I didn’t investigate further until after finishing the novel. With A Tale for the Time Being, we find an author who openly acknowledges how much of herself is in the fictional Ruth. Of course, the book is first and foremost a novel. I have been conditioned not to make sweeping correlations between fiction and reality based on what I’ve read in a novel**. Therefore, I find it fascinating when an author clearly recreates herself as a character in her own work of fiction. Here are some of Ozeki’s comments on including a version of herself in the novel (these quotes also speak to how the tsunami influenced the book):

      “At that point I realized that the book I’d written was not relevant anymore, and I needed to do something to address and respond to the events in Japan. Actually it was my husband who came up with the idea. He said, “Why don’t you put yourself in the book?” And that would give you a voice to use to respond to these events in a more direct way.” (Goodreads Interview)

      “The novel is told as a kind of dialogue with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. Somehow, stepping into the role as a semi-fictional version of myself seemed to be the only way of responding to the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very, very quickly […] The character of Ruth in this book is me.” (Book Slut Interview

      Some final notes: The book contains a handful of experiments in typography. In one instance, Ruth imagines what ‘temporal stuttering’ would like if it were typed (228). Finally, my favourite passage in the book described “the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling” (180). I think it deserves to be quoted in its entirety, so skip if you’d rather read it in its natural habitat!

      It’s the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling. You try to forget about it, but as soon as you do, the fish starts flopping around under your heart and reminds you that something truly horrible is happening. Jiko felt like that when she learned that her only son was going to be killed in the war. I know, because I told her about the fish in my stomach, and she said she knew exactly what I was talking about, and that she had a fish, too, for many years. In fact, she said she had lots of fishes, some that were small like sardines, some that were medium-sized like carp, and other ones that were as big as a bluefin tuna, but the biggest fish of all belonged to Haruki #1, and it was more the size of a whale. She also said that after she became a nun and renounced the world, she learned how to open up her heart so that the whale could swim away. I’m trying to learn how to do that too. (180)

      The Bottom Line: I enjoyed this book particularly for the introspective narrative style. The bulk of the story describes the difficulties of an American-Japanese schoolgirl from her point of view, so if that sort of thing particularly disinterests you I would avoid this book. I strongly recommend A Tale for the Time Being if you appreciate observant narrators, Haruki Murakami novels, or Japanese culture.

      Further Reading: 

      *Though Ozeki’s novel is far less surreal and the connection between the storylines far more straightforward.

      **I attribute this particularly to The Lord of the Rings and The Fault in Our Stars. Tolkien vehemently disliked anyone trying to find allegorical meaning in his work. Tolkien famously wrote in his foreword to The LOTR, “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author”. Regarding TFIOS, I have been a fan of the vlogbrothers and John Green’s writing since 2007. Green has always been very adamant (and rightly so) that his book is a work of fiction. As he writes in the author’s note to TFIOS, “neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species”. I generally agree with both Tolkien and Green’s sentiments. I’m not immune to correlating fiction and reality when I think my reading of story will benefit from doing so, but I prefer to let a work of fiction stand for itself.