Swimming for Sunlight

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A couple of years ago, I reviewed Allie Larkin’s novel Stay, about a woman who accidentally orders a dog off the Internet and experiences the ups and downs of being a first-time dog owner. Having lived around and loved dogs my entire life, I was drawn to the story of how getting a dog as a young adult can make life exciting.

Larkin’s latest novel is Swimming for Sunlight, the story of Katie Ellis, a 27-year-old who return to her native Florida with her rescue dog Barkimedes (“Bark”) after divorcing her ex-husband Eric. Katie moves back in with her grandmother Nan, and reconnects with her best friend Maureen and former love Luca. Nan, who belonged to a mermaid performing group in her younger years, starts planning a reunion performance with Katie’s help. Katie volunteers to design their costumes using her sewing skills. Despite being back in familiar areas, Katie struggles with anxiety and fear of water due to a tragic childhood experience, and it’s affecting all areas of her life.

As someone who suffered with anxiety for years, I could relate to Katie’s inner dialogue. Worrying a little about something is pretty normal, but anxiety can magnify it to the point where it’s all you can think about, especially when trying to sleep at night. Larkin accurately depicts how anxiety not only affects you mentally, but physically too. One noteworthy line from page 255, “For days I’d felt like a balloon ready to pop. The pressure was finally dissipating.”

Larkin also portrays how dogs can sense their owner’s habits and embody them. Bark’s reluctance to go for typical walks reflects Katie’s fear of venturing out. As she begins coping with her obstacles, Bark starts to show improvement as well. Katie’s experience emphasizes how anxiety can affect everyone differently, and that treatment options can differ from person to person.

I recommend this novel because it shows the importance of addressing mental health and how friendships. My favorite line of this book comes on page 305 when Katie’s friend tells her: “You’re not your anxiety. You are a person who has anxiety. I’m not going to take an anxiety attack as the symbol of all you are as a person.”

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Here Today

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This week I’m up visiting my parents in my hometown near Rochester, New York. Like most people my age, most of my childhood stuff (books, art projects, etc.) is now in storage in the basement. Over past several visits here, I’ve sorted through several boxes, making piles to donate or keep. This week, I found a middle school novel by one of my favorite childhood authors, Ann M. Martin, and decided to review it for a change of pace.

Here Today takes place in 1963 and 1964 and is story of the Dingman family, who live in Upstate New York. The oldest, Eleanor, or Ellie, helps look after her two younger siblings, Albert and Marie. Their mother, Doris Day Dingman, has dreams of becoming a star that sometimes interfere with her ability to be a proper mother. Their father, Mr. Dingman, is loving but has a busy work schedule. Meanwhile, the Dingman children and their neighbor children are bullied by their schoolmates for living on Witch Tree Lane, home of the misunderstood Witch Tree. But in November 1963, an unexpected event happens that changes all of their lives.

Historical events of this time period plays a large role in the story, the main one being the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Ellie and her classmates hear about the tragedy during school, and she and her family witness the aftermath through their television. Back then, television served as the main source of world events, and the novel portrays how most families spent the weekend after watching the funeral. It was interesting to see how the event was processed differently by Ellie, her peers, and her family, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of September 11,  2001, a life-changing day for people of my generation.

The story also includes several pop culture references of the 1960s, including The Mickey Mouse Club, and the Ed Sullivan Show. Having parents who grew up during this time period, I appreciate learning more about what it was like to live in that time period.

I recommend this novel because it tells an important story of family set during the backdrop of one of the most world changing events of the mid 20th century.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

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I’ve previously reviewed several of John Green’s books, including Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, and Turtles All the Way Down. Last fall, his younger brother Hank Green released his debut novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.

April May is a 23-year-old graphic designer living in New York City, working a dead-end job at a startup and struggling to pay her student loans. Late one night on her way home, she stumbles across a sculpture in the middle of the sidewalk. Intrigued by the statue, April names him Carl and she and her best friend Andy make a YouTube video introducing it. The video quickly becomes viral as people discover dozens of other Carls in cities around the world. April is drawn into the world of viral fame and caught in between the theories as people argue what the purpose of the Carls are. Along the way, she makes new friends and enemies.

At first, I thought this novel would mostly focus on what being a viral star entails. And parts of it do. April experiences the thrill of people recognizing her and becomes addicted to the attention she is getting, leveraging social media to keep her image relevant. As April’s first person narrative admits, “I like getting paid, I like the attention, and I was worried about it ending.” (p. 71). April’s experience portrays how Internet platforms enable people to become “accidentally” famous, and how the spotlight is something that people can crave.

There’s an unexpected science fiction angle to the story. As the novel progresses, people start to wonder whether the Carls might not be from this planet. The sequence to solve involves chemical elements and a virtual reality-like “dream” that people begin having. These are important parts of the plot, but proved to be difficult to understand sometimes. This could depend on what your interests are, as I’m definitely more of a words and literature person versus science and coding.

This being Hank Green’s very first book, his writing style was interesting to observe. He chose to write from the perspective of a female twenty-something, something I’ve found to be challenging for authors. The fact that he included some supernatural elements implies that he wants to differ himself from his older brother’s books. Overall, I felt like the plot was decent, but needed some more character development within its 300+ pages. April’s first person narrative allows plenty of development for her character, but I would have liked to see more of April’s ex-girlfriend Maya, and April’s new love interest Miranda.

I would recommend this novel for its unexpected story, but it falls short of focusing on supporting characters.

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The Assistants

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The assistant trope is not a new one, with television shows such as The Office and popular movies such as Set It Up using them as plot points. As evidenced by its title, The Assistants by Camille Perri is a novel that utilizes this trope, but also throws in a very current issue- student loans.

Tina Fontana is the 30-year-old executive assistant to Robert Barlow, the high-powered CEO of Titan Corporation in New York City. For the past six years, she’s immersed herself in her job of scheduling Robert’s meetings, business travel and other excursions. When a discrepancy in the expense reporting causes a check for thousands of dollars to land on her desk, she debates whether to use it to pay off her student loans. What follows is a series of adventures that leads to major changes in both Tina’s professional and personal life.

Having worked in an office myself, I could relate to the actions of scheduling, expense reporting, and other similar tasks. The fact that Tina has been in the same position for most of her twenties reflects on how difficult it can be to climb the ladder to success, or how some people can be content staying where they are. 

What made the plot unique was its take on student loans. According to Forbes, the average college graduate owes over $28,000. Instead of using the money for material items, Tina pays off her student loans, and is overwhelmed by the feeling of freedom. I’m not saying that this action is right since she did commit fraud, but the events that follow introduce the interesting concept of a nonprofit focused on helping people pay off their student loans. As someone who owes a good amount, I couldn’t help but wonder what the feeling of having no debt is like. 

The Assistants is a nice, quick read that explores the world of office assistants, student loan debt and life in the big city.

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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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Rereading a book from your childhood as an adult can give you an entirely new perspective on it. For me, this was the case with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the classic novel by English author C.S. Lewis.

The first published book of the series, the novel introduces the Pevensie children and tells of their first journey to the land of Narnia. Set during the Second World War in England, the four children- Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy- are sent to live in the mansion of an elderly professor in the countryside for protection from London bombings. One day, Lucy, the youngest, discovers a passage through a wardrobe in one of the spare rooms. Through the wardrobe is the magical land of Narnia, where animals speak and other mythical creatures live. Narnia is unofficially ruled by the evil White Witch, whose “reign” has caused a continuous winter but no Christmas. She also harbors the ability to turn anyone who defies her to stone. But with the appearance of the Pevensie children, along with the mysterious lion Aslan, her power and influence begin to weaken.

As I mentioned in the beginning, there can be parts of the story that you don’t understand or notice as a child that you now do as an adult. One example of this is the relationship between Edmund and the rest of his siblings. Edmund discovers Narnia after following Lucy, but denies having visited there when prompted by her. Edmund encounters the White Witch first, but even after learning she is an adversary, he still decides to visit her again.  I remember being taken aback a little by his selfishness, but as an adult came to understand the depth of this character more.

Another element I hadn’t noticed before is Lewis’ occasional use of humor, one instance of this being on page 151, “…other creatures whom I won’t describe because if I did the grown-ups would probably not let you read this book.” I also discovered facts about C.S. Lewis himself- he wrote the series for his goddaughter Lucy, and was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, the famed writer of the Lord of the Rings series.

A recent book club I took part in looked at the novel from a religious point of view. We compared Aslan’s character to Jesus- particularly Aslan’s sacrifice and how he brought goodness and hope to the land. There are also several themes that can take a biblical sense- the battle of the good versus evil, the initial betrayal of Edmund to his siblings, and more.

Although this classic novel is primarily geared toward children, I recommend it to anyone because of its important themes and lessons.

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The map included in my edition

Gone

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This is actually a book I first read years ago as a high schooler, but realized I had never done a review on.

Gone, the first book in a series by Michael Grant, tells a story of power and authority with supernatural elements. One day in the town of Perdido Beach, California, everybody age 15 and over suddenly disappears into thin air. At the same time, a dome-shaped barrier forms over the town, preventing anyone from leaving and jamming all communication sources. Sam Temple and his friends Quinn and Edilio, along with Sam’s love interest Astrid, try to discover the meaning behind the sudden occurrence. Meanwhile, life in the town is thrown into chaos as children attempt to function without adults. Sam is seen as a leader but is at odds with Caine, the rival leader of the students from the elite Coates Academy. Elsewhere, a mysterious creature known as “The Darkness” threatens to wreak havoc on the already chaotic town.

One element I liked about this novel was Grant’s use of setting. He provides a map of Perdido Beach at the front of the book, which gives the reader an idea of the area and how it affects the characters in unexpected ways. For example, the desert, usually seen as a somewhat desolate place, is used in a story of survival for supporting character Lana. A power plant, commonly associated with feelings of danger and elusiveness, becomes a major plot point in the supernatural element of the story.

Another defining element of the novel is seeing how people’s personalities and skills help them survive and function in a society devoid of adults. Lana’s headstrong nature formerly got her into trouble, but now helps her outwit the danger she experiences and help Sam and his group with their journey. Another supporting character, Albert, uses his family-taught cooking skills to take over a local restaurant. Futhermore, some of the children develop supernatural powers which provide both positive and negative ways.

At over 500 pages, this is a long book to read, but I definitely recommend it due to its strong character development and successful mix of genres.

Wonder

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Welcome back to my blog! Today I decided to review something a little different, Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

August “Auggie” Pullman is a 10-year-old boy who lives in New York City with his mother, father, older sister, and dog Daisy. He is intelligent and a fan of Star Wars. He also has a medical condition that has cause After being homeschooled his entire life, Auggie is enrolled at Beecher Prep School by his parents. He’s nervous to start fifth grade at a real school, but begins to make friends with others and realizes that he is truly a “wonder.”

The story is told from several different points of view, which was a great way of showing how each person has a different way of viewing Auggie’s situation. Auggie himself is used to people’s reactions when they first see him, although it still does bother him a little bit. Auggie’s sister Via, who is used to Auggie getting his parent’s attention and isn’t afraid of standing up for him. There’s Summer, the girl who decides to sit with Auggie at lunch the first day and becomes his first friend. Julian is the bully, who constantly teases Auggie and tries to turn others against him. I could relate to the characters because it reminded me of people I knew during my grade school years.

I was interested to find out that this was RJ Palacio’s debut novel, considering how well it was written. According to her official website, she got the idea for the novel after an experience she had with her young sons who got upset after seeing a child with a facial deformity. I always like it when authors use real-life experiences in their fiction because its makes the story and characters more relatable.

Although this is a novel marketed toward grade schoolers, I recommend Wonder because it can teach both children and adults important lessons on acceptance and the uniqueness of others.

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