At the Water’s Edge

9780385523233_p0_v1_s260x420Although the timeframe of Sara Gruen’s At The Water’s Edge spans World War II, her story combines the societal flavor of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with the Scottish mysticism of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander in an adventure that includes the pursuit of the Loch Ness monster.  The cruel realities of war combine with romance and some shocking reminders of the vulnerability of women and the power of suggestion.  With the same ease as her popular Water for Elephants, Gruen has created a story with convenient events resulting in a satisfying, if predictable, read, and, of course, a happy ending.

After disgracing themselves with raucous and drunken behavior at a Philadelphia society party, Maddie and her husband Ellis are disinherited by Ellis’s father, and book an ocean voyage to Scotland – in the middle of submarine warfare.  Ellis, with the help of his wealthy friend Hank, decide to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster in an attempt to exonerate their reputations.  As the tale unfolds, each character’s vulnerabilities are revealed: Ellis’ s father’s fabrication of pictures taken years earlier, claiming his discovery of the monster; Ellis faking color-blindness to avoid going to war; Maddie not saving her mother from drowning.  Through gunfire and a sunken ship, they venture to the Scottish Highlands, where the tale takes on new characters and a little mystery – as well as a tall muscular red-headed Scotsman, who survived battle to become the laird of the castle.

Deserted by Ellis and Hank as they search for the Loch Ness monster, Maddie discovers her inner strength and some hidden talents, with the help of the cook and the housekeeper who befriend her.  Eventually, Maddie trades her vulnerability and dependence for courage and stamina and falls in love with Angus, the virile Scotsman.  The descriptions of the beauty of the Highlands and the mystery of the Loch only add to the drama.

The ending is a little too neatly resolved, but it does make for the happily-ever-after scenario – and Maddie does not have to travel back in time to get it.


9781101593417_p0_v1_s260x420Although Gary Blackwood’s historical novel – Curiosity – is targeted for middle-schoolers, this tale of a young chess wizard has adventure and intrigue appealing to adults.  Like Brian Selznick’s story of Hugo Cabret and the famous Automaton, Blackwood uses a mechanical figure, Otto the Turk, as the key character.  Otto resembles the Swami who changed Tom Hanks from boy to man in the movie “Big”; in his prime, Otto played chess, with the help of twelve year-old Rufus.

Rufus could be a character in a Charles Dickens novel; he is banished to the House of Refuge when his father, a defrocked minister who dares to preach evolutionism, loses his position and is sent to debtor’s prison.  As he is trying to make money to buy food and blankets for his father (this is the mid 1800s in Philadelphia), Rufus’ talent for chess is discovered by an unscrupulous carnival man, Maelzel, who owns an exhibit of automatons.

To escape the orphanage, Rufus agrees to conceal himself inside the cabinet below Otto the Turk and play chess against ticket-paying customers. Rufus secretly works the chess board, as Otto seems to beat all challengers with Rufus’ amazing skill at the game.   Although Rufus is promised a small salary with which he hopes to help his father get out of prison,  he must always remain hidden to avoid the secret of the Turk being discovered. He can never go out, and he struggles to get enough to eat, to not be beaten, and to find a way to survive.

Blackwood includes a wild cast of supporting characters based on real people: Jacques, the legless mechanic who brought Otto back to life; the author, Edgar Allan Poe who is determined to reveal the ruse; P. T. Barnum appears in a minor role, with his fledgling “Believe or Not” business.  Historical details lend realism and offer glimpses of a world with cholera and without electricity – when machinery was a curiosity rather than a means of making life easier.

The real “curiosity’, however, is the narrator, Rufus, with his hunched back and brilliant mind.  As he tells the story – a character dealing with the scorn of being different and the physical pain of his deformity – Rufus emerges as a hero.

Full of suspense, mystery, and drama, Curiosity has rightfully been mentioned for this year’s  Newbery Award possibilities.  Don’t worry if you are older than twelve; the book is still worth reading; it’s a great story.


The Sorcerer’s House

When Neil Gaiman, the author of the children’s book Coralinemaybe you’ve seen the film version – shared his reading habits with the New York Times Book Review editors in Neil Gaiman, By the Book, I discovered a new list of books I want to read:

  • The Spirit by Will Eisner
  • ALEC: The Years Have Pants by Eddie Campbell
  • Lud-in-the Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  • Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield
  • Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by May M. Talbot

But I decided to start with Gaiman’s favorite – The Sorcerer’s House. Gaiman noted…

“The Sorcerer’s House,” by Gene Wolfe, amazed me. It was such a cunning book, and it went so deep. A foxy fantasy about a house that grows, with chapters that are the Greater Trumps of a tarot deck.

Gene Wolfe’s fantasy story is an epistolary novel – a series of letters, mostly written by the main character, Bax, the holder of two Ph.D.’s, and just out of prison, who mysteriously has inherited a Gothic house. I’ve just started reading this dark tale – this one is not for children – but the strange occurrences already have my attention.

Related Article: Gaiman’s graduation address to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia – Cat Exploded? Make Good Art