Score: 87/100 (8.7 out of 10)
This novel is built on a compelling premise that leaves us hopeful for the sequel! It includes a likable and relatable protagonist and a solid villain. It is also loaded with twists, turns, and surprises that will keep you (the reader) guessing.
“Grounded” is a YA paranormal murder-mystery starring teenage vagabond Penny Nicols, a girl with a Final Destination-like power that manifests itself in the form of a death raven. The raven, though indicating that someone Penny knows will die, leaves it vague as to who will die as well as how, when, and why. This is a major source of the mystery as Penny is psychologically tormented by the weight of these questions, also knowing that there is little or nothing she can do about it. Lonely, depressed, and ridden with guilt over this, Penny travels from town to town in her beat up van she calls “Godzilla” and with her cat, Ace of Spades. She eventually comes to a little town and works at a place called Rocky Grounds Coffee & Gifts, the main focus and setting for this novel, knowing upon the raven's appearance that someone will die there.
It definitely sounds intriguing! Well, in all honesty, the first couple times we'd read it, we were actually rather bored. However, it's a short enough book that it can be read more than once in order to pick up more information and catch things the reader may have missed. It's like a fighting game in that sense. You play it knowing that you're going to fly through parts of it more than once, but you're expecting to unlock new things like characters and achievements. Well, the third or fourth time we read it, we actually gained a much larger appreciation for it. It eventually does pick up and become a thrilling book. The thing about it is, you have to be rather patient and allow the main characters like Penny, Janice, T.J, Terry, and Ken to develop and plant their roots in the story, knowing very well they're eventually going to be uprooted. Things are going to get shaken up.
Unfortunately, until things get shaken up, the setup of the story can be rather plodding. You are along for the ride with Penny as she starts a new job and meets her new co-workers and employers. It is, sad to say, kinda as monotonous and mundane as it sounds. Again, don't worry, the whole book isn't like this, but there are times when the plot isn't dipping or rising, it's flat-lining. There is seemingly a whole chapter in which Penny is just sitting at a table eating, talking, and thinking. And the scene drags.
Penny Nicols is actually a relatable and likable character. Yes, she's miserable and pessimistic, but do you blame her? The girl has felt at least partially responsible for the deaths of multiple people by the age of 18, and she's powerless to stop it. She is the common denominator in several murder investigations, and she is constantly on the run—no permanent friends or family except her cat and van. Yes, she has to personify her van in order to give it more meaning and not feel so alone. She's also overweight, a fact which several poke fun at along with her name. She's referred to as “big girl” and as “lucky Penny.” She seemingly lives off of cheap insta-noodles. That's miserable. Hold on while we heat the kettle and take out a bowl.
Something we love about Penny that we didn't like about characters in similar or nearly-identical stories is that Penny is actually a good person. She actually cares and shows concern, not just a morbid curiosity about who's gonna die next.
Case in point: we'd just read “Silver Knowledge” by Emilie Knight, a solid story. The premise of both stories is that the main characters have something about them that tells them that someone will die. Not until the end of Knight's book does the main character actually risk losing someone they know personally, so he has no emotional attachment to the victims whatsoever. In Hualde's book, the potential victims have adopted the MC into their group—practically into their “family.” Any of them dying would be tragic, and we get this from reading Penny's thoughts. She doesn't want any of them to die, even Ken who seems like he can be an arrogant jerk sometimes. Now, do we as readers really care about Ken, T.J. or any of the others? Probably not, sorry to say. To us, these guys are equivalent to those characters from “Clue.” If they die, they die. The only other person we really sorta care about (beside Penny and her sassy, cute, cuddly, charismatic cat) is Janice.
Janice Rockland is actually a pretty good and interesting character. Not to spoil too much, but either way you choose to view Janice at the beginning and at the end of this novel, she is by far the most complex character beside Penny herself. She has layers to her. Something a good author or story writer does is use subtext. Characters should imply what they mean, not outright state it. We should be able to infer things rather than being told things. There are times when Hualde pulls this off, not just with Janice but with people like Ken, a guy we gather is actually “super rich” despite running a little store. We can infer from this that there's a lot more going on with him. Similarly, Terry's mom is also implied to be a much less cheerful person on the inside than she appears on the outside.
However, most of the time, the characters are very direct, and that's apparent in the dialogue. Most of the dialogue is very simplistic and casual. It sounds like all of the characters are 13-16 years old including the adults. Over time and with practice, the author will likely be able to craft more complex and varied dialogue.
Remember, no two people should sound alike. Even twins and those who grew up under the same roof will have things about the way they talk that stand out. Some people say “like” or “never mind” a lot. A person who is more nonchalant will say things like “whatever” or “who cares.” Maybe the author did do this, but it didn't stand out to us in several readings. The characters generally sound like they were written by the same person. They were, obviously, but you don't want that to be so apparent and obvious. You want polyphony. You want it to read like one person—the narrator and/or characters—is talking to another person entirely. It's not Sarah Hualde's voice the audience needs to hear, it's Penny's voice or T.C.'s voice. That helps readers to suspend their disbelief and become more engaged with the book.
Imagine you went to an orchestral concert featuring only a piano. How much better could it have been if there were violins, brass instruments, woodwind instruments, and maybe even a good vocalist or a choir for a few songs?
The writing in general is very, very, very simple, even for a YA book. The book is nearly barren of any paragraphs with any kind of chew or bite. It's almost all baby food. You won't find many paragraphs in here longer than three or four sentences, the elementary-level minimum. Sentences usually read something like, “I did something. I thought something about what I did. Jack did something, then Spades scurried away across the floor.” Read the book out loud to yourself. You'll find this pattern over and over and over again. It's formulaic and it's repetitive.
With something like poetry, you want repetition like this. You generally want lines and sentences to be relatively around the same length with similar sounds creating a sort of beat or rhythm. With prose, you generally want more variety in those things. Yes, a huge block of text is the worst case scenario which the author avoids, but from time to time you also have to whip out the hammer if you want to land a knockout blow. It's like trying to win a dance competition with only side shuffles. It's like trying to win a fight with only left-jabs. It's not going to happen. You're going to have to throw a combo and/or a big punch from time to time—you need to craft sentences or paragraphs with greater complexity at least a few times per chapter. Otherwise, what ends up happening is you lull your audience into a state of boredom in which they start to miss information or stop caring about characters and/or the events.
That's the opposite of what short lines should accomplish. Short lines indicate a frantic pace and a greater intensity. Don't waste them on things like Penny parking her van, scrubbing the floor, or making a cup of coffee.
We also realize that this book is probably going through a series of edits through the Book Rescue series by Dale L. Roberts and his team. Those edits are needed. They will improve the book somewhat.
There are times when we ran into lines like “The baby Janice was cooing at was a girl” or when a period inexplicably divides the actions in “He clawed his way up Jack's leg and straight to his face. Clawing as he went.”
There are also lines that read poorly like “I like my beans to flirt with second crack before I dumped them into the cooling bowl.” Is this a case of wrong-word usage or two ideas that got mistakenly lumped together? We're not even sure.
Something else that was a bit bothersome is the question of “What is this book actually about?” The reason we pose this question with this book is that this 120-page book is about a lot of stuff. There are a lot of “points” and little time to explore them. For one, there's the Caw Caw Monster (raven) itself. Who, what, where, when, why, and how? There are too many questions left unanswered about this thing and Penny's power. Next, there's Penny's mysterious, supposed twin sister, the source of the only really emotional part of this book. Maybe these two issues are tied together? Then, there are the other people we're supposed to care about: people like Jack, T.C., and Ken. We have the issue of dealing with disability/blindness. We have some sort of romantic angle with T.C. Later, we eventually have his podcast. We have red herrings like an accident, a break in, and a fire. We then have Janice and her... thing. We are so glad this is a series and not a standalone book, because there are way too many plot threads left hanging or that seemingly go nowhere.
It's actually a very similar problem we had with “Silver Knowledge.” There are just too many “what ifs?” or “why nots?”
Why can't Penny try to circumvent the grim fate she knows is coming? Why can't she confront the raven or try to thwart it? Can't she just shoot the darn bird? If she shoots it, cooks it, and eats it, will she have touch-of-death powers or something? Can she bring back Betty White?
Why can't she ask the raven nicely to spare one person in exchange for another, a murderer, perhaps? How does Penny go from being the town's peon to the one going around interrogating everyone for information like she's Sherlock Holmes all of a sudden? Why doesn't Penny--knowing she's a walking harbinger of death--just try working online like it's 2020? Why doesn't she start a Patreon or an Only Fans account with pictures of her cat or something? Is the Caw Caw Monster going to find her GoFundMe page (titled something like “Please help me not have to give up my cat!!!”) and kill her donors?
Are there other Caw Caw Monsters in the world? Does this Caw Caw Monster have a family? Is the Caw Caw Monster married? Does Nigeria have its own Caw Caw Monster(s)? What about Spain? France? Belgium? Is the Caw Caw Monster in Puerto Rico the same as the Caw Caw Monster in the USA, or does Puerto Rico have its own Caw Caw Monster?
Can the Angel of Death bilocate? Is it omniscient? Omnipresent? Does it know what you did last summer? Does it see you when you're sleeping? Does it know when you're awake? Does it care about the state of world affairs or just about Penny and her employers? If so, why? Why isn't it instead following someone like the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the president of the USA, or the secretary general of the United Nations? It sounds like a dumb question, but it's similar to a book we read about a guy who supposedly had Satan and Be'elzebub haunting his house in Kentucky. Why? Why would the devil and his second-in-command give a crud about some guy and his KFC?
Why is the Angel of Death fixated on Penny? Did her grandfather sell his soul to it in exchange for the “World's Best Coffee” or rarest Pokemon card but forgot to pay it, so now it's coming back for his family like an ex-wife owed back child support? Maybe the author addressed a few of these questions in the novel, but after multiple times reading through it, either it didn't jump out at us as significant or it was during one those times Penny was doing such things as wondering which flavor of ramen noodles she would eat that night: chicken, beef, shrimp, jalapeno, or mega-hot jalapeno w/ chili peppers. It might have been during one of those times the book was actively getting us not to pay attention like a one-note song.
Having read this book multiple times, there were things left to be desired, things like more fleshed-out or compelling supporting characters, more varied dialogue and sentences in general, and answers to questions that kept popping up and punching holes in the literary universe. It also requires some editing, but in all fairness, so does this review.
With all that said, this is a valiant attempt by a young and promising author. “Grounded” is a simple, easy-to-read little book with at least two compelling characters: a nominee for “Best Protagonist” and a nominee for “Best Villain.” It also includes some clever twists and turns as well as red herrings to leave the readers guessing.
The author's voice—which definitely comes across in this book—is also very welcoming, friendly, and inviting. She comes across as a person we'd love to get to know and hang out with. She clearly loves animals (which we can imply from the way the cat is revered in the book) and Star Wars (from the dedication to Han Solo). The author also somehow makes this book lighthearted and carefree. Even when a character is tied down with the possibility of vivisection or someone is found to be drowned, we can almost view it in a cartoonish Tom & Jerry/Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd sorta way. It's not to be taken seriously. Maybe that's where we went wrong as readers. We wanted to take this seriously, and it probably wasn't intended to be. It's a Scooby Doo episode... with destitution and death.
Yes, we actually do recommend this! It'd be a good read for ages 12-18.
Check it out here!
*Also someone named Scrubb is in this book.