The Great Alone

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: 
Author: Kristin Hannah
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub Date: Feb. 2018 (read Jun. 2018)

The Great Alone has been haunting my shelf since it first came out and I finally found time to read it as part of my June Challenge to read 3 historical novels. I read The Nightingale in 2015 and while I did like it a lot, I’ve read a lot of WWII historical fiction and had a bit of fatigue reading that genre. The Great Alone has the most gorgeous cover though (don’t pretend it doesn’t matter) and I was intrigued by a story about Alaska and a POW.

I’m so glad I finally read this because it was seriously a pleasure to read from start to finish, even though it broke my heart and tossed me into the pits of despair. The Great Alone has some of the most gorgeous writing and Kristin Hannah breathed so much life into her setting and her characters. Setting is key for this story and the author did a magnificent job a creating a sense of place. Sometimes too much descriptive imagery can bog a story down, but Hannah’s writing made me fall totally in love with a place I’ve never even been.

Alaska in the 1970’s is the last frontier of America. A place where no one really cares who you are or where you came from. A place where everyone is running to something or from something. A place where 5 of every 1,000 people goes missing and is never found. Where you’re only allowed to make one mistake, because the second one will kill you.

Ernt Albright returns from the Vietnam War a broken man. His plane crashed and he was captured early into his tour and spent years being tortured in a POW camp. When he finally returns to his family, he is broken and disillusioned with America. He was in love with his country when he signed up to go to Vietnam, but now all he can see is an America that no longer represents him – corrupt politicians and blind citizens. Between the Watergate scandal and the young girls going missing in Washington, Ernt Albright feels the whole world is just going to shit.

In his frustration, Ernt becomes an angry and volatile man, moving his family all over America before inheriting a cabin in Alaska from his late friend from Vietnam. In a last bid to find peace, he packs up his life and moves his wife, Cora, and their 13 year old daughter, Leni, to Kaneq Town in Alaska.

They arrive in Alaska in the Spring and are enchanted by the landscape. The days are long and Ernt finally has a purpose – repairing the decrepit old cottage and learning how to survive. Leni has never really had a place that she could call home, but something about Alaska calls to her. This is the great alone, where you can be whoever you want to be. There’s a real sense of community – trade is a currency and in a place where survival is all that matters, the neighbours band together to look after each other.

I’ve been living in BC for the last 5 years, and while I know it’s a lot a different than Alaska, I have become totally enamoured with the landscape here, the mountains and lakes. I spend most of my free time in the summer hiking and camping in the mountains. I also grew up in Newfoundland, which again, has little in common with Alaska, but is more remote and you spend a lot of your year suffering through a dark winter. I know the Alaskans wouldn’t be impressed with my measly camping skills when living off the land is their life, but I did feel like I could totally relate with their love of place, even though 8 months of the year that place is trying to kill you.

The author does a fantastic job with the imagery and making you fall in love with Alaska when the Allbright’s first arrive. The days are long and the flowers are in bloom, what’s not to love about Alaska. For the first time in her life, Leni sees a place where they might actually be able to be a happy family. The sun drives away Ernt’s nightmares and being responsible for your own subsistence gives them all a purpose. Plus, Leni makes her first real friend. There’s only 6 students in the tiny school in Kaneq, but Matthew Walker is 13 too and for the first time, they both have a real friend to spend time with. Matthew is the third generation of the Walker family to grow up in Alaska and he shares his love of the land with Leni and they become very close.

However, at the same time that Hannah’s writing has you falling in love with Alaska, there’s this feeling of darker things lurking on the horizon. The townspeople seem to be obsessed with winter. After school lets out, the entire summer is devoted to preparing for a long a dark winter and Leni and her family work from dawn til dusk every day doing their best to prepare. They must til the land, grow a garden, smoke and can salmon, and most important, bag a moose to see them through the long winter. And as the days start to get shorter, the long nights bring the return of Ernt’s nightmares. His temper gets shorter and Leni begins to realize that what can kill her outside the house may be second to what lurks inside their own home.

I think I could talk forever about this book. I thought it was a little slow moving at the beginning, but it didn’t hurt my enjoyment. I learned a lot about Alaska and survival, which I found just as enthralling as the character development and conflict that came later. There’s a lot going on in this book and Kristin Hannah created some truly wonderful characters. It’s hard to read about Ernt and Cora and their volatile love, as well as the heartbreak that befalls the Walker family early in the novel. But I loved watching the relationships grow. The relationships between Leni and her mother and Leni and Matthew are beautiful, as well as the relationships that develop between Leni and her mother with secondary characters like Large Marge and Tom Walker (I love both of these characters!)

This is a coming of age story for Leni and it is wrought with secrets and heartbreak. Leni loves both her parents, but she also knows they are bad for one another and she struggles to understand their love or to follow her mother’s policy of silence. Tom Walker has money and wants to invest it in the community, to promote tourism in their little piece of the world. But Ernt is opposed to change in any form and the two men find themselves at odds with one another and Ernt’s opinions threaten to tear the community apart. Leni’s friendship with Matthew and her fear of her father cause her to get caught in the middle. What matters more, her family or her future.

Like I said, this book tore my heart right out of my chest and stomped all other it. It is deeply sad, but it also makes you feel so much. It’s about the strength of women and the power of community. How some loves are good and important, but others are toxic and dangerous. There doesn’t have to be shame in our deepest, darkest secrets and that sometimes sharing them with someone else can be incredibly powerful. We don’t always have to carry our burdens alone.

This book also shines a light on some of the inequities of the past and how they still exist today. The law is not very accommodating of battered women. This hasn’t really changed. Leaving bad relationships can be the hardest thing and can sometimes even be more dangerous than staying in a bad relationship. Without help for women, sometimes there is no escape. This book will break your heart, but it will also give you that righteous anger about the way women are treated and tricked within the legal system. How in the 70’s women couldn’t even get their own credit card without a male signatory, so how are they supposed to make it on their own? But the Great Alone has some powerful characters and I loved watching Leni grow and find herself. She was forced into some tough decisions, but Alaska taught her to survive against things tougher than just nature.

I can see how this book might not be for everyone, but I absolutely loved it and now I’m dying to go visit Alaska. Recommend to everyone!

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The Dry

Rating: 
Author: Jane Harper
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub Date: May 2016 (read Jun. 2016)

I’ve been hearing such good things about this book and after reading Kristen Lepionka’s What You Want To See, I was in the mood for another good PI/mystery story. I had no idea “the dry” was referring to the setting (although in hindsight it’s kind of obvious looking at the cover), which is set in rural Australia during the height of a years-long drought. Everything is dry and dying and after a grizzly murder/suicide, tensions in town reach on all time high, threatening to set fire to the brush around them.

Aaron Falk is a cop in Melbourne, but returns to his childhood town when he hears the news that his childhood friend Luke has succumbed to the pressures of trying to keep a farm running at the height of a drought by murdering his wife and son before killing himself. Luke has always been a bit unpredictable and his shocking death raises questions about the death of Aaron and Luke’s friend Ellie 20 years prior. Falk had no alibi for Ellie’s death, but Luke insists the two of the them were out shooting rabbits together. Aaron is never convicted of anything, but the town was never convinced of his innocence and eventually drove him out. In light of Luke’s death, Aaron starts to wonder if maybe Luke was lying to protect Aaron, or lying to protect himself.

The setting of this book is genius. You can feel the immense strain on the town. No money from farming means no money for anything else either and everyone is starting to feel the financial strain. The heat just compounds on the town’s troubles. Even after 20 years, Aaron still isn’t welcome in town, but when the new police chief, Raco, confides that he has some suspicions about how the Haddler’s murder really plays out, Aaron decides to stick around and investigate the crime.

As Falk investigates further into Luke’s life, he raises new questions about what happened to Ellie 20 years ago. I was totally intrigued by both crimes and even though it’s a common troupe, I love stories that simultaneously examine both a past and present crime that appear to be linked. It reminded me a little of In the Woods by Tana French, but with a more satisfying ending.

I didn’t have any theories about how either crime might have been committed, but I loved the ambiguity about Falk’s role in Ellie’s death. We assume he’s innocent, but Harper never really answers that question and leaves us guessing and second guessing to the very end. I had no theories about how either crime had been committed, but I was convinced I knew who might have been involved in one of them and was a little disappointed when the plot seemed to be following that suspicion (funny how you always want to guess what happened, but are disappointed when you’re right). In this case though I was not right and that made the story all the more intriguing! Half of the red herrings in mystery novels are obvious, but I love when another red herring successfully manages to lead you astray.

Overall, I loved the traditional mystery novel aspect of this with the added person vs. nature element. I’m excited that Jane Harper already has a second book published in this series and was thrilled when I read the synopsis and discovered it would be another person vs. nature conflict! Plus it’s hikers vs. the wilderness, which I find totally intriguing as someone who loves to hike!

Can’t wait for book 2!

May Summary

May felt like a really slow month for me, but I still ended up knocking back almost 3,000 pages, so definitely nothing to feel bad about. My summary for May is:

Books read: 7
Pages read: 2,750
Main genres: Fantasy and Mystery
Favourite book: Children of Blood and Bone

I started the month off with an advanced reading copy of The Death of Mrs. Westaway from netgalley. I’m a little bit obsessed with Ruth Ware, so I was super excited about this one. Unfortunately it didn’t end of being one of my favourite Ruth Ware novels, but I did still enjoy it and I will definitely still be reading all her books.

After that I finally picked up a copy of Children of Blood and Bone, which I have been hearing SO MUCH hype about since it came out. I was worried it might have been over-hyped, but it definitely was not and I really liked this West-African inspired fantasy novel. It had several different perspectives and while I thought it was a little predictable, it was so fast paced and thoughful that I loved every second of it!

I went back and forth between fantasy and mystery novels this month. I really like mystery novels, but I don’t tend to read that many of them. I had 2 winners in May though! First I read Sometimes I Lie for my book club. I admit, I didn’t really want to read this one because it sounded kind of boring with the main character being in a coma. But it ended up being super compelling and have a million twists that I never saw coming.

The other mystery novel I picked up was Kristen Lepionka’s second book in her Roxane Weary series, What You Want To See. I loved Lepionka’s debut novel and I think Roxane Weary is a great PI/character. Her second novel did not disappoint and just made me love Roxane even more.

I had a few new fantasy releases that I just HAD to read in May. Sarah J Maas’ novella, A Court of Frost and Starlight, and the third book in the Ruined series, Allied, both came out on May 1. I wasn’t expecting much from A Court of Frost and Starlight, which is supposed to bridge the gap between the original series and a new spinoff series, and I got a story just as underwhelming as I expected. I have a whole ton of opinions on why this book was so bad, so read my full review for more. Allied was definitely better, although still a little underwhelming for the final book in a trilogy. I did like it, but sadly it didn’t have the same flair as the first two books.

I finished off the month with a great book though! I picked up The Astonishing Color of After on a whim and ended up loving it! It’s about a teenage girl who in her grief at losing her mother to suicide, believes she has come back as a bird. It’s full of magical realism and gorgeous writing. It took me a while to get through, but I thought it was a fabulous debut novel.

You’ll notice I didn’t complete a monthly challenge in May, but I have set one for June that I am very excited about!

What You Want To See

Rating: 
Author: Kristen Lepionka
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pub Date: May 2018 (read May 2018)

Okay, so DO NOT read the synopsis of this book! Fortunately I did not read the synopsis because I loved the first book in this series and knew I wanted to read this anyways (and because I hate having even one thing ruined by the synopsis). But I was just reading through some other reviews of this book and one mentioned that the synopsis ruins almost the entire plot of the book and when I went back and read it, I actually couldn’t believe how much the synopsis steals away from the reader! Shame on you publisher/whoever writes these things!

Anyways, Roxane Weary and Kristen Lepionka are fabulous and that’s pretty much all you need to know. Ignore the synopsis and pick up a copy of her first book The Last Place You Look, because it is great! I was not disappointed with this book either.

Roxane Weary is a bi-sexual private investigator who is struggling to move on with her life after the death of her father on the job as a police officer. She had a complicated relationship with her Dad, which later developed into a complicated relationship with her Dad’s partner and her ex-girlfriend. She mostly just tails adulterous spouses, but when her most recent tail, Marin Strasser, is shot on the street, she can’t help but get dragged into the murder investigation that just doesn’t seem right to her. Despite warnings from the police force to mind her own business, she continues her investigation into Marin Strasser and her tangled web of acquaintances.

I really liked Roxane in the first book because she was complicated without being too cliche. She is a bit of an alcoholic, but she’s not really destructive and she knows her shortcomings. I became just as invested in her personal life as I was in her cases and I really liked how Lepionka grew her relationships in this novel and the development of some of the secondary characters. I was so done with Catherine after the last book and Lepionka somehow made me kind of like her in this book? Plus I loved that she kept Shelby in this story, which I was totally not expecting, and I think really added to the development of Roxane’s character.

This book had a strong mystery element too. I did kind of see the ending coming on the last book, but this book kept me totally mystified throughout. Lepionka actually answers several questions for us early in the second half of the novel, which is surprising in a mystery novel, but she still leaves other questions unanswered to keep you intrigued while simultaneously escalating the drama in the story.

Kristen Lepionka is also fantastic at making you mad. You know the term ‘righteous anger’? That is what Lepionka is so good at making you feel. I was so enraged in the first book when the police threw Roxane in prison and basically ignored her and all her rights, and parts of this book were also rage inducing. I hate nothing more than when female characters are ignored or dismissed, and the author’s use of subtle sexism in both of her novels is so effective because it is so accurate and I can immediately relate with Roxane and her frustration because literally every woman has been ignored or dismissed or belittled at some point in her life.

To conclude, I really liked this and now I am just really sad that I will have to wait again for the next book. Book 3 already has a name on goodreads though!

June Monthly Challenge

I was too busy in May to do a monthly challenge and I actually really missed it. I love the flexibility of just being able to pick any book you want off the shelf, which I rarely do anymore between my challenges, book club, and netgalley reads, but I felt like my reading was a bit aimless without any reading goals to work towards in May.

I’m super excited about my June reading challenge though and I think I’ve picked out 3 great books for it. Historical fiction was my favourite genre for many years, but I’ve been a little fatigued with it over the last few years because I feel the genre is over-saturated with WW1 and 2 novels and books about slavery. So I got a lot more into fantasy and discovered all these YA fantasy series that have huge online followings, but I am starting to get a bit fatigued with this genre now because while there’s so much out there, once you start reading a lot of it, it tends to get a bit repetitive.

In an effort to branch out a little more again and return to a genre I love, I’ve decided that in June my monthly challenge will be to:

Read 3 Historical Novels

It was really hard to narrow it down to just 3 books, because I do have a huge list of historical novels that I’ve been wanting to get to, so I tried to focus on reading about stories set in different countries and different time periods. The three books I picked are:

1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
2. I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhorn
3. Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

 

I read Kristin Hannah’s other bestseller, The Nightingale, in 2015 with my book club and we all really liked it. My book club liked it a little more than me because this was when I was really getting fatigued with the WW1 and WW2 books, but I did still like it. The Great Alone is her new book and has been getting fantastic reviews – I bought a copy on sale in February and I’ve been trying to get to it ever since. I don’t like to know too much about my books when I start reading them, but this is set in Alaska in 1974 and examines the aftereffects of a former Prisoner of War during the Vietnam War when he returns to Alaska.

I Was Anastasia is a fairly new release, but I feel like I’ve been waiting to read this one since I first saw a synopsis of it months ago. This is actually my book club selection for June, so I’m happy to be able to combine two of my reading lists this month. This is a WW1 book, but bear with me because this sounds different than any other WW1 book I’ve ever read! It’s about the grand duchess Anastasia and her supposed execution with the rest of the Romanov’s during the Russian Revolution. There’s always been speculation that Anastasia may have survived and in this novel, a young girl shows up in Germany 3 years later claiming to be Anastasia. Was anyone else obsessed with 20th Century Fox’ version of Anastasia growing up? Because I was and I am super excited for some bestselling, historical fiction about her! I’m on a journey to the past with this one folks.

My last pick of the month is a brand new, not-yet-released book that I only heard about recently. I’m not even sure where I first heard about Fruit of the Drunken Tree, I think Goodreads may have featured it in one of the lists of their blog, but it sounds so good. It’s a debut novel by Ingrid Rojas Contreras that was inspired by her own life growing up in the 1990’s in Colombia. It’s a coming-of-age story during a period of great upheaval and violence in Colombia and features a piece of history that I am not knowledgeable about and haven’t seen featured in historical fiction before. A big thanks to Penguin Random House Canada, who happily provided me with an advance copy of this book so that I could include it in my monthly challenge.