The Smell of Other People’s Houses

Rating: 
Author: Bonnie Sue Hitchcock
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Pub Date: Feb. 2016 (June 2018)

I picked this up on book outlet because a) it was super cheap, and b) look at how gorgeous that cover is!!! But it was a mistake to read this right after reading The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. The Great Alone is gorgeous perfection and made me fall totally in love with Alaska, so after having never read a book about Alaska in my life, I decided to follow it up with the only other book in my possession about Alaska. And they just happen to both be set in the 1970’s (what are the odds?!)

To be fair, whatever I read after The Great Alone was probably going to pale in comparison, but reading another book set in the same place and time period was poor choice on my part. I really wanted to love this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it was just too short. Hitchcock has created 4 protagonists and a huge cast of secondary characters that just totally overwhelm this short 200 page book.

This was way too ambitious and the author tries to create this heavy cathartic response at the end of the story which just fell totally flat for me because the author did not spend enough time developing any of these characters. If you’re going to have each chapter focus on 1 of 4 characters and only write 200 pages, that’s only 50 pages per character, you’re just not doing to be able to do any of them justice. I felt like I barely knew any of the characters and then they’re all suddenly having epiphanies and learning all these deep things about themselves, but I never went on any journey with them to get there, so it wasn’t meaningful for me and felt way too forced.

Plus I didn’t even find most of these stories engaging. I really liked Ruth and her story arc, which makes sense because the author started and ended with Ruth, so her story feels a little more developed than the others, but I still thought it was lacking overall. A whole novel on just Ruth may have done her justice, but I felt like she barely did anything at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow and now she suddenly has this brand new perspective of her grandmother? I didn’t get it. Her gran was straight up abusive in my opinion and I didn’t really learn anything about her to change my mind. Sure it’s devastating to lose your own child and I know it’s hard raising 2 girls when you’re old, but people literally do this all the time without emotionally abusing their grandchildren.

Dumpling intrigued me, but I found Dora, Alyce, and Hank’s stories pretty boring. This book has so much potential with so many native characters in it and with the whole set up about how many Alaskans didn’t want to become a State and how many of them fought actively against it. But the book doesn’t really delve into this conflict at all, instead focusing on juvenille issues. I thought the whole thing between Alyce and her dad and the ballet audition was laughable. Like what was even the point of that whole story line, it totally lacked any kind of antagonist. I also thought Hank’s reaction to what happened to him early in the story (don’t want to spoil it) was totally unbelievable and lacked any emotional response. I would have loved to get some more background about what their life was like before running away, but apparently context isn’t that important to the author.

It was definitely an intriguing concept and this book had potential, but it really suffered from a lack of development. There were way too many characters and way too few pages for me to care about any of them. It tried to evoke emotion, but without context and proper development, it felt forced and lacked meaning.

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!

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.