The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

“‘Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.'”

Tragic, bleak, beautiful, painful, powerful, hopeful – all are words that could describe The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. My body would tense has suspense built. My heart would break for their characters and their struggles. Old personal emotions gripped me as Kristin Hannah’s prose brought them to the forefront of my memory.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that this was my first Kristin Hannah book. I’ve heard such wonderful things, and now I’m annoyed with myself for holding off until now.

Lenora (Leni) Allbright and her parents, Cora and Ernt, move to Alaska in 1974 in search of a fresh start. Ernt drives the decision to move. As a Vietnam veteran and POW, he has returned with nightmares and a host of problems that make him unable to hold a job.

The Allbrights arrive in Kaneq, a small town in the Alaskan bush, woefully unprepared for what they’ve gotten themselves into. Winter is coming, and the locals warn of the host of dangers they will face. However, the longer they stay in Alaska, Leni finds that she and her mother have more reason to fear the dangers inside their own home than those of the Alaskan wilderness.

The Great Alone is a family saga, a tragedy, a love story and a coming-of-age tale all in one, and it is exquisite. The descriptions of Alaska alone were beautiful. The landscape is as much as character in the book as any of the people. I honestly want to visit Alaska now – there’s something so intriguing about places that are so pure and alluring but also harsh and uninviting.

I’m sure this will be one of my favorite books of 2018, and it is worth all of the hype that has surrounded it since its release. Kristin Hannah has penned a magnificent story I see myself revisiting time and again.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

I must not fear anything, she reminded herself. Or I will fail.

I’m calling it right now: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn is going to be one of my favorite books for 2018. I know we’re barely two months into the year, but I’m confident in my proclamation.

The Alice Network follows Evelyn (Eve) Gardiner and Charlotte (Charlie) St. Clair when their worlds collide in 1947 France. Charlie is fleeing her parents after accidentally getting pregnant, and she’s on a mission to find out what happened to her cousin Rose, who disappeared during World War II. Eve is hiding out, regularly drinking herself into oblivion, trying to forget the memories that haunt from her time as a spy in the first World War. In a saga going back and forth between 1947 and Eve’s spy activities in 1915, these two women pursue answers, hoping that what they find will set them free.

Coming in right at 500 pages, I thought I’d be working through this book for weeks. However, the story is so gripping and perfectly paced that I finished it in six days. The story only got better the farther I got into the book. I can honestly say there was not ever a point where I got bored or the story seemed to lag – it’s that tautly written.

Perhaps one of my favorite elements of this story is the feminist undertones. Eve and Charlie both live in a time where women were treated vastly different. They were expected to be respectable, virtuous housewives and mothers and little else. Both of them eschew those expectations as much as possible – Eve by becoming a spy and Charlie by refusing to have her unintended pregnancy “taken care of.”

There is a point early on in the book where Charlie tries to make a withdrawal from a French bank account in her name. It contains the contents of a trust fund set up by her grandmother, but she also had been working and contributing to it for years. The banker, however, would not agree to her withdrawal without first calling Charlie’s father and obtaining his consent. *cue my inner rage*

Coincidentally, I finished this book the day before I had an appointment to get my taxes done. Now, I don’t particularly enjoy doing my taxes (as I’m sure most people don’t). However, I had a new appreciation for the fact that I have complete and total control over every cent I make. No one gets a say in how I choose to allocate my resources, something women certainly had more trouble doing 60-plus years ago. It’s an empowering thought that can easily get lost and ignored in the stress of paying bills, saving for the future and dealing with unexpected expenses.

The story is littered with other small (or perhaps not-so-small) indignities like the one Charlies experiences at the bank. Eve and her fellow female spies consistently face questions of their endurance and ability to handle the stressors of war, even though they’re doing their jobs well and bringing a wealth of invaluable information to the allied powers.

The strength these women show is makes this book so powerful. Like many in war time, they put their country and freedom above their personal well-being. Moreover, they did it with very little appreciation and had their abilities questioned constantly.

If you love strong women, historical fiction, and espionage, The Alice Network needs to be on your TBR.

Have you read The Alice Network? What did you think of it? Let’s discuss!

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

“Thoughts have wings.”  – The Immortalists

In recent months, I’ve been thinking about the power of thoughts. My boyfriend says I tend to focus on the negative, that I latch on to a negative train of thought and run with it, letting it impact my day, my week, my month. To a certain extent, I’d say he’s right, and I’m working on it. However, it can be so. damn. hard.

Have you ever had a nagging thought, big or small, that just eats away at you? It consumes every inch of you, gnawing at your brain matter, distorting your reality and steadily pushing you to either a breakdown or an epiphany?

The Gold siblings know what I’m talking about. When they’re kids, the four of them – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – visit a psychic together, and she tells each of them the exact day they’re going to die. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin then tracks the siblings, showing the impact this knowledge has on their choices and their lives.

“Sitting in the rishika’s apartment, Varya was sure she was a fraud, but when she went home the prophecy worked inside her like a virus. She saw it do the same thing to her siblings…”  – pg. 292

I was excited and impatient to read The Immortalists due to the persistent buzz about it on Bookstagram and in the mainstream media. The story hooked me right from the beginning, but I grew unsure of the book the farther I got into it. It was probably naive of me, but I wasn’t expecting to story to be quite so tragic and sad. However, that’s more my fault than anything else.

The writing is beautiful throughout, and Benjamin does a good job of subtly making her point without beating the reader over the head. People will have their own opinions on the siblings, the idea of knowing your death date and how the prophecy works inside each character. Benjamin gives readers a lot of fodder for continued thought, which I can personally vouch for as the book has stuck with me days after reading the final page.

For me, the thing that impressed me the most about the book is that did something that rarely happens: It changed my mind about something. I have always been of the mind that more knowledge is always better, and if you asked me before reading The Immortalists if I would like to know what day I’m going to die, I would have said yes without hesitation.

However, I now find myself feeling quite the opposite. The Gold siblings show so vividly how a thought can eat away at you, how it can invade your entire life. I know that I personally would not do well with that, and I would find myself consumed by the knowledge.

Possibly more important than the debate of “Would I or would I not want to know?” is the commentary on the very nature of how we live our lives. Do we play it safe in the pursuit of a long life, or do we throw caution to the wind, living life wholly and fiercely knowing that we could meet an abrupt end? Those two options aren’t mutually exclusive, and I believe that a healthy balance between both can lead to a full and happy life.

I have found myself, though, living very safely in the former lately. That could be due to a multitude of reasons, not the least of which would be the untimely passing of my dad in 2015. Benjamin’s novel helped me face some of my unresolved feelings on his passing, as well as death in general. The book gave me a new perspective, a new lens from which to view my own life. And I find that only the best books can do that.

Have you read The Immortlists yet? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

“I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain…interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.”   –Roxane Gay

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like a bad feminist. Much of what Roxane Gay says in her essay collection Bad Feminist describes emotions and thoughts and experiences that I identify and connect with deeply. And just as Gay finds freedom in identifying as a bad feminist, I find peace in knowing I am not the only person who feels like a bad feminist from time to time.

This book felt like personal liberation for me because I got confirmation that someone thinks the way I do. I also found it liberating to read about feminism and race and gender from an author who meticulously lays out her arguments, drawing in examples from various texts, current events and pop culture. Gay’s arguments are strong and delivered with conviction, but she by no means is rabble-rousing. This is a woman who understands that her point of view is one of many, but that doesn’t make it any less important for her to say her piece.

I will not lie and say that there were times where I had to step away from this collection in favor of lighter reading. It can be exhausting to care so deeply and be so passionate about your beliefs; it’s an exhaustion that Gay voices herself. While this is merely a book with words on pages, it deals in a nonfiction that we see playing out in the media and the internet and in our lives every single day.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some lighter moments throughout the text. They’re few, to be sure – you can’t be funny when talking about rape and rape culture, which Gay explores in the essay “Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others.” One of the lighter bits, and one of my favorite parts of the entire collection, is the essay “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically,” in which Gay tells of how she got into playing professional Scrabble. Gay reveals how Scrabble, much like professional sports, involves many rules, ruthless players and mind games. Her descriptions of her experiences at various tournaments tickled me with their seriousness that bordered on ridiculous.

Perhaps the most enlightening parts of Bad Feminist for me were the essays where Gay deals with race. As a white, heterosexual woman, I understand that I enjoy certain privileges over those who are not white and not heterosexual. I will never be able to understand the experiences of those who are different from me in these ways.

And while it is not Gay’s, or any other black person’s, responsibility to educate me or anyone else on their struggles and the way society has systematically oppressed them throughout history, I know it is important that I am exposed to Gay’s stories of her personal experience. While I always endeavor to see things from the perspective of others, I know I am not even close to perfect in that goal. Gay’s essays on race helped me look at things in new ways, and I am deeply grateful for that.

This book is required reading for anyone who identifies as a feminist but has trouble living up to everything that fraught word has come to mean. It also should be required reading for anyone who strives  to bridge the gaps of understanding created by race, religion, gender and socioeconomic status. Reading books like this won’t solve all the problems we face as a society today, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Have you read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen

In The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, the title tells it all.

Hendrik Groen is a resident of a nursing home in Amsterdam where he’s surrounded by his aging peers, who are all more than happy to pass their remaining days discussing their various illnesses and ailments. Groen hates this enthusiasm for complaining. “Another year, and I still don’t like old people. Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching,” his first diary entry reads.

Hendrik, however, rarely airs his complaints out loud, admitting that his specialty is pleasing everyone and keeping his thoughts to himself. This is what sparks his idea of starting a diary: to give him an outlet to say what he really thinks.

The book follows Hendrik for an entire year, with him making entries almost every day. He documents the complaints and misadventures of his fellow residents. He discusses the news and the weather (but not that much; he doesn’t want to be one of those old people who only ever discusses the weather). He tells you about his friends and their trials, as well as his adversarial relationship with the home management.

Hendrik is a very straightforward, matter-of-fact narrator, but he sprinkles in a good dose of humor among of the bleaker aspects of his life in the nursing home. He discusses his issues with incontinence, which he refers to as his “dribbles,” noting at one point, “It seems that I’m in good company: there are about a million other Dutch dribblers. Which means enough urine is collected in our citizens’ underpants and diapers to fill an entire swimming pool every day. Yippee!”

Eventually, Hendrik and seven of his friends get together and create the Old But Not Dead Club. The members have regular meetings and take turns planning surprise outings for the group, which usually involves lots of laughs, wine and food.

It’s a heartwarming progression to watch as Hendrik and his fellow club members form strong friendships that keep them sane and active through the sadder realities of their age: dementia, diseases, funerals. They have all accepted their lot in life and are determined to live out the rest of their days as happily as possible.

By the end of the book, I wasn’t ready to leave Hendrik and his musings. My favorite thing about this book is its acceptance and celebration of normal life. Hendrik by no means leads a crazy or unusual life. But who really does day to day? His diary entries record the pockets of action and humor in a normal day and show appreciation for them.

I’m happy to say that Hendrik has inspired me to start journaling again. I always start them, but I eventually abandon the hobby because I feel my life isn’t interesting enough to document regularly. But again, whose life doesn’t contain dreary days that are wholly unremarkable? I’m endeavoring to follow Hendrik’s example and record the bits of humor, sadness, happiness and humanity that I witness every day without fully appreciating them.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who needs a good laugh, feels a certain kinship with the elderly, wants to understand the elderly better, or needs a reminder of the joy that can be found in the most ordinary of days.

Have you read The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

The Verdict: 5/5

Who Should Read: Anyone looking for a light, fluffy, feel-good read

Synopsis:

Emilia has just lost her father, Julius, leaving her to decide what to do with his bookshop in the small town of Peasebrook. The shop is beloved by the town, and she has her own fond memories growing up there as a child. She determines early on that she wants to keep it open in his memory.

Unfortunately, Emilia learns over time that the shop was not doing well. Her father, with his kind heart and generous spirit, was not running the business well because making money was never his motivation for running the shop. A local businessman is breathing down Emilia’s neck for her to sell the shop so he can use it to build condos.

The bookshop, however, is a point of intersection for many people in the town. The stories and lives of the residents of Peasebrook are woven in throughout the book, all of them connecting back to the bookshop.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry. Most of my recent reads have been in the thriller/mystery realm, meaning I’ve been down the rabbit hole of dark subjects. I was worried that switching gears to something so light was going to be a shock to my system and taint my experience with the book.

Boy, I could not have been more wrong.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop is exactly what I needed. Yes, it was an uplifting read that gave me hope and all the warm-and-fuzzies. But more than that, it was such a wonderful, eloquent reminder of the magic of reading.

I feel like all of us devoted readers have love affairs with bookshops. To me, stepping into a bookshop is like walking into a warm hug. Usually quiet and cozy, they welcome you in and make you feel at home. You don’t feel rushed. You can browse for hours, interacting with fellow readers and the staff, who are always ready to offer a recommendation. Unfortunately, ordering books from Amazon, while convenient and expedient, doesn’t give that same vibe.

One thing that I think is important to note about this book is something specific to me. We all approach books differently, our personal experiences informing how we react to every book we read.

I do believe that one of the reasons that HTFLIAB touched me so much is because I lost my own father two years ago, and I deeply connected with the thoughts and emotions that Emilia has throughout the book. I understand how it’s the small, random moments that can make you miss a person the most. I remember feeling so grateful for and overwhelmed by the outpouring of love for my dad displayed in the days after his death, as she did.

I’m by no means implying that this novel won’t resonate or affect you if you don’t have this specific experience. However, the loss of my father made this book all the more poignant and impactful for me.

Another major thing I loved was all the subplots and smaller storylines that were incorporated into the book. These residents of Peasebook are all quite lovable, but they all are struggling in their own ways. They are connected through the bookshop, though, and their stories tangle together so beautifully, albeit a bit predictably. I’ll say this right now: If you prefer there to be unexpected twists and turns, you’re not going to get that from HTFLIAB.

This book is the old favorite that you pick up when you’re feeling blue or need a dose of love and happiness. For example, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is my pick-me-up movie. I’ll watch it any time of year when I need to be uplifted and reminded of what’s important in life. I see myself doing that with this book, too. It’s going to be one that I turn to for comfort and snuggles (yes, book snuggles are a real thing).

My feelings are best summed up in a quote from one of the characters, Thomasina: “You know, some books you lend or lose or give to a charity shop, but these are books for life.”

Have you read a book that profoundly touched you recently? Please feel free to share in the comments.