Review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

34912895The Great Alone follows a family of three—Leni, and her parents Cora and Ernt—as they move from Seattle to the wilds of Alaska. They are grossly underprepared, yet the small community of Kaneq welcomes them and offers a helping hand. However, Leni’s father, Ernt, is a Vietnam War veteran, and lives with debilitating PTSD that has led him to drinking, and abusive behavior against Leni, and especially his wife, Cora. As the darkness of the Alaskan winter sets in, Leni and Cora face an even darker situation inside their own home.

The plot follows Leni’s story from thirteen, when she moves to Alaska with her parents, through young adulthood. I’m glad that Hannah didn’t decide to just focus on their first year in Alaska, and instead follows a longer storyline, that allows more to happen and more characters to be introduced. While the plot kept me reading, and was quite engaging, the events that happened in the story were rather predictable.

That predictability floats over to the characters, who I enjoyed on a surface level, but fell flat in a deeper exploration of their minds. Even when we got glimpses of Leni’s own thoughts, they seemed…flat, silly, unrealistic? I can’t quite find the right word, but at times she would act and think in such a mature way, but then revert back to a childish persona. I found this flip-flop between two mindsets off-putting as I continued to read.

I also wish that the secondary characters were developed more. They were all simple props that helped further along Leni’s story, and didn’t have much more to them besides a simple backstory that was mentioned once or twice. They play such a large role in Leni’s life, yet they were not very realistic. Granted, I don’t know much about rural Alaskan communities, but I would figure that more people would be from Alaska and not have these crazy backstories where they are all intelligent professors looking for a life closer to nature, or ex-prosecutors, or rich people who know the governor. Every secondary character seemed to have this special backstory, but were not developed much further, with personalities that seemed plucked off a store shelf—not unique, and not true-to-life.

As with The Nightingale  I feel like this was an engaging read that really pulled at my emotions, yet wasn’t as masterfully created as other novels I have read. I think this is a great story of family, survival and nature, and Hannah really brought me into the Alaskan environment. However, if you are looking for an intricate, masterful piece of writing, I’m not sure this is it. But if you are looking for something to excite you, bring you back to nature, with a nicely tied up ending, then this book is for you.

I think that The Great Alone is a great, easy read, and has sparked an interest in me to read more about Alaskan frontier. If anyone has any recommendations, let me know in the comments! 🙂

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advanced digital copy, which I read very late…

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Review: The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

9194014TLDR — I was already so far into this book that when I got sick of it, I just kept going, and now, here I am. Parts of it were good, parts were meh. Lee’s writing was good, and I enjoyed the themes of history and identity woven throughout this book, so I’m curious to read some of his other books, like On Such a Full Sea. The plot and characters just put me off…

Looking back, I’m not sure I found this book 100% enjoyable or exciting to read. The story wandered slowly back and forth, from past to present, and the present that kept the story moving forward wasn’t really worthwhile, in my opinion.

The Surrendered tells the story of two people and a war that left them both scarred, with memories that continued to haunt their minds long after they parted ways. June was a young girl during the Korean War, and on her journey for survival, she met Hector, an American soldier hoping for nothing. They followed each other to an orphanage, and then on to America, where they both parted ways. But when June is dying of cancer, she decides to go on a journey to reunite with both her son, who has been lost to her in Europe, and Hector, who she hasn’t spoken to since her youth. The story goes between their shared past and present, telling how their lives weaved together, and exploring the deep bond they share.

I found the flashbacks the most interesting part of this book. Both Hector and June had interesting and harrowing pasts, and struggled with their own inner demons and desires. However, the excuse of this dying journey of June’s as the reason for June and Hector to be reunited in the present seemed kind of silly. I can understand why June wanted to find her son, and why she wanted to bring Hector along, but I don’t really think they needed to re-meet in the present. I didn’t see any change or advancement in their relationship that merited a section on the present.

It might have been interesting to flesh out the flashbacks more into a full story, and follow their journeys into the present a little more, and thus explore the ‘current’ time period that way. There were many sections of June and Hector’s past that were hinted at, yet never explained, and I found myself more curious about that, than about whatever was happening in their adult lives. The sections in the present just showed me two adults who were stuck in an unhappy life, and didn’t seem to want to put any energy into the change they knew they should make (at least in Hector’s case). The passion for survival they both had in their youth really died, and made them uninteresting, repetitive characters to read about in their adult life.

There is definitely deeper meaning and life lessons to be gleaned from this book, but I didn’t quite catch those while I was reading, and in hindsight, parts of the book just bother me too much for me to bother with deeper analysis. It’s a rather depressing read, and while there doesn’t always need to be a happy ending, I’d like to hope there would be something in a book to make you want to keep reading, something enjoyable about the experience. I think I finished this book out of obligation, and I hope I can wean myself from that habit in the future. Time to read books that I enjoy all the way through.

3.5/5

Review: Shadow Child by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto

36204876Shadow Child begins with a pair of estranged twins, one in Hawaii and one in New York City. Kei, who lives in Hawaii, travels across the country to visit her sister, Hana, for an unknown reason, which fills Hana with dread. Yet when Hana gets home, ready to confront Kei, she finds her sister has been attacked, and left unconscious in the bathtub. As Hana cares for her comatose sister, she begins to dredge up their past in an attempt to figure out what brought Kei back into her life. The book switches between Hana and Kei, both in the present and past, which can be slightly confusing on its own. However, interspersed with Hana and Kei’s stories, is that of their mother, who is referred to by a variety of names, making reading even more confusing.

I felt that there were two different stories going on in this book. The story of Hana and Kei’s mother, who I will call Lillie, felt alienated from their story and of a different genre (more classical historical fiction, while this book seems more contemporary literary fiction). While Lillie’s history and journey were the most compelling part of the book for me, I felt that it didn’t fit into the focus of the book, which I saw as Hana and Kei’s own reckoning with their past. I think Lillie’s story could have been fleshed out more and made into its own novel, and be taken out of this one.

Hana and Kei’s narration bored me at first, but as the story went on, and they grew older (and thus the writing more understandable) I found myself more interested in what was happening. The balance between present and past narration, mostly in Hana’s chapters, was lacking. It was as if the present sections were colored grey, but the sections about her past were filled with color, and drew my interest more. I think this has to due with Hana’s characterization, and how she kind of wilted after she left Hawaii, which I think is kind of a cop-out and possibly even out of character for the younger Hana. I am on the fence about Hana, and whether I think she aged realistically… Something for me to think about more, I suppose.

While Lillie’s story, and family history in general, play into Hana and Kei’s stories and how they deal with what happened to them, I think this book is more about their relationship as sisters. I wish the story had been trimmed more to focus more intensely on that relationship, and maybe even given them some time as adults to discuss their past together (which does not happen in the book at all!! I really wanted this…). I enjoyed pieces of this novel, but together, it was a bit disjointed. While I think the cover captures that duality nicely, the book doesn’t quite pull itself together.

Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for an ARC of this book!

Review: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

36679056While this book doesn’t come out until July 31st, I loved it so much I couldn’t resist reviewing it here, for you all! Hopefully it will be something to look forward too this summer.

The Incendiaries tells the stories of Will and Phoebe, their ill-fated romance, and the religious cult that begins to consume their relationship. Will and Phoebe are both college students at a prestigious university in a small New England town, and are soon drawn together during their freshman year. However, both are hiding important things about their past that will come out in ways they could not have imagined. After a religious cult appears in town, with a leader who claims a personal connection to Phoebe, both get sucked in and must confront their own ideas of religion, loss and love. What follows is a multi-faceted account of the downfall of Will and Phoebe’s relationship and Will’s attempts to save both Phoebe and himself.

I admit, I was drawn to this novel because of the mention of a cult, but The Incendiaries turned out to be so much more. The characterization and writing created by Kwon amazed me and kept me hooked. Will and Phoebe are both deep, individual and unique, yet completely relatable. All of their actions seemed true, like something I would experience myself or have known one of my friends to do. It was almost as if I was reading a true account of something that happened in the past (though the ending makes me glad it was all fictitious). Kwon created such a believable cast of characters, inhabiting a very real world, that I couldn’t help but be sucked in to the story.

I really enjoyed the personal histories Kwon created for Will and Phoebe. Their stories and personal views gave me a lot to think about as I read this book, and went through their own mental turmoil along with them. This book focuses heavily on religion and loss, and how the two shape each other. While I am not religious, I was still able to connect to these conflicts, as both Phoebe and Will go through periods of faith and disbelief. I thought a lot about how Will and Phoebe’s unique interactions with faith, and compared them to my own. Within The Incendiaries I found space to contemplate my own history, even while I kept up with a increasingly fast-paced plot.

Through Phoebe, who is a Korean-American, Kwon brings up themes of family, and culture, which I found very compelling. In Phoebe’s transformation, I saw many of my Korean-American friends who have been lucky enough to learn about Korean culture throughout their lives, and are proud of it today. Kwon’s writing showed me a more varied and unique Korean-American experience, and I’m so glad to have learned from it.

I found Kwon’s writing style an almost perfect balance of spare, graceful and expressive. Kwon knew where to embellish and where to take a step back, letting the reader take over some of the imagination. There are some truly beautiful lines in this book, too many for me to quote (and there is no finished book for me to quote from at the moment, alas), so I will just encourage you all to go out and read a few for yourself!

Thank you to Riverhead Books and Edelweiss for an electronic ARC!

April 2018 Wrap-Up

Hi all!

Even with all my schoolwork, I was able to complete 4 books and DNF 1 book during April. While two books were read for class, they were still quite interesting and I’m glad I had the chance to read them.

46815First, I finished Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher. I read this for a course called Gender, Culture and Madness, and we discussed eating disorders and how they are mediated by culture. I found this memoir really illuminating and beautifully written. We had previously read Brooke Shield’s memoir about post-partum depression, and that was so poorly written that I had really bleak expectations for any other book we would read in class. However, Hornbacher is a great writer, and offers a really intelligent yet personal look back at her struggle with eating disorders and how she began to recover from them. I have never had an eating disorder, but this book allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of what it is like to experience such an illness. I think this book could be triggering for those who have struggled with eating disorders in the past. It is quite shocking and horrifying to read at times, but I think it is important to grapple with such things, and we shouldn’t look away. However, it is a great introduction for those who are more unfamiliar and want to learn more.

Later in April, I read The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy by Stephen Michaud. I also thought this would be quite horrible, especially considering the cover, but as we all know, one cannot judge a book by its cover. The writing was quite good and offered an easy-to-follow introduction to Bundy’s crimes, and the handling of the ensuing legal proceedings. At times, it can be a little confusing due to the large amount of names brought in, but that is a little more expected in non-fiction. This book did keep me up at night while I was reading it, and is quite detailed in the descriptions of Bundy’s crimes, so beware. But if you are interested in true crime novels, I would definitely recommend this! I think Michaud does a good job at breaking down Bundy and analyzing his crimes, while not getting too caught up in the celebrity of the case.

The two ‘for fun’ books I read in April were Borne by Jeff VanderMeer and You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld. I read Borne first, soon after I finished Annihilation by VanderMeer. It took me a little while to get into Borne, but once I did, I couldn’t let go. Borne takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, where a woman named Rachel finds an amorphous blob, which she takes home and names Borne. As Borne grows, other tensions begin to push into the safe bubble that Rachel had created for herself and her partner, Wick. Soon enough, everything builds to a crescendo, with quite a satisfying ending. I think VanderMeer did a great job balancing emotion and plot throughout the  narrative. The novel focuses a lot on world-building and character development in the beginning, which I found necessary to really connect with Rachel and Borne. This is a beautiful musing on family, love and sacrifice in a unique, exciting setting. Annihilation might prove to be a better entry into VanderMeer’s writing, since it is more based in reality and a little less surprising and odd (barely) than Borne, in my opinion. If you have read any VanderMeer, let me know what you think would be a better introduction to his writing.

35961720I also really enjoyed You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld. I was first introduced to her writing through Eligible, which I loved, so I was really excited to read her new collection. This is a short story collection that covers themes of love, marriage and friendship, and the surprises one can find in life. I love how Sittenfeld makes the ordinary extremely interesting and engaging, bringing new insights and observations to everyday situations. This is a great collection with varied stories that will keep you engaged–I didn’t find any to lag or bore me. A great new release!

That’s it for now! I hope to read lots more over the summer, so keep an eye out for new posts. 🙂 Happy reading!

 

March Wrap-Up!

This month I have completed 4 books, and am in-progress on two, though I don’t know if I’ll finish them before the month is out. As for my goal to read 50 books this year, I’m 4 books ahead which is great! I’m surprised I’ve kept up the pace, even though I’ve been quite busy. Spring break definitely helped–I finished three books during that week.

30753852I first completed The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson, which was a pick for my book club. I had been wanting to read this for awhile, and the ebook was on sale earlier in the month, so I was really excited to read this. The Blood of Emmett Till tells of the lynching of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, in Mississippi by multiple white men. These men claimed that Till had insulted and sexually assaulted their family member, a young women who was working at the family grocery. While this account was blatantly false, it, and racial prejudices in the South, helped the white men escape jail time, and instead be acquitted by the jury.

This is by no means a fast read. Tyson goes over Till’s killing many times, in gripping detail, as well as similar acts of violence, protest and activism in the South during the 1950s and 60s. Tyson does an expert job at tying the events of 1955 to the growth of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He brings in many different moments of activism, in specific detail, and weaves them together in a complex history of civil rights and racism in America. In the end, Tyson weaves in his own opinion, and writes in a fiery, passionate tone of our past and current racial prejudices, and what we must do to incite change in American society. I think this is a great read for anyone interested in topics of race, equality and civil rights in America. While Tyson brings up many topics and names, I didn’t feel too lost, or that I was lacking some previous knowledge to understand and learn from this book.

I then read Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression by Brooke Shields, which I read only for class. I didn’t end up liking it much at all, mainly due to Shields’ poor writing. This tells of her quest for a baby and the aftermath of the birth of her first child, when she struggled with postpartum depression. This is quite a serious issue, and I think there could have been a more in-depth analysis of depression and how it affected her, and others. However, Shields’s writing remains surface-level and many of her observations are rather privileged and, at times, insensitive. While I don’t want to trivialize what Shields struggled with, I don’t think this was a very well-written book. I think the only people who would truly enjoy this are fans of Shields. However, I would be interested in reading other, more engaging, memoirs on this topic.

Then it was Spring Break, and I finished two books on the train to and from Chicago! I first read Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, which I have been meaning to read forever. Annihilation tells of an unknown boundary which is slowly expanding and taking up more land. The land inside this border is called Area X, and mysterious, crazy things seem to be happening inside. A biologist, our nameless narrator, join a team of other women specialists to journey inside and study what is occurring. While the journey begins with only hints at the otherworldly, it soon turns quite crazy. I won’t spoil anything, but I must admit I had to read this in daylight on the train. It is a little too creepy for nighttime reading (for me, at least).  I really love VanderMeer’s writing style, and I am currently reading Borne, which I’m enjoying a lot. His stories are very unique and clever, and his writing is very insightful. It is a delightful combination for science-fiction, which can sometimes be less ‘literary.’

36098092I finished March with Lauren Groff’s new short story collection, Florida. Thank you to Riverhead and Edelweiss for providing me with a digital review copy. This collection comes out in June, and I am so excited for everyone to get their hands on it! This is a beautiful, varied collection of stories which all center around Florida and it’s unique and dangerous environment. Each story seems to have an undercurrent of dread or fear, and I enjoyed the different ways in which Groff understood and incorporated these emotions. Each story is a new experience, and even the two stories I didn’t take to as much were really engaging. I highly recommend this collection, and the cover is gorgeous! 

Happy reading to everyone in April, and let me know what you loved reading in March! 🙂

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

35480518I was originally drawn to this book because it is about (at least partly) a college student, which I don’t often read about, and as I am a college student, I thought it would be interesting.

Greer is a college freshman at Ryland, a fictitious college in… Pennsylvania, if I remember correctly. She is very smart, and got into Yale, but her parent’s ineptitude at financial aid forms made the steep tuition insurmountable, so she wound up at Ryland. In the beginning of her freshman year, as she sullenly lives college life, she goes to a lecture by Faith Frank, a famous feminist from the 70s. After the lecture, she has a conversation with Faith in the bathroom, which changes her life and leads her to become a passionate feminist herself. The Female Persuasion follows Greer as she grows up and learns what life is really like outside of school. We also get sections from the perspective of Greer’s longtime high school boyfriend, Cory, her college best friend Zee, and Faith herself.

I found this story to grow more compelling as I read on, and learned more about Greer, who is such a realistic and layered character. I think Wolitzer really excels in creating a believable and thoughtful environment through her characters, situations and locations. As a college student myself, I found the first section of the book, when Greer is still in school, very relatable, and I enjoyed reading about her, and her friend Zee’s, path from college to job.

The way feminism is discussed in this novel is quite interesting. It mainly focuses on second-wave feminism, which Faith Frank was a part of. Faith carries these perspectives with her, while slowly adapting to our current versions of feminism. And besides the actual discussion of and work surrounding feminism done by characters in this book, the relationships between women are quite interesting examinations of how feminism plays out in one’s actions. The way that Greer and Zee idolize Faith and eventually grow out of that, and the way Greer and Zee interact on their own offer thoughtful observations on the difference between thoughts and actions. I found it all quite interesting and thought-provoking.

This book is a realistic and compelling glimpse at what life can hold for some, and how different people develop and change their moral code throughout their life. I think there is a lot to learn from this book, for all readers, regardless of age.

The Female Persuasion comes out from Riverhead on April 3, 2018–be sure to check it out! Thank you to Riverhead and Edelweiss for providing me with a digital advanced copy of this book.