Friday Book Whimsy: The Great Alone

If an author has done his or her job right, there’s something in their novel that drives the story. Something that makes people continue to turn the page. Something that the reader thinks about long after they’ve closed the book.

In The Great Alone, the latest offering from Kristin Hannah (who has written such bestsellers as The Nightingale and Firefly Lane) the “something” is Alaska. Even when Hannah’s latest storyline was so depressing that I wasn’t always sure if I wanted to continue, the Alaskan wilderness kept calling me back.

It’s 1974, and Ernt Allbright returns home from Vietnam after living in a POW camp for a few years. His wife Cora, the daughter of wealthy parents who married Ernt against their will, recognizes immediately that he is a changed man. The man with whom she fell in love and for whom she defied her parents is now sullen,unstable, and dangerously volatile. Their 13-year-old daughter Leni, can’t remember the father who wasn’t so unpredictable.

Feeling the need for a change, Ernt moves his family to a remote area of Alaska, where he hopes to homestead and live off the land. Cora agrees, optimistic that a change is necessary to save the family. It works for a while, but eventually Ernt’s mental instability takes over and things take a nosedive.

The Great Alone is a story of neediness, friendship, and dysfunctional love. It is taut with tension and anger. The incredibly difficult living conditions in this small Alaskan town create a dependence on each other that can benefit or wreck someone as emotionally fragile as Ernt Allbright.

I’ve never been to Alaska. I don’t know if a small town in remote Alaska today would look like it did in this book. While the story is unendingly depressing –ironically, nearly laughingly so – I found myself continuing to turn the pages because I was intrigued by the notion of living in such a wilderness. People relied on one another because, particularly during the winter, there were no others on whom to rely. It’s an intriguing background story for a novel.

I find Hannah’s novels to be somewhat predictable and her characters fairly one dimensional; nevertheless, I will give The Great Alone a weak huzzah for its important topic and setting. If you like Hannah’s other novels, you are likely to enjoy this one as well.

Here is a link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: House at the Edge of Night

My husband and I were lucky enough to spend three months in Europe a few years back. Nearly two of those three months were in Italy. While I don’t have a drop of Italian blood in me, I’m convinced I lived in Italy in a former life! From the time I first stepped foot into the country, I fell in love with the people, the climate, the food, the art, and the culture.

Reading The House at the Edge of Night, by Catherine Banner, was a bit like sitting at a table all day on a piazza in an Italian hill town watching the villagers live their lives. The author managed to successfully capture the flavor of the people of this wonderful country nearly perfectly.

The House at the Edge of Night is a multigenerational saga of a family who lives on the fictional island of Castellamare in southern Italy near Sicily. Amedeo Esposito is an orphan who is taken under the wing of a doctor in Florence. He takes his last name and follows his lead in the medical field. He winds up on Castellamare, where the native people eye him suspiciously – as Italians are wont to do. Eventually he marries his beautiful wife named Pina who is strong-willed and smart as can be. Though it takes a bit, the locals eventually accept him as one of their own.

Unfortunately, Amedeo makes a big mistake that results in two babies being born on the same night – one to his wife and one to the wife of the nasty Count who lives on the island. The Countess claims Amedeo is the baby’s father, and unfortunately, it could be true.

The story goes on from here, as Pino agrees to continue to live with him and raise their family. This leads to that, and Amedeo finally gives up his medical practice to open a café in his home, which is referred to as the house at the edge of night. This café takes on a life of its own, and as the years go by, the café itself is as much a character as the people who walk and talk.

Readers watch the wonderful characters that inhabit the island as they live through world wars, attempts to steal relics, an economic downturn that nearly cripples the population, love affairs, births and deaths. At the end of the day, however, it always comes back to the house at the edge of night.

I loved the story. I found its casual pace to be much like the casual pace of life in Italy. As the author described the food, and particularly the homemade limoncello and limettacello and arangcello that they drank morning, noon, and night, I could taste it. I could feel the hot sun on me as she described the town. I think she really captured the flavor of Italy.

It made me want to make sure my passport was updated!

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Our Year at War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided

I graduated from high school in May 1972. By that time, the Vietnam conflict was winding down. In fact, the draft ended in January 1973. The timing was such that I wasn’t directly impacted by the war. I remember seeing images every night on television – both images of the war and images of the protests. But I was not personally acquainted with anyone who was drafted into the military or went to Vietnam as a soldier.

The impact of the Vietnam War was much different for my sister who is five years older than I. She knew people who were drafted. She knew people who went to Vietnam. My only experience was hearing my friends talk about the draft lottery number of their brothers or cousins or acquaintances. Nevertheless, I remember it was a scary time.

Our Year at War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided, by Daniel Bolger, is the true story of two brothers from a small town in Nebraska who fought the war side-by-side, surviving, but leaving Vietnam with two different opinions. I’m not normally a reader of nonfiction, and a book about war would certainly not be of any interest to me. However, the two brothers featured in Bolger’s book – Chuck and Tom Hagel — happened to be from the town where I spent the first 18 years of my life. In fact, both of the boys attended the same small Catholic high school as I, though several years before me. Tom Hagel went to school with my sister.

This six degrees of separation caused me to read the fascinating – if horrifying – account of one of the most difficult times in U.S. history. Not only are the stories about the two young men from my home town interesting, but the details about the war itself are riveting. Since the war was still going on, I didn’t study it in school. Film depictions of the war are mostly one-sided and extremely troubling. Bolger provides mostly nonopinionated background as well as very detailed accounts of what brought about the war – which actually started much earlier than I had ever imagined — as well as the battles themselves.

The two brothers received extensive military recognition, including purple hearts and the bronze star. They literally served side-by-side, despite the laws which are supposed to prohibit brothers fighting in the same units. They were both injured, and narrowly escaped death on several occasions. They were courageous and dedicated. They, like all of the military men and women who fought in Vietnam, came home to a divided nation. And they were, themselves, divided.

One of the brothers went on to become a judge; the other went on to become a United States Senator from Nebraska and eventually the Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration.

I will admit to a fair amount of skimming when it came to some of the details of the war planning. Still, I enjoyed the book very much and strongly recommend it, particularly for anyone interested in this period in US history.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Ashford Affair

I’m honestly beginning to think that the more prolific female fiction writers are starting to use plot templates that they got from a secret club to which they all belong, and they simply change the names, locales, and the precise situations to fit the template. What else could account for the oh-so-predictable story line of a busy contemporary professional woman running smack dab into the glass ceiling despite working harder than any man, and then finding out about a family secret that changes their life, while meeting the love of her life in the meantime? What follows is the inevitable back and forth between a character from the late 19th or early 20th century to a more contemporary heroine. It is starting to get so tiresome, and authors are starting to seem so lazy.

I’m afraid that my boredom with this plot technique colored my opinion of The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig. Willig is actually a good writer, so it is a disappointment to see her fall into this same trap. The Ashford Affair’s only saving grace – at least as far as this reader is concerned – is that some of the story takes place in Kenya which made the plot more interesting. The earlier time period is the early 1920s, and I happen to find this period in world history quite interesting.

Clementine Evans has worked her tail off pursuing her dream of making partner in the law firm in which she works in 1999. Unfortunately, her elderly grandmother Addie – who loved Clemmie very much and helped her deal with a disapproving mother – takes a turn for the worse, and is dying. Before she dies, Clemmie becomes aware of a secret that could change everything she knew about her family.

Flashback: Addie’s mother and father are killed when she is 5, and Addie is sent to live with a cold and uncaring aunt and uncle in England. Addie’s only friend is her cousin Bea, who, though only 7, is beautiful and already being groomed to marry well. The two become dear friends until they are grown up and Bea betrays Addie by stealing her boyfriend and marrying him.

Flash forward: When Clemmie’s grandmother dies, she goes to the funeral instead of a meeting she was expected to attend, and is turned down for partnership. Shock. So she and a distant cousin with whom she once had a fling decide to try and solve the mystery of their family’s background.

What follows is a predictable, if well-written, story that was a good enough read to keep me marginally engaged but predictable enough to make me work to try and keep from getting confused with other novels I’ve read.

I can’t unequivocally recommend the book unless you are in the mood for something that won’t require a lot of thinking.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Woman in the Window

I love Alfred Hitchcock movies, and Rear Window, starring the adorable James Stewart and a stunning Grace Kelly, is one of my favorites. Being one who will “write” a story about someone after just a quick observance, I always loved that he put together – and solved – an entire murder mystery just via what was really just voyeurism. I can overlook the tad bit of creepiness involved.

Because of my love of that movie, the plot of the novel which was purported to be the next Girl on a Train or Gone Girl grabbed my attention. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn seemed to be right up my alley. From the first pages, the plot grabbed ahold of me and it never let go.

Anna Fox spends her days in her New York City apartment where she has become a victim of her own agoraphobia. When she isn’t watching old movies and drinking way too much wine, she is peering out her windows watching her neighbors. Just like James Stewart in Rear Window, Anna believes she witnesses a murder.

The police don’t believe her; in fact, they think she’s pretty crazy, because it seems the woman she claims she saw murdered never actually existed. The man she believes killed his wife disavows that woman’s existence, and introduces her to his actual wife. Their son seems scared, but supports his dad’s claims. What the hell?

Anna pursues the matter, though fully unable to venture even a few feet out her door. The more she digs, the more the reader learns about Anna herself. The twists and turns in this absolutely gripping thriller are unpredictable and made me shout out loud in dismay. How could I have missed this? The ending, while wholly unpredictable, wasn’t the biggest surprise this reader faced in this clever book.

The Woman in the Window is the author’s debut novel, and it is a mighty good first effort. If you like thrillers or are a fan of Rear Window, grab this book and settle in as soon as possible.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Third Wife

Adrian Wolfe has been married three times. Twice divorced with children from each marriage, he has maintained friendships with all of his wives, and they with each other. The third try, however, doesn’t end on quite as positive a note. His third wife is hit by a bus one night after spending the evening drinking. Did she commit suicide? Was she pushed? And why was she out drinking anyway?

The author of The Third Wife is one of my favorite writers – Lisa Jewell. Her puzzlers are always truly puzzling and her characters are all realistic and flawed, but mostly likeable. This book was no exception. It was interesting to look at Adrian and his big, supposedly happy extended family and imagine that anyone could be so clueless as to think that all of this was as it appeared. It isn’t hard for the reader to put his or herself in Maya’s Third-Wife shoes and realize that it wasn’t all fun and games to be part of this whole scenario.

The author kept me wondering throughout the book. Who was sending Maya such mean emails? Do they all like each other as much as it seems? Did Maya jump or get pushed? I kept thinking that the answer was obvious, and yet again and again it became apparent that things weren’t always what they seemed.

I loved the ending of the book. It felt realistic to me and boded well for the future of the entire Wolfe clan.

Thumbs up on this book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Women in the Castle

I have read countless novels about World War II. I have read about the war from the Jewish perspective. I have read about the war from the French perspective and the British and the American perspectives. Books I have read have dealt with the war from the eyes of women, and soldiers, and children. But I, at least, have never read a novel that shows World War II from the eyes of regular Germans.

How could they have let this happen, we all wonder. I would never have stood for it, we all insist.

The Women in the Castle, a novel by Jessica Shattuck, presents World War II from the eyes of folks on the front line – the German citizens.  It is the story of three women – widows of resistence fighters who attempted – and  failed – to assassinate Hitler in 1944. One of the widows, Marianne von Lingenfels, returns to the castle that was the home of her husband’s family for generations with the other two widows and their children, fulfilling a promise she made to take care of these people should their plan fail. It, of course, failed, and the men were all put to death.

The women paid their price as well. One fell into the unfortunate hands of the Soviet army. Another had been placed in a camp with other German refugees, awaiting release by the Allies.  Now they are trying to put their lives back together.

Each of the women has her own story, and it isn’t always what the reader expects. But Shattuck paints a very clear picture of Europe – particularly Germany – following World War I, and presents background that makes the reader understand that things are not just black and white, as we all had hoped. She does this without even coming close to being a Nazi apologist.

I couldn’t put this novel down. The writing is exceptional and the story was fascinating. The characters were well developed and interesting, if not always likeable. The book would be perfect for a reading group or book club.

I highly recommend this book.

Here is a link to the book.