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: 2016 Favorites

pile-of-booksMy reading goal every year is 100 books. I’m not sure I have ever hit my goal, but I have come close. For example, in 2015, I read a total of 93 books. I’m afraid in 2016, I was a bit of a slacker, having only read 88 books – a couple of which were, quite honestly, novellas. In my world, they counted! Especially since I’m not graded on quantity. And I’m thankful I’m not rated on quality, because I don’t use the New York Times Book Review for my book choosing. Actually, I’m not graded on anything being retired and all….

Anyway, I post a book review each week, so if you are a faithful Friday Book Whimsy reader, you will be familiar with all of the books I am going to feature as my favorite five books of the year. The books may or may not have been published in 2016; they have just been read by me in the past year.  Frankly, most are books published in earlier years.

My five favorite reads in 2016, in no particular order….

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrick Backman
Britt-Marie is a 60-something woman who leaves her controlling husband after she learns he is having an affair. She is compulsive and entirely set in her ways. She has been since she was a little girl and her much-adored sister is killed in a car accident. It should have been you, is the message that Britt-Marie got regularly from her mom, whether or not it was spoken out loud. So Britt-Marie begins the process of starting a new life. The only job she is able to find is the manager of a recreation center in a very small town. She has spent most of her life taking care of others and has no idea who Britt-Marie is and why anyone would care. But she learns that people do care, and begins to put together a new life where people accept her for who she is.

What I liked best about the book: Britt-Marie. I loved the main character so, so much. The book was entirely feel-good, and who didn’t need that this past year?

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
The novel examines the invention of the light bulb, and the eventual replacement of gas lighting with electric lights in this entirely readable, eminently fascinating account of the legal battle waged between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. There is no one less interested in science than I, and yet I found the book to be fascinating. Moore uses real characters such as Edison, Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Paul Kravath to give readers a snapshot of life in NYC in the late 1800s and how progress is REALLY made. It unexpectedly provided me with one of my favorite reads of the year.

What I liked best about the book: I love to learn about history and science via novels, as I find that so much easier to read. Moore was able to pique my interest in the notion of inventing and patents. It takes good writing to successfully accomplish that task.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
This novel is everything I would hate in a book. The entire story is told via emails, text messages, flashbacks, school documents, and so forth. There is no driving narrative and virtually no dialogue. It is really all about the characters, but Semple does it so well that this book was a total pleasure to read. I had it in my library for a long time before I finally picked it up and read it, almost straight through. Bernadette is the star of the show, despite her quirky, agoraphobic nature. She is likable and believable. I would like to have her as my best friend. I don’t regularly reread books, but I will read this book again and again.

What I liked best about the book: The author’s characters are the best thing about the novel. Despite the fact that there is no driving narrative, she was able to paint clear and distinct pictures of each character through her unusual writing style.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
There is a plethora of novels available about World War II, and lots of good ones. I found The Nightingale to be one of the best I’ve read (and I’ve read more than my share) simply because it offered a different perspective on the awful war. Two sisters from a small village in France experience the war from entirely different perspectives – one as the woman and wife left behind to care as best she can for everyone around her, and one who becomes part of the French resistance. The look at the war from the women’s perspective, as well as Hannah’s beautiful writing, made this one of my favorite reads of 2016.

What I liked best about the book: There are many books – novels and nonfiction alike – about the horrific treatment of the Jews, and about the miserable conditions of the fighting men and women, but I liked reading about what it was like to try and keep your world in order under wartime conditions as the woman back home.

Tiny Little Thing, by Beatriz Williams
Christina “Tiny” Schuyler was the so-called good sister of the three Schuyler girls. She did everything the right way. She was good in school, she married well, and she was the perfect political wife to her ambitious husband. But what is missing is love. It made for a wonderful book with a thoroughly satisfying ending. Tiny Little Thing was the first book I had ever read by author Beatriz Williams, and I have read several since. They almost always have some connection to the Schuyler family, and they are very good. But Tiny Little Thing is my favorite.

What I liked best about the book:  Blackmail, adultery, Vietnam, dirty politics – all wrapped in a 1960s package. It took me a bit to get into the novel, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.


Friday Book Whimsy: The Nightingale

imgresWhen a reader picks up a book about World War II, you pretty much know that it’s going to be difficult reading. Sometimes I wonder why we read such stories when they are so hard to comprehend and so utterly impossible to imagine. I guess the answer is that we read them so that we never forget what must be considered one of the most horrific periods in history.

So I knew when I picked up The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah that it wouldn’t be a light and breezy read. But it offered (and delivered) a look at the war from a new perspective – not the Jews who were persecuted and killed in or barely survived concentration camps but the rest of the European population who suffered immensely as a result of the Nazi regime.

What’s more, The Nightingale also offered a look at the war from the women’s perspective. Not nurses or others who participated directly in the war effort but those who were left behind to try and keep the world turning and their families safe.

Vianne and Isabelle are sisters who live in the Loire region of France. They haven’t had an easy time of it because their mother died shortly after their father returned from serving in WWI. The war changed him forever and he turned his back on his daughters.

The two took different paths in life – Vianne falling in love, marrying and having a daughter; Isabelle not able to find peace at one boarding school after another. When the Nazis invade France, both women experience the war in very different – but equally important – ways.

Hannah’s descriptions of the lives of the two women is vivid and graphic – and horrifying. The book took me by storm. I couldn’t put it down, but I found it hard to bear as I read.

The book is told from three perspectives – Isabelle’s (who becomes a resistance fighter), and Vivianne (who nearly loses everything trying to keep her family (and others) alive. The third perspective is contemporary and the reader isn’t sure whether it’s Vianne or Isabelle who is narrating that perspective.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It is a story I will long remember.

Here is a link to the book.