BOOK REVIEW | The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

5/5 stars

In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone. 

Wow, what an epic journey! I was not prepared to become so deeply invested in this book; in fact, I resisted it. I’m not sure why I thought it would be hopeful and light, but boy was I wrong.

1974. Ernt Allbright was a POW in the Vietnam war; there are signs of ptsd, but nothing too overwhelming yet. When he receives word he has inherited some land and a cabin in Alaska, he jumps at the opportunity for a fresh start. His wife, Cora, is steadfast in her dedication to Ernt, so they pack their lives into a VW bus, and head to Alaska with their 13 year old daughter Leni. They are unprepared as they head into the desolate landscape, and resistant to help when they arrive. They soon learn that Alaskans take care of one another, as they are welcomed into their new community.

Through hard work, they family settles in and their new life begins. As the cold arrives, Ernt begins to unravel. He becomes angry, rages, and is violent with Cora. As the years pass, Ernt’s condition worsens, creating a danger in the home that is as frightening as the dangers of the Alaskan wild. We watch Leni grow up, fall in love with a boy named Matthew, and stay by her mother’s side no matter the cost. The story takes a turn that had me cheering (literally), but then the journey swerves into unexpected territory.

I was hooked from the first page; the narrative is gripping, fast paced, and visual – it reads like a movie. Part adventure story, party dysfunctional family narrative, and part coming of age, this book has it all. This is a story of survival, perseverance, home, and the extremes, both good and bad, that we will go to for love.

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BOOK REVIEW | I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Ian Reid

5/5 stars

I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things painted with every color in my reader’s palette. I finished this mere minutes ago, reread certain sections backwards as per Ian Reid’s subtle guidance, and am totally blown away. And I’m sad. This is a profoundly sad book. This is the sort of book that causes book hangover – this story will live with me for a while, and all other books will not stack up. The ending didn’t matter to me as the journey was so enthralling. But the ending, wow.

An unnamed female narrator is on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake. They are heading to the small farm where he grew up so she can meet his parents, but she has one thing on her mind: ending things. She has been thinking about ending things with Jake for a while, but decides to go through with the trip, thinking that meeting his parents might change her mind about the relationship.

Along the way they ask each other many philosophical questions, often alluding to the nature of relationships, how you can never truly know someone else, how your thoughts are the only thing that is real, and whether we can get through life without meaningful relationships. What ensues is, hands down, one of the most chilling and atmospheric stories I have ever read.

This book is touted as psychological horror, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, Reid has painted an incredibly eerie portrait of the old farmhouse, as well as a rural school where our characters end up, but everything going on below the surface is heavy and black once pieced together. Towards the end of the book, it’s suggested that the story is read again, backwards. Each chapter is prefaced by an italicized vignette – a conversation that is taking place about an even that occurred. I read these sections backwards, and was blown away by Reid’s process.

I’ve read many reviews that suggest this book made no sense, and I can see that if it was picked up as a typical horror read. This is not classic horror (though it can be read as such), this is pure psychological horror, dealing with a heavy topic. I don’t want to spoil this for potential readers, but go into this book knowing that everything is not as it seems, and if you enjoy books that deal with the metaphysical or mental health you’ll find a connection here.

BOOK REVIEW | Harvard Square by André Aciman

4/5 stars

Perhaps he was a stand-in for who I was, a primitive version of the me I’d lost track of and sloughed off in America. My shadow self, my picture of Dorian Gray, my mad brother in the attic, my Mr Hyde, my very, very rough draft. Me unmasked, unchained, unleashed, unfinished: me untrammeled, me in rags, me enraged. Me without books, without finish, without a green card. 

André Aciman’s flare for writing internal dialogue is alive and well in Harvard Square, as is his focus on meaningful relationships. While romantic relationships are explored in this work, Aciman’s focus here is on the power of male friendship. Told through the lens of the immigrant experience, Aciman explores an unlikely, and occasionally unwelcome, friendship.

In recounting his days as a student at Harvard, our unnamed narrator reflects on his old friend Kalaj (short for Kalashnikov). He meets Kalaj by chance one day at Café Algiers, a local eatery and hangout. Kalaj is everything he is not – loud, opinionated, and unabashedly forward with women. The two bond and develop a sort of love-hate friendship, though they connect deeply on their experiences as immigrants in America. Our narrator is Jewish, from Alexandria, Egypt, while Kalaj is from the Tunisia; they struggle with both money and assimilation, they long for France and the feeling of home.

I adored the ending of this book; it’s subtle, but remind us of the imprint that people have in our lives, even ones that are long forgotten. While our narrator is often frustrated with Kalaj’s big personality, the two shared a unique friendship that leaves a lasting impact. As this is my third Aciman read, I feel like I have a good grasp of his writing. Aciman is well read and highly intelligent, there is no doubt about that. There are moments in this book that drag a little, alienating readers who may not be as well versed in certain topics as he is. Overall, this was another great Aciman book, and I’m looking forward to continuing with his backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | The Favorie Sister by Jessica Knoll

*I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

No rating, DNF.

Unfortunately this book was not for me, and I discontinued reading at 31%. It’s very rare that I don’t finish a book, but each sitting felt like a slog, and there wasn’t anything going on that held my interest. I appreciate what Jessica Knoll is trying to do with The Favorite Sister, but it wasn’t coming together for me. This far into the book, there had been no plot advancement – just women being cruel to each other. Please don’t let this discourage you from picking it up! While it wasn’t for me, it may be exactly what you’re looking for. Thank you so much to Netgalley and Simon and Schuster for this advanced copy, I look forward to reviewing more books soon!

BOOK REVIEW | The Boat People by Sharon Bala| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #4

3/5 stars

In a time when political views are extremely divided, Sharon Bala’s The Boat People portrays a unique set of views regarding the immigrant experience. The vast number refugees coming into Canada are simply seeking a safe life for their families, but how do we separate those who will become contributing citizens from those with other motives? Bala seeks to answer this question, as well as shed light on a process that feels more criminal than hopeful.

Mahindin and his six year old son, Sillian, flee the civil war in Sri Lanka, setting out on a boat with about 500 other people seeking refuge in Canada. When their boat arrives in British Columbia, the refugee’s hope is quickly destroyed. Rather than starting their new lives, they are detained, questioned, and subject to a legal battle that will determine if they can stay or if they will be deported. Mahindan is separated from Sillian during the process, and fears that his past political associations will come to light, destroying their chances for life in Canada.

Inspired by actual events from 2009, Bala is effective in her portrayal of the immigration process from all sides. The story is told not only from Mahindan’s perspective, but also from Priya, a young lawyer appointed to defend Mahindan, and Grace, an adjudicator who will ultimately determine his fate. As pressure mounts, questions arise about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), why Mahindan was in a Tiger controlled area, and whether he has terrorist affiliations. Bala also touches on the smugglers and crime that goes along with moving people in desperate times.

This is such such an important story to tell, especially in our current political climate. The story surrounding Mahindan, Sillian, and their history was a joy to read. However, I was never able to fully invest myself in Priya’s or Grace’s stories – they were interesting, but didn’t feel necessary. Their stories made the book unnecessarily long, leaving me zoned out at times. This was a solid read, and a valuable addition to the Canada Reads contender list.

BOOK REVIEW | The Marrow Theives by Cherie Dimaline| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #3

4/5 stars

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed this book way more than I expected to – I don’t read YA too often, and am often disappointed by dystopian stories. Cherie Dimaline takes a unique approach to the genre, blending familiar themes with unfamiliar territory. In her futuristic world, First Nations people are being hunted for their bone marrow, the place where dreams reside. The Marrow Thieves challenges readers to think about the history and injustices of Indigenous people in Canada.

Frenchie is on the run. Recruiters are searching for Indigenous people with plans to capture them and harvest their bone marrow as a solution for those unable to dream. He soon joins forces with other Indigenous people on the run; elders, youths, and a girl named Rose. The group traverses the woods, searching for food and shelter, dodging the recruiters, and seeking lost loved ones.

This book is dark. It’s about the loss of culture, colonialism, residential schools, cultural appropriation, and survival. Frenchie is forced into acts he never though himself possible of, changing how he views himself and the situation he is in. There are some beautiful moments as well – such as Rose’s excitement upon smelling sweetgrass, and unexpected reunions that we weren’t sure would occur. The ending doesn’t feel complete, which leads me to believe there could be a follow up in the works that I would gladly pick up. This would be a fantastic book for Canadian classrooms! Once again, Canada Reads has brought a book to my attention that I would have otherwise looked over.

BOOK REVIEW | American War by Omar El Akkad| Canada Reads 2018 Contender #2

3/5 stars

I struggled to get through this book – it’s dark and heavy, but something didn’t quite click for me. Omar El Akkad imagines an America of the future; sides are strongly divided and a second civil war breaks out.

Sarat is our central character and force driving the narrative – I wanted to know what would happen with her, so I kept reading. She is six years old in 2074 when the war begins; it’s not long before tragedy strikes her family, leaving them displaced. They end up in a refugee camp where Sarat meets an older man who guides her in unexpected ways . In El Akkad’s future, innocence disappears quickly and people become instruments of war. War crimes are punished through torture, and humanity is lost.

The focus here is on the ways war shapes people. If not for the war, Sarat’s life, and who she ultimately becomes, would be entirely different. It’s heartbreaking to partake in Sarat’s transformation from an innocent child, to a woman of war, to a woman seeking revenge.  El Akkad is making a bold statement and offering a warning with this book – the Red (South) and Blue (North) are deeply divided, mirroring modern America: a country this polarized will eventually break. Something must give. This is a dystopian story, but one that doesn’t feel impossible.