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 | An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

4/5 stars

On the surface, this is a book about injustice, loyalty, and the ways in which we love. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find social commentary on what it means to be black in America. Without giving anything away, a young couple who seems to have it all is forcefully reminded that regardless of hard work and determination, they will not live the American dream.

Celeste and Roy are a young married couple, busy planning their lives and grappling with the decision of when, or if, to have children. Celeste is a successful artist and doll maker, and it’s easy to sense that Roy is on the brink of something great as an entrepreneur. One fateful evening will change the course of their lives for the next five years, leaving Celeste and Roy to untangle a mess and decide if love is enough to keep their marriage intact.

Jones’ writing is conversational and easy to digest; she pulls you into the story and is brutally honest in her message. There are a few strange elements at play here, such as Celeste’s dolls, or poupées, which often happen to resemble Roy in some way. I felt somewhat disconnected from the characters who are all deeply flawed; I often went back and forth with who I felt was right and just given the circumstances. That said, this is an engrossing read and I can certainly understand its popularity. This is the sort of book that plays out visually in your head – in fact, it would make a great movie. I wavered a lot with where to place my rating – sections of this book are five star worthy, but some areas felt like three stars – four seems like a good place to settle.

BOOK REVIEW | All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
This book is stunning. It’s challenging, disturbing, and will make you uncomfortable. Bryn Greenwood creates a relationship that by all practical accounts will make your stomach turn, and flips the table so drastically that you will question everything you know to be right and moral. I found myself struggling with some of the scenes, but also found myself justifying so much of it. I had to ask myself, what defines love?

It’s 1975 and Wavy is a little girl at 5 years old. Her parents are addicted to drugs, and she is living with her aunt Brenda and her cousins. As a result of her trauma, Wavy doesn’t speak, leaving everyone to think she’s mentally challenged. Wavy eventually goes on to live with her he grandmother, and finally ends up back with her mother.

Living with her mother, Wavy takes care of herself and her younger brother, Donal, cleaning and preparing food. A few years have passed and she is 8 years old when a chance encounter with 19 year old Kellen occurs. Kellen, a criminal who works for Wavy’s father, crashes his motorcycle by her house, and Wavy rushes out to see if he is OK. There is clearly a connection between the two, and after her becomes aware of Wavy’s living situation, Kellen steps in to help. Kellen cleans the house, buys food for Wavy and Donal, and begins to pay for Wavy’s school fees. Over time, Wavy begins to trust Kellen, and the two become inseparable.

As the years pass, Wavy and Kellen’s relationship evolves from something innocent to something more – there are many moments that gave me pause. Their connection, however, is something hard to define, something more than love. Is Kellen a pedophile? Is he taking advantage of Wavy in her disadvantaged situation? There is no sexual attraction between Wavy and Kellen initially. Kellen states “that’s not the only thing love means. You just got your mind in the gutter”.

Told from multiple points of view, we gain other character’s perspectives on their relationship. Naturally, many characters are horrified by their bond and work to keep them apart. Greenwood herself is the ” daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer”, and has stated that this book was partially inspired by her relationship with an older man when she was 13 years old. Greenwood has created a world in which this relationship feels right, regardless of how inappropriate much of it is. As a mother and a fierce protector of children, I’m blown away by her feat. Only a skilled writer can craft a story like this and have you rooting for the couple. I’m looking forward to more from Greenwood, and may have to check out her backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | Canada Reads 2017 #1 – Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

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4.5/5

From the publisher:
– I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

– I’ll wager a year’s servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

And so it begins: a bet between the gods Hermes and Apollo leads them to grant human consciousness and language to a group of dogs overnighting at a Toronto veterinary clinic. Suddenly capable of more complex thought, the pack is torn between those who resist the new ways of thinking, preferring the old ‘dog’ ways, and those whoembrace the change. The gods watch from above as the dogs venture into their newly unfamiliar world, as they become divided among themselves, as each struggles with new thoughts and feelings. Wily Benjy moves from home to home, Prince becomes a poet, and Majnoun forges a relationship with a kind couple that stops even the Fates in their tracks.

My thoughts:
Fifteen Dogs blew me away. This was probably the Canada Reads selection that I was least looking forward to, and it may very well end up as my front runner.

Gods Hermes and Apollo are hanging out at the local tavern, waxing philosophical over drinks. The discussion turns to human happiness, and a bet is made: Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that any animal, if bestowed with human intelligence and consciousness, would be even more unhappy than humans. Hermes takes him up on the bet, with the caveat that if any one animal is happy at its death, he wins. After leaving the tavern they end up near a veterinary clinic and in the back are fifteen dogs. With that, they decide to test their theory on dogs, and they grant the animals with human language and intelligence. From here, the story unfolds. We follow the fifteen dogs as they begin to understand their new intelligence, through their lives and struggles, and ultimately to their deaths. The story is insightful, bleak, brutal, and heartbreaking – I absolutely loved it.

The dogs ask poignant questions and contemplate timeless philosophies – to understand love, the fight for personal sovereignty, the need for a sense of family or community, dominance vs. submission, and of course the struggle to find meaning and joy in life. Alexis skillfully weaves in and out of their stories, and brings it all home with a touching denouement. In the note on the text, Alexis reveals something pretty amazing about the short poems in the book – I promise you’ll be turning back to read them all over again.

Alexis packed so much into this short book: there’s action, quiet contemplation, humor, joy, and sadness. Every page has meaning and has been carefully crafted; this is not a book to be skimmed through. While this is a book about fifteen dogs, you do not need to be a dog lover to enjoy this, though there are some great moments for those of of who are! This book is profoundly human, and one that I can see myself returning to again and again.

BOOK REVIEW | Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
At the edge of the continent, Crosby, Maine, may seem like nowhere, but seen through this brilliant writer’s eyes, it’s in essence the whole world, and the lives that are lived there are filled with all of the grand human drama–desire, despair, jealousy, hope, and love.

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance: a former student who has lost the will to live: Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

My thoughts:
These short stories are subtle and tender in their approach – I can only describe them as endearingly human. The stories themselves are varied in nature, though they are all bound by the thread that is Olive Kitteridge. Olive is big, bold, and opinionated; she speaks her mind freely, often to the chagrin of those who know her. Her husband, Henry, loves her with purity and sweetness that seeps from the pages. Olive is not the heroine I was expecting when going into this book, but, wow, she sure had a lot to teach me. I have chills, the good kind, from the final page.