The Great Alone – Review

** This review (and the book) will contain possible triggers regarding domestic abuse and violence **

“It’s like his back is broken, Mama had said, and you don’t stop loving a person when they’re hurt. You get stronger so they can lean on you. He needs me. Us.”

So we meet the Allbright family. Ernt and Cora, along with their daughter Lenora, or Leni for short. They find themselves struggling to forge a life in a country torn apart by war and in the midst of social change. Ernt is broken, not adjusting back into everyday life after returning to the States from a POW camp in Vietnam. And while women are burning their bras and marching for change, Cora still can’t get even a credit card without her husband or fathers signature. Cora and Leni need Ernt.

When he receives a letter from the father of a man he served with, offering them land and a home on a piece of property in remote Alaska, Ernt is convinced this is the second chance he needs. That in the great expanse of Alaskan wilderness he will find the peace he is searching for and be able to finally take care of his family. Cora, desperate for the man she feel in love with to return, readily agrees. What they can’t sell, they pack the rest into their VW bus and head North.

“The last frontier was like her dad, it seemed. Larger than life. Expansive. A little dangerous.”

Summer in Alaska is a bit magical. Light that never quite fades, the beauty and majesty of Alaska captivating, enthralling, bewitching. Hannah captures the essence of this lush landscape in her words, and you feel the hope the Allbright’s feel in their first months in Alaska. They are welcomed into the tight community, and the constant work is good for Ernt to help keep his demons at bay.

But, we know, all magic comes with a price. And that price is Winter. As the days grow shorter, and the weather tightens it’s grip, making the world smaller, Ernt has to face the demons he’s been running from.

“Terrible and beautiful. It’s how you know if you’re cut out to be an Alaskan. Most go running back to the Outside before it’s over.”

We get this novel mostly from the perspective of Leni. Spanning her youth from 13 on, the majority of the book is spent in her teenage years. We see her parents toxic relationship entirely from her point of view, which makes it feel maddening and heart breaking. She understands and doesn’t understand. She is confused, not just what her father is going through, and why he behaves the way he does, but why her mother dances this dance as well.

This narrative is heartbreaking because we go through each tumultuous up and down with Leni. We feel her confusion. We feel her heartbreak. We feel her anger and her rage and her deep sadness. Our heart breaks with her over and over and over again.

The Great Alone is a slower novel, building into each explosive moment with quiet ease. In this way, I think Hannah does an excellent job showing how slowly these violent situations can grow. How they can start small, each explosion a little worse, and a little worse. How that makes it hard to see the violence for the truth of it. And by the time you do, it can be too late.

Showing us this slow escalation through the eyes of Leni gives us the tragic view of a child. How things can go from stable and sure, to unstable and unsure at a moments notice. Leni can only try to understand what she sees and hears from her mother, and those answers aren’t always satisfying, to her or the reader. But, she loves her mother, and as a child, she is trapped in the decisions of her parents and has to sort them out as best she can.

“But was she supposed to be trapped forever by her mother’s choice and her father’s rage?”

We also have the added element of PTSD, though the name wasn’t around at the time. This is also a slow descent into madness for Ernt as well. We don’t begin with a violent man, but time and choices wear him down. I don’t think this was done to evoke sympathy for Ernt, but perhaps to show how tangled these situations can be for the people woven into them.

Writing domestic abuse isn’t easy. Since we are getting this narration through Leni’s eyes, we don’t get full explanations. We get glimpses into understanding. Excuses and half explanation in conversation with her mother. We see how love and hate can become mixed, and how difficult it can be to really untangle when love becomes too toxic to save.

“Someone said to me once that Alaska didn’t create character; it revealed it.”

Hannah uses the actual setting of Alaska almost as another character in the book. She shows that living in this harsh, rugged environment can be incredibly beautiful, with descriptions so gorgeous they make you ache. Her prose is lyrical and wondrous, showing the beauty that can be both breathtaking and deadly. She brings Alaska alive and shows us that it is a changing, demanding, living thing.

Using the landscape of Alaska gives the entire book a visceral feel. You can feel how dangerous and beautiful Cora’s love for Ernt is in the very nature of where they live. How it can feel full of hope and light during the summer months. Yet it can be isolating and terrifying in the winter. How it can be simultaneously breathtaking and wondrous, but also cold and cruel.

The Great Alone takes us down a difficult journey. It is beautiful but painful, and there are many scenes that are incredibly hard to read. There is hope and redemption, but like living in Alaska, it takes work. You have to get through the cold, harsh winter to experience the magic of summer. This is a novel about love and loss, heartbreak and despair, resiliency and hope. It is a book that will stay with you and change you.

Thank you BookSparks and St. Martin’s Press for sending me a copy to read and review for #WRC2018!

Gridley Girls – Review

“Once upon a time there was a diary.”

Gridley Girls is a debut novel that reads part memoir, part fiction. The story is based on true events. Even though we get a look at a few aspects of the truth, we don’t know all of the truth versus the fiction. And because it’s based on true events, this novel read as a hybrid novel, with some pieces reading more as fiction and others more as a memoir. It’s easy to imagine that this was indeed very close to how the author grew up. Even if it isn’t, the writing is so distinct and full of personality, it feels as if you’re hearing her talk rather than reading a story.

Meg Monahan grew up in Gridley California. Like her parents before her, and their parents before them. She knows nearly everyone in the town. Secrets are hard to keep secret, yet somehow Meg is always the one people confide in, expecting that she keep their confessions safe.

“Mainly I just stay private. That’s hard for you to imagine since you live your life out loud, but it’s easier for us to be private.”

After she is chosen to be a peer counselor her freshman year, this confidence gets pushed to the limits as she receives information that is simply too much for her to handle on her own. It’s easier to keep a secret when it’s your choice. Meg finds that the expectation of confidence, combined with the heavier secrets, makes the burden that much harder to bear.

The novel is told through the eyes of an adult Meg, deciding if she can stomach uprooting her family to the unthinkable reaches of Minnesota, and a teenage Meg going through her freshman year of High School. The events that unfold during her teenage years all carry through and show their relevance to her adult life as the book progresses.

We are all shaped by the things that happen to us growing up. Tragedy and triumph alike can leave indelible marks and shape the adults we become. For Meg, these secrets that her peers trusted her with became nearly too much. When she confides in a trusted friend, and is overheard, that guilt follows her into adulthood.

“In my mind, I was out of control. Who was I going to tell next? My parents? The mailman? Nothing was stopping my giant mouth. My fears were ruling my life.”

This book is a hybrid in another sense. The pieces of Meg’s high school years are very fitting for a YA novel. Not just because she is an adolescent. But because there are some very good lessons and messages written within those pages. Topics like teenage sex, struggling to reconcile your religious beliefs with the reality of life around you, abortion, homosexuality, death and mental illness are all brought up and examined in a thoughtful way.

The messages aren’t preached to you, and they aren’t drilled down or overly dramatized. Some are more dominant than others, and not all of them have lessons learned or even closure written to them. But they are excellent conversation starters and serve to open the door for closer examination.

They hit home because they are told in first person, from the eyes of a teenage girl. Her reaction is what you would expect them to be: scared and confused. This allows for her to ask for advice, and to analyze her own thoughts to try and process how to feel. It was an excellent representation of how confusing adolescence can be.

It’s balanced with the adult years, and the lesson that life doesn’t always make sense once you reach adulthood. There are still struggles and tragedies mixed in with the good times and triumphs.

“I guess that’s the whole point: the attempt to understand, the attempt to love. It’s when we stop trying to understand and stop trying to love that everything falls apart.”

This book is a very fun read, and at the end, First throws in a guide to seventies pop culture. This will be especially helpful to younger readers who may have no idea what actors, shows, music, or even general culture references are made during her teenage years. For those who do remember, this book will be a fun blast into the past.

Sometimes pop culture can be tricky to write into a plot without sounding out of place or forced, but First writes it in fluidly, making them part of the scenery and not overly obnoxious. It feels very natural, because it stems from Meg. Of course that’s how she would make sense of her world, because it is her world.

It did take me a few chapters to adjust to the writing style. It can feel a bit choppy, and you feel that while reading. Once I got to know Meg a bit, and realized that an adolescent girl who talks a mile a minute when she’s nervous probably would talk like that, it became more natural to read. Again, because it reads part fiction and part memoir, the fluidity of the writing does change a bit between chapters. It requires the reader to adjust to the tone of the chapter, and in part to the change between Meg as a girl and Meg as a woman.

Overall I enjoyed this book. There is a lot of humor in First’s writing, both as a teenager and as an adult. She tackles very real topics, not just about growing up, but the world at large. These make the book full of depth. I didn’t grow up in the 70’s, but even still, I felt a lot of nostalgia reading through her experiences. Any teenage girl, regardless of the time and specifics, all feel awkward, and scared, and overwhelmed, and confused during those years. She’s relatable and easy to identify with. Which I think makes this a good book to start conversations with teenage readers. Not to mention, just being able to ask your mom about some of these trends and references to pop culture will definitely start some good conversation, along with some memorable laughs, I’m sure!

Thank you BookSparks and She Writes Press for sending me a copy to read and review!

I Like You Like This – Review I also

“Hannah always tried her best to hold it together. Tears only made it worse. Eventually she’d gotten used to the tormenting and pretended to be in on the joke.”

Hannah Zandana lives a bleak life. She faces unrelenting bullying at home and at school, and only wants to find a place where she belongs. This desire to fit in has her come up with a plan to buy drugs in order to impress the popular girls at her school. The only positive thing that comes out of this bad plan is gaining the attention of the drug dealer, Deacon.

There may be some minor spoilers in my review, for those who have not read yet. There are also several trigger warnings including drug abuse, verbal abuse, and bullying.

I wanted to like this book. I did. A book with dark themes relevant to teenagers is a book we actually need more of. Unfortunately, this book missed the mark for me.

To start with, the abuse from her parents was odd. They are verbally abusive; perhaps more, but that was really unclear. There is only one drug induced scene, where physical, maybe even sexual violence, is introduced. It was presented to feel like a repressed memory, but it was never brought up or explored again, so I’m not really sure.

They constantly belittle Hannah, berate her, ignore her and are generally extremely vicious towards her. Even though we get an attempt at an explanation of their behavior towards her, it felt very shallow and unrealistic. The level of abuse in relation to the feeble explantation was simply lacking.

“Hannah was a human pincushion for her parents’ criticism, and there was always ample room for just one more jab.”

As far as her attempts to impress the popular girls at school, choosing to buy drugs for a party seems like an odd choice. It’s never really explored that these popular girls would even be in the drug scene, just that everyone knew where to get ‘the good stuff’. The entire initial deal is awkward and weird, and the ensuing relationship between Hannah and Deacon continues down that path.

The characters and plot felt more like an array of scenes rather than a cohesive plot. Hannah is unsure of herself, has no self-confidence or self-esteem but she somehow manages to threaten and fight off the bullies of her school with no problems when it suits her. Other times she’s a quivering mess that can’t stand up for herself. That didn’t feel real to me.

It was set in 1984, which is very specific and I was hoping it was for a specific reason. The only reason I could gather was to introduce how crack changed drug addiction in some areas, but that was such a brief mention, I may be grasping at straws for that connection. Product specific nods, or other pop culture references were added in, but for the most part they were clunky and unnecessary.

I also really didn’t like Deacon. He’s supposed to be rich and charming, but damaged. A very cliche ‘more than just a bad boy’ character. He never really showed the kinder side underneath, and after one near rape scene, I was pretty done with his misunderstood excuses.

“She searched his face. His constrained grin didn’t match his words or the shot of sadness in his eyes.”

There are some problems with the romance portion of the book. Hannah doesn’t necessarily find herself other own, but rather changes her identity as a result of her relationship. The fact that the relationship is unhealthy, and at times, even toxic doesn’t send the message I would want in a YA book. I always struggle with books where the theme is we need someone else to become whole. Love is important, but it isn’t the key ingredient in self-worth or the journey to finding out who we are.

This book felt like a really good draft, and I felt like it had a lot of potential. There are some very serious topics introduced, but the opportunity to explore them is largely untapped. While bullying, abuse and drug use are all brought up, the majority of the story focuses on the weird romance between Hannah and Deacon instead. The deeper examination is lacking and it leaves the book feeling superficial rather than hard hitting.

As I said, I think that YA books that tackle the issues presented in this book are really important. They can help kids going through similar struggles and traumas feel understood, seen and maybe even help them work through them. But when these issues aren’t explored as fully as they should be, it can do more of a disservice to those teens who need it most.

Thank you BookSparks and She Writes Press for sending me a copy to read and review.

Perfectly Undone – Review

“Dad always told me, “People should never forget where they come from,” as if it’s possible to erase it from memory. Maybe if I could forget my past, I’d finally get a hold on my future.”

Dr. Dylan Michels has it all. A fantastic job doing what she loves, the chance to further her career and her research to help save women, and an amazing boyfriend who is there for her no matter how hard she works. So, when he proposes, why does she go running into the rain?

We know up front that Dylan is obsessed with her grant research, and her career, because of her sister’s death. We don’t know how exactly she died, only that Dylan somehow feels responsible for it. And her entire family relationship is centered around this loss. She is distant from her mother, who also holds on to Abby as much as Dylan, but they can’t grieve together. Her father and brother share their grief, but only on the anniversary date, so while on the surface they seem close, it also feels more frail than it appears.

And then there’s Cooper. Her boyfriend of 9 years. The man who loves and her accepts her and is always rooting for her. Even when her life hasn’t settled into the one he hoped for. He has the family she wants, and couldn’t think of life without him. Which is partly why she drove me a little crazy.

Here’s the thing about Dylan: I didn’t particularly like her. Don’t get me wrong, I understood her, where her character was coming from, the determination to right a perceived wrong. But she drove me crazy. She was so unaware of herself and her actions. I found it maddening that she expected everyone to be so understanding of her actions, even when she did nothing to explain them, but then refused to give other people the same courtesy. I found her to be a little self-absorbed and very immature, the her hypocrisy made me want to throw the book more than once.

If turmoil and bad choices aren’t your thing, you’re probably going to be in for a disappointment. These characters are a symphony of poor communication. Of assuming that the choices you make in order to protect other people, or because you think you know what they’re thinking, are always the right choices. This dance of missed opportunities is done throughout the book in multiple relationships, and really drives home the important of being open and honest with the ones you love. There is a certain Shakespearean elegance, (or perhaps it’s more Greek tragedy), to the relationships and how they develop (or fall apart) in this novel.

In this regard, it struck me over and over, how unfair and immature Dylan was being. She listens to people complain about people behaving a certain way in their lives, and even has those same issues with others, but completely fails to recognize it in her own self. And, when it comes to one rough spot, albeit a very bad rough spot, she simply shuts down and freezes everyone out. It’s difficult to go into the specifics without giving away spoilers. But, I can say, for a character who is told how perceptive she is to the needs of her patients, it’s amazing how little she lacks that same ability in her personal life. Or rather, she has it, she just simply doesn’t want to face it.

“I realize I may have pushed things too far. Maybe I didn’t want to hear his side, because it would bring me to this moment: facing the ugly truth. I’ve always known I was keeping Cooper at a distance, but I hoped he didn’t notice.”

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s how we are in real life. We all probably have the most difficultly seeing how we truly behave with others. And it’s hard to face the ugly truths about ourselves. When things aren’t personal, we are able to relax and follow what we know to be right and true. But when our hearts get in the way, our heads seem to short-circuit.

Of course, unlike Shakespeare, or the Greeks, this story doesn’t end in tragedy, or, at least not the tragedy you expect. This story is more about forgiveness, and all that word encompasses. Forgiving others, but especially forgiving our selves. And I did like how the author led the conclusion of that forgiveness down several different paths for the characters. Sometimes forgiveness means letting go. And sometimes it doesn’t.

Not liking the main character aside, I did enjoy this book. I find that books that make me really think and identify with what makes me uncomfortable are often some of the most satisfying books. I also find that people aren’t always likable, so why do we always expect that of the characters within our books? Even if I don’t want to be BFF’s with the characters in the pages, it made me think and feel and examine my reactions deeper than just the surface. And that’s worth reading.

This complexity makes it, I think, the absolute perfect book for the November book club pick. There is substance and depth to each of the characters. Not to mention, quite a few issues to keep conversation interesting; such as guilt, lies, secrets to just name a few.

If you’re interested, BookSparks is having an all day event with the author tomorrow! They will be updating their stories all day and having a Facebook Live chat with the author tomorrow at 10amPST/1pmEST. Join by clicking the links below!

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Thank you to BookSparks for sending me a copy to read and review as part of FRC2017!

A Dangerous Year – Review

“Grades aren’t always good enough,” he said. “Right now, the only extracurriculars you can list on a college application are street fighting and instigating international incidents.”

It is with this sentence that Riley Collins finds herself heading away from her life as a diplomats daughter and into the illustrious halls of Harrington Academy. She wonders which is more dangerous: the streets of Pakistan where a price is on her head, or the halls of a school filled with spoiled rich kids who would rather eat her alive than befriend her.

“They may not kill you here, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try to eat you.”

Her attendance is a little more complicated than just attending her Senior Year and getting some talking points for her college resume. She has been tasked with an actual mission from the State Department. Official oath and everything.

Once she agrees, it takes little time to whisk her to New York. There she is groomed to within an inch of her life, thrown into a shopping spree most girls only dream of and given an “emergency” American Express. Maybe this year won’t be quite so bad after all.

“They had to perform an extraction. In my world, that meant a black ops team going into dangerous territory to recover a lost man. Here it involved squeezing every pore on my face until I would have willingly confessed to anything.”

Why does there always have to be an ‘except’?

Her reception to Harrington is less than warm and fuzzy. The head mistress makes it clear she is actively looking for a way to throw her out. Her roommate, Hayden, ignores that she even exists. This is sort of a problem though, since Hayden is the mission. Well, protecting her is the mission. Riley finds it difficult to make sure she’s okay when you have no idea where she is throughout the day. Or acting like a stalker.

Even worse, she finds out that the reason for Hayden’s chilly reception is that Riley is taking the place of her former roommate and best friend Rose. Who was killed a week before the term began.

“There was a reason Harrington didn’t admit seniors; they had to wait for one of them to die to make room! What else was out there waiting to ambush me?”

This was such a fun read! I loved it! Riley is a delight. She has an incredibly fun sarcastic humor to her. I loved that she used growing up as a diplomat’s daughter to her advantage by applying the lessons her dad would teach her. Very useful in negotiating angry head mistresses and demanding teachers. She also comes fully equipped with all the lessons her bodyguard and second father, Benson, taught her. Mainly fighting and military tactics. The combination is entertaining and extremely amusing!

In addition to Riley and Hayden, who does eventually thaw to Riley, we get an ensemble of characters, each just as enjoyable as Riley. Von, the cute boy who she meets her first day. He is helpful in showing her around the school, but also in helping her get near Hayden. Quinn, Hayden’s new sidekick and BFF. She starts off nice to Riley, but as Hayden warms to her, Quinn takes a jealous turn for the worse. Stef, who is probably my absolute favorite character outside of Riley. Gorgeous and charming with a lovely penchant for the dramatic, Stef is delightful to read. And then there’s, Sam. The insanely hot head of the MMA club who makes Riley’s insides melt when he looks at her. Too bad he’s Hayden’s ex, which equals very off-limits. It’s also too bad he doesn’t agree with that assessment.

The adults in this book are excellent too. There is nothing worse than reading a YA book with great teenagers and all the adults are duds. This is not the case here!

I adored her dad and Benson. Her dad teaches her diplomatic skills and parents her the best way he can. And Benson sends her a footlocker full of tasers, tactical equipment and spyware. Which is how he helps and loves her the best way he can. It’s awesome! I smiled at every interaction they had.

“My dad would probable be appalled at what I was considering, but Benson would cheer me on from the sidelines.”

Mr. Bracken is also a treat! Described as “Bracken the Kracken” by other students and known for being extremely tough in his classroom, he was far more well-rounded than just another hard-ass teacher. Yes, he takes student expectations to a whole new level, but there is a lot of substance to him and he was very enjoyable to get to know.

“I’m thinking I should send you on your way. I wouldn’t want to lose the most entertaining TA I’ve had in years.”

This novel sounds like a spy novel for kids, but it’s so much more. It’s James Bond meets Mean Girls. How does that NOT sound like an amazing combination? Every obstacle Riley encounters feel real. She has to balance trying to be a bodyguard and navigate the treacherous waters of High School. Sometimes she makes mistakes, or does the wrong thing. Which you would expect. I didn’t find the adults to be flat or annoying, or the kids to be uber-adult. They all felt exceptionally well balanced and well rounded.

Using her dad as an international diplomat, along with Benson training her with military tactics and skills, the way Riley problem-solves various situations make a lot of sense. And again, she doesn’t know everything. She asks for help. She makes mistakes. She just uses what she knows to try and problem solve.

This is the first book in an expected series and I cannot wait for book 2! I will absolutely be continuing to read future books. This is a story I could easily see becoming a movie or a TV show, although I really hope they do the writing justice. If you’re a fan of spy novels, or military type novels, and you also love YA, this book is definitely for you! Less explosions, but no less entertaining.

Thank you BookSparks and Curiosity Quills Press for sending a copy to read and review!

 

The Outskirts of Hope – Review

“During the height of the civil rights movement, my family moved to a small, all-black town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where my father opened a clinic and mother Aura Kruger, taught English at the local high school.”

This book is a memoir, written by the youngest daughter Jo, but mainly told through the diaries of her mother Aura. At the time, the Kruger family was one of the only white families living in Mount Bayou. Aura kept journals from the time she lived there, so the book is built on those. Jo destroyed her own, but recreated her entries.

I have some seriously mixed emotions on this book. I understand that this is a memoir so this is her telling the story of her family. However, it comes across at times as very privileged and skates dangerously close to perpetuating racist stereotypes. Which is where I struggle, because I don’t think that was the intention of the author. Obviously no one intends on coming across as borderline racist, but I actually don’t even think they had racist views, privilege aside. It just comes across the way this is pieced together.

First, let’s touch on the privilege.

The first few chapters are from Aura’s perspective on her sudden move from a nice middle-class life in Boston to living in a trailer in Mississippi. The change is drastic, and according to her mother, she didn’t even have a vote. She simply went along with her husband, who decided this was what he wanted to do with zero input from his wife. Yes, it was the 60’s, but it doesn’t make him likable at all.

I had issue with how she complained, extensively, about her concern for where they were going to live. When offered that they should live in a “shack” like the rest of the town population, she nearly had a stroke. Coming from the perspective of someone who wanted to help end racism and bring change during this tumultuous time, she seems very self-centered. Even after she gets two trailer (not one, but two), and they have carpenters build them a connecting room, plush with all the luxuries of water, AC, power, heat and indoor plumbing, she never takes any time to consider how to help the town.

The most frustrating part of reading this, is that she makes friendships with people in this town. Yet, it’s never discussed or talked about how her family lives in drastic luxury compared with most of the other people. Or at least, that is how it comes across.

She mentions quite a few times her “worry” for their lack of heat, shoes, clothes that fit, etc. But, there isn’t any mention of her trying to do anything about it. She has connections to get three students full scholarships to an east coast college, yet she can’t raise money to buy shoes or clothes?

Which is my major problem with the underlying privilege of the book. She has her own views and standards, and insists on everyone meeting them. Take the three page example of teaching phonetics and the word ‘ask’ for a glaring example of that. Education was important to her. And I agree, and even see where she is coming from. But, shoes are probably an immediate problem she can help with.

Where we come near perpetuating racist myths is in Jo’s entries. Nearly every entry she talks about boys grabbing her and trying to reach down her pants. Of the 8 entries she has from her childhood perspective, 4 of them are about this type of molestation. She certainly makes it seem that every teenage boy in that town grabs her in inappropriate ways except for her three friends. Again, I understand this is her perspective, but she’s writing this from memory. If she didn’t want to perpetuate that racist myth, she could have worded these entries differently, or added a few that actually talked about other experiences.

Overall though, they just aren’t very likable. I think the biggest piece of enjoying a memoir is actually enjoying the people you’re reading about. I didn’t like the husband at all. He seemed cold and indifferent to his wife and children and never noticed their struggles. Either this portrayal didn’t do him justice, or he simply cared more about helping people other than his own family.

Aura doesn’t come across as very likable frequently either. She seemed spoiled, privileged, slightly arrogant and very self-centered. She complains about how her husband is oblivious to her unhappiness, yet seems absolutely just as clueless about her own children. The scene where she made her injured daughter get out of bed to create a “scene of familial tranquility” is absurd. Her attitude is described as Pollyanna positive but seems to be very passive-aggressive instead. She complains but then tries to spin it after complaining. It gets old.

Yet, when Jo revisits the town decades later, the scene she paints are like reading an entirely different book. People remember her cleaning tables for pinball money, and she seems to have good childhood memories. Yet, all that was recreated was the bad. For someone trying to bridge the gap in race relations, painting living in an all-black community as terrifying and miserable probably isn’t the right angle to take.

Her students even had more powerful stories about how she helped them. These memories from the students takes away from the self-righteousness and savior type attitude, and highlights more of what they remembered. It makes her seem actually more giving and helpful than she made herself sound. The journal entries were maybe focused on her own view of what was important, but again, perspective matters.

Of course, her own encounter with a boy who assaulted her left a bad taste in my mouth. But, that whole last section of the book was infuriating all around.

 

It’s probably not surprising that I didn’t particularly enjoy this book. I would have preferred to read a book that was less reliant on only journals and memory, and perhaps had included some of the impressions the students themselves had. It would have taken more of the white savior feel out of it, and made it more in depth and meaningful.

Thank you to BookSparks and She Writes Press for a copy to read and review as part of your pop up blog popportunity!

The Cottingley Secret – Review

“The soul of the fairy is its evanescence. Its charm is the eternal doubt, rose-tinted with the shadow of a hope. But the thrill is all in ourselves.”

The Cottingley Secret is part historical novel, part contemporary novel, where the two stories intersect and meet together in the end.

In 1917, two girls brought together by the Great War find a little bit of magic in the garden by their home. Frances Griffiths was ripped from her home in South Africa when her father was called to war. She and her mother move to Cottingley, England, where she and her cousin Elsie Wright become as close as sisters.

Present day introduces us to Olivia Kavanagh. Olivia finds herself back in Ireland after the death of her grandfather. She learns that she inherits his bookshop, Something Old, and with it, a number of financial problems. Somehow, her grandfather knew she would need time and space to set her course, and also leaves her a manuscript. Olivia finds herself falling into the past and reliving the grip of a nation in a frenzy over fairies.

This book is simply magical. Personally, I am a fan of books that take two different times and somehow write a compelling story that makes them relevant to each other. Something about connecting the past to the present is really appealing to me. Gaynor executes the weaving of these two times and these two stories so beautifully. Each is it’s own story, but also reliant on the other. You want to know what’s happening in both, and wonder all the way through how they are connected.

It isn’t necessarily a mystery, as enough large clues are given so that you can draw the conclusions on technical relationships. But it is the mystery of magic in both stories that make them so unique and such a pleasure to read.

“It is only by believing in magic that we can ever hope to find it.”

I didn’t know going in to this book about The Cottingley Fairies. As I was reading, I found myself going online and reading more about it. This is one of my favorite things when reading historical fiction. When an author takes real events and works them into a story. It feels so much richer to me when you read about a time, or an event, or a person and get to immerse yourself in a possibility of the past.

What I find so completely magical about this book, and about the original story, is that it really becomes less about the actual fact of the fairies and more about the idea of believing in the fairies.

“If we can believe in fairies, perhaps we can believe in anything, even in an end to this damned war. And wouldn’t that be something.”

I loved that at every turn in this book, it didn’t matter if you believed in fairies or magic or not. It became about the ability to believe in possibility. Francis needed to believe in the possibility of her father coming back. She had to wish for it, and in order to wish for something, you have to believe in magic. For Olivia, her wishes required less magic, but belief nonetheless. She needed to remember that she can be whoever she wants, and do whatever she wants. She simply needs to believe that she can.

It’s books like these that make reading so magical to me. We are always urged to grow up and to focus on reality. We forget that there’s a magic to life, even if we don’t expect fairies to greet us in every garden. There is a gift in not knowing what’s going to happen next, and we can find enormous power in simply believing that anything is possible. It’s a wonderful reminder to read a book and be gently reminded that we can create magic in our own lives every day.

“Make-believe keeps us going at times like this. We have to believe in the possibility of happy endings, sure we do, otherwise what’s it all for?”

Francis and Olivia both need to believe in their own happy endings. Which is true of all our lives. We are the bearers of our own magic. We can determine if we believe in the possibility of something, or if we can’t. And our fates will follow our beliefs. So many things we take for granted today would be considered magic centuries ago. Lights that turn on with a switch, or movement. A machine that allows us to talk to anyone in the world, anytime we want. Movies, television, phones, heat, air conditioning. These are all things no one would have dreamed of. Until someone did.

This is the magic that Gaynor brings to life in her book. It is the magic of what could be. The magic of what we can’t imagine yet. It tells a tale of fairies, yes. It weaves a story about a little girl who saw fairies and the choices she made afterwards. It is fiction, wrapped with a touch of reality. Yet it still pushes us to close our eyes and remember the days of our own youth. When we believed in magic and possibility.

Were the fairies of Cottingley real? Was it all a hoax? And, really, does the answer matter at all? Like any good story, it isn’t the details that matter. It is how we feel when we close the pages. We each have magic inside. We simply have to choose to ignite it.

Thank you BookSparks and William Morrow books for sending me a copy to read and review for FRC 2017.

Among The Survivors – Review

“In the midst of a feminist revolution, Karla is an island of uncertainty.”

Among The Survivors is a beautiful journey into self-discovery. Karla Most has been raised by her very paranoid, possibly delusional but very single mother. She has been dressed in black since she was a baby, (even her diapers according to motherly lore), and has always had a suitcase packed and ready to go under her bed, just in case. Karla has always forgiven her mother’s oddities and quirks, as surviving the Holocaust is no easy feat and would leave anyone scarred.

But after her mother’s death, she finds a photograph under the bed, hidden and never talked about. A family from the past: the father wearing a swastika and the child strongly resembling her mother. Rather than finding herself free after her mother’s death, Karla finds herself trapped by her mother more than ever.

I really enjoyed Karla. She has a sense of humor and a rebelliousness to her, but is also very naive and sheltered. The mix results in a woman who wants to find herself but has no idea how to go about doing that. She lets her wealthy grandparents and her wealthy boyfriend handle her affairs and make most of her decisions. She audits classes at NYU but doesn’t actually enroll or take any of the classes for credit. She works as a maid, off the books, simply to have something to do with her time.

“Restoring order to other people’s lives makes her own feel less confusing.”

Sax, her boyfriend, is thirty years her senior, and while her family urges her to consider her own future, she can’t bear to leave him. The relationship they build together is built on a very solid love. I actually really liked how Leventhal portrayed their love, because it isn’t unhealthy or weird. They both have the same insecurities we all have. Fears of the other not loving them as much. Fear of being abandoned, hurt, left. She becomes dependent on him, but not in a controlled way. It is more her lack of definition of her own ambitions that creates the reliance.

“She is a stranger to herself, just as her mother was a stranger to her.”

This notion that she must find herself drives Karla forward to discover more about the photo she found under her mother’s bed. If these people are her family, she feels that she needs to find them. All her life she has believed herself to be a Jewish woman whose mother survived the Holocaust. But the more she unravels about her mother, the more she realizes, it was all a terrible lie. Her life, her childhood, her identity has all been built on a house of lies. So, what does that make her?

“If she is going to uncover the secret to her own identity, she will have to face exactly where she came from.”

While going on Karla’s journey, I found it easy to relate to her struggle. Who are we? It is a question countless philosophers and psychologists have dedicated careers into exploring. Are we our parent’s children, destined to live lives dictated by the terms they laid out as they raised us? Or are we something more? Something pliant and resilient that can forge our own paths regardless of the foundation of our past?

Even more than the idea of self-discovery, this novel is also about forgiveness. Karla needs to find a way to forgive her mother. Not just for the discovered horror of a lie that seems incomprehensible, but for the childhood she was subjected to. We even face the notion of forgiveness on monumental levels as Karla has to face her German ancestry and forgive the ghosts of their collective past.

As Karla unravels more of her mother, she discovers more about herself. The black that was oppressive and odd, becomes an armor for Karla. A habit she can’t quite give up yet. The quirks and weird lessons in life, the strange and untethered lifestyle they led was less about control and more about teaching Karla how to really live.

“With her warm, stolid body and her sharp surveillance, Mutti, for all her craziness, had seen to it that no one crushed her kid’s spirit. She had fueled Karla’s passion to live.”

Taking the extreme’s out of the story, we all enter our adult lives deciding who we are, who we want to be. We face the idea of becoming our parent’s and of never becoming them. The questions Karla faces are questions we have all faced, on some level, at some point in our lives.

The layers of themes wrapped in Karla’s journey makes this novel easy for people to relate to on many different levels. We don’t need to have crazy mother’s, or eccentric childhoods, or wealthy grandparents to identify with Karla and her struggle with her identity. We don’t need to have a mother who lied about surviving the Holocaust to understand the horror that truth would bring. We don’t need to have German relatives who also lived through that time to feel the confusion and the guilt that experience brings.

I think that many women feel that the feminist revolution that our mothers and grandmothers before them began, has never really ended. It has evolved, each progressive step forward revealing more obstacles that were never thought about. In this sense, life is more about the evolution of a journey rather than the destination, so I think that all women can identify with the struggle to find yourself as a woman, a daughter, a spouse, a mother, within a world that can be both liberating and oppressive at the same time. The specific details of Karla’s struggle may have changed, but the feelings within that struggle are similar.

The final piece that Leventhal wove into the novel that I think plays to a journey of discovery is art. It is through art that Karla meets Sax, and it is art that she identifies with the most. There is something timeless and yet something fluid in art. It can be an expression of the past and a window into the future. The way specific paintings influence and form indelible impressions on Karla is similar to how any passion finds it’s way into our bones. We find ourselves by finding the things that inspire and move us. I really liked the way art was used to show difficulty and passion throughout the novel and with the characters.

I enjoyed the book. I think that the topics for discussion are in depth and very dimensional. Among The Survivors is perfect for a book club that like to pop open a bottle (or two) of wine and really dive deep into discussions. There is heart and soul and a very profound humanness written into each character that I think can provide many hours of dissection and contemplation.

Thank you BookSparks for sending me the book to read and review as part of your pop up blog tours.