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!

Gather The Daughters – Review

This review is going to contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t read this book and are interested in it, please be warned. This book is also heavy with trigger issues, specifically, sexual abuse and violence, along with domestic abuse.

“Laughter for a boy, tears for a girl.”

That one sentence summarizes the horror of living as a girl in this disturbed society. Even calling this society disturbed doesn’t feel like enough. It is horrific and beyond understanding.

I went into this novel expecting creepy. I expected something bad and disturbing to happen. What I didn’t expect was the entire thing to be creepy and disturbing.

Gather The Daughters takes place on an island. This group of people live by the word of their ancestors, “The Ancestors”, who have rigid rules in place to keep everyone in line. They’ve been on the island, isolated from the rest of the world for generations.

The rest of the world is called, The Wastelands, and they are raised believing that fire and disease have eradicated the land. The Wanderers, a small group of men, are the only ones allowed to travel beyond the island and collect items from the wasteland. The Wanderers are also the enforcer of these rules from the Ancestors, although they can add to the rules as they wish. But they are in complete control of everyone’s life on the island.

We hear only from the viewpoint of a handful of daughters. Vanessa, Caitlin, Amanda and Janey. Vanessa is a wanderer’s daughter and so seemingly has it better than the rest. Caitlin is physically abused by her alcoholic father. Amanda is recently a married woman, having just finished her “summer of fruition” and is pregnant with her first child. And Janey, the small incredibly strong willed girl who starves herself in order to make sure she never turns into a woman.

All of this sounds like typical dystopian fiction, right? Yeah, until you realize that the reason it’s horrible to be a girl in this society is that fathers lie with their daughters. Yes, you read that right.

Okay. So, I’ve read some pretty dark and disturbing books in my life as a reader. And sometimes they deal with really icky issues like incest and rape and abuse. But in every book that I can recall, there was a point. A plot driven point that makes it understandable why the author chose to dive into these awful subjects. I wish I could say the same for this book. Sadly, I can’t.

Here are the main inconstancies that bother me. First, we are never given any information regarding the wasteland to really understand how this society emerged. We get hints and clues, but even more disturbingly, it seems that most of the facts regarding the devastation of the wastelands appears to be made up to keep everyone compliant. All I can gather is that the ancestors were a bunch of pedophiles that wanted to sleep with their daughters.

But even that doesn’t make sense because they came to the island with families! So how does a mother, growing up in a society that even somewhat resembles the one we live in, get on board with this?! How do TEN??? It’s beyond comprehension, and even more frustrating is that the author doesn’t even attempt to explain! For me, I could have stomached this society a little more if I had been given any explanation of how they were created. Or understand why the men continue to go along with it, when clearly The Wanderers know full well what is happening in the rest of the world. It feels incomplete and inadequate.

My other problem is there is zero redemption in the end. We are given the seeds of discontent through the discovery that women who are unhappy or perhaps a little too opinionated frequently “bleed out” and die. Except no one ever sees the body. However, this community is so controlled that it has never been raised or questioned. Until Janey wants justice for her friend.

Janey begins to rally the girls and forms a rebellion of sorts. But right when you think something will happen, something will spark a change or force this society to reveal details it doesn’t want revealed, a mysterious illness conveniently sweeps through and kills almost everyone. The Wanderers force everyone to remarry and decide to bring in more families from The Wastelands. To add to the genetic line. Which the ancestors wrote a warning about, needing to add to the gene pool.

But even the rebellion is problematic. If this is a society that has been bred in such tight control for so many years, and trained to believe that this is normal and natural, why would the girls feel it was wrong. The mother’s are sometimes described as being jealous of the father-daughter relationship, which feels more real in this sense than being horrified by it. So, where does the sense of “wrong” come from? I suppose the author is saying that there is an innate knowledge of wrong behavior, but coming from someone who works intimately with abused children, I’m a little surprised at that belief. Usually abused children aren’t aware that the abuse is wrong, unless they’re told to keep a secret, or some other indicator is given. But there have been plenty of cases where that behavior wasn’t given any morality and it was simply accepted. So where would these girls or fathers have learned any wrong-doing?

I didn’t understand what the point was. This novel was completely horror for horror’s sake. Trauma for trauma’s sake. We are fully immersed in this cult-like society where sleeping with your daughter is “cherished”. It is sick and twisted. Yet, we aren’t given any background to this society and in the end, nothing changes.

Vanessa’s father finds out that The Wanderers were behaving in ways that concern him, and he ends up taking his family away from the island in the dead of night. But even this isn’t redemption or closure. First, we never see what happens, or where they go. But mostly because he didn’t leave because he was remorseful of regretted sleeping with his prepubescent daughter. He left because he was afraid something might happen to her if she stayed. So he loves her. Abusers love their victims in their own way. It doesn’t excuse or forgive the abuse.

I don’t understand what the point of this novel was. I felt traumatized reading it. There was no helping these girls, or saving them from future horrors. Perhaps she meant to make art mimic life in that sense, but the result is simply tragic and horrific.

The novel felt incomplete to me. Whenever an author takes on issues of this magnitude, I do feel that they have an even greater obligation to be sure to handle the subject matter appropriately. First, there was no warning regarding the content of the book. I felt that was misleading and dangerous. Second, the subject is so extreme, that it needed more. It needed a history of the Wastelands, a more solid idea of what that world was like to at least attempt to explain this society. Or, it needed to be more honest about the nature of the men. That they simply were predators relishing this power they held. By trying to make Vanessa’s father sympathetic, even though he is an abuser, is dishonest and misleading. It needed a point to the rebellion or at least some catalyst for change.

I did not enjoy the book. It was a weird glimpse into a sick society.

Thank you to Little, Brown for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

 

 

Alphonse – Review

Before I start this review, I need to warn readers that this book and this review, deals with sensitive issues. Anyone who struggles reading about topics of sexual molestation, sexual abuse and rape should stop reading and be aware that this book deals with these topics.

This review will contain spoilers, as I cannot delve into my thoughts without revealing pieces of the plot.

Alphonse is a story of a small town and a family. The title, refers to a man, Alphonse, friends of the Sadlers, who used to be a train-jumping hobo but has now settled into small town life. He has settled in this small town specifically to be around the Sadlers, who he befriended on one of his adventures.

The main story centers around Francis, the youngest of the Sadler boys, who is tasked with cleaning up one of the church bell towers. Pigeons have settled and the town decides the problem needs to be addressed. Alphonse notices strange looks from Father Brennan, a priest he clearly has a history with, and that Francis himself seems to be changing throughout the summer.

It becomes obvious fairly quickly that Father Brennan is abusing Francis. When you read the synopsis, it makes it seem that Alphonse begins to suspect and then finds out the truth. I have a few issues with the plot.

First, it’s clear throughout the novel that Alphonse dislikes Father Brennan. We even get a glimpse of their earlier interaction, although this scene was vague and didn’t really answer any questions about their relationship, other than Brennan was a key in helping Alphonse get sexually assaulted by two other vagrants. So, if Alphonse was suspicious of Father Brennan, why did it take so long for him to act on Francis’ behalf?

My second issue is with the sexual abuse. Francis is supposed to be thirteen. I actually thought he was much younger, and the type of abuse doesn’t really make sense for a thirteen year old boy. Seven or eight? Sure, I would buy how he behaved. But not thirteen. It didn’t feel real to me.

Once Alphonse suspects what is happening, it actually takes him quite a long time to act or even tell Francis’ father. Instead, when he sees him torturing animals, his brilliant idea is to give the boy traps. I have no idea what the author was trying to demonstrate with his part of the plot, other than to try and open Francis eyes to his cruelty, but it didn’t feel developed to me. It just seemed like cruelty on top of cruelty in the place of trying to actually stop the cause of the problem: the abuse!

There is quite a bit about the tense relationship between the brothers. A weird scene where Francis finds Zach getting a blowjob from a girl Francis liked, and a strange competitive nature between the brothers is really all we’re given. Why is Zach so angry at Francis? To the point of hatred? It was a weird subplot that didn’t make sense to me.

We are never really given a sense of who Father Brennan is, other than a Nazi sympathizer who was kicked out of the Polish army. And that he watched Alphonse get raped. But, beyond that, how did Alphonse know he was a child abuser? How did they meet before the assault? Even the threat at the end that Alphonse gave him was vague and strange.

Finally, my main issue is the ending. Father Brennan is successful in his new position in the church, with no repercussions or consequences. Francis comes back and the young priest that was fired at the beginning of that fateful summer is in Brennan’s position in the town’s church. But, the main problem is the advice he gives older Francis. Leave the past in the past.

For anyone who is a victim of sexual abuse, I think this message is terrible. Leave the past alone? There is no discussion of healing, of trying to heal that rift in his life. Instead, everyone seems content to accept that he has suppressed and blocked out all memory of this trauma and that any quirks, like losing time or feeling lost should just be accepted? In fact, it doesn’t even seem like the family, who knows about the abuse, ever even discusses what happened.

There is a danger of encouraging victims of abuse to simply accept the abuse and move forward. Being subjected to trauma like that is life-changing. Losing chunks of time is not healthy or normal. It is a defense mechanism that happens when placed under extreme duress. To not even mention therapy, or counseling, or even just TALKING about it is dangerous, unhealthy, and irresponsible.

I am not a reader who cannot read tough or difficult subject matter. But, if I am going to  read about sexual abuse and rape, there had better be solid messaging in the plot. Or a good reason for the abuse. This book seems to be solely centered on this abuse. So, the entire book is made or broken by the result of the abuse. And in my opinion, it misses the mark severely.

In a book like this, character development is vital. I don’t think any of the characters were deeply developed or brought to life. They were instead caricatures of characters. I didn’t understand them, I didn’t identify or relate to them and I certainly didn’t connect with any of them. To really bring a trauma and tragedy to life, it has to be more than just an event. It felt like the author was using abuse in a variety of ways to drive the plot. The abuse is the event, the plot needs to be moved forward through the characters, otherwise the event has no meaning, other than trauma for trauma’s sake.

Books that deal with sexual abuse and trauma are important. Not just for victims of abuse, but also to help people understand the depth of that trauma. Authors that undertake that subject matter have a responsibility to ensure that it is well represented and thoughtfully executed. Unfortunately, this book is a huge miss for me.

Thank you Booksparks for giving me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.