Coming of age in 1970s Alaska… you don’t want to miss this book…

As a reader, I’ve seen Kristin Hannah books everywhere. I’ve never bought one. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps it was fate, because I was meant to read this Kristin Hannah book.

Either way, requesting an ARC, being ever so kindly granted an ARC, and reading THE GREAT ALONE over the holidays was the perfect way to end a year and start a new one.

This book is long, 450 pages, but I could not put it down and I read it in five days between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s one of those books you rush through because you can’t stop and then it’s over and you’re sad… until you realize you can read it again, almost like new because you read it so fast, and all is well again.
I’m not the only one who feels that way about books, am I?

Anyway, I started reading this tale of wild, untamed Alaska at what might seem like an inopportune moment because I live in Erie and for Christmas Erie got… sixty-some inches of snow in the two days before I started this book. I mean, who wants to read about Arctic weather while you are living it?

Me. Apparently.

I knew this for a fact when I started the book and got to 12% without looking up long enough to realize it had snowed another two inches. This after days of being a little weather-obsessed.

Hannah has created a masterpiece for me with this story. The backdrop of remote, unpredictable Alaska being combined with the struggles of a Vietnam POW and a coming of age story for a teenage girl is immediately haunting and magical.

Ernt Allbright is listless and tormented in regular life after surviving years as a POW during the Vietnam War. He loves his wife, Cora, and his thirteen year old daughter, Leni, but he doesn’t know how to… he doesn’t know how to be. So when a man named Earl Harlan writes to tell him that his son Bo, who died in Vietnam, would want Ernt to have his land in Alaska, the Allbrights leave Seattle for Alaska.

Earl, as it turns out, is more commonly known as Mad Earl and spends his days with his family in a compound that’s part survivalist, part doomsday prepper, and part anarchist. Mad Earl brings Ernt into the fold and they feed off each other, creating a powder keg that’s always ready to spark. More so for Ernt and the demons he battles from the war.

Leni makes friends in Alaska, despite it all, even developing a crush on a boy. The boy is the son of the man Ernt thinks has eyes for Cora, which doesn’t help anything. The tiny town rallies around Cora and Leni as Ernt begins to beat his wife. The tragedy is that Cora doesn’t think there’s any way out, that as long as Ernt doesn’t hit Leni, that he still loves her…

Her constant refrain to her daughter is that “I wish you remembered him before…” and that becomes a sort of theme for the novel. Everyone has a Before and sometimes it’s all you can do to hold tight and fast to that fleeting memory.

As I said, rural Alaska provides a deadly backdrop for the topics and threads that Hannah weaves seamlessly together. Domestic abuse, coming of age, race relations in the 1970s, mental health care for veterans, political beliefs, the wealthy versus the poor, how the law treats women and how it treats men…

There are parts of THE GREAT ALONE that could seem a little forced, a little too perfect. I think they work. They’re forgivable because of everything else that this book is. I can’t go into too much detail because they’re spoilers and I very much need for you to read this book asap.

Seriously. I know this makes for a terrible review but, let’s face it, if you’re following me, reading my reviews… we have similar tastes in books so there’s a strong you’ll love this book as much as I did. Do. Definitely still love this book.

The rest of the books I’m going to read in 2018, be warned. The bar has been set HIGH.

(Also, if you’re seeing this on the book page on Goodreads or something… just get it. You already want to. You won’t regret it.)

(I received a copy of THE GREAT ALONE from NetGalley & the publisher in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

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Russia, Russia, Russia… this time in fiction, probably

Russia, Russia, Russia.

No, this isn’t a current events article on the state of things in the world. It could be (and that’s kind of frightening) but it’s not.

This is a review of Karen Cleveland’s spy thriller NEED TO KNOW.

The synopsis as posted on NetGalley, who were kind enough to grant me an ARC of the book, kind of, sort of seems to give away the game in that I knew when I thought ‘yes! I want to read that!’ that a CIA analyst’s husband works as a Russian sleeper agent. That’s why I hit ‘request’ on the page, because it sounded good. And yet the reveal scene, where Vivian finds out that Matt is not actually Matt at all, is really intense. When it shouldn’t be… because I knew he was going to be a Russian agent. So kudos for that reveal!

The theme of the book, even more than Russian sleeper agents everywhere!, seems to be the question of just what would you do if, say, you were a CIA analyst (specializing in Russia, of course) and you found out your husband (and the father of your four children) had been a Russian agent for two decades, give or take. What would you do if, say, he said “no, I never told them anything about you or your work” and “you have to turn me in” in the same breath? Do you believe him? Do you still believe him as more and more lies drip out? Do you find that you still love him despite the lies and despite the fact that you’re now stuck in a giant hole whose walls are about to collapse?

Vivian errs on the side of what seems to be self-preservation. That’s understandable. It’s also questionable. It makes her look pretty terrible at her job, when she’s supposed to be this expert at uncovering handlers and ringleaders, so that the CIA can find the agents. Vivian tells the story of dealing with the revelation about Matt (Alexander) in the present tense, which does make for very intense, dramatic storytelling. She flashes back to earlier moments in their relationship in the past tense, which makes for not the most compelling portrait of her intelligence gathering skills.

Can love really make a person so blind that, as a new mother in a new marriage, you’re not like “I don’t know, honey, I like working the Africa desk… why do you think it’s so important I move to the Russia section? And, you know, not stay home with the kids?”

I don’t know. I’m not a CIA agent (thanks to those who are, I could never be one), but Karen Cleveland was in the CIA so I’ll take her word for it, despite my questions. And maybe those questions, maybe Vivian not being super great at her job, at least as it relates to her personal life, are what makes it such a compelling story, one that I could not put down.

There is an ‘80s Cold War vibe to NEED TO KNOW, which is fun and intense. It doesn’t seem out of place either, since there’s a ‘80s Cold War vibe to the present day, which is less fun and more intense.

It’s a quick read. It’s an intense read. It’d make a great tv show. It’s fun! If you like thrillers and espionage, with a touch of romance, please be getting this book!

P.S. I feel like there could be a sequel, given the reveals that end the book. I would definitely read a sequel!

3.75/5 stars

(I received a copy of NEED TO KNOW through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own. My review is posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.)

spoiler alert: The Founding Fathers hated each other…

So… “Hamilton” is a thing. You can’t get much more all-American than George Washington. Jefferson created the basis for the laws we still follow today. And there are a handful of other Founding Fathers we learn about in elementary school, and then probably forget unless somebody asks us “who is on the $1 bill?” or their birthday means we get a day off from work or school.

But do you know what we don’t learn about the Founding Fathers in elementary school?

That they kinda hated each other with an awesome sort of passion.

I sort of knew this, especially since Alexander Hamilton was the sort of guy who would duel and be killed by Aaron Burr, the Vice President!

There is so much more to the feuds of the Founding Fathers, though. So very much more. And Paul Aron lays it all out brilliantly in FOUNDING FEUDS.

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If you ever need a good, old-timey insult to fling at somebody during a political debate (and who doesn’t need an insult in a political debate?), look no further than the Founding Fathers. After all, Aron cites William Cobbett saying of Thomas Paine (English and European, but also greatly influencing the creation of America was we know it):

How Tom gets a living now, or what brothel he inhabits, I know not. Whether his carcass is at last to be suffered to rot on the earth, or to be dried in the air, is of very little consequence… Like Judas he will be remembered by posterity; men will learn to express all that is base, malignant, treacherous, unnatural and blasphemous, by the singly monosyllable, Paine.

And they were friends! (Sometimes.)

But that’s just a taste.

It’s really not surprising that they showed and shared such a deep-rooted dislike for and distrust of one another. Their egos and senses of self had to be huge to think they could start a revolution and found a country. No way they could all peacefully co-exist without proverbial, and sometimes literal, bloodshed.

So if you need a break from the political bickering that’s currently and always ongoing, I could not recommend something more than I can recommend this book. The vaunted Founding Fathers argued in a much classier way, and they weren’t afraid to mince their words. It’s great!

(I received a copy of FOUNDING FEUDS through NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“A Want of Kindness” by Joanne Limburg

33271065If I have a weakness when it comes to books, a fail-safe fallback genre, it is historical fiction. Specifically historical fiction based on queens and kings. Specifically based on queens and kings of England. Show me a queen on a cover or in a blurb and I will read that book.

It is not, therefore, at all surprising that I was excited to read Joanne Limburg’s A WANT OF KINDNESS.

To make it even more appealing, her story is centered on Queen Anne of England. Queen Anne, if you don’t know, is not like either Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Queen Mary, or the wives of Henry VIII who were queens who did not rule. Queen for only five years, her reign was neither glamorous nor marked by controversy nor long enough to qualify for Hollywood films. She was the second oldest daughter of King James II and she succeeded the William III, who had ruled jointly with her sister, Mary. She was the last monarch from the House of Stuart, as she died childless. Childless despite at least seventeen pregnancies and only one child, a son, surviving as far as age 11. She was married from 1677 until her husband’s death in 1708. So her story is one of tragedy, on the whole, and yet the beauty of a reportedly loving marriage despite so much tragedy.

This, perhaps not surprisingly, does not make the sort of thing Hollywood believes it can make money on. And, to be honest, it probably can’t.

It’s really too bad.

I first learned about Queen Anne in my college English history class, and even the professor talked about seventeen pregnancies and no children. And then we moved quickly on, because Queen Victoria was coming after some Georges. I have thought about her sometimes since, wanting to know more but never wanting it badly enough to search out a biography. I’m a terrible history buff sometimes!

But this book, this fictionalized account of Queen Anne’s life from her childhood to her ascension, is really quite incredible. Possibly because, despite not having the glitz, glamour, intrigue, and longevity of the more famous queens, she lived in an incredible time. She was at the center of religious upheaval. She had seen her father, her uncle, and her grandfather struggle in their reigns. She witnessed wars with France and Spain and the Netherlands.

So Limburg’s fictionalized account Anne’s life is not what can usually be read about queens and kings. The intrigue is not romantic. She never had affairs, though it could be argued from her letters – actual things Anne wrote that Limburg uses to illustrate the story – that she had something bordering on romantic love for Sarah Churchill. She tried to do good, for herself and her family, for her country, and for all. And she succeeded, most of the time, even if it never really seems like it. And the reason it never really seems like it is because she never gets her happy ending. Never gets the things she wants more than any other.

Queen Anne deserves more recognition as an important part of British history. She truly is one of the most tragic, yet interesting rulers of England I have read about. And Limburg’s portrayal makes her all the more fascinating and charismatic.

If you have a weakness for this genre, and don’t mind a distinct lack of bursting corsets and illicit rendezvous in shadowy corners, this book is a definite Must Read.

(I received a copy of A WANT OF KINDNESS through NetGalley and Pegasus Books in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Mad Miss Mimic” by Sarah Henstra

I freakin’ love this book! And I am so sad it only took me two days to read it! I’m going to read it again, no doubt about it.

But onto the details first…

Sarah Henstra’s MAD MISS MIMIC is about one Leonora Sommerville who lives in Hastings House with her sister and her doctor brother-in-law in Victorian era London. Leo, as she prefers to be called is seventeen and her older sister is desperately trying to marry her off despite the facts that she suffers from selective mutism, stuttering, and outbursts of mimicry. Naturally, Dr. and Mrs. Dewhurst decide the bad doctor’s business partner, the future Lord Rosbury, is the perfect match for the unmarried sister – he needs a pretty wife who won’t say much, after all.

This does not work out, for anyone.

As you might expect.

Dr. Dewhurst is perfecting the art of morphine, on the poor of London who suffer terribly at his hands, while keeping his wife dosed up on laudanum. The future Lord Rosbury is arguing for a ban on opium after getting very rich already on importing opium into England. Leo figures she really ought to get married to someone who doesn’t mind her speech problems, of which her sister is absolutely horrible about, so she resigns herself to a life as Lady Rosbury.

But then…

Somebody keeps blowing things up in London and killing people, all related to the potential opium ban. And Leo begins to suspect that Dr. Dewhurst and her future husband isn’t all it seems on the surface. So, with the help of Tom – the lockpick, pickpocket, mechanical genius who is working against the partnership already, she begins to investigate.

And the twist there? Tom loves Leo and Leo loves Tom.

All the wrong social circles, though, of course.

But there is drama, there is suspense, there is medicine, there is mystery, there is history, there is romance, there is angst, there is love… and everybody should read this book!

(I received a copy of MAD MISS MIMIC through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue

I didn’t realize I managed to read Imbolo Mbue’s BEHOLD THE DREAMERS just three days but, apparently, I did. Thanks for keeping track, Goodreads addiction of mine!

I think I didn’t realize because I got lost so fast and so hard in this fantastic story of what America means to those who are born here and to those who come here. It seemed like I spent weeks in the fictional lives of Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian illegal immigrant, and Clark Edwards, a high powered Wall Street man, as they traverse the uncertain world just before the and just after the 2008 economic recession. And it seemed wholly appropriate to start the book, left too long on my to-read list, just after recent events made news.

I think I appreciated Mbue’s novel more because I read it when I did. I didn’t mean to read a politically, socially relevant to current events story. I meant to read a book by a POC for the reading challenge I’m doing. I accomplished both and I could not be more pleased with it.

Mbue is an immigrant to America from Limbe, Cameroon – the hometown she gives Jende and Neni Jonga – who now lives in New York City. This makes the story that much richer, because she tells a story of her people, a story she knows. And I feel more educated for it. My favorite kind of fictional book is the one that teaches me something and this book taught me a lot.

It isn’t always an easy read. I found myself wanting to shout at Jende for how he treats his wife, Neni. I wanted to hate Clark Edwards because I do not like the power of Wall Street. But… when I sat back and thought about it, none of that made sense. Jende’s chauvinistic, domineering, my-way-or-the-highway persona is… real. Not being a Cameroonian immigrant, I completely trust Mbue on this. The way he treats Neni, as though he is lord of all things, and the way he is subservient to Clark Edwards to an extreme, as though he truly believes Clark is his better, is no doubt indicative of how immigrants straddle two worlds when they come to America. And Clark, though he is one of the main power players at Lehman Brothers, has motivations for working constantly and not seeing his family enough and his motivations are his family. He’s doing what he knows how to do, straddling two worlds as he tries to be two men. I have to imagine, not being a rich New Yorker, that his is not an uncommon, yet human struggle among families there.

I am so glad I read this book and I encourage everyone to read it too. It’s so important and so good.

And now I want to try Cameroonian food too, after Mbue’s mouth-wateringly vivid descriptions!

(I received a copy of BEHOLD THE DREAMERS through NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History” by Bill Schutt


I don’t remember exactly why seeing Bill Schutt’s CANNIBALISM: A PERFECTLY NATURAL HISTORY on NetGalley made me think “ooh, I need to read that book” but I requested it. I got it. I added it to my To Be Read list. And I didn’t read it. But then… I decided to do a reading challenge for 2017 (and by “do a reading challenge” I do mean “attempt and probably fail a reading challenge”) and events went sort of like this…

I scanned the list of categories to assign books, because when you feel overwhelmed by something you chose to do you should always make it more complicated. I saw the category “A Book About Food.” I remembered that I had an ARC of Bill Schutt’s book on cannibalism. I stopped looking for other books on food.

It was a good match.

And it became a perfect match after I read the book.

Truth be told, I liked this book so much family and friends got tired of me telling them about it. I have no regrets about continuing to tell them about it, even as and partly because they proved some of Schutt’s points about cannibalism being a taboo that still brings out strong opinions – like my pregnant sister being very defensive over the idea that breastfeeding might be a form of cannibalism.

But talking about books is what makes them worth reading, in my humble opinion. And I refused to be swayed from that.

One of the odder things about the book, however, is that I found the first half, the half about cannibalism in the animal kingdom far more interesting than the part of the book about human and human related cannibalism. I think that may be because the human part focused so heavily on BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and the kuru that affected the Fore tribe of New Guinea. That was an awful lot of science for the non-science mind that I possess. Chromosomes and genetics and adapted virus are just… 

I like history so the explanations, more in depth than I’ve read before, of Christopher Columbus and how he maybe turned the larger part of the Caribbean and Central America into would-be cannibals because he found no gold to speak of and needed to make money on heathen cannibal slaves were perfect for my history mind.

And the story about how former President George H.W. Bush narrowly escaped being food… I did not know that!

What made the still science-y part of animal kingdom cannibalism readable and enjoyable to a lay person like me was Schutt’s jokes, self-deprecating humor, and editorial asides on everything. it made a book that could be required reading for a college biology course fun. And it made me kind of, whatever that says about me, obsessed with the topic. 

Not that I’m about to start cooking up my neighbors. I like the history of it, the clear and logical explanations for it as survival, and the way it was presented.

I am so glad I requested this book and I think it fits perfectly a a “Book About Food”!

(I received an advance copy of this book through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)