book review: the great alone by kristin hannah

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I’m REALLY glad I read this in early 2019 so that I don’t have to say Beartown and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry were no longer my favorite books of the year. They can stand proudly in 2018. BUT this book was AMAZING. Standing at my “favorite book of the year” for 2019 (unless somehow there’s something even better ahead) is Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone.

I did not love The Nightingale, but this story’s protag Leni had me from page 1. This girl is the daughter of a very PTSD-burdened Vietnam vet and a former-rich-girl hippie (who’s a little too attractive for her husband’s preference). There are so many memorable moments in the complex relationship between Ernt and Cora, but the most telling was a conversation Leni overhears where her parents confess they are each other’s “heroin”—and how as the girl ages, her perception of what it means to love vs. need another person means. Her own experience with young love is captivating because her fear and confusion change the way she perceives other people’s affection.

Leni’s story is both tragic and empowering. The setting of the most-remote-of-the-remote outskirts of civilization in Alaska is stunningly beautiful and also terrifying. I learned so much about that place alongside the main character… you really feel the constant pressure of living in an environment where everything wants to kill you. And in Leni’s case, it isn’t just the weather or the wild animals.

A lot of really great minor characters bring this story to a high level of reality. This is a weird description, but it felt like if this book was a movie, all the minor characters would be played by huge A-list stars. Even the people who only showed up once or twice were hugely impacting and memorably written. Each of them was a big plus to making the world of the book so immersive.

The father’s descent left my feeling hugely conflicted as the reader. I wanted so badly for Leni’s family to heal but feared (no, knew) they never would. The writing gives you such a good picture of the victims of domestic violence but also the victims of PTSD. It was heart-wrenchingly beautiful to read. Not that the author ever excuses the terrible things that are done, but it felt like the opposite picture from Jack’s story on the great TV show This Is Us. Like one little nudge in the wrong direction at a vulnerable time… you’re left with an awful sense of “what if.”

While giving the warning that there are a lot of potential triggers for readers (characters experience domestic violence, loss, anarchy propaganda from a colony of crazies)—I highly recommend this story. What an experience to read and enjoy. This is far more than a ‘coming of age’ story or even a ‘man vs wild’ story of defeating the untameable Alaska wilderness. It’s not really a “how I overcame my crappy start in life” bit, either. It is all that, but much more, and with a sweet love story to boot.



             

book review: the expats by chris pavone

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In my secret life where I am a spy, I am Kate Moore. She’s a stay-at-home mom with a little bit of a, ahem, unique backstory. She used to work for the CIA. This book basically tells the story of why it’s “used to.” Hint: she has a husband and two kids now and maybe that was a hard balance.

This book had a lot of great individual sequences (a ski accident told in moment-by-moment, tumbling detail was particularly memorable for me). There are a lot of palpable details of the settings, which gave it the feel of a fun international-spy-James-Bond film: rich colors, smells, music, fabrics, foods.

The relationship between Kate and her husband was the hook to this story. There’s an element of Mr. & Mrs. Smith here, where you watch them learn about each other, but also some very normal parenting moments. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of her two worlds. Dexter is a super nerd, specializing in bank cyber security... or is he? [cue dramatic music]

Downsides of the book were some random (very fleeting) scenes of violence and sexuality, as well as the ending. I won’t spoil anything and I’m ALL for twists but this one felt like it had one too many twists. The man-behind-the-man-behind-the-man-behind-the-man is ok, but not one more. But it didn’t ruin the book, I just rolled my eyes a couple times. Also there’s some timeline jumping (i.e. five years ago, two years ago, last summer), which was a smidge harder to follow than I think it should have been.

Overall, I laughed a bunch, and I liked watching Kate’s conflict when she tries to live a normal life and finds herself constantly questioning everyone’s motives. She has a firm “I will never investigate my family” policy that she finds herself increasingly questioning. It’s an intriguing premise, especially when the family’s beautiful flat in Luxembourg has a perfect view of the prime minister’s office balcony. [cue dramatic music]



             

whales, horses, and Reykjavik (journey to iceland, part 4)

Whales of Iceland was a great museum. Actually, almost all of the museums we’ve done here were excellent. Modern, technologically advanced, super interactive. This exhibit in particular was great. They let me touch the whales which were squishier than you’d think! Felt very convincing, not that I’ve ever touched a whale.

Kramer was on the street too. The street art here—delightful. Beautiful churches! Everything here is so old, just ancient compared to things we see at home.

I’m also throwing in a picture of two of my cousin’s hair that I braided for our dinner out because it turned out amazing, and I’m proud of that.

One other random addition, the Star Wars bathroom of Cafe Babalu. This place had great reviews, but the service wasn’t good (mean guy at the counter) and the food was only ok. We just got dessert.

The Icelandic Horse was a HUGE highlight. The staff here was super experienced and made a bunch of novices like us feel safe. My horse’s name was Kambur. He was adorable but nippy. Turned out at the end that they are all just a nibbly breed; as soon as they let them free, they all started chewing on each other’s necks. It was hilarious! They are also huge herding horses, and I’ve never ridden on a horse who wanted to be so close to his buddies. It wasn’t like our boots were brushing other riders—our legs were pressed flat against the horse beside us. They moved like an adorably hairy mob! Once when we stopped, the horse beside me literally laid his head down on the butt of the horse in front of him and closed his eyes. Like just taking a quick nap on my friend’s bummie.

The last thing we did was dinner out at the Salt Kitchen. It was delicious! The decor was gorgeous and the servers were really nice, too.



             

Þingvellir national park (journey to iceland, part 3)

One stop we didn’t want to rush on the Golden Circle was Þingvellir national park. We saw the clearest water under the bluest sky! Also we learned SO many fascinating things about Icelandic history. We actually got kicked out of the museum because we stayed until closing time… ‘American tourists, we are closing, please go home.’



             

aurora showcase (journey to iceland, part 2)

If you aren’t familiar with the aurora, how it looks in pictures and how it looks to your eyes in person are not the same. So while the shapes are exactly as I remember from last night, this is far more color saturated because of the length of time a camera lens stays open. (At least that is how the dude on the trip explained it.)