Book review: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah


Title: The Great Alone

Author: Kristin Hannah

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication date: 8th February 2018

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Summary:

“Cora Allbright and her husband Ernt, a recently-returned Vietnam veteran scarred by the war, uproot their thirteen year old daughter Leni to start a new life in Alaska. Utterly unprepared for the weather and the isolation, but welcomed by the close-knit community, they fight to build a home in this harsh, beautiful wilderness.

At once an epic story of human survival and love, and an intimate portrait of a family tested beyond endurance, The Great Alone offers a glimpse into a vanishing way of life in America. With her trademark combination of elegant prose and deeply drawn characters, Kristin Hannah has delivered an enormously powerful story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the remarkable and enduring strength of women.

About the highest stakes a family can face and the bonds that can tear a community apart, this is a novel as spectacular and powerful as Alaska itself. It is the finest example of Kristin Hannah’s ability to weave together the deeply personal with the universal.

My review:

A poignant story of survival, Kristin Hannah weaves a tale of a world so different to ours without losing authenticity. Just like in The Nightingale, this book comprises of a series of beautifully developed characters and a setting so well illustrated that it’s easy to get lost in the story and read the book in one sitting.

My personal favourite element of The Great Alone was the perseverance that was injected into each character. Conditions in Alaska are rarely suitable for normal life and everyone has to get accustomed to the harsh temperatures and predators around yet endurance played a big part in this book which created a genuine and profound atmosphere. The storytelling from Leni’s life prior to Alaska through to her struggles with her father and desire to escape is brilliant and the sentences flow freely, painting a picture that the reader can easily imagine. The moments of despair and fear, although difficult to read through at times, were part of what made the survival aspect so realistic and played a huge role in the character growth.

Another key factor that I believe led to the widespread success of this book is the setting. It becomes clear right as the Allbrights drive towards their new home that the author has done a lot of research into life in Alaska. The characters and setting complement each other extremely well and it is easy to see how the Allbrights are both in awe of the Alaskan wilderness and also somewhat frightened by its magnitude. It was especially interesting to follow the family through the years and support Leni through her struggles (and there were many of all sorts but I don’t want to give too much away!).

For me, the storyline went downhill at around the 80% mark. Suddenly it felt as if the author was in a rush to end Leni’s story even though prior to this point each moment was beautifully detailed and savoured. So many events occur towards the end that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which parts irked me but as I finished the last few pages I was left with a feeling of disappointment despite the bitersweet ending.

Kristin Hannah is an incredibly talented writer and it truly shows in The Great Alone. I hope that all readers who decide to pick up this book are just as satisfied with this book as I was and are able to find closure in the ending.

Book review: The Humans by Matt Haig


Title: The Humans

Author: Matt Haig

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Canongate Books

Publication date: 9th May 2013

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Summary:

One wet Friday evening, Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University solves the world’s greatest mathematical riddle. Then he disappears.
When he is found walking naked along the motorway, Professor Martin seems different. Besides the lack of clothes, he now finds normal life pointless. His loving wife and teenage son seem repulsive to him. In fact, he hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton. And he’s a dog.
Can a bit of Debussy and Emily Dickinson keep him from murder? Can the species which invented cheap white wine and peanut butter sandwiches be all that bad? And what is the warm feeling he gets when he looks into his wife’s eyes?

My review:

On the surface The Humans appears to be a witty tale of an alien who is sent to Earth to possess the body of serious Professor Andrew Martin in an attempt to prevent one of the biggest mathematical riddles of being revealed and chasing the future forever. However, a deeper look is enough to understand that this book is really about human nature and a reflection of all the small and big things we may not even realise we do that make us special. Here are some examples that portray the beauty of this book:

“I have to admit that humans waste a lot of their time – almost all of it – with hypothetical stuff. I could be rich. I could be famous. I could have been hit by that bus. I could have been born with fewer moles and bigger breasts. I could have spent more of my youth learning foreign languages. They must exercise the conditional tense more than any other known life form.”

“Oh, and let’s not forget the Things They Do to Make Themselves Happy That Actually Make Them Miserable. This is an infinite list. It includes shopping, watching TV, taking the better job, getting the bigger house, writing a semiautobiographical novel, educating their young, making their skin look mildly less old, and harboring a vague desire to believe there might be a meaning to it all.”

“Now, consider this. A human life is on average 80 Earth years or around 30,000 Earth days. Which means they are born, they make some friends, eat a few meals, they get married, or they don’t get married, have a child or two, or not, drink a few thousand glasses of wine, have sexual intercourse a few times, discover a lump somewhere, feel a bit of regret, wonder where all the time went, know they should have done it differently, realise they would have done it the same, and then they die. Into the great black nothing. Out of space. Out of time. The most trivial of trivial zeroes. And that’s it, the full caboodle. All confined to the same mediocre planet.”

The atmosphere and mood changes swiftly as the plot moves from the alien arriving on Earth and trying to understand human nature to slowly getting used to his new family and finally feeling like a human. There are too many funny and special moments to count, from the brave and remarkable scene of the alien saving Gulliver the son and the amusing occasion where he shares peanut butter with Newton the dog. I laughed and nearly cried out in surprise several times while reading this book and enjoyed reflecting on the little quirks that make us human which were so well represented through the eyes of the alien.

The only downfall for me was the ending which felt a little rushed. Although it celebrated human life in its truest form I would have liked to see more on Andrew Martin’s life rather than an overview. Nevertheless, this didn’t devalue the remaining part of the book and I believe was still the best way to end the story line on a positive note. I highly recommend The Humans to everyone as this is not a book that can fit any category but rather one that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, backgrounds and interests.

Midyear reflection on my blogging and reading goals

Studious Saturday

The end of June is fast approaching which means that we are almost halfway into 2019! I can’t believe how quickly time is flying past; it almost feels like I was celebrating the new year yesterday! As I am slowly starting to organise my shelves and planning out some posts for the coming months I thought that this week’s Studious Saturday post would be a perfect way to look back over the past six months and tie in with my reading and blogging goals for 2019.

Read 55 books

My first goal was quite simple – I wanted to slightly increase the amount of books I read from 50 last year to 55 this year. I must say that I am managing to keep to this goal and have read 28 books as of today so I am 1 book ahead in the challenge. I am still adamant to only stick to books I really want to read as the TBR list is piled way up high with a mixture of backlisted books and new releases and I know that there is never enough time to get through the entire list.

Branch out to other genres

Despite my wish to start reading a mixture of other genres I always tend to run back to thrillers or contemporary fiction when I’m wondering what next to read. I have definitely improved since last year and have read some interesting Science Fiction books with reviews soon to come, but I want to make it a habit and not an exception so please leave me your suggestions of books that are not categorised under the Mystery/Thriller, Contemporary Fiction or Historical Fiction genre!

Discover Spanish Contemporary Literature

Oh, I have definitely discovered it! (If you don’t know what I am referring to you may want to check out my last Studious Saturday post Feria del Libro Madrid ’19 for more details). However, even after buying a book by Julia Navarro that I really want to read I am still putting off reading in Spanish and I am not sure why. This is definitely the goal I am most planning on working on in the upcoming half of 2019.

Schedule my posts in advance

This is the other goal I am hoping to work on. I use a calendar to schedule my posts but writing has been hard recently and I have found myself slowly retreating back to writing and editing posts the day before they are supposed to be published. As summer is now in full swing here in Madrid (it is 41 degrees outside right now), writing posts is the perfect way to spend the hot afternoons after work and I plan to make full use of it.

Design a new look for my blog

One goal is out of the way! I must admit that this is the goal that I was most worried about which is probably why it took me so long to publish my new design. As my one year blogging anniversary approached a few weeks ago I finally decided to publish my new theme and I am much happier with the new look of my blog.

Do you have any goals for 2019 and are you any closer to reaching them as we approach the midpoint of the year?

Book review: Changeling by Matt Wesolowski


Title: Changeling

Author: Matt Wesolowski

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Orenda

Publication date: 24th January 2019

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Summary:

On Christmas Eve in 1988, seven-year-old Alfie Marsden vanished in the Wentshire Forest Pass, when a burst tyre forced his father, Sorrel, to stop the car. Leaving the car to summon the emergency services, Sorrel returned to find his son gone. No trace of the child, nor his remains, have ever been found. Alfie Marsden was declared officially dead in 1995.
Elusive online journalist, Scott King, whose ‘Six Stories’ podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the disappearance, interviewing six witnesses, including Sorrel, his son and his ex-partner, to try to find out what really happened that fateful night. He takes a journey through the trees of the Wentshire Forest – a place synonymous with strange sightings, and tales of hidden folk who dwell there. He talks to a company that tried and failed to build a development in the forest, and a psychic who claims to know where Alfie is…
Intensely dark, deeply chilling and searingly thought provoking, Changeling is an up-to-the-minute, startling thriller, taking you to places you will never, ever forget.

My review:

What a ride! This book was so addictive and intense that I often found myself hurtling through the chapters, desperate for a resolution. Not only was the original idea of following the true crime through a series of podcasts alluring and atmospheric but the execution was just as brilliant with precise storytelling and a wildly unexpected plot twist at the end. Looking back, there is not much that can be criticised as the writing techniques used were flawless and the story line provoked a strong sense of urgency to uncover the mysterious circumstances surrounding Alfie’s disappearance.

One of the main aspects which made the book truly stand out for me was the emphasis on the personification of forest and the chilling nature of its contents. We learn through the experience of several interviewees in the podcasts that Wentshire forest has an alarming supernatural essence that many believe could explain Alfie’s disappearance. The research done in paranormal activity here was ingenious and very well inserted into the plot without verging on implausible but rather tempting the reader through a series of events which suggest that perhaps Alfie wasn’t the innocent child we all believe he was.

My personal opinion is that much of this book’s success is attributed to the format which it is written in which allows for the use of first person narrative and therefore a feeling of a closer relationship with the main character during each podcast recording. The storytelling is of the highest quality as each character involved in the podcast series shares their view on Alfie’s disappearance with the reader almost feeling like Scott King’s partner in attempting to solve the crime and discover the truth one recording after another. Although the storyline was captivating, the retelling of the night Alfie went missing through the more personal approach of a podcast created an atmosphere which could not have been produced if the book was written in a standard third person narrative tale and this unique format made for an even more fantastic story.

This book took over my thoughts completely as I was reading it and even the smallest noises made me jump as I read about the tap-tap-tap noises of the forest. A thriller requires a mixture of techniques to captivate and entertain and I firmly believe that Matt Wesolowski successfully managed to use all these right methods. Brave in concept and brilliant in execution, Changeling is a fantastic thriller that I recommend to everyone seeking a unique reading experience.

Book review: Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech


Title: Call Me Star Girl

Author: Louise Beech

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Orenda

Publication date: 18th April 2019

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Summary:

Tonight is the night for secrets…
Pregnant Victoria Valbon was brutally murdered in an alley three weeks ago – and her killer hasn’t been caught.
Tonight is Stella McKeever’s final radio show. The theme is secrets. You tell her yours, and she’ll share some of hers.
Stella might tell you about Tom, a boyfriend who likes to play games, about the mother who abandoned her, now back after twelve years. She might tell you about the perfume bottle with the star-shaped stopper, or about her father …
What Stella really wants to know is more about the mysterious man calling the station … who says he knows who killed Victoria, and has proof.
Tonight is the night for secrets, and Stella wants to know everything…
With echoes of the chilling Play Misty for Me, Call Me Star Girl is a taut, emotive and all-consuming psychological thriller that plays on our deepest fears, providing a stark reminder that stirring up dark secrets from the past can be deadly…”

My review:

I heard only praise for Louise Beech and was keen to venture into her writing. After much thought I decided to start with her most recent book which is also the first book she has published in the Mystery/Thriller genre. Before I knew it I was thrown into a whole new world involving a complex family relationship and a ghastly murder.

Although the premise of this book is fascinating and the writing brilliant, I really struggled to get into it at first. Looking back, I think that the most aggravating aspect for me were the two main characters: Stella and her mother Elizabeth. Both characters have flaws which they address and try to surpass but as much as I tried I couldn’t warm to either of them. I found it difficult to understand Elizabeth’s perspective of connecting with her daughter years after leaving her behind and I found Stella’s view equally perplexing. After getting past this hurdle I could see the appeal in both characters but it took me a long time and by this point I started to care less about the characters and more about the murder.

Aside from the character building, the storytelling aspect and the multiple techniques used to build up the tension and reveal twists were truly brilliant. I was glued to the pages especially towards the end where the murder is solved and all the missing pieces come together. The plot is rich in detail as the story line builds up and secrets are revealed. The setting of the radio station as Stella presents her final show is atmospheric and chilling. Once I grasped the characters it was very easy for me to get lost in the book and I finished it in only a few sittings, eager for a resolution.

Call Me Star Girl has all the right elements that form an exceptional mystery/thriller book. Although I was not completely convinced by the characters, I was impressed with the effortlessness of Louse Beech’s writing and the fast-paced, complex plot. I am looking forward to exploring more of her writing through her previous books.

Feria del Libro Madrid ’19

Studious Saturday

June is the month of longer and warmer days, summer vibes and of course reading! Here in Madrid it is also the month where books are celebrated and promoted during the festival Feria del Libro which spans over two weeks and takes place in Retiro, one of the most relaxing and beautiful parks in Madrid.

Each year the Feria del Libro hosts publishers big and small and invites authors from all over the world for book signings and more. The organisers work to promote reading by holding talks, round tables and readings from journalists, authors and publicists in order to encourage reading as a hobby for the younger generation as well as advertising some of the recent publications of all genres.

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At the end of Retiro park, stands are put up, displayed with books from all genres and beautifully decorated. Each publisher receives their own stand and it is wonderful to see how different the decorations were according to the type of books they publish, be it comics, children’s books or romance. One of the more ornate stands as pictured above had ribbons and cages descending from the ceiling. Others decided for a more contemporary look with books stacked within reach and displayed by popularity.

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The organisers this year did a wonderful job of providing leaflets to everyone with a layout of the festival and list of author visits and signings so that all its attendees could decide which stand they wanted to visit depending on the event or books they are interested in. Despite the ordered system, the amount of people made it impossible at times to get bearings right. We visited on a Saturday afternoon where Camilla Lackberg was holding a meet and greet and book signing so naturally the queue was already very long but even after getting around to the main entrance we found that it was extremely difficult to get close to some of the more popular stands and at times it was impossible to even walk around the crowds.

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We already discovered that we would have to be strategic as there were too many people that afternoon to allow us to visit every stand. After much thought we decided to start with the ones we were most interested in, comprising of adult contemporary fiction, classics and crime and skip the stands specialising in non-fiction and other sub-genres of fiction. Needless to say, these were some of the most popular stands so, after struggling to walk to the front of the stand, we spent a long time browsing books. Although we didn’t talk to any authors or publishers, we could see that they were all very pleased to be at the event and willing to answer questions and speak to people interested in their books. It was also wonderful to see many people buying books for themselves and discussing with their friends and family or even starting to read already on the grass or under the shade.

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By far the most popular stands of all were those specialising in children’s books as here most authors were hosting readings of their recently published books. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many children interested in books and it was also great how encouraging their parents were. Spain is a country where reading is very popular amongst adults but I am happy that it is also becoming a widespread hobby amongst children.

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Our visit came to an end with our final stop at the stand where Julia Navarro was holding her signing. I was so pleased to see so many people interested in her newest book but disappointed that I came unprepared and didn’t bring my book from home for her to sign.

Although the crowds made it difficult for us to enjoy the Feria del Libro fully, we had a great time and discovered some more books that are going to our TBR lists. I have already decided that next year I will plan my visit better by checking when authors are holding signings on the website and going at a quieter time during the week.

Feria del Libro is on until tomorrow 16th June and I highly recommend it to anyone that is in Madrid  this weekend!

Book review: No Way Out by Cara Hunter


Title: No Way Out

Author: Cara Hunter

Genre: Crime

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 18th April 2019

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Summary:

DID YOU SEE ANYTHING ON THE NIGHT THE ESMOND FAMILY WERE MURDERED?
From the author of CLOSE TO HOME and IN THE DARK comes the third pulse-pounding DI Fawley crime thriller.
It’s one of the most disturbing cases DI Fawley has ever worked.
The Christmas holidays, and two children have just been pulled from the wreckage of their burning home in North Oxford. The toddler is dead, and his brother is soon fighting for his life.
Why were they left in the house alone? Where is their mother, and why is their father not answering his phone?
Then new evidence is discovered, and DI Fawley’s worst nightmare comes true.
Because this fire wasn’t an accident.
It was murder.

My review:

After finishing Close to Home and In the Dark, it quickly became clear that Cara Hunter had become my current favourite Crime author and I couldn’t wait for No Way Out to be published. I had taken a small break from reading before I started this book and looking back, I am glad that I chose this one to get back into reading because I suddenly found myself hurrying through the chapters as I attempted to solve the crime together with the team. Like its predecessors, this book is so gripping and tense that I had to stop myself from devouring it in one sitting. The pace is just right, with not too many facts related to the murder revealed but still enough gradually disclosed to encourage the reader to follow the story until the end in the struggle to catch the murderer.

Unlike the previous two books in the series where the focus was the crime scene and investigation, in No Way Out there is a lot of attention on the main character, DI Fawley, and his team. As he is likeable and mysterious, I enjoyed the details related to his personal life just as much as the murder investigation. Other secondary characters such as DC Gislingham were also developed further in this book and by the end it was easy to make a distinction in their character traits and styles of working, something which I felt was lacking in previous book. The character growth did not weaken the plot or decrease the complexity in the investigation but rather complemented these aspects nicely and created a different kind of atmosphere both on and off the police station which I enjoyed following.

The most compelling elements in Cara Hunter’s writing is the level of detail in the investigation and the twists thrown in as the plot unravels. Rarely are crime books so rich in detail but here the reader is forced to pay attention to the smallest facts in order to fully understand the bigger picture and even then the ending is extremely difficult to guess. The additional pieces such as social media posts and fire report are refreshing and effective in registering human emotion through the public’s views on such a horrid event. Through the use of these writing mechanisms, Cara Hunter has successfully produced a striking third addition to the series that is a must-read for all Crime addicts. I have struggled to find a similar author of this caliber in the genre and I cannot wait for the next book in the series to be published so I can experience the same kind of intensity and desire to solve the crime that I did in No Way Out.