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.

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.

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.

Book review: A Face in the Crowd by Kerry Wilkinson


Title: A Face in the Crowd

Author: Kerry Wilkinson

Genre: Mystery/Thriller

Publisher: Bookouture

Publication date: 6th June 2019

My rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Summary:

Lucy gets the same bus every day. This Friday, her journey home will change her life.
She can barely afford her bus ride, tries to avoid eye contact, and, if she’s really lucky, she gets a seat and reads a chapter of her book.
But it’s a Friday – and the bus is always crammed at the end of the week. Personal space doesn’t exist. She keeps her elbows close and clings to a pole at every juddering stop.
When she gets off, something feels different.
An envelope stuffed with thousands of pounds is in her bag.
Is it the answer to her prayers, or the beginning of a nightmare?

My review:

A Face in the Crowd follows Lucy, an ordinary character struggling to make ends meet as she attempts to pay off debts that her dead ex-boyfriend imposed on her by taking out loans under her name. The first person narrative contributes to an engaging story line and a sympathy for Lucy and her simple life. Unfortunately, as much as I tried, I couldn’t grow to like her because her character was missing the courage and ambition that a main character involved in such a situation is expected to show. After constant complaints and little desire to improve her living situation, there was little else left to her personality. The other minor characters are unnecessary as they weave in and out of the main story line.

In terms of plot, there was much left to be desired as soon as the main reasons for her financial circumstances were revealed. It would be as simple as checking her bank statements each month to avoid getting stuck in her situation but it seemed that she hadn’t learnt this lesson as she continued to make similar mistakes after she found the large sum of money in her purse. Attempts to look for the responsible person in odd ways such as bribing the security man weakened the plot and created a sense of surrealism difficult to relate to, as is the case in almost all psychological thrillers. The sudden change of events, although supported by a strong and unexpected plot twist, did not add up to the previous facts already revealed and instead of answering the main question of who left the money and why, raised more questions that were not addressed in the ending.

Although the plot and characters were missing depth for me, the steady pace and suspense kept me interested. Lucy may not be the most exciting character nor does the original idea behind the plot seem unique but the plot twists were well delivered and mostly unexpected. An unusual choice for the Mystery/Thriller genre, A Face in the Crowd was not what I expected but a good reminder to beware of the people closest to us as they are usually the ones hiding the deepest secrets that could hurt us.

A Face in the Crowd will be out to buy on 6th June!

Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a free advanced reader’s copy in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens


Book Cover

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing

Author: Delia Owens

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Corsair

Publication date: 8th November 2018

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Summary:

“For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life – until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Celeste Ng, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

My review:

A touching tale of survival, hope and resilience, Where the Crawdads Sing was one of the bestsellers in the Historical Fiction genre in 2018 and rightfully so. There are so many aspects that make this book truly great and a special read to cherish for a long time.

Kya is a young girl, left to face life’s struggles alone after her mother walks away from her abusive father and her siblings soon follow the same path. The beginning of this book explores Kya’s strengths, weaknesses, fears and hopes in great detail and the reader is able to join her on this incredible journey of survival as she bravely faces each challenge. Aside from Kya’s unique character traits, the author successfully portrays the remaining minor characters as vital companions to Kya’s survival, from her close allies Jumpin’ and Mabel, to her first friend, Tate. Each character is so wonderfully developed and integrated in the novel that it becomes hard not to appreciate ones that we should dislike such as Chase Andews and his friends who label Kya as “the Marsh girl”.

Another element that makes this book stand out is the beautiful setting of the marsh and the effortless way in which the author depicts the smallest creatures and atmospheric surroundings of Kya’s home. Nature’s wonders are celebrated throughout this book as Kya learns how to take care of herself by making the marshland her habitat and discovers the hundreds of species that she shares her home with. Not only did I find this aspect educational, but also immensely powerful and engaging. Few books published in this genre have used the environment or countryside as a backdrop to the story line as it seems too complex to achieve or perhaps not suited to the plot. However, in Where the Crawdads Sing, the marsh is so alive that it almost becomes another character:

“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

On a final note, perhaps the most impressive literary element in Where the Crawdads Sing is the beautiful writing. The storytelling is mesmerising and I often felt unable to put the book down as I was so immersed in the plot. Words flow so naturally in this book and there were so many sentences and phrases that I wanted to bookmark and refer to later on. Few authors are able to create such a delightful setting and completely capture the reader’s attention and I found it remarkable just how powerful the writing was.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a celebration of nature and the strength that one needs to overcome tragedy and meet the challenges of life head on. A mixture of unique characters, compelling writing and a beautiful setting make this book a success and one that should be praised in all its forms. It is by far the most special book that I have read this year and one that I will be recommending to everyone around me.