The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah has done it again! Her newest novel, The Great Alone, which releases in February 2018, is absolutely stunning.

The story begins in 1974 when Lenora Allbright (Leni) is 13 years old and once again the new kid at school, having changed schools multiple times mainly because of her father’s wrath and inability to keep a job. Leni’s father, Ernt, was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, and since he has been back, his own family household has become the front line of battle with his white hot anger and temper. Leni’s mother, Cora, tries to tiptoe around Ernt in order to keep their glass house from shattering, but she rarely escapes the wrath of Ernt, which Leni witnesses it all the time. Just when Leni hopes they might finally settle down in one place so her father can be happy, Ernt loses yet another job, and the family is uprooted again. This time, however, her parents pack up the VW van and the family of three heads to a remote island in the Alaskan wilderness. One of Ernt’s war comrades who passed away in Vietnam, Bo Harlan, left Ernt his ramshackle homestead in Kaneq, on the Kenai Peninsula. Ernt feels this is a sign, and a big break for the family that they must not pass up. What they don’t realize then is that Alaska will change the course of Leni’s future forever. All of their futures, actually.

Other than a few neighbors down the road a ways, the Allbright’s rustic cabin is in an untamed area of Alaska, where the winters are unforgiving and severe and the wildlife extremely dangerous. Leni and her mother get to know some strong Alaskan women, learning all they can from them regarding planting, fishing, and preparing food and adequate shelter for winter. Large Marge, a former lawyer who runs the small general store in town, takes them under her wing and provides Leni a security she has never felt before. Ernt gets close to Bo’s father, Mad Earl Harlan and his clan, and together Ernt and Earl, both paranoid quick to rage, arrange all-out crazy plans for surviving when “TSHTF” with the government.

Meanwhile, Leni starts school with the very few other school-age inhabitants of Kaneq, including the only other student her age, Matthew Walker. Matthew’s family has been very successful in Alaska for many generations, starting with his grandparents who started the town of Kaneq. Matthew’s father, Tom, plans to use some of his wealth to modernize and improve Kaneq, opening up the island for tourism. This, and the fact that Tom seems to have a keen eye for his wife, Cora, only enrages Ernt Allbright more. Ernt directs his hatred and anger toward the Walkers and anything to do with their family, including Matthew, of course. Though her father forbids Leni from seeing Matthew, Leni grows closer and closer with him, finding in him a first best friend and first love all at the same time.

For Leni, the dangers outside of the cabin and in the wilderness are much less than those she faces in her own home. As the years pass and Leni grows up, she and her mother are both terrified to stay, and terrified to leave, knowing that Ernt will track them down no matter what. Now, at the age of 18 and graduating from high school, Leni dreams of going to college with Matthew and studying photography. However, her father forbids her from leaving Kaneq, in his mad fury to control each and every move she and her mother make. He even goes as far as to build a wall, locking the family on their property and locking everyone else out. A horrific tragedy strikes as Leni is finally able to make an escape, and what happens after will keep readers on the edge of their seats through a roller-coaster of fear, guilt, regret, love, and longing.

Hannah’s description of the land and stark beauty of Alaska are breathtaking. The author’s notes explain that Hannah’s own father ended up in Alaska in search of great adventure, and they have all “fallen in love with the Last Frontier.” Her experience with Alaska is evident in the atmospheric scenes throughout the novel. The writing is raw and real. Readers will feel the naked fear and loneliness of Leni and Cora as they struggle to survive in the great alone of Alaska, trapped in a family crisis with no easy way out. I couldn’t put this book down, much like my experience with all of Hannah’s novels. The fact that the setting for this novel was very personal for Hannah made it even more enjoyable for me as the reader. I would highly recommend The Great Alone to anyone who enjoys adventure, suspense, romance, and coming-of-age novels, because this one has it all.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy of this title.

 

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The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

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The River at Night is one of the best suspenseful, action-packed thrillers that I’ve read in quite some time. It’s a debut novel from author Erica Ferencik, and what a brilliant first novel it is! The story pacing rolls and twists erratically, much like the dangerous river Wini, Pia, Rachel, and Sandra are rafting through the remote Maine wilderness. Ferencik’s characters are vividly portrayed, each uniquely drawn but vitally important to the story. The four women have been friends for many years, but don’t spend as much time together as they would like. Pia, the most adventuresome, fearless and usual leader of the group, plans a trip to the Allagash wilderness in a remote mountainous area of Maine, 30 miles from the closet town. The plan is to meet up with a river guide, Rory, a complete stranger they will have to trust with their lives to get them down the river safely. Despite the trepidation and worry involved with trying something new, Wini and the others are excited for a fun annual girls trip together. Wini is especially excited to have something to focus on, after losing her younger brother and the recent end to her 15 year marriage. The women have no idea what kind of adventure, danger, and thrills await them on the river and in the surrounding wilderness.

Rory is a twenty year old, ruggedly handsome playboy making money by offering guided trips down the raging river. Pia and Rory hit it off a little too well, causing some heated tension between the women. However, they must put their feelings aside, realizing that they depend on Rory for safety and survival. About a third of the way into their trip and partially down the river, an unforeseen tragedy strikes, plunging the women into  a living nightmare. Suddenly they are hopelessly lost and have nothing – no river guide, no supplies, no raft, and no map. Fortunately, they have  each other, but not for long.

As night descends around them in the cold, damp wilderness, they see a beacon of hope – a campfire on the side of the mountain within walking distance. Reinvigorated a bit, they set off toward the fire to find a very primitive camp inhabited by two people. Wini quickly realizes that this backwoods, filthy pair is not actually going to help the women back to civilization at all. Instead, they aim to make the group disappear by all means necessary. Thus begins a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse as the women flee for their lives, but also race against the clock to survive before hunger, thirst, shock, and injuries consume them.

Readers will be dumbstruck by some of the lightning-speed plot twists near the end of the story. I loved the story, even though it didn’t end on a happy note, because (small spoiler alert!) not all the women make it out of the wilderness alive. The writing is vividly real, with brutally raw, emotional scenes between the friends as they cling to each other for support and survival. I also appreciated the way the river was portrayed as a character in itself, a beautiful, but relentless force of nature.

I highly recommend this book. I read it in one evening. You won’t be able to put it down, and I know you’ll love it as much as I did.

The Distance From Me to You by Marina Gessner

First, let me show you the cover of this book. It’s simple, but it sums up the book in a nutshell. I really love the cover, and the book is pretty great too. Read below to find out why.

I would classify this as part romantic fiction, part survival fiction. The book is intended for young adults, but adults would enjoy it just as much. McKenna has just graduated from high school and has big plans for the near future. While the majority of her classmates and boyfriend are headed off to start at college, she and her best friend have deferred a semester in order to hike the Appalachian Trail. They have studied and read about the AT, purchased all the required gear, and hiked many miles in preparation. The Appalachian Trail runs from Maine to Georgia, some 2,000 miles, which McKenna plans to hike in about two months time. A few days before their departure, McKenna’s best friend bails out on her for a guy. McKenna makes the decision to hike the trail alone, asking her friend to cover for her and pretend to be along on the trip so her parents won’t know. McKenna is a strong-willed, determined character, and it’s apparent from the beginning of the book that she is fully capable of completing the challenge she has set for herself.

While on the trail, McKenna crosses paths with Sam, a good looking guy who becomes more intriguing each time they cross paths. While McKenna grew up in a household with loving parents who provided for her every whim, Sam didn’t have such luck. He took off for the trail in order to escape an abusive, alcoholic father. His only other living relative is a brother who he hasn’t seen in years. No one has reported Sam missing, even though he has been out on the trail alone for months. Sam doesn’t have much to look forward to or much of a purpose until he meets McKenna.

The story takes a sharp turn when Sam and McKenna decide to go against all the warnings and go off trail to camp one day. This split decision leads to very dangerous, uncharted territory,  which neither Sam or McKenna has ever been before. Will they survive and find their way back to the Appalachian Trail, and back to each other?

I really appreciated the way the author didn’t focus too much on the romantic relationship between Sam and McKenna, but instead on their individual character traits, in order to show their bravery and resilience. I loved the way the book ended, even though it didn’t end the way I pictured or hoped it would. Not every story has a happy ending with the lovers in an embrace. And that sort of ending just wouldn’t fit this book. Also, I learned quite a bit about the Appalachian Trail, and enjoyed learning about “trail magic,” which is the kindness of strangers throughout portions of the trail. It was also neat the way the author described nature on the AT, especially the birds which Sam and McKenna liked to identify by their calls.

Overall, a very neat book. I would suggest it for teenagers and adults.