Book Review: The Glass Forest


From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookseller comes a gripping literary suspense novel set in the 1960s about a deeply troubled family and three women who will reveal its dark truths.

In the autumn of 1960, Angie Glass is living an idyllic life in her Wisconsin hometown. At twenty-one, she’s married to charming, handsome Paul, and has just given birth to a baby boy. But one phone call changes her life forever.

When Paul’s niece, Ruby, reports that her father, Henry, has committed suicide, and that her mother, Silja, is missing, Angie and Paul drop everything and fly to the small upstate town of Stonekill, New York to be by Ruby’s side.

Angie thinks they’re coming to the rescue of Paul’s grief-stricken young niece, but Ruby is a composed and enigmatic seventeen-year-old who resists Angie’s attempts to nurture her. As Angie learns more about the complicated Glass family, staying in Henry and Silja’s eerie and ultra-modern house on the edge of the woods, she begins to question the very fabric of her own marriage.

Through Silja’s flashbacks, Angie’s discovery of astonishing truths, and Ruby’s strategic dissection of her parents’ state of affairs, a story of love, secrets, and ultimate betrayal is revealed.

My thoughts:

The Glass Forest is a multi-layered look beneath the surface of a family, slowly peeling away the facade to reveal the deep, dark secrets and hidden truths. Told through alternating chapters focusing on Angie, Ruby, and Silja, we get multiple timelines, all converging by the end to show the truth behind Henry’s death and Silja’s disappearance.

The three main female characters — Angie, Ruby, and Silja — are well-drawn; not always likeable, but despite their flaws, they all possess an inner strength that helps them survive. Silja is a particularly sympathetic character, as we see how the years of her marriage change her. Angie, years younger, seems to be following in Silja’s footsteps to an extent in the early days of her marriage; barely twenty-one, she rushed into marriage with someone who seemed to be the man of her dreams, and only later starts to realize that there might be more to know about him. And Ruby, the teen daughter left behind by Silja and Henry, seems to be a mysterious, secretive girl — but as we find out, there’s a lot more to Ruby than meets the eye.

I really don’t want to say much about the plot, because it’s full of so many surprises, all deftly handled with a masterful set-up. There are shocking developments, but looking back, I can find the little breadcrumbs scattered through the earlier parts of the story that lay the groundwork for the bigger moments later on. The story as a whole is so well done, building to an ending that’s very much unexpected, but that absolutely fits.

I know I’m being deliberately vague here, but really, I just don’t want to ruin the reading experience for anyone. The Glass Forest is a compelling read that got harder and harder to put down, the farther I read. This would make an excellent book group choice — because I promise, when you finish reading it, you’ll be dying for someone to discuss it with!

I rarely go back to the beginning of a book once I finish. The Glass Forest is a rare exception where I ended up skimming back through the entire book once I’d finished to find all the hints and details that didn’t seem all that important the first time through — and ended up amazed all over again by how well put together the story is.

I loved Cynthia Swanson’s previous novel, The Bookseller. The Glass Forest is another winner. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: The Glass Forest
Author: Cynthia Swanson
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Touchstone

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Book Review: The Great Alone


Alaska, 1974.
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

The Great Alone is many things — a portrait of life in rugged Alaska, a story of the damage done by war, a tale of the horrible secrets lurking underneath a family’s facade… and also, a story of love and devotion and commitment.

We first meet Leni as a 13-year-old who never fits in anywhere, thanks to her parents’ inability to settle. Ever since her father returned from his years as a POW in Vietnam, Leni has been pulled from home to home and school to school, as her father’s instability and nightmares make him unable to keep a job or stay put for very long. Meanwhile, Leni’s mother Cora remains madly in love with her husband Ernt, and constantly tells Leni that she wishes she could remember how he was before. Out of options, Ernt comes up with a seemingly crazy idea — they’ll move to Alaska, to a plot of land left him by a war buddy, and live off the land, off the grid, as homesteaders.

Leni, of course, has no say in this, just as she has no say in most of what happens in her life. Cora is desperate to find the answer to making Ernt happy again, so off they go in their battered VW bus, completely unprepared for the realities of the life ahead of them. When they finally reach their land in Kaneq, they find a falling-down dirty cabin, and not much else. Fortunately, the neighbors in this tiny community rally around to teach them what they need to know, with an emphasis on the all-important preparations for their first Alaskan winter.

The land and its surroundings are breathtakingly beautiful, of course… but the winter is harsh, leaving the small family isolated in their cabin for months on end. For Leni and Cora, life becomes increasingly dangerous, not because of the natural threats such as wildlife and climate, but because of the man they live with. Ernt does not do well in the dark, under stress, and he takes out his inner demons on Cora.

Over the years, the family becomes intertwined with their neighbors, and Cora and Leni develop deep bonds with their new friends, but Ernt becomes more and more obsessed with survivalism, his paranoia and nightmares becoming more and more intense. Leni grows up in the shadow of domestic violence, witnessing her father’s brutal treatment of Cora, but unable to do anything to stop it.

And as Leni matures, she falls in love with the boy who was her first friend in Alaska — but her father hates his father and everything he stands for, and it’s clear that the relationship must be kept hidden from Ernt before it pushes him into even more violence.

I have to be honest and admit that I wasn’t so sure about this book for the first third or so. I was interested, but it was slow-going. The description of Alaska and what it takes to build a life there are intriguing, of course, but I’ve read other stories about life in Alaska, so this wasn’t exactly new. I had a hard time at first with the viewpoint, as this section of the book is seen mainly through 13-year-old Leni’s eyes, and there was just something a little limiting about that. Still, it was sadly fascinating to see Leni’s experience of her parents’ toxic marriage — the loving moments, when the two were so obsessed with each other that they couldn’t see anyone else — and the explosively painful moments, when Ernt’s rage would boil over into fists and abuse.

Later, when Leni is an older teen, her story becomes much more compelling. Suddenly, I couldn’t put the book down. (Seriously, I read the 2nd 50% of the book in one sitting.) Leni’s love story builds along a Romeo and Juliet trajectory, and while we can see the inevitable tragedy looming ahead, it’s still a shock when Leni’s life is turned upside down.

In some ways, the story of Ernt’s violence is simply tragic. It’s hard not to hate him as the years go by and his craziness and violence escalate — but there’s an element of pity, too. In today’s world, his PTSD would be recognized for what it is and he’d be able to get help. In the early 1970s, just back from hellish years as a captive in Vietnam, not only was there no psychological help, but he also was subject to the derision of anti-war America when he returned. It might be easy to view Ernt as simply an evil character, but we can’t. He is horrible and abusive and destructive, but his horror stems from his own status as a victim of war and torture. We can absolutely condemn his behavior and his treatment of his family, but I can’t help but feel sorrow too for how different this man might have been without the trauma of Vietnam.

The depiction of domestic violence is harrowing but has a ring of truth. At that time, there was much less support for “battered women”, and a woman who fought back could easily end up either dead or behind bars, without much in the way of legal defense or public awareness. Seeing Leni’s need to protect her mother, and Cora’s inability to find a way to leave, is painful and tragic.

At the same time, I loved the way Leni’s life in Alaska grows. She becomes a part of the community, part of Alaska itself, and this stays with her and changes her in deep and unalterable ways.

I won’t say more about the love story or its outcome, other than WOW and SOB and TEARS and… well, read it yourself to find out!

The Great Alone is powerful and moving, with a unique setting and memorable characters. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: The Great Alone
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #104: The Underside of Joy

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Underside of Joy
Author: Seré Prince Halverson
Published: 2012
Length: 384 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Losing a husband is virtually unbearable. Losing your children to the birth mother who abandoned them, whilst you are still grieving, is one heartbreak too far. It must not be allowed to happen …

Ella counts as her blessings her wonderful husband, two animated kids and an extended family who regard her as one of their own. Yet when her soulmate Joe tragically drowns, her life is turned upside down without warning, and she finds that the luck, which she had thought would last forever, has run out. When Joe’s beautiful ex-wife, who deserted their children three years earlier, arrives at the funeral, Ella fears the worst. And she may well be right to.

Ella discovers she must struggle with her own grief, while battling to remain with the children and the life which she loves. Questioning her own role as a mother, and trying to do what is right, all she is sure of is that she needs her family to make it through each day. Yet when pushed to the limits of love, Ella must decide whether she is, after all, the best mother for her children.

How and when I got it:

I ordered a used copy online a few years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I absolutely fell in love with this author’s marvelous 2014 novel All The Winters After, and once I finished, I just couldn’t wait to read more of her work… but sadly, I still haven’t gotten around to starting The Underside of Joy. It sounds like a great story, but potentially a heartbreaker, especially reading from the perspective of a parent.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Take A Peek Book Review: Seven Days of Us

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A warm, wry, sharply observed debut novel about what happens when a family is forced to spend a week together in quarantine over the holidays…

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity—and even decent Wi-Fi—and forced into each other’s orbits. Younger, unabashedly frivolous daughter Phoebe is fixated on her upcoming wedding, while Olivia deals with the culture shock of being immersed in first-world problems.

As Andrew sequesters himself in his study writing scathing restaurant reviews and remembering his glory days as a war correspondent, Emma hides a secret that will turn the whole family upside down.

In close proximity, not much can stay hidden for long, and as revelations and long-held tensions come to light, nothing is more shocking than the unexpected guest who’s about to arrive…

My Thoughts:

Seven Days of Us is an entertaining, quick read about a family forced into isolation together — a perfect setting for secrets to emerge and for walls to come down. Phoebe and Olivia rediscover the sisterly affection that’s been absent since childhood; Andrew and Olivia finally come to understand one another’s obsessions and sacrifices; Emma and Andrew confront the iciness that’s taken hold in their marriage. Meanwhile, Phoebe’s fiancé crashes the quarantine, as does an American who ends up being the long-lost illegitimate son Andrew never knew he had.

The story moves along at a smart pace, with each character getting bits and pieces of the story. The main chapters focus on the seven days of quarantine, while within each day, there are sections devoted to the different characters, each section showing the time and the location within the house — which lends the narrative a claustrophobic air that’s appropriate for the involuntary intimacy and close quarters experienced by the family.

I do wish the author had included some sort of introduction explaining the quarantine rules. Why would a doctor treating epidemic patients be allowed back into England, passing through a major aiport, in order to go into quarantine with her family? Is this a normal protocol? Sure, readers could Google it, but it would have been helpful to have a bit of context, considering that this is the major plot driver of the entire book.

My interest never flagged, but certain plot developments (no spoilers here!) were completely obvious, and a tragic turn toward the end of the book seemed both jarring and unnecessary.

Overall, I recommend Seven Days of Us. It’s a pleasant, amusing story of family dynamics, and the ups and downs of the relationships between parents and children, between siblings, and between spouses definitely ring true.

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The details:

Title: Seven Days of Us
Author: Francesca Hornak
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: October 17, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalleySave

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