If you’re chilly, grab a blanket and warm up with one of these fine reads. Yes, I get hung up on coming-of-age stories and there’s no shortage here, however, they range from a fascinating look at a family living off the land in the wilds of Alaska to another group of sisters and brothers trying to defy fate and, finally, a young man’s ghost story.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Leni, a teenager in the late 1970s, has bounced from town to town with her aimless parents for most of her life. Her father, Ernt, returned from the Vietnam war after years as a POW and struggles to hold down a job while denying a serious case of PTSD. When a war buddy leaves him a patch of land and a shack in a remote area of Alaska, the family heads for the last frontier for (another) new start. At first, life off-the-grid goes smoothly, thanks to seasoned neighbors who guide them through preparations for the harsh winter ahead, but when the days grow short and dark, Ernt starts to lose it and bad dreams and paranoia are taken out aggressively on his wife, Cora. Though Leni often feels helpless she is determined to keep her mother safe from her father’s horrible abuse while trying to understand her mother’s fierce loyalty to the man Ernt was be before the war. As Ernt grows more and more destructive he alienates himself from the community, only to have this sturdy cast of characters rally around Leni and Cora. I have to say, in terms of pacing, the pattern of abuse goes on a little long…we get it, the father beats the wife, says he sorry, she’ll never leave him. When Leni grows close to a local boy with dreams of college, she starts to see a way out, although once an exit plan takes shape things take an unforeseen turn and Leni and Cora need to make some very difficult choices, turning the second half of the book into a real page turner, culminating in a satisfying and teary ending (sniff!) as Leni’s life plays out into adulthood. I wasn’t surprised to read in the acknowledgements that the author spent a lot of time in Alaska growing up, you feel both her love for adventure and this wild land in every page.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Very cool premise, bored and enduring a sweltering summer of ’69, the four young Gold siblings seek out a woman near by, rumored to have a special power: she can predict the day and year of your death. The mysterious gypsy’s predictions will impact major decisions each of the Golds will make later in life. If they hadn’t known, would they have taken a different road? Ten years later Simon, the youngest, who has always known he is gay, is desperate to escape a future taking over dad’s tailoring business, so with the promise of a short life, he ditches high school and heads to San Francisco with Klara, his rebellious flaky sister, who harbors dreams of becoming a professional magician. When Simon is embraced by the gay community and becomes a dancer, he eventually realizes he is willing to sacrifice his family so he can be to be true to himself. Klara finds love and a partner as she builds her routine as a magician, but the loss of a beloved sibling (and the gypsy’s haunting prophecy) lead to heavy drinking and fatigue over years of mediocre success, which takes its mental toll. Daniel, a doctor, believes in science (not superstition!) but when he finds his career in jeopardy during a tense holiday with a resentful in-law, his anxiety and resentment over the past lead him down a dangerous path. Varya, the oldest, ends up living a strictly structured existence as a scientist whose goal is to extend human life expectancy, but when a stranger arrives with a link to her secret past, she is forced to face the family she has constantly pushed away. A haunting, unique story about the choices we make, and why.
Grief Cottage by Gail Goodwin
Marcus is eleven years old when he is orphaned after his mother is killed in a car accident. Since his father is a big question mark, he is sent to live with his great aunt Charlotte, an eccentric artist living on a small island in South Carolina. Charlotte’s most popular piece of work is a painting of Grief Cottage, a ghostly shell of a house the end of the beach… is that really the title “character” or is it Charlotte’s small cabin where Marcus grieves for his mother and Charlotte broods over a haunting past. Marcus spends the summer visiting grief cottage, trying to befriend the ghost of the boy who died there 50 years before and piecing together the mystery surrounding his death. Often on his own, Marcus frets over an approaching school year in a new place, approaching puberty and overwhelming insecurities, while realizing that reclusive aunt Charlotte, though kind, is a raging alcoholic, whose personal scars slowly come into focus. Fortunately, the parallels between both characters pain pull them closer and will ultimately bond them forever. A quirky band is neighbors look in on Charlotte and keep Marcus company, rounding out a lovely story about how our childhood shapes us.