Spoiler Alert: Thorough spoilers from The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah are discussed herein

So this is partly a book review and partly a study of sorts on sad books. It begins with Sunday night of this week. I laid awake that night for nearly four hours to finish listening to the audio version of
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. It was one of those books that I just knew I HAD to finish because I wouldn’t think of anything else until I did. But, riveting and suspenseful as it was, as one horrific tragedy after another ensued, I sometimes found myself just wishing for the torment to be over. I was heaving ugly, guttural sobs throughout the audio equivalent of the last 50 pages or so, but at least tears of relief and gladness were mixed in by the very end. An end that finally brought some good after so much suffering. 
That said, The Great Alone got me thinking about sad books in general. How sad is too sad? Is a certain balance of happy and sad required? If an author’s going to pack a book full of pain and distress for the characters, is a satisfying ending always necessary in order to justify it all? When does the content become too difficult and too much? Each person obviously has different answers to these questions, and this book has helped me consider mine. I think this may be the first book (at least the first in a long time) that made me think, This might be too much. Please give it a rest, dear author. So, why did I feel that way? Here are my hunches (Disclaimer: these thoughts are limited to sad fiction books – a true story that’s sad but needs to be told is another thing entirely). 

1. I need there to be purpose to the characters’ suffering 
This is probably the most important compensation for me (and I’m guessing for many of us!) when it comes to sad, difficult content in books. There are obviously many books which tackle grim subject matter, but do so because the author wants to explore it sympathetically. I knew this was the case with The Great Alone from the outset, so I was prepared for it to be challenging. The story opens on the Allbright family and their move to the wilds of Alaska, a place that they hope will be a fresh start. Thirteen-year-old Leni’s main concerns at the beginning are surviving “new girl” status at school, and of course whether this “next thing” will really help her parents. Ernt and Cora Allbright have  tried many new things since Ernt returned from the Vietnam War, but Ernt still can’t hold a job, still drinks too much, and still acts out violently. As the family prepares for Alaska, none of them can predict how its terrible beauty will change them, for better and for worse. 

Domestic abuse, undiagnosed mental illness, and traumatized childhoods are central themes throughout this book, and the brutality of these problems is heightened by the rough, unforgiving Alaskan setting. For some, this is already too much. Many will know right off that they can’t handle a story whose plotlines turn on domestic abuse, mental illness, sexual abuse, severe trauma, or any number of other difficult topics. If that’s you, definitely feel no guilt in staying away from such books. In my case, these subjects are certainly hard to read about, but I still appreciate honest discussion of them through a story if it’s done thoughtfully. When I started The Great Alone, I was ready for that much, and I did fine with everything until the drama of the back half really took off. 

Leni’s relationship with Matthew Walker takes up more of center stage in the story’s second half, and their relentless trials saddened and wearied me. After their severely damaged childhoods, I struggled to see the point of the pain that Leni and Matthew continued enduring into adulthood. Their difficult early years developed their characters and drove the plot forward – two traumatized children found friendship and comfort from one another, and their backgrounds made them sure of what they wanted to change in their futures. As they grew older, they began to see how they could build that better future together, and it hurt to see them kept apart for so much longer than expected. 

The great conflict in the second half – Ernt’s climactic violence and Cora’s explosive act of protection when he hurts Leni – was definitely a necessary tie-up, but I can’t help wishing Leni and Matthew hadn’t paid such a heavy price in the process. Their accident while hiding in the mountains and subsequent years-long separation were the most difficult parts for me. I kept asking, Why? Why must they endure this too? Haven’t they been through enough? And I’m still not sure exactly what purpose was served. They had already grown up too quickly because of their terrible childhoods, so I didn’t quite see the need to permanently injure Matthew or to draw out their ability to be together for so long. Not saying I have the perfect alternate ending in mind, but I kept thinking that Kristin Hannah could have surely thought of something! 

2. I need time to process sad storylines 
I've realized that this was perhaps what was most lacking in The Great Alone for me. Sadness, pain, and tragedy were so incessant for the latter part of the book that I felt like I was choking on it. Here’s a summary. 

Cora suffers the most brutal beating from Ernt yet. Matthew and Leni have their terrible mountainside accident that leaves Matthew brain-damaged. Leni discovers she’s pregnant while Matthew lies in a coma. Ernt begins to beat Leni when he finds out about the pregnancy, prompting Cora’s shocking act of protection. She kills him without even flinching, and then she and Leni cover the murder and flee Alaska. From there, years of living under false identities ensue. Cora holds onto terrible guilt for everything, even as she’s dying of lung cancer, which she’s convinced is her punishment. And her last wish is for Leni to turn in her confession to the murder so that Leni can live freely again. But even as Leni contemplates returning to Alaska at the end, there’s no guarantee Matthew will know her or be independently capable. 

Are you tired yet? I know I was. Thank goodness for MJ, Leni and Matthew’s little boy. He was definitely a bright spot that helped me to the end! As this tirade of tragedies progressed, I realized that I either needed more time between them or fewer of them. The mountain of pain I was trying to process for the characters was overwhelming and was growing faster than I could keep up with. Even when things calmed towards the end, I couldn’t stop thinking about how scarred Leni and Matthew would be for the rest of their lives. Leni had grown up under an abusive father and Matthew had endured his parents’ divorce and watched his mother fall through a treacherous frozen lake and die – why add brain damage, witnessing one parent kill the other, and years of isolation so soon after?! 

Granted, Ernt had definitely evolved into a full-out villain by the time Cora shot him, and the necessary irony of Cora and Leni becoming survivors of him was clear. But as I’ve mentioned, Leni and Matthew’s accident on the mountain and their years of separation were the most difficult things for me. When Leni first fell off the trail, I sighed thinking, Here we go again, I guess. Frustration only increased when Leni and Cora left Alaska before Matthew had healed much, and I stubbornly maintained that the accident and its consequences weren’t entirely necessary to the story. I think it would have been an improvement even if these storylines had just been toned down a bit – maybe something with an easier recovery than a brain injury for Matthew? A way for Leni and Cora to stay in Alaska or for Leni and Matthew to reunite earlier? Again, I’m no bestselling author, but surely there was a way! 

3. I need redemption that comes out of the sadness 
The Great Alone accomplished this well overall. Despite the ugly crying, I was also taking deep breaths of relief by the last twenty minutes. Leni returns to her beloved Alaska with her son. The truth about Ernt’s death becomes public and Leni can live as herself again with no more weighty secrets. She and Matthew are reunited. Matthew is permanently weakened and disfigured, but still loves her, loves their son immediately upon meeting him, and can walk and talk again. Their community pays touching tribute to Cora. And by the last page, we know Matthew and Leni have married and had two more children, they’ve made a life for themselves in Alaska, and Leni’s photography is reaching new heights. 

Glory be. I was ready for that happy ending, I assure you. But I persist in my wish that it hadn’t taken so long to get there. I also maintain uncertainty of how necessary Matthew’s lifelong physical impairments were. I was thankful he had regained mobility and independent thought and emotion, but he and Leni would have had plenty to work through already without those added burdens of physical limitations and the years apart. 

The other story arc that didn’t feel totally redeemed to me was that of Cora. She positively broke my heart. She’s an honest portrayal of a woman who can’t find the will to leave an abusive husband, which I understood. But it was gut-wrenching to see her inability to forgive herself at the end. She blamed herself for everything Leni had endured and staunchly believed that her lung cancer was divine payback. I cried so much and wanted to hug her and tell her how loved she was. The brightest note at her end was the hope she had for Leni’s future, but I just wish she had made peace with herself before her death. 
So, what are your thoughts on sad or heartbreaking books, or books that address difficult subjects? Do you need a balance of some sort? When do you know it’s too much? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. And if you’ve read The Great Alone, I’d love to hear other perspectives on it!

Hello and happy 2018 again to all of you, dear readers! I hope the first few weeks of it have been promising and encouraging and as usual, full of good books :) It’s that time again for me to share my tops reads of the past year. It was a great reading year in 2017 with some strong standouts. I read a total of 36 books, plus I reread the following favorites (many of them via audiobook) – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and The Black Moon by Winston Graham (new in 2017 but read it twice). It was a little tempting to be dissatisfied with this since I read 50 books in 2016, but at its foundation, reading is about quality, not quantity, and 2017 certainly delivered that. So with that, here are my top titles from 2017, in no particular order. 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 
This was the very first book I read in 2017, and even then, I was confident it would remain a favorite. And so it did! Paul Kalanithi wrote this personal memoir during what he knew were the final months of his life, and he reflects on deep questions of life, death, and the human search for meaning with thoughtful poignancy. He talks about his time as a young medical student wondering what makes a meaningful life, his lifelong love for writing and poetry, his decision to pursue neurosurgery, his fascination with the brain’s place in man’s search for identity, and his own sudden transition from doctor to patient. Kalanithi was a brilliant writer and examined difficult life questions through this book as he unflinchingly faced his own mortality. It is deeply moving to read and impossible to forget. Tears were pouring down my face as I read the last ten or so pages and I know I’ll be revisiting them.




Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan 
This was a jewel find of 2017, plus it has a great title, doesn’t it? Sullivan’s writing is cinematic and gripping and it will suck you in with this true story of an Italian teenage boy who becomes involved in Italy’s resistance movement during WWII. The story opens in the early 1940s on Pino, our hero, who really just wants a normal life. But the war soon necessitates that he move away from his family to a boys’ school run by a kindly Catholic priest. It’s through this school that he soon starts helping Jews escape over the Alps and into Switzerland, and later on, he becomes the personal chauffeur to one of Hitler’s chief executives by happenstance. From here, he has the chance to spy within Nazi high command. I’m so glad this story has now been written, for Pino was a true hero. You’ll laugh, cry, and tremble with suspense as you read his story.




The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
And while we’re on the subject of WWII hero stories, here’s another one that made my favorites in 2017. You may be familiar with the film version of The Zookeeper’s Wife that came out last year, but as usual, I also recommend the book :) The heroes of this one were Jan and Antonina Zabinski, and their work with the resistance in Poland was truly remarkable. Their beautiful Warsaw Zoo was bombed early during the war, but throughout the rest of the war years, they worked to evacuate Jews and others at high risk. They hid people in their house and throughout the zoo, brought food and medical supplies to Jews trapped within the Warsaw Ghetto, and helped many more escape the country. It’s impossible to calculate the impact the Zabinskis had and I’m so glad to know their story. After I read the book, I had the honor of visiting the Holocaust Museum and seeing their names listed on a wall that honored those who helped Jews during WWII. Entirely fitting.



The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield
 

This was apparently the year of the biography and memoir, because this memoir was another 2017 favorite. In this one, Rosaria Butterfield tells her personal journey of coming to the Christian faith. The short version is that it was not easy. In fact, it was marked by pain, grief, disappointment, and loss. Heavy losses. Loss of friends, career, home, respect, and much more. She describes her conversion as a train wreck in which she lost everything but the dog. But every page of this incredible account ensures the reader that it has been worth it. I’m so thankful for Rosaria and her gut-wrenching honesty. It challenges and edifies well.


How Harry Cast His Spell by John Granger
 

Since I’m still relatively new to the Harry Potter books, I’ve been eager to learn all I can about Harry’s world and study the fun and hidden meanings in J.K. Rowling’s series. Her imagination blew me away continually as I read the books for the first time almost two years ago, and this book by John Granger gives even more insight into just how brilliant she was in constructing Harry’s story. Granger is humorous, engaging, and has more Potter mania in his little finger than the biggest superfan the internet could find. He carefully analyzes the series’ place in the English literary tradition, the story’s roots in alchemy, the spiritual keys in each book, the deep symbolism, the meanings of names, and so much more. The details he has pulled out and made accessible through this book will make Potter fans marvel afresh at the timeless, universal nature of Harry’s adventure. I know it made me love the series that much more.



The Black Moon by Winston Graham 
Yes, I’m still working through the Poldark series and I’ve now read up through book 7! However, book 5, The Black Moon, certainly won a special place in my heart. It has all the usual for Poldark – mining, feuds, politics, marriages, and more – but after the ringer of Warleggan, The Black Moon is a welcome respite for Ross and Demelza. They joke, laugh, tease, and raise their children happily together, and what a joy it is to watch. But it wouldn’t be Poldark without drama, and it’s found in the introduction of star-crossed lovers Drake Carne and Morwenna Chynoweth. These two, y’all. They’re my new favorites and their story is one of suspense, heartbreak, and the most enduring and pure love I’ve seen in a long time. Also notable to this volume is the prison break in France to free Dr. Dwight Enys. The order of events is changed a bit in the TV series, so if that’s your only exposure, please pick up the books! The rescue attempt and the subsequent homecoming occur toward the end of The Black Moon, and unlike the show, said homecoming is an extremely happy event. I read this one twice within 2017 and am working through rereading books 6 and 7 until season 4 airs later this year! Here’s to ever more Poldark, you guys. 

So, there are my 2017 favorites – what were yours? And what are you reading now? I’d love to hear what you’ve read in the last year and any recommendations you might have for me in 2018! Here’s the full list of 2017 titles I read and I can’t wait to hear all about your reading in the comments :)

My 2017 Reads:
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz
Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Stepping Out in Faith: Former Catholics Share Their Stories  edited by Mark Gilbert
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Black Moon by Winston Graham
The Four Swans by Winston Graham
The Secret Wife by Gill Paul
Victoria by Daisy Goodwin
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
The Angry Tide by Winston Graham
Journey from Skioria by Kandi J. Wyatt
In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
How Harry Cast His Spell by John Granger
Humility by C.J. Mahaney
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Reading People by Anne Bogel
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Sweetbriar Cottage by Denise Hunter
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan
The Beat on Ruby Street by Jenna Zark
Eight Women of Faith by Michael A.G. Haykin
The Ladies of Ivy Cottage by Julie Klassen
The Pleasures of God by John Piper
The Gospel at Work by Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert 
Happy New Year, dear readers! Today I want to share an exercise that I tried last week on a whim, but that also turned out to be encouraging and calming for me. I’ve joined the bullet journaling bandwagon in the last year, and in an effort to find something to fill up an extra page in my said bullet journal, I made it into a reflection page for 2017. I simply titled it “2017: A Look Back,” as I’ve titled this post, and wrote down a number of things that happened in my life throughout 2017. As I scribbled away, the events and happenings that spilled onto the page began to remind me not only of the many good things that came my way in 2017, but also became markers of God’s continued faithfulness and provision in my life. Here’s my list below, and I hope it helps you reflect in similar ways. Happy 2018! 

2017: A Look Back 

• Joined Capitol Hill Baptist Church 
• Started working full-time in DC 
• Worked with people I love 
• Moved twice 
• Got to be a bridesmaid twice 
• Read 36 books (plus rereading the Harry Potter series, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice, and The Black Moon via audiobook) 
• Visited Oklahoma for the first time 
• Visited the White House at Christmas time 
• Got to go to the top of the Capitol dome 
• Saw John Crist live 
• Saw Keith and Kristyn Getty in concert for the third time 
• Met Ben Shapiro 
Won an Aidan Turner-signed coloring book 
• Saw The Lion King Broadway show 
• Participated in a Christmas book exchange 
• Sang in the church’s Christmas choir 
• Saw more snow in a year than I’d seen in all previous years combined (that I recall) 
• Started collecting literary prints and d├ęcor in earnest 
• Fell in love with The Crown and Victoria 
• Went on my own health insurance (!) 
• Got two people interested in Poldark 
• Finally saw the live action Beauty and the Beast come to fruition (seriously, I'd been following the process for over two years so that was a DEAL! #fangirl)

While we're at it, here are the best nine pictures I took in 2017 according to the internet masses. Follow me on Instagram @elizabeth_8212.
Can you believe it’s Christmas, y’all?! I can’t. I also can’t believe it’s nearly 2018. However, I’ve been really enjoying this Christmas season and all that’s come with it. I’ve always loved Christmas, but it’s been particularly sweet to celebrate the season with my DC family so far. There’s been decorating, gift wrapping parties, many carols sung together, and so many cookies. I’ve loved every bit of it. I hope you’re celebrating too and that you enjoy my fun, eloquent finds today. Some are Christmasey, some are bookish and British as usual, some are nostalgic, and some are reflective. Merry Christmas to you and yours! 

Links 

Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Gift Guide for Book Lovers
Photo Credit: Modern Mrs. Darcy

If your Christmas season is lasting into the New Year or if you’re scrambling for last minute stocking stuffers, any of these things will thrill the bookworm in your life. I honestly contend that book people are pretty easy to shop for, and this list is proof. 


Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Interview with BBC 
I’ve got all the heart eyes over a new royal engagement, guys. Royal wedding party, anyone? 

Auburn’s Sideline Hedges 
I was pretty excited to see the hedges lining Jordan-Hare Stadium get torn up after an Iron Bowl again this year. The last time it happened was at this game, which also happened to be the last game I attended as a student at Auburn. Watching the aftermath of this year’s Iron Bowl made me miss that place. 

The Weight of The Crown 


Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in Netflix's drama, The Crown
Photo Credit: Alpha Coders

Speaking of royalty, did anyone else head straight to Netflix when Season 2 of
The Crown dropped on December 8th? If you’ve not jumped on this bandwagon, I definitely recommend it. The show is a work of art to look at, not to mention the phenomenal acting and writing. Claire Foy and Matt Smith steal every scene they’re in and I’ll probably cry when I finish this season since it’s their last. All that to say, this is an excellent article that skillfully explores the deeper messages of the drama. 


3 Surprising Things I Learned When I Gave Up Saying ‘I’m Busy’ For 40 Days 
It’s always good to be reminded that I have more time than I think I have, and this article did that well. 

How to Make Your Last Name Plural This Christmas 
If you're behind on your holiday greeting cards, this article may save you. The short of it is this: don’t use an apostrophe. Ever. Please take heed so I won’t also throw your Christmas card or New Year's card on the gas logs in frustration. 

Poldark, Season 3: Elizabeth and George
Screencap source: YouTube
Where are my fellow Poldark fans?! I’d contend that Season 3 was fantastic but exhausting. And unpopular as it might be with many, I also contend that the Warleggans are just as interesting as the Poldarks and even sometimes more enjoyable to watch since Ross and Demelza continue to infuriate, much as I love them. Elizabeth’s marriage to George was a dramatic twist at the end of Season 2, and the third season has been a fascinating process in which she figures him out. Their explosive confrontation in the finale was without a doubt my favorite scene of that episode, if not the entire season. It’s a pivotal moment of vulnerability for George and of incredible strength for Elizabeth, and Jack Farthing and Heida Reed delivered it flawlessly. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the actors’ thoughts on it in this video. 

Quotes 

Curiosity is not a sin. But we should exercise caution with our curiosity. –Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling 

The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.
–Edmund Burke 


Don’t wake up tomorrow and realize you’ve chucked out something precious, because it will haunt you. –Geordie Keating, Grantchester Season 3 


Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that one day, amongst their victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back! –Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling 


That’s LA: they worship everything and value nothing. –Sebastian, La La Land 


Two people can remain “in love” – a phrase made practically useless by stinking romanticism – only if their common desire for each other unites in a greater desire for God. –Flannery O’Connor 


Never doubt in the darkness what God has promised in the light. –The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield 


What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive – and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask. –Demelza Poldark, The Angry Tide by Winston Graham



Merry Christmas!
To start this post, I want to give many thanks to Aurora Publicity for my free copy of this book in exchange for this review! I appreciate new books to read and enjoyed composing this review. 

The Beat on Ruby's Street is a middle-grade book that centers on Ruby Tabeata, an 11-year-old girl living in the heart of the Beat Generation in New York during the 1950s. She’s an independent daydreamer with poetry aspirations, but events take an unexpected turn when she’s accused of stealing from a fruit vendor. Authorities soon investigate her home life and it’s not up to their standards, which lands Ruby in a children’s home. From there, she begins to scheme how to get out. 
Photo Credit: Amazon
This book is certainly at the middle-grade level, but from an adult perspective, I appreciated how Ruby was the center of the story and that the reader sees everything through her eyes. It was good to be reminded of how children think and of how they are more observant and thoughtful than many adults give them credit for. The only drawback of this perspective was that the narration often followed Ruby’s stream of consciousness, so her train of thought could continue for many paragraphs before coming back to the original point. But even so, this was realistic and I appreciated the author’s ability to get into an 11-year-old mind. This young viewpoint on the child protective service system was also enlightening. It offered a moving reminder that children value and need family unity, that they dislike feeling patronized, and that their feelings matter even in situations where adults must make difficult decisions. 

Overall, The Beat on Ruby's Street was a fairly easy read that I’d recommend for the intended audience – perhaps sixth grade would be the ideal age. I also think it’s a good option for a parent-child read-aloud book. It has the potential for great conversation starters about family life, feelings in general, and how to dream for the future. Thank you again to Aurora Publicity for my free copy of this book!