Review: AKIN by Emma Donoghue

Review:  AKIN by Emma DonoghueAkin by Emma Donoghue
Also by this author: Room
four-half-stars
on September 10, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AKIN Review

 

Emma Donoghue is an auto-buy author for me. I fell in love with the way she crafts her stories when I read her best-known novel, Room, and have immensely enjoyed every book of hers I’ve read since.  It was therefore a given that I would request a review copy of Akin, her latest novel.  I was a little nervous since I always hype her books up in my head and then worry they won’t live up to my expectations, but my worries were alleviated as soon as I read the first page and was immediately drawn into the life of the quirky protagonist, Noah Selvaggio.

Noah is a seventy-nine year old retired professor who is about to embark on a trip to the South of France, where he was born.  It’s a trip he has been meaning to take for years, but now that he’s a widower and nearing 80, he knows his time is running out.  While getting his affairs in order for the trip, he is contacted unexpectedly by a representative from Child Services, informing him that his 11 year old great nephew is in danger of being separated from his family if he doesn’t have a relative that he can move in with immediately.  Michael’s mother is in prison, his father is deceased, and no other relatives are able or willing to take him at this time.  Noah has never had any contact with Michael – they are strangers to each other – but after much consideration, he agrees to take him in on a temporary basis.  When he finally meets Michael, he is immediately faced with a mouthy pre-teen who curses like a sailor and who does everything he can to be as uncooperative as possible.  Noah is resigned to the situation though and so this unlikely duo sets off for Nice, France together.

Much of Akin explores the evolving relationship between Noah and Michael, and I just loved every minute of this.  Donoghue has the entire story unfold from Noah’s perspective so we’re in his head as he, who never had children of his own, tries to navigate the minefield of parenthood while dealing with a child who is clearly lashing out because he is in a situation that isn’t of his own making.  Noah is practically walking a tightrope trying to gently parent the child, but without overstepping his boundaries, and it’s very challenging every step of the way.  I really loved watching this pair get to know each other, and I thought Donoghue did a brilliant job of authentically depicting the relationship, with all of its inevitable ups and downs.  They have their fair share of tender moments and frustrating moments, but there are also plenty of laugh out loud moments along the way.

While that relationship is the driving force behind the novel, Donoghue adds a fabulous subplot that I thought just really took the book to another level.  While Noah is preparing for his trip to France, he comes across a packet of old photos in some of his mother’s belongings.  They’re unusual photos that don’t make sense to Noah, but he can see they were taken in France during the 1940’s, so he decides to bring them along to see if the opportunity to learn more about them presents itself.  Noah doesn’t know where to even begin, but his technologically savvy great nephew comes in very handy and helps him identify a hotel in one of the photos.  The hotel, as it turns out, was a headquarters of sorts for the Nazis during WWII.  It was where they brought Jews and other prisoners before shipping them off to Drancy and then to Auschwitz.  I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, especially WWII fiction, so this angle of the story just sucked me right in, especially as it became clear that Noah’s mother had played an active role in the war.  What wasn’t so clear, however, was what side she was on, Resistance or Nazi collaborator.  Noah becomes obsessed with trying to figure out what his mother’s role was because he’s starting to feel as if he never really knew his mother at all. Michael is equally curious since this woman would have been his great grandmother, and so the two of them work as a team to learn the truth.

Emma Donoghue’s Akin is just such a wonderful read on so many levels.  The mystery regarding Noah’s mother is riveting, but it’s that relationship between Noah and Michael that gives this story such heart.  As its title suggests, Akin is ultimately a beautiful story about what it means to be family.  I’d highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys stories that focus on family, to fans of both contemporary and historical fiction, and of course to Emma Donoghue fans, who are sure to love this gem. I think it’s my favorite Donoghue book yet!

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A retired New York professor’s life is thrown into chaos when he takes a young great-nephew to the French Riviera, in hopes of uncovering his own mother’s wartime secrets in the next masterpiece from New York Times bestselling author Emma Donoghue.

Noah Selvaggio is a retired chemistry professor and widower living on the Upper West Side, but born in the South of France. He is days away from his first visit back to Nice since he was a child, bringing with him a handful of puzzling photos he’s discovered from his mother’s wartime years. But he receives a call from social services: Noah is the closest available relative of an eleven-year-old great-nephew he’s never met, who urgently needs someone to look after him. Out of a feeling of obligation, Noah agrees to take Michael along on his trip.

Much has changed in this famously charming seaside mecca, still haunted by memories of the Nazi occupation. The unlikely duo, suffering from jet lag and culture shock, bicker about everything from steak frites to screen time. But Noah gradually comes to appreciate the boy’s truculent wit, and Michael’s ease with tech and sharp eye help Noah unearth troubling details about their family’s past. Both come to grasp the risks people in all eras have run for their loved ones, and find they are more akin than they knew.

Written with all the tenderness and psychological intensity that made Room an international bestseller, Akin is a funny, heart-wrenching tale of an old man and a boy, born two generations apart, who unpick their painful story and start to write a new one together.

four-half-stars

About Emma Donoghue

emma donoghue

Emma is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their son and daughter.

Book Review: Winter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand

Book Review:  Winter Solstice by Elin HilderbrandWinter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand
three-half-stars
Series: Winter #4
on October 3rd 2017
Genres: Fiction, Holiday
Pages: 262
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Set primarily on the charming island of Nantucket, Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter series follows the ups and downs of the Quinn family over the course of about four years.  At the heart of this series is a strong focus on the importance of love, family, friendship, and loyalty, but there is also a healthy dose of drama so as to keep things from getting too saccharin-sweet.  I binge-read this series this year as part of a holiday readathon and fell in love with the Quinn family right away.  Everyone in the family is just so endearing and I became invested in all of them from the very first book in the series.

Winter Solstice is the fourth and final installment of the series, so much of this book is about saying goodbye to this family that readers have grown to love over the course of the previous books.  The Winter series was actually originally intended to be trilogy. I thought the third book left too many things unresolved, however, so I was thrilled to find out a fourth book had been added to the series.  I can’t say that I was ready to say goodbye to the Quinns yet, but I think Winter Solstice gives them the sendoff they deserve and gives fans proper closure.

 

What makes this series such a good read for me is how realistic it is when it comes to the Quinn family and the trials and tribulations that they go through.  I don’t want to go into too much detail since it would spoil the earlier books to do so, but what they go through is the same kind of drama that most families go through — the family drama, complicated relationships, cheating, addiction, financial difficulties, the emotional turmoil when a child in the military is deployed and sent thousands of miles from home, and so much more.  Of course some of the Quinn’s drama is ratcheted up Desperate Housewives-style for the added entertainment value, but overall, those ups and downs are very relatable for many readers and so it’s easy to become invested in what they’re going through and to feel tremendous sympathy for them.

In addition to the realistic domestic drama that we get throughout the series, I also loved the characters Hilderbrand created.  Even when they are at their worst and doing things that I want to scream at them for doing, I still couldn’t help but love the Quinns.  I’m a sucker for a well-drawn, flawed, utterly human character and that description fits all of the Quinns to a T.  I especially loved Kelley, the family patriarch.  He’s such a good man and his love for his family just shines through in every book of the series.  That’s not to say he doesn’t make his fair share of mistakes along the way, but I still just adored him. I found it harder to say goodbye to him than to any of the other characters so, in that sense, Winter Solstice was somewhat bittersweet for me.

Another highlight of the series, and especially of Winter Solstice, was watching the journeys of the four Quinn siblings as they navigate their way through the messy world of adulthood.  Many mistakes are made along the way, but if there is an overriding theme in Winter Solstice, I’d say it’s about second chances (or even third and fourth chances) – the idea that no matter how many times you mess up or how badly, you can still recover and move forward.

The setting of the novel is, of course, a huge highlight and also what gives the series its holiday charm.  It’s set in Nantucket and the charming Winter Street Inn during the Christmas holiday season. It immediately made me think of snow and snuggling up in front of the fireplace.  It doesn’t get much more atmospheric than that!

 

Even though I really enjoyed Winter Solstice overall, I still had a couple of issues with it.  One was that sometimes it just seemed like too much was going on.  Since the book was primarily about saying goodbye to the Quinns, I would have liked the book to focus solely on the Quinns and knowing that each of them was going to live happily ever after, so to speak.  There seemed to be a few random subplots running through this novel that distracted a bit from that.

The addition of new character ‘Fast Eddie’ was the biggest distraction.  While Eddie served somewhat of a purpose in Winter Solstice, I didn’t feel like he was important enough to the overall plot to have entire chapters devoted to his messy love life and his real estate endeavors.  In my mind, he was a secondary character and I didn’t care about him aside from what he could do to help the Quinns when they needed his real estate knowledge.  I think the series would have closed much stronger with Eddie’s presence minimized.  Eddie’s huge presence in Winter Solstice was especially frustrating because we actually didn’t have much of a storyline for Kevin Quinn and his wife, Isabelle.  Yes, of all of the Quinn siblings, they were probably the closest to having their act together by the fourth book, but I still would have liked more of them.

 

Even though I had some issues with it, Winter Solstice still provides a satisfying ending to the Winter series. Even though I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the Quinns, I’m quite content with the path Hilderbrand has set them on.  If you’re looking for a heart-warming holiday-themed series that focuses on love and family, but that also has plenty of dramatic flair, the Winter series is a good bet.

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Elin HIlderbrand, and Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Raise one last glass with the Quinn Family at the Winter Street Inn.

It’s been too long since the entire Quinn family has been able to celebrate the holidays under the same roof, but that’s about to change. With Bart back safe and sound from Afghanistan, the Quinns are preparing for a holiday more joyous than any they’ve experienced in years. And Bart’s safe return isn’t the family’s only good news: Kevin is enjoying married life with Isabelle; Patrick is getting back on his feet after paying his debt to society; Ava thinks she’s finally found the love of her life; and Kelly is thrilled to see his family reunited at last. But it just wouldn’t be a Quinn family gathering if things went smoothly. A celebration of everything we love–and some of the things we endure–about the holidays, WINTER SOLSTICE is Elin Hilderbrand at her festive best.

three-half-stars

About Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand lives on Nantucket with her husband and their three young children. She grew up in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and traveled extensively before settling on Nantucket, which has been the setting for her five previous novels. Hilderbrand is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the graduate fiction workshop at the University of Iowa.

ARC Review: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

ARC Review:  The Wonder by Emma DonoghueThe Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Also by this author: Room
four-half-stars
on September 20th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  In Emma Donoghue’s latest masterpiece, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.  Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

* * * * *

My Review:

Emma Donoghue is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite authors.  She is such a master of weaving together compelling stories that ask tough questions and that you won’t be able to stop thinking about for days, even weeks,  after you’ve finished reading them.  I first fell in love with Donoghue’s writing style and storytelling abilities when I read her immensely popular novel, Room.  Even though it has been nearly six months since I read and reviewed Room, Donoghue’s writing is so powerful that I still think about that story all the time and it’s probably one of the books that I most often suggest to anyone who asks me to recommend a good book.

Needless to say, when I heard she had a new book coming out this fall, The Wonder, I immediately rushed over to Netgalley to request a review copy.  Thanks so much to Netgalley, Little, Brown and Company, and of course Emma Donoghue for granting my request and allowing me to preview The Wonder for my blog.  I’m thrilled to say that upon reading The Wonder, my love for Emma Donoghue and her gorgeous writing has only continued to grow.

* * * * *

So, what did I love about The Wonder?

First of all, I loved that it features a strong female protagonist. I was immediately drawn to Donoghue’s protagonist, Englishwoman Lib Wright.  Widowed at the age of 25, Lib decides to become a Nightingale Nurse.  We learn that she actually trained with the famous Florence Nightingale and worked alongside her caring for soldiers during the Crimean War.  When she returns home after the Crimean campaign, Lib expects that her career as a nurse will take off but instead finds herself relegated to doing little more than menial work at the local hospital.  Dissatisfied, Lib jumps at what sounds like an exciting opportunity to travel to Ireland to provide care at a private residence for two weeks.  I felt sympathetic towards Lib right from the start, both for the loss of her husband at such a young age and for the frustration she was experiencing in her career.  At the same time, however, I greatly admired Lib’s sense of independence and her determination to find more fulfilling work even if it meant packing up and traveling to another country to do so.

When Lib arrives in Ireland, she learns that she and another nurse, Sister Michael, have been hired to watch eleven year old Anna O’Donnell around the clock for two weeks. Anna is said to not have taken a bite of food for four months, but yet appears to be remarkably healthy.  While there are many in her devout Roman Catholic town who believe she is a miracle child, there are some who believe it is a hoax. So Lib and Sister Michael are to observe Anna and document whether or not Anna actually eats any food. Because of her background in science and medicine, Lib is very skeptical of Anna and makes it her mission, so that this trip is not a complete waste of her time, to find proof Anna and her family are frauds.  I particularly loved the fierceness Lib displays as she basically dismantles Anna’s room looking for any place where food could possibly be hidden.

Mystery and Suspense.  You wouldn’t think a book that is primarily about sitting and watching a young girl to see if she is eating would be such an exciting read, but by having Lib so determined to get to the bottom of what is actually going on, Donoghue successfully weaves a sense of mystery and suspense into her tale.  We follow Lib each shift as she attends to Anna and as she continues to search for any clues that Anna and her family are perpetuating a grand hoax.  With each passing day that no evidence is found, however, more and more questions arise, both for Lib and for the reader by extension. Is Anna eating or is she not? If she is eating, why can’t any proof be found?  If she’s not, how is that even possible and how long can it possibly go on?  Is she really a miracle or are these seemingly simple people really somehow managing to outsmart everyone around them?

Conflicts and Tension.  Even though the bulk of the story takes place in Anna’s tiny bedroom, Donoghue infuses the story with several major conflicts – that of England vs. Ireland, Protestantism vs. Roman Catholicism, and Science and Medicine vs. Religion and Local Superstition.  These conflicts not only add weight to the overall story, but they also create momentum by effectively ratcheting up both the tension and the drama as we move further into the two-week observation of Anna.  Because Lib is English and a Protestant, she is perceived as an outsider and the O’Donnells and the townspeople do little more than tolerate her presence in their lives. When she then expresses skepticism of their religious convictions and of the strange superstitions that many in the village seem to embrace (a belief in fairies, for example), their opinion of her only goes downhill from there and thus any scientific arguments Lib uses to express her concern that Anna is harming herself by not eating are immediately rejected as ‘You just don’t understand the way we live here.’

It’s especially frustrating, not just for Lib, but for the reader as well, that not even Anna’s parents seem to have their daughter’s best interest at heart, which leads to what is perhaps the primary conflict of the novel:  the moral and ethical dilemma that faces Lib  — how can she just sit back and simply observe Anna starve herself as she has been hired to do when every fiber of her being is screaming at her to take care of this child and get her the nourishment she needs, even if she has to resort to force to do so? Donoghue does a phenomenal job of portraying the frustration that Lib feels as this decision weighs on her mind every time she looks at Anna.

The Bond between Lib and Anna.  In a novel that is oftentimes disturbing because of the way everyone just sits back and lets Anna refuse food, there is a lovely and moving element to the story as well and that is the bond of friendship that forms between Lib and Anna.  At first Lib is filled with dislike and distrust for Anna because she’s so convinced the girl is a fraud, but Anna quickly wins her over with her kind spirit, her piety, and her quick wit.  As we move through the novel, Lib grows more and more fond of Anna, and often comes across as more of a parent to Anna than Anna’s own mother and father do. There’s what I would call a healing or restorative quality to their relationship and both Anna and Lib benefit from their interactions.

* * * * *

Anything I Didn’t Like?

I liked the overall pacing of the novel and the slow buildup of tension and suspense, but I have to say there were a few moments just over the halfway point where my interest started to wane a bit.  Thankfully after a few more pages, the action really started to pick up and I sailed right through to the end.  Other than that minor lull in the story, I thought everything else about it was beautifully done.

* * * * *

Who Would I Recommend The Wonder to?

If you’re looking for a light and fluffy read, this is definitely not the book for you. However, if you like a compelling read that will make you think and that poses tough questions when it comes to ethics and morality , then The Wonder might be a good fit for you.

Rating:  4.5 stars

Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is due out on September 20, 2016.

four-half-stars

About Emma Donoghue

emma donoghue

Emma is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their son and daughter.