Book Review: The Return

With a charming protagonist and intriguing premise, I can see how a devoted fan would love this book. As someone who merely grabbed it off the stack, my opinion differs slightly.

The Return by Nicholas Sparks

Though I’ve enjoyed a couple Nicholas Sparks’s books, I wouldn’t describe myself as one of his core readers. This one was a loan from the Library of Grandma. When reading it in public, I unwittingly gained entrance to a secret club of Nicholas Sparks fans who smiled and gave me an OMG-don’t-you-just-love-him look I didn’t quite understand. They asked which of his books was my favorite, with the expected reply apparently being ALL of them. After finishing, I determined 1) Nicholas Sparks’s books are best read in private because 2) Nicholas Sparks fans are a special breed of human who speak a language made almost entirely of sighs of longing.


When a mortar blast injury sends surgeon Trevor Benson home from Afghanistan, he regroups in the dilapidated cabin he inherited from his grandfather. Love is the last thing he expects to find while tending his grandfather’s beehives, but the mysterious Natalie Masterson captures his attention. The deputy sheriff seems to reciprocate his feelings, but she reveals little of herself, even though she assists him in investigating his grandfather’s strange last words.

To discover the meaning of his grandfather’s final message, Trevor tries to recruit the sullen teenager from the trailer park down the road, Callie. She offers few clues until a crisis reveals a connection between the elderly man’s passing and her own troubled past.


Trevor Benson has the right mix of serious backstory and charm to make him intriguing and attractive to the average reader. I appreciated the openness with which he relates his struggles with PTSD and the positive light in which he views his mental health treatment. A devoted grandson and all-around good guy, he is easy to love.

Callie starts off as a flat character with stereotypical teenage stonewalling. She gains depth by the end, but I would have liked more of her situation to leak through earlier. Natalie is interesting at the outset, but her backstory is too predictable for the mystery to keep the reader’s attention.


The plot waffles between Trevor’s rapid-onset infatuation and the mystery of his grandfather’s last journey, which leads him to seek information from the sullen teenager. I liked that all the subplots intertwined in the end, but they felt disjointed toward the beginning, almost as if they were different books. I had trouble getting into this book and only finished because I wanted to return it to my grandmother when I visited.

Writing Style

Sparks’s prose is light in tone and full of detail, though far from breathtaking. The story reads like a walk through the neighborhood, ambling unhurriedly and stopping to appreciate life’s simple pleasures. Though hardly action-packed, the style was appropriate to the target audience.


With a charming protagonist and intriguing premise, I can see how a devoted Nicholas Sparks fan would love this book. As someone who merely grabbed it off the stack, I can say it was an enjoyable read, but one I’ll quickly forget. Too many subplots hindered my ability to engross myself in the story. While the author tackles many deep topics in the characters’ backstories, he takes too long to introduce them, and lacks time to explore them sufficiently before the end. As far as Nicholas Sparks books go, I much preferred Safe Haven and The Notebook.

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The Return

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Book Review: Home Front

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set, but I still feel its themes are relevant today.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set. For me, the most interesting part was reflecting on how much has changed in American culture since then.

Cover Description

“Like many couples, Michael and Jolene Zarkades have to face the pressures of everyday life—children, careers, bills, chores—even as their twelve-year marriage is falling apart. Then an unexpected deployment sends Jolene deep into harm’s way and leaves defense attorney Michael at home, unaccustomed to being a single parent to their two girls. As a mother, it agonizes Jolene to leave her family, but as a soldier she has always understood the true meaning of duty. In her letters home, she paints a rose-colored version of her life on the front lines, shielding her family from the truth. But war will change Jolene in ways that none of them could have foreseen. When tragedy strikes, Michael must face his darkest fear and fight a batter of his own—for everything that matters to his family.”


So many books aim for a “strong female lead” by putting breasts on a masculine character, but Jolene has a refreshingly feminine strength. As a mother, her number one priority is her daughters. She takes on a great emotional toll to spare them pain, and she sacrifices her personal preferences to keep the family running. She is strong, yet vulnerable, feeling intense emotions even as she perseveres through her trials. Jolene is three-dimensional, a shining example resilience.

Including Michael’s perspective prevents the reader from picking sides in their marital disputes. He is flawed, and his struggle with being Mr. Mom resonates with anyone who has ever worked with children. My one critique is that by the end of the book, he seemed too perfect. I have serious doubts that a man would be so persistent given Jolene’s repeated refusal of reconciliation.

Would I have said that had I read the book in 2012 when it was published? Has my opinion of people declined so much? I’m not sure. It seems to me the more “connected” we are through technology, the shorter our attention spans, and the less effort we are willing to put into our relationships. Jolene and Michael’s marriage is an example of love as a choice, of the extensive hard work needed to last until death do us part. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see that kind of love very often in times where a minor disagreement will lead to “unfriending.” Reading this book makes be think we could all use a dose of the past.


The story falls into two parts: Jolene’s deployment and her adjustment to coming home. Interspersed are Michael’s struggles as a functionally single parent. The central conflict is Jolene being deployed to Iraq, and Michael’s lack of support for her. For me, it was interesting to reflect on what dominated the headlines back then compared fills our screens now.

Overall, the plot is well-paced, somewhat predictable, but that isn’t a bad thing in a character-driven novel. I enjoyed watching Jolene and Michael grow as individuals and as a couple.

Writing Style

Hannah’s descriptions are evocative without being too high-brow. She has a talent for showing the passage of time via small things—flowers blooming, weather patterns, characters growing accustomed to their new surroundings. Her prose is clear and easy to read without lacking substance.


I read this book long after it was published, but I still found it relevant. The themes of reconciliation, supporting your spouse despite disagreements, love as a choice, and coming home both mentally and physically are as pertinent today as they were in 2012.

The story draws attention to mental health in a relatable way that is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because we have made great strides in PTSD research and management since this book was set. Discouraging because so much stigma still surrounds mental health, even though increased isolation and false-faced social media have led to an even greater need to destroy that stigma.


As usual, you can’t go wrong with a book by Kristin Hannah. With her characteristic clear and beautiful writing style, Hannah explores the intimate landscape of human relationships. The themes of this moving story continue to speak to the heart.

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Home Front

Other books by Kristin Hannah I enjoyed

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Book Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory

For those who seek a deeply emotional and inspiring experience, I highly recommend.

Cover Description

For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own. Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over?” — Amazon Description *

Characters and Plot

As a Minnesota-nice, passive-aggressive people pleaser, I find it difficult to empathize with rebel protagonists. The love story subplot—bitter girl surrounds her heart with walls as thick as they are high; persistent nice guy breaks through them—is one I’ve seen before, most recently in A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi**.

However, Laurie Halse Anderson (LHA) creates empathy for Hayley more effectively than Mafi does for Shirin. While I initially found Hayley’s attitude off-putting, she and Finn were so “adorkable” I couldn’t help rooting for them.

As part of my graduate schooling, I had the privilege to train in the Minneapolis VA Hospital. The VA provided counseling for PTSD along with occupational, physical, and speech therapy. The experience gave me a profound respect for the men and women who serve our country, and a deeper understanding of the effects of that service on the body and the mind. If you would like to learn more, I recommend reading Once a Warrior—Always a Warrior by Charles Hoge.

LHA depicts PTSD with heart-wrenching realism. Hayley constantly evaluates her dad for signs of flashbacks. The story line dives into dark moments of violence, but pops up for a breath of hope often enough to make the reader cry out when it doesn’t last. Between the “adorkable” love story and the progressive intensity of the PTSD, the story is more than an emotional rollercoaster; it’s a race through a zero-gravity obstacle course where the reader is the passenger and the pilot is blindfolded.

More than an emotional rollercoaster; it’s a race through a zero-gravity obstacle course at Warp 9, where the reader is the passenger and the pilot is blindfolded. #TheImpossibleKnifeofMemory

My only critique is that the author explains Hayley’s fear of water, but doesn’t divulge the history behind her hatred of the mall. One scene suggests she’s claustrophobic, but I would like to know more.

Writing Style

LHA’s writing style is the opposite of my own. I gravitate towards long sentences that flow across the page. Her prose is punchy and precise. No word joins the others without first proving its worth.

Her unique descriptions characterize her protagonist well. For example, she describes one of Hayley’s classmates as “the same size and shape as a porta potty.” The witty repartee between Hayley in Finn is what won me to Hayley’s side. It was as though they belonged to a linguistic genre all their own.

In short, LHA’s writing is masterful. She could write about people watching paint dry, and I would read 1,000 pages.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is masterful. She could write about people watching paint dry, and I would read 1,000 pages. @halseanderson


Given the subject, this book is not for readers who want to curl up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and eat Christmas cookies. For those who seek a deeply emotional and inspiring experience, I highly recommend.

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The Impossible Knife of Memory

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**A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a good depiction of the fickleness of high school and the arbitrariness of popularity.