The Paper Palace

The Paper Palace by Miranca Cowley-Heller.

When I finished this book, I felt as if I needed to talk to a therapist. It gave me all the feels and whatever I say in my review will be inadequate. The novel is told from the point of view of Eleanor/Elle and it switches back and forth from the present to various haunting memories from her past. Elle and her family return every summer to their cabin in Cape Cod. This place is almost a character itself, because it is described so vividly and it has really shaped each of their lives in one way or another.

As this complex and layered novel progresses, secrets from the past are uncovered. It is gritty, raw, and honest. It can be a little dark, but it also includes a little humor. It is dysfunctional family at its best. It explores how the smallest decisions can have the biggest effects on one’s life. It is powerful and lyrical and it will evoke so many emotions that when you get to the end of the book you will feel as if you have been through a trauma yourself.

Golden Girl by Elin Hilderbrand

After a long hiatus from my book blog, I am returning with a review of one of my favorite author’s books, during my favorite time of year- summer reading!  It just isn’t summer unless there is a new beachy Elin Hilderbrand book to read while lying out in the sun (or sitting inside enjoying the ac). I was super excited that I was able to meet Elin Hilderbrand on her book tour and have my book signed. 

Golden Girl, begins with one of the central characters, Vivian Howe, being ran over and killed in a hit-and run accident on the island of Nantucket. Vivi watches from the beyond as the ones she left behind cope with her death. I was scared that this watching from beyond business would be too far-fetched for my liking, but I was pleasantly surprised that it seemed perfectly natural.

Vivi’s children are all struggling with their own issues and as they face the loss of their mother, they begin to deal with other things in their lives as well.  All the while, everyone is trying to figure out who is responsible for her death.

This book was a little romance and a little family drama mixed with a lot of sunshine.  I really enjoyed the characters in this novel and even though I had things figured out before the book ended, I enjoyed the time that I spent with Vivi and her family and as with all of Elin Hilderbrand’s books, I was left with the longing to visit Nantucket.

the four winds

Kristin Hannah knows how to gut you by putting her characters through horrific experiences. Her most recent novel, The Four Winds, is about the harrowing account of one family’s plight during the dust bowl and depression.

The setting is brutal. The heat beats down on them. They suffer through raging dust storms. Everything around them is dying- people, the animals, and even the land. Elsa is the heroine of this novel and her courage and strength are tested daily as she makes sacrifice after sacrifice in order to save her family.  When you think things can’t possibly get any worse for them, it does, again and again.

Hannah vividly describes the harsh realities that those living during the depression faced. She paints a bleak picture that will stay with you long after you have finished the book.

the other americans

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami. Nora Guerraoui returns to her small home town in the Mojave of California when her father is killed by a hit and run driver. While she is dealing with his death she begins to look into her past and examine her own life. “I had never been enough. I had always been found wanting. “
She struggles with her grief and the loss of her father. “I wondered whether there would ever be a time when I would be at peace, when my heart would not feel as though lead had been cast inside it.”

Nora is a musician and her music has always been, “a refuge from sorrows and disappointments.”

Nora has always had a troubled relationship with her mother, Maryam. Maryam always makes Nora feel like she isn’t good enough and always tells her to get her head out of the clouds. Maryam is also dealing with loss in her own way. Maryam: “Time passed yet I still found myself reaching for two glasses when I made mint tea in the morning, or looking for my husband’s socks when I folded the laundry, or wanting to hand him to hand me a fresh towel when I stepped out of the shower. These little moments were painful, they reminded me I was no longer his wife, that I was his widow now, a state of being I was still trying to accept.”

Nora soon reunites with a friend from high school named Jeremy. Jeremy is an Iraq war veteran and while he becomes a shoulder for Nora to lean on, she also helps him deal with his suppressed memories from the war.

There are other characters in the book as well. All the characters are, “deeply divided by race, religion, and class.” They each tell their stories from their own point of view. One such character is Efrain. Efrain witnessed the accident, but fled from the scene of the crime. He felt the cost of going to the police was too high because he was scared he would be deported and separated from his family. The guilt weighs heavily on him and he is haunted by dreams of the man he saw die.

The Mojave is always present in the background of the novel, the sun and wind impossible to escape.

“The desert was home, however much I had tried to run away from it. Home was wide-open spaces, pristine light, silence that wasn’t quite silence. Home, above all, was the family who loved me. Only now, after my father’s death, did I come to understand that love was not a tame or passive creature, but a rebellious beast, messy and unpredictable, capacious and forgiving, and that it would deliver me from my grief and carry me out of the darkness.”

“Memory is an unreliable visitor.”

“The present could never be untethered from the past, you couldn’t understand one without the other.”

a woman is no man

A Woman is a Man by Etaf Rum is the story of the voicelessness and despair of several Arab women living in America. The book sheds light on the Arab culture. Women were expected to have boys because girls were looked at as a dilemma and burden, while boys were a way to secure the family lineage and keep an income.  “A women’s worth is measured by house, home, marriage, motherhood.” Family reputation is everything. I was angered and saddened by this “controlling and closed cultural world” and the women who had to live this way.  All the women were powerless and had no control over their lives or their fate.

“Women were raised to believe they were worthless, shameful creatures who deserved to get beaten, who were made to depend on the men that beat them.”

The book begins with Isra. The year is 1990.  Isra is seventeen years old and is shipped off America to marry a Palestine man. She is hopeful that things will be better for her as a woman in a different country.  She finds herself, “displaced from home, torn between two cultures and struggling to start anew.”  She ends up being ashamed to be a woman and is even more ashamed of her pathetic weakness.

Deya is one of Isra’s daughters and her story takes place in Brooklyn in 2008.  Deya is a lot like her mother. “She had learned that there was a certain way she had to live, certain rules she had to follow, and that, as a woman, she would never have a legitimate claim over her own life.” Deya is at the age where it is her turn to be married. She “felt trapped by the confines of the world” and “spent her life trying to please her family, desperate for their validation and approval.”  All she really wants is her freedom and the chance to find real love. “She had lived her entire life straddled between two cultures.  She was neither Arab nor American.  She belonged nowhere. She didn’t know who she was.” She doesn’t believe happiness is real.

Fareeda, the matriarch of this family, is Isra’s mother-in-law and Deya’s grandmother. She is distraught about how her daughter Sarah is disobedient and shuns her Arab culture. Fareeda:  “Hadn’t she taught them what it meant to be tough, resilient? Hadn’t she taught them what it meant to be Arab, to always put family first? She couldn’t be blamed for their weaknesses. For this country and its low morals.” Fareeda herself has come from poverty and survived an abusive father and husband. She has accepted that, “Sadness was an inescapable part of a woman’s life.”

Sarah is the most outspoken of all the women. She refuses to be forced to marry someone she doesn’t love and she makes her feelings known to everyone, including her suitors. She becomes a friend and sister and a light in the dark for her sister-in-law Isra.

What I loved most about this story is the role that books played in these women’s lives. Books were a comfort for loneliness.  Books kept them company and made them feel alive.

For Isra, books provided, “a surge of happiness.” They helped her “escape from the ordinary world.” They made her feel worthy and gave her hope.

Deya said, “Books were her only reliable sense of comfort, her only hope.” “How many people were hoping to find their story inside, desperate to understand?”

For all these women, it is safer for them to submit and be silent instead of standing up for themselves and fighting for what they want in the world. By the end of the book, there has been so much heartache that you can’t help but desperately want these women to find some sort of happiness. Will any of them be brave enough to fight for their happiness or will they continue to be tied down by the oppressive chains of their Arab culture?

“To want what you can’t have in life is the greatest pain of all.”

Loved this book and these amazing female characters.

the second home

The Second Home by Christina Clancy. The second home in this novel is a beach house on Cape Cod where the Gordon family has spent their summers for generations.  This book “is about second homes, second families and second chances.”

At the beginning of the book, Ed and Connie Gordon, adopt a teenaged boy that becomes a sibling to their daughters, Poppy and Ann.  One summer everything goes wrong and the siblings go their separate ways.

Poppy surfs and travels all over the world and rarely returns home to visit. To her, “Nothing quite compared to the intoxicating sensation of living a life that was always changing, always moving.” “She liked being disconnected.” She left home because she felt like she’d become invisible to her family. “She’d always defined herself as someone who could continually expand outward, never needing to return,” but when tragedy forces her to return back to the family’s beach house she “felt like she was reuniting with an old friend.”

Ann was always been the confident one in the family. Poppy’s long absence makes Ann feel rejected and abandoned by her sister. The summer that everything fell apart, Ann suffered from a traumatic event that still haunts her to this day.  

Michael was orphaned when his own mother died and the Gordon family took him in as one of their own. He treasured the family and his place in it and the beach house was a magical place to him. He felt like that house was “the only place where his life ever felt like it made any sense.”  “The houses he once inhabited now inhabited him.  They were witnesses to who he once was, to the people he’d loved-and hated.”

“Is that what houses really were, containers for family? And once the containers were gone, the people inside were just set loose in the world, particles.”

In the end, the second home ends up being the anchor that brings the family back together.  I highly recommend this book. I loved it!! Three of my favorite things: #beach read, #literary fiction, #dysfunctional family.

a burning

A Burning by Megha Majumdar might just be the best book I have read so far this year. It really broke my heart.  This poignant story centers around “three unforgettable characters who seek to rise” and takes place in the colorful country of India.  The author does an amazing job of bringing the sights and smells of India to life.

Jivan wants more than anything to rise from the slums and to be a part of the middle class. She makes a comment on Facebook and because of that comment she is believed to be part of a terrorist attack. She is arrested and put in jail where she is fighting for her innocence.

Lovely is a transgender outcast with dreams of being a famous actress.  Her whole life is a performance and you can’t help but love her humor and heart. Jivan was teaching her English.

PT Sir is a high school physical education teacher who becomes entangled in politics because of his desire to have something exciting in his life. He is tired of the “spoiled and lazy students that occupy his days.”   Jivan was one of his previous students.

Lovely and PT Sir both have the opportunity to speak on behalf of Jivan and help her prove her innocence. They both must decide if doing so is worth putting their own dreams in danger.

This is one of those books where the writing just takes your breath away. I think the title refers to terrorist attack (burning train), but I think it also refers to all three of the character’s burning desire to reach their dreams and better their lives.   

***Another #Read With Jenna Selection

all adults here

All Adults Here by Emma Straub is my favorite kind of book. It focuses on the dysfunctional Strick family, their relationships with one another and the issues each one has to face.  On the surface, it seems like there isn’t much of a plot, but if you enjoy character development as much as I do, then you will savor each word as you get to know the quirky members of this family and learn about the hardships they have to overcome.

Astrid is the matriarch of the family and after witnessing a woman in her community being ran over and killed by a bus, she decides she needs to make things right with her grown children; “Even though whatever she’d tried to do to make it better usually made it worse.” “That was the problem with being part of a family: Everyone could mean well and it could still be a disaster. Love didn’t cure all.”

Astrid wonders, “How many things had she missed, how many choices, how many mistakes, how many heartbreaks?” She begins asking her children questions and once the family starts really talking to each other they learn all kinds of secrets.

Astrid’s three children are Porter, Nicky and Elliott.  Nicky sends his daughter Cecelia to live with Astrid after something happened at her school. Cecelia becomes best friends with a transgender misfit. Porter is having a baby on her own. Elliott has bought a building in town and struggling to decide what to do with it and how his mother will react.  Astrid has the biggest secret of all and is about to reveal to her children that she is in love…with a woman. 

“Being an adult was like always growing new layers of skin, trying to fool yourself that the bones underneath were different too.”

The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that it included too many cliché controversial topics.  It is impossible to read a book without them these days.  Straub is a fantastic and witty writer and I look forward to reading more of her books.

Note: This book is also a ‘Read with Jenna’ pick. Loving her selections!!!

the vanishing half

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins who live in a small farm town called Mallard, where everyone is obsessed with the lightness of their skin color.  Desiree and Stella decided to leave their home town and venture out into the world.  Not long after that, Stella leaves her twin sister behind and creates a new life for herself, pretending to be a white woman. “The twins scattered, their lives splitting as easily as their shared egg.” 

Stella lies to her own family, never telling them she is really a black woman.  “Sometimes lying was an act of love.  Stella had spent too long lying to tell the truth now, or maybe, there was nothing left to reveal.  Maybe this was who she had become.” 

Desiree ends up fleeing an abusive husband and returning to Mallard with her very dark-skinned daughter, Jude. “A hurt bird always returns to its nest, a hurting woman no different.”

The twin sisters have to learn to live without each other, never forgetting the other. “Sometimes being a twin felt like living with another version of yourself.”

The book is also told from Stella’s daughter and Deisree’s daughter’s points of view.  Even though I was a little disappointed in the ending, overall it was a good book. 

This excerpt from the book jacket sums it up perfectly: “The Vanishing Half is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of race, gender and identity, and the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s desires and expectations.”

the salt house

The Salt House by Lisa Duffy. The Kelly family lives in a fishing town in Maine where they have been renovating their dream home on the oceanfront called, “The Salt House.” As the family is hit with a tragedy, they all deal with grief in different ways and their dreams are put on hold.

“Somehow we’d managed to survive losing her, each of us in our own way. But now we had to figure out how to live without her. Together.”

Jack puts all his energy into his lobster business, staying away long hours and always coming home late and exhausted.

Hope is a writer who hasn’t been able to write since the tragedy occured. She has spent an entire year not working and crying through the days in a fog of grief and dispair.

Jack and Hope’s marriage is in shambles and may not survive. They have two daughters, Kat and Jessica. Kat is eight and worried about her family. Jessica is about to turn seventeen and when she meets a boy that has ties to her father’s past, the shit hits the fan.

A great read for anytime, but perfect for the summer.