The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley Heller

I read Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel The Paper Palace sitting on the porch at my best friend’s “farm.” (I put farm in quotation marks because it’s not a farm anymore, just a peaceful retreat in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill looking over rolling pastures, and the river. It’s magic.) I read for hours because I couldn’t stop. If there’s a list of things I love in books, I’d say The Paper Palace ticks them all.

Elle Bishop, 50, (there’s a thing I loved right there; Elle is 50.) is at her family’s compound in the Back Woods on Cape Cod. She has been coming here her whole life, and it is here where she first met Jonas when he was eight and she was eleven. For the next few summers, Elle and Jonas are inseparable, but then something happens that changes everything, and the two go their separate ways. They meet intermittently, but somehow find their way back into each other’s lives as adults. They are BFFs. Or, at least, that’s the boat they’re trying to float. They’ve managed, until this summer.

The novel takes place over twenty-four hours, but really spans a life time, flipping back and forth between then and now. Elle cherry picks the stories she tells: her mother’s failed marriages, her father’s abandonment, the history of “The Paper Palace” (the name of the place where they summer), her complicated relationship with her older sister, Anna, her friendship with Jonas.

In the here and now, the story begins with a betrayal. It’s not a spoiler to say that Elle and Jonas consummate their relationship; the blurb on the back tells us that much.

I could look at him and nothing else for eternity and be happy. I could listen to him, my eyes closed, feel his breath and his words wash over me, time and time and time again. It is all I want.

What Elle has, though, is a pretty amazing husband, Peter, and three kids. Jonas, too, is married to Gina whose “petite, perfect little bee-sting of a body” makes Elle wonder: “That’s what he wanted?” Elle and Jonas’s shared act is a powder keg with the potential to blow up many lives.

So, those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know that I love angst. LOVE it. Chuck an obstacle in front of people who love each other and I will be swooning before you can say, “hell, yeah!” Wanna stick a literary dagger in my heart? Yes, please. Heller wisely avoids making any of the players villains, which ups the ante for Elle. She’s our narrator; this is her story to tell. And the fact that she has invested in her marriage and it has been a happy one, makes her decision about what to do post-coitus, even more compelling. Then Heller reveals all the details of Elle’s life and the whole concoction is

I truly loved everything about this book. Some people have complained about all the time jumps: didn’t bother me in the least. If I had any complaints it would be 1) there are a lot of names and sometimes I was like “who’s that, again?” and 2) I love you, Reese, and I hope your production company is going to turn this puppy into a limited series *pretty please*, but I hate that your “Reese’s Book Club” sticker is not actually a sticker that I can take off and mars an otherwise gorgeous cover.

That said, The Paper Palace is a beautifully-written, page-turner about a woman who has to make a decision at a point in her life where she’s actually lived a life and has some real skin in the game.

Highly recommended.

Tin Man – Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s novel Tin Man is the story of Ellis, a quiet middle-aged man who has spent his adult life working nights in the paint shop at the local car plant in Oxford, England. “He was forty-five years old, and every night he wondered where the years had gone.”

Every day is much like the day before for Ellis, but his life wasn’t always so predictable. First there was Michael. Then there was Annie.

In the front bedroom, propped up among the books, is a color photograph of three people, a woman and two men. They are tightly framed, their arms around one another, and the world beyond is out of focus, and the world on either side is excluded. They look happy, they really do. Not just because they are smiling but because there is something in their eyes, an ease, a joy, something they share.

The “something they share” is the subject of Tin Man, a story that unravels like a beautiful dream. The ribbon that runs through Ellis’s story is a painting of Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Ellis’s mother, Dora, won a reproduction of the painting in a raffle and, to her, it represented “Freedom. Possibility. Beauty.”

When, as an adolescent, Michael meets Dora, they share an appreciation for the painting and what it represents. She tells Michael and Ellis, “Men and boys should be capable of beautiful things.”

Ellis’s relationship with Michael shape-shifts, and when they are nineteen they travel to Van Gogh’s France and consummate their relationship. A choice they make there altars the course of their lives, and a few years later Ellis meets Annie and marries her. Ellis’s marriage is another decision that changes the trajectory of their lives. Winman’s book is really about those choices, big and small, which can have an impact on our lives.

Tin Man is also a book about the kindness of strangers, and of how sometimes a moment of grace can allow the light to get into the darkest corners of our lives. A shared meal. A bed to sleep in. The opportunity to tell our story. Forgiveness when you need it most.

This is a beautifully written book. There are no villains here, only human beings hopeful to live worthy lives. I think the novel suggests that what’s worthy are the quiet moments, the moments of homecoming.

Highly recommended.

Mirrorland – Carole Johnstone

When Cat’s identical twin sister El goes missing, Cat returns to Edinburgh to be with her husband, Ross, while they wait for news. She hasn’t seen or spoken to El or Ross for twelve years, but the reason for their estrangement takes a long time to reveal itself. Don’t worry: you’ll be riveted to the pages of Carole Johnstone’s debut Mirrorland for reasons far beyond why the sisters stopped speaking.

Growing up, El and Cat lived at 36 Westeryk Road, a “gray flat-stoned house with Georgian-bar windows” with their mother and maternal grandfather. Now El and Ross live there, and when Cat arrives she is astounded by how unchanged it is; “the hallway walls are crowded with familiar mounted plates…The tall oak telephone table and grandfather clock are exactly where they used to be as well…The smell is exactly the same….”

This house is filled with old ghosts for Cat. When she re-discovers the papered-over “door to Mirrorland” in the pantry, it unlocks fragments of memories. Mirrorland was

a magic place. Because, whatever else, I can’t deny that. This might once have only been a tradesman’s entrance, a means to a supercilious end; it might now be forgotten – only empty, drafty space and stone – but in between it was something else. Once upon a time, it was rich and full and alive. Gloriously frightening and steadfastly safe. Exciting beyond measure. Hidden. Special. Ours.

Cat and Ross refuse to believe that El is dead. Things get even creepier for Cat when she starts receiving anonymous cards at the house, and then, worse, emails from someone (Cat is convinced it is El; who else could it be?) providing her with clues for a treasure hunt. The clues lead to pages from a diary that El kept, and as Cat discovers them, she also starts to unlock the secrets of what happened in that house when she and El were children.

Mirrorland is like that hall of mirrors in a fun house. The rooms have names like Clown Café, and Donkshop. Then there’s Bedroom 3, a room that even as an adult Cat is afraid to enter because she hears “El shriek in [her] ear, Don’t go in! We can’t ever go in!” The twins’ childhood was filled with stories of pirates and make-believe, and as Cat deals with El’s disappearance, her complicated relationship with Ross, and the sharp edges of her childhood memories, it’s hard to know what is real and what is not.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, has several excellent twists and Stephen King himself says it’s “plotted with a watchmaker’s precision.” Not gonna argue with the master.

Highly recommended.

The Familiar Dark – Amy Engel

Last year I read Amy Engel’s novel The Roanoke Girls and I really loved it. Her novel The Familiar Dark is equally compelling and I read it in one sitting.

The Familiar Dark opens with a double homicide. When small town cop, Cal, comes to the diner to tell his sister Eve that her daughter, twelve-year-old Junie and her best friend Izzy have been murdered, Eve is bereft. Junie is Eve’s whole world. They are a team; only Cal has ever been invited into their private world.

Cal and Eve’s childhood is something they have worked their whole lives to escape. The siblings were raised “in a double-wide that stank of men and meth burners…strange faces and too much laughter, most of it jagged and mean. All of it nestled in the armpit of the Ozarks.” Their town is a backwater, where everyone knows your business and Eve wonders if the inept sheriff will ever find out who killed her daughter, so she takes her mother, Lynette’s advice: “You find him, Eve. Whoever did this. You find him. And you make him pay.”

Engel travels some pretty dark roads in The Familiar Dark. Although Eve has worked hard to live a different kind of life and raise her daughter away from the negative influences she’d had, including her mother, who she’s mostly avoided for the past decade, her questions necessarily suck her back into the “familiar dark” of her past.

For example, she must confront her former boyfriend (and I use the term loosely) Jimmy Ray, a local meth dealer.

I’d known what he was because I wasn’t blind. But I’d still fallen for the dark hair and green eyes, the lopsided grin, the tiger tattoo curled around his neck. The scent of danger he wore like cologne. When I was with him, I felt like the old Eve, the one who had flirted with disaster and never cared about how much something might hurt.

The Familiar Dark is almost un-put-down-able. Eve’s past has hardened her; Junie was the person who had smoothed out her rough edges. Engel leads the reader and Eve down a dark path, where Eve is forced to ask questions she may not want the answers to. There are some true surprises along the way and the ending is devastating.

Highly recommended.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

According to some scientists, the body replaces itself every seven years. (There are actually differing opinions on this, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say it’s true: every seven years you essentially become a new you.) This may or may not have been something John Boyne gave any thought to when he structured his 2017 novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The novel opens in 1945, and then advances every seven years until 2015.

The book begins quite dramatically when Father John Monroe “stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.” Catherine Goggin, 16, is pregnant with the narrator, and the priest (who it has not yet been revealed has fathered two children of his own) has humiliated her in front of the entire congregation. She will not reveal her baby’s father; her parents and older brothers will not come to her rescue, and she has no choice but to leave her tiny village and head for what she hopes will be a better life in Dublin.

Flash forward seven years and this child, Cyril, lives with his adoptive parents Charles and Maude Avery. That’s what he’s to call them, not mom and dad because, as Charles often reminds him, he’s not a real Avery. The Averys are quite well-off, although Charles is in a bit of trouble for not paying his taxes, and that’s how Cyril meets Julian Woodbead, seven-year-old son of Max Woodbead, the soliciter who is going to try to keep Charles out of prison. This meeting with Julian is significant for Cyril and causes Cyril a great deal of heartache, over the next few years, when he realizes that his feelings for Julian are romantic. Flash forward seven years, and the boys are now sharing a room in boarding school – a circumstance which causes Cyril quite a lot of sexual anxiety.

This is one of the novel’s central themes because homosexuality in a country ruled by the church isn’t just against the law, it’s a sin.

It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contrary to my nature

But lie Cyril must, and these lies cause him all sorts of trouble. It’s difficult to imagine any of this happening in my lifetime, and watching Cyril gratify himself with anonymous partners in alleys and dark corners was really depressing, actually. It was worse, though, to watch him try to ignore his feelings for Julian, who turns out to be a complete womanizer. Eventually, Cyril makes a catastrophic choice which separates him from Julian for many years. Their reunion, when it comes, is quite – I was going to say healing, and it is, but it’s more than that, too.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a sweeping, funny, sad picaresque (although I wouldn’t necessarily say that Cyril is rough, and his dishonesty is borne of necessity.) I am usually someone who hates great leaps forward in time, but this was certainly not the case with this novel. I loved being with Cyril and his family every seven years. (Unbeknownst to Cyril, he keeps crossing paths with his biological mother over the years and I kept crossing my fingers hoping that this was the moment that they reconnected.) This is a brick of a book – 580 pages – but I turned the pages without difficulty. It is full of pop culture and political references, I could hear all the accents as the characters spoke, and it is a book that will certainly stay with me for a long time.

Highly recommended.

Us – David Nicholls

David Nicholls (One Day, Such Sweet Sorrow) is a master at peering into all the hidden corners of relationships. In Us, he tells the story of Douglas and Connie and their seventeen-year-old son, Albie. One night, Connie wakes Douglas up and drops a bombshell: “I think I want to leave you.”

Douglas and Connie have been married for two decades, a happy marriage, Douglas (our narrator) tells us, but certainly not without its problems. Connie’s news comes just as the family is about to set off on a “Grand Tour” of Europe in advance of Albie heading off to university. They decide to go anyway, and Douglas takes this as a hopeful sign; perhaps he will be able to win back his wife’s affection and repair his slightly wobbly relationship with Albie.

The fact was I loved my wife to a degree I found impossible to express, and so rarely did. While I didn’t dwell on the notion, I had presumed that we would end our lives together.

Douglas, a scientist, and Connie, an artist, seem like an unlikely pair, really. Douglas’s narrative mines their origin story (they met at a dinner party thrown by his younger sister) for all the details which will help the reader understand their relationship and Douglas, wisely, doesn’t gloss over the fact that he is often pedantic and, perhaps, less empathetic than others. Maybe it is the scientist in him, but Douglas doesn’t always see the value in throwing caution to the wind. For him, everything is a teachable moment, and it’s caused some friction with his family over the years. I could certainly see how living with him, especially given that Connie is much more free-spirited, could wear one down.

So the family go off on their tour of the great museums of Europe and it’s a bit of a bust from the get go. Douglas has the whole thing planned down to the minute, but of course it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. Still, he tries.

1. Energy! Never be ‘too tired’ or ‘not in the mood.’

2. Avoid conflict with Albie. Accept light-hearted joshing and do not retaliate with malice or bitter recriminations. Good humour at all times.

3. It is not necessary to be seen to be right about everything, even when that is the case.

Poor Douglas. He really can’t help himself. But he’s not a jack ass. He’s actually quite a lovely guy and he really does try, but it doesn’t take long before the trip goes sideways. His willingness to do whatever it takes to fix things, including his marriage, (often leading to quite comical incidents) is one of the great joys of Us.

The other joy is watching this family – all of whom love each other deeply but imperfectly – try to figure things out. The potential dissolution of a family – all that history – isn’t easy, and watching Douglas bare his scientific soul to the idea of being without Connie and having damaged his relationship with Albie beyond repair is really quite magnificent. I read one review that suggested that Douglas was too reticent about sharing personal details, often times the scene fades to black before too much is revealed, but I think this is exactly the reason Connie felt she had to leave him.

Us is funny (although there were instances when I felt it was trying just a tad too hard to get a laugh), and well-written. I loved visiting these European cities. The characters felt like real people. The ending was – well, you decide.

The Lying Woods – Ashley Elston

Owen Foster has it all going on. He’s a high school senior at an exclusive private school in New Orleans and his parents are loaded. His life has been pretty sweet. That is until his mother shows up one day to tell him that he has to come home to Lake Cane because his father has been accused of stealing from the very company that provided Owen with his privileged life and also, he’s missing.

This is just part of the story in Ashley Elston’s compelling YA mystery The Lying Woods. The second narrative happens twenty years in the past when nineteen-year-old Noah arrives in Lake Cane looking for work at Gus Trudeau’s pecan farm. Noah hasn’t had an easy life, but he’s hoping to turn things around and despite Gus’s warning that he’ll put a bullet in him if he steps out of line, Noah is convinced that he can make something of himself here. When he meets Maggie, he’s sure of it.

Readers will have a great time trying to figure out how these two timelines are related, but the best thing about Elston’s novel is that both stories are interesting all on their own. For Owen, he’s trying to figure out if the things that his father is accused of are true. The company his father ran, Louisiana Frac, employed a lot of people in the small town, and what his father did has left a lot of them without a job, or worse, without their life savings. People are suspicious of Owen’s mother, convinced that she knew what her husband was up to and even has some of the missing money. When Owen has to finish his senior year at the local high school he discovers that he doesn’t really have any friends with the exception, perhaps, of Pippa, his best friend when he was a kid. She, at least, seems willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Noah is the proverbial kid from the wrong side of the tracks. As his relationship with Maggie develops, he is not unaware of the complications their relationship presents. But he is willing to do whatever it takes to make a life with her. But it seems Noah can’t catch a break. I was really rooting for things to go his way, too.

Although this is classified as YA, it actually has a lot to offer adult readers. The writing is as good as any you’d find in an adult mystery; the characters are believable and sympathetic; the mystery is twisty enough to keep you guessing. I haven’t ever read this author before, but I would certainly like to read more.

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery

I haven’t read a Lucy Maud Montgomery book for probably 50 years – and, sadly, that’s not an exaggeration. Of course, like many Canadian women, I read and fell in love with Anne of Green Gables when I was a kid, but I haven’t ever revisited Anne’s island. The Blue Castle is the only novel Montgomery wrote which is not set in her beloved Prince Edward Island, and it’s only one of two adult novels she wrote.

Valancy Stirling lives with her widowed mother and Cousin Stickles in Deerwood, Ontario. Her life is joyless, and her mother, cousin and extended family are overbearing and critical. Every day is like the day before, and there is no hope that anything will ever change. What stings most of all is that “she had never had a chance to be anything but an old maid. No man had ever desired her.”

There is one bright spot in Valancy’s life and that is her “Blue Castle”.

Valancy had lived spiritually in the Blue Castle ever since she could remember. She had been a very tiny child when she found herself possessed of it. Always, when she shut her eyes, she could see it plainly, with its turrets and banners on the pine-clad mountain height, wrapped in its faint, blue loveliness, against the skies of a fair and unknown land. Everything wonderful and beautiful was in that castle.

A trip to the doctor changes everything for Valancy. Suddenly she stops allowing her family to bully her and their reaction to her spirited responses is quite comical. She packs her bags and moves out to Old Abel Gay’s, the local handyman and town drunk, whose daughter, Cissy, a former classmate of Valancy’s, is dying. No one can quote believe it. They think she’s gone quite mad. But Abel is kind to her and Valancy finds a friend in Cissy. Suddenly the whole world opens up to Valancy, and truthfully, almost 100 years after The Blue Castle was published, her journey to independence is a delight.

If, like me, you haven’t read Montgomery in forever, I highly recommend this one. It’s charming, it’s funny, it’s sweet and, in many ways, Valancy is a modern heroine. I loved my time with her.

If We Were Villains – M.L. Rio

I would put M.L. Rio’s 2017 debut If We Were Villains in the ‘dark academia’ category. For me, that’s a book about students in a sort of gothic university setting where dark deeds are done. Donna Tartt probably deserves the credit for writing the quintessential novel in this milieu, The Secret History, a book I read when it first came out and intend to re-read this summer because I recommend it all the time, but have very little memory of the book’s details.

When If We Were Villains begins, Oliver Marks is just being released after spending ten years in prison. He makes a deal with Joseph Colborne, the detective who arrested him but never really believed he was guilty, to finally tell the story of what really happened at Dellecher Classical Conservatory in Broadwater, Illinois, where Oliver had been one of the seniors in the acting department.

There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us, though we saw no further than the books in front of our faces. We were always surrounded by books and words and poetry. all the fierce passions of the world bound in leather and vellum.

Dellecher is a weird, isolated school – kind of a given in books of this type. The seven main characters live together in “what was whimsically called the Castle.” They are as eclectic a bunch as you’d expect acting students to be; almost every type you could imagine is represented. They are serious ‘actors’ and at Dellecher, the only playwright they ever study is Shakespeare. Indeed, the seven of them often converse with each other using only words written by the Bard. A Shakespeare scholar might be able to parse the significance of the lines that are spoken; I felt lucky to merely recognize some of them.

Oliver unspools the story of what happened at Dellecher and, in doing so, reveals the dark underbelly of friendship, jealousy, violence, and love that simmers beneath the surface of this close-knit (proximity, not affection necessarily) troupe of players. I can’t say they were a particularly likeable group, but I guess that doesn’t really matter. They’re actors, and by definition we can’t really know who they are beneath the stage make-up. That works in the novel’s favour, really, because when the crime for which Oliver is later incarcerated is committed, the players (let’s call them that instead of friends) have to put on the greatest performance of their lives.

I enjoyed this novel, but I wouldn’t call it a page-turner. It requires something of its readers: attention must be paid. It is structured in five acts, the ending is ambiguous (although I have my suspicions) and, like any great play, it gave me a lot to think about.

Well worth your time.

One True Loves – Taylor Jenkins Reid

So I will preface my thoughts about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2016 novel One True Loves by saying that Daisy Jones & the Six was one of my favourite reads last year. It had all the things: humour, nostalgia, angst. It was my first book by Jenkins Reid and so I knew I would be dipping into her back list and that is how I ended up with a copy of One True Loves.

One True Loves sounded totally like my jam because there is nothing I like more than people who love each other but can’t be together (Buffy/Angel, Sid/Vaughn after Vaughn thinks Sid is dead and marries she who will not be named). In this story, Emma Blair lives with her older sister, Marie, and their parents in Acton, Massachusetts where they own a bookstore called Blair Books.

One day at a swim meet, Emma sees Jesse Lerner, high school swimming star and the boy Emma develops a crush on that lasts until the night at a senior year party where they finally speak to each other. The connection is instant and before you can say “I love you”, they are actually saying “I love you.” And that’s pretty much my problem with the entire book.

Fast forward several years and Jesse and Emma have settled – after years of traveling the world – in Los Angeles. Emma is a travel writer; Jesse works as a production assistant on wildlife documentaries. Then, just before their one year anniversary, Jesse takes a job in Alaska and the helicopter he is on crashes.

Emma’s grief is all consuming. She demonstrates this by climbing up onto her roof with a pair of binoculars to watch the sliver of ocean she can see, sure that she will see Jesse trying to make it home to her. Eventually, though, she decides to return to Acton and takes a job at Blair Books, something she swore she would never do. Then, she runs into Sam Kemper, the other boy from high school whom she’d friend-zoned. Suddenly she has feelings for Sam. I say suddenly because all the relationships in this novel are sudden and soul-mate deep. The pronouncements would be so much more effective if I actually felt as though I got to know any of these characters on anything more than a superficial level.

We don’t see Jesse and Emma struggle. We don’t see any of their travels or any of their growing up. They come face to face at a party in their senior year, then they hide in the bushes when the cops come to bust it up and then they are revealing their innermost selves to each other – and I get it, sometimes chemistry just knocks the wind out of you. Emma explains her feelings like this:

I was madly in love with him and had been for as long as I could remember. We had a deep meaningful history together. It was Jesse who had held my hand when my parents were furious to find out I’d never sent my application to the University of Massachusetts, and in doing so, had forced their hand to send me to California. It was Jesse who supported me when they asked me to move home after we graduated, Jesse who dried my tears when my father was heartbroken that I would not come home to help run the store. And it was also Jesse who helped me remain confident that, eventually, my parents and I would see eye-to-eye again one day.

The boy that I first saw that day at the swimming pool had turned into an honorable and kind man. He opened doors for me. He bought me a Diet Coke and Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey when I had a bad day. He took photos of all the places he’d been, all the places he and I had been together, and decorated our home with them.

And this is the problem with One True Loves: it’s all tell. I never felt invested in these characters and their story because I never really spent any time with them. They are all nice people, but the tension which should develop when Jesse is returned from the dead (not a spoiler, the book blurb tells you) never actually materializes. By this time, Emma and Sam have met, fallen in love and are engaged. What’s a girl to do?

Nice guy Sam is teary-eyed, but stoic about this situation, but he loves Emma and her happiness is all that matters to him. There’s no real angst here because Emma’s feelings for both of these handsome, kind, lovely men (c’mon, really?!) are kinda equal. Like, toss a coin equal. There’s no downside to ending up with either of them.

One True Loves is easy to read, but utterly forgettable. It does not, however put me off Jenkins Reid. I have Malibu Rising on my bedside table and I am very much looking forward to it.