Book of the Week

Book of the Week: Next Year in Havana

It’s definitely starting to feel distinctly wintery here, and I’m being drawn to books about sunnier climes to counter act the gloom of the days shortening and the lack of sunlight.  So this week’s BotW pick is one that took me away from the damp of a British late-autumn and to the warmth of Cuba – but don’t worry, this isn’t a sunny beach read.

Cover of Next Year in Havana

Marisol Ferrera is on her way to Cuba for the first time.  She’s grown up on stories of the land her grandmother was forced to flee. Now with the easing of travel restrictions for Americans, she’s on her way to the country she’s heard so much about ostensibly to write an article for tourists, but with her grandmother’s ashes hidden in her luggage to fulfil her dying wish to return home.  But Cuba has changed a lot in the 60 years that have passed, and there are family secrets waiting to be uncovered. Back in 1958 Elisa Perez was a debutante, the daughter of a sugar baron and sheltered from the unrest sweeping the nation.  But that all changes when she starts an affair with a revolutionary who is fighting alongside Fidel Castro.

I liked both women and I was swept away by Cuba – in both time lines.  I do love a bit of last-days-before-it-all-comes-crashing-down society sometimes – all that doomed glamour and obliviousness; but actually modern day Cuba was just as intriguing – a country held in stasis, where you had to know the right people and say the right things to get on or else survive by your own ingenuity and cunning.  Which ever way there’s a lot of personal risk involved.  I will admit that I was a little worried that there was no way for there to be a satisfactory resolution to Marisol’s story, but actually it really pulled it off. I finished the book really wanting to visit to Cuba – but even more conflicted about doing that than I had been previously.

We all know that I love a dual timeline novel and I’ve had a fancy to read this since I first first heard about it, which I think (like it often is) was when Chanel Cleeton was a guest on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast back on episode 284 in early 2018.  And yes, it’s taken me this long to get around to getting hold of a copy and reading it.  In between it’s become a Reese Witherspoon book club pick and was a Goodreads choice award nominee for historical fiction last year. And actually it pretty much lived up to the hype, which isn’t always the case with books like this and as my Goodreads reviews will attest.  It was a period of history I don’t really know a huge amount about – beyond having studies the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis during GSCE history and it was nice to be swept up into a different era and a different culture – I’ve read a lot of European-set dual timeline novels (particularly recently) and it’s not often that I venture as close to the present day as the 1950s for novels like this so it was a refreshing change all around.

My copy of Next Year in Havana came from the library, but you can get hold of a copy on Kindle, Kobo or in paperback from somewhere like Book Depository.  I’m not sure how easy it will be to find in stores, Amazon say they can despatch it really quickly but Foyles say they can order it but it will take about a week, which makes me wonder if it’s an American import.  I’ve already got Cleeton’s next novel on hold at the library.

Happy Reading!

mystery, reviews

Review: The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House

I was very excited when I won a copy of Stephanie Lam’s debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House – the cover looked gorgeous and the blurb was intriguing.

The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House is a time-slip novel set in the 1920s and the 1960s.  The 1920s strand follows the visit of Robert Carver to his wealthier cousin Alec Bray, who lives in the titular house.  A poor relation, Robert has always admired Alec, but he discovers that the Brays are damaged and gets dragged into their web.  Forty years later, the second strand follows Rosie Churchill, an 18-year-old girl who has run away from home and is living in Castaway House, now subdivided into flats as she finds out about what happened to Robert, their stories intertwine…  I’m hoping that doesn’t give too much away, because I think this is a book that is best to go into unspoiled – for maximum impact.

The very pretty and retro cover of The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House
The very pretty and retro cover of The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House

The book evokes two very different periods in exactly the same setting – and does so very successfully.  You can feel the difference in the world of the Twenties where Alec is trying to project an image of glamour and privilege and that of the sixties where everything is rougher, darker and poorer.

There is plenty of mystery and suspense – expect sharp intakes of breath as the secrets are gradually revealed.  Stephanie Lam has done a really good job of setting this up so that you can’t see the twists coming – or at least I couldn’t.  I thought I knew what was going to happen (jaded time-slip reader that I am) but I was surprised by the ingenuity of what the actual plot was.  She also credits the reader with the intelligence not to need everything spelling out – particularly when it comes to the resolution.

I really enjoyed The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House – and I will be looking forward to more from Stephanie Lam.  I’ve already recommended it to several friends.  Published today by Penguin, I’m hoping it’ll be nice and prominent in the bookshops – here it is on Foyles website and here for Kindle.

new releases, reviews

Review: Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase

Out today in paperback is Louise Walter’s first novel Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, which I’ve been wanting to read since I heard about it.  I love timeslip novels and the blurb looked right up my street – but my rules about not buying hardbacks except in extremis (and anyone who’s seen a photo of my to-read pile knows that I’m not in extremis!) meant I had to hold my horses and wait for the paperback! I was thrilled to get a copy ahead of its release – and wanted to share my thoughts about it.

Firstly the plot: Roberta collects letters left inside the books that she sells, but when she discovers a letter from her grandfather written after he was supposed to be dead, family secrets start to unravel.  The book moves between Roberta in the present day (or near enough) and her grandmother, Dorothy, in the 1940s as the reader discovers what really happened during the Second World War.

I absolutely gobbled this book up – all done in two train journeys.  I would have tried to make it last longer, but I was too desperate to find out what happened to pace myself.  Roberta’s story is slighter than Dorothy’s but is no less fascinating.  I thought both the leading ladies were engaging and believable and I really wanted to know what the solution to the puzzle was.*  World War II isn’t usually my first choice of historical period to read about, but this has made me think that I need to read some more books set in this period.
This is a really impressive first novel – I’m passing it straight on to my mum (and then probably my sister) and I will be looking forward to more books from Louise Walters.
If you want to read Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase it should be available in all good bookshops (and I hope nice and prominent) like Foyles and also Kindle and other e-readers.
My copy of Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase was sent to me by Bookbridgr in return for an honest review.
* I’m trying not to give details about the plot away because I’m sure there will be other people out there who’ve been waiting for this the way that I have.