Review – Next Year in Havana

I picked up Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton after Reese Witherspoon announced in as her July book pick for the Reese’s Book Club. Not only was this the first book I read for Reese’s Book Club but it was also my first read by Chanel Cleeton and I was not disappointed by either.

We follow two women, Elisa Perez living in Havana before the rebellion until her family’s exile in 1958 and her granddaughter Marisol, visiting Cuba for the first time in 2017. And through Elisa and Marisol we get to experience Cuba. Cleeton’s writing is so atmospheric that if I closed my eyes, I could picture Cuba, the sights, the sounds and smells. Through these characters and their experiences we also learn about the people of Cuba as a whole – those who left Cuba with their belongings on their backs, passing along memories to their descendants and those who stayed behind with hopes of change that would not happen.

One of the things that I loved about this novel, was the way that Cleeton addressed Marisol’s view of herself as a Cuban-American. How she was concerned that she wouldn’t be welcome in Cuba, that she wasn’t “Cuban” enough. It was particularly clear in the way that Cleeton described Marisol feeling both at home while still feeling like an outsider in a country that meant so much to her and to her family.

“You speak as though politics is its own separate entity,’ he says. ‘As though it isn’t in the air around us, as though ever single part of us isn’t political. How can you dismiss something that is so fundamental to the integrity of who we are as a people, as a country? How can you dismiss something that directly affects the lives of so many?”

I didn’t know very much about Cuba before I read this book. I knew some basic information but the depth of Cuba: the politics, the way Cuban’s live, the history, etc – was all new to me. The politics of Cuba come up a lot in this book as the undercurrent of the story, it pushes it forward.  Not just the politics of the government, but also the politics of the social classes. How each social class viewed the rebellion, who agreed and who disagreed, and the the politics of why. And not just that, but how those who stayed in Cuba viewed those who left and vice versa.

One of my favorite things about the genre of historical fiction is that you can learn about history in a way that is almost hands on. With characters like those of Chanel Cleeton’s in Next Year in Havana, they help the reader view the situation through their own eyes in a way that a history book doesn’t. It allows you to experience it instead of just getting the facts. Chanel Cleeton describes this book as a “book of my heart”, stating that her family also escaped Cuba and that she credits their stories with some of the bases for this book. The fact that her family lived through these experiences only adds to that feeling.

Ultimately I loved this book, and I am really looking forward to more of Chanel Cleeton’s writing, especially to hear Beatriz’s story in When We Left Cuba in 2019.

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

– Hannah

Review: The Great Alone

The Great Alone was the first novel by Kristin Hannah that I have read, and I absolutely loved it. I read this book in about two sittings, mostly spending one Saturday curled up on the couch where I didn’t stop reading until I was sobbing and turning the last page. This then prompted my daughter to ask “Mommy, why do you always read books that make you cry?” That may need to be a post for another day, but I was so engrossed in Hannah’s characters and the story of a teenage girl trapped in her parents toxic relationship that tears were bound to happen. The Great Alone left me heartbroken and at peace all at the same time, and honestly books that manage to do that are always my favorite books.

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The Great Alone tells the story of Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam vet and POW, who finds out that he has inherited a piece of land in Alaska from one of his friends from his time in the military. This comes at the perfect time for Ernt because, unable to keep a job and unable to quit drinking, he is running out of options. Cora, his wife, unfailingly devoted to her husband agrees to move to America’s last frontier with him. Leni, their 13 year old daughter hopes that in Alaska she will finally find a place where she belongs.

At first, Alaska is everything they have dreamed of. They find a close knit community of strong men and even stronger women who are willing to help them learn how to navigate the wilderness around them, and Ernt finally seems to be doing better. Unfortunately, Alaska’s wilderness isn’t the only thing that is volatile, as winter approaches and the days get shorter and darkness falls upon Alaska, darkness also starts to fall on Cora and Leni, as Ernt’s mental state deteriorates.

“In the silence, Leni wondered if one person could ever really save another, or if it was the kind of thing you had to do for yourself.”

The thing I loved most about this novel was the characters. Each character was so different to the rest, but they were all fully fleshed out. There was Large Marge, a former D.C lawyer, intense and strong, willing to do what she needed to do to protect her unprepared neighbors. There is Matthew, who brings romance to Leni. The two of them turn into Alaska’s Romeo and Juliet once Ernt starts to have a problem with Matthew’s father. There is even a family of survivalists, the family of the friend who gives Ernt his property, whose patriarch doesn’t help Ernt’s state of mind with their ranting and raving of the collapse of their great country. Each character brings something to this community of Kaneq that helps propel this story along.

Leni and Cora Allbright were the strength of this story however. Leni finds herself in Alaska, she learns to take care of herself, she becomes strong, willing to do what she needs to do in order to survive. She starts to see the cracks in her own parents relationship but doesn’t let that stop her from finding love of her own. Cora, at first glance, is a battered woman. She follows Ernt blindly, willing to do whatever it takes to make him happy, even though she knows that it’s only a matter of time before he explodes. Cora finds her strength in Alaska too, although it’s not Alaska where she finds her happiness. Hannah does her leading ladies justice, they find peace and happiness in their own way.

The Great Alone is a tour de force of drama, emotion, and tragedy. Hannah writes a novel that forces us to look at the way that wilderness lives within us, and the way that sometimes in order to survive what we need to do is look inside ourself for the strength that lies within us.

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Kristin Hannah is an author I now need to go out, buy, and read, everything that she has ever written. For those of you who have read her other novels, let me know which one I should read next in the comments!

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

– Hannah

Review: The Girl in the Tower

Now – before I get into this review, which I am SO EXCITED to do – this is the second book in a series, so this review may have some spoilers for the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale.

“Think of me sometimes… When the snowdrops have bloomed and the snow has melted.”

Synopsis from Goodreads: “The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.”

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.”

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If you loved the first book in The Winternight Trilogy: The Bear in the Nightingale, you will love it’s sequel. This book, actually this series, is some of the best historical fiction I have ever read. The combination of the history and folklore of Russia is absolute perfection. And the way that Katherine Arden flawlessly combines history, folklore and the fantastical makes this novel a magical and compelling read. If you ignored my previous warning of spoilers, and you haven’t started these books, I need you to stop what you’re doing right now and go read them. Okay? Go. Now.

Before I go into my more detailed review – this book shouldn’t be read as a stand alone. You should definitely start with The Bear and the Nightingale (it’s worth it). Arden doesn’t start the book with a lot of refresher information, she jumps right into the action and that is one of the things I love most about it. There were definitely details that related back to the first book, but I never felt like we were rehashing plot points that had already been discussed and wrapped up. It was like I had just turned the page of the first book into the second and it really helped the pace of the book (which was excellent throughout).

This book was also fantastically feminist. Vasilisa (Vasya) is a fiercely independent woman who has no desire to comply to 14th century Russian culture and rules. She risks her life, and her family’s lives, in order to try and find herself and her purpose, without being forced to spend her life locked away as some man’s wife or in a nunnery. She fights for what she believes is right, without fail, no matter what the consequences might be. She is smart. She listens to her heart. And above all, she knows that being a woman does not make her any less of a person than if she was a man. She is a woman who I ardently admire.

“Do you think that is all I want, in all my life—a royal dowry, and a man to force his children into me?”

Side note: Hi my name is Hannah and I am hopelessly in love with a frost demon named Morozko.

The relationship between Morozko and Vasya was an absolute treat to read.  Morozko’s desire to keep Vasya safe, and Vasya’s refusal to be treated as anything less than she is, is a combination that I am 100% here for. And while Morozko does try and protect her at all costs, with spring coming fast, the Winter King can only do so much. As Morosko and Vasya struggle with their feelings for one another their relationship goes to new depths that will make you fall in love and Katherine Arden doesn’t hold back any punches either.

“You are immortal, and perhaps I seem small to you… But my life is not your game.”

This book is atmospheric, magical, beautiful and heartbreaking. I am always nervous when moving on to the second book in a series when I loved the first book so much because I am nervous of the second book not living up to my expectations. This book lived up to and surpassed my expectations. It was a page turner and there were many times that I had a hard time setting it down. Arden’s characters have been added to my short list of characters that I would absolutely die for. The last book in the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, set to be released in August 2018 is one of my most anticipated of 2018. I can not wait to see where Arden has Vasya going next in her journey. I have very high hopes.

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– Hannah

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