The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller: The Paper Palace is a “flashy” story, flashy in the sense that it exhibits flashes of lyrical prose, searing narrative, wrenching trauma, and deeply felt characters. In between the flashes, it can be a bit of a slog at times. But the good far outweighs the difficult, making this a book I can firmly recommend.
The story is anchored in a single day in the present interlaced with a fictional memoir of the family history and back story of the main character, Elle. Right out of the gate we meet Elle just after she’s had a secret tryst with a friend of the family, Jonas. Why would she cheat on her husband like this? What was she thinking with her three kids barely a stone’s throw away at the time? The author waggles her finger at you to come follow and let her show you who Elle is and what led her to
this moment. The journey is one of pain, healing, and survival.
At its core, the story is about Elle and Jonas and how they were always meant for each other, but for tragedy that intervenes and takes their lives in different directions. For this story to work, the reader must buy into this epic life-long love between them. This is where the author didn’t quite pull it off as well as I might have wished. I’d grade the story a B on the love cred scale.
The strong points of the book are characterizations and highly evocative prose. The author has a tremendous gift for bringing the reader into a scene so completely that you can smell, hear, even taste what’s going on. The story is also aided by the author’s unflinching realism; no detail is too mundane to recount. That said, the realism might have been overdone at times (e.g., not sure the story needed all the peeing scenes).
Finally, a bit of a warning. The book is grim in spots. An important element of the story is sexual trauma. The events are necessary to the story and to understanding the characters, but sexual violence is never fun to read, and it’s particularly painful when it involves children.
In sum, this is an extremely well written novel by an immensely talented writer. For those who are willing to dive into the story and swim to the other shore, the experience will be memorable and rewarding.
The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave: Hannah hasn’t been married long to Owen, who has a sixteen-year-old daughter Bailey, when her life blows up. Owen disappears from the face of the earth after the tech company he works for is charged with financial crimes, and the event becomes the news story of the day. Before he vanishes, Owen leaves Hannah a one-sentence note urging her to take care of Bailey, which is a tall order since Bailey can barely stand her step-motherWith Bailey in tow, Hannah launches into a search for her missing husband and a quest to understand why he did this to them. Hannah and Bailey eventually bond as they work together to solve the mystery of Owen’s disappearance and to find him.
Hannah and Bailey launch into a search for her missing husband and a quest to understand why he did this to them. Hannah and Bailey eventually bond as they work together to solve the mystery of Owen’s disappearance and to find him.
The story weaves in flashbacks that give us backstory and an understanding of Hannah and Owen, along with some hints at what might be going on. The characters are richly developed and story itself moves along at a brisk pace. It is one of those thriller-mystery stories that some people will feel compelled to finish in one sitting.
Ultimately the mystery is solved, Hannah and Bailey become close, and we have a satisfying ending. The answer to what happened to Owen turns out to be not all that surprising. Enough hints were dropped early on that I saw it coming fairly quickly, but to me the more engaging part of the story is Hannah and Bailey sorting out how to trust one another. The story is a great character study strapped to a thriller crotch rocket that roars down the interstate at a hundred miles an hour. All the elements come together wonderfully. It’s a great read. I highly recommend it.
Legacy by Nora Roberts: I have a read a few Nora Roberts books over the years. The back cover blurb for this one sounded interesting, so I gave it go. Nora Roberts is one of the most prolific writers on the planet. I am in awe of how she is able to produce all the content she does and do so at a high level of quality, so before going further I must bow before her and chant, “We’re not worthy.”
Anyhow, what’s the story with Legacy? Legacy is primarily about Adrian Rizzo: how she grows up, her tragedies, her career triumphs, falling in love, and . . . dealing with a serial killer out to get her.
The story spans twenty something years and delves into Adrian’s character and growth as a person. An important thread throughout the story is violent,
homicidal men. For a good portion of the story, Adrian is stalked by a killer who sends her poems every year promising that he will eventually come to kill her. It’s pretty creepy.
I found the story to be uneven—parts were great, parts not so much. The two biggest shortcomings I saw were, one, Adrian is a bit too much of a Mary Sue character. Also, a number of the supporting characters were too good to be real. So, the characters seemed to swim mostly in the shallow end of the pool.
Two, there’s a lot of scenes, mostly involving young kids babbling baby talk, that were a little too saccharine for my taste. My teeth hurt at some of the over-the-top wholesomeness of the mostly well-off white people and their perfect kids and households.
This is Nora Roberts, so there is romance of course, but it’s not a dominant element. In keeping with the rest of the book, the romance is mostly simple and blissfully perfect.
I might not have finished the story but for the serial killer aspect. That part of the story was interesting. I would recommend this book for someone who might like a mash-up of Little House on the Prairie and Silence of the Lambs (or Night of the Hunter, maybe). For me, the combination was like putting ketchup on a glazed donut... it didn’t quite work, but A for effort.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston: 23-year-old August arrives in New York ready to strike out on her own and put some distance between her and her oddball mother. A little sheltered, naïve, and cynical, August is a loner searching for meaning. She soon moves into an apartment with three zany roommates and finds work waitressing at a nearby diner. She and her roommates quickly become a kind of found family.
On her daily subway commute to work, August encounters a young woman named Jane, who shows her kindness. Then she starts running into Jane on the subway every time she rides the so called “Q train” and they quickly develop a subway friendship. Gradually it dawns on August that something very weird is going on—how is it possible that she runs into
Jane every single time she steps onto the train, no matter when or where she gets on. We soon learn that Jane is trapped on the train, having been catapulted to this current time from the year 1976. Jane can’t ever leave the train, never ages, and is apparently condemned to spend all eternity riding the train up and down the line.
August and Jane fall in love riding the subway together. With the help of her found family, August goes to work trying figure out who Jane is or was, what happened to her, and how to free her from her cursed existence. By the end, revelations unfurl, mysteries are solved, and love strides forth triumphant.
One Last Stop is a mostly comical romance, although it does have its serious moments. The author is very talented and writes with a freshness and wittiness that works perfectly with this story. The characters are well-drawn and differentiated and mostly endearing. I don’t think I remember a single major or minor character in the book—and there were a lot—who isn’t basically a nice person at heart. LGBT issues are handled, but not in a heavy-handed or preachy way. Rather, LGBT is treated simply as part of the spectrum of normal life, which is refreshing.
As romances go, this was better than average, maybe not an A+ but more than a B. The premise of a young woman lost in time on the subway and a love affair playing out on train trips is a great hook and makes for an engaging read. This is a long book, and there are some slow parts that the reader has to battle through, but I found that the mystery of Jane was enough to keep my interest at a level high. The ending was satisfying, but not quite a homerun. It was a bit predictable, which is fine, although I was expecting something a little less conventional.
In sum, I would recommend the book for anyone who has a warm spot for quirky romances and loony characters with big hearts.