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Henna House

Henna House
Nomi Eve

In Yemen, Jews and Muslims live aide by side- but not always peacefully. The Muslims have decreed that any orphaned Jewish child must be adopted by a Muslim family. Adela, the only child of a sickly cobbler and a mercurial mother, lives in fear of the Confiscator taking her. In hopes of preventing forced adoption, she is engaged to her cousin Asaf when she is just a child. While she plays at being married with Asaf, she also enjoys the companionship of her childhood friend Binyamin. Adela is still a child when Asaf  leaves on a long journey….and other long-lost relatives arrive.
Adela’s aunt Rahel and cousin Hani introduce her to the world of henna, prized by Jews and Muslims alike. Henna is often used to decorate brides and is a ritual of beauty that women can share. For Adela and her relatives,  though, it becomes something much more complicated- a secret code, a battle ground,  a safe place, and a way to change their fate.

Henna House is one of the best books I’ve read about female relationships in years. Every mother, aunt, sister and cousin is a vibrant character. The story doesn’t shy away from the injustices that face women around the world, but it gives them strength and beauty.
I also liked Adela’s honest narration of her childhood. From time to time she recounts what she remembers, and then balances it with what an older female relative remembers. And isn’t that an honest take on memory?!
Henna House is about the lives of women, their loves and their relationships. When women are oppressed (because of their gender, religion, race, or marital status) they still find ways to influence and shape the story of their people. They communicate in any way possible- even in henna.
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You might like: The Red Tent, Diamant. The Pearl Who Broke Its Shell, Nafisi.

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We Are Not Ourselves

We Are Not Ourselves
Matthew Thomas

Eileen Tumulty is the only child of alcoholic Irish parents, growing up in New York in the 50s and 60s. She dreams of reaching an upper-middle class respectability, having a comfortable suburban life.
Eileen feels that her key to that life is to marry the right man.  But she falls in love with Ed Leary. It doesn’t take too many years before she realizes his dream for the future is different than hers.  In time, Eileen and Ed manage to have a son, Connell. Eileen transfers many of her hopes for the future onto her son. But while she hunts for houses in respectable suburbs, her huband grows more and more resistant and withdrawn.
Eileen has to face the fact that life- and her choices- have led her to a very different place than the future she dreamed of as a young girl.

The story of We Are Not Ourselves is nothing new, but the characters are drawn with an incredible insight thst makes the book irresistible. This is a book that you stay up late to read, and wake up early to read- but every so often, you have to pause, and just let the words sink in. This is a book that spans generations and lifetimes, but no words are wasted. Every song, every literary reference, every house has been crafted by the author as part of the story.

We Are Not Ourselves is a story of family, of dreams, and of love- in all its many forms. It easily leapt onto my Top 10 list for this year. I believe we will be talking about Matthew  Thomas and his brilliant writing for years to come.

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*SPOILERS*
I don’t usually do much of a personal reflection but this excellent novel has given me a surplus of thoughts. I’m talking about some later plot points tho so spoiler warning.
Eileen fixates on owning a house as a symbol of success for her family. First she buys the multi-family house where they live, and moves into the best apartment. Not content with that, she starts touring homes in upscale neighborhoods, but she has delusions of grandeur. When she is finally honesy about what she can afford, the perfectly respectable houses seem shabby by comparison. Eventually she buys a house at the very top of her price range that she can only afford because of extensive water damage. When she moves in, tho, she doesn’t start to repair the roof or the foundation- she focuses on the dining room and kitchen so she can throw dinner parties. Thomas sums it up: “The base of the house might be rotting, but the visible portion was commanding enough…” He writes about a house, but he’s also giving insight into Eileen. It’s very well done.
Also. After several years of erratic behaviour, Eileen’s husband Ed is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. It made me think of my grandfather, who also has Alzheimer’s (although he is 90.) Some of Ed’s behaviors seem familiar. I’m starting to consider that maybe some of the things we kids thought were just Grandpop being Grandpop were, in fact, the coping mechanisms of a smart man realizing that things in his brain weren’t quite as fixed as they used to be. For example, writing in block letters instead of cursive, or making obsessive lists. But the line that hit home, written from Connell’s perspective, was: “…during the period when he’d gone around labeling everything.” I’m pretty sure every one in my extended family has inherited something labeled in my Grandpop’s big block letters.

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Pretty In Ink

Pretty In Ink
Lindsey Palmer

When Hers magazine announces they have hired Mimi as the new editor in chief, the magazine staff is understandably shaken. Over the next few months, many of them will find themselves without a job. Those who remain at the magazine will have to adapt to the new work environment. Some of the staff struggle, torn between loyalty to their old boss and coworkers, and wanting to gain Mimi’s favor. The new staff, hired by Mimi, are sometimes oblivious to the tension their presence causes.
Palmer writes this workplace drama with a light touch and humorous perspective. It is obvious that she has experience in the magazine industry and professional world. She is able to move the story forward by writing about a day here and a day there.
Pretty In Ink is narrated by Leah, Jane, Victoria, Deborah, Abby, Drew, Liz, Ed, Zoe, Erin and Laura. Each voice is interesting, but having so many makes it hard to get invested in the characters. I personally enjoyed Leah, Jane, Abby and Ed the most. Leah, Jane and Abby all had multiple chapters, so I was able to get the clearest view of them as people. Ed, as the lone male narrator, and a mailman at that, provided a fun outsiders perspective. I think the story could’ve been told just as well with only those characters as narrators, and might have been a little easier to follow.

Pretty In Ink  is a fun read. I will be recommending it for beach reading this summer! 

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You might like The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (of course) and Bond Girl by Erin Duffy. 

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Vintage

Vintage
Susan Gloss

For Violet, running her shop Hourglass Vintage is more than a job – it is the fulfillment of dreams she had as a small-town girl and abused wife. So when lease issues threaten her business, she is frantic to find a solution.
April bought her wedding dress at Hourglass Vintage, but returned it when her engagement to an upper-class boy fell apart. Now she is left pregnant and heartbroken.
Elizabeth, a mentor to both women and a patron of the arts, has the idea that the women should work together. But can they each get past their own struggles to become friends.
Amithi comes to Hourglass Vintage to sell some of her clothes from India after her long marriage falls apart. She is hoping for some kind of fulfilling career but has no idea where to start. Violet’s business gives her inspiration.
Each of the women in Vintage has her own story to tell. One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was how the women were all different ages and at different stages of love and success.
Vintage: A Novel

You might like: A Vintage Affair, Isabel Wolff. The Perfume Collector, Kathleen Tessaro. The Shoemaker’s Wife, Adriana Trigiani.

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The Sisters Weiss

The Sisters Weiss
Naomi Ragen

In a very conservative Jewish family, sisters Rose and Pearl grew up close in age and close to one another. Like all sisters, tho, they also envied one another. When Rose, as a young teenager, brought home a book of photographs, Pearl reported her to their parents- with severe consequences.
Rose was sent to live with her grandmother and attend and even more conservative religious school. Instead of reforming her behavior, she took the opportunity to do more forbidden things- even enrolling in a college photography class. Rose’s family made one more attempt to keep her from straying, by arranging a marriage for her. Rose accepted it- until a few days before the wedding,  when her groom told her she would have to give up her beloved photography.
Torn between family and tradition on one hand, and freedom and art on the other, what could Rose do?

The Sisters Weiss jumps forward forty years at this point, for the second half of the book. Both sisters now have daughters of their own- and haven’t spoken to each other in years. Its impossible to summarize without a spoiler for the first half, so I’m just going to leave it there. Except to say that the tension between faith and freedom repeats itself for younger generations.

I have read and enjoyed many of Ragen’s other books. This one, however, struck a surprisingly personal note with me. I also grew up in a very conservative religious family- altho not Jewish, and not as strict as the fictional Weiss family. I can very much relate to the struggles Rose and Pearl face- trying to find their place in both their faith and the world.
In The Sisters Weiss, Ragen has written an interesting story. She has also addresses complicated, real-life issues with understanding and grace.
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You might like (both non-fiction): Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman. Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent

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The Burgess Boys

The Burgess Boys
Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys is the story of a family: brothers Jim and Bob, and their sister Susan; as well as their respective spouses, exes, and children. When Jim, Bob, and Susan were very young, they were in the car when an accident killed their father. Bob has always believed himself to be responsible. The heavy burden he carries has led him to a solitary life in a small apartment with lots of alcohol. Jim, on the other hand, has become a successful and famous lawyer with a lovely family and a nice house. Unlike her brothers, Susan did not move to New York but stayed in their hometown, where she also has a small, cold life. Her only joy is her son, Zach- until his teenage prank mushrooms into a hate crime against the Somali Muslims that have immigrated to their hometown.
Zach’s legal case forms the framework for The Burgess Boys, but it is not the story: the story is the brothers, Jim and Bob, and their struggle to navigate their relationships with each other and the people around them. This is not a book with lots of action or major plot points, but it is a book with incredible character development. The narration rotates among a handful of main players, allowing the reader to see the characters from both their own and others perspectives.

Yes, The Burgess Boys is about immigration, racism, and the law. It is also about middle-aged marriage, divorce, and falling in love again. But ultimately, it is about family. It is about the narrative of who you are in your family, starting in early childhood, and how it shapes the person you are as an adult. Its about the Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, and the people they love -and hurt- the most.
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After I’m Gone

After I’m Gone
Laura Lippman

When local big shot and bookie Felix Brewer skipped bail and disappeared, he left behind a wife Bambi,  three daughters, and a mistress, Julie. When Julie disappeared ten years later, many people assumed he had sent for her. It was 15 years before her body was discovered.
Private investigator Sandy Sanchez is trying to solve the cold case of Julie’s murder. Digging into the past, he finds layer after layer of secrets and lies. But will he discover the truth?

After I’m Gone uses multiple narrators and weaves together accounts spanning many years. While it initially appears to be a story about Felix, it really the story of all the women he loved and left behind. Each one adds her own unique perspective to this novel.
Part mystery, part family drama, After I’m Gone is all page-turner. Telling a story from so many viewpoints is tricky, but Lippman did an excellent job. Each character has their own distinct voice but they tell one story.
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