Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton (Review)

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Next Year in Havana
by Chanel Cleeton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 361 Pages

Release date: Feb. 6, 2018

Synopsis: 

After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity–and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution…

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba’s high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country’s growing political unrest–until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary…

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa’s last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba’s tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she’ll need the lessons of her grandmother’s past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.

ratingthree

Have you ever finished a historical fiction novel and been left feeling like you’d have been better off reading nonfiction? That was my experience with Next Year in Havana. I love historical fiction, and (as much as I love WWII fiction) I’m always on the lookout for something interesting outside of the over-saturated WWII historical fiction genre. (Other time periods exist!)

So I went into this book with high hopes. I can’t recall ever reading a book that takes place in Cuba, so I was looking forward to a nice change of pace in terms of time period as well as location. The author clearly desperately wanted to write about Cuban history and culture… to the point where the narrative itself and the characters felt like very thinly veiled excuses to do so.

Fiction can of course be great and also heavily steeped in real history and culture (In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, is an example of a book which I think accomplishes this better), but the narrative needs to be interesting in its own right. The characters need to feel genuine. Next Year in Havana never felt like more than a vehicle to write about Cuban history.

As you can tell from the synopsis, this book is made up of two alternating time lines; one in the modern day told from the point of view Marisol as she returns to Cuba to spread her grandmother’s ashes, and one telling the story of her grandmother’s youth in Cuba. Both of these timelines have a romance sub-plot, and neither feels really justified. This is particularly true in the case of Marisol, who falls madly in love in the span of the maybe two weeks that she spends in Cuba. Both romances feel insta-lovey to an extent.

Overall, I did enjoy delving into a different culture and historical period, and I felt like I learned a good bit about Cuba through this book. Ultimately, though, I can’t help but feel like the time would have been better spent on a documentary on the same topic.

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The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, by Balli Kaur Jaswal (Review)

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The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters
by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Cultural

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: April 30, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

The author of the Reese Witherspoon Book Club selection Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows follows her acclaimed America debut with this life-affirming, witty family drama—an Indian This Is Where I Leave You—about three Punjabi sisters embarking on a pilgrimage to their homeland to lay their mother to rest.

The British-born Punjabi Shergill sisters—Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina—were never close and barely got along growing up, and now as adults, have grown even further apart. Rajni, a school principal is a stickler for order. Jezmeen, a thirty-year-old struggling actress, fears her big break may never come. Shirina, the peacemaking “good” sister married into wealth and enjoys a picture-perfect life.

On her deathbed, their mother voices one last wish: that her daughters will make a pilgrimage together to the Golden Temple in Amritsar to carry out her final rites. After a trip to India with her mother long ago, Rajni vowed never to return. But she’s always been a dutiful daughter, and cannot, even now, refuse her mother’s request. Jezmeen has just been publicly fired from her television job, so the trip to India is a welcome break to help her pick up the pieces of her broken career. Shirina’s in-laws are pushing her to make a pivotal decision about her married life; time away will help her decide whether to meekly obey, or to bravely stand up for herself for the first time.

Arriving in India, these sisters will make unexpected discoveries about themselves, their mother, and their lives—and learn the real story behind the trip Rajni took with their Mother long ago—a momentous journey that resulted in Mum never being able to return to India again.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters is a female take on the Indian travel narrative. “I was curious about how different the trip would be if it were undertaken by women, who are vulnerable to different dangers in a male-dominated society,” Balli Kaur Jaswal writes. “I also wanted to explore the tensions between tradition and modernity in immigrant communities, and particularly how those tensions play out among women like these sisters, who are the first generation to be raised outside of India.”

Powerful, emotionally evocative, and wonderfully atmospheric, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters is a charming and thoughtful story that illuminates the bonds of family, sisterhood, and heritage that tether us despite our differences. Funny and heartbreaking, it is a reminder of the truly important things we must treasure in our lives.ratingfive

My thanks to William Morrow and Girly Book Club for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Balli Kaur Jaswal, author of past Reese Witherspoon Book Club and Girly Book Club pick Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, is back with a new novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters! Sisters Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina are reeling from the recent death of their mother, but determined to fulfill her dying request: take a pilgrimage back to her homeland, India, visiting all the places she’d been to ill to go see one last time. Born and raised in England, the sisters gain a sense of appreciation for their heritage and for one another on their journey. 
 
Jaswal has a remarkable ability to imbue her novels with a lightheartedness and sense of humor while still grappling with serious issues. The three sisters in this novel must learn to overcome the emotional distance and secrets that have grown between them over the years. They also struggle with being treated as outsiders/tourists in India despite being there for deeply meaningful reasons for their Indian mother, as well as coming to grips with India as a relatively male-dominated society. The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters reads like a feel-good book, but it quickly becomes clear that Jaswal has loaded the story with plenty of substance as well. 
 
If you loved Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, you’ll fall head over heels for the Shergill sisters. Jaswal demonstrated her talent with her last novel, and it’s clear that she’s only grown as a writer since then! I’ve often cited Punjabi Widows as being a pleasant surprise for me; I read it for a book club meeting and never would have picked it out for myself, but ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I went into Shergill Sisters with high expectations and still ended up being pleasantly surprised all over again. I can’t wait to see what Balli Kaur Jaswal writes next! 

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Thank you for reading! Tell me about a novel you love with strong cultural themes in the comments! What did you love about it?

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