The Paper Wasp

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Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with Lauren Acampora’s novel, The Paper Wasp, in exchange for an honest review.

Abby and Elise were childhood best friends raised in a small town in Michigan. They began to grow apart when as a teenager, Elise became involved in acting and her career took off.

Flash-Forward to their late 20’s: Elise is an actress living in Hollywood, while Abby is stuck in their small town, a college dropout. She is working retail and dreaming of a career in the film industry. Abby obsesses over Elise, saving every magazine article that features her former friend. The two women reconnect, when they both attend their high school reunion. Following the reunion, Abby decides to run off to Hollywood, showing up on Elise’s doorstep. Elise, takes Abby in for an extended stay, treating Abby to a taste of her lavish lifestyle. Soon, the boundaries of their relationship are blurred, when Abby accepts a job being Elise’s personal assistant. The situation is further strained by Abby’s growing ambition, a ticking time-bomb that is ready to explode.

I absolutely loved The Paper Wasp. Acampora is a masterful writer, combing gorgeous prose with complex characters. I could not put The Paper Wasp down and plowed through it in a single afternoon.

I’m a Los Angeles native and I found the way that Acampora captured the city to be perfect. There is a wonderful moment where Elise drives Abby through Hollywood for the first time, noting its lackluster, dingy atmosphere, which is a strong contrast both Abby’s perceived image of Hollywood and to Elise’s glamorous lifestyle. Elise takes meditation classes at an exclusive institute and although I’m not sure of a real-life counterpart, it is certainly something that exists in Los Angeles. It has strange, ethereal quality, but is also is a bit of a cult. I could easily imagine the type of fellow Angeleno’s, not only celebrities, who would have a membership to this type of club. One of the more memorable aspects of the institution, is their crazy costume parties, where members come dressed as images from their dreams. It’s strange and magical, with a hint of a nightmarish quality; akin to a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

There is another contrast, when Abby travels back to Michigan to see her sister. Her sister is a drug addict, who has recently had a baby daughter. Abby visits her sister and niece, seeing that they live in a filthy trailer barely able to make ends meet. Abby’s heart tells her to kidnap her niece and save her from the poverty and neglect, but she can’t act on it.

Abby’s obsession with Elise creates a tension throughout the story. In the start, she appears to be a bit of a stalker, but then as we see the dynamic between the two women, it is clearer that Abby is more concerned with the lack of direction that her life has taken. She is envious of Elise, who doesn’t seem to deserve her lucky breaks. Rather than wishing to be Elise, Abby thinks that she is more deserving or at least, if she were to have a good opportunity, she would know how to make the most of it. We learn that Abby has been carrying around a terrible secret that is making her more motivate to take risks in life. Abby becomes emboldened throughout the story, making her actions increasing erratic, creating a sense of danger.

When Abby is confronted with the real Elise, not the Elise from the magazine articles, she realizes that her friend lacks self-confidence. Elise lives a messy life. This sets up a social commentary on how we view celebrity, or even ordinary people, via carefully curated social media accounts. Abby couldn’t imagine the real Elise, because she was so caught-up in the fake, media version. Not only that, Abby spent a decade so hyper-focused on this fake Elise, that when she was confronted with the truth, her world cracked open.

The Paper Wasp is my current favorite read of 2019. I was hooked from the first page and cannot wait to read Acampora’s collection of short stories, The Wonder Garden. She is such a talented writer.

On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard

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Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton for providing me with a copy of Jennifer Pastiloff’s memoir, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard, in exchange for an honest review.

Jennifer Pastiloff has built an incredible life. She is in a loving marriage, has a beautiful child, and has created a successful career as an inspirational leader of life changing yoga retreats. However, the road to Pastiloff’s currently life was bumpy.

Pastiloff had a tumultuous childhood, which included the death of her father. She suffered from crippling self-doubt and anorexia. Her self-image issues played a role in her refusal to seek medical attention for her progressive hearing loss, an issue that caused her many years of social pain, excluding her from fully participating in conversations and feeling like people viewed her as less intelligent. She meandered through her twenties/early thirties, engaging in self-destructive activities and unable to figure out her true career path or to find a good romantic partner.

On Being Human is part memoir and part self-help book, as Pastiloff gives tips and exercises gleaned from her popular workshops for reader to try at home. Pastiloff is relatable and raw. I related to her sense of feeling lost in her twenties/early thirties. She dropped out of college and spent over a decade working as a server at a cafe. I was in a similar situation and I could relate to knowing that you have skills and dreams, but also not quite knowing how to focus on a career path. The sense of knowing that there is so much more out there for you, but also not knowing how to grab it. In a culture where we value the traditional education/career path, it can be very difficult for people who do not stick to that mold. Pastiloff filled me with encouragement and hope. I would definitely recommend On Being Human, to anyone who is feeling a little lost.

Another aspect of Pastiloff’s memoir is the idea of following your gut or inner voice. Pastiloff did not have dreams of being a yoga instructor or a motivational coach, but she listened to her intuition when the opportunities presented themselves, she took them. The first time she met her would-be husband, she wasn’t interested in him, but a decade later, her gut told her to pursue the relationship. It’s part trusting yourself and part timing, as life is ever evolving and sometimes you might need the time to grow, in order to be ready to accept an opportunity. Pastiloff in her early twenties was not ready to accept certain things and she needed the time to grow. Rather than beating herself up over these missed years, she looks at them as a time needed to develop into the person she is today.

Pastiloff experienced massive hearing loss, a condition that slowly worsened over many years. Finally, she realized that she needed to use a hearing aid, something that she had been embarrassed about to the point of choosing to miss out on hearing. It was a vanity issue. When she finally conceded to needing the hearing aids, she realized that she could not afford them. However, Pastiloff had built a community of friends and clients who wanted to help her purchase them. This community came through with several other financial emergencies. My take-away is if you show enough love to other people, especially giving it freely with no expectations, often this love will come back to you in abundance. I’ve seen this happen in my own life and in the lives of those around me. Pastiloff’s younger adult years were spent in such fear of judgement, that when she was able to push that aside, she saw the blessing of allowing other people to be part of her life. We often hear that it “takes a village” to raise a child, but I think that it applies to everyone. We all need help sometimes. We need a sense of belonging to a community.

On Being Human is a wonderful reminder of the power of humanity and of embracing life. I highly recommend it for anyone who needs a bit of a boost. I’d love to attend one of Pastiloff’s workshops and to see how her energy in person, compares to the page. It is radiant in her memoir!

Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories

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On a recent visit to Powell’s Books in Portland, I was perusing the crime/mystery section and Korean author, Young-Ha Kim’s short story collection, Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories, caught my eye. I like to go opposite with my reading seasons, disturbing in the summer, and light-hearted in the winter. You can’t feel too dark when you’re sunbathing with a Mai Tai in one hand and crime novel in the other!

The collection begins with the title story, Diary of a Murderer. This is the longest story in the collection and it was my favorite for its strong narrative voice and intriguing premise. It follows a former serial killer, who has gotten away with his crimes, but now has Alzheimers. He is cognizant enough of his disease to worry that he might accidentally reveal himself, yet far gone enough to be living in a fantasy world, where he believes that his daughter’s new boyfriend is a fellow serial killer. His daughter is also a secret that he keeps, as he adopted the girl when she was a child, kidnapping her after killing her mother. His unreliable memory forces him to walk on egg shells. This serial killer who has caused so many people fear, now fears himself. It’s a great story idea and Kim does a fantastic job at keeping the tension. I felt both disgust and empathy towards the main character. He is a great anti-hero.

The second story in the collection is called, The Origin of Life. This story details a love triangle, where a woman in an abusive relationship manipulates her childhood friend to help her. I felt this was the weakest story in the collection, although Kim’s writing is so skilled, that it still kept my interest.

Missing Child explores the idea of a kidnapped child being returned to his parents after many years. The son is now a preteen and he is not the boy that his parents imagined that he would become. Would he have been like this all along? Or did the nurture part of the upbringing that he had with his kidnapper, over take the nature, the biology from his parents? What happens when your missing child is returned and it is not the happy occasion that you imagined? This story was fascinating and intensely emotional. The lives of the characters are utterly destroyed from one incident. The theme of child abduction is also carried over from Diary of a Murder, making these two stories solid companion pieces.

The last story is The Writer, about a novelist with mental health issues. The novelist is an unreliable narrator who is spiraling out of control, imagining a torrid relationship with the ex-wife of his would-be publisher. This is also a great companion to the title story, as both deal with unreliable narrators and mental health.

Kim is a new-to-me writer discovery. I enjoyed the intensity of his stories and surprising story arcs. He crafts vivid, emotionally wrought characters that I will not soon forget. I highly recommend Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories.

How Not to Die Alone

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Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam for providing me with a copy of Richard Roper’s novel, How Not to Die Alone, in exchange for an honest review.

Andrew has spent years carrying around a big secret. When he was being interviewed for his current job, he accidentally told his would-be boss, that he was married and rather than correcting the mistake, Andrew went on to fabricate a life that includes a wife and two kids. The lie kept growing and now he feels that he has crossed a point of no return. He works for a government agency who handles funerals for people who have died alone and as he investigates these lives, Andrew realizes that he is in a similar position. His parents are dead and he has a rocky relationship with his sister. A series of events, including a new employee named Peggy, threaten to reveal Andrew’s manufactured life.

How Not to Die Alone is a beautiful story that is both deeply affecting and delightful. Andrew has been hit hard by life and he has reached a state of arrested development, living out a middle-aged existence in a tiny, dilapidated apartment that is filled with model trains. His only friends are those whom he communicates with solely through online message boards for model train enthusiasts. Until her untimely death, he has strained, quarterly calls with his sister, Sally. He doesn’t have a lot in common with his coworkers and is dreading the company bonding dinner parties that his boss has recently cooked up. Andrew’s life is lacking, but his imaginary life is stellar.

Andrew spends so much time crafting his imaginary family, that he almost believes that they are real. No one in his office has any reason to doubt their existence. However, when Andrew meets Peggy, he is instantly attracted to her. She’s funny, attractive, and clearly interested in Andrew. Peggy is in the process of separating from her alcoholic husband and although she may soon be available, everyone knows that Andrew is in a very happy marriage. Andrew fears that by revealing the truth, he will lose trust in his coworkers and possibly his job. Yet, if he wants to have a chance with Peggy, he will have to kill-off his imaginary family. Andrew is used to staying in the safety net of his comfort zone and this situation is forcing him to be uncomfortable. Yet, the more he considers his lie, the more he realizes that his comfort zone isn’t very comfortable. He is ready to reveal the truth, but struggling to work up the courage.

How Not to Die Alone is a story with a lot of compassion. Andrew is a complex character. He constantly lies, yet he has the empathy to attend the funerals of strangers, even when it goes beyond his job description. Roper has structured the story to pack the maximum punch, as we don’t learn the extent of Andrew’s problems until late in the novel. It’s crushing. Roper added a wonderful element of weaving the songs of Ella Fitzgerald into the story. Andrew loves Fitzgerald, but there is one song that he cannot bear to listen to and when we learn the reason why, it is devastating. The musicality works well, adding a theatrical quality to the story. The chapter where Andrew’s big trauma is revealed is very cinematic in the best possible sense.

A major theme is the consequence of dishonesty; how both being dishonest with others and with yourself, can severely impact your life. The way Andrew lies to himself and makes excuses for the life he lives, is almost worse than the lies that he tells others. Andrew is terrified of relationships, yet when he find the courage to reach out to others, they make him realize that his fear was unwarranted. A particularly lovely part of the story occurs when Andrew dares to meet his online friends in real life and to ask them for a major favor. My ultimate takeaway from How Not to Die Alone, is live boldly.

I highly recommend How Not to Die Alone. It just might end up being my favorite book of 2019. Roper is a marvelous writer and I fell in love with Andrew, rooting for him all the way. This novel gave me the warm-fuzzies.

Waisted

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Randy Susan Meyers’ novel. Waisted, in exchange for an honest review.

Weight gain has been a life-long struggle for Alice. However, she met her husband, Clancy, when she was going through an tough time in her life, which resulted in weight loss. Now, over the years, which included giving birth, the pounds have piled back on and Clancy feels that his wife is not the woman that he married. Through this strain in their relationship, Alice runs off to participate in a weight loss reality show called “Waisted.” She does not tell Clancy until she has left for the show, because Clancy is in the documentary film industry and “Waisted” is being produced by his biggest rival.

During the filming of “Waisted,” Alice becomes fast-friends with her roommate and fellow contestant, Daphne. Daphne has a supportive husband, but she has a negative body image from her overbearing mother. Daphne has even tried bulimia to keep the pounds off.

From the first day of filming it is clear that “Waisted” is not the show that was originally pitched to the contestants. Rather than a wellness retreat, “Waisted” is more of a hardcore bootcamp. The women are stripped of their possessions, including phone access, and are made to wear unflattering jumpsuits. They are belittled, starved, and exercised to exhaustion. When they are given amphetamines to push their weight loss goals to unsafe levels, the women seek to find out the truth about the production and what they discover is shocking.

Meyers tackles heavy themes of self-love, body acceptance, and family dynamics. I found her overall message to be positive and uplifting. I especially like a scene in the novel where Daphne, a make-up artist by trade, helps an disadvantaged teenager build her self-confidence, by giving her skin care and make-up tips to cover extreme acne. I liked how it showed that it is okay to both love yourself and acceptable to use fashion or make-up: the two don’t have to be separate. Earlier in the story, Daphne hides behind her make-up, using her skills to create a distraction from her body, highlighting features like her beautiful eyes. However, as soon as Daphne lets go worrying about her body, her make-up becomes part of her self-expression, rather than a shield.

Alice and Daphne are two strong, female protagonists and the story is structured to alternate between their lives at home and their time on “Waisted.” The weight issues aside, I think many women will find aspects of these character’s lives and emotions to be relatable. I was rooting for these characters to succeed, especially Alice dealing with her emotionally abusive husband. I found Daphne’s desperation, including the use of pills and bulimia, to be heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, the plot for Waisted is very messy. An exciting story opportunity was missed with the reality show aspect. “Waisted” is quite horrific and we learn that the aim of the show is to expose the extremes that women will go to in the name of weight loss. Its purpose is to be shocking and not to actually help these women meet their goals. The concept of this could have made a potentially intriguing story, especially holding a mirror to the way our society gobbles up these types of shows. I have no doubt that if a real version of “Waisted” aired on American television, it would be both a sensation and crucified. People would not admit to enjoying it, but they would secretly watch it and the ratings would be high. We live in a time where it is both still socially acceptable to shame fat people and one where we promote the idea of having a positive body image. I think things will shift towards being more body positive, but we are not there quite yet. Meyer had a real opportunity to play with the larger societal impact of a show like “Waisted” and that would have been intriguing.

Unfortunately, the women’s participation in “Waisted” fizzles. They leave the show and make efforts to expose the producers, but there is not a truly satisfying conclusion to this issue. I was let-down. I felt like the story was heading in the direction of making a real statement against the reality television production, but the plot meandered and focused more on the individual relationships that the main characters have with their families. This was important too of course, especially in the area of character development and growth, but it was far less interesting than the fallout from “Waisted.”

Waisted is strong in character development, but weak in plot. Often, I can overlook weak plots if the characters are great, but in this case, I can’t overlook the missed opportunities in the storyline. Although Waisted tackles important and sensitive topics, it only skims the surface and goes for cliches. For this reason, I can’t recommend it.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

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Late in 2018, I began listening to Cathy Heller’s podcast, Don’t Keep Your Day Job. Heller’s inspirational podcast focuses on following your passion and creativity towards a meaningful career. On one of her episodes, Heller interviewed Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Duckworth has a very popular TedTalk on the subject of grit, which she turned into a deeper exploration in her book. In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she explores the idea of having grit and how grit could be a bigger predictor of success, then either talent or genius. A person who has grit has the drive to persevere and often that leads to success.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance made me consider my own level of grittiness. In some areas of my life, I’ve shown plenty of grit, which I always have attributed to stubbornness. However, I’ve definitely had dreams and chased them to a degree of success. I’ve done the 10,000 hours or damn near close, that is considered a bench mark for mastering a skill.

However, I can also remember a strange phenomenon from my middle-school years that was common with my peers, where it was more social acceptable to feign having not worked hard. That somehow to be smart, it only counted if it was innate and that studying was less-than. To ace a test or paper without having put in the effort was seen as a superior result. This of course, especially with adult hindsight, is ridiculous and pitiful. Luckily, this was short-lived and not an attitude that followed me to high school, where many of my friends worked hard for well-deserved success.

I’m not a parent, but during the chapters on parenting for grit, I could see how my mom pushed me. How she strove to instill grit. Truthfully, I wish she had pushed even harder, but I definitely appreciate that she went to the local parent-teacher store and bought workbooks for me. I always had extra mom given homework assignments on the weekends and every day during school breaks. She would drill me with flashcards and feed my love of reading with endless books. I’m not sure I liked the extra work, but it was a real benefit to me, instilling not only educational skills, but discipline and meeting expectations.

Duckworth gives a brief mention regarding parenting for grit with the distractions of modern technology. She has two teenager daughters and although her family is strict with technology rules, they are not perfect. I liked her response to whether or not millennials, distracted by technology, lack attention span and thus grit: she said that each generation has differences in culture and experience. Essentially, it’s unfair to judge millennials because of how their lives have been impacted by technology, that it is better to realize that they are growing up with a different experience. It was a light-bulb moment to think of different generations of having different cultures.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is filled with wonderful examples of grit, from cadets at West Point, to professional athletes, and even children competing in the National Spelling Bee. It’s a fascinating look at drive and passion that is truly inspirational.

The Farm

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Joanne Ramos’ novel, The Farm, in exchange for an honest review.

Jane Reyes is in a desperate situation. She is a young Filipino immigrant who has recently left her cheating husband and is trying to raise her baby, Amalia. Jane’s older cousin, Evelyn, who is affectionately known as “Ate”, has made a lucrative living as a live-in nanny for wealthy American couples. Ate guides Jane in the ways of working with both babies and their high-maintenance parents, but financially Jane is still struggling. Ate tells her about an opportunity to work as a surrogate for “Golden Acres”.

Golden Acres is the premier surrogacy center, offering wealthy clients carefully selected surrogates, young women that are not only healthy, but who are also attractive, with many holding upper-education degrees. The financial rewards are irresistible and Jane will spend the pregnancy in luxury accommodations with top-of-the-line nutrition and care. The only hitch, is she will be separated from Amalia, who will live in Ate’s care. Jane decides that it is the right move for the future of her family, yet she quickly realizes that Golden Acres, isn’t what it seems.

The Farm is a solid drama, filled with themes of family ties and economic disparity. Jane is a woman who will do anything to secure the future for her daughter. She spends most of the story blinded by her own goals and angry at Ate, who is also struggling to secure a future for her children, including an adult disabled son who lives in the Philippines. Perhaps it’s a case of lashing out at those who you love the most, because Jane is pissed off at Ate, not understanding Ate’s motives until late in the story. However, Jane is not upset by Reagan, a fellow surrogate whom Jane befriends at Golden Oaks.

Reagan is the polar opposite of Jane. She is college educated and dreams of becoming a photographer. Reagan is motivated by both money and altruism. Jane needs the money for her family. yet Reagan needs the money to come out from under the control of her family, specifically so she won’t be beholden to her father as she pursues an MFA. Being a surrogate is not social acceptable in Reagan’s world, so she justifies the act, by focusing on the family that she is helping. At Golden Oaks, Reagan meets women, who like Jane, are from an economically disadvantaged background and its affects her profoundly. This is likely the first time in her life that Reagan has been truly been confronted by her privilege. Compared to Jane, Reagan’s reasons for wanting the surrogacy payout, seem frivolous, yet Jane doesn’t harbor resentment. Jane saves all of her resentment for Ate., a woman as desperate as she is.

This tension between the characters brought a complex dynamic to the story. I also liked how Ramos played with the morality issues of Golden Oaks, such as having certain surrogates (primarily caucasian/beautiful/educated) as premium choices and stickiness of acknowledging that these traits being more desirable is not social acceptable. Mae Yu, the intense founder of Golden Oaks, is constantly having to balance the business of surrogacy, with the human impact = surrogates, would-be-parents (clients) and the unborn babies. One situation has a surrogate who is Catholic, needing to be put under while a doctor aborts her baby. Golden Oaks knew that the surrogate would have a moral objection to the situation, yet with a genetic abnormality, the decision of the client is to abort and implant again. The surrogate’s feelings are eliminated from the equation.

The surrogates may be treated well, but this only extends to as long as they are compliant and do everything in their power to take care of the client’s baby, including following strict dietary and activities rules. The surrogates are often kept in the dark about their clients identity and the staff at Golden Oaks likes to manipulate the surrogates to keep them in line, including doling out rewards or punishments. Several times Jane is given the opportunity to have time with Amalia, promises that are taken away, when Jane acts against protocol. The stakes are raised, when the surrogates learn that one of them is carrying the baby of an extraordinarily wealthy family, a family that plans to pay out a big bonus after the birth. No one knows who is carrying this baby, but the rumor spreads like wildfire, causing a disruption amongst the surrogates.

The Farm is told through several points of view and I’m still not sure if this was effective. Jane’s POV is shown the most and she is our protagonist. It works well to have Mae’s POV, as it provides a glimpse into how Golden Oaks works and the issues involved. It distracted me and brought down the pacing, to have Reagan and Ate’s, POV. I think it would have been a stronger narrative to flip-flop between Jane and Mae, giving Mae a bigger voice in the story. I didn’t have enough of Mae’s story, to connect with her and it left me feeling conflicted. Not only was I conflicted, but I was mildly dissatisfied with the ending.

Overall, The Farm is an intriguing story and great morality tale for modern times. It tackles heavy social issues and would be a great pick for a book club.

The Royal Secret

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lucinda Riley’s novel, The Royal Secret, in exchange for an honest review.

Reporter Joanna Haslam is tired of being assigned puff-pieces, but her life changes when she is assigned to cover the funeral of veteran actor, Sir James Harrison. At the funeral, she meets a mysterious elderly woman, that sends Joanna on the path to uncovering a decades old scandal involving England’s royal family. As Joanna rushes to solve the mystery, she realizes that there are people willing to kill to keep their secrets hidden.

Riley’s The Royal Secret was actually written twenty years ago ( although she has made updates to this current version) and it was deemed so scandalous, that many booksellers in the UK would not carry it or promote it. This was the info that I received that enticed me to sign up for an Ark of The Royal Secret. It set my expectations high and I have to admit that The Royal Secret did not meet those expectations. I’m not quite sure why it was so shocking or scandalous. I am in my early forties, so I can easily remember back a few decades and it’s hard to imagine that anything in this story would have been reason for refusing to sell the book. That said, I live in the United States, not England, so I am viewing the story through a different cultural lens. Also, Riley’s book was originally published shortly after the death of Lady Diana, so perhaps that may have created a sensitivity regarding anything written about the royal family, fictional or otherwise. Riley’s royal family is completely fictional and she does not use the names of any actual monarchs. If there is any similarities between actual monarchs and her characters, I did not notice.

The Royal Secret is suspenseful from start to finish. It is filled with twists and turns, many of which I could not have anticipated. If anything, it was a bit much with all of the plot twists, especially in the last quarter of the story. The pacing really ramps up to a frenzy and I was overwhelmed with the speed of the information.

The characters are the best part of the story. I especially liked the romantic tension between Zoe Harrison, the granddaughter of Sir James Harrison, and her bodyguard, Simon. Zoe is in a relationship and Simon needs to maintain professionalism, yet there is a beautiful undercurrent of longing and passion between these two characters.

There is a second and equal love story thread between Joanna and Zoe’s brother, Marcus. This romance lacked the sweetness and passion of Zoe and Simon. I felt like Joanna and Marcus were a fling that carried on past its expiration date, yet as Joanna is our heroine, we readers should be engaged in her romantic plot line. I liked Joanna as a plucky reporter, however my primary emotional connection was with Zoe and Simon.

The story had too many coincidences to make it gel. For example, Joanna happens to be best friends with Simon, who happens to be placed on a top-secret assignment guarding Zoe. Through her investigation, Zoe develops a relationship with Marcus and is then introduced to Joanna, which is how she discovers that Simon is an agent; a big secret that she never knew about her best friend. Joanna and Marcus get intwined in this mystery in totally different ways, a mystery that would never have come to light if Joanna hadn’t happened to be sitting next to the elderly woman at the funeral. To push this further, this elderly woman, knowing that she is ill, decides to tell Joanna her biggest secret, but in a way that is still shrouded in mystery, putting Joanna in both professional and mortal jeopardy. Without giving away any major plot twists, The Royal Secret, is full of these chance encounters and people who happened to be in the right place, at the right time. (or the wrong place, at the wrong time) For a story that is built on imminent danger, several aspects of the story happened too conveniently.

I enjoyed the primary setting in the 1990’s and appreciated how the technology of the era was worked into the story. It would have played out very differently, if it had been set now. I also liked the way the story spanned several decades, playing with societal norms of different eras. Riley does a wonderful job of setting the scene and writing atmospheric descriptions.

Overall, The Royal Secret was not my cup of tea and I would not recommend it. This was my first time reading Riley and I would be inclined to seek out her other novels. I enjoyed her writing, but not the general plot of this particular story.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, in exchange for an honest review.

Cambridge economics professor, Dr. Chandrasekhar aka “Charles,” is having a mid-life crisis. He has, once again, been forced to face the crushing disappointment and indignity of having been passed over for a Nobel Prize. This wouldn’t be so terrible, if in pursuit of his career, he hadn’t sacrificed personal happiness and developing relationships with his family. He is divorced from his wife Jean, who has remarried and moved from England to Colorado with their teenage daughter, Jasmine. Jasmine is acting out and getting into major trouble, including experimenting with drugs. Charles cannot relate to his older children. His son, Sunny, is a successful entrepreneur and is so consumed with his business, that he has little time for his family. After a major ideological disagreement, Charles has not spoken to his eldest daughter, Radha, in years and doesn’t even know where she is living.

After experiencing a major health scare, Charles takes a break from teaching at Cambridge and travels to the United States. He begins to reconnect with Jasmine, Jean, and Jean’s new husband. It’s an odd family dynamic, but not without love and concern. Charles begins to realize that he needs to change his outlook and to begin to focus on deepening his relationships, both to help himself and his children.

Balasubramanyam has a strong writer’s voice, which he uses effectively to set the tone of both the story and especially Charles. The opening chapters introduce us to Charles, who is quite a difficult person, someone who delights in both being a curmudgeon and destroying others. It’s humorous, even though the reader is keenly aware that Charles is a very unhappy person. It also sets us up for his transformation. Charles makes a lot of mistakes, but he is the perfect character to undergo a massive transformation and we root for him to succeed.

I really loved the relationship between Jasmine and Charles. Jasmine’s troubles are generally those of a confused and angry teenager, but we soon see that her acting out and experimentation is taking her down a dark path. Drug addition or perhaps consequences of spending time with unsavory people, are looming on her horizon. Charles is devastated that this is happening to his daughter and initially he feels quite helpless. However, he is struck with the idea that Jasmine can be sent to a monastery to live with a woman that he met at his yoga retreat. Charles shifts from being a very self-involved character, to someone who begins to think of others, starting with his beloved youngest daughter. Previous to his experience at the yoga retreat, Charles would never have suggested this for his daughter, but through his personal enlightenment, he can now help her. I was taken with the novel’s themes of balancing self-reliance with building relationships. You can’t help others without fixing yourself, but fixing yourself means little, if you can’t experience deep relationships with other people.

Generally, I found the story to be fast-paced, although it lost a little steam in the middle. I think it’s because although it was very important to the character arc for Charles to discover himself at the yoga retreat, this aspect was less interesting than that of his repairing the relationship with his family. I thought it was interesting that Charles is not necessarily enlightened after the yoga retreat. It helps him on his way, but it is only a stepping stone towards the bliss he finds from connecting with his family. I like that the book wraps on a hopeful note, yet not unrealistic or completely perfect. Charles and his family members, still have a lot to learn, but they have made great strides.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss is an uplifting redemption story that begs readers to reflection on their own lives. Balasubramanyam is a talented writer and I recommend Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss.

See You in the Piazza

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Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with a copy of Frances Mayes’ latest book, See You in the Piazza, in exchange for an honest review.

See You in the Piazza, follows renowned travel writer Frances Mayes, as she tours the different regions of Italy. Mayes and her husband are American, but they own a second home in Italy and have fallen in love with the country. Mayes and her husband set off on a series of trips to discover and report on the best restaurants and landmarks in each region. On certain segments of their journey, which spanned over a year, they were joined by friends and other family members. The result is a love letter to Italy.

Mayes has a gift for lush imagery, especially her sensory descriptions of food and wine. Do not read while hungry! Mayes and her husband are definitely foodies and experiencing Italian cuisine is a huge focus of their travels. Although they do not shy away from experiencing local dives, the bulk of their dining is done at amazing five-star restaurants. I love to eat and experience incredible cuisine, but I seriously don’t know how they manage so many intense meals. As someone who has not yet (emphasis on “yet”) visited Italy, I was surprised by the regional differences in food and the variety of ingredients that encompass Italian cuisine. For those who love to cook, Mayes has included many recipes from the restaurants featured in her book.

Admittedly, See You in the Piazza was a slow read for me. I read it in small chunks and it took a few months to complete. it is long and written as a travel diary, which did not captivate my interest. It jumps between Mayes’ masterful writing and the vibe of having a neighbor tell you every tedious aspect of their last vacation. I love travel writing and I know that Mayes’ is respected in her field, but despite her gorgeous descriptions, I not sure that her style speaks to me.

I read an advanced readers copy, but I imagine that the published version will likely include photographs and maps, which would greatly add to the enjoyment of the book.

See You in the Piazza is a great pick for those who adore Italy or who have an upcoming trip in the works. Mayes provides much inspiration for places to visit and experience. It definitely made me wish that I could just jump on a plane and head to Italy!