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.

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.

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.

Pure Land

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One of my favorite travel souvenirs is to purchase a book in a local independent bookstore. While on our Arizona road trip, I visited the adorable Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, where an awesome bookseller recommended local author Annette McGivney’s Pure Land.

In Pure Land, McGivney expands on her 2007 article that she wrote for Backpacker, that explored the brutal murder of a Japanese woman, Tomomi Hanamure, who was stabbed while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Pure Land is part memoir, part social commentary, and part true crime.

As McGivney was researching the story, she began to experience triggers from her own abusive childhood and this article took on a greater meaning. McGivney flew to Japan and became close to Hanamure’s family, learning that the woman had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by a single father. Hanamure always felt a pull towards the United States, specifically the National Parks of the South West and Native American culture. Hanamure was killed by Randy Wescogame, an eighteen year old meth addict living on the Havasupai reservation, who also had a history of childhood abandonment and abuse.

“Pure Land” refers to the Buddhist belief of the ultimate afterlife, the place where a person who has learned everything from earth, through multiple reincarnations, will finally go to rest. Hanamure comes from a Buddhist background and her family prays that she has made it to Pure Land to find peace. However, it also takes on a different meaning with McGivney’s book, as we can imagine that Hanamure and others find their own Pure Land when they are at peace in nature. Perhaps even Wescogame is on his way to Pure Land, while healing in prison, or maybe McGivney is finding it, as she moves forward from her childhood trauma.

Pure Land is a powerhouse. I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking, but McGivney explores it with compassion and care. I was fascinated with the way that Hanamure felt drawn to a foreign culture, so much so that she worked minimum wage jobs to just save enough to meet her travel expenses. Her entire focus was on her trips to the United States. Her passion for the United States was not shared with her family and friends, yet she was not deterred. By all accounts, she also came across as an unusual soul by those who encountered her during her travels, yet she seemed to own this aspect of her life. It’s crushing to think that someone could have so much love for a land and its people, yet it led to her violent and untimely death.

Pure Land also explores the devastating and complex history of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government. Through centuries of systematic racism, many tribe members that maintain their autonomy of tribal lands are facing a crisis with poverty, violence, and addiction. McGivney looks at the history of how this has happened and specifically how this life has impacted the Havasupai. While she certainly doesn’t forgive Wescogame’s crime, she does explore his life within the context of living in a tribe that has experienced incredible hardships. I was most interested in reading about the founding of the National Parks. The National Parks are the treasures of the United States and I think most citizens ( and foreign visitors) hold them in the highest regard, but the dark side of the history of the parks includes the displacement of Native tribes, forcing them from their ancestral lands.

McGivney gets specific with regard to the Havasupai, who now have a deeply impoverished reservation on a small piece of land in the Grand Canyon. Crossing through their land is the only way to access one of the most stunning parts of the canyon, a place where Hanamure was headed when she was murdered. The Havasupai tribe has made efforts to attract tourists, including building a small, heavily fortified lodge and offering guides. However, the problems that exist on the reservation make this a very dangerous area and not everyone is welcoming or profiting off of the tourists.

Although we think of National Parks as a places that should be open to all, this particular section of the Canyon is controlled by the Havasupai. It is their land. They have little with regard to ways of making an income and whether they want to or not, allowing tourists brings in much needed revenue. Their willingness to allow tourists to pass through reeks of slum tourism, with the tourists not just passing through on their hike, but also gawking at the shocking poverty on the reservation. The Havasupai that are able to make a living off of the tourists are doing the best with what they have, however reading this made my stomach hurt. The only reason that they are in this situation is because they were forced to give up their lands and forced to accept a rotten deal, yet now they are again pressured into allowing tourists to traipse through their home. I imagine that if they did not allow the tourists to pass, that the government would find a way to intervene on the tourists behalf. It’s a terrible situation.

Pure land is an important read from a historical and societal perspective. McGivney’s writing is heart breaking and haunting. I can’t imagine that I will ever forget this book.

Murder by the Book

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In Murder by the Book, Claire Harman explores a horrific Victorian England crime that captivated the country. In 1840, Lord William Russell, a well-to-do senior citizen, was found nearly decapitated in his bed at his London residence. The hunt for the murderer focused heavily on Russell’s servants and finally yielded a confession from his valet, a Swiss national named Francois Benjamin Courvoisier. Courvoisier admitted guilt, but his testimony was often conflicting and although he was ultimately sent to the gallows for the crime, there has been doubt as to whether or not he was the actual murderer, or if so, did he have an accomplice?

Harman’s book doesn’t only focus on the murder, but also puts the crime in context of other events during the era. Much as there is a current trend for blaming video games, music, and movies for violence in our society, there was a similar situation occurring in Victorian England. In the mid 1800’s, people were captivated by crime novels. There was a popular book genre called the “Newgate Novel.” Named for the infamous Newgate prison ( where Courvoisier was held and hung), the novels romanticized criminals.

In particular, there was one Newgate Novel that rose to controversy with the murder of Russell: Jack Sheppard. Written by William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, is the true crime tale that Courvoisier claims gave him the idea to murder Russell. Jack Sheppard was a huge part of pop-culture, which beyond the book, also was told through multiple stage plays, may of which were an inexpensive form of entertainment that all segments of society could enjoy and did so, by seeing the productions multiple times. The idea of a servant turning on their employees, especially in such a brutal fashion, was a panic at the time and led to even more criticism of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Novel genre.

Other famous authors, like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, closely followed the Courvoisier trial. Dickens in particular became a strong opponent of public hangings, his thought being that the damage done by the public witnessing an execution, is greater than its act as a deterrent against criminal behavior. He witnessed Courvoisier’s execution and used his writings to speak out against the act. The last public hanging in the United Kingdom would occur just a few decades later. The way Harman describes the festival atmosphere around the execution is chilling.

A very interesting fact that Harman mentions is that a doctor wrote to Scotland Yard with an idea that finger prints might be used to identify the true murderer. This was before finger printing was used and the idea was dismissed, not be used until fifty years later. Harman mentions that had finger printing had been around, other Victorian era crimes, such as Jack the Ripper, might have been solved.

Murder by the Book took me about 1/3 to really feel invested in the story, but as soon as I reached that point, I couldn’t put it down. The crime is shocking, but the real fascinating element is how the crime informed public debate over art and social policy, such as executions. Violence has always been part of culture and art has always included violence, making this shocking case from 1840, just as relevant in today’s conversation. Does glorifying violence lead to violence? I don’t advocate censorship or banning art, but somewhere in all of this there does seem to be a problem that has been occurring for generations. I think mental health is likely the missing puzzle piece and by his own admittance, Courvoisier claimed to have been in a rage. At the time Phrenology, the pseudoscience of studying skull shapes to analyze mental traits, was all the rage. Of course now, Phrenology is not only disproven, but also associated with racism and the goal of proving superiority with certain races. However, it is interesting to note that even if the Victorians were on the wrong track with Phrenology, the idea of exploring mental imbalance and its association with violent behavior was of importance.

Harman’s book leaves the reader with much to consider and would be a great pick for book clubs or classrooms. It’s great for true crime enthusiasts and history buffs, as well for lovers of Victorian England authors. Murder by the Book is a compelling read for people who can handle the gory details!

 

Watching You

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, Watching You, in exchange for an honest review.

A brutal murder has taken place in one of the beautiful Victorian home in the affluent Melville Heights neighborhood in Bristol, England. In acclaimed novelist Lisa Jewell’s latest crime novel, Watching You, the reader quickly realizes that there are as many suspects, as there are potential victims and we will not know the truth of the situation until the final moments of the story.

I’ve read several of Jewell’s previous novels and she is simply a master at writing crime fiction. This is not a genre that I often read, yet I am thrilled every time she publishes a new book, because I know that I will love it. Watching You is no exception. Jewell knows exactly how to pace her novels to keep readers engaged. She always has a twist that is unexpected, yet makes perfect sense when you rethink through the hints that she has been cleverly dropping throughout the entire novel. At the very start of Watching You, we are told that a murder has taken place and we know that one of the characters is being questioned as a suspect, yet we do not know the murder victim until the last chapters of the novel. It’s brilliant.

More than a crime novel, Watching You is a solid drama. Jewell’s characters are having affairs, teenagers navigating first love, and families in crisis. The drama is as equally important as the crime element. I feel that this is a strong reason for why I gravitate towards Jewell’s novels. She has rich, well-rounded characters who are facing difficult situations. The crime element ups the stakes and intensifies their troubles, but it is not the root or only cause of tension in the story. Jewell’s characters are complex and troubled, even if murder wasn’t on their street.

Watching You is creepy. It has themes of power and dominance, especially through the character of Tom Fitzwilliam, a school headmaster in his early 50’s. Tom has a history of showing attention to young women. He’s charismatic and someone that women, young and old, tend to crush on. Throughout the entire story, we never quite know if Tom is a villain or victim. Is he a predator or misunderstood? The character of Tom reminded me of one of my college professors, who lost his career for predatory behavior. I never had an inappropriate situation with him, but I did get swept up by his charisma and when he was very publicly fired, it was both a shock and not a shock at all. I kept imagining this professor, every time Tom was on the page.

Culpability is a theme throughout Watching You. The recently married Joey Mullens, Tom’s neighbor, is enchanted by Tom and has an affair with him. She knows that she bears blame for this decision, yet she can’t help but focus on Tom’s power over her, as if she is possessed. Another character is confronted with her extreme bullying behavior as a teenager. Many decades have passed, but she never took responsibility and now her past has come back to haunt her. As the title implies, we are all being watched and cannot hide from our sins.

Watching You is a page turner and I was enthralled until the last word. I think this might just be my favorite Jewell novel yet.

The Late Show

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Last May, I visited family in England and I was kindly given a copy of Michael Connelly’s The Late Show, from my brother-in-law’s father, a fellow book-lover. He primarily passed along the book because he was surprised that I had not read Connelly, especially since many of his novels are set in my hometown of Los Angeles, California.

PLOT– After being harassed by a male colleague, Detective Renee Ballard is moved to the graveyard shift, also referred to as “The Late Show.” A victim of rape, Ballard lives a life that keeps her on the move. She is an ace employee, but her personal life is messy and she often chooses to sleep on the beach, rather than maintain the trappings of a normal life.

She’s on the beat, when two intense cases come her way: a shooting at a local bar and a near deadly assault. As Ballard becomes involved with both cases, she faces discrimination and road blocks from fellow detectives in the LAPD, coworkers who would rather she found a different job. Ballard must outwit them, sometimes breaking protocol and placing herself in grave danger, to both provide justice for the victims and prove that she is a worthy detective.

LIKE– I love that Ballard is a strong, kick-ass female protagonist. She’s tough as nails and smart. I think most women can relate to facing some degree of workplace discrimination or harassment. Ballard faces both, in a job that is mostly male. Although she is clearly emotionally affected by it, she doesn’t let it stop her from proving her right to be there. While It is frustrating that women have to “prove” themselves, Connelly writes this aspect of the female perspective in a way that rings true.

I love the Los Angeles setting, especially as I’m now living in a different area and feeling homesick for my hometown. The setting brought up some interesting thoughts for me. The man who gave me The Late Show is British and has never visited Los Angeles. I wondered what he thought or imagined, based on Connelly’s descriptions, Los Angeles to look like? I didn’t have to stretch my imagination very far, as I’ve been to many of the locations in The Late Show. My own local knowledge eclipses Connelly’s descriptions. It made me think back to all of the novels that I’ve read that are set in England and now that I’ve visited England many times, I can’t even remember what I thought when books/movies/TV, formed my knowledge.

Connelly does a great job at crafting intense, danger-filled action scenes. His writing is cinematic.

DISLIKE– I believe that this is my first crime/detective novel. It is my first experience with Connelly. I don’t have experience with the genre and as such, I was put-off by all of the police lingo. It felt heavy-handed. Do detectives really talk like that? Maybe they do, but as a reader unfamiliar with the genre, it grew old and was cheesy.

RECOMMENDThe Late Show is not my cup of tea, but I know that Connelly is incredibly popular and I think fans of this genre would love his latest protagonist, Renee Ballard. I’m happy to have had the chance to read something that I would not have normally picked, but I would unlikely seek out his other books.