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.

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.

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 Shape of Us

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Thank you to Bookouture for providing me with an advanced copy of Drew Davies’ novel, The Shape of Us, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTThe Shape of Us follows the lives of several Londoners, as they experience major life changes; such as new love, separation, and grief.

LIKEThe Shape of Us reminded me of one of my favorite films, Love, Actually. Both stories are set in England, but more that, the similarities are in tone, with different characters/plots offering different moods. For example, in Davies’ novel, we have a newly involved couple, Daisy and Chris, whose story is primarily light-hearted. Chris does have a tragic backstory, which I will not spoil, but for most of the novel their interactions are sweet and light, two people who are attracted to each other and are fumbling through the early stages of a relationship. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a teenager named Dylan, who is ill and has a crush on a slightly older woman, who has helped him conquer the fears of his illness, but is also very sick herself. Additionally, Dylan has been abandoned by his mother and is being raised by his single father. Every story in The Shape of Us has a mix of seriousness and humor, but Dylan’s is a touch darker than the rest.

The most bizarre character is Adam. Adam has recently become unemployed and is having a tough time rebounding. He finds an employee key card and manages to gain access to the offices of a very prestigious company where he would love to work. Adam takes a chance and uses the card, passing himself off as the card’s owner. Adam keeps pushing his luck, by entering the building at night and snooping through the computers, in which he discovers that some employees are up to no good. If he speaks out, he will blow his cover and possibly go to jail. He is a man who is very lost and continuing to become more muddled with each passing day.

Davis begins each chapter with a few paragraphs about Londoners and living in London. It provides a wonderful touchstone that brought me back to the strong setting for the stories, making London itself, another character. London is one of my favorite places and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the city. Davis really showcases the vibrancy of London and its equally colorful inhabitants.

DISLIKE– I very much enjoyed The Shape of Us, but I was irked by the book’s tagline = “Not All Love Stories Are Heart-Shaped.” This makes it seem like a cliche love-story, which it is not. This tagline is selling the novel short. The cover with a heart-shaped hot air balloon does not help either. Please know that Davis’ writing is witty and complex, far better than his book cover implies. His writing reminded me of Nick Hornby, whom I adore.

RECOMMEND- Yes. ignore the cover and buy The Shape of Us. It’s quirky, emotional, and delightful.

Living the Dream

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Thank you to Holt Paperbacks for providing me with a free copy of Lauren Berry’s novel, Living the Dream, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Emma works for a marketing firm in London, but dreams of finding success as a writer. She’s miserable at her day job, but has a decent following on her blog and keeps pitching article ideas to various trendy magazines. Emma struggles with her desire to quit her day job to chase her dreams against the reality of having a stable income. Adding to her frustrations is her roommate, a DJ who seems to squeak by, despite not having an “adult career.”

Emma’s best friend, Clementine, has just finished a prestigious screenwriting course in America and has returned to England with the idea that her big break is just around the corner. In the meantime, she is completely broke and forced to move in with her family, who do not understand her creative aspirations.

Pitched as a Bridget Jones’s Diary for millennials, Living The Dream follows post-college age friends as they struggle to chase their dreams, find romantic partners, and make ends meet in London.

LIKELiving the Dream reminded me of Lena Dunham’s series, Girls, except the characters in Berry’s story were less self-involved and far more likable. Emma and Clementine generally had a supportive friendship, one that can weather rough patches. They are both characters that I liked and rooted for to succeed.

Berry gives equal weight to both Emma and Clementine’s stories, making them dual protagonists. However, there is a third friend added to the mix, Yasmin. Yasmin is their high-maintenance, drama-filled friend who is about to marry a wealthy man. At first Yasmin proves to be a difficult character to like, but by the end of the story, as some of her secrets and motives become clear, I totally adored her. It made me think of the somewhat difficult friends that I’ve had in my life and it’s a gentle reminder to be a little understanding and not to rush to judgement.

I’m forty, a touch older than the target audience for Living the Dream, nevertheless less, it transported me back to that time in my life. Berry may be writing for the millennials, but this is a story that should ring true for older women too. The struggles at that stage of a woman’s life is will resonate with older generations. Frankly, it makes me happy to be older and hopefully, wiser! The twenties are a stressful decade.

I love novels set in England, especially London. Although the characters are struggling, London is still a glamorous location.

DISLIKE– I enjoyed Living the Dream and Barry is a strong writer, but I don’t think in the grand scheme of my yearly reading that this will be memorable. It was a quick, enjoyable read, but not a stand-out.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Living the Dream would be a good pick for a woman in her twenties who is struggling to figure out her direction in life. It can feel like you’re the only one with problems and Living the Dream is a good reminder that everyone facing similar issues.

Whispers Through a Megaphone

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Thank you to Steerforth Press for providing me with an advance copy of Rachel Elliott’s novel, Whispers Through a Megaphone, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Miriam was raised by a mentally-ill and abusive mother, who told Miriam that her father was dead. Using intimidation, Miriam’s mother drilled into her the need to be quiet and as a result Miriam does not speak above a whisper. Now in her mid-thirties, Miriam’s mother has died and Miriam has not left her home in three years. Miriam does not have any family left, but she is not alone. She has a childhood best friend who visits and urges Miriam to rejoin the world. She also has a next door neighbor who has been gathering his courage to ask her out on a date. In addition, Miriam has been receiving mysterious postcards from a stranger.

When Miriam finally decides to leave her home, she walks in the woods and meets Ralph. Ralph’s marriage is imploding and he has run away from his wife, Sadie, who has revealed that she no longer loves him. Can Ralph and Miriam help each other face their fears and change their lives?

LIKE- Miriam is a complex and intriguing character. She is truly a wonderful protagonist and it was effortless to root for her as she worked through her obstacles. Her backstory and terrible neglect are heartbreaking. Whispers Through a Megaphone has a lovely twist when we find out  who is responsible for the mysterious postcards and it makes for an emotional read.

Ralph’s story is given nearly as much weight as Miriam’s, making him a dual protagonist. Like Miriam, it’s easy to root for Ralph, especially as he has been dealt a rough hand. His storyline features themes of love, nostalgia, and regret. When their marriage is falling apart, Ralph and Sadie both seek out long-lost loves from their youth. Time does not stand-still and they are both shocked by what they find when they try to recapture what has been lost. As a cat lover, I was endeared to Ralph by his adopting the stray cat. It made his time in the woods seem a little less pitiful.

DISLIKEWhispers Through a Megaphone has too many storylines. The onslaught of characters and stories has the negative effect of overshadowing Miriam and Ralph. It’s not that the other characters are less interesting, I just felt overwhelmed and unable to keep focus, like I kept getting yanked from one story and pulled into another. I would have liked a deeper focus on Miriam and on her backstory. I was left wanting to know more about her mother and her childhood. Miriam and Ralph are both rich characters to whom an entire story could have been dedicated and although their friendship is lovely, I wondered if it was necessary.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Elliott has created complex characters and a surprising story. There are many aspects of Whispers Through a Megaphone that I enjoyed, but the lack of focus and too many characters made the pacing sluggish. I’d definitely read Elliott’s next novel, but I didn’t absolutely love Whispers Through a Megaphone.

The Best of Adam Sharp

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Thank You to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an advanced copy of Graeme Simsion’s novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Twenty years ago, while working in Australia, Adam Sharp met Angelina Brown, a vivacious soap-opera actress. Adam and Angelina had a short and intense relationship, which ended when Adam’s work took him to New Zealand.

Now, over twenty-years later, Adam is living in England and his marriage is on the rocks. His wife, Claire, has a major career opportunity that might require her to relocate to the United States, and Adam isn’t sure he should follow. In the midst of his marital crisis, Adam receives an email from Angelina, whom he had lost touch with years ago. Although Angelina is married with three children, she begins a flirtatious email exchange that plunges Adam down the rabbit hole of nostalgia. Angelina invites Adam to spend a weekend with her and her husband, Charles. This weekend seems like a bad idea, a very bad idea: but can Adam resist his past?

LIKE- I’ve read Simsion’s The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, and I’m a fan of his writing. He’s fabulous at creating memorable characters. The Best of Adam Sharp is a character drive novel. It is a riveting emotional drama, one where the stakes are enormous and it feels like everyone is bound to lose.

Nostalgia is at the heart of The Best of Adam Sharp. Adam and Angelina meet prior to the internet being a big deal and when they part, they don’t have an easy form of communication. It’s a contrast to todays technology and social media, where it is easy to keep in contact with people from your past. Prior to Angelina reconnecting, Adam only has his memories of her. He has a hobby as musician and he links songs to memories. He met Angelina while playing the piano and singing at a bar: Angelina joining him on stage. They connect through music and the  lyrics become a form of secret communication that takes on a huge importance. I think most readers will be able to relate to this form of nostalgia, where we look at the past with rose-colored glasses and where we put certain moments on a pedestal ( good or bad memories), allowing particular fragments to take on a deeper meaning. The further the distance, sometimes leads to less perspective.

The first half of the novel is about the nostalgia and the romance, but the second half takes a rather dark turn, when Adam decides to stay at the country house in France with Angelina and Charles. Angelina and Charles do not have a happy marriage and they have brought Adam into their troubles. The moral of the story being, while it is possible to reconnect with your past, be careful that the boundaries are clear, and that your past, doesn’t endanger your present or future.

 DISLIKE– The second half of the book left me feeling funny about both Adam and Angelina. Character likability is certainly not a requirement for me to enjoy a novel, however it helps. I liked both Angelina and Adam, when they were nostalgic for their past, but when they crossed the line into a bizarre and rather uncomfortable scenario with Angelina’s husband, I was left with a bad taste for both of them. I wasn’t sure what to think about Charles. It’s realistic that under the circumstances he would be a little hostile or conflicted, but it was hard to respect his character, even in the end. The story included a bit of erotica, which was surprising. I’m not prudish, but under the circumstances of the novel, it was highly uncomfortable to read. I guess what I’m saying is that I felt “squirmy” while reading the second half, which is what I think Simsion set out to do.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Simsion is a wonderful storyteller, who writes about complex emotions and relationships. The Best of Adam Sharp made a deep impression on me.

I Found You

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

PLOT– Single mom, Alice Lake, notices a man sitting on the beach in front of her home. He stares off into the ocean, while the rain pours down on him, and he doesn’t move for hours. Finally, overcome by a sense of compassion and curiosity, Alice goes to check on him. The man has lost his memory and does not have identification. He only knows that somehow he has a link to this seaside village in the north of England. Alice takes him in and he convinces her to hold off on going to the police, to see if he can recover his memories; memories that seem to point to something sinister.

In a London suburb, Lily, a new bride, is worried when her husband does not return home from work. Lily has recently moved from the Ukraine and she has never met her husband’s family. Not only has she never met them, but she does not have their contact information. Could Lily’s husband be the man on the beach?

LIKE– Last year I read Jewell’s novel, The Girls in the Garden, and it was fabulous. I was thrilled when her latest novel, I Found You, showed up for request on NetGalley. It did not disappoint.

I Found You is filled with unexpected twists. I truly did not anticipate where the story was heading, making it a page-turner. I blazed through it in less than a day, unable to put it down. To this end, I’m not going to discuss any specific plot points or characters, as with this novel, more than most, I think the thrill is in the mystery. I don’t want to inadvertently spoil anything for a would-be reader.

In addition to a nail-bitting plot (and intense action sequences), Jewell has memorable characters and a vivid setting. What sticks with me the most is her atmospheric writing and foreboding settings. There is a mansion that is downright creepy. The strong sense of place, coupled with the excitement of the mystery, really grounded me in the story world. I read the last quarter of the novel on my Kindle in a dark room, and I was very relieved to have my husband in bed next to me. I had trouble getting to sleep last night!

DISLIKE– Nothing. After finishing I Found You, I looked up Jewell, and was thrilled to see that she has written many other books. I can’t wait to read through her works.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! I enthusiastically recommend both I Found You and The Girls in the Garden. I saw mention of comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train : no slight to either book, I enjoyed them, but I enjoyed both of Jewell’s novels even more! She’s a masterful storyteller.

The Trophy Child

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Thank You to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an advanced copy of Paula Daly’s novel, The Trophy Child, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Ten-year-old Bronte Bloom, is overworked and stressed-out. Her mother, Karen, keeps Bronte on a tight schedule, shuttling her between various lessons and tutors, accepting nothing less than excellence. She insists that her daughter is gifted and exceptional, but even if that isn’t quite true, Karen believes that it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by pushing her daughter to work harder, or by hiring more qualified teachers.

Bronte isn’t an only child. She has an older teenage brother named Ewan, who is a slacker, and rather than finding a job or attending college, he spends his days playing video games and smoking pot. He is Karen’s son from a previous relationship, although the name of his father is a mystery. Bronte’s older half-sister, Verity, has moved into their home. Verity’s mother has multiple sclerosis  and was moved to a nearby live-in care facility. Verity and Karen do not get along. Verity is fiercely protective of Bronte, whom she feels is being pushed too hard. The family patriarch, Noel Bloom, stays on the periphery of the madness going on in his own home. He is unhappy in his marriage, yet afraid to take on the force that is Karen.

When Bronte goes missing for a day, the Bloom family is in a panic. Bronte has been so sheltered, that they fear she cannot survive on her own. When she returns the following day, happy, unharmed, and unwilling to talk about her disappearance, the Bloom’s are left feeling perplexed. Karen faces a public backlash for her parenting style and is even accused of giving Bronte a reason to run away. The backlash is so intense, that Karen gets harassing phone calls and written death threats. Karen vanishes a month later, her car found abandoned with splattered blood. Could Bronte and Karen’s disappearances be linked? Was Karen attacked for being too much of a “Tiger Mom?”

LIKEThe Trophy Child has two separate elements going on: It’s a family drama, but it is also a murder mystery. I preferred the family drama to the suspense/mystery elements of the story. As a drama, we have a blended family struggling to make it work, and that dynamic is compelling.

At the start of the story, we don’t know if Verity is an unreliable character. When we meet her, she is in trouble for choking her step-mother in a blind rage, and her private school is threatening to expel her, if she doesn’t attend therapy sessions. However, we quickly learn that Verity is incredibly protective of Bronte and through Karen’s rigorous demands of her younger daughter, she was physically hurting her. Yes, Verity was enraged, but Karen was also acting in an extreme manner. Verity is actually incredibly mature for her age and compassionate of others. Not only does she try to help her younger sister, but she is kind to her half-brother, Ewan and his mentally handicap friend, who is a frequent visitor to the house. Verity visits her mother, sneaking her in marijuana, which calms her mother’s tremors. She is even patient with Karen’s bullying parents, who accuse her of potentially harming Bronte and Karen, when each goes missing. Verity takes this all in stride, even though her life has been nothing but upheaval with factors out of her control. This makes her even more sympathetic than Bronte, and it’s hard to beat the sympathy factor of a abused child!

I love the setting of the Lake District in England. Having visited there ( it’s magical), I could easily picture the village and the houses. I could see Lake Windermere, which is the setting ofa pivotal scene in The Trophy Child. I have such good memories of my visit there, that I was delighted to revisit it in this story world, even if murder and shady characters were involved!

I’m intrigued by the helicopter parenting/tiger mom thing. I have step-children, but they do not live with us, so I don’t really have parenting experience, and my mom, although she pushed me, definitely didn’t fall under this category. I liked how Daly played with the backlash that Karen receives. Clearly, Karen thought that she was doing the best thing for Bronte, but she could not see or admit to the negative ways it was affecting her daughter. Certainly, Karen was extreme and doing Bronte harm, but Daly adds another layer of the community members being judgmental regarding her parenting, and the idea that you never quite know what is going on in someone else life.

DISLIKE– I’m on the fence about the murder mystery and the character of detective Joanna Aspinall. I didn’t find the budding romance between Joanna and Noel to be compelling or necessary. I kept expecting that this would have a large repercussion on Joanna investigating the disappearance of Karen, but other than a slight internal conflict, i.e.- she knew she should mention it to her boss, nothing came of it.

The very end of the story, in which the crime is finally resolved, felt like a very big coincidence. Too many pieces of the puzzle slid together neatly. Although the twist played out as far as me not realize the story would head to that conclusion, I didn’t feel that the twist was satisfying.

I think part of the problem with the crime aspect of the story, is it lost momentum when Bronte returned home and the mystery of her disappearance was quickly eclipsed by the disappearance of Karen. We do learn what happened to Bronte, but it doesn’t come until the end of the story, and it doesn’t have much of a link to Karen’s disappearance, other than it put Karen into the spotlight.

RECOMMEND– No. The Trophy Child was a quick read. Daly has a knack for writing family dynamics and conflict. I would be inclined to seek out other books that she has written, but The Trophy Child was an uneven read.