The Paper Wasp

cover151649-medium

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.

The Late Show

image

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.

The Pisces

cover119826-medium

 

Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with a copy of Melissa Broder’s novel, The Pisces, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Thirty-eight year old Lucy, has spent over a decade living in Arizona and working on her thesis involving the poetry of Sappho. Lucy is struggling with her thesis and when her boyfriend dumps her for a younger a woman, Lucy hits rock bottom.

Lucy needs a break from her desert life. Her sister, Annika, is spending the summer traveling and needs someone to dogsit, so Lucy moves into Annika’s California beach house for three months. While in California, she tries to get her life back on track by attending group therapy for sex addiciton. Nothing seems to be making her life better, until one evening while sitting on the rocks at the beach, she meets Theo, a handsome and mysterious man, who likes to swim by moonlight.

LIKE/DISLIKE– I usually separate what I liked and dislike about a book, but in the case of The Pisces, I feel the two are so intwined that I need to speak of them together.

I likely would not have read The Pisces, if I had realized that it was erotica. The description of the novel said that it was erotic, but did not list it as “Erotica,” which is a big distinction. I’m not a prude, but I also don’t read erotica. It’s not a genre that I’m familiar with, so perhaps someone who is familiar with the genre would have a very different reaction to The Pisces.

I found much of the erotica elements to be icky. There are plenty of vivid descriptions about fecal matter and period blood that are just gross. Broder writes incredible sensory descriptions, but they were often of things that I did not care to imagine. I thought erotica would be sexy and a turn-on, but there was nothing sexy about The Pisces. I felt that a lot of it was for shock value.

The Piscesis narrated by Lucy and she is a self-centered, bitchy character. She makes snide judgements about nearly ever other character in the story. She’s terrible to her sister, who loves her. The worst part is she neglects the elderly dog that is in her care. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a story with blatant animal abuse. As an animal lover, this was hard to stomach. Although, I think all of this is Broder’s way of showing us that Lucy is a deeply disturbed person and as a reader, we really not supposed to like or connect with her. There is a subtle shift in her character in the last few chapters, but most of the novel she is not someone who is learning from her mistakes or even wishing to make changes.

I liked the colorful characters that Lucy meets in her group therapy, as they add another dynamic to the story. But the whole time the therapist and things there are being told to do in sex therapy, disturbed me. The advice was terrible, further damaging already damaged women. I kept looking for the plot or character that would redeem the story and shed some positive light, but this was hard to find. Annika seems to be the only normal, good-hearted character and her part is minor. The Piscesis a story about deeply damaged people.

This is also a fantasy novel with mythological creatures that requires a heavy suspension of disbelief. Logistically, there were elements that didn’t add up. The scenes with Theo hanging out with Lucy in Annika’s house were bizarre. I was paranoid about the white couch.  I wondered why Lucy didn’t question him more, she was too accepting.

I liked the ending. It’s creepy and unsettling. I didn’t anticipate the twist.

RECOMMEND– Probably not, although I think if you love to read the genre of erotica, maybe give The Piscesa try. This book wasn’t for me.