Emma in the Night

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Thank You to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an advance copy of Wendy Walker’s new novel, Emma in the Night, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Cass Tanner has returned to her mother’s home after mysteriously disappearing three years earlier. Her sister, Emma, is still missing and Cass tells a story of a couple that are keeping Emma and Emma’s toddler, captive on a remote island. Abby Winter, the forensic psychologist  has long suspected the girl’s narcissistic mother is involved, but she doesn’t have proof. The more Abby hears Cass’ story, the closer she gets to finding out the truth.

LIKE– I have not read Wendy Walker’s previous novel, but based on the buzz and the description of Emma in the Night, I had high expectations.

I liked the contrast in settings. Cass and Emma come from a privileged background, spending summers in Europe and weekends at the country club. This juxtaposes with their captivity in the remote house on the island, where although they had their needs met (including ice cream and rented movies), they were still being kept captive. Emma in the Night features a variety of characters from different backgrounds, including a gruff fisherman from Alaska. I like how the worlds in the story collide, with a message of never to trust what is on the surface.

The suspense and mystery plot is solid. I did not anticipate the ending, although Walker perfectly sets it up.

DISLIKE- Unfortunately, much of the story fell flat. I finished Emma in the Night yesterday and I’ve spent the last day trying to pinpoint the disconnect. I think it has to do with the characters. I didn’t connect with any of them. The story bounces between Cass and Abby. The Cass chapters are told in first person and the Abby chapters are told in close-third. I’m not sure why this choice was made. Walker provides background information for Abby, making it clear why this case is personal for her and I wish that she had written the character in a way that made Abby personal to the reader. I think writing both characters in first person would have helped this issue.

Although the plot is solid, there is a lot of telling, rather than showing the events leading up to solving this cold-case. Much of the story is told through interviews with Cass and this device grew tedious. I think my main disconnect, wasn’t the story itself, but the way in which it was told. I wish we had been allowed a more personal look at the characters and that as a reader, I could come to my own conclusions, rather than having everything spelled out for me.

RECOMMEND– No. I truly didn’t enjoy Emma in the Night. However, I saw enough potential in Walker’s storytelling and I’ve heard fabulous things about her debut novel, All is Not Forgotten, that I plan on buying it. Walker warrants a second chance.

Sour Heart: Stories

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories is a collection of connected stories following Chinese immigrants living in New York. There is a heavy emphasis on young, female characters, who are trying to understand both their new country and their parents, who lived through China’s cultural revolution.

LIKE- I grew up in a middle-class, culturally diverse neighborhood and many of my close friends are Chinese. Despite experiencing diversity in my life, I’ve realized that my reading selections are not as diverse as they could and should be. I’m grateful that Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories found its way to my TBR Pile.

I was most interested in the parts that focused on the family relationships, specifically the differences between growing up during the Cultural Revolution and this new generation, that is growing up in America. There is a huge challenge with regard to communication between the generations. The challenge isn’t limited to the generations, it also comes with the different perspectives of the immigrants. Although they all arrive in America with little in way of possessions or money and they meet as strangers sharing a cramped apartment, each family does come from a different background and brings their unique perspective. Zhang’s stories are filled with a huge variety of character experiences.

My favorite story was the last chapter, one dealing with the title character who has been nicknamed Sour Heart for her love of sour foods. In the last story, she is an adult examining the relationship she has with her relatives, both her parents and relatives in China. It’s complicated and includes so many layers. How do you bond with blood when you live so far away and have had such differences in your life?

DISLIKE– As much as I admire Zhang’s storytelling, I have to admit that I felt a disconnect. I found the sections of the girls trying to fit in to their American schools, to be less engaging. Some of their behavior and frank sex talk didn’t ring true to my childhood experience and it was hard to connect.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Sour Heart: Stories was uneven for me, but I’d still recommend it. I’ve not been exposed to many other fictional stories on this subject and for diversity reasons, Sour Heart: Stories is a worthy read. When I was engaged in Zhang’s writing, she absolutely shined and I felt moved by her characters and prose. I look forward to discovering more of her writing.

Mrs. Fletcher

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Thank you to Scribner for providing me with an advance copy of Tom Perrotta’s novel, Mrs. Fletcher, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– With her only child off to college, divorced mom Eve Fletcher is finding herself at a transition. She is in her mid-forties and works as a director for a senior center, but she yearns for something more. To broaden her horizons, Eve signs up for a gender studies class at the local community college and befriends the professor, who happens to be transgendered. Eve begins to reevaluate her own sexuality, including exploring pornography and flirting with both her female employee and a young man who went to high school with Eve’s son. Eve isn’t quite sure what she wants, but she is opening herself up to possibilities.

On the flip side, we have Eve’s cocky, jock son, Brendan, who is feeling the uncertainty of college. He quickly learns that what made him popular in high school isn’t working in college. Eve is embracing her change, but Brendan is fighting against the inevitable.

LIKE– Tom Perrotta is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I’ve read all of his previous books and I was absolutely thrilled to be granted an advance copy of Mrs. Fletcher. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was the 2017 release that I was most anticipating.

I love Perrotta’s complex characters, unexpected plots, and wicked sense of humor. He has a way of making unlikable characters very relatable. Mrs. Fletcher is told primarily in close-third person as it shifts focus between different characters, with the one exception being Brendan. Brendan’s POV is told in first person.

I considered why Perrotta chose this and I think it’s because Brendan is the character that under-goes the biggest transformation. Although Eve arguably experiences great changes, she is a willing participant and none of her changes are out of character. Brendan doesn’t even appear to realize that he needs to change. Early in the story, Eve overhears Brendan having sex with his girlfriend and although she is not shocked by the actions, she is appalled to hear Brendan making crude and misogynistic statements. Even though Eve is upset, she does not confront her son. Brendan is used to living a life where both his male and white privileged allow him to get away with terrible behavior. Until he heads to college, he has never been held accountable, and when finally confronted, Brendan’s world comes crashing down. I think Perrotta allows the reader directly into Brendan’s brain to make him less of a caricature and slightly more sympathetic when he begins to realize that he is in the wrong. Let’s face it, it’s hard to have sympathy for an obnoxious kid skating by on his privilege, but I found Eve’s lack of confronting her son to be just a big of a transgression. She allows Brendan’s behavior because confrontation would have made her uncomfortable. But if you were Eve, would you have said something? It’s this type of complexity that draws me to Perrotta’s stories. Perrotta allows the readers to climb into the character’s shoes and there are never easy solutions.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. I’m a Perrotta fan-girl!

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! Admittedly, Mrs. Fletcher is not my favorite Perrotta novel, but it was still fabulous. If you’ve not read Perrotta, I’d direct your attention towards Election, if you prefer comedy, and Little Children if you want a drama. I’ve enjoyed all of his novels and short stories. Truly with Perrotta, you can’t go wrong!

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 Marriage Pact

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Michelle Richmond’s novel, The Marriage Pact, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Jake is a psychologist in a small private practice and Alice is a former rock star turned lawyer. After a short courtship, they decide to take the plunge and get married. At the last minute, Alice jokingly invites a client, a famous musician whose case she worked on, to their wedding. Not only does he attend, but the singer and his wife give Alice and Jake an unusual wedding present. Their present is an invitation to an exclusive club called “The Pact.”

The Pact is a group of like-minded couples, powerful couples, who enforce a set of rules designed to strengthen their marriages. When they return from their honeymoon, Alice and Jake are met with a representative from The Pact who asks them to formally sign a contract to seal their membership. Alice and Jake sign, not fully realizing the impact that joining will have on their lives.

The Pact actively monitors their marriage, looking for any cracks. Alice and Jake are given a hefty instruction manual, which details the actions they must take, like booking quarterly vacations and always picking up the phone when their spouse rings. When they don’t take their responsibilities seriously, they face the consequences, quite severe consequences. Jake discovers an old college girlfriend is also in The Pact and she tries to warn him. According to her, those who do not obey mysteriously vanish. Who is the mysterious group leader named Orla? Why were Jake and Alice chosen? Can they get out of The Pact alive?

LIKEThe Marriage Pact has a Twilight Zone/Black Mirror type quality to it. The tone is ominous, unsettling, and creepy through-out. I never quite knew where the story was heading, but I was happy to keep turning the pages. The intrigue and pacing never dropped.

I didn’t account for how dark Richmond’s story would go. The Marriage Pact is utterly disturbing. There are many chapters with scenes of detailed and imaginative torture. I’m left with imagery that will likely never leave my mind. I’m talking stuff like in the Saw film franchise. It’s horrific.

The story is told in first person with Jake narrating. This is an interesting choice, because early on, all of the terrible things happen to Alice, leaving Jake ( along with the reader) imagining and worrying about what is happening. My stomach was in knots. The Marriage Pact is a visceral reading experience. Jake and Alice are both affable characters and it’s easy to root for both their marriage and their individual characters to succeed. They are every-day people caught up in a completely mad situation. Richmond is brilliant with her character development.

I was worried that the ending would fall short and I felt like this until the final twist and the final chapter. Richmond has written the perfect ending. I can’t imagine anything else working.

DISLIKE– I was left with a few questions. How did The Pact manage to grow and become so powerful? At what point did Orla lose her grasp? Although the concept was intriguing, I felt I had to seriously suspend my disbelief. I just can’t imagine so many people going along with this group. I wanted more backstory on the group and its founder.

RECOMMEND– Yes, if you like creepy suspense stories and if you can handle highly disturbing content. The Marriage Pact is a thrill ride and Richmond is a fabulous storyteller.

Beautiful Bodies

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Thank You to Little A for providing me with an advance copy of Kimberly Rae Miller’s memoir, Beautiful Bodies, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her memoir, Beautiful Bodies, Kimberly Rae Miller explores her relationship with her own body; the confusion she feels over body image and her never-ceasing diets.

LIKE– I loved Miller’s previous memoir, Coming Clean, about growing up with parents who are hoarders, and I was thrilled to be approved for a galley edition of her latest memoir. Miller is a talented writer who is very open with sharing the intimate details of her life. This openness and vulnerability is what makes her writing so accessible. When I read her books, I feel like I’m being told a story by a close friend. Admittedly, I did not find the subject of body image to be as fascinating as her being raised by parents who are hoarders, however Miller’s writing is so good, that I’d likely pick up any book she writes.

What Miller really hits on is the disturbing problem of very young girls dieting and having negative thoughts about their body. Honestly, I don’t remember personally having these issues, but I see it in elementary-aged girls that I know; the fear of being fat and the obsession with dieting. It’s scary! Along with her personal dieting stories, Miller throws in some dieting history. I love how she blends in the historical perspective, providing some Trivial Pursuit worthy tidbits.

Miller analyzes how her body image has impacted her relationships, including that with her husband, Roy. It is hard for Miller to trust that Roy accepts her body with all of its changes, including pregnancy.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Miller is brutally honest and often very funny.

RECOMMEND- Yes!!! If you are unfamiliar with Miller’s writing, I highly recommend that you read both Coming Clean and Beautiful Bodies. She has a strong voice and unique perspective.

Dirty Rush

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PLOT– Taylor Bell recalls her true story of her time in the Beta Zeta sorority at a college in Delaware. Initially, Bell is reluctant to join the sorority, but as a legacy, she is actively pursued to rush.

LIKE– I picked up Dirty Rush based on positive professional reviews and a fun endorsement from Jen Lancaster. I adore Jen Lancaster. Somehow, I didn’t realize that Dirty Rush was based on a true story until I had started reading, which made everything even more outrageous.

I was never in a sorority and the colleges that I attended didn’t even have them. I don’t think any of my close friends were in sororities or fraternities. Basically, I’m unfamiliar with them, except for what I’ve seen in popular culture. That said, I find the entire set-up fascinating. I just can’t understand who would willingly put themselves through rushing and dealing with all of the drama. Bell does come out of the experience with some close friends, but I’m definitely not convinced of she wouldn’t have made deep connections if a sorority hadn’t been part of her college experience. Her friendships are solidified when the president of the sorority goes after Bell, releasing a doctored sex tape and trying to assassinate Bell’s character while getting her tossed from Beta Zeta, Some of the other sorority members see what is happening and as Bell gathers proof, they stand by her side. There is a surprise twist when we find out about a terrible secret that Bell’s older sister, a former sorority member, has kept hidden from her sister. Bell’s story is truly shocking.

I loved that Bell was able to get Rebecca Martinson ( the sorority president who went viral for her scathing rush instruction email) to write a forward. It sets the tone for the entire book, letting the reader know that Bell has a good sense of humor regarding her experiences. Despite the intense bullying that Bell endures, her memoir has plenty of laughs.

DISLIKE– This is a guilty pleasure read. A few years ago, I would have been embarrassed to admit to reading Dirty Rush. But you know what? I’m going to own it. Sometimes, you need a little trashy reading.

RECOMMENDDirty Rush is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s shocking and has a scandalous/ TMZ type of vibe. Bell’s humor and the quick pace make this a perfect beach read. I enjoyed the ride.

Hello, Sunshine

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Thank You to Simon and Schuster for providing me with an advance copy of Laura Dave’s novel, Hello, Sunshine, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Sunshine Mackenzie is a rising star in the world of social media chefs. She is on the brink of transitioning from Youtube videos to a high-scale production show on The Food Network. The only problem is Sunshine is not the image that she has created. She is not a farmer’s daughter and did not grow up in the rural south. She can’t even really cook. Just as her star is rising, her secret is exposed. Not only is the truth about her background revealed, but she is also caught having an affair with her producer, ruining her marriage. In the cutthroat world of social media celebrity, who has it out for Sunshine? Now that her world has been destroyed, can Sunshine rise from the rubble?

LIKE– I liked Dave’s snappy writing and colorful characters. I liked that the plot wasn’t completely predictable; for example, Sunshine’s life is complicated and the complications do not have simple resolutions. Hello, Sunshine has a strong message regarding social media and will give readers pause with regard to their own uses for social media. A few times, there is mention of characters taking posed, perfected shots for Instagram. These are pictures that don’t truly reflect their reality with accompanied falsified hashtags. Maybe I’m jaded, but I think most people engage in this behavior to an extent. Reading Hello, Sunshine has made think before I post. Am I reflecting the real me?

Sunshine’s life when she returns to Montauk and works for a high-end restaurant is entertaining. I loved the behind-the-scenes look at the back house of a fine dining restaurant. Chef Z is a fabulous crank!

DISLIKE–  There was a lot of plot crammed into the story making it feel rushed. For example, the start of the novel was a flurry of characters, the employees in Sunshine’s world, and it was on onslaught that was a struggle to track. I wish there had been more development between Sunshine and her niece, Sammy. I loved their growing relationship.

RECOMMEND- Yes. Hello, Sunshine is the epitome of a chick-lit/beach read. I’m not sure that I ever understood the concept of this until having my step-kids visit for the summer. The distraction of reading with kids around, makes me gravitate to novels like Hello, Sunshine. I’m not saying that Dave’s novel is lacking depth, only that it is written in a style that is easy to digest in small chunks and doesn’t require a quiet reading space. I’d definitely recommend Hello, Sunshine as a vacation read and I look forward to reading more of Dave’s novels.

Who is Rich

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Matthew Klam’s novel, Who is Rich?, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Rich Fischer is a graphic novelist who achieved acclaim early in his career. His success was limited and now, middle-aged, he is trying to get his art career back on track. Rich teaches at a summer retreat, where he looks forward to reconnecting with Amy, a painter with whom he is having an affair. Both Amy and Rich are married with young children and both are unhappy in their relationships. They fantasize about running away from their spouses, but neither is willing to take action. Amy is married to an extremely wealthy businessman and although she is unhappy, she does not want for anything else. Rich is not wealthy, he has the trappings of a middle-class life that he is struggling to maintain paycheck-to-paycheck. He envies Amy’s financial freedom and the success of his peers.  What does it mean to be rich? How does focusing on what you lack make you feel poorer?

LIKE– I liked the concept of Who is Rich?. The themes of envy are very relatable and Rich is a relatable character. I’m not sure that I personally connected to him, but I have people in my life who are similar to Rich. Specifically, I see Rich’s flaws and hang-ups in a few people that I know. I liked the setting of an art retreat, with a large cast of colorful secondary characters. Klam has created a vibrant world and he has fabulous descriptions.

Although I disagree that this story was a comedy, Klam has written some witty phrases and observations that made me crack a smile. There were many times that I paused to admire his writing or even to read aloud a paragraph to feel the pacing.

I liked that Klam used illustrations in his novel. It was a great fit for his protagonist’s profession and the pictures were a fun inclusion.

The title is wonderful play on both the theme and the protagonist’s name.

DISLIKE- On a whole, I didn’t connect with the story. It was sluggish and a chore to read. I actually read several books in-between, rather than reading Who is Rich? straight through. If this had not been a review copy, I likely would not have finished reading it. The story does pick up pace in the last 10% of the book, when Rich has a major moral dilemma regarding a pair of earrings. I wish the stakes/drama had been more intense earlier in the story.

RECOMMEND– No. Who is Rich? was not my cup of tea. That said, I liked Klam’s writing enough that I plan to check-out his previously published short story collection, Sam The Cat. I have a feeling that Klam might really shine in a shorter format.

The Windfall

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Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with an advance copy of Diksha Basu’s novel, The Windfall, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Anil Jha worked hard for many years and has sold his technology invention for a very large sum of money, allowing him to purchase a mansion in a wealthy suburb in India. As they prepare to leave their modest middle-class neighborhood, a neighborhood where they raised their son and where they have formed strong friendships, the Jha’s struggle to reveal their recent windfall to their neighbors. Will they find a home in their new neighborhood or will their windfall adversely affect their lives?

LIKE– Basu’s characters and tone remind me of books from one of my favorite authors: Alexander McCall Smith. Like Smith, Basu is a keen observer of human nature. She uses this skill to pin-point her character’s flaws and fears, often using these weakness in humorous scenarios.

For example, there is a continuous battle between Anil and his wealthy neighbor, Mr. Chopra. The battle is subtle and internal, with each man fearing what the other might be thinking about the other’s wealth and status. It becomes increasingly absurd, even to the point of their bragging that they are so rich that their adult sons do not need to work. These are men that have built their fortune through hard work, and yet, they see it as a source of pride that they can afford for their children to be lazy. Anil is even okay with the idea that his son, Rupak, has been expelled from a college that he was attending in America. Anil twists the story of Rupak’s expulsion to fit the new narrative of their lives. Rupak is ashamed to have been expelled and is baffled by his father’s easy going attitude.

I liked the glimpse of different social tiers in India. It seems like a lot of the stories set in India, both novels and films, that make it to the US market, show the poverty and struggle. It was a nice change to show middle-class and wealthy characters. I liked the sense of community that the Jha family experienced in their middle-class neighborhood. It reminded me of the townhouse complex where I grew up, which connected me to the story.

DISLIKEThe Windfall is social satire and although it makes a poignant statement and is often very humorous, the nature of the story plays close to the surface. Although it is clear that what the characters say or do, is often the opposite of how they truly feel ( for example Anil’s struggle to prove his new wealth), I wish the story had dove a little deeper.

RECOMMEND- Yes. The Windfall is very humorous and filled with delightful characters. I look forward to reading future novels by Diksha Basu.