The Favorite Sister

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Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of Jessica Knoll’s latest novel, The Favorite Sister, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– “Goal Diggers” is a reality show about a group of highly driven and successful entrepenurial women. All are successful in their careers, but the show creates a new format in which they can compete. The women backstab and lie in efforts to show that they are valuable enough for the network to cast them on the subsequent season of “Goal Diggers.” Those who do not prove their worth by being entertaining enough are ruthlessly shown the door.

Long time cast member Brett, owns a chain of cycle fitness centers with her older sister, Kelly. This season, we learn that Kelly has been added as a full-time cast member. This shocks the cast because Kelly is a single-mom and being a mother had never been part of the plan for any of the other “Goal Diggers”. Kelly’s teenage daughter is beautiful, sassy and bi-racial. Stephanie, the only African-American and the oldest member of the cast, immediately feels threatened, thinking that Kelly’s daughter might be her replacement.

Early in the novel, we learn through a flash-forward that Brett is dead and there is something very fishy regarding her death. However, to figure out how Brett died and who is responsible, we need to sit back and enjoy the current season of “Goal Diggers”: the most vicious and shocking season to date!

LIKE– I loved Jessica Knoll’s debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive and I was thrilled to be granted a copy of The Favorite Sister. Knoll has a fabulous writer’s voice and excels at tone. The tone of The Favorite Sisteris snarky and bitchy, there are so many cutting remarks. It’s a black comedy and often very funny. I don’t remember the exact line, but a memorable comment that made me laugh-out-loud, was when one character uses the term “Bae” and another character cuts into her fear of being old, by telling her that no one under thirty uses “Bae” anymore. Knoll’s novel is filled with comedic moments.

The Favorite Sister made me feel stressed. All of the characters are constantly struggling to maintain their image and push their brand. Logically we know, and they probably know, that nothing that they ever do will be enough. It’s a never ending hamster wheel. However, to a much lesser degree, this is what a majority of us do when we waste time on social media. I think this is why I felt anxiety reading The Favorite Sister, it touches a nerve.

The characters are successful in their careers, yet it seems like none of that success counts, unless they are able to prove their worth on “Goal Diggers”. On the surface, “Goal Diggers” claims to be a show that lifts-up women and showcases their successes, but of course that is all a sham for a reality show that is just as dirty as the latest “Housewives of…” series. The participants on the show all willingly play into the charade, all desperate to keep in the spotlight.

I’m a Reality TV fan, so the overall theme appealed to me and I loved Knoll’s behind the scenes look at the fictitious “Goal Diggers.” It’s fun to see the manipulation on the production side. The ending was an unexpected surprise with great twists.

DISLIKEThe Favorite Sister was not an effortless read. It took me about half the book to really keep all of the characters straight. It didn’t help that I was trying to read it during my vacation in England: not a distraction free environment. If you plan to read The Favorite Sister, I suggest setting aside a large chunk of time to really get into the story.

Also making it difficult was the pacing. I found the middle of the story to be sluggish. I think it may be in part due to the nature of the story with regard to tone. None of the characters are even remotely likable and their ceaseless negative attitudes is draining on the reader. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of funny moments that comes with this territory and the story world dictates this behavior, but it’s also cumbersome. I couldn’t call this a page turner, because I had to set it aside, not wanting to spend too many minutes in this world at a time.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I highly recommend Knoll’s first novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, but I’m hesitant to recommend The Favorite Sister. That said, Knoll is a very gifted writer and I will absolutely read her next book. I appreciate what she was trying to accomplish withThe Favorite Sister, but the negative energy drained me.

Sweetbitter

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PLOT– Just twenty-two and ready to strike out on her own, Tess moves to New York City and lands a job at a prestigious restaurant. As she learns the ropes, trying to work her way up to being a server, she gets a crash-course in the restaurant industry. Tess discovers that the world is a bigger place than she had imagined as she becomes exposed to new foods, wines, and an eclectic group of co-workers. However navigating this new world is not easy, especially when she begins a relationship with a sexy bartender.

LIKESweetbitterhas been on my radar for a long-time. It has gotten a lot of buzz and has recently been turned into a television series on the Starz network. I finally caved and bought it, when it got a great review from Gina B, co-host of theStories We’d Tell in Bars Podcast.It seemed like the perfect vacation read for my trip to England.

Gina was right, Sweetbitteris a page-turner. It’s a bit salacious and soap-opera esque, an escapism read. However, this is not to undermine Stephanie Danler’s writing skills. One of the pleasures in Sweet Bitter is the sensuous way that she describes food and drink. The joy of fine dining is not just in the taste, but also the presentation. There are so many vivid and beautiful descriptions in Sweetbitter.It’s food-porn. The delight isn’t just in the fine dining, but also how Tess and her coworkers steal away things to enjoy. For example, there is a scene where they steal fresh oysters and enjoy them on the sly in the kitchen. The message being that fine dining is not limited to the rich and that the pleasures of food are for everyone. Also, the pleasures of food are not only to be found in expensive restaurants, the characters eat at greasy spoon diners and create feasts in their own homes. Tess learns the need to develop her palate and experience a variety of flavors.

It’s easy for me to fall in love with stories of protagonist who are starting out in the world. i love the idea of fresh starts and how everything is exciting. Tess fits this role perfectly and although she starts to spiral into a dark territory towards the middle/end, I always found myself rooting for her to succeed. I wish she had maintained her innocence longer.

I love the setting of a restaurant. My ex-husband worked in the restaurant industry and I found myself feeling a familiarity with the way the staff had shift drinks after closing and developed a family atmosphere. I also recognized the dysfunction. There is so much dysfunction and extreme behavior.

Simone is the senior waitstaff, a woman with a cool exterior who seems to always have everything under control. She’s a great character. She’s a bit mysterious and always teetering on being either Tess’ friend or foe. I enjoyed the dynamic between Tess and Simone.

DISLIKE– I found Tess’ slide into drug and alcohol abuse to be a little quick. It made the story take a heavy turn than dragged down the pacing. I felt like something else needed to happen with the turn in the story. For example when Tess sits down with Simone at the end, it wasn’t a satisfying resolution, because I failed to believe that Tess had become strong enough to stand up to Simone. It needed another layer to make it believable.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Sweetbitter is a guilty-pleasure read that I fully embraced. I’m looking forward to watching the television series and I’m wondering how they will manage to capture Danler’s rich descriptions. You should read the book, just for the beautiful sensory elements.

P.S. From Paris

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Thank you to AmazonCrossing for providing me with an advance copy of Marc Levy’s latest novel, P.S. From Paris, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Mia is a British actress whose latest film is about to be released. Her husband, who also happens to be her co-star, has been caught cheating and Mia runs away to Paris to stay with her friend Daisy; a chef and restaurant owner. In efforts to keep a low profile, Mia changes her hairstyle and helps out as a server in Daisy’s restaurant.

Paul is an American fiction writer living in Paris. His novels have inexplicably seen a great success in South Korea. Paul has a relationship with his Korean translator and although he loves her, she has grown distant. Paul has a fear of traveling and only sees her for a few weeks a year, when she comes to work on his novels in Paris.

Paul and Mia meet through an internet dating site. Mia has taken on Daisy’s identity and Paul is unaware that she is a famous actress. Paul’s life becomes very complicated when the reason for his success in South Korea is revealed. Are Paul and Mia a good match or will their messy lives be their undoing?

LIKE– This is my first encounter with Levy’s writing, although I’ve since learned that he is a extremely successful and prolific French novelist. This is great news, because I throughly enjoyed P.S. From Paris.

P.S. From Paris is dialogue heavy and felt very cinematic. It was effortless to see this novel being turned into a film or perhaps even a stage play. The dialogue is sharp, witty, and affecting. Levy has a gift for achieving maximum emotional impact with zero extraneous words.

There is a sweetness to the relationship between Mia and Paul, which never dips into being overly sentimental or saccharine. I loved both characters and was wholly invested in them as both individuals and as a couple. My feelings towards them, are similar to ones I have with the great romantic comedy pairing of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in both Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. I simply adored the characters. I had a smile on my face as I was reading.

I loved the twist with Paul’s success in South Korea. It was such a surprise.

DISLIKE– I wondered why Daisy put up with so much of Mia’s rude behavior? Mia is quite terrible to her friend. I guess the answer is that they have such a close relationship that it is able to weather Mia’s self-centered antics. However, this still doesn’t sit well. I wish this component of the story had been smoothed out more. I loved what Mia was around Paul, but disliked her when she was interacting with Daisy.

RECOMMEND- Yes. P.S. From Paris is an engaging and lovely story. It’s a feel good novel. I can’t wait to read more stories by Levy. I’m thrilled to have discovered him.

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.