The Grace Year

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Kim Liggett’s novel, The Grace Year, in exchange for an honest review.

Garner County is ruled by men and those men enforce a rigid moral code through severe punishment and fear. As part of their fear tactics, all sixteen-year-old girls must retreat to the woods for what is termed as their “Grace Year.” Far from home, they will survive together in a rustic fort and get rid of “their magic.” The idea that teen girls possess powerful magic is a deeply held superstition that has all of the men in the community terrified and willing to send their daughters into harms way to dispel it. When the girls return from their “Grace Year”, they are forbidden to speak about it and the whole thing is shrouded in mystery, especially since many girls don’t return, and those who do are damaged, including missing limbs.

Tierney James is facing her “Grace Year” and her rebel heart makes her question the process. As she embarks on her journey, her experiences tell her to question everything, even if it means she could be killed, either by shadowy poachers who kidnap “Grace Year” girls to harvest their magical body parts, or by the patriarchy of Garner County, who don’t stand for dissent.

The Grace Year is young adult fiction that is a blend of The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. It has the blood-sport, teens killing teens for survival and uncomfortable love triangle of the former, with the women rising against oppression of the latter.

Liggett has a created an intriguing premise and the first third of the book is a page-turner. I was hooked immediately. Mostly, I wanted to know the mystery of the “Grace Year” and to understand why girls were dying and getting maimed. It’s grotesque. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that there are poachers who flay the girls, selling their body parts as magical medicine. This is sick and stomach turning enough when we think of this happening to endangered animals, let alone teenage girls.

The Grace Year starts off like a shot, but has a soggy middle. The love story did not work for me and it distracted from the story of the girls. In a similar dynamic as Katniss in The Hunger Games trilogy, Tierney faces a situation of passionate love with a fiery partner vs. the less interesting, yet steady love of a guy who she has in the friend-zone. Like Katniss, Tierney is a strong woman, who makes it quite clear that there are more important things in her life than love. Tierney is very vocal in her desire to avoid marriage and to lead a life of working in the fields. She does not dream of romantic love, yet it seems to find her. It is possible for her to have a change heart or to be swept away in the moment, but I found the weight given to this aspect of the story, undermined the strength and spirit of her character.

The story redeems itself in the last third, where many of the mysteries are solved and where the women show their power. The strongest element of The Grace Year, is the concept of oppression. The women are not the only ones who are oppressed by Garner County’s rules. Anyone who tries to challenge or who dares to be different, is beaten, executed, or banished to the edge of town. The family members of unruly citizens, even very young children, can be punished. The banishment creates a whole different class of society; women who survive by prostitution and men who become the poachers. The people who are banished live through the mercy of those who are still in town. They are part of the ecosystem of Garner County, yet they exist on the edge of it. Their participation in superstition of the power of young girls is part of maintaining the patriarchy.

Garner County reminded me of Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous witch trials. During that time, Salem had both a strong patriarchal and religious culture with fear ruling the society. Punishment could be severe. The young girls who made accusations of witchcraft found their power in a society where they had none. The Grace Year explores this concept in opposite, as the “Grace Year” is not supposed to give girls power, but the concept of it is to break the girls and make them compliant as they head back to Garner County to be the property of men. As soon as they return, they will be either wives or workers, with communication between women a rarity.

Although the middle was a tad sluggish, I enjoyed The Grace Year. I read that Elizabeth Banks has optioned the film rights, with Liggett working on the screen play. The story is exciting with many unexpected twists. It is very cinematic and I can imagine that it would be a box-office hit.

 

Imaginary Friend

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Thank you to Grand Central Publishing for providing me with a copy of Stephen Chbosky’s novel, Imaginary Friend, in exchange for an honest review.

Strange things are happening in the small, Pennsylvania town of Mill Grove. The town has been plagued with missing children spanning over several generations, inspiring urban legends. Kate Reese is escaping an abusive relationship and she decides to make a fresh start for herself and her seven-year-old son, Christopher, in Mill Grove. On the surface, it appears to be an idyllic town, but soon Christopher is swept up in the horrors that have befallen other children of the community. It all begins when Christopher makes an imaginary friend that he names “The Nice Man.”

I love horror and I have never been legitimately freaked out until Imaginary Friend. The horror and graphic imagery is on a level that almost made me quit the book. I’m quite honestly shocked by how much Chbosky’s novel affected my sleep and invaded my imagination. He’s an incredible writer.

Chbosky’s story assaults the reader in multiple ways. He balances intense descriptions that leave little to the imagination, with gaps that allow the reader to imagine the worst. I read that Imaginary Friend is in development to be made into a movie or TV series. I don’t think that I could handle it and I seriously can’t imagine how any visual could match or be worse than what I was creating in my mind. The action, especially in the last half of the story, is virtually non-stop and at a break-neck pace. I kept catching myself holding my breath from the intensity. There are several great plot twists that I did not see coming.

Imaginary Friend is one of the most unexpected books that I have ever read. It’s a roller coaster ride. I think I was caught off-guard primarily because it is so vastly different than Chbosky’s best-selling novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower and was excited to see his much-anticipated follow-up. I’m sure many readers will pick up Imaginary Friend, based on their love for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and they may be left disappointed. The books are so dissimilar and horror, especially this level of horror, is not going to be everyone’s cup-of-tea. However, it’s awesome that Chbosky wrote a wildly different type of story. He took a risk. He wrote the story that he needed to tell. I have so much respect for him.

My only criticism is that the story felt long. It is long, coming in at around seven-hundred pages. The pacing wasn’t slow, but it was too long to live in that particular story world. It’s a stressful read and I wanted out. It also suffers from a glut of action at the end of the story, pushing Imaginary Friend to continue beyond the point of where it felt like the story should have ended. It was along the lines of an action movie that has one too many explosions or car wrecks, or the horror film when the villain rises from the dead, but in this case, it was several resurrections too many.

This criticism aside, I found Imaginary Friend to be a highly memorable read. Chbosky has a unique voice and a crazy brain for horror writing. You’ll never look at deer the same way. It will also make you reevaluate any imaginary friends that your kids might have at the moment.

It was so darn creepy, that I have the chills just writing this review!

 

The Swallows

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group and Ballantine Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Lutz’s novel, The Swallows, in exchange for an honest review.

Shortly after joining the faculty of Stonebridge Academy, an elite boarding school, creative writing professor Alexandra Witt, begins to notice that dark secrets are being kept amongst the students. The faculty turns a blind-eye out of fear and the professor whom Alexandra had been hired to replaced left under mysterious circumstances. Despite several warnings, Alexandra is determined to reveal the truth.

I’m drawn to stories that take place at boarding schools. I’ve always loved going to school and ever since I was a young child, I had romantic ideas of what it would be like to attend a boarding school. The setting for The Swallows does not disappoint. The campus is lush and the students are privileged. Lutz explores the “Upstairs/Downstairs” aspect of showing perspectives from both the wealthy students and the mostly average-means faculty. These are kids accustomed to power via the privilege that comes with wealth.

The Swallows is both a mystery and suspense novel, but it is also a commentary on our times with the “Me Too” movement. At Stonebridge Academy, there is a strong hierarchy of popular students, which includes a fluid ranking of the top male and female students, but within this group, the boys have their own club. Within this “boys club”,” they use their influence against the girls by creating a secret, sex driven ranking system. Alexandra is the type of teacher who easily bonds with teenagers and as she learns what the boys are doing, she uses her influence to help the girls stand-up for themselves. However, it is not as simple as pointing out the wrongs, the girls want revenge for their humiliation.

One of the more interesting twists comes from a student who begins a nightly ritual across campus. Her silent walks with a loud scream at the end, pick-up steam and soon she has begun an entire movement. She never speaks to the meaning of her ritual and others assume that it is in response to her having been raped or assaulted. She never confirms or denies the reason and her actions explode in popularity, attracting the attention of the national news. This situation blurs the lines between reality and the way society likes to attach meaning to situations, regardless of the truth. She becomes a symbol of a movement, simply because her actions seem like they reflect the pain of a woman who has been harmed by men.

Although there are intriguing aspects to The Swallows, I didn’t find myself completely gelling with the story. It was uneven in pacing and I found a lot of it to reek of “shock value,” in a way that made it hard for me to believe or connect. I didn’t entirely dislike The Swallows, but it was a solid 3 out of 5 for me. The most interesting aspect is the ways that the various characters use power to their advantage and this alone made it a worthwhile read.

 

Campusland

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with debut author Scott Johnston’s novel, Campusland, in exchange for an honest review.

Devon University is a “not-quite Ivy League” east-coast institution that has provided a quality education for generations. Through fond memories and rich traditions, Devon has built a strong group of wealthy alumni, who are happy to support their alma matter, as long as it continues to reflect the values they treasure.

However, there is a problem. The world is changing and life at Devon is beginning to reflect the most extreme state of these changes.

Campusland is a satire and it is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Johnston pokes at several issues, however important they may be, that have spiraled out of control due to a lack of common sense. For example, when Freshman student Lulu Harris takes a spill and is injured on campus, no one will believe her when she tells them the truth: she was not sexually assaulted. Instead of believing the truth, the situation escalates to the point that Lulu feels that she has to name an accuser and decides to point the finger at her professor, Eph Russell.

Lulu is complicated. She is a NYC party girl, who is stuck at a college far from the city and is feeling her status slip away. She has failed at making friends and can’t seem to catch a break. Lulu had a bit of a crush on Eph and his rejection stung, however she did not initially intend on blaming him or anyone else. She tried to tell the truth, but no one would believe her word. When she names Eph as her attacker, she realizes that she has an opportunity to promote her social status through a social cause. In a calculated move, Lulu starts a nightly ritual of crawling through campus. Lulu’s crawl is silent and she never speaks of her “assault,” however other people assume that she is making a statement and speaking on behalf of all sexual assault victims. Lulu becomes a sensation and she doesn’t correct any of the assumptions.

Currently, with so many powerful men being accused of sexual assault, there is such outcry at women not being believed when they are attacked, this shows the same problem in a reverse situation. Lulu was never attacked, but no one will believe her. She is only believed, when she becomes the victim that people want her to be. Her voice has actually been silenced by the very people who pretend to support her. It’s sick.

Eph, the true victim, is a white male from the South and he is helpless as his career go down the drain. Not only is he accused by Lulu, but prior to the Lulu situation, his course syllabus comes under attack by students accusing him of racism for teaching “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and for not including more writers of color. Eph has counter argument to their accusations, but the momentum of this group, including many students who are not enrolled in his class, grows. Eph keeps expecting that his luck will change and that surely having truth on his side will prevail. However, not even the clearest proof of his innocence will stop those who want him gone. By virtue of his historical power of being a white male, he is not allowed to be the victim and the people who have the power to help him, see it as a loss, if they accept the truth of his innocence.

At Devon, having power is more important than morals or truth. Fairness is a sham.

Campusland reflects a world where common sense is missing and extremism rules. This is a story world where people are very divided and there is no room for civil debate. It is uncomfortable and reflects our current world with a “You’re either with us or against us” attitude.

I loved Campusland. Johnston’s novel is a hilarious page-turner that is a keen observation of our society. I can’t wait to read Johnston’s next book.

 

Breathe In, Cash Out

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Madeleine Henry’s novel, Breathe In, Cash Out, in exchange for an honest review.

Recent Princeton grad, Allegra Cobb has landed a job as an analyst at the prestigious New York City investment firm, Anderson Shaw. She is on the fast track to success, yet her life feels empty. Her true passion is yoga and if she can just endure her insane work schedule until her annual bonus, she plans to quit banking and follow her dreams. However, staying sane while pulling all-nighters becomes more difficult when she meets Skylar. Skylar is a beautiful and magnetic yoga instructor with an popular social media following. Skylar brings Allegra into her circle, trying to convince her to leave her job early. In the beginning, Allegra is enchanted by Skylar, but she soon realizes that Skylar is not what she seems.

The themes of Breathe In, Cash Out will strike a chord with most readers. Like Allegra, a majority of the people I know, including myself, have put dreams on the back burner to pursue money or a more “sensible” career. Allegra was raised by a single father, who also pushed her to chase the dream of working in banking. Allegra is an overachiever, but the goal of getting an Ivy League education and working for this specific firm, was in big part because of her father’s pressure. It is a pressure not just to succeed, but to succeed in a specific way. Although my mom was nothing like Allegra’s father, I could definitely relate to Allegra’s desire to please her father and not disappoint. It’s a winning moment when Allegra decides that she must follow her own life path, even if it means disappointing her father or giving up what society would consider to be a dream job. We have one life and we must live it on our terms.

Breathe In, Cash Out also plays with the theme of trust. Allegra exists in a cut-throat world and trust is difficult. Allegra learns hard lessons when she puts trust in people who are only looking out for themselves and she devalues those around her who have her back. I liked the relationship between Allegra and her co-worker, Tripp. True to his frat-boy sounding name, Tripp seems like the last person that Allegra should trust. He’s charming and never seems to take life seriously. However, appearances can be deceptive. On the theme of appearances being deceptive, Breathe In, Cash Out explores the idea of being social media famous and how that does not necessarily equate joy or success. When we live in a culture that puts a heavy emphasis on perception, it is easy to lose perspective.

Based on the themes and premise, I was very excited to read Breathe In, Cash Out, but my expectations fell short. It was akin to having trouble starting a car. I would begin to invest in a storyline and then the pacing would stall.

For example, the story opens with Allegra having a one-night stand with someone who she later learns is her superior at work. This should have set up a ton of conflict and tension, but it doesn’t. She quickly realizes that he is married and that he is treating the whole evening with her, as if it never happened. He is not a nice person or a good boss. Fairly quickly, Allegra realizes what is happening and to her, it is written off as a mistake. The potentially explosive scenario fizzles.

Skylar, who turns out to be the primary antagonist, is another example. There is a truly creepy situation with Skylar at the end of the novel, which I anticipated would lead to an even bigger scene or revelation. However, it is a false alarm. The storyline ends abruptly, which is unfortunate, as it was the most memorable scene in the story. It gave me the chills.

Breathe In, Cash Out was far too involved in the world of Allegra’s job with loads of technical terms and presentations, but skimpy on the character development. I could relate to Allegra’s conflict and passions, but I could not relate to her.

Henry had a great story idea, but Breathe In, Cash Out missed the mark. I cannot recommend it.

 

Mrs. Every-Thing

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, Mrs. Every-Thing, in exchange for an honest review.

In Mrs. Everything, bestselling author Jennifer Weiner explores the lives of the Kaufman sisters, Jo and Bethie. Although they are very different women, the Kaufman sisters are close, until Bethie is raped. The guilt, miscommunication, and things that go unspoken drives a wedge between the sisters and they spend most of their lives struggling to repair their relationship.

Mrs. Every-Thing is an epic story that begins in the 1950’s and spans decades, following Bethie and Jo through their childhood to their golden years. Weiner tackles many of the heavy themes of those decades, including feminism, civil rights, and gays rights. Her characters are in the thick of it.

Jo seems to follow a more traditional path, marrying young and becoming a mother. She lives in the suburbs of Connecticut and outwardly reflects the attitudes of a conservative housewife. However, she is hiding a relationship that she had with a female classmate in college, a love that has never died. She carries the burden of not feeling that she can live her authentic-self, as she tries to maintain a happy home for her children, while her marriage is crumbling.

Bethie takes a different path. After being sexually assaulted, she turns to an alternative, hippie lifestyle of the 60’s and lives on a commune. She is wary of marrying or having kids, but is vocal in her passion to promote feminism. She eventually realizes that she has a desire to be an entrepreneur, which is in conflict with the ideals of the commune, so she leaves and becomes a successful businesswoman. She also finds love with an black man in an time not long after the civil rights era.

Admittedly, in the hands of a different writer, the topics covered in Mrs. Every-Thing, may have come across as cliche. However, Weiner is a masterful storyteller and she has created two compelling protagonists. The tale of the Kaufman sisters is a page turner and I was engaged for the entire ride. It made me consider my own life path as a child of the late 70’s and how different my options have been from those of my mom and aunt, who were both born just a decade prior to Jo and Bethie. We often judge the world and the people living in it from the standards of now, however people are very much a product of the era in which they were raised. Our world is constantly changing and every generation has unique challenges. Through hindsight, I can now see just in my lifetime how far we have come with regard to inclusion and rights, yet how far we need to go. The story of the Kaufman sisters is look at a few pivotal decades in American history and moreover, what it meant to be female during that time.

I highly recommend Mrs. Every-Thing and Weiner’s other novels. She’s 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.

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 Farm

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Joanne Ramos’ novel, The Farm, in exchange for an honest review.

Jane Reyes is in a desperate situation. She is a young Filipino immigrant who has recently left her cheating husband and is trying to raise her baby, Amalia. Jane’s older cousin, Evelyn, who is affectionately known as “Ate”, has made a lucrative living as a live-in nanny for wealthy American couples. Ate guides Jane in the ways of working with both babies and their high-maintenance parents, but financially Jane is still struggling. Ate tells her about an opportunity to work as a surrogate for “Golden Acres”.

Golden Acres is the premier surrogacy center, offering wealthy clients carefully selected surrogates, young women that are not only healthy, but who are also attractive, with many holding upper-education degrees. The financial rewards are irresistible and Jane will spend the pregnancy in luxury accommodations with top-of-the-line nutrition and care. The only hitch, is she will be separated from Amalia, who will live in Ate’s care. Jane decides that it is the right move for the future of her family, yet she quickly realizes that Golden Acres, isn’t what it seems.

The Farm is a solid drama, filled with themes of family ties and economic disparity. Jane is a woman who will do anything to secure the future for her daughter. She spends most of the story blinded by her own goals and angry at Ate, who is also struggling to secure a future for her children, including an adult disabled son who lives in the Philippines. Perhaps it’s a case of lashing out at those who you love the most, because Jane is pissed off at Ate, not understanding Ate’s motives until late in the story. However, Jane is not upset by Reagan, a fellow surrogate whom Jane befriends at Golden Oaks.

Reagan is the polar opposite of Jane. She is college educated and dreams of becoming a photographer. Reagan is motivated by both money and altruism. Jane needs the money for her family. yet Reagan needs the money to come out from under the control of her family, specifically so she won’t be beholden to her father as she pursues an MFA. Being a surrogate is not social acceptable in Reagan’s world, so she justifies the act, by focusing on the family that she is helping. At Golden Oaks, Reagan meets women, who like Jane, are from an economically disadvantaged background and its affects her profoundly. This is likely the first time in her life that Reagan has been truly been confronted by her privilege. Compared to Jane, Reagan’s reasons for wanting the surrogacy payout, seem frivolous, yet Jane doesn’t harbor resentment. Jane saves all of her resentment for Ate., a woman as desperate as she is.

This tension between the characters brought a complex dynamic to the story. I also liked how Ramos played with the morality issues of Golden Oaks, such as having certain surrogates (primarily caucasian/beautiful/educated) as premium choices and stickiness of acknowledging that these traits being more desirable is not social acceptable. Mae Yu, the intense founder of Golden Oaks, is constantly having to balance the business of surrogacy, with the human impact = surrogates, would-be-parents (clients) and the unborn babies. One situation has a surrogate who is Catholic, needing to be put under while a doctor aborts her baby. Golden Oaks knew that the surrogate would have a moral objection to the situation, yet with a genetic abnormality, the decision of the client is to abort and implant again. The surrogate’s feelings are eliminated from the equation.

The surrogates may be treated well, but this only extends to as long as they are compliant and do everything in their power to take care of the client’s baby, including following strict dietary and activities rules. The surrogates are often kept in the dark about their clients identity and the staff at Golden Oaks likes to manipulate the surrogates to keep them in line, including doling out rewards or punishments. Several times Jane is given the opportunity to have time with Amalia, promises that are taken away, when Jane acts against protocol. The stakes are raised, when the surrogates learn that one of them is carrying the baby of an extraordinarily wealthy family, a family that plans to pay out a big bonus after the birth. No one knows who is carrying this baby, but the rumor spreads like wildfire, causing a disruption amongst the surrogates.

The Farm is told through several points of view and I’m still not sure if this was effective. Jane’s POV is shown the most and she is our protagonist. It works well to have Mae’s POV, as it provides a glimpse into how Golden Oaks works and the issues involved. It distracted me and brought down the pacing, to have Reagan and Ate’s, POV. I think it would have been a stronger narrative to flip-flop between Jane and Mae, giving Mae a bigger voice in the story. I didn’t have enough of Mae’s story, to connect with her and it left me feeling conflicted. Not only was I conflicted, but I was mildly dissatisfied with the ending.

Overall, The Farm is an intriguing story and great morality tale for modern times. It tackles heavy social issues and would be a great pick for a book club.

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.