A Thousand Rooms

cover112638-medium

 

Thank you to NetGalley and author Helen Jones for providing me with a copy of A Thousand Rooms in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Katie has just died and she finds herself at the scene of her death without anyone to greet her or further instructions. When she thinks of something, such as the store where she purchased the snazzy new red heels that she was wearing when a car hit her, she is transported to that place. Katie begins to get the hang of transporting herself and travels to see her family and friends as they deal with her death, but she is still left wondering, if this is all there is?

Katie get an idea to travel to a convalescent hospital to be near another human when they die and she discovers that the afterlife is different for everyone. Katie learns that she can travel to different afterlife realms and soon she is gathering pieces of the puzzle to understand the meaning of her own death.

LIKE– Jones fills A Thousand Rooms with so much creativity that I kept turning the page to see what was coming next. I couldn’t anticipate where Jones was taking her story, which kept it compelling. She weaves folklore and concepts from various religions into the different rooms/realms that Katie visits. I love the idea that the afterlife can be such an individualized experience. One of my favorite small twists is when Katie thinks she is witnessing a death, but it turns out to be a conception. It’s a joyful moment. Also joyful, are the scenes when Katie is reconnecting with her grandfather in their heaven. It’s a wonderful balance after the somber scenes of Katie watching her family on earth grieving.

DISLIKE– Katie felt flat. I could easily go along with her story because it was so unexpected, but I had difficulty both imagining her physically and going along with her emotional journey. When I felt emotion, it was situational, rather than because I was connected to the protagonist. For example, having experienced profound grief, I felt emotions while reading about her parents and friends in grief, but not for the loss of Katie specifically. When Katie connects with Jason, I didn’t feel the emotions. I like the concept of their relationship and how they are kept apart, but I didn’t bond with either character.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. A Thousand Rooms is a quick read and I liked the concept of Jones’ story. My lack of connection to the characters hold me back from fully recommending A Thousand Rooms. 

Living the Dream

9780349008981

 

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.

The Other New Girl

cover116814-medium

 

Thank you to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of L.B. Gschwandtner’s novel, The Other New Girl, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Susannah Greenwood is one of two girls starting at a Quaker boarding school in their sophomore year. Susannah joins the swim team and is quickly accepted by the popular group of girls. The other new girl, Moll, doesn’t have an easy time. She quiet and simply different than the other students. Susannah tries to befriend Moll, but a series of events leads to disaster.

LIKE- I’ve always been drawn to stories that take place in boarding schools. I didn’t attend a boarding school and I didn’t even go to summer camp, so the idea of kids living away from their parents is somewhat romanticized in my mind. Additionally, I’m drawn to stories about religion. I didn’t know much about the Quaker faith and I found that aspect of Gschwandtner’s novel to be fascinating. In fact, I wish she had dove deeper into it.

The Other New Girl is written from the perspective of an adult Susannah who runs into an old classmate which sends her down the rabbit hole of reflecting on a terrible thing that happened in high school. There are themes of guilt and regret. The teenage Susannah is placed in an incredibly difficult position and she is shaken to the core by what happens around her, things that were set into motion by her and that quickly spiral out of control. The Other New Girl is about the domino affect of actions and how your life can be impacted negatively, even when you have the best intentions.

DISLIKE– I found it difficult to connect with Susannah. I can’t pinpoint it, but there was something about Gschwandtner’s writing that made me feel distant from the protagonist. Although I found the story compelling, this lack of connection with Susannah hampered my ability to emotionally connect with The Other New Girl.

I recently read an article ( unfortunately, I can’t remember the source, but it was in one of my writing magazines) that mentioned the 1960’s as being an over-used era for coming of age novels. The Other New Girl takes place in the late 50’s/early 60’s and it does have many of the cliche historical/social references of the era. If I hadn’t read this article, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it one way or the other, but since I did, I wondered how different and perhaps more potent this story would have been, had it been set in a different era?

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Although I couldn’t connect with the protagonist, I still was compelled to read The Other New Girl. It’s a quick read and Gschwandtner hit on subjects that interested me. Also, I did a quick scan of reviews and other readers are loving this book. I think I’m an outlier with my dislikes.

The Best Kind of People

cover111828-medium

 

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Zoe Whittall’s novel, The Best Kind of People, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Avalon Hills, an affluent suburb in Connecticut, is rocked when beloved high school teacher George Woodbury is accused of sexual misconduct with several students. While George is in prison awaiting trial, his family must deal with the fallout. They find themselves unsure of his innocence, yet in the position of defending him and themselves, against a very angry town.

LIKE- The Best Kind of People isn’t so much about George or his trial; it’s about how his family experiences the trauma of having a loved one accused. It’s about how they process whether or not to believe him and what that means for their family moving forward. This is not a crime or legal novel, this is a family drama.

When a tragedy or crime happens, I do always wonder about the families of the accused. Depending on the crime, it sometimes seems like they are automatically judged as guilty alongside the actual accused. Joan, George’s wife, experiences this when people in town don’t understand how she could have been unaware of her husband’s transgressions. Joan works as a nurse and is highly regarded by her colleagues and patients, yet she feels that she has to take a leave of absence from her job and hide from the people in her town, as they harass her; throwing eggs at her car and leave threatening messages on her answering machine. When she does build up the courage to return to work, she has support from some of her colleagues, but gets the cold shoulder from others. She is guilty by association.

Also guilty by association are George’s children. His daughter, Sadie, still attends the high school where her father taught and is forced to interact with the girls who have accused her father of misconduct. His son Andrew, is now a lawyer living in New York, but he finds that small town gossip from the past comes back to haunt him. As far as the town and the media are concerned, the entire Woodbury family is fair game. Adding to the drama is Kevin, who is dating the mom of Sadie’s boyfriend. Kevin is a novelist who hasn’t had a hit in over a decade and he decides to use his proximity to the Woodbury family to cash-in by using their story as the basis for his latest manuscript.

Whittall has a talent for create fascinating characters who react in diverse ways to adversity. I like how she focused her story on the family members, rather than George or his legal problem. Her characters each react in surprising, yet organic ways that make for a compelling read. Although many readers have probably not been in this specific situation ( I hope not), I think most people will find areas to which they can relate. If not, I think this story will make readers more compassionate, especially when it’s so easy to engage in gossip or judgement.

I didn’t know much about the story going in and I actually thought I was reading a true story for the first few chapters. It felt real, rather than fiction. I was engaged immediately.

DISLIKE– I’m still contemplating the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but I expect that I’m not the only reader that will have trouble with the ending. I think it’s probably very realistic, but it’s also incredibly frustrating. I actually gave a rather mournful “NO!” outloud when I read the last line.

In general, The Best Kind of People is a very heavy read. This isn’t a negative, it is what it needs to be for the story, but I also felt that it affected me personally. I found myself feeling low energy and negative on the days I was reading The Best Kind of People. Whittall’s writing and story had a noticeable affect on me.

RECOMMEND– Yes. The Best Kind of People is a shocking and affecting story. Whittall has crafted emotionally rich characters that are placed in a desperate situation. I will not soon forget this story.

P.S. From Paris

cover109341-medium

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.

Mrs. Fletcher

cover110321-medium

 

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

cover109724-medium

 

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

cover108319-medium

 

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.

Hello, Sunshine

cover109421-medium

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.