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.

Then She Was Gone

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s novel, Then She Was Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-Ellie Mack is a beautiful, smart, popular teenager, who seems to have everything going for her. One day, on her way to the library, she disappears and her case goes cold. A decade later. Ellie’s mother, Laurel, begins to date a man named Floyd, whose daughter, Poppy, bears a striking resemblance to Ellie. Laurel begins to revisit her daughter’s disappearance and discovers new facts of the case. Can Laurel finally find out what happened to daughter? Does Poppy hold the key?

LIKE-I’ve read several of Lisa Jewell’s other novels and I was very excited to be granted a copy of Then She Was Gone. Jewell is masterful at crafting great suspense and mysteries. However, where she really shines is with her characters. She has a gift at tapping into the human psyche and creating relatable, multi-deminisional characters.

Characters are what shine in Then She Was Gone. I was most drawn to Laurel, the grieving mother who not only lost her daughter, but also saw her marriage collapse under the weight of a missing child. Laurel is just getting her life back together when she meets Floyd and is shoved back down the rabbit hole of her daughter’s case. Her anxiety and grief is palpable.

We do not learn Ellie’s fate until late in the story, but she is the narrator in some of the flashback chapters. Of course as a reader, our bond with Ellie is not going to be strong, like her mother’s, however these chapters do serve to give us a clearer picture of Ellie and give us a chance to connect with her. Jewell is equally great at writing adults and children, letting us see Ellie’s frame of mind and motivations.

Then She Was Goneheads to some very dark places and is a story that made me anxious. I saw a blurb comparing it to Gone Girl, which was a little misleading. When I think of comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, I think that the story must have an unreliable narrator. Then She Was Gonehas narrators under duress, but they are not unreliable. I read another that compared it to Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones,which is a much better comparison with regard to both theme and tone.

DISLIKE– I anticipated the twist early on and kept hoping that it would not be what I was expecting. It’s not that the story wasn’t intriguing, but it’s always a little bit of a let down when you manage to figure out the twist early on. I did not anticipate the creepy, disturbing aspects of the twist. It gave me chills.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Jewell is such a marvelous writer that I have to recommend all of her novels, including Then She Was Gone.

Not That I Could Tell

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of Jessica Strawser’s novel, Not That I Could Tell,in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Yellow Springs, an idyllic suburb in Ohio, is rocked to its core when Kristen and her two young twins, go missing. Kristen is in the middle of a divorce and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Paul, is devastated by their disappearance. He had been living in an apartment, but he moves back into the house that he shared with Kristen during the investigation. Not everyone in the neighborhood is convinced that Paul, a respected doctor, is as innocent as he appears. The neighbors try to figure out what has happened to their dear friend. Can the police or Kristen’s friends solve the mystery before something else goes wrong?

LIKE– I loved Desperate Housewives and although Not That I Could Tell is quite a bit more serious, it had shades of the show. In particular, it had similarities with the various personalities in the neighborhood and mystery element of the story. Also, how sprinkled throughout the novel are short chapters written by Kristen, which reminded me of Desperate Housewives narrator, Mary Alice.

I liked the mystery elements of the story. Strawser does a great job at building the suspense, especially when she builds to the climatic moment in the story. I was gripped and glued to the page.

I loved the character of Hallie, a neighborhood pre-teen, who takes it upon herself to be a amateur sleuth. I wasn’t quite sure how her story arc would play-out and it was a wonderful surprise. She adds a lot of conflict to the story, sending it in a wild direction.

The magic in Not That I Could Tell is in the friendships between the women. Strawser has vividly imagined her neighborhood and its inhabitants. I appreciate that she included Izzy, a single woman without children. Izzy is in a different place in her life, but she easily finds friendship with her neighbors. Not That I Could Tell celebrates all types of families and relationships.

DISLIKE– The ultimate outcome of the story was predictable. I appreciate that Strawser tackles a difficult and sensitive subject matter with care, but I was hoping for a more unexpected ending. I think with the way that Strawser peppered the narrative with Kristen’s chapters, I was hoping for a Gone Girl-esque twist that never arrived.

RECOMMEND– Yes! Not That I Could Tellis a solid page-turn that speaks to an important issue. You’ll love the neighborhood and friendships that Strawser has created.

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.

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.