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.

Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister

cover113654-medium

 

Thank You to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of Teresa Sullivan’s memoir, Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – In her memoir, Mikey and Me: Life with my Exceptional Sister, Teresa Sullivan recounts growing up with her older sister, Micky, who is blind, non-verbal, and has brain damage. Although her entire family loves Mikey immensely and they do everything possible to make Mikey’s life better, caring for Mikey takes a toll on everyone. Sullivan’s memoir explores the impact of Mikey and how having a special needs sibling shaped her life.

LIKE – I couldn’t put Sullivan’s memoir down and I read it in one sitting. The specifics of Sullivan’s story and her willingness to share her life in a raw, honest manner, made her memoir a page-turner. I just kept reading, because I had to know if Mikey and the rest of her family were going to be okay. It’s an intense and uncertain read.

Although they try their best to keep Mikey at home, an incident occurs where the courts get involved and Mikey is placed into a facility against her families wishes. They visit her at every opportunity, including visits where she is allowed to come home for the weekend, but Mikey’s placement in a facility forever changes Sullivan’s family. A piece is missing without Mikey and they all feel guilt in their inability to protect her, especially when they discover that she is being abused in the system. Sullivan turns to drugs and wild behavior in her teen years, her mother gambles and has an affair, and her father turns to alcohol. The entire family dynamic breaks down. It’s heartbreaking, especially the horrific abuse Mikey suffers.

Mikey and Me made me feel shattered. I finished it last week and couldn’t manage to write the review until today, because I’m still deeply affected and upset by what I read.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The subject matter is tough to read, but Sullivan has written a beautiful tribute to her sister. There is so much love that she has for Mikey.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Mikey and Me is a devastating memoir, but also an important one. Although, as a society we have come a long way in understanding and integrating people with special needs ( especially during the 60’s/70’s where a bulk of Sullivan’s memoir takes place), there is much more than should be done. Sullivan shares not only her experiences with her sister, but she speaks for other families with loved ones who have special needs. She speaks to a need for not only showing compassion and protecting, but to also inclusion for vulnerable members of our society. She also speaks for siblings, who often transition into a caregiving role as their parent’s age and pass away. This is an important memoir.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death

cover110388-medium

 

Thank you to Scribner for providing me with an advance copy of John Bateson’s book, The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– John Bateson explores the career of coroner Ken Holmes, who worked for California’s Marin County Coroner’s Office for over thirty-six years.

LIKE– Death and the business of it is fascinating. My aunt’s first husband was a coroner in Los Angeles County and although I didn’t know him, I heard of stories from his career via my aunt. Those stories are a big reason that I was drawn to The Education of a Coroner.

Bateson explores many of the cases that Holmes worked on during his career, including tough cases to crack and those that remain unsolved. Included are celebrity cases, suicide jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge, and even a case involving a cult. The Education of a Coroner is not gratuitous, but it does include details of death, which can be gory. I know that some readers would not be able to handle the details. They will definitely live in your mind for awhile. Bateson covers all areas of the job, including crime scene protocol, autopsies, trials, and behind the scenes office work. I learned that in many counties, the coroner is an elected position. It should probably worry the general public that in some parts of the country, the coroner is not even required to have any medical experience. With basically zero experience, anyone could be a coroner, even if they shouldn’t be. It’s scary.

Some of the cases were fascinating, especially the way that Holmes worked with the evidence to eventually solve a crime. Truly, no two cases were alike. I appreciate that the book touches on the sensitive subject of how Holmes spoke to the families of the deceased. I can appreciate that the job of a coroner is someone who wears many hats and speaking with loved ones must be among the toughest parts of the job; certainly not something that everyone would be able to handle.

DISLIKE– The pacing was occasionally sluggish, which I attribute to my unequal interested in all of the cases. Perhaps Bateson included too many cases, as not all were equally interesting or impactful. Less could have been more.

RECOMMEND– If your curious about the job of a coroner and if you like reading about various cases, then I highly recommend Bateson’s The Education of a Coroner. It’s not for the squeamish, but if you can stomach it, it’s an important look into a profession that greatly impacts our society.

Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares

 

cover113783-medium

Thank you to She Writes Press for providing me with an advance copy of Sherry Stanfa-Stanley’s Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– When Sherry Stanfa-Stanley turned fifty-two, she decided to challenge herself by facing fifty-two activities that would take her outside of her comfort zone. Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truth and Dares documents Stanfa-Stanley’s quest to seek adventure and push her boundaries.

LIKE– Stanfa-Stanley is funny and relatable. It’s easy to root for her as she overcomes personal obstacles, like conquering her fear of heights by going zip lining and riding in a hot air balloon. I think it helps that Stanfa-Stanley is a rather normal person chasing her dreams. She’s middle-aged and not in peak shape, yet she attempts adventures. She doesn’t have a large budget for her ideas and no one is financially backing her, another element that will make readers feel empowered: If Stanfa-Stanley can achieve her goals, so can you. Get off that couch!

My favorite challenge was when Stanfa-Stanley threw a party for strangers. She asked her friends to invite someone that they knew, but someone that she had not previously met to a party that Stanfa-Stanley was hosting. The friends were not invited, only the strangers. This meant that Stanfa-Stanley was hosting a party and didn’t know who was going to knock at her door and none of the other people, knew each other. It was a grand experiment that was a huge success. I absolutely love the idea of a strangers party, especially how it lent itself to diversity in the participants. Although it happened that only women showed up ( men were invited), the women were different ages and from a variety of backgrounds. I think this is a marvelous idea for expanding your social circle. It was heart warming to learn that many of the women stayed in touch,

DISLIKE- Previous to Finding My Badass Self, I had not heard of Stanfa-Stanley. I now know that she has a blog in which readers can follow her adventures. Finding My Badass Self reads like a compilation of blog entries, which I think it might have been. I question the necessity of turning the blog entries into a book. If I was following her blog, it would be delightful to read a few entries at a time and catch up with her life, but as a book, it was tedious. I think a fix would have been to change the format and provide more introspection before moving to the next challenge. There needed to be a bridge between the entries. Not all of the challenges were equally interesting or inspiring, which also contributed to the uneven pacing.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. I’d definitely recommend checking out Stanfa-Stanley’s blog. She’s humorous and you might find the inspiration to chase one of your own dreams. I’m just not sure that Finding My Badass Self is a better recommendation than just checking out her blog.

Emma in the Night

cover113221-medium

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sour Heart: Stories

cover108712-medium

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Fletcher

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!

See What I Have Done

cover103536-medium

 

Thank You to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an advance copy of Sarah Schmidt’s novel, See What I Have Done, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTSee What I Have Done is Sarah Schmidt’s historical fiction retelling of the infamous Lizzie Borden case. Schmidt alternates between the narration of Lizzie, Emma Borden (Lizzie’s older sister), Bridget ( a disgruntled Irish housekeeper), and Benjamin ( a stranger hired by Lizzie’s uncle to intimidate and possibly kill Andrew Borden). Although Lizzie was arrested, tried, and eventually acquitted of killing her father and stepmother, was she the one with the best motive? Who was really guilty in this still unsolved case?

LIKE- I love both true crime and historical fiction, so I was eager to read Schmidt’s See What I Have Done. Like most people, I’ve heard of the Lizzie Borden story and I know the gruesome school-yard rhyme about her whacking her parents with an axe, however while reading this novel, I realized that I didn’t know much about Borden or her family history. For example, I always thought this took place on a farm, but although Andrew Borden had an interest in farming, they were not primarily farmers. The Borden family was wealthy and Lizzie had even been sent on a “Grand Tour” to Europe. I suppose the fact that they were a prominent family, made this case all the more shocking.

I liked how Schmidt focused on the sister dynamic between Lizzie and Emma. It’s fraught with tension, jealousy, and even fear. I found it interesting that after such a close relationship, even sharing a house after Lizzie was released from jail, that they became estranged. This twist leads me to believe that Emma felt that her sister likely committed the murder and perhaps felt nervous for her own safety. Schmidt writes Lizzie as someone calculating and unstable. Although other people had motive to murder the Bordens, it seems like Lizzie is the most likely culprit.

Schmidt’s writing style is effortless to read. She is masterful at setting scenes and using rich sensory images. It’s quite gruesome when she gets to the details of the murder, specifically the carnage.

DISLIKE– Schmidt overlaps many of the plot points to show a different view with a switch in character perspective, and although this is often effective, it can also feel repetitive. I wish there had been more on the actual trial and Lizzie’s perspective when she was in jail. These are minor complaints though, because overall, I was captivated by Schmidt’s novel.

RECOMMEND – Yes, especially for true crime and historical fiction fans. If you even have the slightest interest in Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done is a must read.

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.