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.

A Terrible Country

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Thank You to Viking for providing me with a copy of Keith Gessen’s novel, A Terrible Country, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Andrei immigrated from Russia to the United States as a child and now in his early thirties, is a Russian Scholar. He’s struggling to find steady employment and to make his mark in academia, so when his brother calls on him to return to Moscow to care for their elderly grandmother, Andrei decides to go. Beyond caring for a grandmother whom he loves, he hopes that being in Russia will revive his career. Andrei is not prepared for the culture shock that he will encounter in his homeland. It teaches him that being born in a place and learning about it in books, is not the same as day-to-day living.

LIKE– Initially, I was drawn to Gessen’s novel by theme of caregiving. Like Andrei, I’ve been in the position of being caregiver and I could relate to both his frustrations and the joy from this precious time spent with a loved one. Andrei’s relationship with his grandmother, Baba Seva, is one of pure love and devotion. He gives her his all, even when he is struggling financially or is feeling doubtful about his own future. The best parts of A Terrible Country are the scenes between Andrei and Baba Seva. She has dementia and her confusion is heartbreaking.

I’m fairly familiar with famous Russian literature, but I don’t have a wide understanding of Russian history or what a modern Russia looks like. Gessen’s novel gave me a glimpse into Russia: the daily life in a major city and the culture. The title of the book is a refrain through-out the story, even Baba Seva tells Andrei that Russia is “A Terrible Country” urging him to leave, as she refuses to do so herself. This sentiment is multi-faceted. In the most simplistic sense, it is terrible because of the wealth disparity, the crime, and corruption. Andrei realizes that he has had it very easy in America. On the flip-side, this is the place of his birth, the place where he still has family. He feels a strong pull towards Russia. Andrei also manages to make friends during his year in Russia, including a girlfriend. He comes to see the beauty beyond the frustrations and he embraces Russia; warts and all. Russia is no longer a memory from his childhood or a mythology patched together from text books, but a place that is part of his soul. He has developed a strong bond with this terrible country.

DISLIKEA Terrible Country was uneven in keeping my interest. It took me several weeks to read. I suspect this was due to the heavy themes and slice-of-life style, but I kept reading it in spurts, a few chapters at a time and setting it aside in favor of other books. It wasn’t that I was disinterested, I just found the story world to be a place that I didn’t want remain for an extended stay.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Gessen is a talented writer and A Terrible Country is great for readers who want a deeper look at modern day Russia. It compels me to seek out non-fiction books on the subject.

Sweetbitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fly Me

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Thank You to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advance copy of Daniel Riley’s novel, Fly Me, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– The year is 1972, Suzy Whitman has just graduated from a prestigious college and is planning her next move. Grace, her older sister, is loving her life working as a stewardess and  living in the beach community of Sela Del Mar. Suzy decides to join her sister in California and applies to be a stewardess at Grand Pacific Airlines. At first, her new career and city seem exciting and glamorous, but then she meets Billy. Billy is charming, slick, and a drug dealer. He tricks Suzy into trafficking drugs on her flights to New York. Quickly, Suzy finds herself caught up in a world that she never asked to be a part of and one that she is finding it increasingly difficult to leave. Can she get out before she gets caught?

LIKE– The strongest aspect of Fly Me is the setting. Riley has clearly done his research to recreate the era when commercial air travel was still glamorous. As we now live in a time where flying is a necessarily evil, rather than a pleasure, there is a longing for the way thing used to be. This evident with television shows like Pan Am and attractions like The Pan Am Experience in Los Angeles, where you can experience a vintage mock flight, that includes menus of the era. Riley has written a glimpse into that world. Additionally, I’m from Los Angeles, so I loved the local references and beach city setting. Fly Me is rich with historical and geographical details.

The ending is outrageous and not necessarily believable, but I was happy that Riley tied together some seeds that he had been planting throughout the story. I had been worried that certain elements wouldn’t pay-off, but they did.

The title is great, it’s a play on a vintage aviation advertisement for National Airlines. It’s a sexist ad, but something straight from the era. Suzy is a strong female character, who bucks tradition, and when she is asked to participate in the campaign, she’s appropriately appalled.

DISLIKE– I felt a lack of urgency, even though Suzy is experiencing issues (might be caught trafficking, father with cancer, et) that should create a natural tension in the story. Even thought situationally, the stakes are sky-high, I never felt that Suzy was overly worried. I just watched an episode of Better Call Saul, where there was a scene with a lower-level drug dealer who has stolen his bosses pills and has replaced the medication with aspirin. The scene in which he has to make the switch with the pills was so intense that my stomach knotted up. It was hard to watch. The tension in Fly Me, should have been like this scene.

I didn’t understand the relationship between Suzy and Billy. They hang-out a lot, even though he is slimy and continues to put her in a dangerous situation. He isn’t quite charming or attractive enough for that to be a solid reason for Suzy to keep coming back. For goodness sakes, he’s an adult who lives in his parent’s basement!

RECOMMEND- Riley is a solid writer and this story is well-researched, but I didn’t love Fly Me. I’d be inclined to check-out Riley’s future novels, but unless you’re very interested in the era or aviation, I can’t recommend this book.

Perennials

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Mandy Berman’s debut novel, Perennials, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Located in the Connecticut countryside, Camp Marigold, has impacted lives for generations. Fiona Larkin’s parents met at Camp Marigold and now, she is the next generation making summertime memories. When she’s nine, Fiona, who is from a privileged family, meets Rachel, who is being raised by a single-mom in New York City. Although they are from different backgrounds, the girls develop a deep friendship. When the girls are in college, they return to Camp Marigold to work as summer counselors and this one summer will dramatically alter the course of their lives.

LIKE– I loved Perennials. I was hooked from the first page and I tore through the novel in one day. I could not put it down. Perennials attracted me in several ways.

First, I never attended summer camp, but I desperately wanted to as a child. Summer camp is one of those things that I have romanticized based on friends talking about their own camp experiences and books like Perennials. I feel like I missed out on a quintessential American childhood experience, which attracts me to books on the subject. Perennials is not simply about camp, but it is about romanticizing the experience and that sense of nostalgia that keeps parents sending their children to camp. Perennials is about the ephemeral nature of growing up, where a summer truly is just a summer. Kids returning to camp can’t hold on to the exact recipe that made the previous summer so great, because they too have changed.

Second, Berman has created memorable characters. One of the most memorable is Rachel’s mother, Denise. On the surface, Denise seems very scattered. In her twenties Denise was working as a secretary in a lawfirm and had an affair with a married, older lawyer; Rachel is the product of that relationship. Denise and Rachel have been a secret, second family for Rachel’s father. When she finally realizes that he will never leave his wife, Denise only accepts money for her daughter and struggles to support them in a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Although in many ways, Denise seems like a mess: she drinks, constantly smokes, and racks up speeding tickets, but beneath her rough exterior, she is fiercely protective of her daughter. Watching her character reveal itself through the course of the novel was a beautiful story arc and just one example of Berman’s talent for character development.

Third, Perennials has a shocking and affecting twist. I could not have predicted the ending and it knocked me sideways, leaving a lasting impression. Have Kleenex handy.

DISLIKE– This is so minor, but I found the storyline between Nell and Mo to be less engaging than those of the other characters. However, I think their perspective did add another layer to the story.

RECOMMEND– Yes!!! Berman is a gifted writer and I can’t wait to read her next novel. I hope it’s released soon. Perennials is a heartfelt story with rich characters and thought-provoking themes.