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.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, in exchange for an honest review.

Cambridge economics professor, Dr. Chandrasekhar aka “Charles,” is having a mid-life crisis. He has, once again, been forced to face the crushing disappointment and indignity of having been passed over for a Nobel Prize. This wouldn’t be so terrible, if in pursuit of his career, he hadn’t sacrificed personal happiness and developing relationships with his family. He is divorced from his wife Jean, who has remarried and moved from England to Colorado with their teenage daughter, Jasmine. Jasmine is acting out and getting into major trouble, including experimenting with drugs. Charles cannot relate to his older children. His son, Sunny, is a successful entrepreneur and is so consumed with his business, that he has little time for his family. After a major ideological disagreement, Charles has not spoken to his eldest daughter, Radha, in years and doesn’t even know where she is living.

After experiencing a major health scare, Charles takes a break from teaching at Cambridge and travels to the United States. He begins to reconnect with Jasmine, Jean, and Jean’s new husband. It’s an odd family dynamic, but not without love and concern. Charles begins to realize that he needs to change his outlook and to begin to focus on deepening his relationships, both to help himself and his children.

Balasubramanyam has a strong writer’s voice, which he uses effectively to set the tone of both the story and especially Charles. The opening chapters introduce us to Charles, who is quite a difficult person, someone who delights in both being a curmudgeon and destroying others. It’s humorous, even though the reader is keenly aware that Charles is a very unhappy person. It also sets us up for his transformation. Charles makes a lot of mistakes, but he is the perfect character to undergo a massive transformation and we root for him to succeed.

I really loved the relationship between Jasmine and Charles. Jasmine’s troubles are generally those of a confused and angry teenager, but we soon see that her acting out and experimentation is taking her down a dark path. Drug addition or perhaps consequences of spending time with unsavory people, are looming on her horizon. Charles is devastated that this is happening to his daughter and initially he feels quite helpless. However, he is struck with the idea that Jasmine can be sent to a monastery to live with a woman that he met at his yoga retreat. Charles shifts from being a very self-involved character, to someone who begins to think of others, starting with his beloved youngest daughter. Previous to his experience at the yoga retreat, Charles would never have suggested this for his daughter, but through his personal enlightenment, he can now help her. I was taken with the novel’s themes of balancing self-reliance with building relationships. You can’t help others without fixing yourself, but fixing yourself means little, if you can’t experience deep relationships with other people.

Generally, I found the story to be fast-paced, although it lost a little steam in the middle. I think it’s because although it was very important to the character arc for Charles to discover himself at the yoga retreat, this aspect was less interesting than that of his repairing the relationship with his family. I thought it was interesting that Charles is not necessarily enlightened after the yoga retreat. It helps him on his way, but it is only a stepping stone towards the bliss he finds from connecting with his family. I like that the book wraps on a hopeful note, yet not unrealistic or completely perfect. Charles and his family members, still have a lot to learn, but they have made great strides.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss is an uplifting redemption story that begs readers to reflection on their own lives. Balasubramanyam is a talented writer and I recommend Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss.

The Dreamers

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Karen Thompson Walker’s novel, The Dreamers, in exchange for an honest review.

In California, the small college town of Santa Lora has been struck with an unusual and highly infectious disease. Its citizens are falling into a deep sleep, lasting from weeks to over a year. No one knows why it is happening, how to cure it, or how to stop it from spreading. It afflicts all age groups and strikes so suddenly, that those whose bodies go undiscovered, quickly die of dehydration. Karen Thompson Walker’s novel follows several citizens of Santa Lora, who are desperate to keep from becoming infected, as they are stuck within the city limits during a mandatory town quarantine.

The Dreamers is a force of a novel. I could not put it down. I was most struck by the way in which Walker imagined this catastrophic situation, creating a range of scenarios and human emotions. For example, how would a new father trying to protect his newborn react when the two young girls from next door need his help? How would college students, sensing that their lives might soon end, interact when thrown together in an intimate situation? How do two children survive, when their father falls asleep? One character, a college student who is an early victim, takes ill shortly after becoming pregnant. She doesn’t even realize that she is pregnant, yet her baby grows while she is asleep. Even if she survives the disease, how will it affect her baby?

I loved The Dreamers, but I do have a criticism. The story is too short to contain all of the intriguing scenarios that Walker mentions. It’s as if she had too many great ideas and could not flesh them out in the space. For example, little attention is paid to a storyline in which a nursing home patient with memory loss temporarily regains his memory. This whole scenario could be an entire story. It’s fascinating and made even more compelling when we realize the result of this temporary memory issue. I don’t want to give any spoilers, as it is such a great twist with where this character and his spouse go next. Truly, it could have been the plot for another book and I wish that Walker had explored it more deeply. I felt the ending in general was rushed, when we learn about the dreams that the victims had been experiencing. It was so compelling and unexpected, that I wish Walker had expanded on her ideas.My disappointment all stems from wanting more.

The Dreamers is intense and unlike any book that I have read. Walker is an excellent storyteller. Her novel has quick pacing that kept me glued to the book. I read it in a single sitting. She has created characters and scenarios that will easily allow readers to empathize and imagine themselves in a similar situation. The Dreamers is a wonderful pick for book clubs and discussion groups, bringing up ideas of health, public safety, and morality. With the recent measles outbreak and debates over mandatory vaccinations, this is a timely novel.

The Dreamers is one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time and I can’t recommend it enough. I had not previously heard of Walker, but I can’t wait to read her first novel, The Age of Miracles and I look forward to her future works.

I Owe You One

 

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Sophie Kinsella’s novel, I Owe You One, in exchange for an honest review.

Fixie Farr has lived her life always putting her family first. After the passing of her beloved father, Fixie began to help her mother run their family store, which sells everything from small kitchen appliances to wrapping paper. Fixie’s mom has the opportunity to travel throughout Europe with her sister and she decides to leave the store in the capable hands of her three adult children.

Unfortunately, Fixie’s siblings do not share her passion for the family business and they have other ideas on how to improve the store. Fixie’s sister, Nicole, wants to push aside the merchandise to hold Yoga lessons, and her brother, Jake, thinks that the store should become more upscale. To make matters worse, Fixie’s mom has put faith in Uncle Ned to guide her children and he is content to hold business meetings at lavish London restaurants, soaking up profits. No one seems to understand the family store or its loyal customers. Fixie’s mission statement of putting family first is ruining the family business and she must figure out how to communicate with them, without becoming a doormat.

To further complicate her life, Ryan, Fixie’s teenage crush has come back to town. He uses her for sex and a place to crash, but Fixie is so smitten, that she constantly excuses his behavior. Fixie’s love life changes, when she helps a dashing stranger in a coffee shop and sparks fly.

I’ve enjoyed many of Kinsella’s previous novels, including her Shopaholic series, which was turned into a film starring Isla Fischer. While I would not consider her novels to be profound or life-changing, they are entertaining. Her novels are the perfect beach-read. Kinsella always creates memorable, relatable characters and I love getting swept away by her stories. She has a knack for writing humor too.

I Owe You One fits the mold of Kinsella’s previous novels. It’s light-hearted, but not without heart. Kinsella has given Fixie plenty of drama to contend with, including an exceptionally bitchy antagonist in Briony, the ex-girlfriend of Fixie’s romantic interest. I wish Briony has been given a larger role in the story, just because her clash with Fixie is epic.

As someone, who like Fixie, has a high-tolerance for putting up with other people’s bad behavior, I felt a sense of joy, as Fixie grows her courage and begins to push back. I think it’s easy to stay quiet and not make waves, especially when family is concerned, but Fixie figures out how to stand up for herself and fight for her family, without ripping them apart. Family is the biggest theme of the novel, with romance as a secondary theme.

I do not buy into Fixie’s relationship with Seb, the man that she meets in the coffee shop. It’s rushed and awkward. Their chemistry does not leap off of the page. They are an odd match. The family element resonates much stronger, than the romance parts of the story.

If you’re heading on a holiday, I recommend I Owe You One or any other Kinsella novels for a fun vacation read. Her stories are quick-paced, humorous and will often strike an emotional chord.

Lake Success

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Lake Success, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Barry Cohen is a wealthy, NYC hedge-fund manger who is having a super-sized mid-life crisis. His career is about to implode and he is likely facing jail time due to an SEC investigation. He hides his troubles from his younger, beautiful wife, Seema. Seema hides an affair that she is having with a married writer who lives in their building, a man whom her husband despises. They both battle with their emotions over their severely autistic son. Barry’s crisis makes him flee the city, catching a Greyhound bus and traveling cross-country to reconnect with his first love, who has no idea that he is coming. The adventures on his trip will take him as far away from his luxury lifestyle as he could have ever imagined.

LIKELake Success is completely unpredictable, hilarious, and quirky. Barry and Seema are both unlikeable, narcissistic characters, that Shteyngart manages to humanize and make relatable. I started out disgusted with them and slowly began to care for both of them.

Barry’s misadventures on the road are a great blend of being outrageous and uproariously funny, with affecting. As Barry comes out of his shell, meeting people that he would have never interacted with in his NYC life, he begins to change.

In one scene, he wanders into a rough neighborhood and has a conversation with a crack dealer. The wacky part of this scene is Barry is asked to leave, so the dealer can ramp up his act for a tour group of “Urban Tourists” who are interested in seeing a poor, ethnic neighborhood. The drug dealer puts on an act for the tourists, becoming the character that they imagine him to be based on their stereotypes. Barry is like the dealer, in his NYC life he plays the part of an upperclass, financial guy with the perfect wife. His son is hidden most of the time, as is anything that breaks the facade of perfection. A huge part of Barry’s crisis is the burden of trying to maintain this facade.

Seema is also dealing with a similar issue and through her affair she begins to shed her facade of perfection. Trying to maintain this facade has actually destroyed their marriage. They cannot communicate and see it as a failing to not only their son, but to their life in general, if they admit that anything is less than perfect. But the problem actually seems to have existed before their marriage, when they first began to date. Seema had a focus on a type of guy that she wanted to marry and Barry fit the profile. Barry was attracted to Seema’s youth and beauty. They seem to be attracted to the idea of each other, rather than actually to each other. Although Seema’s crisis didn’t take her on a road trip, she experiences a dramatic change in perspective. Her character growth is equal to Barry’s change.

DISLIKE– This is minor, but it did take me about 3-4 chapters to really be gripped by the story. After the slow start, I was hooked. Lake Success has both strong story and character arcs, with a very satisfying pay-off at the end.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! I finished Lake Success in late 2018, but life got in the way, so I am writing this review very late. That said, I cannot stop thinking about Lake Success. It made a huge impression on me. Shteyngart is a fabulous writer who has created a multi-layered story with heart and a lot of wicked humor. I look forward to reading his other works. He’s brilliant!

You Think It, I’ll Say It

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Groupfor providing me with a copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT-You Think It, I’ll Say Itis a collection of short stories from acclaimed novelist, Curtis Sittenfeld.

LIKE– Sittenfeld is one of my favorite modern writers and I was absolutely thrilled to have an opportunity to review her latest book, a collection of short stories.

Sittenfeld doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable and many of her characters toy with emotional bombshells. They exist on the edge, often crossing the line by acting on their impulses.

In the story which provides the inspiration for title of the collection, The World Has Many Butterflies, friends begin to have an emotional affair by playing a strange game: “You Think it, I’ll Say It.” They secretly play this game when they come in contact at parties and their kid’s sporting events. Graham initiates the play by mentioning the title and then Julie begins to tear down the other people in the room, as if she and Graham are conspirators thinking the same thoughts. At first, Julie feels a sense of freedom in speaking as she wishes and saying what’s on her mind, but the game becomes increasingly intimate, as she speaks in a way that she wouldn’t dare reveal to her spouse.

Plausible Deniability plays on a similar theme, with Libby having an emotional affair with her brother-in-law. She feels in her gut that it is crossing the line, but for over a year she continues to send him text messages. At a certain point, they agree to only send one message a day and the message can only be about classical music. Libby sends these incredibly intimate texts about the music she loves. When she becomes pregnant and confronts her brother-in-law regarding this emotional affair and intimacy that they are having, he tries to make it seem like it isn’t a big deal. Libby admits that it is a big deal to her, she thinks about him romantically and even though he is devastated that she wants to cut it off, he won’t admit that they have crossed the line. He is the narrator of the story, so we know that he loves her more than he should and even more devastating, he realizes that his brother doesn’t really love her.

Old memories from high school and college also haunt Sittenfeld’s characters. A Regular Couple, involves two couples on their honeymoon who meet at a resort in the desert. The wives were high school classmates over two decades ago. The narrator, Maggie, is both intimidated and fascinated with Ashley, who was a very popular girl in their high school. Now, Maggie is a successful lawyer and immediately, Ashley mentions having seen Maggie in the news. Maggie and her husband are staying in the most expensive rooms, while Ashley and her much older husband, are staying in cheaper accommodations. Maggie knows she has reaches success in her career and she even has a “trophy husband”- She admits that her husband, Jason, is far more attractive than she is and she constantly worries that Jason, who does not have as successful of a career, is using her for her money. Maggie is insecure and spending time with Ashley turns her into a mess. Although Ashley seems to have nothing but goodwill towards Maggie, Maggie can’t help but try to seek retribution for the way that she was treated in high school.

Do-Over is a perfect story for our political climate. A few decades after they graduated from boarding school, Sylvia looks up her old classmate, Clay and they have dinner. Sylvia and Clay ran against each other in a school campaign and there was a tie vote. The school administrators gave the role to Clay, offering Sylvia a lesser leadership role. Years later, Sylvia, who also happened to have a crush on Clay back in high school, decides to confront him or rather, ambush him. Sylvia, feeling she has nothing to lose, lets Clay know exactly how she feels during a very tense and awkward dinner date.

You Think It, I’ll Say Itis a solid collection and every single story was excellent. No clunkers. I adore Sittenfeld. Her characters engage in cringe-worthy behavior, but their mindset and impulses are always relatable. She understands how people tick and I love to see how her stories play out. She always keeps me guessing and turning the page. Her wicked sense of humor also shines through.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing.

RECOMMEND– YES, YES, YES!!! I recommend You Think It, I’ll Say It and everything else that Sittenfeld has written. I can’t wait to read what she writes next. Sittenfeld is such a talent!

The Best Kind of People

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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.

Sour Heart: Stories

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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.

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.

Who is Rich

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Matthew Klam’s novel, Who is Rich?, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Rich Fischer is a graphic novelist who achieved acclaim early in his career. His success was limited and now, middle-aged, he is trying to get his art career back on track. Rich teaches at a summer retreat, where he looks forward to reconnecting with Amy, a painter with whom he is having an affair. Both Amy and Rich are married with young children and both are unhappy in their relationships. They fantasize about running away from their spouses, but neither is willing to take action. Amy is married to an extremely wealthy businessman and although she is unhappy, she does not want for anything else. Rich is not wealthy, he has the trappings of a middle-class life that he is struggling to maintain paycheck-to-paycheck. He envies Amy’s financial freedom and the success of his peers.  What does it mean to be rich? How does focusing on what you lack make you feel poorer?

LIKE– I liked the concept of Who is Rich?. The themes of envy are very relatable and Rich is a relatable character. I’m not sure that I personally connected to him, but I have people in my life who are similar to Rich. Specifically, I see Rich’s flaws and hang-ups in a few people that I know. I liked the setting of an art retreat, with a large cast of colorful secondary characters. Klam has created a vibrant world and he has fabulous descriptions.

Although I disagree that this story was a comedy, Klam has written some witty phrases and observations that made me crack a smile. There were many times that I paused to admire his writing or even to read aloud a paragraph to feel the pacing.

I liked that Klam used illustrations in his novel. It was a great fit for his protagonist’s profession and the pictures were a fun inclusion.

The title is wonderful play on both the theme and the protagonist’s name.

DISLIKE- On a whole, I didn’t connect with the story. It was sluggish and a chore to read. I actually read several books in-between, rather than reading Who is Rich? straight through. If this had not been a review copy, I likely would not have finished reading it. The story does pick up pace in the last 10% of the book, when Rich has a major moral dilemma regarding a pair of earrings. I wish the stakes/drama had been more intense earlier in the story.

RECOMMEND– No. Who is Rich? was not my cup of tea. That said, I liked Klam’s writing enough that I plan to check-out his previously published short story collection, Sam The Cat. I have a feeling that Klam might really shine in a shorter format.