STAFF PICK: The Farm

Title: The Farm
Author: Joanne Ramos
Narrator: Fran De Leon

They say “Never judge a book by its cover, but the striking cover of The Farm, is what initially drew me to it. Seeing the title of the book, and the baby bumps on the front page, it reminded me of the themes in The Handmaid’s Tale (a personal favorite!). But this is not set in a dystopian future, nor under a totalitarian government – it’s set in New York state, in current times. This does not make it any less chilling – because to me, there is nothing more frightening than something that could already be happening.

If you’re a fan of Black Mirror, The Farm has a very similar vibe, and addresses cultural themes like capitalism, technology, racism, social inequality, and poverty. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it focuses in on the women in the story, and defies conventions about motherhood, but in a more modern, and less dystopian manner.

The majority of the story is set in Golden Oaks, a sumptuous retreat in New York state, which boasts every amenity of an expensive spa: organic meals, private fitness trainers, and daily massages, and you get paid for the privilege! So what’s the catch?

If you didn’t know the purpose of Golden Oaks, you would assume it was just another getaway for the ultra-rich. However, it is anything but. Golden Oaks is surrogacy taken to the extreme – an expensive baby farm, where the ultra-rich delegate their pregnancy to a group of mostly poor, desperate, immigrant women. The babies they produce need to be perfect. And a premium is paid to the “hosts” for keeping to the rules.

The main character, Jane, is an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother. At first, she is excited to have made it through the highly competitive Host selection process at the Farm. Separated from her daughter and forced to endure a life controlled and manipulated by Farm management, Jane soon realizes her retreat at Golden Oaks is not the sweet deal she once thought it would be. Jane and the other female characters begin to discover that there is something amiss at the Farm, and that the rules cannot be broken without dire consequences for the hosts.

I truly LOVED this book. If you like a bit of politics in your literature, this is definitely for you. At no time are the characters forced to join the Farm, but their social circumstances (poverty, freedom from controlling family, etc) make them feel like they have no choice. My heart ached when Jane is separated from Amalia, and the commodification of motherhood really made me feel uneasy. I loved that all of the supporting characters are women, and come from a variety of backgrounds. Mae, the Farm’s Director, is ruthless and smart. Reagan, a “premium host”, is awkward and idealistic. Lisa is the feisty rebel who tries to overthrow the farm’s control, but mostly for her own benefit, and Ate is a strong, older Filipina woman who is a mother figure to so many of the women, Jane included.

There are a number of twists and turns throughout the novel, and it’s one of those listens that stays with you long after you finish it. Fran De Leon’s narration is amazing, and perfect for this listen. Like Joanne Ramos, De Leon lived her early years in the Philippines, and since there are many Filipina characters in the novel, her knowledge of the culture and accents make for a much more authentic listen.

Publishers Summary: 

Nestled in New York’s Hudson Valley is a luxury retreat boasting every amenity: organic meals, personal fitness trainers, daily massages—and all of it for free. In fact, you’re paid big money to stay here—more than you’ve ever dreamed of. The catch? For nine months, you cannot leave the grounds, your movements are monitored, and you are cut off from your former life while you dedicate yourself to the task of producing the perfect baby. For someone else.

Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines, is in desperate search of a better future when she commits to being a “Host” at Golden Oaks—or the Farm, as residents call it. But now pregnant, fragile, consumed with worry for her family, Jane is determined to reconnect with her life outside. Yet she cannot leave the Farm or she will lose the life-changing fee she’ll receive on the delivery of her child.

Gripping, provocative, heartbreaking, The Farm pushes to the extremes our thinking on motherhood, money, and merit and raises crucial questions about the trade-offs women will make to fortify their futures and the futures of those they love.

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BACKLIST BUMP: The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

Title: The Book of M
Author: Peng Shepherd
Narrators: Emily Woo ZellerJames Fouhey

Every year, twice a year, everyone and everything between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn loses their shadows. For a few brief moments, the sun shines directly overhead in that area, and everyone’s shadows shrink ever and ever smaller until they magically disappear. The shadows always return, of course, after which everyone goes about their lives. Until, one day, in a marketplace in India, a man named Hemu Joshi inexplicably loses his shadow forever.

He becomes a global sensation, strutting about without his dark companion. Doctors and scientists are baffled; news outlets are enraptured. It seems like a miracle until Hemu begins to lose his memories—and then, as the consequences of his memory loss become apparent, horror ensues. Before long, others begin to lose their shadows, forgetting themselves and their realities, collapsing the world as we know it. And so, the story begins.

In the aftermath of the Forgetting, Orlando “Ory” Zhang and his wife Max have taken refuge in the hotel they had been staying in for a wedding when the Forgetting reached the United States. When Max loses her shadow, she quietly slips away while Ory is out scavenging to spare him the pain and anguish that will inevitably follow.

The story unfolds as Ory embarks on a desperate journey across an unrecognizable United States to find Max before she forgets completely. The opening chapter is a powerful emotional hook, compelling and tender with just the right amount of exposition—by far one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.

The Book of M straddles the line between science fiction and romance, and Peng Shepherd is an expert at threading tender, human connections through a world that is wholly new, disturbing, and at times nonsensical. As the inescapable shadowless disease spreads and reality becomes unhinged, listeners are anchored by Ory and Max’s bond, which is a steadfast, comforting force that propels the story through strange and frightening terrain.

James Fouhey is a transformative narrator, bringing to life three out of four characters through whom the story is told: Ory Zhang; Mahnaz Ahmadi, an Iranian athlete training in the USA; and The One Who Gathers, a mysterious individual with a unique understanding of memory. Rounding out the cast is Emily Woo Zeller as Max, whose poignant, heartbreaking performance is an absolute standout.

Clocking in at just over 17 hours, The Book of M isn’t exactly a short listen, but Shepherd makes every second of it necessary and meaningful. With plenty of post-apocalyptic intrigue and lyrical prose, Shepherd’s stunning dystopian debut manages to be innovative and extraordinary in a genre that is inundated with repetitive stories. Capped off with an ending that will pull the rug out from under your feet, The Book of M is a novel that you’ll want to treasure in your memory for a very long time.

Publisher’s Summary:

One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears—an occurrence science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, it comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.

Ory and his wife Max have escaped the Forgetting so far by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods. Their new life feels almost normal, until one day Max’s shadow disappears too.

Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to Ory, Max runs away. But Ory refuses to give up the time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, he follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged on the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.

As they journey, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.

Like The Passage and Station Eleven, this haunting, thought-provoking, and beautiful novel explores fundamental questions of memory, connection, and what it means to be human in a world turned upside down.

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