BOOK REVIEW: LITTLE DISASTERS, BY SARAH VAUGHAN

You think you know her…but look a little closer.

She is a stay-at-home mother-of-three with boundless reserves of patience, energy, and love. After being friends for a decade, this is how Liz sees Jess.

Then one moment changes everything.

Dark thoughts and carefully guarded secrets surface—and Liz is left questioning everything she thought she knew about her friend, and about herself. The truth can’t come soon enough.

 

When  little Betsey Curtis suffers an unexplainable head injury and is hospitalized, questions come from the hospital, the police, and even the people closest to the mother, Jess Curtis. What creates the most doubt is the sense that Jess is hiding something, which is why her story doesn’t add up.

The ER doctor who first saw Betsey is Liz Trenchard, who is a friend of Jess, so she is taken off the case. But she can’t stay completely out of searching for answers, albeit unofficially.

Little Disasters takes us back and forth in time, revealing the ins and outs of the friendships between the characters. As we follow the timelines and the clues, we slowly come to know what happened. But who will be most damaged if the full truth comes out?

As we follow along with Jess’s internal monologue, woven with her dark fears, we also glimpse Liz’s past and something that happened in her childhood. Can anyone be truly exempt from blame when bad things happen?

As we sort through the clues, we soon realize the emotional issues that plague Jess, and even how Liz’s own childhood traumas affect her now.

A sly character adds a menacing layer to the story, and when all is revealed, much can be resolved. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: HE STARTED IT, BY SAMANTHA DOWNING

 

Beth, Portia, and Eddie Morgan haven’t all been together in years. And for very good reasons—we’ll get to those later. But when their wealthy grandfather dies and leaves a cryptic final message in his wake, the siblings and their respective partners must come together for a cross-country road trip to fulfill his final wish and—more importantly—secure their inheritance.

But time with your family can be tough. It is for everyone.

It’s even harder when you’re all keeping secrets and trying to forget a memory, a missing person, an act of revenge, the man in the black truck who won’t stop following your car—and especially when at least one of you is a killer and there’s a body in the trunk. Just to name a few reasons.

But money is a powerful motivator. It is for everyone.


What a road trip we join with the Morgan family in He Started It. The current road trip was one that their grandfather had taken them on years before, and which they are duplicating in order to get their sizable inheritance.

As we join the family in the present, we are offered glimpses into the original road trip, and we know immediately that there are big secrets…from that first trip and from their family lives. Grandpa is not a cuddly old man, and each of the siblings has major flaws and lies they are covering. Whenever something went amiss, they didn’t accept responsibility, because, as they said of Grandpa: “He started it!”

I thought I could guess the conclusion, as Beth, our first-person narrator, keeps us up on how her mind is working through her flashbacks and internal monologue. But is she telling the truth, or is she hiding the biggest secrets of all? And all along, we ask ourselves what is the real meaning of this duplicated trip?

I was stunned as each new revelation gripped me, and the final denouement left me with my mouth hanging open. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: HIS & HERS, BY ALICE FEENEY

 

When a woman is murdered in Blackdown, a quintessentially British village, newsreader Anna Andrews is reluctant to cover the case. Detective Jack Harper is suspicious of her involvement, until he becomes a suspect in his own murder investigation.

Someone isn’t telling the truth, and some secrets are worth killing to keep.

Narrated by alternating characters, His & Hers weaves a tale of darkness, secrets, school bullying, and murder. As we follow the path between the past and the present, we are shown connections that will lead us to the answers.

Anna Andrews tells “her” view of events, while her ex-husband Jack Harper reveals his perspective.

A group of girls that were connected at school, and who were not exactly friends— but frenemies—do not appear to share connections in the present. But then we begin to note how their present-day lives do intersect…when they all begin to turn up as murder victims, one by one.

Who is targeting them? Not knowing who to trust, we muddle along. Just when we begin to figure it out, the author throws a few dramatic curves, and we are biting our nails as we plummet toward the denouement.

An alternate narrative from the killer reveals the details as they unfold, and we finally know the identity of that individual at the very end. I loved trying to guess who did what, and the satisfactory conclusion for my favorite characters left me smiling. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE REQUEST, BY DAVID BELL

Ryan Francis has it all—great job, wonderful wife, beautiful child—and he loves posting photos of his perfect life on social media. Until the night his friend Blake asks him to break into a woman’s home to retrieve incriminating items that implicate Blake in an affair. Ryan refuses to help, but when Blake threatens to reveal Ryan’s darkest secret—which could jeopardize everything in Ryan’s life—Ryan has no choice but to honor Blake’s request.

When he arrives at the woman’s home, Ryan is shocked to find her dead—and just as shocked to realize he knows her. Then his phone chimes, revealing a Facebook friend request from the woman. With police sirens rapidly approaching, Ryan flees, wondering why his friend was setting him up for murder.

Determined to keep his life intact and to clear his name, Ryan must find the real murderer—but solving the crime may lead him closer to home than he ever could have imagined.

 

From the very beginning pages of The Request, we can tell that Ryan is in for some difficult times ahead, and the past is about to come back to haunt his present.

With friends like Blake, who needs enemies? There is so much wrong with Blake’s request and the demands he is making, but Ryan is too caught up in it all to unpack them. The fact of a woman blackmailing him at the same time confuses it all, but definitely kept me turning the pages.

There is something a little off about Amanda, although we can’t pinpoint what is wrong with her, other than possibly being overwhelmed with being home all day every day with a new baby.

Will she figure out the dark secrets Ryan is hiding, and will Ryan be able to deal with Blake’s demands while fending off the blackmailer?

Issues of trust/mistrust and dark secrets combined with technical issues like social media hacking kept me intrigued throughout. A compelling story that was intense and suspenseful. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE HOUSE GUEST, BY MARK EDWARDS

 

When British twenty-somethings Ruth and Adam are offered the chance to spend the summer housesitting in New York, they can’t say no. Young, in love and on the cusp of professional success, they feel as if luck is finally on their side.

So the moment that Eden turns up on the doorstep, drenched from a summer storm, it seems only right to share a bit of that good fortune. Beautiful and charismatic, Eden claims to be a friend of the homeowners, who told her she could stay whenever she was in New York.

They know you’re not supposed to talk to strangers—let alone invite her.

As suspicions creep in that Eden may not be who she claims to be, they begin to wonder if they’ve made a terrible mistake…

As I was drawn into the story of The House Guest, I was leery of almost every character that appeared. Especially Eden. Who could possibly trust anything she said or did?

But as the story leads us along, and as we meet other characters, all of whom seem suspicious and/or nefarious, I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

What would happen to Ruth when she mysteriously disappeared? Who was behind it, and would Adam figure it out, with the help of a mysterious stranger who seemed to be stalking him?

What did the homeowners, Mona and Jack, have to do with what was happening? Was Eden an old friend, or were they, too, involved in the cult-like events that surrounded them all?

I liked trailing along after the characters and the story, trying to decide who was evil and who was good. In the end, we are quickly swept away to a beautiful beach setting…and we think it is all over. But is it? 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE CLOSER YOU GET, BY MARY TORJUSSEN

Coworkers Ruby and Harry are in love—but they’re married to other people. They decide to tell their spouses that their marriages are over and to start a new life together. Ruby has wanted to leave her controlling husband for a while, so she tells him she’s leaving and waits at the hotel where she and Harry are to meet. But Harry never shows up.

Suddenly, Ruby has lost everything. Harry won’t answer her calls, and she’s fired from her job. She finds a cheap apartment in a run-down part of town, all the while wondering what happened to Harry.

Just as Ruby thinks she’s hit rock bottom, strange and menacing things start to happen—someone is sneaking into her apartment, and someone is following her home late at night—and she is going to have to fight for her survival.


Alternating narrators tell the story in The Closer You Get. First, we connect with Ruby’s voice, and then with Emma’s.

Two women trying to move beyond the disappointments in their marriages. Who can they trust? Will they find what they are seeking, or will they realize that there is nothing good to be found in those they turn to?

At first, we believe that Ruby will have her happily-ever-after, but when he seemingly dumps her without a second thought, she almost reconsiders leaving her husband. But he is keeping things from her, and his bullying ways continue, even after she thinks he might have changed.

Emma seems like someone who could be an enemy, but as time goes on, we realize that she has not found what she wanted either. She might be more of a victim than we realize.

Back and forth the story takes us, making us wonder just who these women can trust, and what further secrets will be revealed. Twisty moments that kept us wondering what would happen next led to me awarding this book 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: A PIECE OF THE WORLD, BY CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE

 

To Christina Olson, the entire world was her family’s remote farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine. Born in the home her family had lived in for generations, and increasingly incapacitated by illness, Christina seemed destined for a small life. Instead, for more than twenty years, she was host and inspiration for the artist Andrew Wyeth, and became the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the twentieth century.

As she did in her beloved smash bestseller Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline interweaves fact and fiction in a powerful novel that illuminates a little-known part of America’s history. Bringing into focus the flesh-and-blood woman behind the portrait, she vividly imagines the life of a woman with a complicated relationship to her family and her past, and a special bond with one of our greatest modern artists.

Told in evocative and lucid prose, A Piece of the World is a story about the burdens and blessings of family history, and how artist and muse can come together to forge a new and timeless legacy.

As I walked into the world of a complicated and somewhat isolated woman who is the primary character of A Piece of the World, I was fascinated with her interior thoughts, her interior world, and how she became the muse of the painter Andrew Wyeth, who spent more than twenty years sketching and painting her.

He came in the summers, literally seemed to move into the farmhouse, and immersed himself in the work. When the painting, entitled Christina’s World, was finally unfurled, we see how this artist truly saw his subject. Her complicated and seemingly isolated life was so much more. There were many stories beneath the surface, yielding an iconic character..

As I read, I felt truly sorry for Christina, but also had to admire her inner strength. She showed us how an individual can persevere and triumph. How one person could slowly reveal so many layers that can inspire others, seen by the world through one man’s art. A fictionalized story with a very human centerpiece. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: MY DARK VANESSA, BY KATE ELIZABETH RUSSELL

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past.
But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

 

 My Dark Vanessa, narrated by our protagonist, begins in 2017, just as the vocal wave of women’s voices about the men that used and abused them hits the media and becomes a movement. We see that Vanessa is struggling with its impact, and the strength of her denial keeps her rooted in her own view of events.

Swinging back to the year 2000, we see the tentative beginnings of what Vanessa has dubbed a love relationship with her English teacher, Jacob Strane, and how she cannot seem to keep away from him. As much as he has manipulated her through his praise and the way he carefully asks for her consent along the way, we also view how Vanessa has responded to him as if they are in a consensual relationship. In fact, he defines her life for several years. She doesn’t see the inappropriateness of their relationship, but a part of her must sense that it is, since she is secretive and defensive.

Vanessa’s narrative offers the reader a detailed and descriptive view of the connection she feels to Strane, and the more we learn, the more we become aware of how she is trapped by the hold he has on her. She seems unable to accurately portray their reality in her own mind, idealizing the relationship and finding herself stuck by her own inability to move beyond it.

A vivid and dark portrayal of a form of addiction that glues the participants together by their own denial and desperate need for the connection, the book is one I could not put down and therefore, earned 5 stars from me.

***

REVIEW: LITTLE SECRETS, BY JENNIFER HILLIER

All it takes to unravel a life is one little secret…

Marin had the perfect life. Married to her college sweetheart, she owns a chain of upscale hair salons, and Derek runs his own company. They’re admired in their community and are a loving family—until their world falls apart the day their son Sebastian is taken.

A year later, Marin is a shadow of herself. The FBI search has gone cold. The publicity has faded. She and her husband rarely speak. She hires a P.I. to pick up where the police left off, but instead of finding Sebastian, she learns that Derek is having an affair with a younger woman. This discovery sparks Marin back to life. She’s lost her son; she’s not about to lose her husband, too. Kenzie is an enemy with a face, which means this is a problem Marin can fix.


We begin our tale with Marin’s POV in Little Secrets, so it was understandable that I rooted for her. Even when she began making choices that were less than ideal.

Then Kenzie’s voice takes over, alternating with Marin’s, and when we first meet up with her, we sense that there is more to her story. Is there some other connection between her and Marin? Is Derek a target of some kind? Kenzie’s backstory makes us lean toward her perspective.

Marin’s losses are huge, and they are exacerbated by her discovery of her husband’s affair. Will she have to move on beyond her marriage, or will she find another solution?

Kenzie’s need for someone in her corner, even someone to love her, drew the reader into empathizing with her side of the story.

Meanwhile, I loved entering the world of these people, on opposite sides of the wealth/poverty spectrum, enjoying how Marin relished her home, her business, and her privilege. And I also liked watching Kenzie tiptoe secretly into their world, too, wanting and longing for everything they had.

Twists and turns kept me turning pages, wondering how it would all turn out. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: HAVE YOU SEEN ME?, BY KATE WHITE

The key to her missing memories could bring relief—or unlock her worst nightmares.

On a cold, rainy morning, finance journalist Ally Linden arrives soaked to the bone at her Manhattan office, only to find that she’s forgotten her keycard. When her boss shows, he’s shocked to see her—because, he explains, she hasn’t worked there in five years.

Ally knows her name, but is having trouble coming up with much beyond that, though after a trip to the psychiatric ER, she begins to piece together important facts: she lives on the Upper West Side; she’s now a freelance journalist; she’s married to a terrific man named Hugh. More memories materialize and yet she still can’t recall anything about the previous two days. Diagnosed as having experienced a dissociative state, she starts to wonder if it may have been triggered by something she saw. Could she have witnessed an accident—or worse—had something happened to her?

Desperate for answers, Ally tries to track where she spent the missing days, but every detail she unearths points to an explanation that’s increasingly ominous, and it’s clear someone wants to prevent her from learning where those forty-eight hours went. In order to uncover the truth, Ally must dig deep into the secrets of her past—and outsmart the person who seems determined to silence her.

 

Ally’s nightmare trauma has turned into her new reality, as she tries to sort through her actions in the days that went missing. Clues she gathered from the depths of her mind and her memories only led to partial answers until a private detective begins helping her figure out her actions during the missing hours.

Another clue comes in the form of a past traumatic event that might have triggered her break from reality.

But before she finally reaches a resolution, she finds herself in more danger than she could have imagined, and from a totally unexpected source. Along the way, she realizes there are few people she can even trust.

Have You Seen Me? is a captivating book that kept me turning pages until suddenly the pieces fell into place. 5 stars.

***