REVIEW: THE UNEXPECTED MOTHER, BY SUSAN A. RING

 

A POWERFUL, CHILLING, TRUE STORY as featured in People Magazine and The Dr. Oz show 2016 -O, The Oprah Magazine 2003, and Oprah’s choice as one of the most talked about stories in O’s Top 10 Anniversary Special in 2010. Inside the life of a surrogate mother Susan Ring, a single mother of two who learns upon her second journey, with the same intended parents, she is pregnant with triplets. The parents demand a reduction to twins. The surrogacy agency informs Susan of the unbelievable, the parents no longer want the twins she is pregnant with, and the intended father is suffering from mental illness. The parents breach the contract, divorce, and abandon Susan and the twins at the hospital, ultimately insisting their children go to social services. Susan refuses to comply and boldly prepares to fight for parentage in a California court with no biological ties. It is a story of hope, love and letting go. This astonishingly honest memoir raises challenging ethical questions, redefines motherhood, and what it means to be a mother in today’s complex world of infertility. It recognizes how far advanced science has become, and how the law is lagging far behind. Above all, it is a story for our times.

My Thoughts: The Unexpected Mother was a tantalizing tale of a surrogate mother’s journey; I could not stop turning the pages as the tale unfolded. It felt like a story out of a science fiction novel, and even though surrogacy is not that unusual any more, the situations in this story did take some unexpected twists along the way.

The author also led us through some of her childhood traumas, and I began to see why helping infertile couples meant so much to her. Plus, she really enjoyed pregnancy. She had already been a surrogate for the couple’s first child, so she felt safe to continue.

But everything would be different on this second journey for the same intended parents. Like a nightmare, her story took such a dramatic turn that I could not stop following along, breathless at every moment, wanting to know what would happen next.

The book could have used a stronger edit, as there were issues with the grammar and punctuation. Nevertheless, I felt an emotional impact from the author’s journey, and I had to keep reading. An incredible and unforgettable memoir that earned 3.5 stars. 

 ***
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REVIEW: A TURN FOR THE BAD, BY SHEILA CONNOLLY

 

After calling Ireland home for six months, Boston expat Maura Donovan still has a lot to learn about Irish ways—and Sullivan’s Pub is her classroom. Maura didn’t only inherit a business, she inherited a tight-knit community. And when a tragedy strikes, it’s the talk of the pub. A local farmer, out for a stroll on the beach with his young son, has mysteriously disappeared. Did he drown? Kill himself? The child can say only that he saw a boat.

Everyone from the local gardai to the Coast Guard is scouring the Cork coast, but when a body is finally brought ashore, it’s the wrong man. An accidental drowning or something more sinister? Trusting the words of the boy and listening to the suspicions of her employee Mick that the missing farmer might have run afoul of smugglers, Maura decides to investigate the deserted coves and isolated inlets for herself. But this time she may be getting in over her head…

My Thoughts: In this fourth outing in the County Cork series, A Turn for the Bad brings us back into the daily life of Maura Donovan, formerly of Boston, who inherited an Irish pub from her grandmother’s relative in Leap. A cottage came with the inheritance, and as she settles in to her new life, she is slowly learning the ropes of running the pub and making connections. At the time of this episode, Maura has been in Leap for around seven months.

When John Tully, a local farmer, goes missing, the police have not found him after several days. His brother shares information with Maura which could lead to his rescue. Will Maura and her band of rescuers manage to find him and stay out of big trouble with the authorities?

I enjoyed watching how the characters put together their amateur rescue team out of fishermen and assorted local men…while also keeping her business going and helping her artist friend Gillian sort out what to do about a personal problem.

The locals who gather in the pub have become like family to Maura, and as time passes, she is finding new ways to make the pub and the cottage a true home. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS, BY J. COURTNEY SULLIVAN

 

Nora and Theresa Flynn are twenty-one and seventeen when they leave their small village in Ireland and journey to America. Nora is the responsible sister; she’s shy and serious and engaged to a man she isn’t sure that she loves. Theresa is gregarious; she is thrilled by their new life in Boston and besotted with the fashionable dresses and dance halls on Dudley Street. But when Theresa ends up pregnant, Nora is forced to come up with a plan—a decision with repercussions they are both far too young to understand. Fifty years later, Nora is the matriarch of a big Catholic family with four grown children: John, a successful, if opportunistic, political consultant; Bridget, quietly preparing to have a baby with her girlfriend; Brian, at loose ends after a failed baseball career; and Patrick, Nora’s favorite, the beautiful boy who gives her no end of heartache. Estranged from her sister, Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. Until, after decades of silence, a sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago. A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers, Saints for All Occasions explores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together.
My Thoughts: Saints for All Occasions can be described primarily as a family saga, richly layered with the hopes and dreams of characters who left their homeland of Ireland and settled in Massachusetts. Their Catholic faith dictated many of their choices, and as they began their new lives in mid-century America, they tried to fit in while still maintaining their family values.

Two sisters, Nora and Theresa Flynn, could not have been more different from one another. Nora took on the role of the responsible one, while Theresa flourished by attending dance clubs while also planning for a teaching job.

But their hopes and dreams took a detour when something happened to Theresa. An unexpected event that would change both of their lives. Over time, their small choices would add up to a life, albeit a life filled with secrets. Some of those would stay with them forever.

Alternating narratives take us back and forth in time, showing us what was going on with each sister from the beginning until their later years.

The second generation of immigrants had a very different take on what their lives should look like, and a departure from the values of their parents would create conflicts. But Nora, as the matriarch, had a way of ignoring the things she did not like, almost as if she had detached herself from the realities of life.

Through the multiple narrators, we came to know the characters, fleshed out and flawed, who looked like real people we might have known. In the end, a sense of acceptance seemed to prevail…but many secrets still remained. As in life, sometimes there is no true closure. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: HER EVERY FEAR, BY PETER SWANSON

 

Growing up, Kate Priddy was always a bit neurotic, experiencing momentary bouts of anxiety that exploded into full blown panic attacks after an ex-boyfriend kidnapped her and nearly ended her life. When Corbin Dell, a distant cousin in Boston, suggests the two temporarily swap apartments, Kate, an art student in London, agrees, hoping that time away in a new place will help her overcome the recent wreckage of her life.

But soon after her arrival at Corbin’s grand apartment on Beacon Hill, Kate makes a shocking discovery: his next-door neighbor, a young woman named Audrey Marshall, has been murdered.

When the police question her about Corbin, a shaken Kate has few answers, and many questions of her own—curiosity that intensifies when she meets Alan Cherney, a handsome, quiet tenant who lives across the courtyard, in the apartment facing Audrey’s. Alan saw Corbin surreptitiously come and go from Audrey’s place, yet he’s denied knowing her. Then, Kate runs into a tearful man claiming to be the dead woman’s old boyfriend, who insists Corbin did the deed the night that he left for London.

When she reaches out to her cousin, he proclaims his innocence and calms her nerves . . . until she comes across disturbing objects hidden in the apartment—and accidently learns that Corbin is not where he says he is. Could Corbin be a killer? And what about Alan? Kate finds herself drawn to this appealing man who seems so sincere, yet she isn’t sure. Jetlagged and emotionally unstable, her imagination full of dark images caused by the terror of her past, Kate can barely trust herself . . . So how could she take the chance on a stranger she’s just met?

Yet the danger Kate imagines isn’t nearly as twisted and deadly as what’s about to happen. When her every fear becomes very real.

And much, much closer than she thinks.

My Thoughts: Multiple narrators take the reader back and forth in time within the pages of Her Every Fear. It was easy to immerse myself in the stories of the narrators, as they fleshed out their own perspectives. When Kate had a panic attack upon first arriving in Boston, I could feel the fear and anxiety, and wanted to also experience the calmness finally settling within her body.

What we learn about each of the characters will help us put together the pieces of the puzzle, specifically who might have killed Audrey Marshall, but also what motivated the killer(s).

We learn the “who” fairly early on, but we are eager to keep turning pages to find out whether or not Kate will be safe when she is tucked away in Corbin’s apartment, and which one of the people she sees every day might be a killer.

The intensity mounts as one of the characters lands in Boston, with an unexpected plan, and we are eager to discover who will still be standing after a very disturbing and twisted encounter.

It was hard to review this book, for fear of spoilers, so suffice it to say that you won’t want to stop reading until the final page. And you might want to read only in the daytime. This is my first book by the author, but it won’t be my last. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE PERFECT NANNY, BY LEILA SLIMANI

 

She has the keys to their apartment. She knows everything. She has embedded herself so deeply in their lives that it now seems impossible to remove her.

When Myriam decides to return to work as a lawyer after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their son and daughter. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic Paris apartment, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau. Building tension with every page, The Perfect Nanny is a compulsive, riveting, bravely observed exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, motherhood, and madness—and the American debut of an immensely talented writer.

My Thoughts: Perfection, or the appearance of it, is a theme in The Perfect Nanny. We see examples of the well-ordered world the nanny creates for the Masses family on a lovely Paris street. She makes their lives easy, with her tireless care, the cleaning, the dinners, and the willingness to stay late.

But beneath the façade, Louise is a complex mix of disordered thoughts, fantasies, fears, and intensity. Back and forth the story goes, offering glimpses of other lives the woman has lived, including one with a very troubled daughter.

As she slowly unravels before their eyes, Myriam and Paul try to sort through their thoughts and decide how to extricate their lives from hers. It should be simple, right? But Louise has so carefully inserted herself into their family that removing her seems impossible.

In the beginning, we know the ending. As we turn the pages, fear and curiosity keep us going, even as spending another minute in Louise’s mind seems too horrific to bear. A creepy tale of madness, obsession, and the power of routines, at times I wanted to stop reading. But like the Masses family, who could not rid themselves of her, I was unable to extricate myself from this character study of a fascinating and disturbing woman. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE FRENCH GIRL, BY LEXIE ELLIOTT

 

They were six university students from Oxford–friends and sometimes more than friends–spending an idyllic week together in a French farmhouse. It was supposed to be the perfect summer getaway…until they met Severine, the girl next door.

For Kate Channing, Severine was an unwelcome presence, her inscrutable beauty undermining the close-knit group’s loyalties amid the already simmering tensions. And after a huge altercation on the last night of the holiday, Kate knew nothing would ever be the same. There are some things you can’t forgive. And there are some people you can’t forget…like Severine, who was never seen again.

Now, a decade later, the case is reopened when Severine’s body is found in the well behind the farmhouse. Questioned along with her friends, Kate stands to lose everything she’s worked so hard to achieve as suspicion mounts around her. Desperate to resolve her own shifting memories and fearful she will be forever bound to the woman whose presence still haunts her, Kate finds herself buried under layers of deception with no one to set her free…

 

My Thoughts: In Kate’s first person voice, we follow the story in The French Girl. A mystery, possibly a murder, and suspicion that turns friends against one another as the investigator zeroes in on them all. Set in London, the story takes us to the French countryside as the investigator continues his search for a killer.

Kate is literally haunted by Severine, seeing her in various poses as she goes through her days and nights. Do the hauntings hint that she knows more than she thinks? Can she figure out the truth of what happened? Or will she finally realize that her memories have been hidden from her for a reason?

There were many characters to loathe, like Caro, whose presence in Kate’s life these days is an annoying and disturbing reminder of those feelings.

What about Tom, who seems to know more than he is letting on? And then there is Lara, her best friend, who might be hiding something, too.

And, years after their stunning break-up, Kate has to look again at her relationship with Seb…wondering if there are dark secrets she hadn’t previously considered.

I figured out the perpetrator early on, but couldn’t wait to see how it would all play out. I couldn’t stop turning pages, and I enjoyed how Kate’s world seemed to right itself in the end. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: AN EARLY WAKE, BY SHEILA CONNOLLY

Summer is ending in County Cork, Ireland, and with it the tourist season. Expat Maura Donovan is determined to keep Sullivan’s Pub in the black as the days grow shorter—but how? When she hears that the place was once a hot spot for Irish musicians who’d come play in the back room, she wonders if bringing back live music might be Sullivan’s salvation.

As word gets out, legendary musicians begin to appear at the pub, and the first impromptu jam session brings in scores of music lovers. But things hit a sour note when Maura finds a dead musician in the back room the next morning. With a slew of potential suspects, it’s going to take more than a pint and a good think to force a murderer to face the music.

 

My Thoughts: In this third County Cork outing, we find Maura Donovan in a contemplative mood, pondering the six months she has run the pub, an unexpected inheritance. An Early Wake offers a glimpse of the bucolic life Maura has come to accept, even though she realizes that, at this point, she doesn’t really have a plan.

She doesn’t have ledgers or a computer, and her take from the pub seems to be all cash. She manages to pay her staff, which consist of Old Jimmy and his daughter Rose…and Bridget Nolan’s grandson Mick. She also manages to keep in the supplies and pay for electricity.

Next door to Maura’s cottage, also a part of her inheritance, lives Bridget Nolan, who offers tea and wisdom each day.

Old Billy, who takes up daily residence in the back corner of the pub, feels like a fixture, but he offers stories, wisdom, and somehow brings the musicians to the pub by word of mouth.

While this story offers little in the way of in-depth information on the villagers or even the regulars who show up at the pub, we still have a sense of the easy-going life of those who have become Maura’s new world. I loved the idyllic feeling, and even when the musicians’ jam fest brought the hint of violence along with the death of the musician, we could also feel secure that the steady law enforcement, embodied by Sean Murphy, could handle whatever came up.

As I settled into the story, I found myself wanting more. Knowing another outing could bring additional layers and more depth to Maura’s life, I felt a surge of hope that she could even find a love interest. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: BLOOD SISTERS, BY JANE CORRY

 

Three little girls set off to school one sunny morning. Within an hour, one of them is dead.

Fifteen years later, Kitty can’t speak and has no memory of the accident that’s to blame. She lives in an institution, unlikely ever to leave. But that doesn’t keep her from being frightened when she encounters an eerily familiar face.

Art teacher Alison looks fine on the surface. But the surface is a lie. She’s struggling to make ends meet and to forget the past. When a teaching job at a prison opens up, she takes it, despite her fears. Maybe this is her chance to set things right. Then she starts to receive alarming notes; next, her classroom erupts in violence.

Meanwhile, someone is watching both Kitty and Alison. Someone who never forgot what happened that day. Someone who wants revenge. And only another life will do. . .

 

My Thoughts: Alternating narrators, Alison and Kitty, reveal the story in Blood Sisters. Dual timelines flash back to 2001, when an accident happened, to 2016, when Alison and Kitty are dealing with events in very different ways.

From the beginning, we are aware that something led up to that accident, something that still haunts both sisters. Alison buries her feelings in her art…and occasional cutting.

Kitty, unable to speak, has flashes of memory, but is unable to express any of her thoughts.

Even when, in moments we see in 2001, we learn about what happened, there is also a deep and underlying darkness that has not come forth. What are the characters hiding?

In the beginning, I found the story slow and sometimes confusing. I didn’t warm up to the characters until we began seeing the moments from the past…and I realized the depths of rivalry between the sisters. As I kept turning the pages, I was captivated by finding out just one more secret. There were so many, and so many surprising twists and turns. By the end, I kept waiting for the final one that might reveal the unexpected darkness in each of them. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: LIE WITH ME, BY SABINE DURRANT

 

It starts with a lie. The kind we’ve all told – to a former acquaintance we can’t quite place but still, for some reason, feel the need to impress. The story of our life, embellished for the benefit of the happily married lawyer with the kids and the lovely home.

And the next thing you know, you’re having dinner at their house, and accepting an invitation to join them on holiday – swept up in their perfect life, the kind you always dreamed of…

Which turns out to be less than perfect. But by the time you’re trapped and sweating in the relentless Greek sun, burning to escape the tension all around you – by the time you start to realize that, however painful the truth might be, it’s the lies that cause the real damage…
… well, by then, it could just be too late.

My Thoughts: Lie With Me is a gripping tale narrated in the first person voice of Paul Morris, a writer, whose life is not turning out the way he had hoped. When he runs into an old Cambridge University friend, Andrew Hopkins, he is less than thrilled. There is something about Andrew that always makes him feel…less than. But he can’t show any of this, so he accepts an invitation to dinner.

The lies come tripping off his tongue when Andrew, and then the other guests, ask questions about his work, his life, etc. Little white lies, of course. But the closer he gets to them all, including an attractive woman named Alice Mackenzie, with whom he quickly becomes involved, he finds himself caught up in a web of lies.

The invitation to a Greek holiday comes later, but by then, the story of his life is caught in the trap he has created.

In Greece, nothing is the way he had hoped, and soon the chaos of the friends and their families, their expectations, and Alice’s quest to find a young girl who disappeared ten years before…all of it becomes a disaster in the making. Andrew’s behavior is strange, and so is Alice’s. Are the two of them involved? Are they keeping secrets? Why are odd things happening around the house, where a renovation is taking place?

My thoughts about the characters were negative, overall. Alice was evasive, sneaky, and she and Andrew always seemed to be huddled somewhere, whispering. I didn’t trust either of them, even though Paul had not been truthful about a lot of things. The teens, as usual, were also creating havoc.

Before the story comes to a crashing conclusion, we realize that nothing is as it seems, and Paul is in a lot of trouble. By the time Paul discovers the truth, it is too late for him. Unless someone can extricate him from the mess created not just by his lies…but by the secrecy and manipulation of others. The ending left us hanging…but hopeful. 4.5 stars.

 ***

REVIEW: HERE WE LIE, BY PAULA TREICK DEBOARD

 

Megan Mazeros and Lauren Mabrey are complete opposites on paper. Megan is a girl from a modest Midwest background, and Lauren is the daughter of a senator from an esteemed New England family. When they become roommates at a private women’s college, they forge a strong, albeit unlikely, friendship, sharing clothes, advice and their most intimate secrets.

The summer before senior year, Megan joins Lauren and her family on their private island off the coast of Maine. It should be a summer of relaxation, a last hurrah before graduation and the pressures of post-college life. Then late one night, something unspeakable happens, searing through the framework of their friendship and tearing them apart. Many years later, Megan publicly comes forward about what happened that fateful night, revealing a horrible truth and threatening to expose long-buried secrets.

My Thoughts: In the beginning of Here We Lie, a press conference is about to start. Lauren Mabrey manages to push her way into the room, where she waits for what is about to be divulged.

Flash back to the late 1990s, where we meet Megan Mazeros, living in Kansas, watching her father die very slowly of mesothelioma. She foregoes the beginning of college while helping out her family.

A year later, she moves to Connecticut to attend Keale College in Scofield. She doesn’t meet Lauren until later in the year, but despite the drastic differences between them, they become fast friends.

However, the friendship is never really equal, since Lauren’s life of privilege keeps her on a slightly elevated plane.

When something traumatic happens to Megan the summer before their final year of college, Lauren doesn’t even bother to listen. She blames Megan, and the rift between them is insurmountable.

Alternately narrated by Lauren and Megan, I could not put this story down. It brought out a timely reminder of power and privilege, and how there are always those who are considered more credible than others. I rooted for both girls as they struggled on their way to becoming women, as they each had their own obstacles. Lauren came from a world of privilege, but her family treated her as “less than.” Her desires and ambitions did not fit the family image.

Megan suffered on the other side of that divide, and it took many years to bring her into her own. An unforgettable story that could have been one of today’s headlines. 5 stars.

***