REVIEW: THE HOUSE SWAP, BY REBECCA FLEET

 

When Caroline and Francis receive an offer to house swap–from their city apartment to a house in a leafy, upscale London suburb–they jump at the chance for a week away from home, their son, and the tensions that have pushed their marriage to the brink.

As the couple settles in, the old problems that permeate their marriage–his unhealthy behaviors, her indiscretions–start bubbling to the surface. But while they attempt to mend their relationship, their neighbor, an intense young woman, is showing a little too much interest in their activities.

Meanwhile, Caroline slowly begins to uncover some signs of life in the stark house–signs of her life. The flowers in the bathroom or the music might seem innocent to anyone else–but to her they are clues. It seems the person they have swapped with is someone who knows her, someone who knows the secrets she’s desperate to forget. . . .

 

My Thoughts: From the very beginning of The House Swap, the reader knows that nothing good can come of this strange exchange of houses.

Who owns the house in which Caroline and Francis are staying? What motivated the swap, and why does Caroline not immediately suspect that something strange and obsessive is happening?

A weird and intrusive girl next door adds to the creepiness.

The book is mostly narrated by Caroline, and flashes back to the past and forward to the present. We learn about the issues in the marriage…and I had to ask myself over and over why the two are even trying.

But as Caroline starts receiving messages that suggest a mysterious presence in her home, our senses are heightened. But then the messages Caroline is receiving start to make sense, and a dark secret from the past is revealed.

The story unfolded slowly, and sometimes the pace was frustrating. But the story was worth hanging in for its shocking conclusion. 4.5 stars.

***

Advertisements

REVIEW: THE GUNNERS, BY REBECCA KAUFFMAN

 

The story introduces Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

My Thoughts: I was drawn to The Gunners by a curiosity about friends growing up together and then growing apart. The characters sounded relatable, and the story did not disappoint.

Mikey’s voice is prominent, and we learn more about the others through his eyes, cloudy though they were. The analogy of cloudy vision (physically) carries over into the emotional “clouds” of family secrets.

How each of the characters viewed Sally, the character with the darkest secrets, since she took a drastic step in her own life, would reveal much about each of them.

The get-together after Sally’s funeral reminded me of another story that I loved, The Big Chill, a film I enjoyed in the 1980s. Trying to deconstruct the choices friends make, as well as struggling to uncover the dark secrets of the past and present, kept me turning pages.

As one would expect, some of the characters are more likable than others. Sally’s brash tone probably covered up some insecurities, but she was sometimes hard to take. Sam was pleasant enough, but he overdid the apologetic and sometimes obsequious effort to be liked.

I felt sorry for Mikey, whose life was undone by the uncovering of some of the secrets. But as time passed, and as the group enjoyed more get-togethers, the power and joy of their connections left me with such a warm feeling. Almost as if I had become part of their story. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE PERFECT MOTHER, BY AIMEE MOLLOY

 

A night out. A few hours of fun. That’s all it was meant to be.

They call themselves the May Mothers—a group of new moms whose babies were born in the same month. Twice a week, they get together in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for some much-needed adult time.

When the women go out for drinks at the hip neighborhood bar, they want a fun break from their daily routine. But on this hot Fourth of July night, something goes terrifyingly wrong: one of the babies is taken from his crib. Winnie, a single mom, was reluctant to leave six-week-old Midas with a babysitter, but her fellow May Mothers insisted everything would be fine. Now he is missing. What follows is a heart-pounding race to find Midas, during which secrets are exposed, marriages are tested, and friendships are destroyed. 

My Thoughts: The Perfect Mother is narrated by multiple characters, and begins in the first person voice of one of them. She seems to be anonymous, and throughout the story, I thought I knew who she was. But only in the final moments is her identity known.

To say that first-time mothers are often insecure, not knowing the right way to do the various tasks connected to being the “perfect” mother, would be an understatement. Finding the May Mothers group seemed a great way to form their own community to support them and enhance their knowledge.

What each of them brings to the group is her best face, hiding the various secrets in the past.

So when baby Midas goes missing after the mothers take a night out at a local bar, it is only a matter of time until these secrets begin to surface.

Winnie has a glamorous past, so hiding her background makes her seem standoffish…until the truth comes out. But then the media makes so much of it all, turning her into someone who might do something terrible, like hurt her own baby.

The others have faith in her, not believing that she could harm her baby, and they all offer their thoughts to the police when interviewed. Some of them, like Francie, go above and beyond to persuade the police to look elsewhere…until they brush her aside, annoyed with her behavior.

Numerous possibilities are considered, and while the search continues, the other mothers deal with their own lives and their challenges. Francie is struggling from sleep deprivation and also from her obsessive need to help with the search. Collette is ghost-writing a book for the mayor, but finds that he is often unavailable for meetings, so her work is less than stellar. Nell seems to have a lot more to hide, and as her secrets come out, the media attention flickers from Winnie and Midas to her.

I was totally blindsided by what had actually happened, and who was behind everything. As I rapidly turned the pages, I felt breathless from the intensity of it all. A page turner! 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE GARDEN OF SMALL BEGINNINGS, BY ABBI WAXMAN

 

Lilian Girvan has been a single mother for three years—ever since her husband died in a car accident. One mental breakdown and some random suicidal thoughts later, she’s just starting to get the hang of this widow thing. She can now get her two girls to school, show up to work, and watch TV like a pro. The only problem is she’s becoming overwhelmed with being underwhelmed.

At least her textbook illustrating job has some perks—like actually being called upon to draw whale genitalia. Oh, and there’s that vegetable-gardening class her boss signed her up for. Apparently, being the chosen illustrator for a series of boutique vegetable guides means getting your hands dirty, literally. Wallowing around in compost on a Saturday morning can’t be much worse than wallowing around in pajamas and self-pity.

After recruiting her kids and insanely supportive sister to join her, Lilian shows up at the Los Angeles botanical garden feeling out of her element. But what she’ll soon discover—with the help of a patient instructor and a quirky group of gardeners—is that into every life a little sun must shine, whether you want it to or not…

My Thoughts: The Garden of Small Beginnings reeled me in from the first page, as our first person narrator, Lilian, masks her pain with a comedic tone, describing how her dead husband is useful. Someone she can blame when things go wrong. Her conversations with him set the tone for this story of a thirty-something woman with small children who was so broken by his sudden death that she ended up in a mental health facility for a few months.

But now she is trying to move on. When she isn’t conversing with her deceased husband Dan, she has regular phone calls and texts with her sister Rachel. Her job as a freelance illustrator takes her to unusual places where her latest gig is a book about gardening. She joins a garden class as a foundation for her art, and what an interesting assortment of students show up there. Who knew that an ordinary class would suddenly morph into a life in the midst of an interesting community?

Classes turn into opportunities to create small gardens in backyards, with each character contributing his or her home as the venue each week. Picnics, barbecues, and interesting pairings, like the one developing between Lili and the instructor, Edward, carry us along on the journey to nourishing a garden and a family of friends. Each chapter ends with snippets on growing a specific vegetable.

Lili fights the developing feelings, and tells herself she is not ready. Will she discover that her reluctance has more to do with feelings of betrayal for Dan? Or could there be more going on?

Set in Los Angeles, the story takes us into the lives of the characters…and the emotional situations range from sadness to love and warmth. A 5 star read for me.

***

REVIEW: THE NEW NEIGHBORS, BY SIMON LELIC

 

Londoners Jack and Syd found their dream home: lots of space, a great location, and a friendly owner who wanted a young couple to have it.

Everything is exactly what they hoped for when they move in–except Jack makes a disturbing discovery in the attic, and Syd begins to wonder about the girl next door. And they each keep the other in the dark.

A mistake.

Because someone has just been killed outside their back door, and now the police are watching them.

This is their chance to prove they’re innocent–or to get away with murder.

Whose story do you believe?

My Thoughts: Alternating narrators tell the story of The New Neighbors. Jack and Syd have reasons to keep secrets. Now the past is creeping up on them, but what will happen before they are finally free?

The story goes back and forth in time, and just when we think we know what is happening, more of the past is revealed…and we are suddenly unsure of both Jack and Syd. Neither appears reliable, and the reasons for their secrets and lies add complex layers to the tale.

Syd has taken the young neighbor girl Elsie under her wing. When she sees how Elsie’s father treats her, she is reminded of her own terrible father, and about how she needed someone to step up for her. Being a protector feels like finally escaping the past.

Themes of controlling and violent fathers hover throughout the story; from Syd’s father to Elsie’s, we can see the damage that a bad father can do. Damage that will affect the daughters moving forward. But it is also possible for at least one damaged daughter to show strength and courage, finding a way to extricate herself from what might seem like a permanent nightmare.

Until the very end, I kept vacillating, trying to decide the truth. Even as the author threw different possible scenarios into the mix, I kept hoping that, finally, all would be revealed. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: SISTERS LIKE US, BY SUSAN MALLERY

 

Divorce left Harper Szymanski with a name no one can spell, a house she can’t afford and a teenage daughter who’s pulling away. With her fledgling virtual-assistant business, she’s scrambling to maintain her overbearing mother’s ridiculous Susie Homemaker standards and still pay the bills, thanks to clients like Lucas, the annoying playboy cop who claims he hangs around for Harper’s fresh-baked cookies.

Spending half her life in school hasn’t prepared Dr. Stacey Bloom for her most daunting challenge—motherhood. She didn’t inherit the nurturing gene like Harper and is in deep denial that a baby is coming. Worse, her mother will be horrified to learn that Stacey’s husband plans to be a stay-at-home dad…assuming Stacey can first find the courage to tell Mom she’s already six months pregnant.

Separately they may be a mess, but together Harper and Stacey can survive anything—their indomitable mother, overwhelming maternity stores and ex’s weddings. Sisters Like Us is a delightful look at sisters, mothers and daughters in today’s fast-paced world, told with Susan Mallery’s trademark warmth and humor.

My Thoughts: Sisters Like Us is a family story. One that shows the reader how the mother/daughter/sister bonds could be very challenging, but could also lead to the chance to watch the characters grow and change.

Harper is a fascinating woman who has taken on the task of single mother/business woman, and even tries to stand up to the criticism of her mother, Bunny, who seems to believe that she is the only one who knows the right way to be a woman.

Sixteen-year-old Becca feels ignored due to her mother’s full schedule, and as a result, she sulks and closes herself off instead of accepting her own part in the relationship issues.

Stacey is a brilliant scientist, pregnant at 40, with an unusual parenting plan ahead of her. She is terrified of her mother’s critical nature, and as a result, she is keeping a very big secret.

I liked the setting of Mischief Bay, and enjoyed how the characters interacted with one another.

Issues of abandonment, loss, and starting over kept me engaged until the last page. 5 stars.

***

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. 

 ***

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.

***