REVIEW: THE PERFECT GIRL, BY GILLY MACMILLAN

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At fourteen, Zoe Guerin, a musical prodigy, was bullied by the kids at the school she attended as a scholarship student. In an attempt to fit in, she reacts to a dare and takes the driver’s seat after a party. An accident, with Zoe driving, led to the deaths of her three teenage passengers.

Now, three years later, she is performing in a new venue, trying to thrive in her Second Chance Life, with her mother Maria and stepfather, a step-brother Lucas, and a baby sister Grace. Chris, her stepfather, does not know about Zoe’s life in Devon. In the new life in Bristol, with her new name, Zoe Maisey, she has another chance.

But somehow, secrets always have a way of getting out, and something happens that night during the performance that will bring Zoe’s secrets to light. And before the night is over, her mother will be dead.

The Perfect Girl was a multi-layered tale of the various secrets, lies, and hidden moments that make up the lives of the characters. Multiple narrators show us each character’s particular view on events, including some of what actually happened to cause Zoe to crash that car. Why did her blood alcohol test high when she didn’t recall drinking anything? And how did the testimony of the bullies seal her fate?

Most of the characters had flaws and some were quite unlikeable. I felt more sympathetic toward Zoe, but just when I wanted to root for her, she would do something questionable, or her mind would follow some pathway that would make me doubt her. In the end, a decision she makes changes everything; can something wrong make a right?

I definitely disliked Chris, with his attitudes, his cold eyes, and the mean words he shouted. How did a script written by his genius son Lucas convey something meaningful, that Zoe would read and come to use to help make a decision? What would be the significance of Zoe’s conclusions about the script in light of what happened to her mother?

Other characters, like Tessa, Maria’s sister; her husband Richard, with his alcohol problems; and Sam, the solicitor who helped Zoe with her case…all added something to the story, making it impossible to put down. A book that made me think about family dynamics and the issues that can lead to wrong choices, and what must happen to turn things right again. 5 stars.

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REVIEW: BEACH BLUES, BY JOANNE DEMAIO

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Stony Point, Connecticut, is the perfect place for both old and new friends to enjoy the summer months.

Celia Gray is a newcomer who has arrived to stage cottages for local realtors, and to heal from a painful divorce, and while she stays in her friends’ cottage during her time here, she begins to form connections among the friendly residents.

Elsa DeLuca is the first of many who engage her, sweeping her up into a cozy circle of warmth, bringing her into her own whirl of activity as she renovates Old Foley’s into an inviting bed and breakfast inn, which she has dubbed Ocean Star Inn.

Soon Elsa is joined by her son Salvatore, who is seeking to heal from his stressful job on Wall Street. But could Sal be harboring other reasons for his summer sojourn?

While new connections form, the old friends show up to provide a backdrop for the summer explorations, and remind us of why we love visiting the beach community populated by Jason and Maris, Kyle and Lauren, and Eva and Matt. We watch as all the old friends share the memories that are part of their legacy in this place, nourishing them during hard times, and how they now bring the newcomers into their circle of trust.

One newcomer, the new beach commissioner, offered an annoying yet humorous backdrop to the usual friendly interactions. He was constantly on hand to issue citations for supposed violations to residents and visitors, with a pompous air and inflexible attitude. The Hammer Law was another rather strange rule: no hammering between the first day of summer until Labor Day, which put a kibosh on any construction work. It was interesting to see how Jason, the resident architect, managed his way around the rules.

Beach Blues is a continuation of the adventures of the characters’ journeys from previous books, and we come to look forward to what they add to this year’s adventures. More secrets are revealed, and with a sense of hidden darkness hovering overhead, we begin to suspect that sadness is not far off. But can the love and romance and celebration of the new lives they have created bring joy, despite any potential sorrow?

This delightful read is a book to savor for the summer, which earned 5 stars.

REVIEW: THE GIRLS, BY EMMA CLINE

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Evie Boyd is a middle-aged woman, living alone in her friend Dan’s house in LA, ruminating about the past. Her life up until now has been ordinary, but somewhat disappointing. So when she is visited by intruders in the middle of the night, and is reminded of how unsafe life can be—before she realizes that the intruders are Dan’s teenage son and girlfriend—she is once again back in the unsafe world she once inhabited. Even though she was merely on the fringes of that world. And feeling unsafe is better than feeling nothing at all.

But as her mind takes her back to the summer of 1969, we soon learn how the life she lives now was informed by her choices back then. How her fascination with a free-living group in the Bay Area, living on what they called the ranch, had captivated her. How she was mostly drawn in by one of the girls, a young woman of nineteen named Suzanne. What had drawn her to Suzanne back then, and why is her mind still working out the details of that time, even now, all these years later? Was it an infatuation? Did Suzanne and the other girls fill an empty space inside, the part that emphasized the blankness of her life? Would she have done what those girls finally did, or did she have a moral compass after all?

The Girls is a reminder of another story from that same year. The true story of Charles Manson and his followers, and while they are not mentioned in this novel, those who have lived and learned from the horrors will certainly see some similarities.

Was Evie simply a product of the times? Did her middle class life seem so empty that she was drawn into the colorful world of the family at the ranch? Was her attraction to Suzanne more about the appeal of the other girl’s dismissal of ordinary values? Or did Suzanne’s occasional dismissal of Evie herself only enhance the appeal?

I felt sorry for Evie, who had avoided the fate of the others because of a chance maneuver on Suzanne’s part, and who seemed to always be wishing she could have been more involved. Her flat life in the present made me feel sad, since she could have been grateful for what she somehow managed to escape. A story that kept me reading, even though the ending seemed inevitable. 4.5 stars.

***My e-ARC came from the publishers via NetGalley.

REVIEW: BREAKDOWN, BY JONATHAN KELLERMAN

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Mental illness, homelessness, family rivalries, & murder fill the pages of Breakdown with a host of issues to sort through. Add to the mix our two familiar characters, Dr. Alex Delaware and his police lieutenant cohort Milo Sturgis, and you’re in for a real treat.

Set in LA, our story begins with a woman unraveling in a Bel Air backyard, a mental health intervention, and Alex’s input in order to figure out what to do next.

Alex’s involvement actually started years before when a colleague, Dr. Lou Sherman, asked him to evaluate a young boy named Ovid, whose mother suffered episodes of mental illness, possibly bipolar with schizophrenic aspects. An actress, Zelda Chase, who was on a popular TV show.

Now, as our story opens, we discover that Zelda had deteriorated further, there was no sign of Ovid anywhere, and shortly after Alex found a placement for the woman, she disappeared. Her death a short time later was riddled with uncertainties. Why had Zelda ended up in an upscale neighborhood where she was digging in the dirt and muttering “mother”? What, if anything, connected the property owner Enid DePauw, to the troubled young woman? When more and more women go missing, the connections become harder to put together.

Naturally, Alex and Milo start digging, and the fun in a story that pairs the two of them is watching them take whatever steps are necessary to find the answers. Before the story ended, we would have more than enough answers, but they would be surprising ones. Or possibly not so surprising, when one considers what motivates people who feel threatened in some way.

I always find myself glued to the pages of a book with Alex and Milo, and in addition to watching the two of them work their cases, I enjoy the peeks into their home lives…and their friendship with each other. A delightful read earning 5 stars.

REVIEW: WHAT WE FIND, BY ROBYN CARR

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Maggie Sullivan, a brilliant neurosurgeon living in Denver, Colorado, has seen her life falling apart around her, bit by bit. Her practice is in a shambles due to some criminal actions by her partners; she is facing a wrongful death lawsuit; and she has just lost her baby in a miscarriage. Further, her partner and the father of the child has dumped her for being “too depressed” for him to deal with.

What is Maggie to do? She finds herself in Sullivan’s Crossing where her father, Sully, has a campground and a general store. Wrapped up in the love of family and friends, Maggie believes that she might finally begin to heal here. But then her father has a heart attack.

In the subsequent weeks, as she helps her father through his recovery, she also meets another camper, a man she at first dismisses as a drifter, but in getting to know Cal Jones, she is able to see how she can open up her world to possibilities. Can the two of them forge a relationship? What does getting to know Cal mean? As he answers some questions about his life before, the family he came from, and what he wants for the future, he is modeling what she herself needs to do, moving forward.

What We Find is full of beautiful settings and interesting characters, from Maggie’s mother Phoebe and her stepfather Walter, to Cal’s father Jed and mother Marissa. How far does the apple fall from the tree? Does the past always inform the future? In reaching some conclusions about the characters, I came to hope that they would not end with this book. I wanted to continue the journey with them, in at least one more book or two. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: DON’T YOU CRY, BY MARY KUBICA

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As we begin the story of Don’t You Cry, we are introduced to Quinn Collins. A young woman living in Chicago and sharing an apartment with Esther Vaughan, and we learn more about her through her voice as she alternately narrates the story.

An alarm shatters the silence, Quinn awakens to a man in her bed who looks nothing like he did the night before….she asks him to leave. Then she goes to search for the alarm, but Esther is not in her room. She shuts the alarm off, notices that the window to the fire escape is wide open, but doesn’t think too much of it. She goes back to sleep.

Right away the red flags go up. Why is Quinn not more curious about the situation? Is she completely insensitive? But then after several hours go by—almost a day, in fact—she is suddenly spooked and talks to her friend and colleague Ben.

Sorting through Esther’s effects in her room, there are several strange discoveries: paperwork for a name change, ATM receipts for large withdrawals, and notes addressed to My Dearest. More comes to light over the next few days, and we have to wonder if Esther left involuntarily, or if she is even plotting some nefarious deeds.

Alex Gallo, our alternate narrator, lives in a nearby Michigan harbor town, an hour away, and we soon learn of his obsession with a strange young woman he calls “Pearl.” Who is she, and what will happen between them? Why is he drawn to her? She is a few years older, and he is a teenager, abandoned by his mother and living with an alcoholic father…so the connection might not be a romantic one. And how does Ingrid, the agoraphobic woman Alex helps occasionally, fit into the story? What are the secrets lurking in the abandoned house across the street, where once lived a girl named Genevieve? What is the significance of a creepy lullaby?

Of course, it is easy to leap to conclusions at this point, but everything we’ve learned so far might simply be a slew of red herrings…and the truth could still be inaccessible to us.

At some point, I became annoyed and even a little frightened of all the characters…which had the effect of making me want to keep reading. What will be unveiled in the end? Stay tuned, and don’t close your eyes for a moment. You might be stunned by what happens next. I was. 5 stars.

***My e-ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: THE OBSESSION, BY NORA ROBERTS

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Eleven-year-old Naomi Bowes woke during a hot night in her West Virginia home…and when she heard a noise, she got up. She followed her father into the woods, curious. What she found in the root cellar after he came back up and left….would change her life forever.

Rescuing the young woman named Ashley and reporting her father’s crimes to the police could have haunted her forever. But she decided not to be the daughter of serial killer Thomas Bowes for the rest of her life. Taken in by her maternal uncle Seth and his partner Harry, along with her mother and brother Mason, she had a good life as Naomi Carson, moving from Washington, D.C. to New York…and then, alone, all around the country, staying ahead of the news reports and gossip. Until finally she landed in Sunrise Cove, Washington, where she optimistically believed she had outrun her ghosts.

I really loved the new life Naomi was creating in Sunrise Cove, renovating a big old mansion and gradually becoming a part of the community. The descriptions of the home interiors as they slowly came together, along with her vision of life on the water, made me love how a grim story could turn into moments of beauty. Naomi’s photography career also kept me engaged, as she showed the reader what she saw through her lens, and how she brought life and creativity into each shot.

Meeting Xander Keaton, the man who owned a garage in town, who was someone so much more than he appeared on the surface…that event was the final straw that turned her life of beauty into one that included the possibility of love.

But suddenly, something is happening all around the small, lovely town. Girls are going missing and turning up dead…and not far from Naomi’s haven. Who, if anyone, is targeting her and dumping bodies in places that are familiar to her? What, if anything, do the photos on Naomi’s website mean to the killer?

When her FBI agent brother Mason comes to town, the pieces begin to fall into place. Will they finally unmask and capture the killer? Who will it turn out to be?

The Obsession was a page-turning thriller that was also so much more. Totally engaging. 5 stars.

REVIEW: A FATAL GRACE, BY LOUISE PENNY

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Christmas time in Three Pines, a picturesque village in Quebec, is about to turn into something dark and malevolent. For some residents.

But will the death of one of its newest residents actually be disturbing in any way? C. C. de Poitiers was one of those people disliked by literally everyone. She has come to the town with her own unique agenda, but additionally, she is launching her book about a lifestyle she envisions as one akin to the likes of the famous Martha Stewart. A kind of decorating style, combined with her life “balance” called Be Calm.

But is there anything calm or balanced about this woman? Wife of Richard Lyon, an inventor some might call boring, and mother to daughter Crie, who is overweight and seems almost autistic, one has to wonder. But there is more going on.

C. C.’s murder happens during the annual curling event. She is electrocuted, and the how of it eludes those who try to solve the mystery. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache appears on the scene with his colleagues, Lemieux and Beauvoir…and is later joined by the annoying Yvette Nichol.

Townsfolk who should have seen what happened are silent, and it takes a while for Gamache to figure it all out. Meanwhile, a bag lady is murdered in Montreal. What, if anything, connects the two murders?

I enjoyed how Gamache managed to sort through all the various clues, find connections that others did not see, and then, even when he thought he had it figured out, there were some surprises. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the cozy moments in the bistro, where Gamache manages to observe and theorize, while noticing the dynamics of the residents.

There is also an undercurrent that suggests a conspiracy going on with some of the inspectors. Who is trying to sabotage Gamache? Why?

A Fatal Grace kept me captivated throughout, and while I had suspicions about several of the characters, I was surprised at how it all went down. 4.5 stars

REVIEW: DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM, BY MICHELLE RICHMOND

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Jenny, our first person narrator, had been friends with Amanda Ruth Lee since childhood. They grew up together in Alabama, and their days and hours spent in a unique boathouse with a blue room is a time that Jenny often remembers now.

For Amanda Ruth is dead. Murdered 14 years before.

Dream of the Blue Room carries us back and forth in time, with the present tense narration our clue to what is going on in Jenny’s world nowadays. She is on a cruise ship, visiting China, as a last remembrance to Amanda Ruth, whose father was Chinese. She is traveling with Dave, her husband, from whom she has been separated for two months, living on separate sides of Central Park in Manhattan. She is carrying Amanda Ruth’s ashes in a unique tin box. Does Jenny hope that the trip will bring her closer to Dave again? Will Dave’s need to “rescue” those around him help them reconnect?

As we learn more about Mr. Lee and his thoughts and feelings toward Amanda Ruth and her sexual orientation, we have to wonder why honoring her father would have been a wish of hers. But sometimes, the mind is a curious thing.

We also see how Jenny and Dave first fell in love, what drew them together, and what has slowly pulled them apart. Does Dave know the secret life that Jenny and Amanda Ruth shared? Did he hope to rescue her from that life?

On the ship, Jenny meets a man named Graham. Theirs is a unique bond that grows with each day. What will Graham ask of Jenny before they part? What will happen to her afterwards?

The story had a mournful tone, with all the dreams and imaginings…and there were a few answers to some crucial questions as we moved along. But were they really answers, or more imaginings? I couldn’t stop reading this book, but it left me feeling disoriented…and a little sad. 4 stars.

REVIEW: THE NEST, BY CYNTHIA D’APRIX SWEENEY

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Set in Manhattan, sometime after the disastrous economic plunge, the adult Plumb children gather together for a lunch to try to sort through the losses of their trust, aptly called “The Nest.” And their agenda includes trying to find a way to persuade Leo to make things right.

Months ago, in another of his many reckless moves, Leo drunkenly crashed the car, seriously injuring his passenger, with whom he’d been having sex…and the repercussions were expensive. Unbeknownst to the others at the time, their mother Francie nearly drained the trust to pay off the family of the injured girl…and to cover Leo’s rehab.

They are all still stunned at what they see as their mother’s betrayal. After all, even though she is the executor of the trust, how could she so blatantly favor their older brother at their expense?

They were all waiting for the trust to pay out, some of them more desperate than others.

The Nest takes us through the historic events of their lives. Leo, as the oldest, is one of those charismatic characters who seems to gather people around him who are eager to help him, join him, and even look up to him. But his numerous bad choices over the years, and his apparent narcissistic focus, make him an unlikeable character and a sibling to abhor.

Bea, a writer whose early works are now a distant memory, is struggling to create something more…and works as an editor in the meantime, for a company called Paper Fibres. She still mourns the loss of her married lover Tucker…and that time in her life when everything seemed possible.

Jack and his partner Walker have a good life, but Walker is unaware of how Jack has borrowed against their vacation home, based on the expectation that the fund will pay out soon.

Melody, with twin daughters nearing college age, is also struggling, hoping for the money she had expected to come by her birthday, as per the terms of the trust. Her husband is trying to stifle her spending and talks about selling their home.

The twins, Louisa and Nora, are going through their own coming-of-age struggles, and I enjoyed seeing how their discoveries about themselves and life seemed so relevant against the backdrop of what was happening with the adults.

Then there is Stephanie, whose life is interconnected with the Plumbs in various ways. What will ultimately bring her life into sharp focus in unexpected ways, and despite the absence of Leo, be the final thread that joins her with the Plumbs?

The story weaves the past and the present together in such a way that I felt as though the characters were people I might meet. Even the supporting characters were fleshed out, enriching the tapestry that made each of their lives real. Moments of sadness, joy, and hope, in the past and in the future…moments that might escape them all unless Leo does the right thing, brought me into the midst of their dilemma, wanting to see how it would all unfold. Then the conclusion came, and although it was not what I thought it would be, it was truly satisfying. 5 stars.