REVIEW: TELL ME EVERYTHING, BY AMY HATVANY

 

A happily married couple. A dance with a stranger at a bar.

One night—one seemingly insignificant choice—can change everything.

Jessica and Jake Snyder love each other, and their life together. Successful in their chosen careers, they reside in the picturesque, though at times stifling, Seattle suburb of Queens Ridge as they parent teenagers Ella and Tucker.

As so often happens in marriage, their romantic life falls casualty to busy schedules and repetitive routine, until one night, a stranger asks Jessica to dance. On a whim, Jake urges her to say yes, saying that he wants to watch this other man touch her, something that surprises Jessica by arousing her like never before. A door opens for them then, into a realm of exploration neither of them knew existed.

They create rules to protect their marriage, and are thrilled when their relationship is strengthened and enriched by deeper levels of communication and trust brought about by this exciting, but taboo behavior. That is, until Jessica keeps a secret from Jake and embarks on a tryst with an intriguing man from her past, who, when she tries to end things between them, decides to seek revenge.

What happens after that will threaten to destroy their world—and them.

Jessica, our first-person narrator in Tell Me Everything, boldly opens her story of sexual experimentation as part of her marriage, giving the reader a somewhat shocking introduction to their reasons for these choices, while keeping us intrigued throughout. As I got to know the characters and their history, all of which led to these outlets for them, I had that niggling sense that nothing would end well for them. Not because of their nontraditional choices, but because the scene was set early on for everything to unravel.

The story did veer off into unexpected places, and the effects on Jessica, Jake, and their family led to a closer scrutiny of their choices. In the end, they had the opportunity to work on their issues.

An interesting look at how social media can exacerbate the challenges in relationships brought another layer to the story. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE ISLAND HOUSE, BY NANCY THAYER

 

Courtney Hendricks will never forget the magical summers she spent on Nantucket with her college roommate, Robin Vickerey, and Robin’s charismatic, turbulent, larger-than-life family, in their gorgeous island house. Now a college English professor in Kansas City, Courtney is determined to experience one more summer in this sun-swept paradise. Her reason for going is personal: Courtney needs to know whether Robin’s brother James shares the feelings she’s secretly had for him.

Time with the Vickerey family always involves love and laughter, and this season is no different.

Vivacious matriarch Susanna Vickerey is celebrating her sixtieth birthday, but beneath the merriment, trouble is brewing. The family patriarch, Dr. Alastair Vickerey, is quiet and detached, while unspoken tension looms over oldest son Henry, a respected young surgeon. Warm and witty Robin, the most grounded of the siblings, is keeping a secret from her parents. Iris, the colorful baby of the brood, remains rudderless and in need of guidance. And the sexy, stunningly handsome, untouchable James—to Courtney’s dismay—may be in love with a beautiful and vibrant local artist. As the summer unfolds, a crisis escalates, surprising truths are revealed, and Courtney will at last find out where her heart and her future lie.

My Thoughts: I savored The Island House, a story of family, secrets, and chaotic upheavals in a gorgeous setting.

I liked Courtney right away, and I was also intrigued by her best friend Robin. Some of the other characters were less delightful, like Christabel, who was not a family member, but an island resident who always seemed to be around, making sarcastic remarks and stirring up trouble, while trying to be the center of attention.

James was the perfect hunk who distanced himself a bit…probably due to family issues involving the older brother Henry.

What will Courtney realize about herself as this final summer brings out revelations that show us more about what choices she should make?

The story flips back and forth in time, offering the reader a view of the events that defined the characters. The shifts in the time line were easy to follow, as they were presented in bold and smaller print.

A slow read that brought this colorful family full of interesting characters to life, the story captured me, making me feel a part of their lives and experiences; it kept me reading, even at times when I wanted the pace to speed up and take me to the final denouement. A satisfying tale that earned 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: CLOCK DANCE, BY ANNE TYLER

 

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother but isn’t sure she ever will be. Then, one day, Willa receives a startling phone call from a stranger. Without fully understanding why, she flies across the country to Baltimore to look after a young woman she’s never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and their dog, Airplane. This impulsive decision will lead Willa into uncharted territory–surrounded by eccentric neighbors who treat each other like family, she finds solace and fulfillment in unexpected places. A bewitching novel of hope and transformation, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

 

My Thoughts: In our journey through Clock Dance, we leap ahead to those defining moments in Willa’s life, from preteen years to the current time. What we learn about Willa and what she needed is how hopeful she always felt, while being basically unsatisfied. Her first husband, Derek, seemingly hijacked her life and her decisions, and even in his death, he was thinking only of himself as he made some fatal choices.

Motherhood was also a time of meeting the needs of others, while ignoring her own. The realization of what she had given up for family and for husbands would later come to awaken her to those unmet needs and how very important they suddenly were to her. Her second husband could have been someone to fill in those blanks in her life, but again, he was someone who met his own needs first.

I liked how Willa finally started making choices based on what she wanted and needed. Would she finally start to feel that fulfillment? Would an unexpected trip to Baltimore to help out her son’s ex-girlfriend offer the opportunity to surround herself with a collection of people who would begin to feel like an extended family? Could she learn that just when she thought she had to pick up her same old life, she could visualize a very different kind of life? One with room for the people and activities she longed to enjoy. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: MYSTIC SUMMER, BY HANNAH MCKINNON

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Maggie Griffin and Erika Crane have been best friends for many years, and now, while sharing an apartment in Boston’s Back Bay, their friendship is about to take another turn.

Erika and her fiancé Trent Mitchell are planning a summer wedding.

Meanwhile, Maggie is ending the school year, teaching at Darby, a private school, and her future as a teacher is up in the air due to budget cuts.

Will going home to Mystic, Connecticut, for Erika’s wedding help Maggie figure things out, even as she plays a supporting role for Erika through her wedding celebration?

Mystic Summer was a light and comfy tale about events that unexpectedly change the course we are on, and remind us of the people and places that make us feel at home.

I liked feeling as though I were right there in the lovely village, eating at Mystic Pizza, and remembering the movie that was set there…and walking along with the characters on the cobbled streets as they reminisced, and as they made decisions about who feels like home among their various acquaintances and friends.

I was definitely not a fan of Evan, Maggie’s boyfriend, an actor who had little time for her, but wanted everything to march to his tune. He liked everything neat and settled, so when anything was the least bit untidy, he liked cleaning it up. On his own, without consulting Maggie.

On the other hand, Maggie’s ex-boyfriend Cameron is back in town, with a baby girl in tow. The baby’s mother has left them, and he is handling it all on his own, with some help from his parents. And now Maggie feels a unique pull toward the baby girl, while remembering how Cam makes her feel. His life is definitely a little messy, a little chaotic…but it all clicks for Maggie.

Wonderful read that earned 4.5 stars from me.

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***

 

REVIEW: IN THE MIRROR, BY KAIRA ROUDA

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Jennifer Wells Benson is spending her last months of life in a treatment facility called Shady Valley. She has been through almost every cancer treatment available, plus some clinical trials…and while nobody is saying there is no hope, she is planning a big get-together to celebrate her life.

And she is looking back on the life she had. Like in a rear-view mirror.

At home are her beloved family, including her husband Henry, her three-year-old son Hank, and 18-month-old Hannah, who was just an infant when she was diagnosed.

Jennifer co-owns a store named Clothes the Loop, which I recognized from another book by the author, Here, Home, Hope. There were other characters from that story, like Kelly, who stages homes, and the annoying Rachel White.

From Jennifer’s past comes newly divorced Alexander Caldwell Thomas. He had been her boyfriend and first love, but she is sure she chose the right man when she married Henry. So why is Alex pursuing her? What motivates him? And why does he turn violent suddenly?

Jennifer’s self-absorbed sister Julie also seems to be spending a lot of time with Alex. What, exactly, is going on?

I loved meeting Ralph, another patient in the facility. He and Jennifer support each other and make their days of waiting seem more fulfilling.

In the Mirror is one of those stories that is sad, but beneath the sadness lies a ray of hope. Will the final clinical trial be the miracle Jennifer needs? Will going home, finally, be just what must happen in order for her life to be complete? As much as I wanted to know what lay ahead for her, I was also eager for the story to end. Too much sadness? In some ways, I thought Jennifer seemed a little too focused on herself, even though she had every reason to be. 3.5 stars.

REVIEW: WE NEVER ASKED FOR WINGS, BY VANESSA DIFFENBAUGH

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When Letty Espinoza took off in her car to stop her mother from going to Mexico, she had left behind her two children, alone in the apartment.

Hers had truly been an act of desperation. She had given birth to her fifteen-year-old son Alex when she was just a teenager, and her mother, Maria Elena, had taken over the responsibility of raising him. Letty worked three jobs to support the family, and when she had her second child, Luna, now six, she had hoped to try again to be a parent. But it was too easy to allow Maria Elena to continue in this role, and Letty felt incapable of the task.

Would she now be forced to try her wings as a parent? Before she could move ahead, though, there would be a final plea in Mexico, and then she would head home. But an accident along the way would derail her plan.

How would Letty finally learn to step up as a parent? How could she make up for her virtual abandonment for the past fifteen years? And how would Alex’s father Wes change her plans for the future?

Obstacles arise with Alex and his new girlfriend, who has complex issues that none of them could foresee. Changing schools to improve Alex’s chances for a better future might be just what he needs, but could it also lead to a gigantic misstep that would leave all of them floundering?

The characters in We Never Asked for Wings: A Novel were believable and easy to root for. Mistakes were made by everyone at one point or another, but the beautifully rendered story brought to light timely themes of motherhood, undocumented immigration, and how striving to reach the American dream can lead to unexpected outcomes. 5 stars.

REVIEW: THE COMFORT OF LIES, BY RANDY SUSAN MEYERS

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Set in and around Boston, The Comfort of Lies: A Novel delves into the lives of three women, and what event led to the connections between them.

It starts with Tia Adagio, a young woman working in a senior citizens’ program, and how she becomes attached to a young professor named Nathan Soros.

Their affair was more important to Tia than it was to him, apparently, as he leaves her after she announces her pregnancy. He goes home to his wife Juliette and two sons, and although he confesses the affair to his wife, he leaves out some vital information.

Peter and Caroline Fitzgerald adopt the baby girl, whom they name Savannah. To Tia, she will always be “Honor,” the name she had picked out. And the adoption is somewhat open, in that Peter and Caroline send photos once a year.

Fast forward five years, and Tia makes a decision that will ultimately change everything for the three families, and will bring the women together in surprising ways.

Alternate perspectives reveal the story to the reader, and we see how Tia struggles with depression and how it affects her job performance. How she turns to someone else who might be able to rescue her. And then what leads to her ultimate decision for her life.

Juliette will be drawn into the mix when she stumbles upon something unexpected.

Caroline, a pediatric pathologist, is all about her work, so being a mother is especially challenging for her. Sometimes she feels that she is not really a good mother. The unfolding of events set in motion by Tia and Juliette help her to change things in her life.

How each of the women face what happened and learn how to craft new lives for themselves, without hiding important truths, is the crux of the story. I thought that the nice ending might have been a little pat, but it left me with a smile on my face. So…4.5 stars.

REVIEW: LILLIAN ON LIFE, BY ALISON JEAN LESTER

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Lillian lived life on her own terms. What that meant, over the years, was that people came and went in her life. There were always men, relationships, and friendships, but they were in a constant state of flux. She had her work, she traveled, and she hoped to finally be with Ted, the love of her life, who was married.

Born in the 1930s in the Midwest, Lillian came of age in a time of changing roles and expectations. Despite the expectations of those around her, she remained single and childless. The story sweeps across time from the 30s into the 90s, when Lillian is around sixty-something.

Lillian on Life is her story, and she tells it in her first person narrative, in a non-linear style. Sections are divided into defining moments of her life, beginning in childhood and ending at a point in which she is reflecting about what comes next.

I like this section that sums up some of her conclusions:

“The culture shock of Europe knocked the ability to judge other people’s behavior right out of me. Nobody came from where I came from or felt what I felt, so I adapted. Gay men loved how unconventionally I lived, I think. But I wanted to get married and have children. That had been the plan. Lovers and wine, cigarettes and skinny black clothes–those were the detritus on the rings circling the planet of my dreams. I was in orbit and I couldn’t find my way across the void.”

My feelings about the book ranged from elation at the thrill of Lillian’s adventures to the sadness as she neared the end of her life. Her cumulative losses felt like a high price to pay for living on her own terms. A book that I will remember, but which is not one of my favorites. I recommend it for those who enjoy the narrative style that feels like a memoir, and delves into a person’s choices and reflections about them. 4.0 stars.