REVIEW: WITHOUT MERIT, BY COLLEEN HOOVER

 

 

The Voss family is anything but normal. They live in a repurposed church, newly baptized Dollar Voss. The once cancer-stricken mother lives in the basement, the father is married to the mother’s former nurse, the little half-brother isn’t allowed to do or eat anything fun, and the eldest siblings are irritatingly perfect. Then, there’s Merit.

Merit Voss collects trophies she hasn’t earned and secrets her family forces her to keep. While browsing the local antiques shop for her next trophy, she finds Sagan. His wit and unapologetic idealism disarm and spark renewed life into her—until she discovers that he’s completely unavailable. Merit retreats deeper into herself, watching her family from the sidelines, when she learns a secret that no trophy in the world can fix.

Fed up with the lies, Merit decides to shatter the happy family illusion that she’s never been a part of before leaving them behind for good. When her escape plan fails, Merit is forced to deal with the staggering consequences of telling the truth and losing the one boy she loves.

My Thoughts: In Merit’s first person narrative, we follow the story in Without Merit. It is easy to empathize with her pain, as she is up front about how she feels in her family. Excluded, ignored, and blamed for everything that goes wrong.

When she meets Sagan in an antique store, he kisses her, mistaking her for her identical twin Honor; after he realizes his error and backs away, her feelings of self-worth plummet. Over the next couple of weeks, she shuts herself off from everyone while she clings to some mistaken thoughts and feelings about the relationship between Sagan and Honor.

Seeing events from Merit’s point of view, it was easy to hate on Honor, her brother Utah, and even the newest house guest, Luck, who turned out to be stepmother Victoria’s half-brother. Just when I thought I couldn’t hate the rest of her family more, a near tragic event forced a turnaround, and they all began to share their feelings with one another. After a lot of in-fighting and anger in the process, big secrets came out, including what none of them knew about their agoraphobic mother who has been living in the basement.

Can a family as dysfunctional as the Voss tribe discover new ways to relate to one another? Can Merit realize that the family will not be better off without her?

The story held its share of melodrama, but since the characters were mostly teenagers, their reactions to events were probably on target. I loved the story in the beginning, and then I started to find all the characters annoying. The positive feelings took a dive when the family did an abrupt about face, which seemed a bit unrealistic. I do like stories with hopeful endings, however, so this one earned 4 stars.

***
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REVIEW: THE SURROGATE, BY LOUISE JENSEN

 

Kat and her husband Nick have tried everything to become parents. All they want is a child to love but they are beginning to lose hope. Then a chance encounter with Kat’s childhood friend Lisa gives them one last chance. 

Kat and Lisa were once as close as sisters. The secrets they share mean their trust is for life… Or is it?

Just when the couple’s dream seems within reach, Kat begins to suspect she’s being watched and Nick is telling her lies.

Are the cracks appearing in Kat’s perfect picture of the future all in her head, or should she be scared for the lives of herself and her family?

My Thoughts: From the very beginning of The Surrogate, I was worried about Kat and Nick’s plan to use her childhood friend Lisa as their surrogate. There were so many red flags for me, and I thought that Kat should have been more wary. There were the secrets and lies about what happened to Jake, Lisa’s twin; and then there was something between Lisa and a troubled boy Aaron that suggested some kind of conspiracy between them.

Was Lisa lying about being pregnant? Why did she keep demanding more money from Kat and Nick? Why does she keep Kat away from the doctor appointments?

Then there was Nick’s childhood friend Richard, who is cold and secretive, too. What is he hiding? Did he sabotage Kat and Nick’s attempted adoptions?

Kat’s fears grow along with her suspicions. Who, if anyone, can she trust? Can she even trust Nick, who seems to be lying about so many things? Is he having an affair?

When the answers to the questions are finally revealed, it might be too late for any of them. I couldn’t stop turning the pages, and I didn’t see the truth taking the shape that it did. What I had suspected turned into something completely different…and almost unbelievable. 4 stars.

***

 

REVIEW: CARDINAL CABIN, BY JOANNE DEMAIO

 

Frank Lombardo’s never been spontaneous. The closest he’s come was accepting a side job chopping firewood for a lakeside community of rustic cabins. But with another lonely holiday season imminent, Frank’s sister urges him to be spontaneous because, seriously, who does he ever expect to meet out in the woods?

With a suitcase in hand and a bit of reluctance, too, Penny Hart arrives at Cardinal Cabin on Snowflake Lake. It’s only for a brief stay, though nobody knows where she is. Not her boss, not her friends…

Only Frank Lombardo. As the two unexpectedly meet at Addison’s hidden hideaway, a spontaneous kiss sets everything amiss. But can the magic of this quaint New England town keep these snowy sweethearts together?

My Thoughts: Winter in New England comes alive in Cardinal Cabin, as the author paints gorgeous word pictures of the snowy setting and gifts us with images of the interiors. I could see the little cabin that Penny Hart has rented, from the outside cardinal door knocker to the milk can holding sprigs of pine needles…and can sense how she might feel as though she has stepped into a Christmas card. We follow her as she immerses herself in her surroundings.

And then there is Frank Lombardo, the man who is not spontaneous, suddenly captivated by Penny with the copper hair. He is chopping wood when he hears her cry out; she has slipped and fallen. Picking her up leads to an unexpected and spontaneous connection.

Familiar characters reappear in Addison, where I’ve enjoyed visits in previous books. I like how the old favorite characters return, and then we meet some new ones. And along the way, we get to visit places like the Snowflakes & Coffee Cakes and Whole Latte shops.

The romance between Frank and Penny grows unexpectedly. Meanwhile, Penny settles in to her vacation, snapping photos to email to her office: she is a travel agent at Suitcase Escapes, and a contest is going on at the agency. Contestants must guess where Penny has gone for her getaway. She doesn’t like to travel, so her clever destination choice keeps her close to what she loves.

Near misses, some hilarious disguises, and a bad storm follow. Will the new pairing survive the New England winter and the hiding out required by the contest? Can a misunderstanding derail what they have begun? A beautifully wrought tale that made me want to spend Christmas in Addison, along with the characters. 5 stars.

 ***

REVIEW: A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE, BY SHARI LAPENA

Karen and Tom Krupp are happy—they’ve got a lovely home in upstate New York, they’re practically newlyweds, and they have no kids to interrupt their comfortable life together. But one day, Tom returns home to find Karen has vanished—her car’s gone and it seems she left in a rush. She even left her purse—complete with phone and ID—behind.

There’s a knock on the door—the police are there to take Tom to the hospital where his wife has been admitted. She had a car accident, and lost control as she sped through the worst part of town.

The accident has left Karen with a concussion and a few scrapes.  Still, she’s mostly okay—except that she can’t remember what she was doing or where she was when she crashed. The cops think her memory loss is highly convenient, and they suspect she was up to no good. 

Karen returns home with Tom, determined to heal and move on with her life. Then she realizes something’s been moved. Something’s not quite right. Someone’s been in her house. And the police won’t stop asking questions.

Because in this house, everyone’s a stranger. Everyone has something they’d rather keep hidden. Something they might even kill to keep quiet.

My Thoughts: A story that wrapped itself around me from the first page, A Stranger in the House takes us into the world of Karen and Tom, living in upstate New York in a lovely neighborhood. But then, one night, everything changed.

Karen’s accident in a sketchy neighborhood left her with amnesia, but also with detectives appearing on her doorstep regularly, asking questions, looking at her as if they don’t believe her. They even turn their skepticism on Tom. Because now it is not just an investigation into an accident, but something more happened that night, and Karen and Tom are both looking like suspects.

Across the street, Brigid is watching, too. Supposedly Karen’s best friend, she has secrets…and reasons to keep them. Why is she obsessed with Tom and Karen?

Besides the cops and the investigation, there is more. Who is skulking around in Karen’s house, moving things, messing things up just enough that she will know it?

I am one of those people who always knows when someone has moved my things, just a bit. It drives me mad! Karen cleverly has started taking photos before she leaves the house. What will she discover?

A captivating story that held me in its grip until the very end, not knowing who to trust and who might be the stranger in the house. Then came a stunning twist I did not expect. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS, BY MICHAEL ROBOTHAM

 

Agatha is pregnant and works part-time stocking shelves at a grocery store in a ritzy London suburb, counting down the days until her baby is due. As the hours of her shifts creep by in increasing discomfort, the one thing she looks forward to at work is catching a glimpse of Meghan, the effortlessly chic customer whose elegant lifestyle dazzles her. Meghan has it all: two perfect children, a handsome husband, a happy marriage, a stylish group of friends, and she writes perfectly droll confessional posts on her popular parenting blog—posts that Agatha reads with devotion each night as she waits for her absent boyfriend, the father of her baby, to maybe return her calls.

When Agatha learns that Meghan is pregnant again, and that their due dates fall within the same month, she finally musters up the courage to speak to her, thrilled that they now have the ordeal of childbearing in common. Little does Meghan know that the mundane exchange she has with a grocery store employee during a hurried afternoon shopping trip is about to change the course of her not-so-perfect life forever…

My Thoughts: I was caught up in the lives of the alternating narrators of The Secrets She Keeps. Both Agatha and Meghan have secrets, but we only learn them in bits and pieces as the story unfolds. Sadness and incredible loss greet Agatha each day of her life. For Meghan, disappointment and betrayal are a familiar part of her world, despite what her life looks like to others.

Meghan’s life seemed perfect on the surface, but the cracks in the veneer began to appear about the same time that we realize that Agatha is a bit of a stalker. Why is Agatha spying on Meghan, and what does she plan to do about what she discovers? How will Meghan keep her own secrets hidden?

At first, I couldn’t believe what was happening, so I focused completely on their lives as the incredible events began to reveal themselves to us.

Like lives on a collision course, the world for each of these women is teetering and spinning out of control. Who will still be standing when it is over? Or is there hope for them both?

To avoid spoilers, I will say no more about what happens to the women and the families at the center of it all. Suffice it to say that I was riveted to the pages of this five star read.

***

REVIEW: LOVE LETTERS, BY DEBBIE MACOMBER

Summer is a busy season at the inn, so proprietor Jo Marie Rose and handyman Mark Taylor have spent a lot of time together keeping the property running. Despite some folks’ good-natured claims to the contrary, Jo Marie insists that Mark is only a friend. However, she seems to be thinking about this particular friend a great deal lately. Jo Marie knows surprisingly little about Mark’s life, due in no small part to his refusal to discuss it. She’s determined to learn more about his past, but first she must face her own—and welcome three visitors who, like her, are setting out on new paths.
 
Twenty-three-year-old Ellie Reynolds is taking a leap of faith. She’s come to Cedar Cove to meet Tom, a man she’s been corresponding with for months, and with whom she might even be falling in love. Ellie’s overprotective mother disapproves of her trip, but Ellie is determined to spread her wings.
 
Maggie and Roy Porter are next to arrive at the inn. They are taking their first vacation alone since their children were born. In the wake of past mistakes, they hope to rekindle the spark in their marriage—and to win back each other’s trust. But Maggie must make one last confession that could forever tear them apart.
My Thoughts: One of my favorite things about this author’s books is how she draws the reader into the settings and the middle of the characters’ lives. The stories are predictable, but comforting.

How can you help but empathize with each of them, with their troubles, their disappointments, and their memories of love?

Ellie was a character who had always felt abandoned by her father, and the way her grandparents and mother disparaged him only exacerbated those feelings. So she prickles whenever her mother offers her opinions about her new online romance that is now about to go “real.” Meeting Tom in Cedar Cove is a big step out of her comfort zone.

For Maggie and Roy, there seems no hope to repair their crumbling marriage. But Maggie brings along the love letter Roy sent her years before when they were apart. A letter that healed the breach. But will her big secret change everything?

Meanwhile, Jo Marie is still grieving her husband’s death, and a love letter she received afterwards, one he had written “just in case,” could make all the difference.

Mark Taylor, the handyman, was an annoying character who seemed to do everything in his power to irritate Jo Marie. Was it a game with him? Or was he trying to push her away for some reason?

Finding some of the answers in Love Letters would keep me turning the pages. In the end, I had the sense that there would be more to the story…in a future book. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: SECRETS IN SUMMER, BY NANCY THAYER

 

Memorial Day weekend means that seasonal visitors have descended on the glamorous island of Nantucket. For year-round resident Darcy Cotterill, it means late-night stargazing in the backyard of the beautiful house she grew up in and inherited from her beloved grandmother. It’s also Darcy’s chance to hit the beach and meet her new summertime neighbors. But the last person the thirty-year-old librarian expects to see staying next door is her ex-husband, Boyz, along with his wife, Autumn, and stepdaughter, Willow.

Darcy must also navigate the highs and lows of a new romantic relationship with local carpenter Nash Forester even as she becomes smitten with handsome vacationer Clive Rush, a musicologist in town to write a book and visit family. And she finds herself pulled into the concerns of Boyz, Autumn, a charming elderly neighbor, and an at-risk teen.

As the season nears its end, Darcy must decide her next move: retreating to the comforts of her steady and secure island life, or risking it all for a chance at true happiness.


My Thoughts: Swept away by the author’s descriptions of the homes, gardens, people, summer events, and the magic of the island, I savored every page in Secrets in Summer. I felt an immediate connection to Darcy, whose grandmother Penny had raised her, having had a special relationship with my own grandmother. I could understand why she loved the home that had belonged to her, and where she grew up.

I could visualize the backyard gardens that were close together, separated only by hedges, which also lent themselves to unique connections. When Darcy found out that her ex-husband Boyz and his new wife were renting the house next door, I anticipated that there would be awkward moments. And there were, but what I didn’t expect was the relationship that would develop between Darcy and Boyz’s stepdaughter Willow.

In the rental house on the other side of Darcy’s were an elderly woman Mimi and her grandson Clive. Mimi was like a surrogate grandmother, but her vivid personality and her tendency to openly share her thoughts made her a more modern day version of Penny. All the new and old friends shared the delights of the season.

Themes of friendships, even those transitory summer connections, kept me interested throughout, as did the drama from Willow, who turned out to be a more likable teen than we usually see in fiction…or real life. Would Darcy find a permanent love connection with her lover, Nash, or might she choose someone new? A delightful story that made me long to visit Nantucket and find some summer friends that might even last through the seasons. 5 stars.

 ***

REVIEW: A MOTHER’S CONFESSION, BY KELLY RIMMER

 

Your husband took his own life. Tell the truth and destroy what’s left of your family. Or keep a secret that will tear you apart. What would you do?

Olivia and David were the perfect couple with their whole lives in front of them. When beautiful baby daughter Zoe came along, their world seemed complete.

But now David is dead and Olivia’s world is in pieces. While she is consumed with grief, her mother-in-law Ivy is also mourning the loss of her son. Both women are hiding secrets about the man they loved. Secrets that have put the family in danger.

Something was very wrong in Olivia and David’s marriage. Can Olivia and Ivy break their silence and speak the truth? A mother should protect her child, whatever the cost… shouldn’t she?

MY THOUGHTS:
In alternating perspectives and over different timelines, Olivia, the wife, and Ivy, David’s mother, tell their stories, set in a small Australian village.

The “confession” part of the title could be seen from both sides, since each has played a role in how events unfolded. It is clear from the beginning of A Mother’s Confession that violence and domestic abuse are central themes. As for Ivy, David’s mother, her denial is the kind that allows abuse to continue and proliferate. She was the kind of mother who saw no wrong in anything her son did, from a very early age. And as for Olivia, her inability to accept that the abuse was not going to go away and that David would not change contributed to the final outcomes.

We do not learn all the details of that event, referred to as The Tragedy, the one that claimed David’s life, except in bits and pieces, and then, near the end, we are blindsided by the missing part of the puzzle that literally stunned me.

There were many clues along the way. Why was Olivia unable to function for months after her husband’s death? Since he was her abuser, wouldn’t she be feeling some relief? And why is Dr. Eric still making house calls for such a long period afterwards?

The therapy sessions also revealed details along the way, but slowly, leading us to realize that whatever we were about to discover would be huge, and would burst through a thick veneer of denial. The story was frustrating, in that we knew from the early pages that nothing good was going to happen. But by the end, there was a glimmer of hope that Olivia could move on and make a new life. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE SECRETS YOU KEEP, BY KATE WHITE

 

What would you do if you realized that your new husband, a man you adore, is keeping secrets from you—secrets with terrifying consequences?

Bryn Harper, an accomplished self-help author, already has plenty to deal with. She’s still recovering from a devastating car accident that has left her haunted by recurring, smoke-filled nightmares. Worse still, she can’t shake the ominous feeling her dreams contain a warning. 

In the beginning, Bryn’s husband Guy couldn’t have been more supportive. But after moving into a new house together, disturbing incidents occur and Guy grows evasive, secretive. What the hell is going on, she wonders? Then, a woman hired to cater their dinner party is brutally murdered.

As Bryn’s world unravels—and yet another woman in town is slain —she must summon her old strength to find answers and protect her own life. Her nightmares may in fact hold the key to unlocking the truth and unmasking the murderer.

My Thoughts: What an exciting premise! I was captivated by the unfolding scenarios in The Secrets You Keep. There were so many characters to distrust that it was impossible to pinpoint who might be a murderer. But in the midst of it all, we also learned a lot more about some past events: the night of Bryn’s car accident and what her colleague, Paul, was trying to tell her, leading to understanding the disturbing elements of her nightmares.

From the beginning, I didn’t like Guy. He was too mercurial, with charming overtures that rapidly turned sullen; lashing out at the slightest questioning was another familiar reaction.

Eve, the caterer, was also blatantly unlikable, making her a target for my suspicion. There were also a handful of characters that I didn’t like, but who turned out not to figure into the murder mystery.

I was a little surprised that one of the annoying characters turned out to be the perpetrator, but I like not being able to guess everything right away. I would have enjoyed a closer look into Bryn’s world as an author, so I gave this one 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE FIFTH LETTER, BY NICOLA MORIARTY

A fun vacation game turns destructive, exposing dark secrets, deeply buried grudges, and a shocking betrayal in Nicola Moriarity’s intriguing debut.

Four friends . . .
Joni, Deb, Eden, and Trina have been best friends since high school, sharing a bond that has seen them through their teenage years and into adulthood. But now, time and circumstance is starting to pull them apart as careers, husbands, and babies get in the way. As their yearly vacation becomes less of a priority—at least for three of the women—how can Joni find a way to draw the four of them back together?

Four secrets . . .
During a laughter and wine-filled night, the women dare one another to write anonymous letters, spilling their deepest, darkest secrets. But the fun game turns devastating, exposing cracks in their lives and the friendship they share. Each letter is a dark confession revealing shocking information. A troubled marriage? A substance abuse problem? A secret pregnancy? A heartbreaking diagnosis?

Five letters . . .
Late on one of their last nights together, after the other three have gone to bed, Joni notices something in the fireplace—a burnt, crumpled, nearly destroyed, sheet of paper that holds the most shattering revelation of all. It is a fifth letter—a hate-filled rant that exposes a vicious, deeply hidden grudge that has festered for decades. But who wrote it? Which one of them has seethed with resentment all these years? What should Joni do?

My Thoughts: My eyes were glued to the pages as the stories in The Fifth Letter unfolded. There were many versions of these women, and the secrets, when revealed, would stun each of them.

But even after they thought they had told all, secrets and lies remained. I did not like the women very much, as they were pretty self-absorbed and competitive with one another. Especially Eden and Joni.

I did enjoy the alternate conversation between Joni and Father O’Reilly, a priest and former psychologist. His advice, his observations, and his very “un-churchy” view of life made me wonder more about him.

Guessing about who wrote that fifth letter, which we get to “read” along with Joni, kept me busy. I was going back and forth between two of the characters, but not until after the vacation, when the women and their husbands got together at Eden’s house for dinner, did it all come out. And then there was chaos, a little danger, and more to come. An epilogue shows us a peek into each of their futures. 4.5 stars.

***