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.

***
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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: 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.

***

REVIEW: PROMISE NOT TO TELL, BY JAYNE ANN KRENTZ

 

A painter of fiery, nightmarish visions throws herself into the sea—but she’ll leave some of her secrets behind…
 
Seattle gallery owner Virginia Troy has spent years battling the demons that stem from her childhood time in a cult and the night a fire burned through the compound, killing her mother. And now one of her artists has taken her own life, but not before sending Virginia a last picture: a painting that makes Virginia doubt everything about the so-called suicide—and her own past.
 
Like Virginia, private investigator Cabot Sutter was one of the children in the cult who survived that fire…and only he can help her now. As they struggle to unravel the clues in the painting, it becomes clear that someone thinks Virginia knows more than she does and that she must be stopped.

Thrown into an inferno of desire and deception, Virginia and Cabot draw ever closer to the mystery of their shared memories—and the shocking fate of the one man who still wields the power to destroy everything they hold dear.

My Thoughts: Two children who had escaped a burning barn fire in Quinton Zane’s cult 22 years ago are reunited in the early part of Promise Not to Tell. Cabot Sutter was one of the children, and Virginia Troy was another.

Before Hannah Brewster’s death, she had been sending paintings to Virginia, who owned an art gallery. Something in Hannah’s latest painting, of which Virginia has a photo, stirs up some questions.

Anson Salinas heads up a team of investigators, and because he raised three of the children saved from that fire, including Cabot, he has a vested interest in learning more secrets.

Set near Seattle and on one of the San Juan Islands, the story captured my interest from the beginning. There was a great mix of mysteries from the past and current attractions that kept me turning the pages.

What do Cabot and Virginia learn after another fire reveals some previously unknown connections? Why do some of the people in a high tech company show signs of nefarious intent?

I loved the mix of mystery and the hint of future normalcy, which included glimpses of other connections, like Virginia’s grandmother Octavia.

The hint that Quinton Zane might still be alive hovers over the story, and near the end, there is a suggestion of more drama and mystery ahead. A captivating 5 star read for me.

***

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.

***

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.

***