REVIEW: THE IDENTICALS, BY ELIN HILDERBRAND

Harper Frost is laid-back, easygoing. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. She likes a beer and a shot and wouldn’t be caught dead wearing anything fashionable. She’s inherited her father’s rundown house on Martha’s Vineyard, but she can’t hold down a job, and her latest romantic disaster has the entire island talking.

Two beautiful islands only eleven miles apart.

Tabitha Frost is dignified, refined. She prefers a fine wine and has inherited the impeccable taste of her mother, the iconic fashion designer Eleanor Roxie-Frost. She’s also inherited her mother’s questionable parenting skills–Tabitha’s teenage daughter, Ainsley, is in full rebellion mode–and a flailing fashion boutique on Nantucket in desperate need of a cash infusion.

One unforgettable summer that will change their lives forever.

After more than a decade apart, Harper and Tabitha switch islands–and lives–to save what’s left of their splintered family. But the twins quickly discover that the secrets, lies, and gossip they thought they’d outrun can travel between islands just as easily as they can. Will Harper and Tabitha be able to bury the hatchet and end their sibling rivalry once and for all? Before the last beach picnic of the season, there will be enough old resentments, new loves, and cases of mistaken identity to make this the most talked-about summer that Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have experienced in ages.

My Thoughts: I loved the alternating narrators in The Identicals. Harper Frost, living on Martha’s Vineyard with her father Billy has been estranged from her twin Tabitha for fourteen years.

Something happened all those years ago that kept them apart. On Nantucket, Tabitha is struggling with raising Ainsley, her rebellious teen, and she would love nothing more than to escape.

When Billy dies, there is a reunion of sorts…but it does not go well. Someone mistakes Tabitha for Harper and throws a drink in her face.

Harper has definitely stirred up some animosity from the folks on the Vineyard, so when she and Tabitha change places, what could happen next?

I loved how they each stepped into the other’s life, sort of, and something about this exchange stirs up in me a bit of empathy for the other.

Finding love on the “wrong” island could be just what the two need in order to forge a reconciliation. I found myself rooting for each of them, as I stepped into the perspective of who happened to be narrating. A five star read for me.

 ***

REVIEW: BEFORE WE WERE YOURS, BY LISA WINGATE

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

My Thoughts: The alternating narrators in Before We Were Yours kept me intrigued throughout. Sometimes I couldn’t wait to get back to Rill’s storyline in the 1930s, as there was a lot of intensity as she described the horrors of her life in the orphanage.

But then I became caught up in Avery’s story as she began to put the pieces together and discover the connections between the past and the present.

How is May Crandall connected to Avery’s Grandma Judy? What brought them together, and what tore them apart?

As more and more discoveries are unveiled, I could not stop reading. A story that resonated, since I spent years as a social worker putting families back together again. Families torn asunder always tug at my heartstrings. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE OTHER GIRL, BY ERICA SPINDLER

 

Officer Miranda Rader of the Harmony, Louisiana PD is known for her honesty, integrity, and steady hand in a crisis—but that wasn’t always so. Miranda comes from the town of Jasper, a place about the size of a good spit on a hot day, and her side of the tracks was the wrong one. She’s worked hard to earn the respect of her coworkers and the community.

When Miranda and her partner are called to investigate the murder of one of the town’s most beloved college professors, they’re unprepared for the brutality of the scene. This murder is unlike any they’ve ever investigated, and just when Miranda thinks she’s seen the worst of it, she finds a piece of evidence that chills her to the core: a faded newspaper clipping about that terrible night fifteen years ago. The night she’d buried, along with her past and the girl she’d been back then. Until now that grave had stayed sealed…except for those times, in the deepest part of the night, when the nightmares came: of a crime no one believed happened and the screams of the girl they believed didn’t exist.

Then another man turns up dead, this one a retired cop. Not just any cop—the one who took her statement that night. Two murders, two very different men, two killings that on the surface had nothing in common—except Miranda.

My Thoughts: From the opening pages of The Other Girl, the reader is wrapped up in a tantalizing tale that will reveal itself in all its complexities as it sweeps back and forth in time. From 2002, when Miranda Rader was a girl called Randi, a girl desperately needing help, but who was not believed because of her history, we find out about a traumatic experience. One that changes her life.

In the present, she has been a good cop with integrity. But suddenly everything is changing, and the Chief who had believed in her is suddenly distrustful…and doing inexplicable things. Is he on the take? Who is he protecting? Even her partner Jake is seemingly there for her…and then not. Who can she trust?

I couldn’t stop rapidly turning pages, trying to sort through the host of possible perpetrators and all the red herrings, trying to find out who might be setting up Miranda as the perp. Someone wise said to her: “Why is this happening? And who is doing it?” Once she figured that out, she would have the answer. And she did, by going back to the beginning of it all. Surprising twists soon led down just the right pathways. 5 stars.


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

REVIEW: EMMA IN THE NIGHT, BY WENDY WALKER

One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime.
My Thoughts: Emma in the Night was a story that began when Cassandra Tanner came home, three years after she and her sister Emma had disappeared. Jonathan and Judy Martin remained at the family home, and when Judy opened the door upon Cass’s knock, she didn’t seem to recognize her daughter. Or was she pretending?

Alternating narrators take us from the past to the present and back again, weaving together a tale of a narcissistic mother, a cruel stepfather and his equally cruel son, and two sisters who learned at an early age that love means playing tricks and resorting to emotional weapons. A bitter custody battle, a home that was a battleground, and uncertainty of one’s place in the world or in the family would create the kinds of scenarios that unfold in this novel.

Dr. Abigail (Abby) Winter and Leo Strauss are FBI agents tasked with interviewing Cass and her family. The stories Cass tells are interspersed with her reflections and thoughts about past events. She constructs a story that will capture the interest of the media and the agents…and then, at some point, the story starts unraveling as Abby realizes that some things about Cass’s tale feel contrived. They don’t quite add up.

I thought it was interesting that Cass referred to her mother as Mrs. Martin, even to her face. It was clear that there was no love lost between them, although Judy Martin, the mother, was good at putting a perfect face on things. Sometimes she could even fool her daughters, making them believe that she loved them. She definitely needed to “win” whatever battle they were playing, garnering all the attention from whoever happened to be in the room.

Very cleverly drawn, the characters felt real, while their actions had me wondering what to believe, even as I wanted everything to come together in a picture perfect way at the end.

Abby’s narratives were astute and it was clear that she had expertise with the narcissistic personality due to her own family life. Sometimes she worried that she wasn’t objective, but in the end, her assessment was spot on.

I liked how we slowly discovered the truth…and then were left with a bit of hope, along with some fear for the future. 5 stars.


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

REVIEW: BAD HOUSEKEEPING, BY MAIA CHANCE

When 28-year-old Agnes Blythe, the contented bifocals-wearing half of an academic power couple, is jilted by her professor boyfriend for the town Pilates instructor, her future is suddenly less than certain. So when her glamorous, eccentric Great Aunt Effie arrives in town and offers a job helping to salvage the condemned Stagecoach Inn, what does Agnes have to lose? But work at the inn has barely begun when the unlikely duo find the body of manipulative Kathleen Todd, with whom Agnes and Effie both have recently had words. Words strong enough to land them at the top of the suspect list.

The pair have clearly been framed, but no one else seems interested in finding the real murderer and Agnes and Effie’s sleuthing expertise is not exactly slick. Nevertheless, they’re soon investigating a suspect list with laundry dirtier than a middle school soccer team’s and navigating threats, car chases, shotgun blasts, and awkward strolls down memory lane.

My Thoughts: Bad Housekeeping is a delightfully fun cozy mystery that brings realistic characters and hilarious situations to the reader. I liked Agnes right away, although some of her behavior made her seem a bit scatter brained, like leaving the apartment she had shared with Roger, the professor, without her wallet, contacts, and phone charger. She also left most of her clothes behind, so in the early scenes, she is wearing ill-fitting outfits she finds at her dad’s house, clothes she wore in high school.

She spends several days without bothering to rectify this situation, and when she and her Aunt Effie start trying to figure out who framed them, they don’t seem to plan their actions very well, either, leading to skirmishes with the pot-growing farmer who is shooting at them when they try to leave his property; altercations with assorted others; and many other ill-timed encounters.

There are some run-ins with her ex, Roger, while he is out and about with his new Pilates instructor girlfriend. He seems so pompous and egocentric, seemingly rubbing her nose in his new relationship that I had to wonder why she is grieving for him at all.

As the duo of Agnes and Aunt Effie take off in pursuit of clues, their actions seem so random and unplanned. They keep following an assortment of suspects with no real idea of possible motives, and their pursuits don’t really point anywhere. Despite their erratic efforts, I found myself enjoying them as they tried to find answers.

Then, suddenly, their efforts look like they are leading somewhere. I could not stop reading, and just when Agnes seemed to have her eye on the killer, an unexpected twist at the last minute brings her face to face with someone else…and in grave danger. A fun read. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE BEST OF US, BY JOYCE MAYNARD

 

In 2011, when she was in her late fifties, beloved author and journalist Joyce Maynard met the first true partner she had ever known. Jim wore a rakish hat over a good head of hair; he asked real questions and gave real answers; he loved to see Joyce shine, both in and out of the spotlight; and he didn’t mind the mess she made in the kitchen. He was not the husband Joyce imagined, but he quickly became the partner she had always dreamed of.

Before they met, both had believed they were done with marriage, and even after they married, Joyce resolved that no one could alter her course of determined independence. Then, just after their one-year wedding anniversary, her new husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During the nineteen months that followed, as they battled his illness together, she discovered for the first time what it really meant to be a couple–to be a true partner and to have one.

My Thoughts: I am a big fan of the author, and have read a couple of her memoirs already, so I was happy for the opportunity to travel with her and her husband on this journey.

I could relate to being single a long time after a previous marriage, and how sharing one’s life with a partner, even someone you truly love, would have its adjustments.

Imagine, then, that once the two of them had found compromises and wonderful ways to be together, how truly devastating such a diagnosis would be. I admired the way they made a full time job out of searching for treatments, and how this new journey in their partnership would open up new ways to be together. Their “new normal” was not what they had wished for, but it was what they had. And they were together, working toward a common goal.

One thing I’ve learned about Joyce Maynard’s writing: she speaks her truth, even if it does not always put her in a flattering light. She tells of her flaws and foibles, her missteps, and even the negative feelings she might have about her situation. Who wouldn’t want a less challenging road to travel? But it was their road together, so it would be the path she treasured.

As death drew close, the author writes: “I was a different person than the woman I’d been eighteen months earlier. Grief and pain had been harsh, but they had served as teachers. We had been through a conflagration, the two of us, and I would have given anything to have avoided it, but we’d emerged like two blackened vessels from the forge.” The ordeal “had turned us into two people we might never have become if the disease had spared Jim. Better ones, though only one of us would survive this.”

As I reached the final page of The Best of Us, tears flowed as I took in the beauty of a love discovered later in life, a love that lasted just a few years, but turned out to be a forever love. 5 stars.
***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: THE COMFORT OF OTHERS, BY KAY LANGDALE

When we first meet Max, the eleven-year-old boy living with a single mother, we see him using a Dictaphone, taping his thoughts. Then one day, he looks across to the house next door, the one at the center of the compound, and sees Minnie, who appears to be writing in a diary.

Caught up in the alternating narratives of Max and Minnie, we are soon immersed in the story of their lives, and my empathy peaked, until I couldn’t wait for the next episode from each of them.

Eleven-year-old Max is frustrated by the changes in his life after his single mother connects with the man who fixes the boiler. A man unnamed, who seems annoying, at the very least, and somewhat verbally abusive. His teen daughter is a bully, and Max discovers how to deal with her, but I attribute his ability to do so from his newly found connection to Minnie.

Minnie is elderly, living with her older sister Clara, in Rosemount, the home at the center of the compound. Minnie’s writings in her diary recount events from the past that she has kept secret, specifically what happened to her in the early 1960s.

Set in England, The Comfort of Others takes place in the present, but veers into the past through Minnie’s entries. Max’s tapes are about his summer in the present, but also reveal how the intrusion of his mother’s new boyfriend has impacted his life.

My favorite parts were when Max and Minnie share their feelings with each other, and Minnie gives Max some ideas about how to deal with his mother’s boyfriend. He stands up for himself, expressing his feelings bravely and directly.

Minnie and Clara make life-altering decisions that sprang from Minnie’s ability to resurrect the secrets of the past and look at events in a new light.

An interesting story about friendship, secrets, and how communication can change lives. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: ANOTHER BROOKLYN, BY JACQUELINE WOODSON

Running into a long-ago friend sets memory from the 1970s in motion for August, transporting her to a time and a place where friendship was everything—until it wasn’t. For August and her girls, sharing confidences as they ambled through neighborhood streets, Brooklyn was a place where they believed that they were beautiful, talented, brilliant—a part of a future that belonged to them.

But beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion.

My Thoughts: In the narrative voice of a young woman named August, we follow her journey back to Sweet Grove, Tennessee, and forward to Brooklyn in the 1970s.

Memories and moments that seem to come in flashbacks are snippets out of time, revealing nostalgia and loss. A death, a missing mother, friendships that seem forever but then are not…all of it is seen from the character’s adult perspective.

Sometimes flashes come that signal fantasy, not reality. And then reality slams into her with all of its dangerous brutality.

Dead bodies are discovered nearby; drug addicts hide in the hallways; and children disappear when white women come for them.

Another Brooklyn is a panoramic view of a time, of dreams, and of how reality can turn grim…or hopeful. It snaps a portrait of growing up Girl in times that were a-changing. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE BOOKSHOP AT WATER’S END, BY PATTI CALLAHAN HENRY

Bonny Blankenship’s most treasured memories are of idyllic summers spent in Watersend, South Carolina, with her best friend, Lainey McKay. Amid the sand dunes and oak trees draped with Spanish moss, they swam and wished for happy-ever-afters, then escaped to the local bookshop to read and whisper in the glorious cool silence. Until the night that changed everything, the night that Lainey’s mother disappeared.

Now, in her early fifties, Bonny is desperate to clear her head after a tragic mistake threatens her career as an emergency room doctor, and her marriage crumbles around her. With her troubled teenage daughter, Piper, in tow, she goes back to the beloved river house, where she is soon joined by Lainey and her two young children. During lazy summer days and magical nights, they reunite with bookshop owner Mimi, who is tangled with the past and its mysteries. As the three women cling to a fragile peace, buried secrets and long ago loves return like the tide.

My Thoughts: Bonny’s journey back to Watersend would resurrect old memories, secrets, and the pain of the past, but it would also remind her of the magic she always felt there. And she needs that magic now, just after a tragedy in her job as an ER doctor leaves her floundering.

With Piper still healing from a broken relationship, the two of them wait and are soon joined by Lainey, who has her own wounds from the past. The pain of the summer that her mother went missing. For years she has searched, but to no avail. The art she creates helps her express the pain and communicate to those who see it.

Owen, Lainey’s brother, is the love Bonny has longed for ever since those days in Watersend, but the more they draw together, the more they seem to part. Owen’s urges take him on journeys that she cannot follow. Adventures that help him push away the pain of the past.

Mimi, as the owner of the bookshop, is the source of all wisdom to Bonny, Lainey, and especially Piper. She offers a refuge, some suggestions that feel like treasures, and, in the end, she has the answers to some very deep questions.

How do Mimi and her friend Loretta fill in some gaps for Lainey? What will Piper find in the small town that will heal the wounds of loss? Will Owen finally come to stay, or will he constantly be on the move again? What does Bonny decide about the old life she left behind in Charleston?

Multiple narrators carry us along in The Bookshop at Water’s End and fill in the missing pieces of their stories. A beautifully wrought tapestry combining art, medicine, and books…the stories would offer meaning and magic for their souls. 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publishers via NetGalley

 

REVIEW: WHAT REMAINS, BY CAROLE RADZIWILL

A stunning, tragic memoir about John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette, and his cousin Anthony Radziwill, by Radziwill’s widow, now a star of The Real Housewives of New York.

What Remains is a vivid and haunting memoir about a girl from a working-class town who becomes an award-winning television producer and marries a prince, Anthony Radziwill. Carole grew up in a small suburb with a large, eccentric cast of characters. At nineteen, she struck out for New York City to find a different life. Her career at ABC News led her to the refugee camps of Cambodia, to a bunker in Tel Aviv, and to the scene of the Menendez murders. Her marriage led her into the old world of European nobility and the newer world of American aristocracy.

What Remains begins with loss and returns to loss. A small plane plunges into the ocean carrying John F. Kennedy Jr., Anthony’s cousin, and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Carole’s closest friend. Three weeks later Anthony dies of cancer. With unflinching honesty and a journalist’s keen eye, Carole Radziwill explores the enduring ties of family, the complexities of marriage, the importance of friendship, and the challenges of self-invention.

My Thoughts: In a non-linear fashion, the author tells her story. She begins by describing the horrific plane crash that killed John and Carolyn, soon followed by her husband Anthony’s death from cancer, and then takes us back to some beginnings. Back to childhood and her large extended family. Her childhood seemed chaotic, yet filled with loving moments with cousins and neighbors. Her grandmothers figured predominantly in her early years.

How she came to be an intern at ABC News, which took her to interesting places and stories, and eventually to Anthony Radziwill, would be a serendipitous journey.

What led to finding a real-life prince, a cousin to the country’s Kennedy “prince”? That story would take the reader on a fairytale journey. But then the fairytale turned into something else. A stunning diagnosis, and constant hospital visits and treatments for the cancer that would define their lives over the years, even while they optimistically tried to plan for a future by renovating an apartment on Park Avenue.

Along the way, the author completed an MBA, almost as if she knew the future they were planning would be hers alone, that Anthony, despite their optimism, would not make it. Her talents and her determination would serve her well, as she went on to reinvent herself and find a new journey.

Knowing how it would all turn out, it was difficult to keep turning the pages and finding more sadness as I neared the end of What Remains. But I had to admire the courage and the ability to keep moving ahead, despite it all. An inspirational story that earned 4.5 stars.

***