REVIEW: CASTAWAY COTTAGE, BY JOANNE DEMAIO

 

Every cottage tells a story. It’s a saying Jason Barlow returns to as an architect designing New England beach homes. The latest cottage story he hopes to tell rises from the Stony Point sand: the last-standing cottage on the beach. It’s the sole survivor–something Jason can relate to–as surrounding cottages washed out to sea in long-ago hurricanes.

The owners aren’t budging, though, keeping Jason’s proposed renovation at bay. But with some help from the beach friends, the tide turns for Jason’s new venture. Problem is, that weathered cottage on the beach? It holds secrets darker than its gray sea worn shingles. And secrets don’t stay buried in this little Connecticut beach town; they wash ashore or get dug up from the sand.

My Thoughts: Reuniting the characters of Stony Point seemed to promise great events. Answers that were left over from our last outing kept us turning pages, even as we enjoyed gathering in the gorgeous setting.

Would Jason Barlow persuade the owners of the last cottage on the beach to sign up for his first renovation show? How does Jason’s brother Neil and his journals help persuade Mitch Fenwick and his daughter Carol to sign on? Who is the mysterious boy called Sailor, and how does his story add to the poignant memories in Stony Point?

When Kyle Bradford discovers something strange about his and Lauren’s marriage certificate, how does he react? Will the two of them find a reason to celebrate their ten years together?

Throughout Castaway Cottage, snippets of the past are revealed in little stories, and as each one unfolds, we learn a little bit more about the town and its history.

But in the end, everything is up in the air as a misstep changes all of their plans. We are left hanging, wondering if they all went wrong when they turned their back on the sea. Another 5 star read that left numerous questions to ponder.

***
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REVIEW: MY (NOT SO) PERFECT LIFE, BY SOPHIE KINSELLA

 

Everywhere Katie Brenner looks, someone else is living the life she longs for, particularly her boss, Demeter Farlowe. Demeter is brilliant and creative, lives with her perfect family in a posh townhouse, and wears the coolest clothes. Katie’s life, meanwhile, is a daily struggle—from her dismal rental to her oddball flatmates to the tense office politics she’s trying to negotiate. No wonder Katie takes refuge in not-quite-true Instagram posts, especially as she’s desperate to make her dad proud.

Then, just as she’s finding her feet—not to mention a possible new romance—the worst happens. Demeter fires Katie. Shattered but determined to stay positive, Katie retreats to her family’s farm in Somerset to help them set up a vacation business. London has never seemed so far away—until Demeter unexpectedly turns up as a guest. Secrets are spilled and relationships rejiggered, and as the stakes for Katie’s future get higher, she must question her own assumptions about what makes for a truly meaningful life.

 

My Thoughts: There is something about the characters in My (Not So) Perfect Life that captured me from the start. They felt so real, and I enjoyed their flaws and frailties. Katie, aka Cat, is determined to have the life she has always wanted, living in London. Furthermore, she wants the perfect life she imagines that her boss Demeter is living. Demeter has flaws, of course; she is abrupt and a bit tactless. Additionally, she always seems to forget people’s names, a character flaw that heightens the resentment Cat is starting to feel.

After she is fired, Cat returns to the country and becomes Katie again. But she has learned about branding and graphics and puts her skills to work in the Glamping resort that her father and stepmother are creating on the farm. Katie begins to feel that special something you get when your talents are being utilized.

Then Demeter comes to spend a holiday at the farm, not knowing who Katie is, with her “old” name and the changes she has made in her appearance. Hiding in plain sight, Katie has the opportunity to see her former boss with a new perspective, and without their former roles.

Something was happening back at the company that had turned Demeter into who she had become…and now something is about to happen in front of Katie. Can she get to the bottom of the strange events? Will Katie help the woman she saw as a bully? Will she realize that there is more to Demeter than the gilded existence she had imagined her living? Could they have more in common than either believed possible?

A story about looking beyond the facades and realizing that everybody has difficulties and nobody is perfect, this one kept me intrigued throughout. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: RASPBERRY DANISH MURDER, BY JOANNE FLUKE

 

Hannah has felt as bitter as November in Minnesota since Ross vanished without a trace and left their marriage in limbo. Still, she throws herself into a baking frenzy for the sake of pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving-themed treats while endless holiday orders pour into The Cookie Jar. Hannah even introduces a raspberry Danish pastry to the menu, and P.K., her husband’s assistant at KCOW-TV, will be one of the first to sample it. But instead of taking a bite, P.K., who is driving Ross’s car and using his desk at work, is murdered. Was someone plotting against P.K. all along or did Ross dodge a deadly dose of sweet revenge? Hannah will have to quickly sift through a cornucopia of clues and suspects to stop a killer from bringing another murder to the table . . .

 

My Thoughts: Raspberry Danish Murder is my first book in the Hannah Swensen series, but I’ve loved following her on the Hallmark Channel with the Mysteries and Murders show.

Set in Lake Eden, Minnesota, the story sweeps us up into the cold season, with a frenzy of holiday activities at The Cookie Jar. But this year is not like any other, since Hannah’s new husband Ross has gone missing.

Did he leave on assignment? Will he be coming back soon, or is he gone for good?

In the midst of the worry and anxiety, Hannah is caught up in the murder mystery of P.K., her husband’s assistant at the TV station, and it is fun to watch how she follows the clues.

Following each intense chapter are a series of cookie recipes, sure to please the bakers among us.

In the midst of these activities, we are also introduced to Hannah’s cat Moishe, who feels like another character in the book.

Red herrings kept me intrigued, and then, just when we finally discovered who had killed P.K., we were hit with the stunning news of what had happened to Ross. An enjoyable read with characters that felt like friends. 4 stars.***

REVIEW: EDUCATED, BY TARA WESTOVER

 

Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills” bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged metal in her father’s junkyard.

Her father distrusted the medical establishment, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when an older brother became violent.

When another brother got himself into college and came back with news of the world beyond the mountain, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. She taught herself enough mathematics, grammar, and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. There, she studied psychology, politics, philosophy, and history, learning for the first time about pivotal world events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

My Thoughts: An inspirational story of one young woman’s struggle to break away from the constrictions of her childhood, Educated brings the reader right into the world she inhabited from her early years. Her first person voice was not filled with self-pity, but revealed an inner strength and a persistence that would serve her well in the years ahead.

As I followed her journey, I identified with some of her experiences. I had not been kept out of school as these children had, but so many of the attitudes that surrounded me growing up were very isolationist, so I could empathize with her plight.

Despite the authoritarianism of her family life, there seemed to be a true caring spirit that surrounded them all, and the actions of the parents seemed to come from a strong belief system.

However, there were aspects to the family life that chilled me: specifically, one of her brothers tormented her regularly. Perhaps his behavior served as an impetus that led to her eventual escape.

I was also struck by instances of family events that were recalled very differently between family members. I am also familiar with this tendency to either deny or conveniently forget the more disturbing elements of family life. Each individual’s perspective would vary, perhaps as that person’s coping measure dictated.

What happens ultimately to our narrator was in equal parts sad and uplifting: turning away from the belief systems and the tyranny of her youth would allow her to finally be her true self. A brilliantly written 5 star read.

***

REVIEW: NOTHING FORGOTTEN, BY JESSICA LEVINE

 

When Anna, now living in California, is contacted by the Italian lover she knew decades before, she recalls their affair and the child she gave up for adoption. As the episode returns to haunt her―threatening the life she’s built, including her marriage―the story moves back in time to her youth in Europe.

Rome, 1979. Anna, twenty-two and living abroad, is involved with a man already engaged to be married. When she meets and befriends his fiancée, she is forced to confront the moral consequences of her actions. But an unexpected pregnancy, an anonymous letter, and threatening relatives complicate the picture. A novel in which an unconventional heroine, far from home, is forced to reckon with the judgment of others.

 

My Thoughts: From her present life in Berkeley, CA, Anna Stark is swept back in time to a love affair that has never been forgotten. Her first person narrative takes us to Rome…and to an Italian village where her lover’s family lives, and as she is brought into his orbit, she finds herself conflicted, confused, and unsure of what lies ahead.

Will Sergio’s plans to marry the suitable choice, Olivia, end the love affair? Will Anna try to stop the wedding? How will her choices change everything?

As I turned the pages of Nothing Forgotten, I was caught up in the beauty of the setting and the strength of the family ties. Sergio’s family opened their arms to her, including her in meals, but one member of the Italian family would turn against her when she tried to tell her secret to Sergio. The era of 1979 reminded me of how lives were different back then, and how these same events in this day and age could have taken an entirely new path.

In the present, Anna and her husband separate, and upon her return to Italy to see her aunt’s apartment again, she makes some life-changing decisions. 4 stars.***

REVIEW: BAD STORIES, BY STEVE ALMOND

 

For those who were stunned by the 2016 election, Bad Stories is the author’s attempt to make sense of those events. Many did not expect this outcome, or see it coming. It all seemed like a sick joke.

How did we end up with a president so morally bankrupt? How can we rest while the country is in his hands?

The stories we told ourselves, some of them delusional, could not have prepared us for any of it. But stories we tell ourselves are often how we cope with events.

I could not sit down and read this book all at once, but had to digest it in small doses. Like other books we’ve seen and read that tell us about these moments in our history, this book will definitely be one to ponder and read again and again. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: LYING IN WAIT, BY LIZ NUGENT

 

My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.

On the surface, Lydia Fitzsimons has the perfect life—wife of a respected, successful judge, mother to a beloved son, mistress of a beautiful house in Dublin. That beautiful house, however, holds a secret. And when Lydia’s son, Laurence, discovers its secret, wheels are set in motion that lead to an increasingly claustrophobic and devastatingly dark climax.

 

My Thoughts: Lying in Wait has been described as “seductively sinister,” and from the very first page, we become aware of the strangely dark voice of Lydia Fitzsimons, wife to the judge and mother to her only son Laurence. Lydia is one of those narcissistic women who is primarily focused on herself and her needs, and her apparent overwhelming love for son Laurence is really more about what she needs from him. When her darkness turns pathological, she becomes an interesting study in mental illness.

Her husband Andrew didn’t stand a chance. His poor choices were all about serving her needs, too, and those would come back to haunt him.

The intersecting lives of Andrew, Lydia, and Laurence with Annie Doyle, her sister Karen, and her parents have their twisted origins in one dreadful night when everything went out of control.

But then we learn that way back in the past, Lydia’s true colors showed themselves at a tragic event when she was nine years old.

Would Laurence be able to extricate himself from the grasping control of his mother? Could he continue to bury the secret that was lying in wait to come out? Or would his mother’s twisted needs turn everything upside down?

Set in Dublin in the 1980s, the story immediately hooked me, with the dark and disturbing characters and their secrets; I couldn’t stop turning the pages, loving every minute with them all, curiously wondering how it would all end. 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publishers via NetGalley.

REVIEW: EVERY NOTE PLAYED, BY LISA GENOVA

 

An accomplished concert pianist, Richard received standing ovations from audiences all over the world in awe of his rare combination of emotional resonance and flawless technique. Every finger of his hands was a finely calibrated instrument, dancing across the keys and striking each note with exacting precision. That was eight months ago.

Richard now has ALS, and his entire right arm is paralyzed. His fingers are impotent, still, devoid of possibility. The loss of his hand feels like a death, a loss of true love, a divorce—his divorce.

He knows his left arm will go next.

Three years ago, Karina removed their framed wedding picture from the living room wall and hung a mirror there instead. But she still hasn’t moved on. Karina is paralyzed by excuses and fear, stuck in an unfulfilling life as a piano teacher, afraid to pursue the path she abandoned as a young woman, blaming Richard and their failed marriage for all of it.

When Richard becomes increasingly paralyzed and is no longer able to live on his own, Karina becomes his reluctant caretaker. As Richard’s muscles, voice, and breath fade, both he and Karina try to reconcile their past before it’s too late.

 

My Thoughts: With every new book by this author, I am hesitant to start turning the pages. The books are all so powerful and poignant, beautifully written and well-researched, and so emotional that I know I will soon be immersed in the tragedy that besets the characters. The same was true with Every Note Played, a story of a once-happy couple, with everything ahead of them. Broken by anger and the irretrievable destruction of their marriage, they couldn’t be more distant from one another when Richard receives his terrifying diagnosis.

Alternately narrated by Richard and Karina, we feel the depths of their individual pain as they tell their story, beginning with the happier days in the past and leading up to the momentous incident that decided their future: we feel the total helplessness Richard confronts on that defining day, and what it took for Karina to step up to help.

This book was one I had to set aside periodically, as I couldn’t take in the details of their lives without wanting a break. It is impossible not to experience their challenges with them, as the characters’ vivid descriptions leave nothing to the imagination. I learned more than I could have anticipated about the disease that took over their lives, and with each page, I felt a part of their suffering. A story that kept me turning the pages, I give this latest by Genova 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: BEFORE I LET YOU GO, BY KELLY RIMMER

 

The 2:00 a.m. call is the first time Lexie Vidler has heard her sister’s voice in years. Annie is a drug addict, a thief, a liar—and in trouble, again. Lexie has always bailed Annie out, given her money, a place to sleep, sent her to every kind of rehab. But this time, she’s not just strung out—she’s pregnant and in premature labor. If she goes to the hospital, she’ll lose custody of her baby—maybe even go to prison. But the alternative is unthinkable.

As the weeks unfold, Lexie finds herself caring for her fragile newborn niece while her carefully ordered life is collapsing around her. She’s in danger of losing her job, and her fiancé only has so much patience for Annie’s drama. In court-ordered rehab, Annie attempts to halt her downward spiral by confronting long-buried secrets from the sisters’ childhoods, ghosts that Lexie doesn’t want to face. But will the journey heal Annie, or lead her down a darker path?

My Thoughts: Before I Let You Go was a familiar story to me, after working with dysfunctional families and addicts for a number of years. Each story has its unique journey to the horrific slide toward “nothing left to lose,” but each one is filled with the frustration of human vulnerability and failure.

The author offers a unique perspective with alternating narratives: Lexie’s voice in the first person, revealing the family history and how her own life has gone off the rails because of her sister’s addiction, followed by Annie’s journal entries. The horror of her stepfather’s abuse reveals much about Annie’s need to sever ties with family and regain control of her life, but whenever she faced challenges, she sought escape through drug abuse, sinking further into the pit.

After the baby’s birth, she faced criminal charges, since the state’s laws demanded this outcome…unless she could complete a rehab program. Lexie stepped in to provide “kinship” care of the baby, who had suffered withdrawal from drugs after the birth. As a doctor, with her fiance Sam who is also a physician, the future looks promising for this temporary family.

Would Annie finally reach sobriety? Would Lexie be able to let go of her own feeling of responsibility for Annie’s outcomes?

A familiar and tragic tale that tugged at my heartstrings, even as I felt Lexie’s frustrations. I wanted to tell Annie that she needed to open up with the whole truth of her past life and what led her down that dark road…but, like Lexie, we had to let go of our own sense of responsibility for the outcomes. Urging Annie on would not be enough. Sadness follows these characters, but I felt hopeful for Lexie and the baby. By the end, I needed tissues to deal with the tearful finality of Annie’s choices. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE OTHER MOTHER, BY CAROL GOODMAN

 

When Daphne Marist and her infant daughter, Chloe, pull up the gravel drive to the home of Daphne’s new employer, it feels like they’ve entered a whole new world. Tucked in the Catskills, the stone mansion looks like something out of a fairy tale, its lush landscaping hiding the view of the mental asylum just beyond its border. Daphne secured the live-in position using an assumed name and fake credentials, telling no one that she’s on the run from a controlling husband who has threatened to take her daughter away.

Daphne’s new life is a far cry from the one she had in Westchester where, just months before, she and her husband welcomed little Chloe. From the start, Daphne tries to be a good mother, but she’s plagued by dark moods and intrusive thoughts that convince her she’s capable of harming her own daughter. When Daphne is diagnosed with Postpartum Mood Disorder, her downward spiral feels unstoppable—until she meets Laurel Hobbes.

Laurel, who also has a daughter named Chloe, is everything Daphne isn’t: charismatic, sophisticated, fearless. They immediately form an intense friendship, revealing secrets to one another they thought they’d never share. Soon, they start to look alike, dress alike, and talk alike, their lives mirroring one another in strange and disturbing ways. But Daphne realizes only too late that being friends with Laurel will come at a very shocking price—one that will ultimately lead her to that towering mansion in the Catskills where terrifying, long-hidden truths will finally be revealed….

 

My Thoughts: A surreal story, The Other Mother taps into our worst fears: that somehow we will be controlled by others and our lives will no longer be our own.

Husbands with nefarious plans and doctors who are easily turned by others kept me turning pages and wondering if I, too, had been tricked and controlled by this very tale.

I wanted to root for all the female characters, as each, in some way, had a story that felt credible. So which story will we believe?

Just when I thought I couldn’t be more confused, pieces of the puzzle began to click into place. Suddenly everything made a kind of sense, and the twisted elements took us back in time, to the early 1970s…and then carried us forward to the present. Who would finally regain the life that belonged to her? And who has died, while others have lived to share the truth? 4.5 stars.

***