REVIEW: THE OPERATOR, BY GRETCHEN BERG

In a small town, everyone knows everyone else’s business . . .

Nobody knows the people of Wooster, Ohio, better than switchboard operator Vivian Dalton, and she’d be the first to tell you that. She calls it intuition. Her teenage daughter, Charlotte, calls it eavesdropping.

Vivian and the other women who work at Bell on East Liberty Street connect lines and lives. They aren’t supposed to listen in on conversations, but they do, and they all have opinions on what they hear—especially Vivian. She knows that Mrs. Butler’s ungrateful daughter, Maxine, still hasn’t thanked her mother for the quilt she made, and that Ginny Frazier turned down yet another invitation to go to the A&W with Clyde Walsh.

Then, one cold December night, Vivian listens in on a call between that snob Betty Miller and someone whose voice she can’t quite place and hears something shocking. Betty Miller’s mystery friend has news that, if true, will shatter Vivian’s tidy life in Wooster, humiliating her and making her the laughingstock of the town.

Vivian may be mortified, but she isn’t going to take this lying down. She’s going to get to the bottom of that rumor—get into it, get under it, poke around in the corners. Find every last bit. Vivian wants the truth, no matter how painful it may be.

But as Vivian is about to be reminded, in a small town like Wooster, one secret usually leads to another. . .

As I read The Operator, I felt myself swept back in time to the 1950s small town in which I lived growing up. Back then, not only did operators connect our calls, but we also had party lines and could hear some of our neighbors’ conversations.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of switchboard operators and how much control these young women had over the conversations and the happenings around them.

Alternating narrators take us through the stories in this fascinating book, serving to distract me completely from my own current troubles, remembering those long-ago times and the incidents that affected small town lives.

I felt compassion for Vivian, whose family life growing up set the stage for an adulthood full of envy of those with more. Those who had privileges she had not known.

In the end, Vivian does find that the secrets that could have ruined her life turned out to launch a whole new beginning for her. An engaging story that earned 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: EIGHT PERFECT MURDERS, BY PETER SWANSON

Years ago, bookseller and mystery aficionado Malcolm Kershaw compiled a list of the genre’s most unsolvable murders, those that are almost impossible to crack—which he titled “Eight Perfect Murders”—chosen from among the best of the best including Agatha Christie’s A. B. C. Murders, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, Ira Levin’s Death Trap, A. A. Milne’s Red House Mystery, Anthony Berkeley Cox’s Malice Aforethought, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, John D. Macdonald’s The Drowner, and Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.

But no one is more surprised than Mal, now the owner of the Old Devils Bookstore in Boston, when an FBI agent comes knocking on his door one snowy day in February. She’s looking for information about a series of unsolved murders that look eerily similar to the killings on Mal’s old list. And the FBI agent isn’t the only one interested in this bookseller who spends almost every night at home reading. The killer is out there, watching his every move—a diabolical threat who knows way too much about Mal’s personal history, especially the secrets he’s never told anyone, even his recently deceased wife.

To protect himself, Mal begins looking into possible suspects . . . and sees a killer in everyone around him. But Mal doesn’t count on the investigation leaving a trail of death in its wake. Suddenly, a series of shocking twists leaves more victims dead—and the noose around Mal’s neck grows so tight he might never escape.


Malcom Kershaw is the first person narrator of Eight Perfect Murders, and as we follow his thought processes and his internal monologue, we are part of his journey through the list he created. The one that seemingly inspires a killer.

But as we go along for the ride, we learn a lot more just by the connections between the murders and the list: those connections that Mal draws for the FBI agent Gwen. We soon realize that Mal is not necessarily telling the whole truth, but we are too fascinated by it all to care about that.

By the end, Mal fills us in on some missing pieces to the stories…and we are left wondering if we have truly reached the end, or if there might be more to learn. A 5 star read for me.

***

 

REVIEW: THE RED LOTUS, BY CHRIS BOHJALIAN

The first time Alexis saw Austin, it was a Saturday night. Not in a bar, but in the emergency room where Alexis sutured a bullet wound in Austin’s arm. Six months later, on the brink of falling in love, they travel to Vietnam on a bike tour so that Austin can show her his passion for cycling and he can pay his respects to the place where his father and uncle fought in the war. But as Alexis sips white wine and waits at the hotel for him to return from his solo ride, two men emerge from the tall grass and Austin vanishes into thin air. The only clue he leaves behind is a bright yellow energy gel dropped on the road. As Alexis grapples with this bewildering loss, and deals with the FBI, Austin’s prickly family, and her colleagues at the hospital, Alexis uncovers a series of strange lies that force her to wonder: Where did Austin go? Why did he really bring her to Vietnam? And how much danger has he left her in? Set amidst the adrenaline-fueled world of the emergency room, The Red Lotus is a global thriller about those who dedicate their lives to saving people, and those who peddle death to the highest bidder.

I was immediately pulled into the mysterious elements of The Red Lotus, through details that were revealed in bits and pieces in the beginning, and then more slowly over time as the story unfolded. Alexis was the most interesting character to me, with her intense and diligent work as an ER doctor. But hovering overhead were the issues that further defined her character: emotional losses in childhood; a tendency to deal with anxiety through cutting; and blinders that prevented her from seeing the more obvious flaws in her friends and lovers.

I also enjoyed her persistence in finding answers to the big questions about her boyfriend’s character flaws, along with the nefarious reasons for the trips to Vietnam.

Rats are a big theme in the story, both in terms of the rodents that played a primary role in what eventually played out, but the metaphorical use of the term in labeling some of the darker characters. The story that kept me turning the pages was fascinating and a little creepy at times. I was rooting for Alexis and hoping she would guard herself against those who were out to do her harm. 4.5 stars.

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

REVIEW: THE HOUSEKEEPER, BY NATALIE BARELLI

She’s a liar. She’s a stalker. She’s in your house.

When Claire sees Hannah Wilson at an exclusive Manhattan hair salon, it’s like a knife slicing through barely healed scars. It may have been ten years since Claire last saw Hannah, but she has thought of her every day, and not in a good way. So Claire does what anyone would do in her position—she stalks her.

Hannah is now Mrs. Carter, living the charmed life that should have been Claire’s. It’s the life Claire used to have, before Hannah came along and took it all away from her.

Back then, Claire was a happy teenager with porcelain skin and long, wavy blond hair. Now she’s an overweight, lazy drunk with hair the color of compost and skin to match. Which is why when Hannah advertises for a housekeeper, Claire is confident she can apply and not be recognized. And since she has time on her hands, revenge on her mind, and a talent for acting…

Because what better way to seek retribution—and redress—than from within the beautiful Mrs. Hannah Carter’s own home?

Except that it’s not just Claire who has secrets. Everyone in that house seems to have something to hide.

And now, there’s no way out.

When we first meet Claire, she is hell bent on retribution for a perceived grievance during her teenage years, and the target of her rage is one Hannah Carter, previously known as Hannah Wilson.

Hannah’s new life looks good on the outside, which fuels Claire’s need for revenge.

It is fascinating to watch Claire turn herself into someone else in order to join Hannah’s household as a housekeeper/nanny. What Claire doesn’t expect is to become thoroughly enmeshed in Hannah’s family, even to the point of taking on an unexpected enemy and finding herself in a dangerous situation.

I kept turning the pages of The Housekeeper, not sure how it would all unfold. I liked how Claire’s plan turned upside down and she found a way to reinvent herself. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: PERFECT LITTLE CHILDREN, BY SOPHIE HANNAH

All Beth has to do is drive her son to his soccer game, watch him play, and then return home. Just because she knows her ex-best friend lives near the field, that doesn’t mean she has to drive past her house and try to catch a glimpse of her.

Why would Beth do that and risk dredging up painful memories? She hasn’t seen Flora for twelve years. She doesn’t want to see her today—or ever again. But she can’t resist. She parks outside the open gates of Newnham House, watches from across the road as Flora arrives and calls to her children Thomas and Emily to get out of the car.

Except . . . There’s something terribly wrong. Flora looks the same, only older. Twelve years ago, Thomas and Emily were five and three years old. Today, they look precisely as they did then. They are Thomas and Emily without a doubt, but they haven’t changed at all. They are no taller, no older. Why haven’t they grown? How is it possible that they haven’t grown up?

From the very first page of Perfect Little Children, I knew that I was in for a treat. A convoluted one, of course, the kind of story that the author does best. It didn’t take long for me to connect with our narrator, Beth, and to applaud her efforts to find answers. At every turn of the journey, she offered us glimpses of what might happen next and how she would keep pushing until the truth was exposed.

Her husband Dom was less intrigued by the confusing elements Beth found in the stories she was told by Flora, by characters who seemed to be stand-in parents for the younger versions of Thomas and Emily…and yes, there were many others who added pieces to the tale. So Beth would have to face the scrutiny of others who believed she was obsessive and had no business interrogating everyone she met. I admired how she would risk everything to make her discoveries. Lest I give away too many clues or spoilers, I will only say that the journey to the truth was worth every step we took. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: LOSING YOU, BY NICCI FRENCH

Nina Landry awakens on her fortieth birthday, anticipating a day filled with excitement. She, her new boyfriend, and her two children are taking a trip—leaving their home on Sandling Island, off the coast of England, for a dream vacation. As soon as her fifteen-year-old daughter, Charlie, returns from a sleepover, they can get ready to leave.

But Charlie doesn’t come home at the expected time. Nina can’t believe of all days, Charlie has chosen this day to be late. As minutes and then hours tick by, Nina’s annoyance soon changes to concern, and then to a chilling certainty that something terrible has happened.

The police insist there’s no reason to worry—yet. Teenagers are unreliable, impulsive. Nina always thought she and Charlie had a solid, trusting relationship, but seeking out Charlie’s friends for clues to her whereabouts makes her reconsider. How well does Nina know her daughter, really? How well can a parent ever know a child? And will everything Nina doesn’t know—about Charlie, her neighbors, even the friends and family closest to them—prove fatal…?


With a fast and intense pace, Losing You begins on Nina Landry’s 40th birthday, just as she and her two children, Charlie and Jackson, are about to head for Florida with her new boyfriend Christian. But nothing goes according to plan, and for the whole long day and into the night, Nina is searching for her daughter who might have run away…or something dreadful could have happened to her.

The police bumbled along throughout the day, seemingly wasting time by questioning the wrong people and trying to take Nina’s statement over and over again; meanwhile she has been putting things together after asking her own questions and reading Charlie’s diary. She knows she doesn’t have time to waste and subjecting herself to the endless questioning will keep her from saving her daughter.

Throughout, I was breathless as I trailed after Nina’s thought processes while she kept following the clues. There were many possible suspects…and just as the stumbled upon the most unexpected one, she might be too late. I held my breath as we zeroed in on the answers. A brilliant 5 star read.

***

REVIEW: ALL THE LITTLE LIARS, BY CHARLAINE HARRIS

Aurora Teagarden is basking in the news of her pregnancy when disaster strikes her small Georgia town: four kids vanish from the school soccer field in an afternoon. Aurora’s 15-year-old brother Phillip is one of them. Also gone are two of his friends, and an 11-year-old girl who was just hoping to get a ride home from soccer practice. And then there’s an even worse discovery―at the kids’ last known destination, a dead body.

While the local police and sheriff’s department comb the county for the missing kids and interview everyone even remotely involved, Aurora and her new husband, true crime writer Robin Crusoe, begin their own investigation. Could the death and kidnappings have anything to do with a group of bullies at the middle school? Is Phillip’s disappearance related to Aurora’s father’s gambling debts? Or is Phillip himself, new to town and an unknown quantity, responsible for taking the other children? But regardless of the reason, as the days go by, the most important questions remain. Are the kids still alive? Who could be concealing them? Where could they be?

With Christmas approaching, Aurora is determined to find her brother…if he’s still alive.

 

I first discovered Aurora Teagarden in the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries series, and I am a fan. Discovering the books was a gift, as I love following Aurora’s adventures.

In All the Little Liars, we connect with newlyweds Aurora and Robin. Her previous husband had died a couple of years ago, and she reconnected with Robin, with whom she had had a relationship years before. The two of them barely got through the wedding and the excitement over the expected new baby when Aurora’s brother Philip goes missing. Several of his friends are also missing, and as we learn more about each of the kids, we are not feeling that hopeful for a good outcome.

I liked learning more about Aurora’s relationship with her father and what those issues meant for her life as an adult. Her ability to solve mysteries is not as big a theme in this book until the end, when Aurora hatches a complicated plan; I was on the edge of my seat while it played out. In addition, however, we learn a lot about how Aurora is dealing with her new marriage and the pregnancy.

I enjoyed this book and definitely want to read more about her from this author. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE EDIBLE WOMAN, BY MARGARET ATWOOD

Margaret Atwood’s first novel is both a scathingly funny satire of consumerism and a heady exploration of emotional cannibalism.

Marian McAlpin is an “abnormally normal” young woman, according to her friends. A recent university graduate, she crafts consumer surveys for a market research firm, maintains an uneasy truce between her flighty roommate and their prudish landlady, and goes to parties with her solidly dependable boyfriend, Peter. But after Peter proposes marriage, things take a strange turn.
Suddenly empathizing with the steak in a restaurant, Marian finds she is unable to eat meat. As the days go by, her feeling of solidarity extends to other categories of food, until there is almost nothing left that she can bring herself to consume. Those around her fail to notice Marian’s growing alienation—until it culminates in an act of resistance that is as startling as it is imaginative.

I have had The Edible Woman on my stacks for ages, and as I read it now, I am stunned that I didn’t grab it earlier. There is something so captivating about Marian, as she narrates the story of her journey, varying from first person to third person voice.

The story of her issues with food resonated with me, even though mine occurred for different reasons. The similarities remained, though; Marian and I were both consumed with NOT eating certain things. How those issues affected her life (and mine) were all consuming, pun intended.

Psychological reasons probably formed the basis for Marian’s food dilemma, and I liked how the author showed us the progression for the character.

What does Marian learn from her experiences? How did they affect her choices and her life going forward? I couldn’t wait to find out more, and by the final denouement, I was smiling at the unexpected turn the story took. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: REGRETTING YOU, BY COLLEEN HOOVER

 

Morgan Grant and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Clara, would like nothing more than to be nothing alike.

Morgan is determined to prevent her daughter from making the same mistakes she did. By getting pregnant and married way too young, Morgan put her own dreams on hold. Clara doesn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Her predictable mother doesn’t have a spontaneous bone in her body.

With warring personalities and conflicting goals, Morgan and Clara find it increasingly difficult to coexist. The only person who can bring peace to the household is Chris—Morgan’s husband, Clara’s father, and the family anchor. But that peace is shattered when Chris is involved in a tragic and questionable accident. The heartbreaking and long-lasting consequences will reach far beyond just Morgan and Clara.

While struggling to rebuild everything that crashed around them, Morgan finds comfort in the last person she expects to, and Clara turns to the one boy she’s been forbidden to see. With each passing day, new secrets, resentment, and misunderstandings make mother and daughter fall further apart. So far apart, it might be impossible for them to ever fall back together.

An emotionally captivating story about family, bad choices, and moving on, I was drawn into Regretting You from the very first pages.

The story begins with Morgan as a teenager and how she deals with her teenage pregnancy, and what happens to her dreams afterwards. Her own feelings are stuffed down and she puts all of her energy into being the best mother she can be.

Her sister Jenny is always there for her. The two are close, but years later, when Morgan faces a tragic event and discovers that a great betrayal has turned her life upside down, she is forced to hide the truth from her own teenage daughter Clara. She fights against choices her daughter is making that could turn her into someone who could be hurt by someone she loves. Will telling the truth set them free, or make their lives another kind of trap?

The author kept me turning pages, hoping that the mother and daughter could communicate with each other and avoid the mistakes they are about to stumble into. A 4.5 star read.

***

REVIEW: ALL THE FLOWERS IN PARIS, BY SARAH JIO

 

When Caroline wakes up in a Paris hospital with no memory of her past, she’s confused to learn that for years she’s lived a sad, reclusive life in a sprawling apartment on the rue Cler. Slowly regaining vague memories of a man and a young child, she vows to piece her life back together—though she can’t help but feel she may be in danger. A budding friendship with the chef of a charming nearby restaurant takes her mind off her foggy past, as does a startling mystery from decades prior.

In Nazi-occupied Paris, a young widow named Céline is trying to build a new life for her daughter while working in her father’s flower shop and hoping to find love again. Then a ruthless German officer discovers her Jewish ancestry and Céline is forced to play a dangerous game to secure the safety of her loved ones. When her worst fears come true, she must fight back in order to save the person she loves most: her daughter.

When Caroline discovers Céline’s letters tucked away in a closet, she realizes that her apartment harbors dark secrets—and that she may have more in common with Céline than she could have ever imagined.

 

My Thoughts: Our first-person narrators, Caroline and Celine, alternately tell the story in All the Flowers in Paris.

Caroline’s story takes place in Paris in 2009, while Celine’s voice comes to us from the same city in 1943.

The women are somehow connected to one another, in that they lived in the same apartment, but decades apart, and some mysterious events further link them.

Celine’s story reminds us of the time in which she lived, WWII, and the German occupation of Paris that brought danger every day.

Caroline’s tale begins with a horrific accident that leaves her with amnesia, presenting another kind of danger.

I loved turning the pages to find out what would happen next for the women, and what answers might give them peace and safety. Unexpected events were always just on the horizon, so I couldn’t stop reading. In the end, as the story came together with serendipitous results, I felt the kind of closure we all want in a book. 5 stars.

***