REVIEW: THE HOUSEKEEPER, BY SUELLEN DAINTY

When Anne Morgan’s successful boyfriend—who also happens to be her boss—leaves her for another woman, Anne finds herself in desperate need of a new job and a quiet place to recover. Meanwhile, her celebrity idol, Emma Helmsley (England’s answer to Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey), is in need of a housekeeper, an opportunity which seems too good to be true.

Through her books, website, and blog, Emma Helmsley advises her devoted followers on how to live a balanced life in a hectic world. Her husband, Rob, is a high profile academic, and her children, Jake and Lily, are well-adjusted teenagers. On the surface, they are the perfect family. But Anne soon finds herself intimately ensconced in the Helmsley’s dirty laundry, both literally and figuratively. Underneath the dust, grime, and whimsical clutter, everyone has a secret to hide. And Anne’s own disturbing past soon threatens to unhinge everything…

My Thoughts: In the beginning, The Housekeeper seemed to be a book about one young woman’s love gone wrong, and how she found a way to start over as a domestic helper for a famous blogger and her psychologist husband.

But soon we are swept up into a gradual process of enmeshment, as the Helmsley family come to expect more and more from Anne, while making it seem as though they are doing her a favor by making her feel like family. But Anne does not notice the subtle expectations, since she admires Emma and Rob and the life they have created, and being a part of it all feels so good.

When Anne has some memory flashes, it seems natural that she would ask her boss, the psychologist, for his opinions. What will happen next? Will the horrors of her childhood change everything about the life she has recreated?

I was blown away by how the story played out, and could not stop reading it. I was furious with Emma and Rob, and how they played on Anne’s need for family. They seemingly brought her into the cozy circle that was developing between them, when, in fact, they were using her to carry out the façade of the perfect family/professional couple. She did a good job of glossing over their imperfections by keeping their lives running smoothly, and what they gave her in return was betrayal.

Skillfully wrought, the story aroused emotions, kept me engaged, and left me with much more to think about. In the end, there was a sense of closure that I didn’t see coming, and it felt good. A 5 star read for me.

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REVIEW: WOMAN NO. 17, BY EDAN LEPUCKI

High in the Hollywood Hills, writer Lady Daniels has decided to take a break from her husband. Left alone with her children, she’s going to need a hand taking care of her young son if she’s ever going to finish her memoir. In response to a Craigslist ad, S arrives, a magnetic young artist who will live in the secluded guest house out back, care for Lady’s toddler, Devin, and keep a watchful eye on her older, teenage son, Seth. S performs her day job beautifully, quickly drawing the entire family into her orbit, and becoming a confidante for Lady.
 
But in the heat of the summer, S’s connection to Lady’s older son takes a disturbing, and possibly destructive, turn. And as Lady and S move closer to one another, the glossy veneer of Lady’s privileged life begins to crack, threatening to expose old secrets that she has been keeping from her family. Meanwhile, S is protecting secrets of her own, about her real motivation for taking the job. S and Lady are both playing a careful game, and every move they make endangers the things they hold most dear.

My Thoughts: From the very first page of Woman No. 17, I was captivated by each narrative voice: first, we meet “Lady” Daniels, mother, writer, and “separated” wife of Karl, trying to work out her inner angst.

Then we have “S” Fowler, young artist/nanny who has moved into the guesthouse after Lady hires her. There is definitely something off about S and her mysterious artistic project. Meanwhile, she cares for toddler Devin, and seemingly does a good job.

Seth, the mute eldest son, a college student, seems to be playing some mind games, both with his mother and with S.

Seth communicates with both his mother and S via Twitter, and sometimes he plays out vengeful games with this method. His tweets do offer a peek into his perspective.

Themes of motherhood, friendship, and art fill the pages with interesting scenes, dialogue, and other characters, like Marco, Seth’s father, who left when he was a baby and with whom Lady has recently reconnected; and Kit Daniels, photographer, who imagines herself to be the “last word” in all things artistic. I could not stand her.

I loved the LA setting, with its youth-dominated culture, fascination with fantasy vs. reality, and the endless freeway systems.

My feelings for Lady and S were mixed, and by the time we finally realize what each is trying to communicate with one another and with others, the story had reached a crescendo pitch. Secrets come crashing down around us, and we are left in the rubble…watching each of them try to move on. A brilliantly written 5 star read.

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REVIEW: THE WIDOW’S HOUSE, BY CAROL GOODMAN

When Jess and Clare Martin move from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to their former college town in the Hudson River valley, they are hoping for rejuvenation—of their marriage, their savings, and Jess’s writing career.

They take a caretaker’s job at Riven House, a crumbling estate and the home of their old college writing professor. While Clare once had dreams of being a writer, those plans fell by the wayside when Jess made a big, splashy literary debut in their twenties. It’s been years, now, since his first novel. The advance has long been spent. Clare’s hope is that the pastoral beauty and nostalgia of the Hudson Valley will offer some inspiration.

But their new life isn’t all quaint town libraries and fragrant apple orchards. There is a haunting pall that hangs over Riven House like a funeral veil. Something is just not right. Soon, Clare begins to hear babies crying at night, see strange figures in fog at the edge of their property. Diving into the history of the area, she realizes that Riven House has a dark and anguished past. And whatever this thing is—this menacing force that destroys the inhabitants of the estate—it seems to be after Clare next…

My Thoughts: Narrated in Clare’s first person voice, The Widow’s House immediately drew me in to her life and her experience, and I was invested in her world. How she viewed her new life in the old mansion, and the people she once knew that she was seeing again became my view.

Clare had grown up in the town, on the old Jackson farm with her adopted parents, who were harsh and strict. She felt isolated and that perspective shaded everything back then. Now she is looking at the world with fresh eyes.

But when events take off at the estate, and when she overhears Jess talking on the phone to mysterious individuals, her paranoia intensifies and she is back there, on the outside looking in.

I really hated Jess from the beginning. He was charming, but then cruel. He criticized Clare and made her feel crazy. So when some strange things happened, it started to feel as though he wanted her to unravel.

Final revelations came one after the other, and most I didn’t see coming, even though nothing Jess did would have surprised me at this point.

A riveting tale in which nothing is as it seems, I was glued to the pages, reading long past a reasonable hour. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE PERFECT STRANGER, BY MEGAN MIRANDA

Confronted by a restraining order and the threat of a lawsuit, failed journalist Leah Stevens needs to get out of Boston when she runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who has just left a troubled relationship. Emmy proposes they move to rural Pennsylvania, where Leah can get a teaching position and both women can start again. But their new start is threatened when a woman with an eerie resemblance to Leah is assaulted by the lake, and Emmy disappears days later.

Determined to find Emmy, Leah cooperates with Kyle Donovan, a handsome young police officer on the case. As they investigate her friend’s life for clues, Leah begins to wonder: did she ever really know Emmy at all? With no friends, family, or a digital footprint, the police begin to suspect that there is no Emmy Grey. Soon Leah’s credibility is at stake, and she is forced to revisit her past: the article that ruined her career. To save herself, Leah must uncover the truth about Emmy Grey—and along the way, confront her old demons, find out who she can really trust, and clear her own name.

My Thoughts: The Perfect Stranger was one of those books that had me taking voluminous notes, not sure which details I uncovered that would help me later, as it was clear from the start that many secrets and lies would shake out as we followed the various threads to the end.

First, I was intrigued by the character of Emmy Grey, who may have been someone else entirely. Or perhaps she only existed in the mind of Leah Stevens, through whose eyes we saw most of the events of the story. After all, she leaves no evidence of her existence behind when she goes. Everything is in someone else’s name: in Leah’s name.

How did the attack of a woman who resembled Leah connect to Emmy Grey or even to Leah?

Finding out more kept me reading, and even as each twist and turn led me to still another theory, I knew that the identity of Emmy Grey would be at the heart of it all. Themes of trust were also at the center of the mystery. Who could Leah trust, from her old lover in Boston to Emmy herself?

And what about Detective Kyle Donovan, who seems so forthcoming in the beginning, and then shuts down? Will he finally trust Leah enough to help her?

Twisted threads take us back and forth, with bits and pieces revealed until a startling connection leads us to the very beginning and to the moment of truth. To the place where we finally discover who Emmy is…and to the secrets she had hoped to outrun. 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: ONE PERFECT LIE, BY LISA SCOTTOLINE

On paper, Chris Brennan looks perfect. He’s applying for a job as a high school government teacher, he’s ready to step in as an assistant baseball coach, and his references are impeccable.

But everything about Chris Brennan is a lie.

Susan Sematov is proud of her son Raz, a high school pitcher so athletically talented that he’s being recruited for a full-ride scholarship to a Division I college, with a future in major-league baseball. But Raz’s father died only a few months ago, leaving her son in a vulnerable place where any new father figure might influence him for good, or evil.

Heather Larkin is a struggling single mother who lives for her son Jordan’s baseball games. But Jordan is shy, and Heather fears he is being lured down a dark path by one of his teammates, a young man from an affluent family whose fun-loving manner might possibly conceal his violent plans.

Mindy Kostis succumbs to the pressure of being a surgeon’s wife by filling her days with social events and too many gin and tonics. But she doesn’t know that her husband and her son, Evan, are keeping secrets from her – secrets that might destroy all of them.

At the center of all of them is Chris Brennan. Why is he there? What does he want? And what is he willing to do to get it?

My Thoughts: The story begins with our introduction to Chris Brennan, who has mysteriously presented himself in a false light in order to accomplish some unstated goal. We start guessing about his plans and what might unfold, but soon our imaginings are toppled as his true identity and mission are revealed.

In the small town of Central Valley, Pennsylvania, there are core characters whose lives connect with Chris almost immediately. I liked Heather, a single mom who is struggling to support her son while performing at a job she hates for a boss she does not respect.

Mindy Kostis, whose privileged life sets her apart and might make her unlikable, surprised me when I discovered unexpected depths and a moral compass that puts her in a great position to challenge her husband and her son Evan. Both have been keeping secrets and lying.

Then there is Susan, whose beloved husband Neil has recently died. Her sons, Ryan and Raz, are finding their way in a world without their father’s guiding presence, and they are making mistakes and bad choices.

How will Chris Brennan’s mission affect these small town residents? What will he do to achieve his goals? A page turner that kept me guessing, while biting my nails, One Perfect Lie was a perfectly fine-tuned read. 5 stars.  

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

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REVIEW: PERSONS UNKNOWN, BY SUSIE STEINER

Detective Manon Bradshaw is five months pregnant and has officially given up on finding romantic love. Instead, she is in hot pursuit of work-life balance and parked in a cold case corridor—the price she’s had to pay for a transfer back to Cambridgeshire. This is fine, she tells herself. She can devote herself to bringing up her two children: her adopted twelve-year-old son, Fly Dent, and the new baby. Fly needed a fresh start—he was always being stopped and searched in London by officers who couldn’t see past the color of his skin. Manon feared that Fly, increasingly sullen and adolescent, was getting in with the wrong crowd at school, or that possibly he was the wrong crowd. Being home by five, for the sake of her children, is what Manon tells herself she needs.

Yet when a wealthy businessman is found stabbed close to police headquarters, Manon can’t help but sidle in on the briefing: The victim is a banker from London, worth millions. More dramatically, he was once in a relationship with Manon’s sister, Ellie, and is the father of Ellie’s toddler son.

The case begins to circle in on Manon’s home and her family. She finds herself pitted against the colleagues she once held dear: Davy Walker and Harriet Harper.

My Thoughts: I loved connecting with Manon Bradshaw in the author’s previous novel, “Missing, Presumed.” What I enjoy about her most is how we are privy to her personal life, with all of its flaws and foibles, and we are granted a glimpse of her thoughts as she struggles through the challenges she faces. Living in a house with her sister Ellie and Ellie’s son Solomon, we can sense from the beginning that something is not right. Ellie’s abruptness, her paranoia about her privacy, and the secrets she is holding close put me on high alert. What we do not find out until later is how much Ellie has done to protect her own turf, no matter how her actions will impact those around her.

I felt frustrated by the rush to judgment of the police with regard to the murder of Jon-Oliver, who is Solly’s father. Someone in the police management team has pushed for the arrest of 12-year-old Fly. Why are the hasty judgments not investigated properly?

Manon is locked out of the investigation because Fly is her adopted son, but she manages to work her way into parts of the investigation via Fly’s attorney, Mark Talbot.

Davy Walker, who worked closely with Manon before Fly’s involvement in the case, is doggedly pursuing other angles, once his gut tells him that something is off.

Narrated by Manon, Davy, and a few other individuals, Persons Unknown begins to unfold slowly, and we soon see the crucial connections that will help solve the case. While one piece remains uncovered, we feel much of the satisfaction due us in a mystery with characters we love. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: NEVER CHANGE, BY ELIZABETH BERG

You know people like me. I’m the one who sat in a folding chair out in the hall selling tickets to the prom but never going, the one everybody liked but no one wanted to be with.

A self-anointed spinster at fifty-one, Myra Lipinsky has endured the isolation of her middle life by doting on her dog, Frank, and immersing herself in her career as a visiting nurse. Myra considers herself reasonably content, telling herself, It’s enough, work and Frank. And it has been enough — until Chip Reardon, the too-good-to-be-true golden boy she adored from afar, is assigned to be her new patient. Choosing to forgo invasive treatment for an incurable illness, Chip has returned from Manhattan to the New England home of his childhood to spend what time he has left. Now, Myra and Chip find themselves engaged in a poignant redefinition of roles, and a complicated dance of memory, ambivalence, and longing.

My Thoughts: From the very first page of Never Change, the author captured the characters by revealing the small and ordinary details of their lives, and showing us how Myra, the protagonist, fit into their worlds and connected with each of them.

For a woman who grew up feeling alone and unlovable, Myra had certainly developed that unique skill that endeared her to those she cared for in her role as a visiting nurse.

I loved how she bent the rules, bringing her patients into her life, doing little extra things for them, and nurturing them in ways that each of them needed most.

Her growing connection to Chip, the man who was that high school golden boy, the one she loved from afar, grew into a sweet and loving story that could probably happen only in these circumstances: a man dying and the woman who nurses him to the end becoming the center of his universe.

What Myra learns about herself, her capacity to love and be loved, was poetic and beautiful. I was rooting for both Chip and Myra, even though there was bound to be sadness along the way. Would Myra find a way to move on and redefine who she was in the world? Could the gifts she received from Chip help her on that journey? A beautiful story that earned 5 stars.

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