REVIEW: ROCK PAPER SCISSORS, BY ALICE FEENEY

Things have been wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Wright for a long time. When Adam and Amelia win a weekend away to Scotland, it might be just what their marriage needs. Self-confessed workaholic and screenwriter Adam Wright has lived with face blindness his whole life. He can’t recognize friends or family, or even his own wife.

Every anniversary the couple exchange traditional gifts—paper, cotton, pottery, tin—and each year Adam’s wife writes him a letter that she never lets him read. Until now. They both know this weekend will make or break their marriage, but they didn’t randomly win this trip. One of them is lying, and someone doesn’t want them to live happily ever after.

Ten years of marriage. Ten years of secrets. And an anniversary they will never forget.

 

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Adam and Amelia alternately narrate their stories, interspersed with letters from someone signed “wife.” The “Rock Paper Scissors” game was a familiar theme, and while it seemed playful, there was a darkness surrounding it. As we learn more and more about them and their secrets, we “meet” other characters, like Robin, who seems to live near the vacation cottage. But that cottage has so many weird aspects that we just know that nothing will end well.

As the end approaches and more is revealed, I realized that I didn’t like any of the characters! There might not be a happily ever after for some of them, so the ending seemed inevitable. I was still stunned by what eventually happened. And then, even more was revealed in a final chapter. 5 stars

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REVIEW: MAID, BY STEPHANIE LAND

At 28, Stephanie Land’s dreams of attending a university and becoming a writer quickly dissolved when a summer fling turned into an unplanned pregnancy. Before long, she found herself a single mother, scraping by as a housekeeper to make ends meet.

Maid is an emotionally raw, masterful account of Stephanie’s years spent in service to upper middle class America as a “nameless ghost” who quietly shared in her clients’ triumphs, tragedies, and deepest secrets. Driven to carve out a better life for her family, she cleaned by day and took online classes by night, writing relentlessly as she worked toward earning a college degree. She wrote of the true stories that weren’t being told: of living on food stamps and WIC coupons, of government programs that barely provided housing, of aloof government employees who shamed her for receiving what little assistance she did. Above all else, she wrote about pursuing the myth of the American Dream from the poverty line, all the while slashing through deep-rooted stigmas of the working poor.

Maid is Stephanie’s story, but it’s not hers alone. It is an inspiring testament to the courage, determination, and ultimate strength of the human spirit.

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From the very first pages of Maid, I felt a connection to the author as she openly described her journey as a single mother faced with so many challenges that I couldn’t stop rooting for her.

In the end, she did make it to the end of her journey to become a writer through this tale of those struggles with the system that seemed designed to keep her in poverty, unable to move up the ladder.

Having worked with women trying to find their way up that ladder, I could relate to Stephanie and her experiences. Domestic violence is a theme in her story, just as we also could see how her fight against the system seemed determined to keep her down.

I enjoyed her detailed stories of how cleaning houses inspired her and even spurred her on by her dreams of another kind of life. A life she eventually found. 5 stars. .#2021ReadNonFic

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REVIEW: GONE FOR GOOD, BY JOANNA SHAFFHAUSEN

 

The Lovelorn Killer murdered seven women, ritually binding them and leaving them for dead before penning them gruesome love letters in the local papers. Then he disappeared, and after twenty years with no trace of him, many believe that he’s gone for good.

 

Not Grace Harper. A grocery store manager by day, at night Grace uses her snooping skills as part of an amateur sleuth group. She believes the Lovelorn Killer is still living in the same neighborhoods that he hunted in, and if she can figure out how he selected his victims, she will have the key to his identity.

Detective Annalisa Vega lost someone she loved to the killer. Now she’s at a murder scene with the worst kind of déjà vu: Grace Harper lies bound and dead on the floor, surrounded by clues to the biggest murder case that Chicago homicide never solved. Annalisa has the chance to make it right and to heal her family, but first, she has to figure out what Grace knew—how to see a killer who may be standing right in front of you. This means tracing his steps back to her childhood, peering into dark corners she hadn’t acknowledged before, and learning that despite everything the killer took, she has still so much more to lose.

 
 
 
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 I liked Annalisa from the very beginning, as she showed us her backstory and the actions of the Lovelorn Killer who had seemingly disappeared for twenty years, maybe Gone for Good.

But as another victim is taken, someone who had been studying the killer and his victims, Annalisa doubles down to try to find him.

She believes he is possibly someone right in their midst, someone who knows the group members are looking for him, a fact that he uses to tease and entice them.

A page turner that roped me in until the very last page as I held my breath, guessing and watching. I knew that I would be stunned by the big reveal…and I was. 5 stars.

 
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REVIEW: THE NECKLACE, BY MATT WITTEN

Susan Lentigo’s daughter was murdered twenty years ago—and now, at long last, this small-town waitress sets out on a road trip all the way from Upstate New York to North Dakota to witness the killer’s execution.

On her journey she discovers shocking new evidence that leads her to suspect the condemned man is innocent—and the real killer is still free. Even worse, her prime suspect has a young daughter who’s at terrible risk. With no money and no time to spare, Susan sets out to uncover the truth before an innocent man gets executed and another little girl is killed.

But the FBI refuses to reopen the case. They—and Susan’s own mother—believe she’s just having an emotional breakdown. Reaching deep, Susan finds an inner strength she never knew she had. With the help of two unlikely allies—a cynical, defiant teenage girl and the retired cop who made the original arrest—Susan battles the FBI to put the real killer behind bars. Will she win justice for the condemned man—and her daughter—at last?
 
 
 
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A story that sweeps back and forth between the past and the present, The Necklace kept me turning those pages, unsure of how it would all unfold.

Susan was a character I felt connected to since her love of her lost daughter and her uncertainty about events she is only now remembering kept my heart pounding as I turned to the very last page. And the final reveal was one I had been hoping for all along. 5 stars.
 
***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley
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REVIEW: THE GUILT TRIP, BY SANDIE JONES

Rachel and Jack. Paige and Noah. And Will. Five friends who’ve known one another for years. Then along came Ali, Will’s new fiancée.

The three couples travel to Portugal for Ali and Will’s destination wedding. The weekend away at the gorgeous cliff-top villa is a chance to relax and get to know Ali a little better. She seems perfectly nice—and Will seems happy after years of bad choices.

But when Rachel discovers a shocking secret about Ali, everything changes. As the wedding weekend unfolds, the secrets each of them holds begin to spill, and friendships and marriages threaten to unravel.

In Sandie Jones’s explosive new suspense novel, jumping to conclusions can become the difference between life and death.
 
 
 
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Almost immediately, The Guilt Trip reveals a group of old friendships beginning to unravel with the addition of one person: Will’s fiancé. Rachel and Paige are especially put off by the attention-grabbing Ali, and behind everything she says, they see untruths and secrets that are unacceptable.

But when they begin to doubt each other and their spouses, they are plunged into a devastating cycle that has no good end in sight.

I felt most connected to Rachel and hoped that whatever she discovers about the others will not cause her life to implode. But unfortunately, there is no happy ending here. A 5 star read.
 
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REVIEW: THE HOUSE GUESTS, BY EMILIE RICHARDS

 

In the wake of her husband’s sudden death, Cassie Costas finds her relationship with her teenage stepdaughter unraveling. After their move to historic Tarpon Springs, Florida, Savannah hates her new town, her school and most of all her stepmom, whom she blames for her father’s death. Cassie has enough to contend with as she searches for answers about the man she shared a life with, including why all their savings have disappeared.

When Savannah’s rebellion culminates in an act that leaves single mother Amber Blair and her sixteen-year-old son homeless, Cassie empathizes with the woman’s predicament and invites the strangers to move in. As their lives intertwine, Cassie realizes that Amber is hiding something. She’s evasive about her past, but the fear in her eyes tells a darker story. Cassie wonders what the woman living under her roof is running from…and what will happen if it finally catches up to her.
 
 
 
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The House Guests is a layered and fascinating tale of family dynamics, secrets, and the dangers that wait around every corner.

I loved how Cassie has reached out to Amber and Will, even though her own family issues are complicated with Savannah’s moodiness and the mysteries behind her husband’s financial losses.

The story moved between the characters, spotlighting the adults and the teenagers, drawing us into their lives and caring about what the secrets and losses might reveal.

The intensity mounted as the characters drew closer to unraveling the mysteries from the past.

By the end, we are rooting for them all, which made this one a 5 star read for me.
 
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REVIEW: THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR, BY LIV CONSTANTINE

Addison’s about to get married, but she’s not looking forward to the big day. It’s not her fiancé; he’s a wonderful man. It’s because Addison doesn’t know who she really is. A few years ago, a kind driver found her bleeding next to a New Jersey highway and rescued her. While her physical wounds healed, Addison’s memory never returned. She doesn’t know her real name. Or how she ended up injured on the side of a road. Or why she can’t shake the notion that she may have done something very, very bad . . .

In a posh home in the Boston suburbs, Julian tries to figure out what happened to his loving, caring wife, Cassandra, who disappeared without a trace two years ago. She would never have left him and their seven-year-old daughter Valentina of her own free will—or would she?

 

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A story that reveals the fragility of memory, The Stranger in the Mirror offers interesting perspectives for the characters. A woman who can’t remember her past and a man who has lost his wife bring layers to these lives.

As we follow along with Addison’s story, and then when we skip over to how Julian becomes part of the picture, I had suspicions and concerns. Did anything about this scenario ring true? Or, as some of the other characters believe, is Julian pulling some trick on Addison?

I couldn’t stop turning the pages, though, as all the details of the past finally become clear. Should we believe what was happening, or should we doubt everything?

By the end of the tale, I was biting my nails, hoping that there would be happiness for somebody. A five star read.

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REVIEW: SKYE FALLING, BY MIA MCKENZIE

When she was twenty-six and broke, Skye didn’t think twice before selling her eggs and happily pocketing the cash. Now approaching forty, Skye still moves through life entirely—and unrepentantly—on her own terms, living out of a suitcase and avoiding all manner of serious relationships. Maybe her junior high classmates weren’t wrong when they voted her “Most Likely to Be Single” instead of “Most Ride-or-Die Homie,” but at least she’s always been free to do as she pleases.

Then a twelve-year-old girl tracks Skye down during one of her brief visits to her hometown of Philadelphia and informs Skye that she’s “her egg.” Skye’s life is thrown into sharp relief and she decides that it might be time to actually try to have a meaningful relationship with another human being. Spoiler alert: It’s not easy.

Things get even more complicated when Skye realizes that the woman she tried and failed to pick up the other day is the girl’s aunt, and now it’s awkward. All the while, her brother is trying to get in touch, her mother is being bewilderingly kind, and the West Philly pool halls and hoagie shops of her youth have been replaced by hipster cafés.

With its endearingly prickly narrator and a cast of characters willing to both challenge her and catch her when she falls, this novel is a clever, moving portrait of a woman and the relationships she thought she could live without.

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I loved Skye Falling from the very first page.  The first-person narrator brought me right into her interior world through her monologues and her interactions with the people around her.  We get to see her life of the past and how her present life is not as satisfying as she had hoped.

On the journey, we get a first-hand view of Philadelphia and the neighborhoods she has inhabited.

Vicky is an endearing character with a fresh mouth that reveals much about her thoughts and feelings.  She was also a gritty and sometimes tough character who found a way to accept the people in her orbit.

As for Skye, we learn a lot about how one woman navigates her world and chooses what to do next, which kept me turning the pages. 4.5 stars.

***This ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

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REVIEW: DREAM GIRL, BY LAURA LIPPMAN

 

In the end, has anyone really led a blameless life?

 

Injured in a freak fall, novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his glamorous high-rise apartment, dependent on two women he barely knows: his incurious young assistant, and a dull, slow-witted night nurse.

Then late one night, the phone rings. The caller claims to be the “real” Aubrey, the alluring title character from his most successful novel, Dream Girl. But there is no real Aubrey. She’s a figment born of a writer’s imagination, despite what many believe or claim to know. Could the cryptic caller be one of his three ex-wives playing a vindictive trick after all these years? Or is she Margot, an ex-girlfriend who keeps trying to insinuate her way back into Gerry’s life?

And why does no one believe that the call even happened?

Isolated from the world, drowsy from medication, Gerry slips between reality and a dreamlike state in which he is haunted by his own past: his faithless father, his devoted mother; the women who loved him, the women he loved.

And now here is Aubrey, threatening to visit him, suggesting that she is owed something. Is the threat real or is it a sign of dementia? Which scenario would he prefer? Gerry has never been so alone, so confused—and so terrified.

Chilling and compulsively readable, touching on timely issues that include power, agency, appropriation, and creation, Dream Girl is a superb blend of psychological suspense and horror that reveals the mind and soul of a writer.

 
 
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From the very beginning of Dream Girl, I was caught up in the mind of Gerry Anderson, an author whose memories take him back and forth in time.

As he lies in his bed, cared for by two strange women who are passing for nurses, it doesn’t take long for me to feel the intensity of what is bound to come in this situation.

The letters and strange phone calls that may or not be happening lead us on a slow and torturous journey toward a horrifying end.

Even as I worried about how things would unfold, I didn’t imagine how dark things would become. I rooted for Gerry, even though he was not the kind of protagonist one might cheer for. A surprising twist at the end stunned me, even as I knew that I should have seen it coming. 4.5 stars.

 
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REVIEW: SYCAMORE, BY BRYN CHANCELLOR

Out for a hike one scorching afternoon in Sycamore, Arizona, a newcomer to town stumbles across what appear to be human remains embedded in the wall of a dry desert ravine. As news of the discovery makes its way around town, Sycamore’s longtime residents fear the bones may belong to Jess Winters, the teenage girl who disappeared suddenly some eighteen years earlier, an unsolved mystery that has soaked into the porous rock of the town and haunted it ever since. In the days it takes the authorities to make an identification, the residents rekindle stories, rumors, and recollections both painful and poignant as they revisit Jess’s troubled history. In resurrecting the past, the people of Sycamore will find clarity, unexpected possibility, and a way forward for their lives.

 

Skillfully interweaving multiple points of view, Bryn Chancellor knowingly maps the bloodlines of a community and the indelible characters at its heart—most notably Jess Winters, a thoughtful, promising adolescent poised on the threshold of adulthood. Evocative and atmospheric, Sycamore is a coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a moving exploration of the elemental forces that drive human nature—desire, loneliness, grief, love, forgiveness, and hope—as witnessed through the inhabitants of one small Arizona town.

 
 
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Sycamore takes the reader back and forth through time, as we follow the residents of the small Arizona town. One of their own, a young teenage girl new to the town, went missing in December 1991. But as our tale sweeps back and forth from the past to the present, we learn about a relationship that turns the town upside down just before Jess disappears, and for many years, there was speculation that she had either run away due to the shame or that someone had hurt her.

 

As the residents’ lives continue and change, the town itself goes through its own metamorphosis until one day, a newcomer makes a discovery that will spin them all out again. What was the truth about Jess Winters and her disappearance? Would any of them ever recover from it?

The characters were interesting and were all linked around these events in some way. It was hard to keep track of them all throughout the story, but I couldn’t stop turning the pages. 4.5 stars.

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