REVIEW: WATCH ME, BY JODY GEHRMAN

 

Kate Youngblood is disappearing. Muddling through her late 30s as a creative writing professor at Blackwood College, she’s dangerously close to never being noticed again. The follow-up novel to her successful debut tanked. Her husband left her for a woman ten years younger. She’s always been bright, beautiful, independent and a little wild, but now her glow is starting to vanish. She’s heading into an age where her eyes are less blue, her charm worn out, and soon no one will ever truly look at her, want to know her, again.

Except one.

Sam Grist is Kate’s most promising student. An unflinching writer with razor-sharp clarity who gravitates towards dark themes and twisted plots, his raw talent is something Kate wants to nurture into literary success. But he’s not there solely to be the best writer. He’s been watching her. Wanting her. Working his way to her for years.

As Sam slowly makes his way into Kate’s life, they enter a deadly web of dangerous lies and forbidden desire. But how far will his fixation go? And how far will she allow it?

 

My Thoughts: Alternating first person narratives tell the tale in Watch Me. At first we see that Sam has a crush on Kate, his professor, and she is flattered by his attention. But with each page we turn, the darkness escalates until we are left with fear and angst.

Intense, dark, thrilling…all of the ingredients in a cat and mouse game that can only end badly, yet keep the reader glued to the pages. Will Kate realize the danger? Will Sam’s obsession lead to disaster?

What I did enjoy, aside from the intensity, was getting to know these two characters. Kate’s lonely and solo existence involves a lot of drinking at home, especially after her best friend Zoe has a baby and is no longer available for nights out.

Sam’s existence seems completely focused on Kate and the dream he has for the two of them. Even the persistent attention of a young sexy student named Jess is not enough for him to take his eye off his goals. We empathize a bit with him as we learn about his childhood and how he was dragged from place to place, putting up with his mother’s drug abuse and her series of abusive boyfriends.

Set in the small town of Blackwood, Ohio, the story unfolds in such a way that we never really know what will happen next. As writers, the characters could almost be creating fiction for us. Could any of it be really happening? We are watching them, unable to believe what we are seeing. The characters are as addictive to the reader as they are to each other. We turn the pages quickly in order to find out what happens next. In the end, we are stunned by it all. 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley

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REVIEW: ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL, BY SARAH VAUGHAN

 

An astonishingly incisive and suspenseful novel about a scandal amongst Britain’s privileged elite and the women caught up in its wake.

Sophie’s husband James is a loving father, a handsome man, a charismatic and successful public figure. And yet he stands accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is convinced he is innocent and desperate to protect her precious family from the lies that threaten to rip them apart.

Kate is the lawyer hired to prosecute the case: an experienced professional who knows that the law is all about winning the argument. And yet Kate seeks the truth at all times. She is certain James is guilty and is determined he will pay for his crimes.

Who is right about James? Sophie or Kate? And is either of them informed by anything more than instinct and personal experience? Despite her privileged upbringing, Sophie is well aware that her beautiful life is not inviolable. She has known it since she and James were first lovers, at Oxford, and she witnessed how easily pleasure could tip into tragedy.

My Thoughts: Eager to read this story that could have been grabbed from today’s headlines, I began Anatomy of a Scandal with some idea of what would unfold.

Our alternating narrators take us from the present to the past, to a time when youth and bad choices set the tone for what would come next in the lives of these elite characters.

Setting in the past: Oxford University, with entitled students, mixed in with a handful of scholarship recipients. 1993 was a year that stood out for a number of reasons, and those secrets will stay in the past until something that happens in the present yanks them forward.

Did James rape his colleague? Or was it a misunderstanding between two lovers? What long term pattern of being “flexible” with the truth might be relevant in the present? What will Sophie realize about her husband, and how long will she stay loyal?

What, if anything, is the past connection between Kate Woodcroft, the barrister in James’s case, and James and Sophie? How will Kate handle the delicacy of her situation? What will Sophie finally acknowledge? How does the longstanding friendship between James and Tom, his boss, inform the dynamics in the present?

Issues of consent are basic to the case before the Court and to this story…while the existence of secrets, lies, and a feeling of being untouchable will ultimately change the course of all their lives, since nothing stays buried forever. 5 stars.


***I received this e-ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: I AM WATCHING YOU, BY TERESA DRISCOLL

 

When Ella Longfield overhears two attractive young men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it—until she realises they are fresh out of prison and her maternal instinct is put on high alert. But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls—beautiful, green-eyed Anna Ballard—has disappeared.

A year later, Anna is still missing. Ella is wracked with guilt over what she failed to do, and she’s not the only one who can’t forget. Someone is sending her threatening letters—letters that make her fear for her life.

Then an anniversary appeal reveals that Anna’s friends and family might have something to hide. Anna’s best friend, Sarah, hasn’t been telling the whole truth about what really happened that night—and her parents have been keeping secrets of their own.

Someone knows where Anna is—and they’re not telling. But they are watching Ella.

My Thoughts: The story opens with Ella, as she watches two young girls on a train, and the young men hitting on them. At first, she is not bothered, but when the men describe having just been released from prison, red flags go up. Soon the behavior of the girls and the men begins to worry her…but she doesn’t want to overreact.

Over the course of I Am Watching You, alternate narrators tell the story. From the perspective of Anna’s friend Sarah, we learn about her secrets, and also her feelings of guilt.

Anna’s father, Henry Ballard, has been covering up his own secrets, including one that might tell us something important about his relationship with Anna.

But Ella, above all others, has been lambasted in the media about her failure to come forward, and someone has leaked her information. She is now receiving frightening missives…and feels like someone is watching her.

Another narrator is “The Watcher,” an anonymous voice that flaunts “his” or “her” behavior, and gives us little added information, except that someone is definitely watching.

Just when I thought I had it figured out, a stunning last-minute reveal quickened the pace as Ella and the authorities rush to capture that person. Someone seemingly on the sidelines, perhaps the last person one would suspect. A compelling mystery that earned 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: BE FRANK WITH ME, BY JULIA CLAIBORNE JOHNSON

 

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies—with a few stipulations: No Ivy-Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away—as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders.

As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank’s father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation—and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

My Thoughts: For some reason, I kept putting off reading Be Frank With Me, a book I downloaded in March 2016. The blurb obviously grabbed my attention enough for me to buy the book. So why did I wait so long?

Whatever my reluctance, I was immediately captivated by the nine-year-old boy Frank. A brilliant child with a head full of random facts, he also seemed to capture the affection of Alice, the new assistant. His strange behavior and odd costumes did not endear him to other children, but some of the staff at school found him lovable and tried to protect him from the others. However, the principal who arrived at the school late in the book was so smug and off-putting that he set off a chain of disastrous events that would change everything.

I had issues with the inappropriate and unreliable Xander, who also had his likable characteristics. His tendency to pop in and out of Frank’s life made me very curious about how he came to be part of this dysfunctional group.

Alice, as our narrator, offered her own theories as she, too, questioned Xander’s role. Was he a former lover of Mimi’s? Was he Frank’s father?

Mimi was self-absorbed, unreliable, and definitely unlikable most of the time. But then she would do something wonderful and make you question everything you thought you knew about her and her family.

Tragic events bring the story to an unexpected denouement, and then we are left trying to imagine what will happen to the characters. A 4.5 star read for me.

***

REVIEW: DEAD OF WINTER, BY WENDY CORSI STAUB

 

Just as a murderer dumps his corpse into the lake across Valley View in Lily Dale, Bella Jordan happens to be at her window, not quite realizing what she’s seeing. Unbeknownst to her, the killer spots her silhouette and prowls straight to her door. That is, until he’s interrupted by a black cat. A superstitious gambler, he takes off, but Bella’s seen too much, and he vows to return.

Jiffy Arden, a neighborhood kid looking for the black cat and stumbling across the killer, begins to have premonitions of being kidnapped during the season’s first snowstorm. Sure enough, when it strikes, he vanishes, never arriving home from the bus stop. While her son, Max, believes Jiffy has been kidnapped, Bella is convinced he’s just wandered off as he typically does… until a body shows up in the lake.

Now everyone is pulling out all the stops to find the missing child, identify the victim, and collar the killer. And fast, because he’s coming for Bella next in Dead of Winter.

My Thoughts: Bella Jordan is the central character in Dead of Winter, and as she continues to grieve the year-ago loss of her husband Sam, while trying to manage Valley View Inn, the ancient home she is renovating, she also must keep her six-year-old son Max safe.

Max’s best friend Jiffy is mischievous, unsupervised most of the time, and the kind of child who can pull another into his pranks.

When Jiffy goes missing, right after a body is found in the lake, it is easy to imagine that the killer stumbled upon him. Was he kidnapped by the killer, or is there more to the story?

Misty Starr, Jiffy’s mother, does readings, and some of her recent clients have had dark auras. She has also been fighting with her husband, Mike, a deployed soldier. Do any of these characters figure into the missing child scenario?

Lily Dale is an interesting village with quirky residents, including several who seem to connect to the Other Side. A quick read that kept me fascinated, this one earned 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: A SEASON TO LIE, BY EMILY LITTLEJOHN

 

On a cold dark night in February, as a blizzard shrieks through Cedar Valley, police officer and new mother Gemma Monroe responds to an anonymous report of a prowler at the local private high school, The Valley Academy. In her idyllic Colorado small town, Gemma expects the call was just a prank by a bored teenager.

But there in the snow lies the savaged body of a man whose presence in town was meant to be a secret. And a disturbing message left by his killer promises more death to come.
This is only the beginning . . .

Nothing is as it seems in Cedar Valley and stories, both fact and fiction, ensnare Gemma as her investigation moves from the halls of an elite academy to the forests that surround Cedar Valley.

My Thoughts: On her first day back at work after her maternity leave, Gemma Monroe is eager to delve into whatever cases are presented to her. So, in the opening lines of A Season to Lie, we find her heading out to Valley Academy in response to an anonymous tip. A prowler has been spotted. The situation seems simple enough, but before the night is done, Gemma and her partner Finn will be trying to solve a murder, and the victim is a well-known author. Someone who has slipped into town in disguise, hoping to have some quiet to write his memoirs…and do some guest lectures at the school.

The suspects range from students to teachers, from bullies to nefarious construction workers…and even a stalker called The Rabbit Man.

The author’s friend Lila Conway, who invited him to visit, suffers from extreme social anxiety, so she seems to have nothing to contribute. But is she keeping secrets? Is she telling lies? What is the truth behind her relationship to the author?

When Gemma grows closer to the answers, I was fascinated by the threads that led to many possibilities…and then seemingly nowhere. Until the final reveal. A captivating read. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE WIFE BETWEEN US, BY GREER HENDRICKS & SARAH PEKKANEN

 

When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous ex-wife.
You will assume she is obsessed with her replacement – a beautiful, younger woman who is about to marry the man they both love.
You will assume you know the anatomy of this tangled love triangle.
Assume nothing.
Twisted and deliciously chilling, The Wife Between Us exposes the secret complexities of an enviable marriage – and the dangerous truths we ignore in the name of love.

Read between the lies.

 

My Thoughts: My initial experiences in The Wife Between Us felt like looking through a kaleidoscope, the images shifting and surreal. The story seemed to tell different versions of reality from the perspectives of the wife and the girl friend. But as I turned the pages, I could see that nothing was shaping up the way I had imagined it to be. Through my confusion, I slowly began to glimpse the many ever-changing layers of the story, constantly in flux.

What do we really know about Richard? How could someone who seemed to be caring and loving one minute turn dark and dangerous? How do Vanessa’s experiences inform what happens to Emma, and how did their choices come about because of Richard’s actions? Then I wondered if I could be wrong. Should I go back and start again, with a fresh perspective? The authors have a way of keeping the reader slightly off-balance throughout, thinking one thing is true, only to discover the subtleties of reality.

Would Vanessa risk everything to bring out the truth? How would she manage to turn the tables on Richard, keeping him in the dark until she had finished what she’d set out to do?

Veering between the past and the present, the story is like a giant 1000 piece puzzle with numerous intricacies and deliberately shifting borders. Just when you have it all pieced together, another player dumps it out and you have to start again. This pattern continued through the final page, when still another shocking surprise popped up and I was thrown back to the beginning, awed by the serendipitous events that had transpired. 5 stars.*** My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: THE CRUELEST MONTH, BY LOUISE PENNY

 

Welcome to Three Pines, where the cruelest month is about to deliver on its threat.

It’s spring in the tiny, forgotten village; buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. But not everything is meant to return to life. . .
When some villagers decide to celebrate Easter with a séance at the Old Hadley House, they are hoping to rid the town of its evil—until one of their party dies of fright. Was this a natural death, or was the victim somehow helped along?

My Thoughts: As we stroll down the streets of Three Pines, in The Cruelest Month, we meet several of the town’s residents: Olivier, from the Bistro; Monsieur Believeau, the grocer; Myrna, who runs the bookstore and acts as a therapist; Ruth, the old poet; and Clara, a local artist. Some are already thinking about Easter, and the wooden eggs they will hide. The children will trade the wooden ones they find for chocolate eggs.

Soon we will meet others, especially Hazel and her best friend Madeleine. Hazel’s daughter Sophie is due to arrive from university.

It sounds like a lovely gathering of friendly people…so how did the festivities turn so dark? It started with a dinner at Clara and Peter’s, where they talked about having a séance, just for fun, since a psychic named Jeanne Chauvet is visiting. But after the dinner, they decide they need something more appropriate, like the Old Hadley House. Abandoned and creepy, it does sound like the perfect setting.

Everything goes bad at that house when someone dies in a horrific death. Who would want to kill this lovely woman? And why?

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache arrives in town with his team, and over the course of days, they begin to unscramble the clues and put together some suspects. Like many mysteries, there are lots of red herrings and people to overlook, and then Gamache, in his inimitable style, zeroes in on the culprit. Amidst the mystery solving, there are some inner workings at the Surete Headquarters back in Montreal, as someone is trying to discredit Gamache and ruin his life. As much as I enjoyed this book, I struggled with the numerous characters and names in French, mixing some up occasionally, which meant I had to take copious notes and pay attention. However, I did enjoy this captivating read that earned 4 stars from me.

***

REVIEW: BONFIRE, BY KRYSTEN RITTER

 

It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all visible evidence of her small-town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.

But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s most high-profile company and economic heart, Abby begins to find strange connections to Barrens’s biggest scandal from more than a decade ago, involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her closest friends—just before Kaycee disappeared for good.

Abby knows the key to solving any case lies in the weak spots, the unanswered questions. But as she tries desperately to find out what really happened to Kaycee, troubling memories begin to resurface and she begins to doubt her own observations. And when she unearths an even more disturbing secret—a ritual called “The Game”—it will threaten reputations, and lives, in the community and risk exposing a darkness that may consume her.

 

My Thoughts: Bonfire was a captivating story of environmental poisoning; mean girls who played a horrible Game; and how the past never stays in your rear view mirror.

Abby Williams is an environmental lawyer revisiting her past when her team goes to Barrens, Indiana, to investigate Optimal, a company that seems to control everything about the town.

At first it seemed as though the poisoning in the water was the worst that could be uncovered, but what the company had done to hide its darker secrets gradually unfolded, as Abby kept digging, even when some members of her team had wrapped up their quest.

I enjoyed Abby’s shifting memories of the past, and how their darkest parts slowly came to her in the end, and how even some of the people she thought she could trust turned out to be the most evil. The scent of bonfires on the horizon seemed to hover just on the edges of her mind whenever a new memory would surface. The past and present collide during one dark night when Abby is facing horrific danger that she didn’t see coming. Engaging and slowly revealing how the past informs the present, I give this one 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: POISON, BY GALT NIEDERHOFFER

 

Cass and Ryan Connor have achieved family nirvana. With three kids between them, a cat and a yard, a home they built and feathered, they seem to have the Modern Family dream. Their family, including Cass’ two children from previous relationships, has recently moved to Seattle—a new start for their new lives. Cass and Ryan have stable, successful careers, and they are happy. But trouble begins almost imperceptibly. First with small omissions and white lies that happen daily in any marital bedroom. They seem insignificant, but they are quickly followed by a series of denials and feints that mushroom and then cyclone in menace.

With life-or-death stakes and irreversible consequences, Poison is a chilling and irresistible reminder that the closest bond designed to protect and provide for each other and for children can change in a minute.

 

My Thoughts: In the beginning of Poison, their lives looked perfect from the outside, and everything seemed to be falling into place according to plan. But when Cass begins to find evidence of her husband’s cheating, everything starts coming unglued.

A nanny who seems too good to be true; a neighbor who appears to be kind, offering assistance; and very strange physical symptoms in Cass that start after Ryan has cooked a tuna dish.

Just when it seems as though she has figured out what is happening, the real battle begins. Proving that Ryan is out to harm her. Finding out who in her world she can trust. Everyone begins to look suspicious, which is dangerous, since Cass learns what she has always known, underneath, that the system is designed to cater to the words of men and to reduce those of women to labels such as hysteria, paranoia, and delusions.

It will take a lot for Cass to finally discover the answers…following her journey kept me captive throughout this book as I could totally relate to how women and victims are treated, even in this day and age. I was on the edge of my seat until I turned the last page, hoping for a resolution. Hoping for justice. A brilliant five star read!***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

***