REVIEW: THE GUEST LIST, BY LUCY FOLEY

 

The bride – The plus one – The best man – The wedding planner – The bridesmaid – The body

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.

But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

As we follow along, getting acquainted with the characters in The Guest List, we are on tenterhooks, wondering what will go wrong. The sense of foreboding hovers overhead as the alternating narrators tell the story. Who will end up in a dark place…or dead?

Jules, the bride, was annoyingly determined for perfection, critical of anything or anyone that might interfere with that goal.

Olivia, the bridesmaid and sister to the bride, is in a mood from the beginning. Something has gone awry for her, but she is trying to hide whatever that might be.

Hannah, the “Plus One,” is married to one of the bride’s male friends, and the two of them seem to be too close for comfort. Why are they often huddled together, whispering, and will their behavior trigger something in Hannah?

What mysterious drinking games amongst the groomsmen are setting off sparks among the other guests?

As the days pass, we know that dark and mysterious events will soon be coming…and we hold our breaths, waiting.

Just when we have imagined the scenario that will play out, we realize that there are complex puzzle pieces coming together to make up the eventual tragedy, and nothing can be sorted out easily.

By the time I turned the last page, I felt something for each and every character. Some of it was sadness. There was some empathy, too, but also a dark aura of disgust and contempt for the entitlement that had threaded itself through their lives. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE SEA OF LOST GIRLS, BY CAROL GOODMAN

Tess has worked hard to keep her past buried, where it belongs. Now she’s the wife to a respected professor at an elite boarding school, where she also teaches. Her seventeen-year-old son, Rudy, whose dark moods and complicated behavior she’s long worried about, seems to be thriving: he has a lead role in the school play and a smart and ambitious girlfriend. Tess tries not to think about the mistakes she made eighteen years ago, and mostly, she succeeds.

And then one more morning she gets a text at 2:50 AM: it’s Rudy, asking for help. When Tess picks him up she finds him drenched and shivering, with a dark stain on his sweatshirt. Four hours later, Tess gets a phone call from the Haywood school headmistress: Lila Zeller, Rudy’s girlfriend, has been found dead on the beach, not far from where Tess found Rudy just hours before.

As the investigation into Lila’s death escalates, Tess finds her family attacked on all sides. What first seemed like a tragic accidental death is turning into something far more sinister, and not only is Tess’s son a suspect but her husband is a person of interest too. But Lila’s death isn’t the first blemish on Haywood’s record, and the more Tess learns about Haywood’s fabled history, the more she realizes that not all skeletons will stay safely locked in the closet.

For most of Tess’s life, she has been trying to bury the past and her dark secrets. Throughout The Sea of Lost Girls, our narrator Tess has many fears and reasons to try to hide everything she has lived through. Some might point out that she could have prevented a lot of her own pain if she had come forward to share about how she had been abused and assaulted by someone who should have been a protector, but old habits die hard. And when women fear that others will not believe them, they often hunker down and hide everything even more.

The story takes us to the distant past and how the school where Tess and her husband teach has its own reasons to bury the past, but once Tess realizes how deep the secrets go and how much danger is coming at her, she begins to come forward with the truth.

Will she be able to protect her son? Can her husband be protected? Or will she find out that she is covering for the wrong people?

An intense tale that kept me guessing, not sure who had killed Lila or what had happened to all the lost girls. Just when I thought I knew the answers, another surprise would come around the bend. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE SWEENEY SISTERS, BY LIAN DOLAN

Maggie, Eliza, and Tricia Sweeney grew up as a happy threesome in the idyllic seaside town of Southport, Connecticut. But their mother’s death from cancer fifteen years ago tarnished their golden-hued memories, and the sisters drifted apart. Their one touchstone is their father, Bill Sweeney, an internationally famous literary lion and college professor universally adored by critics, publishers, and book lovers. When Bill dies unexpectedly one cool June night, his shell-shocked daughters return to their childhood home. They aren’t quite sure what the future holds without their larger-than-life father, but they do know how to throw an Irish wake to honor a man of his stature.

But as guests pay their respects and reminisce, one stranger, emboldened by whiskey, has crashed the party. It turns out that she too is a Sweeney sister.

When Washington, DC based journalist Serena Tucker had her DNA tested on a whim a few weeks earlier, she learned she had a 50% genetic match with a childhood neighbor—Maggie Sweeney of Southport, Connecticut. It seems Serena’s chilly WASP mother, Birdie, had a history with Bill Sweeney—one that has remained totally secret until now.

Once the shock wears off, questions abound. What does this mean for William’s literary legacy? Where is the unfinished memoir he’s stashed away, and what will it reveal? And how will a fourth Sweeney sister—a blond among redheads—fit into their story.

 

The story of how a perfectly coordinated trilogy of sisters turns The Sweeney Sisters into an unexpected and potentially conflicted group had me turning pages throughout. Each sister was clearly drawn, so that they were not cardboard cut-outs but interesting characters with unique personalities.

Liza was my favorite as formerly the eldest Sweeney daughter; finding out that her father had another daughter older than she could have really struck a dark chord for her. She was also in a conflicted relationship with her remote and unlikable husband, so there were layers to the story.

Maggie, previously the “middle” child, was often troubled and melodramatic, so her potential to destroy any possible harmony was there from the beginning. But then she surprised us by feeling an unexpected connection to the “new sister,” who could have been viewed as an interloper.

The way the sisters handled their father’s behavior and how he had betrayed their mother did lead to many conversations and choices they made to cope with it all.

I also enjoyed how the sisters dealt with the legal and literary issues posed by their father’s passing. The search for the last unpublished manuscript added intrigue to the story.

I loved the descriptions and how the sisters brought the new offspring into the fold. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: ON OCEAN BOULEVARD, BY MARY ALICE MONROE

 

It’s been sixteen years since Caretta “Cara” Rutledge has returned home to the beautiful shores of Charleston, South Carolina. Over those years, she has weathered the tides of deaths and births, struggles and joys. And now, as Cara prepares for her second wedding, her life is about to change yet again.

Meanwhile, the rest of the storied Rutledge family is also in flux. Cara’s niece Linnea returns to Sullivan’s Island to begin a new career and an unexpected relationship. Linnea’s parents, having survived bankruptcy, pin their hopes and futures on the construction of a new home on Ocean Boulevard. But as excitement over the house and wedding builds, a devastating illness strikes the family and brings plans to a screeching halt. It is under these trying circumstances that the Rutledge family must come together yet again to discover the enduring strength in love, tradition, and legacy from mother to daughter to granddaughter.

When Linnea Rutledge returns to the island in On Ocean Boulevard, she has much to work through. Will she restore her faith in herself after a failed relationship and job in California? Will reuniting with her family be a burden or a gift?

Having enjoyed other beach books in this series, I was glad to rejoin Cara Rutledge, Linnea’s aunt, as she planned for a big change in her life, too. A new man, an adorable little daughter, and the joy of watching her niece find her niche as she immerses herself in environmental issues.

The beach houses were lovely to visualize, as the descriptive prose invited the reader in and gave an opportunity to learn some of the history of the family and the Charleston area as the story unfolded.

The narrative skipped around quite a bit, but I did enjoy the journey. I would have liked a more in-depth peek into their lives, but I did enjoy how dedicated they all were to the environment. Each chapter began with snippets about the sea turtles that are a recurring theme. 4 stars.

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

REVIEW: SOMETHING SHE’S NOT TELLING US, BY DARCEY BELL

Charlotte has everything in life that she ever could have hoped for: a doting, artistic husband, a small-but-thriving flower shop, and her sweet, smart five-year-old daughter, Daisy. Her relation-ship with her mother might be strained, but the distance between them helps. And her younger brother Rocco may have horrible taste in women, but when he introduces his new girlfriend to Charlotte and her family, they are cautiously optimistic that she could be The One. Daisy seems to love Ruth, and she can’t be any worse than the klepto Rocco brought home the last time. At least, that’s what Charlotte keeps telling herself. But as Rocco and Ruth’s relationship becomes more serious, Ruth’s apparent obsession with Daisy grows more obvious. Then Daisy is kidnapped, and Charlotte is convinced there’s only one person who could have taken her.

Ruth has never had much, but now she’s finally on the verge of having everything she’s ever dreamed of. A stable job at a start-up company, a rakish, handsome boyfriend with whom she falls more in love with every day—and a chance at the happy family she’s always wanted, adorable niece included. The only obstacle standing in her way is her boyfriend’s sister Charlotte, whose attitude swerves between politely cold and outright hostile. Rebuffing Ruth’s every attempt to build a friendship with her and Daisy, Charlotte watches over her daughter with a desperate protectiveness that sends chills down Ruth’s spine. Ruth knows that Charlotte has a deeply-buried secret, the only question is: what? A surprise outing with Daisy could be the key to finding out, and Ruth knows she must take the chance while she has it—for everyone’s sake.

As the two women follow each other down a chilling rabbit hole, unearthing winding paths of deceit, lies, and trauma, a family and a future will be completely—and irrevocably—shattered.


As we follow the convoluted tales of Charlotte and Ruth in Something She’s Not Telling Us, we know that each one has dark secrets from the past. I was on Charlotte’s side from the beginning, as Ruth grew more and more strange with each passing day.

Why did Ruth tell lies at every turn, lies that could easily be picked apart? What was her back story, and what does her mother have to do with it all? Were her grandparents the loving people to whom she owed so much, or is their story even darker?

When Charlotte finally realizes that Ruth is dangerous, it could be too late, as Ruth has collected Daisy from school one day without notifying Charlotte or Eli. The story goes back and forth in time, so it takes a while, with the intensity building up, for the reader to fill in the missing pieces and realize how dangerous Ruth could be. I was holding my breath and biting my nails until the final revelations. 5 stars.

***

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.

***