REVIEW: THE PERFECT DAUGHTER, BY D. J. PALMER

Penny Francone, age sixteen, is a murderer. Her guilt is beyond doubt: she was found alone in the victim’s apartment, covered in blood, holding the murder weapon. The victim’s identity and her secret relationship to Penny give Penny the perfect motive, sealing the deal. All the jury needs to decide now is where Penny will serve out her sentence. Will she be found not guilty by reason of insanity, as her lawyer intends to argue? Or will she get a life sentence in a maximum-security prison?

Already reeling from tragedy after the sudden passing of her beloved husband a few years before, now Grace is on her knees, grateful that Massachusetts doesn’t allow the death penalty.

As Penny awaits trial in a state mental hospital, she is treated by Dr. Mitchell McHugh, a psychiatrist battling demons of his own. Grace’s determination to understand the why behind her daughter’s terrible crime fuels Mitch’s resolve to help the Francone family. Together, they set out in search of the truth about Penny, but discover instead a shocking hidden history of secrets, lies, and betrayals that threatens to consume them all.

The perfect daughter. Is she fooling them all?

 

mythoughts-laurelrainsnow-serendipity

Alternating narrators tell us the current and backstory in The Perfect Daughter. I loved that Grace was so determined to find the truth and protect her beloved adopted daughter, Penny, whose alternating personalities might be a key to finding the truth.

Did Penny really have DID, or had she found a way to go back and forth between characters, hiding who she really is?

Even as I read along with all the narrators, including Dr. McHugh, I wasn’t even sure what we would discover.

The fact that DID had fallen into some disrepute by doctors and psychiatrists, there were others who still believed in the possibilities.

Digging into the past of Rachel Boyd, Penny’s birth mother, might yield some answers. But just when we thought we had the answers, an unexpected turn brought everything we needed. 4.5 stars.

***

CLEAVING, BY JULIE POWELL

Julie Powell thought cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the craziest thing she’d ever do—until she embarked on the voyage recounted in her new memoir, CLEAVING.

Her marriage challenged by an insane, irresistible love affair, Julie decides to leave town and immerse herself in a new obsession: butchery. She finds her way to Fleischer’s, a butcher shop where she buries herself in the details of food. She learns how to break down a side of beef and French a rack of ribs—tough, physical work that only sometimes distracts her from thoughts of afternoon trysts.

The camaraderie at Fleischer’s leads Julie to search out fellow butchers around the world—from South America to Europe to Africa. At the end of her odyssey, she has learned a new art and perhaps even mastered her unruly heart.

 
 
 
mythoughts-laurelrainsnow-serendipity

As I immersed myself in Cleaving, I enjoyed the author’s voice, which took me back to her first book and the movie based on it.

But then, as we followed her in her journey to butchering, and as the details grew, I liked it less. The gory meat journey was not as much fun as her cooking journey!

There were occasional recipes in this book, too, and there were interesting departures into her complicated love life. An ongoing affair, some problems in her marriage, and her occasional monologues about how she might finally “cleave” her relationship issues added just enough to the story to keep me going.

Overall, however, I was disappointed in this second effort by an author I had previously enjoyed. 3.5 stars..#2021ReadNonFic

 
***

REVIEW: BLOOD ORANGE, BY HARRIET TYCE

Alison has it all. A doting husband, adorable daughter, and a career on the rise—she’s just been given her first murder case to defend. But all is never as it seems…

Just one more night. Then I’ll end it.

Alison drinks too much. She’s neglecting her family. And she’s having an affair with a colleague whose taste for pushing boundaries may be more than she can handle.

I did it. I killed him. I should be locked up.

Alison’s client doesn’t deny that she stabbed her husband—she wants to plead guilty. And yet something about her story is deeply amiss. Saving this woman may be the first step to Alison saving herself.

I’m watching you. I know what you’re doing.

But someone knows Alison’s secrets. Someone who wants to make her pay for what she’s done, and who won’t stop until she’s lost everything…

 
 
 
 
mythoughts-laurelrainsnow-serendipity

Blood Orange is a gripping story full of flawed characters that kept this reader glued to the pages.

A brilliant attorney, Alison seems to have it all, but her personal life is a mess.

Her good qualities kept me rooting for her, just as her toxic marriage kept me wishing she could finally let go of her bad actions and be a better mother. Her husband Carl might look like a good guy on the outside, but his snarky judgmental tones put me off from the very beginning.

Patrick, Alison’s lover, wasn’t much better, in my opinion, as he was self-involved most of the time.

Six-year-old Matilda was the best character: loving, cheerful, and hoping for a happy family life. Would she ever have it?

As the twists and turns kept coming, I couldn’t stop reading. In fact, I read past midnight, wanting to know what would happen next. I was intrigued by the little clue that came in the form of a blood orange, but I was still stunned by the intensity of the ending. A 5 star read!

 
***

REVIEW: A MILLION REASONS WHY, BY JESSICA STRAWSER

 
When two strangers are linked by a mail-in DNA test, it’s an answered prayer—that is, for one half sister. For the other, it will dismantle everything she knows to be true.

But as they step into the unfamiliar realm of sisterhood, the roles will reverse in ways no one could have foreseen.

Caroline lives a full, happy life—thriving career, three feisty children, enviable marriage, and a close-knit extended family. She couldn’t have scripted it better. Except for one thing:

She’s about to discover her fundamental beliefs about them all are wrong.

Sela lives a life in shades of gray, suffering from irreversible kidney failure. Her marriage crumbled in the wake of her illness. Her beloved mother, always her closest friend, unexpectedly passed away. She refuses to be defined by her grief, but still, she worries what will happen to her two-year-old son if she doesn’t find a donor match in time.

She’s the only one who knows Caroline is her half sister and may also be her best hope for a future. But Sela’s world isn’t as clear-cut as it appears—and one misstep could destroy it all.

mythoughts-laurelrainsnow-serendipity

Alternating narrators tell us the story of two sisters who discover each other via a DNA test.

They carefully maneuver around each other via emails for a while, and then they meet. Finally. What will happen next?

As time passes, we learn more of their individual stories, including the love affair that created Sela. Additionally, we come to realize the secrets held by each of the parents and how they were able to hide everything for many years.

Soon there are unexpected twists that stir up all the emotions as we ride along with the characters. I thought I had it all figured out until the last-minute reveals stunned me. A Million Reasons Why was an unforgettable novel that earned 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE UPSTAIRS HOUSE, BY JULIA FINE

 

 

There’s a madwoman upstairs, and only Megan Weiler can see her.

Ravaged and sore from giving birth to her first child, Megan is mostly raising her newborn alone while her husband travels for work. Physically exhausted and mentally drained, she’s also wracked with guilt over her unfinished dissertation—a thesis on mid-century children’s literature.

Enter a new upstairs neighbor: the ghost of quixotic children’s book writer Margaret Wise Brown—author of the beloved classic Goodnight Moon—whose existence no one else will acknowledge. It seems Margaret has unfinished business with her former lover, the once-famous socialite and actress Michael Strange, and is determined to draw Megan into the fray. As Michael joins the haunting, Megan finds herself caught in the wake of a supernatural power struggle—and until she can find a way to quiet these spirits, she and her new-born daughter are in terrible danger.

Using Megan’s postpartum haunting as a powerful metaphor for a woman’s fraught relationship with her body and mind, Julia Fine once again delivers an imaginative and “barely restrained, careful musing on female desire, loneliness, and hereditary inheritances” (Washington Post).

 
 
 

A young woman who has interrupted her academic life to give birth, and then struggles to bond with her baby, offers a familiar theme in The Upstairs House. But here the theme veers off into an unusual and fascinating trip into an imaginary life with 1940s authors and poets, so real that our narrator Megan seems to be interacting with them.

Why is Megan hearing strange noises? How does she seemingly connect with what can only be ghost-like images? The forays into the 1940s lives of these characters did not captivate me, as I was more interested in what would happen to Megan in the present.

Despite the surreal elements, I was most amazed by how nobody around Megan seems to notice her struggles. They criticize her and urge her to get out more or even to get “help,” but instead of offering assistance or even compassion, they just seem angry with her. Her obvious break with reality did keep me intrigued throughout.

The backstory includes a mentally ill mother and an indifferent father who has remarried and can’t bother to spend time with her. He is not even interested in the new baby. Megan’s oblivious husband and critical sister were additional frustrating elements for me.

Would Megan find her way back to herself? How would that happen? By the end, I was not surprised by the turn of events. 4.5 stars.

 
***

REVIEW: UNFAITHFUL, BY NATALIE BARELLI

 

When I arrive unannounced at my husband’s studio in need of a shoulder to cry on after hearing that my best student, Alex, has died, I see a pair of wine glasses drying by the sink and my deepest fear is confirmed: my husband is having an affair.

Most women would fall to their knees in tears and throw him out of the house–but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Instead, I go home and cook a healthy dinner for our children, walk the dog and unload the dishwasher without complaint. I will make him see that I’m still the woman he married; attractive, successful, the glue that holds our perfect family together. I need this marriage to work to protect a terrible secret of my own, something that would destroy everything I’ve already sacrificed so much for.

But when the police arrive at my door asking questions about Alex’s death that I can’t answer, and threatening text messages start appearing on my phone, I know that someone close has been watching me very carefully.

The truth is, there are three people in my marriage, but only one of them is deadly…
 
 
 


Anna has had such a complex and layered life that I expected the story to take us down one path, but as more secrets are revealed, I am shocked by what we eventually learn.

There were so many tricky aspects to Unfaithful that I kept turning the pages until the final and stunning conclusion, wondering how I could have anticipated a different set of events when the complexity of Anna’s life could only have gone the way it did.

As she was our primary narrator, I believed in Anna, although she appeared unreliable at times. When we finally learn all the intricacies of the past and the present, everything finally falls into place. Twisted and compelling, this book earned 4.5 stars for me.
 
***

REVIEW: THE PERFECT GUESTS, BY EMMA ROUS

 

1988. Beth Soames is fourteen years old when her aunt takes her to stay at Raven Hall, a rambling manor in the isolated East Anglian fens. The Averells, the family who lives there, are warm and welcoming, and Beth becomes fast friends with their daughter, Nina. At times, Beth even feels like she’s truly part of the family…until they ask her to help them with a harmless game—and nothing is ever the same.

2019. Sadie Langton is an actress struggling to make ends meet when she lands a well-paying gig to pretend to be a guest at a weekend party. She is sent a suitcase of clothing, a dossier outlining the role she is to play, and instructions. It’s strange, but she needs the money, and when she sees the stunning manor she’ll be staying at, she figures she’s got nothing to lose.

In person, Raven Hall is even grander than she’d imagined—even with damage from a fire decades before—but the walls seem to have eyes. As day turns to night, Sadie starts to feel that there’s something off about the glamorous guests who arrive, and as the party begins, it becomes chillingly apparent their unseen host is playing games with everyone…including her.

 

Alternating narrators take us through The Perfect Guests, from the eighties to the present, with one family and one rambling manor as the centerpiece for the tale.

In the beginning, we meet Beth in 1988, as she is brought to Raven Hall by her Aunt Caroline. She is to stay with the Averell family until her aunt can care for her. Another child, Nina, is the same age, and the two become friends.

As events transpire, we soon realize that a very strange game is unfolding.

Fast forward to 2019, we meet Sadie, Beth’s daughter, as she is invited to Raven Hall to play a part. As a wannabe actress, she is eager to discover what might happen next.

But neither Sadie nor Beth know about the intricate connections between the family members, and how or why they have all been forced into what appears to be a mysterious parlor game.

How are the characters connected to one another, and what deep dark secrets are at the root of the games they play?

Who is trying to keep the secrets at bay, and why?

I was intrigued by them all and kept puzzling things out until the very end. The book earned 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: RACHEL TO THE RESCUE, BY ELINOR LIPMAN

Rachel Klein is sacked from her job at the White House after she sends an email criticizing Donald Trump. As she is escorted off the premises, she is hit by a speeding car, driven by what the press will discreetly call “a personal friend of the President.” Does that explain the flowers, the get-well wishes at a press briefing, the hush money offered by a lawyer at her hospital bedside? Rachel’s recovery is soothed by comically doting parents, matchmaking roommates, a new job as aide to a journalist whose books aim to defame the President, and unexpected love at the local wine store. But secrets leak, and Rachel’s new-found happiness has to make room for more than a little chaos. Will she bring down the President? Or will he manage to do that all by himself? Rachel to the Rescue is a mischievous political satire, with a delightful cast of characters, from one of America’s funniest novelists.
 
 
 
 

I could not stop smiling throughout Rachel to the Rescue, as her tongue in cheek dialogue with friends and family added to each scenario we experienced in this delightful book.

I also loved following the close-to-real-life politics and the dynamics of Rachel’s family, as she picked herself up from the accidental moments and moved on.

In the end, we see how closely events match reality, as the characters find themselves in a Pandemic that could overturn their lives. Instead they kept moving forward, much as we are doing in our real lives. 4.5 stars.

 
***
 

REVIEW: THE WRONG FAMILY, BY TARRYN FISHER

 

 

Another twisted psychological thriller guaranteed to turn your world upside down. Have you ever been wrong about someone? Juno was wrong about Winnie Crouch. Before moving in with the Crouch family, Juno thought Winnie and her husband, Nigel, had the perfect marriage, the perfect son—the perfect life. Only now that she’s living in their beautiful house, she sees the cracks in the crumbling facade are too deep to ignore. Still, she isn’t one to judge. After her grim diagnosis, the retired therapist simply wants a place to live out the rest of her days in peace. But that peace is shattered the day Juno overhears a chilling conversation between Winnie and Nigel… She shouldn’t get involved. She really shouldn’t. But this could be her chance to make a few things right. Because if you thought Juno didn’t have a secret of her own, then you were wrong about her, too. From the wickedly dark mind of bestselling author Tarryn Fisher, The Wrong Family is a taut new thriller that’s riddled with twists in all the right places.
 
 
 
 

As we enter the world of Winnie and Nigel Crouch from the perspective of Juno, we are not sure what is going on. How is Juno able to insert herself into the deepest secrets of their lives without ever actually interacting with them? I was confused for a while, and then we slowly come to realize what is happening.

The Wrong Family is definitely not what it appears to be, and neither is the story. By the end, I was holding my breath, waiting to see what would happen next. An unforgettable story. 4.5 stars.

 
***
 

REVIEW: CRUEL WINTER, BY SHEILA CONNOLLY

Snow is a rarity in Maura Donovan’s small village in County Cork, Ireland, so she wasn’t sure what to expect when a major snowstorm rolled in around Sullivan’s pub. But now she’s stranded in a bar full of patrons—and a suspected killer in a long-ago murder.

 

Maura’s been in Ireland less than a year and hasn’t heard about the decades-old unsolved crime that took place nearby, let alone the infamous suspect, Diane Caldwell. But the locals have, and they’re not happy to be trapped with her. Diane, meanwhile, seeks to set the record straight, asserting her innocence after all this time. And since no one is going anywhere in the storm, Maura encourages Diane to share her side of the story, which she’d never had a chance to do in court.

Over the next few hours, the informal court in Sullivan’s reviews the facts and theories about the case—and comes to some surprising conclusions. But is it enough to convince the police to take a new look at an old case? A clever spin on the classic locked room mystery, Cruel Winter, the fifth in New York Times bestselling author Sheila Connolly’s series, will delight fans of the Emerald Isle.

 
 
 

Maura’s pub is the centerpiece of this unexpected lockdown during a rare storm. A woman who has appeared unexpectedly is the focus of all eyes as the villagers ask their questions and probe the events that took place twenty years before.

Maura has her hands full keeping her guests fed and warm during the Cruel Winter hours, and we gradually find out more about the past, while also dealing with the hostilities and quirks of the present. We get another glimpse of the residents of Leap as the morning arrives.

I liked observing the interactions of the characters and learning how adept Maura has become in leading her group. During each of the books in the series, we find out more about Maura, the villagers, and how things work in the Irish setting. A delightful journey that earned 4.5 stars.

 
***