REVIEW: LIES & OTHER ACTS OF LOVE, BY KRISTY WOODSON HARVEY

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For Annabelle, her grandmother Lovey was the voice in her head, the spiritual mentor who guided her with her inspirational messages, like “it is not the truth that sets you free. The truth is the thing that destroys lives, that shatters the mirror…”

Growing up in Raleigh, NC, Annabelle was also surrounded by a bevy of female cheerleaders, from her mother, Jean, the mayor, to her aunts: Laura, Martha, Louise, and Sally. Of course, there was also D-Daddy, her grandfather.

Alternately narrated by Annabelle and Lovey, Lies & Other Acts of Love wraps itself around us in the cozy comforts of a family of nurturing supporters. But as we meander along the pathways of the past with Lovey, or join Annabelle in her journey toward a true kind of love, we learn about the secrets, the lies, and even the almost lethal deceptions that live behind the curtain of each family. And we realize that sometimes you have to forgive the flaws of those you love.

I felt sad for Annabelle’s missteps, and could feel the angst of her emotional pull toward a man who turned out to be wrong for her. When she almost passed by the one who would be the perfect match, I was shouting from the sidelines. The characters were flawed, but fascinating, and the settings felt so real I could have been there in the flesh. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: BURIED IN A BOG, BY SHEILA CONNOLLY

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When Maura Donovan leaves her Boston home following her Grandmother Nora’s death, she is on a mission to connect with family in Ireland. It was her grandmother’s last request, and after her death, Maura found an envelope with just enough money set aside for the trip, along with her passport.

Nora Donovan’s family home was in Leap, by way of Dublin and then Cork, where Maura would meet up with her grandmother’s oldest friend, Bridget Nolan.

But what Maura finds there is not just her grandmother’s old friend, but a whole community of people who already know a lot about her, and who are ready to welcome her. Tea with Bridget led to stories, photos, and learning about Nora’s life before she left Ireland, widowed and with a young son (Maura’s father) in tow.

Everyone seemed ready to step up, offering a place for Maura to stay across from Sullivan’s Pub…and even the use of a car. Soon she is also helping out at the pub. It’s as if the villagers have taken her under their wing in honor of her grandmother.

But past events begin to surface, and Maura is suddenly swept up into a mystery involving a long-buried family secret. A mysterious man seems to be stalking Maura, making her question why someone is trying to scare her away.

Buried in a Bog was a story of community, secrets, and the strength of family bonds. I enjoyed it, although it seemed as though many things came together rather serendipitously for Maura. What I loved most, however, was how I felt as though I was visiting the Irish countryside along with Maura, having tea in an Irish cottage, and hanging out in the Irish pub. 4 stars.

REVIEW: MOTHER KNOWS BEST, BY KAREN MACINERNEY

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Margie Peterson, wife, mother, and private investigator, is not having a good week. Her husband Blake is attracted to drag queens, which she has just discovered. However, he claims this is just a phase.

Meanwhile, the children, Elsie, 6, and Nick, 4, are starting school, but Elsie is not at all pleased with where she is going: Holy Oaks Catholic School, a private school financed by Blake’s parents. Elsie has a little problem that might just stand out, and not in a good way: she has an obsession with being a dog, from wearing a dog collar to slurping from bowls on the floor. She also growls.

To complicate matters further, Margie and her boss Peaches have a new case that has them following a husband, and ending up at a place called the Sweet Spot…and an altercation with some of the performers there.

What can Margie and Peaches do now, since their cover is blown…and they are fired?

To top things off, one of Peaches’ former clients, a prostitute/student named Desiree, has asked for help from Peaches (and Margie) to move a dead body. Imagine Margie’s amazement when she discovers that the dead body belongs to the headmaster of Elsie’s new school, George Cavendish.

Mother Knows Best is a funny and somewhat intense book set in Austin, Texas. It takes us into the world of housewives, private detectives, and quirky kids and parents.

The humorous tone carries us through the pages, as Margie and her best friend Becky, who is a suspect in the murder, search for clues in the hope of solving the case before one or both of them ends up in jail. Along the way, Margie visits a support group called Warrior Wives…help for the wives of men like Blake.

Many of the situations were a bit over the top, but I liked most of the characters. Margie’s mother was a bit weird and so was Elsie. But eventually, they all seemed to settle down. 4 stars.

REVIEW: NORTH OF HERE, BY LAUREL SAVILLE

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From the very beginning of North of Here, I was totally engaged with the story of Miranda, whose brother and father had both died, within a few short years of one another, and her elusive, emotionally unavailable mother is soon gone as well.

What is Miranda to do? Her life has not been one that taught her self-reliance, or even the practical day-to-day ways to navigate its obstacles. The handyman, Dix, is someone she feels she can count on, and when he offers her a cottage on his property, she accepts. Soon they are very close, and life looks good. Until…

Someone from the past with his own agenda appears, and starts a commune of young hopefuls who are searching for answers and a better life. But should they put their faith in Darius? Because her own life is still a void, Miranda is drawn to Darius and his teachings, leaving Dix behind.

In the midst of this commune, however, is a thirty-something social worker named Sally, who is a bystander of sorts. She holds the mortgage on the property, so she is standing by to protect what she owns…and to see what Darius is all about.

Set in the Adirondacks, we soon come to know this world through the vivid depiction of the author, and as the characters’ lives unfold for us, we can see their flaws, their strengths, and even their destinies.

Alternating narrators reveal much about the characters and how they came to the point in their lives where they intersected with one another. We learn more about Dix, who is not just a handyman, but someone wise and educated, with his own holdings in the forested area. We see how the supposedly philosophical Darius is nothing more than a con man and an entitled trust-fund brat. Miranda, who seems sympathetic in the beginning, is really hopelessly naïve and seriously flawed. Sally was the most intriguing character to me, as she appears brash and blustery on the surface, but underneath, she is kind and more aware than the others, despite being temporarily blinded by Darius’s charm. Then, an unexpected gift changes the lives of them all. A somewhat sad but enjoyable read, this one earned 4 stars.

REVIEW: THE PRICE OF SALT, BY PATRICIA HIGHSMITH

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Set in Manhattan in the early 1950s, The Price of Salt takes the reader into a forbidden love between two women: one, Therese Belivet, a set designer, and a wealthy suburban wife and mother, Carol Aird.

It is nearly Christmas in the year the two meet, when Therese was working as a temporary employee at Frankenberg’s, a department store. The author describes the first moments, as the two gaze across the room at one another…and then Carol approaches, followed by a shop transaction that takes place involving a delivery. Could something momentous be happening?

It doesn’t take long before they are drawn together again, for a lunch, then drinks, and then a visit to Carol’s suburban home, and, at the very least, a friendship is developing. Carol and her husband are separated, and their daughter Rindy goes back and forth between them.

Nothing overt happens between Therese and Carol, but within a few weeks, they are traveling across the country, toward the West…and their lives are changing dramatically.

Meanwhile, Carol discovers something very sinister is happening, at the hands of her husband. Will the two be ripped apart? Will it be a question for Carol of losing her daughter?

The intense and somewhat obsessive love between them could end; in any case, their lives could be altered moving forward. Wondering what will happen and if the societal expectations of the times will dictate the course of their feelings is a reminder, once again, of how times have changed and how stultifying the world once was. A timeless tale that could be about any kind of forbidden love, gay, straight, or otherwise…and was captivating in its ability to describe the longing of two people reaching across barriers to be together. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU’D BE HOME NOW, BY CLAIRE LAZEBNIK

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Rickie Allen, twenty-five year old single mother to Noah, age six, seems like someone you could root for. At first glance, you can feel sympathy for her situation, living at home with her parents and locking horns constantly with what appears to be an over-controlling mother, Laurel.

Her half-sister Melanie, newly separated from husband Gabriel, has two children, and occasionally stays at the family home, too. But she gets along great with her stepmother, Laurel.

Rickie’s first person narrative is definitely showing us her view of things only, and it’s when we see her interact with others that we begin to suspect that Rickie’s issues with her mother are only the tip of the iceberg.

Why is Rickie unable to commit to anyone or anything? Why does she oppose everything her mother suggests? What happened to derail her life when she was a teenage college student? And why is she constantly pulled into an unfulfilling relationship in a friends-with-benefits pairing with Ryan, her former brother-in-law’s brother?

Noah has many problems, too. He is small, with celiac disease and food issues. He isn’t very athletic, and as a student in a private school with lots of athletic kids around him, he bears the brunt of some bullying. Do some of his behaviors (whining, inability to try anything that is challenging) have anything to do with his mother’s behavior?

By the time I neared the end of If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now,  I was pretty frustrated with Rickie. But there was also something appealing about her, so I wanted her to find her way. I wanted her to finally discover a path and stick to it. I hoped that she would care enough about herself to make some changes.

There were some predictable elements, in that Ricki has a conflict with the school coach at first, and then begins to like him. As a friend. And perhaps more.

The relationship between the mother and daughter suddenly started to smooth out, with understanding all around. A nice, soothing touch, but again…predictable.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this novel and was happy at how the author tied things up in the end. 4 stars.

REVIEW: A GIRL’S GUIDE TO MOVING ON, BY DEBBIE MACOMBER

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Leanne and her daughter-in-law Nichole are both starting over, after their respective divorces. Both husbands had been cheaters, and they each finally decided that they deserved better.

The relationship between the women is more like that of a mother and daughter. They move into apartments across the hall from each other, and become a support system to one another. They also make some rules for their new lives. Rules that will help them put the past behind them and move on.

A Girl’s Guide to Moving On was narrated in first person alternating perspectives, so the reader could feel connected to each of the women. Leanne was the most damaged by her experiences, in my opinion, because for most of her thirty-five year marriage to Sean, she knew that her husband was cheating. When she finally gathered up the courage to leave, she was emotionally battered.

Nichole left after first discovering Jake’s infidelities, but even though she hadn’t lived with the knowledge very long, it definitely hit her hard.

How will each of the two women learn to stand on her own two feet? What will their first dating experiences be like for them? Can they stand up to the two men who treated them badly when those very men now show signs of jealousy over their new lives?

I liked how we got to see the women struggling and achieving their goals. Their new friendships with two unique men, Nikolai and Rocco, were interesting, as the men were definitely nothing like their ex-husbands. What conflicts arise that almost derail the lives the women have created?

Characters from another novel, Last One Home, also made an appearance in this book: Nichole’s sisters Karen and Cassie. I enjoyed getting to peek into their lives, too. The connections between them had grown stronger since we last saw them.

A deeply satisfying story of starting over, finding oneself again, and developing confidence kept me rapidly turning pages. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME, BY HOLLY GODDARD JONES

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A group of teenage bullies; a teacher stressed out from doing more than her share of the parenting; an older man, Wyatt Powell, who is realizing that life is passing him by; and a wild thirty-something woman who goes missing…

These characters and more populate the canvas of The Next Time You See Me, set in a small town named Roma, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border, where those wanting to party cross over regularly to the bars in a section called Tobacco Patch. The time period: 1990s.

The author drew me in with her vivid descriptions of these characters, making me feel as though they were people I might know. People with flaws and vulnerabilities. The teenagers were typically annoying, but one of them, Emily Houchens, the target of much of the bullying, is hiding something. And over-privileged Christopher Shelton is confused, and also behaving badly.

The stressed-out teacher is Susanna Mitchell, mother of four-year-old Abby, and wife to Dale, whose work consumes him to the exclusion of everything else. His behavior and attitude toward Susanna put him on my “very annoying” list…perhaps he will redeem himself at some point.

Veronica (Ronnie) Eastman is Susanna’s wild sister who parties regularly, hooking up with less-than-appropriate men. When she goes missing one October weekend, Susanna and her mother both believe that somehow she connected with the wrong man. But Susanna’s husband Dale is dismissive, saying she probably took off on a vacation.

Susanna knows this is unlikely. She makes a report to the police, and is stunned to realize that the detective she will be working with is someone from her past: Tony Joyce. They didn’t get together when she was in high school, because her racist father would have objected.

Now Tony is feeling something for Susanna…and wondering where it will go, and Susanna is also feeling the attraction again.

What has happened to Ronnie? Why does Wyatt turn out to be a person of interest? What happens to Emily when she goes missing? And how does a buxom nurse named Sarah figure into the story?

As the story unfolded in unexpected ways, flashing backwards and forwards, a grim reality is revealed…and we are left with a sadness and a nostalgia for the fleeting moments in life that are sometimes all we can hang onto. Unforgettable. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: UNDER THE INFLUENCE, BY JOYCE MAYNARD

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In the aftermath of her divorce, Helen found that a glass or two of wine each night after her son, Oliver, had gone to bed, could ease some of the pain. Soon she drank more and more to blur the edges and fill the empty spaces. What was the harm? He was asleep.

When an emergency arose one night, Helen made the decision to drive her son to the hospital, a choice that would alter her life forever. Pulled over and arrested for DUI, her bad times had just begun. Her ex-husband filed for full custody of five-year-old Oliver, and Helen’s life was truly empty at that point, with restricted visitation with her son.

In these dark and vulnerable moments of her life, Helen met up with a seductive wealthy couple, Swift and Ava Havilland, who charmed and literally swept her up into their inner circle, granting favors, asking some from her in return, and before she knew it, Helen was under their spell.

When she introduced her son to the inner circle of the Havillands during one of her visits, he, too, was pulled into the magical vortex these “friends” offered. Now their life seemed golden. Until it wasn’t.

Under the Influence is one of those stories that drew this reader in with its realistic situations and characters, reminding us that alcohol and drugs are not the only addictive elements in life, but people who are able to con and influence those around them can be just as dangerous. What happened to Helen would have lasting consequences, and when a life-threatening situation arose, she realized how quickly those charming people could dismiss and turn on her.

Sometimes in life, and in novels, there is no punishment for the truly dangerous people who can do grievous harm…but just when I thought there would be no consequences, something happened to bring about a little satisfaction to this reader. 5 stars.

REVIEW: LOSING ME, BY SUE MARGOLIS

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From the very first pages, I was engaged with the MC Barbara Stirling, a woman approaching her 60s, satisfied with her teaching job, a bit less satisfied with her marriage…a woman with good friends and enough money to get along.

Just as she grew more involved with one of her more troubled students, the axe fell. Barbara was being made “redundant.” Suddenly, all the other aspects of her life seem more troubling, and her husband’s weeks and months away, making documentaries, begin to feel like abandonment.

These feelings remind her of her childhood and her emotionally unavailable parents. Rose, her mother, is in her eighties, and still seems to be demanding and ungiving.

A series of panic attacks bring these long-ago issues to the forefront…and Barbara must look into her soul to confront them. What will she do now? How can she change her marriage? What, if anything, can she do about her relationship with her mother?

Barbara’s narrative was engrossing, and I could relate to some of her issues. I enjoyed the dialogue and her thoughts about her grown children: Ben, who is unemployed, and still living at home; and Jess, married to Matt and the mother of two, who has embraced a “hippie” lifestyle that includes some questionable practices. Some of these moments were hilarious, and while I empathized with Barbara—who doesn’t want to knock some sense into their adult children?—I also could relate to the children wanting to do things their way.

Soul searching and some attitudinal changes made Losing Me a thoroughly compelling read. Set in and near London, I felt as though I were right there, along with the characters, several of whom were like people I wanted to know. I will be searching for more books from this author. 4.5 stars.