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: 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: 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.

REVIEW: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, BY ELIZABETH HAYNES

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In October 2013, in Briarstone, DCI Louisa Smith is tasked with an investigation that went cold ten years before, but has now resurrected itself. A missing girl, Scarlett Rainsford, has reappeared and is in safekeeping in a hotel.

In August 2003, Scarlett disappeared one night from the apartments where her family was staying while vacationing in Greece. Her younger sister Juliette had no information to provide at the time of her disappearance, and neither did her parents, Clive and Annie.

But there was a lot more to the story, and much more was known by various characters. The bits and pieces would come together gradually, as we follow Scarlett’s narrative from the past and as it gradually moves forward. And in the narrative of Lou, as well as her staff member Sam Holland, the facts form and the clues lead to further answers.

Why was Juliette always reading and refusing to talk? How did Scarlett’s father punish her when she slipped away from his control? And why was Scarlett seemingly so willing to succumb to the control of the men who grabbed her?

I enjoyed the detective characters, like Lou and Sam, as well as Lou’s lover Jason, an analyst. They were all overburdened and struggling to find time for personal lives. I liked how they managed to somehow arrange for the occasional down time.

Themes of abuse, sex and drug trafficking, and the daily tasks of the detectives trying to sort through evidence and follow clues made Behind Closed Doors a compelling read. At first, the back and forth moments in time were confusing, but eventually I fell into the rhythm and looked forward to the onward progression over time. In the end, I had a sense of more answers to come, almost as if the story will continue, as there were some puzzling elements to decipher. 4.5 stars.

HOW A NOVEL CAME TO BE: “AN ACCIDENTAL LIFE”

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Tonight when I found myself distracted from the book I was reading, I decided to peruse the archives in this blog, and found this post from 2010.  The photo (above) is one of me back in my early social work days:

In my novel “An Accidental Life,” I focused on a local phenomenon in the Central Valley of California – methamphetamine abuse. In the early nineties, I was working in child welfare services for the County of Fresno, and a proliferation of substance abuse cases (related to methamphetamine or “crank” abuse) became a regular aspect in the life of the social worker.

Years later, when I decided to pen a novel that featured these issues, I chose to zero in on characters that were composites of those I met during this time in my professional career. I also added my own personal take to the story by creating characters from my own history.

As a result, we have a bird’s eye view, as it were, into the lives of social workers and their clients.

To spice things up a bit, I added a subplot that featured a stalker/murderer, a nod to another aspect of Central Valley life – homicides. We have had our share of unsolved mysteries in this Valley city, but in my novel, I chose to reach a solution to the stalker/homicide that focuses on one of my characters.

Finally, because I do not believe in “happily ever after,” I did make one concession to this familiar theme: I chose what I call a “hopeful ending.” The characters are left with the faith that the “journey” in life is really what it’s all about. Finding themselves on the path of self-discovery, with its complexities and obstacles, allows the characters to persist – to believe.

In the end, that’s really all we have.

 

REVIEW: CATCHING AIR, BY SARAH PEKKANEN

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Peter and Rand Danner have had their problems over the years, most notably because of Rand’s often irresponsible behavior. Now that the brothers are married to their lovely wives, Kira and Alyssa, they are trying to get along.

But when Rand tells Peter and Kira that he and Alyssa have bought a B & B in Vermont, and want them to go in on it with them, they are stunned. And reluctant. They are used to their home in Florida, but then again, their jobs could use some improvements.

Kira is unhappy with the law firm she works for, and Peter is ready for a change, too.

When they arrive, they have a lot to learn and even more to do to set everything up. And for fun, they take in some snowboarding. Kira envies Alyssa’s carefree attitude. Alyssa shares how she can ski and snowboard with ease: “It’s like the mountain knows when you’re nervous. But gradually I learned to just be in that glorious moment of catching air. Once I began trusting that I’d land safely, I always did.”

Before they have scarcely gotten off the ground with the B & B, they take in Dawn, a young woman who obviously needs a place to stay, and who shows herself willing and able to work for board and room. What are her secrets? Who is she hiding from?

Narrated from several perspectives, Catching Air unfolds in a realistic fashion that shows the reader about their struggles, the mistakes they make, and how one huge job, a wedding, will take over their lives for weeks. But good things could be just around the corner…if they hang in there.

I enjoyed the story and came to care about the characters, who felt like real people I might have known. I loved how the mix of problems and joys made me laugh and even cry a little. Recommended for fans of women’s fiction…and the author. 4 stars.

REVIEW: BEFORE THE STORM, BY DIANE CHAMBERLAIN

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Laurel and Jamie fell in love serendipitously, almost as if the events that brought them together were fated. An accident between her car and his motorcycle, but with no injuries. But they both knew right away that they were destined to be together.

When Laurel got pregnant, they got married, and everything was perfect. Until after their daughter Maggie was born. Laurel’s depression and how she felt nothing for the baby might have started when she and the baby were separated shortly after the birth due to her hemorrhaging…but what continued afterwards could only have been an undiagnosed case of Postpartum Depression. Soon Laurel and Jamie were living separate lives, with Jamie and Maggie staying with their friends Steve and Sara.

Meanwhile, Laurel slept and drank a lot, and turned for comfort from Jamie’s brother Marcus, who lived next door. What was set in motion soon escalated, and then an unexpected pregnancy catapulted them all into a storm of emotions, secrets, and lies.

Before the Storm was set on Topsail Island in North Carolina, and the Lockwood family, to which Jamie and Marcus belonged, was wealthy and privileged, but their family dynamics left much to be desired. Jamie was the “perfect” son and Marcus, the bad boy.

What subsequent events would forever change the landscape of their lives? How did Laurel’s drinking during her pregnancy result in her son Andy’s disabilities? And how would those very problems turn into tragedy during one summer when he was just fifteen years old? A church fire, pointed fingers, and a series of misunderstandings would lead to more complications. Would the truth ever come out?

Multiple narrators told the story: Laurel, Marcus, Maggie, and Andy, and each character’s voice was distinctive. The story flashed back to the past and then forward to the present; the mystery of what happened during that summer night would keep this reader guessing until almost the end…and then the reveal would be stunning. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: FREEDOM’S CHILD, BY JAX MILLER

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Most chapters in Freedom’s Child: A Novel begin with this opener: “My name is Freedom,” and then reveal bits and pieces of her story. We learn quickly that Freedom Oliver is not her real name; that she is in the Witness Protection program; and that she is hiding from some dangerous people.

Currently living in Painter, Oregon, and spending most nights in a bar, regularly getting drunk and arrested, one might think that her goal in life is self-destruction. But no, she has a larger purpose, and it governs most of her days. She wants to find the children she lost many years before. The children whom she knows were renamed by their adoptive parents as Mason and Rebekah Paul.

In Goshen, Kentucky, where the Pauls live, we see a glimpse of the life of their evangelical world and realize that they have dark secrets and a deadly plan.

In upstate New York, the Delaneys are set on revenge. Matthew Delaney just got out of prison, where he served time for killing his brother Mark, a cop, and the husband of Nessa Delaney, now hiding out as Freedom Oliver. The matriarch, Lynn, and the three brothers, Matthew, Luke, and John, are scary people that one would not want to encounter. The descriptions are vivid, and I can easily visualize what lies ahead for Freedom when/if they find her. Also headed toward Freedom is the kind brother, Peter, wheelchair-bound with Cerebral Palsy.

Multiple narrators show us the collision course that will bring the dangerous Delaneys into Freedom’s new life, just as she is headed to Kentucky to search for her daughter Rebekah, now reported as missing. A cop from Painter, James Mattley, is also looking for Freedom and her daughter, too; he has a soft spot for her and is hoping to find her before the others do.

Will Freedom find her daughter in time? Can she outrun the Delaneys? When she finally reaches Goshen, what will she discover about the small child Magdalene? The story is fast-paced with intriguing characters, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to them all. Themes of violence, dark legacies, and redemption kept me reading, even as parts of the story and the writing style bogged down for me at times. Recommended for those who enjoy stories that could be ripped from the headlines. 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: THREE WISHES, BY LIANE MORIARTY

 

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My explorations of this author’s work began with her later books, and I have subsequently moved backward to her earlier ones. Three Wishes was a delightful read, and I thoroughly enjoyed “meeting” the Kettle family, with the sibling rivalry intensified due to the fact that the Kettle girls are triplets.

Set in Sydney, Australia, the story moves back and forth in time, alternately narrated by various characters, including brief notes from random observers.

Lyn and Cat are identical, while Gemma is the fraternal one. Lyn and Cat are blond and Gemma has red hair.

Their parents, Maxine and Frank, divorced when they were six, but something seems to be happening between them now, as the girls, at age 33, approach birthday number 34.

Cat has a lot of issues, starting with her difficulty in getting pregnant. Then she discovers that Dan, her husband, has been unfaithful. She learns a few other things about Dan that throw her world upside down.

Lyn, on the other hand, is obsessively controlled, with her numerous lists…so why is she suddenly suffering from panic attacks in parking lots? As the “perfect” business woman and mother to Maddie, a toddler, why does she feel so estranged from her teenage stepdaughter Kara?

Gemma has a lot going on beneath the surface; why do her relationships seem to self-destruct before they barely get off the ground? What really happened between her and her fiancé Marcus?

With a great peek behind the facades that families present to the world, the story was engaging and kept me glued to the pages. I loved the dynamics between the siblings; the dialogue was often funny, which made me want to be a part of their family, or to be their friend. There were sad, angry, and emotional moments. They felt like real people, and I didn’t want the story to end. I wanted to stay connected to them indefinitely. 5.0 stars.

REVIEW: THE CRY, BY HELEN FITZGERALD

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Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson had built their happiness on the pain of others. Their love affair broke apart the marriage between Alistair and his wife Alexandra, and caused him to lose contact with his daughter Chloe when Alexandra took her to Melbourne.

Joanna hadn’t known he was married at first, but when she discovered that fact, she continued the relationship. It was only when Alexandra caught them together that the marriage was over.

Now Joanna and Alistair have a nine-week-old baby, Noah, and they are on a flight to Melbourne, from Glasgow.

Throughout at least part of the flight, Noah has been crying incessantly. Other passengers have complained and Joanna is more and more stressed out. Alistair does little or nothing to help, sleeping and eating just fine. Joanna is at her wit’s end.

Then there is a problem in the security check regarding liquids; the attendants require that the bottles be emptied, even though they were medicine. More must be obtained, in a rush. There was a mix-up later, apparently, and much of what transpires in the rest of The Cry will come down to what actually happened. And then, when an awful discovery is made, Joanna and Alistair are lying and leading the authorities and media astray.

What will Joanna discover, underneath the lies that Alistair has told her? How will she finally resolve the terrible dysfunction of her relationship with Alistair and find peace at last?

The story alternates between Joanna’s perspective and Alexandra’s, and it flashes back and forth in time. Another page-turner that had no happy ending, but there is a kind of resolution. 4.5 stars.