REVIEW: ALL THE LITTLE LIARS, BY CHARLAINE HARRIS

Aurora Teagarden is basking in the news of her pregnancy when disaster strikes her small Georgia town: four kids vanish from the school soccer field in an afternoon. Aurora’s 15-year-old brother Phillip is one of them. Also gone are two of his friends, and an 11-year-old girl who was just hoping to get a ride home from soccer practice. And then there’s an even worse discovery―at the kids’ last known destination, a dead body.

While the local police and sheriff’s department comb the county for the missing kids and interview everyone even remotely involved, Aurora and her new husband, true crime writer Robin Crusoe, begin their own investigation. Could the death and kidnappings have anything to do with a group of bullies at the middle school? Is Phillip’s disappearance related to Aurora’s father’s gambling debts? Or is Phillip himself, new to town and an unknown quantity, responsible for taking the other children? But regardless of the reason, as the days go by, the most important questions remain. Are the kids still alive? Who could be concealing them? Where could they be?

With Christmas approaching, Aurora is determined to find her brother…if he’s still alive.

 

I first discovered Aurora Teagarden in the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries series, and I am a fan. Discovering the books was a gift, as I love following Aurora’s adventures.

In All the Little Liars, we connect with newlyweds Aurora and Robin. Her previous husband had died a couple of years ago, and she reconnected with Robin, with whom she had had a relationship years before. The two of them barely got through the wedding and the excitement over the expected new baby when Aurora’s brother Philip goes missing. Several of his friends are also missing, and as we learn more about each of the kids, we are not feeling that hopeful for a good outcome.

I liked learning more about Aurora’s relationship with her father and what those issues meant for her life as an adult. Her ability to solve mysteries is not as big a theme in this book until the end, when Aurora hatches a complicated plan; I was on the edge of my seat while it played out. In addition, however, we learn a lot about how Aurora is dealing with her new marriage and the pregnancy.

I enjoyed this book and definitely want to read more about her from this author. 4.5 stars.

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REVIEW: EMILY, GONE, BY BETTE LEE CROSBY

 

 

1971:  When a music festival rolls through the sleepy town of Hesterville, Georgia, the Dixon family’s lives are forever changed. On the final night, a storm muffles the sound of the blaring music, and Rachel tucks her baby into bed before falling into a deep sleep. So deep, she doesn’t hear the kitchen door opening. When she and her husband wake up in the morning, the crib is empty. Emily is gone.

Vicki Robart is one of the thousands at the festival, but she’s not feeling the music. She’s feeling the emptiness over the loss of her own baby several months before. When she leaves the festival and is faced with an opportunity to fill that void, she is driven to an act of desperation that will forever bind the lives of three women.

When the truth of what actually happened that fateful night is finally exposed, shattering the lives they’ve built, will they be able to pick up the pieces to put their families back together again?

My Thoughts: Emily, Gone, was a gripping tale of loss that kept this reader on the edge of my seat. We follow the lives of the parents whose child has been kidnapped alongside the alternating narrative of the broken characters whose actions have brought such tragedy, and we come to feel compassion for each of them.

The story is one that could conclude any number of ways, but until the very end, you’re not sure what will happen to the characters. Could there be a satisfying ending, or will the pain be continuous?

I did like how the intricate pathways almost crossed several times along the way, and then in a somewhat serendipitous coming together of events, everything falls into place. 5 stars.

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REVIEW: NOT HER DAUGHTER, BY REA FREY

 

Emma Townsend. Five years old. Gray eyes, brown hair. Missing since June.
Emma is lonely. Living with her cruel mother and clueless father, Emma retreats into her own world of quiet and solitude.

Sarah Walker. Successful entrepreneur. Broken-hearted. Kidnapper.

Sarah has never seen a girl so precious as the gray-eyed child in a crowded airport terminal. When a second-chance encounter with Emma presents itself, Sarah takes her—far away from home. But if it’s to rescue a little girl from her damaging mother, is kidnapping wrong?

Amy Townsend. Unhappy wife. Unfit mother. Unsure whether she wants her daughter back.

Amy’s life is a string of disappointments, but her biggest issue is her inability to connect with her daughter. And now Emma is gone without a trace.

As Sarah and Emma avoid the nationwide hunt, they form an unshakeable bond. But what about Emma’s real mother, back at home?

 

My Thoughts: As I plunged into the moral dilemmas of Not Her Daughter, I found myself rooting for Sarah, who had chosen to take Emma away from an abusive home. I could feel the anxiety of the child, afraid of her mother, and I also felt for Sarah, who knew that traditional protective services in a broken system might not be able to keep the child safe.

But then again, should someone take a child to protect her, with no legal authority to do so? If caring people decided to take matters into their own hands, there would be no safeguards at all for a child. Who could say that the child is truly protected just because a kindly stranger offers her own brand of safekeeping? What, if any, opportunity might there be for the abusive parent, in this case, Amy Townsend, to mend her ways and try again?

The story was written in such a way that, with Sarah’s first person voice, we can feel how much she wants to take care of the child she has seen abused on several occasions. And in other sections of the book, we are offered a look into Amy’s perspective and slowly come to acknowledge that the bonds between Amy and Emma are broken…possibly irretrievably. What is the best course of action for Emma…and also for Amy and Sarah?

I enjoyed following Sarah as she kept ahead of those searching for the child, giving up her own home and career to protect Emma. Sometimes it felt like a grand adventure. But I didn’t feel she had made the best choices. In the end, there seemed to be a satisfactory solution, but it was unrealistic, in my opinion. 4 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: ALMOST MISSED YOU, BY JESSICA STRAWSER

 

 

Violet and Finn were “meant to be,” said everyone, always. They ended up together by the hands of fate aligning things just so. Three years into their marriage, they have a wonderful little boy, and as the three of them embark on their first vacation as a family, Violet can’t help thinking that she can’t believe her luck. Life is good.

So no one is more surprised than she when Finn leaves her at the beach—just packs up the hotel room and disappears. And takes their son with him. Violet is suddenly in her own worst nightmare, and faced with the knowledge that the man she’s shared her life with, she never really knew at all.
Caitlin and Finn have been best friends since way back when, but when Finn shows up on Caitlin’s doorstep with the son he’s wanted for kidnapping, demands that she hide them from the authorities, and threatens to reveal a secret that could destroy her own family if she doesn’t, Caitlin faces an impossible choice.

Told through alternating viewpoints of Violet, Finn and Caitlin, Jessica Strawser’s Almost Missed You is a powerful story of a mother’s love, a husband’s betrayal, connections that maybe should have been missed, secrets that perhaps shouldn’t have been kept, and spaces between what’s meant to be and what might have been.

My Thoughts: From the very first pages of Almost Missed You, I felt a connection to the character of Violet, and her serendipitous first meeting with Finn. I was reminded of occasions in my own life when events happened in such a way that they seemed “meant to be,” so I could totally relate to Violet’s feelings about her missed connections with Finn, and how happy she was that they finally connected. It did seem fated.But as we soon find out in this back and forth storyline, the fault might have been “in their stars.” Or in their overly persistent push to make these connections happen. Finn’s secrets were the huge stumbling block for them, once they did connect. And when events began to unravel, with secrets revealed in a most hurtful way, I was sure that his past would be too much for them to overcome. But could they find a new starting point?

Of course, Violet’s share of the responsibility lay in her failure to probe more into Finn’s past. Did she really ever know him?

Then there were the two “best friends,” Caitlin and George, and how their own actions and lack of transparency had contributed to it all.

I couldn’t stop turning the pages, hoping for some kind of resolution, eagerly waiting to see if Violet would reunite with her child. The fate of the other characters seemed less important to me, as I definitely rooted mostly for her. A book worthy of 5 stars.

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

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REVIEW: AMERICAN HEIRESS, BY JEFFREY TOOBIN

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She seemed to be living an idyllic life in the early 1970s. But Patricia Campbell Hearst apparently had a lot of unresolved issues: about her parents, Randolph and Catherine Campbell Hearst, their expectations, and even about her fiancé, Steven Weed, with whom she had been living in an ordinary Berkeley apartment while she attended classes.

But everything changed for her on February 4, 1974, a quiet Monday evening at home. A knock on the door, a request for use of the phone, and then a ragtag group filled the room, tying them up, and ultimately grabbing Patricia. Steven took off on foot. I thought: coward!

When I first heard about these events, I was living my own ordinary life, but with an interest in the counter-culture, even though I was working at a conventional social work job. But I was definitely intrigued by the events presented on the news.

In American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, Jeffrey Toobin has presented a compilation of facts obtained through hundreds of interviews and thousands of previously secret documents. His tome “highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown.”

Toobin’s writing style was engaging enough to be a fictional piece, with intensity rising as the events unfolded. Even as I had kept up with many of the events, this book reveals much that was unknown to the general public.

After the early days in a Daly City closet, blindfolded, Patricia (Patty) appeared to have “graduated” to more freedom within the house, free of the blindfold, and with the closet door open. Soon she was conversing with her captors: Donald DeFreeze (Cinque), Bill and Emily Harris, Nancy Ling Perry, Willy Wolfe (Cujo), and Camilla Hall. Others would come in and out of the group and exist on the fringes. They called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, and ended their “communiques” with the signature words: “death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.”

Their initial demands included a massive food giveaway which turned out to be problematic at times, and did nothing to bring about Patty’s release.

Throughout the two-year life on the run, there were bank robberies, shootings, carjackings, bombings, and a constant moving from one hovel to another, from SF to LA to Sacramento, and even eventually to a farm in Pennsylvania. But very early on, Patty seemed to have taken on the mantra of her captors, even the moniker of Tania, and identified herself as part of the group.

Then something changed after her arrest and incarceration. After her initial fist raising and her announcement of her occupation as “urban guerrilla,” Patty seemed to become subdued, more conventional, and her rhetoric morphed back to that of the American Heiress persona.

After the trial, the conviction, the commuted sentence…and her new life as Mrs. Bernie Shaw (she married her police bodyguard), we are left with questions…still. Was Patty brainwashed, or had she simply decided to take on whatever role served her best? Who was Patty Hearst, and how did she so quickly, like a chameleon, become whatever she needed to be? Only she knows for sure…or maybe not. A fascinating story. 5 stars.

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REVIEW: THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, BY SHARI LAPENA

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In upstate New York, new parents Marco and Anne Conti are enjoying an evening next door with neighbors Graham and Cynthia Stillwell. Actually, Marco seems to be enjoying himself flirting with Cynthia, while Anne feels troubled while she watches.

They were supposed to have a babysitter, but at 6:00 p.m., the girl cancelled. It would have made sense to take the baby along to the dinner party next door, but Cynthia has insisted that it should be an adults only party.

Later, she would say that she would have been fine with the baby there, if she’d known about the cancelled sitter.

But who knows what any of them would have done? Why were Cynthia and Graham so adamant about having an “adults only” party? Why is there a secret camera trained on the backyard?

When baby Cora disappears, sometime after Marco last checked on her—they’ve been checking every half hour—their world turns upside down. They only discover that she is missing when they return home around 1:30 a.m.

Police, reporters, and public scrutiny follow them in the upcoming weeks, and there is plenty of suspicion from everyone.

Anne’s postpartum depression becomes an issue…and then there are Marco’s financial difficulties. When Anne’s wealthy parents offer a large reward to the kidnapper, if the baby is returned, the suspicions increase as one can only wonder who actually took the baby.

What secrets from the past cast a shadow on every character? What will the police discover about Marco, about Anne, and about Cynthia? Does Anne’s strangely cold stepfather Richard have something to hide?

Behind every twist and turn is another possible scenario, until the reader must second-guess everyone and everything. The Couple Next Door kept me thoroughly engaged throughout. And then, when all the pieces seemed to fit, another shocker seemed to come out of nowhere. Until I thought about it, and realized that it all made sense.  Rating:

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***My copy of the eARC came to me from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: WHAT WAS MINE, BY HELEN KLEIN ROSS

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Simply told but deeply affecting, in the bestselling tradition of Alice McDermott and Tom Perrotta, this urgent novel unravels the heartrending yet unsentimental tale of a woman who kidnaps a baby in a superstore—and gets away with it for twenty-one years.

While the idea of feeling anything but horror for such a woman would normally be a predominant one, I found myself empathizing with Lucy, the “kidnapper,” whose almost obsessive desire for a baby leads to such a horrific act.  The author skillfully takes us through her thought processes, breaking them down into manageable moments that slowly turn into something almost palatable…and then, just when we think we can live with what she did, the repercussions start happening.  Life comes undone.

With part of the story in Lucy’s voice, we come to understand her.  But what about all those whose lives were damaged?  We view the perspectives of Marilyn, the mother of the kidnapped child; other people in Lucy’s life; Mia herself; and more characters as the pages lead us to what happens after.

From Manhattan to California, and finally to China, the story unfolds into some surprising developments. The emotions that Mia feels upon learning of Lucy’s actions soon change as she realizes, finally, that she was who she was because of Lucy. And despite the biological connection with Marilyn, parts of her would always belong to the woman who raised her.

In some ways, the conclusion to What Was Mine felt unfinished, as we are left not quite knowing what the outcome will be. But as we watch the pieces begin to coalesce, we are struck by how nothing is quite black and white, but in muted shades of gray. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: ONE KICK (KICK LANNIGAN #1), BY CHELSEA CAIN

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Kidnapped at age six and rescued five years later, Kit (Kick) Lannigan’s life has been fodder for the news and for celebrity magazines. But at twenty-one, Kick now has a mission in life: to save missing children and to somehow finally feel safe.

She is trained as a marksman, a lock picker, an escape artist, and a bomb maker, skills she gleaned from her captors. Her mixed feelings about the couple whom she called Dad and Mom are further complicated by the less-than-loving feelings she has for her biological mother, Paula, who has fashioned herself into the Kidnapped Mom to market her book and to further her personal causes.

But now Kick, accompanied by a former weapons dealer, John Bishop, is searching for two new missing children…and trying to track down answers about her past, answers that could lead them to the victims. The pursuit takes them from Seattle and Portland to San Diego, uncovering clues along the way.

Kick’s toughness masks her vulnerabilities, which made her a credible character with a damaged past. John Bishop’s coldness seems to be his mask, but soon I found myself warming up to him as well. Living in the apartment below Kick’s is James, a young man who was also held captive for years and who Kick knows from back then. Now, years later, they have reunited and feel like brother and sister. The author brings her ability to create great characterizations to this new novel, the beginning of a series (I hope!), and the settings came alive for me in her trademark fashion.

One Kick: A Novel (Kick Lannigan) is a page-turning novel from the author of the Gretchen Lowell series, and I could not stop reading until the final denouement. What will Kick do to reach her goals? Will she find the answers she seeks, or will she end up with more questions? Who can she trust, and why is John Bishop working so hard to find the answers along with her? Finally, what gutsy move will she make to bring the predators out of their hiding places?

The conclusion left me with more questions about the mysterious John Bishop, and hints of more to come that left me feeling a great sense of satisfaction. Five stars.