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: BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN, BY DIANE CHAMBERLAIN

 

North Carolina, 2018: Morgan Christopher’s life has been derailed. Taking the fall for a crime she did not commit, she finds herself serving a three-year stint in the North Carolina Women’s Correctional Center. Her dream of a career in art is put on hold—until a mysterious visitor makes her an offer that will see her released immediately. Her assignment: restore an old post office mural in a sleepy southern town. Morgan knows nothing about art restoration, but desperate to leave prison, she accepts. What she finds under the layers of grime is a painting that tells the story of madness, violence, and a conspiracy of small town secrets.

North Carolina, 1940: Anna Dale, an artist from New Jersey, wins a national contest to paint a mural for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. Alone in the world and desperate for work, she accepts. But what she doesn’t expect is to find herself immersed in a town where prejudices run deep, where people are hiding secrets behind closed doors, and where the price of being different might just end in murder.

What happened to Anna Dale? Are the clues hidden in the decrepit mural? Can Morgan overcome her own demons to discover what exists beneath the layers of lies?

 

My Thoughts: Alternating narratives reveal the dual timeline stories and keep the reader on the hook as more and more layers are peeled back.

We start with Anna Dale, in the 1940s, and her challenge to finish the mural to be displayed in the Edenton Post Office. Even though she has won the contest fair and square, she is bombarded with prejudice and challenges that soon seemingly overwhelm her…until one fateful night when violence strikes and changes her life forever. Racial prejudice walks hand in hand with the other difficulties she faces.

Flash forward to 2018, when Morgan Christopher is unexpectedly offered the opportunity to early parole from prison in order to take on the task of restoring Anna Dale’s piece, one that is buried beneath grime, not to mention some very strange images that seemingly tell a disturbing tale. Not only is she given an almost impossible task, the deadline must coincide with the gallery opening.

Will Morgan finish the task? What will she uncover beneath the layers of filth and secrets? What will she learn about Anna Dale and the original secrets and lies just waiting to be told?

I loved how Big Lies in a Small Town unfolded, and despite clues, I was blown away by all we learned about that small town and the people who would do anything to hide their secrets. 5 stars.

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

REVIEW: FORGET YOU KNOW ME, BY JESSICA STRAWSER

 

Molly and Liza have always been enviably close. Even after Molly married Daniel, the couple considered Liza an honorary family member. But after Liza moved away, things grew more strained than anyone wanted to admit―in the friendship and the marriage.

When Daniel goes away on business, Molly and Liza plan to reconnect with a nice long video chat after the kids are in bed. But then Molly leaves the room to check on a crying child.

What Liza sees next will change everything.

Only one thing is certain: Molly needs her. Liza drives all night to be at Molly’s side―but when she arrives, the reception is icy, leaving Liza baffled and hurt. She knows there’s no denying what she saw.

Or is there?

In disbelief that their friendship could really be over, Liza is unaware she’s about to have a near miss of her own.

And Molly, refusing to deal with what’s happened, won’t turn to Daniel, either.

But none of them can go on pretending. Not after this.

My Thoughts: The twists and turns of Forget You Know Me kept me fully engaged throughout, although it would take a while to sort out events. To figure out what, if anything, was left of the relationships between friends and between husband and wife.

Alternating narratives take us through the story, and I couldn’t help but be more drawn to Liza and her situation. Her friend Molly, who had done something truly confusing on the strange night of the video chat, seemed flaky and a little unreliable. What was really going on with her, and would she confess to her old friend, or even her husband, about what was happening?

Many events felt a little too unbelievable, but I did keep reading, because I was curious and wanted to know the meaning of it all. There were explanations by the characters at the end, leaving me with some hope for them all. 4 stars.


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

REVIEW: THE AFFLICTION, BY BETH GUTCHEON

 

Since retiring as head of a famous New York City private school, Maggie Detweiler is busier than ever. Chairing a team to evaluate the faltering Rye Manor School for girls, she will determine whether, in spite of its fabled past, the school has a future at all. With so much on the line for so many, tensions on campus are at an excruciating pitch, and Maggie expects to be as welcome as a case of Ebola virus.

At a reception for the faculty and trustees to “welcome” Maggie’s team, no one seems more keen for all to go well than Florence Meagher, a star teacher who is loved and respected in spite of her affliction—that she can never stop talking.

Florence is one of those dedicated teachers for whom the school is her life, and yet the next morning, when Maggie arrives to observe her teaching, Florence is missing. Florence’s husband, Ray, an auxiliary policeman in the village, seems more annoyed than alarmed at her disappearance. But Florence’s sister is distraught. There have been tensions in the marriage, and at their last visit, Florence had warned, “If anything happens to me, don’t assume it’s an accident.”

Two days later, Florence’s body is found in the campus swimming pool.

Maggie is asked to stay on to coach the very young and inexperienced head of Rye Manor through the crisis. Maggie obviously knows schools, but she also knows something about investigating murder, having solved a mysterious death in Maine the previous year when the police went after the wrong suspect. She is soon joined by her madcap socialite friend Hope, who is jonesing for an excuse to ditch her book club anyway, before she has to actually read Silas Marner.

My Thoughts: When I see a book authored by Beth Gutcheon, I am all in. I wasn’t sure about the boarding school aspect of The Affliction, but the great characters and the wonderful writing kept me turning the pages. Soon I was lost in the story and the discoveries along the way.

The sheer number of possible suspects kept me guessing, but by the time I had settled on the who and the why of the most likely suspect’s actions, I was lost in the fascination of the various routes that Maggie and Hope took to try to find some proof. The police were quite diligent, too, which is always a good thing in small town crime. But a suspect connected to important people cannot be hauled in on circumstantial evidence. By the end, all seemed hopeless. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, an astonishing series of actions taken by an unexpected individual turned everything into a certain kind of justice. 5 stars

***

REVIEW: THE LIES WE TOLD, BY CAMILLA WAY

 

A daughter
Beth has always known there was something strange about her daughter, Hannah. The lack of emotion, the disturbing behavior, the apparent delight in hurting others…Sometimes Beth is scared of her and what she could be capable of.

A son
Luke comes from the perfect family, with the perfect parents. But one day, he disappears without a trace, and his girlfriend, Clara, is desperate to discover what has happened to him.

A life built on lies
As Clara digs into the past, she realizes that no family is truly perfect, and uncovers a link between Luke’s long-lost sister and a strange girl named Hannah. Now Luke’s life is in danger because of the lies once told and the secrets once kept. Can Clara find him before it’s too late?

My Thoughts: In the beginning pages of The Lies We Told, we are introduced to two families: Doug, Beth, and their daughter Hannah, living in Cambridgeshire, in 1986; and Luke and Clara, young adults living in London in 2017. Luke’s parents, Oliver and Rose Lawson, have become like a second family to Clara.

Our story takes us back and forth, and we watch Hannah’s life grow more troubling with each year that passes. Her horrific and sociopathic behavior gets more dangerous with time. The behavior, and a dark secret dating back to Hannah’s infancy, keeps this family on tenterhooks.

Meanwhile, in contemporary London, Clara’s world is upended when Luke goes missing. Before he was “taken,” there were e-mails and strange events. Luke, obviously, had a stalker.

Seeing the connections slowly come together for these characters kept me glued to the book. I had figured out that there were very dark links between them all, but just how deep the ties went and how twisted they were would not be revealed until close to the end.

Like dropping bread crumbs, some of the characters lead us along their pathways, while the others try to follow, hoping to learn more about each of them: their lives, their lies, and their secrets. How will each of the characters put everything together? Will they find Luke? What will happen between them all when the sordid secrets are finally out in the open?

Hannah was a frightening character, but Luke was no saint. His flaws contributed to his vulnerability, and his family’s secrets and lies made him the perfect target. I kept turning pages rapidly as the layered and captivating story reached its denouement. 5 stars.


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

REVIEW: THE OTHER MOTHER, BY CAROL GOODMAN

 

When Daphne Marist and her infant daughter, Chloe, pull up the gravel drive to the home of Daphne’s new employer, it feels like they’ve entered a whole new world. Tucked in the Catskills, the stone mansion looks like something out of a fairy tale, its lush landscaping hiding the view of the mental asylum just beyond its border. Daphne secured the live-in position using an assumed name and fake credentials, telling no one that she’s on the run from a controlling husband who has threatened to take her daughter away.

Daphne’s new life is a far cry from the one she had in Westchester where, just months before, she and her husband welcomed little Chloe. From the start, Daphne tries to be a good mother, but she’s plagued by dark moods and intrusive thoughts that convince her she’s capable of harming her own daughter. When Daphne is diagnosed with Postpartum Mood Disorder, her downward spiral feels unstoppable—until she meets Laurel Hobbes.

Laurel, who also has a daughter named Chloe, is everything Daphne isn’t: charismatic, sophisticated, fearless. They immediately form an intense friendship, revealing secrets to one another they thought they’d never share. Soon, they start to look alike, dress alike, and talk alike, their lives mirroring one another in strange and disturbing ways. But Daphne realizes only too late that being friends with Laurel will come at a very shocking price—one that will ultimately lead her to that towering mansion in the Catskills where terrifying, long-hidden truths will finally be revealed….

 

My Thoughts: A surreal story, The Other Mother taps into our worst fears: that somehow we will be controlled by others and our lives will no longer be our own.

Husbands with nefarious plans and doctors who are easily turned by others kept me turning pages and wondering if I, too, had been tricked and controlled by this very tale.

I wanted to root for all the female characters, as each, in some way, had a story that felt credible. So which story will we believe?

Just when I thought I couldn’t be more confused, pieces of the puzzle began to click into place. Suddenly everything made a kind of sense, and the twisted elements took us back in time, to the early 1970s…and then carried us forward to the present. Who would finally regain the life that belonged to her? And who has died, while others have lived to share the truth? 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: SOMETIMES I LIE, BY ALICE FEENEY

 

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie.

Amber wakes up in a hospital. She can’t move. She can’t speak. She can’t open her eyes. She can hear everyone around her, but they have no idea. Amber doesn’t remember what happened, but she has a suspicion her husband had something to do with it. Alternating between her paralyzed present, the week before her accident, and a series of childhood diaries from twenty years ago, this brilliant psychological thriller asks: Is something really a lie if you believe it’s the truth?

My Thoughts: Sometimes I Lie grabbed me from the beginning, as the narrator takes us from the current moments, in which she is hospitalized and in a coma, to a week before. In between these narratives, we read diary entries from the early 1990s.

I thought I knew who was writing in those diaries, but the truth was not revealed until almost the end.

Even the identity of our primary narrator was turned upside down, and as we approached the conclusion, some things started clearing up in my mind. Suddenly I felt completely gobsmacked, as I flipped from one reality to another. Throughout, I couldn’t decide just who to trust…and I wondered if I could trust any of the characters.

By the end, I kept holding my breath, waiting for the final reveal that would clarify everything. But the waters remained muddy enough, and even on the final page, I had to keep asking myself “what just happened?” A story that kept me pondering its twists and turns. 5 stars.

 ***

REVIEW: THE BAD DAUGHTER, BY JOY FIELDING

 

There was no shortage of words she could use to describe her father, almost none of them complimentary. Serves you damn right, she thought.

A voice mail from her estranged sister, Melanie, sends Robin’s heart racing and her mind spiraling in a full-blown panic attack. Melanie’s message is dire: Their father, his second wife, and his twelve-year-old stepdaughter have been shot—likely in a home invasion—and lie in the hospital in critical condition.

It’s been more than five years since Robin turned her back on her father when he married her best friend. Five years since she said goodbye to her hometown of Red Bluff, California, and became a therapist. More than two years since Robin and Melanie have spoken. Yet even with all that distance and time and acrimony, the past is always with Robin.

Now she must return to the family she left behind. As she attempts to mend fences while her father clings to life, Robin begins to wonder if there is more to the tragedy than a botched burglary attempt. It seems that everyone—Robin’s mercurial sister, her less-than-communicative nephew, her absent brother, and even Tara, her father’s wife—has something to hide. And someone may have put them all in grave danger.

 

My Thoughts: There is no better story than one created by Joy Fielding, in my opinion, and The Bad Daughter is no exception. From the beginning, I found myself rapidly turning pages, staying up late to read more, and then enjoying every surprise twist and turn until the very end.

The characters felt so real, and I had emotional reactions to them all. I couldn’t stand Melanie, Robin’s older sister, whose sarcasm seemed to come from a very bad place. But did she have good reasons for her behavior?

I wasn’t sure about Robin’s fiancé Blake, either, but I gradually came to see a different side to him.

Then there was Melanie’s autistic son Landon, who, at eighteen, had all the usual behaviors associated with his disorder…but there was also something about him that aroused discomfort. Was he keeping secrets?

The victims in the shooting all had plenty of bad qualities, except for the twelve year old victim Cassidy, who seemed like a sweet innocent. But was there more to her story? Robin was drawn to her, but often had a feeling of “what’s wrong with this picture?”

Until the riveting and surprising conclusion, I went back and forth about which character must be pegged as “the bad daughter,” but when the final reveal came, it all made sense. I loved everything about the story and it earned 5 stars from me.

***

 

REVIEW: SUNBURN, BY LAURA LIPPMAN

 

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?
Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

My Thoughts: From the very first page of Sunburn, the reader is drawn into the mysterious connection that seems to develop immediately between Adam and Polly.

Circumstances brought them together, but desire and the slow burn of secrets and lies would keep them connected…for one long hot summer and beyond.

Who is Polly? We learn bits and pieces of her life and her past as the tale progresses. Their alternating narratives fill in the story over time. Is she a con artist bent on destruction? Or is she someone with a plan and unexpected goals?

Additional layers revealed complexities I didn’t see coming until the very end.

Fascinating story with interesting characters, some of whom were evil and destructive. But I liked both Adam and Polly and rooted for them. Would either of them get what they wanted from the relationship? Would they abandon their original goals? Or would life and someone’s manipulations throw too many curves for either of them to win? A stunning leap near the end of the story brought some of the answers. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT, BY CHRIS BOHJALIAN

 

Cassandra Bowden is no stranger to hungover mornings. She’s a binge drinker, her job with the airline making it easy to find adventure, and the occasional blackouts seem to be inevitable. She lives with them, and the accompanying self-loathing. When she awakes in a Dubai hotel room, she tries to piece the previous night back together, counting the minutes until she has to catch her crew shuttle to the airport. She quietly slides out of bed, careful not to aggravate her already pounding head, and looks at the man she spent the night with. She sees his dark hair. His utter stillness. And blood, a slick, still wet pool on the crisp white sheets. Afraid to call the police – she’s a single woman alone in a hotel room far from home – Cassie begins to lie. She lies as she joins the other flight attendants and pilots in the van. She lies on the way to Paris as she works the first class cabin. She lies to the FBI agents in New York who meet her at the gate. Soon it’s too late to come clean-or face the truth about what really happened back in Dubai. Could she have killed him? If not, who did?

Set amid the captivating world of those whose lives unfold at forty thousand feet, The Flight Attendant unveils a spellbinding story of memory, of the giddy pleasures of alcohol and the devastating consequences of addiction, and of murder far from home.

My Thoughts: Cassie was a character I could empathize with, despite her flawed character, since anyone who has ever had too much to drink could picture themselves doing some of what Cassie did after the horror of her blackout evening. She doesn’t believe that she could have killed Alex…there have been no incidents of prior blackouts in which she had done anything even slightly violent.

But would anyone believe her? The fear of being held captive in Dubai kept her moving forward to get to her flight and return to the U.S. The intensity of those moments, the near misses, struggling to find a way to hide her presence in the hotel…these were the series of events that she had to get through before she was safe, and which kept me rapidly turning pages.

Even back at home, with the FBI interrogations and eventually with an attorney she hires, she is just putting one foot in front of the other and hoping to somehow get through it all.

An alternate narrative brings the character of Elena, a Russian woman somehow connected to the events of that night. Her thoughts, her plans…all add an element of mystery and suspense. An undercurrent of political intrigue and executions. As we follow Elena’s movements, we realize that she is not who she says she is.

When one considers all the grim possibilities, we realize that just getting back home will not necessarily protect Cassie, and I couldn’t stop reading, eager to find out what would ultimately happen. Unexpected twists and turns made for a hopeful denouement. The Flight Attendant reminded me that, while bad choices can change our lives forever, one can also change one’s own destiny. 5 stars.My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.