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.

 
***

REVIEW: FINDING MRS. FORD, BY DEBORAH GOODRICH ROYCE

Mrs. Ford leads a privileged life. From her Blenheim spaniels to her cottage on the coast of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, she carefully curates her world. Hair in place, house in place, life in place, Susan Ford keeps it under control.

Early one morning in the summer of 2014, the past pays a call to collect. The FBI arrives to question her about a man from Iraq—a Chaldean Christian from Mosul—where ISIS has just seized control. Sammy Fakhouri, they say, is his name and they have taken him into custody, picked up on his way to her house.

Back in the summer of 1979, on the outskirts of a declining Detroit, college coed Susan meets charismatic and reckless Annie. They are an unlikely pair of friends but they each see something in the other—something they’d like to possess. Studious Susan is a moth to the flame that is Annie. Yet, it is dazzling Annie who senses that Susan will be the one who makes it out of Detroit.

Together, the girls navigate the minefields of a down-market disco where they work their summer jobs. It’s a world filled with pretty girls and powerful men, some of whom—like Sammy Fakhouri—happen to be Iraqi Chaldeans.

What happened in that summer of 1979 when Susan and Annie met? Why is Sammy looking for Susan all these years later? And why is Mrs. Ford lying?

 
 
 
 

Flipping back and forth in time, and narrated by two separate characters, Finding Mrs. Ford kept my interest…for the most part. But the pace was slow and the characters were often glib and even unlikable.

I had to keep reading, however, because I wanted to know what would happen. I began to suspect the eventual twist, but why it took the turn it did puzzled me. Also, the connection between the young women and the Iraqi characters could have been more understandable if their motives had been clear. Instead the men seemed to be criminals and drug addicts typical of their circumstances and the times in which they lived. I kept waiting for something that would make me care about any of them. But that did not happen.

The book was interesting enough, but I wasn’t invested in what happened to any of them. Therefore, this book earned 3.5 stars from me.

 
***

REVIEW: THE SAFE PLACE, BY ANNA DOWNES

 

Emily is a mess.

Emily Proudman just lost her acting agent, her job, and her apartment in one miserable day.

Emily is desperate.

Scott Denny, a successful and charismatic CEO, has a problem that neither his business acumen nor vast wealth can fix. Until he meets Emily.

Emily is perfect.

Scott offers Emily a summer job as a housekeeper on his remote, beautiful French estate. Enchanted by his lovely wife Nina, and his eccentric young daughter, Aurelia, Emily falls headlong into this oasis of wine-soaked days by the pool. But soon Emily realizes that Scott and Nina are hiding dangerous secrets, and if she doesn’t play along, the consequences could be deadly.

The story in The Safe Place unfolds slowly, almost like a lazy afternoon on a beautiful French estate. Emily is drawn to Nina and Scott, and to the life they share. But beneath the beauty, she senses something strange and secretive and mysterious about this family.

I was especially curious about Nina, whose behavior was very worrisome, and the things she hides behind cabinets and in cupboards…well, one might wonder what more she has hidden. But where is Scott in the mix? He is away most of the time, and whenever Emily wonders if she is in the wrong place, he reappears, seemingly pulling her into his web.

The slow pace felt like a drag at times, but then suddenly and unexpectedly the pace quickens and we begin to see bits and pieces of the hidden things. And they are alarming. From that point on, I was glued to the pages, wondering what would be revealed. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS, BY LISA JEWELL

 

Be careful who you let in.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom.

Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

 

My Thoughts: Our multiple narrators capture us from the beginning of The Family Upstairs. From Libby Jones, presumably the baby found in the Cheyne Walk house, to Henry, the son who went missing, there are a few others whose bits and pieces of the story unfold. It takes a while to figure out who Lucy is, and what she might have to do with Libby.

The cultish story is creepy with Gothic overtones. Who are these people, and how did one man take over all the adults and children that surrounded him? How did any of them escape, and who ended the lives of the perpetrators?

I loved all the twists and turns, and how nothing was exactly as we expected. By the end, however, all the missing pieces have fallen into place. A brilliant 5 star read.

***

REVIEW: UNDER MY SKIN, BY LISA UNGER

 

What if the nightmares are actually memories?

It’s been a year since Poppy’s husband, Jack, was brutally murdered during his morning run through Manhattan’s Riverside Park. In the immediate aftermath, Poppy spiraled into an oblivion of grief, disappearing for several days only to turn up ragged and confused wearing a tight red dress she didn’t recognize. What happened to Poppy during those lost days? And more importantly, what happened to Jack?

The case was never solved, and Poppy has finally begun to move on. But those lost days have never stopped haunting her. Poppy starts having nightmares and blackouts—there are periods of time she can’t remember, and she’s unable to tell the difference between what is real and what she’s imagining. When she begins to sense that someone is following her, Poppy is plunged into a game of cat and mouse, determined to unravel the mystery around her husband’s death. But can she handle the truth about what really happened?

My Thoughts: Poppy’s first person narrative takes us up and down and around the bend, as she struggles with the aftermath of her husband Jack’s murder.

Under My Skin captured my interest, but I often found myself lost between her reality, her dreams, and her drug induced moments. Her friends seemed to be caring and nurturing, but I was soon suspicious of them and their smothering ways. Were they caring or controlling? Were they protective or were they hiding their own dark secrets?

Because it was hard to decipher Poppy’s state of mind, I had to reread sections to grasp what was going on: was she in a disturbed reality, a dream, or was she lost in her memories? Was she being stalked? Was a hooded man following her?

I especially disliked Layla, Poppy’s long time best friend, who seemed so bossy and controlling. And one of Jack’s old friends, Alvaro, was dark and brooding, and set off red flags for me. But what we discover before the end of the tale was how little we knew about any of them.

Set in Manhattan, the story also takes us to The Hollows, a spooky small town that shows up in other books by the author. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: DAY OF THE DEAD, BY NICCI FRENCH

A decade ago, psychologist Frieda Klein was sucked into the orbit of Dean Reeve—a killer able to impersonate almost anyone, a man who can disappear without a trace, a psychopath obsessed with Frieda herself.

In the years since, Frieda has worked with—and sometimes against—the London police in solving their most baffling cases. But now she’s in hiding, driven to isolation by Reeve. When a series of murders announces his return, Frieda must emerge from the shadows to confront her nemesis. And it’s a showdown she might not survive.

This gripping cat-and-mouse thriller pits one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary fiction against an enemy like none other. Smart, sophisticated, and spellbinding, it’s a novel to leave you breathless.

 

My Thoughts: In this final episode with Frieda Klein, we do not connect with her at first. We see some murders, strangely linked, and meet some detectives who are trying to solve the cases. When Lola, a young woman fascinated with Frieda Klein shows up on the scene, we know that Frieda is sure to appear.

When she does, we almost don’t recognize her. Disguises and hiding places characterize everything about Day of the Dead, as Frieda has hunkered down for a final confrontation with Dean Reeve. He makes brief appearances throughout the story, but none of the detectives, not even Frieda, are able to get close enough to capture him…or even interact with him. Sometimes the story slogged along for me, as I hoped for a brilliant conclusion.

What will happen in the final moments, as Frieda sets her plan in motion, a secretive plan that she must carry out alone? Intensely suspenseful, the story kept me turning pages, even as I could feel a lump in my throat at the idea of what would happen next. And behind the scenes, Lola has carried out her own secret plan. What are her motives, and why is she taking these steps? We sense an ending as we journey along the rivers and canals, as memories of a series of deaths along the way bring us to the climactic moments. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: RASPBERRY DANISH MURDER, BY JOANNE FLUKE

 

Hannah has felt as bitter as November in Minnesota since Ross vanished without a trace and left their marriage in limbo. Still, she throws herself into a baking frenzy for the sake of pumpkin pie and Thanksgiving-themed treats while endless holiday orders pour into The Cookie Jar. Hannah even introduces a raspberry Danish pastry to the menu, and P.K., her husband’s assistant at KCOW-TV, will be one of the first to sample it. But instead of taking a bite, P.K., who is driving Ross’s car and using his desk at work, is murdered. Was someone plotting against P.K. all along or did Ross dodge a deadly dose of sweet revenge? Hannah will have to quickly sift through a cornucopia of clues and suspects to stop a killer from bringing another murder to the table . . .

 

My Thoughts: Raspberry Danish Murder is my first book in the Hannah Swensen series, but I’ve loved following her on the Hallmark Channel with the Mysteries and Murders show.

Set in Lake Eden, Minnesota, the story sweeps us up into the cold season, with a frenzy of holiday activities at The Cookie Jar. But this year is not like any other, since Hannah’s new husband Ross has gone missing.

Did he leave on assignment? Will he be coming back soon, or is he gone for good?

In the midst of the worry and anxiety, Hannah is caught up in the murder mystery of P.K., her husband’s assistant at the TV station, and it is fun to watch how she follows the clues.

Following each intense chapter are a series of cookie recipes, sure to please the bakers among us.

In the midst of these activities, we are also introduced to Hannah’s cat Moishe, who feels like another character in the book.

Red herrings kept me intrigued, and then, just when we finally discovered who had killed P.K., we were hit with the stunning news of what had happened to Ross. An enjoyable read with characters that felt like friends. 4 stars.***

REVIEW: THE WIFE, BY ALAFAIR BURKE

 

When Angela met Jason Powell while catering a dinner party in East Hampton, she assumed their romance would be a short-lived fling, like so many relationships between locals and summer visitors. To her surprise, Jason, a brilliant economics professor at NYU, had other plans, and they married the following summer. For Angela, the marriage turned out to be a chance to reboot her life. She and her son were finally able to move out of her mother’s home to Manhattan, where no one knew about her tragic past.

Six years later, thanks to a bestselling book and a growing media career, Jason has become a cultural lightning rod, placing Angela near the spotlight she worked so carefully to avoid. When a college intern makes an accusation against Jason, and another woman, Kerry Lynch, comes forward with an even more troubling allegation, their perfect life begins to unravel. Jason insists he is innocent, and Angela believes him. But when Kerry disappears, Angela is forced to take a closer look—at both the man she married and the women she chose not to believe.

My Thoughts: Angela’s loyalty to Jason, despite the growing evidence against him, fits perfectly with what we know about her background. How could her judgment be anything but impaired after what she has been through?

But what we learned about the supposed victims gave me pause, too.

Throughout The Wife, I kept going back and forth on what I believed to be true. And then I was floored by the additional information that came forth as the novel progressed.

Alternately narrated in the first person voice of Angela, followed by the third person narrative of the detective Corrine Duncan, I was completely fascinated and eager to keep guessing.

What did we really know about Angela and her time in the past? Could she have a dark side from that experience, and would she completely surprise us about how she would react to what is happening in the present? Some stunning revelations turn the story upside down…but definitely kept me turning the pages. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: I AM WATCHING YOU, BY TERESA DRISCOLL

 

When Ella Longfield overhears two attractive young men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it—until she realises they are fresh out of prison and her maternal instinct is put on high alert. But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls—beautiful, green-eyed Anna Ballard—has disappeared.

A year later, Anna is still missing. Ella is wracked with guilt over what she failed to do, and she’s not the only one who can’t forget. Someone is sending her threatening letters—letters that make her fear for her life.

Then an anniversary appeal reveals that Anna’s friends and family might have something to hide. Anna’s best friend, Sarah, hasn’t been telling the whole truth about what really happened that night—and her parents have been keeping secrets of their own.

Someone knows where Anna is—and they’re not telling. But they are watching Ella.

My Thoughts: The story opens with Ella, as she watches two young girls on a train, and the young men hitting on them. At first, she is not bothered, but when the men describe having just been released from prison, red flags go up. Soon the behavior of the girls and the men begins to worry her…but she doesn’t want to overreact.

Over the course of I Am Watching You, alternate narrators tell the story. From the perspective of Anna’s friend Sarah, we learn about her secrets, and also her feelings of guilt.

Anna’s father, Henry Ballard, has been covering up his own secrets, including one that might tell us something important about his relationship with Anna.

But Ella, above all others, has been lambasted in the media about her failure to come forward, and someone has leaked her information. She is now receiving frightening missives…and feels like someone is watching her.

Another narrator is “The Watcher,” an anonymous voice that flaunts “his” or “her” behavior, and gives us little added information, except that someone is definitely watching.

Just when I thought I had it figured out, a stunning last-minute reveal quickened the pace as Ella and the authorities rush to capture that person. Someone seemingly on the sidelines, perhaps the last person one would suspect. A compelling mystery that earned 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: DEAD OF WINTER, BY WENDY CORSI STAUB

 

Just as a murderer dumps his corpse into the lake across Valley View in Lily Dale, Bella Jordan happens to be at her window, not quite realizing what she’s seeing. Unbeknownst to her, the killer spots her silhouette and prowls straight to her door. That is, until he’s interrupted by a black cat. A superstitious gambler, he takes off, but Bella’s seen too much, and he vows to return.

Jiffy Arden, a neighborhood kid looking for the black cat and stumbling across the killer, begins to have premonitions of being kidnapped during the season’s first snowstorm. Sure enough, when it strikes, he vanishes, never arriving home from the bus stop. While her son, Max, believes Jiffy has been kidnapped, Bella is convinced he’s just wandered off as he typically does… until a body shows up in the lake.

Now everyone is pulling out all the stops to find the missing child, identify the victim, and collar the killer. And fast, because he’s coming for Bella next in Dead of Winter.

My Thoughts: Bella Jordan is the central character in Dead of Winter, and as she continues to grieve the year-ago loss of her husband Sam, while trying to manage Valley View Inn, the ancient home she is renovating, she also must keep her six-year-old son Max safe.

Max’s best friend Jiffy is mischievous, unsupervised most of the time, and the kind of child who can pull another into his pranks.

When Jiffy goes missing, right after a body is found in the lake, it is easy to imagine that the killer stumbled upon him. Was he kidnapped by the killer, or is there more to the story?

Misty Starr, Jiffy’s mother, does readings, and some of her recent clients have had dark auras. She has also been fighting with her husband, Mike, a deployed soldier. Do any of these characters figure into the missing child scenario?

Lily Dale is an interesting village with quirky residents, including several who seem to connect to the Other Side. A quick read that kept me fascinated, this one earned 4.5 stars.

***