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.

***
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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.

***

REVIEW: A SEASON TO LIE, BY EMILY LITTLEJOHN

 

On a cold dark night in February, as a blizzard shrieks through Cedar Valley, police officer and new mother Gemma Monroe responds to an anonymous report of a prowler at the local private high school, The Valley Academy. In her idyllic Colorado small town, Gemma expects the call was just a prank by a bored teenager.

But there in the snow lies the savaged body of a man whose presence in town was meant to be a secret. And a disturbing message left by his killer promises more death to come.
This is only the beginning . . .

Nothing is as it seems in Cedar Valley and stories, both fact and fiction, ensnare Gemma as her investigation moves from the halls of an elite academy to the forests that surround Cedar Valley.

My Thoughts: On her first day back at work after her maternity leave, Gemma Monroe is eager to delve into whatever cases are presented to her. So, in the opening lines of A Season to Lie, we find her heading out to Valley Academy in response to an anonymous tip. A prowler has been spotted. The situation seems simple enough, but before the night is done, Gemma and her partner Finn will be trying to solve a murder, and the victim is a well-known author. Someone who has slipped into town in disguise, hoping to have some quiet to write his memoirs…and do some guest lectures at the school.

The suspects range from students to teachers, from bullies to nefarious construction workers…and even a stalker called The Rabbit Man.

The author’s friend Lila Conway, who invited him to visit, suffers from extreme social anxiety, so she seems to have nothing to contribute. But is she keeping secrets? Is she telling lies? What is the truth behind her relationship to the author?

When Gemma grows closer to the answers, I was fascinated by the threads that led to many possibilities…and then seemingly nowhere. Until the final reveal. A captivating read. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE CRUELEST MONTH, BY LOUISE PENNY

 

Welcome to Three Pines, where the cruelest month is about to deliver on its threat.

It’s spring in the tiny, forgotten village; buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. But not everything is meant to return to life. . .
When some villagers decide to celebrate Easter with a séance at the Old Hadley House, they are hoping to rid the town of its evil—until one of their party dies of fright. Was this a natural death, or was the victim somehow helped along?

My Thoughts: As we stroll down the streets of Three Pines, in The Cruelest Month, we meet several of the town’s residents: Olivier, from the Bistro; Monsieur Believeau, the grocer; Myrna, who runs the bookstore and acts as a therapist; Ruth, the old poet; and Clara, a local artist. Some are already thinking about Easter, and the wooden eggs they will hide. The children will trade the wooden ones they find for chocolate eggs.

Soon we will meet others, especially Hazel and her best friend Madeleine. Hazel’s daughter Sophie is due to arrive from university.

It sounds like a lovely gathering of friendly people…so how did the festivities turn so dark? It started with a dinner at Clara and Peter’s, where they talked about having a séance, just for fun, since a psychic named Jeanne Chauvet is visiting. But after the dinner, they decide they need something more appropriate, like the Old Hadley House. Abandoned and creepy, it does sound like the perfect setting.

Everything goes bad at that house when someone dies in a horrific death. Who would want to kill this lovely woman? And why?

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache arrives in town with his team, and over the course of days, they begin to unscramble the clues and put together some suspects. Like many mysteries, there are lots of red herrings and people to overlook, and then Gamache, in his inimitable style, zeroes in on the culprit. Amidst the mystery solving, there are some inner workings at the Surete Headquarters back in Montreal, as someone is trying to discredit Gamache and ruin his life. As much as I enjoyed this book, I struggled with the numerous characters and names in French, mixing some up occasionally, which meant I had to take copious notes and pay attention. However, I did enjoy this captivating read that earned 4 stars from me.

***

REVIEW: THE TRUTH WE BURY, BY BARBARA TAYLOR SISSEL

 

On the outside, Lily Isley’s life seems perfect: a wealthy husband, a ritzy gated community in Dallas, and a handsome son, AJ—a decorated marine about to be married to his love, Shea. But when a bridesmaid is murdered in AJ’s apartment and he can’t be found, Lily’s world collapses and a long-held family secret is at risk of exposure.

Dru Gallagher’s life took a different course. After her ex-husband, suffering from post-traumatic stress, threatened her and her daughter, Shea, with a shotgun, Dru was forced to leave her marriage and forge ahead as a working-class single mom. Now, the anger she sees in war veteran AJ’s eyes is heartbreakingly familiar—and makes Dru deeply afraid for her daughter’s safety…especially after Shea’s best friend and maid of honor is found dead.

With a killer on the loose and time running out, Lily and Dru, two very different women, unite in a single goal: to save their precious children from scandal, even from death. But will the mothers’ protection be enough, or will the fateful secret they expose—and the truth it reveals—destroy every hope of love?

My Thoughts: Our alternating narrators in The Truth We Bury take us from the present to the past, reminding us that buried secrets often have a way of surfacing.As the police search for a killer, their primary focus seems to be A. J. Will they ignore other possibilities and go for the easy target?

As the story unfolds and secrets emerge, everyone in the small town is affected, and life will never be the same.

It would be easy to point out the missteps of the police, but the killer has set events into motion to point them in a particular direction. The stunning revelations at the end changed everything that Lily and Dru had believed, but when all fell into place, the characters were left with no choice but to pick up the pieces. A poignant and unexpected ending kept me turning pages as a new normal began to emerge. 4 stars.

 ***

REVIEW: THE GOOD DAUGHTER, BY KARIN SLAUGHTER

 

Two girls are forced into the woods at gunpoint. One runs for her life. One is left behind…

Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn’s happy small-town family life was torn apart by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father — Pikeville’s notorious defense attorney — devastated. And it left the family fractured beyond repair, consumed by secrets from that terrible night.

Twenty-eight years later, and Charlie has followed in her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer herself — the ideal good daughter. But when violence comes to Pikeville again — and a shocking tragedy leaves the whole town traumatized — Charlie is plunged into a nightmare. Not only is she the first witness on the scene, but it’s a case that unleashes the terrible memories she’s spent so long trying to suppress. Because the shocking truth about the crime that destroyed her family nearly thirty years ago won’t stay buried forever…


My Thoughts: Living in a small Georgia town populated by angry residents who turn to crime more often than not, the Quinn family stands out. Mostly because they are not like the others, but also because Rusty Quinn defends some of those angry people, to the detriment of his family.

The Good Daughter brings out Charlie’s story first, as she has stayed in Pikeville to help her father, even though she has a separate practice and does not see eye-to-eye with him. But it is easy for the townsfolk to paint them both with the “liberal” brush, which does not endear them to the residents, especially the cops.

When something horrific happens one day, and when Charlie is caught up in the middle of it all, Sam is called back to town. Living in New York for several years, she is still trying to put the past behind her, especially the day of the devastating attack on her family. She still suffers from the aftermath of the events.

What is happening in Charlie’s marriage and personal life that has turned her into an angry person? How are Sam’s lasting injuries adding to the stress she feels when she faces the town again? What will Sam learn about the alleged perpetrator in the recent violence that will change how she and her father approach the case? What unexpected revelations will finally release them from the past?

Just when I thought I had everything figured out, more secrets are revealed and an astonishing denouement makes all the difference for the two sisters. A 5 star read for me.

***