REVIEW: ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL, BY SARAH VAUGHAN

 

An astonishingly incisive and suspenseful novel about a scandal amongst Britain’s privileged elite and the women caught up in its wake.

Sophie’s husband James is a loving father, a handsome man, a charismatic and successful public figure. And yet he stands accused of a terrible crime. Sophie is convinced he is innocent and desperate to protect her precious family from the lies that threaten to rip them apart.

Kate is the lawyer hired to prosecute the case: an experienced professional who knows that the law is all about winning the argument. And yet Kate seeks the truth at all times. She is certain James is guilty and is determined he will pay for his crimes.

Who is right about James? Sophie or Kate? And is either of them informed by anything more than instinct and personal experience? Despite her privileged upbringing, Sophie is well aware that her beautiful life is not inviolable. She has known it since she and James were first lovers, at Oxford, and she witnessed how easily pleasure could tip into tragedy.

My Thoughts: Eager to read this story that could have been grabbed from today’s headlines, I began Anatomy of a Scandal with some idea of what would unfold.

Our alternating narrators take us from the present to the past, to a time when youth and bad choices set the tone for what would come next in the lives of these elite characters.

Setting in the past: Oxford University, with entitled students, mixed in with a handful of scholarship recipients. 1993 was a year that stood out for a number of reasons, and those secrets will stay in the past until something that happens in the present yanks them forward.

Did James rape his colleague? Or was it a misunderstanding between two lovers? What long term pattern of being “flexible” with the truth might be relevant in the present? What will Sophie realize about her husband, and how long will she stay loyal?

What, if anything, is the past connection between Kate Woodcroft, the barrister in James’s case, and James and Sophie? How will Kate handle the delicacy of her situation? What will Sophie finally acknowledge? How does the longstanding friendship between James and Tom, his boss, inform the dynamics in the present?

Issues of consent are basic to the case before the Court and to this story…while the existence of secrets, lies, and a feeling of being untouchable will ultimately change the course of all their lives, since nothing stays buried forever. 5 stars.


***I received this e-ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.
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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 WIFE BETWEEN US, BY GREER HENDRICKS & SARAH PEKKANEN

 

When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous ex-wife.
You will assume she is obsessed with her replacement – a beautiful, younger woman who is about to marry the man they both love.
You will assume you know the anatomy of this tangled love triangle.
Assume nothing.
Twisted and deliciously chilling, The Wife Between Us exposes the secret complexities of an enviable marriage – and the dangerous truths we ignore in the name of love.

Read between the lies.

 

My Thoughts: My initial experiences in The Wife Between Us felt like looking through a kaleidoscope, the images shifting and surreal. The story seemed to tell different versions of reality from the perspectives of the wife and the girl friend. But as I turned the pages, I could see that nothing was shaping up the way I had imagined it to be. Through my confusion, I slowly began to glimpse the many ever-changing layers of the story, constantly in flux.

What do we really know about Richard? How could someone who seemed to be caring and loving one minute turn dark and dangerous? How do Vanessa’s experiences inform what happens to Emma, and how did their choices come about because of Richard’s actions? Then I wondered if I could be wrong. Should I go back and start again, with a fresh perspective? The authors have a way of keeping the reader slightly off-balance throughout, thinking one thing is true, only to discover the subtleties of reality.

Would Vanessa risk everything to bring out the truth? How would she manage to turn the tables on Richard, keeping him in the dark until she had finished what she’d set out to do?

Veering between the past and the present, the story is like a giant 1000 piece puzzle with numerous intricacies and deliberately shifting borders. Just when you have it all pieced together, another player dumps it out and you have to start again. This pattern continued through the final page, when still another shocking surprise popped up and I was thrown back to the beginning, awed by the serendipitous events that had transpired. 5 stars.*** My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: BONFIRE, BY KRYSTEN RITTER

 

It has been ten years since Abby Williams left home and scrubbed away all visible evidence of her small-town roots. Now working as an environmental lawyer in Chicago, she has a thriving career, a modern apartment, and her pick of meaningless one-night stands.

But when a new case takes her back home to Barrens, Indiana, the life Abby painstakingly created begins to crack. Tasked with investigating Optimal Plastics, the town’s most high-profile company and economic heart, Abby begins to find strange connections to Barrens’s biggest scandal from more than a decade ago, involving the popular Kaycee Mitchell and her closest friends—just before Kaycee disappeared for good.

Abby knows the key to solving any case lies in the weak spots, the unanswered questions. But as she tries desperately to find out what really happened to Kaycee, troubling memories begin to resurface and she begins to doubt her own observations. And when she unearths an even more disturbing secret—a ritual called “The Game”—it will threaten reputations, and lives, in the community and risk exposing a darkness that may consume her.

 

My Thoughts: Bonfire was a captivating story of environmental poisoning; mean girls who played a horrible Game; and how the past never stays in your rear view mirror.

Abby Williams is an environmental lawyer revisiting her past when her team goes to Barrens, Indiana, to investigate Optimal, a company that seems to control everything about the town.

At first it seemed as though the poisoning in the water was the worst that could be uncovered, but what the company had done to hide its darker secrets gradually unfolded, as Abby kept digging, even when some members of her team had wrapped up their quest.

I enjoyed Abby’s shifting memories of the past, and how their darkest parts slowly came to her in the end, and how even some of the people she thought she could trust turned out to be the most evil. The scent of bonfires on the horizon seemed to hover just on the edges of her mind whenever a new memory would surface. The past and present collide during one dark night when Abby is facing horrific danger that she didn’t see coming. Engaging and slowly revealing how the past informs the present, I give this one 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: UNRAVELING OLIVER, BY LIZ NUGENT

 

“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”

So begins Liz Nugent’s astonishing debut novel—a chilling, elegantly crafted, and psychologically astute exploration of the nature of evil.

Oliver Ryan, handsome, charismatic, and successful, has long been married to his devoted wife, Alice. Together they write and illustrate award-winning children’s books; their life together one of enviable privilege and ease—until, one evening after a delightful dinner, Oliver delivers a blow to Alice that renders her unconscious, and subsequently beats her into a coma.

In the aftermath of such an unthinkable event, as Alice hovers between life and death, the couple’s friends, neighbors, and acquaintances try to understand what could have driven Oliver to commit such a horrific act. As his story unfolds, layers are peeled away to reveal a life of shame, envy, deception, and masterful manipulation.


My Thoughts: From the shocking first pages of Unraveling Oliver to the gradually unfolding multi-layered tale brought from alternating narrators, we learn how a monster was created. I could not stop turning the pages.

As much as I felt like hating Oliver, I started to see how his circumstances, starting with the way his father treated him, set him up to become a person who could do the things he did.

Understanding him did not mean liking him or even forgiving him. I felt sad for the people he mistreated, although, in the end, I could also feel some empathy for him.

Could Oliver have risen from his circumstances and created a better life? A more honest life? Definitely others have done so, despite their own horrific beginnings.

Some of the secrets that Oliver learned about himself and his origins contributed to who he became. A final secret at the end of the book, one that would fill in some blanks about his previous lover Laura, shone some light on the mysteries of this man and some moments of unexpected selflessness that were possible from him. A 5 star read for me.

***

REVIEW: WHITE BODIES, BY JANE ROBINS

 

This chilling psychological suspense novel—think Strangers on a Train for the modern age—explores the dark side of love and the unbreakable ties that bind twin sisters together.

Felix and Tilda seem like the perfect couple: young and in love, a financier and a beautiful, up-and-coming starlet. But behind their flawless façade, not everything is as it seems.

Callie, Tilda’s unassuming twin, has watched her sister visibly shrink under Felix’s domineering love. She has looked on silently as Tilda stopped working, nearly stopped eating, and turned into a neat freak, with mugs wrapped in Saran Wrap and suspicious syringes hidden in the bathroom trash. She knows about Felix’s uncontrollable rages, and has seen the bruises on the white skin of her sister’s arms.

Worried about the psychological hold that Felix seems to have over Tilda, Callie joins an Internet support group for victims of abuse and their friends. However, things spiral out of control and she starts to doubt her own judgment when one of her new acquaintances is killed by an abusive man. And then suddenly Felix dies—or was he murdered?

My Thoughts: Nothing is as it seems in White Bodies. Domestic abuse is the primary theme, but the lines between victims and abusers is not all that clear. The story unfolds from Callie’s first person POV.

You might think you have it figured out, and then you realize that more is afoot. Why is Tilda clinging to Felix and refusing to acknowledge his abuse? Why is she shutting out her twin and everyone else, refusing to work?

Callie’s tendency to watch and to obsess over her twin sister’s life might be a red flag. When Tilda isolates herself and shows up with bruises, it all seems very clear. Until it isn’t.

An Internet group called Controlling Men reels Callie in, and she soon finds herself “bossed around” by one of the members. Should she be worried? A strange so-called “deal” is made, and then Callie finds herself in a very disturbing place.

I could not stop turning the pages, wondering what was going on and hoping to find the answers, which were totally unexpected. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: LIE TO ME, BY J. T. ELLISON

 

They built a life on lies…

Sutton and Ethan Montclair’s idyllic life is not as it appears. They seem made for each other, but the truth is ugly. Consumed by professional and personal betrayals and financial woes, the two both love and hate each other. As tensions mount, Sutton disappears, leaving behind a note saying not to look for her.

Ethan finds himself the target of vicious gossip as friends, family and the media speculate on what really happened to Sutton Montclair. As the police investigate, the lies the couple have been spinning for years quickly unravel. Is Ethan a killer? Is he being set up? Did Sutton hate him enough to kill the child she never wanted and then herself? The path to the answers is full of twists that will leave the reader breathless.

 

My Thoughts: Lie to Me opens with Ethan’s narrative, with him walking into the kitchen and finding a note from his wife. From that point on, everything he thinks is true turns out to be either a lie or a product of someone else’s lie. Which is it? When even the friends who had been so supportive to both Ethan and Sutton begin to distrust them, pointing fingers of blame, and then when it looks as if Ethan has done something horrific…we realize that nothing is at it seems.

At this point, the story switches to Sutton’s narrative. She is hiding out and has created a new life. But why? Did she set everything in motion, or is there another nefarious presence behind it all.

An anonymous third narrator drops little clues along the way, but we won’t discover the truth until almost the end. Then the pieces fall together and form a malevolent picture.

I could not stop reading until the last page, and even then, a final bread crumb was tossed at the reader. Definitely a 5 star read for me.***

REVIEW: WHEN WE WERE WORTHY, BY MARYBETH MAYHEW WHALEN

 

A win brought them together, but loss may tear them apart.

When the sound of sirens cuts through a cool fall night, the small town of Worthy, Georgia, hurtles from triumph to tragedy. Just hours before, they’d watched the Wildcats score a winning touchdown. Now, they’re faced with the deaths of three cheerleaders—their promising lives cut short in a fatal crash. And the boy in the other car—the only one to survive—is believed to be at fault. As rumors begin to fly and accusations spin, allegiances form and long-kept secrets emerge.

At the center of the whirlwind are four women, each grappling with loss, regret, shame, and lies: Marglyn, a grieving mother; Darcy, whose son had been behind the wheel; Ava, a substitute teacher with a scandalous secret; and Leah, a cheerleader who should have been in the car with her friends, but wasn’t. If the truth comes out, will it bring redemption—or will it be their downfall?

My Thoughts: In alternating perspectives, the characters in When We Were Worthy reveal their own truths in bits and pieces, including their secrets and fears.

Marglyn is the grieving mother of Mary Claire, and her biggest regret is that she let her daughter leave that night with harsh words between them. Afterwards, she has dreams and visions in which she and her daughter try to communicate.

Ava, the wife and substitute teacher of one of the girls, feels neglected and alone in this small town where she does not belong. That’s how she feels, anyway. And when something scandalous is brought to light, I empathized with how alone she felt when her husband, in-laws, and townspeople did not believe her; did not give her the benefit of the doubt.

Darcy, as the mother of the boy who probably caused the accident, is also lost and alone. Who does she turn to? Someone who has also gone through something…but could she be making a dreadful mistake?

The only cheerleader who did not go that night, and who is therefore alive, is Leah. Her secret about why she didn’t go was held close to her heart. But she struggled with what she needed to reveal; something that could help Ava.

How would the secrets and lies emerge? Who would be left standing, and who might sink further into the depths of despair? While I figured out a part of Leah’s dark secret, and the one that would make all the difference to Ava, I kept expecting something more shocking. So, in fact, the secret was a bit underwhelming. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and the story. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: THE STOLEN MARRIAGE, BY DIANE CHAMBERLAIN

 

One mistake, one fateful night, and Tess DeMello’s life is changed forever.

It is 1944. Pregnant, alone, and riddled with guilt, twenty-three-year-old Tess DeMello abruptly gives up her budding career as a nurse and ends her engagement to the love of her life, unable to live a lie. Instead, she turns to the baby’s father for help and agrees to marry him, moving to the small, rural town of Hickory, North Carolina. Tess’s new husband, Henry Kraft, is a secretive man who often stays out all night, hides money from his new wife, and shows her no affection. Tess quickly realizes she’s trapped in a strange and loveless marriage with no way out.

The people of Hickory love and respect Henry but see Tess as an outsider, treating her with suspicion and disdain. When one of the town’s golden girls dies in a terrible accident, everyone holds Tess responsible. But Henry keeps his secrets even closer now, though it seems that everyone knows something about him that Tess does not.

When a sudden polio epidemic strikes Hickory, the townspeople band together to build a polio hospital. Tess knows she is needed and defies Henry’s wishes to begin working at there. Through this work, she begins to find purpose and meaning. Yet at home, Henry’s actions grow more alarming by the day. As Tess works to save the lives of her patients, can she untangle the truth behind her husband’s mysterious behavior and find the love—and the life—she was meant to have?

My Thoughts: I was immediately caught up in the story of Tess and Vincent; I felt her pain when one mistake led to impossible choices.

Her pregnancy and marriage to wealthy Henry Kraft would take Tess outside her comfort zone. No longer living in Little Italy in Baltimore, she struggled to fit into her new life in Hickory, North Carolina.

But even as she tried to settle into her new life, Henry’s behavior toward her was puzzling, and the hostility she felt from all the townspeople, including her mother-in-law, made her adjustment almost impossible. Would she ever unravel the secrets Henry held deep within?

When Tess finished her licensing for her R.N. and, despite her husband’s objections, began working as a volunteer nurse during the polio epidemic that had hit the town, she started to regain her feelings of self-worth and confidence.

When an unexpected person from her past gives her new hope, she suddenly and unexpectedly finds just the power she needs to regain her life. And a mysterious journey leads her to treasures she had never anticipated. The Stolen Marriage was a beautiful story that kept me rapidly turning pages. 5 stars.

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

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.

 ***