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.

 ***
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REVIEW: OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES, BY ABBI WAXMAN

 

At any given moment in other people’s houses, you can find…repressed hopes and dreams…moments of unexpected joy…someone making love on the floor to a man who is most definitely not her husband…

As the longtime local carpool mom, Frances Bloom is sometimes an unwilling witness to her neighbors’ private lives. She knows her cousin is hiding her desire for another baby from her spouse, Bill Horton’s wife is mysteriously missing, and now this…

After the shock of seeing Anne Porter in all her extramarital glory, Frances vows to stay in her own lane. But that’s a notion easier said than done when Anne’s husband throws her out a couple of days later. The repercussions of the affair reverberate through the four carpool families–and Frances finds herself navigating a moral minefield that could make or break a marriage.

My Thoughts: In this bold peek behind closed doors, Other People’s Houses reveals the flaws, the foibles, and the moral failings in an LA area neighborhood.

Frances Bloom is the main voice, although we are offered multiple narrators. She is the good mom, the patient one who carpools all the neighborhood kids. But is she truly good, or is she making up for her own failings?

Anne Porter’s faux pas turns the neighborhood from a cozy little enclave to a clash of temperaments and values within the other houses, as each of them has to figure out whose side they’re on.

I liked how the kids were not cardboard versions but were fleshed out in a way that allowed us to connect with them. Ava, the fourteen-year-old, was not just an annoying, eye-rolling caricature, but had ideas of her own that showed her developing personhood. She could also be helpful and thoughtful, just like a real girl who has grown up with structure and love, finding her own true self.

As more and more of the closely guarded secrets are revealed, I especially loved the dialogue, the banter, and even the sometimes coarse language that left me feeling as if these were people I knew. An irreverent, hilarious, and often sad tale of how life can go so wrong, this book also showed us characters who pulled themselves together despite their problems. They were an example for the others, just like real people can be leaders of the pack. In the final moments, after the crises within some of the families settled down, there was a Christmas get-together. I liked this quote: “The neighborhood would be together again, in all its imperfect, fractured, embarrassing glory.” 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

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 FAMILY NEXT DOOR, BY SALLY HEPWORTH

 

Small, perfect towns often hold the deepest secrets.

From the outside, Essie’s life looks idyllic: a loving husband, a beautiful house in a good neighborhood, and a nearby mother who dotes on her grandchildren. But few of Essie’s friends know her secret shame: that in a moment of maternal despair, she once walked away from her newborn, asleep in her carriage in a park. Disaster was avoided and Essie got better, but she still fears what lurks inside her, even as her daughter gets older and she has a second baby.

When a new woman named Isabelle moves in next door to Essie, she is an immediate object of curiosity in the neighborhood. Why single, when everyone else is married with children? Why renting, when everyone else owns? What mysterious job does she have? And why is she so fascinated with Essie? As the two women grow closer and Essie’s friends voice their disapproval, it starts to become clear that Isabelle’s choice of neighborhood was no accident. And that her presence threatens to bring shocking secrets to light.

My Thoughts: In the quiet Melbourne neighborhood, there are expectations about how people should interact with one another. There are get-togethers, there is a civility between them that is somewhat superficial, but then there is a neighborhood watch to make them feel safe.

As we gradually come to know each of the characters, there are hints of their secrets, and we are not quite sure how much we will learn. Which of the families has the most to hide? Why did Isabelle, a single woman, move onto Pleasant Court? We sense something is not right with her. She seems almost too enmeshed in their lives. What could she be hiding?

Alternating narrators tell the story in The Family Next Door, and occasionally an unidentified narrator is experiencing something horrific: a stillbirth, anxiety, and then confusion.

We learn about some of Fran’s secrets, and why she runs several times a day, almost like an addict.

Ange needs to present the perfect front…she is the realtor, after all. She “sells” the life you want to lead. But her seemingly perfect husband Lucas has layers of secrets.

Then there is Barbara, the perfect grandmother, but something is not right there, either.

As the revelations start coming to light, especially one totally unexpected one, we see that a missing piece of the puzzle has just clicked into place. 4.5 stars.


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

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.

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.

***