REVIEW: THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE, BY MARYBETH MAYHEW WHALEN

 

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A hot summer day in Sycamore Glen, North Carolina, drew adults and children alike to the community pool, where they would chat with old friends, make new ones, and enjoy what seemed like the beginning of a perfect summer.

What looked like a perfect community at first glance was, like any neighborhood, imperfect, and while those who lived there all looked like nice people, some were more so than others. And most of them had secrets, old and new, that they worked hard to hide.

The Things We Wish Were True is an unveiling, in a sense, with our alternating narrators sharing the ordinary and superficial tidbits of life in Sycamore Glen, while gradually revealing just enough of the secrets they are holding…until finally, everything is unleashed.

Cailey is the first narrator, and she and her brother Cutter are new residents, drawn to the pool to keep boredom at bay, while their mother, Lisa, works hard to keep them fed and clothed. She is trying to ignore those who might steer clear of them because of their house, the “eyesore” of the neighborhood that has been home to a series of renters.

Zell Boyette, an older woman with an empty nest, takes the neighbor children to the pool while their single father, Lance Bryson, works. Zell feels a certain degree of guilt about why Debra, the wife and mother, left the family home a few months ago. But her lips are sealed.

Bryte, mother of three-year-old Christopher, and wife to the love of her life, Everett, holds tight to what she has…fearful that she could lose it at any moment.

Because her secret could lead to a great loss.

Especially once she realizes that Jencey Cabot is back in town with her two children, Pilar and Zara, and she could easily whisk Everett away…as she was his first love.

I loved the mix of characters with secrets, and I tried to guess them as I read along…but some were easier to guess than others.

At the dark end of the secrets was a big one right across the street from Zell’s cozy little house. Who would open the door on that one? Would any of the characters lose everything by the end? Could their secrets destroy them? And what near tragedy would start the spool unreeling, thus opening the door for revelations? A delightful book that I could not stop reading, I’m definitely recommending this for everyone who loves family stories and neighborhoods that seem too perfect. 4.5 stars.

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REVIEW: THE MOTHERS, BY BRIT BENNETT

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In the opening pages of The Mothers, we are introduced to the hovering presence of the older women in the church, called “the mothers,” members of what is designated the Upper Room. The women oversee the parishioners…and they gossip. Sometimes they get things wrong, but they never stop.

Set in Oceanside, CA, in a black community, the church is definitely at the center of the action, but for Nadia Turner, a seventeen-year-old girl headed for bigger things, already accepted into her college in Michigan, there are moments of rebellion. And love. With the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard, whose mother already gives Nadia the stank-eye. But she also doesn’t say much, as poor Nadia’s mother committed suicide six months before…and her father is someone who does good deeds for the church.

Then something happens that will sever the bond between Nadia and Luke, and shortly thereafter, she meets and connects with another motherless girl, Aubrey Evans, who lives with her sister Mo and her gay partner Kasey. Aubrey could be portrayed as the exact opposite of Nadia, on the surface, since Mrs. Sheppard has taken her under her wing. And makes her approval clear.

We follow each of the characters for a few years, as Nadia goes off to college, then law school, with only the occasional visits home. In one such visit, she and Luke connect again, and share some secrets from that time in their past.

What will happen to the two of them? Will Luke’s new path in life challenge what they once had, and what they might find again? Could Aubrey become the one who severs the bond forever?

What great characters! I loved seeing where they went and what they did. The multiple narrators took us back and forth in time, showing us events that we could not have imagined. When someone overheard the pastor arguing with Nadia’s father, that secret would become fodder for the mothers, the overseers, those who would forever keep track of the secrets, and what would become of the young women in their “charge.” In the end, I loved this passage, in the voice of those mothers, sharing thoughts about Nadia and her one last return home:

“We see the span of her life unspooling in colorful threads and we chase it, wrapping it around our hands as more tumbles out. She’s her mother’s age now. Double her age. Our age. You’re our mother. We’re climbing inside of you.”

Beautifully written, the author has become another favorite. Five stars.

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REVIEW: IN HER WAKE, BY AMANDA JENNINGS

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From the opening lines of In Her Wake, the reader is confronted with the sadness and loss Bella Campbell Bradford has suffered in the aftermath of her mother’s death. Elaine Campbell had been a loving mother, but there was always something amiss in their lives. Elaine’s fearfulness, her unwillingness to leave the house, and the overprotectiveness that turned Bella’s childhood into a prison are only the tip of the iceberg.

Her father Henry was kind, but also distant, a trait Bella chalked up to his being a doctor.

Bella’s husband David is overly controlling, and with his tendency to always take care of everything, from what to eat and where to work, she realizes that she must take some time away alone, to sort through her thoughts. Especially after a tragedy that occurs within hours of her mother’s funeral. A letter from Henry charts her course.

She goes to the Cornish coast for answers. There she finds more than she bargained for. What happened in France twenty-five years ago, and how does a cottage in Bristol figure into the lives of the Campbell family? Who is Bella, and what other secrets and lies have made her into the person she is today?

Finding the truth beneath the lies will lead her down some frightening pathways, but in the end, she will discover more than she had ever hoped for. Knowing that she can sort through her past on her own helps her decide how to deal with David.

Along the way, the reader gets to enjoy the local characters, like Dawn Tremayne and her mum, Alice. The author showed the reader the village of St. Ives in all its colorful quirkiness, which helped ease the shocking truths that seemed to come out of nowhere…and just kept unfolding. 4.5 stars.

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REVIEW: WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, BY KATHRYN CROFT

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When Tara Logan wakes up naked in a strange bed, and then realizes that there is a man in bed with her, she panics. For the man is her neighbor Lee Jacobs, and he is dead. Stabbed with a knife. And she has no memory of what, if anything, went on between her and Lee. Plus, there is not a drop of blood on her.

Thus begins the twisted tale that only gets more complex as time goes by. First, Tara decides to say nothing, hoping that the police will find whoever killed Lee. For she is sure that she didn’t. Not because she knows what happened, because she doesn’t.

While You Were Sleeping, set in and around London, is the kind of story full of characters you can suspect. It might have been Lee’s wife Serena. They had been having trouble.

Or perhaps it could have been Tara and Noah’s daughter Rosie, who has been behaving oddly. Even more so than usual, and she finally “confessed” that Lee had been hitting on her, but denied that anything had happened. However, when someone lies as much as Rosie does, it’s hard to believe anything she says. Then, from one moment to the next, Rosie’s story changes. She is also very horrible to her mother most of the time, so it would be easy to believe she had done something this despicable.

At one point, Mikey, a coworker of Tara’s, appears to be stalking her, and pushing for a relationship. He claims to have damaging information he could give the police. Could he know more because he was the actual killer?

Meanwhile, something has happened to Tara’s sister Lisa; she shows up covered with bruises. She comes to stay with Tara for a while for her own protection, and helps with Rosie, with whom she has a good relationship. Tara is grateful for the support of her sister.

Just when you think you have it all figured out, though, the stunning reveal knocks you over, and you think: Wow! I didn’t see that coming. But then again, isn’t it always the least likely suspect?

So many twists and turns and unlikeable characters, any one of whom could be guilty of something. At the very least, everyone was telling lies, keeping secrets, or hiding the truth. Trying to sort it all out and figure out the truth was enough to keep me glued to the pages. All of which made it a 5 star read.

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REVIEW: THE SISTER, BY LOUISE JENSEN

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A story about secrets, lies, and a friendship bond that lasts through tough times, but then is broken by death, The Sister was a page turner that kept me guessing.

Grace and Charlie met when they were very young, and after Charlie has stood up for Grace when a boy (Dan) pokes fun at her. Later, Grace, Charlie, and Dan will all become friends, and the group includes a few others. Some who stay friends, while others do not.

Set in a village in the UK, I enjoyed the back and forth sweep through time, as more and more was unveiled with each thrust backward.

What did Charlie mean when she said she had “done a bad thing”? What secrets had Lexie, her mother, kept that would impact all of their lives? What has Dan done that will ultimately derail their relationship? How has the mysterious Anna brought about the unraveling of their lives?

Grace’s narration carried us through the story, and I felt sympathy for her troubles, but I was also frustrated by her tendency to trust too easily. In the end, she flips 180 degrees to total suspicion, seeing danger behind every corner. Was she correct in her assessment of the situation?

Twists and turns kept me wondering, but the ultimate secret would endanger them all. The characters were all pretty unlikeable, beginning with Lexie, who was a mean drunk. Then there was Anna, whom I saw through right from the beginning, although I didn’t know the half of what she was hiding. Would I ever trust Dan again, after his betrayal is revealed? Probably not. But I couldn’t wait to find out what would eventually happen to them all. 4.5 stars.

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REVIEW: SIRACUSA, BY DELIA EPHRON

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Two couples now living in Portland, Maine, plan a trip together, destination Siracusa, in Sicily, but the odd history between them all foreshadows catastrophe ahead.

Lizzie, a journalist who grew up in Berkeley, has chosen the destination in honor of her now deceased father. She has memories of stories he told about the charming town, which others see as decrepit and decomposing.

Her husband Michael, a Pulitzer prize-winner struggling with a novel, is hoping to find what he needs to finish the book. He has a larger-than-life personality, and basks in the glow of others as he tells his tales. He is a “serial fabricator.”

Taylor and her husband Finn seem completely unsuited for each other. Finn still lusts for Lizzie, with whom he once had an affair, and Taylor is wrapped up in a very strange symbiotic relationship with her ten-year-old daughter Snow, who accompanies them on the trip.

Snow…what a strange child, and somehow, she ends up as the centerpiece for the darkness ahead. Her mother believes she is just shy, but brilliant. Others see her as charming, but Lizzie intuits the darkness in her. What unfortunate events will have them pondering the hidden depths of this child? Why is she so drawn to Michael, and will the “crush” she has on him lead to tragedy?

Meanwhile, an interloper arrives in the form of Michael’s latest conquest. What will her presence add and subtract from the vacation?

Siracusa was a tale of unraveling relationships, darkness, and the lies we tell to keep others interested. I enjoyed the multiple narrators that fleshed out the characters and the story, although I rooted for none of them, except possibly Lizzie. Flawed and somewhat jaded, they remind me of people I’ve known, so I couldn’t stop reading this book which earned:

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REVIEW: THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, BY SHARI LAPENA

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In upstate New York, new parents Marco and Anne Conti are enjoying an evening next door with neighbors Graham and Cynthia Stillwell. Actually, Marco seems to be enjoying himself flirting with Cynthia, while Anne feels troubled while she watches.

They were supposed to have a babysitter, but at 6:00 p.m., the girl cancelled. It would have made sense to take the baby along to the dinner party next door, but Cynthia has insisted that it should be an adults only party.

Later, she would say that she would have been fine with the baby there, if she’d known about the cancelled sitter.

But who knows what any of them would have done? Why were Cynthia and Graham so adamant about having an “adults only” party? Why is there a secret camera trained on the backyard?

When baby Cora disappears, sometime after Marco last checked on her—they’ve been checking every half hour—their world turns upside down. They only discover that she is missing when they return home around 1:30 a.m.

Police, reporters, and public scrutiny follow them in the upcoming weeks, and there is plenty of suspicion from everyone.

Anne’s postpartum depression becomes an issue…and then there are Marco’s financial difficulties. When Anne’s wealthy parents offer a large reward to the kidnapper, if the baby is returned, the suspicions increase as one can only wonder who actually took the baby.

What secrets from the past cast a shadow on every character? What will the police discover about Marco, about Anne, and about Cynthia? Does Anne’s strangely cold stepfather Richard have something to hide?

Behind every twist and turn is another possible scenario, until the reader must second-guess everyone and everything. The Couple Next Door kept me thoroughly engaged throughout. And then, when all the pieces seemed to fit, another shocker seemed to come out of nowhere. Until I thought about it, and realized that it all made sense.  Rating:

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***My copy of the eARC came to me from the publisher via NetGalley.