Review: THE MOTHER-IN-LAW by Sally Hepworth

Review:  THE MOTHER-IN-LAW by Sally HepworthThe Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth
Also by this author: The Family Next Door
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on April 23, 2019
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 
 
 
 
 
 

THE MOTHER-IN-LAW Review

 

Sally Hepworth is quickly becoming a go-to author for me when I’m in the mood for domestic dramas and mysteries.  Her latest novel, The Mother-In-Law is no exception, with Hepworth delivering both a compelling family drama as well as a riveting mystery.

The novel focuses on two women, Diana and Lucy.  Diana is Lucy’s mother-in-law and the two of them have a very uncomfortable relationship, to put it mildly.  Even though they have known each other for 10 years, Diana still treats Lucy like a stranger. Lucy can’t figure out why Diana seems to hate her so much and at a certain point, has just given up on trying.  Lucy and her husband Oliver have a good life together, only making contact with Diana when necessary, and such is their life.  That is, until a phone call from the police informs them that Diana is dead and that it is an apparent suicide based on some evidence found at the scene.  Lucy and Oliver are shocked because Diana is the most formidable person they’ve ever known and the last person they would expect to commit suicide.  When the coroner’s report comes back, however, the possibility that it was actually murder is suddenly on the table and the police begin investigating.

So many questions immediately start swirling about.  If Diana did take her own life, why?  If foul play was involved, who could possibly want to hurt her and why?

*****

If you like complicated characters, then this is your book because Diana is about as complicated as they come.  She has devoted much of her life to charitable causes and is a beloved and respected member of her community because of this.  Diana’s altruistic nature does not apparently extend to her actual family members. Even though she’s a very wealthy woman, Diana expects her children to stand up on their own two feet and make lives for themselves without handouts from her.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it certainly creates some uncomfortable and tense moments when her children find themselves struggling.  It doesn’t make Diana the easiest character to warm up to, but it definitely made me curious about her.

Where Diana is a character that is hard to warm up to, Lucy, on the other hand, is a character I loved immediately.  She lost her mother to cancer when she was only 13 years old, so when Lucy falls in love with Diana’s son Oliver and agrees to marry him, she’s over the moon about meeting Diana.  She can’t wait to finally have a mother-figure back in her life and goes out of her way to make sure she’s as likeable as possible at their first meeting.  Her dream is shattered immediately, however, when it becomes clear Diana has no interest in her.  It’s not that Diana is mean to Lucy because that’s not her nature, it’s more that she’s completely standoffish – as polite as she knows she has to be, but otherwise, basically a cold fish.  Their relationship starts off that way, and even after 10 years of marriage, it’s still pretty much the same.  This made me immediately sympathetic to Lucy and had me shaking my head at Diana and saying “OMG, why are you like this?”

Aside from the way Hepworth draws her characters, one of my favorite parts of The Mother-In-Law is how she weaves together her tale.  She effectively moves the story back and forth between the different characters’ perspectives, particularly Diana’s and Lucy’s, and between the past and present to gradually paint for her readers not only a complete portrait of Diana, but also toward the answer that we are ultimately all waiting for: what really happened to Diana.  I thought Hepworth’s choice of these elements was a perfect way to unravel both the mystery of Diana herself and of her death. Getting little glimpses into Diana’s earlier life gave me a much greater understanding as to why she’s the way she is, which in turn made me more sympathetic to her.

Other highlights of The Mother-In-Law for me were its quick pacing, its suspenseful plot twists, and the fact that the story was never predictable.  The ending, in particular, shocked me because I didn’t see it coming, not even for a single second!

Sally Hepworth’s The Mother-In-Law is a riveting read from start to finish.  Unraveling the mystery of Diana and why she is the way she is kept me turning the pages just as much as the desire to know what happened to her and if anyone else was responsible.  Hepworth’s books have been compared to those of Liane Moriarty, and I think the comparison is a good one.  If you’re into domestic dramas and mysteries with plenty of twists and turns, The Mother-In-Law is the perfect read for you.  It definitely made me appreciate how simple and uncomplicated my relationship with my own mother-in-law is.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Someone once told me that you have two families in your life – the one you are born into and the one you choose. Yes, you may get to choose your partner, but you don’t choose your mother-in-law. The cackling mercenaries of fate determine it all.

From the moment Lucy met Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana is exquisitely polite, but Lucy knows, even after marrying Oliver, that they’ll never have the closeness she’d been hoping for.

But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice, the matriarch of a loving family. Lucy had wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was ten years ago. Now, Diana has been found dead, leaving a suicide note. But the autopsy reveals evidence of suffocation. And everyone in the family is hiding something…

From the bestselling author of The Family Next Door comes a new page-turner about that trickiest of relationships.

four-stars

About Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives (2015), The Things We Keep (2016) and The Mother’s Promise (2017), and The Family Next Door (Feb 2018). Sally’s books have been labelled “enchanting” by The Herald Sun, “smart and engaging” by Publisher’s Weekly, and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s novels as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”.

Sally’s novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into 15 languages.

Sally lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.

Review: FORGET YOU KNOW ME

Review:  FORGET YOU KNOW MEForget You Know Me by Jessica Strawser
Also by this author: Not That I Could Tell
three-half-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 5, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

FORGET YOU KNOW ME review

I went into Jessica Strawser’s Forget You Know Me expecting to read a thriller.  What I got, however, was something entirely different and not necessarily in a bad way.  Instead of being a thriller, Forget You Know Me is a powerful and emotional exploration of the hurt we all experience when we drift apart from someone we care about, be it a spouse, sibling, or a close friend.

There is a small “thriller” element that takes place in the early chapters of Forget You Know Me, but it’s only central to the plot in the sense that it serves as a catalyst to show just how far apart former best friends Molly and Liza have drifted over the years, as well as how fractured Molly’s relationship with her husband, Daniel, has become after years of neglect and taking advantage of each other.

During a video chat with Molly, for example, Liza sees something terrifying on screen that makes her jump in the car and drive hours to Molly’s house to make sure Molly is okay. When she arrives, however, instead of being grateful that her friend has come all this way to make sure she’s okay, Molly is cold and aloof and pretty much kicks Liza out of her house with no explanation.  The awkwardness continues when not only does Molly offer Liza no explanation, but she also hides what has happened from her husband, who probably should have been the first person she told.  Why the awkwardness and the secrets with the two people she should be closest to?

Strawser’s novel highlights the idea that you only get as much out of a relationship as you’re willing to put into it and just how fragile and fractured relationships can become if neglected.

My favorite part of Forget You Know Me was how well drawn all of the central characters are.  The book is filled with messy, complicated characters who are going through things we can all relate to, whether we want to or not.  Strawser does a wonderful job of making the ups and downs of the friendship between Molly and Liza feel so authentic.  We’ve all been in relationships where we’ve just simply drifted apart over the years, either because we’ve moved away and don’t make enough of an effort to stay in contact, or else because our interests just don’t coincide with one another anymore.

Strawser does an equally impressive job of fleshing out the marriage woes between Molly and Daniel, who have clearly fallen into a rut over the years.  Again, if you’ve been in any kind of long-term relationship, their relationship issues are oh-so-relatable.

In addition to complicated characters in relatable situations, Strawser also does a nice job of building a bit of suspense by keeping that thriller element lurking in the background throughout the novel as she is exploring the relationship struggles of her characters.  The tension created by all of these troubled relationships, in addition to wanting a resolution to the thriller element, kept me glued to the pages.

Strawser’s smooth writing style also kept me turning the pages. Everything just flowed so nicely and I really liked the way this whole story unfolded with its many twists and turns.

My only real disappointment with the novel was that the thriller element, although it had such a huge build up in the early part of the novel, just seemed to fizzle out and take a backseat to everything else that was going on. I really expected and hoped that it would be more central to the story than it ended up being.

I would recommend Forget You Know Me to anyone who is interested in a slightly suspenseful read that explores relationships and what happens to them if they aren’t properly nurtured.  If you’re looking for a true thriller, I’d say to try a different book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Forget You Know Me is that book you can’t put down, and can’t stop thinking about when you are finished.” —Sally Hepworth, bestselling author of The Family Next Door.

When a video call between friends captures a shocking incident no one was supposed to see, the secrets it exposes threaten to change their lives forever.

Molly and Liza have always been enviably close. Even after Molly married Daniel, the couple considered Liza an honorary family member. But after Liza moved away, things grew more strained than anyone wanted to admit—in the friendship and the marriage.

When Daniel goes away on business, Molly and Liza plan to reconnect with a nice long video chat after the kids are in bed. But then Molly leaves the room to check on a crying child.

What Liza sees next will change everything.

Only one thing is certain: Molly needs her. Liza drives all night to be at Molly’s side—but when she arrives, the reception is icy, leaving Liza baffled and hurt. She knows there’s no denying what she saw.

Or is there?

In disbelief that their friendship could really be over, Liza is unaware she’s about to have a near miss of her own.

And Molly, refusing to deal with what’s happened, won’t turn to Daniel, either.

But none of them can go on pretending. Not after this.

Jessica Strawser’s Forget You Know Me is a “twisty, emotionally complex, powder keg of a tale” (bestselling author Emily Carpenter) about the wounds of people who’ve grown apart. Best, friends, separated by miles. Spouses, hardened by neglect. A mother, isolated by pain.

One moment will change things for them all.

three-half-stars

About Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser is the Editor-at-Large for Writer’s Digest magazine, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade. Her debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU (St. Martin’s Press), was a Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction Selection upon its March 2017 release, as well as a She Reads Book Club Selection and a PopSugar Best Spring Read. Her second, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, was a bestselling Book of the Month selection for March 2018, and is now new in paperback and available at Target stores nationwide, with a bonus Reading Group Gold guide included.

Her latest novel of domestic suspense, FORGET YOU KNOW ME, released Feb. 5, 2019, from St. Martin’s Press, having been named to “Best Of” and “Most Anticipated” lists from Goodreads, PopSugar, BookBub, and elsewhere. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls the novel “masterful,” saying, “fans of well-written suspense are in for a treat.”

Her diverse career in the publishing industry spans nearly two decades and includes stints in book editing, marketing and public relations, and freelance writing and editing. A Pittsburgh native and “Outstanding Senior” graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, she counts her New York Times Modern Love essay and her Writer’s Digest cover interviews with such luminaries as Alice Walker, Anne Tyler and David Sedaris among her career highlights. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two children, and has recently been named the 2019 Writer-in-Residence for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

A proud member of the Tall Poppy Writers and Women’s Fiction Writers Association, she tweets @jessicastrawser, enjoys connecting at Facebook.com/jessicastrawserauthor, and speaks frequently at writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.

Visit jessicastrawser.com to learn more, read some of her work and sign up for her email list to receive occasional updates and hellos.

Early Review: THE WARTIME SISTERS

Early Review:  THE WARTIME SISTERSThe Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 22, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 

THE WARTIME SISTERS REVIEW

Set against the backdrop of World War II, Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Wartime Sisters is an emotionally charged story about two sisters who have a very complicated relationship filled with resentment and secrets.  Older sister Ruth is the smart one, brilliant even, but somehow ends up always taking a back seat to her younger sister, Millie, who with her auburn curls and bright blue eyes, is the apple of everyone’s eye.  Ruth loves her sister but can’t wait to move out and be on her own and out of the shadows.  She eventually marries a young man who is an officer in the Army and moves to Springfield, Massachusetts. Ruth is enjoying her new life immensely until she gets word that Millie’s own husband, a soldier, has been killed, and Millie has nowhere to go, especially since Millie and Ruth’s parents are since deceased. Reluctantly, Ruth extends the offer to Millie to come and live with her at the armory in Springfield.

Their first meeting after so many years is filled with tension and awkwardness, and it feels as though it’s only a matter of time before Ruth finds herself in Millie’s shadow all over again.  The tension continues to mount when it becomes clear that each sister is keeping something from the other.  Will their relationship be able to withstand the strain when someone from their past unexpectedly reemerges threatening to spill their secrets and shatter their lives?

The Wartime Sisters is very much a character driven story, and as such, I was glad that I found both sisters to be characters that I was sympathetic to.  It was easy to feel sympathetic towards Ruth because she spent so much of her life living in the shadow of her beautiful sister.  Nothing Ruth ever did could compete with how everyone was so obsessed with Millie’s extraordinary good looks.  Boys who came calling for Ruth found themselves attracted to Millie instead.  In many ways, the girls’ mother was responsible for much of the ensuing resentment between Ruth and Millie.  For example, when she was deciding who to give the good family heirloom jewelry to, in her mind, Millie, even though she was the youngest, was the obvious choice because of course she would marry into a rich family and have ample opportunities to wear and show off such jewelry.  How can you not feel bad for Ruth when her own mother acts like that?

On the flip side though, it’s equally easy to feel sympathetic toward Millie.  She’s a delightful girl and a devoted younger sister, and she can’t help how she looks or how people react to how she looks.  She’s in a lose-lose situation because she’s constantly incurring Ruth’s wrath over these things she can’t control.  And even though everyone around her treats her like she’s the golden child because of her looks, Millie feels that she can never measure up to Ruth because Ruth is just so smart and ambitious.  Millie feels inadequate compared to her sister.   I actually felt horrible for both sisters because they should have been there for each other, not driven apart by all of these unimportant things.

If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you know I love stories that feature dual timelines. The Wartime Sisters is split between two locations and two timelines.  One is set in the 1930’s in Brooklyn, New York where the two sisters grew up together, while the other is set in early 1940’s in Springfield, Massachusetts at the armory where both sisters end up living and working.

I really liked this use of the dual timelines to show the origins of the resentment between the sisters and how those origins have continued to shape their lives and their interactions with one another over the years.  When Millie first arrives at the armory in 1942, for example, Ruth realizes that because she has been avoiding her sister as much as possible over the years, she barely knows her own nephew, Millie’s young son, Michael.  The author also very effectively uses the dual timeline to gradually reveal to the readers the secrets that both Millie and Ruth are hiding from one another.

While the dual timelines are an effective way to shed light on the lives of both sisters and how they’ve gotten to where they are, the author also presents the story in alternating viewpoints from each sister so that we are constantly getting both sides of the story and are allowed to make up our minds about each sister.  I liked this presentation because I think if we had only gotten the perspective of one of the sisters, rather than both, it would have been easy to find one of them less sympathetic.  The way the author chooses to present the story makes it easy to understand where each sister is coming from.

A final aspect of The Wartime Sisters I enjoyed was having the story actually set in the United States.  I’ve read a lot of historical fiction in my day and I can count on one hand the number of WWII stories I’ve come across that focus on what WWII looked like from the U.S.  I liked seeing it from this perspective and focusing a bit on the key roles that American women played in the war effort.  Millie’s perspective offered so much insight into this as her job in the armory was to build trigger mechanisms as part of the rifle assembly line.  Through Millie and her colleagues, we got to see firsthand the long hours and hard work women put in to get rifles into the hands of our soldiers.

Most of the time it felt like the historical aspect of the book took a backseat to the two sisters and their estranged relationship.  I still thoroughly enjoyed the story but a little more balance between the history/war and the more personal drama would have made this a 5 star read for me.

If you’re looking for a poignant, emotionally engaging read about family and the complicated relationships they can have, and the dangers of keeping secrets, I would highly recommend The Wartime Sisters.  The storyline is compelling, the characters are well drawn, and the historical setting is well researched.  I think fans of historical fiction and/or domestic dramas would find this read to their liking.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.

four-stars

About Lynda Cohen Loigman

Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. Lynda practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband. She wrote The Two-Family House while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The Two-Family House was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March, 2016, and was a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. Lynda’s second novel, The Wartime Sisters, will be published on January 22, 2019.

Early Review: AN ANONYMOUS GIRL by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Early Review:  AN ANONYMOUS GIRL by Greer Hendricks and Sarah PekkanenAn Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks, Sarah Pekkanen
Also by this author: The Wife Between Us
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 8, 2019
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen was one of my favorite thrillers from last year, so when I heard this duo had collaborated on another book, I couldn’t request it from Netgalley fast enough.  And as much as I enjoyed The Wife Between Us, I think their latest effort, An Anonymous Girl, is an even more riveting read.  It was a nail biter from start to finish and it seemed to actually just get creepier and creepier with each turn of the page!

An Anonymous Girl follows Jess Farris, a 28-year old make-up artist who is struggling to make ends meet.  When the opportunity to take part in a psychology experiment that pays its participants $500 falls into her lap, Jess jumps at the chance to make some easy cash.  Jess thinks she’s going to waltz in, answer a few anonymous questions about morality and ethics for Dr. Lydia Shields, grab her $500, and go.  What she doesn’t anticipate is getting sucked into a manipulative game of cat and mouse orchestrated by Dr. Shields that threatens to turn Jess’ whole world upside down.

This is one of those books where it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible so I’m going to be pretty vague in my explanation of what I liked about it.  Here were some of the highlights for me:

I loved the way the story is presented from the perspectives of both Jess and Dr. Shields.  The way Dr. Shields would manipulate Jess and then sit back and watch her like she was a lab rat in a cage lent the story such a creepy and suspenseful atmosphere.  Coupling those chapters with chapters from Jess where you can see what’s going on in her head as Dr. Shields keeps drawing her deeper and deeper into her twisted game had me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading.  Dr. Shields gets so far inside Jess’ head that she can barely perform the simplest task without wondering how Dr. Shields would judge her for her choices.

Also adding to the creepy factor is the fact that in the chapters from Dr. Shields’ perspective, she thinks of herself in the third person. It’s as if she is observing herself as part of an experiment as well.  It gives her a cold and clinical vibe, which is in sharp contrast to Jess, who comes across as resourceful but naïve.

Some other highlights for me are that the pacing is near perfect. I never once lost interest in the plot and easily breezed through this novel in a sitting or two.  Also, as with The Wife Between Us, Hendricks and Pekkanen are truly in sync with one another and the writing just flows so smoothly and effortlessly.

I know I keep using the word creepy, but the dark nature of An Anonymous Girl is what really stuck with me after I finished the last page. Even though it starts out focusing on morality and ethics, it takes a very dark and dangerous turn into the realm of obsession and manipulation.  I love those books that have you practically screaming at the main characters to turn around and run away, and this is a prime example of a book like that.

Overall, I thought this was a fantastic and compelling read.  There were a couple of plot twists that I thought came together a little too conveniently, but that didn’t at all take away from my enjoyment of the story.

If you’re looking for a mind blowing psychological thriller to get your 2019 reading off to a stellar start, I highly recommend An Anonymous Girl.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Seeking women ages 18–32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed. 

When Jessica Farris signs up for a psychology study conducted by the mysterious Dr. Shields, she thinks all she’ll have to do is answer a few questions, collect her money, and leave. But as the questions grow more and more intense and invasive and the sessions become outings where Jess is told what to wear and how to act, she begins to feel as though Dr. Shields may know what she’s thinking…and what she’s hiding. As Jess’s paranoia grows, it becomes clear that she can no longer trust what in her life is real, and what is one of Dr. Shields’ manipulative experiments. Caught in a web of deceit and jealousy, Jess quickly learns that some obsessions can be deadly.

four-stars

About Greer Hendricks

GREER HENDRICKS spent over two decades as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Prior to her tenure in publishing, she worked at Allure Magazine and obtained her Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children, The Wife Between Us is her first novel.

Follow Greer Hendricks on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

About Sarah Pekkanen

Internationally bestselling author Sarah Pekkanen’s newest book is THE PERFECT NEIGHBORS. She is also the co-author of the upcoming THE WIFE BETWEEN US (out in January 2018).

Her prior novels are: THINGS YOU WON’T SAY, CATCHING AIR, THE BEST OF US, THE OPPOSITE OF ME, SKIPPING A BEAT, and THESE GIRLS.

Sarah’s linked free short estories, published by Simon&Schuster exclusively for ereaders, are titled “All is Bright,” and “Love, Accidentally.”

Sarah is the mother of three young boys, which explains why she writes part of her novels at Chuck E. Cheese. Sarah penned her first book, Miscellaneous Tales and Poems, at the age of 10. When publishers failed to jump upon this literary masterpiece (hey, all the poems rhymed!) Sarah followed up by sending them a sternly-worded letter on Raggedy Ann stationery. Sarah still has that letter, and carries it to New York every time she has meetings with her publisher, as a reminder that dreams do come true.

Her website is www.sarahpekkanen.com and please find her on Facebook Instagram and Twitter @sarahpekkanen!

Review: THE GIRL FROM BERLIN

Review:  THE GIRL FROM BERLINThe Girl from Berlin by Ronald H. Balson
four-stars
Series: Liam Taggart & Catherine Lockhart #5
Published by St. Martin's Press on October 9, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

REVIEW:

 

Ronald H. Balson’s The Girl from Berlin is the fifth installment in his Liam Taggart & Catherine Lockhart series.  I actually didn’t even realize this book was part of a series when I requested it from Netgalley; I just saw that it was a dual timeline WWII historical fiction that focused on the rise of the Nazis and knew that I had to read it.  Thankfully, even without four novels of background on main characters Catherine and Liam, I was still easily able to follow along and enjoy the compelling story of The Girl from Berlin.

Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart are a very likable duo.  Catherine is a very successful attorney in the United States, and her partner Liam, is a private investigator.  I enjoyed the way they worked together, like yin and yang, to get the job done, as well as their easy banter.  It made me want to go back and read the prior four books to watch them work together more.

Aside from having a likeable team leading the way, I also found both timelines and their stories equally compelling.  The modern day timeline features Catherine and Liam being approached by an old friend who has an elderly aunt in Tuscany who is in desperate need of legal assistance.  A powerful corporation is claiming that they actually own the property that the aunt has lived on all her life, and they have served her with an eviction notice.  The aunt has a deed to her property, but somehow the corporation also has a deed so the question is whose deed is valid?  Catherine and Liam don’t know if they can help but are willing to give it their best shot.  Prior to taking off for Tuscany, the aunt sends Catherine a bound handwritten manuscript.  She will not discuss the manuscript but indicates that all the answers anyone needs regarding the ownership of the property are in this manuscript, which leads us the second timeline.  I found the aunt to be a very sympathetic character as well.  I mean, how can you not love a scrappy old lady trying to keep a greedy corporation from kicking her off her land?

The second timeline takes place within the pages of this manuscript as Catherine reads it on her flight.  It is a journal of sorts kept by a woman named Ada Baumgarten, a Jewish girl who was born in Berlin at the end of WWI.  The manuscript details Ada’s life as a violin prodigy and her growing friendship with a boy named Kurt.  It goes on to detail how life was in Germany in the space between WWI and WWII, especially the way Hitler and the Nazis began to slowly consolidate their power in the lead up to WWII.  The manuscript reminded me a lot of Anne Frank’s diary as she chronicled how life became more and more restrictive for Jews and how persecution of them just grew and grew the more powerful Hitler got.  Ada’s story is a powerful one and an emotional one as we see how she, her family, friends, and neighbors are all impacted by the Nazis and the utter hatred that they ushered in with them as they rose to power.

In addition to finding each of the individual timelines so compelling, I was also captivated waiting to see how the author was going to weave them together into a seamless tale.  How does Ada and her journey through WWII fit in to the modern-day story of this elderly Italian aunt who is in danger of losing her home?  I’m not going to say anymore about this, but just know that he does and that he does so brilliantly.

Overall I found this story a very satisfying read, but I did find the passages that focused on specific details of Ada’s musical performances less interesting than the rest of the novel and found myself skimming through them at times.  I think if I was a musician, I probably would have appreciated those details a bit more, but as someone who is non-musically inclined, just knowing Ada was a gifted violinist and that it made some of the Nazis treat her differently was enough information for me.

 

Ronald H. Balson’s The Girl from Berlin is a powerful tale that is filled with secrets, lies, and corruption.  However, it’s also a tale of hope, determination, and resilience.  And even though Catherine and Liam are technically the main characters, the real stars are Ada and the Italian aunt and what connects them.  For that reason, you can easily read The Girl from Berlin even if this is your first time reading a book in this series.  If historical fiction and dual timelines are your thing, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy of the The Girl from Berlin.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In the newest novel from internationally-bestselling author, Liam and Catherine come to the aid of an old friend and are drawn into a property dispute in Tuscany that unearths long-buried secrets.

An old friend calls Catherine Lockhart and Liam Taggart to his famous Italian restaurant to enlist their help. His aunt is being evicted from her home in the Tuscan hills by a powerful corporation claiming they own the deeds, even though she can produce her own set of deeds to her land. Catherine and Liam’s only clue is a bound handwritten manuscript, entirely in German, and hidden in its pages is a story long-forgotten…

Ada Baumgarten was born in Berlin in 1918, at the end of the war. The daughter of an accomplished first-chair violinist in the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic, and herself a violin prodigy, Ada’s life was full of the rich culture of Berlin’s interwar society. She formed a deep attachment to her childhood friend Kurt, but they were torn apart by the growing unrest as her Jewish family came under suspicion. As the tides of history turned, it was her extraordinary talent that would carry her through an unraveling society turned to war, and make her a target even as it saved her, allowing her to move to Bologna―though Italy was not the haven her family had hoped, and further heartache awaited.

What became of Ada? How is she connected to the conflicting land deeds of a small Italian villa? As they dig through the layers of lies, corruption, and human evil, Catherine and Liam uncover an unfinished story of heart, redemption, and hope―the ending of which is yet to be written.

four-stars

About Ronald H. Balson

When he’s not writing books, Ron is a practicing attorney with the firm of Stone, Pogrund & Korey in Chicago. He has been a civil litigation attorney for forty-three years. He was an adjunct professor of business law at the University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business for twenty-five years and was a frequent lecturer in the federal bar certification course and in trial advocacy seminars.

The demands of his legal practice have taken Ron into courts all across the United States and Canada, and for deposition testimony all across Europe and Asia. A few years ago, Ron became involved in a commercial dispute concerning telephone service in Poland. Numerous trips to Warsaw and southern Poland provided the inspiration for his first novel, Once We Were Brothers. Ron’s love of history and his travels to the Middle East provided the motivation for his second novel, Saving Sophie.

During the Once We Were Brothers book tour, Ron was introduced to several survivors of the World War II concentration camps. Of all the stories of courage and determination, one woman’s story was so moving that it formed the basis for Karolina’s Twins, Ron’s third book due out in 2016.

Ron was a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for Legal Fiction in 2014 and a finalist for the Premio Bancarella Italian Literature Award in 2014. He was an honoree at the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Carl Sandburg Literary Award dinner.

Five Reasons Why Diane Chamberlain’s THE DREAM DAUGHTER is a Must Read

Five Reasons Why Diane Chamberlain’s THE DREAM DAUGHTER is a Must ReadThe Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain
five-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on October 2, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

 

Before The Dream Daughter caught my eye, I have to confess that I had never given Diane Chamberlain’s novels a try.  I always thought the synopses of her books sounded interesting but somehow just never got around to reading one.  Well, let me tell you that I’m seriously kicking myself right now because I have clearly been missing out on some amazing books.  The Dream Daughter is one of the most exquisite novels I’ve ever read. I devoured it and know for certain that it will make my Best of 2018 list at the end of the year.  It’s just that good.

It’s also one of those books that is best read without knowing too much going in, so instead of writing a full fledged review here, I’m just going to give you five reasons why I loved this book and think you’ll love it too.

5 Reasons The Dream Daughter Should Be on Your Reading List

  1. I’m a huge fan of time travel novels when they are well written and Diane Chamberlain writes time travel to sheer perfection in The Dream Daughter. Using precise scientific calculations to locate portals that will take you to a date and location of your choice, Chamberlain creates a brilliant and logical time traveling premise that will stretch the bounds of your imagination but, at the same time, will make you seriously think about whether such a thing could actually be possible.
  1. The Dream Daughter is a unique blend of science fiction and historical fiction, as well as a heartwrenching domestic drama. It has a little bit of everything, and for someone like me who enjoys all three of these, having them so beautifully woven together in one story was reading heaven.  What I think Chamberlain does especially well with this is that none of these elements takes over the story so I think even someone who loves historical fiction, for example, but not necessarily sci-fi, would still love the book.
  1. The Dream Daughter is a poignant read that is sure to capture your heart. Chamberlain explores the lengths that a mother will go to and the sacrifices she is willing to make in order to save her unborn child.  I was just so moved by the main character’s plight and the strength she displayed at every step along the way.
  1. Speaking of characters, I was so impressed by the way both of the main characters in this book were written. The story is told from the point of view of Carly, a widowed soon-to-be mom who is in danger of losing her baby, and Hunter, a physicist who just appears in Carly’s life one day and ends up having a massive impact on her life.  It’s immediately easy to feel sympathy for Carly  because we learn that not only is her husband killed in the Vietnam War, but her unborn child also has an untreatable heart defect that is destined to be fatal soon after the baby’s birth.  Carly’s desperation is palpable and it’s impossible not to root for her as she tries to find a way to save her child.  Hunter, however, is equally sympathetic but he’s also a tad mysterious, which makes him all the more interesting. When we (and Carly) meet him, he is at a rehab facility recovering from a fall off a roof.  There is some question as to his mental health and whether or not the fall was actually a jump.  Although he is initially completely uncooperative with his physical therapists, he warms up to Carly right away and they become friends.  Their lives further intertwine when Hunter falls for and marries Carly’s sister and then later when he approaches Carly with a possible solution on how to save her unborn child…if she’s willing to take a giant leap of faith.  I thought Chamberlain did such an incredible job of developing compelling, layered stories for each of these characters and ultimately entwining them together into one beautifully complex story.
  1. As you’ve probably gathered by me gushing about Chamberlain’s character development, I’m a big fan of her writing style. Not only was the character development wonderful, but everything about the story was.  The prose was gorgeous, without being purple, and the pacing was perfect.  The need to save the unborn child also added such a sense of urgency that I truly could not put the book down until I knew how it ended.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

From bestselling author Diane Chamberlain comes an irresistible new novel.

When Caroline Sears receives the news that her unborn baby girl has a heart defect, she is devastated. It is 1970 and there seems to be little that can be done. But her brother-in-law, a physicist, tells her that perhaps there is. Hunter appeared in their lives just a few years before—and his appearance was as mysterious as his past. With no family, no friends, and a background shrouded in secrets, Hunter embraced the Sears family and never looked back.

Now, Hunter is telling her that something can be done about her baby’s heart. Something that will shatter every preconceived notion that Caroline has. Something that will require a kind of strength and courage that Caroline never knew existed. Something that will mean a mind-bending leap of faith on Caroline’s part.

And all for the love of her unborn child.

A rich, genre-spanning, breathtaking novel about one mother’s quest to save her child, unite her family, and believe in the unbelievable. Diane Chamberlain pushes the boundaries of faith and science to deliver a novel that you will never forget.

five-stars

About Diane Chamberlain

Diane Chamberlain is the New York Times, USA Today and Sunday Times bestselling author of 26 novels published in more than twenty languages. Her most recent novel is The Dream Daughter. Some of her most popular books include Necessary Lies, The Silent Sister, The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, and The Keeper of the Light Trilogy. Diane likes to write complex stories about relationships between men and women, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and friends. Although the thematic focus of her books often revolves around family, love, compassion and forgiveness, her stories usually feature a combination of drama, mystery, secrets and intrigue. Diane’s background in psychology has given her a keen interest in understanding the way people tick, as well as the background necessary to create her realistic characters.

Diane was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey and spent her summers at the Jersey Shore. She also lived for many years in San Diego and northern Virginia before making North Carolina her home.

Diane received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clinical social work from San Diego State University. Prior to her writing career, Diane worked in hospitals in San Diego and Washington, D.C. before opening a private psychotherapy practice in Alexandria Virginia specializing in adolescents. All the while Diane was writing on the side. Her first book, Private Relations was published in 1989 and it earned the RITA award for Best Single Title Contemporary Novel.

Diane lives with her partner, photographer John Pagliuca, and her sheltie, Cole. She has three stepdaughters, two sons-in-law, and four grandchildren. She’s currently at work on her next novel.

Please visit Diane’s website dianechamberlain.com for more information on her newest novel, The Stolen Marriage, and a complete list of her books.

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYES

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYESThe House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker
four-stars
Published by Annick Press on September 11, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 354
Source: the Publisher
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Who can Lena trust to help her find out the truth? Life in East Germany in the early 1980s is not easy for most people, but for Lena, it’s particularly hard. After the death of her parents in a factory explosion and time spent in a psychiatric hospital recovering from the trauma, she is sent to live with her stern aunt, a devoted member of the ruling Communist Party. Visits with her beloved Uncle Erich, a best-selling author, are her only respite. But one night, her uncle disappears without a trace. Gone also are all his belongings, his books, and even his birth records. Lena is desperate to know what happened to him, but it’s as if he never existed. The worst thing, however, is that she cannot discuss her uncle or her attempts to find him with anyone, not even her best friends. There are government spies everywhere. But Lena is unafraid and refuses to give up her search, regardless of the consequences. This searing novel about defiance, courage, and determination takes readers into the chilling world of a society ruled by autocratic despots, where nothing is what it seems.

Review:

Michelle Barker’s gripping new novel The House of One Thousand Eyes is set in the early 1980’s, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The novel follows Lena, an orphan whose parents were killed in a factory explosion, thus leaving her to be raised by her aunt, who is a devout member of the Communist ruling party.  The bright spot in Lena’s weeks are when she gets to visit her uncle Erich, who is a famous author and who is NOT a devout member of the Communist Party.

In this novel, Barker graphically portrays what it’s like to live under a government that rules with an iron fist.  If the Communist leaders don’t like what they think you’re up to, they have ways of making you disappear so as to quash down any signs of resistance.  Lena learns this lesson the hard way when her Uncle Erich suddenly goes missing and all traces of his existence disappear along with him.  She does everything she can to try to find him or find out what happened to him, but has to do so carefully so as not to put herself on the government’s radar.  Barker increasingly builds up suspense as Lena becomes more and more distraught. Everyone she talks to denies her Uncle’s existence, even her aunt who is Erich’s own sister.  I found the story absolutely riveting as Lena refuses to give up even though there are spies and informers everywhere who would love nothing more than to turn her in and score some points with the Stasi/German secret police.

The House of One Thousand Eyes is a novel about courage, strength, and determination.  The world that Barker paints is often brutal and terrifying and so it becomes very easy to cheer Lena on as she risks everything to resist the East German’s efforts to snuff out both her uncle and free speech.  If you’re interested in seeing what life was like in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, I would highly recommend this book.  4 STARS

 

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYESLies by T.M. Logan
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 11, 2018
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 432
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

What if you have the perfect life, the perfect wife and the perfect child—then, in one shattering moment, you discover nothing is as it seems? Now you are in the sights of a ruthless killer determined to destroy everything you treasure.

It’s the evening drive home from work on a route Joe Lynch has taken a hundred times with his young son. But today, Joe sees his wife meet another man—an encounter that will rip two families apart. Raising the question: Can we ever really trust those closest to us?

Joe will do whatever it takes to protect his family, but as the deception unravels, so does his life. A life played out without any rules. And a cunning opponent who’s always one step ahead.

Review:

T.M. Logan’s Lies is an exciting psychological thriller that will take you on the ride of your life.  It follows English teacher Joe Lynch, a loving father and devoted husband who makes what turns out to be a life altering decision – to follow his wife’s car when he happens to see her pulling into a hotel parking garage.  That one decision sets off a chain reaction of events, including a fight with a family friend named Ben who subsequently goes missing, that turns Joe’s entire life upside down and threatens his career, his family, and even his freedom.

Joe was a pretty likeable protagonist.  He’s a bit naïve at times, but I could easily see myself falling for some of the same things he did so, in that sense, I found him easy to relate to.  He’s also a great dad.  Watching him interact with his young son really made me all the more sympathetic to him.  He’s a man who definitely cares about his family above all else.

Lies is an easy read that I binge read in a couple of sittings.  It’s fast-paced and filled with plenty of twists and turns both for Joe and the reader.  The author also effectively builds up suspense with the missing family friend, by way of an active police investigation and also with mysterious messages that Joe starts receiving – messages that threaten to take everything away from him.  Lies also features a messy, and at least for me, totally unexpected, jaw dropping ending.  Kudos to T.M. Logan for keeping me guessing all the way to the end.  4 STARS

four-stars

About Michelle Barker

Michelle Barker was born and raised in Vancouver. She attended Arts One at UBC, studied for a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and graduated with a BA from UBC in English literature. After a short foray into comp lit, she left the Master’s program and worked as a research/editing assistant to Sherrill MacLaren. Sailed across the Pacific from Vancouver to Hawaii, had four children, lived for a summer in Montreal, a year in France, and then the Eastern Townships of Quebec for 10 years. After spending 7 years in the Okanagan, she returned to Vancouver. She received her MFA in creative writing at UBC’s optional-residency program in 2015.

Winner of gold National Magazine award in personal journalism (2002). Finalist for TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award (2016), OLA Forest of Reading Golden Oak Award (2017), Chocolate Lily Book Award (2016). Winner of 2017 Surrey International Writers’ Conference Storyteller Award.

Besides a chapbook of poetry called Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii, a YA fantasy novel, The Beggar King (2013), and a picture book called The Year of Borrowed Men (2016), she has also published poetry, short fiction, and a variety of non-fiction. Her poetry has appeared in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology (2011).

Barker’s newest novel, The House of One Thousand Eyes, will be out in Fall, 2018, with Annick Press.

About T.M. Logan

Tim was born in Berkshire and studied at Queen Mary and Cardiff universities before becoming a national newspaper journalist. He currently writes full-time and lives in Nottinghamshire with his wife and two children. LIES is his first novel – published by Bonnier Zaffre in January 2017. His next thriller, 29 SECONDS, comes out in January 2018 and is currently available to pre-order. For exclusive writing and new releases from TM Logan, sign up to the Readers’ Club: www.bit.ly/TMLogan.

Review: NOT THAT I COULD TELL by Jessica Strawser

Review:  NOT THAT I COULD TELL by Jessica StrawserNot That I Could Tell by Jessica Strawser
Also by this author: Forget You Know Me
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on March 27, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Jessica Strawser’s latest novel Not That I Could Tell is a riveting mystery that will have you looking at your neighbors and wondering how well you really know them.  The story is set in a quiet, little neighborhood in a small town in Ohio, one of those towns where everyone thinks they know everything about everyone.  A group of women who live on the same street decide they need a girls’ night so neighbor Clara takes the lead and offers to host a bonfire at her house one Saturday night.  The moms in the group test their baby monitors and realize with glee that their monitors will work from Clara’s yard, so the party is a go.  It’s a relaxing, casual affair, just good friends, wine, and a little gossip. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary is said or done, but by Monday morning, one of the women, a mother named Kristin, along with her two young children, has gone missing.

None of the women who were at the party that night can make any sense out of Kristin’s disappearance. As far as any of them can remember, she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary at the party and didn’t mention anything about traveling.  The police are investigating the disappearance but they just seem to be going in circles, turning up more questions than they are answers.  And then there’s Kristin’s soon-to-be ex-husband, who has all but moved back into their house.  He claims that he just wants to be there in case they come back, but things just don’t quite seem to add up.

Did Kristin take a trip and just forget to tell anyone?  Did something happen to make Kristin pack up her children and flee?  Or is something even more sinister afoot?  Is Kristin’s ex somehow involved?  Or are Kristin’s friends just reading way too much into things?  Did they not know their friend as well as they thought they did?

There’s so much to like about Not That I Could Tell, but I think my favorite thing about it is that it’s a story about so much more than just Kristin’s disappearance.  Yes, it’s about that and in that sense, it’s a completely engrossing mystery, but at the same time, it just has so many more layers to it than just a straight forward mystery.

It’s also a story about the women in Kristin’s neighborhood, particularly stay-at-home mom Clara and neighborhood newcomer Izzy.  Kristin’s disappearance triggers painful memories for both of them and the story also follows how they deal with the emotional fallout.  For Clara, it triggers memories of a tragic event involving a friend who was a victim of domestic violence.  This leads her to immediately suspect Kristin’s ex of foul play because she can’t seem to separate what happened to her friend from what may or may not have happened to Kristin.  For Izzy, who has moved to the neighborhood in an attempt to escape the heartbreak of an unrequited love, Kristin’s disappearance serves as a distraction but also as a reminder that you can’t always outrun your problems and sometimes you have to just face them head on.  Unlike Clara, Izzy tries to be more open minded when it comes to Kristin’s ex since she knows what it’s like to love someone who no longer loves you back. Izzy even starts to befriend Kristin’s ex because she feels sorry for him, which really gets Clara fired up and leads to many tense moments between them as they continue to wait for news about Kristin from the police.

The author keeps all three of these women front and center by having the story unfold from each of their perspectives in alternating chapters.  We got to watch bits and pieces of the investigation into Kristin’s disappearance come together, while simultaneously watching Izzy and Clara as they work through those emotional issues that Kristin’s disappearance has dredged up for them. Kristin’s chapters are actually the most powerful – they are concise and emotionally raw – slowly but surely painting a painful journey that takes us up to the moment of her disappearance. Kristin’s chapters were also the ones that most effectively built up suspense as they seem to indicate more and more along the way that her life was much more troubled than she ever let her friends know.

I also loved how the author really delved into the psyches of each of these women while, at the same time, advancing the storyline of such an intricate mystery.  Her characterizations are so rich and so realistic – I found both Clara and Izzy to be so relatable.  They could easily be any of my own neighbors and so I found myself very sympathetic to what they were going through.

It took me a few chapters to really get into the rhythm of this story, but once I got going, I was really hooked.

Not That I Could Tell is a gripping and suspenseful read that had me turning the pages well into the night because I so desperately wanted to know what had happened to Kristin.  It’s a domestic drama written in the vein of books like Big Little Lies and TV shows like Desperate Housewives, so if you’re a fan of either of those, I’d definitely recommend this book to you.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

When a group of neighborhood women gathers, wine in hand, around a fire pit where their backyards meet one Saturday night, most of them are just ecstatic to have discovered that their baby monitors reach that far. It’s a rare kid-free night, and they’re giddy with it. They drink too much, and the conversation turns personal.

By Monday morning, one of them is gone.

Everyone knows something about everyone else in the quirky small Ohio town of Yellow Springs, but no one can make sense of the disappearance. Kristin was a sociable twin mom, college administrator, and doctor’s wife who didn’t seem all that bothered by her impending divorce—and the investigation turns up more questions than answers, with her husband, Paul, at the center. For her closest neighbor, Clara, the incident triggers memories she thought she’d put behind her—and when she’s unable to extract herself from the widening circle of scrutiny, her own suspicions quickly grow. But the neighborhood’s newest addition, Izzy, is determined not to jump to any conclusions—especially since she’s dealing with a crisis of her own.

As the police investigation goes from a media circus to a cold case, the neighbors are forced to reexamine what’s going on behind their own closed doors—and to ask how well anyone really knows anyone else.

four-stars

About Jessica Strawser

Jessica Strawser is the Editor-at-Large for Writer’s Digest magazine, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade. Her debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU (St. Martin’s Press), was a Barnes & Noble Best New Fiction Selection upon its March 2017 release, as well as a She Reads Book Club Selection and a PopSugar Best Spring Read. Her second, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, was a bestselling Book of the Month selection for March 2018, and is now new in paperback and available at Target stores nationwide, with a bonus Reading Group Gold guide included.

Her latest novel of domestic suspense, FORGET YOU KNOW ME, released Feb. 5, 2019, from St. Martin’s Press, having been named to “Best Of” and “Most Anticipated” lists from Goodreads, PopSugar, BookBub, and elsewhere. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls the novel “masterful,” saying, “fans of well-written suspense are in for a treat.”

Her diverse career in the publishing industry spans nearly two decades and includes stints in book editing, marketing and public relations, and freelance writing and editing. A Pittsburgh native and “Outstanding Senior” graduate of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, she counts her New York Times Modern Love essay and her Writer’s Digest cover interviews with such luminaries as Alice Walker, Anne Tyler and David Sedaris among her career highlights. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two children, and has recently been named the 2019 Writer-in-Residence for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

A proud member of the Tall Poppy Writers and Women’s Fiction Writers Association, she tweets @jessicastrawser, enjoys connecting at Facebook.com/jessicastrawserauthor, and speaks frequently at writing conferences and events that are kind enough to invite her.

Visit jessicastrawser.com to learn more, read some of her work and sign up for her email list to receive occasional updates and hellos.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKS

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKSA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch
four-stars
Published by Atria Books on July 15, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 337
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

Review:

Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove follows the story of, you guessed it, a man by the name of Ove.  Ove is the quintessential grumpy old man in pretty much every way.  I actually couldn’t stand him for the first few chapters of the book.  He’s set in his ways, incredibly opinionated, and can be downright mean and rude at times.  What we also learn about him early on, however, is there’s a lot more going on with Ove than just your average grumpiness.  Ove is suffering from depression and having thoughts of suicide because his beloved wife has passed away and he’s just completely lost without her.  I felt much more sympathetic to Ove after learning this news and found myself wanting to know more about him.

My favorite part of the story therefore is how the author presents us with such a complete portrait of Ove. In addition to chapters that take us through Ove’s present circumstances, the author also includes chapters that feature life-shaping events from Ove’s past.  The more I learned about Ove, both past and present, the more lovable I found him.  I especially enjoyed the chapters that focused on how Ove met his wife.  This grumpy old man was actually downright adorable as he awkwardly pursued the girl of his dreams.

The secondary characters also added a lot of depth to the story.  The author does a wonderful job fleshing them out and making them feel like people you might actually run into in your own neighborhood. I was an especially big fan of Ove’s new neighbors.  They’re loud, kind of obnoxious, and basically introduce themselves to Ove by nearly mowing his house over with their moving trailer.  This family, especially the wife and her two daughters, are determined to make Ove an extended part of their family, whether he likes it or not, and they are always inserting themselves into his days, shaking up his entire routine.  They bring a lot of comedy and a lot of heart to the story, and they also bring their own brand of chaos to Ove’s way too orderly existence and I loved every minute of it!

If you want an utterly charming read that focuses on family, unexpected friendships, and the evolution of a grumpy old man into a not-quite-so-grumpy old man, then definitely give A Man Called Ove a try.  The humor and sarcasm is sure to make you laugh, and the overriding heartfelt message of compassion will bring a tear to your eyes.  4 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKSA Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 6, 2016
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Meet thirtysomething dad, Alex

He loves his wife Jody, but has forgotten how to show it. He loves his son Sam, but doesn't understand him. Something has to change. And he needs to start with himself.

Meet eight-year-old Sam. Beautiful, surprising, autistic. To him the world is a puzzle he can't solve on his own.

When Sam starts to play Minecraft, it opens up a place where Alex and Sam begin to rediscover both themselves and each other . . . When life starts to tear one family apart, can they put themselves back together, one piece at a time?

A Boy Made of Blocks is a beautiful, funny and heartwarming story of family and love inspired by the author's own experiences with his son.

Review:

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I first started reading A Boy Made of Blocks, but what I got was a beautiful, heartfelt story of Alex Rowe, a man who has somehow taken a wrong turn in life and lost his connection to both his wife and their 8-year old autistic son, Sam.  The novel follows Alex’s journey as he is determined to figure out where he went wrong and how he can turn things around so that he can get his family and his life back.

I have to admit that it did take me a while to warm up to Alex.  I couldn’t understand how he couldn’t see what he was doing wrong, that he was either treating everything to do with Sam as a chore or even worse, was ignoring it all together, saying that he was busy at work, and leaving the brunt of raising Sam on his wife.  I kind of wanted to throttle him and tell him to grow up and stop being so selfish.  The more I got to know Alex, however, the more I realized how much he truly did love his son and that he just needed to find a way to connect with him on a real level so that everything else would sort its way out.  And even though I was initially annoyed at Alex for having gotten himself into such a self-inflicted mess with his family in the first place, I grew to admire his effort and determination to right his wrong.  No matter how many missteps and wrong moves he makes, he never gives up on trying to reconnect with Sam.

I thought the author did an especially beautiful job of portraying the vulnerability of a child who has autism, the strain that trying to raise such a child can put on a marriage, and the overall determination of parents to do whatever it takes to make sure their child feels safe and secure and has every opportunity to live a happy and successful life.  Sam was also absolutely precious and I was moved to tears watching his own emotional growth as he and his Dad begin to reconnect in a meaningful way.

A Boy Made of Blocks was an emotional and moving read for me.  I think my favorite quote from the book best sums it up:  “Life is an adventure, not a walk.  That’s why it’s difficult.”  Alex and Sam’s adventure is one you won’t want to miss.  4 STARS

FTC Disclosure: I received A Boy Made of Blocks for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

four-stars

About Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove (soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks), My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here, Beartown, Us Against You, as well as two novellas, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and The Deal of a Lifetime. His books are published in more than forty countries. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and two children.

About Keith Stuart

Keith Stuart is an author and journalist. His heartwarming debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and a major bestseller, and was inspired by Keith’s real-life relationship with his autistic son. Keith has written for publications including Empire, Red and Esquire, and is the former games editor of the Guardian. He lives with his wife and two sons in Frome, Somerset.

Blog Tour – Review & Giveaway for BABY TEETH, a riveting thriller due out this summer

Blog Tour – Review & Giveaway for BABY TEETH, a riveting thriller due out this summerBaby Teeth by Zoje Stage
three-half-stars
on July 17, 2018
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Sweetness can be deceptive.

Meet Hanna.

She’s the sweet-but-silent angel in the adoring eyes of her Daddy. He’s the only person who understands her, and all Hanna wants is to live happily ever after with him. But Mommy stands in her way, and she’ll try any trick she can think of to get rid of her. Ideally for good.

Meet Suzette.

She loves her daughter, really, but after years of expulsions and strained home schooling, her precarious health and sanity are weakening day by day. As Hanna’s tricks become increasingly sophisticated, and Suzette's husband remains blind to the failing family dynamics, Suzette starts to fear that there’s something seriously wrong, and that maybe home isn’t the best place for their baby girl after all.

 

 

Today is my stop on the St. Martin’s Press Blog Tour for Zoje Stage’s upcoming thriller, Baby Teeth.  Thanks so much to St. Martin’s Press and Jordan Handley for inviting me to take part in this tour, and course to Zoje Stage for allowing me to preview her book.

 

MY REVIEW:

 

Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth is a dark and twisted tale of a seven-year old girl named Hanna who has one goal in life – to get rid of her mother so that she and her father can live happily ever after together.  As a mom, I found Baby Teeth to be perhaps my worst nightmare come true – that my child would hate me and want me gone – so in that sense, it was an incredibly uncomfortable read for me.  At the same time, however, it was still such a riveting read that I couldn’t stop turning the pages no matter how uncomfortable it made me.

Hanna is a troubled young girl.  For reasons doctors haven’t established yet, she does not speak.  In addition to being mute, she also has severe behavioral issues and has thus been expelled from every school that her parents have enrolled her in.  Suzette, Hanna’s mom, makes the decision to stay home with Hanna and home school her.  It’s not a permanent solution but at least Hanna won’t fall behind academically until a better solution presents itself.

Somewhere along the way, Hanna decides that she hates her mother and only loves her daddy.  While she and her mom are alone together all day, Hanna goes out of her way to let her mom know just how much she hates her and then even starts scheming about ways to get rid of her.  Then when Daddy comes home, she turns on the sweetness and perfectly plays the role of Daddy’s little angel, keeping him in the dark about how she really feels about her mom and of course frustrating her mother to no end.

As Daddy remains oblivious to Hanna’s dark side even as Hanna steps up her attacks on her mom, Suzette truly begins to fear for her own safety.  Can she get through to her husband and make him understand that they have a serious problem on their hands with Hanna before it’s too late?

 

It’s hard to review books like this because I don’t want to give away any of the twist and turns that make it such a compelling read, but here are some elements of Baby Teeth that I really thought the author did a wonderful job with:

Two Points of View – I thought it was brilliant to present this story in alternating chapters between Suzette and Hanna.  Being able to get a glimpse inside each of their heads as this disturbing family dynamic played out was what really made the book such an engaging read for me.

Suzette’s perspective was especially easy to relate to because all she can think about is what did she do wrong as a mother to make Hanna hate her so much.  Not only does she question where she went wrong as a parent, but then she feels tremendous guilt because there are times when Hannah pushes the envelope so far, that Suzette finds herself thinking horrible things about her child and sometimes even saying horrible things to her because she has been pushed to her limit.  In many ways, Suzette starts to really question herself as a mom.  How could she possibly think such terrible things about her child, who she really does love with all her heart, no matter how troubled she is?  Again, I found Suzette’s perspective to be very relatable and could imagine myself thinking many of the same things if I was in her shoes.

Hanna’s perspective added another disturbing layer to the narrative because even a quick glance at what’s going on inside her head reveals that she is truly a troubled little girl on many levels.  She’s callous, unfeeling, manipulative, and frankly, just all around creepy.  As soon as I’d read a chapter from Hanna, I’d instantly be all the more sympathetic to Suzette because she clearly had her hands full and was on her own thanks to Daddy Oblivious falling for all of Hanna’s tricks.

Twists and Turns – Another aspect of Baby Teeth that really entertained me was that it was fast-paced and filled with twists and turns that constantly kept me guessing about what was really going on with Hanna.  At times, the story had the feel of a horror movie so it really had me considering any and all possible explanations for Hanna’s behavior – is it psychological?  Are we going to find out she was somehow abused?  Is there something supernatural afoot?  I liked that the story really had me open to so many possibilities, no matter how over the top they seemed.

 

I’m guessing that you’ve picked up on the fact that I was not a huge fan of Hanna’s dad.  I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt – that Hanna was just that good of a manipulator – but it really just frustrated me to no end that he just didn’t get how dysfunctional their whole family situation was and how troubled his daughter truly was.

The only other real issue I had with Baby Teeth was that sometimes I found it hard to believe that a 7-year old child could devise some of the intricate and truly evil plots that Hanna came up with against her mother.  I know some kids are more precocious than others, but some of her schemes and just some of her thoughts in general came across as way too sophisticated for a child of that age.  In some ways it bothered me because I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it and sometimes it felt like maybe the author was just trying too hard to make the book shocking, but at the same time, it still kind of worked for me because it made my own imagination run wild, which added to the dark and twisted nature of the book and to the horror vibe that I was already feeling:  Does she have multiple personality disorder or some other mental illness?  Is she a psychopath?  Do we have a case of The Exorcist going on here?  Has she been possessed?  Those last ones probably sound a little silly, but the book really just sucks you in that much!

 

Baby Teeth is sure to please readers who enjoy thrillers and/or horror.  It’s a wild, dark, and twisted ride that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat as you watch the battle between Hanna and Suzette play out.

 

WATCH THE TRAILER FOR BABY TEETH

 

 

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ENTER THE GIVEAWAY FOR YOUR CHANCE TO WIN AN ARC of BABY TEETH (U.S. residents only, sorry!)

Use the Rafflecopter below to enter for your chance to win an ARC of this book.  I have 3 copies to give away and the giveaway will run until June 8th.  Please be sure to follow me on twitter as I plan to DM the three winners to get mailing addresses.  I do apologize in advance that this giveaway is U.S. only since I always prefer to do international.  I have the ARCs in hand to pass along to the winners and sadly I just can’t afford to ship them internationally.  🙁

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

three-half-stars

About Zoje Stage

Before turning to novels, Zoje Stage had a deep and eclectic background in film and theatre. Highlights include being a 2012 Emerging Storytellers Fellow from the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP.org), and a 2008 Fellow in Screenwriting from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA.org). In 2009 she won the Screenplay Live! Screenwriting Competition, which afforded her the opportunity to direct a staged reading of her winning script, THE MACHINE WHO LOVED, for the High Falls Film Festival (Rochester, NY). Zoje has written-directed-produced numerous zero-budget films, including the documentary short BEST OF LUCK (“an amusing take on the travails of aspiring writers” – The New York Times). Her films have screened at venues such as Anthology Film Archives and Two Boots Pioneer Theater (both in NYC), Film Kitchen (Pittsburgh, PA), and Emerging Filmmakers (Rochester, NY). As a playwright, Zoje is most proud of her play MONSTER, which was produced in Pittsburgh by the Upstairs Theatre (“Ms. Stage now makes her own contribution to holocaust literature with a demanding and intensely felt play… a must-see for those wanting another view of why and how the holocaust happened.” – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). After living in Rochester, NY for many years, she is back in her hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.