REVIEW: FINAL CUT, BY S.J. WATSON

 

They tried to hide the truth. But the camera never lies…

Blackwood Bay. An ordinary place, home to ordinary people.

It used to be a buzzing seaside destination. But now, ravaged by the effects of dwindling tourism and economic downturn, it’s a ghost town—and the perfect place for film-maker Alex to shoot her new documentary. But the community is deeply suspicious of her intentions. After all, nothing exciting ever happens in Blackwood Bay—or does it?

When I first picked up Final Cut, I was intrigued with the opening scenes of a girl on the beach, suffering from amnesia and a mysterious past. A girl who renames herself Alex.

Years later, she is a filmmaker about to return to the scenes from the past and the strange mystery of girls who have disappeared and/or died. Is Alex one of those girls? What will she remember as she explores the events of the past, along with those in the present? What can she learn from watching clips of old films and documentaries?

Unfortunately, the story moves along so slowly that even the twists and turns don’t really keep me invested. I wanted to love this book and kept reading because I did want to know what happened. And I was glad to finally have some answers. But I can only give this book 3.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: HOME BEFORE DARK, BY RILEY SAGER

 

What was it like? Living in that house.

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling Victorian estate in the Vermont woods. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a nonfiction book called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon, rivaling The Amityville Horror in popularity—and skepticism.

Today, Maggie is a restorer of old homes and too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she also doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist. When Maggie inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death, she returns to renovate the place to prepare it for sale. But her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the past, chronicled in House of Horrors, lurk in the shadows. And locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous thanks to Maggie’s father. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself—a place filled with relics from another era that hint at a history of dark deeds. As Maggie experiences strange occurrences straight out of her father’s book, she starts to believe that what he wrote was more fact than fiction.

When Maggie returns to Baneberry Hall after her father’s death, she is hoping to finally settle in her mind what really happened back then, when they lived in the house her father wrote about. Had he written lies, or were the things he wrote about true?

Home Before Dark is narrated alternately by Maggie’s father Ewan, back when the family lived in the house, and Maggie herself as she tries to sort through the discoveries she makes in the present.

Were her family members victims of some ghostly creatures back then? Are the strange events that continue even to this day part of something supernatural?

An enticing tale that kept me turning pages, I was surprised by how all the events unfolded. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: PARIS NEVER LEAVES YOU, BY ELLEN FELDMAN

Living through World War II working in a Paris bookstore with her young daughter, Vivi, and fighting for her life, Charlotte is no victim, she is a survivor. But can she survive the next chapter of her life?

Alternating between wartime Paris and 1950s New York publishing, Ellen Feldman’s Paris Never Leaves You is an extraordinary story of resilience, love, and impossible choices, exploring how survival never comes without a cost.

The war is over, but the past is never past.

Paris Never Leaves You was a breathtaking story of one woman’s journey during a troublesome time in the world. When Charlotte and her young daughter Vivi do what they have to do to survive the hard times, while still finding comfort where they can, she had no idea that the next chapter in her life would force her to accept some unpleasant truths about how she survived and how she would explain those years to her daughter.

When Charlotte starts her new life in New York City, working in a publishing house under a sponsorship from an American publisher, she follows the credo that some secrets are best kept to oneself. But Vivi probes for answers about their lives in Paris, their heritage, and any other moments that can make her feel a part of something.

Will Charlotte be able to finally tell her true story to Vivi and to others? How will she accept the part of herself and her life that she finds unpalatable?

Charlotte discovers that doing what you have to do to stay alive might be unpleasant or hard to accept, but that very acceptance can also be liberating and a way forward. A 5 star read.

***

REVIEW: JUST BETWEEN US, BY REBECCA DRAKE

Alison, Julie, Sarah, Heather. Four friends living the suburban ideal. Their jobs are steady, their kids are healthy. They’re as beautiful as their houses. But each of them has a dirty little secret, and hidden behind the veneer of their perfect lives is a crime and a mystery that will consume them all.

Everything starts to unravel when Alison spots a nasty bruise on Heather’s wrist. She shares her suspicions with Julie and Sarah, compelling all three to investigate what looks like an increasingly violent marriage. As mysterious injuries and erratic behavior mount, Heather can no longer deny the abuse, but she refuses to leave her husband. Desperate to save her, Alison and the others dread the phone call telling them that she’s been killed. But when that call finally comes, it’s not Heather who’s dead. In a moment they’ll come to regret, the women must decide what lengths they’ll go to in order to help a friend.

 

In Just Between Us, the friendship between four suburban women deepens when they believe one of them is being abused.

They step up and band together to encourage her to leave her husband and to get help. She refuses. Then one night, tragedy comes to them all as they are caught up in keeping a dreadful secret that will lead to so much more danger than any of them could have imagined.

At what cost will they keep protecting their friend? Will they discover that there is so much more to her story, and will they all finally pay the price?

So many twists along the way kept me reading and hoping for a good outcome. The story has multiple narrators, and sometimes I lost track of whose voice I was reading, but I could not put the book down. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: FRIENDS & STRANGERS, BY J. COURTNEY SULLIVAN

 

Elisabeth, an accomplished journalist and new mother, is struggling to adjust to life in a small town after nearly twenty years in New York City. Alone in the house with her infant son all day (and awake with him much of the night), she feels uneasy, adrift. She neglects her work, losing untold hours to her Brooklyn moms’ Facebook group, her “influencer” sister’s Instagram feed, and text messages with the best friend she never sees anymore. Enter Sam, a senior at the local women’s college, whom Elisabeth hires to babysit. Sam is struggling to decide between the path she’s always planned on and a romantic entanglement that threatens her ambition. She’s worried about student loan debt and what the future holds. In short order, they grow close. But when Sam finds an unlikely kindred spirit in Elisabeth’s father-in-law, the true differences between the women’s lives become starkly revealed and a betrayal has devastating consequences.

A masterful exploration of motherhood, power dynamics, and privilege in its many forms, Friends and Strangers reveals how a single year can shape the course of a life.


I loved the primary characters in Friends and Strangers, and how their connection started during one difficult year when each of the two women was exploring major changes in their lives. Their relationship morphs to one of friendship, but will they cross lines along the way?

Elisabeth is still struggling with whether or not to have another child, something she doesn’t really want, but she doesn’t have the courage to openly confront her feelings and the possible ramifications.

Sam is in a love relationship that is seemingly fraught and possibly inappropriate, but her need to move into her adult life with everything “sorted,” like she believes Elisabeth’s life has been settled, propels her into decisions that may upend her life and her plans in unexpected ways.

By the end, the crossed lines will ultimately change everything, but is it possible that what they meant to each other will have changed them in positive ways, too?

I didn’t want the year to end things between them, but like most seemingly important relationships that happen at crucial turning points, that year did serve its purpose. The friendship will have been important to each of them, turning significant and sentimental moments into treasures to cherish. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: PLAYING NICE, BY JP DELANEY

 

Pete Riley answers the door one morning and lets in a parent’s worst nightmare. On his doorstep is Miles Lambert, a stranger who breaks the devastating news that Pete’s son, Theo, isn’t actually his son—he is the Lamberts’, switched at birth by an understaffed hospital while their real son was sent home with Miles and his wife, Lucy. For Pete, his partner Maddie, and the little boy they’ve been raising for the past two years, life will never be the same again.

The two families, reeling from the shock, take comfort in shared good intentions, eagerly entwining their very different lives in the hope of becoming one unconventional modern family. But a plan to sue the hospital triggers an official investigation that unearths some disturbing questions about the night their children were switched. How much can they trust the other parents—or even each other? What secrets are hidden behind the Lamberts’ glossy front door? Stretched to the breaking point, Pete and Maddie discover they will each stop at nothing to keep their family safe.

Playing Nice brings out the worst kind of crisis for two couples, one that will change everything they believed and hoped to find in family life.

At first, when the Lamberts seem congenial and eager to compromise, Pete and Maddie almost sigh with relief. But then the true nightmare begins, when the act of “playing nice” is revealed in full.

As Miles begins to show his true self and the horror of his intentions, his actions intensify as the custody case ratchets up.

But what happens next after a judge makes her decision? Will there be happiness at last, or will more secrets come out that will change everything again? Who will finally find comfort and joy with the children? A brilliant story that kept me turning pages and hoping for the right outcome for my favorite characters. 5 stars.

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

***

REVIEW: TOO MUCH & NEVER ENOUGH, BY MARY L. TRUMP, PH.D.

In this revelatory, authoritative portrait of Donald J. Trump and the toxic family that made him, Mary L. Trump, a trained clinical psychologist and Donald’s only niece, shines a bright light on the dark history of their family in order to explain how her uncle became the man who now threatens the world’s health, economic security, and social fabric.

Mary Trump spent much of her childhood in her grandparents’ large, imposing house in the heart of Queens, New York, where Donald and his four siblings grew up. She describes a nightmare of traumas, destructive relationships, and a tragic combination of neglect and abuse. She explains how specific events and general family patterns created the damaged man who currently occupies the Oval Office, including the strange and harmful relationship between Fred Trump and his two oldest sons, Fred Jr. and Donald.

A firsthand witness to countless holiday meals and interactions, Mary brings an incisive wit and unexpected humor to sometimes grim, often confounding family events. She recounts in unsparing detail everything from her uncle Donald’s place in the family spotlight and Ivana’s penchant for regifting to her grandmother’s frequent injuries and illnesses and the appalling way Donald, Fred Trump’s favorite son, dismissed and derided him when he began to succumb to Alzheimer’s.

Numerous pundits, armchair psychologists, and journalists have sought to parse Donald J. Trump’s lethal flaws. Mary L. Trump has the education, insight, and intimate familiarity needed to reveal what makes Donald, and the rest of her clan, tick. She alone can recount this fascinating, unnerving saga, not just because of her insider’s perspective but also because she is the only Trump willing to tell the truth about one of the world’s most powerful and dysfunctional families.


From the very first page of Too Much and Never Enough, the author spoke to us from her position inside the family, as well as by way of her clinical training.We learn how Donald Trump was taught by his father that lying is okay and admitting that you are wrong is a sign of weakness. We also see how his arrogance is a defense against abandonment (by his mother) and an antidote to his lack of self-esteem.Why do so many with access to him now, in his position, enable him? Their futures are directly dependent on his success and favor.The author talks about his response (or lack thereof) to Covid-19 and how it underscores his need to minimize negativity at all costs. Fear, the equivalent of weakness in his family, is as unacceptable to him now as it was when he was three years old.

The toxic positivity that his father deployed within the family is the very same thing now driving the man who has placed the country and the democracy in danger. Let us not be complicit in the destruction by ignoring it.

A great read that kept me turning pages and earned 5 stars.

Read for the Nonfiction Challenge. –#2020ReadNonFic

***

REVIEW: THE SWAP, BY ROBYN HARDING

 

Low Morrison is not your average teen. You could blame her hippie parents or her looming height or her dreary, isolated hometown on an island in the Pacific Northwest. But whatever the reason, Low just doesn’t fit in—and neither does Freya, an ethereal beauty and once-famous social media influencer who now owns the local pottery studio.

After signing up for a class, Low quickly falls under Freya’s spell. And Freya, buoyed by Low’s adoration, is compelled to share her darkest secrets and deepest desires. Finally, both feel a sense of belonging…that is, until Jamie walks through the studio door. Desperate for a baby, she and her husband have moved to the island hoping that the healthy environment will result in a pregnancy. Freya and Jamie become fast friends, as do their husbands, leaving Low alone once again.

Then one night, after a boozy dinner party, Freya suggests swapping partners. It should have been a harmless fling between consenting adults, one night of debauchery that they would put behind them, but instead, it upends their lives. And provides Low the perfect opportunity to unleash her growing resentment.


What begins as a tale of obsession and jealousy, The Swap soon becomes so much more. Is it about love gone wrong, or is it about the narcissistic actions of a woman whose own needs, desires, and destructive manipulations control the lives of those around her?

The characters were all flawed and unlikable in many ways. Jamie and Brian had some redeeming qualities, so in the end, I found myself rooting for them.

Low seemed tragically affected by her own family’s issues and seeking love in all the wrong places.

An engaging, but dark story that earned 4.5 stars from me.

***

REVIEW: DEAD LETTERS, BY CAITE DOLAN-LEACH

Ava has her reasons for running away to Paris. But when she receives the shocking news that her twin sister, Zelda, is dead, she is forced to return home to her family’s failing vineyard in upstate New York. Knowing Zelda’s penchant for tricks and deception, Ava is not surprised when she receives her twin’s cryptic message from beyond the grave. Following her sister’s trail of clues, Ava immerses herself in Zelda’s drama and her outlandish circle of friends and lovers, and soon finds herself confronted with dark family legacies and twisted relationships. Is Zelda trying to punish Ava for leaving? Or is she simply trying to write her own ending? Caite Dolan-Leach’s debut thriller is a literary scavenger hunt for secrets hidden everywhere from wine country to social media, and buried at the dysfunctional heart of one utterly unforgettable family.

Dead Letters begins with some background into the lives of the twins, Ava and Zelda, and how they were named. We learn that Ava has received a notification of Zelda’s presumed death in a fire. Soon we begin seeing a series of letters from Zelda to Ava, dated a few years before…and then the letters start coming from the present. Is Zelda still alive? And if so, what kind of game is she playing.

The story slips between the past and the present, and we slowly learn more about the dysfunctional Antipova family. Dementia and addiction seem to have marked them, but the most notable relationships are those between the twins. They were close, but their relationship was marred by the games they played.

What will eventually reveal itself? Will Ava return to Paris and the life she was building there, or will she settle for adjusting to her life as part of the family?

Just when I thought that I had figured out Zelda’s game, everything turned upside down and we were forced to accept some stunning truths. I enjoyed the characters and trying to sort through the puzzle pieces, but parts of it dragged on too long for my taste. The writing was great, however, and earned 4 stars from me.

***

REVIEW: THE GOLDEN CAGE, BY CAMILLA LACKBERG

Faye has loved Jack since they were students at business school. Jack, the perpetual golden boy, grew up wealthy, unlike Faye, who has worked hard to bury a dark past. When Jack needs help launching a new company, Faye leaves school to support him, waitressing by day and working as his strategist by night. With the business soaring, Faye and Jack have a baby, and Faye finds herself at home, caring for their daughter, wealthier than she ever imagined, but more and more removed from the excitement of the business world. And none of the perks of wealth make up for the fact that Jack has begun to treat her coldly, undermining her intelligence and forgetting all she sacrificed for his success. When Faye discovers that he’s having an affair, the polished façade of their life cracks wide open. Faye is alone, emotionally shattered, and financially devastated—but hell hath no fury like a woman with a violent past bent on vengeance. Jack is about to get exactly what he deserves—and so much more. In this splashy, electrifying story of sex, betrayal, and secrets, a woman’s revenge is a brutal but beautiful thing.

 

There is something cold and calculating about Faye, in The Golden Cage. Yes, her husband Jack, is a monster. And so was her father all those years ago. But has she taken her need for revenge to a whole new level?

Watching the drama of Faye picking up the pieces after her mother’s presumed death; then following the way she dealt with inconvenient people along the way; and then how she almost immediately knew how to plan what to do about Jack felt like a bridge too far. But it was also delicious!

Who doesn’t want to root for a woman like Faye, especially after the betrayals she has suffered?

Even though I had guessed how some of the revenge would play out, I couldn’t wait to watch it all unfold. Definitely an intriguing tale that kept me glued to the pages. 4.5 stars.

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