REVIEW: THE PUSH, BY CLAIRE MCGOWAN

 

 

The party should have been perfect: six couples from the same baby group, six newborns, a luxurious house. But not everything has gone to plan, and while some are here to celebrate, others have sorrows to drown. When someone falls from the balcony of the house, the secrets and conflicts within the group begin to spill out …

DS Alison Hegarty, herself struggling with infertility, is called in to investigate. She’s convinced the fall was not an accident, and finds the new parents have a lot to hide. Wealthy Ed and Monica show off their newborn while their teenage daughter is kept under virtual house arrest. Hazel and Cathy conceived their longed-for baby via an anonymous sperm donor—or so Hazel thinks. Anita and Jeremy planned to adopt from America, but there’s no sign of the child. Kelly, whose violent boyfriend disrupted previous group sessions, came to the party even though she lost her baby. And then there’s Jax, who’s been experiencing strange incidents for months—almost like someone’s out to get her. Is it just a difficult pregnancy? Or could it be payback for something she did in the past?

It’s a nightmare of a case, and as events get even darker it begins to look impossible. Only one thing is clear: they all have something to hide. And for one of them, it’s murder.

 
 
 

The Push zooms in on the lives of the parents in the baby group, before and after the event at the barbecue. Each time we are swept back and forth in time, we learn more hidden details. Secrets are slowly revealed. Someone is sending threatening messages to Jax, her cat disappears, and suddenly her car is inexplicably tampered with. Are all these events connected? Her boyfriend Aaron is searching for his birth mother, and strangely, an unknown person seems to be stalking them both.

What happened on that balcony, and how do the mysterious connections between several of the group members play a role in the increased tensions that came to a breaking point?

Jax was the most interesting character, and seemingly had the most to hide. But Monica, basking in her “perfection,” appeared to be the most likely one to have dark buried untruths lurking beneath that vacuous exterior. And how does her teenage daughter Chloe fit into the drama?

Additional mysterious elements include the identity of the victim for a good part of the story. Once that was unveiled, the clues fell into place for me. I knew that several characters played a role, so as events unfolded, the answers felt as simple as snapping together a puzzle. 5 stars.

 
***

REVIEW: THE TURN OF THE KEY, BY RUTH WARE

 

 

 

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the home’s cameras, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder—but somebody is.

 
 
 
 

A spooky, surreal setting that had me anxious from the very beginning, The Turn of the Key had me questioning everything that happened. From the parents to the children to the “Smart House,” this story kept me guessing until the end.

I knew that Rowan Caine had told some little lies to get the job, but she certainly didn’t deserve all the events that unfolded in that eerie house in Scotland. Or did she?

First of all, how could she be the perfect nanny in a house in the middle of nowhere, with cameras pointed at her from every room? Cameras that seemingly triggered weird sounds and strange creaks in the night?

The children were weird and sneaky, and the parents, calling from unknown places, seemed overly strange, if not nefarious.

But when some of the details of “Rowan’s” life became clear to the reader, everything intensified.

Not knowing what would happen next kept me turning the pages until the shocking end. 4.5 stars.

 
***

REVIEW: THE FOUR WINDS, BY KRISTIN HANNAH

 

From the number-one bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone comes a powerful American epic about love and heroism and hope, set during the Great Depression, a time when the country was in crisis and at war with itself, when millions were out of work and even the land seemed to have turned against them.

“My land tells its story if you listen. The story of our family.”

Texas, 1921. A time of abundance. The Great War is over, the bounty of the land is plentiful, and America is on the brink of a new and optimistic era. But for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry in a time when marriage is a woman’s only option, the future seems bleak. Until the night she meets Rafe Martinelli and decides to change the direction of her life. With her reputation in ruin, there is only one respectable choice: marriage to a man she barely knows.

By 1934, the world has changed; millions are out of work and drought has devastated the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as crops fail and water dries up and the earth cracks open. Dust storms roll relentlessly across the plains. Everything on the Martinelli farm is dying, including Elsa’s tenuous marriage; each day is a desperate battle against nature and a fight to keep her children alive.

In this uncertain and perilous time, Elsa—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or leave it behind and go west, to California, in search of a better life for her family.

 
 
 
 
 
A beautiful family story about love, loss, and bravery, The Four Winds tugged at my heartstrings as it led us through numerous challenges while introducing us to memorable characters. Elsa fought hard to teach her children about standing up for what they need and for what is right.

The author paints a vivid picture of the family battling the Great Depression while living in the Texas Dust Bowl, and then takes us along to another battle for survival in the California migrant experience. A triumphant yet emotional end kept me turning pages, while rooting for them all. 4.5 stars.

 
***

REVIEW: THE ARRANGEMENT, BY ROBYN HARDING

 

Natalie, a young art student in New York City, is struggling to pay her bills when a friend makes a suggestion: Why not go online and find a sugar daddy—a wealthy, older man who will pay her for dates and even give her a monthly allowance? Lots of girls do it, Nat learns. All that’s required is to look pretty and hang on his every word. Sexual favors are optional.

Though more than thirty years her senior, Gabe, a handsome corporate finance attorney, seems like the perfect candidate, and within a month, they are madly in love. At least, Nat is…Gabe already has a family, whom he has no intention of leaving.

So when he abruptly ends things, Nat can’t let go. But Gabe’s not about to let his sugar baby destroy his perfect life. What was supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement devolves into a nightmare of deception, obsession, and, when a body is found near Gabe’s posh Upper East Side apartment, murder.

 
 
 

From the beginning of The Arrangement, a sense of doom clouds the relationship between Nat and Gabe. What had started out as a financial matter between them becomes so much more. Especially for Nat. But for Gabe, there is an element of coldness and calculation, and I had fears that grave disaster would come for them.

Could their relationship turn into a loving one or would they each come to regret what they had started?

Unexpected twists kept me turning the pages, wondering what would happen next. A sense of darkness hovered as I kept moving toward what could only be a nightmare conclusion. Stunning events kept the pace intense throughout. 5 stars.

 
***

REVIEW: BEHIND THE RED DOOR, BY MEGAN COLLINS

When Fern Douglas sees the news about Astrid Sullivan, a thirty-four-year-old missing woman from Maine, she is positive that she knows her. Fern’s husband is sure it’s because of Astrid’s famous kidnapping—and equally famous return—twenty years ago, but Fern has no memory of that, even though it happened an hour outside her New Hampshire hometown. And when Astrid appears in Fern’s recurring nightmare, one in which a girl reaches out to her, pleading, Fern fears that it’s not a dream at all, but a memory.

Back at her childhood home to help her father pack for a move, Fern purchases a copy of Astrid’s recently published memoir—which may have provoked her original kidnapper to abduct her again—and as she reads through its chapters and visits the people and places within it, she discovers more evidence that she has an unsettling connection to the missing woman. With the help of her psychologist father, Fern digs deeper, hoping to find evidence that her connection to Astrid can help the police locate her. But when Fern discovers more about her own past than she ever bargained for, the disturbing truth will change both of their lives forever.

Behind the Red Door is one woman’s journey into the mysteries of the past and how she sees the world, a journey that leads Fern to explore how she is connected to Astrid.

To find the answers, she must sort through memories that she has repressed.

As we follow along on Fern’s quest, I was able to put the pieces together. Fern struggled to accept the identity of the abductor, and was finally able to make some difficult decisions as a result. But I wasn’t prepared for the unexpected twists in the end, and I was left questioning what Fern would do with those answers. Would she finally be able to move forward? A page turner that earns 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: CLEAR MY NAME, BY PAULA DALY

When Carrie was accused of brutally murdering her husband’s lover, she denied it. She denied it again when they found her blood inside his house, again when they put her in front of a jury, and again when they sent her to prison. Now she’s three years into her fifteen-year sentence, gradually losing hope and separated from her pregnant daughter, but she is still maintaining her innocence.

Tess is the only paid employee of Innocence UK, a charity that helps clear people wrongfully convicted of crimes, and which accepts Carrie’s case. But can she trust Carrie? Tess is no starry-eyed recent grad―her assumption is that “they’re all lying.”

Meanwhile, Tess is also paired with Avril, a naïve young investigator-in-training, with the hope that by mentoring her, she can eventually double the group’s investigative workload. But Tess unexpectedly bolts when she’s tipped off to a witness that could possibly prove Carrie didn’t commit the crime. While Tess and Avril work the case, re-interviewing witnesses and testing assumptions made at the time of the arrest, the tension ratchets up in both the case and Tess’s personal life.

As we follow along with investigator Tess and her colleague Avril, in Clear My Name, we are taken back and forth in time to sort through the events of a murder and hopefully discover clues that will help them overturn the case against Carrie Kamara, who is in prison for the offense and suffering losses in her life because of it.

I liked Tess, who pushes hard to find what she needs to accomplish the task, even though her own past and some of her losses will suddenly insert themselves into her investigation and make her job more painful.

Just when we think Tess and her colleague have uncovered an important clue, another obstacle will appear until it sometimes seems like an impossible task to clear their client.

The intensity of their actions kept me glued to the book, hoping that they would find what they need to solve the case, even as they occasionally stepped into the path of potentially dangerous individuals.

Finally, after the case has concluded, something totally unexpected changes the course of Tess’s life forever.

I love this author’s books, so I knew I had to rapidly turn the pages until the end. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: CHRISTMAS SHOPAHOLIC, BY SOPHIE KINSELLA

’Tis the season for change and Becky Brandon (née Bloomwood) is embracing it, returning from the States to live in the charming village of Letherby and working with her best friend, Suze, in the gift shop of Suze’s stately home. Life is good, especially now that Becky takes time every day for mindfulness—even if that only means listening to a meditation tape while hunting down online bargains.

But Becky still adores the traditions of Christmas: Her parents hosting, carols playing on repeat, her mother pretending she made the Christmas pudding, and the neighbors coming ’round for sherry in their terrible holiday sweaters. Things are looking cheerier than ever, until Becky’s parents announce they’re moving to ultra-trendy Shoreditch—unable to resist the draw of craft beer and smashed avocados—and ask Becky if she’ll host this year. What could possibly go wrong?

Becky’s sister demands a vegan turkey, her husband insists that he just wants aftershave (again), and little Minnie needs a very specific picnic hamper: Surely Becky can manage all this, as well as the surprise appearance of an old boyfriend–turned–rock star and his pushy new girlfriend, whose motives are far from clear. But as the countdown to Christmas begins and her bighearted plans take an unexpected turn toward disaster, Becky wonders if chaos will ensue, or if she’ll manage to bring comfort and joy to Christmas after all.

 
 
 
 

As usual, Becky brings Christmas Shopaholic to a new level as she struggles to host Christmas. Her parents have moved to Shoreditch and are trying out a new kind of life. The usual suspects, like Becky’s vegan sister Jess, are all making their own needs known, and Becky, in the spirit of a true shopaholic is trying to find the perfect gift for each person.

As only Becky can, she finds the chaos in any situation, making her own plans expand continually as she tries to do what nobody expects of her. Bring forth the perfect Christmas without stopping to consider the ramifications of each choice.

I had to laugh at all the strange ways that Becky tries to turn into the perfect hostess, while still maintaining some kind of control.

Then when everything seemingly turns upside down, with the holiday at risk, I had to smile at how everyone came together to save the day. 4.5 stars.

 
***
 
 

REVIEW: OUT OF HER MIND, BY T. R. RAGAN

 

Crime reporter Sawyer Brooks still grieves for the family she and her two sisters never had. Raised in a house of horrors, they continue to fight through the trauma—releasing their rage by seeking justice for those who are just as vulnerable as they were.

When a little girl’s bones are unearthed in Sacramento’s Land Park and twelve-year-old Riley Addison disappears, solving these cases becomes an obsession for Sawyer—one that puts her job at risk. Yet she can’t turn back, and the deeper Sawyer’s investigation goes, the darker it gets. A psychopath is on the loose and has been trolling Sacramento for years—hiding in plain sight be-hind a motherly facade.

The more Sawyer persists, the closer she gets to a disturbing place reminiscent of her own terrorized childhood. With time running out, Sawyer will risk anything to save Riley from the dark.

But the killer will do anything to keep her there.

 
 
 
 

In alternating chapters, we follow the stories in Out of Her Mind. I am a new fan of crime reporter Sawyer Brooks, and not just because she persistently follows the clues she finds. Her own history gives her the empathy that victims of crime need to see.

Since I lived in the Sacramento area for many years, I love revisiting the scenes Sawyer shows us as she searches for answers.

Children who are abused and/or kidnapped are a topic I love to read about, especially if there is the possibility of a good resolution to the crimes.

I am eager to revisit the characters in future books, and thoroughly enjoyed this one. 4.5 stars.

 
***

REVIEW: TAKE IT BACK, BY KIA ABDULLAH

One victim.
Four accused.
Who is telling the truth?

Zara Kaleel, one of London’s brightest legal minds, shattered the expectations placed on her by her family and forged a brilliant legal career. But her decisions came at a high cost, and now, battling her own demons, she has exchanged her high profile career for a job at a sexual assault center, helping victims who need her the most. Victims like Jodie Wolfe.

When Jodie, a sixteen-year-old girl with facial deformities, accuses four boys in her class of an unthinkable crime, the community is torn apart. After all, these four teenage defendants are from hard-working immigrant families and they all have proven alibis. Even Jodie’s best friend doesn’t believe her.

But Zara does—and she is determined to fight for Jodie—to find the truth in the face of public outcry. And as issues of sex, race and social justice collide, the most explosive criminal trial of the year builds to a shocking conclusion.

Take It Back sums up the complexities of truth and lies, bigotry, and fighting for right against the divisions in society.

From the beginning, I was caught up in Zara’s role as an advocate for women victimized by men, but also by the world in which they live.

Jodie was a character difficult to relate to, as there were so many little tells along the way. Was she bending the truth? Did she have a deeper psychological need that would alter the course of events?

Then, just as I thought that I knew the answers, everything spun in a whole new direction. An engaging story that kept me intrigued until the end, this one earned 4.5 stars.

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

REVIEW: INVISIBLE GIRL, BY LISA JEWELL

Owen Pick’s life is falling apart. In his thirties and living in his aunt’s spare bedroom, he has just been suspended from his job as a teacher after accusations of sexual misconduct—accusations he strongly denies. Searching for professional advice online, he is inadvertently sucked into the dark world of incel forums, where he meets a charismatic and mysterious figure.

Across the street from Owen lives the Fours family, headed by mom Cate, a physiotherapist, and dad Roan, a child psychologist. But the Fours family have a bad feeling about their neighbor Owen. He’s a bit creepy and their teenaged daughter swears he followed her home from the train station one night.

Meanwhile, young Saffyre Maddox spent three years as a patient of Roan Fours. Feeling abandoned when their therapy ends, she searches for other ways to maintain her connection with him, following him in the shadows and learning more than she wanted to know about Roan and his family. Then, on Valentine’s night, Saffyre disappears—and the last person to see her alive is Owen Pick.

 

Invisible Girl introduces the characters in alternating sections, beginning with a young girl who likes to hide out and watch people. She is called Saffyre Maddox and she has been in therapy with another character, Roan Fours, whom she likes to follow and watch, along with his family. What is going on behind her actions, and what happens to her one night when she suddenly goes missing?

Meanwhile, we learn more about Cate, Roan’s wife, along with her teenage children, Josh and Georgia. Their lives seem normal enough, but Cate worries a lot about them and her husband Roan, who has given her reasons to mistrust him at times.

Saffyre’s story unfolds slowly, until we begin to fill in the missing pieces of what happened to her. Even as she emerges from her “invisibility,” other puzzling tidbits come to light about other characters: like Owen and his true story; about a man who hurt Saffyre years before; and about Roan’s secrets. In the end, there was a stunning reveal. 5 stars from me.

***