REVIEW: HERE & GONE, BY HAYLEN BECK

 

It begins with a woman fleeing through Arizona with her kids in tow, trying to escape an abusive marriage. When she’s pulled over by an unsettling local sheriff, things soon go awry and she is taken into custody. Only when she gets to the station, her kids are gone. And then the cops start saying they never saw any kids with her, that if they’re gone than she must have done something with them…

Meanwhile, halfway across the country a man hears the frenzied news reports about the missing kids, which are eerily similar to events in his own past. As the clock ticks down on the search for the lost children, he too is drawn into the desperate fight for their return.

My Thoughts: Audra Kinney is almost at her California destination when she is pulled over. The sheriff of the nearby small town states that her car is overloaded, and that he must lighten it. He opens the trunk and finds some marijuana…which stuns her, as she knows it is not hers. She is arrested anyway. Her children are taken from the scene by an assistant to the sheriff.

Hours later, she realizes that they have been stolen, as the sheriff and his assistant are denying that there were any children with her.

Will anyone listen to her protests? Is there anyone at all who believes a word out of her mouth? Her ex-husband has done a good job of painting her as a drug addict/alcoholic with mental health issues. How can she defend herself against the wealthy ex and his mother?

The intensity of Here and Gone kept me captivated as I watched Audra’s efforts to find a compassionate person amongst those in charge. The FBI agent seems the most likely to help her, but she, too, might be persuaded by those who are lying.

Help comes from an unlikely source, but even as I felt the dawning of hope, I couldn’t stop worrying about them all until the final pages. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS, BY CHRIS BOHJALIAN

 

Emily Shepard is on the run; the nuclear plant where her father worked has suffered a cataclysmic meltdown, and all fingers point to him. Now, orphaned, homeless, and certain that she’s a pariah, Emily’s taken to hiding out on the frigid streets of Burlington, Vermont, creating a new identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.

Then she meets Cameron. Nine years old and with a string of foster families behind him, he sparks something in Emily, and she protects him with a fierceness she didn’t know she possessed. But when an emergency threatens the fledgling home she’s created, Emily realizes that she can’t hide forever.

My Thoughts: Emily’s first person narrative takes the reader back and forth in time, revealing bits of her life before the meltdown, and then shows us what life in shelters and on the street looked like.

At times she was part of a posse, while at other periods of her time on the streets, she struggled to stay out of sight. She learned right away not to use her real identity, as the news commentators had made the name “Shepard” something to vilify.

I liked how Emily shared her experiences and was open about her flaws and bad choices. She revealed a nurturing side when she took 9-year-old Cameron under her wing. But then, the habit of hiding, along with the fear of being caught, led to a disastrous error in judgment that put Cameron at risk.

Because of the non-linear storytelling, I was never quite sure where we were headed, but I was always interested and engaged.

By the end of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, I could look back on what had happened in the nine months after the meltdown, and then look ahead at what would eventually come to pass for Emily; by then, I was close to tears at times, and I was definitely invested in what would happen to her. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE BOOKSHOP ON THE CORNER, BY JENNY COLGAN

 

Nina is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.  

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile — a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling. 

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

My Thoughts: When a librarian who loves books is without a library in which to utilize her talents, what can she possibly do?

In coming up with an idea to buy an old van and stash it full of beloved books, a way to surround herself with what she loved most, Nina thought she had the perfect solution.

But obstacles presented themselves over and over, like not being able to get a license to park the van in Birmingham. But since she had bought the van in Scotland, and after researching the rules there, she decided to set up shop, moving from market to market in the surrounding area.

I liked how Nina was determined to make her little bookshop a success, and finding a cottage to rent from the seemingly cross farmer made her daily life a joy for her. But there were also interesting people, some nosy, who soon became friends. Befriending the young teenager Ainslee and her brother Ben helped Nina realize that reaching out to help those in need would make her feel a part of the community.

The train engineer whose path crossed with hers was a distraction, and in the end, she realized that finding a special connection closer to home would be the answer for her. A surprising turn toward her romantic dreams.

The Bookshop on the Corner was a story about bookish love, romantic dreams, and making your own way in a new community. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: MRS. FLETCHER, BY TOM PERROTTA

 

Eve Fletcher is trying to figure out what comes next. A forty-six-year-old divorcee whose beloved only child has just left for college, Eve is struggling to adjust to her empty nest when one night her phone lights up with a text message. Sent from an anonymous number, the mysterious sender tells Eve, “U R my MILF!” Over the months that follow, that message comes to obsess Eve. While leading her all-too-placid life—serving as Executive Director of the local senior center by day and taking a community college course on Gender and Society at night—Eve can’t curtail her own interest in a porn website called MILFateria.com, which features the erotic exploits of ordinary, middle-aged women like herself. Before long, Eve’s online fixations begin to spill over into real life, revealing new romantic possibilities that threaten to upend her quiet suburban existence.

Meanwhile, miles away at the state college, Eve’s son Brendan—a jock and aspiring frat boy—discovers that his new campus isn’t nearly as welcoming to his hard-partying lifestyle as he had imagined. Only a few weeks into his freshman year, Brendan is floundering in a college environment that challenges his white-dude privilege and shames him for his outmoded, chauvinistic ideas of sex. As the New England autumn turns cold, both mother and son find themselves enmeshed in morally fraught situations that come to a head on one fateful November night.

My Thoughts: Mrs. Fletcher is a story that delves into the lives of ordinary people, situations that could happen to anyone, and I love how the author often takes us to places that we don’t expect to go.

At first I wasn’t that interested in what was happening to Brendan, the college son, who was kind of a jerk, IMO. But then I started to see his perspective, probably because he was the only first person narrator throughout the novel. Could some of his actions stem from inexperience? Was he really as crude as he seemed, or had he simply had poor role models?

Then there was Eve, the attractive mother who was still struggling after her divorce, and now had an empty nest to ponder. As she starts spreading her wings, finding new people and situations to explore, I just knew that where she was going might end up being regrettable. Could her new addiction to porn lead her down questionable pathways? I also enjoyed how a middle-aged woman like Eve was navigating dating life for the first time after her divorce via social networking.

Supporting characters like Margo, the transgender professor; Amanda, the young woman who worked for Eve at the Senior Center; and Julian Spitzer, the young guy who had been bullied by Brendan in high school…all kept my interest as I followed along with their adventures and how their lives connected with Eve. A 5 star read.***An e-ARC came to me from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: MY LIFE TO LIVE, BY AGNES NIXON

 

Before there was Erica Kane, Adam Chandler, or Victoria Lord, there was Agnes Nixon, a young girl who dreamed up stories for paper dolls. Those tales she imagined–ones filled with ambitions, rivalries, and romances–would soon parallel her own path to success. In a memoir filled with as much drama as the soaps she penned, Nixon shares her journey from Nashville to New York City, as she overcomes the loss of her fiancé in World War II, a father intent on crushing her writing dreams, and the jealousy of her male colleagues on her way to becoming one of the most successful names in television.

While fans will delight in Nixon’s own incredible life, they will also love her behind-the-scenes insight into her most popular shows. Inside, she shares the inspiration for Erica Kane and how she cast Susan Lucci in the role; an excerpt from the never-before-seen All My Children story bible; entertaining anecdotes about her shows’ beloved casts and special guests, including Carol Burnett, Kelly Ripa, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffett; and more.

But My Life to Live is also a portrait of a pioneer. Driven to use her ratings power for good, Nixon fought and broke network taboos by wrestling with controversial social issues ranging from women’s health, interracial relationships, and the Vietnam War to drug addiction, LGBT rights, and AIDS. By infusing her characters with sensitivity, humor, and humanity, she enabled millions to examine an opposite point of view. And long before Shonda Rhimes launched a golden age of female showrunners, Agnes Nixon positioned ABC to become the media giant it is today. She is a true television legend, and her candid and inspiring glimpse behind the curtain of the television industry will charm soap fans and story lovers alike.

My Thoughts: I became a fan of “soap operas” in the 1960s when I first had some time at home in the daytime. Guiding Light was one of my favorites, and Agnes Nixon was a writer on that soap for a while.

One Life to Live, another of her creations, was one I first saw in the 1970s, and then again just before the show went off the air. By the time it was canceled, I was hooked. And happy to hear that it would go online, along with All My Children, which I had just started watching. But that happy dream did not last long.

She has, rightly, been touted as the Queen of Soaps, and reading how she came to write for soaps in a world dominated by men was definitely engaging.

Her own life could have been a soap drama, with losses and conflicts, not to mention seeing racism up close and personal in her hometown. Using what she knew and what she had lived in her stories, and bringing social relevance to daytime, would be her trademark. It was how she captured the love of the fans. A memoir that drew me in from the first pages, My Life to Live earned 5 stars from me.

***

REVIEW: THE SUMMER HOUSE, BY HANNAH MCKINNON

 

Flossy Merrill has managed to—somewhat begrudgingly—gather her three ungrateful grown children from their dysfunctional lives for a summer reunion at the family’s Rhode Island beach house. Clementine, her youngest child and a young mother of two small children, has caused Flossy the most worry after enduring a tragically life-altering year. But Samuel and his partner Evan are not far behind in their ability to alarm: their prospective adoption search has just taken a heart-wrenching turn. Only Paige, the eldest of the headstrong Merrill clan, is her usual self: arriving precisely on time with her well-adapted teens. Little does her family know that she, too, is facing personal struggles of her own.

No matter. With her family finally congregated under one seaside roof, Flossy is determined to steer her family back on course even as she prepares to reveal the fate of the summer house that everyone has thus far taken for granted: she’s selling it. The Merrill children are both shocked and outraged and each returns to memories of their childhoods at their once beloved summer house—the house where they have not only grown up, but from which they have grown away. With each lost in their respective heartaches, Clementine, Samuel, and Paige will be forced to reconsider what really matters before they all say goodbye to a house that not only defined their summers, but, ultimately, the ways in which they define themselves.

My Thoughts: In alternating narratives, we meet each of the family members as they approach their final summer in the Rhode Island vacation home. At the beginning of their week together, none of the adult children know of their parents’ plans to sell the house. They approach the week as one of many, remembering summers in the past and envisioning more in the future.

Clem is still suffering from her loss; Sam and Evan struggle with the adoption issues that might not work out for them; and Paige is worried about how distant her husband David has been. Then there are Paige’s teen children, Emma and Ned, each behaving in ways that signal trouble ahead.

As the week unfolds, with the party approaching, we wonder if they would have different thoughts on the lives they took for granted, once they know what their parents have planned. Will their memories and feelings seem more precious to them in light of the upcoming change?

Before their awareness, however, they interact like the siblings that grew up together: fierce, competitive, and sometimes brash. But when forced to consider the alternative of never spending the summers in the house, they seem to mellow out, calm down, and come up with a solution. The Summer House was a somewhat predictable, yet still engaging family story that kept me wondering how they would deal with the changes ahead. 4.5.

***

REVIEW: THE COMFORT OF SECRETS, BY CHRISTINE NOLFI

 

Cat Mendoza needs a win. After a business failure and years of dating the wrong men, she’s ready to turn things around.

First she must convince the residents of Sweet Lake, Ohio, that she’s taking her responsibilities seriously. As the events director of the newly restored Wayfair Inn, she has the support of her best friends, Linnie and Jada. But everyone else—including her overprotective mother and the well-meaning Sweet Lake Sirens—can’t help but chime in with advice about her plans, her apparently too-tight clothes, and her undeniable attraction to Ryan D’Angelo, the charming ad exec hired to promote the inn.

Cat knows she should keep Ryan at a distance, but she’s drawn closer by the heartbreak he tries to hide. Will uncovering his secrets derail the new life Cat hopes to achieve…or will she gain something to cherish forever?

My Thoughts: In The Comfort of Secrets, the second novel of the series, we are immersed in Cat’s thoughts and feelings. Her insecurities, her needs, and the frustration she feels at her mother’s over-protectiveness dominate the story, especially in the beginning. Meeting Ryan opens up her heart, but will she be forced to turn away from him?

The Sweet Lake Sirens are as pushy and annoying as ever, but beneath it all, their hearts are in the right place.

Ryan’s abusive childhood and his mother Julia’s fear of leaving Cincinnati, the city they now call home, has dropped a shadowy shroud over his need to find love and create his own family. But what additional secrets is Julia hiding from her son? How does her past converge finally in Sweet Lake?

Hovering over the story is a dark and shadowy figure encroaching on one of the Sirens…what is the connection between this individual and present day Sweet Lake? What other unexpected ghosts of the past will come together during a celebratory concert? As the danger increases, intense moments follow until finally, the secrets are revealed and we come to a very hopeful conclusion. 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.