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.

REVIEW: YOU CAN’T CATCH ME, BY CATHERINE MCKENZIE

Twelve years ago Jessica Williams escaped a cult. Thanks to the private detective who rescued her, she reintegrated into society, endured an uncomfortable notoriety, and tried to put it all behind her. Then, at an airport bar, Jessica meets a woman with an identical name and birth date. It appears to be just an odd coincidence—until a week later, when Jessica finds her bank account drained and her personal information stolen.

Following a trail of the grifter’s victims, each with the same name, Jessica gathers players—one by one—for her own game. According to her plan, they’ll set a trap and wait for the impostor to strike again. But plans can go awry, and trust can fray, and as Jessica tries to escape the shadows of her childhood, the risks are greater than she imagined. Now, confronting the casualties of her past, Jessica can’t help but wonder…

Who will pay the price?

 

You Can’t Catch Me is a cat and mouse game that kept me hooked from the beginning. Just when I thought I knew how it would all play out, I was fooled.

I especially enjoyed the first- person voice of Jessica, as she shares the story of her childhood and the horrific cult to which her parents brought her.

Liam was her rescuer, who helped her escape just when everything was turning especially dark. He was also there for her when other events unfolded. She had come to count on him. But there are many secrets she is keeping.

All the Jessicas were a few steps too far, but it was fun to watch our Original Jessica as she tried to catch the grifter she called Jessica Two.

But what has Jessica One been hiding? What unexpected secrets will be revealed at the end? A brilliant five star read.

***

REVIEW: THIS IS HOW I LIED, BY HEATHER GUDENKAUF

Everyone has a secret they’ll do anything to hide…

Twenty-five years ago, the body of sixteen-year-old Eve Knox was found in the caves near her home in small-town Grotto, Iowa—discovered by her best friend, Maggie, and her sister, Nola. There were a handful of suspects, including her boyfriend, Nick, but without sufficient evidence the case ultimately went cold.

For decades Maggie was haunted by Eve’s death and that horrible night. Now a detective in Grotto, and seven months pregnant, she is thrust back into the past when a new piece of evidence surfaces and the case is reopened. As Maggie investigates and reexamines the clues, secrets about what really happened begin to emerge. But someone in town knows more than they’re letting on, and they’ll stop at nothing to keep the truth buried deep.


From the beginning of This Is How I Lied, I was rooting for Maggie, even though there were moments along the way when she seemed to be culpable of something. Perhaps not what she thinks she has done, but at the very least, she has kept dark secrets.

Then there is Nola, and she presented as a monstrous person from the beginning. At the very least, crazy. She always seemed to be lurking, and that habit led her to listen in on conversations and present distorted truths to Maggie and others.

The story was told by multiple narrators that swept back and forth in time, and through this device, we ultimately learn the truth of what happened to Eve. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE DILEMMA, BY B.A. PARIS

It’s Livia’s 40th birthday, and her husband Adam is throwing her the party of a lifetime to make up for the wedding they never had. Everyone she loves will be there, except her daughter Marnie, who’s studying abroad. But Livia is secretly glad Marnie won’t be there.

Livia has recently uncovered a secret about their daughter which, if revealed, will shake the foundation of their family to its core. She needs to tell Adam, but she’s waiting until the party is over so they can have this last happy time together.

Adam, meanwhile, has his own surprise for Livia: he’s arranged for Marnie to secretly fly back for the party. But before Marnie arrives, Adam hears some terrible news. Now he too is faced with a dilemma: Does he share what he’s learned with his wife? Is hiding the truth the same as telling a lie? And how far are Adam and Livia willing to go to protect the ones they love—and give each other a last few hours of happiness?


What a convoluted tale of secrets and good intentions that started out simply enough but then turned complex and wrong by the end. The Dilemma is all about the numerous conundrums in a marriage that can keep a couple off balance and turn their lives upside down.

When Livia and Adam each keep their secrets for their own reasons, perhaps to protect the other person, they are risking the delicate balance of their lives and their family.

The story is told alternately by Livia and Adam, and the intensity builds up as we draw closer to the final denouement and learn what price they will all have to pay for their moments of deception. An emotional read that kept me turning the pages. 4 stars.

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

REVIEW: CRIME SCENE, BY JONATHAN & JESSE KELLERMAN

Natural causes or foul play? That’s the question Clay Edison must answer each time he examines a body. Figuring out motives and chasing down suspects aren’t part of his beat—not until a seemingly open-and-shut case proves to be more than meets his highly trained eye.

Eccentric, reclusive Walter Rennert lies cold at the bottom of his stairs. At first glance the scene looks straightforward: a once-respected psychology professor, done in by booze and a bad heart. But his daughter Tatiana insists that her father has been murdered, and she persuades Clay to take a closer look at the grim facts of Rennert’s life.

What emerges is a history of scandal and violence, and an experiment gone horribly wrong that ended in the brutal murder of a coed. Walter Rennert, it appears, was a broken man—and maybe a marked one. And when Clay learns that a colleague of Rennert’s died in a nearly identical manner, he begins to question everything in the official record.

All the while, his relationship with Tatiana is evolving into something forbidden. The closer they grow, the more determined he becomes to catch her father’s killer—even if he has to overstep his bounds to do it.

The twisting trail Clay follows will lead him into the darkest corners of the human soul. It’s his job to listen to the tales the dead tell. But this time, he’s part of a story that makes his blood run cold.

It was supposed to be a simple case of accidental death; all the signs were leaning in that direction. But something about Tatiana’s plea for a closer look takes Clay Edison on a convoluted journey to places he would never have anticipated going.

There is something so appealing about a detective that goes beyond the call of duty. Who knew that all the people who kept standing in his way had their own mistakes to protect?

Of course, Clay showed himself to be an “outside the box” thinker, who sometimes came across as a rule breaker. His attitudes and behaviors made a more interesting story for me.

I liked following the clues with Clay, in Crime Scene, this fascinating tale that takes us from California’s Bay Area to Lake Tahoe.

In the end, justice is done. A 4.5 star read for me.***

REVIEW: HUNGRY HEART, BY JENNIFER WEINER

Jennifer Weiner is many things: a bestselling author, a Twitter phenomenon, and an “unlikely feminist enforcer” (The New Yorker). She’s also a mom, a daughter, and a sister, a clumsy yogini, and a reality-TV devotee. In this “unflinching look at her own experiences” (Entertainment Weekly), Jennifer fashions tales of modern-day womanhood as uproariously funny and moving as the best of Nora Ephron and Tina Fey.

No subject is off-limits in these intimate and honest essays: sex, weight, envy, money, her mother’s coming out of the closet, her estranged father’s death. From lonely adolescence to hearing her six-year-old daughter say the F word—fat—for the first time, Jen dives into the heart of female experience, with the wit and candor that have endeared her to readers all over the world.

 

I waited a long time before reading Hungry Heart; (I purchased the book in January 2016). I waited because that’s what we sometimes do to our books to be read, and a nonfiction title occasionally gets ignored for a while. I love her writing and kept reading her fiction along the way.

Just as her fiction grabs me, so did her memoir, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages while she told her story. She is a great storyteller, as we know, and I liked how she approached each topic, not necessarily in chronological order, but in just the right order to leave the most impact. Her college and writing life came first, and I couldn’t wait to learn about how she created Good in Bed and In Her Shoes, not to mention her subsequent titles. I also enjoyed learning about the pieces she wrote for magazines and her time working as a journalist.

Her marriage and childbirth stories came along at the right time, too, and eventually, other climactic moments showed up near the end: details about her father’s abandonment, hoarding, and horrific death, and the emotional losses created by his behavior.Early on we watch as she grapples with her food and weight issues, and later we smile as she shares her social media experiences, including some tweet storms.

Even her special pets get their time in the spotlight. Throughout, her humorous and sometimes snarky voice shines through, making me want to keep going. A book that earned 5 stars from me.#2020ReadNonFic

***

BIG SUMMER, BY JENNIFER WEINER

Six years after the fight that ended their friendship, Daphne Berg is shocked when Drue Cavanaugh walks back into her life, looking as lovely and successful as ever, with a massive favor to ask. Daphne hasn’t spoken one word to Drue in all this time—she doesn’t even hate-follow her ex-best friend on social media—so when Drue asks if she will be her maid-of-honor at the society wedding of the summer, Daphne is rightfully speechless.

Drue was always the one who had everything—except the ability to hold onto friends. Meanwhile, Daphne’s no longer the same self-effacing sidekick she was back in high school. She’s built a life that she loves, including a growing career as a plus-size Instagram influencer. Letting glamorous, seductive Drue back into her life is risky, but it comes with an invitation to spend a weekend in a waterfront Cape Cod mansion. When Drue begs and pleads and dangles the prospect of cute single guys, Daphne finds herself powerless as ever to resist her friend’s siren song.

 

Big Summer opens with a prologue featuring a single mom and her young son and concludes with a cliff hanger. We see nothing more about these characters until the very end, after the culmination of some tragic events that turn the story about struggling characters searching for love into something more. It becomes a mystery.

In the first part of the book, we come to know Daphne in the present and through flashbacks of the past. Her friendship with Drue is tumultuous, with the kind of stormy episodes that, in my opinion, should have forever turned Daphne away from this so-called friend.

But when Drue begs Daphne to be in her wedding on the Cape and offers the opportunity for her to feature it on her online accounts, drawing traffic to her influencer business, Daphne cannot resist.

As the weekend winds down, Daphne is beginning to sense that more is afoot with Drue and her fiancé and with the hugely expensive wedding…and when the truth finally starts to unfold, the mystery begins.

I loved the descriptions of Daphne’s business, her thoughts and feelings about events, and how her plus-size figure challenges her constantly. Her business has boosted her self-esteem, but can she ever really dismiss how her supposed friend Drue has made her feel “less than” over the years? I couldn’t stop reading this book that carried us through issues of friendship, betrayal, loss, and finally, consequences. 5 stars.

My e-ARC came to me from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: THE NEW GIRL, BY HARRIET WALKER

Glamorous Margot Jones is the fashion editor at glossy magazine Haute. Pregnant with her first child, Margot’s carefully curated life is the object of other women’s envy—who wouldn’t want her successful career, loving husband, beautiful house, and stylish wardrobe?

Maggie, a freelance journalist, certainly knows she doesn’t measure up. But when she gets the temp job covering Margot’s maternity leave, Maggie seizes the chance to live a flashier life—even if it’s only for a few months.

But the simultaneous arrival of Margot’s baby and a brutal end to her oldest friendship sends Margot into a spiral of insecurity and suspicion; normal preoccupations of new motherhood turn into dark and frightening paranoia. Who is the vicious online troll mocking Margot’s facade of perfection and threatening to expose a dark secret she’s spent years concealing? Are Maggie’s newfound ambitions and plucky enthusiasm as innocent as they seem? And what happens when Margot is ready to return to her old life—especially if Maggie doesn’t want to leave?

The themes in The New Girl take us on several different journeys. We first see, from Margot’s point of view, how Maggie, “the new girl” who is filling her position as fashion editor while she is on maternity leave, seems to be taking over her life completely. How does Maggie insert herself into Margot’s personal as well as her professional life, including taking over Margot’s past connections?

Winnie’s narrative takes us back to the past, to the beginning of her friendship with Margot, interrupted by another “new girl” when Helen appears and succeeds in sidelining Margot in the friendship. Then we watch as Winnie begins to view herself as a “new girl” when her relationship with Helen changes her into a different person. But then it takes a dangerous turn.

What secrets are holding Winnie and Margot together? How does Maggie’s intrusion change everything for them all? Is Margot paranoid about what is happening, or is something completely different afoot?

Just when I thought I had it all figured out, the conclusion brought stunning and unexpected revelations. An unputdownable book that earned 4.5 stars.

My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

***