REVIEW: THE CROSSING PLACES, BY ELLY GRIFFITHS

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Living in her isolated cottage on the Saltmarsh near Kings Lynn, teaching classes at the university in Norfolk, and communing with nature during her archeology digs…these activities are the core of Dr. Ruth Galloway’s somewhat solitary life.

Her social life is minimal, but she is content. Her two cats keep her company, and there are some nights out with her friend Shona. Her colleagues/friends from early days on digs and at university include mentor Erik Anderssen, and an ex-lover Peter. In her late thirties, she considers herself to be dumpy, but relatively attractive; her outward appearance does not concern her much, as her work is her primary focus.

But Ruth’s life is about to take a dramatic turn as she is swept up in a police investigation headed by DCI Harry Nelson, whose crew has discovered the bones of a child in the marsh. The detective believes the remains might belong to a small girl, Lucy Downey, who went missing ten years before. However, the discovery turns out to be an older burial from the Iron Age.

Bizarre letters with allusions to ritual sacrifices, as well as archeological, Biblical, and Shakespearean references, lead the hunt in a different direction…and then another girl goes missing.

The Crossing Places was a fascinating story that intrigued me mostly because of the characters involved and watching how they processed events and followed clues. Even their everyday lives and routines were fascinating as these ordinary moments added layers to the characters. Other characters were added to the canvas as the story continued, and by the suspenseful end, when catching a murderer became central to the story, I was ticking them off, one by one, as I couldn’t decide which, if any, of Ruth’s associates might be somehow involved. Not knowing who she could trust.

This first book in the series hooked me on the central characters, and by the final pages, I was eager for more as some hints at upcoming events had me checking out Book Two. 4.5 stars.

REVIEW: A MAN CALLED OVE, BY FREDRIK BACKMAN

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In the neighborhood where he has lived for many years, Ove is known as a curmudgeon, a cranky old man, and someone around whom to tiptoe carefully. Watching his daily routines, though, one senses that there is much more to the man. He seems almost obsessive as he checks out the neighborhood, issuing warnings to people who are disobeying the rules of the home owners group.

But one can also see that Ove has a larger plan, one that he hopes to carry out…and soon. But something always stops him. Like the neighbors moving in and backing a trailer into his mailbox, or the pregnant neighbor needing a ride somewhere. Or a cat that needs looking after. Pulled more and more into the community, Ove doesn’t seem less cranky, necessarily, but certainly there is more going on with him.

Beneath the bursts of anger and the crankiness lies a story that we are told in bits and pieces until it all begins to make sense. And as we warm up to him, we find ourselves rooting for him and hoping that he decides not to carry out his larger plan.

I found the story slow going, but not because it wasn’t enjoyable. I could only manage it in short spurts, as I found myself feeling deep emotions and wanting to savor the experience. I enjoyed going back into Ove’s life and seeing how he developed the habits and values he owns. We see the sadness of various losses, and we want him to finally find peace and a sense of community.

A Man Called Ove is a character study and a story of community, of compassion, and of reaching out to those around us. A book I highly recommend. 5 stars.

REVIEW: THE GOOD LIAR, BY NICHOLAS SEARLE

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Roy and Betty met on an Internet dating site, in the final “chapters” of their lives. These two octogenarians seem like an unlikely combination, but they each have an agenda. His, to play his final con, and hers, perhaps, for companionship. Although as the pages turn, I sometimes wonder about that, as she seems perfectly content whenever he is away on one of his “business” trips.

They settle into her cute little cottage and he meets her children, who don’t like him at all. But Betty seems to blithely ignore their concerns.

He has a certain smarmy charm, but it is interesting to watch as the author peels back the layers, and he does this with time periods, too, taking the reader back to the nineties, then the seventies, the sixties, all the way back to the 30s. We see what makes Roy tick.

What is Roy’s endgame? Is it simply a financial situation for him? Or is there more to his plan? Why does Betty seem so passive, when many indicators suggest that she is smart and more aware than she lets on?

As the answers come in The Good Liar, I am stunned by the intricacy of the plot and how it all unfolds. A very satisfying conclusion, although there were a few too many layers to keep my interest all the way through. I did enjoy arriving at the endgame, however. A 3.5 read.

REVIEW: THE WIDOW, BY FIONA BARTON

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Glen and Jean Taylor might have seemed like an ordinary couple at some point, but their lives in this tidy suburb of London have just gone off the rails.

A little girl named Bella Elliott has gone missing, and inexplicably, at least to Glen and Jean, he is the prime suspect. They are now hounded by police, reporters, and angry strangers. Hiding in their home is not even possible, once Glen is arrested and begins to stand trial. He is proclaiming his innocence, and Jean is standing by him.

In order to fully understand his point of view, of course, we have only to watch and wait, as various characters share their perspectives: Detective Bob Sparkes and his associates; reporter Kate Waters; the missing child’s mother, Dawn; and Jean herself.

The story moves back and forth through time, starting in the early years of the Taylor marriage, when the roles were set: Glen, the one in power, with Jean, the housewife and submissive one.

But things shifted at some point, perhaps when their childlessness became an issue. Jean is devastated about not having a baby, and Glen is the infertile one. Could Jean have somehow persuaded Glen to “get” the child for her? Is Bella the baby she has always wanted?

The focus on Glen has come about primarily because of the sighting of his van in the child’s neighborhood around the time she was taken…and his Internet porn addiction.

When we are swept forward in time, to the present, something major has changed. Glen has been struck by a bus and killed. An accident? At any rate, now the police and reporters take a different tack. Maybe they can get Jean to talk. Maybe they can finally find Bella.

The past and the present finally converge and we are moving forward to a moment of enlightenment. What the police have “known” all along but couldn’t prove might finally be forthcoming.

Jean was a puzzling character. Sometimes she seemed like a victim, while at other times, I thought of her as sneaky and manipulative. Glen always felt like a predator, and his behavior seemed creepy and like that of a sociopath; in addition to denial of any wrong-doing, he adamantly maintained the persona of the innocent victim. I liked DI Bob Sparkes, but Kate Waters seemed to push her own agenda with the use of charm and by pretending to befriend her subject. She seemed untrustworthy, wanting to get the story, no matter what the consequences. The Widow was an intriguing story that had very little of mystery about it, except for the details of how it all went down. 4.5 stars.

*** An e-ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: SECRET SISTERS, BY JAYNE ANN KRENTZ

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Eighteen years ago, on Cooper Island in the San Juans, two young girls are targeted by a guest at the Aurora Point Hotel. When the man grabs one of them, Edith Chase, her grandmother, takes action, and what she does leads to them moving away and turning their back on the old hotel.

Now, shortly after her grandmother’s death, Madeline has inherited the Sanctuary Creek chain of hotels. Jack Rayner, head of her security team, has just helped her deal with a personal problem, so when she gets a call from Tom Lomax, the caretaker on Cooper Island, the two of them head off to see what is happening.

When they arrive, they discover a whole series of problems, beginning with Tom’s murder. A missing briefcase linked to the long-ago secret lead to them finding Madeline’s friend and secret sister Daphne Knight in Denver, who has just discovered that someone ransacked her condo.

On the island, they are joined by Jack’s brother and partner Abe, and together begin sorting through the clues. How are the powerful Webster family, so-called “owners” of the island, connected to the events in the present? Do Egan and Louisa have secrets from the past, too? Are the sons Travis and Xavier involved? Explosions, murders, and many dastardly deeds turn up a slew of suspects, some more nefarious than the others. The story held plenty of suspense, a bit of romance, and a satisfactory resolution.

Secret Sisters was a twisted and somewhat convoluted tale that kept me rapidly turning pages, wondering how Jack and his associates would sort it all out. Even when I thought we had the bad guys identified, there were more loose ends that kept me reading. A perfect 5 star read, since I couldn’t stop reading…and hadn’t figured it all out until the end.

REVIEW: THE BLACK WIDOW, BY WENDY CORSI STAUB

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What do singles do when they are suffering the pangs of lost love? In the world of online connections, dating sites proliferate, and sometimes the singles find new love…for a while, anyway.

How does Gaby Duran end up joining such a site, and what does she think when she realizes that her ex-husband Ben is also using the same InTune site?

Her mind travels back to times when they were happy and in love, with their beautiful baby Josh…and then the tragedy of his loss. Could any marriage survive?

Meanwhile, an alternate story follows a woman who calls herself Alex Jones, who has conversations in her head with her “husband” Carmen Rodriguez. Her story unfolds in bits and pieces, and we begin to see that she is anything but sane. Where would her craziness take her? Why is she picking up a certain type of male through her InTunes site—Hispanic single men—and spiking their drinks. What does she do with them in her cellar? And what happens to them when she has finished with them?

After several men of this type turn up missing over a period of months, the police, with the help of Gaby and another woman whose friend is missing, begin to uncover the clues leading to a very strange scene in the forest.

Because the alternating narrators added to the intensifying suspense, I could not stop reading. The Black Widow was a page-turner, and while it was not readily apparent how far this woman would go to achieve her goals, I was glued to the pages to see what would happen to the characters I was rooting for. 4.5 stars.

MONTHLY WRAP-UP: DECEMBER WAS AMAZING!

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After a somewhat tepid November, my reading seemed to soar this month, with sixteen books read and reviewed.

Even more impressive to me…most of them were engaging. 

Click on the titles to read my reviews.

What did your month look like?  Click on over to The Book Date to link up and check out other people’s wrap-up posts.

***

 

DECEMBER 2015:

1.  A Slight Change of Plan (e-book), by Dee Ernst – 352 pages – (contemporary fiction) – 12/30/15

2.  All the Stars in the Heavens, by Adriana Trigiani – 442 pages – (historical fiction) – 12/1/15

3.  Angels Burning (e-book), by Tawni O’Dell – 298 pages – (mystery/murder) – 12/7/15 (NetGalley)

4.   Forever, Interrupted (e-book), by Taylor Jenkins Reid – 322 pages – (contemporary fiction) – 12/11/15

5.   Guest Room, The (e-book), by Chris Bohjalian – 336 pages – (suspense, murder) – 12/5/15 – (NetGalley)

6.   Here, Home, Hope (e-book), by Kaira Rouda – 303 pages – (contemporary fiction) – 12/26/15

7.    House of Wonder, by Sarah Healy – 319 pages – (contemporary fiction) – 12/17/15

8.     In the Mirror (e-book), by Kaira Rouda – 200 pages – (contemporary fiction) – 12/29/15

9.     Like Family:  Growing up in Other People’s Houses (e-book), by Paula McLain – 260 pages – (memoir) – 12/31/15

10.    November 9 (e-book), by Colleen Hoover – 320 pages – (romantic fiction) – December 22, 2015

11.  Out of Orange (e-book), by Cleary Wolters – 300 pages – (memoir) – 12/19/15

12.  Straight from the Heart (e-book), by Barbara Delinsky – 328 pages – (romance) – 12/28/15

13.  Things We Keep, The (e-book), by Sally Hepworth – 352 pages – (contemporary fiction) – 12/21/15- (NetGalley)

14.  What She Knew (e-book), by Gilly MacMillan – 496 pages – (psychological thriller) – 12/15/15

15.  Where We Belong (e-book), by Catherine Ryan Hyde – 400 pages – (contemporary fiction) – 12/10/15

16.   Wildflower, by Drew Barrymore – 273 pages – (nonfiction/memoir) – 12/13/15

***

BOOKS READ IN DECEMBER 2015:  16

PAGES READ IN DECEMBER 2015:  5,301 pages

BOOKS READ YTD:  176

FAVORITE FICTION READ IN DECEMBER 2015:  The Guest Room

***

REVIEW: A SLIGHT CHANGE OF PLAN, BY DEE ERNST

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When Kate Fremont Everett decides to make some changes in her life, she has been a widow for eight years, her children are mostly grown, and definitely out of the house. Oldest son Jeff lives in the West Village with his partner Gabe; daughter Regan is planning her wedding with Phil; and Sam is a perpetual student on his way to his Ph.D. And finally, after all these years, she has left her law practice, planning to teach a few classes at a nearby college. At fifty-five, she believes there is still time for life changes.

One of those changes is to sell the big house in suburban New Jersey that no longer feels comfortable. In her weekly telephone conversations with the kids, she fills them in on some of her plans. Like buying that condo in Castle Crossings. So when her house and the condo are in escrow, soon to close, she is stunned when her youngest son, Sam, who has a new girlfriend named Alisa, calls up to ask if the two of them can move into the big old house with her.

Don’t any of her kids listen to her when she talks?

Narrated in Kate’s first person voice, A Slight Change of Plan is a funny, somewhat snarky, and totally down-to-earth story of a woman’s journey into the second act of her life. Can online dating work for her? What if she actually reached out to her first love, Jake Windom, who “waved” to her on her online profile? Why do her children suddenly seem needy and full of opinions about her life and its changes? And what about her aging mother, suffering from dementia, who now needs someone to look after her?

I loved the very real characters, like her old friend Cheryl, who grows pot in her backyard and has some unique ideas about relationships. And then there is a new and fascinating man who will be her daughter’s new father-in-law. As the possibilities begin to present themselves, Kate will begin to realize that making plans is not all it is cracked up to be. What a delightful story, full of wonderful characters, and there wasn’t a boring moment to it. I wanted to enjoy them all for a long time to come. 5 stars.

REVIEW: NOVEMBER 9, BY COLLEEN HOOVER

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As Fallon sits in a restaurant with her father, the critical and neglectful man who has done nothing to improve her spirits after a tragic fire that changed her life, they are interrupted by a handsome young man, Ben, who immediately inserts himself into their conversation.

Fallon is blown away by how good looking he is, and how he seems to really see her, scars and all, without even wincing.

They spend the day together in LA, knowing that Fallon will fly off to NY that night…and perhaps never see each other again.

But the intense pull they feel for one another will not be satisfied by one day. It is Ben’s idea to meet again every year on November 9, a significant anniversary for Fallon. What will happen to the two of them? Can they build something on these once-a-year moments?

I was prepared to be drawn into a typical romance, and while there were some of these elements in the story as the two of them met each year, things began to change. A fight between Ben and one of his brothers, the sense that something big is going on…Now the story opens up many possibilities as I began to wonder what more is stirring beneath the surface. What, if anything, is actually behind the date they met, and what led Ben to suggest the annual get-togethers on that date? He is writing a novel based on the premise, so could he be using the relationship as a plot twist? Can something real be built on a story idea?

And then there are some obstacles created by a misunderstanding or two, a death, and the angst of the separations. What would ultimately break them apart? Could anything bring them back together, especially after Fallon discovers the big secret Ben has been keeping?

I couldn’t put November 9 down, and I was eager to find the answers to all my questions. A 5 star read recommended for fans of Hoover…and fans of love.

REVIEW: WHERE WE BELONG, BY CATHERINE RYAN HYDE

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Our MC and first person narrator, Angie, is seven years old when we first meet her. She is happily constructing houses and villages with her playing cards…and her father is helping her.

When he leaves to get cigarettes, he will never return. His body is found…murdered.

Years later, we enter Angie’s life again, and she and her mother, with preschool sister Sophie, have just been evicted from another in a series of homes. On the verge of homelessness, they move in with Aunt Vi, who is not that happy to have them there. A sense of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” follows their every move. For Sophie has special needs—on the autism spectrum—and one of her unfortunate behaviors is shrieking endlessly until the neighbors call the cops, leading to yet another eviction.

One of the things we learn early on is that Angie is primarily the one in charge of making the plans, deciding how to handle Sophie, and finding their next move. She is only fourteen at this time, and suffering from the extra burden. But she doesn’t come across as resentful…just tired and sad and overly troubled about their future.

Then a reprieve comes their way. Next door is an older man, Paul, whose Great Dane Rigby has a powerful effect on Sophie. She watches him through the fence, he sits down near her, and they seem to connect. When she is near Rigby, Sophie is calm. There are actual hours in the day when she does not shriek.

But then everything changes. Paul is moving to the mountains…and Rigby will be gone. How will they cope?

Strangely enough, Angie’s mother takes charge of this one, and follows Paul up to his mountain home and stays nearby, waiting for the chance to reconnect with Rigby.

How does Angie manage to negotiate a new arrangement with Paul? What has brought the teenage girl and the remote man, who has always wanted his privacy, into a friendship? What will happen when life’s circumstances change again?

Where We Belong is the kind of book I savor. The pace was calm, with the only suspense coming from wondering what Angie will do next to make their lives better. I really rooted for Angie, and while I felt sorry for Sophie, I often wondered if the mother’s inability to be firm and in charge contributed to the problems. I know that I did not like the mother and felt exasperated with her behavior and her inability to be “the mother.” I thought it was interesting that we never find out her name…and there was also a sense of a long-held secret about her husband’s murder.

A book I recommend to all who enjoy the author…and stories about dysfunctional families. In the end, I felt really good about how things were turning out. 4.0 stars.