REVIEW: BEST DAY EVER, BY KAIRA ROUDA

 

Paul Strom has the perfect life: a glittering career as an advertising executive, a beautiful wife, two healthy boys and a big house in a wealthy suburb. And he’s the perfect husband: breadwinner, protector, provider. That’s why he’s planned a romantic weekend for his wife, Mia, at their lake house, just the two of them. And he’s promised today will be the best day ever.

But as Paul and Mia drive out of the city and toward the countryside, a spike of tension begins to wedge itself between them and doubts start to arise. How much do they trust each other? And how perfect is their marriage, or any marriage, really?

My Thoughts: Our first person narrator throughout Best Day Ever is Paul Strom, husband, father, and a man intent on controlling everything about the day…and their lives.

In the beginning, his narrative seemed almost sweet, like someone wanting to have that perfect getaway. But the more we followed his monologue, the darker things seemed. It didn’t take long for me to feel the angst of a day and a life that would surely unravel.

As Mia reacts, and then as Paul reads her reactions, the intensity increases. Soon I am beginning to feel the fear and suspense of someone watching lives crash and burn.

The neighbor Buck adds to the intensity, as he shows up constantly, interrupting the two of them, but soon it begins to feel pre-planned. What is going on, and what will happen next?

A story of power and control, and breaking free of that control and regaining one’s power, kept me turning pages in this brilliant study of dysfunctional family dynamics. 5 stars.

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REVIEW: KEEP HER SAFE, BY SOPHIE HANNAH

 

Pushed to the breaking point, Cara Burrows flees her home and family and escapes to a five-star spa resort she can’t afford. Late at night, exhausted and desperate, she lets herself into her hotel room and is shocked to find it already occupied — by a man and a teenage girl.

A simple mistake at the front desk… but soon Cara realizes that the girl she saw alive and well in the hotel room is someone she can’t possibly have seen: the most famous murder victim in the country, Melody Chapa, whose parents are serving natural life sentences for her murder.

Cara doesn’t know what to trust — everything she’s read and heard about the case, or the evidence of her own eyes. Did she really see Melody? And is she prepared to ask herself that question and answer it honestly if it means risking her own life?

My Thoughts: The opening lines of Keep Her Safe reveal another narrator, someone who seems to be Melody Chapa…and then we are thrust into the perspective of Cara Burrows, a British woman who fled her home for some unknown reason, and who is looking forward to her time at the Swallowtail Resort and Spa in Arizona. The place is huge and guests push a white button to get a car to take them around. But on the first night, Cara is given a room number and a key and insists on walking to her destination.

What does she find on the third floor when she unlocks the door? Evidence of occupancy, and then the crying voice of a girl, followed by a man’s voice. The girl is upset over spilling something on her stuffed toy Poggy. Embarrassed and apologetic, Cara scurries from the room, and the management upgrades her to a casita with a private pool and wonderful amenities. She is also given an iPad to guide her through her days.

What is going on in this strange spa? The receptionist, a woman named Riyonna Briggs, is trying to calm down an elderly woman who insists she saw “Melody.” Later, that same staff member assures Cara that the woman always sees Melody, wherever she goes, and is confused.

As the pages turn, we watch Cara studying the guests and listening to a woman named Tarin Fry and her daughter Zellie, who annoy her, but also pique her curiosity. Soon she is reading a blog that Tarin mentioned, written by a woman named Bonnie…and learns about Melody’s case and how her parents are in prison for killing her. She also begins to connect the dots, and realizes that there was something odd about the man and girl in that first room.

Nothing is the way it seems, as we soon find out. Numerous oddities keep us wondering, even as we realize that danger lurks around every corner. How does Cara find herself right in the middle of what looks like a conspiracy, wondering if she will ever see her family again? Will she put together the clues and find her way home again? A captivating 5 star read with so many twists that I could not stop reading.***

REVIEW: THE ORPHAN’S TALE, BY PAM JENOFF

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In Paris, at an exhibit celebrating Two-Hundred Years of Circus Magic, an old woman is searching a hiding place within a train car.

Flashback to 1940s Germany, and The Orphan’s Tale takes the reader through the alternating stories of two women: one, renamed Astrid Sorrell, a Jewish woman who was a member of a performing circus family, now lost to her; and the other, a young Dutch girl whose family cast her out when she got pregnant.

Their lives intertwine in a circus. The Dutch girl, Noa Weil, is found in the snow, almost frozen to death, clutching a young infant, whom she calls Theo. She told those who found her that he was her brother. She didn’t know them well enough to reveal how she came upon a boxcar of dying Jewish babies, and how she reached out to the one she could save.

Herr Neuhoff, the owner of a circus family, has taken in Astrid (formerly named Ingrid), whom he is protecting after her Nazi officer husband threw her out. He also takes in Noa, with the understanding that Astrid will train her to be an aerialist.

What an emotional tale! I loved getting to know Astrid and Noa, and watching the bonds between them develop and grow stronger. They seemed like enemies at first, and they certainly did not trust one another. But as they came to depend upon each other through their acts, they grew closer, finally beginning to share their secrets. Over the short time they were together in the circus, they faced constant and ever-present danger, never knowing when disaster would strike. The danger always hovered nearby from the Nazi officers, yet, despite it all, they held onto a little hope. Of somehow escaping, or finally discovering a way to have freedom in the circus world they had come to know and love.

Will Astrid finally find a way to escape? What about Noa, and her chance to be with Luc, the mayor’s son, with whom she has developed a connection? Will she take the chance, or will she cling to Astrid, whom she now has come to depend on? What about Theo? What surprising events transpire that will change everything?

Their sacrifices and bravery kept me turning the pages, wondering what would happen…and, ultimately, I wanted to know the identity of that old woman we met in the prologue, and what she was hoping to find in that train car? I cried as the story drew to a close, from sadness, and also from joy at the hard-won victories. Definitely a 5 star read for me.

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REVIEW: SWEET LAMB OF HEAVEN, BY LYDIA MILLET

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From the opening pages, we enter the strange, yet curious world of Anna, a young mother who hears voices that nobody else hears…but that stop once her infant daughter Lena starts speaking.

Her cold and sociopathic husband Ned is frightening, and I was so happy that she ran away with Lena, from Alaska to an out-of-the-way motel in Maine.

The motel is fascinating, in that the more or less fulltime residents seem to have been drawn there. By something they all have in common. The motel owner, Don, is like a guru. Or could he be a protector?

When Ned tracks Anna down, he has a very specific purpose in mind: he is running for political office, and wants Anna and Lena to show up for photo ops, etc. But there is something even more sinister going on with Ned, as Anna soon finds out.

Can Anna escape Ned’s grasp? How can she create a new life, free of him, when everything seems to suggest that he and his backers are conspiring to keep her in her place? Is she truly in danger, or is she paranoid?

Sweet Lamb of Heaven was a beautifully written story that kept drawing me in, and then turning me around. Every time I thought I had it all figured out, something new would blindside me. It could be a tale of spiritual mysticism, the abuse of power, and mind control. Or there might be more beneath the surface. What final act must Anna take to free herself from Ned? A five star read.

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REVIEW: THE NEIGHBORS, BY ANIA AHLBORN

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Andrew (Drew) Morrison has finally escaped. Driving away from the home where he and his mother lived together after his father left years before, he feels the wings of freedom lifting him up and away. For years, he has been his agoraphobic/alcoholic mother’s lifeline, her link to the outside world she cannot face.

He feels guilty leaving her, but he has no choice, he tells himself. He heads across the small town of Creekside, Kansas, to Magnolia Lane and the room at his old friend Mickey’s house. Disappointed at the filth of his friend’s home, Andrew scours and redecorates his own space. And then, as if he has stepped into a fairytale, he is drawn into the world of Harlow Ward, the gorgeous woman living next door in the cute fairytale cottage, from which come plates of cookies and home cooked dinners. He is soon addicted to the attention and the charm, but as he finds himself hooked on Harlow’s world, and sees the rage of the now resentful husband Red, Drew begins to sense that all is not right in the Land of Oz.

Behind the façade lie deep, dark secrets, and the dark inner world of the people next door will bring terror and horrifying events. Who, if anyone, will live to tell about it?

The Neighbors was a heart-clutching horror tale that kept me turning pages, even as I wanted to run away and hide. Why did Harlow do what she did? What events in her past created her, and what would she continue to do to escape the pain? An intriguing tale for those who love horror…which I do not. For me, 3 stars. But others might find the story gripping and fascinating.

REVIEW: THE ESCAPE ARTIST, BY DIANE CHAMBERLAIN

 

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When Susanna Miller loses custody of her 11-month old son Tyler to her ex-husband Jim and his new wife Peggy, she is afraid that her life is over.

From the moment she first discovered that Jim was cheating on her with Peggy, right after she discovered she was pregnant, she has been in free fall, descending into the darkness that will soon become her life.

Her best friend Linc Sebastian, who lived next door to her in childhood and has now become her lover and her support system, believes that they can somehow make it anyway.

But what Susanna does next will change all of their lives.

She has planned ahead, and the morning of the day she was supposed to turn over Tyler, she is on the run, with a new identity, some cash, and a plan. Her journey takes her across country from Boulder, Colorado, to Annapolis, Maryland, where she slowly begins anew as Kimberly Stratton.

The Escape Artist was a riveting story that had a few implausible twists and turns, but I couldn’t stop reading it. Soon I was immersed with Kimberly in her new life with her new friends, like an artist named Adam Soria and his sister Jessie. And in her cute apartment in an old Victorian, she finds support from her new landlady Ellen and her neighbor Lucy.

But the secrets she must hide keep her from truly connecting, and then she makes a dark discovery that seems to threaten the new life and bring everything to a screeching halt.

What is the meaning of the strange file Kim has found on the used computer she bought? What happened the night someone broke into her apartment, making her feel totally unsafe again?

In the end, everything fell into place pretty neatly, and while I was happy with the conclusions, it all felt a little bit unlikely. Still an enjoyable read for fans of Chamberlain and for all those who can relate to family/custody situations. 4.0 stars.