REVIEW: IT ENDS WITH US, BY COLLEEN HOOVER

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After her father’s funeral in Plethora, Maine, Lily Bloom is back in Boston, sitting on the rooftop of a neighboring building, pondering the events of the day…and her life.

She realizes that her father, the beloved mayor of the town they lived in, was quite different behind closed doors. So in her eulogy, the audience expected something beautiful, instead of what she gave. She stopped herself from saying five good things about him because she couldn’t think of a single one. He was an abusive husband, and her mother did not leave him.

Now as she sits on the roof, fearing how her mother’s reaction will come down on her, she is distracted by someone else on the roof. A young man, quite handsome, who is kicking and throwing the furniture around, in a rage. They start a conversation which takes up a stretch of time, in which they share “naked truths” with one another. He talks about what made him so angry. A child had died. It turns out he is a resident in neurosurgery at Massachusetts General. His name is Ryle Kincaid.

And then they don’t see each other again for a year.

Narrated in Lily’s first person voice, It Ends with Us brought us fully into her world: her childhood trauma, the dreams she had of a different kind of life, and how she met and fell in love with the homeless boy living in the abandoned house behind their backyard. Lily’s relationship with Atlas Corrigan would fill her thoughts in those days. Her Ellen Diaries, inspired by the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Lily’s feelings of a strong connection to her, reveal how those “written conversations” might have possibly kept her intact emotionally during some tough times. In the diaries, she also describes the unfolding friendship with Atlas. And how it all fell apart.

How do Ryle and Lily reconnect? Does she see Atlas again, and under what circumstances? Who is the rich young woman who befriends her just as she is opening her own flower shop? What happens that triggers a series of events that will derail lives? How does Lily eventually make the right decision for herself?

Sometimes a person has to make a choice that feels wrong when it is the only right thing to do. A beautifully sad and inspirational story about breaking cycles, making hard choices, and loving the one you are meant to be with, even when someone else is also the love of your life. I cried at the end of this book, even as I applauded the course of events that unfolded.

Rating:  cropped again 5

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.

REVIEW: THE PERFECT SON, BY BARBARA CLAYPOLE WHITE

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On her way home from a visit with her elderly father, Ella Fitzwilliam is feeling stressed and troubled, as her only son Harry is struggling to make choices for his future, and his exacting, perfectionist father Felix is not making things easier. Harry is brilliant, so Felix sees an Ivy League college in his future; however, Harry’s Tourette’s syndrome and other neurological challenges render him uncontrollable at times. Stress makes everything harder for him, too.

Suddenly Ella is racked with gripping pain and an inability to breathe, and when the plane lands, she is whisked off to the hospital, where she is diagnosed with a severe heart attack.

In the weeks that follow, Ella will struggle to recover, and needs a transplant, while Felix struggles to be the father he has never been…due to his own fear of becoming like his abusive father. He begins to look at his own flaws, and realizes that his obsessiveness is likely part of a larger disorder, like Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.

Alternating narratives carry The Perfect Son, and while both Felix and Harry are deeply flawed, I rooted for them as they tried to connect with one another. Felix’s need for order is in direct opposition to what Harry brings to the table…Harry’s tics make him a walking disaster area. But as they each try to adapt, they find a way to cohabit…and even bond.

There were some very difficult moments in this father/son journey, and I found myself tearing up as each one had to find a way to move past his fears.

What would happen to Ella? Would she recover? If not, how would Felix and Harry manage? And would they finally discover that elusive bond that should have happened years before?

I loved how each character’s narrative told us a little more about them individually, back to how they began, and how the secrets they kept from one another would gradually come to light and shed hope on their future.

Other interesting characters: Eudora, the 75-year-old woman next door who is supportive and wise; and Katherine, Ella’s friend, who begins to see something good in Felix, and he in her, too.

Set in Durham, NC, the author showed the reader the beauty of the world around the characters, even as she drew us so deeply into that world until the characters felt like people we could care about. 5 stars.

REVIEW: DAUGHTERS-IN-LAW, BY JOANNA TROLLOPE

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Anthony and Rachel Brinkley are enjoying their empty nest in Suffolk, especially since their three grown sons, Edward, Ralph, and Luke, stay in close touch. Edward is married to Sigrid, and they have a daughter Mariella. Ralph, who is often a challenge, now seems settled in nicely with Petra and their two boys, Kit and Barney.

But with Luke marrying Charlotte, Rachel is a little nervous. She suspects that Charlotte will not “fall into line” as nicely as the other two daughters-in-law.

She is right. Charlotte is used to getting what she wants, and she has some very definite ideas about how her new relationship with the in-laws will proceed.

But what Rachel could not have predicted would be the intense chaos that rises up during that summer, and how Sigrid and Petra seemingly step out of line, just as Charlotte is asserting herself.

Daughters-in-Law was a delightful family tale that reveals much of what often goes on behind the scenes in families, and shows the reader how one new addition to the mix can stir things up in unexpected ways.

I enjoyed this story, narrated from multiple perspectives, and at some point or another, found each character annoying, but in ways that made them seem real. Like people you might know. 4.0 stars.


REVIEW: LACY EYE, BY JESSICA TREADWAY

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One frightening night around the Thanksgiving holiday, someone entered the home of Joe and Hanna Schutt in Everton, New York, and clobbered them both with a croquet mallet, leaving Joe dead and Hanna near death.Now, three years later, Hanna, our first person narrator, still struggles to put together the pieces of that night and fill in the missing blanks, as the man convicted of the crime, Rud Petty, who had been their daughter Dawn’s boyfriend, has won an appeal.

There will be a new trial, and the pressure has escalated, as the DA hopes that Hanna will remember the moments she lost and help them with the case.

How can Hanna do that, as all she can recall are bits and pieces?

But then her daughter Dawn, who hasn’t returned to the house since the crime three years before, calls to ask if she can come home from New Mexico, where she has been living. The older daughter, Iris, who believes that somehow Dawn was involved in what happened, is irate that she has returned. But Iris is married, with a young child, so she doesn’t appear in the home very often.

Even though there is a mystery hovering overhead, the story, Lacy Eye, is a character-driven tale of a woman trying to discover who her younger daughter really is, by truly seeing her behavior and recalling the patterns that revealed themselves over the years. She struggles with the conflicts she feels whenever she realizes something truly disheartening about her daughter, like her inability to think of anyone but herself, with a special disregard for the feelings and possessions of others; her tendency to expect the care and attention of others, while giving nothing of herself. As a young adult, she seems unable to get up off the couch and do anything to help her mother, who works hard all day, and continually displays an attitude of entitlement. Her constantly addressing her mother as “Mommy” feels like a cloying attempt to garner favor.

I really could not stand Dawn, but Iris’s attitudes were equally off-putting. Her condescending attitude toward her mother, as well as to Dawn, had a hint of arrogance about it. However, by the end of the book, she had redeemed herself in my view.

I felt sorry for Hanna, who was left with a disfigurement on the right side of her face, but I felt impatient with her tendency to give Dawn a free pass, who, as a child, struggled with amblyopia, from which the name “Lacy Eye” came–Dawn refused to call the condition “lazy eye.” She was bullied by other kids, but there was always a sense that even before the “lazy eye” made its appearance, she was missing some major ingredient of likability.

The family dynamics of Joe, Hanna, and the girls had an undercurrent of denial threading through almost everything that happened. Joe was strict, but Hanna ignored most of what she didn’t want to see and allowed things to happen, setting them all up for disaster, in my opinion. When Hanna appeared heavily steeped in denial, Joe often called her out on her “lacy eye,” a term he used to describe her inability to see what was right in front of her.

It is easy to blame the victim, however, and throughout, I kept coming back to a sense of heavy uneasiness whenever Dawn showed up in a scene. What was going on beneath the surface with her? Would Hanna finally remember the significant details of that night? Would clarity allow her to truly see her daughter?

As events moved toward a conclusion, I could not help but grow intensely anxious, wondering how it would all play out. I was thoroughly immersed and connected with the story and the characters. The writing kept me engaged, and the characterizations were so fully developed that I left the story behind with a great sense of satisfaction. Definitely a 5 star read.


REVIEW: SAFE KEEPING, BY BARBARA TAYLOR SISSEL

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From the very beginning of Safe Keeping, we are thrust into the troubled world of an anxious mother, Emily Lebay, pondering what her son Tucker might have done now. His father, Roy, is a veteran from the Vietnam War, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and even knowing that, I found it very difficult to like that character.

Roy’s behavior, his control issues…all made me cringe as I wondered again and again why Emily stayed with him.

And even though Tucker is portrayed as the troubled young man, there were so many good reasons for what he has become…and many of them point to the parents. Especially Roy, in my opinion.

Lissa, married to Evan, is the direct opposite of Tucker, always the pride and joy of the family. But she has secrets…and her own issues.

The story unfolds as a mystery, while also revealing the hidden dynamics of the troubled family.

I felt suspicious of almost everyone involved, from the detectives investigating, who apparently ignored other possible suspects in the murder of two girls, and the father himself. What secrets is he keeping? Has he somehow done something to bring the law down on Tucker?

Therefore, I was quite surprised that the ending wrapped things up in such a predictable way. I had hoped that some last minute reveal would turn things around and take the story in an unexpected direction. So while I enjoyed the book, I did not like the ending. 4.0 stars.

REVIEW: MOTHER, MOTHER, BY KOREN ZAILCKAS

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From the outside, the Hursts look like the picture-perfect family: a beautiful home; the tech guru father Douglas; two beautiful daughters, Rose and Violet; and a brilliantly intelligent son Will. Josephine, the mother, can certainly credit herself with this perfect facade. But after the oldest daughter Rose takes off with her mysterious boyfriend, the ties that bind them all begin to unravel. And on one tumultuous night, violence erupts. Will’s hand is badly injured and Violet is hauled off to the psychiatric unit. Fingers are pointed, and she is targeted as the perpetrator.

In alternating chapters, we see the world through the eyes of Violet and Will. Each of them has a very different view of the family, and most especially the mother. But this is a family dynamic that soon begins to reveal itself as a very pathological one. Will’s view of his mother is strongly biased by his “favored child” position.

Josephine has a way of making herself the center of the universe, and chooses on whom to shine her benevolence, depending upon which child is pleasing her at that moment. Her narcissism is overwhelming, and as time passes, Will, who is “gifted” by her benevolence at this point in time, seems to hover between sanity and insanity.

Meanwhile, in the psych ward, Violet is learning more about how her mother’s manipulations have affected all of them. But will she be able to bring anyone around to seeing things her way? What will have to happen before the truth about their family is revealed? And as more and more of the deadly secrets unfold, who can save them? Can anyone be redeemed?

The story made me feel a bit unbalanced, just trying to stay on top of of Josephine’s machinations; I could not stop reading, wondering what she would do next. Dark, disturbing, and totally captivating, Mother, Mother: A Novel is a tale that makes me very happy not to be part of this family. Five stars.

VIOLENCE, REVISITING THE PAST, & SECRETS — A REVIEW

Violence was an ongoing part of Hannah Benson’s childhood. Then, on one tragic night, she ran as if her life depended on it.

Now, twenty years later, a call from her past brings everything about that life front and center. Grady Steadman, her old boyfriend, is now the Sheriff in Clearfield, Virginia, and his news is about to change her life again. Her mother has died, and her sister’s daughter Anna is now in need of her care. Yes, her sister Lucy died five years before. But nobody could find her to tell her about it.

Going back to Clearfield will undoubtedly also bring back the memories…And the secrets Hannah has been keeping could threaten everything she has worked so hard to build.

Throughout this enticing story, I could connect with Hannah, her niece Anna, and even with Grady. Each brought something special to the story about building new lives and protecting a future…in spite of the past.

But what will Grady do to resurrect the dark secrets Hannah is carrying? How might the events of that one night destroy the new family Hannah is building with Anna?

The secret hovering over everything in the pages of What Happened to Hannah: A Novel was obviously something big, but I guessed most of it early on. Then when the final pieces fell into place, I thought: that was it? I was a bit disappointed at how the dark foreshadowing throughout suggested so much more. And lest I introduce spoilers, that’s all I’m saying. But I wasn’t happy at how the secret finally unfolded and how it left me feeling…deflated.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the story and would recommend it to those who relish family drama and the unfolding love match that inevitably brings a happy ending. But…3.5 stars.

FAMILY & ADVERSITIES — A REVIEW

Space, by Emily Sue Harvey
260 Pages
Genre: Women’s Fiction/Inspirational Fiction
Tour Dates: September 19-November 11
REVIEW ONLY TOUR

A story of family and the adversities that can either weaken or strengthen the bonds, Space brings the reader right into the thick of things with the very first chapter.  Enjoying a celebration and looking forward to their “golden years,” Dan and Deede Stowe are blindsided by a call that announces their daughter Faith’s drug overdose.

Then we are catapulted back in time to their lives in the beginning of their marriage.  Looking ahead with hope to creating a family, they are disappointed over and over again, until finally their miracle child Faith is born.

What happens to unleash the monster of addiction in the lovely child they raised?  When did the first seeds of destruction plant themselves in her life and theirs?

Family members form a circle of love and support, but as the battle wages on, with the back and forward progress of addiction, some pull back.  At times, Deede and Dan feel as if they’re on the battlefield alone.

I was caught up in the tug and pull of this family story and how it reminded me of many struggles in my own family over the years, as well as the struggles of families with whom I worked in my professional life as a social worker.  There is nothing more devious and conniving than addiction, with its stranglehold on the life of the addict and all those around her.  It is definitely a family disease, and by the time the battle finally plays out, it leaves wounded souls in its wake.

After many struggles, this family arrived at a happy resolution.  In some ways, I thought that the change from battling addict to peaceful acceptance was almost too smooth when it finally happened.  I wanted to see more of Faith’s gradual behavioral changes as she moved toward acceptance.  There were some journal entries that hinted at the beginnings of insight and acceptance and paved the way for change.  Perhaps a single defining moment turned things around for her.  That was not clear for me in the story.  However, I enjoyed the characters, the journey, and the dramatic depiction of the struggle.  Four stars.