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: THE PLAYGROUND, BY JANE SHEMILT

Over the course of a long, hot summer in London, the lives of three very different married couples collide when their children join the same tutoring circle, resulting in illicit relationships, shocking violence, and unimaginable fallout.

There’s Eve, a bougie earth mother with a well-stocked trust fund; she has three little ones, a blue-collar husband and is obsessed with her Instagrammable recipes and lifestyle. And Melissa, a successful interior designer whose casually cruel banker husband is careful not to leave visible bruises; she curates her perfectly thin body so closely she misses everything their teenage daughter is hiding. Then there’s Grace, a young Zimbabwean immigrant, who lives in high-rise housing project with her two children and their English father Martin, an award-winning but chronically broke novelist; she does far more for her family than she should have to.

As the weeks go by, the couples become very close; there are barbecues, garden parties, a holiday at a country villa in Greece. Resentments flare. An affair begins. Unnoticed, the children run wild. The couples are busily watching each other, so distracted and self-absorbed that they forget to watch their children. No one sees the five children at their secret games or realize how much their family dynamics are changing until tragedy strikes.

The story twists and then twists again while the three families desperately search for answers. It’s only as they begin to unravel the truth of what happened over the summer that they realize evil has crept quietly into their world.

But has this knowledge come too late?

Meeting the characters of The Playgroundhappened almost immediately, and the narrative alternated between the women. They were wives and mothers who struggled with their marriages, their parenting duties, and their careers.

Their get-togethers revolved around their tutoring circle connections, and while they seemed to be enjoying themselves, it didn’t take long to notice that the children were up to something. They ran wild, primarily, which worried me. I knew that nothing good would come of the games they were playing, games that went unnoticed by the parents.

What ultimately happened stemmed from their inability to keep track of their children and their activities, but also sprang from their own marital issues. Domestic abuse was another theme that would become crucial to the events that unfolded.

When tragedy struck, the spotlight turned to one of the men and ignored the signs that I could see all along. I had figured out what happened long before the end, but I enjoyed watching how the truth was finally discovered. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: SURPRISE ME, BY SOPHIE KINSELLA

 

After ten years together, Sylvie and Dan have a comfortable home, fulfilling jobs, and beautiful twin girls, and they communicate so seamlessly they finish each other’s sentences. They have a happy marriage and believe they know everything there is to know about each other. Until it’s casually mentioned to them that they could be together for another sixty-eight years . . . and panic sets in.

They decide to bring surprises into their marriage to keep it fresh and fun. But in their pursuit of Project Surprise Me—from unexpected gifts to restaurant dates to sexy photo shoots—mishaps arise, with disastrous and comical results. Gradually, surprises turn to shocking truths. And when a scandal from the past is uncovered, they begin to wonder if they ever really knew each other at all.

 

My Thoughts: Sylvie’s first person voice carries us along somewhat blithely in the opening chapters of Surprise Me, and I loved her quirky take on life and marriage. And then as unexpected and unpleasant events began to turn their marriage into something dark and secretive, I felt empathy for Sylvie’s distress.

But just when we think we have figured everything out, and when we have decided that their marriage is about to unravel, Sylvie takes proactive steps to learn the unexpected truth that Dan has been hiding. Sylvie’s life in the bubble created by her parents, with Dan’s assistance, has suddenly burst.

As the truth unfolds, will the two of them discover surprisingly inspirational things about one another? I enjoyed the characters, their views of life and relationships, and their realistic dialogue…and couldn’t wait to find out what ultimately happens to them all. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: THE ARRANGEMENT, BY SARAH DUNN

Lucy and Owen, ambitious, thoroughly-therapized New Yorkers, have taken the plunge, trading in their crazy life in a cramped apartment for Beekman, a bucolic Hudson Valley exurb. They’ve got a two hundred year-old house, an autistic son obsessed with the Titanic, and 17 chickens, at last count. It’s the kind of paradise where stay-at-home moms team up to cook the school’s “hot lunch,” dads grill grass-fed burgers, and, as Lucy observes, “chopping kale has become a certain kind of American housewife’s version of chopping wood.”

When friends at a wine-soaked dinner party reveal they’ve made their marriage open, sensible Lucy balks. There’s a part of her, though-the part that worries she’s become too comfortable being invisible-that’s intrigued. Why not try a short marital experiment? Six months, clear ground rules, zero questions asked. When an affair with a man in the city begins to seem more enticing than the happily-ever-after she’s known for the past nine years, Lucy must decide what truly makes her happy-“real life,” or the “experiment?”

MY THOUGHTS:

Almost immediately, my eyes glazed over at the image of the “bucolic life” of these characters, but I wanted to know what they would do with the experiment.

It didn’t take long to realize that there would be consequences. Would they be able to move beyond The Arrangement?

I felt a connection to both Lucy and Owen. There were no “bad guys” here, just vulnerable ones hoping to find something that would strengthen their marriage.

Yes, they believed that their little experiment would make them stronger. But they were not prepared for the unexpected.

How did Owen deal with an out-of-control lover named Izzy? What will Lucy do about unexpectedly falling in love with Ben?

In addition to our two main characters, there were others within the community who would learn more about themselves and travel down unique pathways.

I was hooked by the story, remembering how I came from an era of experimentation and learning more about ourselves through these “out there” times. I would award this book 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: SMALL HOURS, BY JENNIFER KITSES

 

In the vein of Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta, a gripping, suspenseful, and gorgeous debut novel–told hour-by-hour over the course of a single day–in which a husband and wife try to outrun long-buried secrets, sending their lives spiraling into chaos.

MY THOUGHTS:

Tom Foster and Helen Nichols had fled urban NY with their twin daughters, Sophie and Ilona, hoping to find a more peaceful life. They settled into small town Devon, but after Tom lost his job, and after the financial downturn, they found themselves scrambling, just to meet the bills and to work out their child care arrangements.

But both Tom and Helen were keeping secrets, and the darkness of their hidden selves and Tom’s secret life brought them to a crisis that could have unraveled everything.

Alternating narratives between Tom and Helen gave the reader a look at those secrets, and how each of them was treading water, headed “out to sea.”

The narratives flashed back to the past, too, revealing some of what led them to this point in time: this one long day that became a series of defining moments.

Miscommunication, misunderstandings, and outside stress led to the chaos they faced at the end of one long day. Small moments had escalated and now they would have to ask themselves what they would give up…and what they wanted to keep. Small Hours was captivating with engaging characters, so I could not stop reading. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE MARRIAGE LIE, BY KIMBERLY BELLE

 

 

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Iris and Will have been married for seven years, and life is as close to perfect as it can be. But on the morning Will flies out for a business trip to Florida, Iris’s happy world comes to an abrupt halt: another plane headed for Seattle has crashed into a field, killing everyone on board and, according to the airline, Will was one of the passengers. 

Grief stricken and confused, Iris is convinced it all must be a huge misunderstanding. Why did Will lie about where he was going? And what else has he lied about? As Iris sets off on a desperate quest to uncover what her husband was keeping from her, the answers she finds shock her to her very core.

My Thoughts: I was immediately caught up in the relationship between Iris and Will: the special moments between them, the stories of how they met and fell in love, and their plans for the future. I wanted that happily-ever-after for them.

Happy moments seem to always signal that events are about to go awry in a big way, so with the news of the plane crash, and how Will had lied about where he was going, I knew I would be waiting with bated breath, wondering what would be unveiled next.

There were characters to be suspicious about, just because of how “too good to be true” they seemed, like Will’s so-called best gym buddy, Corban Hayes. Smooth, handsome, and helpful. What’s not to like? Well, just the fact that he seems too perfect. Just like Will did before the lies started to unfold.

I couldn’t stop turning the pages, wondering what would happen next. Could we trust anybody? Well, Iris’s twin brother Dave seemed to be true blue, and it was great to read the banter between them, the “twin talk” that felt real.

Iris’s parents were wonderful and supportive. Then there was Evan, an attorney, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash. He would have to be one of the good guys. Right?

The trouble with finding out about lies and secrets…it is hard to trust anybody. Would Iris find the answers she needed? Would the trail of mysterious texts she is receiving lead to answers? What does some missing money from the company where Will worked mean about him and about his associates?

Until the very end of The Marriage Lie, I kept going back and forth in my mind about where the road would lead us, but the journey turned out to be even better than I had imagined. A final tidbit took me to an interesting place. 4.5 stars.

ratings worms 4-cropped***

HAPPINESS AS AN ART FORM: A REVIEW

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The story begins by introducing the reader to Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, third cousins and best friends.

A little history of their lives thus far is woven into a tale that soon shows the reader some of their romantic escapades and then, finally, settles into how they eventually pick their marital partners and begin their “real lives.”

Not really a romance, Happy All the Time (Vintage Contemporaries) is instead a peek into the lives of four people: Holly, who seems perfect on the surface and who marries Guido, but who needs little retreats every now and then to maintain her composure; then there is Misty, who is something of a chaotic personality, with pessimism a guiding force; when she ends up with optimistic Vincent, one would think that they would be a mismatch. But the opposite turns out to be true. These four people find one another and discover that “happiness is an art form that requires energy, discipline, and talent.”

This novel is described as a “delightful comedy of manners and morals…about romantic friendship, romantic marriage and romantic love.”

I found myself smiling a lot as I read this story that shared the wonderful details of daily life, with all the challenges of living with a partner. The characters were drawn in such a way that I could visualize them completely. It has been awhile since I’ve read anything by this author, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I liked the theme of happiness, with its underlying promise that one can actually create happiness with the right attitude. Four stars.

A PORTRAIT IN MUTED SHADES: MEMORABLE! — A REVIEW

Slowly the story unfolds, bringing characters such as Waspy Julian Wainwright and scholarship student Carter Heinz to life, as they begin their journey as college students. We meet them in the eighties, during the Reagan era, and follow them into the twenty-first century.

College years in Northington, Massachusetts seem typical for the era. Pranks, partying, and finding girlfriends. The two young men, who could seem totally unlike one another, become fast friends.

Meeting Mia Mendelsohn, dubbed “Mia from Montreal” in honor of her Canadian residency, could have been another fluke. They each met her, but right away she and Julian pair up. And Carter has already connected to Pilar.

Julian and Carter both seem destined to write novels, yet their lives seemingly change directions. Carter returns to California and Julian and Mia move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Julian continues working on his novel, yet finds other ways to earn money.

It is almost as though the work in progress is a metaphor for their lives, and it will be many years before the novel is finished.

What are the pressure points for Julian and Mia that almost do them in? What happens, ultimately, to the Carter and Pilar pairing, and how do these youthful connections fare in the long run? Do the friendships last in spite of the frayed edges?

Fifteen years later at a reunion, we begin to see how the defining moments that highlighted their lives are the most memorable. In Matrimony: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries), we are offered a portrait of what happens when people marry young and how love sometimes survives the passing of time.

I liked how the quiet moments in life are drawn and incorporated into the characters, almost as if they are captured in muted shades. I found Mia’s thoughts about memories of childhood and her mother very poignant:

“She remembered these things, but they came back to her like cumulus clouds, as if she were descending through something she could no longer see.”

Or Julian, describing what he learned about writing from his favorite professor:

“Write what you know about what you don’t know,” Julian said, “or what you don’t know about what you know.”

This story took me back to my younger years and the connections formed then and sustained for years afterwards. I like thinking about these moments that become part of who we are. I identified with the characters, even Julian and Carter, for their very human frailties. I would recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reminders of who we are and how we became that way. Four stars.