REVIEW: SAY YOU’RE SORRY, BY MELINDA LEIGH

After the devastating loss of her husband in Iraq, Morgan Dane returns to Scarlet Falls, seeking the comfort of her hometown. Now, surrounded by family, she’s finally found peace and a promising career opportunity—until her babysitter is killed and her neighbor asks her to defend his son, Nick, who stands accused of the murder.

Tessa was the ultimate girl next door, and the community is outraged by her death. But Morgan has known Nick for years and can’t believe he’s guilty, despite the damning evidence stacked against him. She asks her friend Lance Kruger, an ex-cop turned private eye, for help. Taking on the town, the police, and a zealous DA, Morgan and Lance plunge into the investigation, determined to find the real killer. But as they uncover secrets that rock the community, they become targets for the madman hiding in plain sight.

My Thoughts: Morgan Dane is the kind of character that inspires me, with her love of home, family, and justice. Despite the fact that she comes from a family of cops and plans to work for the DA’s office, she makes a decision that many do not understand. She agrees to defend her neighbor, Nick, arrested for the murder of Tessa, with whom he had a close relationship…because there is just something about him that makes his guilt seem impossible.

Her friend and new partner in the investigation, Lance Kruger, is not as sure of Nick’s innocence, but he is determined to stand by Morgan.

Before she is barely off the ground in the investigation, Morgan is confronted by numerous characters who threaten and shadow her. These actions convince her even more that she is getting close to the truth. Who will she finally pinpoint as the alternate suspect, the true criminal? What happened the night of the party, and who else might have seen what happened? I had my suspicions about several, but in the end, I didn’t guess who the perpetrator was.

There was danger, intensity, and a sense of political conspiracies afoot, all of which made Say You’re Sorry a page turner for me. There was also a growing romantic connection between Morgan and Lance, which they tried to fight. I am eager to see what the two of them will do next, in Book Two. 5 stars.***

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REVIEW: THE BLACKBIRD SEASON, BY KATE MORETTI

In a quiet Pennsylvania town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a high school baseball field, unleashing a horrifying and unexpected chain of events that will rock the close-knit community.

Beloved baseball coach and teacher Nate Winters and his wife, Alecia, are well respected throughout town. That is, until one of the many reporters investigating the bizarre bird phenomenon catches Nate embracing a wayward student, Lucia Hamm, in front of a sleazy motel. Lucia soon buoys the scandal by claiming that she and Nate are engaged in an affair, throwing the town into an uproar…and leaving Alecia to wonder if her husband has a second life.

And when Lucia suddenly disappears, the police only to have one suspect: Nate.

Nate’s coworker and sole supporter, Bridget Harris, Lucia’s creative writing teacher, is determined to prove his innocence. She has Lucia’s class journal, and while some of the entries appear particularly damning to Nate’s case, others just don’t add up. Bridget knows the key to Nate’s exoneration and the truth of Lucia’s disappearance lie within the walls of the school and in the pages of that journal.

My Thoughts: The alternating perspectives of Nate, Alecia, Bridget, Lucia…and others reeled me into The Blackbird Season, a dark tale that probes beneath the surface of small town life in Pennsylvania.

Could the golden boy Nate have crossed some lines while dealing with his students? Could his desire to help them have drawn him into a dark place? And what is behind his almost obsessive need to be liked by everyone?

As a result, I found myself not really liking Nate, who always seemed defensive and did not prioritize his family at all. However, there was also the possibility that more was hidden beneath the surface, and that others bore a great deal of responsibility for what happened to Lucia.

Bridget, of course, was his biggest supporter and the friendship that Alecia had once felt for her began to fizzle. How could Bridget blindly believe Nate when the evidence suggested otherwise?

And what was Lucia’s game? She seemed broken and who wouldn’t empathize? But her seductive, weird behavior bugged me. I don’t automatically believe the stories teenage girls tell. But it was also possible that some of what she said was true, even if there were lies and manipulations involved.

What would happen before the truth finally came out? I couldn’t stop reading, waiting for it all to unravel so we could see and understand. 5 stars.


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

REVIEW: LIES SHE TOLD, BY CATE HOLAHAN

 

The truth can be darker than fiction.

Liza Cole, a once-successful novelist whose career has seen better days, has one month to write the thriller that could land her back on the bestseller list. Meanwhile, she’s struggling to start a family, but her husband is distracted by the disappearance of his best friend, Nick. As stresses weigh her down in her professional and personal lives, Liza escapes into writing the chilling exploits of her latest heroine, Beth.

Beth, a new mother, suspects her husband is cheating on her while she’s home caring for their newborn. Angry and betrayed, she aims to catch him in the act and make him pay for shattering the illusion of their perfect life. But before she realizes what she’s doing, she’s tossing the body of her husband’s mistress into the East River.

Then, the lines between Liza’s fiction and her reality eerily blur. Nick’s body is dragged from the East River, and Liza’s husband is arrested for his murder. Before her deadline is up, Liza will have to face up to the truths about the people around her, including her own. If she doesn’t, the end of her heroine’s story could be the end of her own.

My Thoughts: In alternating narratives, we enter the worlds of Liza and Beth, and, at first, it seems as though Liza is simply creating a romantic suspense novel, even though she readily admits that her fiction is often based on composites of people and events in her own life. She says “to be a writer is to be a life thief. Every day, I rob myself blind.”

Sometimes events in her fictionalized world definitely mimic her life. She is worried about her marriage and she is on fertility drugs that render her emotional. And sometimes she has memory issues. Could she be mixing up events? Does her real life look too much like the fictional one? Could she have done something dreadful, and then forgotten about it?

It doesn’t help that both Liza’s husband David and fictional Beth’s husband Jake are liars…and probably cheaters. Or is everything skewed by Liza’s version of the truth?

I couldn’t stop reading Lies She Told. I loved going back and forth between the worlds of Liza and Beth, and trying to decide the truth of what had actually happened. Did David kill Nick, or has Liza done it and forgotten? Have all the actions she has attributed to Beth been her own? Is she even writing a book? Then we discover a buried secret from Liza’s childhood, one that definitely changes everything we thought we knew. An unputdownable book that earned 5 stars.

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

REVIEW: THE COMFORT OF SECRETS, BY CHRISTINE NOLFI

 

Cat Mendoza needs a win. After a business failure and years of dating the wrong men, she’s ready to turn things around.

First she must convince the residents of Sweet Lake, Ohio, that she’s taking her responsibilities seriously. As the events director of the newly restored Wayfair Inn, she has the support of her best friends, Linnie and Jada. But everyone else—including her overprotective mother and the well-meaning Sweet Lake Sirens—can’t help but chime in with advice about her plans, her apparently too-tight clothes, and her undeniable attraction to Ryan D’Angelo, the charming ad exec hired to promote the inn.

Cat knows she should keep Ryan at a distance, but she’s drawn closer by the heartbreak he tries to hide. Will uncovering his secrets derail the new life Cat hopes to achieve…or will she gain something to cherish forever?

My Thoughts: In The Comfort of Secrets, the second novel of the series, we are immersed in Cat’s thoughts and feelings. Her insecurities, her needs, and the frustration she feels at her mother’s over-protectiveness dominate the story, especially in the beginning. Meeting Ryan opens up her heart, but will she be forced to turn away from him?

The Sweet Lake Sirens are as pushy and annoying as ever, but beneath it all, their hearts are in the right place.

Ryan’s abusive childhood and his mother Julia’s fear of leaving Cincinnati, the city they now call home, has dropped a shadowy shroud over his need to find love and create his own family. But what additional secrets is Julia hiding from her son? How does her past converge finally in Sweet Lake?

Hovering over the story is a dark and shadowy figure encroaching on one of the Sirens…what is the connection between this individual and present day Sweet Lake? What other unexpected ghosts of the past will come together during a celebratory concert? As the danger increases, intense moments follow until finally, the secrets are revealed and we come to a very hopeful conclusion. 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: IT’S ALWAYS THE HUSBAND, BY MICHELE CAMPBELL

 

Kate, Aubrey, and Jenny first met as college roommates and soon became inseparable, despite being as different as three women can be. Kate was beautiful, wild, wealthy, and damaged. Aubrey, on financial aid, came from a broken home, and wanted more than anything to distance herself from her past. And Jenny was a striver—brilliant, ambitious, and determined to succeed. As an unlikely friendship formed, the three of them swore they would always be there for each other.

But twenty years later, one of them is standing at the edge of a bridge, and someone is urging her to jump.

How did it come to this?

Kate married the gorgeous party boy, Aubrey married up, and Jenny married the boy next door. But how can these three women love and hate each other? Can feelings this strong lead to murder?

When one of them dies under mysterious circumstances, will everyone assume, as is often the case, that it’s always the husband?


My Thoughts: In a story that begins with one of the women standing on the edge of a cliff, It’s Always the Husband takes us back and forth in time, from when the girls were roommates at Carlisle, in the Whipple House dorm. They became known as the Whipple Triplets, and oftentimes the moniker denoted their adventures, misdeeds, and dark habits.

Something happens one dark night: a death, lies, and a parting of the ways. The New Hampshire small-town setting kept me engaged, as did the consequences of that one night.

At first I liked Aubrey, feeling sorry for her plight and her attempts to measure up. Jenny was annoying, in that she often did whatever was necessary to be Kate’s best friend, with Kate’s father egging her on. But even she tried to do the right thing, only to be quashed in her attempt.

Kate was so damaged that I couldn’t imagine a scenario that would redeem her.

Twenty years later, I found nothing likable about any of them. The mystery would finally be revealed, and I kept guessing about who pushed one of them off the bridge as I read about the women in the present. There were plenty of suspects, and we watched behind-the-scenes machinations, only to be stunned in the end. Definitely a book that kept me reading, even as I lost interest in the characters before the final page. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE WILDLING SISTERS, BY EVE CHASE

 

Four sisters. One summer. A lifetime of secrets.
 
When fifteen-year-old Margot and her three sisters arrive at Applecote Manor in June 1959, they expect a quiet English country summer. Instead, they find their aunt and uncle still reeling from the disappearance of their daughter, Audrey, five years before. As the sisters become divided by new tensions when two handsome neighbors drop by, Margot finds herself drawn into the life Audrey left behind. When the summer takes a deadly turn, the girls must unite behind an unthinkable choice or find themselves torn apart forever.

Fifty years later, Jesse is desperate to move her family out of their London home, where signs of her widower husband’s previous wife are around every corner. Gorgeous Applecote Manor, nestled in the English countryside, seems the perfect solution. But Jesse finds herself increasingly isolated in their new sprawling home, at odds with her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, and haunted by the strange rumors that surround the manor.


My Thoughts: A story that weaves the past with the present while spotlighting those secrets, lies, and broken connections that make all the difference between happiness and pain, The Wildling Sisters captured my interest immediately.

We begin with a moment in time back in 1959, watching while something mysterious is happening with four sisters, struggling to hide something.

Fast forward to the present, to Jessie and Will, a newly blended family that includes Bella, a sulky teenage daughter from Will’s previous marriage, and Jessie and Will’s toddler Romy, adorable, cherished, and the object of Bella’s jealousy.

What brought each of these families to the country estate named Applecote Manor, that place where disturbing things happened in a long ago summer?

The four Wilde sisters, nicknamed The Wildlings by their uncle, are spending the summer there while their mother is working in Marrakech. They discover that their cousin Audrey’s disappearance five years before is a defining event that mars this new summer, and suddenly they are caught up in what can happen to a family after a significant loss…and trying to fill the holes in the tapestry of their lives with the answers they seek.

For Will and Jessie, they need to leave London, where Bella has gotten into trouble. They are hoping the country will be a peaceful place of healing. But Bella’s problems are much greater than they can even imagine.

As we travel back and forth in time, the pieces of the puzzle come together, along with a kind of closure. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, BY KAREN WHITE

 

Recently divorced, Merilee Talbot Dunlap moves with her two children to the Atlanta suburb of Sweet Apple, Georgia. It’s not her first time starting over, but her efforts at a new beginning aren’t helped by an anonymous local blog that dishes about the scandalous events that caused her marriage to fail.
 
Merilee finds some measure of peace in the cottage she is renting from town matriarch Sugar Prescott. Though stubborn and irascible, Sugar sees something of herself in Merilee—something that allows her to open up about her own colorful past.
 
Sugar’s stories give Merilee a different perspective on the town and its wealthy school moms in their tennis whites and shiny SUVs, and even on her new friendship with Heather Blackford. Merilee is charmed by the glamorous young mother’s seemingly perfect life and finds herself drawn into Heather’s world.
 
In a town like Sweet Apple, where sins and secrets are as likely to be found behind the walls of gated mansions as in the dark woods surrounding Merilee’s house, appearance is everything. But just how dangerous that deception can be will shock all three women….

MY THOUGHTS:
Small town Southern life feels familiar to me, having lived in such places, even when they were not actually in the South. Folks who migrate from that part of the world carry their values and traditions with them, along with the secrets of the past, and creating a mini-Southern enclave wherever they are.

Secrets are a core theme in The Night the Lights Went Out, and we have a couple of the characters that share some of their secrets, a bit at a time, as alternating narrators. Sugar, the ninety-something matriarch is technically Merilee’s landlord, but as time and secret-sharing bring them closer together, we see that a very strong bond is forming.

I loved Sugar, who reminded me of my feisty grandmothers. And like them, she knew how to hold a secret close…until its revelation would strengthen a friendship or save a life.

Heather was a character that I disliked from the beginning. First, because nobody is all that perfect and seemingly one’s best friend without an agenda. I worried about how willingly Merilee gave over her friendship to this woman, but it would be a while before we saw what was really going on behind that façade.

Alternating with Sugar and Merilee’s narratives are blog posts from an anonymous source, entitled “Your Neighbor.” A site that seems like a gossip fest soon reveals itself for its tidbits of wisdom, including Southern Sayings, interpreted for those who are new to them.

This intense story turned dark and threatening and kept me turning pages until the startling revelations and the delightful denouement, thus earning 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: VIVIAN IN RED, BY KRISTINA RIGGLE

 

Famed Broadway producer Milo Short may be eighty-eight but that doesn’t stop him from going to the office every day. So when he steps out of his Upper West Side brownstone on one exceptionally hot morning, he’s not expecting to see the impossible: a woman from his life sixty years ago, cherry red lips, bright red hat, winking at him on a New York sidewalk, looking just as beautiful as she did back in 1934.

The sight causes him to suffer a stroke. And when he comes to, the renowned lyricist discovers he has lost the ability to communicate. Milo believes he must unravel his complicated history with Vivian Adair in order to win back his words. But he needs help—in the form of his granddaughter Eleanor—failed journalist and family misfit. Tapped to write her grandfather’s definitive biography, Eleanor must dig into Milo’s colorful past to discover the real story behind Milo’s greatest song Love Me, I Guess, and the mysterious woman who inspired an amazing life.

MY THOUGHTS:
A dual time line story with a mystery at its core, Vivian in Red captured my interest immediately. Why did the vision of Vivian Adair topple poor Milo, and catapult him into the past via visions he now sees and cannot describe, as he has lost his voice?

Granddaughter Eleanor is aware of the visions, although she does not know the meaning. She may be onto something, however, as a stranger named Alexander has called to ask about Milo, and to suggest a more than passing connection between Milo and Vivian.

I liked how the story unfolded by showing us moments in the past, along with Eleanor’s searches from the present while interviewing Milo as best she can. Through gestures and yes and no questions, she finds out more than any of the others have managed. I felt a connection with Eleanor, the grandchild without parents, the condescension she feels from the aunts, uncles, and cousins. The one they now turn to for this final tribute to Milo: a biography that will come out at the same time as a musical revival from the past.

Milo’s son Paul and daughter Rebekah were annoying in the way they demanded things from Eleanor, so I was happy when she started standing up for herself, making them realize that she will do what she can, but at her own pace.

Her boyfriend Daniel has left her, so moving into her grandfather’s home feels right. While interviewing Milo and doing her research, she has time to ponder her choices.

From the glimpses into the past that revealed Vivian’s layers, I had mixed feelings about her. She seemed like a manipulative user who somehow captivated Milo, and is now holding him hostage in his silence. What were the secrets between them? How can Milo be freed from the past? Another brilliant book from an author I enjoy, this one earned 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE ROANOKE GIRLS, BY AMY ENGEL

 

“Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.”

After her mother’s suicide, fifteen year-old Lane Roanoke came to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin, Allegra, on their vast estate in rural Kansas. Lane knew little of her mother’s mysterious family, but she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. But when she discovered the dark truth at the heart of the family, she ran…fast and far away.

Eleven years later, Lane is adrift in Los Angeles when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing. Did she run too? Or something worse? Unable to resist his pleas, Lane returns to help search, and to ease her guilt at having left Allegra behind. Her homecoming may mean a second chance with the boyfriend whose heart she broke that long ago summer. But it also means facing the devastating secret that made her flee, one she may not be strong enough to run from again.

MY THOUGHTS:
It was not difficult to figure out the darkness hiding behind the walls of the beautiful estate called Roanoke. The charismatic grandfather/father, Yates Roanoke, had a way about him, a way that drew the girls to him. They were all wounded in one way or another, and his kind of love felt better than no love at all. Their mothers had died or run away, and they were left behind, not believing they were worthy of love. And Yates was there, promising them love and protection from the outside world.

Allegra was probably the most wounded, as her mother left when she was only a couple of months old. She knew she was not destined for a normal life, but she still loved having control over her lover Tommy, luxuriating in the belief that she could have him any time she wanted.

Lane’s mother, Camilla, had left when she was pregnant with her. They were together for sixteen years, but Lane never felt loved. She sensed that there was something dark about Roanoke that her mother would not talk about. It would be years later before she learned why her mother couldn’t seem to love her.

Narrated in the first person voice of Lane, The Roanoke Girls weaves back and forth in time, sometimes in a repetitive way, inserting brief snippets about the previous generation: Sophia, Penelope, Eleanor, Camilla, and little Emmeline. We learn about the summer Lane came to Roanoke for the first time, at age sixteen, and why she fled after that brief period, holding her own secrets close to her heart.

Coming back to search for Allegra will resurrect all the pain of the past. Will she find closure? Or will she simply experience, once again, the powerful pull of darkness that has kept all the girls fragile and in a suspended childhood world?

What happened to Allegra? Did she, too, run away, or did something nefarious happen to her? Why did Tommy’s jealous wife Sarah come to see Allegra only hours before she disappeared? Will the police find the answers, or will another secret be locked away behind the walls of Roanoke? 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.

***