The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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I admit, I started reading this about three times and just couldn’t get into it…the couple, Anne and Marcos, just didn’t interest me, with their perfect neighborhood and darling baby girl. And then, last week, I was in the mountains, miles from anywhere, with nothing to do but read and hike and look at/listen to the river. So, after a couple of days of hiking and listening to/looking at the river, I picked it up and started reading, and I was hooked pretty quickly.

Oh, and BTW, I am a big fan of what I guess you might call domestic psychological thrillers (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc.) so I was happy to receive an advance copy of this title from?? And NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The story is that Anne and Marco have been invited to a dinner party by their next-door neighbors, Cynthia and Graham Stilwell, to celebrate Graham’s birthday. Cynthia has made it clear it is to be an adults-only evening, so when the babysitter who was scheduled to sit with baby Cora cancels on Anne and Marco, they decide to leave Cora alone with a baby monitor, and agree to check on her every half hour, and off they go (you can see where this is going, right??). The residences are in a townhouse complex, they will be right on the other side of the wall – what could possibly go wrong?

Everything goes according along fine until the parents, who are by now tired and semi-drunk return home around 1:30a.m. to find the front door ajar and Baby Cora missing. Cora is only 6 months old, so obviously she didn’t leave on her own.

Anne falls apart, Marco is paralyzed, but finally Anne recovers and the police are called. Detective Rasbach then has to try to determine what actually happened: is the baby dead or alive? Is one of the supposedly distraught parents responsible? Or covering up somehow? Was there a kidnapping? Perhaps an opportunistic crime or something that was carefully planned? Most of the suspects are inconsistent as they tell their stories (that unreliable narrator again, common in this genre, and sometimes kind of clunky, but in this book, very well done, IMHO).
There are lots of twists and turns, lies, all leading up to the final twist.

Lapena’s writing is brisk, the plot moves quickly, and the character development is quite good. Overall, this was a fast, fun puzzle. I’m not usually good at figuring out mysteries, but I did figure out at least one of them fairly early on. Even so, I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy the genre, or anyone looking for entertainment and something to take your mind off the election for awhile.

Four plus stars.

 

The Things We Wish Were True by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

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The Things We Wish Were True, by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen, is a classic beach read. It tells the story of Sycamore Glen, North Carolina, where it is summertime, and everyone spends time at the neighborhood pool, talking to and about each other. Along the way, some old secrets come to light, some new mysteries are solved, and lots of people get to know other people even better than they already do/did.

Sycamore Glen seems to be the whitest community on the planet. Not sure about this, but everyone seemed shiny white and presentable, except for the obvious creepy guy, or guys.

There are LOTS of chapters, and at first I was struggling keeping everyone and their kids straight, but soon I could recall that Jencey’s kids were Pilar and Zara, and Cailey’s brother is Cutter, and Zell is the neighbor everyone wants to have, or at least to talk to.

It’s fluff, but entertaining fluff. Not my genre, but I give it four stars because it held my interest, there was some suspense (although I figured out one of the main mysteries VERY early on, and I am TERRIBLE at that), the many characters were well-developed, and it took my mind off the election (although I was thinking, Sycamore Glen is sort of the Mayberry-esque America that some people want to return to – whiter than white)

In any case, much gratitude to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing an advance copy of this fun read, four stars.

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World sounded like a good candidate for escapist reading…a story about sisters, seduction, family, secrets. What’s not to like, right? I am pretty sure I haven’t read anything by Leavitt before, so my expectation level was at zero, and I admit this one stayed in my TBR pile for a couple of months. But, since the official publication date isn’t til October, I guess I kept thinking I had plenty of time. Once I got into it, the story had me hooked, and I pretty much read nonstop til I was finished. Some might call this one Chick lit, or Soap Opera…but it is borderline thriller with family saga thrown in for good measure, and I admit I liked it way more than I expected I was going to.

There are three central characters, including Iris, who learned at an early age about the profound impact sadness could have on a family when her father abandoned the family to run off with a waitress. They never quite recovered, and Leavitt describes the emotions beautifully: “Iris saw how her mother suffered, how her sadness seeped through the walls, held there like a stain.” Iris yearned to be happily married, and had dreams of travel and adventure…but soon after she married, the marriage turned out not to be at all what she dreamed of, and she and her husband ended up living as friends for years. Just when it looked like Iris would be able to start enjoying her own life, she is asked to take in two young orphaned sisters, who are coming into the whole teenage experience in the 1960s and early 70s (which Leavitt incorporates into the story beautifully).

The crux of the story involves the impact of a somewhat impulsive decision made by 16-year-old Lucy, who runs away to another state to live off the land with an older guy. This decision makes sense to her at the time, but is devastating to both her older sister Charlotte and Iris, especially when Lucy’s guy refuses to allow her to have any contact with them. There is just the right amount of creepiness in the relationship between Lucy and her guy to make the reader suspect things aren’t going to turn out well…and the story is spooled out deftly, with mounting suspense and surprises along the way.

There are tons of things going on, with lots of secrets revealed, some suspense, and plenty of characters to meet along the way The ending was a tiny bit contrived, but made sense given the overall tone and Leavitt’s style. It’s not heavy literature, but it’s an engrossing story with lots of topics for discussion, so would be a good pick for a book club that isn’t into heavy lifting. With thanks to NetGalley and Algonquin for an advance reading copy in exchange for my honest review, I give this one four enthusiastic stars (it would be five if this were one of my favorite genres, and for many readers, it will definitely be a five-star read!).

The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke

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This book is part of the Holland family saga. Back in 1835, Sam Holland escaped from prison, fighting in the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. Sam’s grandson, Hackberry Holland, was a Texas Ranger. Hackberry’s grandson, Aaron Holland Broussard, is the star of this latest tale, set in Texas in 1952.

The Jealous Kind is told from 17-year old Aaron’s perspective. He sees the beautiful (of course!) Valerie Epstein fighting with her boyfriend, Grady Harrelson, at a Galveston drive-in, and steps in. He doesn’t realize that by doing this, he is challenging the power of one of the richest families in Texas, as well as the Mob. And things take off from there, down a very winding road!

Along the way, Aaron gets involved with lots of people who all seem to have a ton of baggage and many also have nasty motivations. Some of the characters seems to bounce between good and evil, and there are lots of confrontations (there is a lot of testosterone flowing, for sure). Aaron has a strong moral compass, and is clearly the glue that holds this whole story together. He may remind some readers familiar with Burke’s work of a young Dave Robicheaux.

Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of JLB but my husband is – he LOVES this author. So, the rating comes from him more than from me. I (we) give it five stars, with thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

The Twenty-three by Linwood Barclay

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I really enjoyed the first two novels in the Promise Falls Trilogy by Linwood Barclay, Broken Promise (2015) and Far From True (2016). There were some things left hanging at the end of the most recent one, so I was happy to have the opportunity to receive an advance copy in exchange with my honest review (thank you, NetGalley and Berkley Publishing!!)

As this story opens, it hasn’t been too long since the disastrous events of Far From True (including the fatal collapse of the drive-in theater screen). It’s now Memorial Day weekend, and on Saturday hundreds of people start showing up at the local hospital with what first looks like flu…then dozens die. It looks to many like the water supply is tainted, but the motive isn’t clear.

Familiar characters (to those who have read the prior novels in the series) crop up: Private investigator Cal Weaver, police Detective Barry Duckworth, former reporter David Harwood, and the somewhat sleazy former mayor, whose ownership of the local spring water bottling company puts him in line to profit from the disaster). There is also the return of “23,” which is seen in several places: bloody mannequins are found in car #23 of the ferris wheel at an abandoned amusement park, 23 squirrels are killed, a buse is set on fire and sent down the road with #23 painted on it…and it’s May 23rd.

In addition to the plague-like outbreak, a college student is found dead, and the death is reminiscent of the deaths of other women in town. Things start to add up, but there seem to be many possibilities for murderer and motive. Can’t say too much more without spoiling something for someone, but for fans of mystery, psychological suspense, and Linwood Barclay, this one is a good choice.

I appreciated the varied points of view, and while I am usually not a big fan of many short chapters, it seems to work well in this case. I expected complete resolution to EVERYTHING, being the third in a trilogy, but there may be room to tell more stories about the people and events in Promise Falls.

While it is a trilogy, each of the books works as a standalone, so don’t be hesitant to read this because you haven’t read the first two in the series. I don’t know how to give this one 4.5 stars, and it isn’t quite a 5-star for me (as a teacher I was sort of known as a tough grader!), so this one ends up at four stars…even though it’s really better than that.

The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti

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I admit, the thing that initially compelled me to dive into this book in a frenzy of “oh-please-let-this-be-a-story-that-makes-me-unable-to-stop-reading-til-I-have-finished-it” were the strong quotes from Mary Kubica and Heather Gudenkauf praising it. I have enjoyed some of their psychological thrillers, so I figured, “YES! I HAVE ONE!!!!”

The protagonist, Zoe Whittaker, lives a life that, to all outward appearances, is perfect. She moved to New York, found a job in a florist shop where she met a handsome, wealthy Wall Street bigwig, and then was swept off her feet and quickly married (very Henry Higgins) They live at a prestigious address in a penthouse, have a country house on a lake, and spend time traveling, enjoying fine dining and wine. Zoe is a bit bored, and spends time at a child-focused philanthropic organization in addition to pondering her mysterious past and wanting to locate her birth mother.

The story unspools gradually (perhaps a bit TOO slowly for those readers who like their thrillers to grab them at the get-go and never let up), and we learn that Zoe is a liar…just a bit at first, as she is bristling at her husband’s controlling behavior, but she seems good at it: “The lie feels good, fits like a well-made winter coat.”

The outline of the story is familiar: young beautiful woman who isn’t who or what she appears to be, damsel in distress, ominous mysterious past, blah blah blah. What I really liked about it, despite this oft-used device, was the way Moretti portrays Zoe’s unhealthy relationship: she rationalizes and defends her husband and the subtle hints at just how unhealthy this relationship really is hook the reader and keep the story moving along. About halfway through, there is a sort of “WTF?” moment, then things start getting really strange. There is a bit of a requirement for willing suspension of disbelief, but overall the plot is nicely twisty, the characters are well developed, and I would definitely look for other titles by this author.

Can’t say much more without giving out spoilers, which I hate! Four stars, and thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.