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.

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.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

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In her mid-20s, Arden Arrowood has inherited the family home on the banks of the Mississippi River in Keokuk, Iowa, where she lived as a child. When she was just eight years old, she was in the front yard of the elegant home, watching her twin sisters, Violet and Tabitha, who were almost two years old. She turned her back for just a moment, and the girls disappeared They were presumed to have been kidnapped based on Arden’s recollection of something she saw.

Described as a “gothic mystery,” the story is captivating from the start, and the characters are vividly drawn. Arden’s mother, who remarried a religious guy, “played the part of a pastor’s wife with the convincing zeal of a prescandal of Tammy Faye Bakker.” The setting is important as well, and I loved McHugh’s description: “…the dismal towns where we’d drifted after Keokuk. I’d look out my window at scrub brush or empty fields or a parking lot and find nothing large enough or strong enough to anchor me. Nothing outside but miles between me and the river and home.” And “It appeared to be a trend in Keokuk, and maybe in all the other small, dying towns across the heartland: churches taking over abandoned retail space. Jobs trickled out and God seeped in to fill the void.”
At the time she inherits the house, Arden’s life has fallen apart: She can’t finish her master’s thesis, and she is miserable after a breakup. She has held on to the hope that her sisters are still alive, and she can’t she can’t seem to move forward until she finds them. When she arrives in town, she is welcomed back by her old neighbor and first love, Ben Ferris, whose family seems to know more about the Arrowoods’ secrets than she realized. With the help of a young amateur investigator, Arden tracks down the man who was the prime suspect in the kidnapping. She eventually finds out the devastating truth in a mysterious story that examines the ways in which memories impact our lives.
Although I wasn’t wild about the resolution or the ending, I enjoyed the experience of reading this, and will look for future work from Ms. McHugh. Recommended for anyone who likes mysteries or psychological thrillers. Four stars, and thanks to Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford

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All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford grabbed me for two reasons: first there was the teaser I read: “This is about three deaths. Actually more, if you go back far enough. I say deaths, but perhaps all of them were murders. It’s a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s just call them deaths and say I was involved. This story could be told a hundred different ways.” And second, the author’s name (one which in my ignorance I had never ever heard or see before, and I had no clue how to pronounce it, and I just HAD to know…sort of like T. Coraghessan Boyle, you know?)

This is one of what seems like a dozen books I have read recently that involve a young woman, a mysterious death/disappearance, a slowly revealed history of said character/town/whatever (in this case, University), and a possibly unreliable narrator. In this one, we have Penelope (Pen) Sheppard, who goes away to University, where she hopes to begin a new life. Within six months, three of her new friends are dead. She goes back home, and we learn she is the victim of a violent trauma and is once again a pariah in her hometown (as she felt she was before she left for school). She goes to her shrink to get his signature or whatever it takes to approve funds (I think; I am a bit unclear on why she was unburdening herself in this way, but was too caught up in the story to go back and try to understand motivations – I wanted to know what was going to HAPPEN!) She has to tell her story to her shrink and to the police, and it is revealed in both narrative and diary form.

We learn both about her backstory (why was she such a pariah in her hometown? What happened back there, anyway?) and about a prowler on campus attacking students and rival drug-dealing students. And there are the requisite (in a story set largely at a University) naive young people determined to do whatever it takes to fit in (I had just re-read Donna Tartt’s Secret History, and saw some similarities). Yikes! Parentheses gone wild!

The plotting is complex, and there are some fascinating characters. But Pen was the best: although she may or may not be unreliable as a narrator, she was honest in her diary…I think. Possibly not so much with those to whom she was telling her story. Mystery!

Like the aforementioned Secret History, this book dives into questions of morality and justice, with foggy lines between right and wrong. I didn’t see the end coming, and I don’t really know how I feel about it. As noted by others, the story feels a bit unfinished. If Clifford is planning a sequel, I think many readers would be happy to read it. Oh, and BTW, her name is pronounced “eee-fuh”! Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of All These Perfect Strangers, four stars!

 

Watching Edie by Camilla Way

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This is another one of those CREEPY psychological thrillers involving young women who were friends as teenagers, then they lose contact, and years later they reconnect with more or less unpleasant results.

In this one, Heather and Edie are the two main characters. The novel is definitely creepy and it all leads to a horrifying conclusion. I have to say, I admire the skill of the author, but I just didn’t care about either of the two main characters while I was reading…and yet, I found myself thinking about the way we all have baggage from earlier selves, and either from our own or others’ actions. The way our younger selves and experiences of our earlier years inform our situations and choices as adults is usually interesting and worthy of a closer look.

I will read this author’s future books, because she is skilled at plot development and I love a good psychological thriller…I just hope I care more about at least one of the characters in her next book. Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of this in exchange for my honest three-star review.

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

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In so many ways, I loved this book…as I hoped and somewhat expected, being a Quindlen fan. It is filled with people who are so well-developed, they were incredibly real to me as I read, thanks to Quindlen’s  familiar skill at developing characters in her “family fiction.”

The protagonist, known as Mimi (real name Mary Margaret), is a 65-year old woman with a boatload of memories and secrets…as is the case in many families. She grew up in a river valley, on a farm that has been in her family for a century or more. The story unfolds in a way that builds suspense, and makes us wonder about the upcoming “big reveal” – clearly, there is a huge secret buried deeply. How else to explain the family dynamics: Mimi’s parents live in a house on the farm, subsisting on a meager income (selling corn at a roadside stand, plus Ruth’s mother’s salary from her nursing job). Mimi’s maternal aunt Ruth lives in a separate house behind the house where Mimi’s family lives – and the sisters never speak to each other. Plus, Ruth NEVER leaves her house. Mimi’s family handles everything for Ruth, including meals, shopping, etc. And as time goes on, Mimi’s father spends more and more time with Ruth…

Mimi had two brothers, Tom (favored by her mother) who was much older and Eddie. The family basically supports Ruth both financially and in every other way, cooking for her, shopping, etc. Tom went into the military, and Mimi missed him terribly: “Since he’d left the house had seemed like a baby’s rattle with all the jingly things inside gone.”

We learn early on a bit about Mimi’s character and the fact that there is something that will be revealed in this story, as she says “It’s so easy to be wrong about the things you’re close to. I know that now. I learned that then. “ Mimi describes people in vivid terms, as when speaking about her friends LA Rhonda and Donald: “Donald’s personality was like vanilla ice cream, and LA Rhonda was like that weird Neapolitan kind, with the layers of strawberry and vanilla and chocolate, that turned a tan color when it melted in your bowl…” Both LaRhonda and Donald figure in Mimi’s life throughout the story, and Mimi is clearly less than impressed with the adult LaRhonda, as she describes the way that “Even at Little League she had on expensive sunglasses and a purse that looked like it was made out of unborn calves.” I swear, I KNOW many of these people! And I love Quindlen’s ability to bring out the common weirdness of townspeople and the unique weirdness in a family. I once had a friend who said “if you think you know a family that is the perfect sort of Donna Reed family, you just don’t know them well enough.” Perhaps. Certainly the Millers have more than their share of hidden relationships, events, secrets, etc.

Their valley is a prime target for development, and “the government” aims to dam the river and flood their valley. The view of the development prospect is clear as Mimi describes new housing that has gone in, possibly a portent of what is to come for their land: “Thirty-five acres had been clear-cut. They’d done what developers always did, turned it into a tree desert.”

With all the weirdness and family drama that surrounds her, Mimi might have become one of those lost souls who are trapped in ongoing misery. Fortunately for her, she has a teacher who encourages her to aim for something beyond a life in the Valley. There is way too much potential to spoil the story, but suffice it to say Mimi makes astonishing discoveries and unravels secrets about her family. In the end, she concludes, “No one ever leaves the town where they grew up, not really, even if they go.”

Lots of questions arise: what is the nature of truth, especially when family members each have their own version? Should some secrets remain buried? Is it the responsibility of a capable family member to remain and care for family members who seemingly cannot care for themselves? Or is it right for them to go off and make their own life?

Would be a good book club pick, I think. It’s not heavy literature, but it is very enjoyable, and thought-provoking. Highly recommended. Five stars, and thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in return for my honest review.

 

Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf

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Sarah and Jack Quinlan have been married for two decades, and they live in Montana with their twin daughters, age 18. So Sarah would think she knows Jack VERY well. But, when they get a phone call that Jack’s aunt in the Midwest has taken a bad fall and may be near death, they fly back – the first time Jack has been home in over 20 years!

Sarah had heard the version of Jack’s younger years that had his parent dying in a car crash and Jack and his sister Amy being raised by their aunt (now dying). When the Quinlans leave their home in idyllic Larkspur Lake, Montana and go to the rural hamlet of Penny Gate where Jack grew up, secrets begin to emerge from the shadows. They arrive to see his aunt die while his sister Amy (who has fallen on hard times) stands vigil at the hospital.

We learn that Jack’s mother didn’t actually die in a car crash, but suffered a similar fate to her sister (Jack’s beloved aunt) with fatal repercussions, followed shortly by the disappearance of Jack’s father – of course, everyone assumes he murdered his wife then hit the road. Dad’s whereabouts and the question of his guilt have yet to be answered.

Amy becomes the prime suspect in their aunt’s death, but Jack is also a suspect due to his adolescent rebellion and his well-known family quarrels over his girlfriend Celia who later married his cousin Dean. Dean is also a suspect, as is his father Hal.

Sarah is reeling as she learns about the number and seriousness of Jack’s secrets and she decides to solve the mystery, both to clear Jack who is a prime suspect and to find out just what really happened when his mother died. in a freak incident in 1985. Somebody is sending her threatening emails. Whoever is sending the emails plainly knows Sarah is an anonymous advice columnist for her small town paper in Montana. Very few people know her undercover identity, so whoever is targeting people in Jack’s family may be targeting her.

The list of suspects is loooooong, and Sarah feels alone as she tries to figure things out, with the help of Margaret Dooley, who works in the sheriff’s office and becomes the one person Sarah feels she can trust. Soon, Sarah is targeted by someone, but it’s not at all clear who that person (or persons) might be…

This book definitely lived up to the description of page turner! Admittedly, I am not the best at figuring out mysteries, but it really did kept me guessing until near the end.

I haven’t been a huge Heather Gudenkauf fan before this, but I enjoyed this and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read. Despite the somewhat familiar plot technique of returning to a hometown and having family secrets erupt, which I thought might make it somewhat derivative/boring, I think it was well done, and appreciate receiving an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my review. Four stars.