REVIEW: SHELTER MOUNTAIN, BY ROBYN CARR

For the second time in a year, a woman arrives in the small town of Virgin River trying to escape her past.

John “Preacher” Middleton is about to close the bar when a young woman and her three-year-old son come in out of the wet October night. A marine who has seen his share of pain, Preacher knows a crisis when he sees one—the woman is covered in bruises. He wants to protect them, and to punish whoever did this, but he knows immediately that this is more than just instinct. Paige Lassiter has stirred up emotions in this gentle giant of a man—emotions that he has never allowed himself to feel.

Then Paige’s ex-husband turns up in Virgin River. And if there’s one thing the marines’ motto of Semper Fi—always faithful—has taught Preacher, it’s that some things are worth fighting for.

Eagerly I began devouring the story in Shelter Mountain, as I had met some of the characters in the first book of the series and already developed a soft spot for the inhabitants of the little mountain community. Some of the original characters had returned for this outing, and I had an additional connection to them from watching the first season of the Netflix adaptation of Virgin River.

When you hear the expression “it takes a village,” you might think of a community like Virgin River, where the residents are protective and nurturing. You might also decide that some of them are nosy and too much “up in my business,” but at the end of the day, you would probably overlook that quality.

My favorite characters are Jack, Mel, and Preacher…and after reading this book, I know I will want to spend more time with them all.

I liked how Paige, a new character, came into the story and brought the issue of domestic violence into the mix. An especially relevant theme for characters who are protective and nurturing.

Now I can’t wait to continue all the stories with characters I love. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: NORMAL PEOPLE, BY SALLY ROONEY

Connell and Marianne grew up in the same small town, but the similarities end there. At school, Connell is popular and well liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation—awkward but electrifying—something life changing begins.

A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.

There was something very painful about watching the way Connell and Marianne came together and pulled apart over time. The push and pull of their connection to one another was like a dance, but one that was awkward and hurtful. Normal People felt so ironic, in that the two of them seemed to go out of their way to avoid connecting with each other.

Their inability to communicate their true feelings felt like a phase in the beginning since the young often cannot say what they truly mean to one another. Their near misses could “normally” be this off in the adolescent stages, but these two kept up their blundering and stumbling shuffle for many years, well into college and beyond.

Their disparate backgrounds and dysfunctional families did not help them learn better ways to be together, but in the end, I gave a painful sigh when they stumbled upon ways to talk to one another in a halting fashion. Finally.

This book was difficult to read, not only because of the constantly shifting emotions, but the writing style was off-putting, with its absence of quotation marks that made the communication seem even more challenging to follow. A worthwhile read, once the reader gets through the “stumbling” parts. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: MARILYN MONROE: THE PRIVATE LIFE OF A PUBLIC ICON, BY CHARLES CASILLO

 

Based on new interviews and research, this ground-breaking biography explores the secret selves behind Marilyn Monroe’s public facades.

Marilyn Monroe. Her beauty still captivates. Her love life still fascinates. Her story still dominates popular culture. Now, drawing on years of research and dozens of new interviews, this biography cuts through decades of lies and secrets and introduces you to the Marilyn Monroe you always wanted to know: a living, breathing, complex woman, bewitching and maddening, brilliant yet flawed.

Charles Casillo studies Monroe’s life through the context of her times―in the days before feminism. Before there was adequate treatment for Marilyn’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Starting with her abusive childhood, this biography exposes how―in spite of her fractured psyche―Marilyn’s extreme ambition inspired her to transform each celebrated love affair and each tragedy into another step in her journey towards immortality. Casillo fully explores the last two years of her life, including her involvement with both John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, and the mystery of her last day.

 

My Thoughts: I was a teenager on the night Marilyn died, watching TV with my cousin at her house. When a celebrity leaves us in a tragic way, we often recall where we were and what we were doing.

Since then, I have read other accounts of her life and her sad childhood, and how she struggled to achieve success, while seeking love, family, and respect for her work.

Toward the end of Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon, the author shares a series of “what if” moments, miscommunications between friends, and even some tragic mistakes made by the psychiatrists involving medication. These thoughts left me very sad for this vulnerable and lonely woman. The author’s account, with numerous details presented beautifully, kept me engaged throughout. I liked these parting remarks: “Loved by millions but feeling let down and alone, on a warm summer night, she went out as the most sensational movie star of the twentieth century. She is perfected and frozen in time: beautiful, vulnerable, impenetrable, delicious—forever our white goddess.” 5 stars.

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REVIEW: THE CONFESSION CLUB, BY ELIZABETH BERG

 

When a group of friends in Mason, Missouri, decide to start a monthly supper club, they get more than they bargained for. The plan for congenial evenings—talking, laughing, and sharing recipes, homemade food, and wine—abruptly changes course one night when one of the women reveals something startlingly intimate. The supper club then becomes Confession Club, and the women gather weekly to share not only dinners but embarrassing misdeeds, deep insecurities, and long-held regrets.

They invite Iris Winters and Maddy Harris to join, and their timing couldn’t be better. Iris is conflicted about her feelings for a charming but troubled man, and Maddy has come back home from New York to escape a problem too big to handle alone. The club offers exactly the kind of support they need to help them make some difficult decisions.

 

My Thoughts: The Confession Club, the third in the Mason series, is full of characters that feel so real that I can’t wait to see what each one will do. I liked that characters from previous books show up in this newest outing. Maddy has been featured in each book, and I’ve loved seeing how she has grown with time and her challenges. Iris is another favorite, brought forward from a previous book.

John is a new character, and I was eager to see what would develop with him.

In the supper club meetings, we learn more about each character, their personalities distinctive and on display.

The author grabbed me from the very beginning, so reading along and seeing what would happen next felt a lot like spending time with friends. Another delightful journey with the residents of Mason. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE GRAMMARIANS, BY CATHLEEN SCHINE

 

The Grammarians are Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, identical, inseparable redheaded twins who share an obsession with words. They speak a secret “twin” tongue of their own as toddlers; as adults making their way in 1980s Manhattan, their verbal infatuation continues, but this love, which has always bound them together, begins instead to push them apart. Daphne, copy editor and grammar columnist, devotes herself to preserving the dignity and elegance of Standard English. Laurel, who gives up teaching kindergarten to write poetry, is drawn, instead, to the polymorphous, chameleon nature of the written and spoken word. Their fraying twinship finally shreds completely when the sisters go to war, absurdly but passionately, over custody of their most prized family heirloom: Merriam Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition.

My Thoughts: The story of Laurel and Daphne, identical twins, shows their lives and its ups and downs, from the extreme closeness of their childhood to the rifts that came in adulthood. The Grammarians was a story about family, about words, about the stories told by the people in a family when they’re trying to make sense of their relationships.

I loved how the big Webster dictionary given to the girls at an early age held pride of place on its own stand and came to represent the important themes of their lives. Almost like another member of their family. In the end, we come to imagine how their lives will unfold and how the rifts will heal, and what will finally bring them together again. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: “TWENTY-ONE TRUTHS ABOUT LOVE,” BY MATTHEW DICKS

 

 

Daniel Mayrock’s life is at a crossroads. He knows the following to be true:

1. He loves his wife Jill… more than anything.
2. He only regrets quitting his job and opening a bookshop a little (maybe more than a little)
3. Jill is ready to have a baby.
4. The bookshop isn’t doing well. Financial crisis is imminent. Dan doesn’t know how to fix it.
5. Dan hasn’t told Jill about their financial trouble.
6. Then Jill gets pregnant.

This heartfelt story is about the lengths one man will go to and the risks he will take to save his family. But Dan doesn’t just want to save his failing bookstore and his family’s finances:

1. Dan wants to do something special.
2. He’s a man who is tired of feeling ordinary.
3. He’s sick of feeling like a failure.
4. He doesn’t want to live in the shadow of his wife’s deceased first husband.

Dan is also an obsessive list maker; his story unfolds entirely in his lists, which are brimming with Dan’s hilarious sense of humor, unique world-view, and deeply personal thoughts. When read in full, his lists paint a picture of a man struggling to be a man, a man who has reached a point where he’s willing to do anything for the love (and soon-to-be new love) of his life.

 

 

My Thoughts:  While I am also a list maker, I did not connect that well with this book of lists. The narrator’s lists were intriguing, but after reading just a few chapters, I was feeling overwhelmed and a little bored.

I recommend Twenty-One Truths About Love for those who might enjoy this format. Perhaps I would love it at another point in my life, but right now, my own life is about lists and appointments. Need I say more?  3 stars.

***I received my e-ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

 

REVIEW: 29 SECONDS, BY T. M. LOGAN

 

“Give me one name. One person. And I will make them disappear.”

Sarah is a young professor struggling to prove herself in a workplace controlled by the charming and manipulative Alan Hawthorne. A renowned scholar and television host, Hawthorne rakes in million-dollar grants for the university where Sarah works—so his inappropriate treatment of female colleagues behind closed doors has gone unchallenged for years. And Sarah is his newest target.

When Hawthorne’s advances become threatening, Sarah is left with nowhere to turn. Until the night she witnesses an attempted kidnapping of a young child on her drive home, and impulsively jumps in to intervene. The child’s father turns out to be a successful businessman with dangerous connections—and her act of bravery has put this powerful man in her debt. He gives Sarah a burner phone and an unbelievable offer. A once-in-a-lifetime deal that can make all her problems disappear.

No consequences. No traces. All it takes is a 29-second phone call.

Because everyone has a name to give. Don’t they?

My Thoughts: A ripped-from-the- headlines story, 29 Seconds gripped me from the very beginning. The intensity of Sarah’s situation as a target of a manipulative and predatory department head at the university where she teaches kept me rapidly turning pages, wondering where she would turn next.

Her bravery in intercepting a kidnapper and saving a child led to a situation that seemed too good to be true. How would a grateful wealthy man somehow pay the debt he believes he owes her? What would go wrong?

At every turn, I was furious at how the evil Alan Hawthorne managed to escape consequences for his actions, so I was intent on rooting for Sarah in her various attempts to outsmart him. When she finally has no other options, she takes on the complicated task of turning the tables on him, with a little help from some technologically adept assistants. I couldn’t anticipate how it would all play out until the final pages, so I couldn’t stop reading. 5 stars.

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

REVIEW: GOOD LUCK WITH THAT, BY KRISTAN HIGGINS

 

Emerson, Georgia, and Marley have been best friends ever since they met at a weight-loss camp as teens. When Emerson tragically passes away, she leaves one final wish for her best friends: to conquer the fears they still carry as adults.

For each of them, that means something different. For Marley, it’s coming to terms with the survivor’s guilt she’s carried around since her twin sister’s death, which has left her blind to the real chance for romance in her life. For Georgia, it’s about learning to stop trying to live up to her mother’s and brother’s ridiculous standards and learning to accept the love her ex-husband has tried to give her.

But as Marley and Georgia grow stronger, the real meaning of Emerson’s dying wish becomes truly clear: more than anything, she wanted her friends to love themselves.

My Thoughts: Good Luck with That brings the reader into the challenging world of three young women who met as girls at a weight loss camp.

Each character alternately reveals her story, and we come to love, hate, or cringe at some of the others. Those who were thorns in their side, rudely reminding them of their weight issues at every turn.

I especially detested Georgia’s brother Hunter, and her mother, too. Their stories revealed more about each of them, but I never softened toward Hunter. His treatment of Georgia, as well as his own son Mason, bordered on bullying.

Food and body image were the prevailing themes, and how each of the characters navigated the storms in their lives kept me reading, rooting for them, and hoping for a resolution of those issues. An unforgettable story. 4.5 stars.

***

REVIEW: MY EX-LIFE, BY STEPHEN MCCAULEY

 

David Hedges’s life is coming apart at the seams. His job helping San Francisco rich kids get into the colleges of their (parents’) choice is exasperating; his younger boyfriend has left him; and the beloved carriage house he rents is being sold. His solace is a Thai takeout joint that delivers 24/7.

The last person he expects to hear from is Julie Fiske. It’s been decades since they’ve spoken, and he’s relieved to hear she’s recovered from her brief, misguided first marriage. To him.

Julie definitely doesn’t have a problem with marijuana (she’s given it up completely, so it doesn’t matter if she gets stoned almost daily) and the Airbnb she’s running out of her seaside house north of Boston is neither shabby nor illegal. And she has two whole months to come up with the money to buy said house from her second husband before their divorce is finalized. She’d just like David’s help organizing college plans for her seventeen-year-old daughter.

That would be Mandy. To quote Barry Manilow, Oh Mandy. While she knows she’s smarter than most of the kids in her school, she can’t figure out why she’s making so many incredibly dumb and increasingly dangerous choices?

When David flies east, they find themselves living under the same roof (one David needs to re-pair). David and Julie pick up exactly where they left off thirty years ago—they’re still best friends who can finish each other’s sentences. But there’s one broken bit between them that no amount of home renovations will fix.

 

My Thoughts: My Ex-Life brings together the past and the present as its characters try to sort through the pieces of their lives out of the detritus of their mistakes.

On the West Coast, David had been loving his little rented carriage house, but there was definitely something missing from his life. When his ex-wife Julie calls, needing help preparing her daughter Mandy for the right college, he sees an opportunity to use his career to help her, and perhaps a chance to heal some of the broken pieces of their past together.

Alternating storylines reveal what life looks like in the present for Julie, living near Boston and trying to get past her divorce to her second husband Henry, who seems to be in a punishing frame of mind. With a plan in place, David hopes to finally overcome the loose ends of his first marriage to Julie by helping her with the present issues in her life.

I enjoyed the writing style that added humor and insight to the characters’ discoveries as they spend time sorting through their past choices.

I had high hopes that the previous partners, David and Julie, would rediscover their former friendship and could help each other during a difficult time. Until the very end, I wasn’t sure they could overcome the past, but I was happily rooting for them. I loved how the story ended. 5 stars.

***

REVIEW: CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR, BY HALLIE EPHRON

 

Emily Harlow is a professional organizer who helps people declutter their lives; she’s married to man who can’t drive past a yard sale without stopping. He’s filled their basement, attic, and garage with his finds.

Like other professionals who make a living decluttering peoples’ lives, Emily has devised a set of ironclad rules. When working with couples, she makes clear that the client is only allowed to de-clutter his or her own stuff. That stipulation has kept Emily’s own marriage together these past few years. She’d love nothing better than to toss out all her husband’s crap. He says he’s a collector. Emily knows better—he’s a hoarder. The larger his “collection” becomes, the deeper the distance grows between Emily and the man she married.

Luckily, Emily’s got two new clients to distract herself: an elderly widow whose husband left behind a storage unit she didn’t know existed, and a young wife whose husband won’t allow her stuff into their house. Emily’s initial meeting with the young wife takes a detour when, after too much wine, the women end up fantasizing about how much more pleasant life would be without their collecting spouses.

But the next day Emily finds herself in a mess that might be too big for her to clean up. Careful what you wish for, the old adage says . . . now Emily might lose her freedom, her marriage . . . and possibly her life.

My Thoughts: I loved how Careful What You Wish For began immediately with Emily’s process of “sparking joy,” and I could visualize the delightful videos she created for her clients to motivate them in their own journeys.

Of course, once Emily took on her two newest clients, one of whom had questionable items in that storage unit, I knew we were in for some darkness ahead. Now it was not so much about sparking joy, but about staying out of trouble and even staying alive. I was also worried about the newest client and where her odd behavior would take them.

Could Emily turn the focus of the cops away from herself and on the path to solving the mysteries? Frank’s bossy actions made me dislike him intensely, so I kept turning the pages and rooting for Emily’s success. 4.5 stars.

***